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by Willa Okati
Category: Erotica/Gay-Lesbian Erotica
Description: A mask, imbued with Sint Holo's mischief and magic, brings to life the past--which could destroy the future. Part of the Hearts from the Ashes collection. Sint Holo, the Snake Man of Cherokee legend, is up to his mischievous games again. He lives to cause trouble, and there's no better time than Valentine's Day to toy with a few hearts. Nicholas and Grey have been lovers for almost a year now, but all is not well in paradise. They have more than a few issues to work out around this time of year, and in their turmoil the Trickster sees his opportunity. Sint Holo has a game in mind for the two of them to play--whether they want to or not. Caught up in the magic of Celebration de la Vie, the two lover must outwit the trickster so they can celebrate their life? together. Product Warnings Warning, this title contains explicit male/male sex.
eBook Publisher: Samhain Publishing, Ltd., 2007
eBookwise Release Date: December 2010
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [130 KB]
Reading time: 79-111 min.
Anyone, gay or straight, would be proud to have Grey at their side. Tall as a reasonably sized basketball player and bulky through the shoulders from lifting weights, he tapered down into a toned waist and trim hips before bulging out again with rocklike muscles in his thighs and calves. He had a bit more Cherokee in him than Nicholas, and it showed in the hawk-like shape of his features, his beaky nose and the stern cast of his mouth. His hair, too, was definitely of the People--long, the tips brushing his shoulders, and a deeply hued shade of black--although there was far more gray threading through it now than there had recently been.
He was a man of such size he made Nicholas feel small, and such a brave that next to him Nicholas felt every inch one of the white men, no matter how he had been raised. As a teacher, his great-grandmother had kept him firmly in line and made sure he knew the ways of the People and how to honor the spirits, but as a caregiver she'd loved him with all the heart in her wrinkled old body.
When he came to the dinner table one night, watching her cook, and he'd told her that he thought he was gay, she had simply smiled and continued to stir the soup she was making. He'd been trembling with fear at her possible reaction, but she'd only shaken her head and said, "Well, make sure to find a good man, strong in the arm and clever in the head, eh? Don't fall for someone pretty, with no sense. That's been the downfall of many a hunter." Then she'd offered him a taste from her pot, and, well, that had been the end of that.
He had learned many things from his great-grandmother, but simple acceptance that what would be, would be, was one of her most powerful lessons.
If she were still around, he felt sure she would approve of Grey. A strapping big man with the smarts to own and operate his own business, a small cafe in the heart of downtown Asheville. Cafe Noctem. Nicholas could remember the fun they'd all had in naming Grey's new enterprise, and finally deciding on Noctem in honor of all the night owls the artsy city teemed with.
As Nicholas recalled, though, it had been Jimmy's idea to stay open all night, almost up to the breakfast rush, and it'd been his schedule which made Cafe Noctem a success. At any hour of the night, you could find at least a half-dozen people hunched over laptops or textbooks, a feverish look of inspiration in their eyes and a mug by their sides.
At first, it had been Jimmy who handled the night crowd, but now that was Nicholas' job. Grey took the morning through mid-afternoon, and here, in the between-time, was when they normally caught up with one another. Grey had closed a little early today, around one instead of two, as if sensing this task might take longer than anticipated. Nicholas felt the weariness of not-enough-sleep catching up to him, but he manfully held back a yawn as he walked up to Grey's side.
Grey didn't offer to take his hand, so Nicholas did it instead. In Asheville, two men strolling so close together wasn't so odd a sight that it would turn heads, and even if it had been, he wouldn't have cared. He'd never believed Grey would be his, and he scarcely believed it now.
Although he'd never have chosen this way to... Nicholas shook his head. His thoughts were going around in circles, and that was never good. He'd end up buried in a sea of what-ifs and if-I-had-onlys. Lightly squeezing Grey's hand he asked instead, "Are you ready?"
Dark eyes narrowing, Grey nodded. "Let's go."
