by A Brave Lass (AKA "She Who Should Know Better")
“Oh, the weather outside is frightful,
But the fire is so delightful,
And since we've no place to go,
Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow.”
“...not to mention allowing his father back into the room.... For goodness sake, Paul, I don’t understand why you even thought that was a good idea, especially after we had already gone over the plan to....”
Paul Callan decided he had endured enough lecturing from Alva Keel for one session, and closed his eyes to try catching a few winks. He squirmed further into the rolled-up coat he used as a makeshift pillow against the doorframe of the car, hoping against hope that his cohort would somehow take the hint and eventually shut up.
The two men had just finished mopping up a difficult, although ultimately false, case of demonic possession, in the Adirondacks area of New York state. Paul, as with every case of late, was left drained by the ordeal. Alva’s current barrage of vocal displeasure certainly didn’t help matters.
“...knew he would probably pass on signals, but still you just stood there, over-empathizing with the client, as you generally do, and you ... let ... him....” Alva’s voice petered out as he realized with a quick glance that Paul had either fallen asleep, or was doing his damnedest to make him think that he had. Devoid of a willing audience, Alva concentrated on the task of driving on the slushy, but still icy in places, road. The sun was getting lower in the west, and Alva wanted to get them both safely over the mountains and into Vermont before it became totally dark.
Paul both felt and heard the scrunching of snow and ice under the tires a few seconds before becoming aware that he had, indeed, fallen fast asleep. Blinking awake, he found that Alva had stopped on the highway behind a short line of stalled traffic. Beacons of blue and red from squad cars and emergency equipment swirled through encroaching fog a short way ahead of them. Dusk was rapidly approaching.
“Roadblock,” Alva sighed, tapping his fingers against the steering wheel in barely controlled frustration. He looked over at Paul and smiled wanly. “Enjoy your nap?”
“As a matter of fact, I did,” Paul grinned, then grimaced and stretched. “I don’t think my neck did, though.”
Alva chuckled softly. “Good.” A sheriff’s deputy appeared from the gloom, and he lowered his window.
“Good evening, sir. Sorry, but the pass ahead is now closed,” the deputy reported with a trace of exhaustion. “Seems nobody predicted this snowstorm. Now we got a small avalanche that’s come down just past the turn-off to Tupper Lake. You’ll have to take the long way around.”
“And how do we do that, then? We’re heading for Boston,” Alva asked, biting off his irritation.
“Well, if I were you, I’d take 9 south to 28 to cut over. Head down east through Albany,” the deputy offered, waving back the way they had just come. “It’s the safest way. Fog’s not as bad, I hear, and there are places to pull in for the night, if you’re lucky to find any with rooms still available. Good luck!” He patted the top of the car twice, and headed for the Winnebago in line behind them.
As Alva rolled up his window, Paul fumbled for the AAA roadmap stuffed under his seat, and flicked on his overhead visor light.
“The visibility is getting worse, Paul,” Alva grumbled. “I had hoped to make it at least to Stowe before it got too dark.” He cranked the steering wheel around and coaxed the car back onto the roadway, heading west.
“Highway 9 is about five miles back ... it looks to go south-east until it joins up with 28-South,” Paul said softly, refolding the map and stowing it under his seat again. He looked over at Alva. “You tired? I can drive, if you want.”
Alva flashed him a quick grin of gratitude and curtly shook his head. “No, I’m fine. We’ll find somewhere to stop soon enough ... I hope.” Paul nodded silently and looked out his window into the growing darkness.
Alva continued to drive them cautiously south through light, swirling snow and over the salted highway. They stopped at four motor lodges and hotels along the way, only to discover that each one of them was already full up. It was totally dark when Paul first saw the large, illuminated, gold-arrow sign on the right that read This Way To The Game-In Hunting Lodge. He read the sign aloud for Alva’s benefit, not knowing whether Alva had noticed it himself or not. Alva had, and wearily urged the car down the snow-encrusted dirt lane, hoping they wouldn’t get stuck off the main road. About a half-mile later, he pulled into the brightly lit parking lot in front of an older-looking, rustic inn that was barely visible through the lush forest from the highway.
“Here’s where we cross our fingers again, right?” Paul observed dryly, unbuckling his seatbelt and shrugging into his coat.
“And our toes this time, too,” Alva said, turning off the ignition and headlights, and following suit. “Be prepared to grovel, if necessary.”
They left the car and trudged a short distance through ever-deepening snow. As Alva reached for the brass door handle, the wide, oaken door swung open, and a wave of warmth struck them an all but physical blow.
“More guests, how wonderful! Do come in, gentlemen, it’s much too cold out there.” A small, elderly woman gestured the men into the lobby, quickly closing the door behind them as they entered. Paul was immediately struck by the thought that her wide-set blue eyes seemed much too large for her diminutive, pale face, while Alva inwardly marveled at the length of the single thick braid of pure white hair that reached nearly to the back of her knees.
