After years living on walking distance from each other, Samot and Samothes had become worried when Samol announced that he was moving to a place on his own, but after Samol showed them the house he intended to live in, they panicked.
The cottage wasn't particularly big, but more than enough for one man with the added benefit of having a single floor, so he didn't need to bust his knees going up and down the stairs all day. Also, it was basically in the middle of nowhere, right at the edge of the forest. After living all those years in the city to be close to family and hospitals, nature and quiet were exactly what Samol needed.
"Dad, a man your age living alone so far away. And after all you've been through," Samot had sighed, but Samol wasn't going to have any of it. Samothes hadn't used so many words, but he didn't need to. His frown had been enough evidence of his disapproval.
Samol had smiled brightly to both of them, "the doctors say I'm fine. Have been saying it for over a year now. And I'll be just forty minutes away from you two, no need to be so melodramatic."
"And we'll still come for lunch on the weekends, right?" Maelgwyn shrugged, turning his face away from them. Samol knew they were going to miss each other, but the boy understood his need to get away. "It's not like we won't see you again."
His sons had insisted in coming with Samol to visit the house he had found. Only then did they seem to understand why their father had decided to move so far away. They still would have preferred that he had stayed in the city with them, but seeing the way Samol had immediately started to plan where to put his books and guitar, what he was going to plant on the small plot attached was enough to make the idea more agreeable to them.
On moving day, they had helped him bring his things. Samothes had built some new furniture for the house, now that Samol would have the space the apartment he had lived in through his illness had denied him. Samot had made sure he had enough books and a comfortable chair in the sunniest spot of the room, and that he had all the food he would need until their next visit.
In the end, when it was time to say goodbye, they hugged and kissed, and his sons promised to call tomorrow and come visit next Friday.
Once Samol couldn't hear the engine of his family's car driving away anymore, he sighed, letting the sounds of the forest at night inundate him. He dragged his feet to the back door, not ready yet to go to bed. It had been a handful of stressful days and Samol didn't have as much energy as he had had as a young man, but, instead of feeling tired, he had a tangle of nervous energy trapped inside.
The garden behind the house wasn't all that big, nothing compared to the field and greenhouse he had kept in his first house, back in the day. But Mael had helped him clean it from weeds and it was more than enough to grow a couple of vegetables and some flowers. Enough for him to have a little porch and a rocking chair to enjoy the clean air and look at the stars.
Samol closed his eyes, letting in the peace that surrounded him, listening to the cicadas' song and the rustle of the trees in the still summer night. His eyes opened. There was no wind, the tops of the trees weren't moving, but he could still hear the leaves. As Samol stood up, something glinted near his fence. The light coming from inside the house had reflected on something in the middle of the trunk of the huge oak that overlooked his new home. He sighed and went back inside. Most likely it was just a wild animal. It could wait until the following day.
The following day, Samol made himself a warm cup of black coffee just after waking up and walked out to the garden... his garden. The early sun caressed his skin through the refreshing air of the morning and the birds were singing. He looked down from the trees in the distance, and back to the dead leaves that had covered his plot overnight. With a sigh, he took a sip of his bitter coffee and decided that he could enjoy the quiet for a moment before starting to work.
Samol still wasn't used to the place, sure, didn't know the patterns and rhythms of nature around there, but he could not think what kind of wind could scatter so many leaves in such a specific area. Especially so silently that it would have not woken Samol in the middle of the night. He thought of the light of the house reflecting on the eyes of a wild animal by his fence and smiled. Wild, for sure, and clever, but he could bet it was no animal at all.
Back in his old house, he had been acquainted with various spirits that lived in the forest and a couple of the ghosts that lived with him. Samol had regarded them as the necessary but annoying reality of living in such an old place, but, since he had had to sell that house, he had come to miss them. His apartment in the city had been very convenient and he had been surrounded but people, including his family, but it had been very easy to feel lonely there.
After the brief reprieve, Samol cleaned the fence and collected most of the leaves, but soon started to feel tired. He could deal with the pile of leaves later in the day, but he had wanted to tend to his new garden after breakfast. It was small and, in the end, he had decided to get starter plants instead of planting seeds, but there was always something to do. Maybe he could get to it after a quick nap.
As he was cleaning his hands in the kitchen, he saw something moving on the other side of the window. It was just a quiet summer morning, the trees were still and everything was undisturbed at first sight. Everything, but a single leaf that had fallen from the pile. It could have been a soft gust of wind or just gravity, but Samol knew best.
He still didn't know what he was dealing with, but Samol figured that a gesture of goodwill couldn't do any harm. He poured some milk on a bowl and slathered honey on a bit of leftover bread. He took the small table Samothes had made, even though Samol had insisted he didn't need one, and put it by the fence, leaving his offerings there.
As he was closing the door, Samol would have sworn he had heard a rustling of leaves behind him, but when he turned to look, everything was still. It was just a hot summer day, with the sun starting to beat down every surface it touched. Samol shrugged and lied down on his sofa.
Resting and eating and resting some more took a bit of time, but three days after moving in, in the late afternoon, Samol put on a straw hat, took his tools and went outside.
For the third day in a row, he noticed that both the bowl and dish that he had left by the fence were empty and clean. But this time, there was something different: a big oak leaf sat by them, still green and glossy. Samol didn't know what to make of it, but he figured the spirit would let him know if he had offended them.
Samol busied himself watering the plants and inspecting them for early signs of disease. They seemed to be adapting wonderfully to their new soil, and he was sure he would start seeing a few green tomatoes soon.
