The Christmas ghost of FitzHardinge Manor

by BRK

A sometimes dark tale of a young man consigned to the guardianship of witches, only to be turned by a sex-starved, secrecy-obsessed sorcerer-suitor into a being unheard and unseen, capable of sharing the pleasure of touch, but bound to a single day of the year; and how from these ashes he rises to find what he can become in this new life that has been forced upon him.

3 parts Added Dec 2017 Updated 22 Dec 2018 15k views 4.9 stars (15 votes) 22k words

Part 1 A sometimes dark tale of a young man consigned to the guardianship of witches, only to be turned by a sex-starved, secrecy-obsessed sorcerer-suitor into a being unheard and unseen, capable of sharing the pleasure of touch, but bound to a single day of the year; and how from these ashes he rises to find what he can become in this new life that has been forced upon him. (added: 22 Dec 2017)
Part 2
Part 3 Thom wakes to a new Christmas, having dreamed strange dreams in the intervening year. He soon discovers he is not alone in FitzHardinge Manor, and that Malcolm was not the only dark wizard interested in supernatural pleasures. (added: 22 Dec 2018)
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Part 1

The storm of bad luck that swept away my entire family in a rampaging epidemic of cholera, orphaning me at the tender age of seventeen, lingered long enough for a speedy probate to commit me to the last home I would have chosen for myself: FitzHardinge Manor, the eeriest estate in Gloucestershire and seat of the most unpleasant clan in all of England.

I was miserable enough during the long carriage ride to Perdition to try at distracting myself with my only vice. As we clattered along the road I sank inside myself and folded my mind into its favorite, best-accustomed reverie: a slow, indulgent appreciation of the ostler at the Ewe and Centaur tavern. Though our impressive, three-story town house was on a respectable street, occupied only by peers and gentry, the back terraces happened to look onto the yards and stables of the tavern and inn on the commercial avenue one street over where many of our neighbors would occasionally quarter their horses; and one of their ostlers, a man whose name I thought, from snatches of angry summonses lifted by the wind to my vantage point on the second-floor terrace, was Boots (though whether it was surname or nickname, or something misheard in misconstruance of his true name, I knew not), had made it his habit to conduct his horse-care completely naked from the waist up. He did so in all weather and in the face of all reproving glares from gentleman customers, though with, I could only assume, the approval, or at least the negligent license, of the tavern-keeper. Boots was a hard man, his physique toughened and developed by years of difficult labor, yet his musculature was not thick and brutish like so many tradesmen’s but exquisite and perfect, as if sculpted by Michelangelo, or an ancient Greek master seeking to evoke the potent majesty of Poseidon or the impossible might of Heracles in massive, gorgeously shaped sinew. I was captivated from the moment I first saw him, chancing to step out onto the terrace of an unused room we gave over to guests (of which we had none, owing on the main to my father’s notorious temper), my prick instantly swelling from its usual passive but ready state to an aching hardness I seldom achieved even in my most successful efforts at self-pleasure. When he turned his face from the bay he was expertly grooming so I could see his visage, I felt my heart start to stutter in my chest: so beautiful was his stubble-framed countenance, framed by loose dark hair he wore far longer than any man I’d ever seen, that I was nearly driven to release merely by the sight of him. Heedlessly, with trembling fingers, I unbuttoned the placket of my trousers, reached into my drawers, and drew out my raging, red, slick-headed cock, my eyes riveted on the ostler as I did so; and moments later I was spilling the first seed this man had drawn from me over the edge of the terrace into the garden below, but not the last.

This memory was not, perhaps, ideal for the moment, but the indulgence served its purpose of mollifying my mood, though it left me with a pounding heart, a pushing pulse, and a fully hardened prick—something of a liability outside the privacy of my own rooms, as I had extrapolated from comparison with my brothers and nearest cousins on a recent swimming holiday that I was something of a freak of nature in that area, perhaps as much as half again as big as my elder brother Bartholomew if quick glances were enough to judge, and easily visible in my trousers even as I sat, if one knew to look. As I said, not the ideal indulgence, and the reason for it harrumphed from his seat across the cab.

Fortunately, the fat, red-faced solicitor who accompanied me on the long carriage ride up from London to that baleful destination was not a man of acute perception. It did mean, however, that he mistook the monstrous resentment raging within me for most of the ride, born of being fobbed off on my least favorite cousins and which presented itself in a dark aura, a glowering mien, and hunched, angry shoulders, for the simple grief it had consumed the way a ravenous dragon might devour a cat. “Your ill temper does you no credit, you know,” he burst out now in sudden exasperation, not having observed my reverie or the resulting slight amelioration of my mood (nor any of its other effects). His initial efforts to interest me in particulars of the gloomy weather and even racy gossip concerning a highly placed cabinet member (which he pretended to find scandalous) had devolved, without any contributions from me, into a long and difficult quietude interrupted only by the creaking of wheels and the occasional gusting of a building storm, but now he had seemingly decided to break the silence in order to chastise me for my thankless conceit in not welcoming the new life that had descended upon me.

I flicked my eyes up to challenge his. He pursed his lips, and I saw that he was indeed clearly offended by my marvelous ingratitude. “You are quite the fortunate young man,” he insisted, with the hint of a sneer.

I stared at him, unspeaking, annoyed that my improved mood would so soon be driven backwards into the rage I had felt burning in me for days. My ostler-swollen prick was still stiff, a hot iron bar laying across my lap, but I ignored it, and for the moment it was content to exist, forgotten until called upon. The solicitor cleared his throat and leaned toward me. “Perhaps you need reminding,” he admonished, in the manner of a schoolmaster correcting a refractory pupil, “that you, in fact, are the sole inheritor of extensive real property, both in London and the country, with an annual income of well over five hundred pounds. An estate you would never have inherited otherwise,” he added, “as I already had in hand written instructions from your late father not to divide the estate in case of his demise, but to devolve it entire on your elder brother. You would have been in a pretty pickle then, I imagine. Forced to take the cloth, I shouldn’t wonder.” He sniffed, regarding me with a haughty superiority, and settled back in his seat, as if his point had been proven.

His patronizing demeanor and the prickling reminder of my father’s scorn moved me to speak for the first time that day. “I inherited nothing,” I seethed in a low voice, holding his gaze. “My father’s lands and my income are locked away in trust, and I am sent to live in a stranger’s house instead of my own.”

The solicitor raised a bushy eyebrow. “Come now, Master Thomas,” he said sourly. “A minor such as yourself could hardly take possession—”

“The Romans would have considered me a man,” I said, now arguing for the sake of it, tired of the creaking silence and riled by all this emphasis on my powerlessness. “Even the Jews come of age before eighteen.”

“Yes, well,” the solicitor said, wrinkling his nose, “fortunately we are neither. As it is, your interests have been ably protected before both law and equity.” This last he said with a reproving and disdainful air, as if his professional capacity was not to be impugned.

“Protected!” I scoffed. “What sort of protection is it to be sent to live with black-heart witches?”

The solicitor’s weak chin dropped an inch, capturing a fold of flesh beneath it, and he stared at me a full three seconds with wide eyes and open maw before collecting himself. “Master Thomas!” he said coldly. “It ill behooves you to repeat such scurrilous falsehoods—”

“It’s a fact,” I shot back at him, crossing my arms over my thin chest, unwilling to be gainsaid on so inarguable a point. “The whole family speaks of how the FitzHardinges collect occult particulars and consort with—”

“Enough,” the solicitor broke in. His anger was genuine, and I was momentarily taken aback. “I will not hear such slanders against a house that, out of the kindness of their sainted hearts, elected to take in an orphaned brat with known unnatural tendencies, where no other god-fearing home in England would have seen fit to have done so.” With that he clamped his fleshy lips and turned his face away from me in dismissal, as if I were not a gentleman’s scion but a ragamuffin he was attending to as cargo, otherwise beneath him.

I gaped at the man, stunned and appalled. I had been ignorant until this moment that my father’s deep suspicions of my inverted preferences had at some point passed beyond suspicion into outraged certitude. Even more astonishing, it appeared that he had shared this (true, but abominable) characterization of his execrated second son even with his solicitors! Did the FitzHardinges know—informed, perhaps, by my father, or his lawyers? If so, what would be their reception of me, knowing my depravity? My black mood told me to expect a life secreted in the attic as an unspoken family shame, and I was ready to believe such a fate was truly the most likely to befall me.

I was still staring at the solicitor, now pretending to be the only occupant of the little carriage. I had completely misconstrued his exasperation with me, I realized: he had thought me ungrateful not because I was alive with a home and income when all my family had been extirpated, but because, filthy homosexual that I was, I had roof and guardians at all. I remembered the fantasy I had permitted myself within this very coach, and my prick at last lost some of its adamantine rigidity. My cheeks flushed with humiliation, nausea curling around my insides, and I forced myself to look away. We spent the remainder of the trip in a toxic, unpleasant silence.

It was dark and sheeting down cold rain by the time we reached our destination, well after nightfall. A tall, skinny, lank-haired porter rushed out from a side door to unbind and retrieve my trunks from the back of the coach, taking them down and hauling them in one by one with some difficulty, as if they might overmatch him at any moment. As he did so the main doors opened to reveal three still and ominous silhouettes in nightclothes and slippers, lit from behind by a lamp-bright vestibule. They stood mutely in the open doorway and watched as I climbed down from the carriage, my wool overcoat becoming instantly soaked in the downpour. I turned my back to them, ignoring them as long as I could, and made to exchange goodbyes with my unhappy companion.

The solicitor did not move from his perch. I raised my face to meet his gaze, rain beating down on my forehead. At long last I recollected my manners, aware of my new family watching me from twenty feet away, though Perdition only knew what they could hear with the rain lashing down loudly on the stone walls and courtyard. “Farewell, sir,” I said, raising my voice so he could be sure to hear me. “My thanks for your company on this journey, and for the turns you have done myself and my family.”

The solicitor nodded once, minutely appeased. “Farewell, Master Thomas,” he said. He glanced briefly past me to the figures in the doorway, and his lips seemed to tighten. Grudgingly he added, “Good luck.” Then he knocked on the roof of the cab. I stepped away as the driver shook the reins and the carriage clattered away into the wet.

Now alone in the dark and empty courtyard, I turned and made my way across the cobbled stones until I stood before my new guardians, thankfully at least now under the stone canopy but not much closer to warm fires and dry clothes. They stood in a tableau in the midst of the entranceway, still shadowy and indistinct with the amber lamplight behind them, and the first thing I noticed about them was that their gray nightclothes were thick and heavy, suggesting a cold and drafty home. The middle figure, a severe-looking older man, regarded me coldly. He looked like to sort of fellow who appeared perpetually to have recently been sucking on lemons; by aspect alone he would be a considerable step up from my father, an alcoholic caveman in possession of a pince-nez, evening dress, and the ironically civilized name he had bequeathed me, Addingdon. The man’s wife stood next to him, her face anxious and irresolute, and I despaired instantly of finding any support there in any future conflicts with the master of the house.

The third figure was a young man, handsome, pale, and, from what I could see, tall and well-formed. He was half turned, allowing a faint blush of lamplight to steal across his features. Because of this his cool blue eyes were just discernable in the poor light—indeed they were the just about the only color in the whole scene, like a study painted in grays with a single spot of pale azure. His full lips (red, I was sure, in a proper light) were quirked in a crooked grin, and his expression as he took me in was oddly proprietary. My cock, not fully cowed despite the unpleasantness of the last hours, stirred and swelled at his look, especially as I had remembered dreaming, as I had watched Boots work late into the evening on a wet night not unlike this one, raindrops beating on his hard, bare skin, of the beautiful, powerful ostler who knew naught of me at all looking at me the way the young FitzHardinge was now.

I regarded each of them in turn, still unsure what welcome to expect; but when they continued to say nothing I girded my loins and spoke, determined to present myself with confidence—the way a gladiator, I told myself grimly, might present himself to a lion. “Good evening, Sir John, Lady FitzHardinge,” I said formally, addressing the older couple in turn. “Allow me to offer my profound gratitude for your willingness to receive me, and to take me in.” Even as I said this my eyes drifted to the handsome young man, who could only be Sir John and my lady Emily’s only son, Malcolm. As I said the bit about receiving me and taking me in, his crooked grin widened and his blue eyes glittered, making my own heart flutter in response. His eyes drifted down my form, catching on the unmistakable bulge in my groin, and when his eyes returned to mine they were dark with desire.

I hastily turned my gaze back to the elder FitzHardinges, in time for Sir John to say, “Welcome, Thomas.” He said it gruffly, as if speech were an action he begrudged—which, if true, marked him a definite improvement on my vituperatively voluble father.

