Sal had turned into a Pomeranian again, for the third time that week. He was cowering under the giant peonies in Talia’s garden.
Linus was on his hands and knees, trying to coax Sal out.
“Dinner will be ready soon. I think Zoe made spaghetti and meatballs. That’s your favorite, isn’t it? Why don’t you come out and we’ll walk there together?”
Sal stayed in the peonies.
Not for the first time that week, Linus wished they’d never allowed Sal to go to the movie theater with some friends he’d made recently in the village. If he’d never let Sal go, then Sal wouldn’t have been humiliated by people hiding in the shadows at the back of the theater, throwing popcorn at the back of his head and shouting terrible things at him. Sal had been almost inconsolable when he got home.
It had been too soon to hope that Sal might be treated normally in the village.
If Linus ever figured out who those people were, he’d give them an earful, he would. They’d undone months of work. In two minutes.
Actually, if Linus ever figured out who those people were, they’d have a lot more on their hands than a verbal reaming out. A lot more.
Zoe shouted out the window that dinner was ready. Linus’s stomach rumbled, as if on cue. He’d already been out here for thirty minutes, and Sal showed no signs of leaving his hiding place.
“Now come on, Sal—” That came out too sharp. Sal would never feel better if Linus lost his temper. Linus took a breath and tried again. “Dinner’s ready, Sal. If you’re hungry, I’m sure everyone would be happy to see you. But if you want to stay out here a little longer, that’s fine too. I can bring food out and we’ll eat right here. How does that sound?”
“How’s he doing?” Arthur asked quietly from behind him. He squeezed Linus’s hand and gently brushed it against his lips.
Linus’s heart flip-flopped in his chest. He’d been back on the island for a little over two months now, and he didn’t think he’d ever get tired of seeing Arthur. A tight knot he hadn’t realized was there unclenched in his stomach.
“Not so good. I think I might have to have dinner outside tonight.”
Arthur frowned. “Go inside. You’ve been out here long enough. I’ll try talking to him.”
Linus was just sitting down at the dinner table when Arthur appeared with his hand on Sal’s shoulder. He whispered something in Sal’s ear, and Sal smiled—a timid smile to be sure, but a smile nonetheless. The children cheered when they saw him.
“”What on the god’s green earth did you say to him?” Linus whispered when Arthur sat down next to him. “Nothing I said seemed to have any effect on him.”
Arthur just smiled at him and rested his hand lightly on Linus’s thigh. He’d taken to doing that recently. It meant they’d talk when the children were out earshot.
“Sal did wonderfully, I think,” Arthur said. “We talked about the poem he read in class today. What did you think, children?”
“It was terrific,” Chauncey said. “I especially liked the part about the bellhop.”
Sal looked down at his plate. Linus could tell he was smiling. “I included that line just for you. I knew it would make you happy.”
“It did!” The eyes on the ends of Chauncey’s tentacles opened and closed in quick succession. “Now everyone who reads your poem will know how amazing bellhops are! If they didn’t already know, of course,” Chauncey hastened to add.
“But how could they not?” Arthur said. Zoe covered a smile with the back of her hand. Linus kicked Arthur under the table, but it was too late.
“You have no idea!” Chauncey launched into a long story about an underappreciated bellhop who saved a duchess from financial catastrophe when he opened a door for her at just the right time. Linus was certain he’d heard this story before. He didn’t think ten times would be an exaggeration.
“Now you’ve done it,” Linus muttered.
Arthur just gave him an innocent look. “Done what, my dear?”
Under the table, Arthur’s hand moved from Linus’s thigh to much higher than was decent for a nice family meal.
The children turned to stare at him.
He coughed. “Nothing! Nothing. Ahem. Er—I thought I saw—a mouse?”
Chauncey shrieked. Talia asked if she could kill it with her shovel. Lucy nodded eagerly. Sal offered to catch it and bring it outside.
Arthur quieted them down. “I’m sure a mouse wouldn’t dare show its face here. Maybe Mr. Baker got confused and only thought he saw a mouse. A trick of the light, perhaps? Why don’t you tell us more about what caused you to squeak with such… emotion?”
