Them and Us is an adventure fantasy romance. The story follows a hard-partying, pansexual young Lord and a neurodivergent junior physician who have nothing in common but their disdain for each other. Deep in the unforgiving wilds of a rainforest continent, they are left with no guide, no map, and no one but each other to find their way out when their entire traveling party is killed in the night. With a deadly encounter at every turn and an unknown killer hunting them through the jungle, they will have to face the secrets they’ve been keeping even from themselves. With their deepest fears and desires laid bare, they may find that they have more in common than they ever thought.
Chapter One – Kaes
As long as I live, I will never forget the feeling of being fully clothed and also soaked through to my undergarments. The foul, swampy water we were currently marching through, packs over our heads, was just high enough to reach my dangly bits, and it gave me the boke.
If the feel of it was bad, the smell was ten times worse. There were outhouses that smelled nicer, and at least they didn’t have the irritating little flying things bounding about your face, trying to bite your eyeballs. In fact, I think I might have preferred to be stuck in an outhouse–even one after Uncle Han had been in it post Yule dinner.
I looked over to the rest of my companions to see if they were as off-put as I and found myself to be in good company. Uncle Han and Sir Lennon were both grunting away like stuck pigs, wading through the mud and likely straining muscles. Then there was Sif and her mother, Hulda, who were moving swifter than the rest of us, but still with a look like someone had broken wind. Sif had been warming my bed and a few other things since we left base camp and was pretty much the only good part of this miserable journey, save for the allowance I was being paid to be here–allowance which I spent on whisky, rum, and tequila.
Last but not least was Lennon’s errand boy, a physician called Doctor Asher Benson. He was a specky type with more interest in books than flirtations, and I found him droll, but harmless. He was particularly fun to goade, and once I discovered exactly how much amusement I could get out of teasing the poor chap, I was merciless.
Each night since Sif and I began polishing the porpoise, I would listen to the lad–who’d been unlucky enough to be assigned to room with me–grumble to himself as we raucously got it on. Indeed as his displeasure grew, I would become more and more extreme in my antics until, one night, Sif had stopped mid-coitus and asked if I was alright.
Yes, Ash had become rather irritated at my nighttime habits, and my daytime ones, and after nearly a month of traveling together, I was beginning to wonder if he truly despised me. I did have an inordinately obnoxious habit of taking a joke too far, rarely noting that I had done so until it was too late, and I had to well and truly commit.
I wandered through the murk and up next to him, who was carrying not only his pack but also Lennon’s and Uncle Han’s. I had only barely been rescued from doing the same by the young man’s superb manners. I had waited until just before Uncle Han was about to slip on his pack, and, lo and behold, the doctor offered first.
“I do hope that’s not too heavy for you,” I said with a charming grin, nudging my sludgy elbow into his side, knocking him slightly off balance. “Steady on, there.” Sif looked over, and a blush crept across her dark olive skin, her turquoise eyes batting at me. I gave her a wink, and she bit her lip.
I inched closer to Benson so that our hips were nearly touching and proceeded to attempt a vigorous hip thrust, knocking into Ash once more and eliciting a laugh on Sif’s part. Ash didn’t seem to find the same amusement she did, but his face kept the same placid expression it always seemed to bear.
“While I’m glad you two get along just as well in the daylight as you do after dark, could you please not be so reckless?” he asked, the tone bright despite the words. “I’m barely keeping breakfast down as it is without having a faceful of this… stuff.”
I chuckled to myself and took a dramatic step away from him. He was always so serious about everything. From the route we were taking, to the temperature of the dense parts of the forest, even down to where water sources would be found. It was like he wasn’t even trying to have a good time.
I–on the other hand–was trying to have a good time and could barely find a whisper of it. Spearing the clam with Sif was about as close as it got, and it was difficult to properly have a girl when you knew her mother was only next door.
“So, what are the girls like where you’re from, Benson? Have you got the mangy ones with the lovely jubblies or the lovely ones riddled with diseases and bones sticking about? Surely you’re not socializing in the circles where the truly beddable women roam.”