“You’ll both be wanting a room? Of course, you do!” She laughed merrily, making her way around the desk to look through the guest book. “We have rather a full house already, but I’m sure we can accommodate two half-frozen lads such as yourselves.”
Alva and Paul exchanged a look of sheer relief, and Alva stepped up to the desk and smiled at their hostess. “Is that a slight Scottish accent I detect, madam?”
She looked up from the guest book and winked. “I have passed through the Isles from time to time, dearie. Oh, and the name’s Mariah Throne. Delighted to meet you both....”
“Yes, ma’am, likewise,” Paul murmured. Despite the almost stifling heat of the room, he felt a slight chill begin to spread deep within himself. Chalking it up to fatigue, he leaned against the side of the desk and fought to concentrate on what the woman was now saying to Alva.
“...just remembered that Mr. Throne already lent out that last cabin earlier this evening. I’m afraid we’ve but one room left entirely on the property, a single-double down the hallway....”
“...alright, we’ll make do, Mrs. Throne. And thank you, we....” Alva’s response sounded a lot farther away than Paul expected it to, especially as he was standing right next to him.
Paul realized the vaulted ceiling was beautifully beamed with oak; he came to this conclusion because Alva had broken his fall by grabbing him on his way to the floor, and had eased him down the rest of the way and lain him on the scrap-work rug at their feet. Staring at the ceiling, Paul struggled to make sense out of the bits of conversation in which he was no longer an active participant.
“...hard, long couple of days, he’s....”
“...might be hungry, too ... eat some dinner ... could be coming down with something....”
“...nap earlier while we ... neck was hurting....”
“...cloth, and I’ll be right back, dearie....”
“...Paul...? ... to wake up now ... PAUL...?!”
The next thing Paul knew, his shoulder was being shaken gently and a cold washcloth pressed against his face. Despite his folded coat cushioning his head, the floor was hard and uncomfortable underneath the rest of his body; he needed to get up now. Opening his eyes, Paul took note of a concerned-looking Alva Keel sitting on his heels, looming above him, still shaking his shoulder and daubing his jaw line with the wet cloth. “How long was I out?” he groaned, embarrassed.
“Not long at all. How do you feel?” Alva asked, helping to steady Paul as he shakily sat up.
Paul rubbed at his eyes in an effort to clear away his remaining wooziness. “I’m - I’m okay. I’m sorry, I guess it was the heat.”
Alva wasn’t too convinced by this explanation, but he nonetheless helped Paul come to his feet, taking most of Paul’s weight as they slowly stood and regained balance.
“We’ll just take it easy, get some dinner into you,” Alva mused.
Mrs. Throne came around the corner from the hallway. “Ahhh, the lamb is better, is he? Good!” she exclaimed, and handed a room key to Alva. “I’ll help you get him to your room. I’ve already been, turned down the bedding for you. When you’re feeling up to it, there’s a buffet dinner all ready in the Great Hall at the other end of this building - just follow the gold arrows on the wall - there’s plenty for everyone.”
She deftly removed Paul’s coat from the floor and moved to Paul’s other side, helping Alva to steady him as they made their way down the hallway. “Our evening housekeeping staff wasn’t able to come in this week, due to the weather. We have to make do for ourselves, and I’ll have Mr. Throne fetch some extra blankets and pillows for you both and deliver them to your room later.”
“Please don’t go to any further trouble for us, ma’am,” Paul murmured, focusing on taking one step at a time.
“Aww, love, you are most assuredly not being any trouble at all,” Mrs. Throne replied. “Here we are now, Room 9.”
Alva opened the door and watched Paul closely as he sat down quietly in the room’s lone armchair. Mrs. Throne patted Alva’s shoulder and handed him Paul’s coat. “When he’s up to it, join us in the Great Hall. We have pot roast and jacket potatoes tonight.” She gave a wink and headed off down the hallway, smoothing her crisp, white apron as she went. Alva leaned against the doorjamb and turned his complete attention to Paul, staring at him silently.
Self-conscious at the intense scrutiny, Paul shrugged. “I’m okay now. Just give me a few minutes.”
“You sure?” Alva crossed the room to the open closet and hung up Paul’s coat. “I’ll get the bags if you promise you’ll stay put and out of ... trouble. Or would you rather just lie down?”
Paul stretched and sat further back on the chair. “No, I’m hungry. I don’t want to go to sleep yet,” he sighed. “Besides, I just did.”
Alva flashed him a stern look. “You didn’t lie down, Paul, you fainted.” He re-buttoned his coat and walked out, leaving the door ajar.
Paul leaned back and closed his eyes, wondering when he had ever been more tired in his life.
“It doesn't show signs of stopping,
And I brought some corn for popping;
The lights are turned way down low,
Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow.”
