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What Dreams May Come

Chapter Text

Rhys Carew was tired.

It was a good tired, though, he mused, as he stretched out in his wide wooden farm bed. Like so many of the items in the one-room cabin, it had been a hand-me-down from his grandfather. The frame was weathered but solid, long enough for Rhys to sleep comfortably even with his unusual height.

No, the kind of tired Rhys felt was utterly unlike what he’d felt in the city, toiling away day after day for Joja Corporation. That kind of tired had left him feeling sallow and sickly, no matter how much he worked out, no matter how much sleep he’d caught up on during the weekend—though toward the end, even that had been few and far between.

This tired was something different—the tired of muscles that had been well-used, of a little too much time in the sun. It was the tired of a day spent hiking, or the morning after a truly satisfying fuck.

Though that was something else that had been few and far between of late, Rhys thought, and certainly not since he’d gotten off the bus in Pelican Town two weeks before.

Not that there was a shortage of eligible partners. Rhys snorted. Mayor Lewis had made that obvious enough from the start. The Mayor had talked non-stop to Rhys as he walked him to Good Hope farm from the bus stop, and before he left Rhys for the night, he’d pressed a three-ring binder into his hands, bulging at the seams from being stuffed with papers, maps, and recipes. Included in the “welcome packet”—if you could call something a “packet” if it rivaled the size of the encyclopedia in the town library—was a directory of the small town’s inhabitants. A dossier, really, complete with a map of where their houses were, their birthdays, and the word “SINGLE” scrawled in all caps next to the names of the men and women that were apparently available.

Though available for what, Rhys hesitated to speculate. It was less likely that Mayor Lewis intended to present Rhys with a buffet of potential bed partners than that he was looking to marry Rhys off out of some misbegotten promise to Rhys’s grandfather—the same grandfather that had left Rhys Good Hope farm.

His grandfather Dafydd had left the farm to Rhys with bewilderingly few instructions. I have been happy there, he wrote. Something tells me you can, too.

It had been a working farm in its day, though many of the buildings were either rotted through disuse or had disappeared altogether. There wasn’t any particular family business Rhys had to pick back up, and Mayor Lewis’s packet—together with the constant friendly hints from Rhys’s new neighbors—made clear that the possibilities were practically endless. The land of the almost preternaturally fertile Stardew Valley could be bent to whatever use Rhys decided to put it—vegetables, fruit trees, vineyards that fermented sparkling wines grown from his own grapes, or breweries with earthy hops he’d plant himself. Or, Marnie had suggested more than once, he could try his hand at animal husbandry—docile cows or cuddly woolly rabbits, vibrant ducks or comical, posturing chickens.

He didn’t know yet what he wanted. The luxury of his inheritance meant he had time to decide, and means not to worry overly much about whether whatever venture he eventually chose would be profitable right away. He didn’t want to rush, for once. He intended to take his time. And in the meantime, he’d taken small, earthy delight in a little vegetable garden he’d planted out front with the parsnip seeds Mayor Lewis had given him. It was something to do, a way not to be a complete layabout while he was finding his feet. And the hoeing and weed pulling, combined with chopping down trees and digging up the rocky soil, had been a big contribution toward the tight, satisfied ache of his muscles that would eventually rouse him out of bed.

Before it did, though, he reached over to his wooden nightstand and pulled off the hefty binder from Mayor Lewis. He flipped to the town dossier again, their pages already embarrassingly and obviously worn from use. As always, he skimmed over the single women without much of a second glance. They were, to a one, interesting and accomplished, and he hoped he might be good friends with at least a few of them someday. But his tastes in partners didn't run that way. They never had, really, some youthful experimentation notwithstanding.

The men, though. Rhys ran his fingers down the pages. Though some were scarcely older than boys. What Mayor Lewis thought 19-year old Sam or 23-year old Sebastian would want with a 34-year old Zuzu City burnout was just one of the enduring mysteries of Pelican Town. Still, here they were, names and photographs laid out for him like they were player icons he could select in a videogame. Sebastian, Harvey, Shane, Alex, Sam, and Elliott.

He wasn't looking for anyone, Rhys told himself again. Not once he stepped outside the four walls of this dilapidated farmhouse. But inside, for a moment, he could daydream. Just for a moment, and then his vegetable garden called.

Chapter Text

Another of the town’s mysteries, of course, was the provenance of the monsters. Taken alone, they might have been enough to send Rhys running after the next bus to leave Stardew Valley. But as it was, as just one shock of many that had begun with the news of his grandfather’s death, they’d just become something else over which to puzzle.

It helped that they were more pathetic than they were deadly. That first evening, as he’d sat wearily on his porch with a glass of ale, the bats had come out of nowhere with the fall of dusk, divebombing his head and scratching at his arms with the relentlessness of a mother bird protecting her nest. He’d flapped his arms in disgust and run back inside, but he’d soon learned he could keep them at bay with a bit of grit and some makeshift weapons—a rusty sword he’d found during a wander through the mines, and the knives that were one of the few possessions he’d brought from home.

The other monsters were creepier than the bats, to be sure, and harder to explain away. What, for the love of the junimos, were those tiny biting skeletons, for example? And what were they doing in his yard? But even they seemed halfhearted in their attacks, as if they couldn't be bothered to do much more than menace him before they melted back, melancholy and beaten, into the night. And his dog had helped, too—Shep, a hardy working dog Marnie had dropped off during his first week at the farm. Despite all Rhys’s attempts to coerce him inside, he spent his nights outside as often as he did in, and when Rhys looked out the window he could see Shep chasing off skeletons or slime monsters almost gleefully. Rhys could only imagine how delighted the dog would be if Rhys finally got him some sheep to mind.

Rhys looked at the clock, wondering if it was too late to take Shep for a stroll by the lake, up by Robin and Demetrius’s house. He’d met Sebastian there his second night in town. That had been after the bats, but before any of the other monsters—early enough in his move that Rhys was tempted to write the last evening off as nothing more than overly aggressive local fauna. Which he supposed it still was, in its way. In any event, he’d still taken his knives with him, just in case. When Rhys had seen the pale, waif-like creature with the messy black hair—so dark it was almost blue—and the flame cupped in his slender hands, for a moment Rhys had thought he’d stumbled on another piece of Pelican Town magic—a nymph, or a faery, conjuring light out of the twilight sky.

He’d been lighting a cigarette, of course—the magic nothing more than a lighter, flicked on and off behind the shelter of Sebastian’s open palm. Sebastian looked almost startled when he’d seen Rhys, like maybe Rhys was the fae creature stepping out of a fever dream, and Sebastian just the dreamer. Sebastian had straightened, as if steeling himself for the encounter, bringing the cigarette to his lips like so much armor. Only his eyes stayed vulnerable, searching out Rhys’s own with the wary grace of a deer stepping beyond the tree line.

Maybe it had been that vulnerability that made Rhys bite back the first thing that sprang to mind to say, some variation of smoking is bad for you, you know that would have him relegated to stick-in-the-mud status before he’d finished the sentence. And it would remind the cute kid how pathetically old you are, snarked Rhy’s inner monologue before he tamped it down.

Instead, he went with some version of the equally staid, “Hi, I’m Rhys. The new farmer down at—”

“Good Hope Farm. I know,” Sebastian said. His voice was lower and quieter than Rhys had thought it would be, touched with a hint of gravel that Rhys found himself hoping was his natural timbre and not just proof that Sebastian’s cigarette was far from a one-off.

“I’m Sebastian,” he continued. “Robin’s son. Demetrius’s step—whatever. But you know that already,” he said, dark doe eyes boring into Rhys. “You know. The binder, thing. From the Mayor.” He gestured with the cigarette between his fingers in the general direction of Pelican Town’s town square.

Rhys cleared his throat. “You know about that?” He asked.

“Of course,” Sebastian said. “He gives one to everyone. All the new people. When they come—” he gestured again, waving the cigarette around in a circle. It was some small comfort to Rhys that if Sebastian always talked this much with his hands, he probably didn't actually smoke very much of his cigarettes before they burned to stubs.

“I guess I didn't realize there were other new people,” Rhys said. He slid his hands deeper in his pockets, suddenly tired again. He felt stupid, and old, and for just a moment he missed the noise of the street outside his Zuzu City apartment.

“I guess it's relative,” Sebastian said, taking his statement in stride. “Elliott, you know—in the last couple of years. And others.” Sebastian trailed off. “Anyway, you can read that all in the binder.”

“So tell me something that's not in the binder,” Rhys said, the thought of his old life making him unaccountably bold. He could go back, if this place didn't suit him. He’d sublet his apartment. It could be his again, and this tiny town only a memory.

Sebastian looked at him warily. “There isn't really anything,” he said finally. He didn't say it unkindly, just with a weariness Rhys would have expected from someone ten or twenty years his senior.

Rhys nodded, nothing left to say. He looked up at the darkening sky. “I’ll be heading back,” he said uselessly, gesturing back toward his cabin. As he turned to go, he thought of the bats, and looked back toward Sebastian.

“Will you be all right once it's dark?” He asked. “Last night there were bats—” he stopped abruptly, realizing how crazy he sounded. But Sebastian didn't seem to think it was a strange thing to say.

“I’ll be fine,” he said. “They don't bother me. None of them do.”

It had been an odd statement at the time. Later, after the skeletons and the slimes, more bats and something that could only properly be described as a phantasm, Rhys would realize what “them” meant, and would turn the sentence over in his head, a puzzle of an entirely different sort. But that night, he’d just walked away, the glow of Sebastian’s cigarette reflecting in the shallow water of the lakeshore, water and fire for once coconspirators against the gloom.

Chapter Text

In the blink of an eye, it seemed an entire season had passed, the pastel blooms on the trees giving way to a full-throated, verdant forest. The spring had been by turns both lovely and bleak—lovely when he’d paused to take in the sweet, loamy smell of the woods coming to life, his arms full of spring onions and dandelions he’d picked himself. Bleak when he showed up to the annual Flower Dance and couldn’t find a single person who would dance with him, or even be polite enough to feign interest. Lovely when he’d saved up enough money from fishing and foraging and his small garden of parsnips to buy his first chicken, a fluffy brown hen he named Nugget.

