The muffled blast wasn't what surprised Keenan. Nor was it the accompanying green smoke that had him choking on his words. Those were everyday occurrences around Malachi's workshop. No, what had him on the floor, howling and unable to breath because of all the laughter, was Malachi himself.
The idiot warlock had somehow managed to turn himself purple. And it wasn't a fine dust that had settled all over his clothes and skin and hair. No, his clothes were fine, but his hair, his skin, his eyes, even his eyebrows were purple. And, Keenan was sure, if he managed to get off the damn floor and actually look, he'd see that even Malachi's eyelashes were purple.
Malachi poked him with the toe of his boot. Which was still brown, by the way. "Are you about done?"
"About," Keenan replied, sitting up, a huge shit eating grin on his face. "How did you manage this?"
"I'm not sure…" Malachi's (purple) brows furrowed over his (purple) eyes. "I think I put it in – oh!" He clicked his fingers and Keenan threw some water of the resulting flame from the bottle he kept handy for that reason. "It's the wartwick. I put in five leaves instead of fifteen. Maybe that's why." And with that he disappeared back into his workshop.
Shaking his head and picking himself off the floor, Keenan grabbed the sooty, sodden cushion that made been the victim of Malachi's latest flame attack. The idiot would keep forgetting that he'd bespelled the tips of his right fingers to create a flame every time he'd clicked them.
He pulled out another – identical – cushion from under the counter and put it in place. If it was his choice, they wouldn't have anything flammable in the reception area of the workshop but Malachi was insistent that they make the reception as comfortable for customers as possible.
Which meant flammable fabric with flammable stuffing on flammable chairs. He kept reminding Malachi to make them impervious to flame but, true to form, the warlock would promise and then forget the minute he wandered back into his workshop.
Though why he'd needed his fingers to make flames every time he clicked them was beyond Keenan.
Shaking his head, Keenan set to work cleaning up the shop again. Malachi's little 'incident' had resulted in a fine green dust that had settled over almost everything.
He had just finished polishing the last of Malachi's wind mirrors when the door opened. Keenan immediately smiled his company smile, turning to greet the new customer.
The new customer was male, human and handsome. Or maybe it was the way he moved that made him handsome. Humans had a way of using confidence to make them look good.
"The Warlock's in but a bit busy, so if you'd like to wait, you can take a seat. If not, just leave your name and I will contact you once he is ready."
The human blinked, and moved closer to Keenan. Keenan blinked right back. "Hey," the human said. "You're a nymph."
Keenan resisted the urge to roll his eyes. Why was it, he wondered, that was always the first thing that came out of any customer's mouth? Yes, he was a nymph. Yes, he was aware that nymphs were usually more interested in their looks and how to enhance them than in keeping shop for an absent minded warlock. And, no, he was not one of the nymphs.
"Ha," the human said, leaning in. Keenan gave in to the need to lean away. "I wonder Mal managed that."
Keenan blinked again. No one called Malachi 'Mal'. 'Warlock', or 'Lord,' if they were new customers, and his name if they weren't, but never 'Mal'.
Who was this human?
"Is he in? I want to know what charm he's got you under that stops you looking at your reflection every few seconds."
At that, Keenan bristled. "I am not under a charm."
"No," Malachi said, leaving his workshop. He was no longer purple. "Keenan's just a one-of-a-kind nymph." Then he stopped and stared in surprise at the human. "Ciaran. I didn't know you'd be dropping by."
The human – Ciaran – rolled his eyes. "I told you last week Malachi. By post?"
"Oh." Malachi looked at Keenan. "Did I read my post last week?"
Ciaran sighed and shook his head with a fond smile. "Why do I bother sending posts? I might as well just drop by uninvited."
"You pretty much did," Keenan pointed out in a snide voice. Malachi looked at him, obviously surprised by his uncharacteristic tone, but Keenan could not bring it in himself to care. The human had suggested he'd been charmed.
"Well, no matter," Malachi said, "you're here. What are you doing here, anyway?"
"I'm here to visit my oldest friend," Ciaran, leaning against the counter Keenan had just finished polishing. "Who, obviously, is not prepared to have me."
Malachi blinked, not getting the double meaning. "I have a spare room, upstairs. It's not ready, no, but it'll only take a moment. Once I remember where I put the cleaning spell…" he trailed off, looked at Keenan expectantly.
"Near the east facing second window, third shelf from the top, fifth from the right, in the sky blue container that looks like a horny merman." Keenan supplied and called after Malachi as the warlock dashed back into his workshop, "and don't forget to come out straight after you've got it."
He would rather not be alone with the arrogant human longer than he had to. As if reading his mind, the human – Ciaran – looked at him and said, "I'm sorry. For saying you were charmed. I should have known that there was no way Mal would charm anyone into working for him."
Keenan eyed him distrustfully. "So why say it?"
Ciaran glanced at the half open door. "You're a nymph," he said simply, "and Mal is…Mal." And he turned away when Malachi came back, holding the horny mermaid bottle above his head.
"I found it," he announced with a happy smile. The look on Ciaran's face made Keenan blink, reassess. Malachi, he noted when he glanced at the warlock, was naturally oblivious. "Come along then, we'll get the room ready for you."
Ciaran followed Malachi up the stairs at the back without a word. Keenan walked to the front door, to change the sign from 'open' to 'warlock away', pondering the situation as he did. So Malachi's 'oldest friend' wanted Malachi.
This could be interesting.
