Once Upon A February
by Shadowy Star
Disclaimer: I don't own the Coldfire trilogy. It belongs to C.S. Friedman. I do own this story. Do not archive or translate or otherwise use it without permission.
Summary: A blizzard on Valentine's Day brings an unexpected present.
A/N: Fic finished as part of my New Year resolutions (listed on my LJ). One down, four to go! Also Part 1 of the Holiday Collection that I started once and promise to finish.
Gerald was sitting in the luxuriously furnished living room of his equally luxurious house, absentmindedly whirling his brandy in its goblet. Bright orange and crimson flames danced hypnotically in the large fireplace.
The fire was hot, of course –times he'd been able to conjure coldfire long ago passed–, and sometimes he couldn't help but ask himself if things could have been different back then, at his former fortress three years ago.
On the other hand, living in daylight certainly had its pluses. He remembered the first sunrise in almost thousand years he'd watched without fear, without expecting pain – this display of colors across the brightening sky, stars fading first, quickly followed by the moons. It'd been overwhelming –the wonder of it, intense in its simplicity, frightening even to his unaccustomed eyes– and had taken time to get used to again, not to fear the clear white rays of Erna's sun.
He still loved sunrise.
Today however ‒as every day for the last two weeks‒ dark gray clouds hid the sun and the Core, bringing snow and ice and hail and more often than not a storm, making days indistinguishable from each other, days where everyone stayed at home and the public life in Aramanth died down until the winter storms passed.
Winters had become colder since the Patriarch's sacrifice and he often wondered if the collective will and wishes of Erna's human populace had been strong enough to alter the climate itself, to modify the weather patterns just that little to turn a hostile environment into a friendlier one. The change now had been more obvious in the haven towns along the Serpent ‒ storms deadlier, tearing sails to pieces, winds colder, waves higher. Nevertheless, he'd settled here, settled down for a reason he hadn't been able to name at first ‒ and when he had been, it hadn't mattered anymore.
With a new face and thus unrecognizable to anyone, Aramanth was as safe as any other city or town. After leaving the Black Ridge Pass, he'd come to here and spent the following two years busily rebuilding his life. He'd had a few backup plans, of course – more than a few, in fact, and had made many investments that couldn't be traced back to the Forest. Money no longer being an issue, he'd bought this house and the elegant furniture, and –finally!– appropriate clothes.
However, something had nagged at him, insisting he'd gotten it all wrong. To distract himself he'd started a research on the Iezu, putting his theories about the Mother's ability of space travel to paper. It'd earned him respect of renowned scientists from West and East alike but even immersing himself into work hadn't helped – the feeling had stubbornly refused to vanish.
Over the last year, his third here, he'd finally identified it as the lack of something. He'd thought it was the lack of cultural events first, so he'd been to Jaggonath and its museums and galleries, to the opera in Seth and even to pagan concerts in Sattin and Hade across the Serpent.
When that hadn't proved enough, he'd figured it was possibly the lack of social contacts. So he'd tried to make acquaintances and, tentatively, friends to fill the large rooms of his house with human warmth. That had finally helped a little, and he'd spent many an evening in pleasant company.
Still, it'd taken but one summer evening when surrounded by laughing people he'd suddenly felt alone. He remembered being ecstatic back then, after all, loneliness he knew and could understand, as well as lack of a sex life. He was used to that, he'd been alone for almost a millennium. But in the last three years of those thousand he hadn't been, and they were very hard to forget. He'd taken a lot of women into his bed in the months following, all of them as different from his chosen prey as possible; and a few men, all of the tall, strong, brown-haired type which really should've given him his first clue. Or a whole ship's load of those, in hindsight. Naively he'd expected the feeling to finally fade away – which it unsurprisingly hadn't.
And then, a cold autumn morning had come with whispers of first frost against his lips and he'd understood, far too late, that he hadn't desired simple human warmth – he'd desired one particular human and no other. Could it be, he remembered asking himself, that he was missing someone? That thought had dragged just one face to the surface of his memory, a face never forgotten, held dear, and reality had crashed down on him. Damien... It had been then he'd realized just how much he missed Damien's comforting presence and strength, his infuriating and amusing stubbornness, his intelligence and will. Had missed the man, period. He'd even stayed in Aramanth for the sole reason of it being the closest haven to the West since he never seriously entertained the thought of crossing the Dividers. He wasn't that brave. Or that stupid. But months had passed, then years and still he couldn't find the courage to go there, to try and find the one man who had been his opposite and equal right from the start and had become his one and only friend in a matter of weeks. The feeling had intensified quickly afterwards, as early as their journey to the South maybe or even earlier, and had turned into something more – a longing so desperate it left a sharp ache in his heart.
