Back with another one-shot, this one inspired entirely by a conversation with a friend whose mutual adoration of the T/E pairing makes me not feel quite so ridiculous. I still feel a little ridiculous, mind you, at writing sensually-charged (yet totally innocent) scenes about fictional YA characters, but in a world where hordes of other middle-aged women pile steamy Outlander gifs on their pinterest boards, I think my tame-by-comparison creations manage to stay within the realm of the tasteful. (Not that there's anything wrong with steamy Outlander gifs if that's your jam, people.)
Also, to reader Suvon: thank you so very much for the recent reviews; if you create an account to review from I will be able to respond to future ones personally and privately. As it is I have no other way to contact you except this, but I am so pleased that you've enjoyed my writing so much, and your enthusiasm is so appreciated. It's been a long time since I picked up such an ardent fan - at least, that let me know about it! The ratio of readers who engage to those who merely consume is depressingly low, and it's always, always a pleasure to hear from you, even on stories a decade old.
On with the show here...
Melynlas snorts when he steps outside, evidence of displeasure at being left saddled and bridled so long.
"I'm sorry," he breathes, sliding a hand beneath the horse's mane, trying not to acknowledge the tremor in his fingers, the fear knotting his gut. "I was in a hurry when we arrived, and…well, after that, I forgot. It's been…an evening full of surprises."
The big silver head knocks him in the chest indignantly and blows a mild reproof before turning to follow him to the stable. His mind churns, darkly, while he unsaddles the horse, rubs him down. He hasn't been in this building in years, but his hands automatically find the hooks even in the darkness, hanging up tack and jingling bits with a foreboding sense that something so familiar should be comforting, but isn't.
When he steps out she is waiting for him, standing by the gate, glowing amidst the shadows of twilight. He is struck, again, with how…no, not different she is; that's just the dress. She doesn't look different, she looks…more. She is more herself; taller, softer, wiser, fiercer; there is more carried in the proud tilt of her head; in the sculpted lines of her neck and shoulders; in the grace of her slender hand resting on the gatepost; in the quiet, serious, steady gaze resting on him.
His mouth goes dry with all the things he wants to say, and finally only the least of them comes out. "I thought you were staying with Gwydion."
She looks weary; he thinks, aching, of the light in her eyes earlier that afternoon, now dimmed. "Dallben's chamber is so small," she murmurs, in a voice just as dark. "There wasn't room for all of us, and Achren won't leave him. It's odd, but somehow…she seems to belong there now, more than I."
"You trust her?"
She meets his gaze sharply. "Of course not." He is silent, and her eyes soften, slowly, as she watches him. "But we haven't much choice, have we?" Her breath is a barely audible sigh; she turns away, and he thinks he hears her mutter, "about anything," but maybe it's just his own thoughts, shouting at him.
"This isn't…" he begins, then falters as she pauses, turning back towards him, and the words how it was supposed to be die in his throat. For a few moments he cannot speak, looking at her, standing there. In this place where she belonged. Where her unbearable absence had driven him out almost three years before, full of questions like goads, one - still unanswered - that he cannot, now, bring himself to ask. Not when so much else hangs over them.
The silence stretches, thin as wire. She stirs suddenly, mouth twitching."You really did cut your own hair with a sword, didn't you?"
He blinks in surprise. "I…well. Yes, but…"
She laughs, an unexpected silver chime in the darkness. "You're a fright. Come on." She motions for him to follow her, marching across the yard determinedly. "There's no use sitting 'round doing nothing but worrying. It's like watching yourself get older."
Pausing at the scullery door, she waves him inside, pulling her golden sphere from some hidden pocket in her long skirts before following. Warm light fills the room as the shadows scurry to hide behind rows of baskets and iron pots, to dive into the mouths of clay jars. He stoops to avoid the bundles of dried herbs dangling from the rafters, the air dusty with fading summer smells of rosemary and dill, sage and mint.
She lays her bauble on the table and looks around, sighing contentedly. "This place hasn't changed any, at least. Sit down. I'm going to cut your hair."
He plunks onto the stool she indicates, dumfounded. "You're what? Now?"
"Who knows when I'll have another chance?" She rummages in a wooden drawer, comes up with a pair of shears and snips at the air briskly. "When the world's on fire, find something practical to do. Teleria's advice, and it's surprisingly good, I find." She steps closer to him, squints at his head, and frowns. "Hm. You know, I can't believe I'm saying this, but…you should wash it first."
He raises an eyebrow. "I seem to remember someone complaining about—"
"Yes, well," she sniffs, leaning back, "it's one thing to be scrubbed down against your will when you don't need it. When you actually could use a good washing, that's something else again." She grins, for the first time since that afternoon; her gaze dances down to his feet and back up again, and his heart pounds. "I daresay, after running the woods for as long as you have, the rest of you needs it just as badly, but I'll settle for hair just now."
