The front door to the cottage at the edge of the Last University is a bright blue. Or, it will be, when Throndir is done painting it. It’s currently about three-quarters bright blue, because Throndir can’t reach the top of the oversized door. He needs a box, a ladder, something to stand on… oh, the step stool he used to hang pictures above the mantel should work. The only problem is that it’s definitely not out here on the front steps.
Throndir clears his throat to yell inside. “Red Jack, could you bring me the step stool?”
A second, two, and Red Jack’s voice answers from somewhere inside the cottage. “The step stool?”
“Yeah, the yellow one! It should be in the living room.”
For a second, the only sound is the birdsong. Then, from inside, Red Jack, uncharacteristically hesitant. “Can you not come in and get it? I’m… occupied.”
Throndir sighs to himself. “I don’t want to drip paint on the floors, and besides, I need two hands to carry the stool, and I don’t have a place to put down my paintbrush.”
Red Jack grumbles something Throndir can’t quite make out, even through the open door, but he can hear the screech of a chair being pushed back and the clomping footfalls of Red Jack making his way into what Throndir hopes is the living room. Soon, Throndir realizes, he’ll be able to place Red Jack in their house solely based on how his voice echoes through the rooms. The soft clinks of buttons and laces and boots from the bedroom as Throndir prepares breakfast in the kitchen, the creak of the second-to-last stair that foils their attempts to sneak past Kodiak where he snoozes by the fireplace.
Throndir wipes some paint onto a rag and pauses to catch his breath. He hadn’t realized how tiring the manual labor was until he stopped, and his arm is glad to be relieved from duty even momentarily. It’s a beautiful day, warm, with a soft breeze that rustles the branches and twigs and tendrils of the Rhizome. Sunlight from a nearby sun filters down yellow through the air, hazy with shimmering pollen.
His ears perk up at the sound of approaching footsteps – some instincts never quite dulled, even years later – and he peers around the half-open doorway to watch Red Jack emerge from the living room with the yellow step stool dangling effortlessly from the palm of one hand.
“Wait! Side door.” Red Jack pauses and tilts his head slightly to the side. “Side door?”
“Wet paint.” Red Jack hums in agreement, and moments later he’s standing next to Throndir on the front steps of their cottage. He sets the yellow stool down on the stone and then turns, puts one hand on his chin, and squints at the door with a deep hmmmmm.
“We chose quite a bright blue.” Throndir smiles up at the man next to him, shading his eyes from the sunlight with his paint-free hand. “Well, we can’t really change it now, love.”
Red Jack looks down at him with a serious expression. “What do you mean? We can always change it.”
“What I mean is that I’m not doing any more painting for a long while.”
Red Jack guffaws at that, the laugh that fills his belly and shakes the very air, and Throndir feels his cheeks heating up. He’s not sure he’ll ever really get used to this casual intimacy, to the banter and touches that form the rhythm of his no-longer-solitary life.
Throndir hands Red Jack the paintbrush and scoots the stool over to the paint-wet door, then steps up and gestures for the brush. Red Jack passes it back, pausing to tap Throndir’s rear end as he turns back to head inside. Throndir can’t help the indignant yelp that squeaks out, but calls back to his partner, “What are you up to in there, anyway?”
“Nothing. Well,” Red Jack laughs, “nothing you should know about quite yet, my sparrow.”
“Mysterious. Well, I’ll be in soon.” Throndir listens until he hears the side door swing shut behind Red Jack, and his heavy footsteps are drowned out by the raucous bird calls and animal chatter of the Rhizome.
The first time it happens, Throndir doesn’t think too much of it. After an evening spent with Ephrim, reminiscing about old times and discussing the vegetable prospects of their gardens, he comes home to an empty house. Ace is out back, Kodiak is unperturbed, but Red Jack is always home by now, so Throndir goes looking, a pit solidifying in his stomach at the thought of what had happened the last time Red Jack had disappeared without a trace. But that had been in the middle of the night, he reassures himself. Surely someone will have seen Red Jack this time, if he has in fact left, but he can’t have left again without telling Throndir – right?
