Halifax Peninsula, Nova Scotia, 1851
He lays down a double armful of tack that needs mending and takes a quick sniff of the air. Under the usual pungent stable-scents of hay, manure, leather and horse, he can smell something a good deal nicer, and less familiar approaching: shaving foam, tea, ink--and nerves moving closer and closer toward him.
Under the sounds of the wind, he can hear the slightly elevated throb and slush of heart and blood, the hiss and sigh of lungs shuttling air in and out, and light footsteps that are slightly muffled as Mr. Adair steps into the stable.
“Victor? A moment of ye, lad.”
Victor Creed prowls out of the small tack-shed and into the stables proper. His employer, Mr. Adair, is lingering in the stable doorway, half in and half out of the overcast day. The cloudy light winks off his glasses, and he smiles as Victor approaches.
"May I be of assistance, sir?" Victor asks, stopping just far enough away that he doesn't have to incline his head up to look the man in the eye. Adair is a few inches taller than him, but rail thin--verging on Consumptive. As always, he's dressed like he's about to give an important lecture on the migratory habits of North American fruit-flies, or some nonsense. He's clean-shaven about the face, and his thick, russet-brown hair is impeccably neat.
Neither his hands or his face have seen the hard days of sun and work a man's should. He's pale and smooth, like a saucer of fresh cream.
"Aye, ye certainly may. There are . . . matters it is imperative that we discuss," he says solemnly, stepping into the cool, shadowy shelter of the stable. Victor doesn't know if he's winded from the walk from manor to stables, or something else entirely, but Adair sounds slightly breathless. Not stammering, but his words come in a quiet sort of rush, like a priest saying mass while running through a cathedral.
But Victor's reasonably sure he's not going to be let go. Having been let go many times for many different reasons, Victor knows what employers tend to smell like just before giving someone like him the ax: grim, reeking fear. Adair smells the same way he always does.
Which is good. Different, but . . . good.
Another reason staying on is good, is . . . Jimmy likes this place, likes the school, likes his little friends. Likes Adair, God alone knows why. They barely speak the same language, when Adair's drawling brogue and Jimmy's rapid-fire patter come into the mix, but speak to each other they do. At length and with gusto.
But what Jimmy probably likes best of all is not moving around so much, and for once, Victor agrees. He's got an employer who--mostly--leaves him alone to do his job, a fair wage, and room and board. Jimmy doesn't even have to work. In fact, one of the conditions of Victor's employment was that Jimmy nae work, but attend the local school.
Better him, than me, Victor had thought when he and Mr. Adair shook over it, while Jimmy's scent went from sullen to excited in the space of a heartbeat.
Now, eight months later, Victor is dumbfounded to realize this is the longest they've stayed any one place since they fled John Howlett's home. . . .
“Um. I was about to go over the tack for mending, and after that, the stables want mucking, and Vandemere's gotta be exercised,” Victor rumbles, in a darkly deferential tone that he hopes conveys dire consequences if he's not left to do his tasks, which he knows like the back of his hand.
“Ordinarily, I wouldnae interrupt your chores, Victor. But this regards something a wee bit more important. If ye'll pardon m' bluntness, it's about James.” Adair sounds uncomfortably formal, vaguely apologetic, but he looks Victor in the eye steadily, as always, which is more than most people can manage. For that simple fact, Victor respects him as much as he can respect any man, and more than he respects most.
"What about him?" He rolls up his sleeves and crosses his arms. Carefully, so his claws don't shred the fabric, and so he doesn't have to hear Jimmy moan and complain later about having to sew up another one of his shirts. He counts to ten slowly. "Is he sneaking books from your library again, sir?"
"Nay, nay--and I've assured him that as long as he returns m' books in the condition in which he found them, I dinna mind--nay, I encourage him t' borrow whate'er captures his fancy. Agnitio ab facultas, as they say. James has upheld his end of our bargain admirably," Adair hastens to reassure him, shoving his hands into his shallow waistcoat pockets. "He's done nothing wrong, Victor--he is, in fact, an extremely responsible lad, mischievous streak and quirks aside. Nay, I wish to speak with ye about his plans for the future."
And Adair might as well have still been speaking the Latin he's so fond of, for all the sense he's making. "Plans. For the future."
"Aye, his education, man!" Adair's eyes light up, and that hesitant smile becomes a grin. The grin of a man who's come to the heart of a matter. "Soon, he'll have learnt all our wee schoolhouse can teach him, and then . . . I'd say, with his curious mind and enthusiasm, he could do fair t' middlin' for himself at Queen's--t' say aught of across the Pond. Why, there's the University of Edinburgh, my own alma mater. There's also Eton, or Oxford--and I hear Harvard, in the States, is coming along nicely, for such a new institution."
"Is it, really?" Victor asks congenially, and Adair, apparently more than half fool no matter how smart he is, nods his agreement and relief that once again, he and Victor see eye-to-eye. Even claps Victor on the arm with the kind of awkward, forced bonhomie that must be peculiar to the very rich or the very educated. Adair is, of course, both.
And completely unaware that the bottom has dropped out of Victor's stomach, and that his blood feels like it's accelerating from simmer to boil.
“Aye, indeed, indeed." Adair's dark grey eyes are still alight and the ink-scent is stronger, now. Leave it to an academic to smell like the tools of the trade when excited. "But for right now, James needs t' focus on exams preparations. He's a bright, inquisitive lad, and I'm certain that wi' proper guidance he'll do many important things--good things with his potential. Unfortunately, there's been a . . . lag, let us say, in his primary education--one that he's made up for wi' astonishing speed and determination, but that may still hold him back if he doesnae truly buckle down as soon as possible."
