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(Disclaimer: As this story takes place in a world not our own, assume all relevant parties are at or above the age of consent.)  


In the lengthening shadows of the evening, over the Temple falls a listening hush, for it is the hour when the choir sings the evensong. The world comes slowly to a halt: the traders stop their selling, the governors their bickering, and even the birds hang still in the sky, all drawing near to hear the sacred song.

That twilight we knelt before the dais, we the Faithful. The city politicians were seated behind us, in the circular pews ringed round for just such a purpose. Many more than usual were in attendance on this festival day, and there were merchants and labourers kneeling even on the uncovered floor in the outermost ring of the Temple-- for it was the ending of midsummer's day, the longest day of the calendar year.

Heralding the falling of the year's shortest night, the evensong was jubilant. Though moonlight is sacred to the Goddess, so then is sunlight sacred to the God, and both summer and winter solstice are occasions for rejoicing.

Of the other Faithful at my side, some had their heads bowed in reverence, others cast their eyes to the intricacies of the story-telling stained glass beyond the dais. Still others looked on fascinated as the boys sang, with their eyes appreciating the clean elegant lines of Temple-dressed youth.

I was one of the latter, though not perhaps for the same aesthetic reasons-- for I am the boys' Choirmaster, and who can blame me for enjoying the fruit of my long hours' labour?

No secret that the boys were well-taught, and I take great pride in a flawless evensong, while my charges perform. But in listening I always manage to forget the hours of practice, the scales, the training. When the music fills the air, it is always as if it were the first time, and each boy's throat just now learning to create those sounds.

So it was that I was watching carefully when William missed a note.

It was not so very noticeable, as his centre section of the chorus was very nearly at their rest, allowing the choirs sinistra and dextra to take up the melody; and, after all, he was only one voice among a dozen.

He was headed for the final C, when he was suddenly silent. I watched: two quick breaths pianissimo, a single heavenward glance-- then sharply he bowed his head, eyes closed, hands meeting and clasping before him.

It was utterly noiseless. Anyone might have thought he was being simply devotional, struck with a moment of the divine and inspired to pray.

Anyone, that is, but me. Even if I had not been watching, I would have heard the absence of his voice amid the choir's song, for long has his sound been distinct and sweet to me. I treat all my boys with love and affection, but I cannot always be impartial, and William is... very dear.

With concern, I kept my eyes on him. And again, in the protracted musical stillness of that holy place, William raised his eyes (tearful now, in rapt reverie?) to the trembling light that angled from the windows. Again he breathed in careful silence, though this time his hands were already tightly held in front of him, and his lips were not quite steady.

When his head came forward his whole body shivered, his fair hair falling lightly across his forehead. Again the whole ritual was soundless, from the first questioning tilt of his shoulders to the final unassuming dip of his head. But now, he was slow in lifting his gaze back to the congregation, so that perhaps they might believe he was again in sudden prayer. And, as the centre chorus once again took up the song, he took it up with them, as though he had never faltered.

I admired the restraint of the young man (child no longer, a secret his voice might never tell), watching him inhale cautiously in the hallowed air. His singing was ever paramount, and he did nothing to mar the immaculate presentation of him. All the same, I frowned in concern. It was not like him.

Was the boy ill? Or might it have been an unexpected wash of incense over him that proved his undoing? Cullen (choir sinistra, back row), I know, has a terrible time in the early spring, but that has more to do with the practice area being near the Temple gardens, and even he has never interrupted a performance.

After the evensong, and the city people had returned to their houses to light their lanterns and sleep the shortest night away, the Faithful returned to their rooms and offices within the Temple. I, as usual, was last to leave the sanctuary, waiting for my boys to file from the dais one by one.

I meant to seek out William, but he sought me before I could, the other Temple-voices slipping past behind him.

"Forgive me, Choirmaster," William said with his eyes downcast, his sweet and fluted voice unscarred. "Was... was there fault in my singing? I did not mean to--"

"It is all right, dear one," I assured him, brushing the pale hair back from his eyes. "You performed admirably well."

His sigh was as a moment of music heard from very far away, an angel's melody; I could not but smile at him.

There have been those who have said that I am too young to hold the position of choirmaster, that such a role requires maturity and endurance that one my age may not have. They may be right, though I try very hard not to think on it. Truthfully it is only William that affects me so; I am not so very profligate as rumour would have me.

"Thank you, Choirmaster. I was afraid of disturbing the evensong."

