The noise is so sudden, so loud, so cacophonous that Adam doesn't immediately realize he's awake—that he's tangled in sweat-damp sheets, that his eyes are open even though he can't see anything beyond the white spots of painpainpain, that the hands clamped over his ears are his own and it's not helping at all. That noise. That horrible, inescapable noise. It's like the screaming of babes, the clash of armies, the cracking of thunder—all of it and worse combined together in a hellish symphony inside his head.
Nothing like that should exist outside the realm of nightmares.
Adam can't make his mouth form words, can't call out, though he thinks he may be screaming.
Make it stop. Make it stop. Somebody, please, oh gods. Make. It. Stop.
The noise, the noise, the noise, it hurts. It scalds like fire.
He's burning, burning up from the inside out, flames licking at his skin like jagged knives. The noise, the pain, the noise, the noise, no no no—
There are hands on him. Cold hands, yes, please, so cold. Cold like the rare bite of ice against his skin on a hot summer's day, hands that press against his cheeks before disappearing (no, come back, come back!) and then they're under his shirt (nice, yes, please touch me, don't stop) and then the shirt is gone and he's pressed flush against a cold body, those hands trailing blessed relief up and down his spine and yes.
Slowly, the noise recedes and Adam's ability to think returns. When his vision finally clears, Adam finds himself staring into his bondmate's eyes, Michael's face a mere handbreadth from his own.
Michael's pallor is chalk-white, drained of all color but for the wide line of red stretching diagonally over one cheek—the beginnings of a bruise. His breaths are coming in quick, shallow pants like he's just run a race. The soapy wet tuffs of hair sticking out every which way tell Adam exactly where Michael had come running from. Which leads Adam to realize that he's lying in the arms of a man who is both dripping wet and bare-ass naked.
Adam squeaks manfully.
Michael frowns for a moment, then seems to realize the problem and pulls a blanket over the exposed curve of his rear. "Better?"
Adam nods. Swallows. Breathes. Tries to ignore the fact that they're both bare-chested and clinging to one another.
As if in possession of a mind of its own, one of Adam's hands reaches up to rest lightly over the bruise on Michael's cheek. "What happened to your face?" Adam's voice is nothing but a raspy croak.
Michael huffs a humorless laugh. "I took a bit of a tumble in my haste to reach you. Slipped and knocked my head on the sink."
Michael pulls Adam closer, tucking his face into Adam's hair. His lips are right next to Adam's ear, so he has no trouble making out the words when Michael whispers, "I'm so sorry. I was afraid something like this might happen."
"What do you mean?"
"That sound. It was a warning."
Michael hesitates, reluctant. "What you need to understand is that vessels are very rare and bonds between mages and vessels are rarer still. It's not unusual for a generation to have only one pairbond—or even none at all. Those bonds that are established are usually arranged many years in advance of the fact."
"What are you saying?"
"I'm saying that there are still things about the bonding process that we don't know—and the consequences of failing to immediately consummate the bond happen to be among them. Our circumstances are unprecedented. At least in recent history."
Adam's breath hitches. "So, what just happened? That was..."
"That was the result of an unstable bond. Consummation is intended to stabilize the bond. I knew that, but I had no idea what that meant." Michael's arms tighten around Adam. "I'm sorry. This is my fault."
"I guess that means we have no choice but to consummate the bond this morning," Adam says flatly.
"No. As long as we remain consistently in contact with one another, I think we'll be fine. We were fine throughout the night, weren't we? There was a bit of a warning hum building up before we retired last night—" The thrumming sensation. So it was the bond after all. "—But it died out once you cuddled up to me."
Adam latches on to the last part of that statement. He has never heard anything so absurd! "I did not cuddle up to you!"
Michael's body is shaking against his. It takes Adam a second to realize the lying bastard is laughing. Laughing!
"Adam. Which side of the bed are we on?"
Suspicious, Adam says, "The right side. The side closest to the door."
"And on which side of the bed did you fall asleep?"
Adam thinks about this.
His heart sinks.
"I hate you," he sulks.
He can practically hear the wide grin in Michael's voice as he says, "I know. That does not change the fact that you are, I believe the phrase is, a 'stealth cuddler'."
That's it. Adam doesn't give a damn about good manners or propriety or the natural pecking order or anything else. Not anymore.
He knees Michael in the groin. There's not much force behind it—they're too close together and his legs are still tangled in the sheets. But Michael's indignant squawk makes him feel better anyway.
Adam isn't sure how long he and Michael continue to hold each other before they both feel settled enough to let go, but eventually they climb out of bed and set about preparing for the day's coming trial. By mutual (if unspoken) agreement, they are careful to maintain skin-to-skin contact—usually with a hand on a wrist or a shoulder. No sense in tempting fate.
The soap has mostly dried on his skin and in his hair, leaving behind a tacky residue, so Michael insists on bathing before anything else. The mechanics of this require some forethought: actually sharing a bath would be unspeakably awkward and neither of them cares to risk perching on the narrow edge of the tub while the other does his thing. Eventually they decide to place a chair from the dining table beside the tub.
