Une Créature Entraînée
A Creature Driven
"An artist is a creature driven by demons. He doesn't know
why they choose him and he's usually too busy to wonder why."
"Early February in New Orleans is its own type of hell," Spratling says.
William looks over at his friend, limbs splayed out in every direction, and wonders how he can even keep his seat, the drunk bastard. "What the hell are you talking about?" he asks, and sets down his pen. No doubt Spratling's going to come up with something entertaining, or at least good enough to distract William from writing. He's been stuck on the same line for three days and it's enough to drive him mad.
Spratling takes a long drag of his cigarette and then leans up to stamp it out on the ashtray, picking up his glass of wine before falling backwards again. He lets out a sigh. "We still have three weeks before Mardi Gras, Will," Spratling says, "and there's fuck-all to do."
"Last night you were telling the rest of us that there's not enough time in the day," William says, dryly. "And now you're bored?"
"Last night there wasn't enough time," Spratling replies and he sounds petulant enough that William has to bite his tongue to keep from laughing. "But today there's nothing. I'm bored, Will, and we can't even go 'round to anyone else's because they're all pretending to be proper people at one of those idiotic salons instead of doing as real artists and writers should and staying in the Quarter and getting drunk." Spratling sighs again. William's getting ready to say something -- he's not sure what yet -- when Spratling sits up like someone's just shoved a poker up his ass. "Storyville!" he says. "We should go up to Storyville, sit with some of the working girls for a while, maybe sample something more than just the bourbon. What d'you say?"
William rolls his eyes and picks up his pen again. "You go," he says. "Leave me in peace so I can finish tearing out my hair over this stupid thing."
Spratling bounces up, suddenly the picture of energy, and beams at William. "Good luck, then!" he calls out, already halfway out of the sitting room. A scant minute later, the front door opens and slams closed, and the place is quiet, save the popping of the fire.
Half an hour later, William is no closer to figuring out what the problem with this sentence is. He throws his pen down, rubs his eyes, then stands up, walks over to the window and looks outside.
Spratling was right about one thing: no one likes February in New Orleans. The air is still humid but without summer heat, it's just a damp cold that settles in the bones and never seems to go away, not until spring comes and thaws everything out. William would be lying if he said he likes the way it feels; times like these he misses Oxford -- not as humid there and at least he had thoughts of Estelle to warm him up at night.
Estelle. God, how he misses her. Sometimes he wonders what she would make of the life he's chosen to live, of his friends and fellow artists, of this city that William came to visit and somehow hasn't yet left. He thinks about dressing her up and walking her around the Quarter, about the way they'd laugh at all the snobbish elite from upriver pretending the Quarter's their playground and no one else's, about taking her to Storyville and Le Petit Théâtre and introducing her to the people he surrounds himself with and the places he goes.
William puts a palm on the window, wishes it was Estelle's skin under his touch and not the cold impersonal feeling of glass. He hangs his head and lets out a deep breath; the glass fogs and William smiles, seeing it. He used to draw on windows and mirrors that steamed up when he was younger, doodles and sketches and, once, a message to his father. Miss Callie used to smack his hands and tell him that he was welcome to keep going if he wanted to clean the mirrors afterward but his mother just laughed.
As the glass clears, William catches movement out on Pirate Alley, just at the edge of his vision. He shifts on his feet for a better look and lays eyes on the most devastatingly attractive man he's ever seen before. The gentleman seems to know that someone's watching, feels someone else's eyes on him, and his lips curve up as he takes off his hat and bows in William's direction.
William pulls back from the window, ashamed of himself now, and when he works up the courage to look outside again, the alley is empty.
William sees the man around the Quarter over the next couple of weeks. It's never close enough to call out, certainly not close enough to exchange names with the stranger, but William glimpses him in darkened jazz clubs and bustling cafés and even, he thinks, in the foyer of Le Petit Théâtre. It's enough to drive a man mad, like the Quarter isn't enough on its own.
He confides in Spratling just once and Spratling claps him on the shoulder and says, "Never knew you swung that way, Will, but best wishes in your hunt."
Spratling is an ass.
An ass, yes, but something about that strikes William the wrong way. This fascination isn't sexual, or at least he doesn't think so. It's more like -- this man, he's a phantasm, something unreal created from the noise and smoke and liquor of the Quarter. He's captured William's interest and captivated William's mind and William doesn't so much want to fuck him as he does sit down and talk with him from sundown to sunup, to gaze deep into the feral cat-eyes he's gotten glimpses of and find out everything about the mysterious man who always seems to fold himself into the Quarter and disappear the instant William gets near to him.
The others have noticed his preoccupation -- it would be impossible to miss -- but they don't judge him for it or mention it apart from a few gentle teases. Not for the first time, he thanks God that he's surrounded by people who understand what it's like to become obsessed with something or someone. All artists are like that, William thinks: wandering minds becoming instantly consumed by a single thought or a phrase or a sight until it's the driving force of life. William loves his friends, has never loved anyone as fiercely as he does his group of comrades for understanding him -- no one except Estelle.