And bleak when he realized just how deep Joja Corporation’s tentacles had sunk into the town that was supposed to be his new beginning. There was a Joja Mart on the outskirts, of course, to which Rhys resolutely refused to buy a membership. Though he guessed he was one of the town’s few holdouts, given how much Pierre moaned about losing business whenever Rhys came in to buy a packet of seeds or some flour and oil. But Pierre didn’t seem to be the only one down on his luck—Harvey fretted openly about his lack of patients. Willy dropped hints about needing more fishers in the community before he could afford to upgrade the stock he kept in his store. And above it all, literally and figuratively, loomed the dilapidated community center that should have been the heart of the town, but instead sat bleeding out, decaying and abandoned as the town’s collective pulse faded.

Even the sharp, clandestine pull of the binder Lewis had given him had dulled into something dingier and sadder, something that made Rhys rub absently at his chest on the mornings he reached for it before getting out of bed. Because the people he was getting to know—the men he’d been none too subtly encouraged to fall for, for Yoba’s sake—were all but bleeding out, too. There was Harvey, suffering from crippling anxiety; Elliott, living in penury for the sake of art that just wouldn’t come; and Shane, who was drinking himself into oblivion. And then there were the younger bachelors, who despite everything—the town stuck in stasis; the menial jobs waiting for them sweeping floors at Joja Mart—were still fresh-faced and lovely in the flush of their youth. But they were bright young things on the edge of a darkness that was threatening to swallow them up, and they knew it, consciously or no. And they wanted to leave.

Still, Rhys was trying. He dropped off fruits, vegetables, and other small tokens with the neighbors when he could, learning their tastes. Evelyn liked daffodils. Sam liked eggs, fresh from Rhys’s coop. Sebastian, unaccountably, liked quartz, a fact Rhys discovered when he’d wandered into the saloon after a full day exploring the mines. He’d been fidgeting with a piece of quartz he’d found there, and with the label on a bottle of beer. He was learning to be at ease by himself; to let his mind rest quietly in his own company. But his body was still catching up, and the nervous energy that remained gave itself away in his restless hands.

His beer was almost done, its label ripped to shreds, when a knee knocked into his.

“Sorry,” Sebastian said, sliding into the seat next to him. “I didn’t mean—the others were taken,” he said gesturing around at the crowded countertop.

“You’re fine,” Rhys said, doing his utmost not to look Sebastian up and down where he sat. He mostly succeeded, though he cut his eyes at Sebastian when looked away from Rhys to place his drink order. He looked lovely, Rhys thought—his long, slim legs filling out tight blank pants held up by a utility belt; a moss-green Henley shirt hugging the rest of his delicate frame. And he smelled good, too, like the cool mountain air that surrounded his home, run through with a vein of pine.

The smell must have bewitched him, because he let his eyes linger too long, and he looked up to to see Sebastian staring back, expression inscrutable behind his dark brown eyes.

“You’re out late,” Rhys fumbled, caught out and cringing into his beer. But Sebastian just smiled, accepting his own ale from Emily as he answered.

“I prefer to go outside after dark. Is that—does that sound weird to you?”

“No, it doesn’t,” Rhys answered, meeting Sebastian’s gaze. “It really doesn’t. When I lived in the city I loved it too.”

“Why?” Sebastian asked. “Er—what about it?”

“I don’t know,” Rhys said, pulling at the scraps of his beer label again. “I think it’s just that I felt anonymous, in a good way. The city is still busy at night, if you know where to go—there’s people milling around, going to clubs, looking for something to eat to take the edge off the alcohol, looking for someone to take home, or just something to make them forget for a little while. It’s like people are freer to be the parts of themselves they can’t be during the day, like the darkness makes them less afraid of other people judging them. They’re hidden, but they can come out of hiding, too.”

“Yes,” Sebastian breathed out, so softly Rhys almost missed it. “That’s what it is here, too. Well, not at all in some ways, because it’s not crowded or busy. Except for the saloon, sometimes.  But at night here everything feels cleaner and clearer. More honest, almost. It’s not so muddled. Everything just is.” He dropped his eyes back to the bar top, falling quiet.

“Is that quartz?” Sebastian asked after a moment, pointing to Rhys’s hands.

“Yeah—yes, it is,” Rhys said, clearing his throat and opening his palm to show the small, cloudy stone to Sebastian. “I found it in the mines.”

“That’s a beautiful piece,” Sebastian said, craning his neck. “I—I really like quartz, actually. I kind of collect it.”

“What do you like most about it?” Rhys asked.

“I guess it’s like what we were saying before—about the dark,” Sebastian said. “It’s this lovely, perfectly formed thing sitting in the dark or underneath the earth, waiting for someone to discover it. But even if no one does, that doesn’t change what it is. It’s still there, beneath the surface, even if no one ever knows.”

For the second time since they’d met Rhys felt the seams of the universe pull around him, as if there were another kingdom just beneath the surface of this one, and Sebastian was its bewitching, otherworldly gatekeeper. When Rhys caught his breath, he found himself sliding the quartz over the bar.

“It’s yours,” he said. “Pretty thing for a pretty thing.”

Before the words were even out of his mouth, he wanted to claw them back. Something about Sebastian reduced Rhys to his most inept self, as if all of Sebastian’s originality left Rhys baser in comparison. Rhys braced himself, ready for Sebastian to laugh in his face, or at least look away in disgust. But when Rhys looked up, Sebastian met his gaze, his pale cheeks tinged an enchanting shade of pink, his mouth slightly open. The tip of his tongue darted out, touching his full lower lip, and Rhys shifted in his chair at the sudden, familiar tightening in his groin.

“I—thank you,” Sebastian said. “Thank you, Rhys.” He licked his lips one more time, then pushed back his stool, slow and bewildered. He closed his hand around the quartz, and Rhys thought fleetingly that it would still be warm from his own palm, his heat transferring to Sebastian, in this smallest of ways armoring him against the cold night air.

“I should go,” Sebastian said, and then he was gone, leaving Rhys alone with his thoughts once more.

Chapter Text

In the week following their encounter at the bar, Sebastian seemed to have vanished into thin air. Rhys wasn’t looking for him, though. If he was at Robin’s house rather more than normal, it was simply because she appreciated it when he stopped by to make small talk about upgrades to his home or chicken coop, or to price out options for a barn. And if he happened to linger, afterward—discussing the news with Demetrius, or stopping by the lake as dusk fell, well, Robin and her family were his closest neighbors, after all. He was just being neighborly.

It was on one of these early visits that Maru, Robin and Demetrius’s daughter and Sebastian’s half-sister, corralled Rhys into her lab, jabbering away about soil samples and ore quality before he was even all the way in the door. Though they’d only spoken a handful of times before, mostly to exchange pleasantries about how Rhys was adjusting to life on the farm, here, in her element, they might have been lifelong friends. Assuming, of course, that Maru used all her lifelong friends as spare laboratory assistants, Rhys thought, holding out a calloused hand for Maru to fill with empty beakers as she raced out of the room to get a catalyst she’d left, worryingly, under her bed.

It was easy to talk to her, after that—and easier still to promise he’d return the next day with a jar of oak resin from his farm, another ingredient she desperately needed for one of her experiments. He liked feeling useful, he realized—liked feeling the parts of him that wanted a community, wanted to know and be known, come alive again like sap running through the branches of a rosebush that had been pruned back to its beginnings. So he agreed to bring Maru her oak resin, and any thoughts of seeing Sebastian were, for once, blessedly secondary.

In fact, the one time he might have actively wished not to have seen Sebastian was when Rhys returned to bring the jar for Maru. Rhys had imagined Sebastian’s face for days—his brown eyes with flecks of agate green; the pink that tinged his pale skin when Rhys pressed the quartz into his palm—and dreamed of seeing it that way again, vulnerable and open. And here Rhys was instead, caught off guard in the family kitchen, catching a glimpse of that lovely face for the first time in a week over Maru’s shoulders; while Maru threw her arms around Rhys’s waist like she’d known him for years, thanking him for the gift, and while Sebastian’s face shuttered closed like a mountain cabin battened down for a winter storm. He didn’t say a word to Rhys, didn’t do more than nod in his direction before taking a soda out of the fridge and disappearing again.

As soon as he could disentangle himself from Maru, Rhys chased after him, just barely skidding to a stop before knocking over Robin, who was coming down the hall.

“Oh, hi, Robin,” Rhys said, running a hand awkwardly through his hair. “Is Sebastian—was he just here?”

“You’ve just missed him, Rhys,” Robin said. “He’s in his room downstairs.”

“Oh,” Rhys said again, stupidly. “Um—could I, uh—if I wanted to say hello…”

Robin hesitated, looking down at the blueprints in her hands before meeting Rhys’s eyes.

“Don’t take this the wrong way, Rhys, please—Sebastian hates for anyone other than his good friends to visit him in his room. He’s very private. I’m sure he’d be happy to see you anywhere else, but I’d hate for you to get off on the wrong foot with him.”

Too late, Rhys thought. And he should have left it there; should have swallowed his pride and walked out, but he couldn’t stop from driving the dagger in deeper.

“Good friends?” he asked. “Like, ah—Sam?”

“And Abigail,” Robin said. “He doesn’t have many.”

“Right,” Rhys said. “Understood. Sorry. Well—I mean—it’s good to see you again.”

Rhys was moving now, mortified, wanting nothing more than to be at home on his farm, sitting with Shep on the porch; or deep in the mines, swinging his sword at one of the jelly-like slime creatures that stung at his ankles. Anywhere but here, trying to avoid the pity and concern in Robin’s eyes.

 

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The next day was Friday, and Rhys was not going to the saloon.

He wasn’t going when he woke up in the morning, when he dragged his tired body out of bed and tried to rub the worst of the ache out of his muscles as he waited for the coffee to brew.