Adam is sure his face is beet-red during the whole ordeal. Keeping a hand on Michael's shoulder during Michael's turn is a maddening experience. No matter how fiercely he squeezes his eyes shut, there is no escaping the knowledge that there is a naked stranger under his hand.
Then it's Adam's turn in the bath—and, gods, the whole time he's just mortified. Because his traitorous libido is acting up and all it would take is one glance and then Michael would see. It's a special sort of hell. Michael keeps his face turned respectfully away and even occupies himself with reciting sums, of all things, but Adam is too scared to take his eyes away from Michael for even an instant.
The fact that Michael remains mostly naked, covered only by a thin, white bathrobe doesn't help much. The robe barely reaches to mid-thigh. And it gapes open in the front. It's obscene.
Although they've only been provided with fresh sets of the white ceremonial robes rather than proper clothes, it is an incredible relief when they are both finally dressed.
Breakfast is an exercise in caution. And in dexterity, since Adam is forced to eat with his left hand, his right having been commandeered by Michael.
"This holding hands thing is going to get old really fast," Adam grumbles.
"Yes," Michael agrees.
The acolyte who comes to fetch them doesn't look directly at them. Adam doesn't think anything of it until he notices that her reticence is, in fact, the rule and not the exception.
They pass many people as they wind their way through the corridors of the inner sanctum. No one returns Adam's cautious smiles of greeting. No one speaks to them. The only acknowledgement they seem to merit is hastily averted gazes. Adam is starting to feel invisible, like he's become a social leper or something. It has to be part of the bonding tradition, but it's nothing his book had warned him about.
Adam tugs lightly on Michael's hand and beckons him to lean down so Adam can murmur quietly into his ear, "Why won't anyone look at us?"
Just as quietly, Michael explains, "Because candidates for bonding are to be sequestered from outside influences as much as possible. From now until the trial ends, only the High Priestesses are permitted to look upon us or speak to us without due cause. The others see the white robes and know that we are to be as ghosts to them."
Does the aristocracy have nothing better to do than devise stranger and stranger traditions to inflict on each other? He will never understand these people.
Adam is glad when the acolyte shows them into what appears to be a private study and disappears, leaving them alone with High Priestess Kali. Her familiar face and welcoming smile go a long way toward smoothing Adam's prickled feathers.
"Good morning, gentlemen," she says. "Are you prepared to begin your first trial?"
"Excellent. As near strangers the two of you have come to us, each of you with your own histories, your own knowledge, and your own strengths. If you are sincere in your wish to make a lasting partnership, then you must know how to share these things with one another. Therefore, your first trial is this: you each must demonstrate an ability to teach and to learn. You each will identify a skillset or range of knowledge that you possess, but your partner does not. You will each take a turn leading a lesson and a turn absorbing that lesson." The priestess gestures widely with her arms. "You are free to make use of my study and all within it. Should you require other resources, you may send an acolyte to fetch anything you need or ask one to direct you to where those resources may be found. You are free to venture anywhere on the temple grounds as necessity dictates. Have you any questions?"
"No, priestess," Michael replies.
Adam shakes his head mutely, though he has many, the foremost being: what on earth could he—a servant—possibly teach a man of Michael's rank and power? How to properly make up a bed? How to scrub a greasy pot until it shines?
"Then proceed as you will," the priestess says and heads toward the door. "You have until dusk to complete this trial. The gods are with you. Good luck."
As the door clicks shut behind her, Michael turns to Adam, a speculative gleam in his eyes.
"How do you feel about having your first magic lesson?"
As a vessel, Adam is incapable of performing magic in the usual way. He can't set a hearth alight with a word, condense water from the air to fill a cup, or perform any of the other small miracles mages do without thinking. He can't call forth the elements or bend them to his will.
What he can do is sense the magic around him. With considerable training, he will be able to tap into that magic, recognize the weave of it, collect it inside himself, and channel it for Michael's use. More importantly, he'll be able to alter the flow of power as necessary—something that could mean the difference between life and death for a mage engaged in great workings. More than one mage has been swept into Death's arms when their control failed, often leaving a great deal of destruction in their wake.
Vessels are primarily a failsafe.
All the children of Haven are educated on the consequences of mages who lose control, of magic released unchecked: forests burn, crops perish, pestilence spreads, seas rage, and winds swirl into terrible columns of fury. The greater the working, the greater the disaster when something goes wrong. Knowing that he may one day be the only thing preventing utter ruin from being visited upon the kingdom isn't at all comforting. Especially since Adam apparently can't even breathe right.
"You are too tense," Michael says again. The fact that his tone is just as calm and patient as the first dozen times he'd said it sorely tests Adam's self-control.
"I'm trying the best I can."
Michael bites his lower lip and leans back in his chair to consider Adam. He doesn't remove the hand presently circling Adam's wrist; in fact, his thumb absently strokes back and forth over the pulse point—and that? Not soothing. At all. (Actually, it's sort of freaking him out.)
