Threads of Fate
Whatever it was that made Marc so noticeable was considerably dimmed by the next morning. Alex, however, was adamant about continuing to walk. It wouldn't be that far to another rest stop - they could get food and water there, camp out one more night, and go back to hitchhiking the next day. So they ate the rest of the sandwiches and set back out.
Patrick wasn't sure if not hitchhiking was a good thing. He was starting to get used to it, actually.
"There," Alex pointed out, shortly after noon - at least, according to Patrick's watch, which he wasn't putting a lot of faith in. It seemed to be working. Sometimes. The dark-haired boy was directing their attention to a small area of places to eat, buy food, and gas up. "Just about time for lunch, I'd say."
"Thank god," Patrick muttered, wiping off his forehead. It was pretty muggy out. "I'm almost ready to start eating grass."
"That'd make an awfully good show."
Marc shook his head. "You're rotten," he told his brother.
"So you've said." Alex shrugged, unconcerned. "I'm fairly hungry, myself. Can hear my stomach trying to eat itself as we speak."
Patrick wasn't all that used to so much walking, but he was willing to put up with it a bit longer if it meant being fed. "Let's hurry, okay?"
The most appealing restaurant was a small, homey-looking place with cozy booths and tables, and appetizing smells coming from the kitchen. Patrick could feel drool building as he took the place in, and he noticed Alex's expression turn into something that looked almost reverent.
"Nice place," he said, out loud.
The dark-haired boy nodded fervently. "Oh yes."
Beside him, Marc smiled wistfully but didn't comment.
The food was delicious - and maybe it was hunger, but Patrick didn't think he'd ever eaten anything that tasted so good in his life. From the way Alex packed things away, he most likely agreed. Marc finished about half of his plate, and then pushed the rest of his food across the table when his twin asked if he was going to eat it.
"I have to go use the toilet," he announced, before Patrick could ask if he was feeling all right, and stood. "You can go ahead and order some afters if you want."
Looking at the options on the dessert menu, Patrick nodded. "I think I will."
"Well, in that case I'll go pick up the food we need for tonight and tomorrow morning." Marc's smile was the very picture of innocence. "You two enjoy your food. I'll be back in a little while."
Patrick watched him hurry away, and then glanced at Alex, who was busily scraping the remains of food off his plate. "Want dessert?" he asked. "I'll get the waitress over."
"Yeah. Yeah, afters sound good." Alex's answering smile was contented. "Let me pick something out," he said, reaching for the dessert menu. He didn't seem to realize that his brother had just abandoned him yet again.
That was probably a good thing, Patrick decided.
"So." He waited until after Alex had decided and their orders had been taken to speak up. Casual conversation's a good start. Especially with someone as inexperienced as Alex. Ease into it - that was the plan. He was pretty sure Marc wouldn't have been as accommodating if he knew what sort of things Patrick wanted to do to his brother, either. And it was probably for the best that he never found out. "You never really told me much about those faeries of yours. Why are they so dangerous?"
Alex rolled his eyes upward, in a show of good-natured exasperation. Obviously he still didn't think Patrick "got" it. "Solitary faeries are usually the more dangerous ones. Trooping faeries are generally polite - not," he added, face darkening, "that they don't have a nastier side."
It was actually kind of interesting - as a study of mythology, of course. "What's the difference?"
"Solitary faeries aren't a part of any court," Alex explained, sitting forward a bit as his voice took on an almost 'instructive' tone. "There are several sidhe courts - Midhir and Etain are considered High King and Queen, so all courts are in some way answerable to them. Solitary faeries are usually answerable only to themselves."
Patrick nodded, and something pulled at his memory again. "You said that Midhir stole Etain away - she was mortal once, is that right?" He went on immediately, "Is that what you meant by danger? Being stolen?"
Alex's expression had completely closed up - he looked away, eyes flat. "That's one of the dangers."
What did I say? "What are some of the others?" Patrick asked, hoping to move past the moment.
"Lots of things." The younger boy sighed, but seemed willing to let go of whatever thought was making him so upset, turning large grey eyes on his companion. "If you dance to sidhe music, it hypnotizes you - you can end up dancing yourself to death. Some of them can make you long for them - you could pine away the rest of your life in their thrall. And if you step into a faerie ring, you're within their power - unless someone takes you out of it."
Typically mystical. Patrick nodded. "What about protection?"
Alex immediately reached for something around his neck - pulling out a chain with a rough metal circle hanging from it. "Iron," he said, and shrugged, stuffing it back under his shirt. "They can't bear the touch. They also don't like excess smoke and shamrocks are supposed to be a charm against them as well." His mouth twisted scornfully. "I don't trust much to that."