It was the distant sound of boisterous laughter that woke him. Mindful of his still aching neck, Paul slowly rolled over and sat up on the bed. Groggy, he considered how long he had been asleep; how he had managed to make it across the room to stretch out on top of the bedspread; why he was still completely dressed; and who had tucked a blanket around him and stuck a pillow under his head. His most likely suspect was nowhere around.
Paul’s stomach roiled, reminding him that he hadn’t eaten since he couldn’t remember when. Kicking off the blanket, he swung his legs off the bed and waited until the room stopped its slight tilt, before standing cautiously and making for the door. He checked his watch; it was just after 7.
Following the gold arrows on the walls, and the ever louder sounds of talk and merriment, he soon found himself at the entrance to a Great Hall that had been decorated for the holidays with loving attention. The hall was quite festive, with red-ribboned evergreen swags and boughs strung along the wood moldings and atop the mantelpiece of a large fireplace created from river rocks, where a hot, crackling fire blazed at the far end of the room. Next to the entrance stood a tall, thick fir tree, encircled with hundreds of handmade ornaments of lace, and long strings of pearls and cranberries.
“Why, there you are, at last!” Mrs. Throne appeared from the other side of the tree, having added another two small presents to the pile that already surrounded it. At her side, a white-haired gentleman with a careworn face waved a cheerful, silent greeting. “Mr. Throne and me, we were beginning to worry,” she said. “Are you feeling better now, dearie?” She placed a gentle hand on Paul’s elbow, guiding him further into the hall.
Paul smiled and nodded, letting her steer him. “Yes, ma’am. I think I just needed some rest.”
“We’ve kept some dinner warm for you in the oven. You come sit at the table here,” she said, helping him to a plush dining chair. “And I’ll go and bring it out to you.” She disappeared through a set of doors that led, no doubt, to the kitchen. Mr. Throne wandered off to tend to the fire.
From a crowd of merrymakers, Alva Keel appeared and headed for Paul’s table. “Ahhh, you’re up!” The large grin that nearly split his face made him seem years younger, somehow. He took a chair across from Paul at the long banquet table, rubbed his palms together, and laughed. “I was just about to check on you. Is Mrs. Throne getting your dinner?”
“Uh huh, that was very sweet of her.”
“Yes, yes, she is....” Alva replied, distracted.
Paul followed Alva’s longing gaze back to the merrymakers, all crowded near the fireplace on comfortable sofas and armchairs, some stringing popcorn for even more decorations, some gleefully making s’mores, some laughing over board games, a few others loudly singing along with a giggling, amateur guitarist. “Are all these people family members of the Thrones, or...?” he asked softly.
“No, they are guests of the lodge,” Alva smiled, giving a slight return wave to one of the carolers. “Making the best out of a bad weather situation, same as we are.”
Mrs. Throne came to the table with a tray laden with food and placed it in front of Paul. “Dig in, sweetie. There’s more where that came from, just give the word.” She patted his shoulder, then bustled off to the kitchen again. Wordlessly nodding his sincere, enthusiastic thanks, Paul got straight to the business of filling his empty, screaming belly.
As Alva stood, one of the board gamers called over to him in what sounded to Paul to be German. Alva threw back his head and laughed loudly in response, all but causing Paul to choke on a bite of pot roast in surprise. He had never seen his coworker so relaxed and happy in the admittedly short amount of time that he had known him.
Paul continued to eat quietly, ignoring the odd sensation of coldness that crept around inside of him anew, and watched Alva easily rejoin the happy crowd and pretend to move one of the German speaker’s game pieces. “So, Herr Gunther, you wish to know my opinion regarding the age-old question of ‘Was Steinitz or Petrosian the greatest chess champion ever?’ Well, it’s an ancient argument, my friend....”
A fine dinner and a tasty dessert of warm berry cobbler and fresh vanilla ice cream had all been polished off by the time Paul finished counting the number of different languages Alva had spoken with the other guests thus far - he was currently at eleven. At the moment, Alva was deeply engrossed in a backgammon game with an older Italian gentleman, complete with dueling flamboyant hand gestures and shrieks of delight from cheering onlookers, most of whom Alva had just severely thrashed in a game of Scrabble.
As Mrs. Throne cleared away the last of his dishes, Paul noticed a smiling Oriental woman, Japanese perhaps, her age impossible to peg, look up from adding popcorn to a string and beckon him to join them. He returned her smile shyly and shook his head no. Try as he might, Paul was reluctant to join the party. The chill within him, which even the hottest mug of cocoa couldn’t combat, grew stronger as time passed.
The Grandfather clock had just struck 9 when a wassail bowl and a tray of crystal cups were brought out by the Thrones to grand applause. Paul continued to sit alone, watching from the banquet table. No amount of cajoling from the other friendly guests, Mrs. Throne, or even Alva, could get him to budge. He had convinced himself there was a need that night to simply observe, and somewhere deeper there remained a lingering doubt that in some way he was not meant to share in such joy.
