Ephrim paced his cramped, dusty quarters in the university, brow furrowed and hands laced behind his back. Outside his window with the hastily repaired blue shutters, the sun was beginning to set. This was concerning. It meant he had spent an entire day combating one baseless rumor, and still was without a proper solution. He sat down heavily in his chair, body aching from the length of the day, and thought over his options for the twelfth time that hour.
As a prominent figure at the last university, gossip about Ephrim was unavoidable, and it certainly wasn't anything new. There had been tall tales of all sorts about the Order of Eternal Princes, ranging from the slightly inaccurate to wild fabrications. For the most part they had very little effect on his day to day life, and even at the last university he didn't feel the need to disprove every little thing the people were saying.
The most recent subject, however, was a problem.
It was Corsica.
Another person who had always generated a great amount of rumors, she paid no mind to them, almost stubbornly so.
As the two heads of the university, people had begun to talk about her and Ephrim and the… possibilities there. At first it was benign, just people speculating about the two of them, but the housing problems continued, dissent began to grow quietly, like mold in the back of a larder. Certain parts of the population, mostly those had been promised houses that they did not have the resources to build, began to whisper that Corsica was really in control, and was more interested in becoming a military presence than caring for the people. They whispered that Ephrim was only pretending to disagree with her, that secretly, he was wrapped around her little finger.
Frankly, he found it a little hurtful that they thought he wouldn't be the one capable of political machination. If Corsica really wanted full control of the university, it would be much more like her to run him through with a sword. Why win his heart when she could simply stop it?
Ephrim made a point to have ears in the right places. He might not mind most rumors, but he also knew the damage they could do if the wrong ones went unchecked. Corsica… disagreed.
Earlier that day, he had brought the rumors to her attention in a private meeting.
She sat across from him at the cold stone table in the war room, arms folded and face impassive.
“This talk bothers you, I take it.”
Ephrim stopped himself from scowling at her unconcerned tone.
“Yes. It does, and it should bother you too.”
Corsica's lip curled contemptuously under the bandages.
“You are no fool, Lord Ephrim. You know I am a woman of action, not one of words. I will not be shaken by some… wild speculation at my romantic escapades.”
“And I’m sure you know just how quickly words can turn to action, if they go unchallenged.”
“What exactly would you have me do? Lay my life bare before these people for their judgment? Grovel for forgiveness? Perhaps, you would prefer that I marry some poor fool, condemning them to a life of listening at doors and worrying about what they hear?” She stood, back straight, and scoffed at him.
“I am no performer. I will not dance for you.”
Ephrim deflated, realizing this was a losing battle from the start.
“You understand this puts me in the difficult position of solving it on my own, right?”
“I’m sure you will manage to talk your way out of it. Some of us have an army to build.”
She smiled at him, the expression frustrated, tired, then turned to leave, heavy cloak stirring up dust behind her.
“You will have to find yourself another piece for your games, Ephrim.”
The door hinges wailed as she flung them open, and the wood made a hearty thud as she slammed it shut, leaving Ephrim in the war room alone.
He started planning for this outcome as soon as Highwater brought the rumor to his attention. The easiest way to combat a rumor, in his experience, was not to deny it, but replace it. If there was something new and more interesting to talk about, the old story would lose its magnetic pull.
Corsica certainly wasn't interested in having a false relationship to save both their reputations, but to be fair, Ephrim wasn't thrilled about it either. Not that he had any particular attachments, far too much was happening to worry about that now. He was more concerned for whoever would be with him. Corsica had a point. It was unfair to expect someone to put their life on hold to convince people that hearsay was false.
Throughout the day, he slowly built a list of possibilities, and crossed them out, one after another.
Highwater would agree to it, but only out of loyalty. He wouldn't ask this of any of his retainers.
Hella and Adaire were arguably more aligned with Corsica, so they wouldn't help the rumors in the slightest, not to mention he strongly suspected they had formed their own ties in Aubade.
He mentioned his trouble vaguely to Rosanna, and she volunteered herself and Hadrian, but after a talk with him, she decided against it. He couldn't fault her for that.
Fero had been around long enough for it to be a rumor that would interest people, but Ephrim had no doubt that the second Fero found out about his predicament he would mock him publicly and ruin the whole plan.
There was one thing he generally agreed with Fero on, which was to not trust Lem King as far as you could throw him, so even if Emmanuel was out of the picture, Lem was not an option.
Red Jack would also make a compelling rumor, and in all honesty, Ephrim wouldn't exactly mind hanging off his arm for a few weeks, but he was arguably just as sympathetic to Corsica as Hella was, if not more so.
Besides… Ephrim had seen the glances between him and Throndir. He could see the two of them being happy together. Settling down, supporting Bluejay as they became the new ranger. He could see a life for them that he could not imagine for himself, and it was the least he could do to not get in their way.
Which created yet another problem.
The list of people that he trusted was admittedly short to begin with, and on this in particular, it was even shorter. Over the ten long years at the university, one person had stayed steadily on the top of that list. Well, one person and his dog. (Kodiak was an excellent dog, but not generally someone Ephrim went to for advice on the more complicated parts of running a settlement of refugees, so wasn't included on Ephrim's mental list.)
Back in the present, Ephrim rose from his chair, and began wearily pacing around the room again as he waited.
In all the time they spent together, Throndir had cemented himself in Ephrim's mind as the most reliable and hardworking person he had ever met. On those cold days when the world felt like it was about to collapse around him, when the wind and snow howled outside and there was no firewood to burn, and all Ephrim had to offer was some pretty words and a hole in his hand where once was fire that could have kept them warm, Throndir's steadfast commitment is what kept him from falling apart. Ephrim could not allow himself to give up while Throndir stayed, no matter how bitter the winter.
Now that things had begun to thaw, it was only fair that Throndir get to relax and enjoy what they had worked so hard for. He shouldn't be trapped in some petty political squabble with Ephrim.
But as the list grew shorter and shorter, the more he came to the realization that there was only one person who knew him well enough to be convincing, who was well known enough to make an interesting story, and who he could trust with this delicate task.
He was startled out of his thoughts by a knock on the door.
It wasn't the first time Ephrim had asked Throndir to meet him in his quarters. Most of the time it was just work, something happened in a meeting that Throndir wasn't part of, and Ephrim didn't want to be interrupted or overheard. Mostly this was during the day, in the few moments Ephrim had before dashing off to put out another fire or sit with another council.
The few times Throndir had been invited to Ephrim's quarters later in the day, it was when he couldn't sleep. Throndir… didn't really need sleep anymore, so they would just drink wine and talk until Ephrim started nodding off, and he could go back to whatever he had been doing before. It was nice.
But this was different. First of all, it was a work thing, because instead of Ephrim showing up in person to ask if he could spend some time with him, it was Highwater, saying his presence was requested. Being told ‘Your presence is requested’ was, Throndir had learned, way different from ‘Hey, can I borrow you for a minute?’.
Second, Throndir had been very specifically avoiding being in a small, enclosed space with Ephrim. Since Alcyon, he had been careful to keep his distance, not only to keep anyone from getting hurt, but also because he honestly just didn't know what to say.
‘Hey, you know how I drained the literal life out of you a while back? That was me, yeah, I did that. Didn't mean to, but apparently very specific things make me lose control of my weird monster powers and hurt people! And I don't know what all those things are yet! I feel not great about it!’ felt like it was… true, but also not helpful.
