Michael stares mutely into his empty teacup, wishing he could divine the pattern of the future in the dredges of leaves. He doesn't need to look up to know that everyone around the table is watching at him, waiting for him to react.
Should he be angry? Hurt? Disappointed? None of it feels real. Michael and Dean were to be bonded today. That won't happen now.
"Dean and Cas aren't traitors," Sam repeats sullenly—like repetition could make it true. Michael understands the sentiment. He doesn't want to believe it either. But he is, above all, a realist and the facts are clear: sometime around midnight that very night, Dean Winchester had broken Castiel Novak, a convicted traitor, out of the palace cells and disappeared with him.
The city is on high alert for any trace of the pair, but the search would prove unfruitful. Dean is too well-trained to make mistakes. And the traitor? The traitor Michael had trained himself.
Michael closes his eyes against the pounding in his ears.
Dean and Castiel are long gone.
The parlor Zachariah ushers him into isn't nearly as grandiose as Adam had anticipated, but it's still unmistakably the residence of a man of considerable wealth and power. It's filled with the typical modish furnishings and strategically-placed ornamentation one would expect from a man of status, though there's also a blandness to it all that speaks of cold practicality. There are no signs that this space is actually lived in. It's not a home, it's not even a showcase—it's just there.
Adam suspects his intended bondmate doesn't spend much time entertaining guests in a personal capacity. He can't help but wonder if that will change after the bonding. Will he be expected to socialize and play host as any good, well-bred spouse to a powerful man ought? Or will he be kept hidden away—out of sight, out of mind—like the poor excuse for a replacement he is? He's not sure how he feels about either possibility, or even if he should feel anything at all.
It's been a long day—a long damned fortnight. He doesn't want to deal with any of this right now, doesn't want to think about how his life has been turned inside-out and upside down, doesn't want to think about Lord Michael Milton. He just wants to sleep, to forget everything, if only for a few hours.
But Lord Milton wants to meet him.
Lord Milton's wants will always supersede his own.
"If you are quite finished gawking, the washroom is through there," Zachariah says, gesturing toward the door closest to the sitting area. "I suggest—" If the way he spits the words is any indication, he's not actually suggesting anything. "—that you make use of it. You are to wait in the parlor until Lord Milton comes to you. He is a very busy man, so it may be a while. I would also advise that you take some time to study the book I gave you."
Adam's hand instinctively goes to the well-thumbed book tucked into the inner pocket of his frock coat: a guide to bonding between mages and vessels. It had been bitterly dull the first time he'd read it; the experience hadn't improved much with repetition. He must have paged through it a hundred times on the train to the King's City.
"Um, yeah, I'll do that," Adam lies, then jumps on the most salient issue: "You're not going to wait with me?"
Zachariah sniffs derisively. "Certainly not." Adam manages to hide his sudden surge of glee, but only just. "I was tasked with your retrieval, nothing more. You are someone else's problem now." With that Zachariah starts toward the door, pausing only briefly in the doorway to say, "I will have the kitchen send up a small repast. We wouldn't want you to perish of hunger before your big day, now would we?"
Only years' worth of hard-won self-control prevents Adam from following Zachariah into the hall to wipe that mocking smirk off his face. If he never sees that man's ugly mug again, it will be too soon.
"Typical capital snob thinking he's better than everyone else," Adam mutters, shucking his coat with more force than is, perhaps, required. After a moment's consideration he tugs off his cravat too, shoving the annoying bit of fabric into the coat pocket beside his book. If he's going to be waiting around for any length of time, he's damn well going to do it in comfort. Summer may finally be upon them, but the weather has been unseasonably cool for the past few days and he had dressed accordingly. With the fire blazing freshly away in the fireplace, the apartment is really much too warm.
He's tempted to remove his waistcoat as well; it's the finest he has, but he's had it for years and no amount of tailoring will ever make it fit as it should. Alas, there's impropriety and then there's impropriety. Adam may not be nobility, but he has his pride. His momma raised him well.
He has half a mind to ignore Zachariah's instruction to wash out of sheer spite, but he's been travelling for nigh on four days and the conveniences on the train had been limited. Perhaps a proper wash will improve his sour mood. The gods know Adam is at the end of his tether.
The washroom is delightfully modern, all shining silver and porcelain and echoing space. Adam is excited to discover that not only is there indoor plumbing, but the temperature of the water running from the washbasin's taps can be adjusted at will. Even his last employer hadn't had a self-heating water system and she'd been exceptionally fond of her newfangled gadgets and whatsits. How is the water-heating mechanism powered? Magic? This is the mage's academy, so that would make sense, though Adam has a hard time imagining mages putting their gifts to use on anything so pedantic.
Adam eyes the porcelain tub speculatively. It's more than large enough for any single person to fully submerge himself in. Why, you could probably fit two or three grown men in that tub without any trouble at all! Living in the capital has some perks, at least. He could get used to these sorts of luxuries.
After completing his ablutions, Adam returns to the parlor, where he casts his eyes around indecisively. Should he wait in the sitting area? Should he take a seat at the small dining table in expectation of his meal?
