The Appaloosa mare was in labor. She lay on the bed of clean straw, sides heaving, mottled nostrils flaring with her breaths. One speckled wing--broad and rounded, like the wing of a ferruginous hawk--flexed at intervals, swiping at flies that circled the stall.
Credence crouched near her, speaking to her in quiet tones. Telling her how good she was, how brave, how well she was doing. How beautiful.
It was strange to hear the words spoken by day--in the dusky light of the barn, in his own voice--but they seemed to serve. Pimienta raised her head, then whuffled a sigh as a contraction passed. The labor was going well enough that Percy had left Credence to keep watch alone. He'd set out in search of Tango, the colt whose new favorite pastime was paddock jailbreaks.
Pimienta was a veteran broodmare, and Credence had attended births before, but his anxiousness refused to ease. If something went wrong, he could administer potions or salves, and that was all. Healing was beyond him.
Motes of straw dust bloomed from the floor as Pimienta shifted. The dust caught in Credence's throat. It spurred a cough, then another, and then the wracking took him. He backed out of the stall and bent over, clinging to the wooden door for support.
Once a fit began, it was hard to stop. Credence splayed a hand over his chest to shore up his ribcage, to brace himself against the ache. Within him something moved darkly, clogging and burgeoning, claws catching at the interior of his ribs.
At least Percy wasn't here to hear him.
The fit had just begun to subside when in his mind a bell clanged: the sound of the perimeter wards. Credence tensed. He straightened, wiping his mouth, and tipped his ear to the alarm's pitch.
Someone--a witch or wizard--was at the gate.
He stopped in the house for the shotgun. He was no use with a wand, but for certain chores a gun served just as well. In some cases, better. He paused in the front parlor, by the window with its gauzy curtains, to peer across the porch and the broad, grassy yard ringed with split-rail fence.
The stranger stood outside the gate, in jacket and hat, holding the reins of a well-groomed mule. The figure he cut was more gawky than imposing, all elbows and angles. Curls of hair clung to his brow under the floppy brim of his hat. His wand was nowhere to be seen.
Strapped to the mule's saddle was a battered suitcase. It looked awkward, but the mule wasn't batting an ear; the case might be magicked to weigh nothing at all.
Credence stepped onto the porch and closed the door behind him. He approached the gate slowly, gun in hand.
"Good afternoon," said the man, pleasantly, in an accent Credence dimly recognized as British. He kept one eye on Credence's gun. "I'm looking for the Flying Buckskin Ranch. Might this be it?"
"Who's asking," said Credence. He tried to lower his voice, to sound as gruff as Percy did. Percy never had to try.
The man started to extend a hand, then yanked it back as if singed by a hot stove. He shook it out with a wince. "Newt Scamander. I'm writing a book--a sort of survey of winged horse breeds. I'd very much like to have a look at your Appaloosas. Perhaps make some sketches, if I may." He wiggled his stung fingers. "Remarkable wards."
"Horse thieves," said Credence, by way of explanation.
"I can't open them," Credence added. "The wards." Mr. Scamander lowered his hand and blinked. "You'll have to wait for my partner."
Without waiting for a response, Credence turned and made for the house.
He returned with water: a cup for the man, a bucket for the mule. Of course a wizard could cast Aguamenti, but Mr. Scamander thanked Credence for the gesture. He watered the mule first, then drained the cup. He'd spelled up a sort of makeshift awning, a tent without sides, to shade the mule and himself; the day was warm for spring, the high sun glaring unabated. Credence liked that he'd made the tent big enough for both of them, man and beast.
Cautious of the wards this time, Mr. Scamander handed back the empty cup. "I don't mind waiting," he said, "not at all, but I wonder if you've any sense of, erm, how long?"
"Pimienta's having her baby. And you're here." Wherever he was, Percy would've heard the alarm, too. "So I don't think he'll be long."
"A new arrival?"
Credence nodded. A faint smile reached Mr. Scamander's eyes.
"Congratulations to all." The smile gave way to concern. "If you have a mare in labor, perhaps I'd better come back later? I'd hate to be a nuisance when--"
He broke off, glancing behind Credence, toward the house. The air beside Credence twisted, and then with the sharp warp of Apparition, Percy was there, dense and looming, wand gripped in his fist. Dust swirled at his black boot heels. He'd shed his jacket and work gloves; his shoulders tested the seams of his collared shirt. The bristles on his jaw twitched as he stared from under the dark brim of his hat.