Soap bubbles. And not normal soap bubbles. No, of course Malachi would have to flood the front of the work shop with bright yellow soap bubbles that shifted and danced away every time Keenan moved towards them with his cloth.
He was exhausted, frustrated and close to literally throwing in the towel. Malachi had been called away to deal with a malfunctioning flying carpet before he could help Keenan with this mess and it had been over three hours.
Keenan looked over his shoulder at sounds of movement and watched as Ciaran descended the stairs, blinking at the mess. "What happened here?" He asked through a yawn.
Keenan tried not to notice how he was scratching his stomach and how it revealed a flat, toned belly that was surprisingly tanned considering Ciaran came from up north. He succeeded as much as he'd succeeded in ignoring the human's pretty pale green eyes or his gorgeous deep black hair or his fit physique which his clothes left too little and too much to Keenan's imagination. It had been a long two weeks.
Then his words registered and Keenan scowled at the bubbles happily crawling over his ruined boots. He could cry – they were pretty and comfortable. "Malachi made stupid sentient bubbles and they won't clean up and they've ruined my new boots!"
At the sound of a chuckle, Keenan's head shot up and he glared at the human. He might not look into mirrors every other second and he might not obsess about his image for hours on end but he was still a nymph, damnit.
"It's not funny!"
"I know, I know. Sorry." But Ciaran was still chuckling as he came down the last couple steps. "Where is Malachi?"
"Broken flying carpet," Keenan grumbled, tossing the cloth into the thick of the bubbles. Unsurprisingly, the bubbles danced back, wind's balls, onto his boots. He kicked at them but they bounced up into the air and went into what looked like a late autumn faerie waltz.
"Hmm." Ciaran watched the bubbles dancing for a while before looking at Keenan and laughing again.
Keenan scowled deeper. He knew he looked a mess; his clothes were wet and splotchy where some of the bubbles had been careless and burst themselves on him, his light green hair was damp and curling with sweat, he had foam sticking to parts of his body and his boots were beyond help. "Shut up." Kicking at bubbles, grunting in satisfaction when he managed to get a couple of them, Keenan grabbed his cloth. It was, he found to his disgust, dry as a bone.
Wind's balls, at this rate, he'd be chasing after these damn bubbles when he was old, bent and with a cane.
"Malachi didn't say anything before he left?" Ciaran asked as he joined Keenan near the center of the reception area.
"He said something about spring courtship, which makes no sense." Keenan scowled at a bubble when it came too close. He flicked the cloth out and snarled when the bubble he'd been aiming for dodged.
"It's a dance."
"Huh?" Keenan looked at Ciaran out of the corner of his eye as he aimed, flicked and missed another bubble.
"It's a dance," Ciaran repeated, pulling the cloth from Keenan's hand and pulling Keenan into his arms, ignoring Keenan's instinctive resistance.
He was, Keenan realized once he'd stopped trying to ignore the way Ciaran felt against him, actually dancing. "Spring courtship is a dance?"
"Yes. It was popular about, fifteen years or so ago? A fleeting thing."
"Hmm." Keenan said and went back to not noticing the way his hand fit into Ciaran's, how Ciaran's hand felt fitted under his shoulder blade.
"Look," Ciaran said and nodded at the bubbles.
Keenan looked and felt his eyes widen. The damn bubbles were actually dancing with them, following them step for step, round and round the reception area. "So," Ciaran said, bringing Keenan's attention back to him. "Now what?"
"I don't know," Keenan admitted, watching two bubbles swirl behind Ciaran's head. "He just said that and then ran off." He allowed Ciaran to spin him and bring him back. "Don't tell me we have to keep dancing until he gets back."
"Looks like it," Ciaran said with a laugh in his voice. "It's not too bad. At least it's not the elven maydance."
Keenan grimaced at that. The elven maydance was one of the most complicated dances ever created. Some beings spent lifetimes simply perfecting their technique for it. Sad beings, Keenan thought as he allowed Ciaran to dip him then snap him back up.
The bubbles weren't dancing now, simply floating around them lazily in, Keenan hated to admit it, pretty circles. He eyed the nearest one and wondered if it'd dance away if he tried to flick it. Ciaran's laugh made Keenan look up. Damn the human for being taller than him. "What?"
"Leave the bubbles alone. They're not doing you any harm now."
Keenan scowled, hating how Ciaran seemed to be able to read his mind even though he'd only known the human for two weeks, but left the bubbles alone. They'd get their comeuppance soon enough.
"Oh! You did it!" Malachi grinned as he pushed the door open. "No! Don't stop dancing, just let me," careful not to accidently pop the bubbles, Malachi inched around the edge of the reception area and dashed into the open door of his workshop.
Keenan and Ciaran stared after him in disbelief, though they didn't stop dancing. "He's not going to leave us here, is he?"
"No," Keenan decided, "he isn't." Because Keenan knew where Malachi lived and where all his things were kept and he could and would make Malachi's life a living hell if he did.
And, sure enough, Malachi came out with a bucket shaped like a griffon. He began collecting the unsuspecting bubbles up. Once they were in the bucket, they didn't seem able to get out. Keenan and Ciaran stopped dancing once all the bubbles were secured.
"They won't get out?" Keenan asked, pretending not to notice how Ciaran took a quick step away from him, and nearer to Malachi.
"Nope. I've bespelled it so they won't." He swung the bucket upside down to demonstrate. True to word, the bubbles stayed put.