"What do you think?" Spratling asks, turning this way and that in front of the mirror, studying the mask on his face and trying to see how the laces look around the back of his head. He meets William's eyes in the mirror, then turns, lets out an explosive breath. "Will, for God's sake. It's Mardi Gras. We have a party to get ready for. Why are you still sitting there like a lump?"
"I'm not going," William replies. Spratling looks at him, aghast, and William feels led to defend himself. "I don't want to bring the mood down, that's all. I just -- I can't stop thinking about -- well, you know."
Spratling's disbelief slides into something like compassion and he sighs, crosses the room and crouches down, puts one hand on William's knee and looks at him intently. "You've been seeing him in the Quarter, right? Nowhere else in the city?" William nods. "Then you need to come with us," Spratling says. "He'll be on Bourbon, just like everyone else, and you can find him and corner him and have your wicked way with him."
William glares but the expression lacks heat. He's had this thought before, that the man who has bewitched him will be in the same place, close enough to talk with, close enough to touch, and he's just not sure. It might be better to stay away. It might be better to try and move on, to forget the man and the Quarter and New Orleans herself and go back to Oxford or, better yet, finally take that trip to Europe he's been planning for years.
The glimpses he's had, though, and the few times he's been close enough to see the mockery in hazel-coloured eyes, the maddening amusement in every smile and smirk and sneer directed William's way -- it's enough to outweigh all of William's common sense.
"Do you have an extra mask?" William finally asks.
Spratling grins at him, stands up and says, "Don't go anywhere; I've got one you can use," before rushing out of the room.
William hopes that this isn't all going to turn out to be a terrible mistake.
Spratling fusses over William's attire for nearly half an hour before pronouncing him "Good enough, I suppose," and rushing him out of the house and toward Rue Bourbon. "We're going to miss Comus if you don't hurry, Will, come on, man," he says as they're crossing Royal to Orleans.
"Would've been able to leave earlier if you weren't so damned set on me wearing this ridiculous suit," William mutters. Thankfully Spratling doesn't hear him, too intent on the sounds of the parade they can hear.
William does end up walking just as fast as Spratling; he's heard stories about the flambeaux and floats and bands and now that he's so close to experiencing it for himself, he's starting to get excited.
The excitement only grows when they reach the edge of the crowd at Bourbon in time to see gorgeous -- not to mention scantily-clad -- women in large elaborate masks spinning flaming torches. They gyrate and dance down the street in rhythm to the bands following them, more of a performance than anything William's seen outside of ballrooms or theatres. They're beautiful and so are the flames, arcing brilliantly in the darkness, sparkling golden in his eyes every time William blinks.
If the flambeaux and their carriers are captivating, then the floats are enough to steal the breath right from William's lungs. Lace and tulle and satin, roses and baby's breath and papier-mâché, green and purple and gold -- William doesn't know what the theme of this year's Comus parade is but he knows it's gorgeous.
William's heart skips a beat at the sound of that voice. It's a voice he's heard from a distance before, shouting over the noise of tumultuous crowds and echoing down empty streets; he's never been this close to it. He turns his head to the left and is face-to-face with the man who's been haunting him for the past three weeks.
"What's your name?" William asks, words tripping out of his mouth and over themselves in a hurry. He needs to know in case the man leaves, in case the parade comes between them or his friends pull him away. "Who are you?"
"Jared, cher," the man says, and even though the top half of his face is covered by a mask, the bottom half is left free for William to see Jared's smile. "And you?"
It takes a moment for William to respond, he's too busy thinking over that name, Jared, somewhat unusual, especially for a man who seems to prefer French to English. "William," he finally says, and offers his hand. "William Faulkner."
"A pleasure, William," Jared drawls, and takes William's hand only to hold it the way he might hold a woman's hand, bending down to press a kiss to William's skin.
William flushes, can't help it, and though he wants to tear his hand away at the feeling of Jared's tongue flicking against his skin, he can't move. Jared seems to know this, seems to revel in it as he lets William's hand go and stands up tall again.
"I've seen you around the Quarter." It takes William a moment to realise he's talking; his mouth is moving much faster than his brain can handle right now, faced with Jared. "For three weeks, I've seen -- I've been trying to find you."
"And now, cher, you've found me," Jared says. "So what are you going to do with me, hmm?" He takes a step closer, then another, until he can lean forward and murmur directly into William's ear. "What have you been longing to do to me, William?"
William steps back, swallows as he tries to shake off the spell of Jared's voice from his head. Every time Jared speaks, William's emptied of everything that makes him his own man, and every time Jared calls him cher, the void inside of him is filled with a needy, grasping want that William doesn't even recognise as being part of himself.
"To talk," William says.
Jared's smile is knowing, a hint of ruthless savagery tickling at the edges of his lips. Seeing it is enough to make William shiver and remind him that dark Southern nights are filled with every kind of danger.