“Oh, welcome, child,” his wife now said, as if his utterance had freed her to speak at last. Her voice was soft, barely audible over the heavy clatter of rain in the courtyard, but unexpectedly warm despite her permanently troubled expression. “Welcome,” she repeated, “and happy Christmas.”

“Yes,” Sir John agreed, startled, as if such felicitations did not occur to him innately. “Happy Christmas.”

Behind them, somewhere in the house, a grandfather clock—an irreverent one, though with a sense of occasion—chose this moment to toll the hour. We stood, fixed in place like four unhappy statues, as twelve long, resonant booms passed between us out of the manor and dissipated into the chill, sopping night air. Twelve o’clock.

I blinked at the three FitzHardinges as the clock performed its tale. In all the hassle of being consigned to this obscure country estate, not to mention the drama of the carriage-ride up from London, I had lost track of the days, but as I tallied the time since my family’s passing I realized with some shock that today must indeed be Christmas Eve—or rather, I thought, hastily correcting myself as the clock had just tolled twelve, the day itself, Christmas day.

“Happy Christmas,” I dutifully replied once the clock had completed its task, my eyes again drifting to Malcolm’s as I did so. His smirk foretold many things in store for me this Christmas day, some of which I could, with a giddy and hopeful heart, tentatively discern. The one I did not detect was that, though I would thankfully live to see the vile FitzHardinges tipped into the worm-ridden ground and long, long after that, I would, in truth, never know another day but this one.

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My residence in FitzHardinge Manor was not even two hours old before Malcolm revealed the designs he had in store for me—designs that had long preceded my arrival. Were I to guess, these designs, I fancy, had germinated in some deep recess of his mind the very moment that word arrived at FitzHardinge Manor that his recently orphaned and reputedly philandric cousin was coming to stay.

After finally gaining entry to the manor itself I elicited directions to my rooms from lady Emily, and after bidding them good night, with apologies for interrupting their sleep, I found my destination easily enough. I saw little on the way, though I did look into the drawing room, the entrance to which was just shy of the main stairs, and was able to catch a glimpse of the importunate grandfather clock that had inserted its midnight pronouncement into the introductions between the FitzHardinges and myself. It was an old behemoth, as big as a coffin and looking as heavy as one that had been put to use, but it looked polished and well cared for. The gleaming bronze face beyond the glass seemed to stare ominously at me across the dark, firelit room, and I hurried on my way, finding my rooms with no further adventures.

The Manor was shaped like a shallow U with a flat base, two arms curving back from a rectangular façade, and my rooms occupied the terminal end of the north wing on the first floor, with the bedroom looking out over the back gardens, at a considerable vantage thanks to the splendid height of the ground floor below. They were also, as I saw when I chanced to look toward the south wing, directly opposite Malcolm’s rooms, and my eye caught his through his own window as he gazed through the slackening rain from his well-lit bedroom toward mine.

Heart beating, I resisted a contrary urge to close the curtains on him. Instead I turned back into the room and gave thought to making myself ready for bed—alone, or otherwise, if Malcolm was as forward as he seemed. My dick twitched in my trousers, but I pushed the thought away and turned to survey my new surroundings. The suite was decorated in oranges and crimsons, in an outdated style my sisters would have sneered at, but to me it seemed homey enough, and if I were here indefinitely I might request leave to adjust matters to my own more subdued preferences. My trunks and valises had been dropped carelessly and at random just inside the door. No effort had been made to unpack them, which I found slightly discourteous but perhaps understandable given the hour and the weather. At least a fire had been lit, for which I was profoundly grateful, as the room did indeed seem to have a chill draft. I dragged the trunks toward the nearest wall and, rummaging through the one I needed, I found my warmer nightshirt. Draping it across the broad and very inviting bed I began gladly stripping away my wet and travel-rumpled clothes, starting with my poor, water-logged boots.

Boots. For the last year of my life, just touching my boots, even looking at them, made me think of the ostler, and my cock would swell in automatic response. Sure enough, removing my boots now meant I was already halfway to a full erection without even allowing myself to think of what might come to pass this night.

Thus I was barefoot naked to the waist when I heard a soft rapping at my door: tap tap, tap tap.

“Enter,” I said, only just loud enough to be heard through the heavy oak door. It opened and Malcolm stepped into the room, closing the door behind him.

I had frozen in the act of unbuttoning my trousers. His cool blue gaze fell to my hands, and the crooked smile returned. “Do not stop on my account,” he said, crossing the distance between us until he stood before me, no more than a foot away. My pulse accelerated as I took him in. In the firelight, and amidst all the oranges and reds, he seemed even paler than he had at the front entranceway, almost alabaster, his pallid skin demarcated by short-cropped black hair and the long, gray button-up nightshirt—so that, once again, the only color about him seemed to be the winter-blue eyes as they fixed knowingly on mine.

“Say my name,” I said. The words seemed to spring from within me without conscious volition. My heart was pounding loud enough to hear, and my member, too, was stirring, promising to be ready before I was.

One of his dark brows arched, and I said, “I’ve never… I want to hear you say my name.” I wasn’t certain why I was making such a request. Only it seemed to me like my name would be like an admission. For him to say my name, now, in this moment, would be concession… and, I thought, permission, for him and for myself.

Malcolm seemed amused by my request. “If I do,” he purred, stepping an inch closer, “if I say your name, will you… share your affection with me?”

“Yes,” I said immediately. My body could sense his, now. The shock of stripping away my clothes in the half-warmed room had made the exposed skin of my upper body exceptionally sensitive. I was so craving his touch in that moment that even the proximity of his warm, strong, masculine body, inches from mine and separated only by a single layer of soft wool, was enough to slake some deep, abiding need so crucial to my being that I thought I might die from his actual touch, except that I would also die without it, too. I was aflame with need. For all that my father despised my predilections I had never had a chance to act on them—the muscled ostler, Boots, had been my only lover, and that only in my dreams, though the consequences of my father catching me staring once (thankfully with my trouser flies still intact, as he’d interrupted me early in my daily regimen) had made me wish I could have been condemned for a greater crime; but now at last, here, directly before me, within my very reach, was a man like me, handsome and well-made and eager to share the caress of another man, and I burned with the need of it. If I was going to fobbed off onto cousins in Perdition Castle in the ass-end of Gloucestershire, this, at least, would be the reward I would receive—no, the reward I would take, if only it were given.

Malcolm’s pale cheeks were warm, too, and his cool blue eyes had darkened with lust. His gaze bore into mine and his smile became wicked. “Thomas,” he said. And then the space between us vanished, and his full, warm lips had covered mine, his hands gripping my bare arms. I grasped his waist through his nightshirt and opened for him, moaning faintly into his mouth as his eager tongue sought mine. My large prick was achingly hard, pushing urgently against the fabric of my trousers, the kiss and the touch alone enough to drive me close to the edge of release.

Suddenly he pulled back slightly from the kiss, brows drawn together, eyes looking away from me an unfocused. I blinked at him, dazed. “Mal—” I began to whisper, but he shushed me urgently, meeting my gaze, his hands squeezing my bare arms slightly. We waited. Then I heard it: footsteps, slowly treading the corridor outside my rooms. They paused, and we waited, breathless. Then they turned and moved away again, as if the prowling feet had restlessly paced to the end of the corridor that terminated with my rooms, then reversed course and paced away again.

The moment passed. “What was that?” I asked quietly. Then, with a small smile: “Is the manor haunted?”

Malcolm returned the smile. His face was still only an inch or two from mine. “In a manner of speaking,” he said. “My father… does not sleep.”

I frowned. “At all?”

Malcolm shook his head. “Usually during the night he is content to read, or write endlessly in his journals, or to work in the—” He broke off unexpectedly, then went on as if he hadn’t mentioned the mysterious, third activity. “But sometimes,” he continued, “when he’s restive or upset, he’ll walk the halls, his mind working through some problem that’s vexing him for whatever reason.” His blue gaze met mine. “He could come upon us at any time,” he said intently. It went without saying that Sir John must not know—not about Malcolm, not about me, and certainly not about the two of us together.

I met his gaze, determined to be at once both resolute and reassuring. “We can be… discreet,” I said.

The twinkle returned to his blue eyes, and his brows twitched mischievously as he said, “I have a better idea.” He dropped his hands from my arms and took one step back from me, pulling my own hands from where they had been resting on his waist, much to my disappointment. I hoped to resume our kiss, and our touch, very soon—my body was aching for it as much as my big, straining cock was.

Malcolm reached into the breast pocket of his nightshirt and pulled out a bronze key, holding it up with a grin for me to admire, as if it were the answer to our shared dilemma.

I stared at the key curiously—it seemed to draw my attention. It looked like a skeleton key, or perhaps a grandfather clock key with three uneven teeth instead of the usual one, but there was something uncanny about it as well. I got the distinct impression it was no mere hunk of metal, and in particular that it was imbued with energy of its own, retaining it for itself rather than giving it away, as metal was wont to do.

“What is that?” I asked, certain I was missing something very important.

“I stole it from my father’s strongbox,” Malcolm said, sounding slightly giddy, as if he did not defy his father often. “He doesn’t know I have it. It’s the answer, Thomas,” he said determinedly.

I frowned harder, looking between Malcolm and the key. “How?” I asked, baffled.

Malcolm’s eyes crinkled at the corners. “It’s a talisman,” he said. “A talisman with a very special use.”

He waited, grinning, for me to ask. My slander in the carriage about the FitzHardinges being witches came back to me, and my heart seemed to freeze. I realized, now, that I hadn’t actually believed the stories, or at most had thought that if they were true they amounted to medicinal potion-making and the occasional pagan bacchanals in some meadow in the manor woods every equinox or so. But here was Malcolm holding up a clock key and claiming it would magically let us fuck without his eternally wakeful father finding out, which meant that either Malcolm was demented, or—no, even if the talisman were a real, honest-to-Anubis magical artifact, Malcolm was still as demented as the late king, whom they said had once warmly greeted a tree he thought was the king of Prussia.

“What use?” I asked reluctantly.

“It can make any fictional being or creature real,” Malcolm said excitedly, still holding up the key between us. “Anything from a legend or tale, as long as the user knows it inside and out. And—” he added, eyes flashing, “—I have just the being in mind.”

He took a step toward me. I took a step back. I knew that Malcolm might well be as desperate as I was for masculine contact, and it now occurred to my hormone-addled brain for the first time that Malcolm might pursue that need without full and respectful consideration for myself. “Malcolm,” I said, “I don’t think—”

“It’s perfect, you’ll see,” Malcolm said, taking another step. I retreated again. “It’s perfect because I wrote it myself, a long time ago, when I first heard about the daykey,” he said. “I called him… the cryptandrid. The hidden man.” He was very proud of the name, I could tell.

I didn’t like the sound of that at all. I backed away another step, my calves hitting the foot of the bedframe. “Malcolm,” I tried again, “you need to—”

“No one sees him,” Malcolm spoke over me, his blue eyes alight now as he warmed to his idea. “No one hears him. But he can make himself felt. He has power over what he touches. He can bring pleasure. He can bring release. He needs no sustenance but touch. The touch… of a man.”

He moved toward me again, and forgetting I had backed against the bed I fell into it. “Incubus,” I sputtered from where I lay, staring up at him in utter dismay. “You want to make me an incubus. Your incubus.”

Malcolm shook his head, grinning madly. I saw in horror that his eyes weren’t just alight with passion—they were actually lit with some unholy light, and the key was glowing, too, in his hand. It was not just glowing, it was waxing, as if it might soon be bright enough to burn Malcolm’s fingers where he held it, and to blot out our eyes in the process, like Solomon’s polished shields blinded the Egyptians. “No, not an incubus,” he insisted. “Incubi and succubi are demons that steal potency from you in your sleep. That’s not what I want. The cryptandrid is all mine. I wrote everything about it. The cryptandrid is about touch. Pleasure. Secret pleasure.”

His eyes were blazing. The key was already to bright to look at. I tried edging away from him, hoping to crab backwards on the bed and get away from him that way, but he grabbed the waist of my trousers in his free hand with a fearsome grip. “Malcolm—!” I cried.

He loomed over me, and said the words that echo in my nightmares to this day. “You are about touch,” he shouted. “You are about secret pleasure!”

“Malcolm, no!!” I yelled.

You are cryptandrid!” he pronounced, his fiery blue eyes boring into mine. “You are cryptandrid! YOU ARE CRYPTANDRID!”

