Behind A Mask – A Snowflakes And Embers Short Story By SA Payne Liam hit the garden door and rushed inside, the blast of cold air followed him into the warmth of his rooms. He was late, dinner would have been delivered hours earlier and Deseem's last lesson would have been done hours before that. It wasn't intentional, his class had run late and that had pushed his whole day back and by the time he was done with practice and his nightly run he was really late. Luckily, he thought he knew a way to make it up to his husband and the idea brought a smile to his face as he brushed loose strands of white hair back from his face. "Deseem? I'm home." Home, it was a word he was using again for the first time since the war, using it and meaning it and more importantly he was feeling it. When he returned to their rooms he wasn't just coming back, he was going home and it was entirely due to Deseem's presence not the location of the rooms. Baxter pushed past him, the large dog barking happily as he bounded toward the front room to find the slender young man he loved so much.
That made the generally pleasant happy expression Deseem seemed to be wearing all the time when they were alone together disappear into a small, frustrated frown but he didn't protest. Instead he dropped his golden eyes to study where his hands were folded in his lap. "If my husband and mentor feels it is wise." "What aren't you saying?" Even after so long Deseem still had to be asked but it bothered him less now than ever before. He didn't mind asking because when asked, Deseem would answer honestly. "I don't like being shielded. I don't like when I can't touch it at least some of the day. It feels." Deseem waved to his head. "Blind, naked?" "Vulnerable." Liam offered and the other man nodded sending thick black hair bobbing to fall forward to frame his face. For a moment Liam forgot to breath he was so struck by his husband's beauty and he wondered if he would ever grow used to being married to such a stunning man. "You're getting used to having it at hand, even only a quarter trained as you are. I wish I had more answers for you but there's very little written about Elementals. I just know, for me, it's like breathing and without it like I'm smothering." It was exhausting keeping Deseem locked down for most of the day but he'd woven those protections so tightly with his own he didn't have to think about it anymore. It was just a drain on his own strength and because of that he was losing weight again and trying to make sure no one noticed it.
"You're not sleeping again. You wake me during the night with your bad dreams and now you don't eat, I'm starting to worry." "I'm fine." His protest fell on deaf ears as Deseem took up one of Liam's hands and spun the wedding ring around the slender finger. "This wasn't so loose before. Let me send for dinner, I will eat again with you." "You won't take no for an answer will you?" "No, my husband." Deseem smiled softly and slipped from Liam's arms to go call for a servant. It was only after Deseem moved away that he saw the box sitting on the table. He waited until Deseem had requested dinner be brought before he asked. "What's this?" "Oh, Bekka sent it home with me." He hurried over and pulled the lid off to show the outfit nestled inside. "It's a mask and costume, for the celebration of good fortune tomorrow." "I'd forgotten, tomorrow's the masquerade ball. Did Bekka explain it to you?" He lifted the beautifully crafted mask that was a swirl of oak leafs, some green and some in orange and reds. The costume below it repeated the fallen leaf theme and the wearer would look like a walking creature of the forest. It was a lovely costume and rather fitting for an Elemental. "She just said it was tradition and to wear this." "Ah, well, one of the faiths here is called Beloschot. They believe that many things have a spirit connected to it, good luck, bad luck, good fortune, ill health and these spirits live in human homes along with the families that reside there but once a year the spirit has to move out. For good spirits, helpful ones, they hold rituals and celebrations, offer gifts, trying to get them to move back into their homes before sunrise. For the bad ones, on the move out day, they do everything they can to keep them from finding their way back to their homes. Spirits of ill fortune don't like celebrations so they'll throw parties and if a homeless spirit of ill will sees you it can go right to your home and move in so they'll wear masks to confuse them. The habit sort of became adopted be the rest of us and it's a secular thing now. The Beloschots don't mind. They think it's just good sense for all of us to go to parties and cover our faces with masks tomorrow." He put the mask back down in the box with the rest of the costume. "It'll look nice on you, I'm glad you're going to go with Lach and Bekka." That brought the golden eyes up to lock onto Liam's blue. "And you, you will go with us won't you?" "I.it's not something I attend. You'll be safe with them and Bekka will love having you along." Deseem put the lid back on the box and moved from the table. "I'll make sure the costume is returned to them in the morning." "Deseem?" "If my husband will not go, either will I." "Don't be silly, of course you can go without me." Deseem just shook his head and settled back down into his chair. "Is this something you had wanted to go to?" There was no point in scolding the other man about being stubborn because once Deseem decided something was improper for him to do without Liam along, he wouldn't change his mind. "It sounded interesting but I'd rather be with my husband." .