No matter how many times he played the conversation out in his head, it never ended well. And he had the time to think through every possible worst case scenario, since he didn't need to sleep. He started taking graveyard shifts of things, patrols, guarding the walls, even helping in the mess hall. Anything to keep busy when everyone else was asleep.
Highwater found Throndir in the kitchens, cleaning a mountain of dishes from dinner in a basin, one at a time. He’d tied his long, shaggy hair back in a bun, and was wearing an old, stained apron that was made for someone a little taller than him, falling past his knees.
Washing dishes was nice, he’d decided. Lately, no matter how much effort he put into the University, there was always that nagging feeling that it wasn't enough. Washing dishes meant that when he was done, he had a pile of clean dishes, visual proof that he was helping with something.
He was interrupted about half way through the stack.
“Throndir. Message for you.” Highwater said.
She looked thoroughly out of place in the kitchen, her face as serious as ever as she sidestepped a flour covered kitchen hand cradling an immense pile of dough.
“Oh, hey, Highwater. How did you know I’d be in here?”
She raised an eyebrow at him.
“You left Kodiak outside. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but your dog and I are almost the same height. It makes him hard to miss.”
“Yeah, that’s fair. Where am I headed?” he asked, already untying the threadbare apron.
“Your presence is requested in Lord Ephrim's quarters. I assume you don’t need an escort?”
“Yeah, I can get there fine. You could probably call him Ephrim at this point, right?”
Highwater made a face like she had smelled something rotten, and Throndir laughed at her.
“Alright, forget I asked. I’ll head out n-”
Highwater reached up and put a hand on his shoulder, taking a deep breath before speaking low enough that they couldn't be overheard.
“Throndir… Lord Ephrim is going to ask you for help in a delicate political matter. Normally, I would trust you completely, but this is a complicated one.”
She did her best to look him in the eyes, despite the height difference the look in her eyes made him feel like a butterfly pinned to a cork board.
“As his retainer, it's my job to make sure he doesn't get hurt. This is a situation where I might not be able to do that, and I need to know that you can be trusted to take my place.”
Throndir didn't need to think about it, even for a beat.
“Of course. I'll do whatever I need to.”
Highwater sighed, deflating a little.
“That's what I’m afraid of.”
“I know being cryptic is kind of a thing for you, but I want you to know its nerve wracking when you do that.”
She laughed at that, a sharp, startled sound.
“Don’t worry. It's probably just me being overly concerned. Just…”
She patted his shoulder, a little too hard to be friendly.
“Don't fuck this up.”
“Uh. Yes ma’am?”
Shaking her head, Highwater stepped out of the way.
“Close enough. You should get going, while the sun’s still in the sky. Good luck, Throndir.”
“Thanks, I think? Oh, if you ask Oaklight for a scone on the way out, they’ll probably give you one. Try not intimidate everyone though, it's hard enough to find people to work the late shifts as it is.”
With one final wave at Highwater, he rushed out of the kitchen, tossing his apron on a hook by the door.
Kodiak was waiting patiently by the door, pretending he hadn't been mooching scraps from cooks on their way out all evening.
“Hey you. Have a nice night?” Throndir said, patting him on the head absentmindedly.
Kodiak wagged his tail lazily, sending dust swirling off in the evening light.
“Time to go, come on.”
Kodiak made a show of getting up off the ground, where he had been very comfortable, yawning and stretching.
Throndir rolled his eyes.
“Yeah, I get it. You get to be lazy. Rub it in a little, why don't you.”
Kodiak sneezed at him.
“Uh-huh. Whatever you say.”
The two set off down the hall, Throndir fiddling nervously with the crystal around his neck. What exactly was Ephrim going to ask? It probably wasn't a mission, not so soon after they’d gotten back from Alcyon. Was it something to do with Arrell? Dread filled his stomach. Was it…
Throndir stopped suddenly in the hallway, making Kodiak turn to look at him.
What if it was about what happened in Alcyon?
Did he figure it out? Did he know it was all Throndir's fault? Did… Did Highwater tell him to protect Ephrim because she knew what Throndir had done? No wonder she was worried about him. Maybe he shouldn't have said he could keep Ephrim safe. What if he couldn't? What if it happened again, what if-
Throndir felt a warm pressure against his leg. Kodiak, sensing his growing panic, was leaning on him, trying to bring him back to reality. Throndir ran his hand through Kodiak's fur, trying to smile.
“Sorry, buddy. Just… overthinking.”
Kodiak licked his hand.
“I’ll try to stop.”
For the rest of the walk to Ephrim's quarters, Kodiak stayed close enough for Throndir to keep one hand on his back.
Ephrim jumped a little at the sound of the knock. He took a deep breath to clear his mind, and went to open it. Throndir stood in the doorway, hair tied back with what looked like cooking twine, and one hand tangled in Kodiak's fur.
“Throndir, I’m glad you could make it. I hope I didn't interrupt anything?” Ephrim said, striding over to the desk and pulling out a chair for Throndir before taking a seat for himself.
“No, nothing big, just helping out with chores.” He answered, settling down across from Ephrim, scooting the chair just a bit farther from the desk than it had been.
“How have you been? I’m afraid since Alcyon we haven't had much time to catch up.”
Throndir looked sheepishly away, fidgeting with a loose thread on the faded upholstery.
“Yeah… sorry about that. I’ve… I’ve been alright. I mean, I’ve definitely been better, but, y'know. Generally no complaints.”
Ephrim carefully filed away his reaction to think about later. He had suspected Throndir was avoiding him, and had been happy to give him his space until this came up. Guilt rose in the back of his throat as he remembered what he had to ask. He opened his mouth to explain, then closed it again.
Then he said, “I think I’m going to have a drink. Would you like one?”
Throndir smiled, the kind of smile that felt too bright to look directly at, like a sun.
“Let me guess. My options are wine, wine, water, more wine…”
Ephrim got up and dug through his cabinet.
“We have other things! Like... “
He tried, in vain, to find a bottle that wasn't wine.
“You may have a point. Anyways. Would you like some?”
“Sure, but… I thought this was a work meeting?”
Ephrim smiled wryly.
“You’d be surprised how many people get drunk at those.”
Ephrim poured two glasses of wine and walked back over to the desk. When he handed Throndir his glass, their hands brushed, and Ephrim noticed how red and dry the skin was. Without thinking, he reached for Throndir's other hand, taking it in his own.
“What chores have you been doing, exactly? Your hands are so dry the skin is cracking, it looks painful.”
He looked back up, and saw Throndir leaned as far back as his chair could get him, visibly tense. Ephrim felt a wave of guilt, and dropped Throndir’s hand immediately.
“I'm sorry, I didn't mean to make you uncomfortable.”
Throndir looked almost as frazzled as Ephrim felt.
“No, no, its ok! You just startled me, that’s all! I’ve been washing dishes mostly, the soap tends to dry me out a bit if I do it for too long.”
“How long were you washing dishes for?”
Throndir looked up at the ceiling, hair falling out of his poorly tied bun as he tried to count.
“7? No, 8 hours. Maybe 9. If there weren't any dishes I was chopping or peeling stuff, but it was mostly dishes.”
Ephrim's eyes went wide, and Throndir nearly jumped to reassure him.
“It’s ok! I’m ok, I can take longer shifts, especially the later ones. I’ve done it before, my hands heal pretty fast so I don't need to worry about it.”
Ephrim looked at his friend, at the bags under his eyes and the weight on his shoulders.
“If you say so… just try not to work yourself to the bone, alright?”
Throndir shrugged. “If someone has to-”
“You don’t have to. You don’t-”
“I’m just saying, if I take the late shifts, less people lose sleep. I’ll recover.”
