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whilst the petals part and float down

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When the adventurers came to the forest, that was the first time Blue J had ever met someone who wasn’t an oni or mothkin. They didn’t look too dissimilar to them and their siblings and father, but they were rather less colourful, and none of them had horns protruding from their heads like Blue and their family did.

However, the more Blue spent time around them, the more they began to notice that they were more colourful than they initially appeared, with little flecks and hints of blues, greens and purples that made their way up some of the peoples’ arms. The markings looked like the flowers that grew around the forest, the ones Blue loved to pick and collect, except they were part of their skin rather than the world around them.

They asked their dad about the pretty flowers, and he had sat them down on his lap and gathered their siblings, then- as he so often did- he began to tell them all a story. 

He explained about the idea of mortals that every person had someone, or in some cases several people, that they were destined to be with for the rest of their life. Sometimes it was romantic, sometimes it was a bond of friendship, but it was something very special indeed.

‘Why don’t I have one then?’ Blue J asked him later that night, and he sighed, wondering how on earth to respond to that. Although they had begun to grow as the humans and the elf spent more time around the forest, they were still far too young to learn about what they would become in the future, destined to one day take the role of their father. 

‘It’s a human thing, there are lots of weird human things that don’t apply to us.’ He said with a laugh, trying to keep his tone light, in the hopes that Blue J would accept his explanation without further questioning.

Blue J was thoroughly dissatisfied, continuing to ask him question after question about the idea of soulmates, but Red Jack refused to say anything further to them on that matter, and tucked them into bed despite their grumbling complaints.

 

The next morning, they paid closer attention to the arms of their visitors. The elf man had bare arms, with a black dot on his wrist that could easily be mistaken for one of his many freckles had he not pointed it out specifically to Blue when they had questioned where his flowers were. He said that though he had no markings yet, that the dot was where they would eventually grow out of. 

Flowers growing in skin seemed a strange concept to Blue J, but then again, everything about these people was so completely different to anyone else they knew tucked away here in the forest. 

The tall woman had flowers on both wrists, small purple sprigs of heather on her left and ranunculus blossoms on her right, but neither climbed up that far up her arms, with only a couple of blossoms on each side. 

The woman with the lovely dress also had a couple of peonies on her wrist, but they were almost indistinguishable from her other colourful tattoos that, when they had asked her about them, she had told them she had done herself. 

It took Blue a fair amount of work to find out about the flowers of the man in all the shiny armour as he seemed to keep it on all the time, and Blue was a little too intimidated to ask him until he had been staying there for a couple of nights.

‘You mean my soulmarks?’ he asked when Blue J made their request. They hadn’t known there was a term for it. 

‘If that’s the word for the pretty flowers on your arms then yes.’ They said, as he began to take off his armour, and rolling up his sleeves to reveal small white blossoms interspersed with leaves. 

The two women only had small amounts of flowers covering their arms, but once he took his breastplate off, Blue could see that his climbed so far up that they were blossoming around his neck as well. They must have been growing for a long time. 

‘Why do you have more flowers than Hella and Adaire?’ they asked, ripping leaves into shreds with their claws as they sat on the forest floor. 

‘Well, they’ve only just met each other, I’m not sure if they said that their flowers are from each other. The ones on Hella’s left arm anyway, the ones on the right belong to Adelaide,’ Blue J didn’t know who Adelaide was, but they didn’t want to interrupt, Hadrian was telling them what they wanted to know, and they didn’t want to do anything that would make him decide to stop. 

‘But the flowers I have are from my wife, she’s called Rosana and she lives back in Velas.’ When he mentioned her name, his eyes seemed to light up a little. Blue wondered if they would have someone like that one day, that even the mention of would cheer them up. It seemed like a nice thing. 

‘We’ve known each other since we were teenagers, Samothes above, that must be thirty years by now.’ He seemed a little surprised by how long it had been.

