Zephyr Ranch 7: Make-Believe

Nessa Vincent

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Fitz ought to know better than to want what he can’t have, but when it comes to Eli, he can’t seem to help it. When Fitz discovers Eli swimming naked one afternoon, he overcomes his doubts to have the man he wants. But he know...
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Fitz ought to know better than to want what he can’t have, but when it comes to Eli, he can’t seem to help it. When Fitz discovers Eli swimming naked one afternoon, he overcomes his doubts to have the man he wants. But he knows he can’t afford to get attached. He’s a pariah in the supernatural world and a killer as well. Plus, there’s someone trying to kill him.

Eli sees things differently. Both of them have been ostracized and abandoned, Fitz by the supernatural world, Eli by the real one. Eli believes he can find the home he’s always searched for at Zephyr Ranch, with Fitz by his side.

But even Eli has to admit that one serious problem stands between them: every day, Cyril Soldati’s control over the supernatural world tightens. Cyril sees Fitz as a barrier between him and absolute power, a barrier he intends to remove. Though Fitz is resigned to a final fight, he begins to doubt whether he can kill again, even if Cyril’s death would keep the supernatural world safe. He wants to be the kind of man worthy of Eli, but he might not get a choice.

Excerpt
Dear Fitz,

I wish I could help, but the pictures you sent don’t look familiar. R.C. talked to me about his work, of course, but if he mentioned this device to me, I don’t remember.

To answer your second question: Yes, R.C. went to Alaska the day before he died. Arthur Llewellyn, the fairy expert, lives outside Talkeetna, and R.C. wanted to ask him about Eli. It wouldn’t surprise me if he brought back a Lapis for the device as well. Dr. Llewellyn’s fairy colony is one of the best places to get Lapi.

You could try contacting the doctor, but I should warn you that Llewellyn and his counterpart are a little eccentric. You won’t be able to reach them except in person. I can give you directions if you decide to go.

I miss you and the ranch. Say hello to Eli for me.

Love,

Ina



Fitz sat back from the computer and rubbed his face. He became aware of how quiet the ranch was. The antiquated desktop hummed softly, and outside he could hear the wind moving in the trees. There were no sounds of other people. Zephyr had never exactly been crowded, but Fitz wished more than anything that there were more people around, and in particular that Ina wasn’t thousands of miles away.

What company he had was a problem all its own. Say hello to Eli, Fitz repeated to himself. Sure, let’s see how that goes.

He opened his eyes. The computer was crammed into the corner of his cabin, and beside it lay the device that R.C. had spent his last days on earth designing. Fitz was in the dark about what it did, but he thought of it as a gauntlet. It fit over his arm from wrist to elbow. He eyed the notch where a Lapis would fit.

He’d seen the kind of Lapis intended for this device. They just looked like rocks--as far as Fitz knew, they were rocks--but somehow they could unite a purely electronic device with supernatural energy. But Fitz didn’t have one, and without a power source, he would never find out what the gauntlet was for.

He couldn’t be sure, of course, but he felt that it was important. His hunch was so unqualified that he hadn’t even mentioned it to Ina, but he believed this device had something to do with stopping Cyril Soldati. If R.C. had had it last summer, maybe he wouldn’t have died.

Fitz returned his attention to the screen and reread Ina’s postscript.



P.S. I’m not in touch with the supernatural community these days, but even I’ve heard Cyril’s name come up. They say his chimera machine is working now, and people are worried about what he intends to do next. Did Jamie Blackburn ever get that supernatural court of law up and running? It might come in handy.

Anyway, be careful.



The postscript was why he didn’t feel up to replying to her e-mail yet. How was he supposed to answer her warnings? “Be careful” wasn’t going to help him when Cyril showed up on Fitz’s doorstep.

And he would. Fitz was certain of it. He’d heard the same rumors that Ina had--that Cyril’s chimera machine worked, and Cyril had a second form. Nobody seemed to know what it was, but it hardly mattered. Even if Cyril could turn into a pixie, the supernatural world would still have changed. Fitz had once been the only person on the planet who was both a seer and an adept, but Cyril had put an end to that. Fitz was sure Cyril would come to finish him off, and no court of law would help. He was the last loose end. Cyril had to want him out of the way.

But Cyril seemed to be in no hurry, and in the meantime, rumors drew followers to his side. People wondered what other rules he could break. They were afraid of what he would do to their families and communities if he turned his attention to them. He seemed unstoppable to many people, and they had no inclination to try stopping him. Just look at what had happened to R.C.

Fitz felt differently, but then, he tended not to agree with other people. Part of him welcomed the confrontation with Cyril, not just because it was inevitable but because he’d finally face Cyril on even ground--another chimera, with abilities at least equal to Fitz’s. Rumor had it that Cyril turned into something that would be a fair match for Fitz’s second form. He was ready for a fight to end it.