Adam's gaze flickers to the unexplored doors adjacent to the parlor. The room is essentially one large rectangle with a wall of windows opposite the main entryway. Each of the remaining walls contains two closed doors, which stand opposite each other in perfect symmetry. One of those doors leads to the washroom, but the other three remain a mystery. One must lead to a bedroom, of course, but what of the other two? A study? Lord Milton is an Archmage, so maybe a workroom of some kind, or even a chapel. Mages claim to have been blessed by the gods, so presumably they're a pious lot, at least on the surface.
As he'll be living here within the week, it wouldn't really be snooping to take a look around, would it? Adam can practically hear his momma's admonishments already.
Sighing, Adam flops down on the sofa farthest from the ridiculously ornate fireplace and throws an arm over his eyes to block out the light. It's not long before he's being lulled into a pleasant doze by the warmth of the fire and the soft give of the cushions beneath him.
Adam is roused from his dearly-deserved rest by a sharp rap on the door: the servant with his meal.
"Enter," Adam calls out, voice thick with sleep.
The door glides open and Adam sits up to watch a mousy maid push in a cart laden with tea, cookies, pastries, and a cover plat of what smells like some sort of roast or stew. She acknowledges him with a curtsey and a polite, "Good evening to you, sir," before methodically unloading the contents of her cart onto the table and leaving with another curtsey and a murmured, "Is there anything else my lord will be wanting this evening?" It's all very unsettling. No one's ever called him "my lord" before, not unless it was in jest.
Suddenly Adam's nerves are singing with tension and the last thing he wants to do is eat. Returning to his doze is out of the question.
His eyes dart to the mystery doors once again.
He really, really shouldn't.
Lord Milton could return any minute.
"Oh, honestly, what's he going to do if he catches me nosing about? Refuse to bond with me? I should be so lucky," Adam mutters and walks toward the door next to the washroom. When tries the knob, it doesn't budge. Locked.
Disappointed, but not deterred in the least, Adam crosses the room to the opposite door. This one opens without resistance, the well-oiled hinges gliding easily to allow a peek inside. He's found the bedroom. The light from the parlor casts grotesque shadows in the dark expanse, but the illumination is enough to reveal a room just as impersonally comfortable as the parlor. There are no shelves filled with baubles, no trinkets, no books on the bedside table, and no clothes draped over the top of the bureau to indicate that anyone actually lives here; it's all neat to military precision. Adam would wager that there isn't so much as a speck of dust anywhere to be found.
Unable to help himself, he finds his gaze focusing on the bed, a sick feeling pooling in his stomach. It certainly is massive. Feather-soft, no doubt. Probably like sleeping on a cloud.
He'll know exactly how soft it is all too soon.
Adam shuts the door on a shaky exhalation and approaches the last door, which also proves to be unlocked. The room behind this door proves to be much more interesting than the previous one. Curious, Adam flips on the light and steps inside.
It's the man's study—and there is nothing bland or military neat about it. Papers, files, and ledgers are haphazardly stacked all over the large writing desk, with more peeking out from the overstuffed drawers of a file cabinet. Books are stacked high on the floor beside the desk and on either side of the lounge situated under a reading lamp. Scraps of papers jut chaotically from the edges of the books, presumably marking passages of interest. Still more books and papers fill the floor-to-ceiling bookshelves that span the length of three whole walls; the shelves are so crammed-full that they've been piled two-rows deep in some places. In short: it's a mess.
"Looks like Lord Milton is human after all," Adam says aloud, a smile tugging at the corners of his mouth. He'd started to fear that he was marrying some sort of inhumanly perfect clockwork automaton. Which may be a sign that he reads to much pulp fiction, but hey—if anyone could build a working automaton, it would be a mage.
Upon closer inspection, many of the books appear to be written in foreign tongues, though a fair few are in the vernacular. Some of the titles are so shockingly normal that Adam has trouble crediting their presence and he has to flip through a few pages to make sure the dust jackets haven't been switched for the purpose of misdirection. Why would Lord Milton be reading up on subjects as mundane as cookery or pest control? And, good grief, was that a penny dreadful poking out from beneath the morning paper?
"The Duke's Passion?" Adam reads incredulously and then decides that, no, he doesn't actually want to know.
Adam isn't much interested in the contents of the desk (poking through someone's personal papers would feel like too much of a violation for his own peace of mind) but something partially obscured behind a stack of files catches his attention: the top edge of a small, delicately carved picture frame. A personal memento? It's the first sign of any such sentimentality he's come across. How could he resist? He reaches for the frame and pulls it out for closer inspection.
It takes him a moment to realize that he's looking at a gods-honest color photograph—and not one that has been hand-painted, either. At least not as far as he can tell. The colors are muted, but still impressive. He hadn't realized anyone had developed a workable process for developing color photographs just yet. How had such a thing been accomplished?
More important still: who are the man and the woman in this portrait?
They are both impeccably poised, the woman perched gracefully on a chair, her skirts artfully arranged, and the man standing behind her and a little off to the side, one hand settled on the back of her chair. The woman is clearly the elder of the two, perhaps by two decades or so. She can't be more than fifty. The man is a few years older than Adam, maybe twenty-four or twenty-five. Presumably the two are related, perhaps mother and son or aunt and nephew. There's a definite familial resemblance shared between them; they have the same sharp curve of the jaw, the same hawklike eyes, and the same piercing stares. It's silly, but Adam feels as though they're staring right out at him and seeing him. It's unsettling.