Hot water still simmers in a small cauldron over the embers in the scullery hearth; she dips out a large pailful; shoves it and the soft-soap bowl into his hands. "Go wash outside. I'll find a comb. And…" She pauses, staring at him in consternation, and slowly reaches up to touch his rough jawline, running her thumb across its edge as though she's never seen it before. "…And a razor, I suppose? Do you even have one? Does Coll have one you could borrow?"
He laughs, to hide the way her slightest touch twists the breath out of him. "What's the matter? You don't like the beard?"
She pulls a wry face halfway between a scowl and a grin. "Is that what you call it? I thought at first you were just filthy. If it were really a beard, I might. Though it would take some getting used to. You don't look quite like you." Her hand is still on his chin, turning his face thoughtfully as she studies him. "But just now it's not one thing or the other. You're like a sheep shorn by a blind man. Did you clean up at all while you were gone?"
"When Kaw showed up and told me you were coming home," he says, nettled, "I thought only of reaching you as quickly as possible. Would you rather I had stopped to…clean up…first?"
Her lips part in an audible breath that seems not quite brave enough to be a laugh, and he memorizes the freckles scattered across her nose, wishing his arms weren't so full of soap and bucket. "For future reference," she murmurs, leaning toward him, unbearably close, "yes. I would."
Her dancing eyes draw him in and he's about to drop the bucket, water and all, but before he can she pulls him up, off the stool, and pushes him toward the door. "Now, go wash. I'll be back in a moment."
The chill night air he stumbles into is a relief, even after he's stripped off his jacket and shirt to pour hot water over his head. But by the time his wet hair is pouring streams over his shoulders and down his back, his skin is steaming into the air and he's shivering and blowing like a horse fording a river. She's already there when he hurries back into the scullery; after one wild, wide-eyed look at him she tosses him a large hempen towel and turns around to add another log to the fire. And stoke it. Vigorously. A little longer than necessary. Certainly the extra light isn't; her bauble on the table is flaring so bright he can't even look at it directly.
He sits back on the stool, tousling at his hair, watching her with a grin. "All right. I'm ready."
She does not turn, but demands, in a voice higher-pitched than her wont, "Are you mad, going about bare in this cold? Wrap that towel 'round your shoulders before you catch your death."
"Washing was your idea," he reminds her amusedly, suspecting certain things he is not yet confident enough to say; but he hastens to obey the instruction. "And you know how wet clothes keep you even colder. Besides, if you thought my hair was dirty, my shirt—"
"No doubt," she interrupts, jabbing at the fire again, sending sparks flaring up the chimney. When she turns her face is scarlet, lower lip gripped tight between her teeth, eyes dilated and glittering, but she avoids his gaze, focusing instead on his hair with an appraising frown. He tries looking straight ahead, but this means staring directly at the hollow of her throat and the light flashing off the silver crescent nestling beneath it, and he swallows hard and shuts his eyes.
"Tch," she mutters, "what a mess you've made of yourself. Good thing it grows back." Her fingers slide through his hair, lifting it at temples and brow, pushing it away from his face; he finds breathing suddenly laborious. "It's going to have to be shorter than you're used to, to get it all even again."
He keeps his eyes shut, but the space is too small; he can't avoid the lavender-and-rosewater smell of her, the warmth of her next to him. His jaw clenches. "Do whatever you want."
The words seem to hang in the air. Her hands and breath pause for an almost imperceptible instant before continuing on, and she moves around to his side, contemplative. "Llyr. You've got some bits cut halfway up your neck. Are you sure it was a sword? You didn't really use a spoon?"
"Would you just cut it?" She's behind him; it's safe to open his eyes now. He reaches up, exasperated, to rearrange the offending strands, but she pushes his hand away.
"Hang on, it's got to be combed first." Carved-horn teeth bite pleasantly at his scalp, gliding over the crown of his head, tugging gently, alternating with the pressure of her hands, the pull when she has to work a tangle free in her nimble fingers, and he sighs louder than he intends. "It's nice, isn't it," she remarks, "having it done for you? One of the things I did enjoy on Mona. Not the washing, you know, but the combing and braiding and all. There's something soothing about someone else's hands in your hair."
"Mph," he grunts, noncommittal; soothing isn't quite the word he'd use, or nice either, though certainly it's all far from unpleasant. The shears open and close with thin metallic rasps and his shorn hair ends graze his shoulders like a caress; her fingers twist, languid, at the long strands at the back of his neck and he makes a sound even he doesn't quite understand, turning it into a cough at the last moment to mask it.
"Be still," she orders, over a breathless chuckle. She works around to the other side and back to stand in front of him, taking his face in her hands to tilt it up and examine her work; he can't shut his eyes again without being desperately obvious. So he allows himself to stare, sinking into the sight of her until he's drowning in it.
"There," she says. The word comes out hoarse and she clears her throat hastily. "Much better. It can grow out properly now."
"Well, so long as you're satisfied," he mumbles, and she swallows hard, favors him with one moment of searing eye contact before turning to lay down the shears.