I rested a hand on his slender shoulder, gave it a reassuring squeeze. "From you, William, I believe the public would forgive something so human. From me, perhaps, it might be more difficult?" He opened his mouth as if to protest-- all unavailing, for everyone knows what is said about the strictness of the Temple Choirmaster-- but I stopped him, and we shared a quiet laugh.

By now we were the only two remaining in the sanctuary, the other boys hurriedly gone to shed their singing vestments and change into their sleeping clothes. There would be no practice again until morning.

"But I know you are only human," he insisted, not to be swayed. He laid an innocuous hand on my collar, slim fingers tracing the elegant embroidery at my throat. Such an innocent gesture, and yet my blood was set to singing. "Though the world may not believe me."

I swallowed, rendered temporarily speechless by the compassion in those dark eyes. But I could not look long upon such earnestness without responding with a smile of my own. "And what would the world say, my young one, if they knew I was fallible after all? You needn't look so very concerned." For indeed, the boy had begun to frown, spiderweb-thin lines between his fair brows.

"No, indeed, Choirmaster," he said, his well-trained voice nearly breathless. "It is just that I--" it came upon him so suddenly, he barely had the time to inhale; and, as it was such a surprise, he had not the skill to mask it. "Hi-tscht!" he sneezed lightly, bumping his nose slightly against the front of my robes.

"Blessings," I managed to say, as he straightened and averted his eyes. With my hand still on his shoulder I tried to feel for tremors of weakness, for signs of illness. "Are you well?"

He leaned slightly against me, his face betraying his embarrassed dismay. "Forgive me, Choirmaster." There were only the slightest traces of thickness eddying in his musical voice; he did not look yet flushed with fever. "I am fine." Away from the strict litany of the high altar, the discipline he sought in mastering his expression was slightly more difficult to attain; his eyelids seemed heavy, his eyelashes shivering visibly.

"Something in the air?" I offered, gently leading the boy by the elbow into the Aftersong area, the small alcove beyond the listening pews. Not only was it more secluded, with most of the boys already headed to bed, but I began to wonder if it was something in the Temple itself that was irritating him. "I can request that the incense be changed. The discomfort of the choir is not a thing to be borne."

He sat gratefully on a changing bench, his fine silk raiment spreading about him like ripples in a limpid pool. "Take no such measures, for my sake, please?" He waved a graceful hand, dismissive. "It is nothing; I am sure the feeling will pass."

Tomlinson joined us then, Temple Gardenmaster. Often he would stop by the Aftersong alcove to congratulate my boys on a performance, on his way to the sleeping quarters; this was nothing unusual. He greeted us with a nod of respect for me and a careful hand gesture of devotion for the choirboy.

"Evening, Nicholas, William. Midsummer's eve finds you well, I hope?"

"Indeed," I said, trying not to seem overly concerned, when in fact I could see William's eyelids trembling out of the corner of my eye. I tried not to stare. "I am quite well."

"And you, young William?" He angled his square chin to my choirboy, waiting intently for an answer to his salutation. Mere politeness, surely. I would not have tolerated one of my boys to be discomfited; had I thought that Tomlinson was teasing him I would have reprimanded him.

In response, William bobbed his head, a movement too hasty to be properly poised. "Hi-tscht!" he answered involuntarily, not quite quietly enough, hiding his nose behind one carefully curled hand. "Yes... fine, fine." He did not sound entirely certain, and belatedly remembered his manners. "Sir. Did you enjoy our evensong?"

Always mindful of decorum, that one. It is one of the reasons he is so precious in my sight.

With a raised eyebrow, Tomlinson smiled. "As usual, m'boy. Radiant, and pure." It was a delight to see the way the divine touched even such a stalwart and burly face as his; I was much moved to hear him speak thus. "I look forward to hearing you sing the dawning, on the morrow."

William straightened, his eyes shining. "Oh, yes, sir."

I had recently been preening William to that solo position, since the previous dawn-singer was getting along in years, and could no longer sing quite so sweetly. It was a matter of pride with William that he had been chosen (and a matter of satisfaction, with me, that he had not disappointed my hopes).

"You do your master proud, lad," Tomlinson said to him, though it was me he winked at. He was twice again as much older than me than I was older than William, and easily one of the senior members of the Temple-- and I am sure he remembered the years when I myself had sung down the sun.

"I had nothing to do with it," I demurred, watching for the flush I knew would stain William's cheeks. "His talent and discipline are his own."

He did not disappoint, blushing to his ears, sniffing as if in disbelief. "Not so, Choirmaster," he said, as though he did not hear Tomlinson's indulgent laugh, looking steadily only at me. "It is only that I have had-- tscht!-- such an instructor, surely."

