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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.

Chapter Text

“So this may seem weird.”

Khadgar texts him in spurts, so fast that sometimes Lothar can’t keep up. It’s forced him to interact with his text settings so that he only receives sender identification if he switches to texting another person; that way when Khadgar breaks his texts up into chunks (a phenomenon Lothar will never understand), Lothar doesn’t have to piece the message together around New Message from Art Brat . After a few days, Khadgar learned not to send typical word shortenings or text slang.

“I’ll have the supplies ready by Sunday, but I’ve been going over the paint instructions. The spray-on layer sticks to hair and is hard to remove, according to the reviews.”

Lothar’s going through his closet as his phone’s voice reads off Khadgar’s messages, checking for moth holes, seeing if anything needed to be sent for cleaning. He’ll likely send a few of his suits in, Taria spoke of looming yearly benefits, and he may actually make an appearance this time.

“So what are you saying?”

His suit jacket needed to be taken in. Remarkable. He’s actually in better shape than when he was active duty. That, or he’s down on muscle mass. He’s not as focused in weightlifting.

It takes Khadgar a few minutes, but Lothar’s phone chimes, and reads out, “You may need to shave your chest.”

Lothar stops picking at the loose waist of his jacket and turns ear to his phone. “What?”

“You know, unless you want silver chest hair.”

This is a concept to mull over.

“Lothar?”

“So long as you promise you’re not going to get my hair and beard. I’m not a silver fox just yet.”

Shave his chest. Christ.

“Promise. Wink Emoji.”

“I will return the favor. Don’t think I won’t.”

“That emoji doesn’t inspire trust, does it?”

“Nope.” He takes a deep breath. “Open phone function. Call Bratty Sister.”

Taria answers on the fourth ring. “Anduin?”

“Taria,” he takes another deep breath, closing his eyes. “I need your help.”

“What is it?”

“This may sound strange.” Christ. What is he even doing?

“We’re already breaking norm here, Anduin. Just spit it out.”

“I need to remove my chest hair.”

Taria pauses. “Do I get context for that request? You’re going to tell me that story at some point, right?”

“Dinner. Wednesday, after Addy and Varian are in bed.”

“I’ll take care of it.” She hangs up.

Lothar is not looking forward to this.

 

About two hours later, he hears a key turn in his front door, followed by it swinging open.

“Dad?”

“Living room!” Lothar picks up the remote and shuts off the TV, turning his head so his ear is to the hall door. “I didn’t expect you home so soon.”

He hears Callan kick off his shoes, a habit that drove him up a wall when they lived under the same roof, but one which absence repainted with fondness. He also hears plastic shopping bags drop, containing something in cardboard. “Aunt Taria called me.”

“Did she?” Of course. She never could just leave an opportunity unturned. “Did she say why?”

“Only that you’d tell me when I got here.” At least he hangs his coat up properly. His scarf falls to the floor with a soft whump.

“Of course she did.” He says it aloud this time.

“Well?”

“I’m not going to tell you, if that’s what she thinks.”

“So I just went out in public and bought three boxes of body wax, and you’re really not going to tell me why?”

“You get what I promised your Aunt. Dinner, Wednesday.” Callan makes a soft, petulant tuh noise with his tongue. “Body wax?”

“It’s what Aunt Taria told me to get. Are you going to tell me what we’re going to do with it, at least?”

“Rip my chest hair out, apparently.” Lothar feels the couch dip next to him, the boxes, still in their shopping bag, set on the table in front of them both.

“You’re joking.”

He presses his lips together in a grimace. “I wish.”

“And you’re going to make me wait until Wednesday to tell me why ?”

“Yep. Suck it up. Let’s get this over with.”

“I hate everything.”

“You and me both, kid.”

Lothar has to wonder if Taria meant for experience to be cathartic. He wasn’t prepared for the twenty minutes of prep the wax took in the microwave. After five minutes, Callan goes to check the microwave, the microwave door jarring open.

“Dad? I think we’re supposed to stir this every few minutes.”

“Did it say that on the box?”

“No, but it’s starting to change colors around the bowl.”

“Damn it. Okay.”

After another three minute turn, Lothar’s about to starting ripping hair out without the wax. “Who puts this much effort in hair removal, anyway?”

“We do,” Callan replies, dry and with marginally more patience than his father. “Apparently.”

After three more minutes, plus a minute of Callan stirring, he says, “I think it’s ready now.”

“You think?”

“Well it’s warm and smooth, so yeah.” Callan applies the wax to a cotton strip, then hesitates. “Where first?”

Lothar shrugs, tossing his shirt behind him in the direction of the couch. He misses the back, and it falls to the floor. With free hands, he thumps the middle of his chest, “Might as well go for the middle bulk first, right?”

“You’re sure?”

“Do it.”

Warm wax in a long square patch infuses down to the skin, he can feel Callan’s palm impression through the soft wax. “You’re sure you’re sure?”

“Just hurry- FFFFUU----” This may be the first time he’s shed actual tears in a decade. He shuts off air to his throat until the white-out of the pain fades. “-uck.”

“Do you need a minute?”

Lothar shakes his head. “No. No we’re finishing this.”

“Okay.”

After three more strips, Callan watches him bite his knuckle to stop the stream of explatives, and casually throws in, “So you remember in second grade when you had a meeting with my teacher because she was concerned by my proficiency in swearing?”

“Yes. I had a very long conversation after with your uncle about his influence on children.”

“Mhmmm.”

All in all it takes them two hours to complete Lothar’s chest and abs. He had refused to let Callan rip the line of hair under his bellybutton. Lothar almost didn’t either, and it took ten minutes of psyching himself up before he managed to rip.

“It says any short hairs missed can be plucked individually with tweezers,” Callan reads, followed shortly by the sound of cardboard dropping into the garbage bag.

“Not in this lifetime.” Lothar growls, running his fingers gingerly over his chest. His skin is smooth to the touch, and he’s still a little sore over the discovery that nipples do in fact have hair to rip out. The sound of wax being dipped into has him perk defensively. “Callan.”

“Relax, this is for me.” Sure enough, he hears wax being applied next to him.

“After all that, your first thought is I want to try ?” Lothar feels around the floor. Most of the spilled wax has cooled, but he has the feeling he’d be stepping on waxy residue every time he approached his kitchen bar for a few months yet. Callan makes a dismissive noise behind him. “Where are you trying?”

“My arm.”

Lothar hears the rip, and a faint intake of breath that hits him with an uncomfortable realization. Oh. That phase of youth. That is not a conversation he’s willing to have just yet. “Was it everything you’d thought it’d be?”

“How’s your chest feel?” Callan shoots back, tossing the used strip of wax into the garbage bag they’d set up for this occasion.

“Tender. I’m going to shower. If you’re sticking around, we’re ordering pizza.”

“Fine. but I’m picking the movie.”

Lothar ruffles his hair on the way past. “Order. You know my card number.”

“Yes sir.”

 

Khadgar meets him at the door seconds after Lothar rapped on it. “Lothar,” he says, low and warm. Lothar feels the boy’s hand wrap around his elbow and draw him inside. “I'm glad you made it.”

“How could I stay away after such an unusual request?” He uses his right foot to feel out the entryway, his right hand extended to find the wall and establish the planes of the room he is in.

“Here.” Fingers curl around the lapels of of his jacket. His stick hits the wall and slides down, clattering to the floor. His hands close over both Khadgar’s wrists, the pads of his thumbs resting in the dip under the heels of his palms. Khadgar goes stock still, drawing a deep, ragged breath.

“I would rather hang it up myself,” Lothar says, willing himself not to stroke the delicate skin of his wrist, no matter how soft it was, “It’ll help if I know where I left my things.”

“Right. Of course.” After a moment, the boy’s hands let go of Lothar’s collar. Lothar’s thumbs flick down once, too quick to be pinned as deliberate, and his hands brush over the back of Khadgar’s hands, before replacing them on his lapels. He shrugs out of the heavy wool, careful to keep his scarf tucked into the collar as it unfurls. “Oh. The coat hooks are to your left, around shoulder level.”

Lothar reaches out, takes a small step to the left, until his fingers find the metal and he can use the trajectory of his body to lift his coat and hang it over the hook and his hand. His knee brushes on a bench, and he confirms it’s not covered by anything before he takes a seat and unlaces his boots. Khadgar hasn’t said anything, hasn’t moved, though every now and then Lothar hears fabric shift, as if the boy is fidgeting in place. With some consideration, Lothar opts to remove his socks as well. Better grip, more feeling, but also, if he were to spend the next few hours shirtless, what was the point of socks? Once that is done, he’s on his feet again, taking a tentative step: the floor is hard with a grippy texture to it, typical of entryway spaces.

And then, because he doesn’t know this room, and because he’s nervous, and because Khadgar is floundering, he cracks a smile, digging his hands into his jeans. “Shall I strip now? Or later?”

Khadgar’s laugh is sharp and resounding, as if it comes as a surprise. “That’s- Terrible. You’re terrible. This is for art . Come on.”

“I bet you tell all your models that.” A warm hand closes over Lothar’s bicep to lead him into the studio. They must have been in some sort of entryway. The air shifts from lingering chill to warm enough to be stifling and the floor underfoot smooths to freshly swept hardwood. “Is this how you normally keep the room?”

“I was being considerate. You’ll have your shirt off,” he says, indignant. “Here, there’s a stool for you to sit on while I work.”