As the sun started to go down, Samol's nape started prickling with the sensation that someone was looking intently at him. He shrugged the feeling off, but all the time he spent tending to the plants and flowers, he knew the spirit was observing him. This time they were quiet, letting the birds and early cicadas be the only soundtrack that accompanied Samol's work. It didn't feel threatening, but it was still a little unnerving.
Once he was done, Samol put the tools away first and, only then, went to pick up the bowl and dish. He considered what to do with the leaf for a moment, but, in the end, he took it inside with him. It was a beautiful colour that would look nice on one of his dried flowers arrangements and even more beautiful when it itself dried.
Before going back into the house, Samol turned toward the forest and said, "thank you for the present."
As he turned back, the leaves rustled fiercely in a way that almost sounded like a loud laugh.
That night Samol put a bit of his dinner aside and, before turning in for bed, left it outside on the table together with honeyed milk.
An early evening when the sun had stopped scorching everything it touched and a gentle breeze had finally decided to run through the trees, Samol took his guitar and sat out in his garden, under the shadow of a fig tree Samot had insisted on transplanting. It had been two weeks since Samol had moved in and, finally, he was starting to feel at home which, in turn, gave him the energy he needed to properly enjoy his music again.
The garden was beautiful under the light of the slowly setting sun. It had been a surprise when some of the flowers had started to bloom and the tomato plants quickly went from having small flowers all over them to sprouting little green bulbs. Samol suspected that it could have something to do with him leaving food out every night, and how every morning he would find a little trinket on the clean dish. At least, he hoped it did.
Samol sat on his porch, trying out a couple of out of tune cords, frowning when he heard how much the poor thing needed a tuning. After the transport and the weeks of being around untouched, he had expected it, but it was a part of the process he didn't particularly enjoy.
As he moved the tuning keys, a very clear melody came to his mind. He wasn't sure if it was something he had heard somewhere, or if it was only his mind trying to keep itself entertained. He started humming under his breath, smiling further as the guitar started to sound as it should. Cord by cord, the guitar joined his humming.
The song grew and grew, its sound gaining depth. Now it wasn't just his guitar and his voice, the rustle in the trees served as accompaniment for the melody. Samol chuckled and started singing out loud, making up lyrics as he went. He started singing about a beautiful garden, a beautiful forest and all the beings that could live in both. About the difference between loneliness and solitude.
Another voice joined his. It wasn't a voice made for singing and, yet, it joined his perfectly, making up playful lyrics in turns and brimming with joy. When Samol decided that the song was over, he looked up and saw a figure leaning down from the oak and into his fence.
At first glance, he looked just like a particularly short young man who had been running through the forest, his brown skin radiant and full of life, but with random leaves and flowers sticking at random places all over his hair and linen clothes. Even Samol, with his long experience dealing with non-human life, would have hesitated in calling him a supernatural entity if the young man's body hadn't been growing out of the oak tree.
"I liked that even better than the food. And I love everything you've been given me," the young man took another step and was completely out of the tree, gesticulating as he spoke. "Like, I don't even need to eat human food, but it was all amazing."
"I'm glad you appreciate my humble cooking skills. And my music," Samol smiled widely at him, but didn't move from his chair. It never hurt to be careful. "Are you the spirit of that tree?"
"Sort of. I was born from that tree, but I kind of belong to the whole forest." He leant further on the fence. "I'm Fero, by the way."
"It's a pleasure to meet you, Fero," Samol said, measuring every word. "I assume you've been the one keeping an eye on me this whole time."
"Oh, yeah. I needed to make sure you weren't going to hurt the forest," Fero said and shrugged. "The last people who lived in that house tried to and it was such a pain getting rid of them. You're not going to hurt the forest, are you?"
"I don't think I could even if I wanted to. But, not, I only want to tend to my garden, play my music and enjoy the quiet."
"I totally get that," Fero laughed. "I would like listening to your music a bit more."
"Are you asking for another song?"
Samol laughed out loud, which, in turn, made Fero laugh too. Maybe this was a mistake, but Samol couldn't help feeling at ease around this little dryad. With the other spirits he had met, it had always been a long time of measuring each other until they could establish a somewhat trustful relationship. But meeting Fero for the first time was like meeting an old friend after decades.
Samol strummed a few chords and let the music come to him again.
That morning, the tomatoes were begging to be picked immediately, before they started to turn overripe. He would put them to use that very day and save some for Mael when he came to visit in a couple of days. If his sons had wanted some, they should have kept their word and come visit every weekend.
"What are you doing?" Fero's voice came from behind him once he was almost done.
"What do you think, boy?" Samol grumbled, trying to hide a smile. The dryad had come to visit him once or twice since the first day they spoke, but Samol caught glimpses of him every now and then. When he was present, Fero tended to get in the way, but he also usually ended up being more help than Samol had anticipated. Even though Samol wouldn't admit it in so many words, he was rapidly growing fond of Fero. At the very least, he was a better neighbour than the people who had lived in his building.
"I think," Fero said, grinning wider, "that you're going to turn those tomatoes into something delicious tonight."
"Aha, and what's it to you?" Samol smiled when he heard the small indignant sound Fero made.
"I live right by your kitchen's window, it's going to smell so good... and you aren't so cruel that you wouldn't share a bite of that with me, right?"
"Depends on who you ask," Samol said and sit on his hunches to turn to look at Fero with a smile. "But I wouldn't be cruel without a reason."
"So, you're bringing me food later, right?"
