The leaves were turning orange and red, green bleeding away as summer faded into the cooler seasons of autumn. Eros made his way through the park, his Canon hanging from his neck. The camera was warm against his skin, nestled between his hands as he made his way down the curving pathway he had embarked on. A tentative smile spread across his face as he basked in the warmth, eyes fluttering closed as he stood silently.
A silver necklace rested on his worn hoodie, blindingly white against the greasy, frayed fabric shielding him from the cold. He absently stroked the smooth metal, fingers barely ghosting over the surface. It was barely wider than two of his fingers pressed together and nearly as long. The engravings made little sense, the looping, sphere-like shapes seeming to twist and curl into one another in some kind of indecipherable map with a sun-like image pressed into the uppermost, right corner. It was his favorite part, really. He traced those ray-like markings, imagining the warmth that surely was contained within.
Eros shook his head, his hand falling to his side as he cast his gaze on the trail. The path was thin, the trail crumbling down a steep slope inches from his left foot. Eros kept one hand pressed against the wall, eyeing the height and the many rocks jutting out of the leaves down that perilous trap-in-the-making. He scooted closer to the wall.
He had no desire find himself the center of a newspaper article as another accident at Taza’Ra Spring. How many kids his age died from such accidents, anyway? Didn’t people know to come to these places prepared? How did someone come to a trail within a forest that took an entire day to walk without some form of supplies?
Eros shook his head. He rolled his shoulders, content in the knowledge his backpack was filled with water, Cliff Bars, a first-aid kit and a flashlight. If something did happen, he was prepared. He wouldn’t die from thirst and he had food. He had medicine, a source of light and a compass hidden somewhere in the thing he called a backpack. He’d be fine.
He caught sight of birds and a long, winding serpent. He took pictures of both, smiling as the light reflected off the snake’s scales in a brilliant display of color. Eros turned his gaze elsewhere, turning his attention to the trail. Somewhere in the distance, he knew a river resided, its glistening waters beckoning him to its shores.
He only had to get there, first.
Eros continued on his path, camera thumping against his chest with every step. Thin, battered hands grasped think branches and thin, leaning trunks as he hiked through the rocky, uneven ground. He eased down slopes littered with jutting boulders, scooting on his backside to avoid the simple act of tripping like a moron. He certainly didn’t want to take a chance on busting his camera to pieces.
He walked for hours, slowly climbing through the dense forest and scaling the rough, treacherous, mountainous paths. Eros was descending, inching his way along the old, worn path. Ahead of him, he could see stalks of tall, swaying plants with tiny, green bulbs growing off them. The entire field was covered by these plants, a gentle breeze playing at their long, flowering bodies.
Eros snapped a picture of them, too. He eased himself off the last slope, landing softly on a small patch of soil just outside the field. He could hear the river in the distance, could smell it from where he stood. Adjusting his backpack, he stepped forward and brushed a soft, lavender stem aside with the back of his hand.
His skin prickled, stinging as it brushed over his knuckles. Eros rubbed his hand against the fabric of his jeans, a light burn zapping across his skin where the plant had struck. It lingered as he made his way deeper, the lightly colored plants brushing against his arms as he wove his way down a lightly trodden path. The burn continued to raise.
Eros finally paused, drawing in a deep breath as his gaze dropped to his skin. It wasn’t red. There were no scrapes outside of the ones caused by his own nails, angry welts rising against his pale skin as he scratched at his elbow. His gaze swept across the thorny grove of ill-intended plants, far from amused as their barbs bit into his flesh mercilessly. Eros bit his lip as his skin stung, an intense itch crawling through his skin.
The cry of flying birds caught his attention. Eros turned, eyes widening as a massive, woodland creature stood, watching him, from a distance. He resisted the urged to scratch his hands and arms, his attention focused only on the massive, antlered deer in the distance with ivy hanging from its horns. The plants seemed to float away from his thoughts, the stinging burn biting at his fleshless than before.
Eros adjusted his grip on his camera, taking sight of the majestic creature through the viewfinder. He adjusted the focus lens, gently twisting it from one notch to the next until the deer – buck, actually – was in clear view. He could see the contrasting shades of its skin, the shadows of its antlers, the specks of amber in its eyes.
He snapped the picture, eyes widening as its head snapped up and its back legs came off the ground. The buck tossed it ivy-laden, antlered head to-and-fro before turning and vanishing into the wood. Eros lowered the camera, blinking, confused, and stared at the spot the beast had been moments before.
Skin stinging, Eros turned his attention to where he knew the river would be. He picked up his pace as he made his way through the field of ill-mannered plants, lower lip bruised as he bit into it. His skin was really starting to itch. He broke out into a jog, mind turned away from the maddening need to scratch his own skin like a flea-ridden dog eating at its own skin mindlessly.
