CHAPTER TWO - GIFTED
"I'll refill Mr. Hendrick's drink. Why don't you get a new shirt? You stink to high heaven." Angela took the sticky highball glass from Nate's hands.
"Yeah. No kidding. Okay, I'll be right back." Nate wiped him palms over his already ruined shirt. He cast one last glance at Emrys but the partygoers had clustered thickly around where the new teacher had been and he couldn't see him any more. A surprising stab of regret went through him.
I'm sure I'll see him later. The party's just beginning after all.
Angela disappeared in the crowd as she headed towards the bartender. Nate began threading his way through the guests towards the front of the house. He found himself constantly apologizing as person after person elbowed him, blocked his way or crushed him against one of the decorative bushes. He had never been at a party where it was so crowded. Even with the size of the Abberley Estate, it seemed like everyone that had been to every other party that summer was now at this one. But Dunhaven didn't have this many students. He caught snippets of conversation as he made himself towards the mansion and through it to the parking area out front that explained why.
"... I tried to get my Edward into Dunhaven and do you know what they said?" A woman wearing too much lilac perfume whispered to her companion.
"No, what?" Her companion, a man with half-closed, hawkish eyes and thin lips asked.
Her red mouth writhed in anger. "That he didn't have the right bloodlines! As if our family, which stretches back to the founding of this town, isn't blue-blooded enough for them!"
"Yet here you are at their benefit. And you had to write a big check to the school to get invited in the first place," the man responded with a cool smile.
The woman blinked. "But, of course, I am. Everyone who is anyone is here."
Nate passed them by and scooted through the French doors into the house's interior. It was drenched in marble and gold. He found it extraordinarily tacky, but most people oohed and ahhed over its architecture. He ran into another cluster of guests who kept him from passing by for almost a full minute. He tried going one way then the other around them, but each attempt was blocked. First, by a woman in impossibly high heels. Next by a man with a paunch that stuck out a foot from his body. Nate stopped trying to get past when he heard Emrys' name mentioned.
" ... they say he just appeared in the headmaster's office last week!" A woman dressed in a flaring orange dress gushed. "Not one word. Not a phone call. Not even an email. Just poof! There he was."
Another woman leaned towards her, exposing a wide slash of bosom. "He didn't ask to teach either. He just said he would and told what subjects he would be picking up."
"Well, he owns the place," a man with gold-rimmed glasses put in. "He can do what he wants. He could even shut it down."
"He wouldn't! Dunhaven is an institution! It's bigger than the Frosts after all. I would say he's rather commanding for someone so young," the woman in the orange dress said as she patted her hair.
"Supposedly, he didn't even raise his voice. Just calmly told the headmaster what was what," the bosomed lady pointed out. "But from what I hear the Frosts has always been that way. High-handed. Commanding. Arrogant. Sort of regal. Reminds me a bit of Alric Koenig, but ... different. Colder actually."
The orange dress woman narrowed her eyes and leaned in conspiratorially. "Well, you know the rumor about the Frost family, don't you?"
The bosomed lady shook her head. "What is it?"
"They were burned at the stake not too many years ago. That's why they founded Winter Haven. No one else would have them," she said with a fluttering hand over her heart.
Nate nearly gasped. For one moment, he envisioned Emrys' beautiful face taut with agony as flames licked up his body. He shook his head, feeling a piercing headache suddenly come on. He pinched the top of his nose hoping that would staunch the incipient migraine.
"Really? Witchcraft? Like those Wicca people --"
"No, like black magic. Devil worship. The thing that all those Puritans should have been afraid of while they were punishing poor old women. The Frosts were the real thing," the woman in orange said with a knowing nod of her head.
Black magic? Devil worship? How does she know these things? And what does it have to do with Emrys? He's just gotten here and already these women are totally sliming him with stupid superstitious nonsense. Nate took an instant dislike to the gossiping group. He had a ridiculous urge to defend Emrys to them. But I don't know him. And Angela would totally can me for arguing with guests and future business opportunities.
The man with the gold-rimmed glasses frowned. "We don't talk about those things. Not here."