"Adam, you need to stop thinking." Michael reaches out to rest his free hand over Adam's heart—and he must be doing something, because a shiver goes through Adam and suddenly his muscles are unclenching, and he's swaying forward a little, eyes fluttering closed as Michael speaks. "That's right, close your eyes. Imagine that you are sitting alone at the edge of a pond after a storm. The wind is still whipping around you. The pond is murky with stirred sediment. Just watch and breathe. Imagine the wind dying down to a whisper. Inhale. Exhale. Watch as the murk recedes, as the sediment settles at the bottom of the pool. Watch as the water clears. You are calm like that pool, your mind clear and unworried. Inhale. Exhale. Yes, just like that. How do you feel?"
"Good," Adam hears himself say, dreamy and distant. "Peaceful."
"Cleave to that feeling. Now tell me, do you sense my magic?"
Magic? Yes, yes—that's right. Magic. Michael's magic. It's—
Adam frowns down at the rippling pond, at the ribbons of color reflecting off the water. Magic.
"Yes. I sense it. What are you doing to me?"
"Good. You are doing beautifully. Do you sense the threads of my magic, Adam?"
"The threads, Adam, the threads."
The threads, yes, yes. The threads, the colors. The pretty ribbons dancing in the light: green, blue, red, yellow. Weaving all together, weaving a net, weaving him in.
"What are you doing to me?"
Adam's heart beats calmly under Michael's hand, but the breeze around Adam strengthens, the ripples on the water growing in size and frequency.
"Adam, stay calm. Don't worry, I've got you. Now tell me: do you sense the threads? Can you identify the parts of the magic?"
The magic, the threads, the net—the net is like a cage. No, no—it is a cage, a prison to hold him here. He has to get out, has to escape, this isn't right, isn't real—
"Adam? Adam, can you hear me?"
The breeze rages into a full blown wind, which gusts past Adam and across the water with angry force. The pool stirs to life, becoming murky and tempestuous once more. But he can still make out a reflection off the water, can see the net unraveling, the ribbons falling away, and then—
—He opens his eyes with a choked gasp and punches Michael straight in the nose.
With a formless cry, Michael's hands fly to his nose. Blood drips though Michael's fingers, down his chin.
Adam feels vindicated.
In the time it takes for Michael to stem the flow of blood, the tell-tale warning thrum of the bond returns. Adam fancies that there's something agitated about its tune this time, but it's dim enough to ignore. He has no regrets.
Michael, it seems, is in no mood to deal with the bond on top of everything else. He discards the handkerchief he'd begged off a passing junior priestess with a murderous scowl to grab Adam's hand with aggressive force, demanding, "Was that really necessary?"
Adam glares spitefully back, lips curled into a sneer. "I don't know. You tell me. You're the one who decided that it was okay to mind-rape me. Is that sort of thoughtless intrusion common amongst mages, or is it just you?"
The air is positively crackles with Michael's frustration. "I didn't 'mind-rape' you! That was a simple relaxation technique: one often used to ease young apprentices into the right mindset. Our healers even use a variation of it to calm panicked patients. It's perfectly safe, perfectly acceptable!"
Every lamp in the room flickers in punctuation; Adam eyes them apprehensively, wondering what it will take for Michael to lose control. He's not going to apologize, not when he's in the right.
"You altered my mental state without warning and without waiting for permission! How is that 'acceptable'? You can't do that! You can't just—" Adam breaks off, purses his lips, and then quietly says, "There may be few things in my life that I have control over, but my mind ought to be one of them. Don't do that again."
Slowly, understanding dawns and Michael's fury softens into contrition. The lamps stop flickering.
"Very well," Michael says. "I swear to you that I will not perform magic on you again without first explaining my intent and obtaining your consent. Please forgive my thoughtlessness." Michael smiles a humorlessly. "I find myself often needing to apologize to you. I wish to do right by you, but it seems that I am continuously failing."
Adam nods curtly, and then admits, "I did see the weave of magic."
Is it foolish to let Michael off the hook so easily? He's still a bit shaken, still angry. Michael had made a serious lapse in judgment. But the problem seems to have stemmed from an unfortunate case of culture clash. If he were to withhold forgiveness... Well, his momma taught him better than that.
"Yes," Michael says, making a soft noise of amusement. "I rather thought you had. How else could you have pulled apart the threads of my spell? It was a messy, hasty job—but impressive for a first attempt. You are quite gifted."
"Yeah?" Adam says, feeling strangely pleased by the praise.
"Yes. Shall we resume the lesson? With any luck, you'll manage to sense the details of the weave better now that you know what to look for."
And the lesson does proceed better after that. He remembers the way his breathing had evened out, the way his body had settled, the way he'd severed himself from his thoughts and achieved an altered state of awareness. With careful guidance and a few false starts, Adam manages to reach that altered state on his own—or something very like it. In his mind's eye, he sees the aura of magic around Michael, sees the tendrils of power he weaves into small spells. It's interesting to see how the elements mix with each spell: some spells require only one or two elements, others call on all. The balance of the elements fluctuates, which sometimes impacts the patterns in the weaves dramatically.
Adam is unable to repeat his earlier success with influencing a weave. All he manages to do when he tries is give himself a headache. Michael seems pretty pleased with his progress regardless.