But you trust the iron? It was probably better not to voice that thought. "So, if you're wearing the iron, why don't you want to camp out in the trees?"
"Because." And then he seemed to clamp his mouth shut, glaring as if Patrick had somehow asked something he wasn't supposed to. "I don't want them touching my brother," he said, stiffly.
There needed to be signs for these dangerous spots. "What about you?"
"They're not interested in me." Alex shrugged, eyes darting sideways quickly, and then changed the subject. "Are you religious at all?"
That was odd. Patrick blinked a bit, and ran those first words through his head again. Not interested in him - that would imply that they are interested in his brother. Specifically. And what could have happened to give him the delusion that there were faeries after him? "No, not really. I'm a skeptic."
"Why does that not surprise me?" Alex's voice was wry. "You don't put a lot of value on feelings and instinct, do you?"
Patrick shook his head. "The danger of taking a minor in Philosophy, I guess. Most of my teachers were quick to point out the flaws with Emotivism."
"I've studied philosophy," the younger boy said, unexpectedly. "And most of it's a great load of guff, as far as I'm concerned. There's nothing else so stupid as trying to find some great fantastic theory that explains every kind of human behavior - and that goes for Emotivism as well as anything," he added, almost challengingly, glaring across the table with no small amount of self-satisfaction.
"You don't believe in trying to understand how people think?"
"No. Why bother?" Alex snorted, leaning back again in his seat. "I want to feel and think and behave, and decide for myself about these things. I don't want any self-important philosopher preaching at me about how I should act. I'll decide for myself."
Patrick grinned a bit. "You know, as I remember, there's a theory for that, too."
The scowl he got in return was more good-natured than anything. "Shut your gob."
"Not with the food coming," Patrick disagreed, nodding to where the waitress was approaching them with their desserts.
Alex actually grinned. "Guess I'll make an exception - as long as it's for food." He sat up a bit straighter as his slice of cake was placed in front of him. "Thanks."
Patrick barely heard the girl telling them to let her know if they needed anything else. He picked up his fork with some intention of at least pretending to eat, but the moment seemed too sweet to spoil with hunger. For food, anyway. Between him and Alex, they could probably compile a complete list of differing points of view - practicality and anti-practicality, almost. But they could still have a conversation, and actually enjoy each other's company. The more they talked, the more fascinated he got.
And then there was the fact that Alex was just hot.
Apparently the younger boy caught his gaze and guessed at what kind of thoughts were going on with it, because he turned a bit red and squirmed in his seat, looking around a bit. He seemed to realize then that it was just the two of them left in the booth, and blurted, "You know, this isn't a date."
Patrick blinked. "I never said it was."
"My brother's going to be back any second," Alex added, nodding twice and coloring even more. "Anyway, you can't just suddenly be on a date with someone - there has to actually be asking."
That was an opening if ever he saw one. Patrick stared forward, into the other boy's embarrassed and slightly uncertain grey-eyed gaze, and cleared his throat. "In that case… want to go out with me?"
The battle between the red color and Alex's face ended with a clear victory for the color. "I…" He suddenly dropped his gaze, staring down at his dessert, fingers playing with his fork nervously. "I don't know… I don't know what to do on a date," he muttered, after a minute.
I'm not dreaming about returned attraction, am I? Usually these things were pretty simple after you came right out and asked - it was either yes or no. And, while he got the feeling that Alex would just say no if he was sure he didn't like someone, Patrick was more uncertain than he really wanted to be about the whole thing.
"Look," he said after another brief silence, and reached awkwardly across the table to brush his fingers over Alex's free hand. "I - " He stopped abruptly as the dark-haired boy's gaze jerked up at the touch to meet his, eyes a bit wide. "Sorry," Patrick said immediately, and pulled his hand back.
"Um." Alex smiled a bit, nervous but sincere, and then ducked his head, turning his face away again. "It's all right - I guess… I don't mind."
"Okay." Patrick let out a breath and smiled back - but he didn't have the courage to reach out again.
"Well, the two of you must have been very anxious for dessert." Marc's voice broke the silence a moment later, as the blond himself slid into the booth next to his brother. "Not a bite's been touched, and I've been gone long enough."
Alex made a face at him. "Think you're so clever," he snorted, and deliberately scooped a large forkful of cake to stuff into his mouth.
Dessert didn't take long after that.
"I don't like this."