“I regret everything,” Linus muttered. “Especially you.”
“I can’t see how that’s possible, can you, children?”
“Tell us what happened!” Talia ordered.
Linus decided that Arthur Parnassus was a wicked, wicked man.
After they’d shepherded the children to bed and Zoe had said her goodbyes for the night, Linus retired to the library to wait for Arthur to join him. It was a routine they’d fallen into over the last month.
Linus loved this routine.
He was standing at the window looking out at Talia’s garden when arms encircled his waist. He turned and met Arthur’s lips with his own. He sighed and rested his head against Arthur’s chest.
Yes, Linus Baker loved this part of the day.
They stared out at the setting sun for a quiet moment.
“It’s beautiful,” Arthur murmured, his voice close to Linus’s ear. “Almost as beautiful as you, my sweet darling.”
“Nonsense,” Linus muttered. “My hair’s thinning, I’ve got this spare tire around my middle—”
Arthur put a finger to Linus’s lips. Linus forgot the rest of what he’d been going to say.
Arthur pulled him to the couch and then Linus was sitting in his lap, kissing him fiercely.
Had Linus mentioned this was his favorite part of the day?
He brushed a lock of hair from Arthur’s temple and kissed him again. Arthur made a sound almost like purring. Linus wondered if phoenixes purred, or if it were simply an Arthur thing.
Maybe it was the same thing.
The door creaked. Linus shot out of Arthur’s lap.
The problem with living in a house with six children milling about was that privacy had to be snatched here and there.
Arthur laughed. “We’re safe. I locked the door.”
Linus blushed. “You said that last time, and then Phee told everyone and they talked about nothing else for the rest of the week!”
Arthur laughed again. “You are even more delightful when you blush, my dear, dear Linus.” He pulled Linus back onto his lap.
“I just think your door-locking skills are not as up to snuff as your … other skills.” Oh dear, did he really just say that? What on earth had possessed him? Arthur was not exactly subtle when he was flirting. Now it was rubbing off on Linus. Badly.
Arthur’s eyes glinted. “My other skills, you say.” He tightened his grip on Linus.
Linus was not sure how it happened, but suddenly Arthur had him pinned beneath him on the couch. He liked the weight of Arthur on top of him. He liked the look in Arthur’s eyes as he stared down at him. He thought he could almost see the phoenix fire in his eyes.
Then Arthur was kissing him hungrily, urgently, a trail of kisses down Linus’s chest as he slowly unbuttoned Linus’s shirt. Arthur stopped when he got to the buckle on Linus’s belt. He looked up at Linus.
They hadn’t gone this far before. Linus’s breath caught in his throat.
“How are you?” Arthur’s voice came out rough and vulnerable.
“I—” Linus was surprised at the rasp in his own voice. He’d been thinking about this moment for weeks, and yet here he was, still so nervous.
He swallowed. “I’m good. And you?” He tried to keep his voice light and casual, like it was no big deal.
Arthur Parnassus had no such reservations. He did not do things by halves. It was one of the things Linus loved about him.
“I know what I want.” The heat in Arthur’s voice knew no bounds. He ran his fingernails down Linus’s waist. Linus couldn't restrain himself. He moaned helplessly into Arthur's neck.
The fire alarm went off.
Linus supposed this was a hazard of dating a phoenix.
Fire was dancing all around them. It didn’t look like anything was burning, mind you, all the books and furniture looked fine, but it was rather a lot of flames.
Something in Arthur shifted. He extinguished the fire with a curt wave of his hands. The room went cold, and Linus didn’t think it was just because the flames were gone. He had no time to think about what had just happened, however.
The children showed up, frantic and anxious.
“Is there a fire? Is my garden going to be okay?” Talia asked.
“Is the house going to burn down? Are we going to be homeless?” Chauncey gasped.
Sal turned into a Pomeranian again.
Theodore chirped that he would need someone to help him transport his horde, if they were going to evacuate the island.
