last chapter. sorry, but it's a short one. i may or may not provide an epilogue or bonus chapter in the future. at this point, i wouldn't count on it, but it's been rolling through my head for a while. so, only the muse knows.
there were quite a few reviews last chapter. you guys thrill me, i kid you not. thank you! cait, Shindo Shuichi, SerielXLain, plumblossom, drowning in words unspoken, Roman C Lee, yaoi8808, Suzume Tori, thecowonthebox, LouiseRel, just baja, kimburrly.
thanks again, everyone who has read, left a review, or favorited this story. you're the reason i post these things.
saturday, 2 october, 2010. 3:36 am.
I had no coin, and nothing to trade for it, but if Pa had taught me anything it was that people could survive on less.
--- --- --- (chapter begins)
Hunger drove me toward filching from stalls in the market, and I was as good as I ever was as a kid.
I had to relearn tricks and make up a few new, now that I was taller and less compact, unable to blend into the dirty ashes in the street to make a getaway. Hunger was another trick to relearn, a constant companion I'd lost sight of while with the goatherd.
I slept in alleys when I could, snatching sleep between dodging lawmen and shifters alike. Even when I found a place to sleep undisturbed, I slept in fits, waking in a start and feeling the ghost of Shep on my hip, the goatherd at my back.
I worked when I could, on coal runners and boats in the wharf, running errands for merchants for coppers.
Then the snows came and work became scarce.
I was caught lifting a purse and sentenced to the workhouse. One meal a day and work from before sunup to sundown.
The only reprieve came when a boss came 'round and picked a body for special assignments. Everyone knew what made them 'special'--everyone was picked at least once.
Some people were picked more often. Some people became favorites.
I was not one of them.
My debt was unexpectedly paid in full one bright morning in spring, my body discharged like a broken shoe.
I wasn't surprised to see the goatherd waiting for me to gain composure before he promised a hot meal should I want it. My body ached, stomach a lean cavern of want, so I agreed despite my stubborn inclination against forgiveness.
The inn was one I didn't know, the room small and shabby, but a bath and a simple meal did much to ease what lacked.
For once, he talked, about the goats and Shep, about the changes in the weather. Sitting in a wood tub, knees to my chest, water cooling, I listened to his voice while months of gray seeped from my skin.
I was nearly asleep when warmth knelt behind me, a hand cupping the back of my neck in a familiar squeeze.
"Shep waits for you, every night, and looks for you every morning."
I said nothing, and he seemed at a loss for anything further to say. Instead, I followed through the motions of getting out of the tub, drying with a cloth until only marginal damp remained.
Any other time, I would have warily watched the goatherd, hoping for a clue as to what to do, but exhaustion allowed me not to care. Sun still shone through the one dirty window, but I found myself crawling beneath a blanket that, while it didn't smell offensive, wasn't overly clean.
I fell asleep to the sound of a knife whittling wood.
The next morning I was groggy, sliding from the bed to use the chamber pot before dressing, the goatherd already dressed, his hair in disarray. Groggy as I was, seeing its familiarity caused my stomach to clench.
"I won't go."
He looked at me in surprise, and I felt strong again. More than I had in a while.
Remembering a past conversation, I stated, "Here I be…and there you be. But you'll be gone, and here I'll be."
His jaw clenched, face taut; "Is that what you want?"
He breathed in, then out; "Then here I'll be."
I sat on the bed, anger draining away in defeat; "Why?"
Although he did nothing more than stare for a long time, I felt heat bleed across my skin until he finally admitted, "Always be waiting for you to come home."
There was nothing I could think to say. Instead, I readied up with him, following behind when we finally left the inn and head for home.
Tears pricked my eyes at the over-exuberance of Shep's welcoming barks and chuffs, and I knelt and greeted him properly, swallowing down the lump at the back of my throat. I'd missed him more than I'd been willing to admit.
