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The forests are peaceful at this time of year. Throndir's steps can be heard no matter how hard he tries to step on the snowless patches; Kodiak's soft feet do a much better job in the snow than the thick boots he's wearing. He doesn't mind too much, as there's no emergency, only a routine perimeter patrol.

 

A tiny brown-grey finch hops from a branch to a branch right next to him, entirely unbothered by the elf walking this path and the large dog accompanying him. Throndir smiles, forever grateful to see Hieron's species rebuilding their lives in the Rhizome. Just as the people of the remaining settlements spread out across the whole new world again, so do the animals, attempting to restore the fragile balance of the old nature and reconcile it with the new.

 

His musings are interrupted by another faint sound of footsteps, more careless than his but quieter than those of a predator of significant size. The finch flies off, but seemingly not out of fear, and simply leaving in pursuit of its other needs. Throndir turns towards the footsteps.

 

“Here,” he calls out, not a full-on shout but loud enough for the other person to hear a couple dozen feet away. The quiet of the forest makes his voice carry easily enough, just as it did the sound of the footsteps. Throndir can easily recognize the silhouette, tall and horned and outlined by long, black hair.

 

“Hey,” Blue J says, a little out of breath. They pay half a mind not to hop straight into the thick, noisy patches of snow – a matter of habit – but don't particularly try to be sneaky; they do look a bit sheepish about it, though, as they approach Throndir and take in his patrol outfit. They briefly lean down to pet Kodiak and look up to speak. “Do you have a lot left to do here? It's... kinda urgent.”

 

“I was just gonna go back for breakfast,” Throndir says, a little worried. Blue J looks anxious but not panicked, so he assumes it's not a life-threatening emergency. “Did something happen?”

 

Blue J looks around nervously, as if the forest after sunrise hid tons of listeners eager to steal their secrets. “Let me walk with you as you wrap up. I uh, I need a hand.”

 

“Fine,” Throndir replies, a little puzzled. He continues to walk the same path he takes every other day while Blue J is here; they've assumed a lot of his duties, but he sees no reason to retire from this job entirely.

 

Blue J follows him, this time aiming to make their steps as quiet as his. It's not entirely successful, as the boots they chose are not the same ones they wear for patrols – Throndir is thankful nevertheless.

 

“Winter solstice is tomorrow,” Blue J starts. “Probably.” The math around these things is still imprecise; months and seasons are arbitrary, but the magic users and scientists of the University do their best to time any celebrations as best they can.

 

“Did you have something planned?”

 

“I... yeah,” Blue J gulps a little as they hop from root to root, avoiding snow patches. Kodiak imitates them, and looks like he's having the time of his life. “I was gonna... propose. To Benjamin.”

 

“Oh!” Throndir can't help but smile; he expected this, but actually hearing it is a little overwhelming. He follows it up with a frown and stops, turning around to face them. “Wait. Was?”

 

“Yeah, that's the problem. The ring sorta... disappeared.” Blue J trails off almost on a whisper, sounding utterly desperate as they look down at their boots. “Throndir. I need help finding it.”

 

“Of course, of course,” Throndir reassures them. “How did you even lose it?”

 

“I mean, if I knew, I wouldn't be asking for help,” they shrug, and pick a winter berry off the bush they're standing next to. They roll it between their fingers before putting it in their mouth. “I woke up just now, put on my clothes, and it wasn't there.”

 

Throndir nods. “And what if we don't find it?”

 

“Then I'll... have to buy another one,” Blue J anxiously picks more of the berries and pops them into their mouth. “I had this one commissioned, though. I'd really rather not.” They wipe their fingers on their vest and pet Kodiak as he snuggles up to them.

 

“Ah, I bet.” Throndir nods and continues to walk. “Alright. Where do you want to check first? And how do I help?”

 

“Well, the deal is, I don't want anyone to know.” Blue J laughs a little. “It's gonna be a surprise! So I don't want people to know what I'm looking for, if you get me. But they'll wanna know, and they'll wanna help. So I was thinking we could frame it like, I'm just hopping in to get something I dropped or something, and you'll distract them. And maybe help me look while you distract them.”

 

Throndir shakes his head. “And you didn't think to make this a surprise to Benjamin only? Not saying this is a bad plan to have,” he adds, “but it might make searching easier.”

 

“Well, the first place we have to check is your and dad's house.”

 

“Ah. Nevermind then.”

 

***

 

Red Jack is still asleep when Throndir and Blue J sneak into the house, Kodiak following behind them and way less sneaky. Unfortunately, a few of Blue's younger siblings are not, and they make sure to inform them both that they look as guilty as thieves. Throndir gives all of the kids a hug.