He wasn’t going when he fed his chickens, replenishing the hay in the hopper and searching the coop for the still-warm eggs they left in return.

He wasn’t going when he watered his crops, when he filled Shep’s bowl, when he dug a hole for the apple tree he planted that day, or when he went into the forest to chop up logs for the wood burning stove in his cabin.

And he certainly wasn’t going when he stepped into the shower, rinsing the sweat from his brow and the dirt from his corded forearms, or when he pulled on his best jeans and white t-shirt and a button-down shirt for the chill that permeated even the summer night air.

He wasn’t going until he was, and then he was pushing through the door of the Stardrop Saloon.

Even as he’d trudged down the path to the saloon, cursing his stupidity as he went, he was convinced Sebastian wouldn’t be there. He’d be at home, or out by the lake smoking a cigarette. Or, if by some trick of fortune Sebastian was there, surely he’d give Rhys the cold shoulder. Rhys could picture him, drinking in the corner by the jukebox, avoiding his eyes, or cozied up on the sofa with Abigail and Sam. But when Rhys walked in and made his way through the crowd, there was Sebastian, standing by the pool table looking lost, holding a cue in his hands.

Rhys hesitated for only a moment, the coward in him briefly contemplating ignoring Sebastian and sulking at the bar, waiting to see if the boy would come to him. But a stronger part of him knew he’d hurt Sebastian somehow. He hadn’t meant to—he didn’t even really understand how he had—but he’d hurt him nonetheless, and Rhys knew this might be his only chance to make things right before the hurt locked in place like a bone that had broken, and healed wrong. He walked slowly up to Sebastian and stopped at the edge of the pool table, looking Sebastian in the eyes.

“Hi,” he said.

“Hi,” Sebastian answered, his voice quiet against the clamor of the bar.

“No Sam tonight?” Rhys asked, nodding toward the untouched rack on the table.

“No, he’s at home with a sore throat. I guess he overdid it at band practice,” Sebastian said. It was Sebastian’s turn to hesitate, twisting the pool stick in his hands until Rhys worried he might break it. “Do you want to play instead?” he asked finally, releasing the stick from his death grip.

“Sure,” Rhys said, reaching for the chalk.

“I won’t go easy on you,” Sebastian said, the fierceness that lit up his eyes a welcome change from the hollowness that had overcome them the day before, even when—maybe especially when—all that fierceness was aimed at Rhys. “I don’t even go easy on Sam.”

“I would be disappointed if you did,” Rhys said, the ache easing from his shoulders for the first time in days as he leaned over the table. “I’ll break.”

They didn’t talk much at first as Sebastian took his measure, watching Rhys line up shots and call pockets. Whenever he could, Rhys watched Sebastian in turn—watched him furrow his lovely brow and lean over the pool table to calculate an angle. Another man might have winked at him or wiggled his ass as he bent over the table like that, a move specifically calculated to arouse Rhys, and it would have succeeded. But Sebastian seemed entirely unaware of his effect on Rhys as he leaned forward and rested his head on the arm that propped up his pool cue, long lashes brushing his hand, and somehow this turned Rhys on more than any practiced come on from a less oblivious lover.

Not that Sebastian was his lover. Rhys winced and tried to adjust himself subtly, moving behind the table. He leaned down to take his next turn just as Sebastian asked, “So are you into Maru?”

Rhys’s hand slipped, his cue knocking the white ball off course, where it banked harmlessly against the side of the table and came to a stop without hitting any other balls at all. Rhys looked back over his shoulder. He would have thought Sebastian had timed the question deliberately to throw him off balance, except that he was throttling the life out of his pool stick again.

“‘Into?’” Rhys asked, raising his eyebrows.

Sebastian rolled his eyes at Rhys, but it came off pert rather than cruel. “Interested in,” he answered. “Attracted to.”

“No,” Rhys said, straightening up to his full height. “She’s not my type.” Though he’d indulged himself in imagining, for a fleeting instant, how simple his life could be if he’d wanted that bright, vibrant girl instead of her fae, almost feral brother. And yet he couldn’t wish Sebastian away, even if he wanted to. Even if wanting Sebastian threatened to undo him utterly.

Sebastian looked away, but didn’t move to take his next turn. “What is your type?” he asked, turning back to Rhys.

“A man, for starters,” Rhys said.

Sebastian swallowed hard, and then he did take his shot, a hard, reckless hit that sent his ball careening off the sides and accidentally knocking one of Rhys’s stripes into a pocket. Sebastian didn’t seem to care.

“Oh,” he said. “Okay, then.”

Rhys almost pushed the conversation, almost backed Sebastian up against the table to ask him what his type was; ask him why he fled from Rhys the night before instead of just talking to him. But Sebastian was pulled tightly as a falconer’s jess at the moment, and Rhys would let him be. He searched for a topic he thought might be safer.

“So you two grew up together, right? Even though you’re half-siblings?”

“We’re not actually...uh...” Sebastian took another bad shot, sighed, and waved at Rhys to take his turn. “Yeah, we mostly grew up together. Robin met Demetrius when I was four. They were married when I was five, and Maru was born a few months later.”

Rhys nodded, and lined up his shot. “Eight ball, corner pocket.” He made the shot, looking at Sebastian to see if he would be upset at losing. He wasn’t. He simply re-wracked the balls, and for a moment Rhys hoped they might have another game, another conversation.

“I think I’m going to head home,” Sebastian said instead. Rhys’s stomach fell. But then—

“Are you walking that way?” Sebastian added.

“Yeah. Yes,” Rhys said. “Let’s go.”

Sebastian paused by the door to grab an oversized cream sweater from the coatrack, and then they were walking out across the square, behind Pierre’s and up the stairs that would lead them past the old community center.

“Maru isn’t really my half sister,” Sebastian said after a minute, his words cracking open the silence that had settled between them. “Because Robin isn’t really my mother.”

“I don’t understand,” Rhys said.

“I mean, Robin raised me from the time I was a baby. So yeah, that makes her my mother. I’m not saying that. It’s just, people say that she’s my mother and that Demetrius is my stepfather because it’s easier for them than admitting I’m not biologically related to either of them.”

They walked past what had once been the community garden, past the hedges that were still fragrant with summer flowers. Rhys still didn’t understand, but he was learning to wait on Sebastian, to create the spaces it seemed Sebastian needed to give whatever he was thinking room enough to breathe.

“I was left,” Sebastian said. “On Robin’s porch, in the middle of the night. You know how some people wake up to those weird black chicken eggs? Well,” he said, scuffing at the ground with a boot, “Robin got me.”

Rhys reached out and took Sebastian’s hand. He could feel Sebastian’s whole body tense, so Rhys squeezed his hand once and then dropped it, nodding at Sebastian to continue.

“I was a newborn as best they could tell—not more than a week or so old. Robin decided to just celebrate my birthday on the day she got me, so that’s what we did.” Sebastian sighed, looking up at the night sky.

“I know since Robin met Demetrius when I was so young, that in some ways he’s as much my father as she is my mother. I know that’s how everyone in town wants me to feel, at least. But I guess I always felt a little bit like he resented me. Like if he’d met Robin just a little bit sooner, they would have had all their own kids, and he wouldn’t have had this weird foundling that was nothing like either of them, that he didn’t ever really know what to do with.”

Sebastian sighed again. “He’s not a bad guy, though. And Maru’s fine. She’s a good kid. It’s just my own hang ups, you know?”

“I get it,” Rhys said. And he did, or he thought at least he was starting to. “Thank you for telling me.”

Sebastian shrugged, looking down at the ground. They had reached the fence that bordered Robin’s property, and the house was just over the hill. “So,” Sebastian cleared his throat, his voice suddenly small again in the darkness. “Are you sure you don’t like Maru that way? Because—“

“Sebastian,” Rhys cut him off. “No. She’s sweet, and smart—so fucking smart. But she’s not who I want.”

Sebastian’s head snapped up. “Then who—“

But Rhys’s control was gone, and he was moving, hands curled in Sebastian’s bulky sweater, pinning him back against the fence. He moved a hand up to cradle the back of Sebastian’s neck, bringing his face down to within an inch of Sebastian’s.

“How?” Rhys asked, so quietly it was almost to himself. He leaned forward just a millimeter, brushed his lips against Sebastian’s so they were just barely touching, the flutter of a moth’s wing against the skin. “How do you not already know the answer?”

Sebastian drew in a breath as if to answer, and Rhys took advantage, claiming his mouth with all the desire he’d kept pent up since that night by the lake, and all the skill he’d spent a lifetime acquiring.

And Sebastian—Sebastian was shy at first, slow to respond, but then he opened for Rhys like a night-blooming flower, and suddenly Rhys tasted fresh pine and new fallen snow and the icy purity of a mountain stream, and Sebastian was in all of it, somehow was all of it. Rhys kissed him again and again until he was out of breath, and when he pulled back, Sebastian was a boy again, reaching up to touch his own lips as if he couldn’t believe it was real.

“Sebastian,” Rhys said. “It’s you I want.”

Sebastian nodded, dazed, and leaned forward, but somewhere behind them a light flicked on, just out of sight, casting shadows down the path. Sebastian startled, and before he could vanish into his house, Rhys leaned down and kissed him once more, gentle this time.

“Good night, Sebastian,” Rhys said, and turned to walk the rest of the way toward the farm.

The next morning, when Rhys got out of bed, he set the coffee brewing and reached for the work shirt he’d draped over a chair the night before. He wondered, idly, if it might still smell like Sebastian. But when he brought the shirt to his face, something bright fell out of the shirt and onto the floor. Rhys crouched down, reaching out a finger to touch the flower, looking from the floor to the shirt and back again. His pockets were overflowing with bluebells.

