Here you'll find
This story has been published in the Torquere Press anthology Fresh Starts.
Unfinished Portrait; Charcoal on Paper
At a quarter past eight the door opens with a creak and the ears of a tabby cat, curled up on the windowsill of a ground floor apartment, twitch a little. The cat opens an eye to make sure that it's the same man, that nothing out of the ordinary is happening, and before the door has closed it's already dozing off once more. After all, it has seen the same thing happen over and again, at about the same time on every weekday morning, for the eleven years of its life.
The man doesn't look at the cat. He'd notice if it wasn't there, just like he'd notice a missing bush or a lamppost askew. But the cat is where it should, so he just descends the few steps to the street, turns left at the gate and walks away with a brisk but unhurried step. A lazy wind stirs his thick, slate-dark hair; he shoves fingers through it and pushes some grayed tresses behind his ears. He really should have it trimmed a little, it's in even worse disarray than usual; well, maybe later this week. The light coat flaps around his legs as he walks on, a well-worn briefcase loosely clutched under one arm.
His eyes are dark and this morning they are tired. He's had trouble sleeping recently. Too many upsets, too much going on among his friends and students. New classes busy learning to live on their own, learning to study, learning themselves. Emotions running high, rivalry, crushes, disapproval, doubts. A young promising student recovering from a suicide attempt. A good friend recovering from an illness. He cares, and so he's tried to offer a sympathetic ear and a shoulder to cry on, to be the one to talk to, but he feels so helpless. He's spent hours discussing matters with his friend, then lain awake under the assault of memories. Talking has disturbed into motion thoughts and emotions he hadn't known were there anymore. Yes, his eyes are tired and he squints suspiciously at the light that seeps onto the street between houses and trees.
As he pulls the briefcase tighter under his arm, he notices ink spots on his hand and smiles ruefully. The way he always manages to stain himself... but he has reached the broader street and the ink is forgotten as his step quickens. The clock up in the City Hall tower tells him that there'd be no need to hurry and yet he walks faster now. He wants to have a moment for himself before the first lessons. He needs to calm down.
Memories are roiling heavily inside him. So deep they were buried, and once stirred out of slumber, they don't want to calm down at all. He has spent most of the night writing, page after page of something that started as a letter to his friend and evolved into something much more. It tells things about him he's never told anyone before, things that just needed to be told, and now all his soul is encased in a modest envelope tucked inside the briefcase. But he's not going to back down; he'll deliver the letter later today.
The outline of the Siriash School of Visual Arts looms right behind the corner. The man crosses the street and sighs a little. So many years and still the serene beauty of the building never fails to touch him. His gaze caresses the pillars flanking the main door, the high triangle of wall above, the ornamental eaves. He goes in and instantly feels calmer. Yes, he'll get through this day.
"At some point you asked me if I have ever contemplated suicide. I hesitated and so you let it slide, perhaps interpreting my reluctance to mean that I wasn't sure; but there you were wrong. You may be surprised to hear that I have thought about it more than once and the reason why I fell so silent was that your question brought back powerful memories. So powerful that I was compelled to answer your question in writing, for I'm not sure if I could really talk about this, even though I feel the need to do so.
"Magical numbers are dreadfully clicheüL, even more so is number three, and yet the sad fact remains that there have been exactly three occasions in my life when I've thought about ending my own existence. Each time it has been my own common sense and nothing else that has pulled me back from the edge. And even though the popular association of art with some degree of madness is another, even more worn clicheüL, I maintain that there is a grain of truth in it. There has never been enough madness in me to make me at least try something so desperate, and I am convinced that this lack of madness also means I lack something else: the spark of genius ĘC or should I call it passion? ĘC that would have saved me from the most crushing disappointment in my life.
"You don't know what I'm talking about? I'll tell you: it's my position. That I am the Principal of the Siriash University's School of Visual Arts. I know full well that I'm leading the most prestigious school for artists in this country and that many people would give almost anything to be in my shoes. Yes, that is my biggest failure.
"I'm not sure if I can make you understand but please let me try. It's best if I start from the beginning and tell you about those three pivotal moments in my life. I don't know if this is going to make any sense to anyone else but me but let me try anyway.
"To find the first of them we need to go back in time to the year of your birth, which means that I was thirteen. A small, childish-looking thing, with a round face and stubby nose and chubby hands, like a goblin in my striped breeches ĘC that is, unless my mother had just cropped my unruly mop of hair, in which case I would've looked like an embarrassed, newly-sheared sheep instead.
"But I was a goblin who dreamed of elves, or rather, of an Elf. That was my cousin, four years my senior, graceful like a dragonfly and always on the move. In those days all of us cousins would come to our grandparents' estate for the summer. I was too young to be initiated into his clique, so I was reduced to lurking around them, trying to catch a glimpse and feeling like a true outsider because my appearance invariably made them pause in mid-sentence to keep their own stuff out of us children's ears. That didn't stop me from dreaming of him, though. Seeing him, hearing his voice, sent me into rapture.
"And then, towards the end of that summer, the Elf was no more. Four of my cousins went for a boat trip on the lake, and no one will ever know what exactly happened but the boat capsized in the middle of it. My father and two uncles took the other boat and rowed as hard as they could while the rest of us stood on the shore and prayed. One of them in particular was in trouble ĘC a girl of nineteen, her full long skirts pulling her down and catching to her legs so that she failed to climb on the overturned boat. Her head disappeared several times but each time she was pushed up again and somehow she managed to hang on until the rescuers reached them. But her brother, her beautiful brother, had used all his strength and inhaled too much water helping her, and he went under.
"My father dove after him several times, finally found him, but it was too late. I still remember him as they brought him to the shore, white and transparent as alabaster. I also remember, though much more vaguely, how I dropped on my knees and clutched him, kissed him, told him that he should wake up because he was safe now, until someone pried me loose and took me inside. For several days I refused to come out of my room, even to eat. I wanted to die; and yet, even in the absolute, black-and-white simplicity of adolescence, the madness required to make my wish come true just wasn't there. Why die, I thought, when it wouldn't bring back his smile anyway?
"In the end I crept back and joined the others once more and the incident was attributed to shock."
The large, airy studio is very quiet, even though more than a dozen people are cluttered inside it. On a small dais stands a woman, in her early twenties like the students, unapologetic and absolutely nude. Her long hair has been pulled up and piled loosely on her head, it coils gracefully over her nape and some longer strands hang down to her shoulders, tips tickling her breasts. She has turned her head to one side and looks thoughtful.
Some of the eyes scrutinizing her body are thoughtful as well, others slightly narrowed, calculating. Charcoal rustles on paper. Someone shifts his weight to the other leg and sighs, another takes a step back and levels a critical look first at her, then at the large sheet of paper on the easel.
"Ten more minutes, gentlemen. Are you sure you aren't cold, Nayla?"
"I'm fine, Master Felien."
The gray haired man nods to the girl who hasn't moved her head to reply. An experienced model, she knows what is expected of her. He walks slowly around the room, stops by each one of the students for a moment, glances at sketches, nods, quietly points out something.