Liam sighed and let his fingertips wander over the boxed outfit. "We can go, but only for a little while, okay?" "Thank you, husband." How could he refuse? It was beyond Liam's own sense of selfishness and self preservation to say no. Deseem so rarely requested anything of him that when he did speak up Liam almost always agreed. It was even more rare that his husband asked to attend a social event, one filled with strangers and unknown situations and Liam found himself completely powerless to refuse him. It seemed like such a small request for how brightly Deseem smiled when he agreed but that smile made his own heart race with excitement. It was almost sad how such a small reaction could make Liam so happy as well. "We won't be staying long." "I understand." When Deseem lowered his eyes and turned a little away to hide his small smile, Liam started to wonder if he'd maybe been played. Bekka and Lach were forever after him to attend more of the court functions and he'd always refused. Even something as simple as court or taking dinner at court he avoided but here he was, agreeing to attend a formal ball where everyone would be in disguise and he'd have to go unarmed. There was no way he would have gone if Lach had asked him but without even making the request Deseem had them attending. He couldn't prove it but he was certain his brother and his wife had a hand in that but from how Deseem fussed at him when the light dinner he'd requested arrived, he couldn't rule his own husband out as a conspirator either. Trapped now, Liam merely sighed and ate his dinner mechanically and prayed a short appearance at the party would be enough.
"I don't assume that you'll be able to over look my bloodlines." He hadn't thought of Bishick as Bastion in a long time. "You bleed black the same as I do. I'm just grateful you've been willing to help draw Deseem out of his shell." "Oh, he's been easy to befriend than you. He's growing into a very fine young man but you? All surly and grumpy, I see you in your class, you frown and the students wet themselves." That made him snort and he brushed the long shower of white hair back behind his shoulder. "I'm not a teacher and they won't let me take Deseem on patrol with me yet, he's not well enough trained." "I hadn't thought about it. Will you take him on patrol when he's more stable?" "I'd like to. He'll learn faster with more hands on practice. I'm thinking of taking him north next summer when court goes up to the Clans. Would you be willing to go with us?" The request surprised the other Watcher almost as much as it surprised Liam but as soon as he made it he knew it was a good idea. "Deseem is very fond of you, other than Bekka and Lach you're his closest friend. Sadly? I think I can say almost the same thing." The admission and invitation made Bishick smile softly and he bowed his head in respect. "I would be deeply honored." What he wanted to say felt odd in Trade and he switched to Bastion and the higher levels of formality the other language carried so easily. "The young Prince, your husband, is to my heart as a younger brother." Liam switched to the other words easily. "Would that make us cousins?" The word in Bastion didn't translate fully to cousin because it carried emotions of brother in law, blood brother, and deeply trusted friend. He didn't use it lightly but he meant it. The chosen word made Bishick smile more and he reached down to scratch Baxter's ears as the dog bounded over to rub against his leg. "I have thought of you as such for a long time." The wounds Deseem carried had healed more quickly and more cleanly than the one's Liam had been dealt. Every week Deseem grew more confident, more outgoing but Liam seemed perpetually stuck in his introverted and withdrawn ways. The last thing Bishick had expected was Deseem being the one of the pair helping to draw Liam out but that's how it had become. He had no doubt that if it wasn't for his husband, Liam would have remained so coldly distant on the surface and painfully lonely below it. Liam closed his eyes for a step and a deep breath. "That's because you have the patience of a teacher." He laughed because Liam had been his most difficult student in more than just his formal classes. "You don't give yourself enough credit, I've enjoyed getting to know you these last months and the times I've been invited to your rooms I've thoroughly enjoyed. We'll turn you into a social butterfly yet." "That I highly doubt." "Other than looking tired, he's okay? I asked him but he shrugged it off." "He's fine. I had headaches every day for months when I first started training. At least I can give him the days off to recover I didn't get. Trouble is he's not getting much sleep." Somehow by using Bastion it made it private enough to confess something private. "Perhaps that's information I don't require. Newlyweds shouldn't get much sleep." "Oh." Liam stuttered out and felt his face blushing. "I didn't mean it that way." That made the other man snicker because he knew what Liam had meant. "I shouldn't tease you. Deseem made mention that you're having nightmares again." .