"Being able to see the weave and identify the patterns and the individual threads is half the battle. Once our bond is official and you've had a chance to settle into life in the capitol, you'll be enrolled in some real lessons and meet with other vessels. You'll be tapping into magical workings and channeling in no time! For now, I think we can count the lesson as a success."
Adam wishes he could share in Michael's enthusiasm. Mostly he's just relieved that the lesson is finally over.
After eating (or, in Adam's case, ravenously devouring) their mid-day meal, Adam is at last forced to come up with something that he can teach Michael. He'd initially shied away from introducing the man to the more menial skills required of a servant, but after Michael's stunt that afternoon, Adam is feeling vengeful enough to renege that decision. He has half a mind to teach Michael the proper way to polish silverware or—better yet!—muck out a stable. Or laundry! Scrubbing laundry clean has always been one of his least favorite chores.
Except punishing Michael with such tasks would be pretty pointless when he'd essentially be punishing himself too. What he needs is a task that a man of Michael's status would find beneath his dignity, but that Adam finds perfectly ordinary, maybe even enjoyable...
There's really only one option.
"I noticed a few cookery books in your study," Adam murmurs speculatively. "Do you know your way around a kitchen?"
Michael's shakes his head. "Uh, no. Not precisely. I've—Well, I have a bit of a sweet tooth. I've made a few attempts at baking cakes and cookies, but those attempts were all dismal failures."
Adam grins impishly. "Well, then, I guess I'll have to teach you how to bake!"
Michael's horror is positively delicious. "Adam, I am not sure you know what you are getting yourself into..."
A little more than an hour later, Adam is beginning to have an idea of what he's gotten himself into—and the joke is definitely on him.
Upon request, the acolyte who had been left to serve them had led them to an unoccupied kitchen. Adam assumes it's reserved for those special occasions in which the main kitchen would prove insufficient. Like festival days. A quick survey of the cupboards and icebox had proved that the kitchen was well-stocked and so the acolyte had been dismissed and Adam had set his mind to teaching Michael the fine art of baking cookies.
It should have been easy.
Children could do it.
Whatever mishaps Michael had suffered on his own, surely it would be impossible to replicate them with Adam glued to his side, supervising his every move.
Adam's momma has always warned him against overconfidence.
"How," Adam starts, eyes wide with astonished dismay, "did you manage to set the cookies on fire?" Quick spellwork had managed to put the fire out before it could become a real danger, but the cookie sheet is still steaming, scorched black with chunks of char where a dozen golden, crumbly cookies should be. The sheet hadn't even been in the oven that long.
"I'm sorry," Michael says, rubbing the back of his neck awkwardly. He looks like a sulky five-year-old who has just been chastised by his mother. "I thought the fire ought to be a little hotter. I like my cookies crispier than most people."
How had Michael managed to coax the fire higher without Adam noticing? Wait. Mage. And Michael has been pretty good about shielding his magic from Adam.
Frowning, Adam rubs his thumb over Michael's knuckles and considers his options.
"Alright," he says. "We're going to try this again. We're going to let the oven cool to a more reasonable heat, mix up a new batch of dough—and you're going to promise not to mess with the fire. Alright?"
The next few hours are impossibly more disastrous than the first.
The first batch had primarily been a demonstration. Adam had collected, measured, and mixed the ingredients himself according to the cookery book he'd found in a cupboard, explaining the best tools to use, what one ought to do when substitutions were necessary, how to make too-dry dough softer or too-battery dough thicker, and so on and so forth. Michael hadn't had much of a hand in the process beyond sliding the baking sheet into the oven.
This time Adam steps back and lets Michael take the lead. And, as it turns out, Michael's penchant for setting things on fire isn't the only reason his previous attempts at baking had failed.
Every time Adam glances away for so much as a second he turns back to find that Michael has added too much of one ingredient, too little of another, or even added the wrong ingredient altogether! One minute everything will be going smoothly, Michael doing everything according to instruction; Adam will start to feel a little confident in their success, will maybe glance absentmindedly through the cookery book or out the window—and that's that. Suddenly he'll be jumping in to perform damage control.
They have to discard four batches entirely before they manage to get anything back into the oven.
Another two batches are burned.
One batch becomes nothing more than a sticky mess.
Three more batches look okay, but are positively inedible.
"Did you put salt in this instead of sugar?" Adam chokes, eyes watering, spitting desperately into the sink.
"I'm sorry," he says. "I told you that I'm hopeless."
Michael, of course, looks more and more dejected with each failure.
Yelling at him is like yelling at a puppy who's chewed your slippers: Adam is left feeling like a complete berk. He can't be angry, not really.
They attempt one last batch.
When Michael pulls the sheet out of the oven, they both look at its contents askance, without hope. The contents aren't burned, they aren't sticky, but they don't much resemble cookies either. The balls Michael had rolled must have been too big: as they'd spread, they sort of merged together to form one big, uneven thing. It's not pretty at all.
But it doesn't have to be pretty to taste good, right?