Such concentration... He's relieved to see that even the two closest friends of the missing student are totally absorbed in their task. They have definitely visited their friend this morning and if they are that calm, it must mean that the boy is getting better. He decides to go there himself, in the afternoon when he has more time.
"All right, thank you, Nayla. We'll take a different pose after the break."
She drapes a worn, much-loved-looking dressing gown around her shapely body, sticks her feet into a pair of slippers and glances over her shoulder. "Cigarette, anyone?"
"Sure." Three of the students move towards their bags, a fourth one simply puts down his charcoals and digs into his pocket. "Just join me."
The two disappear into the corridor and the teacher smiles, then continues his round in the class. Neviss is always so quick with his sketches, he can well afford a cigarette break, while some others are still frowning at the sudden, if not unexpected, disappearance of their model.
"Gentlemen, let me remind you that the purpose was not to make a detailed drawing of a nude. We're here to sketch. You shouldn't try to put too much into your sketch at the expense of neglecting the overall picture. Bear that in mind. We'll continue in about twenty minutes."
He retreats to the small side room and pushes the young model's pile of clothing aside before sitting heavily down. Eyes falling closed, he leans his head back against the wall. Better make the most of the break, he still has the rest of the day ahead.
There was a time when staying up for the best part of the night and then coming to work after barely two hours of sleep was no problem. But it's quite a few years now since it started to be. He sighs.
"The second incident took place some years later. The goblin had grown into a young man and found his way to the center of the known universe: Siriash. Just take a look at any one of those quintessential art students around and you see me as I was then. You know by observation how vitally important it is to dress like an Artist, to always carry that bag or briefcase full of Artistic Things along wherever one goes, to prefer red wine over beer with food, and to talk a lot and very abstractly. And of course we mustn't forget how essential it is to constantly doubt one's own abilities and yet scoff and scorn all teachers and their dusty old ways ĘC how could that bunch hope to teach anything to us, us who possess the vigor and genius of youth?! ... ahh, I think you're laughing under your breath now, my friend. You know exactly what I'm talking about!
"So I looked like a true art student but contrary to the image, I was never particularly reckless in any way. Of course I enjoyed my new independence and was profoundly thrilled to be out of my parents' reach, on my own, free to figure out what I would do. And yet...
"Those years should have been a time of experimentation but when I look back now, I observe that even then I was quick to establish routines. I enjoyed studying, not only practical things where I learned new techniques and materials but theory and history as well, and took pride in my consistently good grades. I found that even if my concept of orderliness was definitely different from my mother's, I resented having my home, my belongings and generally my life in one huge mess, unlike some of my fellow students for whom 'artistic' seemed synonymous with 'chaotic'. Many of my classmates considered me a fastidious snob and to some extent I'm sure they were right.
"You've sometimes wondered aloud why I was never a full member at The Table until you practically dragged me there. I might confess now that the reason was purely personal and dates to those times. It wasn't lack of will, though! Of course I had heard of The Table, that intriguing little society, practically as soon as I arrived here for the first time, and I swear that my heart skipped at least a dozen beats when I was casually told that all its members were also openly gay. After that my interest increased tenfold and many an evening I spent hanging at the 'Carmine Arms', listening to the lively, learned conversation and praying for an opening to say something that would catch the attention of all those fascinating people and earn me an invitation.
"I already knew that while girls might be pretty to look at and nice to talk to, they weren't what made my heart beat faster and my hands tremble if I chanced too close, but it was still my secret, something I hadn't yet ventured to tell anyone. I marveled at the ease with which the people at The Table behaved, admired their openness and tried to build up the courage to just walk there and introduce myself. Then, one day, I saw a certain classmate of mine sitting there, chatting and laughing and looking just a little too cozy with one of the regulars.
"I won't mention any names because you just might recognize them; suffice it to say that the clash between our chemistries had been clear from day one and I certainly wasn't going to go anywhere near him if I could avoid it. And there, in all its pettiness, is the reason why I stayed away from The Table for so many years ĘC at first out of dislike to one of its members, later on out of habit. But now I've once more strayed in my story, so maybe I'd better return to the original topic once more and tell you about that second time.
"It happened while I was preparing for the final examinations. I had no reason to worry, my grades were excellent, I mastered theory and art history and a cartload of techniques. And yet, day by day I sank deeper into depression until I hardly went out any more, didn't draw the curtains, didn't care to eat, or tidy the place, or see anyone. Everything was worthless, fruitless, hopeless. I was no good. When my stomach demanded food too loudly, I slunk into the 'Carmine Arms' to get some grub, preferably during the quiet morning hours when the place would be mostly deserted.
"Why, you ask now. I'll tell you: because the passion still hadn't come to me, no matter how desperately I'd been inviting it. I would soon be a Master but didn't feel worthy of the title.
"I don't know how long I just crept around in my little apartment, all alone, again stupidly wanting to die and yet doing nothing about it. But as suddenly as despair had hit me, it went away; of perhaps my common sense once more kicked it out. One morning I just got up from bed and cleaned the entire place from floor to ceiling. Then took a bath, shaved, got dressed, and went out. Had a good lunch at the 'Arms', got groceries, walked home. Lit a cigarette.
"After that I dug up every single work I'd ever made and arranged them all in my room, on the walls and window sills and tables and easels, so that I could see them. I examined each one of them as thoroughly as I could, not skipping a single draft. That took quite a few cigarettes but at last it was done. I then took a large sheet of watercolor paper and wrote with big letters across it: 'Felien, you are NO ARTIST'.
"That night I slept like a log, peaceful and dreamless. The next day I burned the paper ĘC and, most likely, also the last little shreds of passion that had still managed to cling to me."
The air is getting dusky as he reaches the front door of the house and opens it, this time unseen by the cat; he's late and the furry guard is already devouring the meal that its rotund owner has prepared for her pet.
He walks up the stairs into his silent apartment, empties his briefcase on the table and slumps into an armchair kicking off his shoes. He's done everything he'd scheduled for today, including a detour to the Smithery Lane on his way home to deliver the letter to his friend's mailbox.
He's also visited his student, which has considerably eased his fatigued mind. It has been good to see that color is returning to that narrow face and that the boy's gentle eyes are once more looking at the world with curiosity and anticipation instead of weariness. He's even managed to make the boy laugh, and that is something he's really proud of; not just a polite chuckle but genuine laughter. They have also talked quite a lot and now he knows that family trouble has mostly been to blame, first for the bottle of suspiciously potent sleeping draught on the nightstand of a perfectly healthy young man, then for the overdose taken in a sudden bout of despair.
Thank goodness the family with its conflicting expectations and sibling rivalries lives quite a distance away. He sighs, and can't help thinking of his own family. He hasn't had much contact with them for years. They have their own lives, scattered all around the country, and he has his own, here in this small university town that is far more important than its size would suggest. All of a sudden he can hear the silence around him. This part of the town is even quieter than the rest. The people walking on the street don't make much noise and the clatter of hooves and the rumble of wheels echo only faintly from the broader street nearby.