“All for me? And what will you be wearing in this heat?” There is, indeed a stool. Unpadded wood with a thin veneer that’s been worn through in places. He sits, testing the balance. The legs are all the same length, it seems sturdy enough. His toes trace the bottom of one of the legs. No glides or capping at the base. He could probably balance it without worry.

“Do you always flirt when you’re nervous?” Khadgar asks. At least he sounds himself again, and whatever built anxiety either of them had drains away.

“Oh no, usually I’m aggressive and surly.” As he thought, he can tip the stool on its side and balance, easily. “But you’re more fun to tease.”

“And I’m so grateful for that.” Lothar would be surprised if that statement wasn’t accompanied by an exaggerated eyeroll. “You can take your shirt off now. Is there anywhere you want me to put it?”

“I’m not picky.” The shirt had been chosen based on the possibility of getting paint on it anyway. It’s old and loose, something he wouldn’t normally wear outside the house. He’s able to slip out of it with ease, though doing so brings the two legs he’s tipped airborne back down with a thud. “So long as one of us keeps track of it for later.”

“I can put it near the coat?”

“But then it’ll be cold.” Now barechested, Lothar admits to himself the kid was right. He can feel the air transpose the warmth of his shirt, causing him to shiver.

“Well, then, what did you want me to do with it?”

He was going to be accommodating and merely suggest Khadgar keep it warm for him, but something in the boy’s tone curves his lips up and bares his teeth. He wads up the shirt and launches it in Khadgar’s general direction. “There,” he says, grinning all the more when he hears sounds of outrage. “Taken care of. Don’t lose that now.”

“I just might, and you’ll deserve it.” He hears fabric drape over a surface, and the scrape of something being picked up. “Unbelievable.” Khadgar crosses the room to him. “Let’s get started before you incite me to do something really drastic. Like retaliate. Here.” Lothar feels warm, soft fingertips on his shoulder, gently moving him back so his shoulders are straight and chest thrown wide. “There we go.”

Something hisses to life, and he feels a cool spray over his chest, coating it in something that feels wet for a second but dries quickly. The spray shuts off almost immediately, probably because he flinched.

“Sorry.” Khadgar murmurs.

“You’re fine. I wasn’t-” Expecting it? How could Lothar have been? He’s never done anything like this. “I was just startled. Go ahead.”

“Did you want me to warn you?”

“No,” Lothar says, sharper than intended. “No,” he tries again, gentler, “but tell me about it.”

“About what?” Khadgar asks, clearly still hesitant.

“About what you’re painting. Walk me through it. I want to know.”

He wonders now, not for the first time, what the expression on Khadgar’s face is. He knows by the intake of breath and the shaky exhale that it wasn’t something the boy was expected to be asked, but until he hears Khadgar speak again, he won’t know if it’s a good surprise or bad. The machine hisses to life again, and Lothar feels it trace diagonally back and forth over his right shoulder and pec, coating thoroughly.

“This first layer is airbrushed, the silver is meant to capture camera light.”

“Silver.” Lothar repeats. “What kind of sky?”

“The sky at night.”

Lothar’s skin is cool where the spray dries, and as it does, his skin starts to feel stretched. It’s not uncomfortable, but he’d rather keep the kid talking than think about it. “Do you know where the horizon is going to be?”

“Well...” From the drawn out consonant Lothar gathers he hasn’t.

“Do me a favor? Forget the horizon.”

The spray stops at the bottom of his left pec, shutting off. “ What do you mean?”

“What are you going for here, Khadgar? You already have the juxtaposition planned, you told me about the urban backgrounds. If that’s the case, why would you need to paint a second horizon?”

The spray starts up again, this time from his side, crossing in strokes over Lothar’s abs. “How would you even do that?”

“Like looking up, like the horizon is at your belly and you’re so far up it’s fallen away completely.”

“You flew at night?”

“A few times.” Lothar feels something like memory foam, shaped with a tip, smoothing and dabbing at his abs and around his pecs.

“I’m going to step away to grab the body paint for the sky, but keep describing it for me.”

“More body paint?”

“This one I have to brush on, it’s thicker, and cheaper, but the only type of black that doesn’t stain your skin.”

“And you know this by experience.”

“Of course.” Khadgar’s voice is closer, so he must have returned. “I’m going to start the solid layer.”

The sensation is cool and wet, contrasting the dry, powdery feel of the sprayed layer, and most definitely created by four human fingers. Lothar’s lips part. He forgets to breathe, and then immediately forces even, controlled breaths. “They were concerned about downdrafts, and they had right to be. There had been storms blowing through every day and a half.”

“Mhmm,” Khadgar encourages, fingers spreading up, through the dip between his pecs,arcing right at the clavicle. They disappear for a moment, only to pay the same attention to his left with fresh paint.

“The moon was full, the cloud ceiling peaking 8000 feet. The flight would take me above that, by about 10,000 more feet. There weren’t supposed to be any vertical columns when I broke the ceiling, but there were.”

There’s nothing uncertain about Khadgar when he applies paint. His fingers are deft, framing his shoulders, down his sides, along the lower edge of his abs, and back up. Once that is done, Khadgar fills in Lothar’s pecs, and the shape of the sky starts forming. “What did it look like, when you lost the horizon?”

“The moon had only just risen, for a moment it was level with my nose, then it dipped below the altimeter, the sky was wide, the atmosphere blanketed in clouds so there was no blue band to indicate the ground, just uneven silver underneath, and darkness above.”

Khadgar’s fingers have filled his chest. Lothar can feel the second layer weigh on the first even while dry. To the left of  his navel, they circle around one spot, likely where Khadgar planned to put the moon. Lothar feels the boy’s hand draw back, then the tip of a fingernail trace arcs around the spot through the freshly applied paint, and he sucks in a breath at the sensation. Khadgar swallows, a wet noise following like he just licked his lips. “What did it feel like?”

“Losing the horizon?” Lothar asks, a little breathless. Khadgar has switched back to the memory foam wedge, now dipped in the paint, and is shaping the clouds, while smudging the dry areas from the spray layer. Lothar can feel his breath, and is consciously aware he must be on one knee, a fact supported by the the sound of a tray (the paint) shuffling every time Khadgar’s breathing disappears and the sponge returns rewetted.

Khadgar’s hand falls warm on his side, to steady him. He must have started swaying without knowing. He wouldn’t be surprised, not with his head full of clouds.

“Like freedom.”

 

“That was…” Khadgar punctuates the pause with a long exhale up, and Lothar has a mental image of a young man’s throat, exposed and bobbing as he deflates, then sucks the air back in. “I don’t even know how to describe it.”

“I’ll take the cigarette as a compliment, then.” A comment that earns Lothar a dismissive hmm and the sound of ashes being flicked.

“I’m serious, I’ve never had a session turn out so- so,” he’s likely waving his hand back and forth, from the pause and the faint rustle of fabric, “so unexpectedly.”

Lothar thinks back, between the camera clicks, the gentle orders, the soft but direct hand guiding his poses when he had any major changes. “Life is full of surprises.”

“I would like to do it again, if you don’t mind.” Khadgar must still be high on artistic achievement, because he’s lost all nervous energy. Now he’s just energy, pure and delighted, perpetually a breath away from laughing.

Lothar tilts his head so Khadgar can see his smile: one that revealed too much fondness for his liking but was more genuine than many given out recently. “Of course. You have my number.”

“Good. Good.” Another inhale, another exhale, the refreshed smell of tobacco and ash. “Now about your payment.”

“Payment?”

“You modelled, I took your time, and I insist on paying fairly for it. Do you have a rate in mind?”

Lothar laughs. “Oh, do I get to set the rate? Then you have paid me in full already. I wasn’t using that time for anything, anyway.”

“Please. I insist.”

Lothar hears his car pull up to the curb, and thanks Taria’s driver mentally. He’s too giddy to argue money now. “I have everything I could ever need covered, Khadgar. You gave me company. It is payment enough.”

“Lothar…”

“Goodnight, kid.”

 

The walk to his front door from the car is sobering. It’s a sleepy Sunday night. The traffic a few streets over, where the bulk of the area’s nightlife normally plays out, is properly subdued in the anticipation of Monday morning. He enters his gate code without a second thought, letting himself into the sheltered space of his front yard, between the tended trees that rattle in the breeze.

On his doorstep, he enters the second house code before inserting his key and unlocking the bolt. Warmth rushes out, just as he’s sure the chill enters his hall. Once the door is shut behind him, he’s wrapped in another layer of quiet. Sweeping the shoe mat, he confirms Callan’s boots aren’t there. He’s alone.

“I’m home,” he murmurs, and sets about taking off his coat.

 

“It’s utterly ridiculous.”

Llane is in the middle of a full blown rant when Lothar steps off the elevator to the penthouse. It’s not his sister’s normal living space, but it contains both a stocked private bar and a fully furnished state-of-the-art kitchen, as well as one hell of a view. Lothar can’t speak to the last part, Llane acquired the place after the incident, but the act of cooking and the conversation at dinner after never seemed to regard the view, anyway. “Can you imagine demanding an exemption for a burn permit after the fact? And despite what he claims, the thing is burning something. Otherwise the black residue it leaves behind wouldn’t be an issue.”

“I see I came at a good time.” Lothar says, leaning against the corner counter. He almost crosses his arms, but smells his sister’s favored perfume, anticipates the kiss on the cheek, and knows some form of work is about to be dropped in his lap. Sure enough, she steers him over to the island in the center and shoves a knife in his hand. He smells the earthy scent of potatoes, partially cut, and confirms the rough skin under hand.