He makes it to the grounds of the Last University with a speed he thought he no longer possessed. Everyone he speaks with directs him to the central building, and he follows the trail of people who say they saw a large red oni-man to the last place he would have thought to look for Red Jack: the library. The same one he spearheaded a few years back. At the sight of his partner’s bulky frame, Throndir feels the tension in his stomach release. He’s safe, he’s here, he didn’t get eaten by a giant bug or fall off the edge of their branch or –
Red Jack is staring at the rows of books that fill the repurposed hallway, his shoulders too broad to squeeze between the shelves. The best way to approach Red Jack, Throndir has long known, is directly – quick steps, a loud shout, a clap on the back. But something about the way Red Jack is holding himself gives Throndir pause. He stands at the entrance to the library, only ten paces behind his partner, and watches Red Jack.
Red Jack isn’t moving, save the occasional up and down of his shoulders as he breathes slow and long in the dusty library. It’s quiet, the sounds of the lively spring evening outside muffled by layers of stone and dust and the otherworldly Spring that’s crept through cracks where star-stuff once resided.
Throndir clears his throat. “Red Jack? Can you hear me?”
Red Jack turns and he looks… smaller than usual. Throndir can’t tell if it’s a trick of the light, of perspective warped by tall bookcases and vaulted ceilings and the lateness of the sunlight from the high windows, or if Red Jack has actually shrunk. He looks confused, uncertain, his eyes clouded even as they look at Throndir.
“Throndir, I- you’re here.” Throndir nods and strides over to his partner.
“What’s up, what’s going on? Talk to me.”
The silence isn’t Red Jack’s usual kind, where he’s chosen to save his words, let them flow like ale when he opens the spout. Instead, he looks to be grasping for something to say.
“I thought… I could find something, here.”
Throndir takes Red Jack’s hands into his own and rubs circles over the backs with the pads of his thumbs. “What were you looking for?”
Red Jack nods. “I… wanted to read stories.”
“Did you have anything in mind? I can grab any book you want. Founder’s privileges and all.” He gives a small laugh. It doesn’t help.
Red Jack pauses again, searching. “…Something about distant times. Hieron. People and places.”
Oh, Throndir thinks. “Okay, yeah, I know some books. Be right back.” He heads over to the card catalogue and pulls out several entries, then walks into the shelves to retrieve the books. When he returns, Red Jack is tracing his fingers along the gilded spines of a tower of complex magical tomes perched on the circulation desk, waiting to be sorted after a patron had returned them. Throndir doesn’t have to check the records to know the patron was Benjamin.
He offers the books to Red Jack, who takes them in hand and peers at their covers. Throndir grasps his other hand with both of his own and gives it a squeeze. “We should talk about this.”
Red Jack sighs. “I promise you, my sparrow, I will. When I’m ready.”
Throndir nods and wraps his arm around Red Jack’s waist, pulling him in close. Red Jack rests his arm across Throndir’s shoulders and squeezes tight. It’s hard to walk like this, so close together, but Throndir doesn’t mind the slow pace and the awkward, mismatched gait. He just holds tight onto Red Jack all the way back to their cottage.
Throndir wakes with a jolt and stares at the dark ceiling, trying to catch his breath. Something is wrong, something is very wrong – he throws his arm over to Red Jack’s side of the bed and his hand meets nothing but air. In an instant he’s wide awake, breaths coming short and fast as he takes stock of the situation.
“Red Jack?” No response. “Red Jack!”
Throndir stumbles out of bed, wrapping his housecoat over his nightclothes, and rushes into the living room.
“Kodiak!” The panic is coming up quick and Throndir tries to tamp it down with little success. The bathroom? No. The kitchen? No. Kodiak appears and nudges him in the leg, asking him to follow, and Throndir digs his hand into the soft fur at the nape of Kodiak’s neck to steady himself as he follows his dog out the side door and into the garden. A distant sun provides the only nighttime illumination, almost like the stars of old, and in the dim light the teaming life of their garden seems alien – thick squash vines and fern fronds turned foreign and looming in the darkness. Still, there is a simplicity to digging his bare feet into the damp dirt that grounds Throndir, and as Kodiak leads him through the winding paths connecting planting beds and fruit trees he feels the knot in his chest begin to loosen.