The man stares across the room, slowly raises a hand from his lap and looks at it closely. It's not a very large hand, but then he's not a very large man. Medium height, medium build. Average in every way. The hand is rather narrow, the fingers slim, and there's that inevitable smudge of paint that makes him shake his head slightly. The hand isn't callused but it shows the imprint of years. Not a young hand any more... it clenches into a fist, so tight that the knuckles turn white.
He rises from the armchair with a scowl and goes into the small kitchen. Usually he doesn't do much cooking but tonight he doesn't feel at all like going out to eat. That would mean having to meet people, to talk to them, and he doesn't want to talk any more tonight. There ought to be enough stuff in the cupboards so that he'll be able to scrape together something that resembles a dinner.
Some time later he stares at the scrambled eggs on his plate, brows knitted. He doesn't want to look out of the window, or actually he's too tired to. It's as if he's poured all of his energy, of himself, into that letter.
"So, in due course I graduated with high grades and the Principal expressed his heartfelt wish to have me here as a teacher. 'What a teacher you'd make, Felien!' he told me. I found that I liked the idea, went away to study some pedagogy and then returned ĘC to stay, that was my gut feeling already then. I settled down and began my career as a teacher. I was satisfied. I enjoyed life.
"It's an old joke among my students that I'm securely and happily married to Art, and in a way they are right. My work has been my life. However, every now and then there's this sting in my conscience, for I'm not quite sure if my spouse is happy. This is, after all, a marriage based on reason and not passion, and my students only see its facade. They don't see the shameful truth: that I haven't got what it takes to fully satisfy my spouse and so I act like a pimp. I try to make up for my own shortcomings by using what I've got to guide others, to give my spouse new, clever, passionate lovers who can do for her what I cannot.
"Please, my friend, don't shake your head now. This is how I see it. And this leads us to the third breaking point in my life.
"On the 18th art course was Yarnath. He was the indisputable dynamo of the entire class and in his case the hackneyed phrase was indeed true: true genius and true madness were wrestling for supremacy in him. He was immensely talented and incredibly capricious, today fantastic, tomorrow incomprehensibly bad, but he did everything with the dedication of someone about to die any moment. I was already used to dealing with great talents ĘC does anything less ever make it past the entrance tests? Yet he became the center of my life. I was his teacher and somehow also the emotional support he needed, so for years I encouraged and soothed, quarreled and consoled, whipped and cajoled him onwards. During all the years he spent in Siriash my entire output consisted of a single watercolor painting. Maybe that tells something.
"The final exams were once more drawing close and everyone was certain that Yarnath would become an academic as well as artistic sensation. Then I got the news: a fellow student had gone to ask if he'd go out with the others and found him in a pool of blood. He'd smashed off the neck of a wine bottle and mauled his forearms with it. In the hospital the doctors somehow managed to stitch his veins and flesh back together, but what was left wasn't Yarnath. They said it was a nervous breakdown of the worst kind; I think that's just a way of saying that his madness finally won. Anyway, he survived, although it might've been better if he hadn't.
"He's still alive, in a private sanatorium near Pantess. He lives in his own world, recognizes no one, occasionally draws a tiny, wonderful picture but mostly just sits there for hours and smiles. You, my friend, are more of an expert in these matters, you know that the doctors in Pantess are good. Yet they haven't been able to do anything.
"I believe he's now happier, more at peace, than he ever was while still officially sane. Seeing me seemed to cause him anguish, so I've only visited him twice and the last time was a long time ago. But I cannot count how many sleepless nights I have spent, praying (yes, me!) that he'd still recover. I cried, I raged, and why?
"To you I can confess my supreme selfishness: I wasn't mourning only for Yarnath. No, I also mourned for myself. I was certain that I'd never again see such spectacular talent; that the moment of my redemption, the justification for my existence, had slipped irrevocably away. He was my creation and he was gone forever. Terribly over-dramatic, yes indeed, but that's how I felt."
He wakes up refreshed into a drizzly day. Droplets cling to his clothes and hair as he walks to work, making him look like someone covered by a thin layer of cobwebs all over. He doesn't feel dusty, though, rather like a plant that has been moved from its lonely, forgotten corner onto a terrace.
As he walks into the classroom he gets another happy jolt, because the boy is there once more. The whole group is radiating support and protectiveness as they stand around their wounded classmate who's sitting on a long-legged stool and smiling. He's still pale and probably won't be up to staying the whole day but he's there. The teacher begins the first lessons of the day with a smile on his face.
Yet, despite the good start, his mood darkens steadily through the day until he's once more trudging wearily home and cursing his lethargy. Has the world somehow gone haywire, or is it just himself? Time passes so slowly, every day feels like an eternity and yet weeks and months rush past at an insane speed.
Is this what it feels like to grow old? Where has his customary enthusiasm gone? The school year has never felt this hopelessly long before and he debates with himself about whether or not to go to the 'Carmine Arms'. His friends will be waiting for him there, at The Table, ready for another night of debate and togetherness.
He decides against it, then pulls a heavier coat from the closet and marches out nevertheless. The venerable old pub isn't far away and he walks briskly, but when his hand is already on the door handle he pauses. Turns around. Walks away once more but doesn't head home. He walks towards Smithery Close instead.
"That third time cut so deep that I took a while to get properly over it. Only the whole process of going through new applications and selecting the students for the next course finally brought me back to life once more and I began to remember why I so love my profession. Yarnath was buried deep among other painful memories and I was full of vigor as I waited for the next term to begin and the new entrants to come under my protective wing.
"But you remember that, too, because by then you were already studying here and saw it all ĘC when Ossden arrived and turned us all upside down. Ossden, the shooting star, he healed me. Even though I still cringe under the weight of my personal inadequacy, just thinking of him makes me feel better. To know that I have been privileged enough to be his teacher, to see such extraordinary talent and to meet such an extraordinary person. Yes, I was in love with him; and if you try to claim that you never were, I'll laugh in your face. Everyone here was ĘC male or female, regardless of age and orientation, even those who professed to dislike or disapprove of him.
"And there was something special about the whole class, too, no doubt partly called forth by his presence that left no one cold. Working with them was a challenge, a joy, it was like making love.
"I had to stop for a while to look at the line above and wonder where it came from. That I should use such a figure of speech... because, to be quite honest, I'm not quite sure that I know what 'making love' feels like. I know I'm rambling but bear with me a little longer. And before you now shake your head and murmur that you don't believe me, I'll specify. Even though physically speaking I'm not a virgin, I can't remember any faces or names of past lovers, no feelings, no rapture nor heartbreak. Not even the very first time I had sex. This must be a sign of some flaw in me: that physical intimacy has never been important to me, not even during the supposedly most passionate years of my youth. When I try to dredge up the greatest, most emotional moments in my life, I come up with quite a few ĘC moments when a student of mine has surpassed himself and created something that truly deserves to be called Art with capital letters.
"Lucky man, you probably say now, you whose body and soul are yearning for touch, intimacy, pleasure. But wait, maybe you aren't right after all. All I've written above is true and yet, now that I'll soon be an old man ĘC much sooner than you who are sighing about your years ĘC now I, too, am being haunted by a feeling that I have identified as craving. I'm longing for something I've never had, and can't help wondering where this comes from.