Blue J themself had very little concept of time, they had many years of murky memories of being a baby, far more than the five or so years they should have been around for based on how old they were now, but they remembered that their dad had told them that humans abided far more strictly to time than they did. It seemed strange just to follow the pattern of days in such a linear way, Blue skipped around their timeline, aging in skips and bursts, and it felt like the most natural thing in the world. They supposed humans weren’t built that way. 

‘Most people by our age have soulmarks covering half their body, but I’ve been away so much with the church, travelling away from home and away from her and my son.’ He smiled down at Blue J, who looked up from where they were continuing to shred leaves as they had been considering what he had been telling them. 

‘He’s about your age now, not that I’ve seen him in a good few months.’ His face had an odd expression on it, something Blue had never seen before and didn’t quite know what to do with, so they just continued playing with their leaves as the quiet sobs of the man filled the forest clearing.

A few moments later he stood up and left, dabbing at his face with his sleeve. Blue J just lay down on the floor, letting themself sink into the leaves. The marks were so pretty, but talking about them had made Hadrian sad. Maybe he missed his family. 

The leaves were comfortable and it wasn’t until after the sun had set that they brushed them off and started wandering back to where they knew the camp was. Red Jack wouldn’t mind, he spent just as much time alone in the forest as any of his children, and they knew he wouldn’t be worried about them.

 

Unlike Blue, Benjamin did not particularly care about soulmarks. Of course he was curious about his own, and when they would finally start growing, but they had always been in his life, his parents with flowers down their arms. 

Hadrian spent a lot of time away, but whenever he was back for more than a week or so, new blossoms would start growing on both of their arms. Sometimes he looked at the black dot on his own wrist, but it was never more than a passing thought of who his soulmate might be one day.

He didn’t care, that was, until he turned twelve. And not long after green shoots finally started showing up on his skin, bright and vibrant against the rich brown. He had been so ecstatic to see his mother again after so long trapped in that bubble, and fascinated to be suddenly thrust into this world of adventurers, that he barely even noticed until weeks after they made it to the Last University. 

It had been Blue J, one of Red Jack’s children, who had pointed it out to him. The two of them had spent a fair amount of the journey chatting to each other as Blue had been one of the only people around that was his age. 

Well, they hadn’t been his age at first; they had looked to be around eight, until one morning when they walked out of their tent having aged around four years overnight. He had been very confused until Red Jack had explained it to him. He was still worried about his friend suddenly becoming an adult without him, but it seemed like for now they were steady at around the same age that he was. 

‘Are you growing flowers like the others?’ Blue J asked him, as the pair were wandering through the empty halls of the Last University, after Rosana had finished up her classes for the day. 

‘Huh?’ Benjamin didn’t get what they were asking him, until they grabbed his arm and pointed out the green stem, starting to unfurl from the dot on his wrist. ‘Oh wow, I never noticed that. I guess I am.’

‘That must mean you’ve met your soulmate then.’ Blue said with a bright grin on their face, and Benjamin froze as he realised that they were right. He had met his soulmate. 

He knew it wasn’t always perfect, that people weren’t always the best match for each other, but his parents were soulmates and it had worked out alright for them, even if his father was currently stuck in a sword. They had always loved each other deeply, even when things had been complicated. 

He wondered who it could be, he hadn’t seen anyone else around yet with the sprouts of a new flower beginning, though there were a lot of people at the Last University, and it might take some time to check the wrists of everyone. 

Of course, the first person his mind flitted to was Blue, they had been spending hours and hours together, and though he reckoned he didn’t know them well enough to make this judgement yet, they seemed like the kind of person he could spend the rest of his life with. There was of course the small issue of the fact that soulmarks were a two way thing, and Blue had let him know that they didn’t have one, though they were quick to add that it was because they were an oni, and that they were never going to get one. 

When they had said that, their face fell, and they seemed rather upset at the prospect of not getting a mark of their own, so Benjamin had moved the conversation on quickly, not wanting to do or say anything that would make them feel worse.

