“You are so gorgeous,” Niall praised softly, kissing Ben’s ear. “And I want you so much. But I’ll stop if you need me to.”
“It feels like we’re moving too fast,” Ben said apologetically. “I want you too, but I don’t want to just have sex. I’m not a casual kind of guy, Niall.”
Niall took half a step back, enough to put at least a little space between them. He forced himself to let go of Ben’s ass and nudged his chin up so they could meet eyes. “Contrary to popular belief,” he said with a small smile, “blue balls are not, in fact, fatal.”
Ben laughed. “I’ve never thought they were.” He ran his fingers through Niall’s hair, nails lightly scritching at his nape. “But we should actually do
things together, get to know each other, before we move on to having sex.”
“It’s been somewhere around a hundred years since I’ve been in a relationship lasting more than a few hours,” Niall admitted, leaning into Ben’s touch. “It’s possible I’ll be terrible at this.”
“A hundred years, huh?” Ben said drily. “Well, it’s been almost as long for me too. And I’m more likely to be terrible than you are. I never had the knack for figuring people out.”
Resting his forehead against Ben’s, Niall brushed the backs of his fingers along Ben’s jaw. “I can’t promise to be easy to understand,” he said, forcing himself to keep a distance between their bodies. “But I can promise I will never lie to you. Honesty is something my family’s always held sacred.”
“I’ll hold you to that,” Ben said. “It helps to feel like I can trust you. We’ll have to try to figure each other out—that’s sort of the point of relationships.”
Niall kissed him softly and then backed away, reluctant to lose Ben’s arms around him. “It gets cold up here at night,” he said. “I could light a fire, if you like?”
Ben nodded slowly, finally letting his hands fall to his sides. “Sure, sounds nice. But I shouldn’t stay too late.” A wry look crossed his expressive face. “I’ve got classes tomorrow.”
“Well, then.” Niall offered his hand. “I guess I’ll just have to make sure I give you plenty of reasons to stay as late as you can, won’t I?”
A part of him knew this whole thing was unfair to the pair of them. Deliberately getting attached when he had so little time left was unlikely to end well, but he just couldn’t help himself when he looked at Ben.
“Not too late,” Ben reminded him before taking Niall’s hand and letting himself be led to the living room and the couch there. He sat, leaning against the back but not quite relaxing. “So tell me about you,” he said.
Niall resisted a flinch. Of course Ben would start with the hardest question. For a normal human, it would be simple enough. For Niall, the bare truth was not an option.
“I’m the baby in my family, I suppose you could say,” he began, sticking with the simplest and least dangerous version of the truth. “If you could call a grown man a baby. I’ve got two older sisters—one married and on her own and the other off exploring other realms of existence or something. Since I’m the youngest, I can still get away with being the irresponsible uncle. Sometimes.”
“Sounds like fun,” Ben said wistfully. “I’m an only child, so no nieces or nephews for me.”
“It’s definitely wild,” Niall said with a grin. “Family gatherings last for days; they just party in shifts.” That part was completely true. When his sister got married, the party had lasted for a full month. Niall still couldn’t remember the whole thing, although that could have something to do with Uncle Puck’s moonshine. Made with actual moonshine, obviously. “My nephews, the little heathens, always want to hang around me, since I never make them do things like go to bed or eat their vegetables.”
Ben laughed. “You do sound irresponsible. I bet your sisters just love that.”
“Oh, they hold their own; don’t worry,” Niall said ruefully. “More than once I’ve woken up without any hair or eyebrows.”
Ben’s own eyebrow rose. “That sounds like a little much. But obviously it hasn’t happened for a while—you’ve got very nice hair.” Ben reached up and ran a finger over Niall’s brow. “And eyebrows too.”
“Why thank you,” Niall said. He bent his leg and turned a little more to face Ben better. “But you can rest assured that I most certainly deserved it.”
Echoing Niall’s movement, Ben turned in toward him and propped his elbow on the back of the couch and his head on his hand. “I don’t think I want to know what results in a deserved head shave. Tell me where you went to school. What was your favorite subject?”
“Homeschooled, like the rest of my family.” Thank goodness that wasn’t too uncommon in the human world. “But my favorite subject was anything that got me outside, honestly. I loved learning the names of the trees and the stories in their roots. Still do. I’ve been here a week, and I already know most of the trees for at least a mile.” There was a dryad a hundred yards or so into the forest; she’d been so excited to find someone who spoke her language that she’d introduced him to the entire neighborhood, so to speak.
“Did you consider taking botany classes in college? Sounds like that’s a degree that would be right up your alley.”
The mere thought of the expression on his parents’ faces if he’d announced he wanted to go live in the forest like some kind of sprite was enough to make Niall laugh. “That’s what they call a nonstarter with my parents,” he said. “Though I suppose that’s why I haven’t really been able to settle on anything else. What about you? How’d your parents take it when you decided to study fairy tales?”
Ben snorted out a laugh. “They thought I was a little bit crazy until I showed them that yes, there really are degrees and studies in folklore. Once they knew I wasn’t making it up, they got behind me one hundred percent. They were just as excited as I was when I got accepted into the program.”
Niall grinned and draped his arm over the back of the sofa. “So what drew you to folklore, then?”