"Is this some supreme joke? Is my youth only now catching up with me, some forty years too late? Have I been living through others and let other passions, mainly the passion for Art, overshadow all other feelings so long that I am now faced with just the last, melancholy flash of what might have been? Is this one of those bitter, too-late reminders before old age reaches me and dries me into a twig: 'look, you fool, you never lived'? Or, the most frightening thought of all: is my beloved Art unhappy with what I, the inadequate, have been able to give, and now wants to punish me?
"Yes, I'm rambling, but this uncertainty is my nightmare. That is why I'm bold enough to say this: take your chances while you still can! You are a man ĘC not an old man, and that's the painful difference between us. You told me that you've loved many times before, deeply but quietly. I do respect your choice and your empathy but still I ask this: how can you be sure that none of them, the men you've loved, might have cared? Perhaps you'd already have found your partner if only you'd spoken up?
"And no, I didn't know the boy is in love with you until you told me what he'd said to you. Though maybe I did have a hunch, because I wasn't too surprised to hear it. I think you and he might fit well together. Don't shut it all inside this time. Give yourself the permission to try, for once, and see what happens. Open your door a little, I don't think he'll need much of an opening to venture in even if he's so shy in some respects. Silence is not always golden, my friend."
His friend answers the door and smiles upon seeing the visitor. "Felien, how nice of you to drop by! Come on in."
Selar doesn't look nearly as tired as he did last time, Felien observes and follows the man in. There's something in Selar's carriage that hasn't been there for a while: energy, hopefulness, life. Did that long talk take place only a couple of days ago? Was it only yesterday that he dropped that letter into the mailbox?
"You didn't go to the 'Arms' tonight?"
"Didn't feel like it, when you're not there. I thought I'd rather sit here with you ĘC you won't mind even if I'm cynical and sarcastic and morose." He shoots a half-apologetic glance at his friend who frowns slightly.
"I won't mind but worried I will be, because that sort of thing has become alarmingly common with you recently, Felien," Selar says and gestures towards an armchair. "Sit down, I was just going to make tea and sandwiches for myself. I bet you could use some, too."
"Let me," Felien offers. "You're the convalescent here!"
"Rubbish. I'm better and besides, I need to reestablish my routines. I'll be working again in about two weeks, remember."
"So soon? Don't you think you ought to get some more sick leave?" Felien asks, studying his friend's regular face. Selar snorts quietly.
"Told you, I'm feeling a lot better. And I want to get back to work! Languishing at home doesn't suit me, ill or not."
So Felien just watches as Selar brews the tea, places two cups and plates and a pot of honey and some biscuits on the table, then pours tea and settles down as well.
"You look quite a lot better," he observes. "Surprisingly much, in fact, considering that it was only two days ago that I last saw you. And back then you were really down."
"The talk helped," Selar says quietly. "And your letter, too."
Felien stiffens. So stupid, really, because it would have to come up at some point.
"I've been thinking a lot about all the things you said and wrote," Selar continues, "and I've reached the conclusion that I've been a coward all my life."
"That wasn't what I meant," Felien says, hating how hoarse his voice has gone. Selar shakes his head.
"No, you didn't. But still I think so."
Selar studies the cup in his hand. It's simple and sturdy, slightly chipped near the bottom, its color something between cream and pale sand. Muted, like everything in this austere, tidy apartment. Felien looks at Selar's broad hands holding the cup, the brown sweater and rolled-up sleeves that reveal the dark hairs on his forearms. Underneath a narrow moustache Selar is smiling a little.
"I've been such a coward," he says quietly. "The saddest part of it is that I don't even know what I've been afraid of. I mean, I've been a member at The Table practically forever, everyone knows I'm gay anyway, and even though I'm now a teacher, it's not as if I'd be the first gay teacher in this university ĘC or the last."
His lips twist into a sneer. "I've had loads of friends over the years and the fingers of one hand aren't enough to count how many times I've been in love with one of them. I've watched them find each other and split up and move on and pair up again, I've been the shoulder to cry on, and never said a word. Always out of some sense of discretion ĘC because I've known that another friend has a crush on the person, or because I haven't wanted to take advantage of someone's vulnerability right after they've split up with a lover, or... well. Sorry. No need to go through it again, I already told all that."
"It's all right," Felien sighs. "You need to talk, go right ahead. You know I'll listen."
"You're being nice, but I won't make you listen while I repeat the same things over and over again," Selar says with a mirthless chuckle. "I guess I'm just trying to build up the courage to say that I've decided to take your advice. I'm not going to shy away this time. Yes, I do like him. I think I might like him a lot if I only let myself. So I'm going to find out if he truly is interested in me, and if he is ĘC well." He spreads his arms in helpless surrender. "Then I really don't know what will happen. I've never been in this kind of a situation before. I'll just have to take things as they come."
Felien wishes he could say something but realizes that he cannot even begin to formulate words that would describe how he feels at this moment. He looks at his friend's placid face and tries to understand himself. Isn't he glad to hear that Selar has decided to take his advice and grasp at an opportunity, even at the risk of heartbreak? Yes, he should be, except that all he feels is just this enormous weariness that creeps up from some dank, murky pit inside him.
He can already see Selar hand in hand with the sandy-haired young man who has been shyly but persistently trying to make the Professor of Psychology notice him and his adoring looks. Oh, there's no doubt that those two would go so well together. They'd complement each other, Felien just knows it.
He blinks but the smiling phantom beside Selar refuses to disappear and suddenly it dawns upon him. He's about to lose the best friend he's ever had, the only one he can really talk to, to a charming young man with eyes like liquid honey.
Felien gasps as the pain of loss surges over him. He has to get out, now, this very instant. He puts the cup down, observing distantly that his hands are surprisingly steady, then pushes himself up and summons an apologetic smile in reply to Selar's frown.
"Sorry," he says, a little shakily. "I just remembered something that I should've done earlier today. Must be going now. I'll drop by tomorrow, probably, or ĘC"
But he doesn't get many steps away when a hand closes around his forearm.
"Felien, we've always been honest with each other." There's a glint of steel in Selar's eyes and voice. "So why change that now, I wonder? What's the matter?"
"Let go of me," he says through gritted teeth. Selar shakes his head.
"No. Sit down. What's wrong?"
For a moment Felien thinks that he should just shut up and wring himself free. But the grip on his forearm persists and after a while he lets Selar push him back into the armchair. He feels like an over soaked sponge, his body too heavy to rise ever again.
"Come on," Selar says patiently. "Talk. It seems that I've been dwelling too much on my own misery and not noticed that you might in fact be in a worse state than I am. It's just that my body decided to protest under stress while yours is still trundling on. Goes to show which one of us is made of hardier stuff, I guess... but now, spill it. You're worrying me. What is it?"
Felien closes his eyes for a moment when a weird urge to punch Selar pierces through him. He can't remember for sure if he's ever punched anyone in his life and wonders if he'd know how to. Such absurd thoughts. Of course he won't do it and so his only defense is words, even if he's afraid they'll soon lead him to squashy ground.
"Don't pull the Professor of Psychology act on me," he grunts. "I'm merely tired and old men get grumpy when they're tired, didn't you know that?"
