The House of the Seventh Minuet LXXIV

Once the hike was done and we were back at my house, we spent some time relaxing and washing up. When I got back to my room after a shower, I glanced out the window and noticed that Stefan was chopping wood again. I got dressed– my most comfortable black jeans and a soft long-sleeved shirt– and headed outside to talk to him.

“Hi, Stefan!” I called as I walked through the door, wanting to make sure he heard me.

Stefan lowered the axe and turned to look at me. “Hey, Leila.” Then he split the log he was working on and set up the next one.

“Larsa and Killian aren’t out here helping you?” I descended the stairs from the deck, thinking that I could help instead.

“No. They went to take a nap or a bath or something.”

“Maybe both,” I laughed. “Well, I can take the cut wood over to the pile.”

“You don’t have to,” he said.

“I don’t mind.” I glanced up at the late-afternoon sky. The wind had picked up a little on our way back from the hike, and it was a little more overcast now. “Sometimes the rain comes in pretty fast…”

He paused and gave me a half-smile. “Don’t worry about it. You just got out of the shower; go relax on your swing and I’ll finish up soon.”

I gave him a long look, but I could tell when he wasn’t going to back down or accept help. He chopped logs for longer than I thought was practical, but it seemed like he had a lot of tension to get out, so I didn’t bother him until the wind got a lot stronger and the sky was a lot darker.

“Are you going to risk getting something in your eyes just so you can prove to the wind how tough your are?”

Stefan sighed and set down the axe. “Fine,” he gruffed, though not in anger. “Let me get these logs up to the stack so they don’t get drenched.”

He started piling wood into his arms, and I headed down to help with that part of the work.

“Wha– Leila, I’ve got this,” he insisted, refusing to let me take any of the logs from him. “Could you see if Killian and Larsa are up yet? Maybe they can help decide what’s for dinner.”

“It’s just a few,” I said. I started picking up logs a little further away from him.

I could hear him sigh. Too bad; I was helping. He took his first pile of wood to the stack on the covered porch, then headed back for more. He moved fast, and I could only get a few pieces before he had the rest of the logs in his arms. We were stacking the logs onto the pile when I felt something poke my finger.

“Ow!” I hissed, not meaning to make it sound like such a squeak.

Stefan reacted at light speed. “Shit, Leila, are you okay?”

“Um–” I put away my last log and looked down at my finger. “Yeah, it’s just a splinter. It’s not even deep.” I pulled it out and sucked on the finger as a tiny drop of blood formed.

“Here, let me see it.” Stefan rushed to shift his armful of wood onto the pile, but he must have miscalculated something, because he ended up crying out and dropping most of it onto the deck.

“Woah, what happened?” I asked. He was clutching his abdomen, and that had me worried.

“I’m fine,” he groaned. “Let me see your finger.”

“You’re not fine.” I countered. I could already see the blood seeing around his arm. “You’re bleeding a lot more then I am.”

“It’s just a few scratches.”

I narrowed my eyes at him. Then I held my finger out for him to see. “Look, it’s just a few drops. I got the splinter out, no remnants. Now let me see what happened to you.”

I pried his forearm up enough to see several tiny holes in his shirt, all of them soaked with blood.

“What did this to you?”

Stefan looked down at the wood he’d dropped and pushed a few pieces aside with his boot. “Probably that one,” he said, indicating a log that was especially jagged and splintered. “I know– you don’t have to tell me; I’m supposed to be more careful with wood unless I have on better protection gear.”

“Heh… I don’t know why you were so set on me not helping you that you lost sight of that. Come on, let’s go inside and I’ll help get the splinters out.” I took his hand and led him into the house; he followed, albeit a bit stiffly.

“You don’t have to play nurse, Leila,” he insisted. “Just have Larsa come down and help me.”

I stopped in front of the door to the media room and stared up at him. “Really? I asked, incredulous. “You want Larsa to pull out all your splinters?”

“Well… yeah… he’s family.”

“He seems more like the type to exaggerate a single splinter,” I pointed out, “not clean up a bunch of them on someone else.”