With more bravado than Adam actually feels, he sticks his fork into the mass and scoops a mouthful cautiously into his mouth. Chews. Blinks. Swallows.
It needs to cool yet—it's really too hot and too soft at the moment. But.
"You know," Adam marvels, "I think you may have done it. This tastes wonderful!"
Michael looks poleaxed. "Really? You're not just saying that?"
Adam scoops another mouthful onto his fork and holds it out for Michael to sample. Michael still looks dubious, but he leans down to accept the offering—and. Wow.
This is sort of intimate, isn't it?
The joy Michael radiates as it sinks in that, yes, he has succeeded blows Adam's thoughts away. All Adam can do is grin back, so damn proud.
Michael's mouth on his is sugar-sweet.
It's hard to hold a grudge against a man you've seen walking around with a smear of flour on his nose.
They don't talk about the kiss, but the ghost of it lingers between them. As dusk begins to fall, Kali seeks them out to send them on their way. When she enters the kitchen, they are both sitting at the table, slumped face down on the tabletop with a mostly demolished sheet of would-be cookies between them.
When Adam looks up, her eyes are fixed on their clasped hands, her expression inscrutable.
Eight temple guards them escort them to the city's western border, where the Temple of Enlil, Lord of Air, is tucked high in the mountains. Adam has never cared for heights, so he's too busy trying not to think of the increasing altitude or the narrowness of the mountain to appreciate the view out the carriage window. He's heard that the Air Temple is the smallest of the four temples and it's no wonder; petitioners would have to be pretty desperate or else have nerves of steel to travel so high!
"It's not as bad as all that," Michael laughs. "The air mages have cast so many spells on the road over the years that you couldn't fall from it even if you intentionally leapt off the edge. You would only be buffered back with nary a bruise to show for your trouble."
Michael shrugs with exaggerated nonchalance. "Spells have been known to fail, of course. It is conceivable that the driver might lose control of the carriage and send us careening through the barriers to our messy doom. It may not have happened yet, but that doesn't mean it never will. Come to think of it, we're probably overdue for an accident of that nature..."
Adam grits his teeth and glowers.
Michael laughs. "I'm sorry. It's just that you're very easy to tease. If it would help, I could weave a calming spell around you?"
Adam is about to refuse (he's not that weak) when the carriage lurches unexpectedly and suddenly Adam isn't just holding Michael's hand. He's hanging off Michael's arm like the bawdiest of tavern wenches, pressing up so close that if he were any closer he'd be in Michael's lap. He'd blush if he could, but all the blood has drained from his face.
"Are you alright?"
"No," Adam admits. "I think I'll take you up on that offer for a calming spell."
Adam flinches instinctively as Michael weaves the spell and casts it over him, but the spell only tingles a little as it settles. It's not nearly as invasive as the last spell Michael had cast and so he allows himself to sink into it. He gets the sense that if he were truly unwilling to succumb, it wouldn't work at all.
He dozes peacefully for the remainder of the carriage ride, stirring to full wakefulness only when the carriage has stilled and Michael presses two fingers to Adam's forehead to dispel the weaving.
The halls of the Air Temple are already quiet as they're led to their quarters for the night—quieter even than the Fire Temple had been. Adam supposes this makes sense, considering how the Air Priestesses are known for their wandering ways.
If he had been born a woman, he might have considered dedicating himself to the Air Temple. A tetherless existence sounds rather nice.
Dinner is a strange affair. Although Adam and Michael have become adept at maintaining skin-to-skin contact, anyone who has found themselves forced to eat one-handed knows that it can be a miserable challenge, especially when utensils are required. Michael comes up with a solution that opens a whole new bag of weird: he instructs Adam to remove his shoes and socks and then rests one of his own bare feet over the top of one of Adam's under the table.
They've been touching nearly nonstop all day; he'd thought himself pretty well desensitized to it. There is no reason why simply touching their feet together should be any more startling than holding hands. But. There's something unspeakably intimate about it.
Adam's fears his heart may beat right out of his chest.
Michael proposes a test to determine how long their bond will allow them to go without touching one another before it starts raging against them. Throughout the day they'd taken periodic breaks—a minute or two here, a minute or two there—since there were some things no gentleman wished to do with an audience, no matter the risk. The thrumming had always returned, low and insistent, but it had never come close to the level it had been that morning.
"We've been pretty consistent about maintaining contact throughout the day. Perhaps the bond has settled a little?"
Neither of them point out the incontrovertible fact that if they cannot manage to last longer than ten minutes without touching, the bond will have to be consummated that night, regardless of any personal desires.
They manage to hold out a little more than an hour before the thrum becomes too irritating to ignore—but there is no sudden spike, no mind-shattering pain.
"I think we'll be alright," Michael decides.
As the clock ticks closer to bedtime, Adam's mind begins to drift more and more to the memory of the kiss Michael had stolen that afternoon (the kiss Adam had allowed him to steal).
Will Michael want to kiss him again tonight? Will he want to touch Adam? Will he want to finish what they'd started last night and have done with it?
They don't have to do anything. But.
Would it really be so awful if they did?