Patrick glanced back over his shoulder. It had struck him as strange that he was leading, since he was the least likely to know the area, but somehow that was how things had turned out. "You're the one who said you'd been through here a million times before."
Alex glared back at him, sullen. "Well, we couldn't follow the road around that peak - too conspicuous, and there's no place to go in a fix."
"So you said." Patrick did not look for a long time at Marc, who was walking between them and staring dully around in one of his more vague moments. It was a bit creepy with the light dying out and the shadows from the trees closing around them. "What don't you like about this now?"
They were in a forest of some kind - the younger twin had called it a 'grove', before they'd gone in and found that it was bigger than he'd thought. The idea was to meet up with the road again before it came to Antrim, and maybe it would, but at the moment, there seemed to be an endless range of trees stretching out in front of and behind them.
"The sun's setting." Alex's voice gave the impression that he expected to be laughed at - but was too concerned not to say anything. "I thought it took less time than this to get through here. I don't want to be caught in the trees when the moon is out."
Patrick didn't want to laugh - not really. He did smile a bit, since the younger boy couldn't see it. "Hate to break it to you, but - "
"I know the moon is out all day!" Alex snapped, not letting him finish. "I'm not stupid! I meant when it's night - when things are completely dark and it's plainly visible. Do you understand the difference? Or do I need to life the top of your noggin and print it in short words onto your brain?"
"You don't need to get so touchy," Patrick replied, mildly. "I was just trying to be helpful."
"The moon isn't full tonight." That was Marc's voice. When Patrick turned around again, the blond had a dreamy sort of smile on his face; his eyes were far away. "Four more nights," he went on, slowly, softly, "and then it'll be full."
Something about the way he said it made Patrick shudder involuntarily. He frowned.
"We won't be in the trees in four nights," Alex said sharply. There was a definite defensive note in his voice.
"If you're so worried," Patrick began, "we should - " He stopped, and glanced to the side, frown deepening. "Did either of you hear that?"
"What?" Alex's tone had turned wary.
"Wait a minute." He stopped walking, tilting his head a bit. There it was again - a female voice, far away but clear, laughing. "There." Patrick turned to face them. "Sounds like someone else… is…" His voice trailed off.
Alex looked pale; he was clutching something that was resting by his chest, under his clothing. His shirt bunched as his fingers clenched around whatever it was. The iron, Patrick remembered, and felt a faint, irrational prick of fear.
"What?" he asked, keeping his voice flat. Getting caught up in their native superstitions wasn't going to help the situation.
Marc smiled again, typically vague; his head tilted too, as if he were trying to catch more of that laughter. "She hunts tonight," he said, voice even slower and lower than before. There was something creepy about that, too; a breeze picked up and it tossed his hair, but he stood there smiling as if nothing was wrong.
On the wind, the laugh sounded again - nearer now, and much less happy than Patrick had thought at first. It almost sounded like the kind of laugh that would come from a crazy person.
"I'll bet she does," Alex muttered, and his lips curled back, as if he'd just heard something that was terribly distasteful. "Well, she won't find much here to take back as a prize; come on, Marc. And you too," he told Patrick firmly, taking his brother's hand and abruptly jerking him away from the path they'd been following. "Hurry!"
"What? Wait!" Patrick stumbled after him, afraid to lose the two of them in the rapidly growing dark. "Who's this 'she' you're talking about?" It sounded like they were talking about a girl, but… 'she' and 'sidhe' had pretty similar pronunciations. "And what do you mean 'she hunts'?"
The insanity in that laugh had unsettled him, much as he didn't want to admit it - getting far away and soon seemed like a good idea. But that didn't mean he wasn't going to find out why.
"You don't want to find that out," Alex called back, brushing through the trees with the easy manner of someone who had grown up surrounded by wilderness. Marc was one step up from dead weight, moving forward only as his brother directed him. "Come on."
"Wait - slow down!" Patrick flinched back as one of the branches he'd pushed out of the way snapped back in his face. "Ow! Damnit…"
"Hurry up, then!"
He could hardly see Alex and Marc, moving on ahead of him through the trees. Patrick shoved himself forward with renewed force, trying to catch up, and his foot caught on a thick root, sending him falling down, onto his face in the dirt.
"Fuck!" His shoulder throbbed; it had hit something as he fell. Patrick spat out dirt and wiped his face, pushing himself back up. There was no sign of either of his companions.
"Alex!" No answer.
God damnit… Usually he didn't swear so much, even in his thoughts - but this was ridiculous. It was also much darker than he'd remembered it being just a second ago; everything seemed to be hiding shadows in its depths, even things that were plainly bathed in moonlight. "Marc?"