Samol continued his work under the attentive eyes of Fero, completely focused on Samol's hands. It would have been unnerving had it been anyone else, but he found Fero's curiosity endearing. When Samol stood, basket of tomatoes in one hand, he looked at Fero and saw that he was now looking anywhere but at Samol. He had his hands behind his back, but Samol could guess that he was wringing them in an attempt to keep them still.
Samol rose an eyebrow, "come on, out with it."
"Out with what?"
"Whatever it is you're trying to tell me," Samol said giving him a look. "Whatever it is, I assure you I can take it."
"It's not something bad... it's..." Fero scrubbed his cheek and, finally, looked at Samol. "Do you want to come to the pond with me? It's not far, and the water is cool, and I like the place a lot and it's not easy to find unless you know it's there. You usually don't stray from the paths, so I figured you didn't know about it."
"So you had to show me?"
"It's a really cool place!" Fero's hand came free from each other, spreading wide at his sides before falling back down. "You don't have to if you don't want to. Like, I go there all the time on my own and sometimes some friends also meet me there, so it's not like it's a big deal or any..."
"Fero," Samol put the basket on the ground and got closer to the fence, where Fero was leaning and looking downward with a small pout. "I would enjoy that."
"Really." Samol laughed and reached to clap Fero's arm. "Just wait here for a moment, I'll be back and we can go."
At the touch, Fero's face flushed so quickly that Samol didn't react for a second. Then, he gently squeezed his arm before letting go, picking up his tomatoes and going inside the house at a leisure pace. Samol didn't know if the heat he felt on his face would show as much as Fero's, but he still took a few breaths and cold water until his heart stopped doing a silly dance inside his chest. 'You can't let yourself get carried away like this, old man,' Samol reminded himself. 'That's just ridiculous.'
Fero was right, the place was as amazing as difficult to find. At some point, Samol worried that the dryad had overestimated the kind of terrain a human could negotiate, but Fero had been showing him the easiest way through the thick parts of the forest and rocks, while he climbed and jumped over Samol's head.
After a long walk following the sound of water, Fero helped him down a steep incline overgrown with tall weeds and, suddenly, there they were. The weeds and rock formations around it made it impossible to see most of the pond from above, but once they were on its shore, its surface opened clear before them.
The main body of water was cradled between rocks and mounds, without much space to stand around it. The visible part was probably almost as big as an Olympic pool, but Samol could see that it continued into a cave. It felt good to just stand there, enjoying the cooler temperature.
Fero immediately ran to stand on the shallow part of the water, sighing in relief as soon as the water covered him up to the knees. Samol wondered if it was just the way the light was illuminating him, but Fero was almost glowing, his colours growing more vivid.
"It's because I'm a tree person, water does me good," Fero said out of nowhere with a crooked smile on his face.
"So you can also read people's thoughts?" Samol asked, crossing his arms, but Fero laughed and shook his head.
"Of course not, but I can read your face," Fero said and walked back to the shore, extending his hand out to Samol. "Come on, it'll feel good, I promise."
Samol carefully sat on a rock to take his shoes and socks off, rolled his trousers so they wouldn't get wet. A splash in front of him distracted him.
"Come on!" Fero called again, only his head poking up from the water surface. His clothes moved around him like leaves and, when he stood up, they dripped all the water off of them back into the pond, dried in a matter of seconds except for a few droplets.
"You can't rush an old man." Samol smiled and walked towards him at the same time that Fero rushed to him. He had been right, the cold water felt divine on Samol's tired feet.
"I bet I'm older than you." Fero poked his tongue out, but quickly took Samol's hand in his. "Come, you need to see the cavern."
"I don't want to get my clothes wet."
"You won't, I know the way," Fero said and turned to grin at Samol while keeping walking backwards, never dropping Samol's hand.
The cave was deeper than Samol had assumed from the outside. The water trickled down to a stream and bent beyond sight. When they turned at the corner, Samol was completely speechless.
The stream poured onto a natural pool and the whole space was glistening with the little light that filtered through the roof and reflected on the countless quartz crystals that covered the walls. It was like stepping out of the real world and into a land of fantasy. A hand tugging at his sleeve put him out of this trance.
"What do you think?" Fero was shuffling on his feet, looking up at Samol and examining every change in his face.
"I think this is the most beautiful place I've ever seen," Samol said, breathing again. Fero's huge smile spread on his face and he started pulling at Samol's hand again, leading him to one side of the cave.
"Right? And it's always cool here, even during the summer. I like the sun, but even for me it can get to be a little too much during the summer."
Fero kept talking at his usual speed all the way until they sat on a flat rock, close enough to the water that they could keep their feet in it. Little by little, Fero's monologue relented until the only thing they could hear was the sound of the slow stream.
"There was a pond near my house," Samol said, so abruptly that Fero jumped in place, then turned towards him to give him his whole undivided attention. "I have so many memories of it... I took my son there every day of the summer, when he was a child. And when Samot moved in with me, I would go there to play music and he always sat beside me, reading in silence. And my grandson, Mael... he loved swimming. He would beg his dads to let him stay with me so he could go back into the water first thing in the morning. In the end, my sons gave up and just spent the summer with me."
Samol smile was bittersweet, remembering Mael's innocent laugh, the pure joy only children are capable of. That would be the last summer Mael could laugh like that.
"What happened?" Fero reached and took Samol's hand in his, natural as if they had been holding hand for ages. "You're sad."
