It was less like they were sailing on the river, and more like the river just so happened to be carrying them in the right direction. Throndir didn’t have proof Adelaide was the reason they survived the flooding, the earthquakes, the thunder crashing overhead, but there were times when it felt like it had to be divine intervention. And it wasn’t as though there were other gods left to help them.
Hella and Hadrian had told them Samot was dead and sealed inside Hella’s sword, but not much more than that. Despite the extreme conditions, Hadrian spent most of the trip home sitting by himself on the deck, sometimes with Hella beside him, lost in quiet contemplation. Throndir couldn’t blame him for it; Hadrian had let go of the Creed, but letting go of all his connections to divinity was something more than letting go of a religious system. Throndir’s connection with Kindrali had been an echo of what Hadrian had with Samot and Samothes, and he’d mourned even that small loss. He couldn’t wrap his head around what Hadrian must be going through.
They arrived at the University faster than it had taken them to reach Marielda. Somehow the boat held together, but by the time they threw anchor, it was half-wrecked by debris. Hella was clearly upset about it, but in the face of the world collapsing around them, she made the decision to not tie it up. They disembarked as fast as possible, rushing towards the University as the boat was carried away, taking on water the instant they were all on solid ground.
The star shield was gone. It was impossible not to immediately notice its absence after years of it shimmering around the city. That was the first thing that made Throndir’s stomach sink with worry. It was quickly followed by visible, unbelievable amount of damage: buildings toppled over as if by some massive force; new, strange plants growing large and tall as if they’d been there for years; clear signs of a fight, both physical and magical, as well as strange new buildings that could only be the creation of stars.
The third thing, and, for Throndir, the worst of them all, was that as they reached the central tower and a group of people rushed out to greet them, Ephrim wasn’t among them.
“Lem,” Throndir said, grabbing his arm, cold dread climbing up his spine. “Where’s Ephrim?”
Lem looked at Throndir, his expression a complicated mix of guilt and apology. “Throndir, I…” He trailed off, rubbing the back of his neck. He started to say something else, but Throndir didn’t hear it as the world faded around him. If Ephrim—if Throndir had left the University, and hadn’t been able to keep him safe—
“He’s upstairs,” Benjamin said, breaking through Throndir’s terror. He and Blue Jay had flanked him, and Lem looked relieved to not have to explain anything further. “He’s recovering in bed, but—”
“He’s not dead,” Blue Jay said, squeezing Throndir’s arm. “That’s the important thing.”
“And he’s not going to die,” Benjamin added, giving Blue Jay a look. “I’m pretty sure. You should—”
“I’m going,” Throndir said, pulling away from them, not waiting for an answer. He sprinted through the open door, Kodiak right behind him.
Ephrim wasn’t dead. He wasn’t dead. Throndir held onto that thought as he ran through the half-destroyed main hall and up the stairs, taking them two at a time, not stopping to greet any of the people who were cleaning up or eating or recovering from injuries. He couldn’t think about anyone else just yet. He had to get upstairs. He had to make sure—
The door to Ephrim’s room was closed, and Throndir paused outside of it. If Ephrim was as hurt as Benjamin had implied, Throndir didn’t want to disturb his rest. On the other hand, Throndir knew Ephrim: he had a feeling Ephrim would want to know Throndir was back, no matter what. That was enough to shake away his hesitation, and he quietly turned the doorknob.
Buried beneath a pile of blankets, Ephrim looked so much smaller than normal. His long hair loose on his pillow was the only part of him that Throndir could see. Although it wasn’t that cold, the fire was lit, burned down to embers, and Throndir quietly shut the door behind him and Kodiak before walking over to the fireplace. He put on a fresh log, then removed an iron from the rack to stoke the flames back to life. It crackled as the dry wood caught flame, almost drowned out by the distant rumble of thunder outside. Kodiak walked to the far side of Ephrim’s bed and rested his head on the edge, whining softly, tail drooped low between his legs.
“Throndir?” Ephrim asked, his voice so soft, muffled by the blankets. “I’m not dreaming, right?”
Throndir shoved the iron back on the rack before rushing over to the bed. Ephrim’s cheeks were flushed from pain, but he looked lucid, eyes clear, and he leaned into Throndir’s touch when he brushed some hair from Ephrim’s face.
“Hey,” Throndir said quietly, tracing the lines of Ephrim’s eyebrows, his nose, beneath his eyes. He was alive. God, Throndir was so relieved. “You’re not dreaming. I’m right here.”
“Don’t freak out,” Ephrim mumbled, grimacing a little. “Promise.”