Ash’s serene expression flickered, making him look like he’d been caught in some kind of illegitimate activity by a disapproving parent, but it was back just as quickly. He finally glanced over toward me and started speaking very quickly, his agitated tone at odds with the benign look frozen on his face.
“I like to socialize with ones worth socializing with. I don’t pick friends by how ‘beddable’ they are. Anyway, I don’t really have time to worry about girls unless they’re studying or practicing medicine, and they don’t need to be ‘lovely jubblied’ or whatever else you said to be good at that.” His eyes lit up as his train of thought turned toward something dull and well off the topic I actually cared about, though he somehow seemed more excited talking about it than about shagging. “I had a great conversation with a girl once after a lecture on Grubrecht’s new ocular research and techniques…” I could feel my lids lowering, and I mock-yawned for effect.
“Ah–” I said, making eye contact with Sif again. “So the ones who’ve got dog faces then. Right-o.” I could feel him steaming beside me, and it took everything I had not to allow another giggle to cross my lips. “So, when you read books together… at what point do you just toss the buggers aside and throw up her skirts?”
I could swear you’d feel Ash’s blush from another continent, and I raised my eyebrows at him, turning to walk backward as he replied, his attempt to appear unaffected unmasked by the way his voice kicked up half an octave.
“I don’t usually talk about that. It seems kind of rude; I wouldn’t want someone talking about me like that. Would you?” he asked as though
I shrugged and looked over to my current bedmate, who appeared to be very much enjoying this conversation.
“Sif. You don’t mind that ol’ knobby knees here hears us hiding the sausage, do you?” Sif laughed loud enough that her mother turned and looked at her as if to understand what was so funny. She rambled something back in a tongue I didn’t know, and Hulda looked satisfied–for now.
“You are a very good… how do you say it… salami?” Sif asked, her gorgeous natural accent flowing through. I nearly threw myself into the stinking wetlands laughing so hard, and I grabbed onto Ash’s arm to keep myself upright.
“Hear that, Ash? Salami. Not sausage, not cucumber… salami.” I cupped Sif’s chin and placed a gentle kiss on her neck. “You’re exactly right, lovely; I have a fantastic salami. Ash wouldn’t know a good salami if it slid right up his–”
“Oh fuck off, will you–ah!”
With a sickening sound somewhere between a splash and a squelch, Ash pitched forward and was suddenly up to his chest in the muck. Somehow he’d managed to save the packs, but the look on his face showed that he didn’t think himself too lucky, and the blush that had previously blossomed across his cheeks was replaced with a greenish hue.
“Shit,” he grunted, gagging and struggling to right himself with his encumbered hands holding the packs out of the water, throwing me a look that showed he found me nearly as distasteful as the swampy mess he was covered in. “Do you think you could be useful for just one moment and help me? Or is that asking too much of you?”
I put my hand out to him, but when he went to grab it, I quickly withdrew it, relishing in the look on his face.
“I’ll help you up if you admit that you’re a virgin. A twenty-year-old virgin.”
Sif pinched my backside, and I turned to hear her say, “You’re a very naughty boy. Very rude.”
Ash glared daggers at me.
“What does it matter?” he asked through his teeth. “Just take the damn packs so I can stand up.” He gave a mighty gag, and after a moment where his eyes went wide, he swallowed deeply, keeping in whatever had been threatening to make a second appearance. I shook my head, Sif bestowing another pinch that quickly turned into a grope of my backside.
“Answer my question, and I’ll carry the packs until we reach the villa.”
If eyes could produce fire, his might have. He held my gaze for long enough that I thought he might live out the rest of his life stuck in the odiferous sludge. But then–
“Yes,” he said, so quietly I almost didn’t hear him. His head had bowed, and the rage was gone from his expression, replaced with a pitiful defeat.
