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Cloudcatching

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Lothar has long since stopped dreaming of the moment it happened. He had been hungover, but then, when was the last time that was new? Hungover, five years in to grieving over his late wife, and his son was staying at his grandparent’s for the summer, a move they swore up and down had nothing to do with the sorry state of Lothar’s home life, but everyone knew better.

He remembers that last flight: at 6:10 AM he’d reached 28,000 feet. Sunrise had been slated for 6:13 AM, but as always, the sky woke up earlier than those grounded on earth. He was moving with the wind, and the lower cloud ceiling rolled up under him, burning gold ridges with penumbral violet crevasses. Above him, the stars have faded and the sky is a solid indigo sheet.

The problem is never in the flight. Almost never. Sometimes the engines overheat, sometimes a part may fail, but for the most part the flight itself is never the expected concern. Getting into the air, and returning from it, that’s where the primary concerns lie. That was true of this flight, as well. Take off went a smoothly as it ever does. Lothar remembers the serenity, the subdued early morning voices as he traded quips back and forth with his flight tower.

In between one of his routine checks, his controller, Varis, asks, “So how’s the view?”

It’s an old question, one usually asked in jest, but memory paints his voice as wistful.

Even memory can’t deny his reply was for humor. “Oh, you know. Everything the light touches is our kingdom.”

The sun breaks the horizon below him, setting the sky afire in golden glory, the indigo above smolders to a blush as a ribbon of white-blue scorches away the last remnant of night. “Glorious. So, the usual.”

 

He had actually rewatched The Lion King recently. Well, listened to it. It was playing in the waiting area of his orthopedic physician’s office. He hadn’t known it at the time, but Mufasa’s next line was also fitting.

“A king’s time as ruler rises and falls like the sun.”

If there was anything he lacked, apparently, he could find it in forgotten Disney wisdom. Thank god Callan was too old for Disney.

 

In the mornings, Lothar’s back aches. If he’s lucky, or if he’d thought to put on the cursed neck brace before passing out, his neck isn’t too stiff to move. Out of habit he swipes his eyes, which removes the dried mucus if nothing else. It takes him a moment to orient himself, to reclaim his sense of body and determine if he fell asleep on the couch (with the telltale lower back ache to match the otherwise comfortable cushions) or on his bed.

He feels the surface of the mattress, his sheets are bunched around him, an old blanket tucked under his left chest and wound around his right arm, left foot exposed, and hanging half off the bed. No dampness to concern him, or drying fluids (though he did sleep in his jeans again). He reaches out with his left, grateful when his finger find the familiar smooth edge of his nightstand (if they came away empty, he’d know he’d gotten in bed upside down again), then find their way to the clock just beyond the edge.

“5:46 AM.”

Some habits will never die, it would seem. He groans, stretches, and sit up, feeling the cool floor with his feet. Nothing spilled at the base of the bed, either. Now that he’s up, he can confirm he isn’t experiencing the onset of a hangover. He reaches down, grasps under the bed for a moment until his fingers hook into the shrunken wrapping plastic of a case of bottled water, then in on the warm, thin plastic surface of a bottle. Once he palms the cap, he takes a long drink.

It’s been a week since Callan moved out. The morning silence is still strange. Not unwelcome, exactly, he and his boy had been at odds for some time before the move, but there had been eighteen years before that where Lothar could count on another’s breathing in the house, and a year or so before that where he woke to his wife next to him.

He misses the breathing most, he finds. Not the mystery of frustration and miscommunication his teenage son had been while awake, nor the arguments they’d get in over nothing, or the sinking feeling he was being avoided by the only other living creature under his roof. Perhaps it was just the pervading loneliness, staved off by years of child-rearing, but this pocket of space, in which he memorized every inch of surface area, was now empty except for him. Empty, it felt, in spite of him.

He’s endured world-shaking losses, in his lifetime. His wife. His sight. His career. But his son? Perhaps that loss shook him the most because he himself had been a large part of the reason Callan was desperate to move out.

Strange, Lothar thinks to himself, how life can change so dramatically in a single breath, and yet it’s the gradual losses that haunt you the most.