 

“Whatever it is you want to do, we'll help,” One of them, with all the grace of a nine year old, informs them. Blue J pats her on the head. Throndir almost giggles.

 

“We need you to act like we're doing nothing and didn't come here for anything at all,” Blue J explains and proceeds to their old corner, where they'd hung out last night before going home to Benjamin.

 

“I'll check on Red Jack,” says Throndir and walks into their shared bedroom.

 

He's greeted with the sight of his partner wide awake, stretching out in the too-large bed, made specifically to contain all eight feet of him with added Throndir. He looks very cute.

 

“Hey,” Throndir says in a gentle voice. Suddenly, the temptation to join Red Jack back in bed feels overwhelming. For a moment, he thinks it would be a convincing way to keep him here while Blue J searches for their ring, but then he quickly realizes that it would soon no longer be a game of pretend. Blue needs him with them today, not cuddling with their dad until the evening patrol.

 

“Morning,” Red Jack says. “Did I hear Blue J over there?”

 

“Yeah, you did,” Throndir laughs. There's no way to keep Jack from going to see his oldest kid; if he was going to succeed at it, they would've had to sneak in quietly like mice.

 

Red Jack untangles himself from the sheets and walks up to the armchair where his trousers are. “And what brings them here with you? It's pretty early.”

 

“Ah, it's nothing,” and is Throndir terrible at lying. “Well. They're just here for a moment. Swinging by,” that's better. Maybe.

 

Red Jack ties the band of his pants and walks up to him. Throndir can't help but sigh as large, warm arms surround him, and his head is pulled in towards his partner's heart. “Glad you're both here, then,” he hears from above. “Swinging by.”

 

They leave the room together, less than thirty seconds later. Throndir knows he's looking very guilty about it.

 

“Hi, dad,” says Blue J, trying to emerge from under their bed as inconspicuously as possible.

 

“Hi, Blue,” says Red Jack, yawning. Throndir pulls him over to the dining table, where, as always, he'd prepared some sandwiches for Jack and the kids to grab when they woke up. Mentally, he high-fives himself for the distraction.

 

Kodiak is very interested in the sandwiches, too. He walks up to them as they both sit down, and Red Jack pets his large head, giving him some scratches behind the ears.

 

“Do you ever feed this dog before you go on patrols?” he laughs.

 

Throndir rolls his eyes with a smile. “You know he's just a big, hungry boy.” He reaches out to cover Red Jack's hand with his own. “Almost reminds me of someone.”

 

Red Jack laughs again, loud and radiant. Throndir wonders which one of them is being distracted. “Blue,” says Red Jack, “You're not gonna have a bite?” He turns to them as they're standing on their tiptoes, attempting to reach the highest shelf over their bed.

 

“Um, I've eaten, thanks,” they say, blissfully unaware of Red Jack's raised eyebrows. “Benjamin's been getting up at some terrible hours, recently, so he makes breakfast.”

 

Red Jack shakes his head, turning back towards Throndir. “You are spoiled, my little Blue.”

 

“Says who?”

 

“Fair.” All three of them laugh. “I suppose that sometimes, the world pushes truly amazing men into our paths.” Red Jack makes puppy eyes. Throndir can't take it.

 

“Oh, stop it,” he says with a light slap to the hand he's been holding.

 

“I mean, he is amazing,” Blue J says, “but he also hasn't left the house in like, five days, because he's trying to make a new spell or something. With my time management skills and memory, he would have starved by now, and myself soon after. So, really, we both benefit from this,” they laugh. Throndir watches them dig through a box they'd pulled from under the bed.

 

“You really talk about him like he carved the sun out for you, Blue,” Red Jack says, pride in his voice. “Even when you talk about the both of you starving. Which, please, do not do that.”

 

“Promise I won't,” Blue J says, feigning annoyance, but with a warm smile on their face.

 

Red Jack makes his way through six sandwiches, and a few of the kids grab one after they wake up. Throndir is kind of glad none of them seem to be growing to be eight feet tall anymore.

 

At the seventh sandwich, both of them are startled by a loud crash from a further corner of the room. They instinctively look that way; a large pile of clothes seems to have materialized on the floor.

 

“I'm okay, I'm okay!” Blue J lets them know from underneath. “I was just, uh, looking for my pajamas. You should consider making stuff reachable for people shorter than you, dad.” Throndir rolls his eyes while Red Jack isn't looking. They do have a point, though. Throndir's even shorter than Blue J, after all.