“I see.” Victor exposes his teeth in what could technically be called a smile. (There's only one person don't flinch when Victor Creed smiles, and that person is currently in a schoolhouse, five miles yonder. Getting 'proper guidance'.)
But Adair doesn't ever do anything like what a normal person would. Doesn't do anything in response to what Victor's been told is his worse feature, other than give him more of that wide-eyed, earnest look. He seems so young--barely older than Jimmy, and definitely not as old as Victor feels most days.
“Now is the time for James t' figure out what his ultimate goal is, and start making a strategy for gettin' it," Adair goes on obliviously, lost in his silly, academic fantasy world, where common-goddamn-sense ain't worth a tinker's damn. "For instance--he has an interest in and aptitude for History. If he so chose, with hard work and proper planning, why, at the end of a decade, your brother could be lecturing at any University in the Northern Americas.”
“And if he grew wings, he could fly to Spain.” Victor lets the smile turn into a full grin. Lets Adair get a good look at his teeth--his fangs--and hopes it buys him a little time to try and control the fear and rage that had, for the past eight months, left him in relative peace. “You know, it's damned cruel of you to go filling Jimmy's head with things that'll never happen. My brother was happier, and better off before you and that teacher of his started trying to make him better than he was born. Sir.”
Adair just looks puzzled now, and a little hurt. As if he's just realizing that Victor's been stringing him along. “What d'ye mean 'better than he was born'--Victor, ye maun know, better than I, James is intelligent, resourceful, capable, and he has a genuine passion for learning. T' say nothing of a truly first rate mind that it would be criminal t' let stagnate and founder!”
For a moment the rage spikes, fueled by jealousy he'd taught himself to put aside the night Jimmy killed their father--the night they became brothers. But he forces it down. Jimmy can't help being they way he is--the kind of person everyone takes to, right off. And Victor can't help it that he, himself, is . . . not. “Maybe that's so. Sir. But you know what Jimmy don't have? Money. And a name. You know, the two things people like you prize in this world.” He gives Adair the kind of flat once over that men of keener sensibility generally take for the warning it is. But once again, Victor is disappointed.
“Only fools value money and name over intelligence and curiosity, and I'm no' a fool." Adair waves an elegant, fine-boned hand dismissively. "Though ye are correct that James would be in need of a benefactor. And despite . . . certain unfortunate events in m' past, the Adair money and name still carries some weight in academic circles.” A rueful quirk of a smile and a bitter, strong new note in his scent, like cloves and nutmeg. “James will do the rest just by being the person he is. Miss Ewing assures me that wi' a little extra work, he could sit for Queen's in another year. Or any college he chooses."
Victor very nearly laughs. If Adair had ever seen Jimmy bring down a full grown stag with nothing more than his bone-claws and a bellyful of hunger, he'd never even dream of putting Jimmy in the same province as all those soft rich boys.
But what keeps him from laughing is that he don't much like the idea of Adair and snotty Miss Ewing discussing Jimmy behind his back; like he's theirs for the taking, and Victor's too pig-ignorant to know any different. He don't much like it when people try to get between him and his family, be they people like Tom Logan--or even and especially John Howlett, a man with an eye for something special, regardless of who it rightfully belonged to.
“And you've, of course, already put a bug in his ear about this nonsense. Sir,” he growls, a threat and a promise running all through his words like twinned fugitives. It's the only way he knows how to speak to people that ain't Jimmy. Sometimes, it's the only way he knows how to speak toJimmy.
“It's no' nonsense, Victor, it's James's life--”
“Yeah, it is, and what's in it for you, hmm? What exactly is it you get in return for all this so-called help you're planning on giving?” Victor takes a step closer, but Adair don't even know enough to take a step back. Not so smart, after all.
“Me? I dinna get anything! Listen, I care a great deal for James--for ye both. I want t' help ye, if ye'll let me.” He still smells like ink and shaving foam and tea, but there's something else, too. Something stronger and subtler, like the air after lightning strikes the earth, musky and burnt--but green and alive, too. Almost like fear, but . . . not. Definitely not that.
Hell, if Victor didn't know better--
He steps closer to Adair, who finally takes a step back--not as if he's got any sense after all, but simply to maintain his own space. Smirking, Victor takes another step, and this time, Adair doesn't, swaying a little as he takes a steadying breath.
“Victor, all I want is t' help your brother reach his full potential. If such a great height can be attained in one mere lifetime.” He attempts a smile and falls short of the mark; steps back again when Victor steps forward again. And so it goes, till Adair's back is against the stable wall and Victor's all but pressed against him--can feel the heat of his body. Practically taste the want perfuming the air around them.
He can only wonder how he mistook this particular scent for so long. If it's because he's not used to it being directed at himself, or if he simply didn't want to know. Didn't want to face the fact that while the lion's share of this want is Adair's . . . not all of it is.
This sure takes the cake and feeds it to the goddamned dog, he thinks, more amused than dismayed. He shakes his head and braces his hands on the wall to either side of Adair--whose eyes are saucers in his narrow face. His heart's kicking up a jig so loud, Victor could dance to it.
"What're ye doin', lad--"
“I can smell what you want. I've been smelling it for months, telling myself it wasn't what it was. 'Count of you being such an upstanding gentleman, and all. For a molly.” Victor strikes like a snake, darting in to nose at Adair's throat and neck. He flicks his tongue out to taste the most compelling flavor-scent mix he's ever come across. "You taste like earth, mulled wine, and loneliness."