"Where the heck do you get this stuff?" Ciaran asked, eyeing the ridiculous container.
Malachi looked down at the bucket, then back at his friend in surprise. "Places. I don't know? Keenan gets them for me."
Ciaran gave Keenan a look as he straightened from picking up his cloth – which was still dry. "You do it on purpose, don't you?"
Keenan shot him a lofty look as he stored the cloth away. "I don't know what you mean. What are the bubbles for?"
Malachi smiled as he jiggled the bucket. "They're for Marylyn's birthday. I promised her something special. She said she likes bubbles and the spring courtship is her favourite dance!"
"You made that promise three weeks ago."
"Marylyn's birthday was two weeks ago."
"I sent her that locket that plays her favourite song."
"That was last year's present."
"And that will be next year's present," Keenan said, taking the bucket from him. "I'm going to go clean up. Do not flood the workshop with anything else. Or blow it up," he added, changing the sign to 'warlock away'.
"Hey!" Malachi frowned. "I'm here."
Keenan just laughed and looked at Ciaran. Ciaran smiled and spread his hands out. "Don't look at me; I have no idea where anything is."
"Exactly." He pushed open the door and let it swing closed behind him on Malachi's protest.
If Malachi's workshop (and his rooms above it) were on the outskirts of town, Keenan's little cottage was on the outskirts of the outskirts. It was nestled just in the woods, surrounded by the green trees he'd grown up with.
He let himself in, stripping as soon as he'd walked in. Knowing Malachi, he probably wouldn't have that much time before something else blew up. He went straight through, to the back of his cottage where he'd, after threatening to hide some things Malachi couldn't live with, got Malachi to create him a well of sparkling mountain water.
Once he was cleaned off the foam and soapy gunk and whatever else Malachi had used to create those stupid bubbles, he dressed, telling himself he wasn't picking the green tunic because it matched his hair and he wasn't picking the silver pants because it bought out the best in his eyes. And he wasn't taking extra care of his appearance because of Ciaran. No, that human was the farthest thing from his mind.
Which was why he didn't stop dead, staring through the glass door of the workshop, as Ciaran and Malachi danced and talked and laughed and…wind's balls.
He stepped back and to the side before either could see him and plastered his back against the side of the building. Ciaran liked Malachi, he thought. Ciaran wanted Malachi, not a neat freak nymph that couldn't even take proper care of his appearance.
A week later and Keenan knew he was in deep, deep, deeper than the sea, trouble. By the spring goddess, why did it have to be Ciaran?
He'd stayed out of trouble, kept relationship fuss to a minimum and he still ended up falling for a being as unavailable as the sun. And it wasn't enough that Ciaran was gorgeous, no, he had to be kind, generous, witty and intelligent as well, didn't he?
The stupidity he'd displayed when they first met aside, Ciaran was proving to be one of the most intelligent humans Keenan had met. And he was just a sucker for an intelligent being.
Of course, Keenan reminded himself, busily wiping down the counter after another of Malachi's mishaps, Malachi was the most intelligent being he'd ever met and he'd never felt a smidgen of attraction towards the warlock.
Ciaran on the other hand seemed completely enamoured of the warlock. Of course, he'd known Malachi longer, probably knew some things that endeared the warlock to him but, still. Malachi was just so...Malachi. Keenan made a face.
Malachi, emerging from the rooms upstairs with Ciaran on his heels, shot him a curious look. "What's wrong?"
"Nothing," Keenan muttered, noting they'd both managed to clean off the green gunk that had covered them. They all turned as the door opened.
"Malachi! There you are, dearie. The spell you put on me oven's gone on a blitz, I think. It's spitting out half cooked and completely burnt pasties. It's driving me up the wall."
"Ah!" Malachi blinked, then dashed into his workshop, emerging with what Keenan had termed his portable station. "I knew I'd messed up the heat regulators but you needed it so urgently, I thought they would keep."
Madam Darcy moved to let him dash out, Malachi, of course, forgetting to maybe wait for her. She looked at Keenan. "Is the usual payment all right then?"
Keenan inclined his head. "Yes Madam Darcy."
"Then I will give it to him when he's finished the job. Good day."
Ciaran arched a brow as the door closed behind the baker's wife. He looked at Keenan, who busied himself with soaking his dirty cleaning cloths in clean water.
"Is it just me or did a frost walk in the same time she did?"
And he had to be perceptive as well.
"It's just you."
"Yeah, sure, and you're a troll." Ciaran leant on the counter, crossing his arms as he did. "Seriously, does she have a problem with you?"
Keenan sighed because he hated to talk about this. He really did. "Her and half the town. But it doesn't stop them bringing their business here."
Ciaran arched a brow as Keenan set the horse shaped bucket the cloths were soaking in under the counter. He knew from experience they would need to soak overnight to get all the gunk out. "And why would they have a problem with you. I mean, aside from a slight attitude problem, you're all right."
Keenan scowled. Attitude problem? What attitude problem? Ciaran just continued looking at him with a puzzled gaze and, with a sigh, Keenan stepped back and spread his arms. "What do you see?"
"Is this a trick question? Are you going to freak out and hit me if I say the wrong thing?"
"No. I'm serious. What do you see?"
Ciaran looked at him, seriously looked at him, from the top of his tidy green hair to the tip of his shiny boots. Keenan quashed the shiver that threatened to turn his knees weak. "I don't know..." Ciaran finally said, shrugged. "You. You look like you."