Ephrim sighed, knowing the argument would go nowhere.
“All right, just… take care of yourself.”
Throndir took a sip of wine instead of answering.
They talked for a while longer. Ephrim knew he should get to the reason he’d called him in, but a part of him kept saying that this might be the last normal conversation he would have with Throndir. He didn't want things to change between them, but he knew they might after this. It was such a strange thing to ask, even if Throndir turned him down, it might change how he saw Ephrim. So while the light faded outside, Ephrim let himself have this last moment of normalcy between them.
They’d made their way through a few more glasses of wine by the time Ephrim mustered the courage to bring up the rumors. It was dark enough that he had lit a lamp, drawing moths in from the open window to flutter around it, casting the occasional odd shadow around the room. Kodiak was flopped over on the thin rug, snoring quietly.
It might have just been wishful thinking, but Throndir looked a little happier than he had when he came in. More relaxed.
“About why I called you in… I… have a favor to ask.”
Ephrim said, lacing his hands together to keep himself from anxious fidgeting.
Throndir sat up a little from where he had been gradually sinking into his seat.
“What do you need?”
“It's… hard to explain. I promise, I wouldn't ask you to involve yourself unless I really had exhausted my options.”
“Ephrim. I’m still going to help, but you’re making me pretty nervous over here.”
“Sorry. I just… I want you to know that even though I’m asking you for help, you are under no obligation to say yes. If you say no, I will completely understand.”
Throndir was holding his wine glass close to his face like it might protect him from whatever Ephrim said next.
“Please just tell me? Highwater was really vague and foreboding about it earlier and honestly I’ve been stressed out about it this whole time.”
“Right. Sorry, I may have been putting it off a little… It's a hard thing to admit.”
Ephrim took a deep breath, and when that wasn't enough, took a long sip of wine.
Then he explained the plan.
Immediately after Throndir left Ephrim’s rooms for the night, he was filled with doubt. This was… probably a bad idea. He’d spent all this time avoiding Ephrim, only to basically leap right in to an agreement that meant he had to do the exact opposite.
Why did he do that?
Because of how stressed Ephrim had looked explaining it, because of the tired curve of his shoulders, because he promised Highwater, because…
because he wanted to help.
Throndir, without thinking about it, had made his way back to his room.
He didn't spend much time there, so the bed was still made. The coat hook by the door held his rifle, so he could grab it quickly in case he needed it. His clothes were folded neatly in his drawers, a few other belongings tucked away in the plain cabinet in the corner.
The only part of the room with any real personality was Kodiak's bed, a big, fluffy thing, made as a gift by a seamstress who had scraps left over from making winter coats. There were a few toys and a bone scattered around near the bed, and a food and water bowl in the corner.
If Throndir was honest, it was more Kodiak's room than his at this point.
The big dog made a beeline for his bed, doing a few lumbering circles before flopping down to chew on an old bone.
Throndir sat on his bed. Then he got up, and paced around the room. He had his first… well, date with Ephrim tomorrow night. He had to wait through tonight, and then most of the day tomorrow, and then…
Throndir checked his dresser drawers, in case he forgot to fold something. He didn’t. He got out a broom, and swept the floor, despite there not being any dust. He took his hair down. He realized he’d tied it with kitchen twine, that was weird. He put it back up, with a regular cord this time. He thought about returning the kitchen twine. That would probably be even weirder. He put it in his pocket. He checked the time.
It had only been 46 minutes.
Running on habit, he got halfway out the door to go help in the kitchens before he felt the sting in his hands and remembered what Ephrim had said.
He hadn’t thought about it until now, really. Especially since he died, pain didn’t really bother him as much. It felt the same, physically, he just… found it easier to ignore. Knowing it was temporary made fixing little problems like cracked skin seem like a waste of time.
A quiet voice in the back of his head reminded him that this was probably not the healthiest way to think, but that had gotten easier to ignore too. What was much harder to ignore was the way Ephrim had looked at him when he explained that it wasn’t a big deal.
Despite having so many, bigger, more complicated things to be concerned with, he found the energy to look deeply troubled by the fact that Throndir's hands might hurt. He shouldn’t have to worry about that. He shouldn’t have to worry about Throndir at all.
Instead of taking another shift washing dishes, Throndir headed for the guard postings, ignoring the hurt feeling in his gut at the thought of being forgotten.
If he was going to inconvenience Throndir this much, Ephrim had to make absolutely certain that his plan would work. Rumors were hard to start from scratch, but easy to bolster once they had begun. Thankfully, there were already a few speculations around him and Throndir, so all he had to do before tonight was to tactfully remind people of them.
This proved to be a fairly easy task. He mentioned the ranger’s name more than usual in conversation, dropped hints that they had spent some time together last night, even gazed absentmindedly out the window while playing with his hair.
It all came to him strangely naturally.
Highwater, however, was concerned that their efforts might be too subtle.
Together, they found where Throndir was working that day- one of the farms, it turned out- and orchestrated a meeting about ration management to be cut short for very important and good reasons.
Of course, if the counselor didn’t mind walking and talking they could certainly finish whatever they had been saying to him while he made his way to his next appointment, he just needed to pass by the farm on his way.
He stopped briefly, catching Throndir's eye, and smiling fondly at him. Throndir, for his part, returned the smile and waved at him with an inexpertly bandaged hand.
Ephrim had planned to keep walking after that, but he hesitated for a little longer than he’d intended.
Throndir's hair was half up to keep it out of his eyes, with the rest falling down in tangles around his shoulders. His clothes and hands were dirt stained from weeding, but he looked at peace with it. Carefree, almost.
He only remembered to keep walking when Highwater strategically elbowed him in the side, slightly less subtle than she usually was.
When the person he was meeting with had moved on, he and Highwater stepped into an alcove to debrief,
“How was that? Believable? I still think we should have told Throndir we were coming by.”
Highwater sighed patiently at him, crossing her arms.
“He looks at you like you put the sun in the sky, Ephrim.”
Ephrim winced, coughing pointedly into his gloved hand.
Highwater's eyes went wide.
“Oh- I… I'll find a better metaphor.”
He tried to put her at ease by smiling, but it probably just looked pained.
“Let me know when you do.”
Throndir didn't spend a lot of time in front of mirrors. How he looked had never been a priority to him, even back when he had the time to worry about it. As far as he was concerned, as long as he bathed regularly and his hair was out of his eyes when it needed to be, he was alright.
So it came as a surprise to him that he didn't actually own a nice shirt. Well, not that much of a surprise. But he could have sworn there was something at least decent in his wardrobe, not fancy or anything, just… preferably not worn out or stained.
Almost everything he owned, it turned out, were work clothes that had seen better days.
Which made sense, most of the time. He didn't get out a lot, and he didn't see the need to replace anything until it was totally unwearable.
This was a problem.
Throndir wasn't entirely sure how to act like someone Ephrim would want to be seen with, y'know, romantically, and he was even less sure how to look like that person.
Which is how he found himself in the market, in a stall crammed with more clothes than seemed practical to have in one place, completely overwhelmed.
There was barely room to move without almost knocking over a gaudy pile of scarves or dislodging an enthusiastically decorated hat.
He was about to call it quits and try to ask Adaire or Hadrian for advice, when a bright, chirpy voice piped up from behind a rack of coats.
“Ah! Mr. Ranger! Looking for something?”