Adam goggles fixedly at the chiseled lines of Michael's exposed chest, the butterflies in his stomach swarming into a chaotic mass of dread. "You're, ah. You're not wearing a shirt."
"And you'll need to remove yours. We were lucky last night. It may not spell instant punishment if we stop touching during the night, but we still ought to maintain as much skin-to-skin contact as possible."
Adam swallows convulsively, fingering the buttons of his nightshirt. Michael just looks at him expectantly. The space beside him on the bed is open, the blankets pulled back in invitation.
"So... You don't want to..."
Inquisitive, Michael cocks his head to the side. "Do you want to?"
Adam chews at his bottom lip.
"You're not sure," Michael concludes, "which is answer enough."
"So, what? We're just going to ... cuddle?" This last word tastes sour in Adam's mouth.
A moment's hesitation, and then: "Actually, I was hoping you would also allow me to kiss you again."
Reflexively, Adam's eyes flicker to Michael's mouth. The other man's lips are moist with freshly applied balm. He can't help remembering how Michael's lips had tasted last night and earlier that day.
Oh. That's. Maybe. Yeah, that would be.
Strangled, Adam says, "Alright," and, gods, he's playing with fire.
Adam climbs into bed beside Michael anyway—and he doesn't wait for Michael to make the first move. He's not a blushing damsel. He's not some innocent that needs to be treated with kid gloves. Kissing isn't anything new to him. He likes kissing; there's no shame in that. Enjoying a few kisses doesn't have to mean anything.
It's easier than Adam expects to cup one of Michael's stubble-rough cheeks and slot their mouths together. Michael responds with a soft noise of encouragement, his large hands coming to rest on Adam's hips. The angle is awkward, what with them sitting side-by-side, propped up against the headboard, but somehow it's still better than the night before.
There's no hurry in this kiss, no rush to deepen things, no end game to work toward. The kiss itself is the goal. Michael seems content to let Adam set the pace, slow and leisurely, accepting a series of close-mouthed kisses and responding with a few of his own. Gradually, Adam starts to feel braver, more confident, so he improvises a little; he nips cautiously at Michael's bottom lip, which earns a snort of amusement and a nip back.
This is good. Fun, even. Adam could continue like this all night. Only he's a little curious. And he's feeling brazen enough to ask for what he wants. Drawing back, Adam tries to say, "Last night you slipped your tongue into my mouth as you kissed me; I think I want you to try that again," only he finds it's impossible to string words together with Michael looking at him with pupils blown wide and lips swollen red. What he actually says is a garbled, "Last night... You... Your tongue..."
Mind-reading must be among of Michael's talents, because he understands. His grip on Adam's hips tightens for a moment. Then he seems to melt forward, closing the distance to slip his tongue between Adam's parted lips, licking into Adam's mouth, lazy and wet. It's still weird. Intimate. But his pulse is racing now. There's a hummingbird in his chest.
Tentative, Adam slides his tongue along Michael's and, upon earning an encouraging moan, lets go.
He doesn't know how long they continue on like that. Michael keeps making these choked-off noises whenever Adam does something unexpected, something that Michael likes; each of those noises spurs Adam forward. He never knew kissing could make him feel like this: sensual and powerful. He wants to unravel all the things that make Michael weak with pleasure, all his tells.
Michael seems to want to know the same of Adam, though something about the careful way he holds himself speaks of controlled self-restraint. This isn't really a problem until Michael tries to stop kissing Adam, which is just not on. Every time his mouth leaves Adam's, Adam reclaims it without any thought beyond I feel good and I want more and I don't want this to stop (possibly ever).
Eventually Michael wises up and slips a hand between their mouths to stave off Adam's assault.
Adam's thoughts are hazy. It takes a minute or two for him to notice that not only are they both flushed and breathing heavily, but somehow Adam has gone from sitting beside Michael to straddling Michael's lap. And. There's. Um, they're both a little ... excited.
"Ah," Adam says dumbly.
"Yes, 'ah'," Michael expels on a sigh.
They take another "break" from one another before bed that night, each taking a turn in the washroom to ... calm down.
Adam's not sure the break does either of them any good.
He says nothing about the suspicious hardness where Michael's groin presses against him from behind as they settle down to sleep. Michael, in turn, says nothing when they both wake in the middle of the night to discover that Adam has just rubbed one off against Michael's hip. They just move to the other side of the bed, away from the wet spot.
Adam is a teenager. These things happen.
Adam and Michael are eating breakfast (and fastidiously avoiding looking at each other while trying to appear as though they are not, in fact, doing just that) when, without so much as a warning knock, a priestess throws the door to their suite open and marches up to the head of the table and fists her hands on her hips.
"Oh, drat," she pouts, "you're dressed. I'd hoped to catch you at an inopportune moment. Mid-coitus, maybe. You're newlyweds; you should be fucking on every available surface, trials be damned!"
Adam and Michael stare wordlessly, struck dumb.
The priestess honest-to-goodness scowls at them. Like they're the ones being offensive and inappropriate.