For all her intensity, Adam must admit that the woman has a kind face. There's a softness to her that speaks of many years of laughter and love. Her smile is natural and a little mysterious, like she has a secret.
The man, though. Something about him sets Adam on edge, makes bells and whistles sound in his head. He looks—Well, he looks familiar in a way that he shouldn't. It takes Adam a few minutes of increasingly agitated study to realize why.
For as long as Adam can remember, his mother has kept a small drawing tucked away in her traveling trunk, safely stored in the flap that had been appended to the lid for the sole purpose of containing it. The drawing isn't particularly impressive, just one of those silly sketches any down-on-his-luck street-corner artist might do for a copper crown or two, but his mother treasures it like it's made of gold. Sometimes, late at night, she takes that drawing out and just looks at it. Sometimes she cries.
Adam hates that drawing.
More than that, he hates the man in that drawing, that careless, heartless nobleman who took a shine to a pretty serving girl, who lured her into his bed with sweet words and empty promises and left her to heartbreak and ruin.
That face—that handsome, deceitful face. He would know that face anywhere.
The man in his mother's drawing and the man in this photograph could be twins. The similarities aren't just similarities; it's like they were shaped from the same mold.
Feeling sick, Adam flips over the frame, searching for some indicator of who the subjects of the photograph may be, but finds nothing. It doesn't matter. He's pretty sure he knows who the man in the photograph is. Because the gods have it out for him, he's sure of it.
"You must be Adam Winchester."
The voice, low and even, makes Adam's heart stutter in his chest.
Slowly, Adam turns—and his suspicion is confirmed. The man in the photograph is leaning against the doorframe, head cocked to one side, observing Adam like he's a puzzle to be solved.
So this is his bondmate-to-be. This is Lord Milton.
Adam wishes the floor would open beneath him.
"I—I'm so sorry, my lord! I didn't mean to pry. I was just—"
"Curious?" Lord Milton says. "Calm yourself; it is quite alright. I am not angry with you."
The man huffs a laugh, but there's more self-deprecation to it than humor. "If I had been concerned about you nosing around, I would have had you sent you to the guestroom set aside for you and called for you when I was ready to entertain. This is to be your home. You are welcome to it." Lord Milton waves a hand around the room—and Adam must be imagining things, because the lord's cheeks appear to have gone a little pink. "I hope you will forgive the mess. I don't like for the servants to come in here and—Well, tidying up has not been high on my list of priorities of late, you understand."
"I suppose it hasn't, my lord."
"You needn't call me 'my lord'. In fact, I would really rather you didn't. You'll find we mages have little patience for formalities. No one calls me by title excepting, of course, the servants."
Adam's hackles rise at the sheer careless arrogance of that statement, but he manages a polite, "I am a servant, my lord," just the same.
Lord Milton winces. "I meant no offence."
"Of course not, my lord."
"Please," Lord Milton sighs, "won't you call me Michael?"
Reluctantly, Adam relents. "If that is what you wish, my—" He stumbles and corrects himself. "Michael." Awkwardly, he adds, "You may call me Adam, then. And it's Milligan, not—Not Winchester."
"Very well," Lord Milton—Michael—agrees.
An awkward silence settles over them. Adam feels like he's missed some cue, like Michael is waiting for him so say something, but he doesn't know what. What do you say to the stranger you're about to bind yourself to? What do you say to the man who ruined your life? He can think of a few things, but he's not an idiot. Running his mouth at this juncture won't solve anything.
Just because he's been effectively cornered doesn't mean he needs to lash out like a rabid animal.
"I, uh." Adam clears his throat and sets the picture frame back down on the desk. "I was just thinking—when you came in—how very like the late Lord Winchester you are. My father, I mean."
"Yes," Michael sighs, like this is something people are always commenting on. "John Winchester was my second cousin, you see. One of my great-grandfathers was also one of his grandfathers. Lord Matthew Milton. We both take after him. I realize the resemblance may be ... discomfiting to you. It was to—It was to Dean as well."
Adam swears the temperature in the room drops ten degrees when Michael says Dean's name. He wonders why Dean left, if anyone will ever tell him, if anyone even knows.
"It is. Discomfiting, that is. But I'm sure I'll grow used to it."
It's a bold-faced lie and they both know it. Michael doesn't call him on it, merely nods and says, "There is a lot that we'll both need to grow used to in the coming weeks. That's why I wished to speak to you tonight. Will you join me at the dinette?"
Adam follows Michael out of the study and over to table, where his meal has gone cold. Michael directs Adam to the seat in front of the covered dish and takes the seat across from him, peering at the array of foodstuffs between them with a frown.
"You haven't touched any of it," Michael observes. "Is none of it to your liking?"
Adam ducks his head, focusing on the fine grain of the tabletop, the polished shine. "No, it's fine. I was just..."
"Too nervous to eat."
"Ah," Michael acknowledges, then adds, carefully, "Do you think you could eat a little now?"