“Stories are easier than people,” Ben said, shrugging one shoulder. “I was always much more interested in reading and learning than sports or going to parties. I was fascinated by mythology at a very early age, and that interest just expanded the more I read. When I got to higher-level lit classes, I saw the same fascination I had with the same myths and folklore, and I started to wonder why there are those core interests we share, regardless of culture or language or history. All cultures have god mythologies of some kind; all have demons; all have heroes. They vary vastly in form and power, but at the core, we all believe in the same basic stories.” He paused and blushed, color spreading over his face and down under the collar of his T-shirt. “Sorry. I get a little wound up about it sometimes.”
“Never apologize for what you’re passionate about,” Niall said, hopelessly charmed. “If it gets you up in the morning, if it gives you a purpose, then it’s nothing to be ashamed of.” He put his hand on Ben’s knee, careful to go no higher. “Besides, I’ve already told you about my love for stories. It’s not often I find someone I have that much in common with.”
Ben smiled, still sheepish. “I’m not used to talking much about it with anyone outside class.”
Niall wanted to kiss the blush off Ben’s cheeks. Instead he asked about Ben’s classes and his students. Ben’s eyes lit up when he spoke about the program, the work he was doing, and Niall wanted to see more of that. At some point in their conversation, he came to the realization that he genuinely liked
Ben, and if they didn’t sleep together, he’d still be glad to be friends with him. Niall wasn’t aware he was grinning like an idiot until Ben started looking at him strangely, but even that wasn’t enough to make him stop.
“…so that’s why I’m focusing on popular media, especially television shows like Supernatural
, to show how folklore is evident even today—and what are you smiling at?”
That only made Niall grin harder. “I’m really enjoying myself,” he said. “You’re interesting and incredibly intelligent, and tonight’s going better than I’d hoped.” He paused. “That sounds weird, doesn’t it?”
Ben shook his head. “No? Should it? Unless you mean the part about interesting—then yes, it’s weird.”
“Don’t sell yourself short,” Niall insisted. “You’re great company. I don’t remember the last time I had a conversation like this, and that’s a good thing.”
“Well, thank you,” Ben said. “It’s been a really long time since I’ve talked like this. And speaking of long times, it’s probably long past time I should have gone home.”
Niall pouted. “I’d rather you stayed,” he said, more playful than anything else.
“I’d rather I stayed too,” Ben said, poking Niall’s pouting lip with one finger. “But I have classes in the morning, and I still have to bike home and grade a few papers before I can go to bed.”
“If I had a car, I’d offer you a ride home.” For the first time, Niall actually wished for one of those hideous iron contraptions. “I’d like to see you again.”
Ben laughed softly. “I should have known you wouldn’t have a car either.” He leaned forward and briefly pressed his lips against Niall’s. “I’m fine on the bike. And I want to see you again too.”
“Just tell me when and where,” Niall said, brushing the hair out of Ben’s eyes instead of grabbing him and kissing him blind.
“Text me so I’ll have your number. Then I can text you when I’m free tomorrow,” Ben said.
“Just as soon as I figure the damn thing out,” Niall promised.
Ben smiled. “Let me see the phone again.”
Niall leaned back, digging the phone out of his pocket once more. “I really do hate computers,” he admitted. “Especially small ones.”
“I couldn’t do my research without one,” Ben replied absently. He was rapidly typing in a number, which resulted in his own phone buzzing. He punched something into his phone, and Niall’s buzzed. “There!” Ben said, clearly pleased with himself. “Now you just have to reply to my text; it’ll make things easier. Come look.”
Niall slid over next to Ben so they were pressed close from knee to shoulder. He watched closely as Ben showed him how to unlock, text, and reply. There was a small keyboard that appeared on the screen, though the letters weren’t in any reasonable order Niall could discern. Still, Ben didn’t seem bothered by it, so Niall said nothing. He’d figure it out eventually. Fortunately, texting seemed otherwise simple. Almost like writing a letter.
“I get the feeling you’re going easy on me,” Niall said when Ben finished. “But I appreciate that right now.”
“You’ll get the hang of it. You just have to play around on it a little.” Ben turned his head to press a kiss to Niall’s cheek. “Now I can text you tomorrow when I’m free, or you can text me. Just know that if I don’t answer, I’m probably in class.”
“Sounds good,” Niall said, leaning in to catch Ben in a slow kiss. He lingered, sucking gently on Ben’s lower lip and completely unwilling to give this up just yet.
Apparently Ben was also unwilling to end things. He cupped Niall’s face with one hand and kissed him back, teasing at Niall’s lips with his tongue, rubbing his thumb lightly over the sensitive skin in front of Niall’s ear. He broke the kiss and brushed the tip of his nose against Niall’s. “I have to go,” he whispered, not making any move to do so.
“I know,” Niall breathed back and kissed him again. He wanted to push Ben against the arm of the sofa, press their bodies together. Instead he just slipped his tongue into Ben’s mouth and cradled his head gently.
Ben kissed him back for several long minutes before easing away again. “I really have to go,” he said, pressing a quick final kiss to Niall’s lips before pulling back completely.
Niall only sulked a little as he let Ben go, but he followed it up with a smile. “I’ll see you soon?” he asked as he stood, putting some much-needed distance between them.
“Absolutely,” Ben promised. He put his jacket on and headed for the door, stopping to turn back once he reached it. “Dinner was delicious. Thank you for having me over. I’m not a great cook, but I can order a mean pizza, if you want to eat at my place sometime.”
“Sounds perfect,” Niall said, following him to the door. “I’d kiss you goodnight, but then we’d probably undo all the progress you’ve made in leaving.”
Ben laughed. “You’re probably right.” He opened the door and slipped outside. “Text me tomorrow,” he said and shut the door after himself.
Elizabeth Silver & Jenny Urban