They set off side by side, Nicholas having to hurry a little to keep up with Grey's long stride. Shorter by a head, he was size-proportionate and looked far more white than Native, with his curling brown hair and his blue eyes. There had been legends about Natives with blue eyes, but his great-grandmother had laughed, told him his history wasn't so grand, and pointed out that his father had come from Nordic stock.
He didn't think he was half so handsome as Grey, being instead a boy-next-door type with a friendly face and a wide grin, but then you could have described Jimmy the same way...yet he transcended, somehow, and became more than the sum of his parts.
Nicholas conjured up a mental image of Jimmy as he preferred to remember the man. Snapping green eyes, the devil's own grin and rakish chocolate-colored hair that stuck up in a hundred different directions; smaller than Nicholas but equally trim, his build reflecting his habit of running five miles every morning. For his own part, Nicholas swam in a local pool when he could or canoed down the French Broad River.
He tried, for the thousandth time, to stop comparing himself to Jimmy. He knew he wasn't Jimmy, knew he never would be, and he should stop trying. But all the same, he couldn't help thinking that if it were him they were coming to visit, Jimmy would know exactly what to tell Grey to take that storm-cloud look off his face.
So it was in silence that Nicholas and Grey walked up a small, grassy embankment bare of anything but February's dead grass. "You'd think they'd keep things up better," Grey remarked, toeing a few stalks. "We don't pay them enough for maintenance?"
Nicholas bit his lip and kept quiet. To distract himself, he reached out and laid a hand on the first thing they had come to--a tombstone, one of the old breed, built like an obelisk. The O'Connor family--husband, wife and six children. They had died at different times, but he'd no idea where any husbands or grandchildren might lie at rest. He always touched this stone for luck when they visited the cemetery.
When they came to see Jimmy.
Grey knew about Nicholas' superstition, but chose to view the obelisk as a directional sign rather than a totem. He pointed, even though he didn't have to, and jerked his head forward. "This way."
Nicholas knew the path, but kept silent. It was important to Grey to maintain the illusion of staying in control. He knew, having held the man after previous visits, that keeping his cool in public was all Grey could cling to from time to time.
"I should have brought flowers," Grey muttered. "That poinsettia was nice at Christmas. But it seems kind of girly, bringing roses and such, doesn't it?"
Nicholas gave a careful shrug. "Jimmy was a gardener. I think it would be appropriate. He liked tulips the best."
"I remember. He used to beg me for a trip to Biltmore every spring so he could see their gardens. We'd go to that fancy restaurant they have and split a bottle of the most expensive wine they had."
"Then leave the glitz behind you, go to a pub, and come home rip-roaring drunk," Nicholas joked.
There, that earned him a grin from Grey's handsome lips. "Jimmy had a lot of sterling qualities, but the ability to hold his liquor was definitely not one of them." He put a hand over his heart. "I, myself, was never in need of any assistance after one of those little trips."
"Of course not." Nicholas bumped hips with Grey. "I've completely forgotten the time I had to come over and nurse the both of you through the most spectacular set of hangovers I've ever seen."
Grey chuckled. "Oh, don't worry--I remember. God, I forget just how many pints of beer we did get through that night..." His voice faded off. He coughed. "We had good times. If I had a mug, I'd drink to them."
"To good times," Nicholas replied quietly, rubbing his thumb along Grey's. Grey gave him a fond look and rubbed back, the look and gesture sending a bolt of warmth to Nicholas' heart. His proud Native man didn't often display affection in public, and to touch him tenderly here and now made Nicholas feel almost weak with pleasure.
The feeling didn't last for long, though. As they turned around a mausoleum with a marble angel at every corner, their destination was in sight. Nicholas held back, tugging at Grey to get his attention. "Here's Annie," he commented, petting the marble foot of one seraphim. "She looks to have weathered the winter well. Not a chip off her."
Nicholas grew still, except for stroking Annie Angel's foot. "Yes?"
"Stop trying to distract me."