He entered a sparse grove of trees and made it through in record time, nearly tripping as his feet sank into the sandy bank. He was veering towards the ground, eyes impossibly wide. Then a hard force caught him by the waist, whipping him up and around. A sharp, sudden shriek left his mouth as he grasped onto the forearm wound around his middle.
Eros landed on the ground, backside parked in the sand with an extra pair of legs pressed against either side of his. A low, throaty chuckle ghosted over his ear before it increased in power. His cheeks reddened as he felt his cheek pressed against the back of his head, his breath making the ends of his hair shift and dance. Eros’s throat dried in seconds, his gaze dropping to his hands that rested on a sweater-laden arm.
“You have a rather interesting penchant for stumbling across me, Lockett,” Mania’s voice was impossible to not know, its deep, rumbling tenor etched into the corridors of Eros’s memory. The smaller of the two was speechless as he was hauled to his feet, eyes wide and cheeks red as he turned to see Mania dressed casually in an expensive sweater and dress pants. His classmate’s head tilted to the side as Eros gaped at him. The taller boy grinned, then. “I wasn’t expecting to see you fling yourself at the river, let along when the water’s this high. Not to mention the fact that the spring feeds directly into this spot…”
Flushing, Eros tried to say something. He chocked on his own words.
Mania blinked. “You’re skittish, aren’t you? I don’t bite all that hard, Lockett.”
“All that hard?” Eros gaped at him, sure his face was redder than an overripe tomato as he stared at his obsession with wide, panicked eyes. That sounded ominous. Mania’s smile was a calm one, hands tucked into his pockets as he looked him over. Swallowing, Eros said, “Ah, anyway, I was, um…I was…I was hoping the water would, uh, that it would help…my arms, they’re, you know…and the water, it’ll be cold…”
Eros wanted to hide his face from the world. He nearly jumped out of his skin when his classmate caught one of his arms in hand, fingers ghosting over his skin. Mania eyed the scratches, the long gashes, and then his gaze went over his shoulders to where he’d jump out from. A light of understanding entered his eyes, then. He tugged him away from the river, voice light as he said, “The river won’t offer relief unless you intend to strip and jump into a river that’s as good as frozen. Come on, I have anti-itch cream and a working shower at my place.”
Eros’s heels bit into the sand, eyes impossibly wide. “Your house?”
“Yeah,” Mania stared him in the eye. “My house, which is about half-an-hour hike from here. You want the itching to stop or not?”
He did want it to stop. Eros really did. He wanted to see Mania’s home.
He also knew he’d be committing a cardinal sin if he so much as went anywhere with this young man. Eros swallowed, throat dry and feeling oddly constricted. When Mania pulled him a second time, Eros’s legs moved without his permission. The smaller of the two tried to ignore the head radiating off the hand holding his, tried to push away the heat spiraling through his blood and how his heart beat erratically.
“While you wash up, I’ll make us something to eat,” Mania led them to a stone path that lead up and away from the river. Eros followed after him, feeling lightheaded and sick all at once. “I can wash your clothing, too. I’m not sure if any of my clothes will fit, tiny thing that you are. I have a bathrobe, though. That’ll have to work until your clothes get out of the dryer. You okay, Lockett?”
Eros was sure his head was going to catch fire. His nodded even though he was internally screaming ‘no’ at the top of his lungs. As they made their way closer to their destination, the house looming in the distance, Mania asked, “Did you get into a fight?”
“Your hand,” Mania cast a look over his shoulder. Eros looked down to the thing in question, held so tenderly in this man’s hold. He could see the bruised knuckles, the back of his hand black and blue. His gaze shot back up as Mania said, “You don’t seem like a kid to get into a fight. You’re always so quiet. The artist. So what happened?”
“Not-noth-nothing,” Eros watched their feet, then. What few butterflies that had been swimming inside of him vanished, their tender forms reduced to ash. They made it to the house, entering the home from the porch overlooking the sparse woodland and the river beyond. They stepped through the threshold, toeing off their shoes as Eros murmured, “I, uh, it’s, uh…”
“Bullshit,” Eros’s head snapped up, eyes wide at the vulgar language. He realized he was inside the kitchen, then. Mania was digging through a few cupboards, dark brown, small glass vials clicking together. He pulled down a few, setting them on the counter with practiced ease. One of the larger ones was an ointment, he realized. Stepping closer, Eros eyed the supplies spread out across the counter as Mania said, “So who did it? Kids from school? Some junkies in town?”
“No!” Eros clamped a hand over his mouth, cheeks reddening once more.
