Creedy came back with soap. It wasn't all he had to show for three weeks away--they had a handful of sheep, with a report on the location of more, and several crates of tinned veg gathered along the journey--but Creedy was really worked up about the soap. After they'd seen to the sheep and the food, Quinn and Creedy sat on the floor in the storage room, two dozen bars of soap between them.
"Emergencies," Quinn muttered, pushing six of them to one side.
"Latrines," Creedy countered, taking a dozen.
"Kitchen," Quinn finished, claiming the remaining six. That should, reasonably, have been the end of it, with a little quibbling a week or two down the line about the exact allocations and who was going to remind everyone to wash their hands with the soap now that they had it, but neither of them moved.
Three weeks. It had been meant to be one, but Creedy had made a field decision to go after the sheep, and take the time to herd them back to the castle, and it had been the right choice, Quinn couldn't argue. Didn't change the fact that he'd spent three weeks running the place like he had one hand tied behind his back, wondering every night if Creedy was ever going to come back at all. Out alone, it wouldn't have been hard for the small group of raiders to get caught unawares; it was a miracle that they hadn't.
And now they were together again, like they should be, here in the quiet with twenty-four bars of soap between them. Creedy's hand reached out to hover over the paper-wrapped rectangles, and his fingers walked across them idly in the way that meant he was thinking.
"When was the last time any of the kids had a bath, Quinn?"
He looked up from the soap and Creedy's prowling fingers to his face, shadowed in the dimness by the fall of his hair. He was smiling a little, and Quinn smiled a little back. "What, with soap?"
Creedy looked up from the soap, too, and met his eyes. "Aye, it's not much of a bath without, is it?"
"It's got to be three years, then, at least." He looked back down, to see Creedy's wandering fingers easing aside one bar of soap from the latrine pile, one from the kitchen's. "But with the cisterns so low, we can hardly spare the water." And wasn't that a laugh? Who'd have thought they'd have to worry about getting too little rain? They were just animals, big fire-breathing flying animals, granted, but they shouldn't have been able to influence the bloody weather.
"We could take them out to that tarn on the other side of the fields. You and me do the boys, Jess and Rose get the girls. Take ‘em up in the truck in case we have to come back in a hurry."
It was getting on toward summer. If they got a sunny day, it might be warm enough, and if there wasn't too much cloud, they'd probably have enough warning to get the kids back to the castle, or at least into the truck. "Have to take them in small groups," he said thoughtfully, reaching out to toss a bar of soap from the emergency pile into the fourth group Creedy was insinuating. "Six at a time, eight at most. Not so many we can't herd them all, and none of them know how to swim."
Creedy was grinning, already imagining the fun of taking the kids out for a splash and a scrub. Quinn forced his voice to sternness, though he couldn't stop his face smiling back at Creedy. "And only if we get a good sunny day sometime before we run out of soap."
Creedy nearly managed to stop smiling as he said, "Just as you say. Only if it's sunny."
There were things to do--he ought to be sleeping, they both should, Creedy had to be bloody exhausted after three weeks in the open--but nothing seemed more important right at that moment than sitting on the floor, together again.
As it happened, the sun came up in a clear sky just two days later, and he and Creedy had the kids up and organized not long after dawn showed itself over the hills.
They divvied the kids up into appropriately sized groups, made up a rota for the groups, and got them simultaneously excited over the prospect of having their hair washed and suitably anxious about leaving the keep. None of them had ever ventured further than the fields; the tarn might as well have been on the moon, and they knew very well why they'd never gone so far.
Still, it couldn't hurt to say the words again. "All right," Quinn said, pitching his voice over the usual bustle of morning and the fidgeting of the kids. "Before we go out, prayers."
He went to his knees, and Creedy beside him, and Jess and Rose among the kids, and the kids themselves, wide-eyed, followed suit, folding their hands, practically holding their breath.
"What do we do when we wake?" They'd made the prayer for Jared, that very first night. Barlow had been narked over Quinn picking up the kid, but Creedy had been with him.
The kids before him, and Creedy beside him, chanted the answer back. "Keep both eyes on the sky."