Noooo!!!” I screamed. There was a blinding flash and a loud boom, as if the key had exploded all its energy in a single catastrophic release. My eyes were forced closed as Malcolm howled in pain, slackening his grip on my waistband as he did so. I pulled away, freeing myself, and scrambled off the side of the bed. Cautiously stepping around the foot of the bed I saw Malcolm had fallen to the carpets there and was blinking up at nothing. His right hand had the thumb pressed against the side of the index finger as if he were still tightly grasping the key between them, but the key was gone and it looked as though the flesh was singed where he’d previously been holding it. Malcolm, however, wasn’t looked at his damaged hand. He was looking for me.

I looked down. I saw nothing. I knew my body was there—I could feel the now-unseen trousers against my skin, my bare feet against the soft bedside rug, the languid heat-tendrils of the fire in the hearth behind me—but, upsettingly, I could not see it. The disconnect between vision and bodily sensation made me instantly queasy, and I wondered, sourly, if the contents of my stomach would become visible if I were to vomit them up. I was willing to wager Malcolm had not written details like that into his story.

No one sees him, Malcolm had said. And then the next words came to me, chilling my blood. No one sees him. No one hears him.

“Malcolm,” I said tentatively—and stopped. I could feel myself speaking, but I couldn’t hear it. I could hear everything else, from the crackling of the fire to the diminished rainstorm outside, but I could not hear my own voice. I resolved not to try to speak again. My voice would stay in my own head. No one else needed to hear it anyway. Certainly these last days had proven there were none to listen.

“Where are you?” Malcolm said, slightly bleary. He still had a bit of a grin, but it was a little uncertain. “I know it worked,” he said, his voice clearer. “The daykey worked. You’re a cryptandrid now!” His grin took hold and widened, as he flushed with his success. “You’re a cryptandrid now!” he repeated, jumping backwards on the bed where I had been cowering from him only moments before. “You can bring me pleasure, and no one but us will know!” He ripped open the top of his night shirt, sending buttons flying, exposing the gleaming male flesh of his defined chest and abdominal muscles. “Bring me pleasure!” he cried.

For a moment I feared I would be compelled to service him, to make love to him, even though the man I had craved moments before was now the last thing I wanted to touch. But it seemed that Malcolm, in writing his fanciful tale, had been too caught up with how much pleasure could be brought to both parties to limit the creative search for erotic possibilities by suborning the cryptandrid’s will to his subject.

As I regarded Malcolm on the bed, writhing in invitation to my touch, I realized that Malcolm had longed to be the passive party, and for his pleasurer to take control. The cryptandrid was not subservient to him. If anything, the reverse was true. I was free to pleasure Malcolm… or not.

“Thomas—?” Malcolm called, uncertain now, and, if I was not mistaken, verging on scared. Good.

He can make himself felt, Malcolm had said—a matter of choice. Abruptly I brought my hand to my own bare chest, and was immensely relieved to feel my hand against the skin of my torso, even if I could not see it. I drew a deep breath and then, to my own amazement, I laughed, grateful I could not be heard.

You are about touch, he had said. Touch, I now knew, was mine, not his.

I watched Malcom narrowly, moving toward him without coming close. If he wanted me to take control, I would. I would control exactly how much pleasure Malcolm would get from me, that amount being exactly none. This outcome, however, was assuming that my rapidly brewing anger did not rage so great in the new few pounding beats of my silent heart that I became willing to give him too much pleasure—more pleasure than his body could handle and survive.

I was still pondering this dark temptation when all at once the door to the bedroom flew open and Sir John burst in, his face contorted in fury, his harried-looking wife at his heels. They were still dressed in their nightclothes. Knowing what I now did it occurred to me to wonder why Sir John wore a nightshirt at all if he did not bother to sleep. They stood before their son, the picture of enraged parental betrayal.

Malcolm stilled in horror where he lay on my bed, his own night-shirt ripped open in what could only be invitation. His eyes were wide and terrified. I moved out of the way to stand to one side, near the fire. At first I tried to move silently, but then I realized I did not have to worry. I could shout at them and they would not know—and I would only know it from the rasping of my throat.

I expected Sir John to rail at his son. Not for seducing me, but for stealing the key—that, and the shouts and screams issuing from this room, had been what had brought him up here in such a furor, I was certain. But Sir John was a man not given to speech. I saw his eyes light on the burned fingers of his son’s hand, and the look he gave his son was worth ten rounds of my own father’s paint-stripping verbal abuse.

Malcolm quailed before his father. Sir John leaned down and snatched the maimed hand in his grasp and shake it, exhibiting it to his son. “How did you use it?” Sir John demanded.

Malcolm stared up at his father, terrified. He licked his lips and somehow found it within himself to lie. “I sent him away,” he said. “To… to Kingston.” He seemed to remember that distance was not the main potency of the key, but beings and creatures. “I made him a-a merman,” he stammered.

I stared at him, shaking my head. The gall of the man. I could see right through him, ironically. He hoped to still keep me as his secret lover, confident I could be brought around in time to the purpose he had laid out for me—to be the instrument of his pleasure. England would fall into the sea before that would happen, I mused wryly. Not only would I never touch him, there was a very real chance I would devote my life to making sure no one else did, either. I was giving the prospect serious consideration.

Sir John gave him a long, hard look. I could not tell whether he believed him or not. Malcolm, I thought, could not either, because he began to expostulate defensively, manufacturing on the spot a grudge against the unwanted orphan interloper. “I never wanted him to be here! He was going to get in the way, and probably steal away my future wife. Alienate your affections. I had to send—”

Emily FitzHardinge closed her eyes and began to chant in a language I did not know. Her voice was low, and cold, and it sent a thrill of unease through my unseen, unheard body. Whatever she was doing, if it had been directed at me, even with me being what Malcom had called a hidden man, I knew with cold, spine-chilling certainty that I could be laid bare to whatever her sorcery could be made to accomplish.

I had thought Malcolm was terrified before, but his alarm now reached heights of panic unbearable to watch. “Mother, no!” he wailed. Her chanting did not slack, but carried on, relentless, implacable. He slid off the end of the bed in an ungainly heap and clambered to his knees. He shook his mother’s hips, sobbing uncontrollably. “Mother, please!!” he begged. Sir John laid a hand on his shoulder. Malcolm looked up at his father, face streaming with tears, his pale skin clotted with red. He saw his father’s expression and he dropped his hands, and remained kneeling before his mother, head bowed.

The chanting ended, and Malcolm, with a final sob, collapsed to the floor, pale and dead. I gasped, sickened and appalled.

“What will happen to Thomas?” Emily asked after a long, still moment in which even the crackling fire seemed to still. She sounded broken and spent.

“It’s a daykey,” Sir John said shortly. “He’s bound to the day. Forever.” I looked up from Malcolm’s body at that, staring hard at Sir John, though he could not know I was there. Bound to the day? What in the heavens—or whatever hell I was now in—did that mean?

“And whatever Malcolm did,” Emily rasped dejectedly. “Do you think he really turned him into a mermaid? In Jamaica?” She seemed to be asking to occupy her mind, to keep herself from thinking about what they had just done.

“Mer-man,” Sir John said, already moving toward the open door, much more slowly than he’d entered. He looked a thousand years old. “Heard worse.” And then they were gone.

The night passed, and dawn came at last. Porters came and removed Malcolm’s body, the skinny, lank-haired one struggling with his end. Then they came and took my trunks away. Then I was alone—as alone as anybody had ever been.

I told myself that this had to be, without a doubt, the worst possible Christmas. Soon, though, my innate optimism kicked in. It was anemic and underfed, but it told my an incontrovertible truth: my Christmasses could only get better from this point onward. I laughed. From the window, I watched as the luckless porters buried Malcolm in the vegetable garden, and I laughed again.

Then, after eighteen more interminable hours, on the first low distant chime of the drawing room grandfather clock downstairs striking twelve o’clock midnight, Christmas day ended, and I ceased to be…

Until another Christmas came again.


Part 2

I awoke on a bed stripped of all clothes and curtains in a cold and empty room… my own bed and my own bedroom, or so they had been, for the space of a hour. That was before a pallid varlet of a novice sorcerer, my own distant cousin and son of the witches who had been made my guardians after my sudden orphaning at seventeen, had turned me into a supernatural being of his own invention: a “cryptandrid”, he had named it, a hidden man. I could not be heard or seen, but I could be make myself felt, and bring pleasure and release to other men. That would have been catastrophe enough, an end to my life as I had known it, and all to service Malcolm’s maddening need; but there was more to my curse. Owing to Malcolm’s unlucky choice of transformative talisman I was also cruelly bound to the day of my conversion—which happened, through some strange joke of fate, to be, of all days on the calendar, Christmas day itself.

Now, I was awake again, exactly as I was when I ended my day’s existence on the night of my metamorphosis: nude from the waist up and barefoot, clad only in my sturdiest charcoal woolen trousers. My boots, stockings, shirt, cravat, waistcoat, and overcoat all long gone—even my braces I had removed before Malcolm changed me into what I now was, though my snug, high-waisted trousers seemed content to stay up without them. No—I was not exactly as I had been when my consciousness had dropped away, as—somehow—I had awoken with an erection prodigious enough to strain the thick fabric of my pantaloons. I did not know whether my arousal was due to my being a supernatural being created for the purpose of fostering carnal pleasure, or simply because I was a man; but I put thoughts of my stiff member behind, as I so often had in my mortal life, and sat up on the bare mattress, leaning back on my hands, and considered my surroundings.

As I glanced abound the moonlit room I could see evidence of my binding to a single day of the year. I awoke from the semblance of a single night’s sleep, or so it seemed to me; yet the room I was in showed signs of a year’s neglect, easy enough to see even in the stark, silvered moonlight. A layer of dust had seemingly descended on all surfaces—chairs, mantel, wardrobe, the lot; I could taste it in the air, disturbed as it must have been from the down mattress on which I lay. Though the tall windows were, like the bed, naked and unadorned, bereft of their heavy curtains, the pale light pouring through them revealed dust deposits like silt on their wide sills, and the grime of a year’s country weather thrown at the unwashed panes.

The pale ashes in the fireplace looked like they had been undisturbed for a very long time after burning out. Possibly these were the remains of the very fire that had burned that fateful night: the one that warmed me as I undressed, half-waiting for the very forward Malcolm to visit my rooms; that had crackled between us as I had stared at Malcolm with dawning horror; that I had stood before, unseen and unknown, as a heartbroken but cold and merciless Emily FitzHardinge had grimly spelled her errant son into an early death.

I took in the evidence of time’s passage with increasing perplexity. FitzHardinge Manor was a substantive estate, requiring at least maids, porters, housekeeper and steward for indoor staff, and more for the buildings and grounds; even if Sir John and Emily had neglected matters, no household staff would allow the rooms to devolve to such a state—not even in unoccupied rooms previously given over to mysteriously disappeared orphaned wards. Yet I was increasingly convinced that nary a soul had set foot in this room since Malcolm had died. Had the wing been sealed off, despite the invitation to structural decay and vermin such an act would provide? Or was the whole house abandoned, reduced to the same state of—

The grandfather clock in the drawing room downstairs began chiming suddenly. I listened, heart pounding, as it solemnly told the hour: twelve chimes. Twelve o’clock.

I frowned, sitting up further. I had lost consciousness as that very same clock had tolled twelve, at the end of Christmas day a twelvemonth past. If “bound to the day” meant anything—and all the fanciful tales of sorcerers I had read or heard in my childhood had taught me that rules and bindings meant a great deal to them—then I must have awakened at twelve o’clock, the start of a new Christmas day; at any rate it seemed impossible to me that I had woken five minutes before the day to which I was bound.

I could puzzle out a number of solutions, none very illuminating. The first was that my rooms were indeed sealed off, and the rest of the house was maintained as normal; but someone had fallen down in their weekly duties to wind and maintain the clock, allowing it to become five minutes slow. This scenario seemed impossible in a house occupied and maintained by a competent staff, and the FitzHardinges surely would not suffer fools gladly.

The second solution was that the house had been abandoned, but that someone had wound the clock in the last week, not noticing that it was running slow. In that case, the question was—who? And why?

The third possibility was one I would have laughed at, before I came to FitzHardinge Manor: the house was long abandoned, but clock was bewitched to remain awake, perpetually wound and ready to tell the time forever. This one made the least sense to me, not because the impossibility of a bewitched clock but because it seemed inconceivable to me that one would ensorcell a timepiece never to need winding without also ensuring that this deathless clock also told the correct time. One might as well have a perpetually inked reservoir pen with a permanent clog in the nib.

