This is another rather low-energy, sort of cuddly chapter. I feel like, after everything they've been through so far, Azri and Cale definitely deserve a little time off to chill out and be sexy. With each other. An all that. Ahem.

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Anyway, here we go.

Chapter 22

Domestic Life

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We stayed in the garden a little longer, though I left off reprimanding Azri about Ruth. I doubted anything I had to say would change his mind, and besides, I was finding it very difficult to stay irritated with him. The solid warmth of his body against my side, the presence of his hand at the small of my back filled me with all sorts of feelings, none of them anger.

We stood outside the door and watched the storm approach, great tumescent thunderheads rolling in from above the plain. The sky went dark quite suddenly, brightening again in a burst of gold and orange brilliance as the sun sank down below the line of the clouds. One last gasp before the evening reeled it in.

"The weather here is startling," Azri murmured at the first jagged streak of lightning. "I remember watching the storms as a child. I was never afraid."

I watched his face, the slight parting of his lips, the way his eyes roved across the sky, shadows gathering at the corners of his brow. Something was boiling up inside me, something frightening and undefinable. I swallowed, choking it back down. I slipped my hand into his.

Stirring from his reverie, he glanced my way. He gave my fingers a squeeze, reaching over to brush the hair from my eyes.

"Tell me, have you eaten anything today?"

I frowned. "Um..." I thought back. "No, I don't think so." I'd become so used to traveling, going long stretches without any food at all that it hadn't occured to me that I could eat any time I wanted to.

Azri grunted impatiently. "I leave you for scarcely three hours...what would you do without me?"

I rolled my eyes, tugging him back toward the house and sliding open the parchment door. "It wasn't my fault we woke up so late this morning. I haven't had the time." I heaved a theatric sigh. "I've been studying intensely all afternoon."

He laughed softly. "Is that so?" His hand slipped down further, resting on the curve of my ass. "I'm impressed. I must come up with some sort of reward for your good behavior."

An involuntary shiver ran through me, my face getting hot. Just being around him, smelling his skin, feeling it brush against me, was leaving me in a tensed state of arousal. His words weren't making it any easier.

I knew he was feeling it as well. His breath had sped slightly, hand smoothing slowly across my back. Indeed, as soon as we'd closed the sliding door behind us, I wasn't at all surprised when he pushed me up against the nearest pillar, hands delving into the gaping neck of my robe.

"I wanted to do this in the garden," he mumbled, aiming for my lips and missing, catching the side of my mouth and kissing that instead. "But I thought our dear new friend Ruth might still be sneaking around. Wouldn't want to alarm the girl any more than we have to."

"How gentlemanly of you," I laughed breathlessly, though I didn't believe a word of it. No doubt he'd take me against the cherry tree with the whole village looking on if I gave him half the chance. We'd most likely headed back inside to avoid the rain, which was just beginning to set in, pattering down on the stone path in a slow staccato. The wind stirred the chimes in the trees, echoing out a deep, haunting sound.

The robe was slipping down my arms little by little, to be replaced by the warmth of Azri's skin. His mouth tasted slightly of honey, like he'd been eating something sweet not too long ago. I coaxed his tongue into my mouth, stroking softly, feeling a rush of delight as he shuddered against me. His hands moved toward my back beneath the robe, playing up my spine.

The sound of my stomach rumbling broke through, loud and insistent. We broke apart, laughing.

"Oh, you poor, starving boy." He ruffled my hair. "Come inside and we'll find you something good to eat."

I chuckled, following him past the staring, many-armed god. "I bet you say that to all the boys."

"Of course." His hand settled back on my behind.

He let go of me as we entered the kitchen, opening the door to the cellar and emerging a few moments later, arms laden with cheese and bread and a green opaque bottle with a long, elegant neck.

"I'm not sure how long the wine has been down there," he told me, depositing everything on the wooden chopping table in the center. "But there's bottles and bottles of it. My father's collection was quite extensive. Why don't you go see if you can find some goblets?"

