Unintentional Gifts by Langley Hyde
This vignette features characters from Highfell Grimoires.
It only occurred to me, more than a year after I’d met Leofa and months after we’d become truly partnered in all respects, that we’d never celebrated his birthday. I wracked my mind for a glimmer of the faintest hint of when it could have been. How could I have missed it? I could remember celebrating my birthday in the springtime very well.
Feeling like the worst cad, I stopped in the middle of my lecture. I had wandered in front of the remodeled classroom’s small fireplace during my lecture, and now the embers toasted the backs of my calves. The two postgraduate researchers from Elmstead stared at me from where they sat at their desks. The female mathematician, a friend of my sister Nora’s, glanced up from her scribbled equations.
All three fidgeted, eager for the meeting to end so they could ready themselves for tonight’s festivities.
“We’ll continue again… someday,” I said, waved my hand vaguely through the air, and bolted out of the room.
I headed down the stairs, taking them two at a time, and almost ran smack into a dining hall table. Someone had put it right in front of the stairs. All of the furniture had been moved for tonight’s Darkest Night gala. I dodged between decorators stringing up aetheric lights and prickly boughs of holly. Shouts boomed out from the kitchen as our in-house cook had it out with the caterers Nora had sent. I skidded to a stop, inches from a full-body collision with a gutted pig, hanging from a pole.
“We didn’t order that!” I gaped at the pork. It gaped back.
“Courtesy of Peter Vernon, sir,” said a deliveryman.
“But the waiting list for one of his family’s hogs is over a year long,” I said in wonderment.
“Well, he put you on it,” the deliveryman said, and handed me a letter.
I thanked the deliveryman, tucked the letter in my pocket, and swore to write a very gracious thank you note at the soonest opportunity. Soon both pig and I were on our ways. We had two traveling researchers staying on at Highfell Hall currently, and both had camped out in the warmest (and most inconvenient) location: the main house’s dining room. Books splayed over every surface. Papers billowed in my passage. The scholars did not notice. In fact, the Siovanese woman and the hook-nosed Rithen were currently hitting off by bagging on Haedesch philosophers. I vowed to sic the housekeeper on them, and then continued my frantic search for Leofa.
Would he be upstairs? No. The workroom!
I charged through the rest of the house into the room that had once been occupied by the Nobbsnipes’ thugs. Now the youthful crew that manned our boilers used the bunk beds, and most were dressing for tonight’s celebrations. I sent masked men dressed as storks squawking as I dove through and up the workroom stairs.
Even on Darkest Night, Leofa couldn’t help but want to tinker with a tome. He leaned over one of the battered tables, his hands on either side of a velvety blue grimoire with a golden lock. Then he pushed his shaggy dark hair out from his face thoughtfully, smearing a dark dab of machine oil across his cheek.
“You never told me your birthday!” I accused.
Leofa hefted up the grimoire and replaced it in one of the enspelled cabinets. Aether shot through the security mechanisms, making even the glass shine blue for a moment. Then he threw aside his heavy leather gloves and said, “Vaughn Hooker wrote us another letter.”
“When is it?” I asked.
“Well, he wrote it on a Thursday.” Leofa rubbed at his stubble and then looked at his now oily hand as if miffed. “When do you think he’s going to stop spelling Thursday with a z?”
“It must have happened sometime!” I said.
“He asked me for love advice,” Leofa muttered. “I feel like I should warn someone.”
“Do you not know your birthday?” I gaped at him as the thought occurred to me.
Leofa sighed and shook his head at me. “Neil, I may have been raised in the countryside, but we do have access to calendars in Hetta.”
“Oh.” I mulled this over. So, if he knew, why wouldn’t he tell me? Why the secrecy? Had a bear mauled his mother on his birthday? Was there trauma? Is that why he wouldn’t speak of it? He was always so cursed quiet!
Leofa laughed at me. “I can see your thoughts beating away at your skull faster than a tracker’s wings.”
“One with the dragonfly chassis or one of the new moth models?” I asked, unable to help it. “Because the moth models don’t—don’t distract me! I want to know.”
Leofa smirked. I glowered. I hated not knowing things, and he knew it.
“Just drop it,” he said and nodded at my desk. “Speaking of trackers…”
I gave the trackers clustered on my desk a dirty look. More mail. Some were probably even bills. Even worse, one would be an agenda from Elmstead’s budget committee. Probably that gigantic moth tracker. Its fat grub-like body would be stuffed with papers. If I’d known how much time would be spent at committees, I’d never have agreed to Elmstead’s work conditions… Well, that wasn’t at all true. I wondered who’d put a terrarium on my notebooks.
“Molly sent it,” Leofa said. “You know how she sent that naturalist team out to Newland? It’s a high-altitude orchid. She thinks it uses aether to pollinate.”
“Oh? Usually plants don’t—you’re not distracting me!” I said. “Your birthday?”
“I should get washed up,” Leofa said. “Nora and Stanley are supposed to be here…”
I glanced up at the wall clock I’d installed. “In a half hour.”
Leofa and I headed over to the main house, evading the fervor of last-minute preparations, and went into the bedroom. Leofa hunched over the washstand, scrubbing his face with his castile soap to remove the tome-cracking soot. I finished changing into my jet black trousers and iridescent green jacket. With my sapphire cravat and mask, I’d be going as a hummingbird, which would symbolize hard work and wealth.