Earlier in the evening, after several nips of well-aged, single-malt scotch and a few spiked eggnogs, Alva had startled Paul by taking turns either banging out yuletide tunes on an ancient upright piano in the corner, or borrowing the folk guitar and strumming near the fire, as everyone else sang along with his strong baritone vocals. Paul hadn’t even known that Alva could read music, let alone that he could play and sing so well - especially when slightly drunk.
Alva had certainly not abandoned him during the evening’s festivities, and had checked up on him often, each time bringing along a fresh mug of cocoa for him, since they had mutually agreed that if Paul were coming down with something nasty, drinking alcohol wouldn’t be such a good idea. Alva had asked Mrs. Throne for a thermometer to see if Paul was developing a fever; his temperature turned out to be normal, but Paul’s unshakeable - and inexplicable - chill persisted.
As the night wore on, Paul continued to observe the other twenty or so guests. So far as he could tell, from hearing so many different languages and seeing so many ethnicities in one place, they could have easily been considered a mini United Nations, had they been so inclined. As it turned out, very few of them claimed they had ever met prior to finding shelter at the lodge.
Paul watched the Thrones, too. So far as he could discern, Mr. Throne hadn’t uttered a single word, but had remained cheerful and attentive to everyone. Mrs. Throne happily flitted around everyone like a monarch butterfly, seeing to their every need - a cup was never empty for long, a plate never deprived of goodies.
For his part, Alva, the confirmed multi-linguist, was absolutely enthralled, obviously savoring every scrap of conversation that floated throughout the Great Hall: German, Japanese, Yiddish, Italian, Russian, Arabic, Swahili ... they all rolled off his tongue as easily as the wassail slipped down his throat. He couldn’t have been more delighted.
What amazed Paul the most about the evening was the complete ease with which his generally formal companion dealt with total strangers. Alva had always seemed to hold himself in tight reserve, always the detached über-observer to Paul’s interactive, caring empath. Tonight, it appeared that their roles were reversed - and Paul still had no clue why it was happening...
“Are you sure you won’t be joining us by the fire? There’s plenty of room. Might warm your bones a bit, you know.”
Paul blinked at Mrs. Throne’s sudden appearance next to him; he hadn’t even heard her approach. Forcing yet another uneasy smile, he looked up at her and again shook his head. “No, but I do appreciate your kindness. I’m fine right here, really....” He found himself mesmerized by her china-blue eyes, which seemed to bore gently into his very soul.
Mrs. Throne broke the spell by giving him a wide grin and a quick wink. “I know you don’t mean to insult our hospitality, Paul. Give it no mind. You’ll be feeling better in the morning, trust me. Oh, and I stacked some extra blankets and pillows on your bed. Goodnight, dearie!” With that, she turned on her heel and was gone before he could open his mouth to thank her once more.
The hour was growing late, and Alva reluctantly packed the borrowed guitar back in its case as others offered him their sincere appreciation for the wonderful entertainment. Several guests waved and called out their good-byes to Paul, too, as they left the hall, making their way back to their accommodations. After securing plans to meet for breakfast from the few stragglers that remained, Alva sauntered over to Paul, hands in his pockets. “Ready to call it a night?”
“Ohhh, yeah,” Paul laughed softly, carefully stretching as he pushed back his chair and slowly stood up.
“Any dizziness?” Alva asked, watching him closely.
Paul shook his head. “Nope, just a little stiff in places ... and numb in places ... and sore in places.”
“I can’t imagine why,” Alva remarked. “You’ve been sitting in that chair for hours.”
“Yeah, I guess so.... I call dibs on the first shower,” Paul smirked, raising an eyebrow.
Alva’s grin widened, and a glint of playful challenge appeared in his eyes. “Race you for it, then!” With that, he bolted from the hall, a surprised Paul following at his heels, his physical complaints all but forgotten.
Down the hallways of the lodge they ran, laughing and jostling each other, until they reached Room 9’s door at exactly the same time. “Not fair, you tripped me against the wall,” Alva grumbled, groping in his pocket for the room key and opening the door.
“You were cheating, Keel,” Paul said, chuckling, and pushed past Alva into the room before he could get the key fully out of the lock. Paul was at the bathroom door before he realized that Alva was still standing at the doorway, staring at him with open curiosity. “What’s wrong?” he asked softly.
“Why do you do that?” Alva drawled, his somewhat incredulous voice touched with the buzz of inebriation. He leaned against the doorjamb and tilted his head, still staring at Paul. “Why do you insist on calling me ‘Keel’ all the time? Hell, every single time....” He shook his head and frowned, waiting for an explanation.
Paul looked away, confused. That was a really good question, one that he wasn’t prepared for at that moment. He hadn’t even considered it before. Still, Alva deserved a reply. “The orphanage.” The words - a quick lie, actually - fell from his lips without a conscious thought. “All the kids there were called by their last names. Too many Peters and Pauls and Marys....”