I cringed internally. "Alright." We hadn't really delved into the myriad collection of cabinets and pantries. The quick glance I had given them had revealed everything to be covered in a very thick layer of dust.

I opened the first cabinet and nearly choked. After the cloud of dust cleared, I saw plates, stacks and stacks of plates of all colors and sizes. Who in the world would ever need to serve so many people? I coughed once, closed the light wooden door and moved to the next one. It held the same thing, only this time it was bowls. The next contained small china tea cups, the next cutlery, and the one after that a vast, disorganized explosion of tablecloths.

"Don't worry if you can't find them," Azri called from the table. "We can drink from the bottle."

"Mmm," I agreed, closing the cabinet. I opened one more, just in case, and was faced with a veritable cornucopia of dried herbs. They were in neat rows, dusty but orderly, packaged together and clearly labeled. The cabinet smelled like an apothecary. Perhaps this was where I'd find the hydrophra leaves.

I left off looking for the time being, closing the door and sitting down beside Azri on the rickety stool. He was busy slicing the cheese with sure, even strokes of the knife. Just watching him reminded me of what other things those elegant, talented fingers could do. Arousal pulsed through me. This was just getting ridiculous.

We ate bread and cheese, passing the bottle back and forth, reminding me of a group of boys in Rinian who'd drink behind the stables whenever they could lift a pint of ale. It was good--deep and aromatic, finer than any sort of wine I had tasted before. It made my mouth feel tingly and sensitive, warmth spreading through my veins to the tips of my extremities. We spoke of things, but I can't recall much of the conversation--all of it was suffused with the feeling of Azri beside me, the movement of his hands, the way his tongue darted out to catch the wine dotting his lips.

We finished our meal just as the storm began in earnest.

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Azri made the water very hot, steam rising from the surface to hang hazy in the semidarkness, forming halos around the candles. It looked like a lagoon, the ceremonial pool of some long-lost god. He'd poured a great deal of fragrant oil in, the smell making me feel lightheaded, and it felt like I was floating as I climbed the steps and sank into the water.

"Mmmm..." I sighed. "All we seem to do recently is take baths."

Azri let his robe drift to the floor in a grandly ridiculous gesture. His hair was beginning to grow out again, easing past his shoulders to tease at the ridges of his back.

"I'm dusty from the walk down to the village. And it's cold outside. Are you complaining?"

I shook my head as he slid in beside me, sighing softly and rotating his shoulders. His skin was flushed and pink from the heat, nipples tightening into sharp little points. "I love this," I said, tipping my head back against the smooth stone, feeling the cold against my skull in sharp contrast to the heat of the water. "This place...I'm so glad we came here."

"It is very peaceful," Azri agreed, closing his eyes and sinking further into the water. The candlelight played of the drops on his skin, making them shine.

After a moment's hesitation, I inched closer, reaching out a tentative hand and brushing his knees. His eyes flickered open. He grinned. "So friendly so early in the evening." His knee came up out of the water as he spread his legs, taking me round the shoulders to pull me against him. I didn't resist in the least. There was a tight, glowing ball of something warm and pulsing inside me, radiating both joy and disbelief in equal measure every time Azri touched me.

His wet hands slipped up my back, the oil in the water loosening the friction between us. I was already hard, and I could feel that he was two, hot and pulsing against my belly. I kissed him, winding my fingers into his hair, using his grip on my back as leverage to push against him. He moaned, rolling his hips up to meet me. Our cocks brushed, sending ripples of heat through me

"Azri..."

He hummed a response, hand leaving my back to reach for the bottle set to the side, out of danger of the water. Between us we had nearly finished it, but there was still a bit of the deep red liquid. He drank, throat working, before leaning down to kiss me, lips sloppy with wine. Like this his mouth was more addictive than ever, and I shuddered at the mere decadence of it.

Wine ran down my chin, Azri's soft tongue chasing down to lick it up. He laughed against my jaw, breath misting warm.

"Perfect end to a long, hard day."

That made me chuckle. "Azri, there may be some things that are long and hard, but this day was definitely not one of them. We barely did anything at all."