“I need those in wedges. Llane’s on a warpath. We have a new artist in town pushing legal boundaries.”

“I understand the point of his art. I get it,” Llane continues, and Lothar can hear he’s whisking something in a pot on the stove. “Addy! Varian! Your mother needs help with the oil. So he applies for an installation, fills the permission to lease a space, signs both the safety agreement and the clean up agreement, then completely ignores both, sets his giant piece of film on fire, and has the audacity to claim exemption. It’s still there, too. He hasn’t cleaned it, stating he still has twenty days on the lease.”

Pattering feet bound around the corner. “Uncle Lothar!”

Bracing himself, the expected impact presses him into the counter briefly. Two heads dig into his back, one just shy of his left shoulder blade, the other’s chin digging in over his right hip. “Oof you’re getting big. Careful, I have a knife.”

He doesn’t get through the sentence before he’s verbally run over by two excited voices rising in pitch to cover one another.

“Where’s Callan?”

“We have a- we have a thing that glows and flies-”

“Is Callan coming? Is he? Is he?”

“And it makes a noise like VRRRRRRR!”

“Callan said he would. He did.”

“Kids!” Llane yells, a rumbling building in his chest.

“Yes, Dad?” Both forms let him go, springing to attention. Lothar takes a deep breath, knowing Taria is doing the same.

“Wrynns,” Llane draws the word out, pitch rising as he does, and when he does let loose, the entire kitchen joins in, “ROOOOOOOAAAAAAAAR.”

As always, Addy and Varian are last to stop, Addy outlasting Varian by a margin. “Got it out? Good, now go help your mother.”

“Did I miss a roar?” Callan asks, causing Lothar and Llane to collectively groan.

“CALLAN!” From the scampering and  jumping, the temporary focus the roar usually inspired is out the window.

“Well, we’ve used our roar for the evening, so save the excitement. Help your mother.”

“What are we cooking?” Callan asks, hovering near Lothar’s left.

Llane answers. “Some high-protein, meatless burger.”

“Black bean chickpea burgers, dear,” Taria corrects.

From the sound, Llane will be running the grill, Taria deep frying the wedges Lothar sliced. Next to him, another knife clicks against a cutting board. Callan must have seen something undone and started on it. Judging by the watery grind before each snap on the cutting board, he’s slicing tomatoes.

A small, shy hand tugs on Lothar’s elbow. “Yes, Varian?”

“Momma wants those.” Varian hangs heavy on Lothar’s arm, likely on his tiptoes just to see over the counter. He must be pointing with his other arm.

“Is there a bowl?”

“No.”

There’s a noise from his left, the clank of hollow plastic on the counter. He considers Callan either found one and set it down, or it was laid out and he had just made the noise to direct his father’s attention. He picks up the small pile of wedges and dumps it in the bowl, passing it to Varian.

“Thank you!”

“Come back in a bit, I still have more to slice.”

“Okay.”

The smell of hot oil and seasonings fills the space, Addy and Varian babble about shaking correctly, leading Lothar to believe Taria planned on seasoning the potatoes. Then the rattle of breading, individual thumps, followed by the hiss and pop of frying. Llane whistles from ahead where the stove is located. Callan moves from tomatoes to lettuce, judging by the change in crispness.

“So how’s school?” Lothar asks.

“It’s good.”

“Get into any trouble?”

“Nope.”

“How are your teachers?”

“They’re demanding, but not bad?”

Before the silence hits a full awkward swell, Llane pipes up, “Callan, have you seen that eyesore they installed near Morass?”

“The thing that’s blackened the entire park area? What is that thing, anyway?” When Callan responds with actual enthusiasm, Lothar quietly melts back into the background, paying as much attention to what was being discussed as he was the gritty feeling of raw starch on his hands.

“Horde Art Installation.”

“I wouldn’t call that art.”

“He calls it ‘Gateway to Salvation’. Can you believe that?”

“What salvation is that supposed to be indicative of? Some sort of green hellfire?”

“It’s a political statement, if I’m interpreting it correctly. You can’t say it’s not brilliant,” Taria chimes in. “How he manages to keep the fire floating in the middle without it going out.”

“And the coloring. How did he manage that shade of green?”

The conversation continues through the rest of prep, breaks for clean-up. By the time the family is seated, it is forgotten for the moment as Llane and Taria talk with Addy and Varian about school and friends in a way that updated both Callan and Lothar on their current goings on.

Dinner wraps to a close. The kids are sent to prepare for bed while the adults move to the lounge. Taria breaks out a bottle of wine that’s sweet and full-bodied and leaves the heavy aftertaste of grape skins on his tongue.

“I think Gul’dan would bother me less if he wasn’t such a tricky bastard going about getting what he wants.” Llane starts. Lothar figured he would continue, he could never let a matter of social concern go until every element was thoroughly articulated. “The way he uses his situation. It does not inspire any generosity of opinion for his peers, and they sorely need it.”

“His situation?” Lothar asks, breaking his silence.

“Gul’dan is a Draenei refugee,” Taria says. “Granted asylum at the beginning of the year.”

“And ever since he’s been on record about race and inequality. Which isn’t bad, those topics certainly deserve the spotlight they have now, but he doesn’t actually want to talk race and inequality, he just wants to use them to perform as he wants with impunity.”

“And you will have a hell of a time proving that statement in the public forum, so please, love, take care how you speak of it outside this room. Not to mention around the children.”

“If I can’t speak freely here with my family, I can’t speak anywhere.”

Lothar can’t help it. “I think you’ve proven you can speak anywhere about anything for longer than human lungs should allow.”

“Are you saying I’m full of hot air?”

“You’re definitely full of something .”

“Boys, please,” Taria interjects, presumably to stop Llane from doing something stupid, like throw a pillow. “Anduin, I believe you have a story for me.”

“Anduin has a story?” Llane repeats. “What story?”

“Oh yeah, the body wax.”

“Anduin has a body wax story?”

“Well?”

Lothar takes a deep drink, bracing himself. Too deep, he finishes his drink far sooner than he should, but Taria taps her finger to the glass, then pours him more. “I modelled for an art class.”

It’s not really a lie. Art had been made, and Lothar was sure he wasn’t the only one who learned a thing or two.

“So why would you need me to remove your chest hair if you were just modelling?” Damn it. Who raised this kid? He was too smart for his own good.

“I may have been the canvas.”

“You let someone paint on you?”

“With his fingers.”

“Is he cute?”

“Did you really just ask me that?”

“You know what I meant, Anduin.”

Lothar scratches his eyebrow where it crinkles his forehead, flicking his palm out. “Yeah? I mean, if you find sarcastic brats cute.” A beat. “Did you two just look at each other? Callan, did they look at each other?”

“Yes.”

“No.”

“You do have a type,” Llane starts.

“Dad does?” Callan asks.

“Brunette, big brown eyes, can play verbal table tennis with his grade school humor for hours…” Taria set her glass of wine down, likely to count off her fingers for effect. “Honestly I could go on- Yes, dear?”

Lothar heard the thumping of children’s feet from their bedroom minutes ago, but they must have just now sought their mother’s attention. He can also hear Addy’s whisper, hissed but not necessarily quiet. “ Can we get a bedtime story?

“I’ll go.” Lothar says, to the cheers of the kids and groans of his fellow adults.

“Fine, but you will tell this story one day, Anduin.”

“Yeah, Dad, I did not buy body wax in front of people for nothing.”

 

Reading to Addy and Varian never got old. He loves the way they transition from bouncing and shifting restlessly to captivated and sedate when he tells the story right.

Lothar had heard Callan at the door ten minutes ago, but hasn’t given his presence much thought until he extracted himself from two sleeping children and exiting the room.

“Would I have had a sibling? Do you think?” His voice may have startled Lothar, if he hadn’t waited for his father to register he was still in the doorway before speaking.

“Your mother swore she’d never go through it again.” Every word felt like a barb worn smooth, the points and edges just another memory. “You were so loud I think she might have never let me touch her again, but when you slept…” Lothar lifts his hand to his son’s face. The boyish curve of his cheek has winnowed down to sharp cheekbones over the course of the year. He must be devastating to look at. “You’re precious enough we’d likely have tried again.”

Callan shifts away, possibly out of embarrassment. “Have you loved anyone, since her?”

He can still carries the memory of his son’s face on his palm. “I’ve never tried.”

“Maybe… you should. Try.”

The way Callan delivers it, full of nerves and conflicting emotion, is exactly why Lothar hasn’t.

“I won’t lose you, too.”

Callan exhales, shifting until Lothar feels him rest his forehead on Lothar’s shoulder. Tentatively, Lothar raises his arms and embraces his son.

“You won’t, not any more than making room for another person would,” Callan’s voice vibrates through his skull, into Lothar’s clavicle. He shifts again in Lothar’s arms, shoulders moving as Lothar feels his hug reciprocated. “I’ve been thinking. That. Maybe. I will lose you more... if you don’t.”

Such a strange boy, Lothar thinks in awe. Just where does he get these ideas? He brushes kisses into Callan’s hair (getting a little shaggy), until Callan overloaded on affection and pulled back. “Okay. I will try.”

 

“New Message from Art Brat.”

“Won’t be able to do another session until Saturday. Are you available?”

He leaves the text unanswered for three hours, lying on the floor, imagining he could feel the rotation of the earth, lost in idea that he was a fixed point on the surface of an oblate ellipsoid, turning so fast if he tried to sit in a mimicked rotation he’d lose consciousness.