 

The day turns out to be a pale yellow day. Lothar could feel the intensity of the sun on the skin of his face, but it carried no heat. It had frosted that morning, in the early hours, and he was bracing himself for the muted scent of plant matter to invade his morning walks, but for now all was the same except that scent had dialed down and sound heightened.

“Boy, what are you doing up there?” Lothar asks, when the low cursing and curious mix of rustling and scraping override his natural disdain for social contact.

The rustling stops, as does the cursing, and the next thing Lothar hears is fabric smoothing over concrete. “I assume you mean me.”

His voice is low and surprisingly warm. It’s a voice Lothar could enjoy listening to for long lengths of time. “Unless there is another boy up there, you assume correct.”

The boy breathes, a short puff like the first note of a laugh, and the soft, wet cracklings of dry lips spreading in a smile over wet teeth. “Oh, well, in that case, let me just get him for you.” He shuffles- must be turning- a theory confirmed when the boy’s voice loses clarity and is present only in echoes. “Hey you! There’s an old man who wants to talk to you.” His voice returns to solidity. “No, sorry, looks like he doesn’t want to talk.”

“The nerve of some people.” Lothar answers dryly.

“So, why did you want to know what he was doing?”

“Are we still doing this? Really?”

“That’s not an answer.” He sing-songs back.

“Well. He has been in the same spot for the past several days, and doesn’t seem to be making any progress on whatever it is he is doing. It sounds a little painful, frankly.”

The boy takes a deep breath, lets it out through his nose. “I didn’t realize I was that…”

Lothar is vaguely sure he just waved his hand. “Vocal?” He offers.

“Yes.”

It must be late morning by now. The sun’s heat has broken through the early morning chill. Out of habit, he goes to unbutton the stifling layers of stiff woolen fabric. Something clatters, and the boy’s voice issues a sharp curse. When had he climbed down from his perch? “What are you doing now, boy?”

“Now? Mourning over the short life of my third $20 Filburts brush.” He’s not close enough for Lothar to feel any ambient warmth he may be throwing off. His voice is definitely closer, though, and now he can hear the subtle flavors to it: the rasp of either a smoker or of dehydration (with the possibility of both), the rounded, unconscious rise in pitch that suggests youth and brattiness.

“Ah. So you are an artist.”

“Trying to be, anyway.”

“So you’re not an artist.”

“No, I am-” Lothar hears the dry brush of skin on skin- likely the boy’s fingers moving in some quick gesture. “I’m trying to be a painter, which would work much better if I’d ever remember to bring paint thinner so the paints wouldn’t chill into a solid viscous blob.”

Lothar laughs. “Is that a thing that happens?”

“It is indeed.” The boy doesn’t return the laugh outright, but Lothar can hear it in the breathy huffs clinging to his next sentence. “And what are you doing out here, old man?”

“I was enjoying my morning walk. And then some punk art student started getting cheeky with me.”

He does laugh at that, though the sound is interrupted midway by a yawn. “Sorry. Excuse me. I’m not usually a morning person.”

Lothar raises an eyebrow. “It’s nearly eleven.”

“I’ve been here a while.” The kid says, yawning again through the final word. “Ugh. Excuse me. I think it’s about time for more coffee.”

Something moves, a hard edge clanging against the plastic of the bench seat. The unmistakeable sound of latch clasps snapping open. Of course he has a case, and by the sound of everything he’s tossing in, he isn’t too crazy about organization. Or maybe he just really wants that coffee. Lothar holds out his hand.

“Lothar.”

A cold, dry hand wraps around his own, the skin textured strangely by what he can only guess is dried paint. “Khadgar.”

“Christ, kid, your hands are freezing.”

“Yours are warm,” the boy, Khadgar, replies. His hand squeezes slightly with no indication of letting up.

“Apparently I have better circulation.”

“Alternatively, I’ve been here all morning.” One last micro-squeeze, and his hand is gone. “I’ll see you around, Lothar.”

“I’m counting on it.”

 

“You should get out more, Anduin,” Llane says, and Lothar is singularly convinced the only reason Taria allowed their late night card games was so Llane had the chance to deliver such bracing personal criticism.

“I get out.”

“I don’t mean walking alone.” At least this time the disapproval is implied, rather than a voiced concern. Granted, given the previous statement, perhaps he’s just taking his wins where he can get them. “I mean going out with people. With friends .”