"Just talk, cher?" Jared asks.
William doesn't believe Jared's pretence of innocence. He knows what Jared must think, how Jared must want the night to end based on the looks and the smiles and the way he kissed William's hand. William has never cared who his friends bring to their beds and he keeps his mouth shut when other people who wouldn't understand come around and ask questions. He's never felt the same way, though. He's never thought about it. All he wants is Estelle, no matter how many other women he's slept with over the years.
"I don't want to fuck you," William says, blunt and to the point, too off-balance to be anything else. "But I find you fascinating. I want to peel off every layer of your mind and learn you from the inside out. I want to know you, all of you, from the very core."
"Ah, an artist," Jared says and the smile on his lips speaks to fondness even though they've never met before. "It's been a while since I've had an artist." William's not sure what that means but he doesn't get the chance to ask before Jared goes on. "All right, then. Let's find a bar, shall we, so you can start flaying me to pieces for the sake of your art."
William blanches, says, "You make it sound so violent."
Jared tilts his head. "Isn't it, though, Will? Tearing through every single part of a person to find what makes them tick and then turning fragments of bone and muscle and history into essays or stories or poems? Dissecting a life to pick out only the pieces that serve the goal and leaving the rest to rot?"
"It's not like that," William says. "It's not -- art isn't a cruel thing." It's all he can think to say, indicted by Jared's words. Is that what he does? Is that how others see his work? Is that what others think of artists, that their calling is in fact a type of death?
"Isn't it?" Jared asks. "Not all of it, I'll grant you, but some art, cher, can be so very vicious." Jared's eyes are dark and filled with a kind of brutality that William can't parse the meaning of.
William shouldn't ask but he can't help himself. "Is it something you're familiar with yourself?"
Jared reaches out, takes William's hand and bends over it again. He looks up through his lashes at William, murmurs, "Intimately," and then bites William's skin right over the knuckles.
God and Estelle forgive him but William's entranced and when Jared starts to pull William away, in the direction of Esplanade, William can only follow.
William finds himself ensconced in the back corner of a bar he's never seen before, no matter how many times he and his friends have gone out trawling the Quarter for new places to drink. That's strange but the bar has a simple name, Maison Bleu, with the brightly painted front door to match. The bar is tiny, a dark and smoke-filled speakeasy with a jazz quartet on the stage near the entrance. The room's mostly empty; Comus is still on-going and the night's too young for the dedicated drinkers.
They're served quickly and silently by a woman with braided black hair, wearing a dress that's the same blue colour as the door. She lights the candle on their table and sets down a small bottle and two glasses before leaving, their discarded masks in hand.
"How did she know what we wanted?" William asks, even as Jared's reaching for the bottle.
Jared waits to answer until he's unscrewed the cap and poured out half the bottle between the two glasses, sliding one across the table to William. Even then, all he says is, "A votre santé, William."
William lifts his glass, lets it clink against Jared's, and says, "Cheers," before he takes a hesitant sip. It's nothing he's ever tasted before, like a fine cognac spiked with cinnamon and cherries and black pepper and ginger, the slightest hint of tobacco as well. The drink slides down his throat with such a smooth and easy grace, sweetened with sugar cane but not too sweet, dry like aged leather but not too dry. "What is this?"
"Perique," Jared says. "Perique liqueur de tabac. One of the most beautiful things in the world and becoming more and more rare with every passing year. So much is being lost as time passes."
He sounds wistful as he says it, and William has to look away and let Jared have a moment to gather himself. Instead, he looks down at the liquid in his glass and his eyes catch on the way light from the wall sconces and candles flickers in the amber colour of perique. It reminds him of something, that wavering dance, but he loses the trail of it before he even gets close. Fire, maybe the flambeaux, but something else -- fireflies and rivers? No. No, that's not right.
Jared clears his throat, makes sure he has William's full attention before he says, "So, tell me something, William. What kind of art do you create? Judging by the ink on your hands and the way your fingers tremble for a pen, you're a writer. Or is it poetry that your soul longs to sing?"
"Anything," William says, and looks back down at his glass of perique. He's not sure why he feels led to bare his soul to this man, this stranger that he's known for all of half an hour, but something about Jared invites naked truths and the telling of long-hidden secrets. "I'm a bit of a disappointment to my family. And I feel like there are some -- some really good things inside of me. Meaningful, even. But I can't make anything work. It's like I have this pool in the base of my mind where I've been collecting things, waiting for the day I'll be able to put them all together, but they've all sunk beneath the water and I can't fish them out. They won't coalesce." He stops, gives Jared a half-embarrassed smile, and says, "I must sound insane."
"You sound like an artist," Jared says. "I've met quite a few of your kind in my day, been -- close to some of them, even. And from what I can tell, you're not wrong, cher. You have a gift."
William laughs, can't help the tinge of desperation in it. "You don't know me," he protests. "You can't possibly know that."