He didn’t seem to have anything to say about that, but winced as the splinters shifted with his movements.

I pulled him into the room and had him lie down on the couch. “Just rest here while I get the first-aid kit.”

I ran to the downstairs bathroom to grab the plastic box. As I was rushing back to Stefan, I heard footsteps in the hallways upstairs; I didn’t have time to stop and talk to Killian and Larsa, but I was glad that they were out of their room. I pulled an ottoman up close to the couch and opened the first aid kit on my lap. I started to lift up Stefan’s shirt, but he stilled my hand.

“I can do this,” he told me. “Just hand me the tweezers.”

“What are you talking about, Stefan? If you bend over to try seeing the splinters, it’s just going to hurt more,” I explained to him. “And if you can’t see what you’re doing, you might inadvertently push them in deeper.”

The expression on his face was serious; not angry, but more determined. Actually, he was also looking stubborn. I couldn’t understand what was going through his mind just then.

“Is that Killian who just came downstairs?” he asked, craning his head to peer through the door.

“Stop moving!” I ordered him. “Just take off your shirt, Stefan.”

Stefan was still thinking about whether or not to follow through when Larsa all but bounced into the room. Killian wasn’t far behind him. “What do you need my boyfriend for? If it involves you taking your clothes off, I don’t want to share.” He had a silly grin on his face.

Stefan looked far less amused. “It’s just a few splinters I got while stacking firewood,” he said. His shirt was now bunched up over his chest, revealing a belly covered in splinters of various sizes and bleeding from most of them.

“Wow,” Killian said as he took in the sight. “Ye don’ do things in small amounts, do ye? What is it ye need me tae do? I’ve helped my brothers and sisters with many a splinter, but not this many at once.”

“Oh, I know!” Larsa announced, and he sat on the floor next to Stefan, taking his hand. “He needs us to hold his hand while she takes out the splinters, because it’s going to hurt a lot.”

Then Larsa leaned in closer and half-whispered to Stefan in Swedish. “När hon är klar med att ta bort dina splitter, kanske du kan få henne att hjälpa dig med din tagg.”

Stefan yanked his hand away. “What the hell, Larsa?!”

“What did he say?” I asked.

Stefan spoke before Larsa could even open his mouth. “He’s just being stupid.”

“Hey, I’m not stupid!” Larsa looked genuinely hurt.

“Yeah, well, the dirty jokes you keep telling are getting old,” Stefan grumbled. “Maybe you and Killian should go back to Beaverton and use this week to get it out of your system.”

“Ye’re eggin’ him on again?” Killian asked, looking at Larsa with a hint of disappointment, “Ye promised tae stop.”

“But– but–” Larsa interjected, trying to make puppy dog eyes. “She was telling him to take off his shirt.”

Killian nodded and made himself look entirely unamused. I think that some part of him wanted to be amused, but he felt the need to hide it, and I had no idea why. “Can ye simply let her perform first-aid on him?”

Larsa went through a whole series of expressions. At first he looked amused with himself, but with both Stefan and Killian staring at him, he quickly deflated. He looked disappointed, then ever-so-slightly ashamed, and then pleading. I decided to ignore whatever they had going on and pulled on a pair of nitrile gloves, then wrapped a bit of gauze around my left forefinger and picked up the tweezers.

“Hold still, Stefan,” I warned as I leaned in to get the first splinter out. I was careful to pull straight, not changing the angle, and steady; I didn’t want a piece to break off that would have to be dug out later.

Stefan practically held his breath as I worked. I got the splinter out and wiped the blood away with the gauze to make sure I’d gotten all of that one. I looked up to meet his ice-blue eyes.

“This is going to take a while. Do you want them in here, or should we talk food?”

“Oh yeah,” Larsa chimed in. “I’m hungry!”

“We could make pizzas,” Stefan suggested. “You’ll just have to take the dough out of the fridge so it can rise.”

“I can take care o’ that,” Killian assured him.

“Oh, I’ll help cut up the toppings!” Larsa announced, and he was up and heading for the door. “Thanks for being Stefan’s nurse, Leila!” he added before disappearing.