“Oh, I see.” Alva blinked and nodded, accepting it. The challenging smile returned slowly to his face. “Inside or outside?” he inquired politely, pointing to the double bed that, in order for it to fit into the small room, had one side shoved up against a wall.
Time for a compromise. “Since I ‘won’ the first shower, I guess I’ll take the wall,” Paul said, grinning.
“You will, indeed,” Alva chortled, showing teeth. He sat on the edge of the bed and tugged off his shoes. Paul grabbed a set of beige flannel pajamas from his bag to change into, and headed for the bathroom’s shower, praying that the hot water would help to get rid of his confounded, persistent internal chill, at least a little.
“When we finally kiss goodnight,
How I'll hate going out in the storm;
But if you really hold me tight,
All the way home I'll be warm.”
Paul crawled under the bedcovers, using one of the extra feather pillows the Thrones had provided as a bumper against the wall to avoid cracking his nose should he turn over too violently in the night. Prone as he was to nightmares most of his life, that had happened far too often to him in the past. Several of the other pillows he stuffed end on end in a line behind his back and legs. He wasn’t quite sure why he felt a need for such a silly barrier, as it were, but it made him feel a bit more secure, regardless.
Meanwhile, Alva took his sweet time enjoying his own luxurious shower, taking full advantage of the acoustics to croon snatches of operatic passages in both Italian and Spanish. Once thoroughly scrubbed, he quickly dried himself with fluffy cotton towels and stepped into his favorite set of black silk pajamas. Running his fingers through unruly brown curls, he tried in vain to bring some sense of order to his still-damp hair. Conceding defeat, he switched off the bathroom light and walked into the room, stopping short at the sight of Paul’s little fortress of pillows, clearly demarcating the equal halves of the bed.
“What is this, the Great Wall of China?” Alva demanded, then snickered quietly. He turned down the bedcovers and tried desperately to stifle further laughter as he slipped into bed and switched off the bedside table lamp.
Paul coughed, his red face all but buried in the pillow against the wall. “No, it’s ... I’m sorry. It’s another orphanage memory, I guess....”
“In the orphanage? What happened?” Alva mumbled, fighting the fatigue that washed over him as soon as his head hit his own feather pillow. “Not a priest, I hope?”
“No, nothing like that. Nothing bad happened. Not really,” Paul sighed. “I wasn’t sexually assaulted, or anything....”
“Oh, good. Glad to hear it.” Alva fought back an enormous yawn and tried to concentrate on what Paul was going on about. Damn him, the young man did pick the oddest times and places to bare his soul.
Paul blinked in the darkness, realizing that the chill within him was melting into a soft warmth. “Yes, it was good,” he whispered, loud enough for Alva to still hear. “There was Jimmy, Carl, a few of the other older guys. They would take turns tucking in us younger boys, making sure we were all okay.”
“That was very considerate of them, yes....” Alva could barely keep his eyes open, the full effects of the evening’s festivities taking their toll on him at last.
“Sometimes they would crawl into our bunks with us, and none of us ever minded, at least not that I ever heard about, because they would teach us how to... well ... how to pleasure ourselves ... without the nuns finding out, you know - “ Mindful of his still-aching neck, Paul went silent, slowly turned his head, and listened. His immediate suspicion was confirmed; Alva was now sound asleep, and snoring softly.
Paul smiled to himself in the dark, shrugged, and quickly followed his example.
It was several peaceful hours later when Paul awoke, disoriented, with a painful hard-on, and literally no place to go. The wall of pillows was dismantled, the feather pillows strewn atop the bedspread, some ending up on the floor. Paul dripped with perspiration from the heat, as he was stuck between the wall and Alva. Alva Keel, he just realized, who was now spooning with him, one arm tossed carelessly over Paul’s ribcage, and his forehead tucked between Paul’s shoulder blades. Paul could feel the warmth of Alva’s every exhalation against his back.
He now had a big decision to make, one that would affect the future of his and Alva’s relationship forever. As he lay there, warm and snug in Alva’s embrace, he thought through the many scenarios that came immediately to mind: he could wriggle out from under the bedcovers and take care of his business alone in the cold bathroom; he could stay where he was and pleasure himself, and hope that Alva would soon awaken on his own enough to turn over and return to his own side of the bed; he could sneak out of the bed, take care of his business in the bathroom, get dressed, and go to the Great Hall and stretch out on one of the sofas until morning; he could stay in the bed, turn over himself to check on Alva’s nocturnal erection, if any, and then take matters from there, depending on what he discovered; he could....
Alva, still apparently deeply asleep, took away any decision he would have eventually made by cuddling Paul closer, his own erection now more than evident.
”Okay, here’s a whole new set of scenarios,” Paul thought wryly. Even as closely as they had worked, Paul had no idea how Alva’s preferences ran, sex wise. He honestly had no clue, although he did have the distinct impression that the man was not a screaming homophobe. Paul certainly wasn’t. While he liked and generally preferred the company of women, his upbringing at the orphanage had left him open to experimentation. There was always the risk, however, that Alva would not be as receptive....