Without taking his eyes off the stranger, he turned his face toward Credence.
"This is Mr. Scamander," Credence told him. "He's come to see the horses."
Something indefinite shifted in Percy's face. "There was a Theseus Scamander," he said slowly. "Fought in the war."
"My elder brother," Mr. Scamander said.
Percy surveyed him up and down--frowning less with hostility now than perplexity--from the wilted bow tie to the scuffed boots.
"Looking to buy?"
"Not at the moment. My interest is academic. I'm writing a book."
"So just looking."
"Researching. I understand you're among the only breeders of Appaloosa pegasi in the world."
Percy hooked a finger in the bandanna around his neck, a rumpled chevron of red, and tugged to loosen it. "The Nez Perce breed them. They'll just charge you an arm and a leg." He turned to Credence. "Mama drop her foal yet?"
"We better look in on her." Lifting his wand, he waved it in a calligraphic motion, as if signing his name on the air. With the ward undone, he slid the wand into its leather holster at his hip. Its hilt gleamed like a silver dollar, bright as the scorpion buckle on his belt.
"Fine by me if you want to see the herd," he said. "Come on in." He stuck out his hand as Mr. Scamander led the mule through the gate, and they shook. "Percy Grey." He gestured. "My partner, Credence."
Belatedly Credence offered his hand. Mr. Scamander's clasp was unassuming, free of aggression or demand.
As they skirted the house on their way to the barn, Percy nudged Credence's elbow. "Where's your gun?" he said, low.
"I had it with me earlier. I thought he seemed all right."
Percy grunted. "Maybe."
"You let him in," Credence observed. Then, before Percy could grimace, "Did you find Tango?"
"Same as last time, up on the butte. Every time I got near enough to cast a lariat, he took off. Little shit." Percy curled his lip. "I'll go back later with Presto."
They rounded the house. Mr. Scamander halted in his tracks, staring, as the prairie's expanse opened before them.
In spring the land was at its least austere. Buffalo grass spread in endless stretches, green with recent rains, dotted with rattlebush and the purplish stars of prairie crocus. Below the ridge where the house stood, a creek threaded the pasture, fringed with little bluestem, on its way to meet the South Platte miles to the east.
In the middle distance rose islands in the sea of grass: two flat-capped buttes, sandstone and limestone, dun in color with darker bands. The top of each butte stood hundreds of feet above the prairie floor. They reigned over the grassland like matched fortresses, abandoned by unknown makers, occupied now by falcons and their prey.
Beyond the buttes, far against the horizon, rose the peaks of the Front Range, molars jutting from the jawbone of the world.
In the air and along the creek drifted winged horses, roaming between land and sky.
All were Appaloosa, all with Pimienta's blanket pattern on coats of brown or buckskin or bay. Mr. Scamander and the mule craned necks in tandem as Presto, the buckskin stallion, whinnied and went sailing overhead. Presto eyed the newcomers from on high, sclera flashing, sternly alert. The white splash on his croup and haunches gleamed like spilled milk in the sun.
Mr. Scamander watched, admiring, as he swooped past, skirting the sky paddock's invisible rim.
"Glory be to God for dappled things," he murmured, as if to himself.
Startled, Credence turned to look at him, but Mr. Scamander shook himself and hastened along.
When they reached the barn, they found Pimienta calmly licking her newborn foal. The foal lay with legs folded, not yet trying to stand. Stubby wings strained loose from the slick dregs of fetal membrane that clung to them. The markings on its hips were like its mother's, a white blanket painted with freckles and splotches of bay.
"That's my girl," said Percy. "Well done."
He examined mother and foal as Credence cleaned up the soiled straw. Having seen to the mule, Mr. Scamander approached and peered with obvious pleasure through the slats of the stall.
"Does the little one have a name?"
Percy glanced at Credence. The set of his mouth didn't change, but his eyes warmed like brandy in the sun. "It's your turn. To do the honors."
"I want to think about it first," Credence said.
They left the barn. Percy went up to the house to wash, leaving Credence to lead Mr. Scamander to the pasture's edge. They passed the henhouse, passed the garden rife with radishes and lettuces and pole-beans, persuaded by spellwork to disregard the earliness of the year.
Presto was riding thermals, tawny wings bright on blue sky. When he caught sight of Credence he whickered and came cantering to earth. He beat his wings showily and ramped as he landed, aware of the picture he made. As usual.