“Ye’re in good hands,” Killian said before heading for the door. “I’d best make sure Larsa doesnae hurt himself. Just call if ye need me, okay?”

Stefan gave him a cold stare. “I’ll remember this next time you need a favor.”

“Ye mean makin’ sure your cousin’s finger isnae cut off? It’s the least I can do fer the lad, but I appreciate the sentiment all the same.”

“You three have some interesting banter going on,” I noted once Killian was gone. “Are you going to let me take your shirt off now? It would help me work better if it was out of the way.”

Stefan stared at me for a moment, his expression hard, and then he sighed. “If that’s what you really want.”

“It is,” I said. I shifted over to push the fabric up his chest and over his head and arms. I tossed it aside, noting that I would have to help get some splinters off of it before I washed it later.

Then I went about removing more splinters from Stefan’s belly. He winced as I worked on some of the larger ones, but still did his best to hold still. His abdomen was wall-muscled; he didn’t brag about working out, and with all the heavy equipment he carried around, he really didn’t have to. If he weren’t wounded, it would have been tempting to–

“Leila,” he gasped when I was about halfway through. He grasped my shoulders and his wide warm hands.

I looked up at him. His eyes were fixed on me; it was like I was the only thing he could see in that room. They sparkled, even though it wasn’t very bright. Maybe he had some kind of strong emotions on his mind, or–

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to hurt you,” I murmured, thinking that was the problem.

He shook his head. “I could never feel hurt with you taking care of me.”

Stefan kept his eyes on me, but he didn’t say anything more. It seemed like he wanted to, like there were words right on the tip of his tongue, words that he was trying to force himself to say, but couldn’t.

“What’s on your mind?” I asked him. I don’t know why, but the words came out almost whispered.

His hands moved to cup my cheeks, and a smiled at the touch. His skin was a little rough from working, but I didn’t mind at all.

“Leila, I…” he began. Then he stopped himself and swallowed hard.

“What is it?”

His mouth twitched with a faint smile. “I really appreciate you helping me with this. And for putting up with Larsa’s antics.” His hands went back to his sides.

“You know I’m always going to be there for you,” I reminded him. “And I like Larsa. His impishness keeps us on our toes. Plus, I think he’s just want Killian needs.”

“They’re quite a pair,” Stefan agreed. There was something wistful about his tone, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. I went back to pulling out splinters.

“My cousin… your cousin… our friends.” I stopped talking to get another one, then went after the small piece that was almost left behind. His belly twitched. “Sorry– I just need to get… there!” I showed him the tiny bit of bark I’d removed.

“It doesn’t hurt that much,” he said. “It’s just…” he glanced down. “Your hand.”

I looked down at where my left hand rested; where I’d place it so that I could lean in and get the splinter. It was on his hip, though a little lower, and close to where his thigh curved inward. Meaning incredibly close to–

“I’m so sorry!” I cried, lifting my hand. My cheeks were burning. “I didn’t mean to–”

“It’s okay. I’m not mad; I was just a little surprised; that was why I flexed.” He took my hand and I tried to meet his eyes, though I was to embarrassed to do so. “Do what you need to do.”

When I finally looked at him, I nodded. I could get back to pulling splinters; that was the whole point of having him on this wide, comfortable couch with his shirt off, after all. Once I was done helping my friend, who had chopped way more firewood than he needed to, he could take a shower and come down to make a custom pizza. what kind of friend would I be if I made his visit to me house awkward? Once I felt less– no, once I reminded myself that there was nothing to be nervous about, I placed my hand on the side of his hip and leaned in to get the last few splinters.

“I hope I’m not bleeding all over your couch,” he said. “I can clean it up if–“

“No, the bleeding had mostly stopped,” I told him. “Hold still, there’s one more.”

I got it out, then set the tweezers down. “Okay, time to wipe it down,” I said as I picked up some gauze and the bottle of iodine. “This might be a little cold.”

He nodded, and I soaked the gauze with iodine. I wiped the wounds gently, making sure to only go in the direction I’d pulled the splinters out; I didn’t want to risk pushing anything in if I’d missed it.