 

Chapter Text

Time was physical on the farm—almost meditative. Rhys could measure out his mornings in the paces it took him to walk to his chicken coop, in the bend and rise of pulling weeds in his garden. He had been active in the city, too, of course, but it felt different, it ways he couldn’t quite describe. He ran for the metro or for a taxicab; he pushed through crowds; he raced upstairs when it took too long for the elevator to come in his ten-story apartment building. But there it felt like time was slipping away, like water spilling out of a glass. Here, somehow, it was the opposite. His days filled up with time, pure and clear, and Rhys, for once, drank his fill.

Saturday morning was no different. Rhys gathered up the bluebells from the floor and put them in a vase on his kitchen table, filled the vase with water, and walked outside to begin his chores. As he worked, his thoughts returned over and over to Sebastian. To the kiss. For a moment, he touched his hand to his lips, as Sebastian had done the night before, as if they might have been changed forever by the encounter.

“No,” he muttered to himself, yanking his hand away. “You are not doing this again, Rhys. Not. Doing. This.”

“Not doing what?” called a voice from the yard.

Flustered, Rhys dropped his watering can, swearing as its contents seeped into the earth. Elliott was leaning against the garden fence, resplendent in his usual jewel tones. His long hair was exceptionally fluffy, as if he’d shampooed and dried it just that morning.

“I’m—ah—talking to myself. I should probably not do that anymore. Among other things.”

Elliott just nodded. “I understand.”

And he probably did, Yoba bless him, Rhys thought to himself. Once of the best things about being friends with a writer was that it was almost impossible to weird them out. There was nothing Rhys could do that Elliott wouldn’t do quirkier, clumsier, and possibly while covered in ink. And they had become friends, over the last season. They’d met on the beach when Rhys was looking for shells, which turned into a conversation about foraging, and now, weeks later, Elliott’s books showed up on Rhys’s table; Rhys’s vegetables made their way into Elliott’s salads; Elliott’s hair ended up everywhere in Rhys’s apartment, despite the fact that they only saw each other once or twice a week; and somehow, improbably, it worked.

“Anyway, I’m on a walk. I needed inspiration, and it’s not really coming, so...” Elliott shrugged. “Want to walk with me? We can talk about what’s on your mind.”

Perceptiveness, Rhys reminded himself. The other consequence of being friends with a writer. The—whatever the opposite of a silver lining is.

“Yeah, actually,” Rhys sighed. “Let’s go.”

By unspoken agreement, Rhys and Elliott headed for the south entrance to Rhys’s farm, and then into the forest. Elliott was often here in the summer—finding his muse in nature, he called it. Rhys diplomatically refrained from pointing out that on more than one occasion, he’d found Elliott asleep.

“So what exactly aren’t you doing anymore, Rhys?” Elliott asked again, voice low and gentle as they approached the tree line.

And then, after Rhys had opened and shut his mouth four or five times without managing to make anything resembling words come out, Elliott asked, “Is it Sebastian you’ve stopped doing?”

Horrified, Rhys’s head snapped up. “What—for the love of—no, Elliott,” Rhys hissed. “I’m not not doing Sebastian.”

“Uhh...” Elliott managed, mouth agape.

Rhys buried his head in his hands. “Fuck me,” he muttered, then looked back at Elliott.

“No, that came out wrong. I’m not not doing Sebastian, because I was never doing Sebastian in the first place. At least, not like that.” Rhys’s waved his hands around.

“That’s not what I meant,” Elliott said serenely, composed again. “That’s none of my business. Though if you were...” Elliott saluted him with a wink.

Rhys rolled his eyes.

“I just meant, I know you left with him last night, so—“

“You weren’t even there,” Rhys said incredulously.

Elliott hummed. “It’s a town of, like, 20 people, Rhys,” he said. “I have my sources.”

Rhys gave up, sinking down on a boulder in the shade of a maple tree, rubbing at the moss that dotted the stone. It was soft and cool under his fingertips.

“I don’t want to be like I was in the city,” Rhys said after a moment. “Not anymore. Not with him.”

Elliott sat down beside him, gathering up his abundant hair in one hand and pushing it back over his shoulder. “How were you in the city?”

Rhys scrubbed at his face again.

“I chased,” he said finally. “I pursued. Everything that happened in a relationship happened because of me. I was always the one who pushed for a first date, instead of just messing around, and then I was the one who wanted a second date after that. I was the one who asked for exclusivity. I was the one who wanted a life with someone. But that’s not what any of them wanted with me.”

Elliott leaned into him, briefly resting his head on Rhys’s shoulder. “You’re a romantic,” he said.

“I don’t know,” Rhys said. “Fuck. Maybe. I just...” he trailed off. “I thought it might be different here. Easier. Something I could fall into, the way I fell into farming in the first place. But it was stupid. Of course things wouldn’t change, just because I’m in the country. I’m still me here.”

“Don’t,” Elliott said, poking him in the arm. “You’re lovely. And lovable. It’s a good thing, to be you. Someone’s going to appreciate you. Maybe even Sebastian. But if you’re looking for easy, Rhys, it’s not him.”

“Why?” Rhys asked plaintively. “Why not him?”

Elliott prodded at a pine sapling with the toe of his boot.

“Because some things need coaxing,” he said simply. “Look, I don’t know the whole story. I’m new here, too, relatively speaking. But with Sebastian, I get the impression sometimes that he’s been waiting his whole life for someone to give him permission to just feel something for once. And maybe what he’s been waiting for is you,” Elliott nudged him again, “or maybe it’s not. It’s fine if you want to give whatever this is a little space to breathe; see if he comes to you. But be patient with him. He’s not some sophisticated Zuzu City socialite who’s blowing you off because he wants a good time and that’s it. If he’s into you, and it’s not happening, there’s a good chance it’s because he’s scared.”

“Of what?” Rhys asked. “Of me?”

Elliott shook his head. “Of what you might mean for him,” he said. “Or not. Maybe I’m completely off base. Maybe he’s not interested after all, and he’s just caught up in the moment. Sebastian is a puzzle, Rhys. You have to decide if he’s a puzzle worth solving, regardless of whether you're going to like the solution.”

Rhys nodded, looking out into the distance.

“You’re a good friend, Elliott,” he said. “And I have no idea how you got to be so wise.”

“I’m a writer,” Elliott sighed. “It’s the burden we bear.”

“You write horror novels,” Rhys said indignantly.

“The only difference between romance and horror is who gets the happily ever after,” Elliott said. “Monsters are people, too, Rhys.” He got up, dusting off his hands on his corduroys.

“They profoundly are not,” Rhys argued, scrambling to his feet. “That is literally the opposite of what a monster is.”

“Mm,” Elliott said. “Agree to disagree. Now hurry up, you’re buying me lunch in town.”

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Rhys woke up slowly on Sunday morning, lulled by the sound of rain on his roof. Rain meant fewer chores—no watering, for a start, and precious little he could do in terms of chopping wood or fence repair. But rain also meant that once Rhys fed his chickens, there was precious little to keep the walls of his one-room cabin from closing in on him. He drank too much coffee and paced the length of the room for a solid hour, picking up a paperback book and putting it down again, fiddling with the bluebells in their vase until the petals started to drop off. Rhys took the hint and left the flowers alone.

With a sigh, he looked out the window one more time, and then rummaged in his wooden trunk for his workout clothes. In Zuzu City, Rhys didn’t mind a run in the rain, particularly if there was a hot shower at the end of it. There, the rain kept him from overheating, and the streets emptied out and seemed almost clean, if you didn’t look too closely at the overflowing gutters. Running in Stardew Valley was exponentially more beautiful, but also exponentially colder, and being soaked to the skin in the mountain air meant a chill that didn’t dissipate easily, even in summer, and even after a shower and stretching back at his cabin. Today, though, it was run and get wet or stay in and go slowly crazy, so Rhys risked the cold.

He headed south, his feet pounding against the wet earth of his farm and then along the cobbled path as he followed the river. When it rained, he didn’t take his phone or his headphones, his only soundtrack the harsh pull of his breath and the percussive rhythm of the rain hitting the water. He could do this. He could run his loneliness and his petty anxieties and his need to be loved out of his system. He had friends and a working farm and a good dog, and that could be enough.

Rhys had first turned to running nearly two decades ago, when he was fifteen, after both of his mothers were killed in a car accident. It had been their anniversary, and Rhys was sleeping over with friends while his Mom and Mama drove to an inn in the country for a weekend away. A driver for Joja Corp, under pressure to make an impossible deadline, had fallen asleep at the wheel of his big rig, and run them off the road. Grandpa, his Mom’s father, had come for the funeral, stayed for a week, and then told Rhys he didn’t think it would be a good idea for the teenager to come back with him to Stardew Valley.

“You’ll be leaving for college soon enough, anyway,” Grandpa had said. “Pelican Town will feel too small for you, a lad of your age. And anyway, I’ll come back to visit.” He hadn’t, of course—he’d stayed on the farm until he was too ill to keep it up, and then he’d headed straight for an assisted living home on the outskirts of town. Rhys had never seen him again, and aside from the occasional birthday card, had rarely heard from him, up until Grandpa died and left instructions in his will that Rhys should have the farm.

Instead, Mama’s best friend Eileen took Rhys in. Eileen had never had children of her own, and hadn’t wanted any. She did her best with Rhys—kept him fed and clothed, made sure he did his homework, took him to movies or for a hike on the weekends when she didn’t have to work. But she was at a loss as to what to do with a teenager whose mourning was entirely internal, and took him at his word when he said he was fine, when he sat alone for hours staring at the same page of a graphic novel he never seemed to finish. And when Rhys was 19, Eileen died, too, the victim of a rapid-onset lung cancer that had laid waste to her after years of working with hazardous materials in a poorly-ventilated Joja Corp warehouse. He was in college, then, and he’d run then, too; done loops of the campus over spring break, since he couldn’t afford to go anywhere else, and taken over the track in the winter, when the other students were home with their families for the Feast of the Winter Star. It was enough, he thought, to be there and to be alive—to have classes and intramurals and a work-study shift at the library. He would be all right, because he always was.