The expression on Jared's face makes William flush but he can't look away, is being drawn back into those fox-like eyes, so full of pure animalistic cunning. "Oh, Will," Jared croons. "You have a gift, a bright and glowing gift. You just need an inspiration. A muse. A little push from time to time to help you lure those ideas up from the depths."
William feels stung and yet he can't seem to stand up and walk away. "And you're offering, are you? Just like that? Am I to be nothing more than your amanuensis?"
Jared smiles at him, a smile to steal William's breath along with his bitterness. Jared stands, comes around to William's side of the table and crouches down. "I am offering, in my own way. My cher, you have a gift, just here," and he presses his palm against William's breastbone. Jared's hand is heavy and William thinks he can feel the heat of Jared's skin against his even through two layers of fabric. "I can give you a way to get it here," and Jared's fingers, those long, graceful fingers, glide their way up William's neck, over his chin, and then settle on his lips.
"I'm a writer, not an oratorian," William says, leaning back from Jared, away from his touch. "I don't need help getting words to my mouth but to my pen."
"So literal," Jared says. "You try too hard, cher."
William doesn't know what to think. "A muse, then. And how do you reckon this will work?"
Jared, still crouched at William's feet, lifts his head and fixes darkling eyes on William. "I need three things from you, willingly offered, and then I'm yours for as long as you want me."
Stories about deals and bargains struck at midnight abound in the South. William is no stranger to them. "My soul," he guesses. "Hell after I die, ten years for my talent, is that it?"
"No," Jared says. "I'm not the devil to be making deals like that."
"What are you, then?" William asks, suddenly so very tired of this whole evening. There's a sense of resigned disappointment running through him as well; of course meeting the man could never be as satisfying as William's imaginings. The way this is turning out, as well, is -- William described the man as a phantasm before but he didn't know how right he was or how bereft that realisation would leave him.
Jared reaches up again, this time fits the curve of his palm to William's cheek. William has to resist the urge to give in and turn his head into that touch and he shivers with the effort.
"I come to those who have talents, of all kinds," Jared murmurs. William's eyelids are heavy; it's a struggle to keep his eyes open and focused on Jared. "People who deserve something -- someone -- for themselves. They give me life, cher, and I give them myself, however they want me."
"A djinn," William guesses.
Jared smiles as his hand drops to William's shoulder and then off of William entirely. Jared stands, long-limbed and full of easy grace, and shrugs one shoulder. "If you like."
Not a genie, then. William wishes he knew, wishes Jared would stop playing games and tell him straight out what he wants, why he picked William. What he really wants, though, is to know what Jared needs from him. It sounds too good to be true and in William's experience, those are the bargains it's best to stay far away from.
"The three things you need from me," William says. "What are they?"
"Blood, breath, and come," Jared says. "You only get one chance, William Faulkner, on this one night. What say you?"
William hadn't been expecting an answer but if Jared's being honest, William has a much better idea of what Jared is and exactly what he's offering. William would be a fool to turn it down, no matter how much he wants to prove that he can make something of himself and his art on his own two feet. "I'm attracted to women," he says. "I can't -- I mean, how would."
He trails off, embarrassed, but Jared gives him a soft smile, none of the viciousness from before left in it, all the shadows transmuted to fond amusement. "You leave that to me, my William. Do you agree?"
"I'm in love with someone," William says, as he stands as well, meeting Jared face-to-face. "And I won't stay in New Orleans forever, probably only a few more months. Does any of that make a difference?"
"Cher, Will," Jared purrs. "William. Do we have a deal?"
William takes a breath and picks up the glasses of perique from the table, passes one over to Jared. William lifts his glass high and says, "To my inspiration."
Jared's smile is radiant, all the better highlighting his cheekbones and the curve of his jaw. "To my artist."
The glasses clink together with a chime and William drains his perique, hoping he hasn't made an awful mistake.
Estelle, forgive me.
Jared gives the waitress a sign and she walks over, hips swinging in a sultry rhythm to match the humidity outsider.
"Leavin' so soon, petit loup?" she asks Jared. "Don't forget your perique."
"Perish the thought," Jared says, and he bends to give her a kiss. William sees tongue and feels blood rush to his face. He looks away but Jared draws a finger under William's chin and turns his head back to face them. "Does it bother you, cher? To watch this? I would've thought a man of your worldly knowledge wouldn't be so easily flustered."
William flinches at the barbed comment. He doesn't know what to say, how to respond.
Jared takes pity on him, laughing and sending off the waitress with a light smack to the rear. "Come on, then, Will," Jared says, picking up the half-full bottle of perique from the table. "Let's go out and meet the magic that gave you this chance and then we'll seal the deal, so to speak."
William follows Jared outside, into the crushing press of people along Rue Bourbon. He looks back to see the bar, to note which shops or restaurants are on either side of it so he can introduce Spratling to it at some point, and his heart skips a beat. The bar isn't there. His head turns so fast he might give himself whiplash but before he can ask Jared what this all means, he has another realisation: it's night. Full dark, with the moon hanging heavy in the sky.