“Leila,” he began as I cleaned, his voice soft and thoughtful, “I’m really happy for you. This house is fantastic, and you’ve really made it a home.”

I glanced up to see him smiling at me. “I really didn’t do anything,” I said. “The place was already furnished, remember? All I added was my own stuff, and there wasn’t much of that compared to what was already here.”

“That’s not what I mean,” he replied.

“Okay, mister, so what do you mean?”

“It’s…” He paused to search for the right words. “It’s your personality. You brought your own light into this place, Leila. It’s alive because of you.”

“My house is alive?” I repeated in a mostly teasing tone.

“Don’t play coy with with me.” He sat up a little more. “You make this place feel warm.”

“I’ve been known to light the fireplace in the evening,” I teased; his words were far too kind. “So how do you feel? Did I get all the splinters?”

He nodded. “It’s like I was never hurt.” He squeezed my hand and leaned in closer. “I meant what I said, Leila. This place is cozy because of you.”

I have to admit that I blushed a little at his words. “It wouldn’t be quite as cozy without you here,” I told him. “Have you and Killian and Larsa visit has really livened the place up.”

“We wouldn’t be here if not for you,” Stefan murmured.

He was staring into my eyes. I stared back. When his fingers pushed a curl back, I held perfectly still. For some reason– don’t ask me why– my heart raced when his fingers traced faintly down my cheek and rested under my chin. He swallowed. Hard. Something in his expression changed, and he moved closer to me.

I think I’d misread something in his face or eyes, because instead of what I thought he was going to do, he wrapped his arms tightly around me. I ended up on his lap somehow, tangled in his arms. He buried his face in my neck and hair.

“You’re the best friend I’ve ever had,” he whispered into my ear. I swear there was something sad in his voice, like he was trying not to cry, but ultimately I told myself that it was because of how he was holding me. “I don’t know what I’d do if I ever lost your friendship.”

“You’re my best friend, too, Stefan,” I whispered back. I didn’t know what else to say. No other words seemed right. Not coming from me, at least. He could have said anything at all and I’d be thrilled. I loved the sound of his voice, the strength I felt in his hugs, the way he was protective and a gentleman, but also understood that I was capable of a good many things.

I let him hold me for as long as he wanted. His hugs were tight, but more in a secure and comforting way than anything constricting. When he eventually let go, he smiled at me.

“Never stop being your wonderful self,” he said. I wasn’t certain, but I thought I detected a quaver in his voice. I wasn’t going to say anything about it, though. Not that I had a chance to; he was already getting up from the couch. “Well, I’d say it’s time for a shower. Is there anti-bacterial cream in that kit?”

“Yeah,” I said, “but there’s another one in the upstairs bathroom that you can use. And bandages– whatever you need. Do you want me to show you?”

He smirked and picked up his shirt. “I’m sure I can find it. But if you really don’t want me looking through your cabinets…”

“It’s fine,” I told him. Then I reached for the shirt. “I can clean that for you.”

“Leila Moss, if I didn’t know better, I’d think you were doting on me.”

That had me blushing again. “Oh, quit teasing! I can run some tape over it a few times and get more splinters off. Now hand it over.” I held out my hand for the shirt.

He looked at me for a moment, clearly debating to himself how cocky he was going to be. He eventually placed the shirt in my hand.

“As you wish,” he said. He rushed out of the room after that, apparently eager to get into the shower.

About Legends of Lorata

Eleanor Willow is the author of the high fantasy series Legends of Lorata, which takes place on a medieval-style world filled with elves, dragons, and faeries. There is also a fourth race, one that is rare and magical: the angelic Starr. Lorata is a planet where four gods are known: good, evil, elemental and celestial-- and there are plenty of legends about them all! One of the most important ones is the prophecy of Jenh's champion, Loracaz, who is promised to return to the land whenever evil threatens to take hold. There are currently three books completed, and the first one can be read online. Book four is currently being written, and a fifth will most likely be in the future. Any news I have on about publishing will be shared as it comes in!
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