"Victor, stop this at once,” Adair orders stiffly, his breath hot and fast, stirring Victor's hair. Want greater than any Victor has ever felt (even when he was really small, and he wished John Howlett would take care of him, the way he took care of Jimmy) colors and roughens his normally even tone. Yes, this is why Adair is always nervous around him. Not because of his size or silences, nor his smiles or scowls.
Nor the claws that even now bite into arms Victor could snap like kindling.
No, violence isn't what Adair fears, more fool he. But a lucky fool, because violence isn't anything like what Victor quite suddenly has in mind.
“Your scent doesn't lie, Mr. Adair. You don't want me to stop,” Victor says, letting instinct--but a quite different instinct than what he's used to fighting--reign unchecked. "You want me to keep touching you. You wanna touch me."
“E-even if I did, unless and until the object of my alleged interest desired the same thing, what Imay want in regards t' . . . that person . . . would remain irrele--Victor!” Adair gasps and shudders as Victor nips at his neck with vicious playfulness. Blood rises so close to the surface, he sucks on the bite mark and can almost taste it. For the moment, however, he's loathe to actually break skin.
Adair's hands settle on Victor's shoulders and push at them half-heartedly. But even if he put his back into it, when Victor Creed don't wanna be moved, the likes of Desmond Cuthbert Adair ain't ever gonna move him. Though he does lean back enough to take in the results of his labors: a flushed face, fogged glasses and wide, wide eyes.
And his scent . . . is better than just about anything Victor can think of. Like pure, distilled wantand it's all focused on Victor.
It's the sort of thing a man could get drunk on, this scent--could wallow in forever. He wants to make it a part of him for as long as he can hold onto it. Wants to brand onto his memory that heated, wanton look in Adair's eyes.
“Saints abide--have ye any idea what ye're doing?” Adair's head hits the barn wall with a heavy, frustrated thunk, and Victor knows exactly what he's doing. He nudges Adair's knees apart and stands between twill covered legs so there's heat and hardness pressed against his own, and something within him clicks into place. Many things become crystal clear.
“I know you wanna fuck me. Is there something I need to know besides that?”
Adair shivers. “Victor,” he sighs, helplessness entwined with desire, or maybe the reverse. He doesn't resist when Victor bodily pins him against the wall. “Yes, ye--you drive me t' utter distraction, and have done so since the moment I first laid eyes upon ye. Is that what ye wish t' hear? What ye want in return for letting me help James?”
Victor takes one of Adair's hands and pulls it down to the distended front of his trousers. “This ain't about that. Ain't about Jimmy.”
Adair closes his eyes for a moment, then grasps Victor--not at all shyly. But he doesn't do anything else, and so help him, Victor is still getting harder by the second. Biting back grunts and moans, while Adair watches him like he's an incubus. His pupils are huge, surrounded by the thinnest ring of grey, his face flushed bright pink as if he's got Hectic Fever.
"Victor, are ye . . . er, I'm tryin' t' put this delicately, but . . . am I the first--?”
"First what?” Victor scowls, growls. “You asking if I'm a virgin?"
"The answer's no."
"--actually, what I was fumbling towards was . . . am I the first man t' be . . . intimate with ye?" Adair asks, and the hand that isn't holding Victor's cock finds its way to his hair. The hand thatis holding Victor's cock finally starts moving, tentatively, teasing him through scratchy worsted. He lets out a low, almost pained groan.
Suddenly, a tiny, mischievous smile curves Adair's mouth and he nimbly unbuttons Victor's fly in seconds--one-handed--leaving Victor gaping.
“Grand, innit? One of a good few useful skills t' be acquired whilst attending the finer Sasunnachboys' academies. So am I the first man t' touch ye this way, lad?”
"Yes," Victor's grits out, and presses his face to Adair's neck again as he's gripped, tight and bold as anything, and practically has the skin stripped off him. There's nothing eloquent about his hand, now. It's a machine, perfectly-timed and relentless. “You're the first.”
"Of course I am, else Temptation wouldnae have put ye in m' path." Adair sounds strangely pleased about something, and Victor can't for the life of him conjure what there is to be pleasedabout, finding out the person you wanted to fuck probably wouldn't even know how to make it worth the effort. "Loss of virginity's a milestone deserving of, at the very least, a comfortable bed and shelter from the elements. Or possibly a magnum of champagne, and a soft blanket under a canopy of stars--"
"What in hellfire are you on about?" It's getting tougher and tougher to string two thoughts together, let alone two words. He can't even manage the sullen deference that's his hallmark response to authority of any kind. "Just fuck me, if you're gonna--oh, Christ!"
Adair's teeth, though not particularly sharp, have found nearly cartilage-deep purchase in Victor's auricle, causing him to keen in a never-before-experienced mixture of pain and pleasure. "If and when I make love t' ye, bonny, lovely man, I can promise ye two things: it willnae be against a stable wall, and it most certainly willnae be just."
Now his grip is punishing, urgent and merciless. There's no give, no cessation, and soon Victor is gasping and shaking, Adair murmuring encouragement in his ear. Victor's fangs tear into wool, cotton and even flesh, just a little, but Adair neither stops nor slows, doesn't cry out. Just keeps up the stripping, and the murmuring:
“Of course I want ye, Victor. How could I no'? I've never known anyone as wild, and as beautiful as ye. I doubt I ever will.”