Why that should deflate him, Keenan had no idea. He dropped his arms, stepped back to the counter. "Yeah, well, you and Malachi are the only one. Everyone else sees me as what as I am." Eyes burning, Keenan stared without seeing at the reception area of the workshop. At his little slice of heaven. "I'm a nymph. When people see me, they think of one thing; pretty ornament made for sex." Out of the corner of his eyes, he saw Ciaran open his mouth to protest and held up a hand to stop him. "I don't think of myself that way, spring goddess no. I'm far better than that," he added with a sniff, making Ciaran laugh.
"But," he continued, "that's how other beings see me. I'm a nymph and half the freaking town is scared I'll take away their wives or husbands because that's what nymphs do." His hands fisted on the counter as he recalled when he'd first come to town, having heard about the warlock who lived and worked there. It had taken him three days to even find out what Malachi's name was. It would have taken him weeks, maybe even months, to find out where Malachi's workshop was, if the warlock hadn't come into town and overheard him trying to extract more information from the baker. Malachi had listened to him, had watched him demonstrate his skills and in the end, given him a job.
He startled when he felt a hand settle over his and blinked when he found Ciaran unexpectedly close. The human smiled at him, his eyes tender, and he squeezed Keenan's hand. "Beings can be real shits, can't they?" He asked in such a pleasant voice that Keenan had to laugh, even as his heart squeezed like Ciaran had squeezed his hand.
"Yeah," he agreed, sliding his hand out of the loose hold Ciaran still had it in, pretending to check on his soaking cloths to hide the motion.
"How long do you think Mal will take to do this one?"
"Not long," Keenan replied, looking up to see Ciaran leaning on the counter but looking out the door. As well he should, Keenan reminded himself, dropping his eyes to the soaking cloths again. "Since he's been anticipating the problem, he probably has backups ready."
"I'm surprised he gave the spell when he thought it was imperfect."
"She needed it in a rush," Keenan replied, still watching the cloths. "And it's held together for five years."
When Ciaran didn't continue, he looked up and found Ciaran looking straight at him. Not expecting that, he barely managed to stop the urge to jerk back but he couldn't stop the blush. Damn his fair skin. "What?"
"Is there something interesting about cloths soaking in a bucket?"
"Cloths soaking in a...?" He trailed off as he realised what Ciaran meant. "Ah, no. No. Well, they might light on fire."
Ciaran's eyebrow speared upwards. "Really?"
"Well, no," Keenan admitted, rolling his eyes at Ciaran's laugh. "Not since I got Malachi to fireproof them."
Ciaran burst out laughing. "You really plan for every eventuality, don't you?"
"When you work for Malachi, you kind of have to."
"Point." Ciaran's laugh was softer this time, and full of affection. "He hasn't changed, not in all the years I've known him."
Keenan couldn't help it. His curiosity was piqued now, and, truth be told, he still didn't know that much about Ciaran and his past with Malachi. "How long have you known him for, anyway?"
"Mal? Almost my whole life." Ciaran settled more comfortably against the counter. "We grew up together, up north."
"North? Near the golden sea?" Keenan vaguely remembered Malachi mentioning it once.
Ciaran shot him a surprised look. "Yeah. Malachi told you? We were neighbours since before we were born and friends since he saved me from a bunch of bullies." Ciaran grinned, obviously lost to the memory. "He turned them into sandals. He meant to turn them into toads but got the incantation wrong." He shrugged. "Anyway, we've been friends ever since."
Keenan stared at him, unable to believe this strong, capable human had once been a victim of bullies. Truly? Ciaran, correctly interpreting the look on his face, laughed. "I used to be really scrawny. And small. I shot up when I was about seventeen summers old but before then? I was about as tall as you."
At that Keenan scowled. "Are you calling me short?"
Ciaran gave him a lazy smile that did not turn make his stomach flip. "No, just…petite."
"That's even worse than short!"
Ciaran laughed, moving so the fist Keenan aimed for his chest bounced harmlessly off his arm. "Wind's balls!"
Ciaran laughed harder, regardless of the fact that Keenan was glaring hot enough to melt a hole through him. With a sigh, Keenan gave it up, turning back to the bucket. He shook it a bit, watched the clothes slosh around and tried his best to ignore Ciaran's laughter.
"Hah! I saw that!"
Startled, Keenan turned his head and yelped when he found Ciaran far closer than he'd anticipated. "Wha!"
Ciaran smiled but leant back a bit. "I saw it. You smiled."
Keenan immediately scowled, disregarding that it was true. "Did not."
"Did too. It was just a tiny one, but it was still one. You smiled!"
"Keenan smiles all the time," Malachi remarked as he entered, startling Keenan but, apparently, not Ciaran, who simply turned to watch him. "He has a nice smile."
Keenan watched Ciaran's smile drop slightly before it stretched, wider than ever, and he moved forward, slinging his arm over Malachi's shoulders. "Aw, you've never said that about me. Don't you think I have a nice smile, Mal?"
Malachi blinked at him. "Of course."
Ciaran's smile was blinding and stopped Keenan's heart even as it felt like a pick of ice had been stabbed through it. "I knew it!"
Malachi laughed as they both headed to the door of the workshop. "Really, Ciaran, you puzzle me sometimes."
"As long as I'm not boring you," Ciaran replied, hugging the warlock closer.
Keenan considered gouging his eyes out, sighing with relief when the door closed behind them. He did not need the constant reminders that Ciaran obviously loved Malachi. He did not need to remember that Ciaran would never look at him, not when Malachi was so obviously the one he wanted. He did not need to…wind's balls.