“Well, is there a reason you don’t want to tell me your birthday?” I asked, adjusting the cravat in front of the mirror.
“No, nothing really,” Leofa said.
That couldn’t be right. There had to be a reason.
“Well, when is it then?” I asked, almost irritated now.
Leofa snorted. “You know when it is.”
“No, I don’t.” I frowned at him. “You’ve never told me.”
“Well, it’s on my birth certificate,” he said, “which you’ve seen.”
I gaped at him. Then I hung my head. “How can I be expected to remember that? I glanced at your birth certificate for only a few seconds and really your parentage—Demos, I was in the middle of a burglary!”
Irked, I knelt down to tie my shoes, commenting offhandedly that he should think about wearing his beige socks. The black wool ones I’d gotten him last year were lumpy and old. He glanced up and saw him watching me. I leaned my head against his thigh. I knew that he found this particularly appealing, and indeed, he tangled his hands in my curls. I whispered, “Tell me when it is.”
He closed his eyes and looked away. “No.”
“Tell me,” I repeated, but now I snaked a hand along his thigh. I pressed my face close to groin, close enough he had to be able to feel the heat of my breath through his clothes, and I widened my eyes in mock innocence. His fingers tightened in my hair.
“Please,” I said.
“Never,” he said.
His voice had roughened with anticipation. Now it had become a game. That meant I had a chance at winning. I grinned. He pushed my head away, playfully, and then the game became a little more serious than that. I nuzzled at him, undoing his trousers, and took him in my mouth. His skin felt silken and hot across my tongue. He moaned. I leaned back, releasing his erection, the suction making a soft pop.
“Tell me,” I said.
I did my best, coaxing and pausing, working him into a frenzy and then playfully refusing until he told me more. My own body flushed with unfilled desire, I glanced up at him wickedly and said, “Just tell me a little, the smallest hint, and I’ll…”
“Fine! I’ll tell you, just please,” he said, his voice rough with desire,
With my heart hammering in my chest, I bent to the task seriously this time. I loved his urgency, his fervor, how for a moment he would seem to lose his cool stoicism. And this, for me, because of me. I moaned as he climaxed, shuddering, and then he drew me up to kiss me.
“You know, I hated my birthday. Used to hate it,” he said.
I’d wondered if it had been something like that.
“First birthday away from home, nothing happened,” he said. “Not even a letter from my mother… and then it became this reminder that no one in this world gave a shit about me. Not unconditionally. Everything I had, I had to earn. Normally, not a problem. But on my birthday, it pissed me the fuck off.”
At this, I remembered my family’s lavish celebrations with shame. I loved presents. But then I also recalled how difficult it had been for me to get this far—how terrified I’d been of parental rejection should I ever let my true colors bleed through, how much even the idea of societal scorn had frozen me through, so intense I’d never even really dared touch anyone before Leofa. And then, I thought I understood, at least a little, where he was coming from.
“Last year was…” Leofa sighed and shook his head. “Day before my birthday, I sat here, in this freezing room, all by myself. Too stubborn to light a fire. Or put socks on.”
I blinked at him, surprised. Now I thought I knew where this was going.
Leofa sighed. He met my eyes. “You were gone.”
I contemplated how low he must of felt and how I must’ve barged in on him, ebullient as a lunatic. I supposed that was my nature, and luckily for me, Leofa liked my obliviousness.
“Then you came back,” he said. “And I thought for sure you were going to ask me to become some… kind of catamite.”
“You don’t have to—” I began.
He smiled at me, toyed with one of my curls. “And the next day, on my birthday, you took me to see that play.”
“And I bought you socks. Black wool socks.” I gazed down at his feet. No wonder he still wore them, even though they’d been darned at least three times and had to be a little lumpy. It occurred to me that his birthday was on, for lack of a better term, our anniversary.
“I’d thought it was your gift,” Leofa admitted. “I thought you’d remembered.”
“No,” I said, thoughtfully. “No, just lucky, I guess.” Leofa chuckled.
“Well, next year we should do something extravagant,” I said, to make up for it.
“No. We won’t,” he said. “But I’m sure I’ll be able to use some more socks by then.”
Just then, Peggy knocked on the doors. Guests were arriving for our festivities. Nora and Stanley had started greeting them, but Peggy truly thought that we, as the hosts, had better make an appearance at our own party. I shouted we’d be down in a minute. Leofa and I smiled at each other, then straightened ourselves up. He grumped, in his usual way, about what happened when he let me choose his wardrobe. I told him he made a dashing golden eagle as I tied on his mask.
“Although those black socks won’t match,” I said.
“Yeah?” he said, obviously not caring an iota. I let it go. I held up my jewel-toned hummingbird mask and he took it from me. He helped me fix it on, and then let his hands trail down the side of my neck. He kissed me on my nape. “Enjoy your Darkest Night.”
“Thank you,” I said, but what I meant was: Thank you for letting me host a party that’s not your style, thank you for wearing that costume to said party, thank you for loving me, thank you for being who you are. For everything. All of it.
“You’re welcome,” he said, as if it were nothing. But I knew what he meant.
Then we went down celebrate our Darkest Night, our house filled with light.