He isn’t quite sure where Kodak is leading him – he can navigate the garden by memory now, but he started disoriented and can’t quite get his bearings. Kodiak leads him to the edge of the garden and into the forest behind their cottage. They move up through the trees to the top of the hill, and as the trees thin Throndir finds himself with a wide view of the Last University and the branching roots of the Rhizome it sits on. Distant tangles of roots fill his field of vision - it’s not really the sky anymore, is it? – and in the middle of it all is Red Jack, sitting on a tree stump near the crest of the hill, silhouetted by the light of distant suns.
Kodiak bounds over to Red Jack with a loud boof, shoving his fluffy head under Red Jack’s dangling hand. Throndir doesn’t call out this time, just walks over and sits down next to his partner, his toes curling into the soft grass. Throndir has never been good at weaving words the way his friends could, the way Ephrim could sooth with a sentence or Hadrian inspire faith with a prayer. So he just leans into Red Jack and waits.
Kodiak has fallen asleep at their feet by the time Red Jack rumbles, “Did I tell you about when Ace and you found me, out there?”
Throndir nods, his cheek rubbing up and down its place against Red Jack’s arm. “Yes, but I want to hear it again.”
Red Jack chuckles. “Well, Ace and I have always had a special bond. That much I’m still sure of. I was on my way back home, and I felt a pull deep down in my chest. Your faithful friend Hadrian might call it guidance, and you might call it instinct. I prefer to call it coincidence.” He sighs contentedly. “I followed that pull and found two of my dearest friends, huddled together on a branch not too far from my home.”
“And now here we are.”
“And now here we are indeed.”
They sit in comfortable silence. The sky has begun to lighten when Throndir again feels moved to speak.
“You know, I never fancied myself the type of elf to settle down.”
Red Jack hums, and Throndir feels the whole side of his body vibrate low where it leans against his partner.
“I mean, Auniq was home for a while, but once… once it became clear I wasn’t welcome, I started roaming. And then the world fell apart, and I wasn’t sure if the ground I was standing on was even going to hold in place until my foot left it.”
“I remember that.”
Throndir chokes up a little.
“I- I’m glad you do. And I’m, well, I’m just so happy to know you think of this as home. That we both think of this as home.”
“Why would I not feel at home here? Ace is here, my children are here, you are here. I have all I could hope for here.”
Throndir looks up at Red Jack. “Then… why do you keep wandering off? It terrifies me to wake up to an empty bed, Red Jack. I woke up tonight in a panic because I thought you’d left against, and this time you wouldn’t come back, and I just – I just couldn’t bear to even consider it.”
Red Jack opens his mouth, closes it, tilts his head slightly, clearly thinking. He hums once, twice, then looks back down at Throndir, a new soft intensity to the sadness in his gaze.
“I keep thinking, what if I could just go get the thing I feel like I’m losing? What if it’s out there? The world is vast, Throndir. I find that I can’t sit still while I still feel as if I have done so little to address my… growing disconnection.”
“And that’s what you were looking for in the library?” Red Jack nods, and Throndir squeezes him tight. “I – thank you for telling me, Red Jack.” He curls his toes into the grass again and thinks of what Blue J told him at their lunch last week, about all the book research Benjamin had been doing into the loss of magic, and how little he’d been able to find about solutions in the pile of tomes he’d pulled from the University’s library. All this magic was over Throndir’s head, and over Blue J’s as well, but Throndir hated to see the young couple mournful over problems without solutions. At their feet, Kodiak yawns.
“I have an idea.”
“So you just want me to tell a story?”
Blue J nods. “Yep! We can start anywhere you want, Dad.”