Why did it have to be Ciaran?
He had a heart ache.
Keenan sat up at that thought, frowned. What in the spring goddess's name had he been thinking? He had a headache. Head, he thought, grumpily pushing up his glasses, he had a headache from trying to sort out this month's accounts.
They were, as usual, a mess. Malachi would take people's requests when he was in town, do them, bring back pay and dump it in the coin box, all without telling Keenan. Adversely, he would also take out coin to go buy whatever magical supplies he needed and, again, not tell Keenan.
It was enough to drive a being mad.
"Hey. You wear glasses."
Startled, Keenan looked up, his glasses promptly slipping down as he stared at Ciaran, standing in the entrance of the cottage he'd carefully made sure the human never visited. "What?"
"You wear glasses." Smiling that smile that did not make Keenan think of beds and tousled sheets, Ciaran strolled in through the open door.
"I." Keenan shook his head and pulled his glasses off, dropping them on the papers scattered over his little desk. "What are you doing here? Aren't you supposed to be with Malachi?" And as far away from Keenan as possible.
"Malachi got a job. There's something wrong with Yvonne's cow; it's turned purple. So he's gone to fix it and he sent me to tell you. Said something about you getting mad whenever he didn't."
"And he wonders why," Keenan muttered, making a note of it. "Did he say what the payment would be?"
"Ah…I don't think they'd worked that bit out yet."
"Wind's balls," Keenan swore and, grabbed his glasses, sliding them on to add that to his notes.
When he lifted his head, Ciaran had seated himself opposite and braced his arms on the table and was grinning as he watched Keenan work. Keenan scowled. "What?"
"Nothing. I didn't know you wear glasses. You never told me."
"I saw no need to." Keenan knew he sounded snide but Ciaran just laughed and reached out, tracing the curve of Keenan's glasses where it brushed against his cheek.
"It looks good," Ciaran said.
"Uh." Keenan sat straighter and back. "You're not going back to Malachi?"
"Nah." Ciaran made a face. "I know what animal charms smell like. I'll wait here for him."
"He'll probably go straight to the workshop."
"If he does, then he'll get so into his work so it's no use me waiting for him there."
Scowling because Ciaran had so easily countered all of his arguments, Keenan pulled off his glasses and stood up. "Fine. Make yourself at home."
"It's a nice one."
At that, Keenan softened. He really was proud of his little cottage. "I know," he said, heading for the kitchen. "It took me so long to get everything just right." He turned around and promptly yelped when he found Ciaran right behind him.
Ciaran, damn him, just laughed. "Sorry. I thought you knew." He caught Keenan's elbow when he stumbled back. "Hey, careful."
"I'm fine," Keenan muttered, scowling.
"Sure you are. You know, for a nymph, you're a bit clumsy."
Keenan's head reared back and he stared at the human, affronted. "I am not!"
Ciaran chuckled. "You nearly tripped over your own feet," he pointed out.
"You startled me." Keenan muttered, halfway to sulking now.
"That's an excuse."
"It's the truth." Keenan frowned at him. "You startled me. And I did not nearly trip, I stumbled."
"You suck," Keenan informed him with a deadpan voice.
Ciaran grinned. "I do. Very well."
Keenan froze at the innuendo, staring at him with wide eyes. Was, was Ciaran flirting with him? Ciaran seemed to realise what he'd just said and stared back at him. His hand, Keenan noted dimly, was still cupping Keenan's elbow and he was leaning in closer and Keenan moved in as well and his gaze dropped, just for a moment, to Ciaran's lips.
Ciaran's hand dropped away and he took an abrupt step back. Keenan snapped his eyes up, to Ciaran's. The human looked flushed and uncomfortable and he cleared his throat. "I, uh, I'll go wait for Mal at the workshop. I think that's, yeah, best. At the workshop."
He fled – literally fled – out of the open door, leaving Keenan staring after him.
Oh, wind's balls.
Keenan finished wiping down the counter – Malachi's latest mishap involving blue balls and pink pigeons without control of their bowels – and straightened, biting his lip when his back decided to protest by hurting. A lot.
He rubbed the small of his back, ignoring the green curls that tumbled into his eyes. He had neither the time nor energy to straighten his hair this morning. He didn't have the time or energy to do much but work these days, but he wasn't thinking of that or the reason behind it.
Tired as he was, he still took one last look over the workshop's reception area, noting that he would have to put new cushions on the chairs – again – when he came in tomorrow. With nothing left to do, he left, locking the door behind him. Malachi had long since retired and Ciaran...
Ciaran had stuck to Malachi's side for the past three days. And if he was not with Malachi, he was above the workshop, in Malachi's rooms. In short, he was anywhere Keenan was not. And if he was somewhere Keenan was, it was usually with Malachi, wherein he could ignore Keenan by paying attention to only Malachi.
It hurt, of course it did, because as much as he denied it, he did have feelings for the human, feelings that, it seemed, were not inclined to go away any time soon, regardless of how much time they spent in the other's company.
Keenan frowned at his thoughts, and forced himself to banish them as he pushed open his cottage door. It would be no use thinking of that anymore. Ciaran would be leaving in tomorrow and things would go back to normal.
His heart not squeezing at the thought of a normal without Ciaran, Keenan pulled off his tunic, folding it neatly before depositing it with the pile of laundry he would wash tomorrow. Then, just as fastidiously, he finished undressing, pulling on a nightshirt before crawling into bed.