A tall, willowy mothkin with bright white wings and pale gray freckles unfolded themselves from the corner of the stall they'd been tucked in. They practically blended in with the stall, bundled up in red, purple, and gold scarves and skirts. Even their antennae had little bits of beaded ribbon trailing off them.
“Oh, uh, sorry, I didn’t know you were here, Mx…”
“Plume!” they said cheerfully, imitating a mix of other happy voices. “We hardly ever see you down here at the market, Mr. Ranger, it must be a terribly special occasion! Do tell if there is anything I can help you with.”
Throndir looked around sheepishly.
“Honestly, I don't really know where to start? Um. There's this dance tonight, and I’m supposed to go with a friend of mine but he's… kind of fancy, I guess, and all I have is… this, pretty much.” He said, gesturing to his standard, work-worn cotton shirt and simple pants.
“Like I said, I’m not really sure… where to go from here, I guess…” He trailed off, looking up at Plume to gauge their reaction.
While mothkin expressions where a little trickier to read than most, Plume looked utterly delighted, long chitinous hands clasped in front of their face, making their many rings clack together.
“You are certainly in luck today then, Mr. Ranger, because I know exactly what you need!”
“Uh. You do?”
“ Absolutely! You've come to the right place, I know just what to do to impress this friend of yours.”
They said, launching into a flurry of motion, rifling through embroidered tunics with a speed that only comes from spending your entire day in one place.
“You, my dear, need a tailor! And I just happen to know the perfect moth for the job.”
“...Is it y-”
“It is me, yes.”
Throndir really had planned on doing other things that day, but ended up spending most of his time trying to convince Plume that a fully embroidered tunic was a bit much for just one dance. He managed to negotiate them down to just decorating the sleeves and neckline, thankfully. They kept him very busy, first they needed the right shade of green fabric, then they needed finer gold thread, then he had to stand still while they stabbed him with all sorts of pins and scribbled numbers down on a piece of parchment.
By the time they were done, he was getting worried about the cost of getting it all hand tailored, but Plume waved him off, saying that he only needed to pay for the clothes themselves. When he tried to thank them, they laughed.
“Oh, it's not free, you absolutely owe me! You better come back here and tell me how it went with Lord Friend-of-Yours. ”
With that he thanked them again, and rushed out of the shop as casually as possible, trying to look less flustered than he felt.
There was barely any time to worry about the dance. By the time he was alone in his quarters, trying to decide what to do with his hair, Ephrim was exhausted. His day had been a non-stop parade of problems since he’d gotten up, and honestly, all he wanted to do was to curl up in his armchair with a book.
Once, he could have done it all without needing to stop for breath, but the years, as well as the heat and the dark, had taken their toll on him.
There was a difference between knowing this and accepting it, however, so no matter how much he wanted to collapse into a pile on the ground, Ephrim pulled together an appropriate outfit (casual, but still nice enough to look like he was trying- which was hard, because he was rarely casual and always trying) and tried to put his hair up in a braid.
It took 20 minutes of trying before he gave up, feeling worse than when he started. His hand was refusing to cooperate, nerves screaming in pain if he tried to do anything more complicated than making a fist. He was getting better at asking Highwater to help with this kind of thing, but admitting that he couldn't even put his hair up on his own felt… pathetic. Instead, he ran a comb through it until he looked decent, and summoned the strength to leave his rooms again.
He barely got halfway down the hall before he almost literally ran into Throndir, who was walking in the opposite direction. Distracted by greeting a very excited Kodiak, it took him a minute to notice that Throndir was wearing an outfit Ephrim hadn't seen before. He had a loose fitting deep green tunic, embroidered at the hem and neckline with a twisting, vine-like pattern done in delicate gold thread. The simple cut showed off his shoulders, broad with years of work, but the fabric was light enough to make him look delicate at the same time. He found himself envying the way the low neckline worked so well, it had been some time since they had made Ephrim look anything but sickly.
“You didn’t have to come get me, Throndir. I would have met you there.”
Throndir fidgeted with the embroidered sleeves of his shirt.
“Highwater mentioned it might be a good idea for us to walk in together? By that I mean she was vaguely threatening about it, so I figured I wouldn't push my luck.”
“She does have that effect on people. You look nice, by the way. I'm starting to feel under dressed.”
Throndir chuckled at him. “I don't think you've ever been under dressed since I’ve met you.”
Ephrim tried not to look as smug as he felt, spirits lifting already.
“I’m glad my hard work hasn't gone unnoticed. Shall we?” he said, putting his arm out without thinking.
Throndir stared at it for a long moment, long enough for Ephrim to consider putting it back by his side and just white knuckling through the awkward atmosphere, then he tentatively looped his arm through Ephrim's. It was a light touch, like Throndir was afraid of him shattering into pieces like glass under the slightest pressure.
On their way down the stairs, Ephrim found himself leaning on Throndir more than he meant to. It wasn't far to the courtyard, he could already hear the music playing, but it felt like it was miles away, and all he wanted to do way lie down. All he could do was hope he looked less terrible than he felt.
The courtyard looked better than he could have imagined when they first cleared it of snow years ago, lanterns hanging from tree branches, simple food on the tables, and a surprising amount of people dancing or clapping along to a song being played on an old guitar.
Throndir stopped them by the entryway, pulling him gently to the side.
“We don't have to do this tonight.” he said softly. “If you don’t want to-”
“I’m fine. Why, do I not look fine?”
“...You look like you're going to pass out. Um. No offense”
Ephrim turned back to the party, avoiding eye contact.
“Don't be ridiculous. I’m not going to pass out.”
It didn't even sound convincing to him, but Throndir just sighed, and took his arm again before walking out into the courtyard, this time clearly just so Ephrim didn't collapse in public. He accepted it, putting on what he hoped was the smile of someone who wasn’t such a burden.
They mingled for a while, Throndir taking on most of the talking while Ephrim focused on staying on his feet and not looking like he was about to fall over. He hadn't realized before how good Throndir was at connecting to people. It was something Ephrim had prided himself on for a long time, but when Throndir did it it was… different. He seemed warmer. Not warm like fire, but warm like fresh baked bread. Warm like a coat. Even his smile gave Ephrim the feeling of being wrapped in a blanket.
He hadn't really thought about it, but it was a feeling he always got around Throndir. He ran a gloved hand over the place where their arms had touched, steadying him, pulling him a little closer.
Had the courtyard always been this cold? They should do something to insulate it.
At some point in the evening, they found themselves alone at the edge of the group. Ephrim took a deep breath and looked over at Throndir, who was already watching him.
“We should dance.”
Throndir's brow wrinkled with worry.
“The songs a little fast, don't you think?”
“You’ll be fine, just follow my lead.” He said, moving off towards the dance floor before Throndir put a hand on his arm.
“It’s not me I’m worried about.”
Ephrim was about to argue, but when he looked at Throndir's face it died in his throat. He didn’t look irritated or pleading he just looked… scared.
“Please, let’s just… sit down. Just for a minute.”
Throndir lead him over to a stone bench, one salvaged from the old university. They sat for a minute or two in silence, watching the lantern lights flickering in the trees.
“...Are you mad at me?”
Ephrim sighed, feeling the full weight of the day on his shoulders.
“No. I’m not. I’m just frustrated, but it doesn't have anything to do with you.”
It didn’t sound like Throndir fully believed him, but he wasn't going to push it.
Gradually, Ephrim felt himself relax. The party was winding down around them, people reluctantly leaving the dance floor alone and in groups. It was the perfect night for a thing like this. He could almost see himself forgetting about it all, for a moment. Just a moment.
But he still had a rumor to start.