Benjamin pipes in from behind his partner, “And don’t worry about starting at the beginning, or about missing details. Well, not too much. Of course, it is helpful for us to have as many details as you can remember, in terms of filling-”
Blue J cuts him off. “The idea is to write down anything you still remember. If you get stuck on the gaps, it’s hard to focus on all the things you do still know.”
They’re all seated around the kitchen table, Throndir and Red Jack and Benjamin and Blue J. Throndir has made them tea, and Red Jack cradles his wooden mug carefully, as if he’s afraid it too will disappear into the ether of his past selves if he looks away. Throndir has a comforting hand on Red Jack’s thigh and gives a reassuring squeeze.
You think this will help? Red Jack had asked that morning.
I don’t think it will make your connections to your older selves return, Throndir had cautioned, but I think it will show you how much of yourself you still have access to. And besides, Blue J has been itching to hear some of these stories since they were a young oni.
Red Jack clears his throat. “Well, have I told you of the battle at Old Man’s Chin?”
Blue J looks momentarily dismayed. “Dad, I was there, I-”
Red Jack cuts them off. “I know! But you were carrying supplies back towards the camp, little one. You didn’t see the Ordennans arrive, their black ships billowing smoke up through the trees. I was lucky to be holding my sword, in fact! Our good friend Hella Varal had separated me from my sword arm not a week before…”
Throndir watches Red Jack open up, feels him grow into the attention and the love. He lets Red Jack’s deep voice wash over him with a yawn, the tea lulling him along as Red Jack traces grand tales of gods and mortals and burning forests and pearl cities and islands surrounded by lapis lazuli seas and thunderstorms.
He follows the trails Red Jack weaves to somewhere soft and quiet. He figures he must have dozed off at some point – he really is getting old, isn’t he, he thinks to himself – because when he next comes to awareness the sun is setting and Benjamin is clearing the mugs from the table. He’s leaned against Red Jack, who’s just noticed Throndir stirring.
“Morning, sleepyhead,” he murmurs.
“Did I fall asleep?”
Red Jack chuckles softly. “No, you just closed your eyes and leaned against my shoulder all afternoon. And snored.”
Throndir rubs his face with the back of one hand. “Jeez, that’s embarrassing.” He looks around and finds Benjamin and Blue J washing dishes in the kitchen sink. They’ve been such help these last few weeks. Throndir doesn’t think he’ll ever be able to thank them enough. Still, he can start somewhere.
The young man follows Throndir out into the hallway. Any noise will carry, Throndir knows, but the sense of privacy makes any conversation less awkward. When they’re outside the kitchen, Throndir puts his hands on Benjamin’s shoulders. He’d forgotten just how tall Hadrian’s son is. Or is he shrinking? Well, that’s a thought for another time.
“I don’t really have much to say, but I wanted to thank you for helping Red Jack, today and always.” Benjamin starts to say something, and Throndir cuts him off. “I saw all those books you checked out of the library about magic and Hieron and – it’s a bit over my head, but you should just know that this isn’t your problem to solve alone, no matter how smart you are. And I know you’re smart.”
Benjamin sighs and wrings his hands. “Yeah, Blue J reminds me often.” He smiles a light smile at the thought of his partner. “The not-my-problem, I mean – well, and the smarts – sorry, that’s neither here nor there. And I actually wanted to thank you. My dad speaks highly of you, you know.”
Throndir snorts. “Your dad speaks highly of everyone who’s traveled with him.”
Benjamin shakes his head. “My dad speaks well of many people, but he speaks highly of you, Throndir. He brings up your devotion to your friends in sermons sometimes. He doesn’t give your name, but – well, Blue J has said enough for me to put two and two together.”
Throndir nods and tucks his hair behind his ear, distinctly afraid that his ears are betraying his embarrassment at the thought of being complimented so profusely in a sermon. A sermon.
They reenter the kitchen together to find Red Jack and Blue J ending an embrace. Red Jack leans back and clasps Blue J’s shoulders. “And you’ll come for dinner on Sunday?”
“Of course, Dad.”