But waiting for Cyril to show up was getting on Fitz’s nerves, and he didn’t mean to go in unprepared. Maybe this Arthur Llewellyn would be able to help Fitz get the upper hand.

He’d already decided to go, but the fact that Llewellyn was a fairy researcher in Alaska made him pause. It would be cruel not to invite Eli along, under the circumstances. Fitz might feel cowardly where Eli was concerned, but he wasn’t prepared to be cruel.

He grabbed his hat and left the cabin. No sense putting it off.

Outside, it smelled like rain. Fitz’s cabin stood on a rise, and when he walked out of the cedars he could see half the ranch’s buildings. Dark clouds were massing in the west, over the empty main house. A cool breeze tugged at his hat. This spring had brought a steady procession of storms, one or two every week. They needed the rain, but that wasn’t the whole reason Fitz was relieved to see the clouds; now he had an excuse to seek out Eli. There would be chores to do before the storm hit, and though Eli was good for a lot of things, he lacked common sense.

Fitz headed for the barn, intending to make sure tools and tack were put away. But he only got as far as the open doors.

Eli stood at the other end of the barn, forking straw into the stalls. The breeze hadn’t touched the stuffiness of the barn, and Eli had peeled off his shirt. His back was to Fitz.

The Pegasus snorted in his stall, announcing Fitz’s arrival, but Eli kept working, unaware that he was being watched.

Keep walking, Fitz told himself, but his feet wouldn’t move.

Fitz never got to look at Eli, though, not like this. Normally Eli’s big brown eyes tracked Fitz’s every move, and though his stare held no judgment, Fitz always felt judged. For once, Fitz was at leisure to watch. His disobedient feet took him a few steps into the barn.

The muscles in Eli’s back flexed beneath skin that shone with sweat. All that muscle was new. Eli had changed a lot since he’d come to Zephyr Ranch in the fall. When Fitz had first met him, Eli had been scrawny and scared, homeless and bereft. Within the span of a day, Eli had lost his home in Santa Fe and learned that he wasn’t human.

Eli’s world had been turned on its head, and so had Fitz’s. The day after Eli showed up here, R.C. had been shot and killed. Ina had decided to leave soon after, handing Zephyr over to Fitz.

As little as there was going on at Zephyr, Fitz had come to lean on Eli for help, particularly with the livestock. That work had put muscle in Eli’s shoulders, but something else about him had changed too. He didn’t seem so lost anymore, and Fitz didn’t worry about him as much.

And yet, Eli had a way of getting on Fitz’s mind.

Little fragments of straw floated in this air; one had stuck to Eli’s lower back, just above the hem of his jeans. Fitz found himself looking at it, thinking about plucking it off--how Eli’s skin would feel, warm and slick. How would it feel to slide his hand beneath the waistband of Eli’s jeans...

He made himself stop. Months ago he’d resolved not to touch Eli. It was better not to look either, he decided. He stepped back toward the door of the barn, but then the Pegasus started whinnying, and Eli turned.

Fitz looked away from him. The Pegasus kicked the door of its stall. If the dumb animal decided to open its wings in close quarters, it would hurt itself. Fitz strode to the door to calm the creature down. But as soon as Fitz stepped into the Pegasus’s line of sight, it got more upset. Rustling its huge white wings, it tried to kick him through the stall door.

Suddenly Eli was beside Fitz. “I’ll get him,” Eli said, but Fitz had already backed away. A kicking Pegasus didn’t faze him, but a half-naked Eli was alarming.

Eli reached into the stall, heedless of the Pegasus’s fondness for snapping at fingers, and stroked the animal’s face. Fitz averted his gaze from Eli’s golden-brown chest. He watched Eli’s hands instead, but that didn’t help. He’d had an appetite for Eli for longer than he cared to admit, and even watching Eli touching the Pegasus gave Fitz ideas.

The beast calmed at once. That was why Eli worked with animals these days; he had a rapport with them that surpassed anything Fitz had ever seen. Fitz figured it had something to do with the fact that Eli was a fairy--sort of. He was a changeling, technically, a fairy raised by humans, believing he was human. That meant he was a supernatural creature himself, and it seemed like other creatures could tell.

Then again, Fitz was a supernatural creature too, but the last time he’d stuck his hand near the Pegasus’s mouth, he’d gotten bitten. Now he watched the bad-tempered Pegasus push its nose into Eli’s palm. “Pain in the ass,” Fitz grumbled.

“He’s lonely,” Eli said without looking at Fitz.

If that was so, the Pegasus shouldn’t have tried to take a bite out of every mare they’d brought him.

Maybe he’s not interested in mares, said a little voice in his head.