"I don't know. Maybe?" Adam removes the cover from the dish in front of him. He was right: it's stew. It looks delicious, like something his mother would make, but it's gone lukewarm by now.
His stomach rumbles plaintively.
And then something unexpected happens.
Heat is flowing over his skin, filling his lungs, pulsing through his veins, crackling in his ears—it's everywhere, whispering to him, calling him, lulling him to—to what? He doesn't know. He doesn't know, but it's so—
Then it's gone.
With a gasp Adam jerks his gaze up from his now steaming bowl of stew to find Michael looking speculatively back at him.
"What was that?" Adam demands, shaken to the core.
"You're sensitive," Michael says mildly. "More sensitive than either of your brothers, I think. That you could sense so small a spell with such intensity is a good sign. I had thought Zachariah's summation of your potential and our mutual compatibility may have been overly optimistic, but I was clearly mistaken. We're well-matched. Have you sensed anything like that before?"
"I've sensed magic before, but never like that. Usually it's just a sort of... I don't know, a tingle? Sometimes I'll get gooseflesh or my eyes will go a little spotty for a moment, but what just happened now, with you? That was something else entirely." It was fucking terrifying, that's what it was. Overwhelming. He'd lost himself for a moment, lost himself in fire. It was as if the Fire Lord had been right there, all around him.
Will it be like that from now on? Had Michael just triggered something in him? Until now he'd had little exposure to mages working their arts, but he'll be living on the campus of the mage's academy for the foreseeable future. There will be no relief, no escape!
Apparently sensing Adam's distress, Michael says, "Once we've bonded and once you've had some proper training, it will be easier. You'll learn to shield yourself. In the meantime, I'll take care to strengthen my own shields; I have no desire to make you uncomfortable when I weave my spells."
Through clenched teen, Adam hisses, "What about others? We're smack-dab in the center of campus! There are mages everywhere. I'll go mad if I'm hit by another wave of that every time I pass within casting range."
"The walls of the academy are well-shielded, I promise you. And even if they were not, it is unlikely that anyone else will affect you so strongly."
"And why is that?"
Michael smiles gently—the villain!—and says, "I affect you so strongly only because I am an exceptionally powerful Archmage, you are as yet unbonded, I am as yet unbonded, and you and I are compatible. No one else will affect you as I do."
"Eat," Michael chides. "You'll feel better."
Adam obeys. At least if he has his mouth full, he won't be tempted to open his mouth and say something he shouldn't.
There is so much Adam doesn't know about what he is, about his so-called gift, about vessels and mages and how it all this magical nonsense works. He was born a servant; he'd been sure he'd die a servant. Knowing about all the traditions, ceremonies, rules and whatnots pertaining to the four gods and their disciples: that was the purview of mages, priests and scholars. It was never supposed to have anything to do with him. But now it does.
He needs to know these things and he doesn't.
He's entered a bizarre new world, one where he doesn't know the rules.
Intellectually, he'd known that his old life was over—but knowing isn't the same as understanding. He's maybe starting to understand.
While Adam contemplates his stew, Michael reheats the tea with an absent-minded gesture that makes Adam's whole body go taut with expectation, but Michael keeps his promise. All Adam feels is a faint tingle along his nerves, like an itch beneath his skin; it's annoying, nothing more.
Michael wordlessly passes Adam a cup of tea and settles back to sip at his own cup. He watches intently as Adam eats, which doesn't do much for Adam's nerves. Adam keeps dabbing his mouth with his napkin, sure that there must be something on his face.
Finally, Michael asks, "Are you prepared for tomorrow?"
Adam snorts around his mouthful and almost chokes.
"What do you think?"
Michael frowns. "I understand that this is difficult for you—"
"Difficult?" Adam parrots, incredulous. All the anger that's been simmering beneath the surface since Zachariah first came to him bubbles up and spills over. "You understand that this is difficult for me? The only reason I'm here is because my mother is dying. She's dying and the only way to get her the treatment she needs is to submit to this—this thing, with you. I'm being forced into a bond—a life—that I don't want, because you need something from me and you're willing to use underhanded tactics to get it. Don't you dare pretend that you understand anything about what I'm going through. Don't. You. Dare."
"I've upset you again. Forgive me," Michael says, pursing his lips unhappily. He looks sincerely apologetic, even lost, like he's floundering in unfamiliar waters. Adam's too angry to throw him a line.
It isn't until Michael awkwardly holds out his handkerchief that Adam realizes that his cheeks are wet with tears.
"For what it's worth," Michael says, "I am sorry about your mother. The healing mages here will give her exceptional care. If anyone can cure what ails her, it will be them. She will be in good hands."
Adam can't speak past the knot in his throat. He accepts Michael's handkerchief for the peace offering that it is and focuses on pulling himself back together.
He doesn't notice that Michael has rounded the table between them until he's already kneeling beside Adam's chair, silently beseeching Adam to look at him. His expression is serious, his eyes dark and unreadable. Adam doesn't know what to make of it, but he doesn't protest when Michael gently clasps one of Adam's hands between his own.