It took him a long time to get to sleep – and it was not because of thoughts of Ciaran – and when he did get to sleep, it was a restless one that had him tossing and turning.
Which was why he was less than pleased when Malachi burst into his cottage and his room. "Keenan! Keenan!"
"Go away or I'll boil you hair and your stupid ruby dragon eggs!"
Malachi paused at that, then, in a hesitant voice, asked, "Keenan?"
Keenan groaned in response but forced himself to sit up. That threat – ridiculous as it was – was usually enough to have Malachi running away and coming back only when Keenan allowed him. That he stayed indicated that this was a major problem, whatever it may be.
"What is it?"
Malachi took this as invitation to sit on his bed and babble. Keenan, tired and still fuzzy from too little sleep, took a while to shift through the detritus.
"…and then he kissed me."
"Ciaran. He kissed me." Slowly, Malachi touched his lips. "Right here."
That was the sound of blood rushing through his veins and not the sound of his heart breaking. And, besides, he could not afford to have his heart break, not right now, not Malachi going into one of his sudden flailing episodes while still on Keenan's bed.
Malachi stopped flailing to look at him. "And what?"
"And what happened?" Keenan expounded, ignoring the way every word seemed to scrap against his throat.
"Left?" Unseen, Keenan's hands curled into fists. "He just…left?"
"Yeah!" Malachi nodded hard enough he looked slightly dizzy when he stopped. "He kissed me, and then said…some things and then left."
"I'm sure he'll be back," Keenan managed to reassure even as he felt something clench deep inside and not let go.
"I know that. He told me he'd be back after…some stuff."
"Stuff." If Malachi wasn't being deliberately unclear, Keenan was a horny unicorn.
Pushing back the vague thought that being a horny unicorn was better than being a nymph with unrequited love, Keenan forced himself to focus on the issue at hand. "Well, that means he'll be back and you'll be…you'll be…"
As Malachi looked at him inquiringly, Keenan realised that he couldn't stay. He couldn't stay and watch Malachi and Ciaran be together and be happy. It wasn't that he didn't want to them to be happy, he did, after all Malachi had done for him, the warlock more than deserved to be happy. But he couldn't say – it might not kill him but it very nearly would.
He'd have to leave and Keenan very much doubted he'd find a place – or anyone – who had accepted him as easily as Malachi and Ciaran had. Nymphs, after all, weren't very popular.
"Keenan?" Malachi was still looking at him inquiringly and Keenan realised he'd been staring blankly at the warlock this whole time.
He rubbed his eyes. This was why he hated mornings. "He'll be back," he finally managed to finish, just managing not to wince at how rough his voice sounded. "And you'll be fine. Both of you."
Malachi brightened, leaping from the bed with his usual energy. "You're right. We're always fine, no matter what happens. Thanks Keenan, I'll see you later!" He added as he left the cottage, his tone so cheerful Keenan flinched.
Alone, Keenan buried his face in his hands and let out a low moan. When Ciaran returned and he and Malachi sorted out their feelings – and Keenan had no doubt that Malachi loved Ciaran because who wouldn't? – Keenan would have to leave. He had no choice. He wasn't a masochist, he couldn't stay and see that Ciaran loved another every day of his life.
He had to leave. And it crushed his already broken heart to know that.
Keenan tossed the clothes in the bucket, pushing back his curls. They'd escaped from their tie – again – but he couldn't be bothered to straighten them. It took too much time and energy he no longer had.
Malachi's mishap of the day had been black pixie dust, everywhere. Keenan had no doubt it had somehow managed to settle under his clothes and he was not looking forward to removing them. He was going to feel funny the rest of the week – removing pixie dust from his body just had that effect on him.
Hearing the sound of the door opening, he half turned to inform the would-be customer that they were closed, only to have the words die, half formed, in his throat.
Ciaran smiled uncomfortably, trying and aborting an awkward wave. "Ah – hi."
"Hi," Keenan managed, and marvelled at how calm his voice was.
"Ah – how – how have you been?"
Miserable. "Fine. Just fine."
"There's something in your hair."
"Black pixie dust," Keenan muttered darkly, not bothering to remove it. It would only poof and settle, well, everywhere.
Ciaran's lips lifted in a small smile that twisted Keenan's guts. But, before he could say anything, the door to the workshop opened and Malachi stepped out. The warlock froze upon seeing the human. Ciaran did likewise.
Keenan cleared his throat, pushing down the itchiness that wanted to crawl out in the form of sobs. "Well, I'll just…go…back. To my cottage."
And, after the stupidly inane comment, Keenan hurriedly pushed past Ciaran and sped down the path to his cottage. But he walked right past it, wandering farther into the forest. He needed…familiarity. Something familiar and comforting. This forest wasn't the one he'd grown up in but it was close enough to provide him with some measure of comfort.
And some measure of privacy. Selecting a tree, he, with a quick stretch to grab the lowest branch, began to climb. It was easy to climb, well, it was easy for someone who was used to climbing trees, as Keenan was. He'd climbed more than his fair share when growing up.
Near to the top, where the leaves thinned slightly, Keenan sat with his back to the trunk and stared at the waving tree tops. The sun was setting, he noted distantly, and curled up against the rising cold. He could feel wetness on his cheeks and wondered how long he'd been crying. Strange that he didn't remember starting.