“Calm down, calm down,” Arthur said, smiling. “Everything’s fine, false alarm, nothing to worry about. I was just lighting some candles and got a little stupid about it.”
It struck Linus in that moment how easily Arthur lied to them. He knew why Arthur was lying; DICOMY had ordered it. But DICOMY’s Rules and Regulations felt increasingly irrelevant to the way they were living.
It made Linus uncomfortable. How long was Arthur going to keep up the charade?
“Arthur was being stupid with the candles because love makes you stupid and gross!” Lucy shouted, sing-song.
Arthur gave him a stern look.
“I—I mean it makes people do stupid things. It doesn’t make them stupid, because then it would be an immutable part of their personality, and we’re not allowed to say things like that!” Lucy added quickly.
Linus didn’t think that was quite what Arthur had meant.
Soon all the children were safely ensconced in their bedrooms, except for Sal. He’d transformed back to being a boy, but he refused to leave the library without personally inspecting every inch of the room for fire.
It made Linus’s heart twist in his chest. He knew Sal couldn’t bear the thought of losing another home.
He knelt by the boy. “It’s going to be okay,” he said, pressing a soothing hand on Sal’s shoulder. “This house isn’t going anywhere. We aren’t going anywhere.”
To his surprise, Sal looked up at him with tears in his eyes. “I hate being a dog.”
Linus pulled him into a hug. “What on earth—”
“I hate being scared all the time. I never want to be a dog ever again.” Sal buried his face in Linus’s shoulder.
Linus and Arthur exchanged glances.
“You’re a beautiful dog, and a beautiful boy,” Arthur said. “Every part of you is beautiful, even the bits that are scared and lonely.”
Sal just shook his head against Linus’s shoulder and refused to look up.
“We all have parts of us that are scared and lonely,” Arthur said, stroking Sal’s back slowly. “Even me.”
That made Sal look up. “Even you?” He sounded like he didn’t believe it.
“Even me,” Arthur said firmly. “Life isn’t about learning not to be afraid. It’s about living despite—or perhaps even because of—all that fear we have inside.”
Sal’s breathing slowed to something close to normal.
“Do you want me to go with you to your room?” Linus asked kindly.
Sal shook his head. “I’ll go back myself, Mr. Baker—I mean, Linus.” Linus felt his heart grow warm. He ruffled the boy’s hair fondly.
“You know,” he said, “you make a very fine, dashing Pomeranian. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a nicer one. We could go for a walk in the village, me as me and you as a Pomeranian, and it would be the perfect disguise! We could visit all your favorite places, and no one would be the wiser! It could be our little secret. Not right now, of course, but sometime in the future, when you’re feeling better. Wouldn’t that be fun?”
Sal sniffled and said he would think about it. He pulled away from Linus and then, after a moment’s hesitation, leaned back and gave Linus a quick peck on the cheek. Immediately he looked around to make sure none of the children had seen.
Arthur covered his smile with his hand.
When Sal left, Arthur and Linus settled back on the couch.
“I guess that’s why you wanted to talk about Sal?” Linus asked.
“I’d no idea it had gotten so bad,” Linus whispered.
Arthur nodded again, tightly.
“I wish he’d tell us what they shouted at him, at the movie theater.”
Arthur got out of his chair abruptly. “Does it matter?” he said, the anger thick in his voice. “Just the same old lies, trotted out yet again to make another child feel small and worthless and afraid. Do they ever say anything new, add anything original to their hate?” His voice broke.
Linus stared up at him. Something told him that Arthur was no longer speaking just about Sal.
He wrapped his arms around Arthur. “There, there,” he said in a soothing voice. It wasn’t the right time to probe. There was something fragile in Arthur that he’d never seen before now.
“There, there,” he said again. This time he spoke directly to that part of Arthur that was still just a scared little boy. Later, when he was alone, he would get angry at the people who had frightened and demeaned the small boy that had been Arthur, but not now. He wanted no anger in his arms as he held Arthur, just love.
They stayed that way for a long time.
