Mist rose from the surface of the endless lakes and rivers of the deep north woods like the breath of water spirits. Golden sunlight poured across the land, lancing through the mist and turning the red and orange leaves of autumn trees into stained glass.
Wortako, Nikolai’s black and white piebald horse, picked his way carefully through the trees, ears swiveling to catch every sound. It had been love at first sight between the giant horse and the lost boy. Nikolai spent almost as much time braiding blaze orange ribbons into Wortako’s ridiculously long mane as he had braiding Alexei’s ridiculously long hair. If Nikolai did ever see the kid again, he was going to put some ribbons in his hair. And a tracking device in his ass.
Nikolai breath streamed in the cold air. It was one of those days where everything reminded him of Alexei. In other words, a day like every other day.
Wortako stepped into a small clearing and stopped. Behind him, the pack horse snorted and stomped her feet.
Nikolai sited across the clearing with a scope, scanning the edges of the open space, adjusting the angle of the scope as the sun moved through the sky and the shadows around him shifted.
“What do you think, Mule? This look good?” Mulevi, the shaggy wolfhound sitting regally by his knee, raised his head and thumped his tail on the ground. “Good answer.” Nikolai reached behind him and pulled a deadly-looking compound bow around to the front of the saddle.
A year ago, when Cookie had decided to teach Nikolai how to hunt with a bow, Nikolai had imagined he’d be walking around with a bow and quiver slung over his shoulder like Robin Hood. The black composite contraption he carried, with its optical site, aircraft grade aluminum, and multiple strings, bore as much relation to that bow as an AK-47 did to a musket. Nikolai loved it.
Nocking a metal arrow, Nikolai nudged the horse forward with a squeeze of his thighs. Mulevi followed, feet making no sound on the mulch of fallen leaves. A small herd of deer grazed on the late autumn grasses. Silently Nikolai raised the bow, arms steady.
As he pulled back on the string, a red hot ball of fire streaked through the sky. Deer scattered as the meteor plowed through the trees knocking them over like tinker toys before crashing into the forest behind them.
Wortako didn’t flinch.
Nikolai’s gaze followed the path in the sky back to where the comet had come from. The atmosphere shimmered around a hole in the sky that was too close for comfort to where Nikolai sat. Way too close. Squinting through the scope, he saw nothing but blackness scattered with pinpoints of lights like stars in the Milky Way.
“Mother of god,” Nikolai cursed as something human-shaped, riding on the back of an enormous elk-like beast, exploded from the hole. Hurricane-level winds screamed from the portal, knocking the thing off its mount in midair. The wind followed along the path of the meteor, buffeting Nikolai and almost unseating him.
A second rider followed the first.
Barking loudly, Mulevi ran towards the impact site.
Nikolai had other things to worry about. The guy on the ground had pulled himself together and, if Nikolai was reading alien facial expressions right, he was pissed off. The creature leaped to his feet, pulling out a sword that looked like two feet of polished steel. That said pissed in any language.
Nikolai had the bow up and sighted before the guy took two steps. He released the string, and on the third step, the armed guy crashed to the ground, a metal arrow through his chest.
The two misshapen elk-like creatures landed. Metallic antlers glinting in the sun, they bugling their challenge at Wortako. Their riders were human-shaped, armored, and angry.
The arrow Nikolai shot at the closest one flew wide as Wortako reared up with a war cry. “Fuck.” Nikolai scrambled for a grip with thighs and hands.
The portal closed.
One elk-thing leaped at Nikolai, too close to shoot. The bow hung uselessly across his chest, blocking his movement, string and pulleys banging against him. All he could he do was hold on as Wortako slashed out with his hooves at the animal.
“Nikolai, duck!” a voice yelled from behind him.
A sword swung above his head, and he ducked, the breeze from its passage ruffling his hair.
He knew that voice. Impossible. He gripped Wortako’s mane tighter as Mulevi streaked past him, leaping up and latching on to the neck of the hell-beast trying to impale Nikolai on its horns.