It registers with Adam that unless the air priestesses all wear the same garb regardless of rank, the woman standing before them is the High Priestess of Air. Only she's not the one that had attended the blessing; this woman is still young, but the resemblance ends there. Her features are starker, her hair a bold ginger, and "sweet" is the absolute last adjective Adam would use to describe her.
"Charlie," Michael sighs, throwing down his napkin and shooting Adam an apologetic smile. "You aren't even attracted to men. Why would you be trying to catch us ... while we're ill disposed for company?"
Her responding smirk is positively filthy. "Oh, honey, you obviously know nothing about women. Any girl in the city would gladly exchange sexual favors for some juicy details about the two of you in flagrante delicto."
Looking pained, Michael sighs again. "Adam, meet Charlie Bradbury, the most insouciant woman you will ever meet. She's been a full-fledged priestess at the Air Temple for less than a year and already she's giving me grey hairs. Charlie, meet Adam Winchest—" At Adam's baleful glare, Michael backtracks, correcting himself. "Adam Milligan."
"It's a pleasure," Charlie says.
"The pleasure is mine," Adam replies dubiously. Then, curiously, "Is your name really Charlie?"
"No. But if you ever call me 'Ingrid', I'll be compelled to kill you, understand?" Charlie's smile doesn't waver, but Adam gets the feeling that she's speaking in deadly earnest. He nods vigorously.
"Would you care to explain how we came to have the pleasure of having you suddenly assigned to our trial? Where's Priestess Eva?"
Charlie blinks innocently. "Oh, it's the darnedest thing. Eva woke up this morning with a bit of a stomach bug. I—being such a kind, generous soul—offered to stand in for her."
"Kind," Michael repeats.
"And you had nothing to do with her 'stomach bug'."
Charlie's hands fly to cover her heart. "Certainly not. It pains me that you could even consider such a thing!"
Michael's face is perfectly bland, but Adam gets the feeling that Michael is amused.
"So," Michael says, "what fresh hell have you come to deliver us into?"
The second trial as set out by Charlie is neither especially harrowing nor complex, but Adam just knows it's going to be a frustrating experience. If neither of them end up with a broken ankle by the end of the day, it will be a miracle.
"A maze," Adam mutters, studying the opening in the hedges with growing dread. He never would have guessed that there was enough flat, fertile land this high in the mountains for the Air Temple to accommodate an expansive garden complete with a massive, winding hedgemaze. Come to think of it, there probably hadn't been enough viable space for a garden originally. With so many mages around, why bother obeying the laws of nature?
But seriously: a maze.
They have to navigate to the center of a maze and back out again—and with only one pair of eyes between them. Because apparently the name of the game today is "trust" and trust means role-playing as blind man and guide dog. Michael will be blindfolded on the way to the center of the maze; Adam will be blindfolded on the way back out.
It's not going to be pretty.
"A maze," Adam says again.
"Pretty neat, huh?" Charlie says and gleefully whips a scrap of fabric out of her sleeve—the blindfold. "Michael, are you ready to begin?"
"Let's get this over with."
It's nice to know Adam isn't alone in his misery. He suspects Michael would rather be shoving Charlie into the nearby fountain than leaning down for her to fix the blindfold in place. Charlie seems to know it too, if her mocking expression is anything to go by.
Once the blindfold is in place, Adam steps a little closer to Michael and wonders if there's a particular way he should touch him to better offer guidance. Will holding hands be good enough? Would an arm around the waist be better? It would be weird, yeah, but would that help prevent Michael from tripping?
Quietly, Michael says, "Adam, all will be well," and squeezes Adam's hand.
"That's sweet," Charlie snorts. "Now remember: no using magic to cheat. If anything goes wrong, Michael should send up a distress signal. One of the acolytes will check in on you every hour or so as a precaution. The gods are with you. Good luck!"
Nervously, Adam shifts his weight and says, "Is this a bad time to mention that I have a terrible sense of direction?"
The hours that follow aren't exactly thrilling, but they aren't awful either. Other than a few scratches here and there from walking too near the hedges and tripping over roots, Adam is able to keep Michael mostly unscathed. They spend more time wandering in hopeless circles than Adam cares to admit; however, that's not unexpected. Adam is directionally challenged at the best of times. Someone issued him a faulty mental compass at birth.
Michael is a good sport about it all. Whenever Adam's frustration begins to spike, Michael starts babbling about life in the city, local traditions, the best places to eat, the latest gossip, and other mindless things. Adam finds himself interested in spite of himself, though his interest is not so much for the trivia as for what that trivia tells him about Michael. This is a man who loves his country, his city, and his academy. He's a busy man, but he doesn't let his obligations prevent him from partaking in his favorite pastimes or spending time with friends and family. He can be silly. He can do inadvisable things.
Many of those inadvisable things seem to have involved Charlie, whom Michael had apparently met when they were both schoolchildren, before he'd officially been accepted into the mage's academy and she into the sisterhood of the Air Temple.
"I was eight when I first came to the city. I'd grown up on my family's country estate, being pampered and coddled and showered with praise by everyone. I'm sure you can imagine how insufferable I must have been. I was accustomed to having my way, to people bowing before my every whim. Charlie, of course, wasn't inclined to let me boss her—or anyone—around. She knocked me down five minutes after meeting me, bloodied my nose. I have counted her as a dear friend ever since."