Arthur was distant the following day. He smiled at Linus, but the smile didn’t quite reach his eyes, and whenever Linus tried to get near him, Arthur stepped just out of reach.
The days passed. Linus helped Talia in her garden. He gave Theodore buttons. Chauncey washed his laundry, and Linus tipped him handsomely. He listened to records with Lucy. He gave Sal a book of poetry. He walked with Phee and Zoe through the forest.
He waited quietly in the library each night for Arthur to join him, but Arthur stayed away. Linus didn’t press him to resume their routine.
“Arthur’s been a little… quiet, don’t you think?” Zoe asked as they trailed a ways behind Phee on one of their walks.
Linus nodded. He didn’t know how to explain the pain he’d seen in Arthur. He didn’t know where to begin.
“I think he’s taking everything with Sal a little personally,” he said at last.
Zoe picked up a rock from the ground and passed it from hand to hand. “He sees himself in Sal, you mean.”
Linus nodded. “Any advice?” he asked hopefully.
She shook her head. “Be gentle, but you know that already. You haven’t seen it before, but he can get into these moods. He’ll be melancholy for a while and then he’ll just snap out of it. Nothing to do but wait it out.”
And she was right. A few days later, just as he was about to give up what he’d taken to thinking of as his vigil alone in the library, Arthur startled him with a kiss on the top of his head.
Linus uncrossed his legs and looked up from the book he’d been reading. Arthur took his palm and pressed his lips against it, gently.
Linus blinked back a well of emotions he hadn’t let himself feel until that moment. Every night, he’d waited in vain for Arthur to join him. He hadn’t let himself feel how much it had hurt, when Arthur never did.
“I’m so sorry, my darling,” Arthur murmured in his ear. “It was terrible of me to stay away for so long. Do you forgive me?”
And then he was kissing Linus, kissing him as he never had before, hot and urgent and all-consuming.
Shouldn’t we talk? Linus thought but didn’t say. It was hard to have coherent thoughts when Arthur was kissing him like a drowning man aching for a breath of air.
Linus felt like he was drowning right along with him.
Arthur paused to fumble at the buttons on Linus’s shirt.
“Arthur,” Linus gasped. He didn’t get any further before Arthur claimed his mouth with his own again. He raked his hands over Linus’s body. He’d been successful at removing Linus’s shirt. Linus couldn’t remember when that had happened.
Linus gave a low moan when Arthur touched him. It felt like Arthur’s hands were on fire.
Linus opened his eyes. Arthur’s hands were on fire. The fire didn’t burn; it was warm and tingly and soothing. It felt like hello.
Arthur felt Linus stop moving and opened his eyes, too. They glinted with fire.
Then everything went out. The fire in Arthur’s eyes, and the fire in his hands.
Linus reached a hand up to Arthur’s cheek. “Arthur,” he breathed. “Don’t stop. Don’t you see you’re beautiful?”
Something twisted in Arthur’s face. “Why did it happen again?” he whispered. “I don’t understand. I thought I had it under control.”
Linus wrapped a hand around Arthur’s arm. “You do have it under control.”
“You could have been hurt,” Arthur continued as if Linus hadn’t spoken. “The children could have been hurt. The house. Everything.”
Linus squeezed Arthur’s arm, trying to make him understand.
“We weren’t hurt.”
Arthur pulled away. “But you could have been.”
“But we weren’t ,” Linus said again.
Arthur stood up. “Don’t say that. You have no idea how quickly those flames can turn dangerous. In the blink of an eye. The blink of an eye .”
“Arthur—stop—” Linus said.
But Arthur Parnassus was already gone.
“I don’t understand why he’s freaking out. I mean, Arthur, of all people!” he said to Zoe as they walked along the beach. He’d invited her on a walk and she’d gotten the hint. Arthur had barely talked to either one of them the last few days. He had energy for the children, and once he was done, he locked himself away as soon as possible.
Even Chauncey had noticed and asked if Arthur was alright.
Zoe laughed at Linus. “I know you think Arthur walks on water, and trust me, with kids he has the patience of a god, but with adults?” She shrugged.