He bent down, fingers tangled in the horse’s mane as a blast of wind washed around him from behind. It shoved the riders off the beasts and slammed them against trees and into the ground, dragging them like rag dolls through the woods. As the wind died, Nikolai notched another arrow, waiting, hand steady by his cheek. When dust and leaves settled, he caught a glimpse of metal, a flash of clothing, and he took the shot, bringing the creature down. Turning in the saddle, he fired again, killing the beast the dog hadn’t taken down.
In the aftermath, the only sound was his harsh breathing and the light scuffle of feet on the trail behind him. Nikolai was more afraid to turn and see what was behind him than he had been of the attack from the sky. Every muscle in his back tensed. Wortako shifted under the pressure of his thighs.
“Nikolai,” Alexei said softly.
Because of course it was Alexei. Who else would it be?
Alexei woke to the sight of Nikolai decapitating the beasts with a giant knife. Alexei shivered as he watched Nikolai butcher the animals, even though Nikolai had bundled him in a heavy coat. He reached for the blaze-orange baseball cap sitting awkwardly on his head.
Nikolai grabbed his hand. “Leave it on. Last thing I need is some hunter taking you out before I get the chance to kill you.”
Alexei lowered his hand.
Cutting the heads off the elk-things took an hour. Convincing Patsy to carry them took almost as long.
The sturdy packhorse had no problem with deer or even a small elk, but she’d balked at the strange animals. Eyes wide and ringed with white, she’d tossed her head and pulled hard against the tie down. Nikolai had bribed her with sugar cubes and apples before she would let him tie the bloody canvas bags to her packs.
Nikolai couldn’t blame her. He didn’t like those things any more than she did, but no way was he leaving those heads around for someone else to find. The bodies were near enough to normal that they wouldn’t raise suspicion. He hoped.
The extra load on Patsy forced them to travel slowly. Wortako didn’t even register the extra weight of Alexei. He picked his way through the woods as gracefully as a ballerina, as if he knew he carried precious cargo. He probably did. Nikolai believed Wortako could read his mind, and the only reason he didn’t talk was because he didn’t want to. He and Mulevi probably talked about Nikolai behind his back at night. Probably called him an idiot and other, less, flattering names
It was late afternoon by the time they drew to a stop in front of a tiny roughed-in cabin. The sunset light streaming through the tight press of trees picked out a wood pile tucked under a tarp against the side of the cabin.
Alexei stirred against Nikolai’s chest. The feel of Alexei’s body against his, warm and alive even if only semi-conscious, settled something deep inside of him. He should be freaked out, frightened, confused. And he would be. Later.
He carried Alexei into the small room, laying him on the bed, then stirred the banked fire back to life. “I’ll be right back. Stay there.” Not that Alexei looked in any condition to be going anywhere.
The last light of the setting sun touched the tops of the trees, and dark shadows crawled across the ground as Nikolai settled the horses and dealt with the gory heads.
Inside the cabin, red light from the fire threw flickering shadows on the walls.
Alexei pushed himself up on the bed. “Hey.”
Nikolai hesitated in the doorway, eyes searching the cabin as he avoided meeting Alexei’s gaze. There wasn’t much to see, a bed of rough timber. A chair in front of a small stone fireplace and some five-gallon water bottles. Nikolai didn’t stay here much. It was just a place to sleep when hunting had taken him far afield and he couldn’t make it home.
“Hey.” Nikolai’s hands gripped the doorway. “I know it’s a cliché, but I gotta say it, man. Is it really you, bratiska?”
“Yeah, it’s really me.” Alexei threw off the blankets and swung his feet over the edge. “Nikolai. Please. Come here.”
Though tears blurred his vision, and he wanted to run over and grab his brother up in his arms, or fall to his knees, lay his head on Alexei’s lap and cry, Nikolai’s feet stayed nailed to the floor. Questions and accusations fought for expression in his mind. What forced its way to the forefront was pain; the pain of a child abandoned first by his mother and then by his beloved. “You left. I woke up, and you were gone.”