The woman in orange retreated at his waspish tone. "Oh, well, I only meant ... well, never mind then."
Nate smiled. Though he was no fan of the man's, at least he has stopped them from spreading vicious rumors. After all, Emrys had just gotten here and already he was the center of gossip. Didn't they have anything better to do?
The bosomed woman was quiet as well for a moment, but then she said, "Have you seen him? I've heard he's quite handsome."
The man with the gold-rimmed glasses smiled. "He is indeed."
Nate was surprised at the shot of jealousy that went through him. As if only he should notice that Emrys was beautiful. Handsome was too dull a word for him. He hustled past the group as they began to break up and go their separate ways. He was grateful to walk out the front doors and onto the graveled drive. The valets were helping people out of their cars one by one so there was a more orderly, streamlined atmosphere here that he could easily navigate. His chest felt less tight as he took in deep draughts of night air. The sun had completely disappeared behind the horizon now. He nodded to Billy, one of the valets that he had done a few parties with, and headed towards the parking area where Angela's fleet of catering vans sat like large white ghosts in the gloom. The front of his shirt was sticking to his chest uncomfortably as he crunched his way over the gravel drive. Lightening streaked across the night sky.
It really is going to storm, Nate thought.
A shiver of apprehension and excitement raced down his spine. The air had an electric tang and the fine hairs on his arms stood on end. He picked up the pace to a half-run. He didn't want to put on a fresh shirt and then get soaked on his way back to the party. It would defeat the purpose of getting cleaned up in the first place. He headed towards the nearest truck. This one had a dent on the right bumper and he was pretty sure that's where he'd stashed his extra shirt. Angela always left the vans open so that people could get in and out of them without having to track her down for the keys. After all, who wanted to steal an old panel van anyways when you had choices like the Porsches and Maybachs?
Nate pulled open one of the back doors of the van. A single yellow light in the center of the van flickered on. Nate lifted himself into the van. Half of it was filled with a cart that was loaded with trays that were now empty, their contents having been transferred to the kitchen. He'd tucked his shirt in with a mass of clean towels just beyond the trays. He was rooting around inside when the first major clash of thunder reverberated in the air. Nate looked out the back of the van. It was a facing a line of evergreens that were clotted in darkness. A bright streak of lightening revealed the ground beneath the heavy boughs as if it were middle of the day.
"Got to hurry," he whispered underneath his breath. He tossed towels to the side, making a mess out of the neat stacks, but he didn't see his shirt. Had he got the wrong van? Had someone taken the shirt? Maybe they had moved it? He looked over his shoulder again at the base of the trees as another lightening flash nearly blinded him. He blinked. Something was moving beneath the limbs. It was low to the ground. Four legs. Gray fur.
Nate's heart rate sped up. He straightened from his task. Velvety night had fallen again. The tap of fat raindrops echoed hollowly on the roof of the van, but he forgot about his shirt, forgot about the party, forgot even about Emrys at that moment. His hands curled into fists as he waited for the next lightening flash. He had to see if the wolf was really there. He peered into the darkness. Lightening crawled across the sky once more. The wolf was sitting just on the edge of the grass, not fifteen feet away. Nate hopped out of the van without thinking. Rain pummeled down on his shoulders and the top of his head, but he didn't notice it. He stepped forward even as he was practically blind. He squinted, trying to make out the wolf's figure against the rest of the darkness. Another rumble of thunder shook the ground and echoed in his chest. Water ran down his face in rivulets. His hair was now plastered to his head and covered his eyes. He swiped it out of the way, annoyed that it might be stopping him from glimpsing the wolf.
"Come on, lightening. Let me see." As if in answer, the largest bolt so far crackled overhead. The wolf had moved. It was now standing only a foot away from him. Its gray fur was wet with water yet yellow-eyes stared at him unblinking. Nate hunkered down and slowly extended one hand towards the wolf. "Do you remember me? I remember you. I could never forget you."