"Your farm's namesake," Mr. Scamander guessed.
Credence nodded. He ducked as Presto leaned over the fence to nose at his head. Mr. Scamander's mouth twitched.
"He seems quite fond of you."
"He's not my horse," said Credence, batting a hand as Presto lipped his hair. The soft muzzle tickled his earlobe. He didn't dare laugh--it might set him coughing again. He didn't want to have one of his fits in front of a guest. "He's Percy's."
"Perhaps that's why," said Mr. Scamander, so mildly that Credence almost thought nothing of it. Mr. Scamander was looking out across the prairie, toward the buttes. "Beautiful country. If desolate." He paused. "Is it just the two of you here?"
"Are you from the area?"
He shook his head. "Out east."
"And Mr. Grey?"
After a hesitation, Credence said, "Him, too."
"Quite an upheaval. To move so far."
Credence picked at the wooden beam of the fence, worrying it with one thumbnail. "He was tired of the city, he said."
Curiosity lit the pale eyes, as well as kindness. It seemed real, but Credence was out of practice at reckoning with humans, except for one. He knew what he must look like: a No-Maj, or at best a Squib, living with a wizard in Sodomitical sin. He reached for Presto's golden cheek and stroked it, smelling his grassy breath. The smell was consoling.
"I was, too."
Mr. Scamander spent more than an hour with the horses, sketching in a journal and jotting notes. Percy rode out on Presto, and came back from the buttes with Tango in tow on a lead. The colt looked wholly pleased with himself and his adventure, loping on air with tail flung high.
"How he gets past the wards, I'll never know," said Percy, after shutting the colt in barn detention. He stood on the back porch with Credence, raking a hand through his shock of hair. He'd put on his black vest and black jacket, tailored in St. Louis, and neatened his beard, the way he did before going into town. It had been a while since they'd had a visitor. The last one--
Credence's heart tripped. The last one had been the healer, weeks and weeks ago, the one Percy had dragged from Denver nearly at wandpoint. When snow had still covered the ground, and Credence's fever had refused to break.
Mr. Scamander finished his sketches and came up to the house, suitcase in hand. Percy invited him to stay for supper--it was the hospitable thing to do--but he thanked them and declined.
"I've an errand back in town. At Witch's Gulch." His mouth quirked. "Not the most subtle of names."
"There's plenty of that out here," said Percy. "Devil's Canyon, Witch's Gulch. Plain sight can be the best place to hide." He brought out a bottle of whiskey--a good bottle, not the local shine--and three glasses. With a wave of his hand he summoned one of the kitchen chairs to the porch. "Have a drink, at least. Before you go."
"Well--all right. Just one."
Percy poured the whiskey. Mr. Scamander murmured appreciation when he tasted it, and sat to watch the jackalope kits play on the banks of the creek.
Credence sipped only enough to be polite. He'd never learned a taste for it, not really, even with Percy to coax and guide him. Not for liquor, anyway.
"I understand from Credence that you're both transplants," Mr. Scamander said.
"You're far from home yourself," said Percy, stretching his legs.
"A hopeless vagrant, I'm afraid."
Percy drew a deck of cards from his pocket, smile gone sharkish. "You play?"
"I'm not really much of a gambler."
"Not much. That means a little."
"I'm told I have a terrible poker face."
"Oh, I don't know about that." Percy laid the deck of cards on the porch railing. Then, after a pause, "Why are you really here, Mr. Scamander?"
Credence froze. But Percy sat relaxed, thumb on his whiskey glass, not reaching for his wand.
"To see the horses," Mr. Scamander said, "as I told you. To collect notes for my book." He peered up past the porch roof, toward the open sky. "And because I heard a rumor of some odd weather patterns in the area. Tornadic activity when the sky was otherwise clear."
"We get some wild storms out here," Percy drawled.
"I'm sure." Mr. Scamander turned his tumbler in his hands. "The last time I came to the States, there'd been a series of magical attacks in New York. Property damage, buildings destroyed. The reports I read suggested the activity of a singular creature."
Credence's breath stopped. His hand tightened on the glass.
"I'd meant to offer my help, but security at the time was very tight. I was apprehended almost on arrival, and sent packing."
"Apprehended," said Percy, one eyebrow raised.