"What time is it?" William asks, more out of a desperation to know something concrete about this night than a simple need to know.
"Almost time," Jared says. "Close to midnight, cher. Come with me."
William's helpless to resist. He sees a few of his crowd on the other side of the street and he knows he should go over to them. He should leave Jared and run as far and as fast as he can away from the temptation Jared's offering. He won't, though. He can't. This might be a sin but he's not going to break his word, not when he's already agreed to the contract.
He trails Jared through the crowd and leaves his friends behind. Jared takes a circuitous route but they end up standing with a few other people at the intersection of Rue Bourbon and Rue St. Louis, facing Esplanade. William's about to ask what they're doing here, why they're just standing around, but then he feels -- maybe hears -- something coming down the street.
The 'something' coalesces into a wave as it crosses Rue Orleans. William squints and can't make sense of what he's seeing, not when it reminds him of the rippling reflection of lightning on the river, nothing tangible.
And then the wave, the lightning, the river of magic -- for it can't be anything else -- hits him.
He's not sure how he'd describe it if someone asked but words are running through his mind with all the fury of a hurricane: magic, power, speed; the image of Estelle standing in the sunlight; the first glimpse he ever had of the Quarter; Oxford at Christmas and the way the ground smells under the scent of cloves and chocolate and oranges; the comfort of Spratling's noise and the taste of a café au lait soaking into his tongue like cigarette smoke curls in the air and clings to everything it touches.
Home. It feels like home and love and need and want and the moment when pen hits paper and truth comes out.
"What is this?" he asks, closing his eyes and revelling in the feeling, trying to hold onto it for as long as he can. "What -- where did it come from?"
"Mardi Gras is magical, cher," Jared whispers into William's ear. "With every year the abandon grows but the meaning fades. It will all balance in the end, I suppose, but the magic never lessens."
William tilts his head, smiles with his eyes still closed as he says, "It changes you, doesn't it. Changes what you are and how you appear. Changes the magic."
Hands settle on William's hips, slow but not tentative. Jared gives William every chance to move away; William doesn't. "Oui, mon cher, my clever, clever Will," Jared purrs. "But life would be so boring without change."
A moment later, lips press against the stretched-out line of William's neck. He sinks into the feeling, can't stop himself, and when he feels Jared's tongue and teeth slide on his skin, William swallows, his mouth desert-dry.
"Leave it to you," William says, echoing Jared's words from the bar. "Is this what the magic is for? To help me -- to help us?"
"No, my William," Jared murmurs. "The magic belongs to itself." Jared noses at the soft, sensitive skin behind William's ear, and says, "Come with me. Come to mine and we'll complete our bargain. What d'you say -- will you?"
William opens his eyes and turns to Jared. With his mind clear and his heart racing, William says, "I will."
Jared leads him up Bourbon to Rue Iberville and takes a left towards the river. They don't walk very far, not even a block, before Jared's turning off the road and walking down a small alleyway between two buildings. The path is covered by a wrought-iron arch; purple clematis, yellow roses, and ivy twine through the arch and block out the stars.
William snorts and when Jared looks over his shoulder at him, William says, "Purple, green, and gold? You're giving away your secret, Jared."
"You'd be surprised, cher," Jared tells him as he starts to climb an old, creaking staircase.
William follows, pausing when one of the steps buckles ominously under his feet, but all thoughts of the staircase are forgotten when Jared opens the door at the top and ushers William inside.
Luxury. Pure, decadent opulence. Not the kind he's seen upriver in the Garden District and certainly nothing kin to Oxford's grand old houses, but ease and affluence nonetheless. The decor is a sparse and muted thing; every piece of furniture that the room lacks, every missing personal touch, simply adds to the feeling.
William takes everything in: the carpet, the chaise lounge and settee angled around a low coffee table, windows hidden by brocade curtains, the masks on the wall, the way this room feels timeless -- or, rather, trapped in one specific moment, never to change again, never to exist apart from on this night and in this way. Something about that carries him away in a current of sadness, a violent mourning that does nothing but tie him closer to the man who led him here.
He looks at Jared, leaning against a doorframe on the other side of the room. William's fingers tremble for a pen and paper and time to describe this room, this night, Jared, but apprehension comes bubbling up his spine at the same time. Blood, breath, and come, Jared had said, and William has no issue with the first two but the third -- that's going to be more difficult.
"Not entirely difficult, cher," Jared promises, startling William. Had he said that out loud? "As long as you want it, want me, want what I'm offering, you won't have any trouble."
"Let's do it, then," William says, a flood of bravado rising from somewhere deep inside of him, perhaps the same place where all of his ideas have gone to die. Perhaps it's the gift Jared saw that's speaking, not him, using his voice for him when he still has trouble believing that all of this is even possible. Either way, he crosses the room before he can change his mind, chin held high, and he stops at the threshold to the bedroom, can't help but stare at the massive bed piled high with blankets and pillows.