“We should probably still try and look like a couple.”
“Oh! Yeah, we probably should.”
It felt a little ridiculous, acting like two kids playing at romance, and Ephrim started to chuckle under his breath. Pretty soon, they were both laughing at themselves, drawing looks from the few remaining dancers.
“This is probably not what you imagined you’d be doing tonight.”
“Not in a thousand years, if I’m honest.”
Looking at him, Ephrim could see why Highwater said Throndir looked at him like he put the sun in the sky. For a second, they were somewhere else, in another world where things had worked out differently. A world where this was something Ephrim was allowed, where that look was really meant for him. Where he could have someone this warm, this gentle.
It was hard to tell who leaned in first. But it felt like the right thing to do.
Throndir didn't pay a lot of attention to rumors about himself, but it was pretty easy to tell the plan was working. People kept giving him weird looks, like they were in on some kind of secret. And Highwater seemed… pleased? It was hard to tell.
It didn’t make him any less nervous about the next part of the plan.
He was worried about the last part, too, but once he got there, it was clear he was less likely to hurt Ephrim than Ephrim was to hurt himself by taking on so much at once. Having something else to worry about helped a lot, but the really concerning part was at the end of the night.
It was fine when it was a favor for a friend, but when Ephrim leaned away to break the kiss, Throndir realized that he didn’t want to stop.
It should have been weird. It should have been like kissing a friend that you’d known for a long time, awkward but doable, but it wasn’t.
It was nice.
He couldn’t stop thinking about how it felt to have his hand on the back of Ephrim’s neck, how the other man melted into his touch, making him believe for a second that it was exactly where he wanted to be.
It was like everything was with Ephrim.
It just… fit. It made sense, like just being near him made things fall into place around him.
Kissing him didn’t make the worries he had for the rest of the world vanish magically, but it made him feel like, for a moment, things would be alright one day.
Deep in the most selfish part of himself, he wanted to do it again.
And that was very bad news. Especially since he didn't have time to worry about it.
The next part of the plan, Highwater had explained in a hushed tone, was very simple. They pick a time of day that they’re both usually busy, and they conspicuously disappear into Ephrim's quarters for a while.
“So. Just like, 30 minutes, right?” Throndir had said, hopefully.
The party had turned out alright, but there had been other people there. With Alcyon still on his mind, he was nervous about being alone with Ephrim, now for all new and terrifying reasons.
Highwater gave him a withering look.
Two hours it was.
So here he was, a few days later, trying to work up the courage to knock on Ephrim's door. It opened before he had the chance.
“Good, you’re here.” Highwater said, briskly. “A word, before you go in.”
She closed the door quietly behind her, and took a deep breath, looking deeply frustrated.
“He won’t stop.”
“Um.. won’t stop what?”
“He won't stop working.”
She gestured wildly at the door.
“I’ve given him the excuse of pretending to have sex, you’d think he'd take the chance to at least catch up on sleep, but no! He’s doing paperwork. ”
The cobbin put her hands over her face, slumping against the door.
Throndir put a hand on her shoulder, trying not to laugh.
“I don’t think that's in the cards, but I’ll see what I can do.”
Highwater let out a long suffering sigh, and moved away from the door.
“Understandable. Leave Kodiak outside, and mess up your hair before you leave.”
With that, she shook her head like she was clearing out cobwebs, knocked quickly on the door three times, and strode off down the hallway.
Ephrim opened the door, looking more casual than Throndir had seen in a long while.
“Hey, it’s good to see you. Come in- no, not you, big guy.” Ephrim said affectionately, scratching an excited Kodiak behind the ears.
“You stay outside, today. I know, I’m sorry, I love you very much but those are the rules.”
Throndir moved past them into the room, laughing under his breath. He noted the large stack of parchment on the desk, and a half written letter, the ink still drying.
“Highwater says you’re pretty busy.” He said, trying to sound casual.
“Eh… not really.” Ephrim said, finally getting Kodiak to stay on the other side of the door.
“I mean, no more than I usually am.”
Throndir raised his eyebrows, gesturing at the stack of papers.
“This is normal for you?”
Ephrim shrugged, having the grace to look a little sheepish.
“A few of these are things I’d usually delegate to other people, but since I have time today, I thought it would be better if I do them myself. Save everyone a headache.”
“Everyone except you, I guess.” Throndir murmured.
If Ephrim heard him, he ignored it.
“I’m sure Highwater told you to convince me to rest, but I’m fine. Besides, I didn’t want to bother you with conversation. You probably need the rest more than I do, anyways. I won’t keep you from it.”
With that, Ephrim sat at his desk, and picked up a quill.
Throndir didn’t buy it for a second.
“I don’t mind talking to you, you know.” he said, sitting down across from Ephrim.
With his head buried in the stack of papers, Throndir almost missed Ephrim’s ears turning bright red.
“And it's not a competition. We could both need a break.”
Ephrim looked up, smirking. “Are you admitting you're tired?”
Throndir looked him directly in the eyes.
“If it makes you stop working, yes.”
Ephrim had stopped writing, but it was clear he wasn't convinced.
“If you got anything done, it would mean either the rumors about us are made up, or that you’re absurdly good at multitasking.”
Ephrim was lost for words for entirely new reasons for a moment, staring past Throndir at the wall doing some sort of mental calculation.
“I could probably manage it, if I had to.”
This whole thing had backfired terribly, Throndir decided, trying very hard not to think about the images that put in his head.
“Or you could read a book! Or we could talk. Or you could take a nap. Just do anything other than paperwork for two hours, and we’ll be fine.”
“You mean do anything other than paperwork or you.”
The ceiling was very interesting to Throndir all of a sudden, but he got the distinct feeling Ephrim was smirking again.
“Yeah. Other than those things.”
Ephrim paused, contemplating something.
“I can drink, right?” He asked, already up and making for the cabinet.
“Wait. Your solution to this is to just get day drunk?”
“If I’m not supposed to get drunk, why is there so much wine here.” Ephrim said, gesturing dramatically.
Throndir chuckled at him, already feeling more at ease.
“I never said it was a bad idea.”
“Good! Because I may have had a glass or two before you got here.”
Ephrim hummed affirmatively, pouring them both a drink and carefully moving his papers off to the side.
“Are you… I mean, Ephrim. Are you ok?”
Ephrim settled back down into his chair and looked thoughtfully at the ceiling.
“Hm. No.” He took a long drink
“Do you… do you want to talk about it?”
“No, not really. I mean, I’m alright. I promise I’m not falling apart at the seams. It's just been a long week, and I keep… I keep worrying about this. Us.”
He avoided Throndir's eyes, fidgeting with his cup.
“Do you think you’d be able to just… go back to the way things were after all this? You won’t think of me any differently? We can just leave this behind?”
No , thought Throndir.
I think I’m in love with you, and have been for a while. I can't just let go of that.
“Yeah, of course. I mean, that was the deal, right?”
All the tension left Ephrim’s shoulders.
“It was. You’re right, I guess I’m just… worrying over nothing.”
He looked out the window for a long moment. For a second, something almost sad passed across his face, then it was gone again, and Ephrim turned back to him, smiling.
“So. Tell me how your week has been.”
The two hours passed pretty peacefully after that. After the conversation died off, Ephrim lay down with a book, and Throndir pulled out a bit of wood carving he’d been working on, careful to keep the shavings off the threadbare carpet, and in a tidy pile on the desk to be thrown out later.
Eventually, Throndir looked up to check on Ephrim, and he was dead asleep with the book on his face.