He was sure it was the same animal that had approached him that day in the woods. It had a notch in its left ear. Same wolf. Not a dog. Definitely a wild animal. Untamed and unpredictable. Nate kept his palm face up so that it was clear he wasn't being aggressive towards the wolf. But the animal did not appear afraid. Its eyes glowed in the low ambient light. Away from the van and now with almost constant lightening strikes, he could see the wolf clearly. It didn't move as his fingers brushed lightly over the side of its head. The fur was soft even though it was wet. Nate was smiling and he felt tears in his eyes.
"What are you doing here? Were you looking for me?" Nate asked as he ran his fingers through the thick fur.
The wolf stared at him for a long moment then turned its head towards the mansion. Nate felt a tingle of unease.
"You can't go over there. There are a ton of people and they would freak out if they saw you," Nate said as if the wolf could understand him.
Its ears twitched, but it continued to look at the lightened mansion.
"Are you hungry? Because I can get you food. I can bring it to you. You don't have to go there to get it," Nate offered. His unease was growing. He imagined the partygoers screaming as they caught sight of the magnificent animal loping through their midst. Security would be there with their guns and they'd try to shoot it. "You can't go in there. It isn't safe for you."
The wolf started to walk towards the mansion. If Nate had been thinking he wouldn't have acted like he did. But he was only feeling and he was afraid not of the wolf but for it. He threw himself after the animal and wrapped his arms around its chest. "Please don't! Please!"
The wolf stopped. Nate felt the thump of its heart surging up his hands. His own heart mirrored that rhythm. He was transfixed by the sensation of so much life in his arms. He buried his head in its fur and just held onto it. The wolf did not growl nor snap. It merely allowed the touching. But he felt that he could only hold it for so long. The wolf was intent on going to the Abberley Estate.
"I don't want anything to happen to you. Stay here. I'll get you food. I'll get you whatever you need! Just don't go!" Nate begged.
But the wolf gave a shake and Nate was thrown off of it. Then the wolf was bounding away. Its powerful flanks were silvered by the lightening as it raced to the front of the house then veered off to the side. Nate held his breath, hoping that the wolf would stop, turn around and retreat before anyone saw it. But then it was running full speed towards the back of the property and the garden pavilion. Nate was on his feet and taking off without thought. He was in a full-barrel run. The rain was coming down in blinding sheets, but he managed to keep moving in the right direction. He slipped as the ground beneath him changed from gravel to grass. He sprawled on the ground. A sharp sting ran up from his knee. He had skinned it. He felt hot liquid pouring down his calf, but he ignored it as he scrabbled to his feet. If he could get to the wolf in time, maybe people seeing them together would believe it was just a dog, someone's lost pet and wouldn't reach for a gun or start screaming. He would never forgive himself if the wolf was injured. It had come here for him, he was sure of it.
He made it to the end of the mansion and was standing on the top tier of the gardens. The rain had forced everyone inside the house or into the pavilion. Nate squinted as he looked for the wolf. He thought he saw its sleek form slip around the side of the pavilion to the next garden level. Nate gave out a harsh breath as he realized the wolf was not going into the pavilion itself.
But what's down there that's interesting it so much? Other than the cliff ...
Nate shook his head. The wolf would have no interest in the cliff and the water. He hurried around the pavilion himself and scampered down the steps. He only caught the barest glimpse of the wolf threading its way down the steps to the lowest garden. The tables that Angela had them set up so beautifully were now sodden messes. The cream tablecloths were drenched and the candle flames were long since quenched. Except for one. The last table nearest the cliff edge had a candle that was still burning. Nate jumped down the steps. He thought he saw a furry body move towards the candle. He squinted and sluiced the water away from his eyes, but the candle flame continued to burn peacefully. He walked towards it. It was so odd yet peaceful seeing that single flame in the darkness. He glanced back at the house and pavilion. He could see bodies silhouetted by the lights inside. That was sane and normal. It was separate and apart from the wildness of nature where he was right now. Chasing a wolf towards an inexplicably burning candle.
The rush and shush of the waves drowned out the party sounds as he neared the last table. He stopped beside it. He put his hand above the flame. No water hit the back of his hand. Somehow it was not raining on the candle. It was raining everywhere else, but not there.