Mr. Scamander seemed unabashed. "For illegal transport of magical beasts." He drained his glass. "Shortly thereafter, the attacks in New York came to a mysterious end. A few months later, my brother read in the newspaper that the Director of Magical Security at MACUSA had suddenly resigned." Mr. Scamander trained his gaze on the horizon. "It wasn't like him, my brother said. To abandon his post. Not without reason. They were friends, you see. During the war."
"You don't say."
"So he asked me to keep an eye out in my travels. An eye and an ear." At last he turned in Percy's direction, fixing him with one sidelong eye. "What I'm wondering, Mr. Graves, is whether the Obscurial is still alive. If so, I'd like to offer my assistance. I don't intend to report you, to MACUSA or anyone else. I may be able to help."
The tumult in Credence threatened to roil over. He set his glass down on the porch floor.
"It's me," he said hoarsely.
"Credence," warned Percy, unsettled in his seat.
"Why shouldn't I tell him?" Credence asked. What do I have to lose, he asked with his eyes, and Percy tightened his jaw.
Mr. Scamander blinked at Credence, brow furrowed. "I'm sorry--you must be in your twenties, surely."
"Twenty-two," Credence said. Then, with the quietude of truth, "It's me."
Mr. Scamander stared at him, then at Percy, then again at Credence. He lowered his empty glass as if it might slip from his fingers. "Merlin's beard. This is--"
"Unheard of," said Percy. "We're aware."
"I was about to say 'a miracle.' How on earth--"
Percy leaned backward, bringing one arm to rest on the back of Credence's chair.
"Clean living," he said.
Scamander talked them through the plan for removal. They settled that he'd come back in the morning, after making his preparations, and that he'd leave the mule in the barn for the night. It was a better stable than the inn's, he said.
Graves saw him to the front gate. When they reached it, he shouldered abruptly into Scamander's space.
"Let's get one thing clear," he said. "If this is some snake-oil pitch, I will kill you with my bare hands."
He ought to be grateful, he knew. The better part of him was. The rest was in a temper, however senseless, that after three years of splintering hope, Theseus' little brother could come waltzing in and blithely dangle a solution, like it was nothing at all.
Scamander retreated a step, putting space between them. "I'm not a salesman, Mr. Graves. I'd thought your friendship with my brother might incline you to think better of me."
Graves had had to squint at first to catch the resemblance, gingery hair aside: Theseus was no shifty-eyed dissembler. But he could see it now. The stubborn will below the surface, the confidence--some would say arrogance--in his realm of expertise. Graves showed his teeth in what might otherwise have been a smile.
"Being his brother doesn't make you two peas in a pod. I have a brother, too."
"Fear can make the best of us mistrustful," Scamander observed. His glance skipped toward the house. "How long has he been ill?"
The bluster drained out of Graves, then, and the bile. He felt like a disarmed wandslinger, and knew he looked the part. He lowered his voice.
"It started this past winter. A fever. Lasted too long. Then the cough. Hasn't really quit."
He tries to hide it, Graves didn't say, because saying it aloud might crack him open. Scamander seemed to hear well enough.
"I don't believe it's too late," he said, not ungently. "I'd recommend a hearty meal and a good night's sleep. For both of you." Firming his grip on his suitcase, he drew his wand. "Until tomorrow, then."
He stepped through the gate, beyond the pale of the wards, and Disapparated.
Graves stood a moment, facing the empty dirt road, then shut the gate and turned back to the house.
For a moment he saw it as a stranger might, or as he himself had when it was new: a single low-slung story, built of pine logs from the Front Range to the west. The central stone chimney, the shingled roof, the covered porch with its twin wooden chairs. The burst of sunflowers and hollyhocks along the western side, bespelled to bloom out of season because they made Credence smile. All of it modest, homey. A thousand miles and more from Graves' townhouse in New York.
He thought of how little he'd known when he'd bought the place, how little he knew now. More than he had then, and not enough. He was no seer, but a vision haunted him: the house silent, barred and shuttered, the yard and all its flowers gone to dust. The dust from which all things came, according to Credence's favorite book, and to which all things returned when God's breath left them.
Credence was less afraid than he was. Or maybe he wasn't, but when fear and the anguish it fed grew too big to bear, he could unleash a living twister onto the plains, and by morning it would storm itself out.
That too took its toll. Was still taking it.
Graves raised his eyes. High above the house, backed by thin scudding cirrus, flew the buckskin. He scaled the updrafts with the mastery of a hawk, in rising circles, until his silhouette looked no larger than a hawk's against the sky.