Paul exhaled sharply, frustrated with both his indecision and the sheer need for ultimate relief. He could lie there like a frightened puppy and hope that Alva would wake up and make the first move, or he could take immediate action. Paul shook his head and ground his teeth, furious with himself. He started to shove back the bedcovers to head for the cold, lonely bathroom.
Alva’s soft utterance of his name, and warm breath on the back of his neck, stopped Paul in mid-shove, his fingers tightening around the covers.
“...please....” Alva whispered. His arm tightened around Paul’s midsection, and his hand drifted lower with excruciating slowness. Paul leaned back in anticipation of contact, feeling Alva’s own silk-clad hardness stab and rock against the small of his back.
“Are you giving me the choice?” Paul blurted out painfully.
Alva’s hand froze where it was, mere centimeters from Paul’s own aching, flannel-covered penis. “What do you think I’m doing?” he replied, his voice a husky whisper. He rose on his elbow and turned Paul carefully onto his back, moving back to give him more space. Staring down earnestly, Alva nodded, then gave Paul a smirk. “It has always been your choice, Paul. Always.”
Paul matched Alva’s smirk with one of his own. “Good. Glad to hear it.” He sat up on his elbows, and stared directly into Alva’s gaze, startling him with his proximity. “Do me one favor, Keel,” he said simply.
“What’s that?” Alva gulped, unsure of this new aggressive side to Paul.
“For the rest of tonight ... shut up.”
Alva blinked, his mouth agape. Paul, laughing, grabbed him in a bear hug and rolled them both over, and they snuggled back under the bedcovers together. Too late to remove their pajamas, they mutually understood, without words, that sweet release from their shared pain was imminent. Grinding together as one, they reached their individual flashpoints as one, each secure in the knowledge that this frottage was just a gentle precursor to whatever sexual experimentation the future held in store. Exhausted and content, they both fell asleep, safe in the protective arms of the other, and no nightmare dared to disturb them.
It was the distant sound of boisterous laughter that awoke him. That, and the additional deja vu sound of a short operatic passage emanating from the general direction of the bathroom. Paul sat up in the middle of the bed and stretched, feeling more refreshed - and happy - than he had in months. His pajama bottoms were a sticky mess, but even that didn’t bother him too much.
The sound of the shower was replaced by the sound of the bathtub filling. Paul looked over at the bathroom door, eager to gauge Alva’s “morning after” reaction to their previous night’s escapade.
He didn’t have long to wait. As soon as the bathtub was full, Alva cranked off the water and walked out of the bathroom, fully dressed. Seeing Paul’s impish grin forced a reactive chuckle from him, and he made a great pretense of searching and poking about under the foot of the bed.
Paul rolled his legs off the bed and sat on the edge, amused. “Okay, I give up,” he said finally. “What are you looking for?”
“Oh, nothing at all, actually,” Alva replied, scratching his head thoughtfully and getting to his feet again. “I could have sworn some great abyss would have opened up beneath the bed and whisked us both straight to Hell by now....”
Paul threw his head back and laughed. Alva waved and headed for the hallway. “I’ll see about leaving you some breakfast. Maybe. If there’s any left. It seems we overslept.” He winked and grandly closed the door behind him. “Enjoy your bath, sir....”
Well, that went down a whole lot easier than he worried it would, Paul decided a short time later, sinking blissfully down into the steaming-hot bubble bath that Alva had so thoughtfully drawn for him.
“The fire is slowly dying,
And, my dear, we're still goodbye’ing,
But as long as you love me so,
Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow.”
Paul arrived at the Great Hall for breakfast at a dead run, the thought of more of Mrs. Throne’s wonderful home-style cooking quickening his pace. As he slowed to a walk and entered, he saw that the large pile of presents stacked beneath the tree the night before was nearly depleted. A few guests looked up from their meals and conversations, and greeted him enthusiastically by name.
Spying Alva returning from the buffet with a plate of croissants still warm from the oven, Paul smiled and sat down next to him at the long dining table, snatching one of the croissants away. “Are all these for me?” he teased, taking a healthy bite.
“Oh, my, oh, my....” Alva rolled his eyes dramatically. “Now he’s expecting me to feed him, too.”
“If you don’t, Alva, I certainly will,” Mrs. Throne offered, leaning across from the other side of the table to fill Paul’s coffee cup. “The poor lamb ... why, he’s naught but skin and bones!”
Paul’s face reddened, and Alva pushed an untouched bowl of cinnamon-apple oatmeal in front of him. “You heard what the dear lady said: Eat up,” he chuckled.
As hungry as he was, Paul didn’t need any further encouragement, and dug in.