By the time Rhys made it back home, circling through town and past the bus stop, he was soaked to the bone and ready for a shower. But as he slowed to a halt in front of his front porch, he noticed the flag was up on his mailbox, and he stopped to wrench it open. There was a folded piece of paper inside with his name scrawled on it in messy handwriting. The paper was ragged on the left side, like it had been torn out of a small notebook, and it was damp at the edges.

Rhys stepped inside, not bothering to take off his wet sneakers. He ignored the growing puddle of water at his feet as he read, his heart thundering harder in his chest than it ever had while he was running.

Hi Rhys, the note said. Maybe it was presumptuous, but I stopped by. I wanted to see you, and maybe talk for a minute if you felt like it. You’re probably in town, and you may not even see this, but if you do, if you’re looking for me, I’ll be at the pier for the afternoon. I like watching the waves when it’s stormy out. Anyway, this might be a dumb note—sorry if it is.

It was signed, Sebastian.

Rhys swore, looking at the clock. It was two o’clock now, and Sebastian might not stay for long, no matter what he said about enjoying the weather. But Rhys couldn’t go to the beach like this—he’d freeze. In the end, he compromised, foregoing a warm shower, but putting on fresh workout clothes and a dry sweatshirt before lacing his shoes back up and heading for the docks as fast as he could.

True to his word, Sebastian was standing at the edge of the pier to the left of Willy’s fish shop. He had a black umbrella over his head, and had one arm wrapped around his waist, as if he were keeping himself warm. He turned at the sound of Rhys’s footsteps on the pier, dropping his arm to his side.

“Oh,” Sebastian said. “You came.”

“Yeah,” Rhys said, smiling helplessly down at him. “I did.”

Sebastian smiled back, and for a moment, it was sun on the water, a flare so bright Rhys had to close his eyes against it. But then the smile faded, and Sebastian was turning back toward the ocean, and Rhys’s heart dropped in his chest.

“I thought maybe…we should talk,” Sebastian said, fiddling with the handle of his umbrella.

“Yeah. Yes, okay,” Rhys said, clearing his throat. “Sebastian—is everything okay?”

It was Sebastian’s turn to close his eyes, and it was all Rhys could do to stop from wrapping his arms around Sebastian when he whispered, “No. Not really.”

Rhys rocked back on his feet, opening his mouth to ask Sebastian what was wrong, and to tell him that he would do something, anything, to  fix it, when Sebastian continued.

“I like you, Rhys. Like—I like you a lot,” Sebastian said, twisting the umbrella in his hands. “But I can’t date you. If that was even something you wanted, I mean.” Sebastian trailed off, and then rallied. “I can’t be with you.”

Rhys regarded him quietly for a moment, his expression soft as he traced the contours of Sebastian’s face.

“Okay,” Rhys said. “I did want to be with you—want to date you. I still do. If you didn’t—or don’t—want that, then I respect that. Unquestionably. But Sebastian,” Rhys paused, “it sounds like maybe you want that, too. And if you do—what makes you think you can’t have it?”

Sebastian looked away. “Did anything weird happen, after we—you know. After we kissed?”

Rhys started to shake his head no, and then he remembered the vase on his kitchen table.

“This is going to sound stupid,” he said. “But there were, ah—bluebells. The flowers. Tons of them, in my shirt pockets. I found them the next morning, and I don’t know how they got there. I thought maybe you put them there, when we kissed, but it’s—”

“It’s the wrong season for them,” Sebastian finished. He looked anguished.

“Yeah, it is,” Rhys said slowly. “Sebastian, what’s going on?”

“I’m not normal, okay?” Sebastian burst out. “I never have been. Weird things happen around me.”

“Like what?” Rhys asked.

Sebastian shook his head. “It’s a long story,” he said.

“I have time,” Rhys said gently.

Sebastian looked up at him then, all the emotion in his eyes breaking against Rhys like the waves against the wooden pier where they stood. “I don’t talk about it with anyone,” he said. “Usually.”

“I’m not anyone special,” Rhys said. “It’s just me. Whatever it is, you can talk about it with me.”

Sebastian swallowed hard, nodding. He turned back to the ocean, and Rhys waited. He would only get this one chance, he knew. Either Sebastian would trust him now, or he never would.

“It started when I was a kid,” Sebastian said. “Things I couldn’t explain. I thought they were coincidences for a long time—the bushes around our house were bursting with berries when I was happy, but if I was sad, there wouldn’t be any for days. Or, one year, I didn’t have anything for my mom for her birthday, and I wanted to get her flowers so bad. Suddenly there were daffodils in our front yard, rows and rows of them, even though it was Fall. I never really told anybody about it, because it felt like—it felt like something that was mine. Something that was special.

“Then one day, when I was twelve, I got in a fight with Sam, over something stupid. He wouldn’t share his video game, something like that. I was angry, and I ran straight to the lake, and all of a sudden there were all these fish hurling themselves out of the water, just flopping around at my feet. I threw them back as fast as I could, but they kept coming. It felt like dozens and dozens of them. Some of them died before I could get to them, even. And then I was scared, so I told Demetrius and Robin what was happening.”

“Did they believe you?” Rhys asked.

Sebastian bit his lip. “Not at first,” he said. “But Demetrius is a scientist, so he thought he knew how to convince me it was all in my head. He told me to keep a journal of what I was feeling, and the weird things that happened. I did it for two weeks, and then I brought it to him. It surprised him, I could tell—he didn’t think there would be any kind of pattern. But even then, he just sat me down and gave me a talk about how correlation wasn’t the same thing as causation. I might have let it go—I wanted to let it go—but then things started getting…”

“Worse?” Rhys prompted gently.

“Not exactly,” Sebastian said. “Just—more. It’s like the stronger the emotion was, the bigger the thing that would happen. Little earthquakes, just tremors really, when I was angry, when we’d never had any before. And whole fields of flowers would bloom overnight when—uh…”

Sebastian was blushing. Rhys opened his mouth, then thought better of it, and promptly closed it again.

“All of this was around the time when I started going through puberty,” Sebastian mumbled. “So, you can figure it out. Anyway,” he scuffed at the pier with his foot. “I was getting to be a teenager, and I had a lot of feelings, and other people in town started to notice what was going on. Pretty soon not even Demetrius could deny what was happening. At first he thought it was fascinating—wanted to do all these experiments to see if I could control it somehow. And I could, a little bit. The negative emotions, anyway. Robin taught me to meditate, so I would breathe when I started to get angry or upset, and there weren’t many consequences any more if I had—bad feelings, I guess. Or at least not anything much. But I could never really control what happened when I had good feelings. When I was—when I was happy,” Sebastian said.

“I couldn’t control those feelings, and then it would just be, I don’t know, flowers everywhere, or people would have bumper crops before harvest was supposed to happen. But it didn’t really bother anyone. It was just quirky, and sometimes it even helped people. Just one of the mysteries of the Valley that no one could explain. But then…” Sebastian shivered as the storm drove a wave higher against the dock, spraying their shins with salt water. He unconsciously moved closer to Rhys, and Rhys flexed his hand against his thigh to keep from reaching out to touch him.

“Then the Governor came to town. It was around the Luau, when he’s always here, but this time he brought people from Joja Corp, to show them around. He wanted to show them what a good, like, investment opportunity Pelican Town was, or something. They were going to open a Joja Mart branch, create jobs for people. They offered second mortgages to families who weren’t well off, and promised special interest rates. They even had research grants for Demetrius, and we needed the money, because my mom’s construction business hadn’t taken off yet, and Maru was little. They were promising so much, and we needed it, so no one looked too closely at what they wanted in return.

“They hung around for weeks, just to make sure they were getting their hooks in, and Demetrius and Robin were worried Joja Corps would figure out what I could do. I think they were worried for me, at the beginning. One night I heard Demetrius telling Robin that they needed to protect me, because if Joja Corps thought they could monetize what I was doing, they might try to take me from them. So when they told me to stay inside and keep my head down, that it would only be for a few weeks, I said okay. It was just bad luck that…” Sebastian trailed off again.

“That what?” Rhys asked, his question almost lost in the sound of the wind and the waves.

“That I kissed someone for the first time while the people from Joja Corps were here,” Sebastian said.

Rhys reached for Sebastian’s hand, then, took his smaller hand in Rhys’s own; and both of their hands were cold and clammy, and Sebastian’s was shaking, but it must have been enough, because after a minute, Sebastian continued.

“He was Sam’s cousin, visiting from the city for the holidays, and I started sneaking out at night to see them. When I realized he liked me, I…” Sebastian shrugged.

“It’s not like I had a lot of options, you know? There weren’t a lot of guys my age, when I was a teenager. Sam was my best friend, and Alex is just—ugh, no,” Sebastian rolled his eyes. “So when Sebastian’s cousin wanted to kiss me, I knew the timing was bad, but I also thought it could be my only chance. That it might be it for me, for years and years. And it was,” Sebastian said. “Just not for the reasons I thought.

“So he kissed me, and it was a shitty teenage first kiss, and we were bad at it, but it was also perfect, you know? It was worth it, I thought, especially because when I cut across the plaza and behind the community center on my way home, I didn’t see anything weird. I thought maybe I would get away without anything happening. I didn’t know about the river until the next day, when Evelyn came by our house and told my mom that it was full of water lilies.

“It was the dead of winter, of course, so no one could explain it. It was like the water lilies had bloomed and then immediately frozen solid. People in town—the ones that knew, or at least suspected, were protective of me, so no one said anything to the Joja Corps people when they started asking around. But Demetrius panicked anyway, and convinced Robin they had to confine me to the house until the Joja Corps representatives left. I pretended to go along with it, but I wanted to see Sam’s cousin one more time before he left. The only thing was, when I tried to get out that night I realized they had locked me in my room.

“I was so mad, Rhys,” Sebastian said. “I started banging on the door and yelling, but I was in the basement, and no one heard me, even though I shouted and shouted. And then it’s like I lost control of something inside of me, and—” Sebastian choked up, and Rhys pulled him close, taking the umbrella and holding it over both of them as Sebastian buried his face in Rhys’s hoodie.

