My darling protagonists took me for quite a ride, though I really should have been getting ready for bed. With shock I discovered that Cass might have a thing for slash.
It is a story segment which would take place in the time span of my second novel, the sequel to the one that started as my NaNo. (Geez, what am I doing planning a whole book series what now?)
Oh, warnings for naked (though nothing is described and nothing comes of it). Also warnings for sap. Sickly sweet sap. Birch sap.
The blizzard had come fast and it had come hard. Zouriel had only ever intended to drop off some provisions to Cassandra, some things she and Oy would need to make it through the winter in the newly built cottage, replacing the things lost when the previous one burned. Alas, the weather gods had decided to play a trick on him.
The wind had made the windows rattle and some snow even managed to blow through the cracks around the front door, Zouriel had never claimed to be an expert at installing fixings after all. Yet, he had at first been adamant about trying to make it back home and he’d ignored Cassandra’s suggestions that he was an idiot and Oy’s pleas for him to stay.
He’d made it to the other side of the clearing; just where the yearling trees had started to reclaim the ground lost after their older brethren had been ravaged and burned. It took him a few steps more, during which his boots and socks got soaked through, the snot froze around his nose and mouth and his scarf was nearly torn off by the wind, before he came to the sad conclusion that he had to turn back or freeze to death. The walk back seemed twice as long, during which fear that he’d get turned around and lost crept into his belly, so he might be forgiven for the panicked rapping on the door when he finally felt it under his fingers.
Cassandra, to her credit didn’t say anything when she ushered him inside. With chattering teeth he took the offered blankets, but it took a bit more coaxing for him to shed his wet clothes like Cassandra suggested. He whined and complained, pointed out Oy’s presence, but the truth was that the only other people who had ever seen him undressed were his mother and Marcus (and his father too, though he no real memories of him). He might accept Cassandra and Oy, but that didn’t mean he felt entirely comfortable being quite so literally exposed and naked in their presence. He had to relent when he just wouldn’t stop shivering, despite the blankets and the warmth radiating from the fire burning in the fireplace. They came to a compromise and Cassandra ushered Oy into the kitchen, leaving Zouriel alone in the main room to undress underneath the now slightly sodden blankets. When the two returned he was tightly wrapped up in the remaining dry blanket and huddled as close to the fireplace as he dared.
“See, that wasn’t so bad”, Cassandra said, with quirked eyebrow and quickly went about making cups of hot tea with honey. “To chase the last off the chill out of you.”
It wasn’t entirely unpleasant, sitting there, feeling the shivers slowly leave his body, sipping honeyed tea, while Oy was curled up next to him in his ocelot form, basking in the heat from the fire, as well as offering up another source of warmth.
“These storms, do they last long?” he heard himself ask, gently running his fingers through Oy’s fur, as the boy purred, looking nothing but content, occasionally batting him with a soft paw in his sleep.
“It depends”, Cassanda said, as she sat herself down in the old rickety rocking chair they’d found at the garage sale, pleading for someone, anyone to claim it. It still made a squeaky noise, but it was a nice sound, something that woke memories of being rocked by his mother, when things were so much simpler. When his father had still been alive.
The next words that came out of his mouth surprised him.
“Do you ever think about your father?” he said.
Cassandra didn’t look startled or bothered at all. She just rocked in her chair and leaned back into the cushions.
“Sometimes”, she said. “I wonder if he ever regretted walking out on my mother, not having any contact with me.”
She took another long sip as the flames threw long, twisting shadows on the walls.
“He felt enough guilt to send money, to my mother and she made sure every last dime of it was saved up for me, for when I would need it.
“Sometimes I’ve dreamt about finding him, accusing him. But then I wake up and realize I don’t really care about him or what he thinks. He chose to never be a part of my life and that’s how it’s going to remain.”
Zouriel tugged the blankets closer to his body. “What if he came to you though?”
Cassandra let out a laugh. “Like that will ever happen.”
“At least you know you father loved you”, she added, smiling sadly.
Cassandra continued to rock slowly in her chair and Zouriel found himself scooting a little closer to her. There was a feeling here he couldn’t quite put words to, but it had something to do with that nostalgic feeling of being small and cared for…And belonging.
“So much for not caring about what your father thinks huh?” he heard himself saying, a slight teasing tone to his voice.
“Shut up”, she said, but there was no malice in her voice. She rocked some more, until she’d emptied her cup. Then she got up.
“It’s about time I put Oy to bed”, she said, putting her cup on the mantel.
“Hey, I’ll do it”, Zouriel said and gently scooped up the sleeping bundle of fur next to him.
When he got up, he realized there was no way he could keep the blankets pulled up around him AND carry the boy at the same time. So naturally the blanket quietly decided to slide to the floor in a pile.
The silence dragged on as he debated the moral of using Oy to shield him, as long as the kid wasn’t aware of being used as a fig leaf…
Cassandra’s laugh broke through it, low and lilting.