“Yes, about those friends,” Lothar says, “How’re Addy and Varian? And I know Taria’s working 50-60 hour work weeks, and you? I’ve had you over more often lately, so you must be down to, what? A 75 hour week?”

“And Medivh?”

“Same as you. Haven’t heard from him since that day, six years ago.”

“Callan’s twelfth?”

“Varian’s first, if I remember right.”

Llane breathes a sigh. “We really should put a tracking collar on him.”

“He’d chew it off.” Lothar says, shrugging. “Or make it go haywire. He’ll turn up.”

“Mm.” Llane says, dismissive. He waits a moment, perhaps sparing worry for his other wayward childhood friend, before picking up where he left off. “There’s always room for more friends.”

Lothar was willing to let this go, to simply not respond and be properly scolded, except he thinks of Khadgar. “I’ve met someone.”

“Oh?” Lothar regrets saying anything immediately. “Who?”

“I am not inviting them over.”

“I haven’t even-”

“You? No, not yet. But just so we’re clear, for when my sister decrees it.”

“Alright.” Llane agrees, to pacify. “What’s their name?”

Lothar refuses to answer, and when that’s clear, he hears Llane tap his cards on the table, then spread them flat. He reaches over to read the braille on the corners. “You lost. Again.”

“Are you sure you can read braille?”

“Excuse me, which us is blind, again?”

“You’re also a cheater.”

“Am not.”

“Then how is it you’re not reading my aces? All three of them?”

“Because, my dear old friend, I have a straight.”

“Of course you do. You always do.”

Lothar hears Llane break the cap on another beer. Neither move to reshuffle the cards, it’s pretty clear it’s the end of the night, with nothing left but to wind down. Outside the traffic is all but nonexistent. Every now and then, a group of loud teens would pass, their conversation and the clatter of their shoes on the concrete breaking into the living room’s serenity.

“Anduin?”

“Yeah?”

“You don't have to live alone.”

That is a nugget to process. Not the statement itself, but the implications, and Llane’s motive to deliver it. He turns head, towards Llane’s voice, but only to so his brother-in-law can see the chuckle and lingering smile. “Yeah.”

He isn't so sure he feels that yet.

 

“So what is it you paint, kid?”

Khadgar makes a noise in frustration. “I was concentrating. Plus? Not a kid.”

Lothar will let that slide this time. He has a goal in mind. “Were you? Sounded like daydreaming to me.”

Khadgar chuckles disbelievingly. “How could you possibly know the difference?”

Lothar props himself up straighter, letting his stick fall to his shoulder. “Your breathing.”

“Really?” Disbelief ringing sharper in his voice. “Breathing?”

Lothar adjusts his position, but lets the silence drag on.

“How?” He actually sounds curious.

“Well, it lengthens and deepens-” He breaks, snickering. “No, I’m fucking with you. You haven’t been muttering curses under your breath for the past ten minutes.”

“Come on .” Khadgar says. “The sky. If you must know.”

Lothar is quiet for a moment. “The sky.”

He hears the boy's brush return to canvas. “Boring, I know. Everyone paints the sky.”

“No. Not boring.”

In the lengthening pause, a bus passes through a puddle nearby. A squirrel chitters, across the street a woman in hard-soled shoes walks a small dog with too-long nails and a breathing problem. Behind him, there’s a definite click of wood on wood: Khadgar had put his brush down. “Not boring?”

“I used to fly.” Lothar feels himself slumping a little. Melting into the bench. “The sky was never boring.”

This time it’s Khadgar that takes a moment to respond. When he does, he’s thoughtful. “You’re an interesting man, Lothar.”

Lothar smiles, a little surprised he genuinely means it, and they both allow the rest of the morning to fade into brushstrokes and solidarity.

 

“Hello again, Anduin. Right on time.” Aloman says moments after Lothar opens the door. “Are you going to be here for the usual times?”

“I may run a little long.” He makes it to the desk with ease, and settles with his stick anchored firmly and both hands clasped about the middle. He's early enough the dedicated are still showering in the changing rooms, and occasionally the swinging doors to the locker room hallway screech open, then gradually settle in decreasing pendular arcs. “If that’s alright with you.”