"It's all fine now," Samol said, but he could still see Fero's questioning eyes. "The year after that summer, I fell ill. Very ill. And my sons didn't take it well, because they're the kind of idiots who think their dad will live forever," Samol sighed. "Mael was too young to understand why his dads were suddenly fighting all the time, why he couldn't come to play with his grandpa as much as he liked."
"That sounds hard," Fero said in almost a whisper, his feet still swinging in the water.
"Eventually they learnt to talk to each other, though I wished they had learnt also to be less stubborn," Samol said, making a face.
Fero laughed, "they are your kids."
"Are you implying something?" Samol rose an eyebrow at Fero, trying to contain a smile. It was so easy to smile around him.
"Nah," Fero shrugged and jumped into the water, splashing some drops in Samol's way. "I didn't bring you here so you could be sad, you need to enjoy yourself a little more. The water is amazing!"
"You're not suggesting that I come into the water with you?"
"My clothes don't dry on their own, like yours." Samol was frowning, which only made Fero laugh.
"Then take them off!" Fero said and, immediately, started to take his own shirt off. "Why are you shy? I'm not even human!"
"Should that make me more at ease?"
"I'd hope you'd be at ease around me by now," Fero said, swimming towards Samol. He propped himself halfway out of the water and crossed his arms on top of the rock, beside Samol. "You followed me here."
"That, I did," Samol said, holding Fero's huge eyes in his. There was something in them, like a glimmer of hope that he didn't bother covering up. Fero's face always betrayed him. "I must trust you more than I should."
"Should? I'm super trustworthy," Fero said, frowning.
"You're a fickle spirit of the forest," Samol said, but he was smiling and reached to hold Fero's cheek in his palm. "But you're a curious one."
"You know a lot of spirits?"
"A couple. Loved them, but they always kept me on my toes." Samol chuckled. "You haven't been like that."
"And you think I could be preparing one big prank?" Fero asked, but nuzzled Samol's hand as if he were a cat.
"I should, but I don't," Samol said.
After a moment of silent, Fero opened his eyes and straightened up, putting one hand on Samol's thigh and looking at him for any sign that he should back off. And Samol knew he should, because giving in to a forest spirit by a pond, inside a cave, in a part of the forest where no one would find him... that was not a smart idea.
Instead, Samol helped Fero out of the water, helped him accommodate himself on Samol's lap. Let Fero take his face in his hands and slowly, but with determination, bring their lips together.
"You don't do this a lot, do you?" Samol asked with a smile.
"Why should I? All the humans who've moved before you were assholes."
"And your friends?"
Samol laughed and sneaked a hand on the curls of hair that fell over Fero's nape, softly pulling him towards his face so he could kiss him again, properly this time. The brush of their lips had made him feel alive again for the first time in ages, but this kiss made him wish he never had to let Fero go.
After a few minutes, Fero chuckled.
"What?" Samol asked.
"Your clothes," Fero said pulling on Samol's shirt a little, "they got wet anyway."
"And whose fault is it?" Samol asked with a sigh, but didn't move to push Fero away from him.
"We should go back while the sun is still high up," Fero said, his expression showing a bit of regret. "It gets colder here soon in the afternoon."
Samol nodded, but it was Fero who had to make the first move to get away and lend him a hand to get back on his feet. While Fero fished his shirt out of the water, Samol looked at him with a fond smile. Without any hesitation, Fero took Samol's hand in his and, together, made their way back to Samol's home. It was later in the day than they had thought and, by the time they arrived, the sky was bright with orange and pink hues.
"You'll bring me some of the tomatoes, right? They looked so good," Fero said from the fence. Samol had crossed inside, but Fero had stayed leaning on it like he always did when he visited.
"You can come have dinner with me," Samol said with a shrug. Fero's eyes opened wide. "What? Is it that weird?"
"No, no! I'd love to!" Fero said immediately, running to the fence door and, carefully, stepping inside. "Do we have to eat inside the house, though?"
"You don't like it?"
"It feels... small, constraining..." Fero was making gestures with his hands, delimiting a small space between them. "It would feel weird."
"No problem, you can wait here too, if you want to," Samol said. "I'll just take a shower and be back."
"Right, I'll wait... here... in your garden."
Samol laughed, seeing Fero's energy practically coming through his pores together with what he hoped was happiness.
"You don't have to wait, if you don't want to. You'll smell dinner as soon as I start cooking, you can come back then."
"You don't mind? It's just... hard, to stay put while I'm out of my forest," Fero said, his bare toes burrowing in the soil. "I have a friend that reads a lot and travels a lot and he says it's weird, that he hadn't met other dryad that feels like this."
"I haven't either," Samol said with a shrug. "But you're not other dryads."
"That's what I told him." Fero laughed with this uninhibited laugh of his, looking more relaxed immediately. He ran toward Samol and, standing on his toes, reached to kiss Samol's cheek. "I'll be back."
"I'll be waiting for you."
Samol wouldn't let it show, but few things made him happier than having his family under one roof and not have to fear any fights or resentments rearing their ugly heads up. It felt good to chat and laugh with them. To have Samot and Mael picking up herbs in his garden together, while he and Samothes cut vegetables in the kitchen. It was good that Samothes felt enough at ease to ramble about his latest passion project to his dad, just like he had when he was a kid.
"You seem happy here," Samothes said out of nowhere. Samol turned to him with a raised eyebrow, wondering if he had stopped paying attention at some point without noticing. But Samothes was smiling. "Samot and I thought you would be lonely, but too stubborn to admit it."
"I'm not," Samol crossed his arms, making Samothes chuckle, which, in turn, made Samol smile. "Lonely, that is. Everybody knows every single member of this family is as stubborn as can be."