He closed his eyes at the pain. Even now, it was there, sometimes so intense it made him rub his chest futilely, the longing undiminished, so much worse on nights like this when everything seemed so far away, leaving him behind on his island of a lit fireplace and memories of better days.
The blizzard raged on, uncaring.
At the very least, he mused, the weather had prevented today's Valentine's Day festival. With fae no longer responsible to humans' wishes, long forgotten holidays from old Terra were remembered and enjoyed. After all, humanity needed to be distracted from realizing the entire impact and at the moment yet indeterminable consequences of two great Sacrifices. Samhain Eve, Yuletide, Midsummer – you name it, they did it.
He abhorred the overly bright, pink decorations everywhere around, the silly cards and the teddy bears –and what kind of animal was a bear anyway?– holding red and pink candy hearts in their paws, the music so sweet it would surely cause a pandemy of caries and make all the dentists happy, and the false declarations of false love.
Love wasn't that happy fuzzy feeling that filled one with joy and contentment – sometimes love was sharp and bitter and dark and cut one's heart to shreds. Sometimes love hurt beyond imagination, even one as vivid as his own. Sometimes, there were no happy endings. Love was lonely days and nights spent alone, reaching out into the darkness of a cold bedroom, needing that one person close, wanting them so bad that nothing else mattered. Love was regret and pain and a winter storm.
Sighing softly, he looked into the fire, cutting off the familiar train of thoughts. Behind the window, the blizzard increased its efforts to bury the small town in a thick layer of snow. He shook his head lightly, pitying anyone traveling somewhere out there, and shifted closer to the fire, cold though the room was sufficiently heated, and those bitter thoughts crept up again, refusing to be silenced. The fire's warmth reminded him of Damien. Anything warm usually reminded him of Damien – now that denial wasn't an option anymore. His gaze grew unfocused as he remembered those hazel brown eyes, so warm, oh so warm… He remembered Damien's solid body as the other had carried him down the tunnels in the Undying Prince's fortress, gentle warmth and comforting strength the only reality in his world of white-hot pain and utter helplessness. Remembered the compassion in Damien's thoughts and couldn't help remember how it felt when their link had been made whole. There were times, rapidly increasing in number, when he wished the bond back, Damien back... It was impossible not to wish him back, the closeness, the connection, this feeling of being complete for the first time ever... Yet, there had been no choice but leave him behind on that trice damned pass. Divining now unachievable, he'd examined every possibility as good as he could under the circumstances and still had not seen a different option, any other outcome resulting in his own death, or worse yet, Damien's.
Gerald stared unseeingly into his brandy. It was becoming very difficult not to wonder where Damien was right now. What was he doing? Had he gone back to the Church? Had the Church accepted him back?
A thud jerked him out of his thoughts, causing him to rise to his feet hastily and take a look around the room. It didn't sound as if the roof was damaged, he'd been through this particularly unpleasant experience twice this winter already. It didn't also sound like breaking glass so hopefully the windows were still intact but he probably should invest in some solid, wooden shutters next year.
He rose, left the living room and crossed the floor to the kitchen when his gaze stopped on the front door.
Was someone out there? What idiot wandered around in that storm? He shrugged, fully intending to ignore it when a second thud came, this time louder as if something heavy had been dropped to the ground. And, by the way, anyone stupid enough to do something like that deserved to be left out there, didn't they? Ah, well... He heaved a sigh of surrender, then walked to the door and wrenched it open against the wind's burning fury.
At first, fast whirling snow blinded him completely. The handle burned his hand and the storm pulled and pushed at it, trying to free it from his grip. Blinking fast against tiny, razor-sharp snowflakes, he finally detected something like a bundle of clothes lying at his doorstep, already covered with a thin layer of snow. Giving it a closer look, he recognized a vague shape of a human body.
"Just great," he muttered to himself. "I have better to do than rescue stupid travelers from freezing to death!" After all, no one needed to know that he couldn't think of anything right away. Stupid people!
Turning to close the door, something about the still form made his heart clench. He bent down and brushed the snow from the other's face.
And his heart almost stopped. It wasn't possible, it just wasn't, no Adept could summon anyone anywhere, and yet... Damien was here, an undeniable fact. The storm intensified, sending more of the razor-like snow into his face and Gerald shuddered to think the other man had been walking in that blizzard.