"I try not to wake him but." "He wakes when you wake. So short of separate bedrooms neither of you is getting a good night's rest. If you want to talk about it?" "I crossed paths with a Guard Captain that I served with during the war. She meant well but bought up things I hadn't wanted to recall. It just set things off. It'll settle down sooner or later." It was odd that speaking in Bastion about the horrors of the war with Bastion felt safer and easier than using Trade. "Have you brought this up with a Soulhealer? They might be able to help." "Not yet. Truth is as soon as I'm rested I have nightmares. They just don't generally disturb others. Now? I keep dreaming that I'm back on the front, fighting, killing but when I go to make sure they're dead it's Deseem's face I see. It's the same dream every night for the last week. The worst part is I'm worn out. Shielding Deseem and teaching and now not sleeping?" "Will you be okay?" "I should be, this is the hardest part. Deseem knows just enough about his Talent to really start using it, integrating it, but not enough yet that I can trust him to keep control. It'll be weeks before he can even be unlocked for a short time." "You're doing fine but don't be too stubborn to ask for help if you need it." He nodded. "I know. I'm okay for now. He's a quick learner but you know how it is with any student. There is always that point where they know just enough to be dangerous." "Yes. The ones I mentor, if they screw up they just see what I ate for dinner last week and nothing blows up." "Don't remind me. Did he tell you he talked me into going to the masquerade party tonight?" "And you agreed?" Liam nodded. "He looked so sad that I wasn't going with him that I couldn't say no." Bishick laughed deeply. "Yeah, you're in love." Even in Bastion the honesty made Liam blush red again. "I want him to be happy and he asks so little of me." "It's kind of you." He spoke gently because he knew what a big effort Liam was making going to a formal court event just to make his husband happy. The very fact that he'd brought it up was almost a screaming confession of how nervous he was. "You'll have a good time." "I don't need to so long as Deseem does." Bishick didn't try to comfort the younger man again because nothing he could say could make the look leave the blue eyes. He was pretty sure Liam hadn't looked as stoic and worried since he'd been ordered to battle and while it seemed silly to him, he knew Liam was seriously unnerved. The fact that he was still willing to go to the celebration just to make Deseem happy, it took away all doubts about what Liam felt for his new husband. Any worry he had, any apprehension about the coming evening dissolved when he stepped into their rooms. Deseem was happy, excited and nervous and it was hard to be worried in the face of his good mood. He tried to be cheerful as they got ready. He helped Deseem braid his hair back and get into the very well made costume and it wasn't until they were left with only his mask to put on that .
Deseem glanced around and finally asked the question that he hadn't asked yet. "What are you going to wear?" Deseem glanced around and didn't see another costume waiting for Liam to put on. "I'm a Watcher." He moved to the wardrobe and found the box in the back that he hadn't ever actually used. Liam carried it over and placed it on the bed in front of Deseem. "That's all the costume we're allowed to wear." Deseem opened the box carefully and wasn't surprised at what he found inside. "Black." Liam shrugged. "It's our color of choice." He reached over and into the box. "A mask, a wrap hood and gloves. Every Watcher will be wearing the same thing with their uniform tonight. We'll look like a flock of crows." "It'll cover your hair." Deseem turned the black fabric around in his hands. "I like your hair." "We could always stay home." "No, thank you, husband." It made him smile at the thinly veiled selfish request. "We won't stay long, but I'd like to see it." "And see it you shall." He handed the oak leaf mask to Deseem and worked the fabric over his own head before trying to stuff his hair into it. Slender, graceful hands moved to help but the light, accidental touches of Deseem's fingers to his neck and face did little to make getting ready and leaving easier. "Deseem." The name was a sigh and he eased one last lock of the soft white hair back under the concealing black fabric. "Husband, we'll be late. We're meeting your brother." Which meant that Lach and Bekka were waiting for them before going to the party and there was no time to delay. Liam pulled his thoughts back to safer ground and knew that his husband was too stubborn to be distracted with a little romp. If Lach hadn't been waiting maybe, but he was too aware of being respectful and careful to not offend his family to make them wait to tumble back into bed. If he was being honest with himself it wasn't sex Liam was needing but he would have been happiest to just curl up in bed, warm, wrapped around his husband to read a book before sleep claimed them. It was the simple touches that he craved the most. "We won't stay long." Deseem promised again as he pulled the mask on over his face. He turned to look at himself in the mirror and laughed. "I feel odd.like someone else." "That's the point." It was also one of the reasons he hated the holiday. Too many faces that weren't faces hiding who only knew what. It made him nervous. "Baxter stay." He ordered as they got close to the door to the main hallway and the dog sighed and went back to the bone that had been left for him. He braced himself, squared his shoulders and followed the happy, dark haired oak spirit down the hallways toward his brother's rooms. It was worth his own uneasy to see Deseem enjoying himself but he just wished he could go armed to the party. A sword, even a knife, on his belt would have made him feel so much better.