 

“Okay,” Red Jack says over a mouthful of sandwich. “Not sure what's going on here, but these are amazing, Throndir.” He swallows before leaning across the table to kiss Throndir on the mouth and dramatically grabs both of his hands. “I gotta marry you before those kids do that first!”

 

Throndir gulps. Blue J, now sitting up in the corner of the room, also gulps.

 

“Oh, y-yeah,” Throndir says. Dear Samothes, he's always been terrible at lying to Red Jack. He's hoping his embarrassed blush gives off the impression that he's just flustered at the remark.

 

Of course, Red Jack catches on, somehow. He purses his lips, still looking at Throndir, then turns around to see Blue J in a very obvious attempt to dig something out from under the cabinet. Throndir can see the wheels turning in his head as he processes the situation.

 

“Do you have something you're yet to tell me, Blue?”

 

They drag themself from under the cabinet, braid a bit dusty, hands empty. “Uh, not yet, I guess,” they say, and let out a sigh. “But hopefully... hopefully soon.”

 

Red Jack's pout continues for about three more seconds, until it turns into a wide grin. He looks back at Throndir. “Well, we do have to hurry up, don't we?”

 

Throndir smiles back at him. “Didn't you want to have a hot summer wedding?”

 

***

 

Blue J and Throndir leave Red Jack's home after snacking on a few sandwiches. Kodiak stays behind, eager to be fed and play with the kids. Despite their failure in finding the ring, Blue J is in a decent mood, uplifted by the visit; it's been hard to unlearn worrying about Red Jack, but now, after all danger has passed, they're growing to find easy happiness in the moments around their father.

 

“Where are we going next?” Throndir asks as one of Blue's siblings shuts the door behind them. Blue J's face forms a focused expression, a crease forming between their brows. It has been years since they outgrew Throndir, but he still can't get used of looking up at them, especially as their presence is intentionally so unoverwhelming.

 

“Before supper at dad's, I went to Ephrim's for a bit, he let me borrow some books,” they say. “Lord, I almost forgot. If it's not there, we're gonna have to go back to the forest.”

 

Throndir laughs a little. “We should have gotten that out of the way when we were there. No matter, though. Let's visit Ephrim first, it'll be easier.”

 

And they go. Ephrim's house is not far from Red Jack's; they have to pass one of the towers and a few smaller homesteads, but it's just a short walk, something they both appreciate in the cold winter weather. The sun is already high up in the sky, and the sounds of conversation and farm animals are trickling out of stables and coops and into the public spaces.

 

As they walk, they pass Rix and Rowe who wave at them as they cheerfully make their way somewhere else. Throndir is happy to see them. Ever since Adaire and Hella moved away from the Last University, he hasn't seen the kids too often; Adaire often comes back for a visit or an errand, but most often alone. As is usual for kids, they look more and more grown almost every time; Throndir is sure that one day, after a few months' break, he will find the siblings unrecognizable.

 

The lights are on inside Ephrim's home, windows not large enough to make the space bright when he's working on something. Blue J reaches to unlock and open the small gate and walks in, letting Throndir turn the key behind them. Ephrim used to take the key out when he was at home; now it's mainly protection from animals trying to push it open to roam his vegetable gardens.

 

The little trees and bushes in Ephrim's garden look like ghosts now that they're covered for the winter, and the few plants that are left uncovered look kind of sad compared to the abundant beauty of this place in the summer. Blue J is in awe of the space Ephrim managed to create here and, even in winter, they've spent many evenings sitting on the metal swing hanging from one of the taller trees.

 

“Do you want to knock?” Blue asks quietly, still somewhat shy around Ephrim, despite their good relationship. For a long time, their visits felt like walking on eggshells; anxious by nature, Blue J would worry about upsetting Ephrim or Benjamin, even though neither of them expressed animosity or objected to them being close to the other. And regardless of that matter, they did grow up with Ephrim as the leader of the University, so he seemed a little bit intimidating – even as he wore his hair messier and walked around with grass-stained pants.

 

Throndir nods and knocks on the door. Not a minute passes by before it opens to Ephrim's face. His expression lights up as he sees them, albeit his smile turns slightly more formal within seconds.

 

“Come in,” he says, “I've got pie.”

 

Throndir's eyebrows shoot up in surprise, but he follows Blue J inside of the little home. The warmth of it is very welcome, as both of them are flushed from the cold.

 

“I still had some apples left over,” Ephrim explains as they take their coats off. “Besides, I wanted to try a new recipe with some berries I'd dried, and, well. I got carried away.” Throndir swears he sees a blush on Ephrim's cheeks before the latter turns around and goes to get the pie slices.