Trying to ignore the immense fondness in his heart, Throndir carefully removed the book and marked his place. Ephrim wrinkled his nose, turning over in his sleep to curl up on his side like a cat in a sunbeam.
Not wanting to wake him up by pulling the blanket out from under him or go searching through his things, Throndir took off his warm woolen coat and draped it over Ephrim's sleeping form.
He went back to carving after that, sitting with his back to the bed, because even now this seemed far too intimate a thing for him to see.
When it was finally time to go, Throndir took his jacket back before waking Ephrim.
Before he left, he tried to mess up his hair, but Ephrim stopped him, still half asleep.
“No, hold still. Like this.” he mumbled, running both of his still gloved hands through Throndir's already wild hair. I was a miracle he couldn't hear his heart beating wildly in his chest the entire time.
“That's better. Untuck your shirt a little bit? Good. Now take your hands and do this.”
Ephrim said, patting his cheeks with both hands. Throndir looked at him blankly, and Ephrim rolled his eyes.
“It makes your cheeks flush. Makeup is easier, but I don't have the right shade for you, so this will have to do.”
“Where do you learn all this stuff?” Throndir said, trying to copy what he did. Ephrim wrinkled his nose, eyes unfocused and sleepy.
“Where does anyone learn anything, these days.”
It really didn't answer his questions, but Throndir decided not to push it.
They’d timed this so that just as Throndir was leaving, Highwater was escorting a small group past the door, just in time to see them together. Throndir could hear their steps in the hallway now.
“Ready?” Ephrim asked under his breath.
“About as much as I’m going to be. Let's go.”
Ephrim squeezed his hand comfortingly, and opened the door.
“I’ll see you later this week, right?” he said, loud enough for the group to hear, voice low and silky in a way that made Throndir's heart skip a beat, despite knowing it was all a performance.
“Yeah, of course. I’ll be there.” His voice sounded steadier than he felt, thankfully.
He leaned in, trying not to think about how his hand was shaking, even more aware of the eyes on them than last time. Ephrim closed the distance, their lips barely touching.
It could hardly be called a kiss, but with Throndir’s back to the group, it was impossible for them to know.
“See you then.” Ephrim gave him an encouraging smile, and turned back into the room, with as much grace as he always had.
Throndir avoided the eyes of the onlookers, calling Kodiak to his side as casually as he could manage.
Even if Ephrim’s trick worked, he wasn't sure it needed to. His face was bright red all the way back to his room.
Pretending to be in a relationship was realistically not the kind of thing one should get used to, but as the days went by, Ephrim started to feel them slip into the comforting embrace of routine.
When their schedules allowed, they would go out together. Sometimes to an event, sometimes to the market, sometimes just walking the grounds. They would share a moment together, where they knew they would be seen; a kiss to the back of a gloved hand, a pair of arms linked together, a secret whispered in a pointed ear. Most of the time they parted ways after that, but some days they retired to Ephrim's quarters, reemerging some time later, looking a little disheveled, launching all kinds of speculation on what they’d been up to.
The truth was practically boring in comparison. Throndir would sit and work on a wood carving or some other small task, and Ephrim would read, and eventually nod off, and later pretend he hadn't. He’d started reading out loud, pausing to explain something or ask Throndir his thoughts on the text. Most of the books he read were fairly dry, old university studies that might give some insight, but he’d found himself picking up more and more fiction. Things Throndir might like. They never got very far into the book, distracted by the conversation more often than not.
It was a joy to have something to talk about that had no bearing on life at the university, no dire choices or existential threats. While he outwardly complained that he should be doing something more productive, Ephrim internally dreaded the inevitable day when he had to let this respite go.
His reasons were selfish, of course. The more they played at domesticity, companionship and love, the more his heart ached for it. It was getting more difficult by the day to ignore the empty feeling in his chest whenever he was reminded that this was all just a show, that this, like so many things he had done, had nothing to do with him.
On his worst nights, he wondered if there was anything left of him that had not been carefully orchestrated to some purpose or another. Then his hand would ache and remind him- perhaps there will be nothing left of him at all when things are done.
It was all a show, but he couldn't bring himself to end it quite yet.
They had set aside some time to go to the market together, wander the stalls and exchange false affectionate looks, as they usually did. It was a clear day, warmer than it had been in a while. Ephrim could see the market from his window, blue paint on the shutters starting to fade from the sun. It was busy, everyone feeling the strange pull to be outside and moving that you get on days like these.
Throndir showed up at his door with a wax paper bag full of some kind of delicate pastry wrapped around cheese, and they ate breakfast together as they walked.
They couldn't talk as openly with so many eyes on them, but there was enough to make for pleasant small talk. They avoided talking about the actual running of the university, theoretically to stop it from sounding like a work relationship, but it seemed to Ephrim that this was all a ploy by Highwater and Throndir to get him to think about something other than work. A ploy, certainly, but one he appreciated, the thoughtful gesture not lost on him.
They meandered together through the rows of shops, hands brushing together occasionally. Ephrim had noticed Throndir’s discomfort with physical contact, and did his best to keep it to small gestures if it was unplanned.
He had elected to not mention it. It wasn't his place. If, perhaps, they lived in that other world, where this was allowed him, he would have that talk. But he was here, instead.
“I want to get something for Highwater, I think.” Ephrim announced, watching a thin cloud drift bye overhead. “Any ideas?”
Throndir hummed thoughtfully.
“She always has paper on hand to take notes if something important comes up, right? We could get her a notebook, so she doesn't have to worry about losing something.”
“That's a good idea… I should get her something else, as well. Something that isn’t to do with work.”
He turned back to see Throndir smiling widely at him.
“Nothing, I’m just proud of you.”
“I’m not that oblivious, I know she needs a break. You two blow this ‘overworking’ thing out of proportion.”
“Didn’t say anything.”
They ended up buying her a box of candied oranges and a hefty novel, as well as a sturdy notebook before moving on.
While they were making their way to a set of benches on the far end of the market, they heard a dramatic gasp coming from a stall to their left.
It was a small cart, packed with colorful ribbons and glittering ornaments, most of which were meant for hair. It was manned by a tired looking young man, trying to both deal with customers and a child, who was tugging repeatedly on his sleeve and pointing at Kodiak.
He did his best to gently lower their little hand, looking a little panicked.
“Dany, it's rude to point at people, I told you that.”
“Look at the doggy, Amaury! It has so much hair !” Dany bounced excitedly on their heels, waving at Kodiak.
“Hi doggy! Come here, I wanna braid you!”
Amaury scooped Dany off the ground, placing them back on the stool they’d been sitting on before they caught sight of the dog, moving their hands back to the messy, half unraveled plait sticking out to one side of their head.
“No, I told you, you have to practice on your own hair before you can try on someone else, alright? Oh, please don’t cry again...”
Ephrim gave Throndir a look.
“I think I see a makeover Kodiak's future, how about you?”
The dog looked up at Throndir, questioningly. Throndir sighed, patting him on the head.
“He’s better with kids than I am, for sure. He’ll be alright.”
Kodiak, it turned out, was more than alright. As soon as Dany gave him an enthusiastic hug, curious kids started crawling out of the woodwork to pet him. Not wanting to make Amaury abandon his business, Ephrim sat down next to Dany and took over teaching them to braid.
Soon enough, Kodiak was flopped over on his side, tail thumping on the ground lazily as a handful of children clumsily styled his fur. It wasn't quite the same as braiding hair, but they seemed to be having so much fun that Ephrim decided not to mention it.