"I'm glad," Samothes continued, going back to cutting an onion with a surgeon's precision. "We worry."
"I worry about all of you too, that's just what family does." Samol sighed and stirred the boiling rice. "But this place is good for me. Better than I had thought."
"Dad?" Samot voice came from the garden's door. When Samol turned, he saw that he had the handful of rosemary, thyme and marjoram he had sent Samot to get, and also a small pile of berries by the side. Samot eyes were flickering between Samol and the door. "Your neighbour brought these for you? I thought there weren't any houses nearby, but he seems to know you, so I thought..."
Samol turned towards the kitchen's window. Mael was leaning on the fence, trying to look suspicious, but unable to hide how utterly charmed he was. Fero was as close to the fence as he could without being in Mael's face, laughing and talking. Samol couldn't help a smile of his own that made Samot raise an eyebrow, before understanding showed in his face.
"He looks... peculiar," Samothes commented, leaning over Samol's shoulder to look outside too.
"He's refreshing," Samot said, smirking and leaning his face on Samothes' shoulder, who immediately put a hand around his husband's waist. "You know that dad has always liked to keep weird company."
"Looks a bit young, don't you think?" Samothes frowned.
"I'm right here, boys." Samol scowled and turned to get them out of the way. "And he's older than me, probably by a few centuries."
"Oh," Samothes said noncommittally, nodding while his cogs turned fast behind his eyes.
"Wait, he's a...?" Samot turned and made vague gestures with his hands, making Samol laugh.
"A dryad, if that's what you mean," Samol said, trying to walk past them. Samot took his arm.
"Dad, we've talked about this. Spirits can be dangerous. Just being their friend is a risk, but this..."
"Wait, isn't he dad's friend?" Samothes asked, before exchanging a look with Samot, who tilted his head in a meaningful way. "What? No. Dad wouldn't date a spirit..."
"Who I date or don't is none of your goddamn business," Samol scoffed, but keeping a smile on his face as he held Samot's hands. "I know what I'm doing. Fero wouldn't harm anyone who doesn't endanger his beloved forest."
"But what if...?"
"Ah, ah, ah," Samol rose a finger as a warning. "You don't need to stress yourself over this, of all things."
"I trust you, I trust your judgement," Samot said slowly, squeezing Samol's hand back. "But if he ever tries something I'll burn the whole forest to the ground."
"I know you will." Samol kissed the top of his head before walking past and getting outside.
Mael looked as annoyed as amused, and relief washed his face when he saw Samol walking toward them, "hey, grandpa, you didn't tell me you had made a friend."
"Go keep your fathers busy," Samol whispered and clapped Mael's shoulder. "I can feel their eyes on my nape."
Mael laughed and turned to look at Fero and said "pleasure to meet you," though it sounded more like a question.
"Sure," Fero said and waved as Mael walked inside the house. "So, this is your family?"
"The only part of it that still visits," Samol shrugged, but his smile spoke volumes. "Didn't know you were planning on dropping by today."
"I saw some berries and thought of you," Fero said, flushing bright and looking away. "You're not mad, are you? I don't know if you wanted them to know about me or..."
"No worries. The day my kids tell me what to do is the day they'll have to bury me," Samol said waving his hand. "I'm glad you thought about me."
"I think about you a lot," Fero grinned, climbing to the fence so they could be at eye level. "When I see berries, when I play in the river, when I hear a bird singing a good song..."
"I see," Samol said and, carefully, took Fero's hand in his.
"Do you think about me?" Fero asked, tilting his head. There was a tinge of innocence in his expression and a whole lot of cheek.
"From time to time," Samol said leaning in. "When I tend to my plants, or when I read a good book. On some of my walks."
"I have a lot of things on my mind," Samol gave him a crooked smile, but Fero scowled. Samol laughed and put his free hand on Fero's shoulder. "I find myself thinking about you more often than not."
"I can work with that," Fero nodded and leaned in for a quick kiss. "Have fun with your pretty kids."
Fero jumped down the fence and turned around so quickly, Samol had to shout after him.
"See you soon?"
"You know it!"
The following day, Samol woke up to his phone ringing. He grunted and rolled to his other side, pressing his eyes against the pillow until the noise stopped. Immediately, it started ringing again.
"Do you know what time it is?" Samol grumbled into the phone, not caring who was on the other side.
"Just before I have to leave for work, so no, I can't call back later," Samot said. His voice sounded closer and farther between words, accompanied by some minor clattering in the background.
"Has something happened?" Samol asked, pinching the point between his eyebrows.
"Don't worry about us. I..." Samot stopped for a second, then came the sound of something heavy being put on a table. "I couldn't stop thinking about your paramour..."
"Please, just call him Fero."
"And how you live there all alone," Samot sighed. "Samothes and Mael say that you'll call if something happens..."
"Exactly!" Samot said and then there was the sound of a chair being dragged. "We almost lost you once already..."
"And someday, probably sooner than later..."
"Dad," Samot interrupted him. Something metallic clanked near the phone, probably him playing with his earrings. Samol had seen him do that since he was a teen every time he was anxious. "I love you. I don't want anything to happen to you when I can't be there for you."
"Will you feel better if I promise to call as soon as I get the smallest suspicion that something is not right?"
"And that you'll have your phone with you at all times."
"Then I guess I'll have to do that," Samol sighed.
"Thank you," Samot exhaled. "We could also meet your... Fero, next time we go visit?"
"So you can interrogate him?"