“Is there anything down this way?” Linus asked, gesturing to something that just barely looked like it could be called a path. He would have missed it if he hadn’t been looking for something that looked less trodden. He didn’t want Talia or Phee or one of the other children to accidentally stumble on their conversation. It would only worry them, if they knew he was worrying about Arthur. That’s what he told himself, anyway.
The path, if it could be called that, opened to a secluded cove. Ocean waves lapped the beach, and seagulls ran around the sand.
“I didn’t know this was here,” he said.
Zoe just smiled at him. “I can’t give away my favorite hiding places all at once.” She looked out at the ocean. “I like to come here when I just want to be alone.”
He was touched that she was sharing this place with him. “You didn’t have to bring me here,” he said.
“I wanted to,” came her simple reply.
“Why does Arthur think he can’t be a phoenix around me?”
She looked at him steadily. “You know why, Linus.”
“But he tells everyone that the children are lovable and sweet and not at all the danger other people think they are. I just don’t understand. Why does he not include himself in that?”
“Oh, Linus. It’s so much easier to be kinder to others than we are to ourselves.”
He remembered Arthur telling him once that he was a master at the art of self-flagellation. He hadn’t used quite those words, but that had been the meaning Linus took from the conversation.
His heart ached for Arthur.
“Talk to him,” she said. “And give him time.”
The problem, of course, was that Arthur continued to be distant for the rest of the week and into the next, which afforded few opportunities for a heart-to-heart chat.
His opportunity came when Sal yet again changed into a Pomeranian. This time it was triggered—of all things—by reading a passage in a book about earthworms and death. He made a mental note to ask Arthur about it later.
Sal was miserable when he became a boy again.
“You’re getting better, Sal! Why, a whole week passed without incident. Remember when you changed three times in one week? You’re making real progress!” Linus said encouragingly.
Sal was disconsolate. “It feels like one step forward, two steps back. I’m still worse than I was before… you know.”
“That’s the wrong attitude to have, my dear boy. You’re doing so much better than you were even compared to two weeks ago, and that’s all that matters.”
“I hate being a dog. I hate that I can’t control it,” Sal said, his face set in deep, determined lines.
“Don’t use words like ‘hate,’ particularly when you’re talking about yourself,” Arthur said sternly from behind Linus. Linus started a little. He hadn’t realized Arthur was there.
He wanted to reach for Arthur’s hand, but he was afraid Arthur would pull away, so he put his hands on Sal’s shoulders instead.
“Changing into a dog doesn’t have to mean you’ve lost control.” He was talking to Sal, but Arthur needed to hear this just as much. “You don’t have to keep that part of yourself locked up because you only associate negative emotions with it.”
Linus felt Arthur shift behind him. He dared himself to look at Arthur.
Arthur met his gaze for a moment, his face unreadable. Then he looked back at Sal.
“Feeling better now? Why don’t you go see if Zoe’s finished baking that batch of cookies she was whipping up? A treat sounds like a perfect idea right about now.”
Sal left, and then it was just the two of them.
Arthur pulled up a chair and sat down a few feet from Linus. He crossed his legs and looked at Linus for a long time. His face was unfathomable.
Linus fidgeted in his chair. He wanted to wait, to let Arthur speak first and explain his strange behavior, but then the words burst out of him.
“Are we over?”
Linus hadn’t known he was going to say that until the words were out of his mouth.
Arthur looked away. “No. Please—no. I just need more time, to figure out how to control it.” His voice was almost pleading.
“You don’t have to do it alone,” Linus said gently. “I don’t see what’s so wrong about any of it, anyway. Maybe we can work together, figure out what triggers it.”
Arthur’s lips twitched. He looked amused for the first time in days. “What triggers it, my dear Linus?”
Linus felt his neck grow warm. Oh dear. He coughed. “Well—I mean—you know what I mean—”
Arthur was smiling. “Is my Linus suggesting we conduct a series of, experiments, if you will, in fu—”
Lucy chose that moment to burst through the door, announcing the cookies were ready to eat, and they were his favorite, wasn’t that great?