“Good.” Blue J turns and sees Throndir in the doorway of the kitchen and walks over, fingers twisting in their skirt as they too pull him into the hallway.
“I, um, I just wanted to say thank you, Throndir. I haven’t seen my dad so comfortable in a long time.” Throndir can see how much lighter their eyes are compared to just last week, when Red Jack had told them of his nighttime forest adventure over dinner. He’d spun it as a grand tale of freedom and Throndir’s keen instincts. Blue J hadn’t been fooled.
Blue J, meanwhile, is no less awkward than when they were only Throndir’s protégé. “I mean, it’s clear he’s still having a hard time, but I’m glad you’re here for him. Which I guess makes sense, since you’re married, but, uh-“
Throndir laughs and throws them a line. “I’m glad to see it, too. Now c’mere.” And he pulls the young oni in for a hug, tight and warm and solid.
After they see Benjamin and Blue J out, Throndir and Red Jack curl up beside the fire with more tea. Red Jack is quiet, but it’s not the sad, closed-off quiet he’d been coping with these last few months, when he was unmoored and unsure. Instead, he seems contemplative.
“What’re you thinking, big guy?”
Red Jack strokes his chin and chuckles. “That this is what it’s always felt like to be human. To only have one lifetime to draw on. No wonder humans are so volatile.”
Throndir laughs. “I suppose so, yeah. Though I can’t say I ever knew quite what it was like. Back… where I was born, we didn’t age the same way. And now, with the whole vampire deal, I’m looking at a very long life indeed.”
“And you’re happy with the choice you made?”
Throndir pauses. “Well, I’m happy I had the choice.”
Red Jack hums, the fire crackles. At their feet, Kodiak snores. Throndir takes a sip from his drink and reaches for the book on the side table. “Do you want me to read to you some more?”
“Of course, sparrow.”
Throndir sets down his cup, opens the cracked-spine volume of Hieron history, and lets his voice fill the room.
The rest of the door painting doesn’t take long after that, and the sunlight has only started to fade when Throndir closes the paint can and washes his brush with the garden hose. He’s entering the back door when he smells something sweet and warm and spicy from the kitchen.
Throndir quiets his footfall to creep towards the kitchen door. He can hear the faucet running. One step, another, and the wooden floorboards betray him with a loud creeeeeak. Throndir looks through the doorframe to see Kodiak lifting his fluffy head from the warm fireplace stones. It only takes him a second to notice Throndir, his tongue lolling out as he lets out a happy whine and rushes to get his legs under him to go and give his dad a proper hello kiss. Well, there goes his stealthy approach.
The faucet cuts off as Throndir strides into the kitchen. The first thing he notices is the coating of white dust on all the countertops and floors. Flour, if he had to guess. The second thing he notices is the massive pie on the kitchen table, still steaming from the oven.
Red Jack, standing by the sink, whips around at the sound of Kodiak’s shuffling paws. His face breaks into a wide grin at the sight of Throndir, through Throndir can only guess how messy he must be, in his paint clothes and with sweat-frizzed hair.
“A pie! Oh, Red Jack, this is lovely.” Red Jack sets the dish he’s drying in the rack next to the sink and strolls over to where Throndir stands by the table, pulling him in for a kiss. When they part, Red Jack grins down at Throndir, then tilts his head. “You don’t seem too surprised, my sparrow.”
Throndir fights to keep a straight face, but the smile peeks through. “This afternoon, when you got me the stepladder?” Red Jack nods.
“You had flour on your cheeks.”
“Oh, did I?” He puts a vast hand up to his face and rubs away at where he guesses the offending spots to be. “Well, I suppose that spoiled the surprise.”
“I didn’t think too hard about what it could mean.” Throndir reaches up to smudge the flour off of Red Jack, who crouches so the smaller man can reach his face.
“Kind of you, sparrow.”
The flour spot banished, Throndir puts his hands on Red Jack’s shoulders and pulls him in for another kiss. Red Jack tastes like cinnamon and sugar and everything Throndir could have hoped for. Throndir isn’t sure if he’ll ever want to stop and taste the pie.