Every so often, he’d glance over his shoulder to see Throndir looking back at him fondly, leaning against a nearby column. As soon as their eyes met, he’d give Ephrim a bright smile and a little wave, not even pretending to look away. Ephrim tried very hard to remember it was all an act for him. Not for you, though, is it? Said a traitorous voice in his head.
Hasn't been an act for a while now.
He turned back to Dany and Kodiak, and did his best not to think about it.
Eventually it was getting late in the day, so Ephrim instructed his impromptu students to take out all the clips, ribbons, and combs from Kodiak's fur as carefully as they could, and give them back to Amaury so he could clean them and use them as examples again. Amaury gave him a grateful look, clearly fine with a little extra cleaning if it meant he didn’t need to worry about his sibling for a few hours.
When they were done, Ephrim brushed himself off, and set off to join Throndir again.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen you sit on the ground before.” Throndir said, pulling a treat out of his pocket for Kodiak.
Ephrim smiled softly.
“Only for very good reasons.”
They wandered for a little bit longer, stopping in at a food cart to get some kind of spiced meat wrapped in thick, floury bread. Food in hand, they headed for a bench in the corner, and sat in companionable silence while they ate.
As they were finishing up, Throndir turned to him, looking a little nervous.
“I got you something. Well, Amaury helped, but.. Here.” He handed Ephrim a small package wrapped in light, crinkly paper.
Inside was a hair pin, ruby red and glittering in the afternoon light. It was modeled after a delicate spindly flower, one from the spring, and made of enamel, gold wire, and lamp work glass.
“...Throndir, this is beautiful, you didn’t have to do this.”
“I know, but I wanted to. Really. Um. May I?” He asked, gesturing at Ephrim's braid.
“Oh! Sure, If you’d like.”
Throndir took the pin back, and reached up to tuck it carefully into Ephrim's hair, just like he’d been showing the children with Kodiak's fur.
“Somebody was paying attention.”
Throndir met his eyes sheepishly.
“You're a very good teacher.”
It was all so much at that moment, Throndir's hands hovering near Ephrim's face, their knees bumping together on the bench. The late afternoon light cast soft shadows on Throndir's face, giving the world a gentle glow. It was more physical contact than Throndir usually initiated, and it was starting to make him feel a little lightheaded. The moment felt delicate, like a soap bubble about to pop, but Ephrim wanted nothing more than to stay in it forever.
“We should probably kiss now, right? For the plan?”
Throndir's voice wasn't quite a whisper, but it was close.
Ephrim swallowed, heart sinking like a stone.
“It certainly seems like the right time, if you're ready, that is.”
Throndir nodded, and cupped Ephrim's face in his hands, leaning in.
Ephrim closed his eyes, ignoring the deep melancholy creeping up his spine to threaten his heart.
This had to stop, before it broke him.
It was a cold night out, chill seeping into the watchtower before the sun had even set. Throndir wrapped his cloak tight around his shoulders, keeping his eyes set on the treeline.
A few hours earlier, Highwater had called him and Ephrim into a routine meeting to let them know how things were going, where they should be seen next.
“It’s about time we planned an argument.” She said, flipping through the notebook they’d bought her. It was clearly seeing a lot of use.
“It should be simple. You won’t be able to speak to each other in public for a few weeks after of course, then you’re all set. No more worrying about this for a while, I think.”
She looked up, gauging their reactions.
Throndir turned to Ephrim. He had his hands clasped tightly in his lap, posture perfect, face blank. Impossible to read when he wanted to be.
He was probably relieved that he didn't have to do this anymore, and he just didn't want Throndir to feel bad about it.
It wasn't working.
He tried to nod along politely as Highwater detailed the plan, but he could hardly pay attention. It was over. Why did that hurt so much? It was just for show, and he knew that. It didn’t matter how he felt. He had done this for Ephrim in the first place, not for himself. That didn’t change just because he’d suddenly recognized his feelings.
He went through the rest of the day in a daze, getting exiled from the kitchen for nearly losing his thumb peeling a potato.
It was quiet out on the wall. Rustling leaves, the calls of night birds, and the unfamiliar sounds of new spring life.
Kodiak leaned against his leg, a warm grounding presence.
This was good. It was good that it was ending, he told himself. It would all go back to how it was before, and Ephrim wouldn't be in danger of having his energy drained if someone played the wrong notes on a bell. It would be better for everyone.
No matter how many times he reminded himself, it never felt true. All this time, Ephrim had been acting, every kind word, every touch. Somehow, he had even convinced Throndir, at least a little. There was still a piece of him that clung to the idea that this wasn't just a dream, that he meant just as much to Ephrim as Ephrim did to him. But he knew better than that.
It was always easy to tell when someone was making their way up to the watchtower, Throndir could hear the wood creaking ages before they reached the top, so he wasn't terribly surprised when Highwater joined him on the platform.
“Nice night for it.”
It was quiet again, for a moment.
“Did you need something?”
Highwater sighed, pulling a second rickety wooden chair out to sit down beside him.
“I just wanted to talk to you for a bit, if that’s alright.”
Throndir nodded, and she gave him a thin smile.
“How have things been with Lord Ephrim?” She said, carefully, staring out at the night sky.
“I mean, you said it worked, so. Pretty well, I guess?”
“Not what I meant.”
“Oh. We’re fine. Everything’s just going to go back to normal in a few weeks, just like we planned.”
Highwater eyed him.
“You believe that?”
“I don’t have a reason not to, so, yeah, I do.”
“Are you happy it’s over?”
Throndir didn't know how to answer that.
“Thought so. You should tell him.”
“Tell him what?”
“That you don’t want it to be fake anymore.”
Throndir whipped his head around to look at her, shocked. Highwater just stared back at him, scaled hands folded behind her head, looking unimpressed.
“You’re not subtle. It’s why I warned you about this, you’re a good guy. I don’t want to see your heart get broken over this.”
“Your advice to avoid getting my heart broken is… what, tell him? I don’t think that’s going to work out for anyone involved.”
“Maybe not. But at least you’d get it out there. You both deserve some honesty after this.”
“I’m not sure I want to know what he thinks of me.”
Highwater looked at him like she was considering throwing him off of the watch tower for a second then took a deep breath, turning her head up to the ceiling.
“Lead a horse to water…” she muttered, then turned back to Throndir.
“Look. I’m going to give you a chance to talk this out with him, alright? When you two meet for breakfast tomorrow, I’m going to personally make sure you’re not interrupted.”
“You don't need to-”
“Throndir. What did I tell you when you took this on?”
“Don't fuck it up?”
“Exactly. So don't. Tell him the truth before I lose my damn mind.” With that, she hauled herself out of the chair, which had clearly been built with someone bigger in mind, and started down the creaky wooden stairs of the guard tower.
At the last minute, she turned around.
“Have a good night, Throndir. Get some sleep.”
“I keep telling you I don’t need it!”
“Yeah, sure, that's what Ephrim says too, right before he passes out at his desk.”
And with that, she descended the uneven stairs of the watchtower, leaving Throndir alone with his thoughts and the still, quiet treeline.
It was hard to shake the feeling that Ephrim was on his way to a funeral that morning, and he hated himself for it. He had been too far to many real funerals to mourn something so selfish. But the dark cloud stayed over his head as he got ready for the day all the same. Despite his better judgment, he pinned the spindly red flower into his hair before he left. It might not be a good idea to wear it again after all this.
There was a hill on the university grounds that had become an infamous meeting spot for young couples. It was easy to see why, Ephrim thought to himself as he made his way up the path to where Throndir sat under a tree.