By the time the breakfast stragglers had pushed their chairs reluctantly back from the table, there remained only a few of the lodge’s overnight guests. The roads to the north and west had been deemed to be safe enough to travel, but the Thrones were still waiting on a final okay from authorities to report that the roads south and east were passable.
Almost all the guests had made cheerful mention of Paul’s greatly elevated mood that morning. With a subtle nod at Paul, and a sly grin, Alva concurred. Sometime during the wait, an agreement was made by all those who remained that everyone should meet at The Game-In Hunting Lodge same time next year, to make it an annual yuletide event. Mrs. Throne had eagerly proclaimed this to be a wonderful idea, and Mr. Throne had nodded his approval.
As they waited for the road south to be cleared, Paul looked on as, one by one, each departing guest gave Alva an affectionate hug, exchanged business cards, and shared sincere good-byes in their various native languages. As the morning went on, the sighs emanating from Alva became more and more audible. Before each guest left entirely, Mrs. Throne would search beneath the tree for their “special” gift, sharing hugs and kisses with them all; and nobody left without a sack full of freshly baked blueberry muffins and some hot coffee for the road.
The last to leave on the road north was the Japanese woman. As Paul helped load her bag in her car, and Alva stowed her bag of food and coffee on the empty passenger’s seat, the woman quietly took her leave of the Thrones, who waved her on her way. Alva held open her car door and wished her a safe journey.
“Yes,” she beamed. “I am positive that I will have one. I look forward to seeing you both again next year, Keel-san. You are now happy in your life.” She gave him a quick hug, then waved back at the Thrones, her small present still clutched in her hand.
Alva was intrigued at the conviction in the woman’s dark eyes. “How can you be so certain we will all meet again?” he asked softly.
“Tenshi ni atta koto ga arimasen ka?” she laughed, closing the car door, and driving away with a jaunty wave.
“What did she say?” Paul asked, walking up to stand at Alva’s side.
“Hmm?” Alva turned to him and frowned, confused. “Oh, she just asked me if I had ever met an angel before.”
“Ahh,” Paul grinned. “So, have you?”
“Sometimes, I wonder....” Appraising Paul in a swift up and down glance, Alva’s eyes closed to slits. “I’ll open the back for the bags,” he then offered, walking over to their car.
“Alva! Paul! Mr. Throne says that the highway to Albany is clear now!” Mrs. Throne called out from the lobby.
“I’ll get the bags, ma’am - “ Paul replied, just as Mr. Throne appeared from the lobby with their bags and set them on the porch steps. Mr. Throne grinned and winked at Paul, and took a seat on one of the toweled-off rocking chairs.
Mrs. Throne came out to the porch with a large bag containing fresh baked goods, and two disposable mugs of hot coffee. Paul hurried up the steps to retrieve it from her, still wondering at the lady’s phenomenal stamina. “Aww, thank you, dearie,” she cooed. “These old legs aren’t as spry as they once were.”
“You could have fooled me,” Paul laughed back over his shoulder as he stowed the goodies within easy arms-reach of the front seat.
Alva tossed their bags in the back of his Grand Wagoneer and closed the tailgate. He and Paul then trotted up to Mrs. Throne to engulf her in a group bear hug of gratitude.
Giving the men each a resounding kiss on the cheek, she dabbed at her eyes with the hem of her apron. “Ohhh, now look what you have done; made me go and cry,” she sniffed, smiling sweetly. “I’m so pleased for the two of you, though,” she said. “I’ll not worry about either of you ... now that you each have the other.”
Paul and Alva exchanged a quick look of bewilderment tinged with mild embarrassment.
Mrs. Throne pulled out two small, wrapped gifts from her pocket, giving one to each of them. “Now, mind you don’t open these until you’re both well off the property. Understand?”
Alva and Paul nodded as one, and thanked her again for everything. Mr. Throne came up and put his arm around Mrs. Throne, patting her shoulder. He smiled and gave his familiar silent wave as he guided her back into the now-empty lodge. “See you both next year, dearies!” Mrs. Throne called out, closing the front door firmly shut.
“I’ll drive,” Alva said quietly.
“You drove last night,” Paul reminded him, following him off the porch and down the steps. “It’s my turn.”
Alva walked over to the car and slipped into the driver’s seat. “I don’t mind, Paul,” he smiled sadly. “Helps me think.”
“I’m sure glad one of us is,” Paul shrugged, taking the passenger’s seat. “I still haven’t figured out why I felt so cold last night, before ... well....”
Sighing deeply, Alva turned the key in the ignition and drove slowly down the melting side road toward the highway.
Two shafts of light pierced the roof of the lobby before fusing into one large tower of brilliant luminescence that flashed once to the heavens.
”Is the Earth safe from annihilation for another year, Michael of the Ninth Throne?” a feminine voice echoed, suspended in the void that was The Game-In Hunting Lodge.