 

“We're getting about twice as much breakfast as I thought we would,” Blue J remarks quietly, checking out every corner of the little hall. Throndir also takes a look around the entrance, and breathes a laugh.

 

“Best case, we eat a lot and find your thing. Worst case, we eat a lot and go into the forest warm and full. What's not to like about today?”

 

Blue J smiles at him. Throndir smiles back, and turns to go towards the living area, where Ephrim sets the plates on the table. Before they leave, Blue takes one last look at the shelves, as if maybe they'd placed the ring on one of them for any possible reason.

 

The pie smells of fruit and cinnamon; within three seconds of smelling it, Throndir almost forgets why they're in Ephrim's house in the first place.

 

“Are you okay with me potentially eating this whole pie?” Throndir asks upon taking a bite. Blue J sits down with him, making stealthy attempts to look around the place.

 

“Only if you take a slice for Red Jack, too,” Ephrim smiles and sits down next to Throndir. Where Throndir's left hand rests on the table, Ephrim covers the tips of his fingers with his own. If Throndir didn't know better, he'd think Blue J was looking away in embarrassment. “Why are you here, by the way?”

 

“Well, you haven't seen me for a few days, have you?”

 

“That's true, but I did see Blue J just yesterday. Have they dragged you here?” Ephrim's tone is accusatory, but Throndir knows him well enough to know he's just teasing. He flips his hand around on the table and runs his thumb over Ephrim's knuckles.

 

“No, no dragging involved,” Blue J laughs.

 

“I would have come tomorrow,” Throndir adds, “but they thought today was better.”

 

Luckily for them, Ephrim doesn't press it, or Throndir figures it would lead to an awkward conversation. Blue finishes their slice, and watches as Throndir helps Ephrim carry the plates back to the kitchen. Throndir sends them a wink as he follows Ephrim out.

 

“So, what did they leave in my house this time?” Ephrim asks when the door is shut, leaning against the kitchen counters. Throndir almost drops his plate.

 

Then he smiles. Of course Ephrim knows. “I promised I wouldn't tell.”

 

“Of course,” Ephrim smiles back at him and puts the plates away. “And you'd help them kill a dragon if they asked you to.”

 

“Visiting you is not killing a dragon.”

 

“It could be.”

 

Throndir can only laugh at that. He takes a step a little bit closer to Ephrim.

 

“How long do you think we should wait here?” Ephrim murmurs, laying his head on Throndir's shoulder. Throndir wonders if the warmth he feels comes from the relief at no longer walking in the chilling winter wind, or something else.

 

“A minute, if they actually left it there,” he says, “half an hour if they didn't.”

 

“They're going to get suspicious. Besides, we're already being impolite.”

 

“Oh, please, they'll just think I started seducing you as a distraction,” Throndir laughs, hand on Ephrim's cheek. “Which I might. But you're right, let's just take like, ten minutes.”

 

And so they do. They clean the plates together, then Ephrim takes some time preparing tea for all three of them. In the meantime, they exchange affectionate small talk, and Throndir tells him about all the new animals moving in to the areas around the University.

 

Ephrim finishes preparing tea and sets everything on a platter. “Do you think they're done now?”

 

“We have no choice but to look, I guess,” Throndir says and picks the platter up. He lets Ephrim open the door for him, and they step back into the room.

 

Blue J is nowhere to be found. Ephrim gasps a little; Throndir is surprised for a second, then laughs.

 

I'm gonna go out there and call them back in for tea,” he says, putting the platter down on the table. Ephrim gives him a sweet smile.

 

“Just don't tell them we've conspired together.”

 

“I won't.”

 

Throndir steps outside. Snow has picked up again, and the bright sunlight of the early afternoon makes it hard to see anything at first. He blinks a few times, trying to get used to the whiteness.

 

“I'm here,” Blue J calls from the swing.

 

Throndir approaches them, steps gentle like he's used to, even though they're not one of the birds he has to be careful not to chase off.

 

“I finished looking everywhere,” they say, “and I figured y'all were distracted. Which, good job,” they give him a bright grin.

 

Throndir smiles back. “I'm glad I came with you,” he says, putting his hands in the pockets of his coat. “We haven't really hung out together, all three of us. Which is odd, to me.”

 

“I don't actually come here too often,” Blue J says, pushing some snow off their lap. “Not that I don't like hanging out with Ephrim. It's just weird, you know,” they look away, watching a sparrow hop across the snow. “Life's weird.”