To pull a six feet four inches tall person in thick and thoroughly wet winter attire over the threshold wasn't what he would have called 'easy' but he managed, leaning with all his weight against the door to close it as soon as they were inside. Then he dropped to his knees next to his other, ignoring the small pile of rapidly melting snow from the man's clothes.
"Damien," he called, taking a gloved hand into both of his. Something suspiciously like panic started to creep up his spine when no answer followed. He tried to ignore it –Tarrants didn't panic!– but failed miserably. "Damn you, answer me!"
He frantically tried to find a pulse in the wrist he was holding.
"Damien, wake up!" He didn't realize that voice so full of intense despair was his own. "Damien, please, listen to me, try to wake up." He drew a breath. "It's me, Gerald. But I guess you know that or why else would you be here?" Wait, what if Damien wasn't here because of him? Gerald froze at the thought, feeling his heart break just a little, then mentally kicked himself. Now was not the time for doubts. His other was here, now. Why was a question for later. Drawing a deep breath to calm his currently racing pulse, he finally, finally managed to concentrate on the immediate problem. Less talk, more action. Alright.
"Damien, I don't suppose you could wake up and just vulking tell me what to do?" He wasn't even aware he was borrowing his other's favorite curse.
What had Damien told him about hypothermia? He tried to remember, fighting the very thought of his loved one dying. There was something about various degrees and core temperature and shivering which he couldn't remember was good or bad. But loss of consciousness was surely bad? Oh Hell... Why, oh why hadn't he bothered acquiring some basic medical knowledge at least in theory even if his Pact had forbidden him true Healing? He hoped his loved one wasn't going to pay for his fatal oversight.
What to do first?
Always check breathing and circulation, look for signs of cardiac arrest, came the memory in Damien's deep voice. Alright, that he could do. He leaned forward, holding the sensitive inside of his wrist above his other's cracked lips and nearly jumped in joy as after long ten seconds there was a flutter of air against his skin. Pulling at the other man's clothes since he dimly remembered something about a phenomenon called vasoconstriction and Damien's advise to look for large arteries, he finally found a carotid and a pulse that was too slow even to his non-educated liking. However, there wasn't anything he couldn't do about that and the sense of his own helplessness was overwhelming. Concentrate, Gerald, he told himself. At least, there was a pulse. Holding his breath, he counted the beats and the seconds between them until he was sure that at least they came regularly.
Clothes. Remove wet clothes.
"Wake up, Damien. Now would be good," he made. The thick yet wet shawl and a woolen, equally wet cap went easily as well as his gloves. Damien's hands were cold as ice and his fingertips were frostbitten. Gerald rubbed them gently before remembering there was the rest of his beloved's body to attend to.
He paused to run a hand through thick chestnut brown hair. "You're not going to make it easy for me, aren't you?"
Removing Damien's boots and socks was a different matter entirely and he struggled for a while before finally being able to pull them off as well. The freed feet were also cold but without frostbite, and Gerald relaxed a little, pausing again to rub at the cold appendages.
Now for the rest. Again, easier said than done and he pulled at the stubborn fabric which refused to give in, and cutting off clothing was supposed to be better than trying to remove it the usual way but he couldn't remember why. The thought sent him running for scissors anyway and when he couldn't find any to the kitchen for a knife. On the way back he grabbed a large comforter from the couch, spreading it on the floor to wrap the other man in it once he managed to remove the clothes. The knife turned to be less sufficient than scissors would have been.
"Wake up, you stubborn mule of an ex-priest! I could use some help here." He kept talking and calling his love's name as he worked, hoping to somehow reach his other, wishing for their long-gone link. Had the bond still been in place, he could've used it to gain access to Damien's subconscious and wake him. Dropping the soaked garments onto the carpet covered floor without further thinking, he stripped the other down to his thankfully dry underwear and began rubbing at cold limbs and body desperately. The skin under his palms was smooth except for some faded scars and he ran his fingertips over the silky inside of an elbow. Beautiful... But he'd always known that – the sheer masculine beauty of long legs and narrow hips, of a broad chest and shoulders, of a strong back and equally strong arms. The sharply cut face, the warm hazel brown eyes... Oh, One God, those eyes...
"Don't leave me here, Damien," he continued, close to begging. "Wake up, open your eyes and then you can be as stubborn as you want – as long as you stay awake." Bribery had worked perfectly with his children all those centuries ago. "Wake up, please."