"What do we do when we sleep?" He'd asked the first question, that night, and Creedy the second, because that was how they worked, one after the other, like right hand and left, like a one-two punch. Always, since they first met, they'd just clicked together like halves of a whole.
"Keep one eye on the sky."
He'd thought that was the end of the prayer, and so had Creedy, and they'd started to tuck the tiny knackered tot into a blanket, but then Barlow's voice had come from the shadow where he'd curled himself in a huff, so there had been a third question as well. Creedy spoke it now, on a sunny morning, to a whole orphanage-worth of kids. "What do we do when we see him?"
That was scary stuff, he'd thought then, no need to trouble a baby with it. But babies had to know, and now they did, because of the prayer. Barlow had been the first to understand that. "Dig hard, dig deep, run for shelter, never look back."
Never. Look. Back. That was the way they always said it, the same way Barlow had said it that night, before he turned over and went to sleep, leaving Quinn and Creedy to look after the kid. Each word emphasized like it was more important than the last three combined, and maybe it was. Quinn didn't like to think about it.
He propelled Liam shoreward with a splash big enough to douse the others, drawing their attention. "In the truck, all of you, get dried and dressed. Your lips are blue." There was a half-hearted protest from the boys, but Quinn faced them down as sternly as he could while naked, freezing, and half-covered in soap.
Thankfully, Creedy threw his tuppence in, with an emphatic splash and a stern, "Move it, now."
Quinn stood stock-still, his clenched fists hidden in the hip-deep water, and watched as the kids ran back to the shelter of the truck, as if watching would keep them safe. The oldest of the bunch helped the smaller ones up, and then there was a puppyish scramble for towels, blankets, and clean clothes.
Once the boys were safe inside, Quinn felt a little of the tension ease from his arms, and beside him, at the same moment, he heard Creedy release a pent-up breath, nearly a laugh.
For the first time in a long morning of scrubbing kids at his side, Quinn turned toward Creedy and properly looked at him. If the cold wasn't already apparent in the ache of his bones and the creeping numbness of his feet, Quinn could see it on Creedy. His grin, however game, betrayed teeth clenched against chattering. The hair stood up on his arms, and his nipples were drawn tight, startlingly dark in the paleness of his chest. When Quinn glanced down, the clear water revealed that Creedy was feeling the cold below the waist just as much as he was, and when he raised his eyes again, Creedy's smile had turned rueful. "Might as well have brought the girls ourselves, aye?"
Quinn startled himself by laughing out loud. He realized his mistake when he saw the glint in Creedy's eye, but by then it was too late. Creedy was already jumping, bearing him down beneath the surface of the water. The sound of the boys' squabbling disappeared in the rush of water and Creedy's bubbling laughter. Quinn clamped his lips shut on a mouthful of water--better than a lungful--and strugged playfully against Creedy's hands holding him down, skin sliding wet and cold on skin, unable to get any purchase. He didn't want to escape, wanted to just stay and play, here in the water, safe and careless, til his lungs gave out.
Then his feet hit bottom and Creedy let go, and Quinn stood up, fighting free of the water to see Liam standing halfway between the truck and the water looking worried as he always did. He headed for his own towel and clothes as he shouted, "Back in the truck, now, let's go."
He heard Creedy splashing out of the water behind him, and worry crawled up his arms like an ache, too familiar to really hurt.
Quinn had nearly stopped feeling cold by the time they got all the little ones squared away back inside the keep. He'd gotten his hands wrapped firmly around a mug of coffee when Rose walked up, carrying a rolled blanket under one arm and leading a tiny kid, coated head to toe in filth, his blue smock and trousers nearly black, his hair plastered down with muck. His wide eyes looked shockingly bright in his dirty face as he took in the adults before him, then turned down to study the floor.
Quinn forced a smile and downed the rest of his coffee before setting the mug down, prying his hands from the still-warm mug with an invisible but extreme effort. "Well, I see we've found where Timothy got to."
Ever since his mum had died a few weeks before, Timothy had taken to wandering off on his own and hiding in odd corners, or trying to find her. With a three-year-old's grasp of the situation, he knew she was underground somewhere, and directed his search accordingly, and managed to get more appallingly dirty in the process than the older kids, who'd learned a healthy fear of the keep's crude attempts at soap, ever did.