Jared leaves him to study the room and slinks over to the corner. William tears his eyes away from the bed and watches Jared wind up a gramophone; when the music starts, William almost can't make it out it's so muted. He strains to listen, eyes focused on the floor so as not to distract his sense of hearing. Feet appear in his line of vision and William, startled, looks up. Jared's standing right in front of him, a length of golden silk draped across his palms.
"A blindfold," William says. That would definitely distract him from the fact that he's about to have sex with another man.
"If you trust me," Jared says.
William nods; Jared lifts up his hands, offering the silk like a sacrifice. William takes the fabric and puts it over his eyes. Before he can tie it behind his head, though, Jared's fingers glide over his and take over, pulling the blindfold tight and tying it deftly. William can't see, can't even open his eyes.
"Too tight?" Jared asks.
Judging by the way William can feel Jared's breath on his cheek, Jared's close -- very close. His mouth has gone dry and William can't find words, so he shakes his head.
"I'll do right by you, my artist," Jared tells him, soft but intent, before his hands settle again on William's hips. "I swear it, as you've sworn yourself."
"I know," William says. It's all he can say, Jared's words setting his blood to thrumming in his veins. It's not the way he feels when he sees Estelle, not at all, more the feeling when someone says something and William's mind, greedy and fiercely possessive, hoards the phrase for itself.
Everything inside of him is reaching out to Jared and so William does as well, lifting one hand, fingertips cataloguing the face he has been so obsessed with these past weeks. Jared takes his hand, rests William's palm right over his breastbone, and then Jared says, "I'm going to kiss you, cher."
"Breath," William says. The room is so quiet; William wonders if his hearing has become more sensitive with the lack of vision or if it just feels like he can hear the way Jared smiles. "I understand."
"More pleasure than obligation, I hope," Jared says, and before William can take that in, respond to it, Jared's lips are against his.
The kiss is -- different. William's never kissed another man before and he's not sure what he was expecting, more force, maybe, or lips that weren't as soft as a woman's. Jared's mouth is tender and delicate, reeks to William's senses of temptation. William sheds trepidation and he starts to return the kiss with interest, parting his lips when Jared's tongue pleads for entrance. The feeling of Jared in his mouth is like nothing William has experienced before: the taste of perique twined with power, the sense of something otherworldly, the feeling of something heady and wild, like he's standing in the middle of a windstorm and letting it steal all the breath from his lungs.
William might be in charge here, might be the one with the power in this pairing because it's his blood, breath, and come that Jared needs, but Jared plunders his mouth, takes what he wants and then more, and when the kiss ends, it's Jared who ends it, who leaves William panting for breath.
"Wasn't that bad, was it?" Jared asks, one hand cupping the curve of William's cheek.
"Not that bad at all," William says, and this time he's the one who initiates the kiss. This time he's the one who has his tongue in Jared's mouth, tracing out the soft and sharp surfaces inside, teeth and palate and cheeks and tongue. This time he's the one who has Jared clutching at him for balance as William steals the air back from Jared.
When they break apart, William rests his forehead against Jared's. "Leave it to you," William says, echoing Jared's words from earlier once he catches his breath. "I begin to see what you mean."
Jared laughs, a low and sinful chuckle that -- that does things to William's body and soul both. "You flatter me, Will," Jared purrs. "Now, let me undress you, oui? I want to see the body I'm binding myself to. And while I'm doing that, Will, decide where you want to do this."
"But, your bed," William says before he can stop, before he regains control of himself. "I mean, I thought that you'd."
"Aw, cher," Jared says, cutting William off before laying a quick and chaste kiss on William's lips. "I just want you, William. Doesn't matter where or how."
Goosebumps flare up all along William's arms and legs, hearing that. To have such power over another person, especially someone as fey and fascinating as Jared, is humbling. William doesn't deserve this and he knows it. "Thank you," he says, blurting out the words. "I haven't said it yet, have I. You didn't have to come to me. You could have picked someone else."
Jared clucks his tongue. "You, alone, out of everyone in the city tonight, called me. Called me weeks ago, even. Of course I had to come to you." His fingers, those long and slender musician's fingers, undo the buttons of William's jacket as he goes on. "I couldn't have chosen anyone else. I wouldn't have wanted to."
William shrugs his shoulders, helping Jared pull the coat off. They're both silent and William's ears would be ringing with how quiet the room is except for the music playing, a hesitant sound that seems reluctant to break the room's still mood of tranquillity. William opens his mouth to ask what they're listening to but Jared puts one finger over William's lips and, a moment later, he's untying William's shoes.
It takes what feels like hours for Jared to undress William. They don't say a word to each other during the process and yet William feels like he's having one of the most deep and meaningful conversations of his entire life. Jared's hands are everywhere, undoing every lace and button with a single-minded focus that speaks of how much this night means to him. William wonders if Jared's taking it any slower than he normally would because of William's attachment to Estelle; it can't be easy for Jared to know that this is the only time they're going to fuck in all of William's life.