Selar's lips tighten.
"Old men?" he echoes. "Now there's an expression I've heard you use quite a few times since last fall, Felien. In fact, often enough to actually pay attention to it and to get worried. Why should you now, all of a sudden, start talking like that? What's made you feel that way?"
"Could fifty-four years have anything to do with it?" Felien snorts. He still doesn't want to talk but feels too exhausted to just get up and walk away. Even if that would be the only way to avoid talking right now, when Selar has that look in his eyes.
"Fifty-four isn't significantly much more than fifty-three," Selar points out. "This time last year you were a different man and at least I'm not aware that anything dramatic would've happened to make you suddenly feel a lot older. Or is there something you haven't told me? Some health trouble, maybe?"
Felien shakes his head. "Not that I know of. Haven't been to a doctor but then, there's been no reason to. No ĘC" he raises a hand before Selar gets a word in. "No shortness of breath, no chest pains or dizziness, nothing to make me feel the need to let a doctor poke at me."
"Then what?" Selar insists. "I can't believe that you'd be so gloomy these days if you felt completely all right. If it's not physical, then it's mental. It even cropped up towards the end of that letter you wrote to me, and ĘC"
Felien closes his eyes. The letter. The letter that felt so therapeutic to write at the time, but now it's rather like it has sucked him dry and left him with just the wind howling inside an empty shell. And of course Selar is right too. In a way all those things have been building up and he should feel free after expressing them. Instead, it's as if he has given them a shape and a weight so that they can come crashing down on him.
"Mental?" he says with difficulty. "Damn sure it's mental. I've been running away from my own inadequacy all my life and I'm just getting so old that it's catching up with me at last."
"That inadequacy is just something in your head!" Selar's voice drips exasperation. "Felien, how many times have I said this before and how many times do I still need to say it? Why is it that you can be at the same time critical and genuinely encouraging towards your students and yet find nothing but fault with yourself and your own work? Of course I know that wanting to do things still a bit better is a good thing, that it's essential for development ĘC but we all have to allow ourselves to be satisfied with our performance every now and then!"
Selar has risen from his chair, too agitated to sit down. "Okay, I know that especially in arts one can be a fantastic teacher without being more than a mediocre artist. And I know that you wanted to be an artist in the first place, not the damn good Principal and teacher that you've become. But honestly, Felien, I've seen your work and I swear that some far less inspiring things are being touted as masterpieces! Yet you've never exhibited because you're 'not good enough'. For goodness' sake, man, you constantly tell others that perfection is something we can never reach but that's no reason to stop striving for it. Why should you be an exception? How about practicing what you preach instead of demanding the impossible of yourself!"
Damn Selar. Felien wants to protest but no words will come out.
"Something is getting to you, my friend," Selar continues softly, sitting down once more. "And I think I know what it is: you're lonely. All right, age might have something to do with the fact that it's getting to you now. But it's not only that."
He watches Felien who stays stubbornly silent, then sighs and leans his elbows on knees.
"Think about the past year or two. Do you realize how many of your older colleagues have retired recently, people you've worked with for years? They've been replaced by fresh staff who are settling down, getting married, starting a family. All this is happening around you, you're watching it, alone like you've always been. Now you tell me that I should be bold, that I should take my chances and not let them slip past, even if it means getting disappointed in the end. And I can't help thinking that you say so because you're really feeling lonely and regret never doing something of the kind yourself?"
Something is prickling behind Felien's lids and he blinks. How can he feel so tired?
"I don't regret not doing things," he says thickly. "I regret the fact that either the chances never came to me, or I just didn't pay attention to them."
Selar pushes a cup of tea into his hands.
"I don't believe the former. I rather think that you've been too busy feeling inadequate to notice when someone would've thought you more than adequate."
"And now it's too late." Felien gulps down a mouthful of tea, never mind that it's really a bit too hot. At least there's a good reason why his eyes should tear up. "Yes, I suppose that's a good reason to start feeling old and pathetic ĘC to realize that one really is old and pathetic and all there is to look forward to is getting still older and more pathetic."
"Felien, Felien..." Selar rakes fingers through his short dark hair, eyebrows knotting. "Now I'm convinced of it. Your life has been revolving far too much around the same things for far too many years. What you need is a holiday, my friend. Have you ever had one?"
"Have I ĘC now who's the pathetic one here? Have you, a fellow teacher, already forgotten how many months it is since the end-of-year break?"
Selar smiles and his neat moustache curls up a little. "No I haven't. And I wasn't talking about holidays as in 'summer holidays' or 'year-end break'. Let me rephrase: when have you last taken time for yourself? Traveled somewhere? Relaxed properly? Thought about everything else except work?"
"You're one to talk!" Felien snorts, amused despite himself. "Here we have a man who spends one summer of his adult life out of town and immediately starts lecturing to others about the necessity of same!"
"Felien, I'm serious. You live here, a few minutes' walk from the School, all your friends and acquaintances are from the University, and I know that you go to your workplace almost every day also during holidays! Even if you love your work above everything else, don't you think that it might be wearing on you?"
"And, pray, where would I go?"
"Where I went." Selar sips his tea, eyes going softer. "In less than two months there's the summer break and it's long enough to travel even that far. Dirna is a wonderful place for relaxing, it really is, and there are people who'd be delighted to see you. Ossden and AlĘ¬eth would welcome you with open arms."
That name makes Felien's heart flutter. Of course he's no longer in love with his former star student and yet... to meet Ossden again? To see his latest works, the bronzes that have half of the country scandalized and all of it talking?
"I'll think about it."
As much as Felien hates to admit it, Selar has been almost too right.
It's now a week since he arrived here and took lodgings in a small, quaint hotel by a narrow street. Since then he's mostly just walked around and gaped, marveled at the sun pouring on streets and parks, the hordes of beautiful people strolling about, the light and the breeze and the sea. Everything is so different from the quiet, scholarly charm of Siriash, and somehow he's finding it easier to deal with his demons.
So odd that it should be so. Shouldn't he be depressed, feel the weight of his years, all alone in the middle of this riot of youth? But then, it's not only young people he can see basking in the warmth and seeking entertainment, and his loneliness has a different taste here. It lends the whole experience a surreal tinge. He's just another tourist whom no one knows, he can walk about nameless and faceless, watching and listening and smelling and feeling. The very air is shivering with life and somehow it has coaxed his mind to peek outside its abyss of cynicism and self-loathing.
Felien has promised to visit his acquaintances here but isn't it good that he hasn't told them exactly when he'd arrive? Sure he'll seek them out soon, but first he wants to explore the city on his own. He wants to see what the place is like, to see it undiluted, not colored by someone else's opinions and likes and dislikes. Of course his friends expect that he'd stay with them, and maybe he will do that, too. A bit later.
Right now, though, he wants to be a nobody. An outsider who's just dropped in. Someone who can simply walk into a small restaurant or cafeüL, find a table, order something small to pass the time with and then sit and watch and listen. A tall, cold cider will be just the thing to enjoy while listening to the city that lives around him and waiting to see what it decides to throw his way today.
A shadow passes over him.