For a moment, I felt sorry for him. Life had clearly not dealt him the hand I’d been granted. He was good-looking enough, but carried himself like an old beggar woman and spent more time with his nose in a book than between a lady’s thighs. Apparently–as I’d just learned–he never had spent any time there at all.
True to my word, I put out my hand, and I smiled softly at him in an attempt to nonverbally wave a white flag.
“Sorry, old chap. I tend to take things a bit far. I–”
“A bit far is an understatement,” Uncle Han said from about twenty feet behind us. I rolled my eyes, knowing he was right and lugging the young doctor to his feet. I took the packs just as I had promised and clapped him on the back, ignoring the filth.
“Yes, well… let me help you.”
If there was one thing I was good at, besides my salami habits, it was my magic–a gift I’d inherited from my uncle and one that I used for all the wrong reasons. It was impossible to beat someone at a hand of cards if they could simply magic them to be exactly what they needed.
Uncle Han, on the other hand, used his magic skill for the greater good of humanity. He was a retired officer of the SMF–Special Magic Forces–in the royal military. He and Doctor Lennon had met during the great continental war when they served. There had always been something a little funny about Han and Lennon’s relationship, something I couldn’t quite put my finger on. But the doctor had always been kind to me, and I’d known him all my life, leading me to believe I might not have been the only one in my family with an affinity for the rougher sex.
Staring now at Ash Benson, the sodden dope, I, too, utilized my gifts for good and waved my fingers, separating the sludge from him almost like it was unable to stick to his clothes. Telekinetically, I lifted the muck from each fiber of him, allowing it to fall softly with a wet noise back into the swampy terrain.
“There you are,” I said, shoving my hands into my pockets to reinforce the grip I had on the now four packs I carried. “Right as rain.” He gave me an unsteady look but nodded, turning away and beginning towards our destination once more.
I felt a firm hand on my shoulder and I turned my face to see my uncle giving me an approving look.
“That’s my boy. You really shouldn’t be so callous to him. Not everyone can handle your particular, peculiar, sense of humor.” He gave me a mischievous wink, one I’d inherited as surely as my magic, and waggled a finger at me in a mock scold. I chuckled at his false discipline and knew that he knew I wasn’t purposely being an ass. Acting like a cock was as inherent to me as breathing and it was purely through Han’s gentle reminders that I ever managed to reel it in at all.
Han had always accepted me for who I was, unlike my own father, and despite being an absolute social pariah among my male peers, he always found clandestine ways to manage my social life. I suspected heavily that Benson’s inclusion in this trip was intended for just such purposes.
“Thank you, Uncle,” I said, returning the shoulder pat and nodding in a silent understanding. “You remain a grounding force. I will try to befriend the doctor–or at least not annoy the piss out of him.” Han nodded in approval with an adoring smile that went ear to ear. It was times like these that I wish with my entire being he’d been my father rather than the one I’d had. But if he couldn’t be my father then “uncle” was a good second choice, and uncles let you get away with things a father never could.
Uncle Han fell back to walk beside Doctor Lennon once more, and I ran to catch up with Sif. But for a moment, just one, I felt glad to be sharing this experience with him. Even if it meant sharing it with the ever-annoyed Ash Benson, too.
Chapter Two – Ash
“When I asked for help with the packs, I didn’t really mean for the rest of the day,” I said, having caught up to Kaes, who seemed determined to prove just how quickly he could move while over-encumbered. I held out a hand as he had to me earlier. “We could share. It won’t be easy, but we might not be so sore tomorrow if we split the load.” Kaes didn’t stop moving but did look at my outstretched hand.
“What, and have them end up back in the mud? Not a chance, gangle-legs.” He let out a high-pitched giggle that gave him the sound of a young boy spying on a woman whose towel had fallen–a sound I was all too familiar with by this point. It was adolescent and self-delighted.
I tugged at one of the straps, which I could see digging into his shoulders and knew, from having carried three of them for the better part of the day, how uncomfortable he must be with the addition of the fourth.