Linus prayed Lucy hadn’t heard the last word out of Arthur’s mouth. If he had, Linus thought he might die of embarrassment right then and there.
Arthur opened the door and gave a little bow. “After you, my dear Linus.” He looked amused.
As Linus passed him on the way out, Arthur leaned in close and, after a moment’s hesitation, brushed his lips against Linus’s cheek.
Linus took that as a sign that things between Arthur and him were, if not perfect, at least almost back to normal.
Later that day, Arthur came to the library after saying goodnight to the children. Linus smiled at him and put down his book.
“Let’s go for a walk,” he suggested. Their—ahem, encounters—in the library had not been going well. He thought a change of setting was in order.
Arthur leaned over and kissed him. “Whatever you want, darling.”
Arthur offered his arm, and Linus took it. They strolled through the dwindling evening light, talking about everything and nothing.
It was so simple to be with Arthur, Linus thought. Why did he have to make things complicated when they didn’t need to be?
Linus’s frustrated sigh came out louder than he had intended it to. He hadn’t meant for it to come out at all, in fact.
Arthur squeezed his hand. “I suppose we get to the serious part of the evening now?” He looked away. “I was rather enjoying pretending nothing had changed.”
Linus had to smile at that. “One thing that hasn’t changed is how direct and to the point you are.” He kissed Arthur on the nose. “I find it delightful.”
“Do you really?” Arthur asked.
“I do,” Linus said firmly. He spied the same path he’d taken with Zoe the other day. “Come on.”
Arthur whistled as he looked around the cove. “I didn’t know this was here.”
“You didn’t?” Linus was surprised. Zoe had shown it to Linus when she’d never taken Arthur here?
“It’s a good reminder that there are always new and wonderful things to discover about something you think you know so well.” There was something in Arthur’s gaze as he spoke that Linus didn’t quite understand.
“Am I not the person you thought you were getting?” Arthur asked, his voice guarded.
Linus stopped walking. “What? What kind of question is that ?” He was flabbergasted.
“This relationship is hardly progressing the way one might have hoped,” Arthur said evenly.
“No,” Linus said slowly, “but encountering a few hiccups along the way is hardly equivalent to thinking the man I’m dating is different from the man I fell in love with.”
Arthur blinked. “Love,” he repeated, almost to himself, as if he were learning the word for the first time.
Arthur raised his gaze to Linus’s. “Are these just ‘a few hiccups’ as you so kindly put it? Is that all they are?”
Linus rubbed the back of his neck. “I think so. I hope so. That’s what I would like them to be.”
“But—how?” Arthur sounded like he really wanted to know. He sat down on the sand and stared out at the sea. Linus sat down next to him, and Arthur pressed against him lightly for a moment before moving away again.
“I’ve never had these… outbursts when I was with someone else,” Arthur said haltingly. “Not with anyone I thought I loved, and certainly not with anyone I was just… passing the time with.”
Linus looked down. He knew what it was like to be in a relationship with someone who didn’t fit quite right, who you knew would inevitably pack their bags and leave you one day.
“I’ve never been in love with anyone before, Arthur. I—this is scary for me too.” He reached for Arthur’s hand. “I don’t want to lose you,” he whispered.
“I don’t want to lose you either.”
“Then why do you keep acting like this is a problem you can’t solve?”
Arthur’s jaw tightened. “If I lose control and hurt you, I’ll never forgive myself.”
Linus made a noise so frustrated it came out a growl. He wanted to threaten to beat Arthur on the head with a shovel and bury him in the garden, the way Talia did when Linus was being stupid.
He kept the thought to himself, but it did give him an idea.
Arthur was fiercely protective of anyone he loved. It was like his default setting. It was why he was so good with the children.
Linus decided it was time to take advantage of Arthur’s protective instincts.
“Kiss me,” he ordered. “Kiss me and let the phoenix out at the same time. On purpose.”
Arthur’s eyes widened.
“I know you can do it. I know you could never hurt me.”
“That’s not the same thing,” Arthur said slowly.
