Ephrim is capping his inkwell and folding up sheets of thin paper when someone knocks on his door. It’s a soft knock, purposeful but tentative, and Ephrim calls out “Come in!” before he can really consider other options.
The door creaks open and Throndir stands in the doorway, gloved hand tentatively resting on the jamb.
“Throndir! What is it?” Throndir looks like he’s seen a ghost, his tan face pallid and drawn, though quickly regaining color as the seconds tick by.
“I noticed your light was still on. I wanted to make sure you were getting some rest.” Ephrim chuckles and pulls his cloak tighter around his shoulders, pushing back from his desk.
“I’m just finishing for the night, actually. Come in, please – would you like something to drink?”
Throndir shakes his head. “No thanks, I’m on watch.” He moves inside, closing the door behind him. Ephrim watches him walk over to the small seating area and perch on one of the velvet-cushioned chairs they’d found in a musty storage room when they first came to the University. Ephrim slides on his slippers over his stockings and pads over, sitting opposite Throndir. The other man seems tense in his shoulders, his usual leather armor absent.
Ephrim coughs lightly. “I’m sorry, this is all wrong. You aren’t some visiting diplomat, you’re my friend. So what’s going on?”
Throndir’s eyes dart over Ephrim, down from his face to his feet and back up again, then to the desk, the bedchamber, the door, and finally to a spot beyond Ephrim’s left ear. He still looks slightly too pale for his own good.
“I told you, I was on patrol and I saw light coming from under your door. I wanted to make sure you were okay.”
Ephrim hums and lets the silence stretch. It’s a skill he learned long ago, back when his diplomacy was expanding the Church of Samothes and not relegating allies to starve in the snow. He lets his gaze wander over Throndir’s frizzing hair and dark eyes and the faint purple creeping up his ears. He remembers how healthy Throndir used to look, how his shoulders used to be broad from muscle and fat and good food and not the sheer strength of will he’s been using to hold their community together.
After a while, Throndir exhales, his shoulders collapsing in.
“You’re right, you’re right… I don’t normally come this way, but… I wanted to make sure you were okay.” He reaches over to take Ephrim’s gloved hands into his own. “I wanted to make sure you weren’t working yourself too hard.”
His hands are warm, warm enough that Ephrim feels the heat of them through Throndir’s rugged leather mitts and his own thinner sheepskin gloves. Ephrim only nods, his throat feeling too tight for speech. He squeezes Throndir’s hand, firm and strong and broad and in his own. He hadn’t realized how much he missed the simple camaraderie of travel, the touches exchanged by fires and in tents in the bitter cold.
He’s not sure he’s reading this right, but Samothes below, he can’t take it anymore. He needs to do something, anything, what?
“Throndir, would you braid my hair?”
Throndir’s soft eyes widen slightly, and Ephrim holds his breath. Then Throndir nods, and Ephrim stands, holding Throndir’s gaze even after releasing his hands, before he turns and walks over to his armoire. He sits on the carved wooden stool and takes off his simple gold diadem, the only mark of his baronship. Every movement feels weighty, like a sudden hand gesture could cause the honey-thick air of the room to dissipate and leave them stranded in the thin winter chill. He sets the diadem on the top of the armoire, unties his hair ribbon, and stares into the gray-edged mirror, hands folded slowly in front of his chest.
In the mirror, Throndir stands frozen, his gaze fixed on Ephrim’s reflected eyes. After a few seconds, Throndir seems to snap out of his daze and moves to stands behind Ephrim. His normally deft fingers fumble with the buttons on his gloves as he pads over, and Ephrim watches in the mirror as Throndir breathes in, centering himself, then takes off his thick gloves with the practice of years. He sets them on the armoire next to Ephrim’s circlet and reaches over Ephrim’s shoulder to pick up the bristled hairbrush.
Gold and leather, Baron and Ranger, dark-quenched flame and outcast companion.
Throndir starts at the ends and works his way up, each stroke a prayer, a meditation, and Ephrim feels himself drifting off, his mind wandering to the dwindling food stores, the medicine they’re already rationing this early in the year, the ever-growing group of children left without parents as disease and the cold sap their lives away –
The brushing stops. Ephrim looks into the clouded mirror and sees Throndir staring at him, hairbrush mid-stroke in his hair. “You still with me?”
Ephrim nods, apologetic. “I’m sorry, I just have so much on my mind.”
Throndir hums and resumes brushing.
Ephrim tries to focus on the prickle of each bristle on his scalp, the smooth sounds and lulling pull as Throndir works through each tangle. At some point he pauses, fingers massaging open a section, and Ephrim cracks an eye open in time to see Throndir lean in and take a closer look at one of his, ah, silver hairs, before combing his fingers once more through the section, reincorporating the offending strands back into a bundle. Throndir separates Ephrim’s dark hair into three sections, throwing one over each shoulder, then starts winding them together. He pauses once, twice, backing up and restarting, but eventually reaches over Ephrim’s shoulder to take the hair ribbon from Ephrim’s outstretched palm.
Once he’s tied it, Throndir steps back without a word. Ephrim reaches back and runs his hand over the braid. It’s a bit bumpier than he’d prefer – he might have a few kinks in his hair tomorrow morning – but he can feel the care in each twist. And he didn’t have to strain his arm reaching over his shoulder.
Throndir clears his throat. “Sorry it’s a bit bumpy. I haven’t braided someone else’s hair in a long time.”