The voice is a shock and so is the face. Rather narrow, with a slightly curved nose and determined eyebrows, twinkling eyes, fair brown hair.
"Is this seat free?"
He can only nod and the apparition slides into the seat opposite to him, smiling.
"I hope you don't mind my intruding like this, sir, but... I saw you across the place and thought you look interesting."
"What ĘC what are you talking about?"
Now Felien is confused. As if they hadn't met before, him and the young man who's right now folding his hands on the edge of the table? And they have, that he knows for sure. He's seen that face numerous times in 'Carmine Arms'.
The young man has only arrived in Siriash the previous autumn but he's as much a fixture in their small society at The Table as Felien himself. How many times have they both been involved in discussions on history and art and philosophy and wine, and on whether or not to go to the market in the mornings and why the wind always seems colder when coming from the west. They've dined in the same company, argued and talked, a few times even walked part of the way home together. Felien has the eye for faces and he knows that he's looking at Zameron the music student.
So what's going on?
A charming smile accompanies the plea but Felien shakes his head.
"Zameron, what's this? Why do you pretend that you don't know me and how are you here in the first place?"
"Master Felien, of course I know you." The young man looks at him intently. "But won't you humor me a little, please, and pretend that we've never met before?"
Felien just stares at the young man, feeling foolish.
"Because I ask you to." The expression is disarming. "You're on holiday, I'm on holiday, and right now I'd like to play a little game. You just need to play along. Please?"
"What do you want me to do?" Felien asks, suddenly out of breath. His mouth has gone dry but he hasn't had time to order anything yet.
There's a small dimple on Zameron's cheek that Felien has never noticed before.
"First of all, let's start once more from the beginning. So. I've just sat down here and told you that I hope you don't mind my coming to talk to you but you see, I saw you across the place and thought you look interesting."
The air is warm and caressing and somehow the restaurant around them seems to fade out ever so slightly.
"Interesting?" Felien says mildly. "What can be so interesting about an old fellow like me?"
"Old?" Zameron's eyebrow arches up. "Well, granted, you're older than me. But why couldn't I be fascinated by someone who's seen more than I have and has more experience and wisdom?"
"Age is no guarantee of experience or wisdom." Felien can't help the tinge of sarcasm that creeps into his voice. "I might even say that youth has more wisdom than old age, because it wants to explore and experience. Old age can only point out all the things one hasn't done, all the experiences one hasn't grasped when there was still time."
"You're being awfully pessimistic," Zameron scolds him. "Even if one lifetime isn't enough to get everything one wants, it's never too late to try something new! Why waste time in regrets?"
That is a challenge. Felien wants to avoid it. Already he's feeling dizzy at the direction this conversation seems to be headed.
"But I'm wondering who is this young man who poses such difficult questions," he evades. "Such interest makes me puzzled and curious."
"My name is Zameron and I study music at the Siriash University's Conservatory." Now Zameron is smiling again, a furtive smile. "And I can't help thinking that you, sir, look awfully familiar."
"Well, you just might have seen me before. I'm Master Felien, Principal of the School of Visual Arts in Siriash." Felien nods his head as if in greeting and wonders at himself, because he's actually beginning to enjoy this game. What is this, hide and seek? Truth or dare? Make believe? "And if you're like everyone else in Siriash and frequent the 'Carmine Arms', you probably have seen me."
Zameron snaps his fingers and grins. "But of course! In fact I think I've seen you quite a few times. Very often having lunch or dinner, which probably means that you're a bachelor without any special keenness for cooking?"
"Very astute," Felien says, "and absolutely correct, too."
"One point to me then. And how lucky that we should meet again!"
The young man sits back in his chair and a waiter who's been hovering nearby, not wanting to interrupt what has looked like an intense discussion, immediately approaches their table to inquire if they'd wish to see the menu.
Zameron makes up his mind within moments but Felien takes his time to decide. At least the list of dishes gives him something to look at, other than the eyes across the table. For a reason he cannot fathom, they make his breath catch. Shouldn't he be irritated? Fuming, because his solitude and anonymity have been breached? Maybe so, but the fact is that he's more intrigued than anything else. What is this silly game Zameron insists on playing?
Their drinks arrive within moments; the food doesn't take much longer. Felien wants to ask many things but somehow he never gets as far as actually forming the questions, Zameron sees to that. They talk and talk but this is not Siriash, not the place for serious discussion, and they never drift very far in that direction before Felien's companion steers them away from such possibly rocky waters by his chattering.
When has Felien arrived in Dirna? And what has he already seen, been to the Gallery, no doubt... no? Ah, then he's saving it till later, or maybe he hasn't wanted to go anywhere near places that might tempt him to think of work! As to Zameron, Felien is curious to know what has brought him here. A student so far on summer holidays, surely he must have family living here ĘC but no, nothing of the sort. Nor has Zameron received a sudden inheritance either, the young man denies it vehemently. He's not quite sure how he's managed to scrape together the money for the trip but he's had something important to do, someone to meet here. So he's done it anyway and here he is.
At this point Zameron's smile is so mysterious that Felien feels the need to quickly change the topic. So they start talking about all the things one can do here, in this holiday city par excellence, and it soon transpires that neither of them has any special plans. Then why not explore the place together, as the two tourists they are? And Felien finds himself smiling and agreeing.
Their empty plates are taken away and the table is cleared but they've ordered fresh drinks and forgotten about the time. Zameron tells Felien about his journey here, his adventures in crowded coaches and packed inns, and his laughter makes Felien forget that he really ought to feel guilty because he's been able to afford the more expensive fares and the comfort they've brought. But the story is so funny, Zameron makes all the tribulations sound like one long party. It reminds Felien of the journeys he's made with his family, eons ago, oh those wonderful summers of his childhood and youth.
Zameron's eyebrows jump when Felien mentions one incident involving the bridge over River Cyll, the one they always had to cross on their way to the grandparents' estate. What ĘC is Felien from somewhere around there? Zameron has lived in the area, too, with his older cousin who works in one of the small towns there and was kind enough to give him lodgings when his plans for the future caused a minor falling-out with the immediate family...
The afternoon customers have already left and diners are arriving when the two men sitting by their small table finally realize that somehow the day has turned into evening. They get up, take their jackets from where they've been draped over the backs of their chairs, and stroll out, still talking. Felien feels proud of himself when they are standing at the entrance to his hotel and he hasn't once dug the map from his pocket. Zameron sighs.
"Mine is nearly a mile away," he says. "Do you mind if I ask whether they'd have any rooms here? I promise I won't be hanging after you all the time, but it'd be so nice to ĘC"
"Why would I mind?" Felien means it, even though he wonders at it a little; just a few hours ago he was so happy to be here on his own. But it feels nice to think that if he wants to have someone to talk to, there'd be Zameron close by, at the same hotel. A stranger just like him, not too close a friend. Almost like a casual acquaintance, something to strike up on a holiday.
Some time later he's undressing in his room, folding clothes neatly on a chair. Zameron is gone but there's going to be a room free in about a week and he's reserved it. Felien's eyes meet the dressing mirror on the wall and he stops to look at himself, hands frozen in the middle of unbuttoning the shirt. He frowns as he sees the smile that's still hovering on his lips. Smiling? Him?