I became aware of the chill in the room. There was a bit of a draft, as I had noted on first arrival, but I counted it a good sign that it had not worsened in the intervening time I had been without existence; but I was still half-naked, and it was wintertime in rustic England. Nor were there clothes close at hand; the memory of my trunks being removed from these rooms was the last interesting thing that had happened to me before I slept.

I climbed out of the unsheeted bed and, making an effort to step gently and not kick too much dust out of the rugs, I made my way to the wide fireplace, crouching down before the hearth and looking into the old ashes. There was a small stack of hewn wood to one side of the hearth, presumably placed there a year ago for my own convenience, and I laid the fresh wood on the grate above the old ashes; but while there was a poker and shovel there was no firestriker or tinder box in evidence. I had wood, but no way of making fire. I rested my hand on the hewn log thoughtfully, wondering where I might find my Promethean solution.

Thinking of the mythological fire-bringer reminded me of my own metaphysical status: I was a creature now like those told of in old stories, the stuff of tales by the Grimm brothers if not Ovid or Hesiod. That brought a strange thought to my mind: was it possible there was something I could do, as a supernatural being, that would not have been possible for me as a mere mortal?

I rehearsed all I knew of my current condition—what Malcolm had told me, in his increasingly insane ravings about what I was to become for him. “No one sees him,” Malcolm had said. “No one hears him. But he can make himself felt. He has power over what he touches. He can bring pleasure. He can bring release. He needs no sustenance but touch. The touch… of a man.”

He has power over what he touches… Could Malcolm have meant this capacity so broadly, so open-endedly as it sounded? Malcolm had devised the fiction of the cryptandrid himself, as a being designed to bring about pleasure for both the being and his subject (whom Malcolm had intended to be himself). But I had already reasoned once before that Malcolm had also wanted to be dominated by this creature of his own making, and that had led me to conclude that he had not desired to place limitations on what the being was capable of, in case innovation and experimentation might result in new and unforeseen pleasures. His only concern was to make the pleasure-bringer secret; the only actions I knew I could not perform were to be seen, and to be heard. But I had power over touch, and I had power over what I touched. I knew it from his words, but as my hand clasped the quarter-log, white in the moon’s luminescence, no longer inert but ready to answer to my desires, I could feel it, too. I knew the truth of what I could do, and it made me draw cold breath into my silent, unseen body.

Combustion is a simple thing, I thought. As simple a force as anything in the universe. My stiff member twitched in my trousers, urging me forward.

I gripped the ready wood and focused my mind and touch. A silent heartbeat passed, and then—O Prometheus! Red-yellow fire sprung with a crack from its end as if released from Tartarus. I pulled my hand away and the fire caught along the breadth of the hewn logs in the grate just as if it had been lit in the mundane fashion of every other fire in England that night. I rocked back on my bare heels and gazed at the dancing, happy flames in wonder. Oh, Malcolm, you foolish man, I thought. You wanted a secret lover, but you created something else—something you could never have controlled.

I moved back from the fire and sat on the edge of the bed, allowing myself a moment to acclimate to what I had done. I decided not to think too heavily on it, and instead let the flames mesmerize me a little, relaxing into the moment. Some time passed in this way, a sort of passive contentment. I was just beginning to consider the merits of exploring the current condition of the house, perhaps even investigating the village I had not had time to see on my first arrival, when I heard a strange commotion from the hallway outside the rooms. The outer door opened, then bedroom door flew open and two young men piled into the room in a tangle of arms and laughter, barely keeping to their feet before falling gleefully into the bed beside me.

I turned to stare open-mouthed at the two attractive men sharing fevered kisses in my bed. I had never been so close to any passionate couple, especially not strong, young men eagerly sharing their pleasure with each other. My thick erection jumped in my lap as I watched with increasing arousal, my silent breaths coming in increasingly ragged pants. As they rolled about, giggling, kissing, and groping each other’s asses, I recognized one of them as the lank-haired porter who’d hauled my trunks and valises into these very rooms, only to haul them out again the next morning, after first dispensing with the stilled corpse of his young master. He looked better than when I’d seen him last, hale and fit, though still rail-thin and utterly without muscle: whatever his life was now seemed to agree with him, and he handled his partner as if this were not his first tussle with another man. His companion was unknown to me, a ginger specimen with significantly more brawn than his friend and an amusingly amateurish overenthusiasm when it came to bringing pleasure to another member of the phallic fraternity.

I turned the rest of the way, so that I sat on my legs facing them near the edge of the large bed. They were inches from me, their ardor increasing exponentially. As yet they were still mostly clothed, only the muscular ginger stripped to the waist, revealing a nasty, stitched-up gash a few days old on the back of his left shoulder; but the air was charged with passion, and shirts, boots, and trousers would go flying from them at any moment. My breath rasped with the quickening of my pulse, and my rigid member was swollen with urgent want, infecting me like poison gas diffusing through a closed space.

Propriety insisted I respect their privacy and leave them to their sport: but propriety, as I knew from my study of the classics, belonged to the society of mortals, a society out of which I had been forcibly cast; and in any event I was so aroused by this exhibition so close to me, in my own bed, that I could not have been pried away with the lever of Archimedes.

The ginger laughed suddenly as he rolled on top, his face beaming in the light of the fire behind me. “Ha! I just realized—you cheated!” he said with a huge grin. His accent was local, but not as broad as a Londoner’s cruel parody of a dim-witted southwestern yokel, of the kind I’d heard too many times in pubs and the like, and his voice deep and comforting.

“I what?” said the porter, laughing. His accent was a little smoother, perhaps from working so closely with gentry, but still spot on for the district.

The ginger playfully smacked his friend’s forehead. “You wagered the bed was still here, on account of the FitzFuckinges wouldn’a come back,” he said.

“And it is,” the porter said triumphantly. He made kissing noises with his lips, as if to tempt his lover back into more inarticulate pursuits.

“But you knew that already,” the ginger said, “on account of you came up here to set the fire first!”

The porter blinked up at him. He was obviously a little kiss-drunk (and maybe a little other sorts of drunk as well), because he said, “What fire?”

“That fire!” the ginger said, gesturing toward the hearth with his left hand. Except, as I was sitting only a foot away from him, his hand smacked unexpectedly right into the middle of my invisible bare chest.

He froze, the backs of his knuckles pressed against my sternum and the thin brush of chest-hair there. I smiled, knowing it would be very difficult to understand any solution other than the truth from what his senses were telling him. He stared through me, and I knew he could not see me, but we both could feel the skin of his hand against my warm, naked torso.

The porter, meanwhile, had not twigged that something had gone wrong with his friend’s expansive gesture. He was staring, through me, at the fire, eyes wide. “Cock’s breath,” he swore. “That shouldn’a ought to be there.”

The ginger, emboldened by the lack of further consequence to having made contact with an unseen masculine chest, drew the backs of his fingers upward, finding my collarbone. I let him feel me breathing against his hand, and his own breaths turned ragged, but he did not stop. Instead he extended his fingers and slowly wrapped his hand around my right shoulder, tightening in a tentative squeeze.

“‘S warm,” he murmured, awed and deeply aroused.

The porter looked away from the fire and took in the strange position of his lover’s outstretched hand, cupped seemingly around nothing. “What are you doing, Billy?” he asked.

I could almost wish Billy could see my feral grin as I suddenly reached up with my right hand and grabbed his arm around the wrist. Billy yelped in fear and tried to yank his arm back, but I held him fast. “He’s got me!” Billy protested, straining to pull his hand back. He was strong—but I was the one with power over touch. I held him firm, his hand still clasped around my shoulder.

“Who’s got you?” the porter asked, looking in bafflement between Billy’s flexing hand and his frightened face.

“There’s someone there,” Billy said edgily. “He’s got me!” I used my thumb to stroke gently along the underside of Billy’s wrist. He felt it, and though still distressed he seemed to calm down a little.

The porter was peering at where I held Billy’s wrist fast with interest. “Cor,” he said. “It’s like I guessed. There really were strange doings in this house.” I wanted to laugh. He had no idea. I kept up stroking Billy’s wrist as the porter explained to his friend. “They tried to keep it hidden, all down in the cellar where we weren’t to go to,” he said. “I always told you, didn’t I? If any house in England were haunted, it’a be this one!”

“It’s a-a ghost?” Billy said, but he said it with as much curiosity as fear.

The porter cast a savvy look in my direction. “Mebbe,” he said. “Could be the old man, Sir John—assuming he died here in the Manor, instead of up and disappearing after his son snuffed it,” he added, though he cast a wink toward where he guessed I was, like he knew there was no chance I was the old master. I had to admire his nerve. He’d obviously adduced they were in no danger, but he acted as though he palled around with ghosts and cryptandrids every week-end. Though I was now certain, from his languid tone, that there was a considerable amount of alcohol informing his easy behavior.

“Ain’t an old man,” Billy admitted in a soft voice.

“Is that right?” the porter said, eyes alight. He glanced toward me again, then crooked an eyebrow at his friend. “It ain’t the missus?” he teased.

Billy scrunched his face. “No!”

The porter smiled. Despite a slightly hawkish nose and a few old pockmark scars the smile made him look quite handsome. He moved to sit upright, Billy still straddling his legs, and said, “Malcolm FitzHardinge died in this very room, a year ago today. Took him away myself,” he told Billy. He turned and looked squarely in my direction. “Is that who you are? Do you remember me? Name’s Hignell, Archie Hignell. Is that Malcolm there?” His eyes were eager, and I saw that he might almost had hoped for this, that he had expected FitzHardinge Manor to be haunted and had hoped that comely young Malcolme would be the one to haunt it.

I wanted to laugh. Instead, hazarding that at least one of them was literate enough for names, I used my free right hand to write on the side of Billy’s forearm, making sure to leave a warm red trail in his skin that faded quickly enough for Billy not be afraid it was permanent. Archie and Billy watched avidly as I spelled T, H, O, M.

Archie drew in a breath. “Thomas Addingdon,” he said. “Cock’s breath.”

“Who’s that?” Billy said, staring at his own captured hand, flexing it to make sure it still worked. “Is he going to hurt me?”

I’d had my fun. I slowly let go of Billy’s arm, and he retrieved it, almost reluctantly. I guessed my caresses were more pleasurable for him than a normal man’s might be, and I considered the possibilities of these two lovers who had piled so happily and heedlessly right into my own bed.

“He’s the ward,” Archie explained to Billy. “Weren’t here five minutes before he vanished, right when Malcolm passed. I thought he’d run off,” he added, a little sadly, “but it seems not. A crying shame. He was a handsome devil, too. And a cock the size of a small ferret, as I remember,” he added, lips twisting. Billy snorted, and Archie’s smile widened. He must have guessed my surprise, too, for he went on, speaking directly to where he figured I must be, “Oh, you lot think the help don’t notice such things, young master, but trust me, we always do.” He licked his lips, then dared to ask, “So, do you still have it? In your… present state, and all? I mean, if Billy can feel you, and you can feel him—”

For an answer I grabbed his wrist this time, gentle but firm, and shifted his hand slowly toward me until it rested in my crotch. He gasped, but his hand wrapped instantly around my unflagging, extremely rigid member through the fabric, and I watched as pleasure jolted through him like fireworks. “Oh, oh, oh,” he exclaimed. “Oh, I’m never letting go.” I was inclined to abide by his decision. With my ramped-up ability to share and feel pleasure, my cock felt almost as good being held as it did for him to hold it.

To distract myself from succumbing too soon to the joy of touching and being touched I remembered Billy’s unanswered question about whether I would hurt him. I reached out with my other hand and laid it over the gash on his back. It was easy enough to heal, and the pleasure I sent cascading through Billy, like what I’d given Archie, warmed me deep inside, like a rush of raw, primal delectation coursing through my veins and curling through my gut.

Billy’s eyes widened, knowing what I had done. “What is it?” Archie asked.

Mutely, Billy twisted to show him the back of his shoulder. Archie, never letting go of my large erection, stroked the smooth skin there with his other hand. “You mended him!” Archie said, a little dazed. He turned to stare at me as he lowered his hand again. “That loose axe-head flew right into his back,” he said. “He was lucky, he going to have an ugly scar as it was, but—you made him better.” He paused, and his expression changed. “Can you—can you mend me, Master Thomas? Make me better?”

“Archie, mate, what’s wrong? Are you hurt? Sick?” Billy broke in, looking worried.

“Naw, it’s not that,” Archie said, shoulders slumping. He gestured at Billy’s thickly muscled form as if the problem were obvious. “It’s just that—well, look at you. And look at me. You’re a beaut, a real man, and I’m nowt but a scrawny bastard.”

“Archie,” Billy began reprovingly, obviously ready to argue, but Archie turned to me.