 

Throndir nods. “I know.” He squats near the swing, for lack of a place to sit, and looks at Blue J. Red Jack's kid, his kid now, too. He wonders what he could say without being too intrusive. Despite their years as a mentor and student, and months as family, it's still hard for him to tell what Blue J is thinking, sometimes. He feels fine with the knowledge that Benjamin may be the only one to know it all.

 

He sighs. “Ephrim is happy now, you know,” he starts, a bit pointlessly. He shakes his head, then, and changes his train of thought. “Changes happen, and they don't have to affect any more than they already do. When I was... when I traveled, with Ephrim and Hadrian, and back when we first met your father – there was no telling who would still be friends in a week,” he gives a short laugh. “Or whether we would end up together as a group, or a hundred miles apart, or, you know, stuck in a magical sword.”

 

Blue J nods and gives him a small smile. “Even the sword couldn't change some things,” they remark quietly.

 

“And things changed without the sword,” Throndir nods. “You might get to grow older in a world that's more stable than ours. And it's still been okay for us, in the end.”

 

“Thank you,” Blue J's smile grows. “Thanks. I almost forgot about that damn ring, now.”

 

Throndir laughs. “Wanna go inside for a bit? We made some tea.”

 

“Yeah.”

 

***

 

They spend a little bit longer at Ephrim's than they intended to, but after draining the kettle they finally say goodbye and head towards the forest.

 

“If I lost it there, I might as well just give up,” Blue J sighs as they approach the tree line. “But who knows anymore. I've found shit in more unexpected places than this.”

 

“Is this our last stop?”

 

Blue shrugs. “After this, it's just the path to our house, and I'm going to look in there again. I was hoping it wasn't there, though. Benjamin's staying in all day today.”

 

“Yeah, he's gonna be tougher to deceive,” Throndir nods.

 

“Not really? Maybe? We both lose things all the time,” they laugh. “I find his things, and he finds mine. That's a bigger worry, I think.”

 

Throndir laughs with them. They step into the forest, and he admires it for a bit, not used to how it looks in the middle of the day, having usually done patrols in the early mornings or at night.

 

“Do you remember where you went?” He asks Blue J, who's trying to divide their attention between looking down at the path and not walking head-first into a tree.

 

“I usually just walk the same path,” they say. “Across the forest to the lake clearing and back. I'm lucky I never switch routines,” they breathe a laugh.

 

Throndir follows them through the trees, and they make small talk in quiet whispers, trying not to scare off any wild animals in the area. He takes note of how different this walk is from their patrols – even though they're looking out for any shiny things stuck in the snow or in the underbrush, their steps are less careful, and he breathes more easily.

 

“We should actually go on walks together, sometimes,” he tells Blue J.

 

They nod in agreement, and Throndir can't see their face as he follows them through the narrow path, but he is pretty sure they're smiling. “We haven't even patrolled together in months.”

 

“That's because you're an adult, and I'm technically a librarian now.”

 

They scoff. “You can be a librarian all you want, you're still the former ranger. That doesn't really change.”

 

“Damn,” he says. “When you put it like that.”

 

“I know I'm right,” they look back at him, slowing their step a little. “Benjamin has been the wizard for years now, and he's more of one than I'll ever be the ranger. But if Fantasmo was here right now, Benjamin would still look to learn from him.”

 

“As much as it makes me feel old, Benjamin's more powerful than Fantasmo by a mile,” Throndir says.

 

“That's the point, though! And maybe he only got to learn from the ghost, and we've never met the real one, and I've met you – you're my other dad now – but the thing is, Fantasmo couldn't just like, go off and become a bug racing champion, or something.”

 

Throndir bursts out in laughter at the mental image. “As if he'd want to.”

 

“I didn't think you the librarian type,” Blue J says, “yet here you are.”

 

“I can't validate this comparison,” Throndir says, still laughing, “but you do have a point. I can't sit in one place too long. And I'm glad I can count on you not to let me sit on my ass forever, too.”

 

They smile and turn away again. “You bet.”

 

The search in the forest proves futile; they do find a ring, a little shiny thing with a lion on the front. It's too large for Throndir's fingers, and too small for Blue J's. Blue decides to look for the owner after the solstice.

 

As they exit the forest, it starts getting darker; it's not night by any means, and they've gotten used to it, but the Rhizome winter days tend to burn bright for a short while and then slowly fall into shades of grey and navy as most of the suns hide behind branches. It's Blue J's favorite time of day, as they tell Throndir. They always try to be outside for as much of it as possible, and often take Benjamin along; Benjamin likes to cast colorful light spells against the dim sky.