His hair looks slightly limp. He's let it grow a little longer and the evening breeze has been surprisingly damp; maybe there'll be rain during the night. Felien studies his own face in the mirror. There are the familiar lines and the eyes are still deep and somewhat weary but that stubborn ghost of a smile just lingers even though he tries to make it disappear.
Felien cannot help groaning as he sinks into an armchair. His legs are burning with fatigue and he looks at Zameron who has fallen face down across the bed. Felien's bed.
Zameron rests his chin on crossed wrists.
"Thank you for letting me come here for a while," he grins. "I'll be all right in a while, I promise. But right now you're a lifesaver."
Felien smiles. "Do you think we might have overdone it a bit today? Bitten off more than we can swallow?"
"You just might be right," Zameron concedes and rolls on his back, throws his arms wide open and sighs. "Any idea how many miles we have walked today?"
"None," Felien admits kicking his shoes off. "And please don't try to figure it out. I don't think I want to know."
Zameron laughs, a rolling chuckle that makes his whole body shake. "Your fault. I have such a good time that I forget everything else."
Felien falls silent. This is not the first time that this strange feeling fills him but it seems to be getting stronger every time. It almost feels bad because his chest goes tight and it gets a little difficult to breathe, nearly painful and yet not quite. That's why it's only almost bad. He swallows and the tightness eases but he can't think of anything to say.
So he just looks at Zameron's head and observes that the topmost hairs seem to have taken some bleaching from the sun. Surely he must be imagining. It can't happen that quickly. Zameron has told him that he's arrived three days after Felien and this is now the fifth full day they've spent together.
Every morning Zameron walks here to appear just when Felien is finishing his breakfast, and for a moment they sit together, sipping tea over a city map spread on the table between them. Then they head out and spend the day somewhere or the other. They've been to the City Gallery and to innumerable smaller shops and galleries, to museums, to cafeüLs and restaurants, to parks and outdoor concerts. They have walked and walked, gaped and pointed out strange and interesting and beautiful things to each other, chatted a lot. They've let the days roll past.
Has it really been only five days? Five days of sun, smiles, beauty all around, comfortable silence, being away from everything. Five days totally unlike any that Felien has ever experienced ĘC or maybe he has. There must be a reason why he has thought so much of those shimmering summer days when he was still a young boy and all summers were sunny, it never rained and every day was a new adventure. No dark clouds, no pain, no disappointments. Just the endless light.
Felien looks at Zameron, sprawled on his back on the bed. Shouldn't he feel resentful at the young man because Zameron reminds him of Siriash, of the University and everyday work and 'Carmine Arms' and life as usual?
But then, does he really? Zameron is just a link to reality, a reminder that this is not a whole different universe. It's not as if Felien had really known him before this. He's known the basic things: Zameron is some years over twenty, studies music, plays several instruments, likes reading and dry white wine and olive-green color. It's not as if he could claim to know many more actual facts by now, but still he feels oddly comfortable. Zameron is not following him around like a puppy dog. They walk about side by side, now leading, now following.
Zameron tilts his head back and looks at Felien upside down, hair sticking out in every direction.
"Just tell me if you want me to disappear," he says.
"I can go to the balcony if you want to change or have a shower or something."
"You're not disturbing me," Felien tells him. "Please don't go yet. We could go dine in that little place ĘC what was its name? The one three blocks towards your hotel."
"The one with yummy seafood," Zameron agrees. He's smiling broadly, wriggling closer to the edge of the bed so that he can hang his head over it. Felien's breath catches as he watches how Zameron's shirt stretches taut over his chest and hitches up from the waistband of his shorts to reveal his stomach. The bare legs are tanned, and Felien can see the pale stripes left by sandals on the insteps of Zameron's feet.
"Felien." Zameron turns back on his stomach, pushes himself up on elbows.
Felien can't help laughing when Zameron slithers off the bed like a lizard, walks with his hands on the floor pulling his legs behind and then crawls on all fours. His chuckle sticks to his throat when Zameron puts hands on his knees and comes closer. Shuffles forward to kneel between Felien's legs. Looks into his eyes.
"Felien," he says again, softly, and raises a hand to bury his fingers into Felien's hair. The touch is light and slow but it jolts Felien. Zameron smiles.
"What are you doing?" Felien's voice has gone hoarse.
Zameron's face is closer now.
"What do you think?"
Their lips meet.
It's contemplative and exploring and very very slow. Zameron takes his time, his hands ghost to touch Felien's face and sink into his hair, the arms wrap tighter and the body presses closer. Felien is telling himself to back off but it feels just too good to let go quite yet and so his arms slink to embrace Zameron as he lets himself be kissed. Eyes closed he listens to the kiss, tastes it, feels it, wonders at the hundreds of things that flit through his mind. Memories. Doubts. Uncertainties. Questions.
When Zameron pulls back enough to look at him, Felien is panting a little and suddenly tears well up in his eyes.
"Don't," he says.
"Why not?" Zameron won't let go, his arms tighten around Felien and their bodies touch all the way, from hips to chest. "You liked it."
"Still you shouldn't."
Zameron shakes his head, kisses Felien again, lets his thumb brush just under Felien's eye.
"I'm old enough to be your father," Felien says.
"But you're not my father."
"I'm a teacher, you're a student!"
"Not my teacher, so that excuse won't work either." Zameron presses closer still. "And if you now tell me you didn't like it, I tell you that I don't believe you."
Felien cannot deny that. And yet...
"You can't possibly find me attractive!" Felien huffs, even though what he's feeling through the cloth, against his lower belly, seems to suggest that he just might be wrong.
"Why not?" Zameron tilts his head. "Do you mean to say that you don't find any men of your age attractive?"
"No, it's not different. If you can fancy someone your age, why couldn't I?"
Felien opens his mouth, then closes it again before a moan escapes; the moan caused by Zameron's hips rocking gently against him. Good gods. "But it is different," he gasps. "Don't you think ĘC"
"Felien!" Zameron grabs Felien's head between his hands and looks him sternly in the eye, frowning. "Do you know what your problem is? You think too much. Way too much. Please stop thinking for a while, will you?"
Their foreheads press together, Zameron's fingers tighten just a little and warm breath washes over Felien's lips in waves that make his whole body tingle.
"Now listen to me. Ever since I met you for the first time, last fall, I've wanted to get to know you. Very soon after that I wanted to be your lover. I've done my damnedest to catch your attention without making myself utterly ridiculous but you never seemed to notice me. When I heard that you're coming here for the summer, I thought that I'd make one last attempt. I've got my pride too, you know, and I figured that even if I do something desperate here and you reject me, at least I could lick my wounds in secret because there'd be nobody around to tell the tale back in Siriash. So I put together every penny I had and followed you here."
This is too bizarre. This is not really happening.
"You didn't even know which hotel I'd stay in," Felien protests.
"No." Zameron nods. "That's why I was haunting the tourist spots like a possessed spirit, hoping to bump into you. My plan was that if I didn't get lucky within a couple of weeks, I'd be brave and seek out Ossden. I knew you'd go to meet him while you're here and I was sure he'd be famous enough to be easy to find."