Still no answer.
"Alex! Marc! Where the hell did you go?"
Patrick shoved away from the tree he'd used to pull himself to his feet, and started off in the direction he'd last seen the twins take. "Thanks a lot for waiting for me," he muttered, more than a little annoyed.
One more time… If they don't answer me this time, I'll kill them. Seriously. "Alex!"
Behind him, there was the sound of nearby laughter - and horse's hooves suddenly brought the source of it even closer, knocking him into the tree again with a sudden, unexplained force. He spun around - and froze in place, mouth falling open in a mix of terror and shock.
Now in front of him was the large figure of a white horse - although Patrick wasn't sure he would call the thing a 'horse', not matter what it looked like. Its eyes were like bottomless black pits, its lips curled back to reveal the teeth of a carnivore. There was a feeling around it… like what he'd felt from Marc when he had his fit - but a hundred times stronger, and more menacing than anything he'd felt before.
Worse was what sat on its back - although she was beautiful, fair and cold with a perfection that made his mind shriek against its impossibility. Her hair was blood-red, eyes glinting like emeralds with an unholy light, and skin so pale it was almost white. A black material he'd never seen before encased her figure, cast strikingly against the white of her unnatural mount. She gazed down upon him, and smiled coldly - madly.
And he could only gape back, feeling the blood drain from his face as she drew closer.
"I am called the Huntress," she said, in a voice that broke the silence like ice creeping fast over a body of water. "And it is thy soul which I seek from thee on this night, with the full moon four days hence. Observe!"
One pale hand freed itself from where it had clutched tight to the horse's mane; she raised it in the air, and then with a flick of her wrist, tossed it back, as though releasing something from her fingers.
The air in front of Patrick flickered; shining for a moment so brightly that he had to squeeze his eyes shut; he brought up both arms with a pained cry.
Abruptly the stillness of the night was rent with gleeful shrieking; when he opened his eyes again, it seemed that he saw shapes flickering in the air around her; a dozen at least, filmy and indistinct, almost invisible. Women's faces and bodies, floating about the figures of the one who had identified herself as the Huntress, laughing shrilly.
"Behold the ultimate terror!" Her smile was cold, wicked, obscenely beautiful. "For in my touch is not death, but eternal longing, impure and agonizing, to haunt thine immortal soul long past the decomposition of thy suffering flesh!"
It was like her words had completely freed him from any restraint. Caught helplessly in the intensity of what had been declared and the horrifying reality of that white hand reaching down from the seat on her unearthy mount, Patrick turned and fled blindly, stumbling through the underbrush.
Cold, mad laughter followed him. "A hunt!" she declared, and then, "After him, beansidhe all! Bring him to me, to submit beneath the power of mine hand!"
The shrieking hit an ear-splitting crescendo as the minions of that awful vision gleefully jumped to do her bidding. Patrick blundered through the trees and bushes in his path, frantic and almost mindless in his terror.
That was why, when someone jumped out in his path and yanked him harshly down into a large section of shrubbery, he cried out and fought back with panicked flailing.
"Stop that!" Alex hissed, and pressed him down with the kind of strength a person could get from often having to restrain another. "You want her to find us? Quiet!"
Patrick couldn't seem to keep himself still - he was still squirming in the throes of complete terror, panting and staring up at the familiar figure with wide eyes. It was barely registering on him that this was someone safe. "A-A-Ale…?"
"Shh!" The younger boy held him down with both hands, and stared at him in frustration as he continued to gasp. "Bloody fecking… fine," he spat out, and leaned forward quickly as the shrieking drew nearer, cutting off Patrick's involuntary noises by pressing his lips down firmly to the older boy's.
Suddenly it wasn't just terror that made Patrick's eyes wide.
His mind whirled, swinging from one extreme to the other before settling quite firmly on the present moment - a warm, clumsy mouth against his own, perhaps motivated by self-preservation but with enough tenderness behind that to make his struggles melt away. His eyes slid shut; he relaxed into the sensation, everything else around him suddenly seeming to drown out into a low, distant roar.
And then the roar receded; the shrieking died out, the horse's hooves echoed off somewhere in the distance. Alex eased back, breaking them apart with a painful slowness, his eyes half opening as he stared back at Patrick with something confused and wondering both at once.
Beautiful. More so than the remembered image of that terrible, perfect woman on the horse. He was real. Flushed. Colored. Human.
At the outside edge of his terrifying experience, feeling a bit light-headed and close to crazy, Patrick's one un-garbled thought was that he wanted this tempting boy more than ever.