 

“Last stop of the day's our house, I guess,” Blue says as they walk along the path to the town. “I'm actually excited, you haven't seen how we repainted the hall yet.”

 

Blue J and Benjamin's home is a small house not far from Hadrian and Rosana's; it had been built in the first years of creating the settlement around the University, and the old couple who had lived there initially passed away of old age just a few years back. Having left no children in need of a home, they left it for whomever needed to claim it as their own; some years later, after making sure all the housing needs of the people in the settlement were fulfilled, Benjamin applied to the current Board of the University to have the house for himself and Blue J.

 

“I didn't think it needed repainting,” Throndir says with a smile.

 

“Benjamin despised the color,” they laugh, opening the door for him.

 

The hall is painted in a warm dark red, and Throndir immediately feels at home. The lit fireplace in the main room casts a gentle glow into the entryway. It really is nicer than it was before, in greyish green, which was nice but impersonal.

 

“I'm here for just a bit,” Blue J calls towards the rooms further away. Soon, the door to one of them opens, and a very sleepy-looking Benjamin emerges with a smile.

 

“Oh, Throndir! I'm sorry, I didn't really think I'd see anyone else today,” he says, gesturing to himself. He doesn't look too disheveled – he's always well put together, but something about his general appearance tells Throndir he hasn't slept much in a few days, probably studying and practicing magic.

 

“Hey! I'll just, I need to get something.” Blue J waves at them both and quickly disappears in the other room. Benjamin steps out towards Throndir, who stands there in his boots, unsure how to proceed.

 

“Damn, they're just gonna leave you hanging,” Benjamin laughs. “Do you want tea or something?”

 

Throndir almost says no, but then remembers what he's here for. “Yeah, sure.” He starts to take his boots off, but Benjamin waves at him.

 

“Don't bother, Blue's constantly running around and bringing mud in,” he says, pointedly gesturing at the door where they'd disappeared, boots on, just seconds before. “Old habits, I guess. Do you still walk around Red Jack's house with no shoes on?”

 

“Surprisingly, I managed to break him,” Throndir says, stepping inside as instructed. “Maybe you can get Blue J to do that, too.”

 

“As long as they don't wear boots to bed, I'm good,” Benjamin shrugs. “I just keep a separate pair of house shoes.” They both sit down, waiting for the water to boil. “Have you been with them all day?”

 

Throndir nods. “Just... running some errands, I guess.”

 

“They really stormed out like the house was burning in the morning,” Benjamin shakes his head. “I wasn't sleeping, but I almost missed them.”

 

They chat for a while longer, until the water boils and Benjamin pours tea for them both, saving some in the kettle for Blue J, who is nowhere to be seen.

 

Benjamin sets his eyes on the door of the bedroom. “Think they've torn the whole floor off to look for something?”

 

“As far as I know them, it's possible.”

 

“Oh, believe me, it is.” He grins. “We should never have moved to our own house. We're like, total losers, if you get me.”

 

They both laugh, and drift into silence as they sip their tea. Eventually, Blue J emerges from the bedroom, and Throndir thinks they're about three inches shorter than when they entered.

 

They walk up to the table without a word, kiss Benjamin on the temple, and sit down to pour themself tea. “Thanks for waiting for me.”

 

“Did you get what you needed?” Benjamin asks before Throndir can say anything.

 

“Absolutely not.”

 

“Well. If you lost something again, I can help you search. But I might have a different idea,” Benjamin says. “Adaire's kids visited today.”

 

“Ah, yeah, we passed them in town – oh,” Blue J's hand shakes, and they lower the cup to the table. “Oh.”

 

“Bet she wouldn't be very happy if they stole something again, but they're kids,” Benjamin grins. “They brought back those books aunt Hella borrowed before they moved out and forgot to return. I gave them tea and went to put the books back on the bookshelves. Didn't exactly watch their every step, so, if you're sure something's missing, I'd ask them. Just go easy on them, you know. Old habits, or something.” Throndir, with amusement, thinks that maybe he should get into the idea that some habits can be broken.

 

Blue J looks at Benjamin tiredly. “Pretty sure they specifically take things from us so you go to visit Hella. And like, maybe it would work if they didn't steal from me .”

 

“Kids have the wildest ideas,” Throndir says, surprised at the mention of Hella. He'd assumed Adaire had come alone with the kids as usual, but he'd be happy to see both of his old friends. “It's still early, we could go to where they're staying.” Maybe he's a little excited about that.

 

“Yeah, let's go,” Blue J leaves their cup on the table and gets up. “Are they gonna be in the old house?”