 

It was late one afternoon, Rosana had long since given up on trying to teach them that day, and Blue J had taken to doodling plants and animals and anything else that came to mind on their paper- on which they were meant to be taking notes about history.

‘What are you drawing?’ Benjamin asked them with a shy smile. He still hadn’t spoken that much to the young oni since they arrived at the Last University, he suspected they were his soulmate, and that had made him very nervous around them. 

He didn’t want to mess it up, he knew how these things went wrong sometimes, and he would hate to start off badly with Blue J. 

He shouldn’t have worried though. Blue picked up the paper and handed it to him, and alongside all the nature they had been drawing, there was a little doodle of his own face. Blue had drawn his glasses comically oversized, and given him a smile far larger than anything that had crossed his face in the last few years, but it was really cute. 

‘Oh wow,’ he said, feeling his face light up in a grin mirroring the ink on the paper, ‘is that me?’

‘Yeah,’ they said with an excited smile and a little bounce in their seat, ‘I thought you looked a bit serious lost in thought all the time, so I wanted to make you happy.’

Benjamin felt something warm and golden swell in his chest, they wanted to make him happy. With that realisation, there came the discovery that he wanted to make them happy too, but when he turned back to them, he could see their face had fallen a little. They looked wrong like that, was the first thing that crossed Benjamin’s mind, Blue suited their big toothy grin so much, that it didn’t seem right for them to be sad like this. 

‘Blue J?’ He asked, letting the paper flutter as he dropped it back on to their desk. ‘Did I say something wrong? Are you alright?’

They paused, fidgeting with their fingers as they seemed to be searching for the right words to say. ‘It’s just, until now you’ve been avoiding me. And I wanted to make sure I didn’t do anything wrong by pointing out,’ they gestured to their wrist, ‘I don’t have a soulmark so I don’t really know what the right thing is when it comes to them. But you’ve been so quiet since that day, and I’m worried I messed it up and-’ they broke off as their lip began to tremble, so out of character for one normally so full of energy and enthusiasm.

Benjamin wrapped his arms around them, worried they were about to cry, ‘Hey, you didn’t do anything wrong, I promise.’ He sighed, ‘I’ve just been an idiot.’ He paused, grateful that Blue J couldn’t see his face. ‘It’s. Well. I think it’s you.’

‘You think what’s me?’ Blue didn’t seem to understand what Benjamin meant.

‘My soulmate,’ he clarified, ‘I think it might be you.’ His felt his heart racing in his chest, it suddenly felt very important to him that Blue J was happy with this, in a way that he hadn’t quite realised before now.

‘I don’t have a mark.’ Blue J seemed confused, glancing down at their wrist as though one might have appeared in the few moments they had been speaking. ‘I thought they were meant to be a pair, isn’t that the whole point?’

‘I mean, I don’t think that anyone really knows everything about soulmarks yet, and well, I don’t think there’s anyone else it could be,’ he said, and as a shy smile crossed their face- so different from their usual massive grin- he knew that he was right.

 

Years at the Last University passed, and the two became inseparable. Blue had been the first person that Benjamin had confided in about his magic- and when they learned that they had been the first to know they felt a wave of pride wash over them- it was nice to know that he trusted them above all else. And so in turn, when they came to take up the bow that Throndir had abandoned, Benjamin was the first to know.

They met him in their den in the morning, already wrapped in their winter cloak. They were wrapped up on so many layers to protect them from the cold that they were sweating a little; Blue tended to run hot, and they reckoned that they had perhaps overdone it with the warm clothes.

‘Are you sure this is a good idea?’ Benjamin asked them as they informed him of their plan, ensuring that someone knew where they were going to be when they left the university. Blue might be taking some risks here, but they weren’t stupid.

‘I’ll be fine, don’t you worry about me, I’ve got this,’ they said gesturing to the bow on their back. ‘Besides, I’m not going to go far, if I can’t find anything within a few miles I’ll come back.’