Softly, Michael says, "I know you have no reason to believe me, but if I could have had my way, you never would have come to me like this. I would have gone to you. I would have courted you properly, so that we could have come to know each other outside our roles as mage and vessel. You would have been given a real choice—and even if you had said 'no,' perhaps we could have been friends."
"Why couldn't you have had your way?"
Michael doesn't answer, just smiles sadly. That's okay. Adam hadn't expected an answer, not really; whatever game is being played here, he's only a pawn. Pawns don't get answers, only orders.
Releasing Adam's hand, Michael rises to his feet and gestures vaguely at the table. "If you are finished eating, I shall call someone to escort you to your room."
"But you said you wanted to discuss—" Adam swallows thickly. "—our future."
"I did, but there is nothing that needs saying that cannot wait. It is late and you must be weary from travel. It was selfish of me to ask you meet me tonight rather than allow you to seek the comfort of a bed." Michael hesitates a moment, then admits, "However, I cannot regret that our first meeting took place here, in privacy, before the ceremony."
Adam twists the handkerchief in his hands. Sleep would be good. He's lost his appetite again.
When the servant arrives to escort Adam away, Michael stops Adam at the door with a hand on his shoulder and presses Adam's abandoned frockcoat into his arms. "I am not an ogre. I hope you will give me a chance to prove it to you."
Much later, Adam finds that a bundle of cookies wrapped inside a napkin has been tucked into his coat pocket along with a note.
Sleep well, it simply reads.
And, surprisingly, he does.
The sun is only just peeking over the horizon when a veritable army of servants descend upon Adam. He puts up a valiant resistance, groggily batting at their grasping hands and stubbornly clinging to the blankets, but they're a persistent lot; they continue to coax and cajole and make utter nuisances of themselves until Adam finally waves the proverbial white flag of surrender and grudgingly rolls out of bed.
"I hate you all," Adam declares, waspish and unrepentant. The servants are utterly unfazed.
Two men manhandle him onto his feet and into a dressing gown and slippers—and that pretty much sets the tone for the day. From person to person he's passed around, his every move planned and orchestrated and well outside his control. First comes a hasty breakfast, then comes the tailor to fit him for his ceremonial garments, then the priestess to verify his aptitude for bonding, then the healer to determine his mental and physical capacity to safely consummate a bond, then, then, then.
Before long it all becomes a chaotic blur in his mind. As the clock counts down to the hour of the ceremony, the world around him seems to speed up. Vertigo washes over him in waves, breaking and receding only to come crashing mercilessly back. It's a wonder that he manages not to be sick all over himself.
Around mid-afternoon, the steady stream of visitors poking and prodding at him trickles off. Adam has no time to feel relieved; that's also when personal preparations step up.
It takes three attendants to strip him out of his usual day-to-day clothes and wrestle him into the steaming bath prepared for him. He tries putting them off, struggling and swearing and promising that he's a big boy and can bathe himself just fine on his own, thank you very much, but they are like a force of nature and refuse to be swayed. They submerse him in the water and sponge him down with scented soaps and shampoo his hair three times before they're satisfied.
They're professionals at least; not one of them speaks much beyond an occasional "if you would, sir." He supposes he has nothing they haven't seen before; that should probably make the ordeal a little less unbearable, but it really doesn't. If things could get worse, he doesn't want to imagine how. They touch him in places no one has ever touched him before and he despises every minute of it. Adam nearly expires of humiliation when one attendant matter-of-factly instructs him on how to "prepare" himself for Michael that evening.
By the time he's passed off to the attendants waiting to dry him and slather him with purifying oils to soften the skin, all the fight has gone out of him.
He doesn't even offer a token protest when a matronly woman begins to apply creams and cosmetics to his face or when two girls work at softening the calluses on his hands and feet. Another woman soon arrives to tame his unruly hair with brusque efficiency.
By the time the tailor returns with the newly altered ceremonial garments, Adam has been primped and polished to perfection; the new clothes complete his transformation into something utterly foreign.
The old fashions have largely been abandoned by the greater populace, but they are still favored for ceremonial purposes. Adam, of course, has never had occasion to wear such clothes before.
First he dons the fitted undergarments, then the loose trousers that flare out in an excess of fabric all down his legs to gather again at the fitted ankles, then the billowing shirt that falls nearly to his knees and sports sleeves that flare out much like the trousers and gather at the wrists. A gold silk cord that is probably worth enough to feed a family of four for an entire year is tied around his waist. His arms are then slipped into the elaborate hanging sleeves of the outer robe. The robe is open all down the front and flows down to just above the floor. Every time he moves, the fabric rustles as if caught in a light breeze.
He doesn't recognize his own reflection.
Who is that unfamiliar, winter-pale boy clad all in white? He looks so frightened, raw and young and open in ways Adam has sworn never to be.
"What are you doing?" he whispers.
The boy in the mirror doesn't answer.
As the sun nears the distant horizon, four temple guards—one representing each of the four temples—arrive to escort Adam out toward the city's northernmost border: there stands the Temple of Engirru, Lord of Fire, who presides over all matters of love and passion.
Tonight Adam and Michael must seek the Fire Lord's blessing. If they are found worthy, they will be given a chance to prove their mettle and forge their union in fire, air, water and earth. If they are found wanting, nothing will ever induce a bond to form between them.