Throndir frowned, cupping his cheek. “Why would I freak out?”
“Promise you won’t,” Ephrim repeated, and Throndir finally realized that Ephrim hadn’t moved the blankets at all. They covered him all the way to his chin.
“I promise,” Throndir said, despite the sinking feeling that returned to his stomach.
Ephrim sighed, rubbed an eye with his left hand, and pushed the blankets down. He was naked, which Throndir would’ve appreciated more if it wasn’t for the fact that the Heat and the Dark consuming his arm had moved all the way past his shoulder, lines of it streaking up towards his neck like broken glass.
“It was Samot,” Ephrim said, resting his left hand on Throndir’s knee. “I’m definitely—definitely weaker now. Sorry. I tried to stop him. I can talk to the Spring, apparently.”
“What?” Throndir said, confused. The only thing he truly understood about any of that was the fact that Samot had caused this damage. Throndir was torn between being glad Samot was locked away in Hella’s sword, and furious he didn’t get to kill the man himself. “Ephrim—”
“Just come to bed,” Ephrim said. “I’ll tell you later.”
Throndir hesitated, brushing along Ephrim’s cheekbone with his thumb. “I should wash up—there was a fight, and then we had to flee, and we were on a boat—”
“I don’t care,” Ephrim said, closing his eyes. “Just come to bed.”
Sighing, Throndir pulled his hand back and stood up. He stripped out of his clothes, trying not to make too much noise, not wanting to disturb Ephrim more than he already had. He felt sick, terrified by how close he’d clearly come to losing Ephrim. Even though Benjamin had said Ephrim wasn’t going to die—for his arm to look like that—
Ephrim shoved the blankets farther down, a clear invitation, his eyes still closed. Throndir picked the blankets up so he could climb in, mentally apologizing for how badly the bedding would need to be washed in the morning. Immediately, Ephrim glued himself to Throndir’s side, left arm thrown over Throndir’s stomach, right arm tucked close to his chest.
“It hurts,” Ephrim whispered, like he was admitting a secret, “but it doesn’t—we checked, to see if it would still consume things, and it doesn’t. The Spring—”
“Shh,” Throndir said, pressing a kiss to his forehead. “You said you’d tell me later.”
“Yeah,” Ephrim mumbled, and Throndir felt him relax as he drifted back to sleep. Kodiak jumped up onto the bed too, lying down on Ephrim’s other side, and despite the worry that still sat in Throndir’s stomach, he couldn’t help the wave of happiness he felt at finally having Ephrim back in his arms.
Throndir knew the moment Ephrim started to wake up a few hours later. He felt the hitch in Ephrim’s breathing, the tension building in his body as pain returned. Throndir ran his hand up and down Ephrim’s back, touch light, not wanting to force him awake. Ephrim blinked a few times, yawning, and then finally seemed to process Throndir’s presence in bed next to him. He pushed himself up into a sitting position, staring down at Throndir, stunned, and then finally leaned down to kiss him, a desperate press of lips.
“I really thought I was dreaming,” he said, barely pulling back, eyes still closed. “But you’re here.”
“I’m here,” Throndir said. “You’re alive.”
“Can’t get rid of me that easily,” Ephrim said, smiling, kissing Throndir again, biting at his lower lip. He pulled away, and Throndir made a disappointed noise, not wanting to let Ephrim go, but Ephrim just straddled his hips, the blanket falling aside. Throndir looked up at him, relearning the amused curve of his mouth, his prominent collarbones, the dip of his waist. Even in pain, recovering from whatever the hell Samot did, Ephrim was so beautiful. Throndir wanted—an unbelievable amount of things.
“Stop overthinking it,” Ephrim said, breaking Throndir’s chain of thought. “I missed you, and I want this.”
“God,” Throndir said, running his hands up Ephrim’s thighs. He really did look so delicate, so small and fragile. “I missed you, too.”
Ephrim smiled, warm and fond and honest, and Throndir couldn’t stop himself from sitting up, arms wrapping around Ephrim’s waist, kissing him even as Ephrim laughed. Ephrim wrapped his left arm around Throndir’s shoulders, holding him close, and then Throndir felt the ghost of a touch along his jaw too.
“If I press too hard it’ll burn,” Ephrim said when Throndir pulled back to look at his right hand. “And it still looks—you know. But at least I can—” Throndir kissed him again, sliding one hand lower down his back, and Ephrim whimpered as Throndir tugged him close, their hips pressing together.