“I know. I’m so sorry.” Alexei leaned forward, elbows on his knees, hair curtaining his face. “I left a note.”
The banality of the excuse forced a laugh out of Nikolai. Shaking his head, he walked into the room, letting the door bang closed behind him. Alexei sounded liked a six-year-old trying to get out of trouble.
Nikolai took off his coat as he walked, tossing it over the back of the chair. He sat on the bed next to Alexei, his back against the wall.
Alexei leaned tentatively towards him as if he wasn’t sure what was allowed now.
“Dilo.” Nikolai reached out and pulled Alexei against this side. “Idiot,” he repeated, closing his eyes and leaning his cheek against Alexei’s head. “Oh, god.” Something in him that had been incomplete filled up and he breathed deeply for the first time since he woke up alone two and a half years ago.
Breath somewhere between a gasp and a sob, Alexei grabbed the front of Nikolai’s shirt, and Nikolai carded his fingers through the tangled strands of Alexei’s hair like he’d done a million times before. “It’s okay. It’s okay. You’re here.” Tears slid silently down his own face as he let Alexei cry.
After Alexei’s sobbing had eased into regular breathing, Nikolai gave Alexei’s hair a tug. “Did they not have combs wherever you were?”
“It never stays when I do it.” Alexei sat up and wiped his eyes. “Sorry.”
“For what? Having bad hair?”
“For everything. For leaving.”
Nikolai pulled Alexei against him again, absentmindedly rubbing his hand up and down Alexei’s arm. He stared blankly at the wall, trying to figure out which of the million questions swirling around in his head he should ask first. Then he remembered the strange beasts hanging outside the cabin. “Okay. First things first. Is anything else going to come plunging from some X-Files space portal and try to kill me?”
Alexei hesitated, thinking. “I don’t think so. And think more Lord of the Rings, less X-Files.”
“Comforting.” Nikolai rubbed his face roughly with his hands. “Second question. What the fuck were those things?”
“Soldiers. Trying to stop me. To take me back.”
“Take you back to where, exactly?”
“You’re not going to believe me.”
“Try me. I just watched you fall from the sky in a comet and killed a freaky guy riding on a demon-elk. I’m kind of in a believing state of mind right now.”
“They come from somewhere else. From the…the fairies. From the Fae. From where they live.”
“Oh. Huh. I always thought of fairies as more, you know,” he shaped a curvy figure in the air with his free hand. “Sparkly. Less kill-y.”
“They have that kind, too,” Alexei said, his face pressed against Nikolai’s shoulder.
Feeling Alexei’s body against him, feeling his breath on the thin skin of his neck wasn’t helping Nikolai think at all. He knew he should be demanding answers, but the ever-present churning in his gut was stilled for the first time in forever, and he couldn’t bring himself to care. Maybe he was in shock. He wondered if Alexei was too. He dragged the blanket up over them both, just in case. “We should eat.”
Alexei lifted his head, looked up at him. “Kolya.” His mouth was so close to Nikolai’s.
Nikolai dropped his head down, meeting his lips.
And a circuit closed.
His fingers clenched around Alexei, lifting him easily to his lap, never breaking the kiss. Then his hands were in Alexei’s hair, and Alexei was breathing his name into his mouth between kisses, saying it like he might never get the chance again.
There were so many reasons they shouldn’t do this; so many things they needed to talk about. He probably should tell someone about that hole in the sky spitting out pissed-off armed fairies. But then Alexei put his hands under Nikolai’s shirt and his mouth on his neck, and Nikolai couldn’t care about anything else.