“There was an earthquake,” Sebastian said, his voice muffled against Rhys’s chest. “A big one, one that closed the mountain pass between our house and the railroad. Demetrius and Robin were furious, Joja Corps was threatening to pull out of Pelican Town if weird things kept happening, and Lewis and--and your grandfather came by and told Demetrius they had to keep me under control.”

“What did they do?” Rhys asked. Sebastian shook his head, and Rhys slowly drew Sebastian’s face up to meet his gaze. “Sebastian, what did they do?”

“Medicated me,” Sebastian said, his voice dull. “They promised it wouldn’t be for long, just until Joja Corps left. And it worked, mostly. I didn’t feel—anything, really. It was like walking through a fog. The only time anything felt real was when I was asleep. I would have these nightmares that seemed like they lasted for hours.”

“Nightmares about what?”

Sebastian looked up helplessly. “Monsters,” he said. “Bloodthirsty bats, and ghosts, and things that oozed up out of the ground. Monsters like the ones in the mines, and the ones on your farm.”

Chapter Text

“But they’re real,” Rhys said. “The monsters on my farm. They’re alive. They can be killed.”

“I know,” Sebastian said miserably. “I don’t know how they get out of my dreams. I don’t know why they’re just on your land and in the mines, either, except that both of those places are close to my house. And I don’t know how to make them stop.”

“The medication,” Rhys said. “How long did they make you take it?”

“They only made me take it for six months,” Sebastian said. “After that, it was just easier to keep taking it than to stop. I was afraid of what would happen, and feeling nothing seemed better than the alternative, so. Anyway, I didn’t stop until I was twenty. I was out of puberty by then, obviously, so I thought it might be safe.”

“And what happened?” Rhys asked.

“That’s just it,” Sebastian said. “Nothing really changed. The nightmares didn’t stop. The monsters didn’t stop. Everything still felt flat and empty. I didn’t really feel much of anything again, until—” Sebastian cut himself off, biting his lip so hard Rhys couldn’t stop himself from reaching out and touching the full lower lip with his thumb.

“Sebastian,” he said. “Until what?”

“Until you,” Sebastian whispered.

“But that’s good, that you feel something now,” Rhys said. “It’s good, Sebastian, don’t you see?” But Sebastian didn’t see, and Rhys knew even before Sebastian started shaking his head that this was the end for them, that the time of death for Rhys’s stupid, useless heart was here and now, just before Sebastian pulled away, when they were still so close Rhys could almost taste the salt from the waves on Sebastian’s lips.

“I can’t, Rhys,” Sebastian said. “I can’t risk it.”

“Can’t risk what?” Rhys pushed, desperate. “You deserve to be happy, Sebastian.”

“‘Deserve’ has nothing to do with it,” he said. “It’s been years. Almost a decade. And I don’t know what could happen if—if I lost control of whatever this is again.”

“But nothing bad happened when you were happy,” Rhys said. “Some flowers, blooming out of season. That’s all. And you’re an adult now. No one can hurt you anymore. Not Lewis, not Demetrius, not my fucking grandfather. And Joja Corp—they’re a bunch of frauds, Sebastian. Everyone sees through them, and—”

“It doesn’t matter if everyone sees through them, Rhys!” Sebastian was fighting now, a small boat in a storm determined to keep its course even if it ended up dashed on the rocks. “They own Pelican Town. The community center’s gone, everyone’s going broke, there’s no heart here anymore. I can’t—I can’t make it worse.”

“You wouldn’t,” Rhys said, and he couldn’t see through the water streaming down his face; rain or tears or ocean spray, it didn’t matter. “You’re what makes this town good, Sebastian. Who you are. Who you really are, every part of you. You shouldn’t have to hide.”

“But I do,” Sebastian said, and conversely, now, Rhys could tell they were nearing the end by the way the fight leached out of Sebastian, the way his dark eyes focused on a point just out of reach, a point that would always be somewhere Rhys wasn’t. “It’s my choice. It’s my choice, Rhys.”

“Okay,” Rhys said finally, and his voice broke. “Okay, Sebastian.”

Sebastian nodded, overcome. He gripped Rhys’s sweatshirt in his fist, pulled the fabric tight in his hand as if he wanted to pull Rhys close, to pull them both somewhere beyond the sagging dock, the storm-lashed beach, the decaying town. But then he let go, and then he was gone, and Rhys was sinking down, down to the wooden deck beneath him, wishing it were the bottom of the sea.

 

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

 

“Rhys,” said a voice somewhere above him. “Drink this.”

“Mmf,” Rhys replied. He tried to open his eyes, but they felt glued shut. He took stock of his body—his temples pulsed with a headache, and he thought if he moved he might throw up. At least that partially answered the question of what he’d done the night before, if not where, or with whom.

“Rhys, wake up,” the voice said, closer now, and Rhys’s eyes snapped open. Elliot’s face was inches from his own, and Rhys shouted, surprised.

Elliot screamed in return and jerked back, sloshing water everywhere.

“What the actual fuck, Rhys—”

“What were you doing?” Rhys groaned, sitting up.

“Trying to get you to drink some water, you absolute oaf!”

“Through what? Osmosis?”

Elliot sighed, grabbing a dishtowel from his kitchen table and wiping up the floor.

“You didn’t answer the first six times I tried to get you to wake up so I was worried you might be, I don’t know, alcohol poisoned or something. I wanted to make sure you were breathing.”

Rhys groaned again. “How much did I drink last night?”

Elliott shrugged, his hair mussed from sleep. “All my gin, for starter’s, but who’s counting.”

Rhys flopped back down. “So I was here? I didn’t uh, make a spectacle of myself at the saloon or anything?”

Elliott’s eyes softened. “No, Yoba bless you, I wouldn’t have let that happen. You came straight here from talking with—uh. From the pier.”

Rhys’s stomach lurched again as all his memories of the day before rushed back, cast up like rotting seaweed washed ashore by the tide. “I remember,” he said. “Did I tell you…”

“Yes,” Elliott said.

“And do you…uh,” Rhys croaked. “Do you believe me?”

“Yes,” Eliott said again.

“It’s that simple for you?” Rhys asked.

Elliott sighed. “I don’t know if ‘simple’ is the word, exactly. I only moved here a few years ago, so I wasn’t here for any of what you described. But I’ve seen the monsters at the mines. And this town is full of things I don’t understand. It’s like there are shadows sometimes right at the corner of my vision, things I’m at the verge of knowing, but they never quite resolve. And I’ve never needed to—not to write my books or go to the Egg Festival or shop at Pierre’s. You could live a full life in this town and never touch on the mysteries that are there. But once you start to look, well,” Elliott shrugged. “The adventure is there, and only the adventurer wanting.”

Rhys nodded, toying with the duvet on Elliott’s bed. “I didn’t realize until you answered how much I needed you to believe me. To believe Sebastian.”

“I do believe him,” Elliott said. “I’m so sorry, Rhys. What happened to him was appalling, and now you’re both suffering for it.”

“So what do I do?” Rhys asked.

“You eat breakfast.”

“No, I mean—” Rhys choked up. “Elliott, what do I do?”

Elliott pulled him close. “You eat breakfast, Rhys,” he whispered. “That’s what you do.”

So Rhys did.

 

Chapter Text

With those deceptively simple instructions, Elliott set the rhythm for the days and weeks that followed. Rhys got up; ate breakfast, lunch, and dinner; worked in his garden; and sold vegetables and flowers to Pierre. He ran small errands for the other villagers; won a prize at the Stardew Valley Fair; and still went to the saloon every now and then. On the surface, he fell into the same patterns as he had when he’d lost his mothers, and then Eileen: he crowded work and life into every waking moment, edging grief into margins and corners. You don’t get my life, he told his sadness. He ceded only the liminal spaces: the boundary between waking and sleeping; the daydream that seized his heart with sorrow before he could call it back.

The difference, this time, was Elliott. Before, Rhys had been alone. Here, he had a manic-haired writer who showed up to chivvy Rhys away from his fields and tools and into town, into company; who dropped off barely edible quiches and casseroles that didn’t force Rhys to eat, exactly, but did motivate him to start cooking again, so that Elliott would stop. And it was Elliott who got the name of a therapist from Harvey, and insisted that Rhys talk to someone. “This isn’t just about Sebastian, Rhys,” Elliott had said. “I think it goes deeper than that.”

And he’d been right. Sadness, Rhys was learning, was a wall with a crack in it. He’d done nothing but throw coats of paint on it for years, hoping to hide the fact that the crack was widening. He’d been exposed, now, and he was forced to shore up the foundation before the whole thing crumbled to the ground.

The therapist was in Zuzu City, which wasn’t ideal, but he let Rhys do most of his sessions by phone or video chat. And every few weeks, when Rhys caught the bus into town for a face-to-face appointment, the city was its own kind of therapy—a reminder of what he’d left behind, and what he’d chosen. What he still chose, every day, even if he chose it alone. And then Rhys would sit in his therapist’s office, in a comfortable chair, in a room bright with windows, and talk until he felt a little better.

There was one thing he held back, however; one way of grieving he kept from his therapist, and even—maybe especially—from Elliott: Rhys was spending too much time in the mines. Before Sebastian told Rhys about the origin of the monsters, Rhys had gone to the mines only out of necessity—when he needed ore, or stone to repair his fence, or the gemstones that would temporarily fill his coffers as he saved to upgrade his chicken coop or add on a room to his house. He didn’t like the gloom, and he hated the monsters that blended in with it, slipping out of the shadows to make Rhys fight for every inch of ground he gained.

Now that he knew the truth, though, Rhys went back whenever he could. He missed Sebastian, whom he saw only across the crowded saloon, or walking between Sam’s house and the mountains, a fae apparition with hunched shoulders. He would nod at Sebastian, then, and Sebastian would nod back, heartache sparking between them like a live wire. And then Sebastian would be out of sight, and Rhys would be alone, even when he was surrounded by his neighbors.