By the time William's nude, his mind is racing with questions. Is Jared able to find someone else to sate his needs with if he's bound to William? Will Jared be as powerful outside of New Orleans? How on earth is he supposed to explain Jared to his family and friends, much less Estelle?
"Does your mind never stop, cher?" Jared asks, bending to place a kiss on the arch of William's left foot as his hands run up William's thighs. "I can hear you thinking."
"Sorry," William says. "I'm sorry, Jared."
Jared hums, says, "No apologies. It's the mind of the artist; I should have expected it. But perhaps I might distract you for a few moments, at least."
And then Jared takes William's cock between his lips and into his mouth.
Without thinking, William's hands fly downward, one clutching Jared's shoulder, the other tangled up in Jared's long hair. William's been blown before, he's not a blushing virgin by any means with the number of dalliances he's engaged in throughout his life, and he prides himself on being considerate, yet all he can do is breathe out a stammered, "Fu -- fuck."
Jared laughs with William still in his mouth and the vibrations on the sensitive skin of his dick make William shudder and his knees go weak. It's all William can do to force out words, real words. "Do you -- is this enough? Is it enough if I go in your mouth?" If it is, William won't have any trouble, not at this rate.
"No, cher," Jared says, once he's leaned back and William's cock has slipped from his mouth with an audible pop that makes William's heart skip a beat. "It's not gonna be that easy."
William wishes he could open his eyes and look down at Jared, see what kind of look Jared has on his face, because William can't discern his mood from his tone. Amused, perhaps, but there's more to it, so much more.
A moment later, Jared's kissing him again. This time, when their tongues slide against each other, William tastes himself, bitter salt and broken dreams. He starts to tug at Jared's shirt, can't see Jared to undress him and can't tell him to get naked, not with Jared's tongue in his mouth; he hopes this is enough for Jared to get the message.
Jared's hands cover William's, fingertips and a hint of nail sliding between William's knuckles, stroking the soft skin between his fingers, tracing the flesh over his tendons and veins. William gasps at the sensation, unsure why it's giving him chills and making his dick twitch. Jared smiles against William's mouth and when he pulls away, he chuckles.
"Artists and hands," Jared murmurs, and he licks a long stripe up William's neck. "It never fails. But all right. We'll keep going."
William licks his lips and thinks about taking the blindfold off, especially once he hears Jared start to strip. He aches to see if Jared has his head held high, proud to the last even as he unveils himself piece by piece, inch by inch, or if his head is tilted downward, watching William through his eyelashes and from under the long bangs of hair. He wonders how efficiently Jared is divesting himself of clothes, whether he's moving with clinical practice or if he's watching William, thinking of other things, maybe even other people.
"How many have there been?" William asks, as soon as that thought crosses his mind. "Before me, I mean. How many did you go to?"
The laugh William hears has to come from Jared, they're the only two in the room, but the noise wraps arms around him and hugs him tight, caressing every bit of William's skin, all at the same time. There's nothing natural about that laugh.
"Cher, you have no reason to be jealous," Jared tells him, before taking his hand and leading him in the bed's direction. "It's only ever one at a time. You'll have me, all of me, for as long as you want me."
"And if it's just tonight?" William asks.
Jared helps him up on the bed, clambers up after William and tugs William to lie on top of him, bare chest to bare chest, hips in line, cocks erect. "Then it's just tonight, Will, my William."
Hands run up William's cheeks, slide through his sideburns and into his hair, cupping the curve of his neck and pulling him down. They kiss again, long and lazy kisses that go a long way towards relaxing William in one sense and exciting him in another. Jared kisses like he's giving up all of himself, breathing all of himself into every atom of William's being, sinking in and spreading out. It's heady, addictive, and if it wasn't for Estelle, the way that she's already made her home deep in William's heart, he thinks he'd give all of himself to Jared in return.
He can imagine it, languid days spent drinking and writing in the Quarter, Jared sitting at his feet and William's free hand running through Jared's hair as his other hand races to keep up with the words spiralling out from his mind, dark and humid nights of stolen kisses and secret glances in the speakeasies and bars, hands everywhere, mouths everywhere, burying himself in tight heat.
"Giving me life, cher," Jared murmurs. "Making me real. Shall we finish it? Will you complete your side of the bargain?"
William is too drunk on Jared to reply beyond a nod.
Jared positions them, William kneeling in between spread-wide legs, one hand on Jared's shoulder, the other on Jared's waist, thumb sliding on the groove of Jared's hip. "Let me do the work," Jared tells him, and William doesn't have a chance to react before Jared's hand is around his cock, leading him to Jared's entrance.
William doesn't know how this is supposed to work, sex between two men; the mechanics of it, yes, but not if this is going to hurt Jared or if there's something he should be doing. Jared doesn't give him a moment to ask the question before he says, "All right, cher. Should be natural from now. You know what to do, William."