"What the hell?" Nate breathed.
He looked back at the house and pavilion again. A part of him wanted to go back there. To join in the normal life. But he was as outside of that as he often felt from others time and time again. Something flickered in the corner of his eye towards the cliff. He turned to look. Was it the wolf?
"Emrys? I mean Mr. Frost?" Nate asked as the figure walked towards him from the cliffside.
The Dunhaven teacher didn't look like a drowned rat as Nate was sure he did. Emrys' black hair was slicked back and shone with rainwater. His cheeks were flushed with a hectic color. His topaz eyes glowed with life and amusement. He appeared enervated by the storm. He didn't seem to care that his dress shoes were undoubtedly ruined.
Why isn't he in with the rest of the guests?
"You know why I'm not, Nathaniel," Emrys said with a grin.
Nate at first boggled at how good his name sounded in Emrys' honeyed tones, but then he realized that the other man had apparently read his thoughts. Or seemed to.
"Did I say that out loud?" Nate let out an uncertain laugh. He believed he had only thought that.
"You were wondering why I wasn't inside with the rest of them. Hunkering away from the fury of the storm. But you already know. I saw it on your face. I loathe these people," Emrys answered him.
"Oh, well, uhm ... then why did you come back?" Nate asked. He winced at how forward that sounded, but when he saw the teacher's widening grin he realized he hadn't said anything wrong. His honesty looked to be appreciated.
"Because everyone here isn't like them. And Dunhaven is mine. I've just come to ... collect what's mine, I guess you could say," Emrys answered.
"You like teaching?" Nate grimaced.
Emrys laughed uproariously, holding his sides. He shook his head, giving Nate an almost affectionate look. The he sobered as he said, "I hoped you would come out here. I saw you out here earlier. You almost fell. But then you ... did not."
Nate felt a stab of fear as if Emrys had caught him doing sometime wrong. He saw the wind save me. It wasn't just my imagination. But I can't tell him that. Can I?
"I came out because I -- uhm -- did you see -- uhm, there was a -- a dog coming this way," Nate got out.
Emrys' eyebrows raised in amusement. "A dog?"
The emphasis on dog told Nate that the teacher knew quite well that he wasn't looking for a dog. He shuffled his feet. His shoes squished. "Actually, more like a wolf. Did you see it?"
But before Emrys could answer him there was another rumble of thunder that nearly sent Nate to his knees. He clutched the tabletop. Emrys let out a delighted laugh. He grasped Nate's hands. A tingle of electricity went through Nate and he let out shocked gasp. Emrys' topaz eyes hooded as his smile became sultry.
"Come on, Nathaniel! Let's experience this storm together!" Emrys pulled him towards the cliff.
Nate dug in his heels a bit as there wasn't enough light to see properly. And he remembered nearly falling once today. He didn't want Emrys to accidentally tip them over the edge once more. The teacher though moved with reckless assurance. He didn't seem concerned about falling at all. He stopped suddenly and pulled Nate in front of him. His hands fastened around Nate's waist. A streak of heat went through the boy. His cock twitched in his soaking pants as Emrys pressed his front to Nate's back.
"Can you feel the power, Nathaniel? Can you sense the storm's force?" Emrys asked. His breath tickled Nate's left ear.
"Y--yeah. It's great." But it was also terrifying.
Nate looked out into the blackness. A sheet of lightening showed him the ocean below. Storm surge had the water coming halfway up the cliff face before it was sucked back out again and then more waves slammed home. The sky was a mass of billowing, black clouds. Rain pelted his face. It stung his cheeks.
"Try to control it," Emrys said.
Nate tried to twist his head around to see Emrys. He must have heard him wrong. But one of the teacher's hands had fastened onto the back of his neck and forced Nate to look ahead.
"Control the storm, Nathaniel. Make it do what you want," Emrys' voice darkened. It was almost unrecognizable for a moment.
"You're joking, right?" Nate gave out a sharp bark of laughter. "No one can do that."