“I’ve always been scrawny,” Archie said. “They say I was a sickly babe, I don’t know. What I do know is, I’m not strong. Not like my da or my brothers, or even my mates,” he added, tilting his head toward Billy. Billy clicked his tongue, but Archie carried on. “Porter’s the only work I do. Haul this, haul that. I hauled for the FitzFuckers, and now’t they’re gone and the estate’s derelict I haul for the tavern in the village. When I struggle my masters are as likely to kick me as laugh at me. I want to do my job right, is all. And,” he added, and here he ducked his head, “I want to look all right. For when I spend time with… with Billy, here.”

“Archie,” the big ginger said, but more softly now, and I could see he was touched. The physical part of their relationship was new, I somehow sensed, but had deep roots. They meant a great deal to each other.

“Can you help me, Master Thomas?” Archie asked, staring very nearly into my eyes. “Will you? Help me like you did my Billy?”

Archie was not without skill when it came to entreaty. His words struck a chord deep inside me—I was as moved as Billy was—but he also kept a firm grip on my iron member as a second avenue of petition, squeezing slightly as he spoke as if to silently hint that he would do his best to reward me honestly and to the best of his ability, were I to choose to aid him in his quest to be an unscrawny man.

He was not far of the mark—there was more assaulting my mind than Billy’s rational appeal. I was a creature of touch, now. Malcolm had designed my new existence to center on what happened when I made physical, tactile contact with a man, both to him, and to me. Mortals had many concerns, but in no small measure I was about bringing pleasure to men through touch, deriving my own pleasure, my own emotional sustenance thereby. I felt a powerful compulsion to not merely bring physical, sexual pleasure to Archie and Billy, but—if my touch could bring other kinds of pleasure, that would fulfill me even more. The rush I had felt from mending Billy had been only the beginning.

Archie was already starting to waver, on the verge of pulling back. (It must be frustrating to converse with a cryptandrid, I mused wryly, without any facial cues or even a cleared throat to guide you in judging his response. I would have to find some tools for communicating my thoughts to the men I encountered in this new and strangely unhorrific life.) Before he pulled away I stilled Archie with a gentle caress to his cheek, and his lips formed a small “o” of surprise even without knowing that I had cleared away his scars as my fingers passed across his face. I did the same on the other side as well. He squeezed my cock, hard, and I made a note to let him grant me that reward.

Then, with one finger, I tugged at the neck of his soft-collared shirt, just under the hollow of his throat. He smiled and, as quickly as any man I’d ever seen, he shucked his shirt and tossed it aside. I laid a hand on his chest and guided him gently down onto his back. His cotton trousers clearly showed his wide, curved erection.

Billy was clearly enthralled at what was about to happen, but he felt a need to say, “Archie, you don’t need to do this. I’m fond of you already. As you are.”

“Billy, mate, I know that well,” Archie said soothingly. I had leaned over him and was resting my hands on his chest, gathered my thoughts, as he spoke to his friend. “This is just a bit of help for work,” he explained dismissively. “Like a new pair a boots. Now Master Thomas,” he continued, proceeding to address me as one might a clerk in a store, or perhaps a trainee barber about to give you his first shave, “you may begin when ready. If you wish,” he instructed airily, “you may use my well-muscled Adonis, here, as a guide, if you like. Or just a bit more strength will do, if that’s all you can manage.”

I snorted, and Billy, no fool he, drew in a sharp breath at Archie’s tweaking the nose, as I phrased it to myself, of a supernatural being who was about to do him a big favor. I removed a hand from his chest and tweaked Archie’s nose in return—though, as I couldn’t help but give myself even the tiny rush it gave me, I reduced the hawkishness of his nose ever so slightly, not that he was any the wiser. “All right, all right, I wasn’t trying to play you,” he protested, grabbing the afflicted protuberance and rubbing it comfortingly as one might a dog whose paw one has trod on. “I was only having a bit of fun, and I hazard it’d take more than Archie Hignell to best the likes of a ghost can mend people. I—”

I had begun, and Archie subsided abruptly, eyes widening and cheeks coloring, his curved cock flailing in his tight trousers like a beached fish as I poured my erotic energy into him, flooding him, swamping him… re-making him.

I would not be using Billy as a guide.

Billy was a magnificent specimen of masculinity, to be sure. But I did not know him, his every sinew, cut, and curve, the way I knew the hard, thick-muscled, hair-chested physique of a man I had only ever caressed with my eyes, but whose form and grace I had absorbed and taken into myself with painstaking diligence, staring hard at every line of his never-sheathed torso from my terrace vantage, day by day, week by week, until I knew him. Knew him well enough to fuck him in my dreams. Well enough to daydream of a life as his husband, in some mystic England where such things were possible, so vividly that I could feel his hands in mine and his tender kiss upon my lips, wiling away a lonely day between terms without loneliness, knowing only the joy of communing with him. Well enough to envisage his congenial face twisted in rage at my father’s abusive tirades, until I found a way to get past my family’s hatred for me, a path to maturity facilitated, strangely, by what I knew now for what it was, a boyish fantasy. Well enough to bring into existence the form of a beautiful ostler from the Ewe and Centaur I had never met, here, under my own hands, in flesh and thew and blood.

At first I had closed my eyes, bringing to mind in turn the detailed memories of Boots’s shoulders, his chest, his arms and abdominals, and everything I had observed about the lower delectations tauntingly hidden by clothes. But then I opened my eyes to gaze upon reality in place of memory, and I honed, perfected, made amazing what had been exceptional. The new Archie was not massively bigger. I did not merely add size. Instead I gave him strength, power, and grace, in a measure even greater than I had imagined for my fantasy version of Boots. The result was instead a man with every sculpted, granite-carved muscle from neck to toes optimized, fortified, carved, cut, and empowered. Not Boots, not as I had intended, but Archie, augmented, improved, and—sweet Heracles!—in his current state of advanced arousal, as close to a being of raw sexual appeal as it was possible for a mortal to become.

His eyes had been closed, but as he felt the transformation subside his eyelids flew open, and he fixed me with a lustful gaze so intense and powerful I nearly experienced an instantaneous release. Billy, I now realized, had found my unseen shoulder and was clasping it for support, stroking his own exposed and mighty member with his other hand. Billy’s pectoral muscles seemed to be rather larger than before—I was not at all certain how that had happened, as my focus had been fixed entirely on Archie, but that at least explained how the finesse I’d trained on Archie had been lacking in the simple swelling of Billy’s chest, and, I thought uncertainly, his massive prick. Heart racing, teetering on the verge of orgasm, I risked a look at Archie’s curved cock and gasped soundlessly. It was still thick, and it was still curved, but like the thighs below and round, hard backside behind it was considerably more splendid than it had been before. Even in the throes of transformation Archie had managed to loosen his buttons and free his majestic tool, now looking so like half of a triumphal arch as he gripped its purple flesh into a vertical position that I half expected to see small elephants marching serenely beneath it. The way he was raising it upward was not, I saw, for the pleasure of a hand, but Billy was inexperienced enough to hesitate. I placed a hand on his back and pushed him gently downward toward it, and Billy needed no further encouragement. He drew his lips along its rigid, curved arch, and then without warning engulfed the head in his ready mouth, causing Archie to cry out in unbridled pleasure.

Archie’s other hand was still stroking my own raging monstrosity, but now he called out in utter desperation, “Master Thomas! Master Thomas! You must let me!” To help convey his meaning he scrabbled at the invisible flies of the trousers that had been consigned to Perdition with me. Understanding his desire, for it matched my own in that moment, I hastily unbuttoned the flies as quickly as I could—familiarity trumping my own inability to see them—and pulled down both pantaloons and drawers to expose my insatiable, thick, towering member, almost ready to spend from the liberation alone. With no time to spare I guided his mouth toward my prick, stooping to bring it to him as much as I could since it would not bend down any more willingly than a stone keep would bend before a breeze. At last he had his hot mouth around it, and—

I screamed, so loud and with so much pleasure, that I thought even unheard they would tear down FitzHardinge Manor and everything in it. Malcolm, for all his madness, had not been without insight: this moment, had it been a secret tryst in the days of normalcy under Sir John and Emily’s roof, would have had us discovered. As it was, I was free to express my elation with utter abandon.

Our touch connected us. My touch united us. Because I willed it I could feel the ecstasy that Archie knew in that moment, from the pleasure I had poured into him to the point of saturation, from the feeling of my godly cock in his mouth, and his enlarged, especially sensitive cock in Billy’s. I could feel Billy’s ecstasy, from the culminating brilliance of finally wrapping his lips and tongue around a cock he had secretly craved for years, from the pleasure of his own member in his hand, and from the sheer, gratifying delight that his beloved Archie was finally happy. I felt all our euphoria and shared, driving it though each of our hearts. We all cried out as one, and we began to cum, spending our release so prodigiously that our orgasms seemed to last forever and then for another forever. Billy and I collapsed bonelessly onto the bed beside Archie, all three of us still blazing with ecstatic pleasure, still achingly hard, still spurting small gouts of hot spend onto our well-carved abdomens. I was amused to see, as we lay there gasping like landed fish, our hearts pounding in our ears, that my spend—for some unfathomable reason—became visible once it left my body, and so the little spurts I was still emitting were leaving dapples of hot, translucent semen floating inexplicably in midair, a foot or so above the bare mattress. Archie noticed it too, and he and Billy spent a few moments idly playing with the mess on my belly, drawing patterns and so on with their fingers, before Archie decided he could not wait anymore and bent to swallow my prodigious erection to an extent that any sword-swallower would have found impressive, while Billy did the same with Archie’s massive, arching tool. This time things were not quite as urgent, and we tried a few new things, but we did not get very far as the shared pleasure was so overpowering that it was impossible to hold out for too long. After another cataclysmic orgasm we rested, spent, and the newly idealized muscle prince, Archie, was soon curled up against his friend and lover with his head on what was now, to my embarrassment, Billy’s significantly over-augmented chest.

I remained awake, unsure if sleep did not come because I was unable to experience it during my only day alive of the year, or only because I was unwilling to lose any of that day to slumber. I rose out of bed, refastening the trousers that had shared my curse with me, and elected to wander the house for a while before I returned to my guests. It was, as Archie had indicated and as I had guessed, completely derelict, and now that dawn had broken I could see spiderwebs, more dust, and other sure signs of complete abandonment. No one had stopped to pack up useful things for a new home, or to throw sheets over the furniture to protect the upholstery. Either Sir John and Emily had died suddenly—from grief at what they had done to Malcolm?—and the staff had been so disloyal as to simply flee, or they had taken off, their lack of arrangements for the contents of the house taken as a sign that there should be no action taken. Either way, I thought as I toured the rooms, passing from the smallish ball room to the disused formal dining room, it seemed there was no heir, as no one had taken possession—but even as the thought occurred to me I remembered something the lawyers had told me during the hideous probate after my parents’ death, that I was the FitzHardinges’ heir, should Malcolm not inherit. Well! I thought with a snort. Good luck to their executor, then, if he was searching for me. I was right here, waiting for him.

At length I found myself in the drawing room, frowning at the grandfather clock. It was as imposing as I remembered, not least because it was, unsettlingly, the only object in the house other than myself and my guests that was not covered in a fine layer of dust. Uncanny was the word for it. I opened the glass and, very deliberately, corrected the five minutes’ lag I had experienced that morning. Then for good measure I wound it, with a key lying in a drawer under the face that, thankfully, seemed only to be an ordinary one-toothed clock key. There was no point to my actions, I knew, as the winding would be spend in eight days, and I would not be here again for another twelvemonth; but I felt a responsibility, and more than that a nagging sense that this clock and I were connected in hidden and, possibly, unsavory ways.

I made my way up to the first floor, mulling over my morning, and the afternoon ahead. I was sure that the sex Billy, Archie, and I had had was the best they had ever known, to be topped only by what was to come; and for me, of course, it was the only sex I had ever had, and I felt a fond gratitude to Billy and Archie for sharing their love with me. I entered the bedroom and found them still asleep, curled around each other, and I smiled, but my regard was wistful. It was their love, of course, and today was a new beginning of their life together. Today was about pleasure, but Archie and Billy had more than that. But… I was creature of pleasure. Would it be possible for me? Could I find love, a soulmate even, as a creature of pleasure, living life but a single day out of every year?

My thoughts from when I’d first awakened and crouched before the hearth returned to me, as if a shoulder angel were whispering them in my ear. No limitations, I had thought, before I had made fire with a thought. My new existence was designed around this idea as much as any other. No limitations.

If I wanted love, needed love, I could find love. No matter that I was unseen and unheard. No matter that Malcolm’s dreams of me had been about sex. Only this morning I had taken dreams about sex, and made them something better, something even more beautiful.