Wild? Definitely. Beautiful? Not even a little. But for his dark, wavy hair, Victor's the spit and image of Thomas Logan, and wasn't anything beautiful about that son of a bitch. Victor would laugh at such high-toned, unnecessary flattery, if he weren't so busy coming.
And even after he's done--even after such a blissful, excruciating release, and he's been rendered speechless, come-stupid, and winded, like a twenty mile run--Adair still strokes him. More of a comforting caress than anything else.
Still tells him how beautiful he is.
It ain't a horrible thing to hear, so he closes his eyes and lets Adair say whatever he likes. Drifts a little on the strong, steady beat of someone else's heart, one hand at Adair's waist, the other hooked claws-first into the wall. It's some minutes before he surfaces reluctantly, and when he does, it's in complete and immediate response to a slight change in Adair's scent and tone.
“--object t' James going off t' university?”
Once again, the towering, keen sense of jealousy that's been with him since as far back as he can remember, looms as large as a hurricane, its shadow chilling the marrow of his bones, and making a lie of the strange comfort he's found in Adair's arms. But before he can begin disentangling himself from the conniving bastard, the hand in his hair clenches.
"Bear my sainted soul away--before ye storm off in a--a cloud of wounded pride, Victor Creed, consider how much of your hair ye're willin' t' leave in m' keeping!" Adair says in the pissiest tone Victor's ever heard from him. It's so startling, he forgets how very murderously angry he was moments ago.
"Are you . . . are you threatening to . . . pull my hair if I don't let you send Jimmy to college?" he snorts against the same spot where he left his mark earlier. Then laughs--something he ever only does around Jimmy.
"I'm threatenin' to bluidy well scalp ye, if ye attempt t' use our rather delightful interlude as an excuse to discount what we were discussing immediately prior." Adair gives his tangled hair a good, hard tug, and Victor starts laughing again. "Ye said it very well, that this--" he gives Victor's cock a good, hard tug that turns mirth into moans "--has naught t' do wi' James, nor my wish t' help him. Rather, perhaps, this wee liaison had happened sooner. Or later. But you know what they say, the best laid plans of mice and men, et cetera, et cetera."
Victor snorts again, but he's no longer amused. The pulse that throbs steadily under the tip of his nose is no longer comforting. “Look, why are you so keen to pack my brother off to some university?”
“And why are ye so dead-set against it?” Adair counters sharply. “Please, Victor, I truly wish t' ken--”
“What can't you understand about me not wanting to lose my brother, Mr. Adair? What is so goddamned, Christing wrong about a man trying to hold onto his family?” Victor demands, more growl than grammar, more shame than sentence. One set of claws extend deeper into the stable wall, and even as he retracts the set in the hand clenched on Adair's bony hip. He knows his grip must hurt--can feel the infinitesimal flutter that is blood vessels bursting under his hand. Yet again, Adair don't react the way anyone else would. Merely pets Victor's hair soothingly.
The shame intensifies, and he hides his face against Adair's neck, which doesn't help matters.
“Oh, Victor . . . my dear, dear man,” Adair begins gently, and this, at last, makes Victor put his shame aside and look up, a snarl on his lips--ready to cram Adair's pity down his throat. But the smile he receives . . . it's like Victor's never seen a smile before, because for a moment, he's very, very confused. He feels very, very young, and like he's missing something very, very obvious. And possibly important. “The very last thing I want t' do is take your family away! Even if I wished t', do ye honestly think I could? There's aught could keep that lad from your side! He worships the ground ye walk on!”
“And how long do you reckon that'll last, once--” once he realizes he doesn't need me anymore?
But Victor doesn't say that. He may be a molly, now, but he has his pride. He don't spill his guts to anyone, not even to Jimmy.
Adair's laughing now, not at Victor--not that anyone ever does. But the way he's looking at Victor is . . . strange. Sort of like the way he looks at Jimmy: protective, amused and charmed by. His eyes are neither wanton or ponderous, but . . . fond. As if he . . . likes Victor, and a great deal.
Which is codswallop, because nobody likes Victor Creed, not even the people he occasionally drinks with.
“Nae matter what James sees and does, learns and knows, ye'll always be his brother. Ye'll be the standard he measures himself against till the day he dies--and I say that as man wi' two insufferably grand older brothers, of nigh unimpeachable moral fiber.” That wry smile peeks out again. “Just because he's nae longer dependent on ye for everything, doesnae mean that he won't need and want ye in his life. But I can guarantee ye that if ye hold on too tight--if ye stand between James and his dreams, when he realizes what ye've done . . . ye will lose him altogether, Victor. And there'll be nae getting him back.”
Victor squinches his eyes shut so hard, light explodes on the backs of his eyelids. He's not an idiot. He grew up seeing the proof of what Adair's saying in the way his father kept after Elizabeth Kerr, well after she'd become Elizabeth Howlett.
Well after John Howlett gave her bastard child his name and protection, and raised that child as his own.
Whether or not Jimmy truly wants to go to college, it's apparent that's he's becoming a man, one with his own ambitions and desires that Victor can neither predict or deter. Nor can he hope to thwart them for longer than it takes Jimmy to catch him at it, and then. . . .
“Jimmy's all I got,” he says finally, avoiding Adair's gaze. “I know I can't stop him from leaving, if he wants to go, but I don't think I can be happy that he'll be gone. Can you understand that?”
“Aye, I can. But can ye accept that any man's life must be of his own making t' be a happy one?” He searches Victor's eyes intently for long moments, and when he receives a curt nod, Adair smiles again. “Och, then ye're a fine man, and a fine brother.”