Graves found Credence in the parlor, on the claw-footed sofa they'd foolishly hauled all the way from New York, sitting with his knees tucked together. No amount of prairie sun could seem to color his pale skin. The rest of him was dark and supple, from his boots to the unruly hair that curled below his ears, almost to his chin. Not so coltish, now. Elegant, like a thoroughbred that had grown into its legs. Graves had witnessed the slow transformation of his first year on the plains, as he'd shed the hobbles of the city, learning to move the way the horses did, with native grace.
He looked up at Graves. He said nothing, but his eyes brimmed.
Graves moved without thought, his body a beat ahead of his mind. He bent one knee on the sofa and cupped Credence's face in his hands.
It wasn't enough, not nearly. Credence grabbed hold of his vest and clutched it, head bending to Graves' shoulder, as Graves wrapped him in his arms. He was shaking faintly. Maybe they both were. Graves made a harsh sound and held him tight.
"Do you think it'll work?" Credence asked, muffled. "Can it really?"
"We'll find out," Graves said.
They didn't wait until dark. Credence reached for Percy's face to kiss him, reached for his hand--rough with work as it had never been in the city--to lead him to bed. In the bedroom he unbuckled Percy's belt for him, feeling as he always did the queer, defiant thrill of the act: that what had once meant consigning himself to misery now presaged pleasure. Not just pleasure, but a tenderness almost too deep to bear.
On the bed Percy covered him, just like he wanted: breast to breast at first as they slid together, then chest to Credence's back, mouth and beard in the messy curls at his nape. He rasped a spell for slickness, and when he slid in groaned Credence, Credence, in a crumbling bedrock voice. It was that as much as the hot press inside him or the hand between his legs that made Credence throb, left him dripping and straining before Percy began to move.
He wasn't brutal. He never was, and Credence had no longing for brutality, but the rough edge in Percy's grip made Credence revel and arch. It promised an end--to imminent ache, to weeks of caution fired less by love than dread.
They lay afterward in the cooling air, in twilight, the blanket under them an unlamented loss. The song of a lark bunting trickled through the open window. Percy clung to Credence, nose to his neck, the way a small boy might cling for comfort. When their breathing slowed, Credence shifted to look at him.
"If it works--we could go back, couldn't we? To New York."
Percy's face lay soft and open, as it often did after love. The slackness made him look a little dopey, almost. Credence loved it.
"You want to go back?"
"Not really. Not to stay." Credence poked at his breastbone, then walked his fingers through the graying hair. "You do, sometimes."
"Not often. Wouldn't want my old job back now." At Credence's look he hefted up on one elbow. "I mean it. They couldn't pay me enough. Anyway, Seraphina's gone. Not sure I could stand the new guy."
"But we could go see your family. Your mother."
"And your sister," Percy said. "We could go wherever we wanted. Anywhere we damn well pleased." He was smiling now, or beginning to. Something flickered in the pit of Credence's belly. Not the dark thing, but a warmth kindling, coming aglow.
"What about the horses?" he asked.
"We could find a buyer."
"For all of them? Presto, too?" Credence tucked his chin into the dip between Percy's chest and shoulder. He smelled of exertion, of dust and sweat and horse and musk. The scent made Credence want to crawl back underneath him. "I'd miss them too much."
"All right, leave me here with the flying nags. You go wherever you want."
"I don't want to go without you," mumbled Credence. "I want us to go together."
His eyelids drooped. They might doze for a little while, maybe, until hunger and evening chores roused them. Before that, some business remained. The heaviness of his limbs and the gravity of Percy's body kept him from sliding off the bed to kneel, but Credence had come to suspect the Almighty was less particular about such things, among others, than he'd once been led to believe. He folded his hands together, beginning the prayer the way he always did.
God, thank you for bringing Percy into my life. For the horses and green pastures. For seeing Pimienta safely through her labor, and for the baby we will call Esperanza. And thank you for leading Mr. Scamander here. Please be with us tomorrow, and deliver me from what's inside me. I know it's mine, but I want to be free. If it be Your will, I would like to stay on this Earth a while longer.
A slow hand stroked over his hair. "Talking to your other man?"
Credence smiled. "You shouldn't be jealous. Saying thank you is polite." A thought struck him, and he opened his eyes. "Didn't Mr. Scamander say he got into trouble for transporting creatures?"
"Maybe he'd have some ideas. About the horses."
Percy settled back into the pillow. He crooked an arm behind his head, tipping his face toward the ceiling. "Maybe he would."