His mother called these moment cloudcatching moments. He never quite understood the term until the first day he hit cruising speed at 20,000 feet, and the world underneath him stopped turning. He was going so fast it felt like the world on pause, and everything, the fears and anxiety, the hopes and dreams, all quieted at once. He moved so fast that the world held still.

“Anduin?” He’s slow to snap out of his daze, but he homes in on Taria’s voice with ease. “Anduin.”

He hadn’t heard the door open, or when she removed her heels, but those both must have happened because her feet pad across the livingroom floor to him. “Is it your back? Oh, you have dictation on. Erase message. Shut off.”

He hears her sit, and the click of his phone being set down next to him, between them. “You should text him back.”

“Hmmm,” his voice catches in his throat, phlegmy from lack of use. “Should I?”

“Why wouldn’t you?” she asks, straight and to the point with no time for his false sense of light humor.

Lothar chooses not to answer immediately, stretching out. “I think I forgot what she looked like.”

“Anduin, it’s been two decades.”

“Which side of her neck was her beauty mark? Her left?”

“Her left.” She shifts next to him, the sound of pantyhose against business cotton, and then her fingers comb through his hair. “Text him back.”

Lothar sighs. “Dictation on.” The phone confirms it received the order. “I’m free Saturday. Send.”

Taria hmms, full of unmet expectation, and Lothar sighs louder. “Coffee? You owe me a cup. Send. Dictation off. There. Happy?”

Her lips press against his forehead. “Satisfied. Now get dressed, we need you at a meeting.”

“What?”

“Father’s Charitable Lead Trust meeting.”

His brow furrows as he silently repeats charitable trust, then he tilts his head. “That was settled years ago, was it not? When Father died, if I remember right.”

“Apparently there were additional instructions we weren’t to be informed about until a month after Callan’s eighteenth birthday.”

Lothar sits up, ignoring the pops in his back. “He would do this, wouldn’t he? Always had to make family decisions more interesting. What’s it about? Did the lawyers tell you?”

“It sounds like he had another account, and Callan will decide where it goes. With our guidance. There are considerations in place that would allow us both to delay the process, should we choose to.”

“How much?”

“Well, with nineteen years of relatively successful investing decisions… Roughly 8.5 million.”

Lothar’s mouth dries. “Oh.”

Chapter Text

My airplane is quiet, and for a moment still an alien, still a stranger to the ground, I am home.

-Richard Bach

 

 

Lothar dreams he can see, but everything is too bright to have definition. He has to squint to make out the vaguest detail. Tonight he dreams Cally is there, but when he looks at her all he can see is her smile--pink lips parting in a half laugh to reveal even white teeth--and light. Sometimes he catches her eyes, the moment before her pupils dilate, when her smile reaches them and they darken into liquid pools.

At least, that was the memory of her he had, cut out from a picture Medivh took long before, and taped to the inside of his helmet. The day he last saw her, she had been dead longer than he knew her.

When he wakes up, he does so trying to remember what her laugh sounded like.

 

“Medivh’s moving.” Llane is on speaker phone, having called Lothar during his mid-morning run.

“Is he?” Lothar asks between gulping breaths, pressing his forehead to the cool wall.

“Yep, and he’s being a tease about it, too. Are you training for a marathon?”

“No.” Lothar takes one more breath, his lungs still burning but his heart’s slowed to normal. “So what’s he planning?”

“He used the Swiss account to purchase an industrial shipping container, it’ll leave port from Gothenburg here in a few days, and it looks like it’ll be making a few pit stops to load up on art supply orders across the country. Oh, and he’s buying dresses and toys. And French lingerie.”

“I’m so happy for you.” Lothar groans.

“I’m pretty sure the crate of fine whiskey is for you.”

“That’s great, could he have shipped it before you called?” Lothar finds his water bottle and takes a deep drink.

“Very funny.”

“So he’s coming home, then?” Lothar asks, wiping his mouth on the back of his arm.

“That, or he’s doing a good job manufacturing intention.”

That does give Lothar pause. For the most part, his brother-in-law is every bit the Lion the media portrayed him as. Lothar’s known him since childhood, known his loyalty and his compassion as well as his strength and character, and so he knows when Llane is longing.

“He’ll be back.” Lothar says as certain as he can make himself. “You know him as well as I do. He isn’t intentionally cruel.”

“I know.”  Llane replies, sounding for the world like a young man pining all over again.

When Llane exposes the more delicate workings of his heart to Lothar, he was never sure how to respond. In general, appreciating such moments, along with a little support and dry wit, has yet to get him in trouble. “So I take it you have plans for that lingerie?”

“I do,” Llane says, wistful tone not entirely cleared. “Let Taria sort it out.”

“She’ll be thrilled.”

“Won’t we all be?”

“It’s Medivh. If he’s anything, he’s thrilling.”

Apparently that is the right thing to say, because Llane’s tone after contains his smile, and when the other trivial parts of conversation are formally addressed and goodbyes exchanged, his hope lingers in Lothar’s soul.

 

Walking in the afternoon has a different flavor to it. The people walk with impatient purpose, and are more talkative. More cars pass, more car horns blaring, loading the street with fumes. The smell of various meals cooking from food vendors keeping up with the busiest hours of the day, which  the constant open and close of shop doors only adds to. Lothar’s on edge, more people usually means more carelessness, and he’s been shouldered aside or otherwise passed unceremoniously more time than he can count already.

As far as comfort zones went, whenever he paid attention to them, this is far outside of his. It’s not as unbearable as it once had been--he can handle the jumbled soundscape better now with fifteen years of constant practice--but in general it awakens a hyperfocused sense of situational awareness. So when something happened, such a car horn blaring, he was instantly considering whether he should step back or leap forward, or perhaps flatten against the wall, where really it had nothing to do with him at all and he was free to walk without incident.

Of course, it does come in handy, because when he felt the looming presence at his side as he passes a small public park, he knew to ease his walk to a more fluid motion, and stop all together when the attention prickled along his back and another presence appeared at his side. He anchors his hands together mid-way up his cane.

“Can I help you?”

The response he gets is in a language he can’t understand, but the tone, sneering and over-pronounced, is as clear as can be. Lothar listens. There are four, and they are young. Quick, unpredictable, easy to provoke, and very likely not guarding their knee caps. This will not end well for him, but, judging by the smell of built up body oil and old sweat, they will be far worse off since they likely didn’t have health insurance.

“I suppose not. Can this hurry? I am late to meet a friend.”

Lothar had just settled his mind and prepared for the first contact, when another voice rings out, loud and with rigid authority. Lothar waits. The air changes around him, the brewing energy before a fight wicked out as the fifth man approaches. The younger men huff and stomp, but they turn away, though they are sure to jostle Lothar a few times as they leave. The fifth man, his intervener, looms to his left, and Lothar turns slightly to face him.

“Thank you, I suppose.”

No answer. Unless a gruff, dismissive noise can be counted as an answer. Christ, how tall was this man? Lothar himself was never on the short side of average, but this man’s voice came down from at least a head taller. Out of curiosity, he offers a hand. He stills a flinch when cold metal presses into his palm. He presses back, and identifies four individual knuckles, the fifth hanging over the edge of Lothar’s palm. Then they are gone, and, the gesture complete, they both are on their way.

“Hey, there you are.” Khadgar is sitting on the bench when he approaches. “I was starting to worry.”

“Sorry,” Lothar says, stepping off the main sidewalk so he can stand freely. “I was unexpectedly delayed.” Khadgar stands, and Lothar is surprised (pleasantly so) when his hand is taken. “Still no gloves?”

Khadgar graces him with a low chuckle. “Nope, and now I’m going to forget for another week.”

“You would think an artist would make more of an effort to care for his hands.” They’re not as cold this time, at least, leading Lothar to expect he’s been keeping them in his pockets. “Are we going to see Brione again?”

“Ah, no. I was thinking of another place, actually. It’s newer, but the coffee is excellent.” For the first part, they walk his normal morning route. “You were delayed? Nothing too bad, I would hope.”

“It was curious,” is all Lothar offers in return, the metal prosthesis still weighing at the forefront of his mind. They reach the first dip of the sidewalk meeting the street, and Khadgar indicates he’s turning right. Lothar stops. “This is an alley.”

And a narrow one at that. The kind that bounces sound back and forth from both sides like table tennis.

“It’s a shortcut.” Already it’s as if Khadgar’s voice is drowning in the echo.

“Is there another way?” The idea alone makes Lothar’s legs lock into place, his grip on Khadgar’s hand edging crushing.

“Yeah.” Khadgar is quiet when he replies, delayed, as if he spent the first part searching Lothar out with his eyes. “This way.”

He leads Lothar down to the next major street, and turns there. The tone of the neighborhood changes. There’s another language in the air, much like the one the two men that delayed Lothar spoke, but here instead of angry guttural sneering the language rounds out to puttering consonants that snap cleanly to a finish, often wrapped around laughter or riding the tide of a building story. Children laugh and run around them; school must have just released for the day.

“So about your delay,” again, Khadgar uses the too casual voice. “You didn’t happen to be stopped on the street, were you?”

Lothar makes him wait, building up his own version of casual. “And what would you know about that?”

Khadgar curses once, dragging the syllable into a much longer word than it should be. “I knew-. Hm. I was hoping it would be quiet today. Ugh. Normally when they challenge someone, they go for the young and strong, not-”

“The disabled?” Lothar finishes for him impassively.