 

“Probably.”

 

They stand up and put another kiss on Benjamin's temple. “Let's go then.”

 

***

 

Blue J walks with a new sort of energy, as if their last pieces of hope lost during the search of their bedroom were replaced by an entirely new set.

 

Adaire's old home has been abandoned since she left the University, and Adaire herself agreed that anyone in need could claim it. This hasn't happened yet, however; when she or Hella need to visit, they are able to find it just as they left it, albeit with less furniture than when they'd lived here.

 

Throndir visits occasionally, to catch up and talk to the kids. It's usually hard for him to catch them if they stay a night or two, but a few times he's even managed to take Red Jack along for a cozy evening with friends. Once, when they drank together long into the night, he blurted out that he wishes they'd come back for real; Hella went quiet for a good ten seconds. Everything went back to normal after that, but he thinks back guiltily on his tipsy self. He'll talk to her about it. Eventually.

 

“Man, I sure hope this is it,” Blue J breathes as they stand outside the door. Throndir smiles at them reassuringly. They smile back.

 

They knock, and half a minute later the door opens to reveal Adaire's surprised face.

 

“What do you need?” she asks.

 

“Can we come in?” asks Blue J. “I think... I need to talk to Rix and Rowe.”

 

At that, Adaire sighs and rolls her eyes. “Not again,” she says, and steps back to let them in.

 

When they come in, the house is suspiciously empty. It's a small building, one level only, with a corridor and four tiny rooms; it's not easy to lose someone in.

 

“Are they here?” Blue J asks, taking their boots off and looking around.

 

“Oh yeah they are,” Adaire laughs, “but good luck if you're trying to do what I think you're trying to do.”

 

They throw her a desperate look.

 

“Look, they're not going to stab you,” she says, “but they're not gonna come out because I said so, and Hella's not here, cause she's walking Barbello and won't come back for a while.”

 

Throndir clears his throat. “Maybe they'll want to meet Kodiak.”

 

Blue J looks at him amused, like they didn't expect he could lie. He shrugs at them, hoping it works.

 

And so it does. As they step further into the narrow corridor of the house, sounds of fumbling come from one of the rooms, and eventually one of the doors opens, revealing Rix's curious face.

 

“Kodiak's here?” she asks, and from the room behind her comes her brother's voice, echoing the same question. She shushes him and peeks out again.

 

“Maybe, if you come out here and talk to Throndir,” Adaire says, smiling warmly at her. Rix makes a face. “Come on, Rix.”

 

“Okaaaaay,” she draws out and opens the door fully. She steps out, Rowe behind her, his hair messy. “We were just, uhh, studying.”

 

“Sure you were,” Adaire says, gesturing with her head towards Throndir.

 

“Talk to Blue J, actually,” he smiles and points towards them. Rix looks absolutely miserable, and Rowe looks panicked.

 

“Hey,” Blue J says to them, “I'm not gonna be mad or anything.” Their faces don't really change, so Blue tries again. “Look. I know why you're doing this, and it's not gonna work, but it's fine.”

 

“I... don't know what you're talking about,” Rix says, and Blue J looks back to Throndir, biting their lip in worry.

 

“Oh, come on,” Adaire says. “Don't let them fool you, they're just playing.”

 

Rix frowns at her and takes a deep breath. “Okay. We'll talk to you, but only if Adaire isn't there.” Rowe gives her a little shove, and she gives one right back.

 

Adaire makes a baffled face. “Me?” She sighs. “Fine, suit yourselves. I'm going to the dining room. You shut yourselves wherever. Just be good,” and she turns, smiling at Rix.

 

The siblings lead Blue J and Throndir into what seems to be their makeshift bedroom. They hadn't spent much time living with Adaire before they moved out, so furniture in the room is scarce, with a narrow bed that has multiple blankets on it.

 

Rowe tells them to sit down and cover their eyes, and makes sure they do so while Rix opens some cabinets or boxes; Throndir couldn't tell, but he obeys the instructions, glad not to have the kids expose all their secrets.

 

“Okay, you can look now,” says Rowe. He's holding what seems to be a small box, wrapped in thin paper. “Are you sure we can't have it?”

 

“Rowe!” Rix says, and looks to them apologetically. “We're sorry, really!”

 

Blue J accepts the paper and unwraps the box, checking inside to make sure the ring is there; their face, tense throughout the day, immediately relaxes as Throndir watches them look up. “Thank you,” they say.

 

“Can you not tell Adaire what we took?” Rix asks, and Rowe elbows her. “What! If they say anything she'll know!”

