December 25th, 1899
He walked up the path, his boots scuffing against the flat stone, his nose picking up the scents of roasting meat, vegetables, and desserts. A Christmas feast, for those who celebrated.
Julia stood in the doorway, a plain cotton dress covering her body – one she had brought with her, not one she had purchased after taking a step up in the world. A reminder, a memento, or just some piece of comfort – he wasn’t sure which.
‘Merry Christmas,’ she said, her voice sad, an almost sorrowful expression on her face.
Not seeing a need to reply to the greeting, he stared as he walked up the stairs, his hand immediately reaching for her belly as he neared her.
There was very little that his HUD could tell him – it wasn’t geared for such fine medical usage – but she was healthy, and that was the best comfort he could take from the situation.
‘They’re serving up lunch, if you feel like eating.’
He shook his head, and she led him up the stairs to her suite – a study, a bedroom, and a bathroom. The study had already been filled with drawings and plans of the real estate purchased on her behalf. There were pages of notes pinned beside each, most in her neat hand, with some figures in another’s handwriting – likely the rabbit.
They continued to the bedroom, where she closed the door – but she left the billowing lace curtains half-drawn, allowing some of the much-needed breeze into the room.
‘I think this,’ Julia said as she undid his belt, ‘is the only kind of comfort you understand.’ She sat on the edge of the bed, pulled him close, and began to tease him hard, her fingers and her mouth making him react within seconds of touch.
Her mouth sheathed him, and he closed her eyes as she sucked, her tongue flicking against him, her teeth scraping with delicate touches of pain.
Rhys twisted his fingers into her loose plait, pulling strands of hair free as he came. She swallowed –
something she didn’t often do – and held him in her mouth as he slowly went limp.
She laid a kiss against the lower edge of his belly, then sat up, giving him room to right his pants again.
Rhys allowed a little of the stress to slide away from his body – both with the relief that came with sex, and with feeling touched by the offer of comfort that he could understand. He tapped his pants and required a new pair, rather than fighting the belt back into place.
Julia wiped her mouth and tugged on her cotton dress before standing. ‘Do they– Did they give you any holidays off?’
‘Why do you want to know?’
‘In case he asks,’ Julia said, her tone plain and without pretence. ‘How can I tell him what I don’t know?’
Rhys moved to the window, stepping past the curtain to look at the view. It was an act of weakness, of sentimentality that he should not have been subject to.
It was a view he’d never seen and would never get to see again.
‘Arthur,’ he said as Julia joined him. ‘Call him Arthur.’
‘I like that name,’ Julia said. ‘Is it a namesake for anyone?’
He held himself back from snapping at her. She had no way of knowing the importance of a namesake to his kind, and likely to the agents that would replace him. It seemed to be something stretching back as far as they could see – all the way back to the records of the few angels who broke free of their strict Duty and had children.
A namesake was a legacy almost as good as a child, another way of ensuring part of you survived.
That if nothing else, people were likely to repeat your stories.
And no one was ever going to name their child after him, so the least he could do was to give legacy, in some small part, to the only good agent he had ever known – an agent that could have ended his life thirty years previously.
‘It was the name of a decent man,’ Rhys said. ‘You’ll find that few of my kind have children whose names hold no meaning or history.’
Julia’s hand rested beside his on the windowsill. ‘Do you want to tell me about him?’
Stories needed to be repeated, but he was not built for long conversations. ‘I don’t,’ he said, ‘but maybe I will.’
Julia wrapped herself in the light, lacy curtain for a moment, before she untangled herself. ‘May we eat first?’ Her hand reached for his crotch. ‘Something tells me I will need my strength later.’
He felt arousal building again but willed himself from becoming hard again. Though there was the temptation, it was likely a day that couldn’t be spent entirely devoted to coitus.
Though he had always understood Christmas dinner to be somewhat of a formal occasion, Julia simply had the food sent up to her rooms, and they sat at a small table on the veranda.
Small talk filled the silence, but nothing seemed to stick. No conversation went anywhere.
‘Do you know,’ he began, ‘that Christmas is responsible for renaming a kind of folly?’
Julia paused, a fork halfway to her mouth. ‘Whose folly?’
‘No,’ he said. ‘Follies are…a kind of fae, but they are far more ephemeral. Creatures that eat memory, dream, or story. Goddesses buoyed entirely by a love for travel and flight. And then there are the ashreaders. They had a myriad of names before this. Author’s ghosts, the pen wrights or pen wights, names in fae languages you wouldn’t understand.’
‘What do they–?’
‘They read words,’ Rhys said, ‘that are never read by anyone else. An author sitting alone always has one over her shoulder; a journalist will have a dozen opinions on an article before it’s done. They are out of touch with this world, and it is an enormous of act of will for them to interact with any other being. So they watch, observe, and ponder mistaken word choices for months and years, deliberating over possible hidden meanings.’
‘I am imagining,’ Julia said, ‘a cadre of Oxford alums.’
‘They would get on,’ Rhys agreed.
‘But Christmas?’ she asked, her now-forkless hand drifting towards his.
Rhys hesitated but pushed his hand closer, allowing her to touch him. ‘Children began to burn letters to Father Christmas, and it suddenly seemed that there was an idea that crystallised amongst all of them, and they renamed themselves, and they read all of the letters.’
She was holding his hand now, as if he were a lover, and not just the man that had bought her. ‘Merry Christmas, Rhys.’
For a single, awful moment, he wanted to be human. His hand twitched with the desire to pull away, but he closed his eyes and let himself enjoy the sensation her touch brought. Whatever it was, it was the closest to love he would ever feel. ‘Merry Christmas,’ he murmured in return.