“WHAT took you so long?” Garreth growled. He didn’t even look up, only pushed his way over the threshold, swatting at his scarf until it surrendered and let its knot slither loose, albeit grudgingly. The oil lamps in the sconces sputtered and spat, sooty smoke curling to the ceiling on the whorls whipping down the front hallway.
Ailin only blinked stupidly for a moment until the chill of the wind hit his calves, and he pushed the door shut against it. A small frown twisted a wrinkle between his eyebrows as he peered down at himself and then pointed the frown at Garreth’s broad back.
“Well, in case the bathrobe didn’t give me away,” Ailin said slowly, “I was in the bath.” He tilted his head a little. “I’ve told you hundreds of times that you don’t have to knock, you know.”
Garreth only shrugged with a small grunt. “Rude,” was all he muttered.
Right, Ailin thought, and dragging a person from the bath by pummeling his front door for five minutes straight is so much more polite.
He didn’t say it; something seemed to have arrived with Garreth—in Garreth, maybe, like the storm gathering outside was somehow a part of him—and rather than the usual light and cheer that entered Ailin’s house with him, instead there was something… something Ailin hadn’t had time to identify yet.
Garreth was still swatting at his scarf, apparently trying to make it let loose its hold from about his neck. Ailin thought it really should, if it knew what was good for it. Because even from behind, Garreth looked to be in an extraordinarily foul temper.
Ailin narrowed his eyes. “I expected you this afternoon.”
Garreth didn’t say anything at first, the silence of the brief pause somehow heavy, before he slumped a bit, drawing a long breath. “Well, I didn’t make it,” he mumbled, throttled the scarf into submission, and then made threatening movements toward his coat buttons.
There was something wrong, obviously. Ailin knew that Garreth had business at the Mayor’s Office that morning, but his note had only said to expect him when it was through and not what it was. Something to do with the family orchards, no doubt. Ailin could only assume that whatever it had been, it hadn’t gone well.
“I noticed,” was all Ailin said, a little cautiously, then stepped across the hall and set a hand to Garreth’s shoulder. “Here, let me.” Ailin pulled Garreth about, almost surprised when Garreth complied. He laid his hands over Garreth’s to still them and tilt-bowed his head, trying to get a look at Garreth’s face.
Garreth still didn’t look at him, only stared down at their hands, jaw clenched tight and breath coming a little heavier than Ailin thought doffing one’s coat merited. “I can do it,” Garreth said, though it was a little thick, too controlled, and his hands didn’t move beneath Ailin’s.
“Of course you can,” Ailin told him. He squeezed Garreth’s hands, gently pushing them away from the buttons, frown deepening as Garreth simply let him, dropped his arms heavily to his sides and just stood there, shoulders hunched and eyes still cast downward. Anger radiated from him, so thick that Ailin could feel it vibrating between them.
Ailin slipped the first button loose, letting his hands sweep over Garreth’s lapels, gentling, as he moved to the second. “Everything all right?” He dipped his head a little more, still peering closely but yet unable to get a look at Garreth’s face.
Garreth only shook his head, one sharp negation back and forth. Ailin couldn’t tell if it was an answer to his question or an indication that he shouldn’t ask it again. Garreth’s thick gold hair hung down, tangled from the wind, obscuring his eyes, and the light in the hall was chancy; all Ailin could see was the tight twitching in the muscles of Garreth’s jaw, the firm, slightly downward set of his mouth.
Some deal gone wrong, perhaps, or a ruling by the Mayor that didn’t go in his favor. Whatever it was, it must have been serious. Ailin didn’t think he’d ever seen Garreth so troubled that he couldn’t speak; in fact, it was when Garreth was the most troubled that he did speak. Not one to keep things stoppered up inside, this one.
Ailin loosed the last button of the coat, slowly slipping his hands between it and Garreth’s jacket. He leaned in close as he smoothed the heavy wool from shoulders set rigid and tense. Garreth was chilled and he smelled of sweat and horse, so Ailin knew that he’d ridden; but he also smelled of pine and leather and violent autumn skies full of thunder and fire, and it somehow made Ailin feel better to have Garreth here, regardless of the queer mood in which he happened to have arrived.
His hands had slipped the sleeves to Garreth’s elbows and Ailin paused, giving Garreth’s arms a quick squeeze inside woolen warmth. “Tell me,” he said, soft and close to Garreth’s ear.
A slight shiver ran through Garreth and a long, deep breath swayed him a hair closer, a ghost of a touch of his chest to Ailin’s. He tilted in, almost as though he meant to lay his head to Ailin’s shoulder; he only dipped his nose to the hair that was curling damp at Ailin’s nape.
“You smell nice,” was all he said.
The words were soft, slicking warm down Ailin’s backbone. He resisted the shudder the flush of heat wanted to send through him, smiling a little instead. With a small shrug, he pulled back the smallest bit and extracted Garreth from his coat.
“I’ve just had a bath,” Ailin answered, reaching up with his free hand and setting a soft stroke of fingertips to Garreth’s cheek before he turned to hang the coat on a peg. “I’ve not emptied it yet and there’s at least one copper hot and another heat—”
Ailin turned back to find Garreth’s eyes fixed on him, almost black in the wavering lamplight, nearly glittering at him, and tilted up beneath a brow furrowed tight. Garreth looked… Ailin didn’t know what to call that look. Dark, somehow, but striking, too; alien on Garreth’s face, but somehow Ailin thought he’d never seen Garreth look so… well, the only word he could come up with was “affecting”.
And it was certainly having an effect on Ailin, though he couldn’t tell what sort just yet. He paused, took a breath. “I could….” A disconcerting little flutter settled behind Ailin’s breastbone as Garreth cocked his head to the side, peering at him with a gaze so fierce it threw Ailin off-balance, almost dizzied him. “Um,” he swallowed, “…add some… hot water….”
Ailin stuttered into silence.