“Sorry.”

“Apology accepted.” Although the blunted nature of the statement had its appeal. Besides, considering the parting with the man from earlier, Lothar was beginning to shape an idea of the situation. “They?”

“Draenei refugees. Though, don’t call them Draenei if you can help it; it’s not a name they chose. There’s supposed to be a rally in the Morass right now.”

The street does quiet. Conversationally, at least, Lothar can still pick up footfalls, with the occasional car passing through. “Does that mean where we’re going is a refugee hotspot?”

Khadgar pulls their linked hands up, like he’s just shrugged. “I have a friend who works there.”

“Judging by what little I know of your caffeine habit, I wouldn’t be surprised if you had a friend anywhere there’s coffee to be served.”

“Well, I have yet to befriend the gas station clerks, or the receptionists in waiting rooms with a complimentary coffee bar, so not quite there yet but I’ll work on it.”

He starts to pull Lothar off to the side, away from the street, so they must be approaching the door. As they get closer, he can hear it has a hydraulic attachment, indicating it must be heavy and well-used. From memory, he can’t recall much about this street, though it exists only a few short blocks away. There may have been an antique bookstore here once, and a deli, but it’s been two decades. Drastic changes have happened in less time before.

Where Khadgar leads him, the warm air escaping smells of simply roasted meat, stew, heavy bread, and brewed coffee. The conversation inside was stilted, and could be mistaken for grunts at times. It would seem this was a place to eat rather than converse.

“Khadgar.” A woman’s voice greets them as they approach the counter. Khadgar lets go of Lothar’s hand, and from the sound of it, is hugging the voice’s owner over the counter. “I knew you’d come see me.”

“You complained all day yesterday how bored you’d be today. I took the hint,” Khadgar says, his hand slipping into Lothar’s again and tugging. “This is Garona. She’s my roommate. Sort of. Garona, this is-”

“Your desktop background.”

Neither speak for a moment. Lothar can feel the smile spreading across his face.

“Oh?” he drawls the vowel, his eyebrows raising. Khadgar groans.

“Yes,” Garona says. “He has animated it.”

Really?

“I did not.

“He did.”

“What- No. I used individual frames shot in series to make a gif-”

Lothar’s grinning now, he holds out his hand to Garona, and when she takes it, he lets go of Khadgar’s to cover the shake. “Lothar. It's a pleasure to meet you.”

“Not a pleasure for Khadgar, it would seem.” Her hands are warm and as strong as any man’s, their texture dry as if scrubbed clean.

“He’ll come around.” Lothar says, letting her hands slip through his. Immediately, he feels Khadgar’s hand on his arm, and allows himself to be pulled away from the counter.

“He takes his coffee with lots of cream and sugar, you know what I want.” Khadgar says it so fast it’s almost one word. The entirety of the scene is so ridiculous that Lothar’s laughing by the time Khadgar steers him into a seat. He hears the boy drop heavily into his own across the way.

“She’s delightful.”

Khadgar huffs. “That actually went better than I thought it would.”

“Oh did it?” Lothar asks, still grinning. Is that what his own voice sounds like while he’s laughing? Utterly ridiculous. “Tell me more about my animation. I really need to know.”

“It’s not an animation .” If Lothar felt his cheek, just reached out and pressed his fingers to the side of Khadgar’s face, would he feel the burning heat of a blush? Would he if he continued down along the boy’s neck? “It’s like a movie. Remember when the shutter would click rapidly? I was using burst mode. So I just edited the frames together into one moving image.”

“And set it as your desktop background?”

“To remind myself to work on it, yes.” Khadgar is so adamant, Lothar might just show mercy.

“Hmm.” Besides, he didn’t want to risk saying something and sounding stupid. His memory of computer monitors were predominantly large, boxy monstrosities that used cathode ray tubes. He’d seen the sleeker liquid crystal displays, but hadn’t gotten around to purchasing or using one himself. Mostly, what he knew was what Callan came home from school and told him about, or what Llane described when he talked about work. “Which image?”

“Oh.” Khadgar’s relief reminices how he sounded when he claimed This is for art . “Do you remember when you stretched a little too far and black layer cracked?”

Vaguely. His attention had been focused on the voice behind the camera. Khadgar, as Lothar had anticipated, was vocalic as he worked, and throughout the session would hum or murmur notes to himself as he moved from one angle to the next. And while the paint had weight to it on Lothar’s skin, he hadn’t noticed anything off about it until he arched his back, shoulders throwing wide, and a network of newly exposed skin broke over his chest down his abdomen. “That was the very end.”

“Yeah. Before the paint started falling off, though, it looks like the sky cracked open,” the kid’s tone has a touch of awe, and he speaks quieter. “I’ve never seen anything more beautiful.”

Lothar has nothing really to add, except to hear Khadgar right now causes Lothar’s chest to twinge. It’s not a reaction he can put into words, though. “Thank you. I’d say you are quite beautiful as well, but-” He gestures at his eyes.

From the direction of the counter, footsteps. A tray is set down on the table, then the sound of a chair dragging across the floor. “Khadgar is beautiful.”

“Oh no- Garona.

“Khadgar is very beautiful.”

Garona please.

“Every word she says is gold.”

“He is our favorite shop decoration.”

Khadgar makes a noise of objection, overshadowed largely by Lothar’s barking laughter. “Don’t you have a counter to run?”

“They have already paid, and the rally starts soon. I could close now.”

“I honestly don’t know why I thought this was a good idea,” Khadgar mutters, muffled.

“This was the best idea,” Lothar replies, feeling for the coffee on the tray. Garona’s hands cover his and move them to the handle of a tall ceramic cup. He raises an eyebrow, but ultimately brushes it off with a shrug. “Thanks. So. You’re Khadgar’s roommate.”

“We are not a couple.”

Khadgar emits a weak moan. Lothar tilts his head, then completes the gesture with a single nod. “I didn’t mean to imply-”

Garona cuts him off. “Khadgar is not a couple with anyone right now.”

Judging by Khadgar’s sharp inhale, this was not a topic he intended to breach, particularly in such a brusque manner. Lothar manages a smile, he won’t deny he finds that information useful, though what use he may have for it is as of yet undetermined. “Is that right?”

“It is.”

“And there we can drop it.” Khadgar says with some force.

Garona snorts. “You were not going to tell him.”

“Dropping. It.”

In the tense silence that follows, Lothar can only guess that they’re glaring at one another since he doesn’t hear any motion, not even the slight sounds mouthing words would create. Perhaps they are both watching him, waiting for his input. When it draws on a touch too long, he shrugs. “There is a rally today at Morass? Isn’t that where that installation is?”

“Yes. There is a petition to remove it. They go to keep it up.”

“Gul’dan,” Khadgar says, laden with bitterness. “He claims to be a leader. He leads, alright. Right up to each other’s throats.”

“Gul’dan.” This is the second time Lothar has been given this name. “He is the artist, correct?”

“Yeah,” Khadgar admits grudgingly.

Lothar thinks back to Llane’s statements. “Is what he does really art?”

Apparently it is a question that deserves thought, because Lothar is able to sip at his coffee before he gets a reply. Brewed coffee, he discerns, with thick heavy cream and granulated table sugar. Simple. Inexpensive. Pretty good.

“It is,” Khadgar says after a moment. Slow, with full stops in the spaces between words like he had to weigh the next before vocalizing it. “He’s very good at making bold statements that can’t be ignored. That’s what he did in Draenor. His art is what put Draenor on the map to begin with. If that photo of the bridge of fire hadn’t been sent to the press, no one would even know there was a war going on.” Khadgar seems distant, like his thoughts race far ahead while his words lag. “I suppose you can say that’s his style. He channels anger and conflict into imagery. He’s good at calling attention to major issues.”

“Giving voice to the voiceless.” Lothar supplies, his thoughts also far from what he says.

“Yeah. Sort of. As much as a battle cry can, anyway.”

“Gul’dan is a uniter,” Garona adds. “His influence convinced the people they must leave. Without his voice there would have been no great move to this country. The people, they are fighters. In Draenor they fought for food and for water. Then they fought to unite. Now they are here, and fight for shelter and community. It keeps them united, the fight.”

“Wouldn’t that make them refugees fighting their refuge?” Lothar asks.

“Yes, but Gul’dan doesn’t care about that. He has all his demands, but impedes any effort to meet them.” Khadgar says.

“I can see why the community has had a hard time integrating.”

“He does not want to integrate. He would have it so that as we were in Draenor, so we would be here. He believes to live as you do here, it would sacrifice what keeps us strong and united.” Garona says. “It is not a good standing.”

That takes Lothar some piecing together to figure to, but he works his way through her speech pattern eventually. “No, it isn’t. He doesn’t seem to have a mind for peace.”

“No, just for spitefulness and hatred.” Khadgar sneers. “I’m sorry, Ro. Ever since the Gate went up, he’s been using art to spread resentment and anger. I can’t stand behind it.”

“Don’t be sorry. You are not wrong. But Gul’dan is not all wrong, either. What he says is important, because the people listen.”

Khadgar sighs, long and low. “That is the problem, isn’t it?”

“They must be tired, though. Of the fight.” Lothar says after some deliberation. “Not all, but there must be some. They may listen to Gul’dan now, but I think, they may want to listen to a voice of peace soon.”

“Let’s hope sooner rather than later, for everyone’s sake.” Khadgar says, and Garona makes a curt noise in agreement.

Lothar can only hope, at least, for Llane’s sake.