Emrys' fingers tightened on his throat. "Don't deny what you know to be true. I'm not fond of liars though I have been known to be one. Let the storm fill you then let yourself fill the storm."
Nate had purposefully been stopping himself from identifying with the raging rain and lashing winds. The storm seemed almost malevolent. He didn't want to lose himself in it like he had with Nature before.
"You're freaking me out," Nate confessed.
"I know. But denial is a powerful creature that can only be destroyed by direct action."
Emrys breathing was soft and steady against Nate's neck. Nate could feel the solid line of warmth of his larger body pressed again his. It would almost have been comforting if a few inches didn't separate him from the edge of the cliff. Some of the dirt at the cliff's edge began to break away as it was soaked through. Nate pushed back against the teacher.
"We should get back. It's not safe here," Nate urged. He tried to move the other man away from the cliff, but Emrys didn't budge. A flutter of panic went through Nate as he saw more chunks of wet earth break off and fall into the raging sea below. "Seriously, it's not safe! We're going to fall!"
Emrys sighed disappointedly. "I see that you will not even try to defeat it. Not unless ... ah, look out there!" He pointed straight ahead into the storm.
Nate saw nothing at first, but then he glimpsed a white sail bobbing on the violent seas. It was a small sailboat. It was getting swamped by the waves. Though they tried to keep the stern pointed towards the waves, the boat was being turned so that its side was facing them. It would capsize once that happened. "Oh, my god, they aren't going to make it out there."
He squinted his eyes. The sail was tattered. The mast broke just at that moment. He actually surged forward as if he could somehow do something.
"You're right, Nathaniel. They will not make it. Not unless a miracle takes place," Emrys said. "Will you be that miracle?"
"You're crazy! We have to call the Coast Guard --"
"It will be too late. They won't get to them in time. Only you can save them," Emrys insisted.
"What? But how? HOW?" Nate cried. He thought he saw someone moving on the sailboat's deck. They were being driven towards the rocks. They would die in the raging surf.
"Close your eyes," Emrys instructed.
"Don't argue with me. Close your eyes," Emrys' voice was firm.
Nate shut them tight. "Now what?"
"Feel the storm, Nathaniel. Let it in. Become one with it. You know how to do this. You've been doing this since you were a child. You were born to do this," Emrys said, his tone was soothing, coaxing.
Nate took in a shuddery breath and nodded. All he had to do was phase out. He'd done it loads of times, but not when people's lives were in danger. He imagined the people on the boat and their sheer terror as the formerly calm sea had become a caldron of fury. What was phasing out going to do for them? Wasn't it the worst thing he could do? He struggled to get away from Emrys. He had to call the Coast Guard.
"Focus on the storm. The people can only be saved if you forget about them. Just focus on the storm," Emrys said.
Nate's head lowered as he realized Emrys was not going to let him go. The people's only chance was if the teacher was impossibly right. And a part of him felt that Emrys might actually be correct. Nate concentrated on the howling of the wind, the feel of it whipping against his clothes, the slap of the rain on his cheeks, the ozone-tinted air in his lungs and the swirling clouds above him. It was the last that helped him the most. He imagined flowing up into those clouds, being buffeted and them smoothly moved by the powerful winds. He flowed with them, circling over the earth and sea below. He opened his eyes and instead of seeing the sea out in front of him, he saw everything as if he were far above it, a bird's eye view. The Abberley Estate looked small. The boat that was nearly being rolled in the water looked the size of a toy boat in a bath tub.
"Now calm the wind. Calm the waves. Make the rain cease," Emrys' voice floated around him, formless.
Nate found himself doing just that. It was easy like turning off a faucet or shutting a window. The crackling lightening slowed and ceased. The thunder boomed off into silence. The waves became smooth and rolling. The nearly capsized boat was bobbing calmly now.
"You did it, Nathaniel. You saved them," Emrys' voice held a note of pride.
Nate felt the brush of the older man's lips on his cheek. He blinked and he was back on the ground again. Emrys had turned him around so that they were face to face. His topaz eyes glowed.
"You are gifted," Emrys said. "You are why I have come back to Winter Haven."