”Yes,” the masculine voice replied in a matching echo. “There was no strife; no discord amongst our guests. Representatives all, they were, of the Earth’s own.... Although you, Mariah of the Seventh Throne, all but cheated this year, there is no cause for us to destroy them.”
The very trees themselves swayed with the echo of combined laughter from another realm.
“I cheat every year, me lad,” the feminine voice giggled.
“Yes, my love,” the masculine voice chuckled. “I know.”
There was a steady line of traffic passing by as Alva waited for a break to merge onto the highway. Missing the lodge already, he looked in the rearview mirror, to see if he could catch a last glimpse of the place. A sudden flash of the brightest light he had ever seen stunned him, leaving him momentary blind. He gasped in shock and fumbled to put the car in park.
“Alva!” Paul shouted, reaching for him.
Blinking furiously, between rubbing at his eyes, Alva struggled to make sense of what he had just seen. “Be careful, Paul,” he warned, his voice beginning to catch with sobs. “Don’t look back. It’s not there anymore.”
Paul held his breath, unsure of what Alva was talking about. Not knowing what else to do, he rubbed the back of Alva’s neck in an effort to soothe him.
“Give me a second,” Alva said quietly, leaning his head back for more of Paul’s caress. “My vision’s returning - just a few black spots now.”
“What happened?” Paul demanded. “I was adjusting my seatbelt, and - ”
Alva turned slowly around to his left and peered cautiously behind them. “It’s as I thought; it’s gone.” With a growl almost of fury, Alva cranked the steering wheel around and quickly drove back to where the lodge once stood, coming to a stop in their exact original parking space. The Game-In Hunting Lodge was, indeed, completely gone; there was nothing where it stood but dark, burnt ruins surrounded by mighty, snow-covered trees.
Trembling now, Alva fumbled in his pocket for the lodge’s business card he had acquired from the lobby the night before, only to find that it was completely blank on both sides.
“I’m so sorry,” Paul whispered. He looked away, not able to bear seeing the utter disappointment on Alva’s face. “I ... I guess this is why I felt so cold ... why it all felt so odd to me.”
Alva gripped the steering wheel tightly, fighting off his sense of betrayal. “Who were these people?” he asked angrily. “WHAT were these people? How DARE they!”
“Alva, calm down ... please.” Paul’s quiet voice was like cool water drizzled on the embers of Alva outrage. “I have a theory about this....”
“You do?” Alva blinked, surprised.
“I have theories sometimes,” Paul laughed gently.
Alva leaned his forehead against the steering wheel, still trying to regain his grip on reality.
Paul leaned around and felt the bag of blueberry muffins and containers of coffee. “Oh, good. They’re still warm,” he explained. “Which means they were real. The muffins still are, anyway.”
“Wonderful,” Alva drawled. “We have real muffins made by unreal people ... and you think they are actually edible?”
Paul smiled. “I’m willing to bet that they are, and they’ll taste incredible, too. The best we’ve ever had.”
“You think so?” Alva looked over at Paul and tried to tap into some of the optimism himself. “And you think, maybe, since they did invite us, the lodge will be back again next year?”
“Yep.“ Paul nodded. “Definitely.”
Reaching suddenly into his coat pocket, Alva pulled out his present and stared at it. Paul reached over and took it from him just as quickly. “No, she said we couldn’t open them until we were off the property, remember?”
Alva nodded reluctantly. “You had better keep it, then.” He let out his breath in a rush and turned the car around to leave for the second time. When they got to the highway, the traffic was light and they merged without a problem.
After about ten minutes of uncomfortable silence, and many brief exchanges of looks, Paul burst out in laughter. “Find a place to pull over safely,” he relented. “I can’t stand the suspense, either!”
Alva smiled broadly and pulled in to the next rest stop, conveniently located two minutes away. Together, they opened their presents, literally shredding the paper from each.
Paul received a small, beige granite camel. He read the attached note aloud for Alva’s benefit: “This is your totem, Paul. Even in the most overwhelming of barren deserts, you will still carry within you the strength and resources to endure.”
Alva got a small, black marble jaguar, with the note that he read to Paul: “This is your totem, Alva. Even in the darkest of times and places, you will still carry within you the intelligence and cunning to survive.”
“That’s amazing, in a way,” Paul ruminated, as Alva drove them back onto the highway. “They learned an awful lot about us in such a short amount of time.”
“What did they learn, I wonder?” Alva mused, concentrating on the road.
Paul laughed again. “Well, for one thing, everybody learned that you can’t be beat at Scrabble.”
“It helps to be good with words,” Alva smiled. “Especially with anagrams, yes....”
Paul looked over at Alva’s sharp intake of breath.
“Anagrams,” Alva grinned. “’Game-In’.... How very interesting.”
“What about it?” Paul shrugged.
Alva chuckled. “’Game-In.’ It’s an anagram of ‘enigma’....”
Comment on this story by e-mail
Snowglobe comes from SakiMonkey's Splendid Site.
Back to Miracles Stories