No limitations. Not for me, not any more. Malcolm, for all his delusions, had given me a gift, and I was free in a way I would have dreamed of, if I had known to dream it.

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That afternoon I lay between Archie and Billy, now ensconced on a thick, soft rug before a huge fire in the great room downstairs. They would need to go soon, well before sundown, at least, if possible. They each had no family in town, so they had told their friends they were spending Christmas with relatives out of town while secretly planning to spend the day here in the supposedly abandoned manor house. But they would both need to be at work early in the morning, and the village was a long walk—one best accomplished before the sun had set.

More seed had been spewn on my chest and abdomen, even my face, and the two men seemed fascinated with spreading it around, making visible the hidden man beneath. I let them, though it was starting to dry and itch, as I now had a soft spot for this reckless pair.

“Can we visit you?” Archie said suddenly into the silence, after we’d spent a long time delaying their departure, doodling little shapes in the drying spend adhering to my skin while the fire crackled merrily.

Billy’s face lit up at this. “Yes, please? When can we come?”

I sighed, though of course they didn’t hear me. I could see they were both mentally calculating and collating their respective days off in the weeks ahead. I knocked their doodling hands away from the spend on my chest and used my finger to write, awkwardly and with difficulty, the next day they could visit me: 25 DEC.

“Twenty-five December,” Archie read aloud from my chest, exchanging a glance with Billy. He looked at me—and, thanks to the dried seed covering my cheeks and jaw, he could see exactly where I was. “You’re only here on Christmas day?”

I nodded, knowing that for the first and only time so far in this existence I could be seen to do so. “Cock’s breath,” Archie swore.

“A whole year,” Billy said, sounding dismayed. Then he added: “I don’t think I have nearly enough ghost kisses stored up to last me that long.” He arched an eyebrow at me, and I stared at him. This man had spent too much time around his wily friend.

Archie laughed, surprised and delighted that Billy had voiced the thought before him. “I know I don’t,” he agreed.

At that I had no choice. I wrapped a hand around Billy’s neck and brought my lips against his in a kiss so deep, so passionate, and so thorough, coursing so much of what I had though this simple touch that Billy started to spend uncontrollably, shooting new gouts of seed all over my invisible body. We broke apart, gasping, and then as Billy collapsed against me I did the same to Archie. When he, too was done, still spending wildly as he crumpled, dazed, back onto the rug, I fell back between them, feeling smug.

“Well,” Archie panted, raising himself up weakly on an elbow, “I supposed that’s almost enough—” He paused, huffing to catch his breath. “—so if you could just top us off I’m sure we’ll be able to last until—”

I flicked his nose, and he yelped. He fell back down beside me, his tanned arm flung across my sticky chest, not quite obscuring the date I’d written in the spend.

“The ghost of FitzHardinge Manor,” Billy said dreamily, half-dazed beside me.

Archie hummed, then amended, “The Christmas Ghost of FitzHardinge Manor,” he said drowsily. “You’re going to be a legend to end all legends.”

“Happy Christmas, Archie,” Billy mumbled. “Happy Christmas, Thom.”

“Happy Christmas,” Archie said. A second later they were both asleep.

I caressed Billy’s back and the arm Archie had stretched across me. Happy Christmas, mates, I thought. I’m glad you like your gifts. And someday, I’ll find my own gift, the only thing left in the world I could want.

No limitations.

A feeling of gratitude in an unexpected direction surfaced in me, and though it surprised me, it also made me smile. I voiced it aloud, though there was none to hear it, not even me.

“Happy Christmas, Malcolm,” I said. “I hope you find peace.”


Part 3

I awoke to a cold, dark chamber, cast in silvered pallor by moonlight falling through naked windows. There was no noise I could discern save for a soft whipping of wind around the stones and bricks of FitzHardinge Manor, my home and haunt for all eternity, it seemed; but as I slowly gathered my wits to me I heard the distant, somber strikes of the grandfather clock downstairs, tolling the midnight hour.

Tactile senses seeped into my awareness, and I felt a rush of excitement—a state that had nothing to do with the prodigious tumescence that was once again pressing against my close-fitting trousers, a condition I supposed I was fated to endure upon every Christmas rousing for the duration of my supernatural existence. No, the blush of gratification coursing through me like a cordial as I woke to what was now, I realized bemusedly, my third Christmas in this strange and accursed place was born of two fortuities I could not have anticipated in the melancholy mood in which I had gone to rest, a night’s sleep and a twelvemonth past.

The first had to do with the chambers in which I now awoke. When I’d last returned to consciousness, my rooms had been as dusty and derelict as the house itself. The signs of many long months’ abandonment showed in every dust-layered sill and wardrobe and across every grime-smeared window. The thick, soft mattress, stripped no doubt within a day of Malcolm’s sudden, queer death and my equally mysterious disappearance, had remained undressed, and when I woke I was laying on the rough, bare ticking.

This awakening, however, to my surprise and joy I felt against my naked shoulder-blades the caress of smooth, thick sheets—and under my head was one of several wonderfully soft feather-down pillows arrayed along the upper end of the wide mattress. I wiggled against the bedclothes delightedly, snuggling into what now felt, for the first time in this borrowed and benighted house, like my very own bed, and mine alone—not a guest’s, not an unwanted orphan ward’s, but mine, the resident and possibly even lord of this desolate pile of bricks in a forgotten corner of darkest Gloucestershire.

So much had happened—my hated father and brothers being swept away by cholera; my consignment to the bosom of a family of black-hearted witches; my hopes of carnal intimacy with the handsome son Malcolm perverted by his insane lust and twisted by a spell that made me an unseen, unheard master of touch and masculine pleasure, bound to a single day, Christmas, for all of time; and then, unexpectedly, two sweet lovers who had literally tumbled into my cursed and barren life. The townhouse in London, my coarse, alcohol-soaked monster of a father, and everything else about my former life had been severed from me by this mountain-range of cruel happenstance; and I’d been left unconsciously bereft and unrooted on this side of things, not feeling as though I had any home or place in the world at all. A simple set of bedclothes, and all that changed in a moment.

I knew the source of this gift without trouble, and as I looked around the chill, moonlit room I saw further confirmation. After our deeply satisfying few hours of fucking, friendship, and even more fucking (each of us taking turns playing Ganymede, so to speak, to another’s Zeus, while the third acted the part of Orpheus and “went down” to Ganymede’s netherworld), Archie and Billy had vowed to return a year later and renew our friendship. In anticipation of this reunion, the two men had clearly visited the mansion a day or two ahead of time and thoughtfully done what they could to tidy my rooms and even cheer them up a bit. All the dust was gone from the sills and standing furniture; the bed, as I had observed, was dressed with fine sheets (from the manor’s old linens, or procured from elsewhere?); the windows, though still bereft of drapery, had, amazingly, been cleaned both within and without; and a heavy woolen blanket, gray or brown in color, lay folded compactly near the foot of the bed. A stack of fresh wood waited near the fireplace, too, which had been cleared of ashes; and a steel box sat on the previously empty slate mantle—evidently the boys had left me firestarters or newfangled lucifers to light my hearth, unaware that I could make my own fire without mechanical assistance.

I smiled wider as I spotted an altogether new addition: a sturdy walnut-wood coat tree stood by the door near the wardrobe, and hanging from one of the gracefully curved upper staves was a long, thick dressing gown, possibly dark green; and on the floor beneath it were matching slippers. I remembered the previous year’s afternoon, Archie remarking on my naked chest at some point after the fire in my room had burned low, and how it felt almost like I had goosebumps; and when, under his touch, I mimed shivering, his amazement that ghosts really did feel cold (I could hardly explain to him that I was a cryptandrid, after all, not without writing it all out, which seemed a lot less fun than fucking at the time) swiftly gave way to determination, and he’d grabbed my hand and pulled me from the room, Billy following curiously; and within five minutes we’d been basking before a huge fire in the downstairs great room. He didn’t tell me of his plans, but the crafty looks I’d caught in his eyes in the minutes we spent warming up before our next round of fucking had clearly translated into all this, and the dressing grown and slippers to cover my bare shoulders and feet in particular.

An overpowering swell of affection rose up somewhere deep in my heart, mingled with a sudden yearning for their presence. I had missed them as soon as they had departed, retiring with thoughts of how long a year might be for two young, vibrant mortals and what could happen in all that time; and I missed them more now that I’d seen their kindness toward me made manifest. I could almost feel dejected that they had not thought to be here themselves for my awakening—but no, that was a cruelly selfish idea. Who would leave their own homes to journey in the dark of night on unsafe roads to a derelict mansion far from habitation? A ludicrous thought. Though they might have left on Christmas Eve, and stayed the night—No. No! I chastised myself roundly for these cupidinous notions. The bedclothes, the tidying, the firewood, the dressing gown—no, it was all a wondrous gift, a more splendid Christmas bounty than any ghost, or cryptandrid, could ever hope to receive. It was more than a bit of wood and cloth and a spot of dusting, of course; they had given me a home, and I was grateful down to my bones, if bones I still had.

I did allow myself to hope, nonetheless, that my friends would keep their promise and come visiting today, so that I might be able to thank them properly, in a way we would all enjoy.

I climbed from the bed, ignoring as usual my oldest companion, the eager, lust-filled iron bar throbbing warm and thick along my hip against the linen cloth of my tight pantaloons, and made my way first to the hearth. As I padded across apparently dust-purged carpets I considered the other reason I had awoken in a state of diffused, surprised delight: for the first time in my life as a supernatural creature, I had dreamt.

I knelt and began arranging firewood in the grate, but my thoughts were churning in my mind like the whirlpool of Charybdis. It was no small thing to me that I had done so. As I lit the fire with my spell-gifted mastery over all I touched, as I had learned to do on my first morning as a cryptandrid, I cast my mind over what was for me the night before.

I had lain awake, increasingly certain I could not sleep until the confounded clock I’d returned struck twelve, alone and lonely. My thoughts turned inward, considering the looming end of my single day per year, and before long I was wandering a dolorous road of existential uncertainty. I was bound to Christmas day—that much I knew. But was I at all real during the intervening twelvemonth? Did I wink into existence and then out of it again, a glowworm’s light whose presence was the definition of ephemeral? That was troubling—what winked out might easily stay winked out, whatever the FitzHardinge witches had muttered about an eternal curse; but the alternative seemed worse: that I existed in a dead, unthinking state for the span of a year, my eyes opening again only after twelve months spent in the iron grip of Osiris, released to live an uneven, cock-eyed cycle of one day alive and 364 dead. By that light I was more corpse than crytandrid. The mere thought gave me shivers of necrophobic horror. After an untold time swilling these thoughts around in my mind like a bitter drink around a cup, the distant clock had struck, and I had fallen unwillingly into blackness.

And dreamt.

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In the dream I found myself coasting through the air high over a sunlit landscape. In the manner of dreams this did not seem at all strange to me; nor was it odd that my body was visible to me, and I watched my arms spread wide as I soared over a bucolic vista. The air was clean and warm, and there was no city in sight. Below me I spied a meandering river, its waters glinting in the noontime sun as it twisted through the long bowl of a low valley. I arced down through the atmosphere to take a closer look, reveling in the rush of air over my still half-naked, barefooted form, and laughed in simple delight at the crazy curls the river was making, bending one way and then doubling back almost to meet itself before swerving off in a new direction. It reminded me of watching my extremely drunk father trying negotiate a straight road and never charting the same path from one footfall to the next. I descended further, until I was mere feet about the irresolute waterway, laughing again as I tried to follow its path. Then, because I could, I elected not to follow one of the turnings, and whipped quickly over the intervening scrublands before rejoining the heedless river as it returned from its meander none the wiser to my temporary abandonment.

On a lark I aborted my course and dove abruptly into the cool riverwater, letting the deep current sweep me along below the surface before emerging into the sun-warmed air again, tossing my too-long hair around in delight. I wasn’t in the river anymore, but that didn’t matter, because the sun was even brighter—always a balm to an Englishman—and the water was even clearer. It occurred to me to marvel how easily I was treading water, but when I looked down the answer was simple enough: through the crystal-blue water I could see I had not legs but a tail, whipping easily back and forth to maintain my head, shoulders, and chest above the surface. I was a merman after all! I wondered what poor, dead, insane Malcolm would think. Laughing giddily I used my tail to jump high, twisting to catch sight of my beautifully fishy lower half, the blue-green scales catching the sunlight captivatingly, before diving hands-first deep into the ocean and then back up again.