He made himself move away from Eli. Picking up a shovel left lying out, he said, “Storm’s coming in. Better get everything inside.”

“Everything is inside,” Eli answered calmly.

“Double-check when you’ve finished up with the hay.” Fitz didn’t know why he was hassling Eli. The barn looked fine.

His scolding had no effect on Eli anyway. “I will,” he said.

Fitz made the mistake of looking at him again. There was straw in Eli’s hair, which was dark, thick, and soft. Fitz wanted to walk over to Eli and run his fingers through it. There wasn’t a part of Eli he wouldn’t like to touch. He hated that he wanted it, and he hated that he couldn’t have it.

When Fitz managed to bring his thoughts back into line, he noticed that Eli was watching him too. Though Eli never stopped stroking the Pegasus’s nose, he studied Fitz with a slightly puzzled expression. Fitz thought again of how much Eli had changed. Only a few months ago, Eli had been terrified of supernatural creatures--the Pegasus and Fitz included. But even Fitz didn’t seem to scare him anymore.

He looked away. “Well, good,” he said vaguely. “See that you do.” The wind blew in the open door, bringing the scent of rain. Fitz decided he’d stood around like a lovesick fool for long enough. He turned away and marched out of the barn, calling over his shoulder, “And put your damn shirt on.”

* * * *

Eli surfaced, inhaling deeply. He pushed his wet hair off his forehead, and the rain struck his face, each drop fat and heavy and sweet. Eli treaded water, watching the surface churn and ripple in the deluge. If he looked long enough, he thought he could see patterns--letters and faces.

No, he told himself. That was his old way of understanding the world, the way he saw it when he was scared of everything. Before he understood the supernatural world, he’d come up with all kinds of ways to explain the things that only he could see. He’d thought they were aliens. Everyone around him had told him the things he saw weren’t real and couldn’t hurt him, that if he just took this drug, tried this therapy...

For lack of a better explanation, Eli had believed he was schizophrenic, but also that the things he saw could hurt him if they wanted. He’d built his life--a fragile, tenuous life--around avoiding them.

He’d wasted so much time. But now he had a new way of understanding.

Eli closed his eyes, which made this new kind of seeing easier. His arms and legs burned pleasantly as he beat them against the water. He felt the chill on his skin and the thud of raindrops hitting his skull. The scents of the storm rolled over him, so rich he could taste them. There was earth, as well, and the weeds at the bottom of the pond. He smelled grass and hay, ozone from distant lightning, even the faint odor of horse.

He had changed, just as R.C. had warned him. Eli had learned that what he had been able to see all his life wasn’t just inside his head. Others could see the creatures too. Fitz, for instance. The so-called aliens were supernatural, like him. Not human, like him.

But now that he knew he had been born a fairy, he would become more like the family he had never met, who had for some reason decided to give him up. Without meaning to or knowing how he was doing it, Eli had begun to see the world the way a fairy did.

Thunder rolled across the valley, and Eli felt the earth shiver. If he focused long enough, he’d be able to hear things no human could hear--earthworms tunneling through mud, birds squabbling in the tree forty yards away.

He’d been afraid of his new senses at first, the way he’d been afraid of everything. But as time went on, he got up the courage to find out more. He’d salvaged a few books on fairies from R.C.’s library, including a paper about the fairy colony in Alaska, where Eli had been born.

But he’d found out that fairies lived in big family groups, and that they had wings but couldn’t fly--like penguins, though the author of the paper took fairies too seriously to make that comparison. He’d learned that fairies had lost most of their habitat to human expansion. He’d found out why he’d grown up in a house with three brothers but never caught their colds or chicken pox. Fairies were different enough from humans that no diseases could jump between the two species.

He had started learning how to think of himself as another species, and after a lot of practice, it almost felt okay.

Except he wasn’t really a fairy. Something had happened when he’d been given to his human family that made him look and feel human. He hadn’t been able to find out much about it. Changelings, it seemed, were pretty rare. But he knew there was at least one other. The real Eli Acevedo, the one born human, had been raised a fairy in Alaska.

He kicked lazily to keep his head above water, wondering if he would ever meet the other Eli. The rain thrummed around him like a living thing, almost swallowing up the snarl of a car engine.

Eli opened his eyes. Not a car, he realized--a truck. And it was close.

He swam toward the edge. The engine noise stopped, and he heard a door slam. The watering hole was so full that Eli could look out of it at ground level, which let him see Fitz marching angrily toward him from the truck.

“What the hell are you doing?” Fitz yelled over the rain. “You want to get struck by lightning?”

“No,” Eli answered. He looked up at Fitz but didn’t make any move to get out of the water. Fitz looked sort of pissed off. The shoulders of his shirt were already dark with rain, which ran off the brim of his hat. Fitz barely seemed to notice. His gray eyes, blazing with indignation, never left Eli’s face.