Nicholas looked up to see Grey with a half-smile on his face. He pulled at their joined hands. "Come with me," he asked politely. "I need you."
"Yes. Of course." Nicholas gave Annie a final pat and pushed his free hand into his pocket. Asheville had terribly chilly Februarys, and this year was proving to be no exception. Grey had worn gloves, the sensible thing to do. Nicholas shook his head at himself. He could manage his life up to a point, could even run a cafe with a waitstaff of half a dozen, but could he remember to keep his hands warm?
Well, to give himself credit, he did have to admit he was somewhat distracted by the thought of where they were headed.
Grey kept Nicholas close by his side until he pulled up short in front of a flat stone just at the rise of another hill. Still new enough that the polished marble shone, it read:
JAMESON NEIL KELLY
"They wouldn't let me put anything else on there," Grey said quietly, although Nicholas had heard all this before--at length--even before they had come together as a couple. "His family insisted he lie here all alone, not even in the family plot. No kin around to keep him company."
Grey fumbled in his jeans pocket and brought out a handful of three round, river-washed stones, the size of small clay discs, green and gray and red. Nicholas gave a start at the sight of them. "Where did you get those?"
"From the creek that runs down through the campus. He and I went wading there one time." Grey turned the stones over and over in his palm, their soft clinking almost musical as the water that would have flowed over them. "I thought he'd like a reminder of the good times. He must be lonely as hell out here by himself."
He squared his shoulders. "Well, as long as I'm able to, I'll still come visit."
"As will I." Nicholas slowly let go of Grey's hand to go down on one knee next to the stone. He traced the deeply carved letters with two cold fingers, feeling their grooves like comfortable old friends. Above him, he could almost feel Grey struggling to stop himself from saying no and don't. But Jimmy had been his friend, too. "Hope you're resting well," he whispered. "We've still got to watch each other's backs."
He felt Grey touch his shoulder, the leather of his gloves tangible through the light jacket he wore. Nicholas shivered. "Should have worn something heavier," he explained when Grey gave him a puzzled look. Carefully, as if he were an old man, he stood. "I'll let you take your time."
Grey acknowledged him with a nod. One by one, he put the stones on Jimmy's grave. "It's a Jewish custom, I know," he said, "and I don't follow that path, but it's a sign of respect." He paused. "I miss you. More than I can--well. I do. You probably know I have Nicholas taking care of me now. But he's not--ah, Jimmy." He caressed the stone. "Every Valentine's Day, right? Not the fourteenth, though, the thirteenth. Your lucky number. You always said you'd scoop up all the good luck leftover from everyone else having bad luck. Pretty clever of you." Grey gave a shuddering sigh. "Happy hearts and flowers day, lover. Wish you were here."
Nicholas exhaled softly and huddled deeper into his coat. He'd been by alone the night before to pay his respects. This moment was solely for Grey. To occupy his mind, he raised his head to gaze out across the rows of stones and crypts, some so old their lettering had long since worn off, and let his gaze go unfocused. He knew Grey didn't mean to hurt him by anything he said.
It was just, once you'd known Jimmy, you found it very hard to say goodbye to the man. And if you'd been as close as Grey and Jimmy--Nicholas could hardly believe Grey had ever turned to him at all.
He might not have if Nicholas hadn't been there for him every moment up to and after the funeral, keeping an eye out for his friend the way Jimmy would have wanted. It'd become something of a habit, dropping in every day or so, and then things had just happened naturally.
He'd started bringing over groceries, and staying to cool a meal. They'd watched the game together, Grey coming out of his gloom long enough to root for his favorite team. Then Nicholas had taken over for an incompetent night-shift manager at Cafe Noctem, napped upstairs in Grey's bed instead of commuting home on a busy day, and woken that afternoon to find Grey lying on the sheets next to him, a strange, wondering look in his eyes as he reached for Nicholas, and Nicholas, amazed at himself as he went...