“No problem. You know the drill as well as I do, anyway.” She must just be finishing up closing the desk: he hears the key to the safe grind as it’s inserted and click when she turns it in the lock. “I’ll be in the back office if you need me.”

“You have my thanks.” Not for the first time, he wonders if she’s flirting with him. If so, she’s either casual or deadly serious: it’s been years and he’s still oblivious. “Don’t be afraid to turn the lights off.

He waits until the last of the showers turn off, and the lockers slam shut. The final members leave in a pair, their conversation echoing off the narrow hall walls when they exit the locker room. They must be familiar with him, though, because they pause. “Lothar! Hi. They’re all yours.”

He can’t place the voice, and since the door hasn’t swung closed he assumes they’re holding it for him. He pastes on a smile, nods his thanks and steps toward the door, careful to make sure the way is clear. He’d have preferred to have opened the door himself- he’d know the door to his locker room was fifteen measured steps, the second textured rubber mat if he started with his heel to the threshold- but kindness spared is not a thing to be taken lightly. It’s alright, anyway. He’s able to orient himself on the fourth step in, when his left hand brushed on the cool surface of the first metal dividing bar embedded between two of the wall panels.

He leaves his stick in his locker, changing out of his street clothes to a pair of form-fit shorts with elastic in the lower cuffs. He ties his hair back (the tuft of the ponytail tickles the first knob of his spine, he’ll need a trim soon, or learn to braid), and works his middle and ring fingers into his grips, wrapping the strap around his wrist once it’s fit against his palm.

Today stretching takes thirty minutes before he feels properly warmed up, but at least he knows the stragglers will have all left by then. He’s known this studio since before he lost his sight, without others here he doesn’t worry about walking freely through the halls, and only touches the counter on his right for grounding as he enters the main lobby. He takes two steps out, the hard bristle of the long entryway carpet prickling into his heels for two steps before giving way to smooth flooring. Once he enters the studio, he heads for his spot: a long rectangle of padded floor, wide enough so that if he laid flat on his back, he’d have a comfortable margin between himself and the hard floor.

Lothar toes the edge of the padding, lifting his arms out in front of him, palms straight, and falls face-first to the mat, catching himself on the tips of his fingers. His arms bend, his hands flatten so he rolls onto his palms, back arcing. He uses what’s left of the forward momentum and a slight kick of his own to lift his legs in the air, gradually changing his center of balance until he’s straightens his legs in line body and pulls his elbows into a basic handstand.

Once steady, he gradually shifts balance to his right palm, lifting the left from the floor as he does. Once he’s balanced entirely on one hand, his body steady, he shifts weight back, his left dropping to the floor, right raising in the air, legs tilting at an angle from his hip, all while his chest remained straight. His right leg stretches as far left as it can, before his knee curls. His left toes draw and arch, swing forward, right leg straightening so his ankles align just overhead, then continue and rise, right light straight, left leg straining to remain so, until they come full rotation and both legs are straight with his chest. He lowers his right arm, shifting back so he’s balanced entirely on that palm, and repeats the circuit with his legs in reverse.

He repeats the full set three times, the burn of control warming his forearms, abs, and thighs. With each rotation when his hand drops back to the floor, he gradually brings them closer together until he ends the third rotation with both hands side by side, fingers closed. He holds the position for a beat, just until he feels absolute stillness, then gradually pushes his elbows out, lifting his head so his neck and back curve, his feet shift, toes point to complete the curve of his body. His abs stretch, he can feel his breath spread on the floor inches away, and the bend in his arms stop when his elbows hit the floor. He holds the pose.

And as he controls his breathing, and relishes the burn, he remembers what it’s like to feel in control of his life.

 

Today would be a false promise blue, with the sun so bright against the dark blue sky, and yet none of the warmth touches the air. On his morning walk, children run by with heavy stomps in new boots, and their bags and backpacks emitting shrill rasps as they swing back and forth across the thin, impermeable fabric of their winter jackets. Lothar has adjusted accordingly, pausing when he walks so the children can fly past, to reduce the risk of accidentally swinging his stick into one, or, if a careless brat collided into him, making absolutely sure the blame rested solely on their shoulders.

And for that reason, it takes him that much longer to get to his bench.