Eyes like stone, Eli used to think. But how could stone heat him up the way Fitz’s stare did? Even in the chill of the water, he felt his body react. Eli became aware of the blood coursing through him, warming him. There were times when he liked his new, more powerful senses, and times when he wished he could turn them off. When Fitz was around, he wasn’t sure which he wanted.

“Get out of there, goddammit,” Fitz ordered.

Reluctantly, Eli swam toward the edge. He steered around Fitz, but he was still hyperaware of the other man’s presence. Reaching the lip of the watering hole, Eli dug his fingertips into the mud and grass. He pulled himself out and lifted his gaze. Fitz was staring.

I guess he didn’t realize I was naked.

Fitz looked stunned, like all his defenses had collapsed. The tight mouth and clenched jaw were gone. Fitz’s parted lips were like an invitation to kiss.

It was impossible. Fitz couldn’t be interested. Except, Eli thought, he was a chimera, and one of the only things Eli had been able to find out about Fitz’s kind was that chimeras were bisexual. Hadn’t that detail gotten stuck in his mind.

And sure, he’d caught Fitz watching him in a funny way, but Eli had told himself it was because Fitz disapproved. Until now, Eli had been sure that Fitz’s distaste for having someone else on the ranch outweighed any possible interest.

But now Fitz stared with open longing, and Eli felt magnetically drawn to him. Though he planted his feet and tried to concentrate on the feeling of the mud and grass under his toes, his senses only wanted to pay attention to Fitz.

Fitz dropped his gaze suddenly. Scowling again, he said, “You’ll catch your death. Get in the truck.”

“I’m fine,” Eli said. “I like the rain.” Growing up in New Mexico, he’d never seen this much rain. He didn’t understand how people could stand to stay indoors.

“Get in the truck.”

This time Eli just said, “No.”

The thunder rolled again, but Fitz didn’t move. He stared at Eli’s feet and put his hands on his hips. His hat shaded most of his face from view, but Eli watched his mouth work, as if he were chewing over a difficult word.

“Honestly, Eli,” he said at last, “what are you doing out here?”

“It makes me feel alive.”

Startled, Fitz looked up again. This was strange, Eli thought. Eli was naked, but Fitz was the one who looked vulnerable and bare.

The storm was inside Eli, making his heart thump. As he walked toward Fitz, everything was sharp and clear--the earth under his feet, the rain still pounding, Fitz’s watchful gray eyes. Eli inhaled Fitz’s scent, shuddering as desire rushed through him. Fitz smelled like leather and horses and sun, even in the rain. He smelled like Fitz.

“Don’t you feel it?” Eli moved another step closer, drawn in by Fitz’s warmth and scent. They were almost toe-to-toe, and Eli had to look up to meet Fitz’s eyes, but Fitz still seemed intimidated.

“Feel what?” Fitz spoke low, but Eli could hear him.

The storm, Eli thought. The rain. The thunder. The wild joy of it. He could have answered any of those things, but he wanted to use his lips for something else.

Eli kissed him.

Fitz jumped back like he’d been bitten by a snake. He stared at Eli, who became aware that they were both breathing fast. Eli felt like time had sped up and everything was accelerated. He liked it.

Now he’ll pull away, though. Fitz always pulled away. But he stayed still and kept staring at Eli. The rain was the only thing that moved.

Fitz grabbed Eli and slammed his lips down hard. Eli hadn’t been expecting it, hadn’t even realized Fitz was moving before the sensations hit him like a lightning bolt. He’d thought the smells and tastes of the storm were intense, but this was overwhelming. Fitz’s mouth was warm, its flavors too complex for Eli to make sense of, not when Fitz’s hands were on him too. Though Eli was soaked, Fitz’s touch left behind fire. Eli’s shoulder blades and his back and the cheeks of his ass burned in the wake of Fitz’s fingers. He felt consumed.

They broke apart. During the kiss, Fitz seemed to have made a decision. He wasn’t shocked or hesitant anymore, and the iron will Eli was accustomed to seeing was back. Fitz took him by one hand and towed him to the truck. He ignored the sodden pile of clothing Eli had left by the watering hole.

Fitz put Eli in the passenger’s seat and slammed the door. The sounds and smells of the storm were abruptly muffled. Through the rain-soaked windshield, Eli watched Fitz round the front of the truck. Eli’s ears were ringing, but his brain was starting to clear. He was probably in trouble now. Fitz would drive him back to his cabin in silence, and they’d never speak of this. It almost made Eli wish he hadn’t done anything.

But he could still taste Fitz’s mouth. That made it hard to regret anything.

Copyright © Nessa Vincent

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