"I'm not. But the next bit's up to you." She hands him a razor, borrowed from one of the men in the cottage, though he does have one in his saddlebags, a gift from Hevydd the smith, who had first noticed the need for it. "If you know how. I don't want to be responsible for slicing your throat."
"I do know how, thank you." Hevydd had taught him more than smithing. He takes the blade from her and nods toward the bucket. "Need more hot water, though, would you mind?" She fills it silently and hands it to him, pushes the pile of his discarded shirt and jacket to the side and hoists herself onto the table edge. He snorts. "You're going to watch?"
She shrugs, grinning smugly. "What else is there to do?"
He grunts and goes for the hot water to distract himself from the answers that instantly present themselves, all unacceptable under current conditions. Drat Arawn and his everlasting machinations. He can't decide whether to laugh at or be ashamed of himself for being so personally affronted by the latest evidence of trouble brewing; for wishing, if it had to happen, it could have happened just a few weeks later. It feels small, and selfish; there is so much more at stake than the two of them, and yet…
The copper blade shines like her hair in the light of the bauble as he takes it up, willing his hand not to tremble. She watches him with frank curiosity; he's acutely aware of it, every second, as he manipulates the tool over his face.
"Interesting," she observes, after a few minutes. "Ticklish process, isn't it? Would it be easier with a mirror?"
"You know we've got no mirrors here," he answers, shaking out his stiffening wrist. This task is still a novel one and he tends to grip the blade too hard, anyway; now, with her watching, it's almost impossible not to clench his fist around it.
"Oh, I have one," she says, "actually. A gift from Teleria, if it's survived the journey; I haven't checked yet. But I suppose it's best if you learn to do without, what with how rare and fragile they are. And anyway they make it harder sometimes; having to do everything backwards from what you see. You should see me trying to braid my hair in a mirror. It's like weaving with your hands behind your back."
He has a mental image of her hands twisting into her own bright hair, sliding through the tumbling fiery waves of it, and shakes it off hurriedly. "Be glad you don't have to do this as well, then. Girls have it easier."
She quirks an eyebrow. "Oh, no, women have their own ways of handling such things, as I also learned. You'd be shocked to know how many uses there are for honey and beeswax. At least among the nobility; I'm not sure about the rest."
"But you don't have…" he begins, and stops, seeing her expression; that don't-be-an-idiot look he hasn't seen in years but recognizes instantly.
"We don't have beards," she finishes for him, with a catlike smirk. "Thank goodness, because that implement looks dangerous. But we-"
"I don't want to know," he retorts, his face flaming.
Her smile is arch, mocking him. "Oh! Well, then, never mind." Glancing down, she picks up his shirt and holds it up in two reluctant fingers, wrinkling her nose. "Ugh. Shall I take this to be washed, or just throw it in the fire?"
"I only have one spare."
"Wash, then," she sighs, dropping it to the floor. "You might have made yourself half a dozen, while you were busy weaving that cloak. But you've never been a very sensible creature."
He smothers his grin with the towel, lets it drop back to his shoulders, and rubs at his chin to make sure he hasn't missed anything. "There we are, done. Care to inspect?"
She slides off the table and stands before him again, close, too close. Her hands cradle his face, thumbs sliding over his smooth jawline; his newly-exposed skin burns at the contact and he holds his breath.
"Oh, yes." It's barely more than a whisper, fanning over his face. "There you are again, Taran of Caer Dallben." Her eyes trap his, inescapable. "I've missed you."
He's dizzy, drunk, falling, reaching for anything that might catch him and the closest thing is her; but just as her head is drooping to meet his she bolts upright, suddenly, her whole being alert and tense and distant. The bauble-light in the room, blazing until now, flickers like a candle in the wind, and dims.
He clutches at his knees, baffled and off-balance. "What is it?"
She looks through him, her gaze unfocused; grips his arm as though to anchor herself. "Gwydion. He's awake."
"How do you know?"
Her eyes focus on his face again, filled with an unearthly glow - or, perhaps, merely the firelight reflected in them. "I just know," she says simply. He's had to accept stranger things from her before, and scrambles up from the stool, snatching his jacket from the table and wrestling it on as she retrieves his towel and shirt from the floor with a sigh.
They cross the yard together, not touching, in brooding silence, making for the soft glow in the cottage windows. He pauses at the gate, turns to her suddenly. "You know…this isn't how I imagined today was going to turn out."
She stares at him inscrutably, chews her lower lip. "No. Nor I." A shadow of - regret? frustration? - crosses her face, and she shrugs and laughs a short, bittersweet laugh. "But few things turn out like you think they will, I've noticed. Even you aren't quite what I imagined."
He wants to ask what she imagined, and how he's different, and if she knows how much more she is than he had dreamed even in three years' worth of dreams, and a million other things; most of all he wants to ask her —
But there are voices, urgent and anxious, inside the cottage, and there is no use asking questions that can't be answered with any surety, just now.
But before she moves past him to open the door she touches his cheek once more, wistfully; whispers, "Not yet," and he wonders, not for the first time, if she can read his mind, so succinctly and simultaneously to answer none of his questions….and all of them.