Dean is the specter in the periphery of Michael's life, the unacknowledged shadow in most of Michael's stories.
They reach the center of the maze more by chance than by rote. Michael tries to hide his relief at being able to remove the blindfold, but proximity breeds familiarity; the man's not all that hard to read, really. Though Adam doesn't know what to make of the way Michael's eyes widen when he peers down at Adam once he has adjusted to the light.
Adam's hands fly to his face, feeling for anything unusual. "What? Is there something on my face?"
"No. Well, yes. Sort of." Michael reaches out with one hand as if to touch Adam's face, but stops before making contact, hand hovering uncertainly. "It's just. You've started to freckle."
Adam groans. "Already? It's the curse of fair skin. The maze has a lot of shade. I'd hoped I could have avoided this." He's not vain. Honestly. He just hates freckles. At the tender age of eighteen, he has a hard enough time being taken seriously as it is; it's so much worse when he gets all spotty like some twelve-year-old child who's been out kicking a ball around with his little friends in the sun all day. Call him crazy, but he'd much rather burn than freckle.
His mother doesn't freckle. He's pretty sure it's another accursed Winchester trait. Thanks, Dad.
"They don't look bad. They're actually sort of—"
"If you end that sentence with 'cute', I will end you," Adam promises sweetly, flashing his teeth.
Michael blinks with an air of feigned innocence and waves one hand in the direction of the picnic blanket and basket setup in the shade near a burbling fountain. "I'm hungry. Are you hungry? Shall we see what's been left for us?"
"I sincerely hope your line of work doesn't require much lying or misdirection, because you fail at both."
Laughing, Michael takes Adam by the wrist and tugs him toward their waiting meal. "Come on," he says. "You'll feel better after a little nourishment. And then maybe a nap? We have some time to spare before we need to start back."
"Do I look like a toddler? I don't take naps."
Michael smiles that placid smile that Adam is fast coming to distrust.
About an hour latter Adam's head is pillowed in Michael's lap and he's being gently coaxed back to consciousness.
"Uh," Adam groans in protest, swatting blindly at the hands patting lightly at his cheeks. There's a chuckle, then those hands squeeze Adam's face obnoxiously between them—a pressure that, while not painful, is definitely awkward and undignified. He shoves free and rolls away with a few muttered insults and a bleary-eyed scowl in Michael direction.
Michael grins back, unrepentant.
"Ah, the fair prince awakens. What's that you were saying about toddlers and naps?"
"Shut up," Adam sulks, his mood going even blacker when Michael pulls out the blindfold and dangles it between them. "I hate you."
"My, my—aren't you a grumpy kitten this afternoon?"
"When did you become so sassy? What happened to trying to ingratiate yourself into my good graces? I think I liked you better when you were full of guilt and angst."
"Adam," Michael laughs, "if there is one thing I've learned over the past few days, it is that playing the doormat will never get anyone anywhere with you."
The journey out of the maze is just as uneventful as the way in had been. Michael picks up where he'd left off with his earlier storytelling and ushers Adam forward at a snail's pace.
Adam's respect for Michael skyrockets drastically within the first fifteen minutes. Although Adam trusts that Michael will do everything within his power to prevent Adam from coming to harm, each blind step is positively nerve-wracking. How Michael managed to keep calm and yammer on about pointless things that morning Adam will never know; it's all Adam can do to keep putting one foot in front of another.
It's not long before Adam is crowding up against Michael's side. He hates himself a little for his show of weakness. He's not in any danger. He's faced much scarier situations than taking a leisurely stroll through a luxury garden with a bit of fabric tied around his head.
"How are you faring, Adam?"
"Well enough," Adam lies.
He'd never realized how vulnerable being deprived of one of the five senses could leave you.
By the time they finally wind their way out of the maze, even Michael's words have dried up, his voice having gone rough and scratchy, strained from overuse. Charlie is waiting for them at the exit, chipper and verbose enough to fill the silence without any help as she escorts them to the carriage that will take them to their next destination.
Michael weaves another calming spell, wrapping it around Adam like a comfort blanket. The spell works quickly, easing the knot of tension in Adam's chest, but this time he is not the one lulled into the realm of sleep; Michael dozes off within minutes of departure, his head lolling against the carriage window. Every once in a while, when the carriage jostles him about a bit too hard, he snorts and shifts in his seat with a nonsensical mutter, flexing his grip on Adam's wrist as if to reassure himself that Adam is still there.
Adam regards him silently all the way to the Water Temple. He thinks of Michael's soothing voice in that maze, of his guiding touch, of the way he always seems so concerned with Adam's comfort, of the dark shadows under his eyes, of the obvious worry leaking through now that he's not aware enough to hide it. Mostly, though—mostly Adam thinks of how Michael is nothing like any nobleman he has ever met. He's nothing like Adam had feared.
Michael is a good man.
Maybe trusting him won't turn out to be a mistake.
Maybe it's time to take a leap of faith.