No, Grey didn't mean any harm. He just hadn't said his farewells yet, no matter how many times he spoke the word "goodbye". Perhaps he would, someday. Nicholas didn't mind. For a man like Grey, he'd be willing to wait. The love of his life, who'd taken him by surprise, was worth being patient with.
"There's so much I don't remember, even though my mother and father claim to have raised me right," Grey said with a sharp, aborted laugh. "Walk the spirit roads in peace, my love. That sounds about right. So long, Jimmy."
He stepped back from the grave and reached out for Nicholas, his face set in lines that clearly stated he wasn't going to talk about anything. Nicholas didn't protest. As a rule, men didn't share their feelings all that openly, himself included--mostly--and he understood Grey wanting to keep his grief private at the moment, even if he didn't think it was too healthy.
Nicholas allowed himself to be gathered in, knowing Grey wanted something to protect as they walked out of the graveyard. He did, however, look backwards once over his shoulder and mouth the words, "Watch our backs, my friend." Then he turned his face forward, able to walk at his own pace as Grey was going slowly.
"The festival starts tonight," Nicholas ventured after a moment. "The masqueraders will be out. Do we have enough trimming for the cafe cellar?"
Grey tilted his head in thought. "Probably. And if we don't have everything we need, we'll go and get it. How does that sound?"
"Like a plan." Like you'll be too busy with carnival plans to sink into any deep fits of gloom tonight. "We've got plenty of time left to get things ready."
"Don't look at me. You're the one in charge." Grey chafed one of Nicholas' cold hands between his leather gloves. "This is your night shift, and it's your show."
Nicholas gave his lover a playful nudge. "Do you think you can stay awake through all the festivities?"
"I'm almost positive."
"I could be persuaded to reward you after the morning rush tomorrow..."
As Nicholas had hoped, that earned him a genuine laugh. "Oh, could you now? Well, what about me rewarding you before the morning crowd comes in? We should have a couple of hours to kill if we don't waste them in cleaning up the cellar..."
Nicholas reached up and seized Grey by the lapels, kissing him hard. His move took the other man by surprise, but after a moment Grey kissed back, his arms coming around Nicholas' back. When their lips parted they stood swaying lightly for a moment, foreheads cradled together, their breath misty white in the cold air. They kissed again, soft and gentle, heads tilting to allow each other access to their mouths. Not a kiss full of passion, but one filled with promise. Grey pulled Nicholas tight, holding him close as the moment washed over them and passed, leaving them feeling somehow more at peace.
The mist on the ground began to fade away in curls.
Neither man noticed.
They stood in silence for a long moment before Nicholas cleared his throat. "Are we ready?" he asked in a quiet voice, showing respect for the dead on whose land they stood.
"Let's go," Grey said, much to Nicholas' relief. "The car will be warm. And we have a night of celebrations to prepare for. Celebration de la Vie in Asheville; it's not to be missed, or so I hear." He grinned and tweaked Nicholas' nose. "Or so I've been hearing since I was old enough to attend. Let's get out of here."
Nicholas nodded, relieved that this trip out, at least, had ended well enough. "I'm right behind you."
"No. You're at my side. Always at my side. First my friend and now my partner." Grey gave Nicholas a rough hug. "I don't know what I'd do without you."
"Then just be glad you have me and that I'm not going anywhere," Nicholas said softly, too softly for Grey to hear. "Not if I can help it."
And with those being his final words, the two of them left the cemetery behind them. Grey drove them away, still all but silent on the smoothly paved roads, through the gated entry and out onto the Blue Ridge Parkway. All the way back to their home, Nicholas occasionally placed his hand on Grey's thigh, subtly reminding him of who he was with now, anchoring him to the present instead of the past.
He found himself wary of what might be coming next. But then again, no one would suspect. Or should not have.
But if Nicholas' great-grandmother had been alive, she'd have seen the snaky smoke and warned the son of her daughter's son about what would be coming their way.
Nicholas might, or might not, have even believed her...