One way or another, this terrible limbo Adam has found himself trapped in will soon meet its end.
As the gods will, so mote it be.
The temple resembles a palace more than any house of worship Adam has ever seen: all whitewashed stone, tall columns and wide-open spaces. At least the hushed, reverent feel to the place is familiar. It's probably a cheerful sort of place during the daylight hours, when the sun is shining brightly through the windows and the echoing halls are filled with worshippers and supplicants; right now the light is dim and the echoing corridors he's led through are eerily void of life. He sees only a handful of droopy-eyed acolytes and a couple stray priestesses. Everyone else must have retired for the evening.
When Adam's escort turns a corner, he sees Michael flanked by an escort of his own, all of them waiting beside the door to what must be the main chapel—the one most people never get to see. Michael is dressed as Adam is, though the long, loose garments somehow look more natural on him; he is probably required to don ceremonial robes often in his role as Archmage.
Michael doesn't speak when Adam joins him, but he does offer Adam a reassuring smile before waving their escort away and turning to rap three times on the door. The smile does little to calm Adam. It's all he can do not to flee as the door slowly swings open to reveal a young woman clad in a wispy gown of orange and red—Kali, the High Priestess of Fire. She's a beautiful woman with dark, kohl-lined eyes and an aura of strength that could cow the bravest of men. Young as she is, Adam can instantly see why she would be exalted above her peers.
"Who seeks to disturb the Fire Lord's solitude?" Kali demands, the words stern and practiced, but not without a lilt of humor.
"Michael Milton, son of Lord Camael Milton and Lady Rachel Daye," says Michael.
"Adam Milligan, son of Kate Milligan," says Adam and stubbornly refuses to acknowledge any connection to one John Winchester.
After a long moment's pause, the corners of Kali's mouth twitch tellingly, but she smoothly continues, "And what brings you, Lord Milton, and you, Lord Milligan, to my lord's door?"
In unison, Adam and Michael reply, "We seek the Fire Lord's blessing to bond."
"Do you swear to abide by the Fire Lord's judgment, even if you are denied his blessing?"
"And are you prepared to prove your worthiness to the Four Gods, if the Fire Lord grants his blessing?"
"Then enter and be welcomed," Kali says and beckons them through the door.
Michael lightly rests a large hand at the small of Adam's back, a patient pressure coaxing him forward. The touch is warm, even through his clothes. Adam has to wonder if the man is working some strange magic on him when his sudden spike of terror tapers off to something more manageable. It doesn't feel like magic—at least not like any magic he's ever experienced—but what does he know about any of it, really?
As he steps through the doorway, Adam is immediately overcome by a powerful sense of presence.
The sun has nearly set and the chapel does not seem equipped with gaslights, so the only light comes from the oil lamps inset into the stone walls and the massive fire arching upward from the gleaming gold cradle upon the dais at the head of the chapel. On either side of the cradle of fire are two thrones, three of which are presently occupied by the priestesses representing the gods of Air, Water and Earth.
The High Priestess of Air is a sweet, dainty young thing—younger even than Kali—with dark hair and a round face clad in the cheery yellow of daffodils. There's something childish about her that Adam finds appealing. As he understands it, the Temple of Air, unlike the others, rarely elects a single High Priestess for any length of time. The Children of Air are a flighty lot, keen to travel and explore; taking on the mantle of High Priestess as a permanent fixture is something no one wants—so they share the responsibility, taking turns in the role according to interest and ability. Adam's always thought that was most sensible of them.
The High Priestess of Water, Ellen of House Harvelle, is an elegant, dignified woman in blue. Adam supposes she must be the eldest by a significant margin. She's held her position for nearly fifteen years and it shows in the lines around her mouth and eyes. Rumor has it that she rules over her temple with an iron fist, but she doesn't look much like a tyrant. She reminds Adam a bit of his momma, somehow.
The High Priestess of Earth, Jody Mills, is the second eldest. She's only held her position for a few short years, so Adam hasn't heard much about her beyond the fact that the common farmers swear by her name. She smiles in Adam's direction when she notices him staring and he smiles weakly back.
So. This is the Chapel of the Eternal Fire, the Pyre That Never Dies, the Flame of Truth. If the stories are to be believed, this fire has burned since Haven's foundation—the temple just grew up around it. His momma once told him that if anyone ever told a lie within a hundred paces of the Eternal Fire, he or she would spontaneously combust in an instant. He'd laughed at the time and asked why there weren't more reports of people combusting if that was true, but now he thinks he knows why. He wouldn't dare lie; no one would.
The Fire Lord is here. The gods are watching.
The gentle pressure of Michael's hand reminds Adam to breathe, to move, to follow High Priestess Kali to the base of the dais.
Michael falls to his knees before the dais and touches his forehead to the ground. Adam follows his lead, though he can't help but jerk back up in surprise—just for a moment—at the unusual heat of the stone beneath him. The heat isn't enough to burn, but it's jarring all the same. There's an undercurrent of magic coursing through these stones. Old magic, he thinks. It gives Adam something to focus on as the Fire Priestess begins the ceremony. Something that isn't the frantic beat of his heart or the constant litany of runrunrun whispering in the back of his mind.