 

“What will she know?” Throndir asks.

 

“Nothing!” says Rowe at the same time as Rix starts saying, “We're trying to get her and Hella married!”

 

“Oh,” Throndir says, “oh wow.” He laughs, and looks at Blue J's smiling face. “It's that kinda week, huh?”

 

“You won't tell?”

 

“We won't,” Blue J promises. “Listen, this is... it's very important to me that you don't tell anyone either, okay?” They wait for the kids to nod. “Okay. Look, I can help you get a pretty ring for Adaire. But I think you need to like, talk to her first.” Rix makes a face again.

 

“They're right,” Throndir reassures her. “What if she or Hella and Adelaide are already planning something? I think you can help her plan a date or something, but you should discuss it with her first. Her own engagement can't be a surprise, anyway.”

 

“Yeah. And then you can ask me where I got this ring. And I didn't steal it,” Blue J grins. “I'll help you get one made and all.”

 

At this point, Rix's eyes are shining with excitement as she nods. “I'll talk to Adaire. And ask her if she's planning anything.”

 

“And maybe she wants two rings for Hella and her wife too?” Rowe says, tugging at his sister's sleeve.

 

“I don't think that's how it works?” Rix frowns and looks at Throndir. “Does it work like that? You have two husbands.”

 

Throndir almost chokes at that. “Partners,” he laughs, “we're not married or anything.”

 

“Well you should get married,” Rowe says, uncompromising. “I'm going to get some oatmeal,” and he walks out, leaving Throndir unsure what expression he should be making. Rix rolls her eyes.

 

“Are y'all staying for tea?” she asks.

 

“Sure,” Throndir smiles at her as Blue J nods. He's missed Adaire and her kids, and he's grateful that the both of them seem to have forgotten about Kodiak. Well, at least he hopes no one brings it up.

 

They end up spending a fun half an hour with the three, and no one mentions engagements or marriages, although Blue J can see the kids physically stop themselves from saying things – what about exactly, they don't know.

 

***

 

When Throndir closes the door of Adaire's old home behind them both, Blue J sighs their big sigh of relief: they're saved. It's over.

 

Not even looking back, they start heading home, Throndir following behind them, even though his and Red Jack's house lies in an entirely different direction. As Blue J stays silent, he allows them those few moments of quiet, himself pondering on what all of this means to him.

 

He's proud – proud for Red Jack, proud to call him and his kid part of his own family. He's happy for Hadrian and Rosana and for their son, a family who had seemed to be doomed so many times; he's happy for Blue J themself, the anxious child he had started to mentor before he even knew them too well, now an adult about to propose to and marry the love of their life.

 

It is true, after all, what they say about students surpassing their mentors. When Blue J was still a young teen, Throndir had been the one they'd come to with news about Benjamin, he had been the one annoyed – but not too mad – when they'd be late to their meetings because of the boy. Since they grew up, he has been the first one to find out every new thing about their relationship, before Blue J even had the chance to tell Red Jack himself; whether it was a matter of his position as a mentor and guide, Red Jack's unique disposition, or simply the fact that Throndir was the first one to see Blue J after they'd been running around with Benjamin – he doesn't know.

 

He wasn't too happy about them moving out so soon after he'd moved in with Red Jack, but he knew it was a good decision then, and he knows it is now, too. They've found where they belong; they still need him, but now it's a need they choose to nurture – a need for mutual care with their loved ones, and not one based on inexperience or uncertainty.

 

He suddenly becomes conscious of something he wouldn't expect to ponder after a day out frantically seeking for a piece of jewelry: the unlikely family he found himself joining is filled to the brim with love, the kind that extends to everyone within and around it, the kind that never lets anyone feel left out. This is not a surprising discovery in itself; rather, he feels overwhelmed by what has been in the background of his mind all along.

 

Throndir looks at Blue J and thinks of the fate they had seemed destined for just a few years ago. He can't find a trace of it anymore.

 

He suspects that, looking at himself in the mirror, he would find no trace of any of the gruesome things he had predicted about his own future at any point in the past, before moving in with Red Jack, before Rhizome, before the University.

 

Blue J turns to him, just before they reach the house they share with the love of their life.

 

“I forgot to say,” they smile at him, “thank you so much.”

 

He smiles back at them. “Of course.”

 

They hug, short and warm, and soon enough Blue J turns to get inside, Throndir having declined their invitation to stay a while due to evening duties. He watches them go, then turns to go home, feeling as if they've just taught him a lesson of their own.

 

The future looks as radiant as the flowers of Rhizome, and Throndir needs a plan.