Rose nodded, looking more amused than put-upon, probably because Quinn had already set down his coffee mug, which was as good as agreeing to go give him his bath. "Compost heap. You know how it gets warm in the middle?"
Creedy, off to Quinn's right with his own mug still firmly in hand, sprayed coffee, and Quinn barely managed to keep a straight face. He did snatch back the hand he'd been reaching out toward Timothy, and looked around for one of the used towels from the earlier trips out.
He knelt and bundled up the kid and his coating of muck, which put him within range of the full effect of the eye-watering smell. Still, he managed a smile for the tot. "Your lucky day, lad, you know that? If we'd had to use the lye again, you'd have no skin left."
Timothy looked up at Quinn--he wasn't much of a talker--and then wriggled in his blanket, dropped his chin down, and whispered, "Can't find me mum."
Quinn couldn't help looking away--to Creedy, staring into what remained of his coffee, and Rose, wiping her hands and edging toward the door, and Jared, counting potatoes like he couldn't hear any of this--and then he straightened up with Timothy under one arm and the bundled blanket under the other, and said to nobody in particular, "I'll just take the horse then, won't be long."
He tried to be quick, but Timothy was shivering hard as soon as Quinn got him into the water, clinging to whatever he could get hold of, and fighting tears as manfully as a toddler could. Quinn got soap in Timothy's eyes, washing his hair, and wasn't having much luck with explaining how to hold your breath to the nearly hysterical tyke, and he'd just lost the soap again when the alarm went up.
It sounded a little faint, at this distance from the keep, which only made the ice run colder down his spine. Quinn took one look at the horse and tried to work out the odds, but they'd have to go through the fields, which were the prime target here. It was already too late, and he was looking to the sky--nothing to see, down in this sheltered valley, they wouldn't see anything until much too late. Timothy opened his mouth and eyes wide, drawing in a deep breath for a truly earsplitting scream, and Quinn clamped one hand over Timothy's mouth, pinched his nose shut, and held the struggling kid tight to his chest as he dove into the only refuge ready to hand: six feet of icy water.
He managed to get one foot under a rock, and fought his own buoyancy enough to keep them down under the water. It was so clear he could see the sky, and he waited, waited, for the sky to turn black, then orange-white, but here under the water, there was nothing to see but clear empty blue; he couldn't even hear the alarm. The only sense of wrongness came from Timothy, still struggling against his grip with the impossible strength of a child's terror. Quinn knew better, but there was no way to tell Timothy that, so he just kept holding on, waiting to know it was safe.
His foot ached, and his legs, from holding himself down, and his gut where Timothy was kicking him. The cold locked his arms into place, holding onto the kid, but his fingers were going numb. He saw more than felt when they slipped, the silvery rush of Timothy's breath escaping to the surface. He tried to close the breach, but then it was only a matter of time til the kid sucked in water, and still, he didn't know whether it was safe yet to surface.
The sky above started to darken, and Quinn wondered about clouds, about dragons blocking the sun, wondered if Timothy had finally tired himself out with fighting, and then realized, and kicked up hard.
He gained the meager shelter of a rock outcrop, and knelt in its lee, water still up to his chest, holding Timothy's hanging head above the water. He gasped in his own breath, only now feeling the fire in his chest, and pounded Timothy's lungs into motion with one hand. After an agonizing minute--alarm bells still ringing in the distance, his flesh crawling with the cold and the danger, knowing they would die of exposure today, one way or another--Timothy coughed up water and dragged in air, and Quinn felt hot tears run down his own face, and buried his face in Timothy's hair, thinking they might warm him a little, poor brat was shivering so hard.
"Time for prayers, Timothy," he whispered, his own voice as ragged as if he'd been shouting all this while. "Don't cry now, it's time for prayers."
And bless the child, he folded his hands as Quinn folded himself more carefully around the kid in his arms, shifting up a little further out of the water so Timothy wouldn't be so cold. One body could shield another, if it came to that. It could be enough, it could make the difference.
"What do we do when we wake?"