“Are they gone?” Khadgar asks when Lothar finally arrives. His voice comes from ground level, farther back from the sidewalk, where Lothar can only assume he’s sitting on a building’s steps.

“The children? I would hope so, their morning bell already rang once.” If he remembered the architecture of the street right, the stoops had wide brick railing posts. His stick raps along the base, and with a touch he confirms his memory, and add that the post ends mid-back and has a concrete lip along the top. He anchors against it, the cold eating through the seat of his pants and in a line across his back.

“Thank everything , I thought they’d never leave.” A packet crinkles, cellophane and cardstock paper being compressed between fingertips, and a second later the unmistakable sound of a light wheel striking. So he is a smoker. Khadgar takes a deep breath, then exhales. “Sorry, did you want me to move?”

“It doesn’t bother me.” Though he would have to wash his coat, Taria would maul him if he triggered her cravings after five years without breaking her resolve. “Though I think there’s a law about building proximity now, isn’t there?”

“Perhaps. I haven’t been fined yet.” Khadgar says after another long exhale. The scent wafts around Lothar’s shoulders, and reminds him of his grandfather’s fleece jacket, or Taria’s hair when they were teens. “I’m supposed to be quitting.”

“Do you feel particularly rebellious today?”

“Stressed. Thank you. Do I really come off as rebellious to you?”

“You come off as youthful. It's about the same thing.”

“Aaaa. See, not me.” He sounds wistful about it. “I've never really had that option.”

Lothar can hear the story waiting after the final word, Khadgar had spoken with just enough weight it could only be the beginning of something. The beginning of what , however, is what truly concerns him. Khadgar takes a deep drag on his cigarette, which is signal enough he doesn’t plan on making the next play. “Are we at the stage where we exchange tragic histories? Already? Because I’d love to see how you’d top the Blinded Pilot.”

Laughter. Surprised, a little unwilling, but worth every baited line Lothar tossed. “Maybe not quite yet.”

Oh. Well. Not that sort of beginning, then. The way he breathes out after is strange. Midway between a sigh and a measured breathe (probably because of the cigarette). Lothar wonders what’s going through the boy’s head right now, especially when he hears the faint crackle of a cigarette being crushed against the steps. Whatever it is, it’s tilted this pause with expectation. “I think coffee might be a more productive vice.”

His tone is too casual. He’s been building to this. Lothar freezes.

“Can I buy you a cup?”

Lothar turns his head. The likelihood of this kid bringing him anywhere familiar is next to none, and the idea of breaking from his known world poured down his spine. What was normally unthinkable on his own, with Khadgar? Thrilling, in a sense he hasn’t felt in years.

Still, he had stipulations. “I don’t do well in loud spaces.”

“Oh.” If kicked puppy had a tone, Khadgar’s nailed it. “Well, it’s not too loud...”

“And I may need you to walk me back here after.”

“Oh! Of course.” There’s that smile again: the faint sound of dry lips spreading over wet teeth. Was this kid ever properly hydrated? He hears Khadgar stand, he’s wearing something with soft soles that doesn’t slap on concrete- he’s used to being quiet, perhaps- and he lands with a skip at the foot of stoop next to Lothar. “May I?”

The way his coat shifts, Lothar can assume he made some gesture with his arm. A slight bow, perhaps, or he held out an arm? Lothar removes one hand from his stick, testing the air in the general direction of the boy, and is surprised when his fingertips meet what feels like the cuff of a thick knit sweater. Without thinking, he moves down, toward himself, over the soft skin of the boy’s inner wrist and wraps his hand around Khadgar’s.

“Cold again. You know, gloves are readily available and generally recommended this time of year.”

Khadgar had breathed in sharply, only to shift gears to an indignant snort. “ Gloves . Next you’ll be packing me lunch and commenting on how thin my jacket is.”

“I would if you could call what you’re wearing a jacket,” Lothar replies, taking a step, as if walking would distract Khadgar from removing his hand or insisting Lothar take his arm or shoulder, “It’s a sweater, and if you ask me, we’re a little beyond sweater weather.”

All I am, is a man-

“Are you singing?”

-I want the world in my hands-

“Christ, you are. What did I do to deserve this.”