Linus knew it wasn’t. Arthur in the throes of passion was very different from the hyper-controlled, frightened Arthur before him now. But they were still the same man.
“Prove it to me,” Linus said. “And more importantly, prove it to yourself.”
Arthur bit his lip. He leaned closer to Linus and cupped one of his cheeks with his palm. Then, slowly, he raised his hand to Linus’s other cheek.
Linus thought he saw the glint of fire in Arthur’s eyes.
Arthur hesitated, then closed his eyes and kissed him. Linus closed his eyes too.
He felt Arthur’s skin heat up. He felt his skin tingle as the phoenix flames licked his face, but he didn’t open his eyes. He didn’t want to do anything to interrupt this moment.
When Arthur broke the kiss and Linus opened his eyes, the phoenix was gone.
“I—” Linus’s voice cracked. He’d forgotten how to speak. He licked his lips and tried again. “That wasn’t so bad, was it?”
Arthur still looked uncertain. “No,” he said.
Linus’s hopes fell. He didn’t think his idea had worked. He looked out at the blue, blue sea. He loved it here. He wanted it to be his home for always.
“We could come here again, when you want to, you know.” He blushed. “You don’t have to worry about losing control here. It would just be you and me, and all the sand, and I could jump into the ocean if you do lose control, but you won’t, Arthur, I know it.”
He realized belatedly it might sound like he was propositioning Arthur and blanched. “I—I didn’t mean—we don’t have to do it now , or anytime soon for that matter,” he babbled. “But it could be very romantic, we could come here, stumbling and kissing like schoolboys—”
Oh god, had he really said that all out loud? He wanted to sink into the ground.
Arthur silenced him with a finger on his lips. “Stumbling and kissing like schoolboys?” he asked, eyebrow arched and a wicked glint in his eyes. “Why, Linus Baker, you are positively a romantic at heart.”
“Yes, well—” Linus sputtered.
“I think that sounds like a wonderful idea.” Then Arthur Parnassus kissed him again.
They settled back into their routine. It made Linus very happy to once again share sweet, slow kisses with Arthur in the library after the children had gone to bed and the house had quieted down for the night.
He knew Arthur wasn’t ready yet, and he was perfectly willing to wait. He suspected that Arthur was practicing, or perhaps more accurately, testing himself. Sometimes he thought he caught a glimmer of phoenix fire in Arthur’s eyes and the faint outline of wings when Arthur looked at him after a particularly passionate kiss.
He didn’t ask any questions. He knew Arthur would tell him when he was ready.
“I still think your ideas about Kant are completely ludicrous,” he told Arthur one evening as he stirred a pot of beef stew. They were preparing dinner together that night. It was Arthur’s idea. He said they ought to give Zoe a night off every once in a while, even if she did love to cook.
Arthur leaned over to sniff the stew and rested his hand against the small of Linus’s back. “That smells divine, my dear.” He pointedly did not respond to Linus’s comment about Kant.
“Now see here,” Linus said, holding up his spoon.
“Yes, dear Linus?” Arthur plucked the spoon from Linus’s fingers, disarming him completely. He leaned in close and put a hand on Linus’s chest. Linus thought Arthur was going to kiss him.
He didn’t. He stayed there a long moment, fixing Linus with a dark gaze. Linus swallowed.
Arthur’s hand drifted down Linus’s chest. His gaze continued to bore into Linus.
Then he flashed a brilliant smile and went over to the oven to check on the bread they were baking, as if nothing had happened.
Arthur had been acting like this ever since they started cooking. Linus was starting to suspect that Arthur had volunteered them for cooking duty less as a favor to Zoe and more so he would have a chance to drive Linus crazy.
He absolutely was not enjoying Arthur’s attentions. Not at all.
“Dinner’s ready,” Arthur called into the hallway. The children tumbled into the room in no time. Zoe arrived looking a little flushed, saying she’d just gotten back from the village.
At some point in that nebulous time between dinner being finished and the children’s bedtime, Linus realized Arthur wasn’t taking his eyes off him. He held him in a smoldering, deliberate gaze, a small smile on his lips.