I cavorted about like this for some time before I thought to take stock of my surroundings, but when I did so I found that I was no more than a few hundred feet from a white sandy expanse of shoreline. At the moment the portions of this delightful beach that were closest to me were peppered with men of various races, all half-naked and barefoot like I was (or had been) but doing far more service by their nudity, exposing muscled arms and chests and delectably tight abdomens above knee-length trousers. Though they were far away my sight in this dream was uncannily acute, and I could see their awed, handsome faces and wide eyes and smiling mouths as they watched me gambol in the surf for them. I paused and waved to them, and they waved and gestured to me to come closer. Before I could do so, however, a large rowboat was rolling up near me, and in it were two impressive specimens—none other than Archie and Billy, looking strong and brilliant in the tropical sun as they bent over the gunwale to goggle at me. They were shirtless and barefoot too, and they were sunbaked as if they were lifelong denizens of this paradise and not creatures of the English gloom like I was—or had been. Did a cryptandrid have a country? Did a merman? None of it mattered in the slightest.

Archie was a spectacle to see. Still tall but no longer skinny and lank-haired, he was a fantastic specimen of manhood, and even under the dazzling sunlight his physique of rippling muscles, his fantastically long dark hair whipping behind him, his bright gold-green eyes and intoxicating smile, all seemed to radiate the promise of euphoric carnal pleasure. He was like a god descended to earth now for us to bask before—a sex god, that is, for though I could not see it, hidden as it was beneath the lip of the boat, somehow I could feel the mighty appendage I’d made even more massive than my own, and fond memories of past and future attentions to it blended together in my mind. Next to him Billy was grinning wide, his neatly trimmed ginger hair looking nearly aflame in the sunlight. His muscles were still impressive, his pectorals even more so, retaining to too-generous expansion I’d crudely giften them while I was focused on crafting Archie’s perfection and casting dark shadows over the chiseled abdomen below. They both looked remarkably at home here, in the sea with me; but I was acutely conscious of how I was not only in the water but a creature of it, while they were in the boat, half-removed from where I was and who I was.

“Cock’s breath, Thom,” Archie expostulated, his language reassuringly unchanged for all his difference in appearance. “You’re a bloody mermaid!”

Billy stopped ginning at me to turn an exasperated look at his friend. “He’s a merman, ya fool,” he said. He turned back to me, the awe washing over his face again in a moment. “You look brilliant, mate,” he said, his honesty obvious and very attractive.

Impulsively I reached up and grabbed the side of the boat, hoisting myself up high enough to steal a kiss from him. Whoops and catcalls drifted over the water from the watchers on shore. I should have been afraid of the dire consequences of exposing my criminal androphilia, but here, in this place, none of that mattered at all. Billy kissed me back delightedly until I pushed away from the boat and arched roughly backward into the water, making the boat rock and splashing them with my mighty tailfin. They were laughing and sputtering as I resurfaced with a grin, their hair now wet and their muscled chests and shoulders beaded with water from the splash.

“You devious bastard!” Archie laughed.

“The water’s great,” I told them, bobbing near the boat’s edge. “Come join me!”

When I said it, I thought I meant for them to dive out of the boat and swim with me. But I realized I meant to come be mermen with me, and when they shook their heads sadly, I knew that was what they were refusing.

“We can’t, mate,” Billy said. He cocked his thumb toward the shore. “We live on the land.”

“We can’t be with you,” Archie said soberly. “Not in the water, like. Much as we want to,” he added.

“That’s okay,” I said, and I meant it. These two men meant so much to me, and I wanted them to be happy, not bound to my cursèd fate. Beyond them, out to sea, the sky was darkening, and there was a black-sailed triple-masted ship on the horizon—a corsair, perhaps, but one the size of a ship of the line. I frowned at it, wondering what it was doing here in this idyllic place, as I told the boys, “You know where to find me…”

I drifted off as the black-sailed ship suddenly halved the distance from the horizon. The sky behind it was almost as black, as if Armageddon had taken the form of the direst tempest the Earth had ever known. With dream-sharp senses I picked out a short, pallid, sneering man with wispy, sand-colored curls chanting into the air, and my blood ran cold as I heard for only the second time in my life the unknown sorcerer’s tongue with which that cold-hearted witch, Emily FitzHardinge, had blithely executed her only son.

The sneering, curly-headed man stood in the absolute center of the ship’s long, flat deck. Abruptly he raised pale hands bedecked in rings and intensified his chanting. Around me the air and sea both started churning violently around me, as if the sorcerer had awoken Charybdis herself. Archie and Billy’s boat started coursing around me in a wide circle.

“Thom! Thom!” Archie called. “What’s going on?”

“What do we do?” Billy asked.

“Hold on!” I screamed to them over the roaring sea and the whirlpool and whirlwind accelerated to a frantic pace. “Hold on for your lives!”

“THOM!” Archie cried out as the boat lifted free of the water and began whipping around in the air. I gaped up at them, powerless to help them. And yet——

I was no man. Malcolm had seen to that. Another time I might have quailed at the thought, and mourned what had been taken from me. Not in this moment. Malcolm had cursed me, but he had also given me a gift. I was no mere man—I was more than man. And I was not powerless.

I turned my ferocious gaze on the black-sailed ship. Glad of my mighty mer-tail I dove effortlessly beneath the ferocious sea, ignoring its heaving revolutions as I sped beneath the surface toward the strange ship that did not belong in my world. I fixed all my thoughts, all my intent, every part of my being on rending that ship into tiny splinters and chasing that unwelcome warlock out of my seas forever.

I reared up out of the sea and found I was twenty times as large as the black-sailed ship—I was become a mer-giant, a handsome, broad-shouldered Scylla to the sorcerer’s false Charybdis. The curly-haired man, sneering no longer, gaped up at me, his already pale visage now sickly white with fear. I did not deign to speak to him. Instead I clasped his puny ship in both hands and smashed it as easily as a model made of twigs. The warlock leapt free in the water only just in time, and a second later my palms smashed together, the ship completely destroyed. I dusted my hands together, the remains of the vessel spattering into the water like so much dirt and debris.

I looked for the curly-haired man, intending to grab him and pitch him bodily toward the horizon; I was certain that the message of such a gesture would be clearly understood. But the second I laid my eyes on him bobbing in the water and made to reach for him, he gestured angrily with his ring-encrusted hands, and then, with a tiny flash like a lick of a flame he was gone, and the floating debris of the ship with him. I blinked, then I looked around to make sure Archie and Billy were safe—but they were nowhere to be seen, either. In fact everything was gone—the rowboat, the island, the people, everything. There was nothing around me in all directions but bright blue sky and calm, clear, crystal blue-green water. I was alone. My time with my friends was ended, at least for now.

I smiled sadly in the direction of where I’d last seen them. “You know where to find me,” I said softly. Then I made a mighty dive under the ocean, and, after a very long time, I emerged…

Awake, in my bed, in the chill, moon-silvered rooms of my new home, FitzHardinge Manor, having dreamed a remarkable, bittersweet dream. A dream I welcomed, because it told me I was alive, even if sometimes I followed a different path from everyone else. Aristotle taught that time is a sequence of numbers: a simple progression along one dimension, like an arrow that moves only forward in a straight line. But time is not an arrow—time, I now knew, is a meandering river.

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Once the fire was burning briskly I donned the dressing gown and slippers, amused by what I must look like—a bit of clothing that had had a sudden brain-wave and decided to become ambulatory, perhaps, or a newly risen ghost attending to his ablutions and not yet ready to dress for breakfast. I was glad I had no need to worry about such things. That I had no need for breakfast, or food of any sort, was fortunate, for there was surely none to be found here in Perdition Manor. To operate free of the universal need for sustenance felt strange and unwarranted, like an arbitrarily granted exemption from the law of gravity. But then, Malcolm’s words came back to me, as they often did; for his words shaped the bars of my cage.

He needs no sustenance but touch. The touch… of a man.”

I had no need of food, and I was bound to Christmas Day forever—so Sir John had said. But Malcolm had invented the cryptandrid and knew its every curve and nuance, and he had said not that I needed no food, but that my only food was the touch of men. He had meant for that man to be him, of course, but Malcolm lay cold and dead under the earth not a hundred yards from my window. To be sure, if masculine touch was sustenance, last Christmas I had feasted, to the point of being sated beyond words; but out in the wide world a year had passed, and anything might have happened in my friends’ lives; for all I knew I’d never see Archie and Billy again. Was it possible—could I hunger, in this form, if I did not experience masculine touch? Could I starve, even as one cursed to live one day forever?

I shook my head. Thinking in morose circles would only make things worse. No limitations, I had promised myself. Consciously shifting my mood I elected to roam the manor a while, partly to see what else the boys might have done, and partly to take in the particulars of a house I’d had no chance to explore before Malcolm had abruptly ended my mortal life, and, inadvertently, his own. I headed out of my rooms and began wandering the corridors, curious as to what I might find.

FitzHardinge Manor is rather larger than it needs to be and recalls a day when the FitzHardinge branch of our clan was respectable, numerous, and vastly rich from mining interests; the mines, wealth, respect, and numbers had all departed, one after another and more or less in that order. Where the witchcraft had come in I did not know, though I’d heard the whispered rumors of my cousins’ moral dereliction even as a boy. The Manor itself a large, gray, stately pile with a main hall and two wings that reach out toward the vast Unwashed Wood that lies to the west just beyond the FitzHardinge lands. (Do not be distracted by the peculiar name. It has nothing to do with the filthiness of the trees, or of any bandits living beneath its canopies—the “washed” part evidently means something in an ancient Celtic tongue, perhaps having to do with the grotesquely large snails to be found there.)

The wings of the house form a sort of U with the main hall. The nicest living quarters were at the ends of each wing on the ground floor; those monsters, whom proper etiquette requires me to call Sir John and my lady Emily, lived in those situated at the end of the northern wing, while the living quarters at the end of the southern wing were long unoccupied, having previously been darkened by Sir John’s reputedly intolerable father, Eustace, Lord FitzHardinge. My rooms were in the southern wings, on the first floor above the late Eustace’s somber lodgings; I had been given a suite of three rooms—a bedchamber, a dressing chamber, and a sitting room. Picayune by the sprawling standards of this place, but now I had the run of the whole drafty monstrosity. Malcolm, as I have noted, had the suite opposite mine, at the end of the north wing on the first floor above his parents’ rooms. Not only did I have no intention of going anywhere near them, but it occurred to me that I had been actively avoiding peering out the window that faced his. I remembered him peering lasciviously at me through the pelting rain the night of my arrival, and shivered.

The first floor was largely a bust. Most of the rooms were simply standing empty, not even set up with beds for an overflow of guests. I descended the main staircase to the ground floor where I had better luck. The large drawing room and main dining room, opposite each other near the center of each wing, both had tall windows on either side and were still furnished, though most of it was covered in white sheets to catch the dust. I wondered how long ago this had been done, and by whom—the last servants to leave perhaps. Possibly Archie, as he’d been a porter here. It was funny to imagine him happily closing up the place, glad to be shed of his unpleasant masters at last. The great room, I was happy to see, had been cleaned and dusted in anticipation of a repeat of our time there last year, and there was even a vase of freshly cut wildflowers on the sideboard.

Abutting the dining room were the kitchens. These were completely derelict, of course; the cupboards and larders were bare not only of food but of pots, pans, and utensils. Someone had packed away the cooking gear and sent it off somewhere, or else had raised the house for kitchen goods and only kitchen goods after the FitzHardinges had left, for I’d seen no real sign of pilfering elsewhere in the manor so far. Perhaps there was a story there. The kitchen had a set of narrow stone stairs leading down to the basement storerooms, and, curious to see if these were as empty as the kitchens, I descended them warily, leaving the stairwell door open so that at least a bit of moonlight would seep down the steps with me.

The basement ceilings were low compared to the rest of the grandly designed manor, but they had short windows set high up the walls, and I was attuned enough to the moonlight that even the little bit that got down here was enough for me to see a little. And that was a good thing, because when I emerged from the narrow stairwell and stepped into the basement proper, I saw that the space I was entering was no pantry or kitchen storeroom, nor was it a wine cellar, or a meat-smoking room, or any other space you might expect to see in the basement of a great house. No, this space was something else entirely, an entire understory given over to the darkest of sorcerous practices, and I would have fled immediately had I not spotted the dim shapes of my friends, Archie and Billy, bound and lashed to a pillar at the center of the room. My heart began to race, though before I could panic I saw the whites of their eyes as they stared around them. Alive. They were alive, and terrified, though I knew they had defiance in them, and fury to match that welling up fast within me.

I wanted to rush toward them, but I knew bait when I saw it. And that’s when I heard the voice.