Such a slight, soft sneeze! I might have thought I had imagined it, had not his colour deepened, had I not seen the tremor of discomfort pass across his brow, and the awkward way he tried to conceal it from us both. Seldom had I heard him sneeze before, and certainly not so frequently, but I would have recognized his breathing and his voice in it, as in his singing.

Not wishing to draw attention to it, to embarrass him further, I sat beside him on the training bench. "You flatter me," I said sternly. "Tell Tomlinson about Veronica's response to your first dawn-singing."

With a shy grin, William met Tomlinson's curious gaze. "The Holy Mother stood up when I had finished my song," he admitted, and could not disguise the pleasure in his tone. No small thing to affect such a response from such a great woman. "She was speechless-- hi-tscht!-- for a full minute and a-- hi-tscht!-- half afterwards."

Harder to ignore, this time, as he interrupted himself twice with quick, ticklish sneezes. I could tell he was hoping we might not mention them, by the half-swallowed sound and the carefully-maintained diffidence in his voice.

The worry was apparent in Tomlinson's demeanour. Four times the choirboy had sneezed, and in the presence of an audience! (More, I might have corrected him, had I thought it was any of his business. But I have always kept my secrets close to my heart.)

"Well, I should leave you to your rest," he said, with a pointed glance at me-- admonishing me to take better care of my charge, I am sure. Once more he made the hand symbol for devotion. "May the sleep of your midsummer's eve be a restful one."

"Good night," I called after him, as he departed.

And "Good night," William managed to say, though I could tell by the uplifted slant of his eyebrows that yet another sneeze was germinating.

He caught the look on my face, and looked as though he wanted to protest, but before he could, I said, "Will you let me escort you to your chambers?"

His shoulders slumped, perhaps in gratitude, as I made no insistence to take him to the healer. Or, perhaps he was simply tired. "Yes, thank you, Choirmaster."

It may be that it was unnecessary for me to place a hand around him and beneath his elbow, that he needed no guidance or support. All the same, he seemed to lean against me, and he did not complain. I would not allow myself to dwell too long upon that point, for his closeness was most unnerving-- especially in the haunted, hesitant expression behind his eyes, and the way his breathing seemed to quiver beneath his skin. We both knew what it was he was fighting, but out of respect for him I would not mention it.

"Will you be needing anything?" I asked, my mouth dry.

As if in answer, his fingers sought my arm, tightening slightly. "Hi-tscht!" he sneezed, quite loudly, bending towards me as we walked. I think it startled us both, though I would be hard pressed to say who was the more uncomfortable.

Regaining his composure, he could not quite contain the second outburst, still on its way. Carefully he tilted away from me, his breathing erratic-- though, bless his heart, he was still trying to answer my question. The words were hurried, as the sneeze rushed upon him:


His smaller form was pushed back into mine, moved by the unexpected intensity of it.

I shook my head, glad we had reached his door, and ushered him inside without ceremony. "This won't do," I said, hoping that I sounded firm and reasonable, and not as unsettled as I felt inside.

He blinked up at me with a sniffle, his eyes watery. "Hi-tscht!" There he went again, small nose still trembling. It ended almost on a questioning note, as if to say, "But what?" 

I rested a gentle fingertip on the point of his nose. "Blessings," I sighed, wondering if he could feel the weight of meaning behind the single word. "William, perhaps you ought to--"

"It's nothing," he said, though the words were hard to make out, so mumbled and congested did they sound. Indeed, they made him sound younger than his age, and (most troubling of all) ruining his long-trained eloquent diction.

"Nothing," I repeated, dryly, turning down the blankets on his simple Temple-bed. "Your nose tells quite a different story."

He kept a stiff bottom lip, I'll give him that, wrestling with the itchiness in his sinuses and his own stubbornness. "Something in the air, that's all. Like..." he floundered for a proper comparison. "Like Cullen in the springtime."

"I might have believed that, ten sneezes ago," I said with an arched eyebrow. "Now you sound miserable. Let me get you some herbal tea with honey? I am sure Olga would be happy to--"

"Please," he said, and I was so startled that I stopped speaking, staring dumbfounded at him with his pillows half-fluffed still in my hand. He stood in his own doorway, his hand upon the doorframe, biting his lip and looking as though he might actually order me out of his room. "You needn't-- hi-tscht!-- trouble yourself, Choirmaster. You may-- hi-tscht!-- go."