He felt again for the pulse which was now stronger and came more steadily and allowed himself a moment of rest. There was something about warm bath or shower dancing just outside his mental grasp, something linked to the degrees of hypothermia and he cursed himself a fool for not having listening attentively enough to Damien's words back then in the Rakh lands. Lifting the other man into the tub was completely out of the question anyway and he cursed again. No possibility to enhance one's strength using the fae now, not anymore.
He wrapped the unresponsive body into the thick woolen comforter and set himself to the task of getting one well muscled, sex feet four inches tall knight into his bedroom. Then something about moving a hypothermic person gently popped up on the surface of his memory and he stopped in his tracks. He made himself move slowly and carefully as he dragged the unconscious man by two corners of the blanket, even if everything in him screamed to get Damien warm as soon as possible. When he felt the door of his bedroom collide with his back and then open with a creak of protest, he inwardly congratulated himself for deciding against a two-stories house even if he hadn't been thinking of half-frozen ex-priests back then. Well, not of half-frozen ex-priests, he snorted inwardly.
After fumbling with the lamp he settled the other man comfortably on the bed and covered him with all blankets he possessed. Then he forced a few swallows of brandy down his other's throat. Still, neither hands nor feet did get any warmer. Oh well, sharing body warmth it is… He sighed, steeling himself for Damien's probably less than excited reaction should the other man wake up, then took off his own clothes except for the underwear and slipped under the blankets. He pressed the length of his warm body against the other man's cold one, rolling them onto their sides and reached out to wrap his arms around the strong frame. Then, he brought the dear face close to his own so he could warm it with his hands and breath and lips. His other was now shivering slightly –and that was good somehow, he now remembered– and after a while Gerald could feel the chill slowly leave the other man's body. He took it as a good sign and continued to run his hands up and down the beautiful form of his love.
When he touched his warm hand to the other's chilled face he discovered with shock that the beautiful hazel brown eyes were open and staring at or through him. The shivering had ceased again and the skin beneath his hand was still cold as ice.
"Damien," he whispered. Then again, louder.
Still no reaction came and white-cold fear settled firmly into his chest. "Damien!" Desperate, he raised his hand and slapped his other's stubbled cheek, hard. Damien just couldn't die!
The hazel brown jewels slowly focused on him.
"Oh, thank the One God!" He couldn't contain the joy in his voice and frankly didn't care. "You didn't leave me."
"You left me," Damien answered softly without any trace of accusation, his voice detached, beyond empty even. His eyes were pools of sadness that went through Gerald's heart like a knife.
"I know. And I will apologize to you, later. But right now I need you to be angry at me, even furious to keep you alive." Gerald wrestled the other man on his back, supporting his own weight on his hands, their faces only inches away. "Vryce, listen to me!" But his other's eyes were again looking somewhere into the distance. "Damien! I left you and hurt you on that Pass!" He felt like the villain he no longer was, reminding his loved one of the pain that encounter must have caused but he would do anything to keep Damien alive. "Aren't you angry?!" Surging to a sitting position, he gripped the broad shoulders and shook the other man until the chestnut brown head lolled around. Realizing that he was probably hurting his beloved, he promptly stopped, horrified with himself.
Damien was looking at him, eyes shadowed, drooping already. "But I forgive you…" that dear, dear voice trailed off as its owner slipped away into unconsciousness.
"No!" Gerald yelled, concern, guilt and fear tearing at his heart. "Say that again when you're conscious enough to know what you've forgiven! Don't you dare die on me!"
When asked later, he was never able to remember much of the following hour. He remembered an abyss of fear, panic nearly rendering him helpless, remembered frantically rubbing at Damien's arms and legs and forcing him to swallow more brandy, remembered warm socks he somehow managed to find in depths of his closet and put on the hypothermic man's feet, remembered holding the frostbitten fingers in his own hands, gently trying to reestablish circulation.
What he remembered with perfect clarity was the sigh of relief he allowed himself when upon breathing warm air against his other's fingertips the beautiful eyes opened again and looked at him in confusion.
"What are you doing?" Damien asked, voice weak with exhaustion.
"Warming you up." Gerald didn't bother to hide his smile. "So relax, will you?"
"Okay," came the soft reply, halfway to sleep. "I trust you."
Speechless for a minute, he leaned in and pressed a kiss to the man's brow. Because on the inside he still was a Tarrant, he stole a second one from the perfect lips, too. Because no one could hear him, he softly added. "I love you." Because the temptation of those lips proved irresistible, he gave in and stole another kiss.