decorations on her costume. "Thank you. Had to do some color, what with you two being all somber in black." She pulled away and moved to hug Deseem and the younger man didn't even tense up at the contact that used to make him fearful. "You look amazing as well." "Thank you." He answered simply and as soon as he was released stepped back to half stand beside Liam. Bekka didn't let him retreat too far, she reached out and caught his arm and looped her own around it. Before Liam could protest having his husband snatched away to be gossiped at his brother stepped from the room and shut the door behind him. "Let them wander ahead, she's all wound up and was convinced you would come tonight. I told her I'd be shocked if you actually showed up and I didn't think Deseem was ready to go to a formal event without you." His brother tilted his head and smiled behind the mask he wore, their mouths were the only part of their face exposed enough to betray expression. "I'm glad you're here." "He wasn't going to go without me and it's nice that he's asking to do things." He shrugged and pretended it didn't matter. "It's not a big deal." "Of course it's not." He wasn't going to point out the very obvious tension in Liam's shoulders or how he kept scanning every corner and shadow looking for a threat. He also wasn't going to point out that this was the first court celebration Liam had attended since the war, not counting the grand ball held after his recent wedding of course. It was a good sign for both the young men and he tried not to point it out too much as he walked beside his kid brother. They weren't even to the main hall before the hallways started to grow crowded with all manner of people in all sorts of brightly colored costumes. Scattered around them were men and women in the all black uniform of a Watcher with their hair and face covered. They moved lightly in spite of how somber their outfit was and laughed as freely as their more colorfully dressed companions. The two brothers held back a little and let their spouses move ahead. It let Liam watch as Deseem pulled away from people who grew to close, doing his best to avoid accidental contact with others even after so many months of being told physical touch was okay. He stared openly around him, having to tilt his head to see clearly all the decorations of fall and winter colors and the swirling costumes of the people gathered. He would have hated every moment if it wasn't for the open wonder that glowed in the amber gold eyes. For all that he was no longer cloistered, Deseem's world was still very small and sheltered. He had his lessons and now went to and from the library with ease but that was about the extent of his experiences. It made Liam feel better to see the younger boy so at ease with such swirling life and chaos around them when before he would have almost been cowered in fear from the sheer amount of everything around them.
to the general public's eye and that wasn't enough to risk bothering him. Even those that suspected which Watcher he was because of Deseem's dark black hair and very unusual gold eyes were too polite to bring up politics with him at a celebration. Too polite or too fearful of his reputation of being short tempered and very Talented, Liam didn't care which so long as the court scheming and political maneuvering stayed far away from him. "Would you like to dance?" Liam finally bothered to ask Deseem who hovered near him but watched everything with wide eyed wonder. "Oh, no, my husband. I wouldn't know how." That made him smile. "That's good for your feet, I'm not much of a dancer myself. Bekka could show you if you like." The oak leaf face shook its head no. "I would not enjoy that. My people, in Bastion, we didn't dance like this, it's just nice to be able to watch. It's so colorful. There's so many people. The music." He wasn't sure if Deseem was enjoying the swirls of color and people or if he found it as overwhelming as he did. It didn't matter, he was going to stay for as long as his husband was enjoying himself without compliant. "Oh.Lady bless I've forgotten how to dance." Lach sighed breathlessly as he stumbled back to where Deseem and Liam hovered near the wall. "You did fine, old man." Bekka teased and smacked at her husband. "Liam? Be a dear and get us some punch? I'm afraid this old windbag will keel over if he has to go find the nearest punchbowl. I'm sure you two would like some punch as well?" He bowed his head a little. "I would be honored." His words were proper for a prince raised in court and Watcher but his eyes drifted to where Deseem stood by his side. "I will stay with my brother." The younger man confirmed and it wasn't just merely a submissive statement, not any longer, he was letting Liam know he was okay with being left alone.
Deseem stepped back from his brother and sister to stand closer to the wall. It hadn't missed his notice that Liam moved them along the outer edge of the room, always trying to keep something stable behind their backs. It was something he was grateful for, as much as he was enjoying the party, seeing so many people, so many things he hadn't ever seen before, it was overwhelming. Worst of all, without Liam hovering near by it stopped being amusing and just felt exhausting. Suddenly, standing in the crowded hall, Deseem felt lonely and wanted nothing more than to go back to their rooms where it was quiet and they could be alone.