Azri sank down further into the water, bringing me with him. I moaned as my cock brushed up against his stomach. I felt good all over. "Speak for yourself," he whispered, grinning, before leaning in and biting at the tendons in my neck.

"I love it when you do that," I murmured, tipping my head back lazily. I laughed when he growled, biting down harder. I gasped, knowing there would be a mark there in the morning--the sort of mark I couldn't hide with my clothes. Well, it wasn't as if there was much of anyone else around to see it.

Thunder rolled, low and long, rain drumming on the windows in the bedroom beyond.

"What are you thinking about?" Azri asked a moment later, touching his forehead to mine. I'd gone quiet listening to the rain.

"Nothing, really," I answered after a moment or two. I wrapped my arms around his neck, resuming the rolling of my hips, grinding up against him. I felt a sharp rumble in his chest and took that as encouragement. "Just meditating on how the hell I managed to end up like this."

"Mmm...like how?" Azri grunted, hips rising up to meet mine in a slow, steady grind. "What do you mean?"

"Here. With you....like this." I arched my back, pushing against him so enthusiastically that water sloshed out onto the floor. Neither of us paid it any mind. Just rubbing against him felt so incredibly good--feeling his slick skin beneath my hands, listening to the way his breath came quicker as we moved together.

I felt like I could come just like this, just from the perfect friction of our bodies, his gasps in my ear. Then he leaned back in and bit down, hard. I climaxed suddenly, whole body tensing up as my cock jerked. I shuddered, hips stuttering.

"Sorry," I panted, letting go of his arms, slipping out of his lap and into the steaming water. "I didn't...you just....I couldn't..."

Azri sighed. "Cale, there are plenty of things you can apologize for," he said firmly, drawing me back into his arms. "That is not one of them."

I chuckled softly, resting my head in the curve of his neck, breathing in the scent of lavender oil and wet skin. I could definitely get used to this.

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Over the next week or so, I barely thought about the seeing spell. Just being around Azri was enough, in fact, to make me forget I had virtually any problems at all. I could never remember being so happy with my life, except perhaps back when my mother was alive. But those memories were tainted now. Who knew what they had really been like?

Azri and I spent our mornings in bed, dozing or talking or, more than likely, touching each other in ways that would have got us thrown out of the Rinian chapel for sure. We'd bathe too, together or separately, until it came to the point that I couldn't remember what it had been like to not feel clean all of the time.

The kitchen received a lot of use, since there was scarcely a point in using the large, many-windowed dining room for just the two of us and no one to serve.

"I barely ever see the inside of that room," Azri had told me on our second day in the house. "Whenever I'm here, I'm working. I take my meals in the laboratory."

Yes, the laboratory. I finally got to see inside it. It was past a hall, down a short, spiraling staircase. I'd been right in my prediction--it was considerably more welcoming, and considerably warmer, than the one in Kloin had been.

He sat at his work table, measuring things, cutting herbs, making notes and little squiggly marks in his journals, while I sat and read more alchemy books. Azri was very adamant that I learn the theory behind everything before I attempted anything serious. So, after a few hours my mind would be swirling with diagrams and numbers, potions and concoctions, and the most effective methods for channelling energy, and I would need to give up for a time and go for a walk in the garden, or explore the house, or something equally brainless.

It was usually while I was doing this that Azri would receive his visitors. The first one was an old, leathery-skinned man with a fine, silvery beard, wrapped head to foot in a deep green traveling cloak. I watched from the crest of the hill, as Azri met him at the front door, standing beneath the sloping eaves of the house. He was dressed more formally than I'd ever seen him, in dark trousers and a black leather vest. His linen shirt was pristine white and nearly absurdly ruffly. He looked like some great lord about to go out on the hunt--all he needed was a steed, a whip and a pack of dogs, yelping for the kill. He was dressed to make an impression.

The old man shook his offered hand, and the two of them disappeared into the house. When they emerged a few minutes later, the man was holding one hand beneath his cloak, like he was concealing something.