‘Promise you’ll be careful,’ Benjamin pleaded, and when Blue J turned to face him, they could see that he genuinely looked worried. Their eyes flicked down to his wrist, a habit at this point, and though most of his arms were covered with his jumper they could see the first few blossoms. Bouvardias. They had looked that up in a book when the first one had bloomed a few years ago. 

Blue wasn’t the best with books and words, despite Rosana’s dedicated teaching, but with the help of Benjamin- who had been curious about the flowers as well- they had been able to find them in one of the old texts in the library. 

It was still not certain who the flowers were for, Blue liked to think they might be for them, but with no way to prove anything, it was still a rather wishful hope. Benjamin told them they were being silly whenever they brought up their doubts, in his mind it couldn't be anyone else. But they still wished they had some flowers of their own to go alongside Benjamin’s. 

‘Of course I’ll be careful, don’t worry about me, I’ll be just fine, alright?’ They reached out to wrap Benjamin in a hug, the brief sensation of arms pressing tight around them before they wrapped their cloak around themself and headed out into the cold. 

 

It was late in the afternoon when Blue J returned from their hunt, with a few rabbits in hand. They were shivering a little, and they were glad they had taken so many scarves with them, even if they had been an inconvenience at times. 

They tossed all their wet clothes in front of the fire in hope of them drying a little before the next day, and settled down with Benjamin, who tucked a blanket round them and then went back to the spell he had been attempting to figure out when Blue had returned. 

They were nervous, their hands flapping a little by their sides as they tried to figure out how to tell him. He needed to know, they told him everything, and this would be no different, but they wanted to say it right. They didn’t want to stumble over their words and spend ages clarifying. They waited for Benjamin to get his spell to work, congratulating him when he managed to get one of his books to levitate a few metres above the ground, before they took a deep breath and started to tell him.

‘Hey Benjamin,’ they began, and they knew he could tell it was serious, as he stopped trying his spells and wriggled under the blanket with them. His presence beside them was always a comfort, the weight of him pressed into their side was the most reassuring thing they could imagine.

‘Do you,’ they paused, hands waving as they tried to make sure they got the words right, ‘Do you think you could start referring to me with ‘they’? Like, as a gender thing.’ They didn’t know how to explain any better than that, so they could only hope that Benjamin knew what they were talking about. They were sure he had known other people like them before, but that didn’t seem to be able to calm the racing thoughts in their head.

‘Oh of course!’ He said with a grin, and reached out for their hand, rubbing circles into it with his thumb in the way he knew helped them to relax. ‘Is there another name you want me to use?’ He asked, and Blue J smiled so wide, they couldn’t have hoped for this to have gone better. ‘Blue J’s still fine, I know you never call me Jack anyway, but please don’t.’ 

‘Of course I won’t. Just let me know if anything changes, alright?’ He asked them, and they nodded in response, their hair flapping around their face with their enthusiasm. ‘Come here,’ he said, holding his arms out, and they leant back into them. ‘I’m proud of you, you know that right?’

Blue didn’t respond, but pressed their face into his shoulder and wrapped their arms around him. The pair of them stayed wrapped up in each other until they drifted off to sleep, the warmth of the fire and of body heat making them both tired. Benjamin’s body comfortably pressed into their own, and a weight off their chest at long last, Blue J felt more relaxed than they had been in months, and in their sleep their dreams were nothing but peaceful.

 

When Samot arrived, the Last University was thrown into chaos. Benjamin barely even knew half of what was going on, but his father seemed worried, and everyone around seemed to be in a perpetual state of anxiety about the god lying unconscious. 

Just when everything seemed like too much, that was when Samol arrived, with his guitar on his back and a twinkle in his eye, prepared to set the world to rights. And the music he had played, oh the music. Benjamin had only ever heard the odd tune from the bard on his violin before, and those were odd phrases of notes. They weren’t the upbeat songs that Samol had played, nor did they resemble the slower, sad tunes he sang with such melancholy in his voice as the night had drawn to a close. No, the music of Lem King served a purpose for the pattern, but beyond that, much of the harmony was highly discordant and strange. 