 

“Sorry that got a little deep and gloomy.” Khadgar says after they leave the shop.

“It’s alright. I asked, after all.” It was stimulating to talk with others on the subject that weren’t as decisive as Llane. Good people, thoughtful people. “Or would you rather we continued on the topic of how beautiful you are?”

Khadgar issues one hoarse laugh. “There wouldn’t be much to talk about there.”

Lothar slows his walk. “Your friend was pretty clear.” Khadgar makes a dismissive noise. This time Lothar stops completely turning to face the boy. “Oh no. We’re not ending this with that.”

“And how do you propose we end it, then?”

How indeed. Lothar wonders how he gets himself in these situations. He raises his free hand, palm open, and tries to keep his voice as light as possible. “Let me judge for myself?”

His world breaks down to Khadgar’s breathing, and the sound of wetted lips pressing together, of his throat moving as he swallows. It takes several heartbeats before he feels Khadgar’s hand on the outside of own, leading it to his face. Lothar’s fingers find the border of stubble and smooth skin. Khadgar breathes in through his nose, the hand that guided Lothar’s lingering over the knuckles, before sliding down and hooking around the wrist.

Khadgar breathes out, also through his nose, with some resolute force. Lothar’s thumb trace the cheekbone, down along the firm cheek, His hand turn sharply along the jaw, his thumb remaining above the jaw, skirting a surprisingly full lower lip.

“Hmm.” He stops there, thumb resting just below the lip, the chin itself resting on his fingers. Strong jaw, wide eyes, full lips. Lothar’s hand falls away. “Your friend is right. Beautiful.”

Khadgar laughs it off, but all along the rest of the walk, all that occupied Lothar’s mind was how much he’d have liked to swipe his thumb over Khadgar’s lower lip.

 

There is a coat hanging on the rack when Lothar returns home. He feels it against his knuckles as he hangs up his own. Callan’s boots are dead center on the shoe mat, one tipped over, the other askew. Lothar listens in the hall, and can hear the faint sound of music playing through headphones from the living room. He can also hear snoring.

It couldn’t be later than 7 PM.

He steps gingerly, not wanting to startle his son. Not, at least, until he sits on the edge of the couch, his lower back flat against Callan’s. He reaches, and at first meets a forearm, then a hand, then hair (still shaggy). Callan must be sleeping on his side, his face cushioned into his arm.

“Oh. Hey dad.” His voice is too sleepy to contain emotion.

“Hey.”

“Sorry.”

“For napping?”

“You weren’t here.”

A deflection as much as a reason. Lothar doesn’t bite. “Have you been sleeping alright?”

Callan takes a deep breath. “No. The dorms are loud at night. There’s always someone up somewhere. People walking. Doors opening and closing. And I can hear the traffic.”

“Mmm.” Lothar doesn’t want to say what he’s thinking, because he knows Callan expects it. Lothar worries, rightly so he believes, but he’s also struggling to respect Callan’s choices now that he’s an adult. “It does take getting used to. But you will get used to it. One day.” He ruffles Callan’s hair one more time. “Go back to sleep. Get a blanket. We’ll discuss your haircut in the morning.”

 

“New Message from Art Brat.” Lothar turns the audiobook he was listening to off.

“The studio I used last time isn’t available.”

It’s a bad sign when Lothar mentally converts his text-to-speech voice into Khadgar’s.

“Does that mean we’re cancelled?”

He considers changing settings so the app would intone when his current partner was typing a reply. It would certainly save him the anticipation.

“It’s closing down for good, actually.” A pause, one Lothar will give a minute just to be sure Khadgar isn’t just breaking his texts up. “There is another place we could go. It’s not too far of a walk from the bench, either.”

“You can send me the address.”

“Not for this place. It’s complicated.”

“We’re not breaking in, are we?”

“No. Of course not. Do you really think I’m the type to trespass?”

“Emoji menu. Select Smile Emoji. Send.”

Ten minutes later, when Lothar is digging around in his closet to figure out what he wants to wear, his phone chimes again.

“What does that mean?”

Lothar sends him another smile emoji.

“You’re a frustrating man, Lothar. I’ll meet you at the bench at five.”

 

This time Lothar beats Khadgar there. He waits for fifteen minutes before Khadgar appears, out of breath, practically jogging.

“Hey, sorry. I had to clean up a bit before coming to get you. Lost track of time.”

“You’re alright.” Lothar says, standing. “Now we’re even.”

“I suppose we are.” Khadgar says, taking Lothar’s hand.

He leads Lothar down the street. Where they turn is vaguely familiar; Lothar has come this way before in the past. He just can’t pin down for what, or why he stopped walking this way in the past.

“Do you live here?” Lothar asks after making their way up a steep, winding path to the front entrance. He can hear a code being entered.

“Yes. Sort of. It’s more like house-sitting.”

Inside smells strongly of paint and freshly-disturbed dust, with light undertones of stinging chemicals and paper. Lothar has smelled this before. He steps inside, his stick hitting stretched canvas propped against the nearest wall.

“There’s really nowhere to put your coat,” Khadgar says apologetically. “But you can leave your shoes here. There’s a studio set up down the hall, but you might want to let me lead you there. The hall is over-crowded.”

He wasn’t over exaggerating, either. Lothar’s feet brush against canvas on frames several times along the walk.

“Here’ I’ll put your coat by the door.” Khadgar says when they enter the room.

Lothar takes of his shirt while he’s at it, handing both off. There’s something about this floor. He takes a few steps, skin brushing along the surface. He stops when he feels a warp in the surface, the image of a long, chemical burn scar permanently etched in a rich wood panelled floor coming to mind. Huh.

“I’m going to have you lie down this time.” Khadgar continues, his voice just behind Lothar. “The style I’m planning on using multiple layers of color layered and dabbed, I’d rather not work against gravity.”

“You’re the artist.” Khadgar leads him to a lounge chair. “What sky are you painting today?”

“Dark blue.” Khadgar says, he’s arranging objects he pulled up after Lothar got comfortable. It sounds like tubes. “Engulfed in white clouds.”

“Like a hole in the sky?”

“What’s a hole in the sky?” Khadgar uncaps a tube. Then another, and a third.

“Well, multiple things to different pilots.” Lothar waits. Khadgar waits. Lothar gets the idea Khadgar is waiting on him to continue the sentence, which is odd. The artist is the one to know the vision before the model, isn’t he? Regardless, Lothar obliges. “I always saw it as when the cloud ceiling is measured in thousands, but the coverage is not uniform enough to be considered overcast. This would be a broken coverage.”

Khadgar moves. Lothar can feel the heat of his forearm over his chest, then over his lower abdomen. “Mhmm.”

“The cloud tops are above you, and you have to watch flying through them because they’re supercooled liquid, and flying through them is sure ice on your wings. But determining white on white?” Lothar pauses, breathing in, Khadgar must be leaning over him for his breath to ghost over Lothar’s side. A cold gob of thick paint blossoms on his abdomen. “Next to impossible. The only real definition you had to go by was the narrow sliver of sky you were chasing.”

“Tell me more,” Khadgar says, low and gravelly. Entranced. Lothar feels the gob of paint increase, then Khadgar’s hand dab and smear.

So Lothar does. He maps the entire sky, if only to keep Khadgar floating in it with him.

If only it could stay that way. Some indeterminate amount of time later, Lothar hears the front door open, and hurried footsteps.

“Are you expecting company?”

“No?”

The doorknob across the room rattles a few times before it’s turned enough to click, then is flung open unceremoniously.

“What’s he doing here?” Garona? Garona. In a hurry, too. “This is on you.”

“What do you mean?” Khadgar asks, presumably just as perplexed as Lothar is.

“He’s here. He’s on his way in now.”

“He’s here? He wasn’t supposed to be in until- Oh, Light.”

Lothar would recognize those footsteps, grave and measured like a priest leading procession, anywhere. He tucks his hands under his head, resuming lounging. They pause in the entry way. Next to him, Khadgar holds his breath.

“Anduin.”

“Medivh.”

“I see you’ve been introduced to my apprentice.”

Lothar raises an eyebrow. “Apprentice?”

Apparently he isn’t the only one surprised, he said the word in tandem with Khadgar.There’s a pause, during which Lothar hears Garona snicker.

“Well, yes. Didn’t I tell you?” Medivh is met by silence. Lothar can feel movement to his right, likely Khadgar making frustrated gestures. “I suppose I forgot.”

“You know each other?” Khadgar finally bursts.

“Oh yes,” Medivh says, “Though not, perhaps, as you know each other.”

“Don’t listen to him, kid,” Lothar says. “We’ve known each other since grade school. And yes, he’s always been this difficult.”

“I’m not difficult.”

“Really? Have you called Llane or Taria?” When he gets no immediate answer, he raises an eyebrow. “Call them.”

“I was hoping to delay that until their gifts arrived-”

“And likely until you had a grand entrance arranged, too, no doubt.”

“-but it would seem I no longer have a choice in the matter.”

“You really don’t. Though. If you call them, they’ll come over now.” Lothar hangs on to the now , aware he’s bare chested with paint drying on his abs, tickling under his pecs.

“They would.” Medivh intuits his line of thought. “Perhaps we should wait until Young Khadgar finishes his work.”

Now Lothar definitely felt exposed. “You’re checking me out right now, aren’t you?”

“You’re in very good shape.” Medivh confirms.

Next to him, Khadgar hand runs through his hair (it must be long to be this audible). His hand drops to the floor with a smack. “Your name is Anduin?