Alexei ran his hands over Nikolai’s skin as they laid on the small bed. The night wasn’t quite cold enough for the fire they had going, but neither of them wanted to put it out. They needed that sense of security the flickering red light brought, the one the cavemen had felt when they’d huddled around the fire, safe from the monsters of the night. Fire wouldn’t stop the monsters that were after them; it made him feel better nonetheless. The way the firelight made the new tattoos on Nikolai’s sweat-slicked skin shimmer also made him feel even better. Nikolai’s shirt revealed the images a sliver at a time as Alexei slid it over his head.
A stag stretched across Nikolai’s chest; its many-pointed antlers reaching up to his collarbones, its dark eyes staring straight out at the world. Exquisitely detailed, the stark black and gray lines of his tattoos contrasted with his white skin. Words of power in Latin and Greek curled around his wrists, amulets of protection covered his ribs and hipbone, and an elaborate curved horn ran down one arm.
Alexei traced the images with fingertips and lips, a shiver of dread like ice lodging under his ribs.
“Do they bother you?”
“No. They’re beautiful.” He traced the words around one wrist. “Why these?”
Nikolai rolled to his stomach, pillowing his head on his hands, so Alexei could continue his journey. A half-finished tree, all sharp angles and Celtic knots, stretched from his shoulder blades to the small of his back waiting for the artist’s needles to complete it. Two birds sat in the tree, one on each side.
“I don’t know. I saw some of them in my dreams.” He slid his hand under his body, touching the image of the deer there. “The stag, mostly. I see it a lot.” He turned his head to Alexei and smiled. Alexei leaned down to kiss him, and he tugged on Alexei’s hand, pulling him on top of him as he rolled to his back.
Pressed together chest to thigh, Nikolai’s heartbeat pounded against him, and his heart started to beat in the same rhythm.
If they did this, Alexei might as well draw a map to where they hid. But no power on this plane or any other could keep them apart right now. Gathering his energy, he pushed his magic out, the way he had re-learned, and a small breeze slid across the room. Controlling the wind was harder on this plane, much harder than he’d expected. He fought harder, he had to do it, had to give them what small protections he could. Painstakingly, he wove the web of air around them, hiding them from searching eyes.
The breeze swooped and swirled around them, Alexei’s hair blowing gently in the currents of air. Nikolai rolled them over, and Alexei gasped, running his hands down Nikolai’s back. Goosebumps rose up on Nikolai’s skin as Alexei’s hands traced a path down the muscles that were stronger and more defined than he remembered from their last time together. How long ago had that been for Nikolai?
Nikolai moved against him, hard length pressing into Alexei’s body. Being with Nikolai in this way wasn’t all he had missed, not even close, but, oh, how he had missed the feel of him. With Nikolai on top of him, he felt safer, hidden, but he knew better that to succumb to that illusion. So, he pulled the strands of air more tightly around them. It’s so much harder on Earth than in fairy. Over and under he wove, his panting breaths and Nikolai’s whispered words the warp and weft of the blanket of air he was surrounding them with. No one could see them now. For just a little bit, for this small space of time.
He cried out as Nikolai bit at the thin skin of his neck and slipped his hand around the back of Alexei’s thigh, spreading his legs and settling himself in the cradle of his hips.
“God,” Alexei breathed. He wrapped his legs around Nikolai, begging for closer, for more, with his body and his words. He needed Nikolai in him in all ways. Needed to be more tightly anchored to this plane. His connection felt tenuous, physicality hard to hold on to. He was fighting the urge to find the currents of the sky. Nikolai grounded him, made him real. “Please, Kolya. I need you. Please.”
Nikolai dropped his head to Alexei’s shoulder, heart thumping hard. Warm breath curled over Alexei’s skin. Nikolai crashed against Alexei like the surf onto the sand. “Lyosha, love. We can’t. I don’t want to hurt you.”
“I need it, please. Please.” He dragged his hands down Nikolai’s back, gathering the sweat that pooled in the dip of his back. He slid his hand around the curve of Nikolai’s ass, feeling the strength of the muscles there. “I don’t care. I don’t care. We’ll go slow; we’ll be careful.”