Samol’s music reminded him far more of the tunes his mother hummed under her breath as she wrote, or the little snippets of old songs Blue had picked up from their father, and it filled him with something warm as the music swelled and filled the entire university. There was something magical about it, and not magical in the way that Lem’s music was, this had a life to it. 

And so, a few weeks later- with the memories of Samol turned bittersweet by his burial the morning after that night of revelry- he picked up a guitar that Blue had come across in some room in the university years ago. 

When he first began to play, they laughed at him, and he laughed along with them. He had come across a few books, but all his notes still weren’t sounding right. His plucking sounded harsh and stilted, and he wondered how long it would take him to sound out even the most basic of tunes on this instrument. 

He played over and over, his fingers beginning to ache from the feeling of the metal strings underneath them. Blue sat sketching, it was something they had been doing increasingly often- a moment of relaxation amidst the chaos of Samot at the university. Their favourite thing to draw were the flowers on Benjamin’s arms, delicate lines of pen arcing to create soft leaves and petals.

A pen sketch on brown paper of bouvardia flowers

They seemed content to sit there despite his tuneless playing, humming along with him if the notes ever had enough of a tune for them to make out a melody. 

Blue J and Benjamin sitting in front of a bookshelf, Benjamin playing the guitar

Over the course of the week, Blue J came and went, going off to the woods with Throndir some days, only to return to Benjamin still plucking away at the guitar. On more than one occasion they came back to find him asleep, his spellbooks scattered around him, and his head slumped on his instrument. 

They removed their cloak and draped it over him, moving the guitar out of the way to ensure it wouldn’t be damaged. After that they lay down beside him and let him lean into them, wrapping his hands in their own. This was nice. They didn’t spend as much time together as they used to, not for lack of trying, but because both of their skills were needed by the rest of the university far more often than they had when they were children. 

As Blue began to doze off themself, they found their fingers tracing the flowers on Benjamin’s arm. At this point, they knew that there was no one else they could be for. The flowers grew near constantly, they reached far further up his arm than they should have done considering they had only known each other for a few years, but that was down to the fact that they were together for nearly every possible moment. 

Blue J had left a few times with Throndir, and when they returned the flowers hadn’t grown more. They knew what this meant, but it felt odd to be half of a pair that could never properly be completed. It was strange to have their own arm bare, but they knew they loved Benjamin, and they knew Benjamin loved them, even if it wasn’t something the two really spoke about. It was one of those things that went unsaid, but was always present in the silence the two often shared. 

They felt Benjamin’s fingers combing through their hair- which they were growing out at the moment. It fell in loose waves around their shoulders, but they wanted it to be as long as Throndir’s, they liked the thought of being able to tie it up. Leaning into the touch, they let their eyes slip shut, the feeling of Benjamins fingers an unexpected comfort.

When Benjamin woke up, it was earlier than he had expected. He supposed the two of them had drifted off when it was still the afternoon, but when he looked across to Blue J they were still fast asleep on top of him. 

He supposed he would have to stay there with them then, he didn’t want to disturb them. The guitar was too far away for him to reach without waking them, and it would be too loud anyway, so he sat there and hummed the tune he had been playing the afternoon before, so quiet it was barely audible, the noise blending with the gentle background noise of the university: the chirping of birds, the rush of the wind outside the windows, and the vague sound of people talking in the distance.

 

The next few months were a blur. So much happened, so fast. And in those months, alongside the end of Hieron as they knew it, Blue J and Benjamin became the type of friends who also kissed every now and then. 

The two had been so romantic with each other in the first place that it was just about the only change to their relationship, besides their proud reference to each other as ‘partner’ at any given opportunity. 