Zoe noticed too, although by some miracle none of the children did. One day, Linus was going to have to ask Arthur how he got away with outrageous behavior in front of the children when they seemed to watch Linus like a hawk.
Zoe shooed them off to bed and shut the door behind her with a knowing glance.
Arthur closed the gap between them in two strides and then tilted Linus’s face up to his and kissed him. Linus melted into the kiss.
They stumbled to the hidden cove. By the time they reached the beach, embers were trailing in their wake.
If Arthur noticed, he didn’t care.
Linus awoke in Arthur’s arms. The sun was still low in the sky. He propped himself on his arms and looked down at Arthur’s sleeping face. A part of him couldn’t stop marveling that he was allowed to be so close to Arthur. He bent down and kissed Arthur gently on the corner of his mouth.
Arthur blinked up at him and rubbed his face sleepily against Linus’s shoulder. With his free arm, he pulled Linus closer.
Linus smiled and kissed his cheek. “Morning, sleepyhead,” he whispered.
“Mhmm,” Arthur responded.
Linus looked around. He was glad that even in the heat of everything last night, he’d had the foresight to bring two blankets with them. The phoenix had kept them warm, but it was gone now, and the spring morning had a slight nip in the air.
A seagull hopped over to them, mewing loudly. Arthur grumbled and tried to bury his head further into Linus’s shoulder.
Linus smiled. “I guess you’re not a morning person,” he said, still keeping his voice soft.
Arthur shook his head and refused to leave his spot on Linus’s shoulder.
More seagulls joined them. The mewing got louder.
Arthur sighed loudly and sat up, throwing the blanket off the both of them. Linus laughed and then promptly covered it with his hand. Apparently in addition to not being a morning person, Arthur could be quite theatrical when his sleep was disturbed.
Arthur turned to Linus and narrowed his eyes, like he knew exactly what Linus was thinking. “Something funny, my dear?”
“Not at all,” Linus said with a straight face. “I’m not at all amused that a man who can handle Lucy’s nightmares with such aplomb might be thrown by a few seagulls.”
Arthur’s lips twitched but he stilled them quickly. He pushed Linus down and rolled on top of him, fixing him with a dark gaze that left no doubt of his intentions. Linus’s breath hitched.
“Continuing last night’s activity, are we?” Linus asked, trying and failing to sound blasé.
“I don’t know,” Arthur said, his voice low in his throat. He leaned down and began to kiss Linus’s neck. “I think I might need to teach someone a lesson.”
“And what lesson might that be?” Linus asked breathily. “Don’t wake Arthur with a small crew of mewing seagulls?”
Arthur nibbled Linus’s ear. “That might be it.” He snuck a hand beneath the blanket and began to trace lines, featherlight, on Linus’s abdomen.
“I’m not sure the punishment fits the crime.”
“Punishment? It’s no punishment to spend a few more waking minutes with you.” Arthur sounded coy. He reached down further and stroked Linus. A small sound escaped Linus.
Then Arthur bit down, hard, on Linus’s ear. Linus moaned loudly.
Arthur pulled his hand away and sat up. “Time’s up. We should head back to the children. I hate to think how they might be worrying about us. Mustn’t keep them waiting,” Arthur said, a sweet, evil smile on his lips.
Arthur just smirked and pulled his shirt on.
Linus sighed and reached for his own shirt.
Arthur intercepted him. “Let me.”
Linus obeyed. Arthur pulled the shirt over Linus’s arms and began to button it with a loving fastidiousness. When he was finished, he smiled as he smoothed the fabric over Linus’s shoulders.
He leaned back and admired his handiwork. “Perfect.” He reached for Linus’s hand and kissed it. “You are always perfect.”
When they got back to the house, Lucy shouted loudly up the stairs to the rest of the children that Arthur and Linus were finally back, they hadn’t been carried away by cannibals after all, which was too bad as he’d been looking forward to getting a bigger bedroom.
Linus thought life was indeed perfect.