“As long as we keep my sex life out of the conversation, I think I can keep two packs out of this shit.” I smiled in what I hoped was a friendly and encouraging way, still ready for him to hand over part of his burden. “Come on, St. Clare,” I cajoled, using his own preferred method of addressing each other by our surnames. “We’ve been at this for weeks already. Let’s not make it more miserable than it has to be. Hand them over.”
Kaes looked at my hand on his bag, and his lips parted as if he was going to make a snarky comment. But instead, he shifted his shoulder and handed me the bags belonging to Dr. Lennon and me.
“Thanks,” he mumbled, meeting my eyes with his unusual pink ones. “They were getting a bit heavy. Let me thank you with a drink later. Sif and I–” He stopped, seeming to reconsider his offer. A night out with the beautiful girl he was sharing his bed with more often than not was probably much more appealing than one with me. I didn’t want him to feel obligated, but we’d been sniping at each other long enough, and until today, I hadn’t seen a kind side to him. If we could be civil–friendly, even–the rest of this journey might even end up being a pleasant one.
“A drink sounds great, but I wouldn’t want to intrude. Can I take you up on that another night?” I slung the packs onto my back, then shifted their weight to a more comfortable configuration. Kaes toyed with a chain on his neck and seemed to think to himself.
The response was so abrupt that I stopped short, nearly toppling back into the bog. Maybe I’d misread his help before, thinking it might be kind. I’d been wrong plenty of times before.
“No,” he repeated. “Sif and I can see each other later tonight. Why don’t you and I take the old lads for a drink? We can discuss the finer points of having working knees while they reminisce about a war or whatever the oldish chaps talk about.”
My face split into a wide smile. Considering that this was advertised to me as a “boys’ trip,” I’d spent my nights eating alone and most of my free time either reading or talking to the locals. I’d always enjoyed getting to know other people from different and interesting walks of life, but this often seemed to alienate me from my peers.
“That sounds great,” I agreed, clapping him on the shoulder tentatively. “I could even give you a quick lesson in how knees actually work.” Confusion spread across Kaes’s eyes, and I laughed, feeling better about the prospect of actually making a friend on this trip–or at least avoiding making an enemy.
Words cannot express the relief that I felt when Hulda said something to Sif and pointed to the right, drawing our collective eyes to a small dirt path out of the stagnant water. Kaes practically ran for it, smacking Sif on the rear as he did, and collapsed dramatically when he finally was on dry land.
“There is no way, in the nine hells or heavens above, that you would ever, ever get me to do that again.”
I had to clench my jaw to avoid rolling my eyes at his excessive theatrics, but of course, as usual, Sif seemed to find the entire thing endearing and giggled at him. And, as per usual, any type of reaction from Sif promoted Kaes to continue his bullshit.
“Come now, Kaestral,” Lord St. Clare said, with a chiding tone that didn’t match with his adoring eyes, “only a few more miles, and we will be at the villa. Surely, you don’t wish to lie in the dirt like a pig?” Kaes tossed the packs to the side of him and began to roll around.
“Why not, Uncle?” he said with that irritating laugh of his. “I’ve already spent the day in a pig’s muck hole.”
“At least you weren’t submerged in it like some of us,” I said, looking down at him as I finally stepped out of the wetlands. “And about that–I’m calling dibs on first wash once we get there.”
I looked him over, taking in the dirt that he’d managed to cover himself in, acting like an idiot. The challenging look he shot me indicated that he thought he had every right to demand the same. But the dirt that was on him was self-inflicted and superficial, and I was caked down to my skin. From what I’d learned of the Abarrian wetlands, I was sure there were microscopic creatures living in that water, and I was beginning to feel concerned about the itching between my legs that was getting worse by the minute.
I stepped past, heading in the direction Hulda had indicated. I wanted to get out of these clothes and, though I hated to admit it, was very nearly looking forward to drinks. It was so rare that I was invited to social events that it felt a little like a milestone.
I felt something large and hard hit the back of my shoulders, and I was knocked forward onto my knees for the second time today. I watched as a pair of booted feet jogged past me, and the obnoxious, boyish chortle swept through my ears like a discordant melody.