It was only when he was in the mines that he felt close to Sebastian. Rhys knew how stupid it was, how misplaced, to think that fighting the monsters Sebastian made when his subconscious was broken open by sleep did anything to help Sebastian himself. But somehow, Rhys felt like it did. He felt, for a few moments each day, like the knights he’d read about in storybooks when he was younger. Picking up his sword and stepping into the darkness was an act of devotion for someone who would never see it, and probably never learn of it, either. It was a way of fighting for Sebastian that Sebastian hadn’t allowed him in real life, and Rhys craved it. Rhys didn’t know what it meant, that a man who had once faced such danger reluctantly now sought out monsters with the single-mindedness of an addict looking for his next hit. Sometimes, though, he felt a kind of kinship with them, even as he struck them down—these citizens of the shadows, these expatriates who had also been exiled by Sebastian’s loneliness and distress and fear.

It was small wonder, then, that Rhys snatched at time in the mines the way a drowning man scrabbled for a rope thrown from shore. Today, he’d finished his work on the farm by early afternoon, and he’d headed straight for the mountains, barely taking the time to exchange his ax for an obsidian sword. Fall had just given way to Winter in Stardew Valley, but Rhys set out with only a light jacket, which he left at the entrance to the mines. The floors he was currently exploring were warmer than the outside air. They were warmer, in truth, than the hottest summer day Pelican Town had to offer; tropical and ravenous with magma streams belching steam that could burn skin if Rhys got too close. It was easy to lose track of time, here, where everything was fire and shade, and maybe that was partly the point—he traded his dream of a life with Sebastian for the hours and minutes of his actual life, the seconds slipping through his fingers like Rhys was a fairytale prince in a bewitched sleep. This time, when Rhys remembered to check his watch and headed for the ladder, later than he’d intended to be, there was a shadow shaman blocking his exit, delaying him even further. When he finally overcame the shaman and stumbled from the mines, bloodied and exhausted, night had fallen, as it did earlier and earlier each day this side of the new year.

Looking back, Rhys would think how foolish he was; how he, of all people, should have known what darkness meant, and been on guard for it. But Rhys was tired, and bruised, and heartbreak bored into his bones with a ferocity that left him hollow, and so he’d sheathed his sword long before he crossed his property line, and stowed it deep in his pack.  Without a weapon at hand, he was defenseless when the bats fell on him from above, screaming and diving at him with teeth and claws outstretched. It was almost laughable, how close he was to safety, the roof of his cabin in sight, its windows glowing with light and a promise of warmth. But Rhys couldn’t get there, as hard as he fought, and this time when the blackness descended, it was total.

Chapter Text

 

A dream: his dog, Shep, nudging his cold nose against Rhys’s cheek, howling and howling.

 

A dream: Sebastian, kneeling down beside Rhys in the snow, cupping his head in his hands and begging him to hold on.

 

A dream: a bright light, too bright. Someone forcing his mouth open, pouring something down his throat. It burned. It burned. It burned. Rhys thought he screamed, but there was only silence.

 

A dream: the same light, still too bright. Rhys’s hand, limp against a white sheet that wasn’t his. Elliott with his hands on Sebastian’s shoulders, Sebastian nodding as tears fell from his eyes. Rhys struggled then, trying to sit up or speak or even to feel pain again, anything to prove this wasn’t a dream, that he was alive, and the people he cared about most were here with him. But someone was guiding him back down, down, to the bed beneath him, pouring more burning liquid down his throat, and then everything was dark again.

 

Later, when Rhys’s eyes fluttered open, gritty from sleep, he was alone. The room he was in was spare—he could see a bare nightstand, an empty stool, and a pale green privacy screen closing off his bed from view, but that was it.

 

“Um,” a voice said. “Um, hello?” Harvey peered around the privacy screen, pushing his glasses up the bridge of his nose with an index finger. “Oh good! You’re awake!” Harvey beamed at him.

“I am?” Rhys asked. “I mean—am I—I’m alive?”

Harvey’s brow furrowed as he stepped closer, his face suddenly grave. “Yes,” he said. “But it was a near thing. If Sebastian hadn’t known how to make Life Elixir…” he trailed off.

Rhys tried to sit up, but thought the better of it when his vision started to swim. “Sebastian was here?” Rhys asked. Maybe it hadn’t all been a dream.

“He was the one that found you,” Harvey said, walking around the bed to take Rhys’s vitals. “Rhys, I don’t know what’s going on at that farm of yours, but—”

“Where is he now?” Rhys interrupted.

“Yes. Well,” Harvey sighed, sitting down on the stool as he fastened a blood pressure cuff around Rhys’s arm. “He was—distraught, when you didn’t wake up right away. He sat with you for over 24 hours. Elliott finally insisted that he get some rest. Elliott’s walking Sebastian home right now, in fact.”

“Over 24 hours?” Rhys repeated. “Harvey, how long was I unconscious?”

“A little over a day,” Harvey said. “It was the night of the 6th when Sebastian brought you in, and it’s the morning of the 8th now.” He chose that moment to shine a light in Rhys’s eyes, making him wince. “Keep your eyes open, please. Now then—let me just take your temperature.”

“Am I—will I be okay?” Rhys asked, just before he got a mouthful of thermometer. He closed his lips around the cold metal. For just a moment, with his eyes shut, he could pretend he was back in his childhood bedroom in Zuzu City, home sick from school, his Mom taking his temperature and brushing his hair back from his forehead while Mama tucked a blanket around his legs, promising to read him a story later if he took a nap first. A wave of grief overtook him, none the weaker for all its familiarity. “Loss doesn’t have a head for time,” Rhys remembered his therapist telling him once. “Every moment is always now.”

“Oh, yes,” Harvey was saying. “I think you will. You might be a bit bruised, still. And you should take it easy for a few days. No going to the mines—I mean it, Rhys—and no drinking at the saloon. Or anywhere else, for that matter. But you should be back to normal soon enough. Just…” Harvey hesitated.

“What is it?” Rhys asked. “Please.”

“Just be careful, Rhys, all right?” Harvey asked. “I know you haven’t been in Pelican Town that long, but there are a lot of people here who care about you. And we’re here for you, if you need us.”

Rhys’s throat tightened, but he nodded. “Thank you, Harvey. I will be careful, I promise.”

“Good.” Harvey squeezed Rhys’s shoulder as he stood. “Now, then. Here’s someone to see you.”

For a moment, Rhys wondered if Sebastian had returned, if somehow he’d known that Rhys was awake and come back to see him. But then Elliott was pushing into the room, his  hair wild with tangles, his eyes red-rimmed, and he was launching himself into Rhys’s arms.

“—complete and utter idiot, we could have lost you, what were you thinking?” Elliott was babbling into the crook of Rhys’s neck.

“Mfsorry,” Rhys said around a mouthful of Elliott’s hair. He spat it out inelegantly. “I’m sorry. So sorry, Elliott.”

Elliott pulled back, reaching out a hand to touch Rhys’s face. “Are you crying?”

“No,” Rhys sniffed. “You are.”

Elliott snorted. “Mm hmm.” He rolled his eyes at Rhys, but didn’t let go of his hand as he turned to speak with Harvey. “All right, Doctor, when can I take him home?”

 

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

 

The answer, it turned out, had been that very afternoon. After a final once-over, and a promise from Elliott not to leave Rhys alone that night, just in case, Harvey had pronounced Rhys well enough to leave the clinic, and return to his farm. As they made their way slowly home,  Elliott did his best to answer Rhys’s questions about what had happened: yes, Sebastian had found him and somehow managed to get him back to his house in the mountains. Robin and Demetrius had taken Rhys to the clinic, while Sebastian and Maru disappeared into the lab to mix up a bottle of Life Elixir. Yes, Sebastian had stayed with Rhys for hours, just as Harvey had told him. But when Rhys asked Elliott what he’d said to Sebastian—if that dream had been more of a memory, after all—Elliott demurred.

“That’s between me and Sebastian,” Elliott said. He looked away from Rhys as they walked, worrying at his bottom lip with his teeth. As Rhys began to protest, Elliott shook his head. “He knows you two have things to talk about, Rhys. I insisted that he go home to sleep, and give you a little time to heal. But he’ll come see you when he’s ready. I’m sure of it.”

“Given the way our last talk went, that’s not exactly reassuring,” Rhys muttered as they passed the turnoff for the bus stop.

“I know,” Elliott said. Rhys waited, hoping for even the barest confirmation that Elliott thought the conversation might go in Rhys’s favor. But Elliott stayed silent the rest of the way home.

Rhys had worried, given that Elliott was staying the night, that Elliott would insist on making them dinner. He didn’t imagine Harvey had enough Life Elixir left to treat Rhys for food poisoning, on top of everything else. But when they reached the cabin, they found Rhys’s mailbox and front porch overflowing with gifts and notes from his neighbors: flowers from Evelyn; a card from Lewis; casseroles and covered meals from Jodi and Gus; and even a pepper pizza from Shane.

Rhys paused, taking it all in. Elliott wrapped his arm around Rhys’s waist and squeezed.

“Does everyone know?” Rhys asked when he was able. “To have done all this…”

“They know the general, not the specific,” Elliott said softly. “They know you ran into some monsters at the mines, and then again on your farm. Not more than that. Harvey let me post updates on the message board by Pierre’s—no personal details, really, just that you were recovering well and would be released soon. Things like that. This, they did all on their own.”

“I couldn’t—“ Rhys started, then paused, struggling to find his composure. “I couldn’t have imagined this, back in the Spring,” Rhys continued. “I never knew it would feel like this, living here.”

“I know,” Elliott said. “It sneaks up on you.” He took Rhys by the arm again, and they went inside.

Elliott stayed through mid-morning the next day, only leaving after Rhys promised him that under no circumstances would he leave his cabin after dark, not until he was back to full strength. He’d also made Rhys swear not to watch any new episodes of “Livin’ Off the Land” without him, but Rhys was pretty sure one of those promises was fungible.