He would have to leave on the morrow. He would leave a note for Malachi – it was cowardly but Keenan had no doubt that if he attempted to tell the warlock he was leaving, he'd end up staying. He still wasn't sure where he would go. A fortnight had not been enough time for him to make up his mind.
The best choice would probably to go south. He'd come from the west, and Ciaran from the north and Malachi liked to travel east occasionally. So south was the best place to go.
The voice, soft as it was, was enough to break him from his thoughts. It was Ciaran's after all.
Keenan turned, after hastily wiping traces of his tears, peering through the branches until he could just make out the human, standing by the roots of the tree. How he'd managed to find him, Keenan had no idea.
"Hey," Ciaran said again, once he was sure he had Keenan's attention. "Can I come up?" Then he paused, seeming to consider that. "Actually, can you come down? I'm pretty sure I'll break my legs trying to climb and then you'll tell me off for hurting your pretty tree."
Keenan scowled because, wind's balls, Ciaran had once again managed to predict his actions, but started to climb down. He'd wanted to say no but it seemed he just didn't have it in him.
"Hi," Ciaran said with a funny smile, once he was back on earth.
"Hi," Keenan returned, keeping his eyes somewhere above and beyond Ciaran's shoulder. If he didn't look at the human, he was less likely to break down. He didn't want to hear how he and Malachi had declared their mutual love for each other and he had no doubt that was why Ciaran had tracked him down, though why it hadn't been Malachi, Keenan didn't know.
The hand on his neck, thumb stroking his jaw, startled him into looking up. Ciaran was still smiling that funny smile and he was a lot closer than he'd previously been. "Your curls are standing on end."
Keenan scowled, hand flying up to attempt to flatten the curls. "Stupid black pixie dust," he muttered. This was why he hated it; it was always doing the unexpected.
Ciaran just laughed and Keenan felt fingers against his own as Ciaran carefully pushed the errant curls down. He stilled, watching the human with wary eyes as Ciaran completed his self-appointed task and dropped his hand to his side.
An awkward silence followed, one made even more awkward because Ciaran still hadn't moved away, nor had he removed his hand from Keenan's neck. Finally, Keenan couldn't take it anymore – he shoved Ciaran's hand away from him, taking a quick step back, ignoring the human's startled expression.
"Well, I guess congratulations are in order?" Was that his voice? So distant, so calm, when, his insides felt like they'd fought and lost a devastating war?
"That's why you sought me out, right? Because you and Malachi are to – now that you and Malachi have sorted out your feelings?" He couldn't even say 'together', couldn't think of them that way. "Though I don't see why it was you and not Ma–" Keenan stiffened as a sudden thought occurred to him and how had it not dawned on him before? He was a nymph, for goddess's sakes! He should be able to recognise the signs of a satisfied being.
"Malachi is not in a stupor from my amazing lovemaking."
Ciaran's dry voice broke through the haze of sudden panic and Keenan blinked, staring at him, until his words finally penetrated. "What?" He scowled. How the hell had Ciaran known what he was thinking – again?
"It's written all over your face," Ciaran said with a chuckle. "But then, I've always been good at reading beings."
"Yeah, well…" Keenan faltered, realising he had nothing to say to that.
Ciaran's chuckle turned into an outright laugh and he stepped closer to Keenan. "It's funny," he said, a smile lighting up his face and making the turmoil that was Keenan's insides clench and freeze that way. "I could always read beings, I've always good at it. The only one I could never get was Malachi, but I figured that was because of my feelings for him. But, then, I came here, and I met you and I could read you so easily, it would have been funny if I wasn't so scared."
Keenan felt his eyes widen, knew that he probably looked like a fool, but couldn't find it in himself to care. Scared? Ciaran? He had never seemed anything but outrageously confident.
Ciaran seemed to be waiting for something. When whatever it was wasn't forthcoming,, his smile widened. "This is the part where you ask me why I was scared."
"Ah – what?"
Ciaran laughed. "Never mind." He took another step, this one bringing him so close to Keenan, he could feel the other's body heat. "You scare me."
Keenan couldn't help but snort at that. "I'm a nymph. I scare everyone who loves another being." He took a small step back, slowly, so Ciaran wouldn't notice.
"Not that way," Ciaran corrected. "Well, yes, actually, at first, when I first saw you."
"Yeah, well, believe me, I'm not interested in Malachi." No, the only being he was remotely interested in was Ciaran and the human didn't want him.
"I know." Ciaran shrugged. "I got that from the first week. You treat Mal like you would treat – well – any idiot warlock who has a habit of messing up his spells and charms."
"Since I haven't come across any other idiot warlock who has a habit of messing up his spells and charms, I will have to take you at your word."
"Anyway," Ciaran said after a moment where he'd just stared at Keenan, again with that funny smile. "After the first week, I became scared for another reason altogether."
"Yes?" Keenan asked, since it seemed Ciaran was waiting for it.
"I became scared because I began to like you. As in, really like you. As in, like you until my feelings for you began to eclipse my feelings for Malachi." As he'd spoken, Ciaran had been walking forward, with Keenan taking a step back for very one forward.
Now Keenan had his back against a tree and Ciaran was brushing the front of his body and he was staring at the human, stunned by his words. "What?"
"I love you," Ciaran said softly, hand lifting up to brush curls away from Keenan's face. They both ignored the black pixie dust that showered down.
"You love Malachi."
"I do. But like a friend. Like a brother. You, on the other hand." He looked down the length of Keenan's body, and his smile turned lecherous. "Well, I definitely don't think of you as my brother."