It happened several more times, and always when I was out walking, though that could have been because I always walked in the early afternoon. Three men and a woman approached the house, were met by Azri, who was always impeccably turned out, and left shortly after that. I didn't really feel as if Azri was hiding something from me--I think he most likely would have told me who they were if I asked. And I meant to, the first day with the old man, but that had been before I'd walked back into the parlor and seen him up close.

He looked incredibly dashing in the fine clothes--a bit like the night I'd met him, when he'd still been a beautiful, mysterious stranger. Before I'd known who he was, or that I would spend the next few months of my life following him across the Empire and beyond.

He was sitting at the desk, copying something down from out of a book. When I came in he looked up, before carefully folding the piece of parchment and slipping it into the pocket of his vest. "There you are," he greeted me, before frowning. "What's wrong?"

"You look...very good," I said, letting the door shut behind me.

"Oh yes?" He set his pen down on the desk.

"Yes." I grinned, taking a step closer. "You look like a king."

Azri's eyes flashed with something that, for a moment, looked like triumph. "Do I really? Well, I've known my fair share of kings, and I must say. I think I look better."

"How very humble of you."

Suffice it to say that his fine clothes did not stay fine for much longer, they ended up on the rug, lonely and forgotten.

That was another way Azri and I were spending a great deal of our time. Naked, or in varying stages toward that state. Azri had given me a taste of what it could be like, and now I felt like a starving man sitting down to a banquet. I ached for him, almost constantly, and I was hardly ever satisfied after just one time. Azri assured me that most of it had to do with my age.

"You're young," he'd said, one evening when we were in bed, lying side by side, listening to each other breath. "You have limitless energy and resilience. I, on the other hand, do not." He'd given me a lazy sort of grin. "You are wearing me out, little boy."

"If I'm a little boy," I'd shot back, sliding down his body, "Then you're an old man."

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Around the ninth day of our taking up residence in Azri's childhood home, he announced that he'd be making another trip down to the village.

"There's no reason for you to come along," he assured me, when I'd expressed interest. "I'm simply going to speak with some people who are looking to be hired."

He was right--it didn't sound particularly thrilling. Besides, his absence would mean that I had time to gather the ingredients for the seeing spell. I'd looked over it a few times since that first day, and I'd quickly discovered that there were no hydrophra leaves in the dusty kitchen cabinet. It was full of cooking spices--sage and black pepper and rosemary. It was a little naive of me to think any different; Azri wouldn't be careless enough to leave things like that lying around.

I would have to look in his laboratory. Which was ironic, since it was the one place in the house that he asked me not to go when he wasn't there.

I'd asked myself several times why I didn't just seek out his help in order to cast the spell--it wasn't as if it was anything dangerous. Still, I wanted to prove that I could do something on my own, without any help from my master, or lover, or whatever it was he had become. That, and I was almost completely sure that Azri wouldn't let me do it. He was dead set against me trying anything complicated until I was well-versed in the theory. Normally, he'd told me, under any other master alchemist, I would spend years just doing that.

But the seeing spell didn't look complicated, and besides, I'd done other things, much more dangerous things before, and emerged relatively unscathed. I had so much power swirling around inside me that it was literally leaking out around the edges--Je'in had been able to tell what I was immediately, even with Azri's warding talisman. I could feel the magic sometimes, surging up under my skin, just waiting to be used. I needed to use it.

And there was someone I really wanted to see.

I knew where to start looking for the hydrophra leaves. I'd felt it when I'd spent time in the laboratory with Azri over the last week. There was a false wall, just like there had been in Je'in's dungeon-like room. I could feel it, the draft that shouldn't have been coming from a solid wooden wall, the tingle of power at the base of my spine. Of course, I knew it wouldn't hold the same horrors that Je'in's had held--trophies he'd hacked from living creatures, slaves he kept bound and gagged in the dark--most likely it just held things Azri didn't want lying around. Like the ingredients used in an alchemical reaction. I was fairly sure I could find the hydrophra leaves and be out of there before Azri came home. And if I wasn't, well, I was certain there were a few things I could do to keep his mind of his anger.

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Oh, Cale, you silly boy. See you in two weeks!