Mania raised an eyebrow in response, a glass bottle in hand. “Come on, I’ll show you to the washroom. You enjoying the break from school?”
“Y-yeah,” Eros scratched at his hand, brows furrowing as he whispered, “It’s n-n-nice to be a-able to get o-o-out and take some p-pic-pictures…”
“You’re into photography?” Mania grinned, then. He led him down a hallway and around a bend as he said, “That’s cool. I tried my hand at it, once. It was a horrid experience. You good at it?”
Eros shrugged in response. After a moment, he said, “I guess…”
“Care to show me?” Mania opened a door, stepping aside so Eros could enter first. Eros’s eyes widened as he stepped onto cold, white marble. The walk-in bathtub took up one corner of the room, the counter covering a wall-and-a-half. A second door rested to the left, innocently resting there as Mania said, “Toilets through that door over there. You gonna strip?”
“Strip,” Mania made a gesture towards the clothes he was wearing. “I can’t wash them if you’re wearing them, Lockett.”
Eros stood there silently, feeling oddly uncomfortable. After a moment, he swallowed and then said, “C-c-could you step o-out for a moment? I’ll let you k-know when I’m in the t-t-tub…”
“Sure,” Mania stared at him for a moment before turning and leaving, leaving the door cracked open. Eros counted to ten before shrugging out of his clothing, leaving the small pile, along with his camera and backpack, on the counter by the door. He padded his way to the tub, turning it on and watching as hot water burst from the spout. He ignored the bruised skin littering his body, instead sinking happily into the water. He added some bubble bath, grinning as vibrant, pink suds began to fill the tub. When only the top half of his face was exposed, he yelled, “You can c-c-come in!”
Mania entered, grabbing the things from the counter. When he turned, Eros almost laughed at the shocked expression on his face when he caught sight of the bubbles. Some were rolling across the marble floor like the foam of an ocean cresting upon the ground, the young man blinking slowly before saying, “Not what I was expecting, but whatever.”
Mania left, after that. Eros let himself rest in the water until it was cold, relishing the heat as it washed over his skin. A hot bath. A rarity, in and of itself. He dunked his head under the water, washing his hair and his skin at the same time. The itch had vanished, but his body still burned. Then he lounged in the water, water growing cold and skin wrinkling. He was happy Mania didn’t come back around.
When he was done, he pulled himself out of the water and grabbed a towel. He dried his hair off as he looked around the room for the bathrobe. He found it hanging in the corner of the room, dark green with black and silver trim. Once dry, he slipped that one.
It fell to the floor.
Leaving the bathroom, he inhaled the scent of cooking food. He retraced his steps through the house, easily finding the kitchen where Mania resided. The young man was cooking, sweater gone and sleeves rolled up to his elbow. A black, chain bracelet wrapped around one wrist, almost glowing as it caught the light. When Eros got a bit closer, Mania turned and grinned.
His eyes were drawn to the necklace resting against his neck, a seven-pointed star that was encased in a black, metal circle. Eros made his way closer, mouth watering at the scents curling seductively around him. Mania grabbed a plate off the counter to his right, handing it over as he said, “Dinner’s not ready yet. This’ll have to suffice.”
It certainly did. It was a sandwich, but one that was more flavorful than any he had before. The meat was sliced thin, almost melting as he bit into it. The sauce and cheese were creamy, rich and heavy. He pushed his sleeves up, the ends falling well past his fingertips, and sat at the island counter. Mania turned back to the stove, almost dancing as he moved from one skillet to the next.
“W-wh-what is it?” Eros asked as he took another bite, gaze trained on Mania’s back. The older looked over his shoulder as he asked, “What is what?”
“Your necklace,” Eros idly closed his hand around his own jewelry, gaze intent on the man across the counter. Mania hummed in thought as he grabbed a few plates, setting them aside as he said, “It’s a fairy star. I got it from my grandmother. Your necklace, it’s part of the Prophet’s Cry, is it not?”
He rubbed his thumb over the engravings, mapping them out in his mind as Mania brought over two plates filled with food. Eros stood when Mania gestured him to, following him into the front room. He eyed the white furniture before slowly looking at his classmate. Then he looked at the plate, the thick gravy whispering of oncoming disaster. Eros sank into the seat offered, and almost jumped when Mania plopped down beside him, plate balanced on his knee as he turned on the television.
They both ate in silence. When they were done, the plates were set aside and they sat, silent, as they watched a movie play out its plot. Eros wasn’t all that sure what was going on, only that there were ships coming from space and vampires and some kind of omen told long ago. He hardly noticed when he sank into the couch, let alone when he sank into Mania’s side.
As he fell asleep, breathing evened out, he knew he was safe.
When slumber ensnared him, he relaxed fully into the fingers carding through his hair.