Most of the ceremony passes in a numb haze.
He feels like a passenger in his own body. He says all the right words, goes through all the right motions, but it's all so distant somehow.
When Michael finally takes his hand to pledge his troth, Adam looks into his intended bondmate's eyes and knows down to his very bones that this week will end with a union and not a parting.
"—and do you, Adam Milligan, consent to bind yourself to this man for all the days of your life?"
"I do," Adam says.
Is it consent if you have no choice? It must be. The Fire Lord doesn't strike him down for lying, in any case.
The Fire Lord grants his blessing. Of course he does.
As if this was ever going to end another way.
After the ceremony, Adam and Michael are escorted to the apartment where they will spend their first night together as bondmates. It's a typical guest apartment—little more than a bedroom and adjacent bathing room—but it's spacious enough as these things go, with a small seating area near the crackling fireplace, a dinette set with a multitude of foodstuffs, and—of course—an enormous bed, draped in blankets of red and gold.
It's the largest bed Adam has ever seen, larger even than the bed in Michael's apartment; five people could easily fit in that bed without ever touching. By the gods—what did the person responsible for designing the thing expect to happen in it? As if that thought isn't horrifying enough, the stand next to the bed is covered with countless vials of oil, tubes of cream, and other items that make Adam blush and shy away from the thought of what could possibly be in its drawers.
Michael clears his throat. When Adam looks at him, he's gratified to find that he's not the only one uncomfortable with all of this. The flush of Michael's cheeks could be from the heat of the room, but it's doubtful. Especially considering how Michael is taking pains to avoid looking in the direction of the bed.
"Um," Michael starts and then clears his throat again. "Maybe we should sit down. I think there are a few things we need to discuss before..." He trails off, rubbing the back of his neck uncomfortably.
"Yes, I suppose we had better," Adam says, grim.
They settle themselves at the dinette, wordlessly positioning their chairs to face away from the proverbial elephant in the room. Michael pours a steaming cup of tea and stares it into submission while Adam plucks a hot roll off a platter and focuses on pulling it apart.
There's an uncanny thrumming at the edge of his senses. He's not sure whether that's him sensing the charms someone has set on the food to keep everything fresh or a side-effect of the temporary bond as it settles. Maybe it's just nerves. It could be. He's never been this scared before.
"You did very well this evening," Michael says.
"Zachariah instructed you well."
That earns a snort of derision. Is this guy for real? Has he ever met Zachariah?
"Did he explain to you what would be asked of you during the trial period?"
"He didn't explain anything to me at all. He just handed me a book and told me to try not to disgrace myself."
"I see," Michael says—and there's a trace of fond exasperation in his tone that catches Adam's attention. Michael's eyes are crinkled around the corners, one side of his mouth quirked in a lopsided approximation of a smile. "I can't say that I'm surprised. He's always been a bit difficult."
"The man is an ass."
"That he is," Michael agrees. "But he's also loyal, stubborn, and an excellent negotiator and battle-mage. I knew I could trust him to find you and deliver you safely to me, if nothing else. The book was sufficient to see you through the blessing at least."
"It didn't say much about the trial period. Just that we would spend a night and a day at each temple and that we would have to 'prove' our compatibility to each god." Adam's voice drops to a low mumble and he directs his focus back to his mangled roll. "It also said that we would be required to consummate the bond... physically."
"Yes, that is the sum of it." All trace of good humor is gone from Michael's voice. "There won't have been much detail on the trials as they vary from pair to pair. Some trials are very complex, others are very simple. Rumor has it your brother Sam—"
"He's not my brother."
The silence is practically audible.
Finally, Michael says, "As you say. I daren't hazard a guess as to what our own trials may be, but they will likely be of middling complexity. We've only just met and we've never worked together before, so the gods will be looking for proof that we can learn to be a team. The fact that you have yet to be trained will be taken into consideration, so don't worry on that count."
Right. Because telling a man who never learned to swim that he's about to be thrown off the boat and into the sea not to worry ever actually works.
Though it's not the trials he's worried about, not really.
"What about the consummation?"
This time the pause is more than just awkward; it's weighted, considering.
"Have you ever been intimate with anyone before?"
"No," Adam says. In the periphery of his vision, he can make out Michael's expression, so concerned, so kind and so pitying.
"No one at all? No man? No woman?"
"Have you any experience at all?"
First taking a moment to wet his lips and gather his thoughts, Adam admits, "Yes. There was a girl I liked. We kissed a few times and she—Um."
"Yes?" Michael prompts.
Adam flushes and bows his head low. "She let me touch her breast once."
"I see," Michael says—and the words are hoarse and strange. His expression is equally strange. For reasons unknown, Adam's blush burns deeper.
"And you? What of your experience?"
Michael coughs. "I have... Well, there have been a few lovers over the years."
Of course there had been. Had Dean been one of those lovers? What had Dean thought of sharing his intended bondmate with others?
"I guess it's just as well that one of us knows how this is supposed to work."
"Perhaps," Michael says noncommittally. "Do you know the mechanics of it, at least?"