Timothy's teeth were chattering so hard he could barely speak, but Quinn murmured the words with him, and together their half-intelligibility added up to something like the response. "Keep both eyes on the sky." But not now, not now; Quinn listened to the alarm bells and kept his eyes trained down on water and stone.
"What do we do when we sleep?"
Timothy turned his face closer to Quinn's chest, and Quinn shifted his frozen fingers, holding him more securely. He couldn't truly hear the alarm anymore; it had become a kind of white noise, as though it had been going off continuously for years, since they'd come here, since the first dragon burst forth from the depths. "Keep one eye on the sky."
He swallowed hard, hesitating for an instant as though another voice would take up the thread as it always did, before he remembered. Creedy and the other kids were safe at home. It was just Timothy he had to protect now, and there was no one here but him to do it. "What do we do when we see him?"
There was a thundering sound, too nearby, but too small. Quinn didn't even flinch, just stayed huddled in place, hugging Timothy infinitesimally closer. There was a splash, and then a body, wet but warmer than Quinn, pressing up behind him, wool scratching against his bare skin, rapid breath hot on the back of his neck. Shielding him, because a body could make the difference. He did the only thing he could, and tried to make himself small enough that the sacrifice would not be in vain, pressing close to rock and down into water with Timothy cradled against his heart. "Dig hard, dig deep, run for shelter, never look back."
Creedy's voice joined his, joined the thin shivering thread of Timothy's words, and Quinn's head was bowed, his hands frozen together in supplication, and he dared not look back. Prayer finished, there was nothing to do but listen as Creedy's breath gradually slowed behind him. Quinn slowly grew accustomed to the warmth behind him--or maybe Creedy grew colder--and rocked back a little against that shield, trying to keep Timothy out of the water. Creedy was solid, and steady, and hard. Quinn thought, vaguely, that adrenaline must trump cold, and then the siren stopped, and it was as if he'd gone deaf.
He didn't know what to do, didn't even feel cold anymore, couldn't really feel his feet or hands, just the slow-squirming weight of Timothy in his arms. Then Creedy's hands closed around his biceps, towing him toward shore, where his clothes and Timothy's were still neatly folded, and the horse, looking abashed for having bolted at the first, waited. "Get out and get dried, now," Creedy said, softly. "Your lips are blue."
Quinn nearly managed to get Timothy tucked into his bunk as normal at bedtime, but as he straightened up, he was stopped short by the small fist clutching a fold of his pullover. He could go through the struggle of leaving him here, but a glance around revealed that most of the kids, worn out by the excitement of the day, were already asleep, so there was no danger of starting a stampede if he took Timothy upstairs. When he spotted Creedy across the room with his back turned, in no position to give him one of those looks, Quinn scooped up the blanket-wrapped kid and headed quickly for his room.
He got into bed, and lay still under the blanket with Timothy cradled against his chest. He'd spent the whole day that way, since they'd come out of the water. He hadn't even been able to let go of the kid to get dressed, though Creedy had tried to take him to free Quinn's arms. It hadn't taken long for functioning with only one arm to feel quite normal--he'd done it often enough when Jared was young--and nobody, seeing them come back into the keep after the alarm, had said a word. Not about Quinn carrying the kid everywhere, not about the livid purple-black bruises all over Timothy's mouth and nose. Everyone's eyes slid away from him, and Quinn knew he'd been sleepwalking all day, but Creedy and Jared had taken up the slack, let him go along in silence.
After he'd been lying there a while, staring up into the darkness and breathing evenly, he shook Timothy, just lightly. When the kid didn't wake, Quinn whispered, "Hey, Timothy, wake up." The child slept on. Quinn used one hand to pry the small fingers loose from his baggy jumper, and Timothy showed no sign of awareness, his fist closing on nothing, resting where Quinn released it. Quinn tried to finish the job and move Timothy to the other side of the bed, let him go, but his hands closed tight on the kid, froze up as if they were still cold-cramped, though the night was fine and mild.
Quinn gave up trying, there, in the dark and the quiet, with no one to see, and wrapped both arms tight around Timothy, careful not to quite crush him. He pressed his face against the kid's soft and surprisingly blond hair, and lying in bed, safe as anyone ever was in this day and age, he felt his heart start to pound fast, remembering. His breath came ragged and quick, but it was all right, the kid wouldn't wake, not after the day he'd had.