He swallows, mouth and throat gone dry, but then William pushes forward, slowly, and groans at how tightly Jared's gripping his dick, at how hot Jared is. William might not survive the night, not if this is the first moment and he's already light-headed, not if he's only barely inside and already wants to come. He has to hold his breath as he keeps going and, when he's inside Jared completely, when they're skin to skin, both of them breathing hard and heavy, William can't help the smile, then the laugh.
Jared doesn't ask him why he's laughing, doesn't get offended. Instead, he pulls William down for a kiss and, as William pulls out and slams back in, Jared bites at William's bottom lip, spilling blood and sucking it out of William. It's ridiculous but William thinks he can feel it, Jared's mouth dragging something more than blood out of his body. It's ridiculous but it sends William's need sky-high and he can't help the way he speeds up, fucking Jared hard and fast, nothing of their easy and indolent touching and kissing just minutes ago.
"Like that," Jared pants out. "Oh, my Will, do right by me, come on."
William imagines Jared's head thrown back, pulse in his neck fluttering, but Jared holds tight to him, curls one leg around him, and then bites down hard on William's shoulder. His nails are carving bloody furrows into William's back, tearing the skin as easily as apple blossoms, and the pain of it goes straight to William's cock. He's harder than he's been his entire life, even with Estelle, and it hits William with all the bright clarity of the midday sun that he's never going to have anything like this with anyone else. If he wants to experience sex like this again, it will only be with Jared, and all the other liaisons he has, even if he marries Estelle someday, will pale in comparison.
"What have you done to me?" William murmurs even as he's panting, desperate with the need to come. "What have I done?"
"For the sake of your gift," Jared tells him, writhing under William and meeting every one of William's thrusts with an arcane roll of his hips, "you've opened your eyes, William."
William can't stop himself; he rips the blindfold off and stares into Jared's gleaming eyes, idly noting the flush of Jared's skin, the mischievous slant of his mouth, the strands of hair fanning out in every direction and glinting with magic against the golden blankets and pillows. "Had my eyes opened, you mean," William says.
Jared grins and then closes his eyes, arches up and commands, "Come, William. Fill me up, cher."
Helpless to resist, William obeys, feels his climax swirl up from his toes and down from his head and out from his belly. He pushes deep into Jared, as deep as he can, and comes with a gasp. Something else is draining out of him, along with his spunk, the same thing William thought Jared drew from his blood earlier, and the loss of it has William dizzy and seeing double. He collapses down onto Jared, feels slick coat his stomach and wonders when Jared came, how he didn't feel it or notice.
"Is it done?" William asks, eyes closed and head turned, ear placed over Jared's heart and listening to it start to calm, find its normal rhythm.
"Yes," Jared murmurs, stroking William's head. "Oh, Will, my precious artist. It's done, cher. Sleep. Rest. Tomorrow we'll write."
William hums in pleasure, thinking of it, and falls asleep.
William wakes up in his bedroom, gasping for breath and one hand over his heart. Air, he needs fresh air, so he stumbles across the room to the window and opens it wide, sticks his head out and breathes the Quarter into his lungs.
"Curve of the river a broken mirror," Jared says.
William whirls around, nearly bangs his head on the window-frame, and stares at the sight of Jared perched on the edge of his bed. "What?" he finally asks.
Jared smiles at him, leans backwards, an easy air of possession exuding out from him. "We have a bargain, you and I, William Faulkner. And, cher, I will hold up my end as you've done with yours. The curve of the river a broken mirror," Jared says again, then nods at the desk and adds, "Write it down before you forget."
Hesitantly, all of his instincts urging him to bolt, William goes over to his desk and opens a notebook. He picks up a pen, idly notes that his hand is shaking, and writes it down.
Curve of the river a broken mirror.
He stares at that sentence and then somewhere in his mind a door clicks open and swings inward, beckoning him to follow.
Curve of the river a broken mirror.
No. It's close but it's wrong, all wrong.
Without paying attention to Jared or the fact that Jared has somehow magically appeared in his locked bedroom, William drops to the floor and starts to scribble, crossing out words and rearranging phrases in a mad dash to capture the image in his mind.
When he finally looks up again, the spell of creation broken, Jared is gone. William frowns but then looks down at the page, rereads what he finally settled on, and smiles.
I could smell the curves of the river beyond the dusk and I saw the last light supine and tranquil upon tideflats like pieces of broken mirror, then beyond them lights began in the pale clear air, trembling a little like butterflies hovering a long way off.
He doesn't know what this means or where it belongs but he'll find something or make something. He's going to use this and it's going to be perfect.
"My artist," William hears, right before he feels a press of lips against his temple. He looks around again; he's alone and he can hear Spratling snoring across the hall.
"My inspiration," William murmurs, and when a hand strokes down his arm and twines fingers in with his, pulling him back to bed, William follows.