All this is just too much to comprehend and Felien slowly shakes his head, but Zameron is done waiting. He lets out an impatient grunt and molds his body to Felien's. His tongue is demanding and slick, he gnaws on Felien's lips and sucks them, and when Felien gives in he hums in the back of his throat. Like no one Felien has ever kissed before.
Zameron's skin is warm and a little damp as Felien's hand pulls the rest of the shirt out of his shorts and then wanders higher, up along the spine and flat muscle. He hears Zameron's groan, feels the hardness grinding against his own. There's too much cloth in between, too much uncomfortable and chafing cloth, too many folds, and his fingers are shaking as they fumble for buttons and try to open them all at the same time.
Another hand snakes in to help, Felien moans into the kiss as those other fingers close around his cock and he feels how Zameron's erection leaps into his hand. Something pops, a button probably, but he just sucks the poking tongue deeper and pushes his hips forward, panting for air. And the kiss just goes on and on.
Zameron growls as he shuffles further away to wriggle out of his shorts, kicks them away and is about to plunge his face into Felien's lap, but Felien shakes his head and pulls Zameron up for another kiss. He wants to nuzzle that face, taste the mouth, hear the moans and know that it's really Zameron with him, Zameron tugging and stroking him with sure fingers, Zameron who grinds against him and pushes into his hand, hips jerking.
Fingers dig into Felien's hip, Zameron breaks the kiss to nip and bite on his shoulder and ear, and for some reason that does it, that does Felien in. He comes with a shudder, arms and legs clutching Zameron tight, buries his face into the crumpled, sweaty shirt and nearly sobs at the spasms that rack his body.
But Zameron is still hard, even harder than before, and he swears when Felien's trembling fingers enclose his prick into a tight caress. Zameron rocks into the pumping fist, gasps something unintelligible, and Felien laughs breathlessly. He lets his thumb brush over the slick head of that young, eager cock, it teases another groan out of Zameron and his fingers tickle the matted hairs around the base. How soft is the skin of the tender sac behind it. Zameron's breath hisses, he's swearing quietly now, yes, fuck, yes, his body arches in Felien's grip and then he spurts white come all over them both.
Laughter bubbles out of Felien as he feels the tension and release, feels how Zameron slowly collapses to rest in his lap. He's heavy and hot and sweaty and sticky and so alive that a lump fills Felien's throat. He just strokes that short hair with a come-slicked hand and tries to breathe while Zameron pushes his half-open shirt aside with sated hands, flattens a palm on his chest and lets his lips close around Felien's small hard nipple. Zameron is smiling, Felien can feel it.
He blinks a little.
The hotel room.
The armchair. Himself almost lying in it. Zameron sprawled over him.
The sun is setting outside.
"Zameron," he whispers.
The head resting on his chest rises just enough to prop a chin on his breastbone.
"I'm staying the night," Zameron states. "Got to rinse this shirt, for one thing."
Felien smiles. "Aren't you hungry?"
"Do you think I can go anywhere to dine like this?"
Zameron's lips begin to twitch and Felien feels a stupid grin spread on his face.
"No," he says. "But I could change and get us something to eat while you wash your shirt."
"And maybe tidy up here a bit," Zameron murmurs. "Damn good idea."
He picks up his shorts from the floor, ass so white over tanned legs, then pulls Felien up from the armchair. Felien's legs are unsteady as he steps out of the crumpled trousers and goes to the bathroom to wash. He doesn't look into the mirror.
Only three blocks to the little restaurant. Yes, sure they sell takeaway, so Felien waits while a waiter packs a clay pot inside a hay-stuffed basket and fills it with steaming shrimp casserole. He focuses only on the immediate moment: the walk, houses lining the street, the food and the cider bottle he's carrying. By the time he reaches the door to his room once more, his heart is thumping so hard that his chest hurts.
When the door opens, Zameron glances up from where he's sitting in the other armchair, bent over something.
"I borrowed a pair of shorts from you." He points at himself. "Had to go and get some forks from downstairs, you know. The table is ready."
He's pushed the small table next to the open balcony door and the armchairs next to it. The night air is whispering quietly outside; they can almost imagine they're eating out.
Something warm swells inside Felien; he smiles at the grinning young man and puts the basket on the table. "What're you doing, though?"
"Sewing. You popped two buttons from my shorts."
"Where did you find the thread and needle?"
"Downstairs as well." Zameron bites the thread and sighs. "Now I can go wash them."
"You could've washed them first and sewed the buttons once they're dry," Felien points out.
Zameron shrugs. "Didn't come to think of that. Oh and by the way, I'll sit in this armchair. Just so you know."
"Because it's wet. I had to scrub it a bit." Zameron grins and purses his lips. "I stained it, I suffer the consequences."
He disappears into the bathroom and soon there's the sound of running water.
Felien sits down and closes his eyes for a moment. No thinking, he tells himself. Just this moment. This moment, when everything is natural and self-evident and exactly as it should be. There's no need to ponder about why and wherefore and what if.
Zameron is right. He tends to think way too much.
The wind is harder today, it tousles their hair as they exit from the front door and walk down the stairs to the street. They've slept late, had a leisurely breakfast, and now they're ready to face a new day. Zameron glances at Felien and they share a smile.
One night, and Felien just nodded when Zameron asked if they could share the room. So they fetched Zameron's scant luggage from his hotel and canceled the extra room booking ĘC Felien's room is double anyway and the bed is definitely big enough for the two of them, especially as they barely use one half of it in any case.
Oh, the nights are too hot to sleep skin to skin but there's nothing to say they couldn't be close to each other, bodies touching here and there. Fingers resting on a wrist, forehead on a shoulder, knee brushing against thigh. Feeling the closeness, hearing each other's breath, smelling the warmth of skin, even when they aren't clasping each other tight and moaning into a greedy kiss.
Two nights, and Felien has woken up into the dizzying realization that he's not alone. He remembers being aware of it even before fully awake, before he opened his eyes and saw the sleeping face on the pillow beside his. This morning he has spent a long while just looking at Zameron and savoring the strange feeling that fills him. It's a mixture of wonder, disbelief, gratitude and fear, but he has decided not to analyze it. This is something to be enjoyed now, right now, without the burden of questions or labels or expectations or promises.
Felien frowns a little, his hand moves towards the pocket where he's put the map but he purses his lips and forces it back to his side.
"To the left," he says. "The park is that way."
Zameron nods, and he adds: "I think."
"Let's go then."
Zameron's hand slides into Felien's and squeezes a little. As if it were the most natural thing in the world that he and Felien should walk down the street, holding hands. As if it were the most natural thing that a young man like him should ĘC
Felien's eyes narrow slightly and his arm wraps loosely around Zameron's waist. Zameron glances at him sideways and smiles, presses closer, and suddenly Felien wants very much to kiss that dimple.
So he does it: stops and turns, puts both hands on Zameron's hips and kisses his cheek.
"Mmmm..." Their lips glide together. It tastes tangy and sweet at the same time and Felien squeezes a little tighter.
Just this one day at a time.