Nikolai groaned like he was dying, thrusting against Alexei. “God, you…you’re…”
Alexei drew two of Nikolai’s fingers into his mouth, Nikolai’s breath catching in his throat.
It did hurt. They were slow and careful, but sweat and spit and tears and come could only do so much. Alexei cried out as Nikolai pushed in.
Nikolai’s grip on his thigh tightened. “Jesus. I could…I could stop.” He stilled, throbbing inside of Alexei.
“No don’t, don’t.” Alexei’s fingertips dug bruises into Nikolai’s skin.
The air in the cabin under the protection Alexei had woven was heavy and hot with sweat and their scent. The room glowed with a soft incandescent light as Nikolai pushed in.
Words of love and curses fell from both their lips until Nikolai reached between them to grasp Alexei. “God, I missed you. Missed you so much, bratiska.”
Alexei tilted his head up for a kiss. “Missed you, Kolen’ka. So much. Love you.”
Nikolai bent his neck down for the kiss, moaning against their lips as Alexei tightened around him. Alexei thrust up into his hand and came silently, back arched, hands clenched in the sheets. His breath caught in his chest as Nikolai came inside him. So long, he had been gone so long in that timeless place. Nikolai was remaking him, bringing him back to life in this world.
Neither one of them missed the waves of light and energy streaming from their joined bodies. Nikolai dropped to the bed. “Holy shit.” He breathed heavily, chest heaving. “Sorry,” he apologized as he slid out of Alexei with a grimace.
A sharp sting of pain and Alexei felt empty. He curled into Nikolai’s chest, waiting for their breathing and heart rates to come back to normal. Nikolai ran his fingers through Alexei’s hair as they watched the light fade from around them.
“So, um. Nice light show.”
Alexei didn’t look at him.
“Now, I might not have the most experience with this kind of thing.” Nikolai’s fingers tightened in Alexei’s hair. “But I’m pretty sure that doesn’t happen a lot. Or ever, usually.”
“No. It doesn’t.” Alexei turned his head and kissed Nikolai’s chest. He didn’t even know where to start or how to explain. And he didn’t want to. He just wanted this time, this oasis from reality, for one night. It wasn’t too much to ask, was it, given what was to come?
The room was almost completely dark, the last of the light faded, the fire died down to hot coals.
“It happened last time, didn’t it? The night you, you left?” Nikolai stopped petting Alexei’s hair.
“I thought I imagined it,” Nikolai whispered.
“No.” Alexei waved his hand, dissipating the web of air around them, both of them shivering in the cool breeze.
“That doesn’t happen a lot either; I’m guessing.”
Nikolai sighed. He grabbed a shirt from the floor and cleaned them both up. Mulevi looked up and grumbled when he tossed the dirty shirt back on the floor. “Go to sleep, Mule.” The dog’s tail thumped against the floor. Nikolai pulled the blanket over both of them, and they shifted on the bed until Nikolai had his arms wrapped around Alexei from the back, his knees tucked behind Alexei’s. “You’re going to have to tell me what’s going on.”
“Tomorrow? Please?” Tears burned against Alexei’s closed eyelids.
Nikolai pressed a soft kiss into Alexei’s shoulder. “Tomorrow.”
Nikolai’s breathing quieted, the only sounds in the cabin the dog’s gentle snoring and the occasional pop and crackle of burning wood. Alexei tried to push thoughts of tomorrow out of his head, memorize the feel of Nikolai around him in case he never got to feel it again.
“What day is it?” he asked Nikolai.
“Tuesday. Probably Wednesday morning now. Go to sleep.”
“What date?” he pressed.
Nikolai dragged his hand over Alexei’s chest, fingers rubbing at the collarbones. “Um, the twenty-seventh. Twenty-eighth now, I guess.”
Alexei pulled the wandering hand up to his lips and kissed it. He tangled their fingers together and pulled Nikolai closer to him. If it was the twenty-seventh, they had four days; four days and four nights until All Soul’s Night.
It wasn’t nearly enough time.