“You’re gonna have to do better than that, brains,” Kaes said as he jogged ahead, minus the pack that he’d thrown at my back. “First come, first served, I’d say! Though–” he seemed to pause, probably making a gesture or expression I couldn’t see while I raged, eyes burning a hole through the ground. “Sif is welcome to share my bathing allotment.”
I could hear much lighter steps jog past me, and the older men chuckled, saying something to the effect of, “boys will be boys.” Sif’s boots passed my head, and I could audibly hear Kaes kiss her before they turned away and continued along the trail.
I pushed myself up and brushed off what I could, because, of course, no one who could help me would, and those who would didn’t have the strength to. The dirt–now mud–caked on my knees was just another irritant in this hellhole that I’d willingly agreed to journey into, and, for a moment–just a moment–I wondered if I was being paid enough to do so.
Doctor Lennon came up behind me and patted me on the back, smiling at me from beneath the deep brown wrinkles at the corners of his eyes.
“You and Kaestrel seem to be getting along nicely,” he pointed out. I pondered the comment for a moment, unsure if I felt the same. I’m sure our lack of outward hostility might appear to be friendliness to others, but, even with the lingering invitation to a night out fresh in my mind, I was still wary of the pink-haired man and his chaotic energy.
“I suppose,” I shrugged, trying to seem like I was unbothered, but Doctor Lennon knew me too well to let me get away with that. He waved a hand at Lord St. Clare, who nodded and set off several paces ahead to give us a moment alone.
I felt a sudden wave of relief as we walked side-by-side. It was familiar, like all the times we’d kept the same pace while making rounds to patients under our mutual care. He’d been the one who plucked me out of my schooling early to train with a team of physicians. I didn’t have the healing magic he did, something he used as a battle medic during the war, but my uncanny talent for memorization and analysis and a pair of strong and steady hands made me a skilled doctor and surgeon.
“He can be… trying at times,” he admitted, his mouth twitching with amusement. “But there’s a good heart underneath the boisterous behavior. You two have that in common.”
I frowned, knowing that Doctor Lennon had known Kaes for far longer than he’d known me, and was a better judge of character than anyone else I’d ever met. If he saw good in Kaestrel St. Clare, I supposed I could try to do the same.
“Thanks,” I said, finally smiling back at him. “And thanks for bringing me along. This place is incredible.” To make my point, I looked upward, where a bird with every color feather had perched on a tree limb, watching us pass by.
“You needed some fresh air,” Doctor Lennon replied. “You take your work so seriously, which is wonderful for a physician as brilliant as you are. But there’s more to life outside of the operating room, and I wanted to give you a chance to experience it while you’re young enough to thoroughly enjoy it.”
I nodded, thankful that I had a mentor as pleasant and understanding as Doctor Lennon. I wouldn’t have even finished my surgeon’s training without him.
My first surgery, the woman I’d been operating on bled out after I nicked an artery. She was gone before Doctor Lennon could get there to fix the problem with his magic, and I was ready to pack my bags and head home to Mooring.
But he wouldn’t let me. He helped me through the depression and self-doubt that followed, reminding me that she would have died if she hadn’t come under my care regardless, and my work did far more good than harm. I worked harder at my knowledge of anatomy, vowing to never make the same mistake again, and learning to accept that death was a natural part of life, and that not every patient was meant to be saved.
Doctor Lennon put an arm around my shoulders, giving a squeeze before he strode ahead to catch up to Lord St. Clare, leaving me to bring up the rear, once again carrying three packs.
I felt marginally better after our talk, and was ready to give my best effort to building a friendship with the young lord. I had long since resigned myself to the fact that I was not socially skilled, but I’d never stopped trying to make connections. As long as we were the only two young men sharing this journey, it seemed as good a chance as any to find a companion. But I still worried Lord St. Clare’s wild and tiresome nephew may yet be the death of me. And I could only hope that didn’t mean literally.