They'd nearly died today--Timothy far more nearly than Quinn--not by the usual means of sickness or dragons, but because Quinn had nearly killed them both. He remembered the feeling of his hand crushing off Timothy's breath, remembered Timothy fighting for survival against his unyielding grip, and he knew that if he was out there tomorrow when the alarm rang out, he'd do the same again, except that he'd try to hold on harder. Timothy had the marks on his face to prove he'd been almost suffocated today; he'd been bluish and shivering for more than an hour to show he'd almost drowned, but nobody'd said a word to Quinn, not even Creedy. He tried to get his breathing under control, knew this was a stupid time to be scared, but it was no use, he was gasping like he'd run up to the ridge and back. Timothy slept on, oblivious, and Quinn's arms ached with restraint.
He startled like a shying horse when Creedy's hand landed on his shoulder, and then hunched over, turning his back, as though he could hide Timothy, as though Creedy might not know. Creedy's hand slid down his arm, pulling it clear of Timothy, and Quinn knew better than to fight as Creedy took the tot and moved him to the far edge of the bed--not more than a foot away, really, but Quinn's arms were empty. And then a whisper in his ear, "Hey, try hanging on to someone your own size."
Creedy's arms came around him, his forearms resting against Quinn's chest where Timothy had been a moment ago, and Quinn gave in and held on with all the strength of his formless fear. Creedy's elbows dug into the bruises on his stomach and strained against his ribs, but that was all right, the pain was steady and certain, and Quinn could put his back against that as solidly as against Creedy, kneeling behind him. His breathing evened until he had himself nearly under control, til he thought he could let go of Creedy, put Timothy back in his bed, keep himself still and calm and quiet no matter how it hurt, as a leader should. Just then, as if he'd heard Quinn think it, Creedy said, "No, that won't do."
Quinn found himself rolled forward, onto his face, and Creedy's weight settling quickly over his hips. Quinn should have had Creedy's arms trapped under him, but keeping still was such an effort, converting himself to any other purpose took too long, and Creedy pulled free in the same instant. He did one better, as well, reaching around to catch Quinn's wrists, and pulled his arms up over his head.
He'd have struggled, but there was Timothy to think of; he'd hate the kid to catch a stray elbow, after everything else today. So he lay still under Creedy, and let his hands be threaded through the bars of the bedframe, extended so that there was nothing to grasp. His hands clenched tight, holding on to nothing for all he was worth, and Creedy's weight shifted forward, so that Quinn felt the hard on pressing against his arse an instant before Creedy whispered at his ear, "Let go, now. Just let go."
He opened his hands--never let it be said he couldn't take orders as well as give them--but he knew Creedy wanted more than that, and that it wasn't in his power to give, though it didn't matter. Creedy knew when Quinn needed him to take.
Strong hands settled onto his, thumbs pressing hard into the flesh of his palms, making his fingers jerk. He gasped a little, writhing as much as he could under Creedy's weight, and Creedy chuckled, warm and whisky-rough, in his ear. The sound made Quinn shiver, with heat instead of cold, but he tried his best to let Creedy have his way.
When his hands lay effortlessly limp at the ends of his arms, Creedy's hands moved back, squeezing Quinn's wrists, cupping his elbows to dig into the knotted muscles of his forearms. Quinn buried his face in the mattress, knowing that gritting his teeth would rather violate the spirit of the thing, but trying to keep his groans reasonably muffled. Creedy's hands disappeared from his arms, and Quinn arched and wiggled cooperatively as his jumper was tugged off him. He glanced aside to see Creedy tucking it around Timothy where he slept, nestled against the wall, and then Creedy's hands settled onto his shoulders, and Quinn put his face down again.
He was grinding his hips continuously against the bed by the time Creedy reached around to unfasten his trousers, but the evil bastard left Quinn's weeping erection untouched, merely tugged the garment free and carried on the massage, no matter how suggestively Quinn writhed beneath him. By the time the ache in his feet was soothed, he was clutching the bars of the bedstead, and Creedy laughed again. "Well, this is getting us nowhere."