Even hearing the goats nearly bowled me over in homesickness--when I went to check on the few I'd grown particularly friendly with, they butt their heads against my thighs and hands, and I laughed. The sound was rough, rusty, as though I'd been mute for ages longer than I'd really been gone.
It didn't take long for exhaustion to force me inside, breath short in my chest and limbs heavy. I stripped and crawled abed, asleep before I could take the time to think of it.
When I woke, my eyes felt puffy and abused, making me wonder how long I'd been asleep. Instead of worrying about it, I got up and dressed, slipping from the empty shelter to look outside.
Shep was watching the goats alone, his tongue lolling out his mouth as he gently panted in a warm patch of sun.
I left him to his work as I made my way towards the river.
The goatherd was in the water, floating for some time before he realized I stood on the bank, watching. His smile was different, my belly clenching as dusty heat crawled along the nerves in my neck and shoulders. Eyes elsewhere, I again undressed and then entered the water, grateful when I was allowed to acclimate by myself.
Sun coming through the overhead leaves and branches made the water glint, and I watched it slide across my skin as well until my eyes hurt, dazzled and raw. Closing my eyes, I watched the flashes of red light against the black until it didn't hurt as much.
Only, my breath caught when I opened my eyes again--the goatherd was close, his face strangely impassive as he studied mine.
I felt pale, and must have looked as much, for he moved closer and used a rough thumb to peer into my eyes. What he saw, I couldn't tell, but before he moved away again, that same hand found a gentle grip on the back of my neck, squeezing before letting go.
He removed himself from the water, dressing himself as he left the bank and head back. I lingered for as long as I could stand, washing away more than the dirt accumulated since the night previous.
A simple meal was waiting for me at the table, and after eating, I pulled the bible from its place on the shelf. When I began to read, my voice low and sure, the goatherd smiled, bittersweet in its happiness.
Warmth spread down through my arms and legs, and I felt myself relax, fully, for the first time since I could remember.
When we readied for sleep, I let him go ahead, signaling Shep into a stay by the table before going around the partition. He was already half undressed, pulling that silly nightshirt from the dresser.
Before he could cover his torso, I walked behind him and put my arms around his chest, pulling myself flush against his back while he froze completely. I was still just a few inches taller, the difference beneficial in being able to place my chin on his shoulder, his body unconsciously accommodating my intrusion in his space.
We stayed that way for a long moment--even if he never gives me more than this, it would be enough for me, to feel his strength, the solidity of him.
His hand came up and touched one of my arms, his voice quiet in the dark; "Pip?"
My embrace strengthened, my voice just as low as his as I said, "Here, with you, is the best I ever been."
A change went through his body, almost a surrender, relaxing back against me.
Still, his voice was self-mocking as he asked, "Is that really saying much?"
"It says ever'thing."
Still brave in the dark, I pressed my lips to the side of his neck, hearing his breath turn sharp, but he didn't rebuff me any more than he had the embrace.
I finally pulled away, leaving him standing there as I pulled off my outer clothing and crawled into bed, stretched out on my back with my hands tucked beneath my head. He was motionless for nearly a minute, and I grinned when I finally heard him pull that nightshirt over his head.
When he joined me in bed, it was just like all the other nights we'd done the same, and I sighed, content.
I was nearly asleep when his low voice came, "Pip?"
"I asked you, once, what you wanted."
"…Is that still…what you want?"
There was a long pause before his voice came again, even quieter, "I'd be lying if I said I didn't…. Pip?"
Though I was awake, marginally, I couldn't find my voice, and he sighed softly. I felt him shift moments before his heat came at my back, something warm and slightly scratchy touching the side of my face in the dark.
It took a moment to realize it was his face, his mouth pressed below my cheekbone, prickling me with the beginnings of a beard. I roused myself enough to raise one hand up and touch his face, feeling him smile against my skin before he pulled back again.
His arm slipped over my side, my body lazily thrumming from the gentle heat in my belly as I felt him settle in behind me, and I fell asleep knowing I was exactly where I wanted to be.
A/N: end story.