Ephrim smiles. “Believe me, this is better than I can do gloveless. Gave myself an impromptu haircut the last time I tried it with my hand like this.” He raises his right hand from the armoire and gives it a stern glare. Throndir chuckles behind him, and the sound warms places of inside him he hadn’t realized were cold.
Ephrim pulls his cloak tighter around his shoulders. He’s cold, it’s so cold, and suddenly the pieces all fall into place.
“Throndir, would you stay here tonight? I’m worried about you, too, and I don’t want you walking back alone in the cold.”
Throndir’s ears flush bright purple. Looks like he hit the nail on the head, then. Oh, he’s been so lonely all these years, watching Throndir out of the corner of his eye and wondering if his affections were returned when the answer had been right in front of him all along. He’d just needed a direct ask.
“I, uh, I’ll be okay, I promise.”
Throndir is looking anywhere but him, and Ephrim itches to grab his bristled chin and gently coax the snow elf’s face towards his.
“If you’re sure, I won’t stop you. But Throndir.”
“I’d really appreciate if you’d stay the night with me.”
Throndir looks like he’s trying to figure out how to track a particularly elusive animal.
“I, okay, yeah, I’d like that.” He pauses, his front teeth pulling at his bottom lip. “I’d really like that. But it doesn’t have to mean anything, right?”
Ephrim shakes his head. “I hope… I’ve made it clear that I would like it to mean something more, but if that’s not what you desire right now, it doesn’t have to mean anything more.”
Throndir finally looks at him, looks right at him, and his eyes are so green.
“And if I want it to mean something more?”
“Then we can sort it out in the morning.” Ephrim stands with a smile and reaches out to grasp Throndir’s hands in his own.
“I’m going to sleep. Would you care to join me?”
Throndir nods once, twice, his eyes fixed on Ephrim’s own, and Ephrim leads him by the hand through the dark doorway, kicking off slippers and hanging up cloaks and blowing out candles and pulling each other down under the soft blankets. They settle a couple of feet apart from each other, hands nearly touching in the space between their bodies, just staring at where they imagine the other to be in the pitch-black night of the Last University.
He dreams of sunlight and daffodils and the sweet scent of new soil.
Ephrim wakes to the weak early-morning winter sun streaming through the glass of his windowpane. Throndir is stirring around him, his breaths still heavy with sleep. Throndir’s arm is wrapped around Ephrim’s waist, weight warm and solid. Ephrim has his hand pressed against Throndir’s chest, his fingers curled into the fabric of Throndir’s shirt and pushing through the collar laces to brush the warm skin underneath.
He looks up and finds Throndir looking down at him, looking so kissable, but no, that will come later.
“Is it time to get up already?” Ephrim makes sure his yawn is suitably exaggerated, and Throndir gives a little laugh.
“No, we have a few minutes. They haven’t rung the morning bell yet.”
He hums and keeps toying with the laces on the front of Throndir’s shirt, tangling his fingers between the woven strings, feeling the way the strands brush between his fingertips. Something’s been on his mind since last night, and it’s quickly feeling like the best time to ask.
“Last night, you said you were patrolling… but I’m at the top of the tower.”
Throndir stills next to him.
“You weren’t doing your normal route, were you?” Ephrim teases, looking back up at Throndir, his fingers still tight in Throndir’s shirt.
“Yeah, you got me there.”
“You aren’t as sneaky as you think, you know.”
“I was the Ranger for years! I’m sneaky!”
“Quiet and sneaky aren’t the same thing.”
Throndir just huffs indignantly and reaches over Ephrim to pull his braid over his shoulder, then reaches his hand back over. The weight is comforting, and Ephrim just lets himself rest for a moment. Still, he’s curious.
“So, what were you doing up here this late at night?”
Throndir doesn’t answer right away, continuing to breathe in and out into the space they’ve created under the blankets. It’s warm, almost steamy, the sunlight getting brighter with each passing minute.
When Throndir finally answers, Ephrim almost forgets to breathe.
“Do you remember when Morbash died?”
“I- I remember.”
“How they found him in his bed one morning?” Ephrim nods against Throndir’s chest and hums his affirmation, forcing his body to stay relaxed.
“Well, I had a dream about Morbash, but instead of Morbash it was you, Ephrim.”
Throndir has begun to rub his hand up and down Ephrim’s bony back. Ephrim isn’t sure if the other man is aware he’s doing it.
“In the dream you didn’t come to breakfast one morning and I walked up all these stairs and knocked on your door, and you were still at your desk and you were so, so cold and I, I just–” his breath is shaky, “–it felt so real. I had to come check, to make sure you were still there, and when I walked in and you were at your desk just like in the dream I thought for a second that it had been a vision, that I’d seen the future, but you turned towards me and Ephrim I was so relieved, I-”
His breath catches, then, and Ephrim pulls him close, wrapping his arms tight around Throndir’s middle.
“I’m here, I’m here, I’m not going anywhere, I promise.”
Throndir’s tears are quiet, contained, but Ephrim holds him tight.
“Shh, shh, it’s alright. I’m here, I’m here, I’m here…”
The sun rising over the plains outside the window catches Throndir’s hair, the light streaming in from behind him like a glowing halo. It’s the kind of coincidence that had made Ephrim so faithful to Samothes for all those years, made him trust in the Church’s grand vision of the world. But that world had crumbled, had long rotted from the inside and left them here on the frost-bitten plains struggling to survive.
The sun rises, and they start their separate days.