“You’re amazing,” Throndir mumbled against Ephrim’s mouth. “God, I wish—”
“Give me a few days,” Ephrim said, gasping when Throndir moved his hand between them to touch him, somehow guessing exactly what Throndir was about to say. “Wait, wait, you can—you should—like this—” He twisted around onto his knees, tugging on Throndir’s arm so he would follow. “My thighs—”
“Oh god,” Throndir groaned, burying his face against Ephrim’s shoulder. Ephrim laughed again, breathless, and Throndir helped him stay upright with one hand, his other reaching down to touch Ephrim as he pressed between his thighs.
“See?” Ephrim said, his left hand reaching back to tangle in Throndir’s hair. “My ideas are great.” His right hand lightly touched Throndir’s where it was spread on his chest, and Throndir felt it shaking, like Ephrim was trying so hard to keep control.
Throndir wanted to be gentle, careful, but Ephrim tugged on his hair, and his hips jerked forward, his grip faltering.
“If I had the strength,” Ephrim said, turning his head to the side so Throndir could see his smirk, the curve of his eyebrow. “I’d make you lay down, and not move—” Throndir twisted his wrist, and Ephrim’s head fell back against Throndir’s shoulder with a gasp. “And not move at all,” he repeated, breathless, “while I made myself feel good.”
He tugged at Throndir’s hair again, and Throndir whimpered, imagining it, all the ways Ephrim could make himself feel good. All the ways Throndir desperately wanted to make Ephrim feel good.
Throndir came first, sooner than he would’ve liked, too overwhelmed by everything—Ephrim’s body, the feel of his thighs, the way he shuddered when Throndir touched him, his hand still tight in Throndir’s hair. He pressed his face against Ephrim’s neck, then laid back against the pillows, keeping Ephrim pressed against his chest. Ephrim’s back arched as Throndir tightened his grip, his other hand moving to the back of Ephrim’s thigh, fingertips pressing into the soft skin, spreading Ephrim’s legs wider.
“Perfect,” Throndir said, his voice rough. “God, you’re gorgeous.”
Ephrim whimpered, pressing up into Throndir’s hand, losing rhythm to desperation. A pink flush spread from his cheeks down his chest, strands of hair sticking to his face from the sheen of sweat on his skin, and he was the most beautiful thing Throndir had ever seen.
He slid his hand lower, back, just a light touch, a promise for later; Ephrim yelled, his head falling back on Throndir’s shoulder again, his left hand grabbing Throndir’s thigh. “Fuck, fuck,” Ephrim gasped as if surprised, his body tensing up as he came. He melted against Throndir, the muscles in his thighs quivering, chest heaving as he tried to catch his breath. Throndir wrapped his arms around Ephrim’s waist. If he had his way, he’d never let Ephrim go.
“When I feel better,” Ephrim mumbled, his thumb sliding across the skin of Throndir’s knee. “I swear—”
“I really meant to let you rest,” Throndir said, a little guilty. “That was probably more, uh, physical than you need right now.”
“I feel great,” Ephrim said, but Throndir caught the wince as he shifted to curl up against Throndir’s chest. “We really should—” He paused to yawn. “Should wash up, though.”
Throndir hummed, running his hand through Ephrim’s hair and lightly along his spine. “Probably,” he said, but he made no move to leave. They really did need to get clean, and they needed to check on what was happening outside, and Throndir probably should apologize for just bailing on everyone, although he thought they would understand. The ground was shaking beneath them, and thunder cracked outside, and as much as he really didn’t want to leave Ephrim’s bed, he assumed there was work to do.
Suddenly Ephrim pushed himself up, blinking away the sleepiness in his eyes, and looked around the room. “Wait, where’s Kodiak? Did we—?”
“Oh, god, no,” Throndir said, laughing a little. “He wanted to go outside before you woke up. I kind of got the feeling he didn’t want to stick around for, uh, this.”
“God,” Ephrim said, sighing as he laid back down against Throndir’s chest. “I can’t believe I’m gonna worry about that every time.”
“We should probably be more worried about whatever’s happening out there,” Throndir said regretfully, glancing over at the window. The curtains were pulled shut, so at least he couldn’t see anything to make him feel even worse.
“The world is ending,” Ephim said, matter of fact. “Spring is here. Remember how I said I could talk to it?”
Throndir looked down at him. Ephrim’s eyes were closed again, but he was smiling a little, and he didn’t look scared. He looked peaceful.
“Yeah,” Throndir finally said. “I don’t really know what that means, though.”
“It means,” Ephrim said, opening his eyes to look up at Throndir, a little mischievous, and Throndir’s stomach flipped in response, “that you don’t need to be worried. I have a good feeling about it. Everything’s gonna be fine.”