"Yeah: Tab A goes into Slot B," Adam snarks, bristling. "I'm inexperienced, not an idiot."
Michael quirks an eyebrow, unimpressed. "Forgive me. Since you're such an expert, let's move on to the most fundamental question: do you prefer to provide Tab A or Slot B?"
He hadn't really thought of that. In fact, he'd worked very hard to not think about that. Mostly because he hadn't thought—
"You're giving me a choice?"
Michael nods, brows furrowing quizzically. "Certainly. Did you think I wouldn't? There are no rules regarding sexual positions. I generally prefer to take the dominant role, but I'm willing to make concessions. I want to make this as easy for you as possible. First times are rarely good, but they should never be unpleasant."
Tonight Adam will be losing his virginity to a stranger. A stranger who happens to be a distant relation and looks like the spitting image of the father Adam has never met. He's pretty sure nothing short of some really powerful drugs could make this first time anything but unpleasant.
Still, Adam takes a minute to consider his options. To think about what it might be like to take back a little control, about Michael under him. Warmth curls low in his belly and he bites his lip against the unexpected surge of want. He could have that. Michael would let him.
Desire is quickly replaced by repulsion—with himself, mostly.
He can't want this. He can't want Michael.
Better to just ride things out than to—Well.
Swallowing convulsively, Adam replies, "I think you had better, er, take charge. So to speak. I... wouldn't know what to do. Not really."
Michael's expression is dubious bordering on suspicious, as if he senses there's something Adam's not saying, but he takes Adam at his word.
The silence that descends after that isn't really a silence at all. There's weight to it, like an unspoken promise (or maybe a threat).
Adam is practically quivering with anxiety by the time they have each taken a turn in the washroom to refresh themselves and change into the nightclothes provided for them.
Bitterly, he acknowledges the ridiculousness of bothering to change at all, when he'll just be stripping off again in a few minutes. He briefly entertains the idea of walking out of the washroom starkers, if only for the shock value. Michael's mien of calm has revealed a few cracks here and there; what would it take to shatter it completely?
Probably more than a little nudity.
Michael is sitting on the edge of the bed when Adam emerges, inspecting the label on one of the bottles from the nightstand. Gods above. He's really going to do this.
Adam shifts nervously from foot to foot. He wonders if the door is locked.
Michael looks up and sets the bottle back on the table before patting the space the space beside him on the bed in invitation. There's something strained about his smile and the stiff set of his shoulders that Adam finds gratifying.
Sitting close enough to feel the heat of Michael's body beside him, Adam takes a shaky breath. "So, now what?"
A large hand curves along Adam's cheek, coaxing him to meet Michael's gaze. This close up, those eyes are impossibly blue—striking in an almost inhuman way, irises stained with the echo of magic. Adam swears there is a pattern written there, a weave just waiting to be deciphered. Michael leans in, so close that his breath mingles with Adam's, so close that the fresh scent of his cologne fills his nose.
Michael murmurs, "First, a kiss. Then we shall see. Just try to relax, yes? I promise not to hurt you."
A kiss. Yes. Obviously.
Adam's tongue flicks nervously out to wet his lips. Michael's eyes follow the motion with intent, but he doesn't lean in any closer—not until Adam manages a small nod of assent.
Michael's mouth is on his in an instant.
Adam closes his eyes and reminds himself to breathe.
Kissing Michael is nothing like kissing Lizzie. Those kisses had also started out tentative and slow, sure, but they had always been accompanied with a giddy sort of joy that Adam had never experienced before. They'd been friends long before they'd ever been anything else, so neither of them had much worried about whether or not they were doing it right; in fact, they'd both been quite silly about the whole affair, knocking their noses together and giggling against one another's lips. It had all been quite innocent, really.
There's nothing innocent about the hot press of Michael's mouth or about way one hand rests bracingly at the back of Adam's neck while the other tentatively works its way beneath Adam's nightshirt to stroke over the bare skin of his belly until Adam quivers and gasps, giving Michael the opening he needs to slip his tongue past Adam's lips and inside. And that's a weird feeling. He tenses with the need to pull away, but instead he fists his hands in the duvet beneath him and parts his lips a little wider.
And then Michael is gone—the kiss abruptly ended, both hands withdrawn.
Baffled, Adam slowly opens his eyes to see Michael studying him, looking deeply unhappy.
"What is it? Did I do something wrong?"
"No," Michael sighs. "But this isn't going to work. I think that's quite far enough for tonight."
"Because you aren't anywhere near ready for this."
"I'm not a child! I can handle this. I know my duty."
"And I know mine!" Michael's voice comes out as a hiss, eyes flashing. "There are many things I am willing to do for the benefit of my country. Rape is not one of them!"
Adam reels back as if he'd been struck. Watches as Michael drops his face into his hands.
"Okay," Adam whispers. "Not tonight."
What more is there to say? He's relieved. He really, truly is. But he's conflicted, too. This isn't something he expected. Michael has just taken the rule book and tossed it out the proverbial window. What is he supposed to make of that?
That night Adam curls up on the side of the bed farthest from his bondmate (gods, his bondmate!) and focuses on the thrumming at the periphery of his senses until his mind is blessedly empty of all else. He doesn't think about Michael.