It was late afternoon now, and Rhys stood with a mug of tea, looking out his kitchen window. He’d slept for 12 hours the night before, he’d just had a hot shower, where he lingered until the water turned cold, and he was alive. Restless, even. By all outward appearances, he was still and quiet, but inside he felt like meltwater, ready to bring down a mountain at the first hint of a thaw. It would be Winter for a few more weeks in Stardew Valley, but for Rhys, it felt like Spring.

For the second time in as many days, Rhys thought back to what his therapist had said about loss. “The thing is,” he’d continued, “love is loss’s twin, born at the same time, from the same mother. For love, every moment is now, too.”

He set his mug down on the table, and turned toward his front door. Looking back, he couldn’t have said what drew him forward just then; couldn’t have identified with any certainty the feeling that surged through his veins like sap in an awakening oak. But his blood was heady with life, and he drew life to him, green and wick with promise, and so he knew, before he undid the latch, what he would find.

Whom he would find.

He opened the door, and his arms, and Sebastian stepped inside.

Chapter Text

When he was a child, Rhys had been fascinated by a nature program that traced the water cycle from ocean to atmosphere, rain to river, and back again. He’d been struck by the way the effects seemed to magnify the cause, by the way individual drops of rain became a raging torrent, capable of ripping trees out by the roots and sweeping away everything in its path. He had wondered, with a curiosity more than a little tempered by fear, what it would feel like to be caught up in a force like that—what he would do in the face of something so inevitable.

He was learning the answer, now. This was his inevitable force, and he rose to meet it with a surrender so complete it was akin to worship. Sebastian’s arms were around Rhys’s neck, Sebastian’s legs were around Rhys’s waist, and Sebastian kissed him with a determination that was as inartful as it was ardent, and it left Rhys undone.

It was only when Sebastian dropped his legs back to the floor and began propelling Rhys toward the bed that Rhys regained enough self-awareness to force a pause between them.

“Sebastian,” he said, and his voice sounded wrecked, even to him. “Wait. We need to talk.”

Sebastian looked up at him then, his eyes glassy with emotion and desire, his lips wet from Rhys’s kisses, and it was all Rhys could do not to draw him in again, and claim all that vulnerable beauty for his own once and for all.

“I know,” Sebastian said. “I know, and I promise we will. I promise I’m not going anywhere this time. But I need this first, Rhys. Need you. Please,” his voice broke, and he tugged on Rhys’s hand again.

Rhys groaned and spun them, backing Sebastian against the wall. “I can’t say no to you,” he said in Sebastian’s ear. “I never could, but Sebastian, I have to know that you’re going to stay. I have to know that we’re going to give this thing between us a chance, that we’re going to try, because otherwise I can’t do this. I won’t survive bringing you into my bed if afterward you leave me there.”

“I won’t leave you,” Sebastian said. “I know, because I tried, and I can’t. I don’t know,” he swallowed. “I don’t know how to be with you. I don’t know how be in a—a world where everyone knows what I really am and where the things I can do just happen, and everyone sees. But I can’t hide anymore, not if it means losing you.”

Rhys was quiet, and after a moment, Sebastian spoke again. “Please,” he said. “Please tell me that’s enough. I promise I’ll try. I—“

Rhys silenced him with a kiss. “It’s enough,” he said. And then, answering the question Sebastian hadn’t said out loud, “You’re enough. You’re more than enough. We’ll figure the rest out together, all right?”

“Okay,” Sebastian said. He pressed against Rhys, insinuating a slender leg between Rhys’s own. “Okay, Rhys,” he repeated, and his voice hitched, and the river raged again, and Rhys let it. He grabbed Sebastian’s wrists in one hand and put his other hand on Sebastian’s lower back, walking him backward until he could guide him to lay down on Rhys’s bed.

Rhys started to lower himself gently on top of Sebastian, mindful of his weight, but Sebastian yanked him down, hard.

“Don’t be careful of me,” Sebastian whispered. “I don’t need it.”

Rhys rumbled his consent, giving in to the gravity of the two of them together, tilting Sebastian’s head back with two fingers and baring his neck for Rhys’s mouth. He nipped and sucked at the creamy skin as Sebastian shook with the effort of holding himself still for Rhys, giving himself over like—fuck, Rhys thought as the realization hit. Like a virgin sacrifice.

“Sebastian,” Rhys said. He was breathing hard, fighting for his control. “Sweetheart, I need to know. Has there been anyone, since the boy you kissed when you were younger?”

Sebastian shook his head, mute.

“Did you do more than kiss?” Rhys asked, his hands gentle on Sebastian’s neck now, soothing the places he’d bitten. “With him, or with anyone else?”

Sebastian shook his head again. “No,” he said, so quietly Rhys had to bend his head to hear. “I’ve only ever—ever kissed.”

It was Rhys’s turn to nod, and he tilted his mouth down for a soft kiss before sitting back up. Yoba knew he wanted Sebastian more than he’d ever wanted anyone, but he wanted his heart as well as his body, and Rhys would die before he did this wrong. But Sebastian had different ideas. He struggled out from under Rhys, put a hand to his chest and pushed Rhys back down, climbing on top and putting his fingers against Rhys’s lips before Rhys could say anything.

“Don’t,” he panted. “Don’t tell me we need to slow down. Don’t tell me we need to wait. I’ve waited—fuck, Rhys, I’ve waited 23 years for this. And I’ve waited for you—” his voice wavered again, and he fisted Rhys’s shirt in his other hand. “I don’t want to wait anymore, and I don’t want to talk this to death, either. I know what I want, and I want you.”

He looked down at Rhys, his expression wary, as if bracing for Rhys to tell him no and push him away again. It was that look, finally, that decided Rhys. He wanted to claim everything Sebastian held back, to erase the doubt from Sebastian’s eyes and replace it with pleasure.

“All right,” Rhys said.

Sebastian went still, his mouth open. “All right?” he asked.

“All right, Sebastian.” Rhys reached up a hand to trace the corners of Sebastian’s mouth, his touch tender. When Sebastian relaxed into him again, Rhys moved quickly, sweeping his legs out from under Sebastian and flipping them both. He pinned Sebastian’s wrists above his head, and some deep, hungry part of Rhys noticed the way Sebastian’s pupils dilated at that, and filed it away for another time. For later, when Sebastian was less innocent, and Rhys was less desperate. For now, he leaned in close.

“These are the rules,” he said. “They’re non-negotiable. First rule: we don’t have to talk about this if you don’t want to, but if you change your mind—if you even think you might, potentially, want to change your mind—you tell me. Immediately. Yes?”

Sebastian nodded, but it wasn’t enough. “I need to hear it,” Rhys insisted.

“Yes,” Sebastian said.

“Second,” Rhys said, caressing the pulse in Sebastian’s wrist with his thumb. “If you need to stop for a minute, or if you need to slow down, or if you don’t like the way something feels, you tell me. This is only good for me if it’s good for you, too. All right?”

“Yes,” Sebastian said, and his body went supple under Rhys, letting the last of its tension go.

“Good,” Rhys said. He nuzzled Sebastian’s cheek, dropping a kiss on it as a reward. “Lastly,” he said, and his smile was feral, now, “If something feels good, you tell me that, too, so I can do it over and over again.”

Sebastian shivered.

“Say yes, Sebastian.”

“Yes,” Sebastian said.

Rhys hummed, licking a stripe up Sebastian’s perfect neck. “Good,” he said again, this time speaking low in Sebastian’s ear before sitting up and grinding his hips in a slow roll. “Now tell me what you want me to do to you, baby.” And Sebastian arched up close enough to whisper in Rhys’s ear, and Sebastian told him.

Rhys let go, then. He gave in to the need to strip Sebastian bare, to learn his body with his eyes and his fingers and his lips. Sebastian whimpered and writhed beneath him, repeating “Yes, Rhys, yes,” whenever Rhys asked permission to touch or to taste. He said yes when Rhys stroked him until he flew apart, quieting the storm between them only to let it build once more. He said yes when Rhys dipped his fingers inside, teaching Sebastian to ride the eddies of pleasure that were just at the edge of pain. He said yes when Rhys entered him, gentle but inexorable, said yes even though his eyes were bright with tears and he gripped Rhys so tightly the tips of his fingernails left white crescent moons in Rhys’s arms. He said yes again as Rhys soothed him, as Rhys showed him how to breathe, and slowly but inevitably, the pleasure overwhelmed him, like waves breaking over and over against the shore. And Sebastian said yes when Rhys came inside him, said yes again and again and again as they came together and apart, until he was finally quiet, until only the sound of their kisses broke the silence as they drifted together into sleep.

 

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

 

The next morning, Rhys woke gradually, a boat drifting into harbor. Sebastian was twined around him, his body lax and lissome in sleep. Rhys stroked Sebastian’s hair back from his face, waiting for him to wake. When he did, he squeezed Rhys even closer for a moment, burying his face in Rhys’s neck. “Hi,” he said.

“Good morning,” Rhys said, kissing his ear. “Are you okay?”

“More than,” Sebastian said, trying and failing to fight back a blush. Rhys grinned, but before he could say anything, Sebastian disentangled himself from Rhys’s arms and walked naked to the front door. Rhys’s heart dropped for a moment as he threw back the rest of the sheets and went to join him. He knew before Sebastian opened the door what they would see, knew it with the same certainty as he’d known Sebastian would be standing there the night before. Still, as they stepped out onto the porch, Rhys gasped as he surveyed his farm. Every tree on his property, as far as his eyes could see, had burst into bloom.

Rhys was afraid, then—afraid Sebastian would panic, that he would leave, despite his promise, and Rhys would be alone again. But Sebastian just turned and laid his head on Rhys’s shoulder, his arms around Rhys’s waist. When he turned his mouth up for a kiss, he was smiling.

“It’s my birthday,” he told Rhys when they broke the kiss.

Rhys cupped Sebastian’s face in both hands, kissing the corners of his smile. “Happy birthday, my Sebastian,” he said.