“That’s what you were so embarrassed about?” she said in hushed tones, apparently still worried about waking Oy. “Nothing I haven’t seen before.”
Without flinching she took Oy from his arms, before they had a chance to go limp and left him standing there, burning as hot as the fire. Feebly he bent down to gather up the blanket, to shield himself again, for all the good it did him now.
When Cassandra came back, she had a bottle in one hand and two glasses in the other. While he watched from his pile of shame on the floor, she poured an equal amount of the amber liquid in the two glasses and handed him one. She gently clicked their glasses together before she took a sip from hers.
“Nothing like brandy to truly warm you up on a night like this”, she said, as if she hadn’t just seen him the way God had made him (though truly not quite like it, he’d not been born with metal limbs and scar tissue snaking across his body).
He stared numbly at the brandy in his own glass before he took a hesitant sip. It was good stuff, for sure, not the crap he bought cheap from the liquor store around the corner on the nights when his demons wouldn’t leave him alone.
What she did next made him almost drop his glass.
Cassandra slowly got undressed.
Her eyebrows twitched when she saw the look on his face and she flashed a devil-may-care grin at him.
“Well, I thought this would be more fair and all”, she said, before wrapped a blanket loosely around herself and sat down next to you. “But to be clear here, we’re not having sex.”
When he shook his head it was as if someone else did it for him. This situation was so far from his brain’s capabilities that it felt like it had taken the rest of the night off.
“Now that that’s settled…” she began, stretching out her bare legs so they were almost licked by the flames, twiddling her toes slightly. “Now we drink and talk about the people we’ve been with.”
“People….” Zouriel squeaked, before his brain finally kicked in and ordered him to shut up and drink for God’s sake.
“Tell me about Marcus”, Cassandra said and she almost purred. In the light of the fire her eyes were almost the same color as the brandy, which was rapidly disappearing from her glass.
“Marcus…” he said, a swirl of emotions erupting inside him, as memories flashed before his eye, much too clear. Much, much too clear now. “Marcus…He was…He was…”
His face grew hot again and now there was also a strange stinging around his eye. He bit his lip
“He was great?” Cassandra supplied, head tilted to the side, regret and more than a little sympathy in her voice.
“He’s dead”, he finally said, voice cracking slightly and he cursed himself for it.
Zouriel sat huddled, sucking at the brandy like a baby on a bottle and after a while he felt an arm wrap around his shoulders.
“He was your first, wasn’t he?” Cassandra said, voice a low whisper.
“Yeah”, he managed to get out.
“Your first love…” she continued, dreamily. Her arm stayed wrapped around his shoulders.
“I’m a little jealous, I admit”, she began. “Not in that way, mind you. You’re not quite my type, Zourie-dear.”
“Thanks”, he mumbled, wrapping his arms around his knees, staring down at his feet.
“I just envy that you had something so special once”, she said and sighed. “I never loved anyone, not like that.”
She leaned her head against his shoulder, placing her empty glass on the floor next to them. Her arm slid down around his waist. Seemingly of its own accord his right arm reached around, wrapping loosely around her shoulders. It was far from unpleasant, but he mostly felt confused.
“So…What are we then?” he heard himself ask.
“We?” came Cassanda’s voice, slightly muffled, as if she was already drifting off to sleep. “We’re best buddies.”
He felt himself flush slightly again, but it was accompanied by a bubbling bright feeling within his chest. It did not matter how many times he’d thought about Cassandra and Oy, how he felt about him, what they were to him…It was another thing entirely to hear her say it out loud like that. Not too far from how he’d felt the first time Marcus had told him he loved him and pressed his lips against his. That moment had been filled with heat and need, as well as love and longing. This however…This was a more companionable feeling. That feeling of being taken care of, feeling safe…Belonging.
“I love you”, he head himself say, voice barely more than a whisper. He almost jerked when she replied, unseen smile reflected in her voice.
“I love you too, best bud…”
It was the cold that woke him first, during the night the fire had gone out and an icy wind was still howling through the cracks around the door. The next thing that fully stirred him awake was Oy. The boy was shuffling around the room, singing happily to himself. Naked.
“For the love of…” Cassandra muttered as she disentangled himself from Zouriel. “Oy, put some clothes on, it’s freezing in here!”
“But I was putting wood in the fireplace, Miss Cass, see?” he replied with some defiance as he pointed out his good work.
“You didn’t have to do that without clothes on!”
“But you and uncle Zourie are both naked! I wanted to play too!”
And that was when the absurdity of it all broke down the last of his defenses and he turned into a shaking pile on the floor, laughing until his ribs ached.
“What’s wrong with uncle Zourie, did he get sick from the snow?”
“Maybe a little, it’s quite possible the cold froze his brain permanently.”
At least they finally put some clothes on, both of them; his friends…His family.