"But – you kissed Malachi!"
Ciaran grimaced at the reminder. "I know. That was a mistake. I was in a jumble over my feelings – I'd wanted Malachi for so long, to suddenly want you, it, I don't know, it felt like a mistake. I kissed him, to prove to myself that I still loved him and it – it felt wrong. Malachi advised me to go away for a while, to think about my feelings. So I did."
"For a fortnight?" Keenan thumped Ciaran on the shoulder, then narrowed his eyes as he regirtered the rest of Ciaran's explanation. "Wait, Malachi didn't tell me that he told you to go away."
"Aw." Ciaran's smile was back in full force. "Did you miss me?"
Keenan scowled and pushed the human back, stalking away. "No."
Behind him, he head Ciaran laughed. "You did!"
"It's not funny!" Keenan whirled round to glare at him, knowing tears were pricking his eyes but he couldn't find it in him to care. "I thought you went away because you wanted to give Malachi room to think about his feelings for you. I thought you were coming back for Malachi. You loved him, I knew that, so I thought you were coming back for him and–"
He broke off with a moan, hands coming up to clutch at Ciaran's shoulder as the human kissed him hard. Then Ciaran titled his head, shifting the angle, and the kiss turned soft and Keenan felt his whole body go limp. Ciaran's hand spread against his back, supporting him as he melted against Ciaran's body.
Slowly, Ciaran pulled away to look down at him. Keenan blinked at him, trying to get his brain to function again. Ciaran smiled softly and brushed an errant curl from Keenan's cheek. "I love you. I'm sorry it took me so long to figure it out but I do love you."
"I'm a nymph."
"I've noticed that." Ciaran's smile turned into a grin. "Oh believe me, I've noticed that." He traced a finger against the sharp curve of Keenan's ear and made him shiver.
"Beings – beings are going to believe I've enchanted you or something. And some will try take me away, or try save you or–"
"I'm not going anywhere." Ciaran bent his head, kissed him again and when they parted again, Keenan pressed his dizzy head against Ciaran's collar bone. "Anyone who wants to take you away will answer to me. And anyone who wishes to save me – well," Ciaran smiled at him slightly crookedly. "They can answer to you. I love you. "
"You live in the north."
"Not anymore. I won't ask you to move there – they don't look too kindly on nymphs either. At least, here, they're somewhat used to you."
"I was willing to move here for Mal. What makes you think I won't move here for you?"
Keenan opened his mouth but found he had no argument. He closed it, closed his eyes and pressed his cheek closer to Ciaran's chest. "Hey," Cairan said softly, his voice rumbling against Keenan's ear. "It's your turn, you know."
"You haven't said it yet."
"Said what?" Keenan pulled away to look up at him, saw the soft look in his eyes and gained his answer "Oh." Curiously abashed, he looked down. "Ah. I – I love you."
Gentle fingers lifted his chin and he met Ciaran's eyes. "I love you too."
The kiss this time was gentle, soft and loving. Ciaran pulled Keenan's chin down, opening his mouth up for the human's tongue. Keenan moaned, his hands tightening in Ciaran's tunic as he tasted Ciaran and allowed Ciaran to taste him.
Clapping had them startling, breaking away to stare at Malachi. The warlock grinned widely as he stopped clapping to walk towards them. "Finally!" He said, looking at them with clear approval in his eyes.
Ciaran looked startled. "You knew. All this time, you knew."
"Yep! And I helped, too."
"Helped?" Keenan repeated, pulling away from Ciaran to advance on the warlock. With a sound that was suspiciously like a squeak, Malachi began to back away. "You let me think he was in love with you!"
"Well, technically, he was. Ah – thought he was, anyway."
"You let me think he was only coming back here for you!"
"Um – I was testing you?" Malachi tried a smile, letting it slip away in the face of Keenan's anger. "He's my best friend! My oldest companion. I had to make sure you felt as deeply for him as he felt for you."
"Malachi," Keenan suggested, halting. "Run."
"Ah–" Malachi looked beyond Keenan, to Ciaran, saw no help there, and promptly fled.
Keenan felt Ciaran's arm around his waist before he could give chase. "You're not really going to chase him, are you?"
"I ought to, to make sure he does nothing like this again."
Ciaran nuzzled Keenan, just behind his ear and Keenan closed his eyes on a shiver. "I can think of better things to do."
"I'm horny," Ciaran allowed, pressing his hips against Keenan to show him just how. "But I'm no bastard." He pressed a kiss to the side of Keenan's neck. "I love you."
Keenan turned in his embrace to face Ciaran, slipping his arms around his neck and tangling his hands in Ciaran's hair. He wondered if he'd ever get used to hearing Ciaran say that. As a nymph, he'd never thought he'd fall in love. And, when he had, he'd never thought his feelings would be returned. That they were was a miracle in itself.
Ciaran was looking at him, with a mixture of amusement and expectancy in his eyes. Keenan smiled back at him, pulling his head down. "I love you too."
As Ciaran kissed him, and just before his mind went fuzzy, Keenan thought vaguely about moving back to the cottage. Leaves in his hair were as much as pain to remove as black pixie dust.
But then Ciaran moved his hips and stroked Keenan's back and he was lost, as he'd been when Ciaran had first smiled at him.
A/N: Hah. Funny thing was, Malachi was supposed to get the pretty. But then Ciaran spotted Keenan and, well, no idea what happened. Malachi will get a pretty, soon enough. Just have to find him...(or her?)