Sometimes people who were new to the university would glance at Blue’s arms, expecting to see something that wasn’t there, but they found they no longer cared. They didn’t need flowers of their own to show that Benjamin was their soulmate. 

Often the pair of them joked that Blue’s flower fox was more than enough flowers for them, that they didn’t need them on their skin as well. Maybe other people didn’t get it, too insecure in their own relationships to imagine a couple that didn’t need absolute proof of their soulmate bond. But that was their issue. Not Blue J’s.

They had spoken to Throndir about it, late one afternoon before the world came to an end. Throndir now had two sets of flowers up his arms, intertwining with each other where they met around his neck and chest. He knew the first set were for Ephrim, and at this point he had decided that it was safe to assume the others were for Red Jack. 

It seemed that all those years ago when he had told Blue that oni didn’t have soulmates, that he had been wrong. He just hadn’t ever met his own. It was strange to think that so many incarnations of thier father had existed throughout history, yet this remained something that hadn’t happened until now. Well, they knew they weren’t going to continue the cycle of Red Jack, so maybe this was just another indicator of that. 

It was awkward to talk to their dad about soulmates, but for some reason they had never felt the same apprehension around Throndir. Blue wasn’t worried about Benjamin not being their soulmate, and they weren’t worried about what other people thought of their relationship. 

That didn’t mean they didn’t sometimes wish they could have flowers on their own skin, like they had dreamed of all those years ago when the only thing they knew about the marks was that they were pretty. But they had Benjamin, and though there were moments of insecurity, they knew that they loved each other. And that was enough for Blue J.

 

The Rhizome was vast, and sprawling and new. The two of them were happy to stay with the university for a while, but Blue J found they could only stay in one place for so long when there was quite literally a whole new world to explore.

As the days passed they became more and more restless, returning later and later from their trips that were only meant to last a few hours. 

‘What’s wrong?’ Benjamin asked them one night, after he had found Blue J in the woods near the university, sitting on a branch and playing with their fox long after night had fallen. 

They hadn’t shown up for dinner, and while this wasn’t the first time that had happened, Benjamin had been worried enough to rush off in search of his partner. It had taken him quite some time to get an answer out of them, happy to sit in silence until they felt comfortable enough to talk to them. 

‘There’s a whole world out there Benjamin,’ they said to him, and he could see how their eyes lit up at the idea, ‘and I know the university is important. It’s home. But I don’t want to be stuck here when there’s so much out there that we can’t even begin to comprehend yet.’

‘How about we go on an adventure then?’ Benjamin asked, and he could see that Blue J had not been expecting that answer. 

‘Really?’ they asked, bouncing a little where they sat. And really, there was no way Benjamin could say no to them when they looked that happy. 

‘Yes really, if you’re unhappy here then I don’t see why we can’t go off into the world for a bit. Just for a couple of months.’ The utterly thrilled look on Blue J’s face was worth all the discussions he was going to have to have with his parents later. Their infectious happiness brought a smile to his own face as he stopped to think about how much they were going to love exploring. He was curious about what they would find out there too, and he couldn’t think of a better person to do it alongside. 

It was less than a week later- spent frantically planning as much as they possibly could for a world that they knew so little about- that they said their goodbyes to Hadrian and Rosana, stopped by to visit Red Jack, promising all the adults that they’d be back to visit in a while, and not worry if they were quite some time. And then they were gone.

Blue dashed on ahead as they always did, peering at all the new flowers they could find, running round the branches of the world, marvelling at how they could walk any way up and not fall off the surface somehow, they ran and skipped and jumped and climbed until they got their energy out, dropping back to a steady pace as they walked alongside Benjamin. He took their hand in his own, as though he were asking them to stay for a while, Blue J gave his hand a squeeze, enough of a ‘yes’ between the two of them.

‘So it’s just us then,’ Blue J said with a massive grin crossing their face, watching as a small smile appeared on Benjamin’s. ‘Just us and this new world.’

‘Where do you want to start?’