Chapter Text

Lothar’s skin itches. Today’s paint goes on thick and cool, and dries to a plastic texture. Though not, as was expected or would be comfortable, all at once. Where Khadgar uses multiple layers of (what Lothar can only assume is) different colors, the inner layer on Lothar’s skin remains wet and pliant even as it warms. Khadgar works with brushes this time, so far using one with a wide, rounded brush head, swiping short lines, interrupting the motion to move in tight circles, pushing up ridges until it feels like he’s been given scales all over his left shoulder.

Khadgar hasn’t so much as hummed since Medivh and Garona vanished to finish moving whatever supplies Medivh brought with him back in. That itches more than the paint.

“You’ve been quiet,” Lothar says when the ridges cover the the outer edge of his left side down to his lower abs.

“Sorry. Lost in thought.”

Lothar’s brow furrows, not able to place the boy’s soft tone. His gut associates it with Varian after a scolding, though. “You know there’s no way we could’ve known Medivh was a mutual friend, right?”

He pauses the brush where he’d started on the right side of Lothar’s chest, some inches away from the border of his left side. Khadgar breathes in. “Yeah,” he says, on the exhale, “I know.” The brush lifts. A paint tube is uncapped, and more paint blooms against his skin, eliciting a shiver. For a moment Lothar thinks the kid is going to leave it at that, and debated on breaking the silence once more, but Khadgar beats him to it. “I still can’t believe you didn’t tell me your name.”

Lothar is partially right. There is petulence at the core of Khadgar’s outburst, but he feels there is more to it than just hitting a callow nerve. Irritation? Frustration? “Is that what you’re pouting about?”

“Yes.” Khadgar agrees quickly, almost sullenly, but backtracks just as quick. “No. Pouting? I am not pouting.”

“Then what are you? Are you angry? Did I annoy you?”

“It’s nothing.”

“It’s not nothing.”

“Yes it is. You didn’t have to tell me your real name?”

“Lothar is my real name.”

Khadgar growls in frustration. “Why are we even still talking about this?”

A fair question, Lothar himself isn’t sure why he couldn’t let it go. Carefully, because the only alternative would be silence, he continues. “Lothar is my last name.”

Khadgar breathes out again, something like the shadow of an incredulous laugh. “And you always introduce yourself by your last name?”

“Yes.” Lothar’s losing patience. Such a silly thing to be angry over.

“Lothar was in the service,” a patient yet entirely unexpected voice explains. “For many years, his last name was his only name.”

“When did you even get here?” Khadgar asks, his voice directed away from Lothar. The brush on Lothar’s chest no longer moves.

“A few minutes ago.” Lothar can hear Medivh pad across the room, a soft rustle of fabric, giving Lothar the mental image of the loose and light kaftans Medivh had taken up during their college years. “May I?”

“I don’t see why not, considering you’re already helping yourself.”

“Well, I do own the place. And, no offense, but he has been my friend longer.” Again, Lothar feels the weight of scrutiny. If he didn’t know for a fact it was a close friend, he’d be squirming out of this lounge chair. “Your composition has improved, although I’m not sure you can take much credit toward your own personal growth given your excellent choice of canvas.”

“Are you here to be objective or to objectify?” Lothar asks drily.

“Hush, I’m mentoring.” Medivh taps Lothar’s forehead. “You let your brush get caught up in your emotions, didn’t you?”

“That obvious?” Khadgar sounds different. Quieter, more nervous than Lothar thought possible.

“That isn’t a strike against its quality, though it is a remark on your direction.” It’s strange how Lothar can hear he isn’t the one being spoken to, that there is a slight volume difference when Medivh addresses Khadgar. “May I ask how you plan on shooting him?”

It’s clear they no longer need his input, so Lothar drifts off, buoyed into serenity of inconsequence by their familiar, friendly voices.

 

The air outside is brisk, the dampness of Lothar’s recent shower absorbing the night’s chill and wicking away any lingering warmth. Khadgar sees them as far as the door. His hand on Lothar’s elbow slips away before Lothar finished lacing his boots, leaving in its wake hollow claims of unfinished work in need of attention.

Medivh calls that the car has arrived, and Lothar, with his distant memory of path length and stair locations and step count, makes his way to the edge of the drive in a steady, if somewhat slowed, walk.

“You didn’t have to wait for me. You could have called another car any time,” Lothar says when their driver shuts the door behind him. Medivh is already seated and buckled in, and Lothar has no trouble picturing him as he had been, decades before, legs together, hands folded in his lap, looking every bit as professional and serious as he wanted people to believe him to be.

“You look more relaxed.” Medivh replies.

“Since a few moments ago?” Lothar asks. His chest feels bare despite the shirt now that he’s scraped the paint off. “Or since six years ago?”

“Has it been six years?” Lothar turns his head to face his friend, working his mouth into a flat angle to display just how unimpressed he is. “Okay. yes. It has been six years. I acknowledge that I was aware of that. I didn’t intend to be gone as long as I was. However, the work I was caught up in was worth the sacrifice.”

“About that. Just what work were you doing? You don’t call, you don’t check in, you didn’t once take a break for six years? And we’re not going to talk about your finances. Your usual displays, they don’t cost what you’ve been spending.”

“My usual displays? I’m a photographic journalist, Anduin.”

Ah. Right. Six years would mean Medivh does not recognize this driver. The window must be open. “Marie, what level of non-disclosure did you sign to when you joined the family?”

“The full non-disclosure agreement, sir.” Of course the window is open. She doesn’t elaborate further, so Lothar can assume she’s never experienced the private initiation, overseen by the family lawyer and Taria.Lothar won’t be able to question him further without risking family secrets.

“Yes, your usual displays. Of wealth.”

“Of wealth.” Medivh repeats, flat. Lothar had been hoping he’d be wearing some gaudy coat or boots that looked every bit as expensive as they were. Perhaps not, which was a shame. Lothar himself could use a little more convincing his worry was misplaced. “Well. You know me, I just can’t help myself.”

“I just need to know one thing. It wasn’t-” there is no real delicate way to go about this. “-substance-related, was it?”

Medivh says nothing. Lothar reaches out, his hand seeking Medivh’s lap, where he knows he’ll find Medivh’s hand. His thigh gives Lothar something to chew on: Medivh had never been a slight man, but now he’s lean, with clearly defined muscle. His hands are different, too, callused, knobby, the skin rough to the touch under Lothar’s palms. He slides one hand up Medivh’s forearm and over the old scar he got when initiated in his training. No collapsed veins, no damaged skin or signs of sores.

Medivh tolerates the touch, but eventually interrupts. “Not that I mind being felt up, but Llane might take issue.”

Lothar snorts, but he draws back. “Where have you been?”

Maybe he reveals more worry than he should, because Medivh purrs. “A story for another time, old friend. If only so I don't have to repeat it.”

“If you get to it at all. You really put ‘absence makes the heart grow fonder’ to the test.”

“I know.” And there, in the bland deflection Medivh used to carefully color his attitude, is the first discernable streak of regret.

Lothar feels the car take a hard turn, then slow. They stop at the gate, waiting to be granted access to the manor grounds. The pause is brief, there’s no real reason other than formality for one of the private cars to be stopped at all, and then it’s a matter of seconds before they’re dropped off at the front entrance. Beside him, Medivh breathes out, long and low, and shifts in his seat.

“I take it they’ve redecorated?” Lothar hazards an attempt at humor.

He receives in response the closest thing to a hysterical bubble of laughter he’s ever gotten out of his friend. “A few times, it appears.”

Lothar tries to make of what he can from what little he has to go on. Medivh’s breathing is calm and even, but Lothar had been with him through live gunfire and knows just how deeply he can shake apart without any outward sign at all. But he doesn’t say anything. This anxiety could only be alleviated by met anticipation.

The car comes to a stop. Lothar can hear footsteps. Medivh’s belt clicks. In a flurry of activity, the door opens, followed by the sound of fabric smothered between bodies and murmurings from all three, Taria, Llane, and Medivh. From his left, the door handle of his side of the car clicks, and the door is pulled open. He takes his time exiting, not looking forward to standing idle while the triad reunites and unsure what else he could do in the face of the inevitable.

He shouldn’t have worried. As soon as he made his way around the car, Taria takes him by the arm and leads them both inside.

“The kids?” Medivh asks as they trade the night air for the warmth of the foyer. Lothar can smell the houseplants and wet topsoil, the roasted turkey they must have had for dinner.

“In bed,” Taria replies, only somewhat scolding.

They’ve rearranged the furniture of the lounge since his last visit. Thankfully, his first method of detecting this comes through when his cane struck a furniture leg that wasn’t there his last visit (the second method being toppling over the furniture). He suffers the brief indignity of Taria guiding his hand to the soft cover of a divan, and takes a seat. Lothar hears the hollow pop of a bottle of whiskey being opened. From the same direction, Medivh speaks. “So. How long has Anduin been sleeping with my apprentice?”

“Anduin is sleeping with who?” Llane asks. He’s across the room, no more than a few feet away judging by how well Lothar can hear him despite the low tone of his voice.

“Oh no, love.” Taria says, from the same direction, likely curled, catlike, on Llane’s shoulder. “They’re not together.”

Medivh, for all his irredeemable qualities, pours with a generous hand, allowing the stream of liquid to pour long after an actual bartender would have stopped. That doesn’t stop Lothar from considering his murder, but it helps. Footsteps, softened by the carpet, make their way around in the space between Lothar and where he last heard Taria.