"That would be..." Samol laughed softly. "You would hate him. I imagine Samothes would either find him interesting as a study subject or get furious at the first thing he said. Things are better as they are."
"Mael says he has an... especial charm. I could like him."
"The way you like Mael's friends?" Samol asked and received a grunt as response. "It's better this way. Trust your dad to know how to take care of himself. I did it for decades before we met."
"I guess I'll have to. But, please, carry your phone with you," Samot reminded him. "And call us, no matter the hour, no matter what small thing, if you need us."
"Yes, yes," Samol couldn't help smiling. "Now you have to hurry to work and I need to laze in bed for a couple more hours."
Samol had reviewed the route in his head a couple of times before leaving the house, had followed it as well as he could, but, in the end, he wasn't sure where he was. He knew he was going in the right direction and that, if he turned around, he would find his way back home easily. But, at that point, nothing in the trees or rocks was familiar.
He stopped and sat on a fallen trunk, relishing the stray breeze of fresh air. The worst of the summer was gone and, in the shade, he could wait. It was a beautiful spot, not unlike any other he would have chosen to stop in and just spend time contemplating the landscape that surrounded his every days now.
Not ten minutes later, there was a violent rattle on the trees behind him that travelled all the way around him, leaving stray leaves at his feet.
"Hey!" Fero shouted, materialising from the tree directly in front of Samol. "I was waiting for you!"
"Your instructions weren't as clear as you think," Samol said, not moving from his place. Fero pouted and crossed his arms, but went to sit beside him, letting his head rest on Samol's shoulder. "Did you miss me?"
"You were gone for forever," Fero said, his hands clinging now to Samol's arm. "You said it would be just a couple days."
"Not literally two days," Samol sighed and dropped his head so it was resting against Fero's. "My sons take my birthday way too seriously and made me stay a few more days than I expected."
"I thought you had forgotten about me," Fero made a face, trying to pass it as a joke, but when Samol straightened up to look at him there was still worry in Fero's eyes. "You love spending time with your family."
"I do, but there's a reason I moved here in the first place," Samol said. "I can't be too much time around so many people without it driving me crazy."
"So, you'll always come back?"
"I will," Samol laughed gently as he stood up. "But not just because I need time away from the crowd. Now, there was something you wanted to show me, right?"
"Yes. It's not like it's super hidden or anything," Fero said, taking Samol's hand and quickly leading him through the trees. Even from behind, Samol could see that the pointed tips of his ears were deep red.
It wasn't long until the forest gave sudden way to the riverbank, but the path they had taken wasn't as clear to Samol's human eyes as it seemed to be to Fero. This part of the river was pleasantly in the shade of the tall trees that hung over it like a canopy.
Fero helped him cross the shallow waters over a path of stones that someone must have placed there a long time ago. A little walk upstream ended in a few trees that had fallen, while others had grown around them blocking the way and forming a sort of giant nest. That in itself was noteworthy, but there was also a roof built over it and an abundance of blankets and pillows in its centre. Samol turned towards Fero, who was scratching his ear, blushing furiously.
"You built this?" Samol asked.
"Some of my friends helped to get a few things from the human town," Fero muttered, becoming more animated to say, "not Lem, though, 'cause he sucks and thinks I shouldn't 'get involved with a human'. As if he was one to talk."
"Mpfh, he would get along with my son," Samol squeezed Fero's hand. "Does it bother you?"
"Today is not the day I'm going to start listening to Lem King."
"I meant that I'm a human."
"I've known you were a human from the beginning," Fero shrugged and waved towards the hollow among the trees. "I wouldn't have built you a nest if it was a problem for me. I wouldn't have kissed you."
They walked towards it, the closer they got the more details Samol could take in together with Fero's explanations. It wasn't just the blankets and pillows that made it a comfortable place, Samol could see the little satchels of herbs to keep bugs away that also gave out a pleasant aroma, and the little patterns and figures carved onto the wood.
When they reached the feet of the construction, Fero stopped walking, pulling on Samol's hand. They turned to face each other.
"It doesn't bother you... right? That I'm not human."
"Would I be bothered by something as silly as that?"
"Nah!" Fero laughed and started walking again, pulling Samol with him. "Come, it's super comfy, you'll see. You're going to want to quit your wooden box when you try a real nest."
Samol laughed with him and let Fero help him up the gigantic roots that almost formed perfect stairs, too convenient to have naturally grown that way. With a sigh, Samol sunk among pillows soft as feathers with the scent of the woods surrounding him. In a moment Fero flopped down beside him, resting his head on Samol's shoulder.
"You were right, I might have to spend the night here," Samol said, smiling against Fero's hair and the flowers in bloom that adorned it.
"I knew it." Fero smiled against Samol's shoulder. "I made sure that it would be warm enough, I know you don't like the cold."
"I don't think I could be cold with you here. You're like a furnace," Samol said, arching his body closer to Fero's.
"I assume that's a good thing?" Fero chuckled and plastered himself against Samol's chest, his arms firmly around Samol's neck.
"You can assume that, yes."
Waking up in the nest was a slow experience. Samol had heard the birds singing and chasing each other before he was awake. The warmth of Fero had pulled him closer, so big for a creature apparently so short. It was when he tried to rub his eyes and something tugged on his hand when Samol properly woke.
Frowning, he turned and saw that there were vines in flower gently coiling around his hand. And his arm. Some even had extended to his dreadlocks, all so gentle that he hadn't been able to feel them until he tried to move.
"Do you want to go back already?" Fero muttered from where he was curled up on his chest.