Damien's breath was already deep and even with sleep, and watching his chest rise and fall, Gerald felt tempted to drift off into sleep himself. Concentrating on the lamp's steady light, he tried to stay awake but the evening's events had drained him physically as well as emotionally so he lost the battle and was asleep before his head touched the pillow.
The next morning, he awoke to the rise and fall of the hard pillow under his cheek. A lack of sound outside indicated that the storm was over even if only weak light of false dawn sneaked in through the thick midnight-blue curtains. He frowned and raised his head from Damien's chest to meet sparkling pools of hazel brown and a small smile playing upon warm lips.
Realization hit with the force of a giant brick wall. Anger was quick to follow.
"You're an idiot!"
The smile grew wider. "Nothing new then. The lack of inventiveness on this part would be of concern were you somebody else."
Gerald snorted. Somebody else? His anger dissipated suddenly and warm, contented amusement he hadn't felt in the last three years filled him, followed by slight concern. He run his eyes up and down what was visible of his other's body – that being a broad chest with a sprinkle of darker hair and the upper half of a perfectly muscled abdomen. Gerald felt his breath hitch. The lamp was still emitting its weak yellowish light but not even that couldn't conceal the healthy color of Damien's skin. He tugged at one large hand to examine the long, strong fingers.
Damien shrugged. "That's going to peel in a few days," he remarked when Gerald ran a careful finger across the frostbitten areas.
"As I said, an idiot." His answer, however, lacked its usual bite.
As if sensing Gerald's inner turmoil, his other smiled at him. "I'll be alright." Gerald used the hand he was still holding to try and draw his loved one closer. Due to Damien's greater strength, he ended up being pulled closer to a perfect chest instead. The beloved deep voice was soft. "Thanks to you."
Gerald had gotten arching a brow down to an art centuries ago. "Of course."
All that it gained him in return was another smile. Damn!
"Now what are you apologizing for?"
The jewels of hazel brown softened. "For scaring you this much."
"That's ridiculous. Why would I be scared?"
Strong arms wrapped around him, pulling him impossibly close as if the other man never wanted to let go. "I love you, too."
'Shock' wasn't even beginning to describe what he was feeling in this moment. Confusion was somewhere in there and a sudden sense of falling. Damien loved him? Wait, 'too'?
His impossible other grinned. "I wasn't asleep right away. So I heard you perfectly well."
There was, of course, only one possible answer to that. Gerald leaned in and kissed his love into silence.
When they parted half an eternity later, he found himself on his back, looking up into those laughing hazel brown eyes.
Intending to avoid love declarations he wasn't sure he could take –or make– without doing something extraordinarily stupid like bursting into overwhelmed tears, he tried to change the subject. "What were you doing in that storm anyway? Attempting suicide by hypothermia?" He attempted a devilish grin. "Or ... don't tell me you wanted to be my Valentine?"
With a smile mischievous and brittle both, Damien smacked him with a pillow. Then, his face turned serious. "I was looking for you." The look in his eyes instantly melted Gerald's heart.
"You found me," he said, stroking Damien's face gently.
"Did I?" So simple a question, but laced with so much more meaning…
He smiled. "Yes, Damien. Yes." And drew his lover in for another kiss. Or two. Or ten.
On Valentine's day next year, Gerald calmly bought a red, velvet, heart-shaped box to hold the two pairs of rings he had custom-made the week before. He was beginning to think he finally grasped the idea behind the holiday. Or it was just that he was going to marry the love of his life. He surely didn't care – not when that beautiful body, and those strong arms, and warm hands, and even warmer eyes, and a happy smile on perfectly shaped lips awaited him at home.
The box secure in his pocket, he smiled happily at the clear sky above.
1) Please forgive Gerald for not following the JAMA guidelines for hypothermia treatment. *grins* and now to the warning:
2) Note that this is fiction and what works in fiction doesn't necessarily work in life. I could've stuck to said guidelines but then this wouldn't have been so much fun to write. So there are a few things Gerald does wrong (f.e. rubbing at Damien's arms and legs (may further reduce the core temperature and even initiate cardiac arrest when the colder blood flows back to the heart), giving him alcohol (something you really, really shouldn't do when someone is unconscious and may get the fluid into their airway) etc.). I was writing strictly from his perspective and there are things he couldn't have known, considering the state of Erna's medicine at this point. He's no Healer and has never had the need for that since he was quite undead for nearly a millennium. Again, this is fiction and not a guideline for you to use in case you find a hypothermic person.