Gone was the amiable young man I knew. If a Temple-voice had bade me leave his room and never speak to him again, I would have had to obey. The voice of the young is sacred, and I had too many years on me to be able to argue. In singing, I might have been his master-- but what is the master of the choir to the voice that, itself, sings the evensong?

But his sneezes were so soft, so strangled, I could not help myself.


All of a sudden, the anger melted out of him, leaving him drooping against the doorjamb and seeming somehow smaller. I went to him, and his hand on the front of my robes was an apologetic one.

"Forgive me, Choirmaster," he said, almost inaudibly. "Th-that was uncalled for."

No small thing, that stammer, the hesitation in the polished tone of a choirboy's voice. I rested my hands on his shoulders, stooped to plant a light kiss on his forehead. Hm. Quite warm, and I did not believe it was from the candlelight so close by. "No, forgive me," was what I said when I had again found my voice. "I should not have pressed you so."

"...I'm not sick," he protested, and I saw his lips twist in what was almost a pout. But I did not laugh, though I might have wanted to, the dear, dear boy. He was no longer possessed of the grand and terrible demeanour of the child of the Temple, merely a young man with a beautiful voice and a terribly tickly nose.

"That remains to be seen," I said tactfully, watching as he climbed into his bed, and adjusting the covers around him. He sniffled once, twice, desperately careful not to make a sound, to hide the building discomfort, that he might not betray himself... no matter how dearly bought that silence might have been. With a fond smile I sat at the foot of his bed, wondering how long he would struggle before allowing himself release. "William," I prompted, to distract him. 

In that instant he turned to look at me, it caught up with him. He squinted his eyes shut tight, trying to squelch the sound that burst forth:

"IhTSCHkghh!" He coughed then, dryly, the stifled sneeze sticking in his throat. "What?"

"You oughtn't stifle," I told him, scooting closer and catching one of his hands, moving it away from his face. "It isn't healthy."

He wanted to protest, but there wasn't time, another tickle growing to a crescendo inside him.

"Have you a handkerchief, then?" he said, or tried his best to say.

"Of course, dear one," I returned, folding the soft cloth into his hand and wrapping his fingers around it. 

He whispered "thank you" with a charming urgency, but not hastily enough did he unfold the handkerchief-- sneezing "Ih-TSCHOO!" in spite of himself, the cloth only halfway to his reddening nose. The second sneeze he did catch in the handkerchief, and the third, and the fourth, though there was a long moment when the last seemed as though it might not come. Only after a earnest invocation of the Goddess and a breath-holding silence did he at last find that elusive fourth, a desperate release that rocked him even as I put a steadying arm around his shoulders.


"There, doesn't that feel better?" I asked him, and I think I may be forgiven for not yet removing my arm from around him. Taut against me, he was, as tightly-wound as a harp's E string.

"I am spent," he half laughed, shame in his voice as he finally admitted it. "I must have-- must have caught-- ih-tschoo! ih-YISHhh!" He seemed grateful for my handkerchief to blow his poor pink nose.

"I think it more likely that you have caught a chill," I said to him, amused.

He might have wanted to smile, but quietly he said, "But if I am sick, Choirmaster, then I cannot sing the dawning tomorrow."

I felt as if I had myself been standing in the morning-dark Temple, and was seeing the sun rise above me, all unexpected. No wonder the boy was reluctant; he had been so eager to sing up the sun.

"There will be other dawnings," I said, but gently, for I did hate to disappoint him.

"I wanted to sing it for you," he said, more quietly still.

My hand stilled, half-guiltily, in the act of fondly smoothing back a lock of miscreant hair that fell across his eyes, shaken loose with his shivering. "For me?" I repeated, feeling much like a choirboy myself, clumsy and uncertain. "I will always be proud of you," I said, carefully.

"I like the way it makes you look at me." He sniffled, making his nose twitch a little. But before I could register this astounding piece of information, he made a face, and groaned. "Oh, it is a sensation like fire, burning behind my eyes," he said. "I wish I could simply sneeze!"

I drew him against me, letting him rest on me. Thinking, I suppose, if you could call it thinking, that if his body were relaxed he might bring on a sneeze that much more easily. He eased into my half-embrace with a contented sigh, as if it were the most natural thing in the world, as if there were nowhere else he would rather have been.

His eyes were cast up to the vaulted ceiling, as though he could call down the relief he needed. "Choirmaster--"

I took up one of his hands. "Nicholas," I said, only barely knowing why.