Victor doesn't know what's more unexpected--the compliment, or the brief kiss that follows it. No one's ever called him a fine anything, and a kiss is nothing anyone's ever given him before. (Except for Jimmy, who still kisses him good night like he did when he was littler. But that doesn't even count.)
When Adair starts to move away, Victor frees his claws from the wall and palms the back of Adair's neck. Hauls him back in and smothers a surprised gasp with his mouth. Bruises it with his lips, and tastes it with his tongue.
After a few clumsy kisses that are practically bites, Adair makes a sound like a muffled bide a wee, and his cool, elegant hand cups Victor's face--another surprising thing that makes him break the kiss to say . . . he doesn't know what-all. He's never been much of a talker. Jimmy talks enough for the both of them, and five other people, besides.
Adair leans back a little, and Victor follows, catches Adair's lips with his own, but is unable to keep them.
"Gently, m' lo--m' lad. Gently . . . like this," he whispers, and kisses him back, only--it's nothinglike what Victor was doing. It's teasing and completely overwhelming, possessive and precise. Unhurried. As if kissing Victor isn't simply something to be done, but something to be doneproperly. And savored, at that.
Victor's wrung out, over-sensitized body shortly begins to rally, in a momentarily futile attempt to get hard, and he moans, trying to get closer and farther away at the same time. Adair is still hard against Victor's leg, still lazily stroking him. It's all such delicious torture . . . and then it's gone. Those same nimble fingers are tucking him in, and buttoning his fly.
"Wait--don't stop . . . please?" It's more of a mewl, than a request, and probably the first time Victor's ever said 'please', and meant it.
"Believe me, Victor, I've nae wish t' stop . . . but I think perhaps we should. For now," Adair says huskily, regretfully, pressing a last brief kiss to the corner of Victor's mouth. His other hand slips away from Victor's face, fingers scritching playfully through his whiskers as it does, like he's a giant cat.
"But--you're still . . . don't you wanna. . . ?" he's come over shy for no reason. Can't seem to say that he's not just abiding by the rules of fair play. Can't say that he wants to know what Adair looks/feels/smells/tastes/sounds like when he comes. So he tries to snake his hand between their bodies--but Adair's not having any of that. He ducks out of Victor's grasp and backs up toward the entryway, shrugging apologetically.
"While I appreciate your enthusiasm, I meant what I said about no' having ye against a stable wall. Ye deserve better than that." When he smiles, all earnest and excited, he looks like he should be in school with Jimmy, not retired from what must've been a very short teaching career. “Ye'll think about what we've discussed, will ye? And speak with James, too?”
"I . . . promise." Victor doesn't know where that came from, or why he did it, but there's nothing for it now, but to keep his word. Especially with Adair beaming at him like he just did something wonderful.
"Then I'll take my leave of ye, for the nonce." Adair takes off his glasses and fumbles out a plain handkerchief. Cleans them with the ease of practice, before putting them back on. But not before Victor notes how square and angular his face looks without them. Nothing soft, or particularly molly-ish about it. It's a man's face. Perhaps handsomer than average, but definitely a man's face. "I'll let ye get back t' what ye were doing before I . . . er, I dinna suppose ye're free this evening?"
Victor blushes, something he's not at all used to doing. Looks down at his boots, then back up at Adair. Shrugs more sullenly than he means to. “I'd say that was up to you, sir."
Adair purses his lips, but it's obvious he's trying not to smile. "Well, then. I'm certain I could . . . find ways t' keep ye occupied, if ye like. I'll, er, leave my door open, shall I?"
Victor nods again.
“Splendid. Simply phenomenal. And in which case, I had best take m'self off before I break m' own word . . . g'day, Victor.” Then Adair's making his way back to the manor, with an awkward little wave. Halfway there, he hunches his shoulders against the wind and crams his hands in his waistcoat pockets. He doesn't look back, but Victor can still smell that undiminished, electric, earthy want-scent even from this distance.
When Adair disappears inside his house via the veranda door, Victor is still standing, his skin tingling, his mind strangely empty. The tack's waiting in the shed, and Vandemere's already fractious and restless. And the stable won't, in Victor's long experience, clean itself.
His shirt gets discarded near the rear entrance to the stable. The trousers and boots are ditched halfway to the distant tree-line. By the time he reaches the forest, he's dropped into an economical, four-legged lope.
He won't need his humanity where he's going.
He doesn't get back to the small bunkhouse off the stable till just before moon-rise. His heart is racing, his blood singing. His skin is red and tingling all over from scrubbing down with sand in the still-icy river.
Jimmy's left a lamp burning low, and there's more than enough light for Victor's eyes to make him out, sound asleep in the eighth bed. It's the bed furthest from the door, and Victor's bed is right next it, of course. His discarded clothes are folded neatly on the foot locker in front of it, his boots placed in front of it.
Victor moves noiselessly closer, though stealth is hardly necessary. Currently, he and Jimmy are the only ones occupying the bunkhouse, and Jimmy's a heavy sleeper. Most mornings, it takes a marching band just to get him out of bed, whereas Victor's always awake an hour before dawn, by his own internal clock. Usually to work at some task or other.
So he rarely gets a moment to just watch Jimmy, unobserved. Like he used to when they were little, and Jimmy was just Dr. Howlett's sickly, but easy-natured brat. When Tom Logan was content ruining just one of his sons' lives, instead of both of them. . . .