“- I hate the beach, but I stand in California with my toes in the sand-

Lothar groans, causing Khadgar to break off in a laugh. “Have you never heard that song?”

“Was it released in the last five years?”

“Yes.”

“No.”

“How? It was everywhere. Anytime there was a radio playing, this song would be on.”

Lothar does his best to imitate Khadgar’s indignation, including the snort. “ Radio . Next you’ll be asking me about iPods and DRM-free music.”

He’s rewarded with another laugh. Nothing deep belly, yet, so far just a dry, throaty chuckle. Khadgar’s hand warms in his. He’s a natural, always remaining in step with Lothar, gently tugging his hand down to indicate a stop. Lothar keeps his stick tucked at a slight angle, for a little extra security.

“Those terms are so far after your time it’s a wonder you even know what they’re called.”

After my time? I’ll admit to old, but I’m not dead.”

Khadgar squeezes his hand, slowing to a stop. “We’re crossing a street here.”

“Is there a curb?”

“No, it slopes to street level.”

“Intersection?”

“Yes.”

“Okay.”

Lothar remains quiet after that, focusing on his breathing rather than the blinker lights and car engines a few feet away. There were others on this street, he hears conversations (a few one-sided ones, probably on their cell phones), . It occurs to him he hasn’t been counting steps, or paying attention to anything that may possibly help him find his way back. He wasn’t too worried, if all else failed he could use his phone to call a taxi and let the driver find his way home for him, but the disorientation wasn’t something he’s allowed himself to experience in quite awhile.

“The light changed, we’re going to cross now.”

The feeling is something Lothar compares to standing in front of the exhaust jets of an unlit engine, which was somewhat comparable to walking in front of the barrel of a gun. If something went wrong, a misfire, an accidental start, and you’re going to be hit from the side. That awareness prickled up his arm, but at the same time, Khadgar remained a solid presence on his other side.

“The shop is just a little ways this way.”

Lothar smells it before he can hear it: baked goods, coffee grounds, espresso steam. The door has a loose hinge and a tendency to bounce off the frame when allowed to fall to a close. A group must be exiting, college-age, but their conversation is reserved. Khadgar leads him inside when the entryway clears, and a wave of warmth and new age jazz washes over him. The room contains plenty of tables, chairs scrape occasionally, he can hear pencil scratching and rapidly clicking keyboard keys.

“Are you alright?” Khadgar asks, causing Lothar to realize he’s stopped in front of the entrance.

“Yes.” He’s forgotten what large groups of human voices sound like in closed rooms. How long has it been? Months? Years? He’s overwhelmed, but it hasn’t developed into a full blown panic. Just a little strained. “Where is the line?”

“Here.” Khadgar’s stepped closer, their forearms pressed together and biceps crossed. He uses this new position to steer Lothar in the right direction. Somewhere ahead, the milk frother screeches to life, likely scorching the milk. No lattes, noted.

“Khad!” The voice behind the counter is young, female, and very excitable. “Did you want your usual?”

“Brione. Hello. Yes, please.”

“And who is this?” The edge in her tone causes Lothar’s eyes to twitch.

“Lothar.” He answers before Khadgar can. “I’ll have a sixteen ounce cafe au lait with an inch of room and a shot of sugar syrup.”

“Uh. Oh, all right, that’ll be-”

Lothar takes out his wallet, unclasping it and flipping it open with one smooth motion and thumbing over the folded bills until he hits the fold he uses for a twenty. “No change.”

Khadgar steers him away as quickly as possible, undoubtedly sending apologetic looks over his shoulder. Once they’re out of earshot (and covered by the scream of another unfortunate pull of milk), he hisses, “Please don’t upset her, she controls my coffee.”

“Your coffee should be fine. It’s mine I’m worried about.” They make it to the table without any further incident, Lothar managing to avoid stumbling or bumping into anything. He can tell by the sound he has his back to a solid wall, the knowledge of which calms him slightly. “Sorry. It’s been awhile, people aren’t exactly my thing.”

“It’s alright.” Khadgar murmurs from across the table. His voice is muffled, perhaps by his hand. “I’ll butter her up another day. It’s not like you didn’t tip well.”

Neither say anything for awhile, allowing the buzz of people and work fill the gaps. Another voice, perhaps a second barista helping with the bar, calls out a name.