"Nicholas," he nodded with a secret little smile, his hand moving gently against my own. "Oh, please," his voice and unsteady breathing took on a pleading note, "I'm going to--"

And nothing. He sat with his lips sweetly parted, his eyes nearly closed and his poor nose trembling, but nothing happened. His breathing turned gaspy, and he squeezed my hand. I shook my head, barely breathing, myself. "Isn't that what faith is about?" I said, willing myself to know it, as well. "Believing in something you know will come to be."

Poor William nodded mutely, and in his soundlessness embodied the very essence of prayer, the supplicant on his knees awaiting a divine blessing. One wavering inhalation. Two. He fluttered one hand in front of his face, his breath stuttering and his eyebrows lifted in unbearable anticipation.

"W-wait," he shook slightly, turning his face, "it may yet--"

And as a libation poured into the sacred font, at last he sneezed, wetly and helplessly, three times in quick succession. "Hi-tscht! Hi-TSCHT! hih-hi-TSCHHEW!"

The last ended on a near perfect note, as though he were once again singing the evensong, and I had to laugh.

"Everything of you is music," I said. I resisted the urge to applaud. Inappropriate, anyway, to desecrate the holy Temple with the noisy approval of one's hands. It is a place for quiet exultation, and gratitude is best expressed in prayer, or devotion.

And so instead I kissed his temple.

Or rather, I intended to kiss his temple, but that he had angled his head up to meet my eyes, and we intersected at quite a different angle.

I would have prayed for forgiveness, but that there was something sweet and holy in the eager way he kissed me, his hands grasping at my robes to bring our faces closer together, his mouth hot and willing. I was utterly lost, in the half-heard music of his non-vocal approval, when--


He drew away, mumbling something embarrassed. There was little left of the soundless, airless sneezes from the temple dais, little left of the composure and decorum of the trained choirboy. Freely he sneezed, damp handkerchief forgotten, for the moment, in his hand.

"Ihh... Ih-AYISHOO! a-hi-TSCHHT! ihhh... ihh... AHH-tschhmmph--!"

This last was caught deftly in the soft dry folds of another handkerchief, pressed gently against his nose. The surprise of the half-stifled sneeze seemed to still the flood, and he blinked watery eyes at me.

"You busdn't," he tried once to move my hand away, to claim the handkerchief for himself. "I ab goig to--"

"It's all right," I said firmly, and even if I had not said, the boy was sneezing again, quiet muffled sounds into my proffered handkerchief.

"Forgive be, Dicholas-- ih-tshuh!-- id's just that it tickles so b-buch-- ih-tshuh! ih-TSCHH! ihhh... AHHSshuh!"

He shook with every sneeze, slipping closer and closer to me as we sat. By the end he was very nearly in my lap, head laying against my shoulder and tickly sneezes catching in the handkerchief in my hand.

Only natural, at that proximity, that I should run my fingers through his hair, coaxing his face to rest in the hollow of my throat, where he might lean comfortably against me. Only natural, that he should draw closer still, that we might share warmth. Or, in his case, might be pleasantly cooled.

"They say that a fever is an angel's fire," I told him, soothing his too-warm skin with my fingertips. "Think of it as a blessing." I wondered if he knew just what a blessing it was, to me.

"It is a blessing," he said, sounding sleepy against my shoulder, "if--hi-tsscht! if it-- hi-tschoo!-- keeps you close to me."

"What is best for you, dear William, is sleep," I said, not quite managing to sound firm, and masterly.

"Don't go far?" he entreated, with a sniffle that made his nose twitch a bit.

I shook my head, unconvincingly.

"I just feel better whed you're nearby," he made a face at the congestion in his voice, and I could tell it frustrated him, as he might not have known how it endeared him to me. "Dicholas?"

Hearing my own name, in all seriousness, and in that stuffy voice, was my undoing. "I will stay by you," I said, at last. "If it will help you sleep."

His smile was beatific, and he lifted himself on one elbow to kiss me again, though I could tell he could not breathe through his nose and it was rather awkward. Still, I kept his lips against my own as long as I could, in good conscience-- at least until he started sneezing again.

"Tschoo! You probise to be here in the bordig-- ih-hi-YISH!"

I could tell he was exhausted when he sneezed, unmuffled, against my chest, with barely a murmured apology.

And so I drew the blankets close about his shoulders, and let him wrap his arms around me. More than I had ever dreamed of asking for.

"Yes, love. Yes. I promise."  

As he drifted off to sleep, I sang to him a lullaby. After all, I had sung down the sun with my own voice, when I had been a lad. So I filled that midsummer's eve with an age-old song for sleeping, and even in his dreams, the sound of my voice made him smile.