Jimmy's not tall, never has been and probably won't ever be. But he's broad-shouldered, and his bones are as dense and strong as Victor's. Thankfully, as he gets older, he's less like John Howlett in manner and speech. But he still looks like the woman who bore him, more than he looks like a Logan. Not that Victor'd ever had any use for Elizabeth Howlett--poor, Crazy Lizzie, and hadn't Victor learned early on never to call her that within Tom Logan's impressive earshot and striking range? Hadn't he just!--and he can barely remember her scent, let alone her face. He just remembers sad, dark eyes and a fall of thick, straight dark hair, like Jimmy's. He remembers she had a quiet, kind voice. . . .
Jimmy rolls onto his stomach, snuffling the pillow restlessly. One pale, slightly dirty foot shoots from under his blanket. After a few moments, he sinks back into a deeper sleep with a soft little puppy-huff.
When he reaches the farthest bed, Victor sits carefully. Jimmy's scent--soap, sweat, grass and pine needles--is the closest thing to a home he's ever had. After five years, he can't imagine a day passing without seeing Jimmy smile, hearing his low, rusty chuckle, or answering any of his zillion and five seemingly random questions.
He's all that's ever been good in Victor's life. The only thing Victor's ever had that's worth holding onto, and so he does. Holds tight enough to choke the life out of anything, because it's the only way he knows to love. But . . . that hadn't worked so well for Tom Logan, had it? In the end, the woman he'd claimed to love had been driven mad by his attention and her own secrets, and Logan himself wound up dead at the hands of his youngest son.
Lost in thought, Victor sits quietly for awhile, inhaling Jimmy's home-forest-boy scent, and trying to imagine his world without it. Stays that way, till Jimmy makes more of those puppyish snuffling sounds. One shoulder of his sleep shirt has slipped down, revealing a tanned, prominent shoulder-blade that bears the faint promise of eventual padding. The skin there is soft-looking, and unmarred. But before Victor allows himself to speculate what Jimmy's skin would taste like--if the blood underneath would also be redolent of forests--Jimmy's eyes open, locking immediately on Victor's. His sleep-softened baby-face lights up . . . until he takes a deep breath of Victor's scent, and notices his wild eyes, flushed cheeks and state of disrobe.
“Were you hunting, again?” he yawns grumpily, sitting up. His voice is almost as deep as Victor's own but still cracking with the remnants of childhood. He sounds more worried than disapproving.
“Not hunting, half-pint. Running the forest.” Victor kisses Jimmy's forehead and stands up. Goes to the wash stand and splashes his face. After the river, the water feels tepid and flat. Boring. “You coulda come with me if you weren't so busy playing school. You missed a damn good time.”
“Well.” He watches as Victor rifles through his foot locker for a relatively clean pair of trousers. “When I got home from school, Professor Adair said you needed time to think about some things, so . . . I took care of the stables and Vandemere.”
“Oh. Thanks.” Jimmy really is a good boy. Looks out for family--is loyal to a fault. He's always been that way, and always deserved more than any Logan'll ever be able to give him. “You didn't let that big sack of glue bully you, didja?”
Jimmy smiles a little. “Nuh-uh. I did like you said you do--thought real mean and stared him down. After that, he was as easy to exercise as Mirabel.”
“Good.” The enormous stallion'd already kicked Victor in the chest once. Job or no, he meant to skin the goddamned thing if it so much as breathed on Jimmy too hard.
“So what were you thinking about?" Jimmy hunches his blanket-covered legs up till his knees are tucked under his chin. Wraps his arms around them and bites his lip. His fangs still aren't as evident as Victor's, even so. "Was it somethin' the Professor said made you angry?”
Victor busies himself with pulling on his trousers. He's put on muscle since he first stole them, and they fit a bit tighter than he'd like. Which is why he don't hardly ever wear them. But they're clean, and don't have any holes. "What makes you think I'm angry? And why do you think it was something Adair said?”
“I smell grizzly on you, and . . . you only ever bait grizzlies when you're angry.” Jimmy watches him with assessing dark eyes and an eerily familiar, ponderous furrowing of his brow. Had Victor really thought Jimmy had finally, finally shed the last of John Howlett? Had he really?
But whoever he looks like, he still sounds like Jimmy. Like a child. Looks like one too, with his knobby knees under his chin and Crazy Lizzie's big, sad eyes. “Are you angry at Professor Adair?”
Victor buttons his trousers. The worsted chafes and rubs like holy hell in his half hard state, but he don't mind. Don't plan on wearing them for long, anyway. “There a reason I should be, Jimmy?”
“Angry? Maybe. But you should be angry at me, not him.” Dark eyes skitter away, but meet Victor's again almost immediately. Kid or not, Jimmy doesn't lack for balls, never has. "A few days ago, Miss Ewing started sign ups for anyone who wanted to stay after school to study for the Queen's entrance exams, next year, and . . . when I mentioned it to the Professor, he said that I could probably pass without Miss Ewing's help, but that I'd do better with it, and . . . I hadn't even considered taking the exams, Victor! I didn't think I was smart enough, or--" good enough, goes unvoiced. "Anyway, I told him even if I passed, I couldn't afford to go to Queen's or any other university. And that you and me might not even be here, this time next year. Then he said that if I took care of my marks, he'd talk to you, and take care of the rest. I told him you'd probably get mad. That even if you didn't, it wouldn't be right of me to just leave you--"
"Jimmy." Victor breaks into the babble, knowing if he doesn't, Jimmy'll likely take the whole night talking himself out of college, whether he actually wants it or not. Loyal to a fucking fault."Are Adair and Ewing riding you about this, or is this what you want?”