He stood up, and for one awful second Quinn thought he was just going to walk off--it wouldn't do to underestimate Creedy's evil streak--but then Quinn heard the sound of clothes hitting the floor, and Creedy climbed atop him again, skin to skin for the second time in a long day, but hot this time, sweat-slick instead of slippery and cold. Quinn parted his legs, letting Creedy rock forward into him, and then there was a small plastic-and-metal sound behind him, and Creedy said, "Brought something else back, just for us."
He lifted his head to ask what he could possibly--and Creedy reached around and swiped one glistening thumb across his lower lip. Quinn smiled, widely, unseen, as Creedy pushed his head back down, pressing his always-chapped lips together to smear the petroleum jelly around. He knew he should feel guilty about hoarding such a rare find, but with all the children out of nappies... He jumped a bit, when Creedy's cold-slick thumb pressed into him, then settled, pressing his hips back against the teasing penetration. It was soon gone, and he took a deep breath and relaxed, bracing for a pain that didn't materialize.
Instead there was the familiar stretching fullness, Creedy hot and hard, quickly and smoothly inside. He'd almost forgotten it could not hurt, and half-sobbed into the pillow, gratitude and pleasure burning away any last shred of guilt over Creedy's selfish instincts. He arched a little, taking him deeper, freeing enough space for one slick clever hand to slide between his hips and the mattress, to rub down one last remaining cluster of tensed muscles. He was gasping continuously into the mattress, Creedy breathing hard in his ear, his cock moving slow inside, his hand fast on Quinn's own erection. He came suddenly, and hard, gritting his teeth and holding his breath to keep quiet as Creedy stroked him through it.
He gasped, finally drawing breath again, when it was over, except it wasn't over at all. Creedy had fallen still, but now started moving again, still hard inside him, and the pleasure of it was now almost pain, Creedy's hand still cupping him and Creedy's cock hitting that spot inside him and he could believe he would never breathe evenly again, never exhale without sobbing his name.
Then Creedy's face pressed against his throat, muffling his words so that Quinn couldn't tell if it were his own name being cried out, or God's, as the motion of Creedy's hips turned erratic, then stilled.
When they'd both caught their breath, Quinn shifted a bit, motivating Creedy to come up with a rag--he'd thought of everything, which was not altogether surprising, considering how long he'd had to plan--and wiped them both reasonably clean. Tossing the cloth down, Creedy settled back like he meant to stay, and Quinn shifted accommodatingly closer to Timothy. It wasn't as if night in these parts was ever what you'd call warm, nor as if he'd ever get his fill of chances to touch Creedy. He pulled the blanket up, over all three of them, pulling Timothy closer again as he slept on. Creedy's arms came around him again, and he laid his own against them.
He was half asleep when Creedy said in his ear, "What do we do when we wake?"
Quinn smiled. Prayers before bed, right, and let Creedy do the work tonight, that was quite all right. "Keep both eyes on the sky."
"What do we do when we sleep?"
We sleep, he thought, warm and dry and sated. "Keep one eye on the sky." Long as it was somebody else's eye, tonight. Barlow's, likely, since the cranky old sod hardly ever came out of the tower anyway.
"What do we do when we see him?"
Drown the children, if there's any water to hand. But the thought had no sting now--that day was done, thank God, and there was something about water, about running water, but no time for that now, just prayers. Creedy nudged him a bit, and Quinn said, "Dig hard, dig deep, run for shelter, never look back."
Creedy's lips brushed his ear. Children never heard this part of the prayer, it wasn't for them. Scary stuff indeed. "And if we do, what can we hope for?"
Quinn turned his head, and looked back over his shoulder at Creedy, so close he almost couldn't see him, tilted his head to get the angle, and touched his lips to that sweet mouth. Their tongues touched and stroked together, hot soft slick rough, and he only pulled away when they'd both lost their breath. "What can we hope for?" Creedy repeated, a hint of firmness in his voice.
Quinn held his gaze. "Another day," he whispered. "And another day."
Creedy nodded, and Quinn laid his head down and closed his eyes. It was enough, for now. He only had one prayer, and as long as Creedy was there to say it with him, Quinn knew it was answered.