“I would have paid, you know.” Khadgar says after a minute. “I did ask you here.”

Lothar attempts a smile, but he can feel it’s small and tight. “I didn’t like the implication you had to introduce us.”

“You mean, you didn’t like the social expectation, or-?”

Multiple things, all of which Lothar doubts he can summarize well, if at all. He doesn’t like having others feel the need to introduce him? He’s heard enough of others, strangers , burdened by his disability for him to be sensitive to similar tones. And really? He’s too old to be dealing with jealous children treating him like he’s infringing on their property.

“I don’t like-” Lothar picks his words carefully, ”-when others are asked who I am, rather than asking me who I am. Like I can’t be addressed directly. Like there needs to be someone to explain me.”

“Khadgar! Lothar!” Definitely Brione’s voice.

“I’ll be back.” Relieved. Like he was saved from something.

What a way to start coffee. Lothar withholds a sigh, and busies himself with removing a coat before he starts steaming. In the background, he hears the smile when Khadgar thanks her, and her lilting you’re welcome , and wills away the irritation. Too. Old. For. This.

“I bring coffee, and I’m reasonably sure she didn’t tamper with either. Oh.”

It’s warm enough Lothar decided to put his hair up again, but it occurs to him his shirt is riding up again. This one tended to do that, but since he hadn’t set out this morning with plans to end up in a very public setting, that thought hadn’t occurred to him. He allows his arm to drop, fingers finding the hem (just under his belly button, so not so bad) and pulling down. He has no shame about his body, but he was a guest in this situation. “Well?”

“Um. Yes. Coffee.” A pause. “I forgot which was yours.”

“The odds are fifty-fifty.” He shrugs. “What’s the worst that could happen?” The sound of ceramic on polished wood. He feels the heat from the cup before he finds it. “You’re sure?”

Khadgar responds with a noncommittal noise, so Lothar takes a drink. He maintains a straight face for what feels like a solid minute. Putting the cup down, he leans in over the table, dropping an elbow to prop against. “Either you were too optimistic about the tampering, or you hate life.”

He’s being laughed at. Strange how that’s a good feeling. “Your coffee is weak and too sweet.”

“Is that a curse upon my house?”

“What? No, of course not. It’s just a comment on you as a person.”

“Ouch, you wound me. But really, do you hate sugar? Does the bitterness appeal to your soul?”

“There’s cream.” Lothar notes Khadgar hasn’t set his down, and forms a vague picture of a young man holding a cup with both hands for warmth. “But don’t worry, not many can handle my taste in coffee.”

“Yes, because the general populace has taste.”

“Oh. Low. I’m keeping your coffee just for that.”

“Have it. It might reintroduce you to decent coffee.”

“I’d need three to get the same caffeine content, and that’s three times more sugar than any one person should have from coffee.”

“Your poor heart. I can’t imagine what that much caffeine does to your blood pressure.”

“It revives it, thank you. With enough bitterness and spite to last me another day of creative frustration.” Khadgar pauses to take a sip, Lothar’s finger traces the rim of the mug but doesn’t follow suit. “Speaking of. I do have an ulterior motive in asking you here.”

“Do tell.” And please hurry, he doesn’t say, willing his heart rate to go back down before it caused him to do anything embarrassing, like flush.

“Do you model?”

That was not what Lothar expected. “Do I look like I model?”

“You look like you could.” Khadgar’s all business now, no hint of the smile from earlier. The lack of snark in his tone unsettled Lothar.

“Are you calling me pretty?”

“Pretty easy on the eyes.” The not quite laugh, the wet sound of a smile. Good. Lothar could work with this. “But really, I’m working on a series with models. Would you be interested?”

“What would you have me modelling?” Lothar asks, picking up the mug of Khadgar’s coffee and turning it in his hands. He’s not sure he’s ready for another sip, but he needs something to focus on that isn’t him bolting from the shop.

“Body paint.”

His eyebrows shoot up. “Body paint?”

“I paint the sky on people, then pose them against urban backgrounds and take photos.”

“Have you done this with others?”

Khadgar breathes in, his legs shift under the table. “Not full body. Just the palms.”

“Full body? Will I have to be nude?”