The flowers, old and new, were in bloom. It was almost overwhelming how picturesque a scene it was, in spite of the world around it. The vibrant colors of the spring seemed in a kind of harmony for once, petals drifting down to land on Kodiak's nose, making him sneeze so forcefully that he nearly fell over. He could hear Throndir's laughter already, joyous and uninhibited.
That gave him the resolve to go through with the plan. The ranger had done so much. He deserved to be free from the web of politics and fear that Ephrim had wrapped them both in.
Throndir was still chuckling as Ephrim sat down on the blanket next to him.
“You saw that, right?” Throndir said, wiping a tear from his eye. Even now, his smile was infectious.
“I did! He’s too powerful for his own good.”
Kodiak shook like he was trying to dry out his fur, and lumbered over to lie down with his head in Ephrim’s lap.
Throndir watched them fondly, leaning back on his hands.
“Glad to have us on your side, huh?”
“More than you know.”
Ephrim regretted the words immediately, looking down at Kodiak as if there were some solution to his blunder hidden in the thick fur.
He elected not to look at Throndir’s face, instead blurting out “We should eat. Highwater mentioned scones?”
“Oh! Yeah, you’re probably hungry, right?”
He pulled a pack out from behind the tree, and started unloading the food. There were scones, along with small jars full of fruit jam, a well sealed bottle of tea charmed to stay cold, a pair of apples, and a small white box tied with a red ribbon. Throndir's cheeks turned pink when he saw it, mumbling a curse under his breath.
“I can’t believe he put that in here.”
“What is it?”
Throndir sighed, undoing the ribbon.
“The plan worked to well, everyone in the kitchen has been dogging me about you. One of the farms finally managed to grow a few beds of strawberries, and Oaklight- a friend of mine in the kitchen- has been really excited to make cakes with them. He keeps threatening to not let me work there unless I bring you one, but he’s bluffing. He likes Kodiak too much.”
In the box were two cakes, small enough to fit in Ephrim's hand. They were coated in chocolate, and had a strawberry on top, cut into the shape of a heart.
Throndir pulled a face. “It’s pretty corny, I don't think you’d date someone who actually thought it was the height of romance to get you heart shaped fruit.”
“I think you’re underestimating my capacity for cliches! Classics are classic for a reason.”
They ate breakfast together under the tree, saving the cakes for last. The conversation flowed as easily as it always had, as though they really were like any other couple that spent the day there. It seemed like an odd choice on Highwater’s part, since Ephrim saw very few people walking along the trails, but he appreciated the chance to relax with Throndir one last time.
The cakes were, of course, delicious, and accompanied by stories of the trouble Oaklight had gotten into making them. Low hanging racks of pans and tall knoll chefs with a habit for exaggerated hand motions did not mix, as it happened.
When all the food had been eaten, they lay side by side on the thin quilt Throndir had brought for them to sit on. (Which he said was for both of them, but was likely just for Ephrim’s benefit, though if it was for Throndir, he would have slept in a snowbank.)
“So…” Ephrim said, not looking him in the eye. “It’s all over after today, I suppose.”
Throndir hummed cryptically, fiddling with the ties of his shirt.
They were quiet together for a moment, watching the tree shed its petals on the wind.
Then Throndir spoke suddenly, “What if it wasn't?”
Ephrim turned to look at him, startled.
“I mean… What if it wasn't all over, after today?”
“The plan was to stop here. We can just… go back to how things were, now. Back to normal.”
Throndir turned to lay on his side on the blanket, dark tangled hair falling in his face.
“So… That's what you want?”
Ephrim sat up, unable to handle the way Throndir was looking at him.
“It doesn't matter what I want.” he said, words bitter on his tongue. “Why do you want to know so badly?”
“If… if it did matter…” Throndir said in a small voice. “Which it does, to me, by the way- but if it was about what you wanted… would you want to go back to how things were?”
Rage boiled at the back of Ephrim’s throat. He forced himself to contain his tears at least, and rounded on Throndir.
“What do you want me to say? That I’m selfish, and I that I wish this wasn’t just a lie for my reputation? That I want to kiss you without needing an excuse, or an audience? That I’ve felt this way for years, and only realized it because of my own terrible excuse for a plan? You want to know what I want? Fine. I want to keep pretending. I want to keep spending time with you like this. But I’m not going to, because I don't get to do that. Happy?”
Throndir looked stunned, his mouth hanging open.
Ephrim’s anger subsided, leaving shame in its wake. He sagged against the tree, trying to hide his watering eyes behind a gloved hand.
“I had a feeling I was going to ruin something today. I hope you can forgive me one day-”
“I forgive you.”
A warm hand wrapped around his wrist, pulling it gently away from his face. When Ephrim opened his eyes, Throndir was inexplicably smiling at him, brighter now than any sun he’d seen.
“You didn’t ruin anything, I promise.”
Ephrim opened his mouth to argue, but Throndir held up a hand.
“No, it’s my turn. Hear me out.”
He took a deep breath, then met his gaze head on
“Ephrim, none of this has been acting to me. I didn’t realize it at first, but I… I want this, what we’ve been pretending to have. I want to be with you. I didn’t think you felt the same way, and I think I would have been ok with that. If you decided right now that you never wanted to speak to me again, I’d still at least have known you. But part of me needed to know if there was even the slightest chance and I- I’d- If that's what you- I’d like-”
Throndir trailed off, stammering and trying to find the words, but Ephrim already knew his answer.
“Yes.” He answered breathlessly, gripping Throndir's hand tightly. Tears had been falling freely down his face while he’d been listening, and he probably looked like a wreck, but Throndir still looked at him like he was all that mattered.
“Yes. I’d like that”
“I didn’t finish the sentence!”
Ephrim laughed wildly. “I don't care! As long as you kiss me again in the next 30 seconds, I don’t care about anything.”
“I could have been asking about anything. I could have been asking about what you wanted to eat for lunch, or-”
“Shut up.” Ephrim laughed, already leaning in, giving Throndir time to move away, but he grinned and moved closer, almost close enough to touch.
“Somehow, I feel like you’re going to do it for m-”
Ephrim lunged forward and kissed him with weeks worth of frustration, frantic, and joyful, and perfect.
They stayed on the hill far past their scheduled fight. The next day, Highwater had a particularly smug look on her face, though she never directly said “I told you so.”
The day after that, she looked decidedly less smug.
When Throndir asked Ephrim why that was, he laughed.
“Oh, I gave her two weeks off, as thanks for her help. She should take her own advice, I think.”
“That’s… nice of you, I think?”
“It’s really not. She’s just like me, she’s going to hate it.”
“You know, you don't seem to mind taking a break to get pastries with me this morning.”
Ephrim huffed at him.
“Why, me or the pastries?”
Ephrim took Throndir’s calloused hand in his, and pressed a gentle kiss to his knuckles.
“I think you know the answer to that one.”
Throndir stared at him blankly for a moment.
“...It’s the pastries?”
Ephrim gave him an incredulous look, and Throndir burst out laughing. With a long suffering sigh, he buried his head in his hands.
“You are insufferable.”
Throndir pulled him closer, wrapping him in his warm arms and kissing the top of his head.
“Guess you’ll just suffer, then.”
Ephrim put his hands on Throndir’s face, making him meet his eyes.
“Happily. As long as it’s you.”
“...I love you, Ephrim.”
After so much pretending, the truth of it rang clear as day to Ephrim, no matter how impossibly perfect it sounded.
“I love you, too.”