The look Jimmy gives him is guilty and miserable, and all the answer Victor needs. But never one to take the coward's way, Jimmy takes a deep breath. "I want to go. I mean, ever since I was little, and Pa--John and me used to talk about my future, he'd talk about sending me to college, like his dad sent him, and. . . ." he sighs. "I don't wanna make you mad, or leave you alone. But I wanna go, Victor. I think I wanna be a archaeologist and dig up ancient civilizations and explore the whole world!"
Yet another way that blood don't make people the same. Victor's nothing like Tom Logan--he likes to think--and apparently Jimmy's nothing like either of them.
Sighing, Victor sits on his bed and pulls on his boots. Starts lacing them up--but only enough to keep them on his feet till he gets to the main house. “If college is what you want, and Adair's dead-set on paying your way--if this is something you don't just want, but know in your gut you can do--” Jimmy nods eagerly, and Victor tries to smile. It feels like a grimace, but he does it anyway. “Well, then. Who'm I to stand in your way?”
Jimmy's eyes are lit up like Christmas. “So you're saying I can go?”
Busying himself with the contents of his foot locker again, Victor makes a grudging sound of assent. “I'm saying . . . that it's your life, Jimmy, and no matter what you do with it, we'll always be brothers.”
He practically chokes this out. And though he means it, it's the hardest thing he's ever said. But the way Jimmy's looking at him, like he's the Second Coming . . . makes everything almost okay. So he pulls on his best shirt--the only one Jimmy hasn't had to sew, yet--tucks it into his trousers and pulls up his braces. Puts on his only vest, too, for good measure. “Just you remember how supportive I am when you're a rich and famous arkee-whatsits. How do I look?”
“Um. I dunno. Like you always look.” When Victor shoots him a glare, Jimmy rolls his eyes. “Why, where're you going?”
“Up to the main house.” Victor shrugs off his vest and drops it back in the foot locker. Takes out the nicest piece of clothing he owns: a black secondhand morning coat of lightweight wool in a miraculously good state of repair. Shakes it out before pulling it on. “Your professor and I . . . got some things to talk about. Now how do I look?”
“Like you need a necktie. What things?” Jimmy presses intently. "You're . . . you're not gonna hurt him, are you?"
“Sure am. I always put on my best clothes to beat the snot out of my employers.” Victor straightens his collar, and wishes he owned a tie. Then shrugs. Buttons his coat and hopes he don't look too foolish without. “He and I just need to have a talk, 's all. Go on back to sleep, and I'll be in by dawn.”
“Is this about me, and college?”
Victor snorts derisively, but his mind is already elsewhere. Is already half an acre hence, and leaving his mark on fine sheets and finer skin. He briefly contemplates the comb he hasn't used in months. “Not everything's about you, Jimmy.”
Jimmy crosses his arms--gets that mule-stubborn look Victor sees more and more as they get older. “If it's not about me, then how come you can't tell me what it is about?”
“Because.” Victor matches Jimmy glare for glare. Then caves when Jimmy starts to pout. “Because it's none of your business, Jim. It's--” Victor remembers the desire that'd been practically been oozing from Adair's pores, the way he couldn't seem, for a few seconds, anyway, to get close enough to Victor. That, far from shying away from Victor's fangs, he'd surrendered himself to them. And the shudder of that needy, lonely, scarecrow body when Victor trapped it against his own--
The heat and hardness about which he can't help but wonder, what would he feel like inside me?
“--adult stuff,” he says firmly, finally, and Jimmy glowers like Judgment Day.
"You're only four years older than me, Victor! Quit treating me like a baby!"
"I'll quit treating you like a baby when you quit whining like one."
“I'm almost sixteen--practically an adult!” Jimmy sulks, his nostrils flaring delicately. Victor snickers, and throws his dirty work-shirt him, just for the squawk of indignation.
"The dark side of fourteen ain't anything like sixteen, Jimmy. And sixteen ain't anything like an adult."
"But eighteen is?"
Victor decides he simply doesn't have the strength or time required for combing his hair, tosses the comb back in the locker and shuts it. Tosses Jimmy a jaunty salute. "Now you're catching on."
“You're just being ar-ber-trary, you know, and--uh, why do you smell like you wanna fuck?" Jimmy wrinkles his nose, obnoxious and pissy. "Maybe you should wait till the morning to talk to the professor."
Victor just quirks an eyebrow as if to say, should I, now?
For all that he's college-bound, it takes Jimmy a few moments to catch on, and when he does he looks gobsmacked. Then horrified. Victor puts on his most malicious smirk--the one that made that cut-purse in Tatamagouche shit his trousers as he hied away--and makes a show of checking the morning coat for wrinkles.
“You and the Professor? But--but you're not even a molly! And he's old--thirty, at least! Since when do you--I mean--why? How . . . no, nevermind! You're right, I'm not old enough to know. I'll never, ever be old enough, so don't ever tell me. Good night.” Jimmy flops back in his bed, pulling his pillow over his face. Then the blanket, for good measure.
Feeling a little obnoxious his ownself, Victor smacks Jimmy's bony ankle just hard enough to sting. “You wouldn't know it to look at the Professor, but . . . he kisses real nice. Does this thing with his tongue--”
Jimmy starts singing a muffled Rule Britannia at the top of his lungs, his feet bobbing in time.
In ridiculously high spirits--for him, anyway--Victor straightens his clothes and rakes his claws through his hair as usual, simply slicing out the worst of the knots, and ties it back with a thong. The whole mess's gotten well past his shoulders, all wave and curl. He and Jimmy both need barbering, but Victor imagines it'll wait a little while longer.