"What are these?" Samol asked, lifting his hand to see that the vines now moved with him. They smelled like dew and flowers as expected, but there was something more. Samol could feel how life pulsated through them. They were warm to the touch in a way no plant he knew had ever felt.
Fero sat up slowly, his eyes still mostly closed and looking confused. Samol put the vines in front of him, which made him opened his eyes immediately and, quickly, the vines started to retreat.
"Sorry! I... I must have done it while I was sleeping," Fero said, his cheek warming up by the second.
"You don't have to take them away," Samol said, caressing the ones on his arm with his free hand. "They feel nice."
"They are... kind of... part of me," Fero muttered. "They have a bit of a mind of their own, but they're mostly me."
Samol hummed and brought the vine closer to gently kiss one of the flowers, "did you feel that?"
"A little..." Fero scratched his head. "Yes. I did."
"That's cute," Samol chuckled.
"That you wanted to cuddle me so badly you had to cover me in vines," Samol said with a cheeky smile. "Never happened to me before."
"It's a first for me, too," Fero said, letting his head fall on Samol's shoulder at the same time that the vines gently squeezed Samol's hand. "Did I freak you out?"
"Nothing that will give me nightmares, I'm tougher than I look," Samol chuckled and kissed the top of Faro's curls. A sigh. "It's really nice in here. Thank you."
"We can stay for as long as you want, I don't have much to do today," Fero said, raising himself on his arms to look at Samol's eyes. "I can bring you fruits to eat and all."
"You feel better here, right?" Samol asked.
"How do you know?"
"I can see it in your face, you aren't really good at hiding things, you know?"
"I've been told."
Samol chuckled and brought his arms around Faro's waist, pulling him close against him. Fero blushed, but smiled and manoeuvred himself so he was on top of Samol, his legs at either side of him. Samol threaded his fingers on Fero's hair.
"You're beautiful," Samol whispered. "But, here, you are radiant."
Fero tried to say something, stuttered, then just smiled and kissed Samol for all he was worth. Fero's lips against his, his body gently pressing against his own, and the warmth of the vines told Samol more than a thousand words could. There, in a nest in the middle of the forest, they tangled together and bloomed.
The thing that ended up getting Samol to go back to his house was a phone call. For a moment, he wished he hadn't listened to his Samot's plea of carrying it with him always, but, before he answered he saw the numbers under the clock. He had been away for four days and he hadn't even noticed. If Samol thought back, of course, he had seen four nights and sunrises, but his brain had refused to count them.
The panicked voice of Samot and the background noise of Samothes pacing would have made him roll his eyes any other day, but today, he felt the slight weight of guilt in his stomach. Not too much, just enough. After all, they had come visit and found the house not only deserted, but clearly untouched for days. He didn't explain his absence, just told them that he was out for a walk and would be coming back soon. Told them that he had lost track of time, when the truth was he hadn't even noticed it was the day they would come visit.
When he hung up, Fero looked at him biting his lip, guilt reflected on his own eyes.
"You have to go back, right?" Fero asked.
"Yes," Samol answered and sighed, looking carefully at Fero's face with a little frown, confused and a little worried. "Did you... do...?"
Samol didn't know how to ask, didn't want to accuse Fero of anything. After all, the past few days he had truly enjoyed himself so thoroughly that he hadn't cared about being away from his garden, his books... part of him still wanted to roam among the trees and look at the fishes swimming through the river. But he also missed his family.
"It's complicated..." Fero admitted. "I guess, the forest has an effect on you because, in a sense, it's also me."
"And you didn't want me to go?"
"I didn't want to stop spending time with you," Fero said. "I wouldn't keep you away from your family."
"It will be just a few hours," Samol found himself saying, reaching to squeeze Fero's hand and start the walk back toward his house. "We'll see each other again tomorrow. Or..."
"Later tonight?" Fero smiled, cheeky and hopeful at the same time.
Samol laughed, "later tonight sounds good."
When they reached the fence of his garden, the back porch door was open and Samot and Samothes waited sitting on the stairs, Samot holding his scarf tight around him while Samothes kept an arm around him as if his husband were his last anchor.
"They're so dramatic," Samol sighed under his breath.
"I guess they love you," Fero shrugged. "But they could loosen up a bit."
"Both me and my grandson have been trying for ages," Samol laughed while he opened the fence and saw his sons walking quickly towards them. "See you later?"
"I'll come as soon as they leave," Fero grinned, turned to poke his tongue out to Samot and Samothes and disappeared into the oak tree. Samol caressed the bark of his trunk briefly before turning around.
"I had my phone with me, as I promised," he said holding his hands up in surrender. Their scowls would still last for a while, but Samol knew that they would not survive the whole visit. Nothing a bit of conversation and good food couldn't solve.
"You have a leaf on your hair," Maelgwyn said, leaning it to take it away. When he pulled, Samol felt it pulling on his scalp. "It's... stuck?"
"Don't mind it, kid," Samol brushed him off. And went back to pruning the tomato plant he was working on. Maelgwyn, instead of going back to his weeding, just looked at him, waiting for an explanation. "It's been there for a few days."
"Don't mind it."
"Alright," Maelgwyn said in that tone that meant he was going to drop the subject, but still worry about it. Samol sighed.
"It's the forest," Samol said. "It's taking a liking to me, it seems."
"The forest that belongs to your boyfriend?" Mael grinned.
"The forest that is part of my beloved, yes," Samol couldn't help a soft smile, despite the teasing. "Don't tell your fathers, they'll just worry unnecessarily."