“I knew you’d come,” rasped the sneering, curly-haired witch.

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I understood then that what I head most feared had come to pass. I had known the dream I’d had, before waking this new Christmas Day, was no string of random fantasies. It had been a message, I had known, communicating to my troubled mind a way of understanding my relationship with time and the world of men. And it had been a reminder, that my friends among mortal men could not truly share my life with me, and I must accept that or succumb to despair and madness. These things I had known, and striven to take into me, knowing that these lessons would not be easy to truly assimilate.

But what I had feared, had come. It was this: that the dream had also been a portent. And that my dealings with dark magicks and dark magicians had not, as I had desperately hoped, ended forever with the passing of Malcolm and the abandonment to dereliction of my haunting home, FitzHardinge Manor. The warlock foretold had come, to take—what? The FitzHardinges’ talismanic jetsam, or me? I did not know, only that he had come to take. And in this dry, dank, unenlightened basement I could not employ the solution of my dream—I could not become a giant merman, or even a giant at all.

So what use to me was the portent of the dream, then?

“I know you are here,” growled the voice. “I can hear your breath, Cryptandrid. You are nervous and afraid.” The voice seemed to gain in smugness. “As you should be.”

Cryptandrid. He knew what I was. How? Only Malcolm had known of this mythical beast—and as he had invented the creature for his own secret satiation, there could be only him! Even Billy and Archie, who knew me and of me, believed me to be a simple ghost.

“Go back, Thom!” Archie said suddenly. He was shouting to the air, not knowing where I was, only that I was here. My heart squeezed at his sweet bravery.

“Go back!” Billy cried out as well. “He means to trap you and—!”

Silence.” The voice commanded it, and Billy and Archie, mortals only, submitted, unwilling and helpless. Fury coiled inside me, and I sought out the villain in the impenetrable shadows. The faint glow in the center of the room seemed designed to show my my friends, only. I knew I must find him, nonetheless, for mere mortals could not fight this enemy. There was myself, and no other, standing between this varlet and—

Again: what end? What, in this forgotten place of evil, did the warlock desire?

“Speak your peace,” I said. It was unnerving to speak, unable to hear myself, while knowing this hated creature could. My answer was a rough chuckle.

“My peace is simple,” the voice said. I began moving, homing in on the voice like a pigeon, or a bat, more like, in environs such as these. I tried to be quiet in my movements, though as I could not hear myself, even to the point of footfalls, I was unable to gauge my success. I had only a few strategies I could pursue, and none of them sure. What I most wanted was to rush in and loosen my friends’ bonds, freeing them so I could face this cockerel alone; but of course he would peg my position the moment I started on the cords, and would no doubt aim a terrible spell at me. I had to use craft and cunning, and neither were known to be my forte.

“I desire that which poor young FitzHardinge did not live to enjoy,” the warlock continued. I carried on my slow progress, moving in a system around the dark space in reaction to his words. “A creature whose food is the touch of man. A being who exists solely to bring sweet, turpitudinous pleasure to his beloved master. I desire the sole cryptandrid in all Creation, Thomas Addington Esquire, enslaved to me.” I nearly faltered and fell at this, the mention of my name conjoined with an unbearable fate, but I took a silent breath and continued my slow circuit. “Enslaved, I say,” the villain continued, taunting me now, “just as he was, if only for mere moments in time, to his creator—my lord Malcolm, late of FitzHardinge Manor, and now a denizen of Pluto’s domain.” The last was said with a sneer, but all of it chilled my unseen body to the quick. He had facts at his command which no one could know—no one had witnessed my creation but Malcolm, and he had lied to his parents, claiming to have consigned me to Jamaica, before dying horribly and miserably, and absolutely undoubtedly before me.

Even worse, however, was the claim that I might be enslaved to this man. Could his magicks make possible what Malcolm’s spells could not? But the warlock seemed to think that Malcolm had enslaved me. Perhaps he understood that to be the role of the cryptandrid, though how he could suppose this, or know any of what he did as basis for supposition, I could not fathom.

I risked a question, but kept my voice low, trying to hide my position just as he was. “How do you know this?” I asked him. “Malcolm FitzHardinge is long dead.”

“And in your question you place your finger on the answer,” the warlock said. He seemed to turn as he spoke, directly toward me, and I froze, cursing silently. I better knew his position, now, but he, mine, as well. “The solution is simple. I am a necromancer. I commune with the dead. When I came to this place to salvage its abandoned talismans and fetishes, the walls themselves told me Malcolm had died for a horrific, unsanctionable act of darkest magick. Summoning young Malcolm was my only possible next act. His ghost told me… everything.”

Now I understood, and I smiled, feeling the first brush of hope. I feinted left, letting my foot drag every so slightly, and in the air I felt the warlock turn. I then moved silently right. He was inches away; I needed only my moment. I stood now, as it turned out, just within the glow on the northwest side of the basement, and an arm’s reach from Archie where he and Billy stood bound to the pillar with thin, if strong-looking, cords, but the light I stood in did not matter; I was certain he could not see me, only hear me. And soon… soon he would feel me.

“You have only to submit to me,” the warlock said, his tone no longer playful, but severe, a master already to a slave not yet in chains. “Speak the words: ‘I submit, I submit, I submit’, and you will be mine.”

I said nothing. Billy was closest to me, but I required the one further from me, hidden mostly by the wide, squat pillar. I sought for Archie’s hand—it was at the very limits of my reach—and took it firmly. It was cold, and he started at the unexpected touch of me, but then he squeezed my hand, and I squeezed back. Steadily, secretly at first, I began filling my friend with strength… and size… and power. The warlock, I knew, was focused on me, and would remain so until it was too late.

The warlock was a darker shadow in the gloom, close to me. He seemed to half-expect my lack of response, for his next words were calm and measured. “I should think the motive for you to accede should be obvious,” he said. “The coin with which I shall pay you is your lovers’ lives.” This last were his coldest words yet, and seemed actually to reduce the warmth in the room in which we acted out this farce. I steadied myself, and pushed more and more change into Archie. He was trying to remain still, to hide his transformation; but soon his clothing would being to tear, and the element of surprise would be lost. I would have to time my attack to the very second.

As Archie grew I moved forward silently, one small step. I could just discern his face now, shadows within shadows: it was, indeed, the unprepossessing man with the sandy curls I had seen in my dream. His face was stolid and sneering; but he was pale, and his forehead, damp.

“Well?” the warlock demanded, perhaps more shrilly than he would have liked. “What say you, cryptandrid?”

In a low, terrible voice, a voice barbed with supernatural horrors undreamt-of by mortal men, I spoke, and though I could not hear my own words, I saw the chill the drove into the unfortunate villain. “What say I?” I jeered. “Never… never… never.”

The shirt and britches of the behemoth that was now Archie ripped loudly all at once. The warlock heard, but before he could react I grasped his shoulder hard with my free hand and gave him—what he desired. Pleasure. Fathomless supplies of it. Pleasure of fierce intensity, pleasure too great to understand, pleasure literally beyond endurance.

He tried chanting in that horrible tongue, no doubt aiming some vicious spell of binding at me. I even felt it, like dogs nipping at my flesh. I rejected all possibility of it and continued driving everything I could into the warlock. No limitations. No limitations! The monster Archie retrieved his hand suddenly, and I heard him snapping the cords of his bondage like a seamstress breaking threads between her fingers. My other hand freed, I grasped the wizard’s remaining shoulder, redoubling my efforts, and the warlock broke off his chanting and began to scream. “Pleasure you want, you fool?” I roared, hoping he could still hear me. “Then pleasure you shall have!”

The warlock was screaming continuously now. His flesh seemed to be ripping open, blood and bile pouring forth from gaping fissures that ripped open ever expanse of flesh. His screaming came with the gargle of blood now, a twin cascade to the blood rushing in my ears. “Thom! Thom!” I heard, but at first I could not comprehend anything. The warlock was falling apart in my grip, his screaming now inhuman and horrible. I felt a hand on my shoulder, and through the touch I felt him: Billy. Calm, good Billy.

I came to myself in a lurch. I staggered back, revolted and dismayed not at the unmade remains of a man piled like offal before me, but that I had done this. I was covered in the blood and gore of a man I had not merely killed but viciously destroyed.

Billy, though, was not disgusted, for he kept his hand firmly on my unseen shoulder. I turned to look at him, and his face was full of compassion.

Beyond him was a sight so amazing I had to laugh even amidst my horror. I had grown Archie into so huge a giant that he could not even stand up in the basement room anymore; he was naked and hunched over, his upper back pressed against the ceiling as though he were holding it up, like an unsung Atlas of this strange, secret house. He was grinning. “I did it, Thom! I freed ‘im, just like you wanted! I knew that was what you grew me for, and I freed us like it was nothin’!”

“You sure did,” Billy said with a fond smile, though he was looking at me. I realized he could probably sort of see me, covered as I was in the unspeakable.

“I sure did!” Archie agreed. “Only… could you put me back, mate, if it’s no trouble? On account of, I like bein’ big and all, but I’m a bit too big for the door now, you see, and I don’t fancy spending the rest of my days with him.” He nodded at the pile of ex-wizard.

I smiled. I’d never gone to war, but I supposed this day we had fought a battle and won. And like war, that was both prize, and punishment.

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Much later, with all of us bathed and supped (the mortals on food they’d brought, and me on the pleasure of their touch as we washed each other in water I’d delighted in warming to steamy tendrils for us), and with Archie returned very close to his former state (still exquisitely muscled and beautiful, but perhaps subjected to a slight amount of indulgence on my part in the satisfaction both I and Billy derived from the faintest shadow of his once gigantic frame), we lay again before the fire in the great room, carefully prepared as it had been by the boys’ earlier visit, snuggling naked together and sharing exhausted kisses as we drank some very fine ale from a barrel we had discovered accidentally, while cleaning the cellar of the outcome of one man’s vile, destructive hubris.

As it turned out my two friends had, indeed, come to the Manor on Christmas Eve night, hoping to join me as I awoke and celebrate Christmas together with many hours of very energetic predawn fucking. But the warlock had been here already, and had captured them easily in hopes of laying a trap for me. It was not his first visit. He had already been raiding the unoccupied Manor for months after his first explorations, when he’d uncovered the secret of the Manor’s peculiar ghost. Since then he had been searching for a charm or totem among the FitzHardinge’s leavings that might force my submission. Billy reckoned that it was their own excited conversation as they prepared for our Christmas reunion that had revealed our connection and given him the lever to move me that magick had not.

I was sorry for my friends, and furious they had been so abused. But the nameless warlock had never had a chance. For I intuited the key to the conflict in the warlock’s boasting of what he would acquire from me. That he had the facts of my condition wrong could mean only one thing: Malcolm’s ghost had lied to the wretched magician. Malcolm knew I could not be enslaved, for he had created me to have mastery over touch, not to submit to it. In his contempt for this magical scavenger of his own family’s hidden power, he had told him all he needed to know to get himself utterly destroyed the moment he attempted to take me for his own. The plan I’d thought was mine was Malcolm’s, all along.

Now, the interloper was dead, and there would be no ghost to worry about either, unless another necromancer were to come calling. Of course, Malcolm’s spirit had been raised, and might still be about… somewhere. He might want to leave me well enough alone, being a reminder of his worst mistake and literally fatal misjudgment; or perhaps he was content to steal a glance at the fleshly joys I shared with my mortal friends, and savor vicariously at least what he had wrought. What pleasures did a ghost desire? I knew not, though I did not doubt that some day I would discover the answer.

“I’m still going to have trouble wi’ doors and all,” Archie was griping, interrupting my musings. There was a glint in his eyes, though, that belied his words. He was nibbling the last of the cheese and bread he’d brought out to go with the ale, already having eaten half as much again as his more solidly built, but now rather smaller, companion. “Couldn’t you take off just a bit more, Thom? If you want to conserve flesh an’ all, you can just add it onto the end o’ my—”

“Don’t you dare, Thom,” Billy remonstrated with a laugh. “I like him exactly as he is, in all dimensions. And if that thing got any bigger, I’d never be able to walk again!”

“That’s all ri’, love,” Archie said with a grin. “I’ll carry you, no worries!”

“Leave off,” Billy said grinning, and instead reached across me to grab his neck and pull him in for a very sloppy kiss. I, of course, could not resist such temptation, and joined myself to their oral gymnastics with pleasure. I did not know what future Christmases held for me, or how long the queer love we three shared could last. But I had had my lessons, and I knew that which behooved a supernatural being uncoupled from Aristotle’s simple progression of time as I was: that I enjoy this day and cherish it. And so I would do, this day and every Christmas, until I was no more.

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