In the meantime. . . .
“Sleep tight, little brother.”
The only response he receives is more rousing verse and the patriotic wiggling of pale, dirty toes.
The spring air is cool on his face, carries a thousand scents that are familiar, that tell him his place in this world. In the distance, the manor is dark, but for a light on the second floor. Adair's bedroom. Instead of dropping to all fours--always the faster, more natural way to travel, rather than upright on his hind legs, like a performing bear--Victor stalks quickly across the distance between stable and house.
When he reaches it, he listens for the sounds of Adair's three other employees, a manservant, a maidservant, and a cook. . . .
Everyone but Adair seems to be abed, so Victor spiders silently up the lattice to Adair's small balcony. Perches on the rail and peers unsuccessfully between the cracked doors before finally nudging them soundlessly wider.
Adair's bedroom isn't what he expected. Neither large, nor elegant and filled with priceless old junk. Most of it is given over to bookshelves, like the library. A worn, comfortable looking sofa holds pride of place in front of the small mantle and hearth, and the room smells of lamp oil, woodsmoke, and paper. A large drafting table is littered with detailed maps and sketches, and there's a bed wide enough to sleep four pushed into a corner.
Not far from the bed, is a small breakfast nook: two straight-backed chairs bracketing a small table, on which sits a tray of bread and cheese, a champagne bottle, and two flutes.
Because no one can see him do it, Victor allows himself a brief grin.
To one side of the mantle is a huge, old writing desk, at which sits just the man Victor's looking for.
Adair is still fully dressed, despite the late hour. He's focused on some piece of correspondence, scratching away with his pen. Victor watches him at it for several minutes, still perched on the rail like a curious cat, fascinated by the way the lamplight plays on elegant hands. . . .
“And here I thought ye'd decided no' t' come, after all,” Adair says crisply, just as Victor becomes aware of that earth-and-lightning scent slowly dominating the others.
He starts, and only narrowly saves himself from a two story fall. He knows he made no noise Adair's ears could've heard. The balcony doors didn't so much as creak when he nudged them open. There's no way the man could know he's here, but know he does.
“I was out Running the--uh, running errands. I had errands, and lost track of time.”
"Mm. Have ye had time t' speak wi' James, yet?" Adair's still scribbling, scribbling, scribbling.Want, so intense it may very well be need, curls around and sets hooks into Victor's bone marrow, and he grunts.
"He says he wants to go to college, and I . . . I told him I won't stop him, if it's what he wants. Won't stop you helping him get there. But if he changes his mind, I'm not gonna let you, or old lady Ewing bully him into changing it back, either."
"Hmph. Well, I won't say that's unfair." Adair adds something to the bottom of his page with a flourish, and finally looks over at Victor. Blinks as if astonished, and looks him up and down with a gaze as warm as a caress. "My word, Victor . . . the moonlight certainly becomes ye. Simply t' see ye, is t' have m' reason quite overthrown."
Victor's eyebrows raise fractionally, and he almost grins again, but doesn't. He's not looking to scare the man. Not tonight. "Fancy. But you don't have to say stuff like that, Mr. Adair. I'm not a woman."
"And yet it pleases me t' make note of your many charms, nonetheless. Oh, dinna gi' me that look, lad. And it's Cuthbert, if ye please. Or Bert, if ye're pressed for time." He places his pen in the inkwell, removes his glasses and stands. Crosses his bedroom and pauses at the slight rise that leads to the balcony.
He steps out into the night with a shiver and a laugh, bringing a heady waft of inkvellumwant. "Wouldnae think it was May, but the sun sets and I'm chilled like dead o' the year! And you, m' dapper fellow, must be very uncomfortable, crouched on m' rail like a stray tom!"
"I'm not uncomfortable at all." Victor shrugs. Then hops off the rail when he realizes, from the amused expression on Adair's face, that he's just been invited in. And so the small balcony is suddenly very crowded. Not that Adair seems to mind. He immediately cups Victor's face in his cool, soft hands, and kisses him a slow, thorough hello. He tastes like sweet, strong tea.
And though it's his instinct to do so, Victor does not push Adair to the ground and tear his stuffy, silly clothes off. Does not hold him down and rut against him like an animal. This would not, he senses, go over well--at least not tonight. So he does what he always does when instinct fails him: plays it by ear and waits for a cue.
The only cue he receives, however, is Adair breaking the kiss to search his face worriedly. Without the glasses, his grey eyes seem to sparkle, and . . . something. Something that makes Victor feel strangely defenseless.
"Victor . . . are ye alright?" he asks, moving back a bit, giving Victor space, though his hands remain. The night air feels even colder for the absence of his warmth. "Is this still . . . something ye want? Ye maun speak out if it isnae. On what passes for m' honor, I'll keep a professional distance if that's what ye'd prefer, fear no'--"
"No. I mean yes. I still want this." Victor doesn't know what to do, what's expected of him. He's never lain with another man before, never lain with anyone who wanted to kiss him. He's in uncharted waters and dog paddling for his very life.
Surely, if he does even one wrong thing, he'll mess this--whatever it is--up beyond apologizing, beyond even Adair's seemingly bottomless patience. “I still want you. Cuthbert. I just . . . don't wanna get it wrong.”
Adair smiles a little, clearly relieved. Kisses him again, quick and light. "My word t' ye, dear man, ye willnae. Now--” one hand drops to Victor's and takes it decisively. The sudden heat of his grey gaze sets fire to every atom of Victor's body. “Come in out of the weather."
Victor does, shutting the night out behind him.