“I was thinking about starting with your chest, actually?” The business tone must have been his nerve, because he’s faltering now. Subconsciously, Lothar extends his leg under the table until his calf rests against Khadgar’s, stilling the jitters. “It’s an offer.”

“I’ll do it, I was just asking for details.” Lothar wasn’t sure he was going to until the words fell out of his mouth. It felt so private a thing to ask, until he agreed to it and it sounded like the most normal thing in the world. Khadgar’s calf relaxes against his. “On one condition.”

“Oh?”

“Give me your number.”

 

Callan answers on the third ring. “Dad?”

“You sound surprised.”

“I didn’t think you’d call so soon.”

Honestly, Lothar didn’t think so either. Callan’s last day consisted of slamming doors and little to no conversation. “Just calling to see if you’re alive.”

Callan laughs. “You sound like Aunt Taria.”

“Where do you think I get the line from?”

Callan winds himself up, exasperation dragging after every bulleted Yes. “Yes, I am, yes I’m feeding myself. Yes, one of those meals includes fresh produce.”

“Do you have a girlfriend?”

“What? Dad, it’s been two weeks.”

“That wasn’t a no.”

No.

“Okay.”

Silence. Something cracks in the background, and Lothar gets the sense by the ambient buzz that Callan is watching a baseball game. “How is it?”

“College? Or being away?”

“Both. Either.”

“It’s- good.” This time Lothar is silent, because Callan’s uncertainty leaves him hanging. “It’s- it’s like you used to say, though. I don’t think I can get used to the noise.”

Anduin Lothar didn’t raise a timid son, but his habits did rub off. “The world’s a loud place.”

More quiet.

“You’ll always have a quiet place here.”

“Thanks, Dad. I’m going to go, they’ll be missing me.”

“Right. Stay safe.”

More laughter. “You first.”

Lothar feels the smile break, even as he hears the dial tone. He has to move quick to swipe his eyes, the smile threatens to spill them over.

 

“Anduin.”

Rolling his eyes, Lothar opts not to remove her from speaker and continues to lay flat on his back, easing the towel-wrapped ice pack back against his shoulder. “Taria.”

“I can barely hear you.”

“I thought that was a good thing.”

“Anduin.” She sounded like their father. He hates it. With a long, overinflated groan, he sits up and grabs the phone from the corner of the coffee table and tosses it somewhere on the ground over his shoulder.

“Better?” He asks, a little strained from the motion. She has to hear the crunch of ice as he tries to refind a comfortable position on the pack.

“Have you been keeping to your appointments?”

“Yes, mom.”

“Have you been listening to your doctor?”

“Christ, Taria, I’m just sore.”

“You’re sure?”

Yes. Trust me, I’d know the difference.”

“Okay.”

Lothar takes the pause and uses it to switch the ice pack to his other side, having given up on this one for now. “Was there something you needed?”

“Dinner tonight. Callan can’t make it.”

“He told me as much. What’s the real reason you’re calling?”

“Llane tells me you’ve met someone.”

“A friend. Friend friend. Not someone who should be forced to survive family dinners.” The phone may not make a noise, but Lothar can still hear his sister’s lips purse. “Yet.”

“The invitation is open.”

“Possibly not ever.”

“But you’re considering it now.”

“Because of some nosy brat.”

“Whom you love very much.”

“Yes. Now. Shoo. And stop meddling in my personal life?”

“I would, except you wouldn’t have one if I didn’t meddle.”

He sighs in false irritation when she makes a kissing noise and hangs up on him.

 

It’s been two days since Coffee. Lothar still sits on his bench, but the chill of fall has gained the first bite of winter, driving them both inside quicker than he liked. Lothar is making lunch after one such brief conversation when his phone chimes.

“One new Text Message from Art Brat.”

Lothar pauses whisking. “Read.”

“Does Sunday work for you?”

“Hmm.” He tosses in chopped spinach, premeasured cheddar, and diced ham to his eggs. “Reply.”

His dictation software tones. “I’ll be there. Text me the address, just in case.”

“Smile Emoji.”

In a kitchen, alone, under the crackle of raw egg in a hot, buttered frying pan, Anduin Lothar starts to whistle to himself, unable to stave off a grin.