"I know," Mael huffed. "They hadn't given me a moment of peace since they learnt that Cas is sort of friends with my ex."
"Your ex the scoundrel?" Samol laughed.
"Ethan, the master criminal," Mael laughed too. "Castille is mostly an artisan, sells her stuff on Etsy and all. They should be happy."
"Not gonna lie, there's some minor smuggling on the side," Mael gave him a crooked smile. "And now that your attempt to distract me is over..." Mael pointed at the leaf on Samol's hair.
"I'm not worried about it and neither should you," Samol shrugged. "I take it as a gesture of goodwill from the forest, I'm its neighbour, after all."
"Okay..." Mael turned back to pull a weed. "Just..."
"I'll tell you all the moment anything feels wrong."
"Damn, am I turning into my dads?" Mael made a face.
"No, baby," Samol laughed. "That's just loving your family."
That day, Samol had brought with him a couple of fuzzy blankets, thicker and warmer than the ones Fero and his friends had stolen for the nest. Summer was almost officially over and the chill of the night air was just the first harbinger of Autumn. He just hoped that Fero had taken into account the turning of the seasons, so they could still use the nest even in the middle of Winter.
"I think it wants to turn into a crown," Fero muttered against Samol's hair, his finger gently touching the leaves growing in his hair. After the first one had sprouted and taken its time to grow, it had multiplied at a speed Samol knew normal plants couldn't. One morning there were two of them and the next there was a whole vine framing his right temple.
"Do I look like some kind of prince?" Samol grunted against Fero's chest, unwilling to open his eyes.
"No, I mean the kind we wear to feasts and stuff," Fero said. "It's welcoming you."
"Should I worry?" Samol asked with no intention of worrying so early in the morning.
"You're welcome to worry about anything you want," Fero shrugged. "You can always say no and it will retreat. I'll make sure of it."
"And what am I saying no to?" Samol asked. Not that he intended to. He loved the little plants growing on his head, the way he could see the skin of his right shoulder getting tougher, more bark-like every day. It was annoying that his sons were worried now that the change was so visible, but he could manage them. Samol didn't feel in danger. Far from it, he felt loved by the whole environment around him.
"Becoming one of us, kinda?" Fero said in the voice that indicated he was frowning, trying to look for the words that would explain what was on his mind. "I don't think you'll turn into a spirit of the forest, at least not immediately."
"But I would be connected to it?" Samol asked and Fero hummed in assent. "I'm already connected to it, because I'm already connected to you, aren't I?"
"I guess so," Fero laughed, the rumbles of his chest feeling like calming waves in Samol's ears. "It's no like you're going to move away any day now, right?"
"Right," Samol said, but there was a thought that had come to him and was starting to worry him. "Would I be able to? Not forever, but, for a few days?"
"I'll do what I can to make sure you can visit your family," Fero said pressing a kiss against Samol's forehead. "But it might feel weird. Like I'd feel weird being inside your house. I don't know, I haven't met anyone who's done this before."
Samol rose an eyebrow, but didn't stir further than that.
"Nah," Fero answered, his finger tracing Samol's face and neck. "But it's not the first new thing I've created, so you have nothing to worry about."
"What have you created before?" Samol asked and Fero started to talk away about giant voles and little birds that turned into hundreds of tiny ones. It was the cosiest Samol had ever felt, in the warmth of the nest with the chill air around them and the rumble of Fero's voice and laugh pressed against him. He tried his best to listen for as long as possible but, inevitably, he ended up lulling to sleep.
"I know you're worried," Samol says for what felt the thousand time, "but there's no reason for it. I'm not in danger and no one is taking me away from you."
"Dad," Samothes sighs, clinging to the last threads of patience he has left. "You're telling me you aren't going to come visit anymore."
"I want to visit you," Samol repeats. "Just, not in the city. I can't imagine getting into a car right now."
"Because you're... turning into a forest spirit or something?" Samothes' voice has an edge of exasperation. He pauses and takes a deep breath. "We almost lost you once."
"And you're not losing me this time," Samol says. "And I'm not a spirit. More like... I've developed a kinship with the forest. Maybe."
"And I've never liked the city much and you both know it."
A silence passes between them in which Samol can almost see the glances exchanged by Samot and Samothes. He smiles. It's so good to see how attuned they are again, after all they've been through.
His shoulder itches and, sure enough, when he turns to look out of the window, Fero is there, leaning on his fence and waving. Samol waves back and the flowers on his hair perk up a little, just enough for him to notice.
"We trust you," finally, Samot says. "And we're here for you."
"Anything you need," Samothes emphasises.
"At any hour."
"Yeah, yeah, I know," Samol waves them away, but he knows how hard this is for them. "Thank you, boys."
He hangs up and, immediately, he's out of the door. His whole body sighs the moment his bare feet step on the grass and the soil of his garden, his plants turn ever so slightly towards him, unnoticeable for anyone who isn't paying close attention. When he leans to kiss Fero, the plants that cover his body reach to touch Samol's crown.
"How did it go?" Fero asks.
"They'll survive," Samol scoffs, but smiles warmly the next second. "I think they understand. Which is all I can ask, really."
"They love you."
"They do," Samol sighs. "And I love both of their stubborn asses."
Fero takes Samol's hand and starts pulling him towards the forest, "and I have something super cool to show you today."
"And what will that be?"
"Come on, it's a surprise! You'll see when we're there," Fero laughs.
"You're lucky I love you, you know?"
"I know," Fero stops and gets on his tiptoes to kiss Samol. "I'm lucky to love you, too."
"We sure are."