“They’re not sleeping together,” Medivh repeats.

“No.”

“Are they pursuing each other, at least?”

“Courting, darling,” Taria corrects, and from the sound of it she’s served first. “And no. At least, not in any way either of them admit to.”

“Anduin.” Medivh stops next to where he’s sitting. Lothar holds out a hand. The whiskey glass is cold, Medivh’s fingers warm where they persist. “As your life-long friend and brother, know I only speak with your best interest in mind. Hit that .”

Lothar is surprised he can talk considering his jaw is about to snap under the tension. He pries his glass away. “Noted. You might want to stick around, I’m going to need that refill.”

“This wouldn’t happen to be the same someone you mentioned a while back, would it be?” Llane asks.

Lothar responds by drinking half his glass in one go.

“As much as I’d like to focus on Lothar’s social life,” Medivh says as he obligingly refills Lothar’s glass, “the timeline of my progression has been accelerated.”

The whiskey cuts a burning streak down Lothar’s esophagus, then spreads warmth from his gut. It’ll take a minute for that warmth to soften his thoughts, but it’s a start. Medivh’s knack for selection shines, he really did bring a fine whiskey.

“You don’t say?” Llane must be feeling his drink. His voice raises unconsciously. “They weren’t supposed to be here for another two years, when we had the infrastructure to support their population.”

“Accelerated more so than that, I’m afraid.”

“More so? How can this possible accelerate more so?” It’s been awhile since Lothar heard Llane speak belligerently. Doing so simply isn’t Llane’s modus operandi, he preferred to listen before taking action. “We’re at a standstill. They need housing. Our construction crews refuse to work through protests. What is there left to accelerate?”

Medivh seems to consider his words carefully, or otherwise hesitate in delivering them. “They may try bring the war here.”

“That’s crazy. Gul’dan isn’t- Tell me you didn’t push to grant refuge to a warlord.”

“No, of course not.” This answer doesn’t satisfy anyone. Lothar can hear the telltale roll of ice over glass indicating Llane is seething. “He does have an outsized influence. One I didn’t account for in the face of adversity.”

Llane lets out a frustrated growl. “I will not be responsible for starting a war in our streets, Medivh.”

“Not a war , no. I’d rather participate in other means of engagement.”

“Other means of trouble, more like.”

“Just one.” Lothar can hear the glee at a brewing storm in Medivh’s voice. It’s enough to cause Lothar to drink another prolonged sip. “And to be fair, he made the first move in that direction.”

 

His neck is stiff when he wakes, resisting motion so he can face the ceiling, and though he fell asleep shirtless, he’d failed to find pajama pants and instead slept in his jeans. The sheets feel fresh but smell like settled cotton, the pillow familiar but barely used. Waking takes longer than it should; he can taste stale whiskey every time he breathes out. With minimum teeth gritting, he manages to straighten out his neck, groaning and throwing his arm over his pounding skull.

The mattress tremors just slightly under him, a rustle he didn’t create coming from just off his right.

“Oh good, you’re awake.” Varian is very much his father’s son, but in this moment Lothar can hear his sister, ever rational and reasonable. “Mama wanted me to tell you Medivh is making us all breakfast.”

Lothar has to swallow a few times before determining his throat is in minimal working order. “How long have you been lying there?”

“I don’t know,” Varian replies with a sigh, “Ages?”

Memories of Callan at that age rise unbidden, prompting a smile. Lothar’s free hand reaches towards the voice, seeking, and is rewards when his palm molds around Varian’s tiny skull and the fine curls he inherited from Llane. “Then I am sorry to have kept you waiting.”

“It’s okay. Breakfast isn’t done yet, anyway.” Though if Lothar strains to listen, he can hear the usual scrapes and bangs of cooking occurring in another wing of the building. He can smell coffee, too, which was almost tempting enough for him to brave moving his head again. Varian wasn’t done with him, yet, though. “Uncle Lothar, I have questions.”

Lothar feels a slight dread well in his stomach. “What sort of questions?”

“Do I have to love Medivh if I don’t know him?”

Yeah, Callan had similar questions. Lothar swallows a groan, mind racing for an answer. “I don’t think so,” like hell is he going to be responsible for causing any resentment in his nephew’s life towards his parents’ third love, “but you love your mom and dad, don’t you?”

“Yes.”

“And they love him, so maybe you should let that guide your judgment.”

“I guess.” Varian draws out the final consonant, pitch rising and falling in a tiny, childish melody. “But then they love Adariall , too.”

Lothar laughs. “I felt the same way about your mother.”

“But she’s Mom. ” Varian sounds scandalized.

“To you . To me, she’s my sister. Just as Adariall is to you.”

“Still. Mom is way less annoying than Adariall.” The bed shifts, Varian’s head turn in Lothar’s palm until he feels the soft cartilage of his ear, meaning he’s staring up at his uncle.

“To you, ” Lothar repeats, making an effort to smile. “Now. Why don’t you help me find a shirt so I can get ready for breakfast?”

“Okay!”

The next twenty minutes are filled by Varian’s chattering about color and type, all of which Lothar isn’t particularly responsive to, until his nephew decides to pick a shirt in his favorite color just to cut down on waiting for Lothar’s approval. Once the shirt is selected, Varian leaves him alone to dress. With a long, drawn groan, Lothar forces himself to work his stiff muscles, making a note to ask Taria for painkillers over breakfast, and does his best to make himself presentable.

Downstairs, the overpowering smell of fresh coffee concedes to that of hot butter and melted chocolate, flour, and cooking eggs. Llane’s voice is low in his chest, rumbles like a pleased cat, and Taria’s responses sound constantly on the verge of laughter. Medivh whistles a tune, answering Adariall’s questions between the hiss of raw batter in oil. For a minute he wants to stumble a retreat, returning to the relative stillness of his guest suite where the moving parts of daily life couldn’t chew him apart. But Varian presses past him.

“I woke up Uncle Lothar,” he announces in the characteristic fearlessness of his age.

“Good morning,” Llane says sunnily, and there’s a shift at the table. Taria’s at his side, guiding him to the kitchen table. Medivh whispers something to Adariall, and in a patter of feet, he has tiny hands pressing a hot mug of coffee in his hands. The scene continues, except now it envelops him, warding off the cold fear of rejection and reminding him, once again, that when he fears losing all else, he is still a part of this family.

 

“You’re checking out again.”

As far away as he gets, Taria’s voice is undeniable, and the weight of her words sinks down his stomach to the soles of his feet. She’d escorted him home, and was currently lingering in his living room.

“I know.” Because he does, even if he doesn’t have anything to say about it. He fades in and out of the conversations and lives happening all around him, unaware of when the slippage begins or ends, just that it had occurred.

“I thought meeting someone would help.”

Lothar chuckles, an ugly, bitter sound. “You mean, that I’d be fixed?”

“You know that’s not what I meant.”

It is , Lothar thinks but doesn’t say. The hard edge of her tone means he won’t get far on that front. “It helps,” is all he can say.

He can hear her shuffle and bite her lip, as if she expects an answer to make itself apparent between them. When it doesn’t, she sighs. “Have you read the letter yet?”

It takes him a moment to recall which letter. The letter from his deceased father. A letter written before his accident robbed him of his sight. A letter that’s been sealed away in some lawyer’s files for nearly two decades. The meeting with his father’s lawyers replays in his head, just as bland and distant as it had been while he attended it. “No.”

He hasn’t even spared it a moment’s thought, really, since he brought it home, still sealed.

Taria’s hand is soft and warm on his arm. “It’s important, Anduin, don’t hold off on it forever.”

“Right.” He covers her hand with his own, trying to say with physical contact what he can’t begin to phrase. “Thanks. For letting me stay last night.”

“Of course. Always.” She lingers, but ultimately her hand slips out from between his and his arm, and she makes her way to the door. “I should get to work. Take care, okay?”

He can’t find it in him to reply until he hears the front door swing open. “Okay.”

 

It’s cool today, the winter’s chill finally settling for good even in direct sunlight. Cool enough to discourage others from venturing out, so though it should be the busier part of the day, his path is relatively clear. He won't go to the bench today. He's fairly certain Khadgar won't be there, and besides, he thinks perhaps a little distance between them would help right now.

He turns early, to the left, walks straight a block, crosses the street with some help from a kind college student, then turns right. If he were asked, he isn’t intent on any particular destination. Around him, the ambient language changes from smooth vowels to sharp consonants, and the smell of foreign herbs and rendered fat floods the air. To his left a door swings open, the hydraulic locking in place to stop the door’s momentum, then the slow hiss as it closes . There’s nothing special about it, though he tunes in automatically.

He’s just about to dismiss the sound when the door opens again behind him and a woman calls out, “Lothar!”

Garona.

Lothar slows from an amble to a standstill, turning his ear back to the shop.

“Yes?”

“Come.”

There must be a cultural difference. It’s the only explanation he can come up with to explain how she may not consider her terse demand rude. It would make sense, particularly if Llane (and what little news he watches) are to be believed. The refugees taken in recently spoke very little Common. He can guess she works in a shop that served mostly refugees. Mentally, he marks it as a point of interest, a possible view into what his friend has been doing out of the country all this time. Physically, he allows himself to be led into her shop.

The place is considerably busier today, though the chatter dies as soon as he’s pulled through the door. Instantly, it feels warmer, like dozens of spotlights are on him at once. Garona doesn’t seem to notice, tugging at his arm and commandeering his sense of direction until she stops him suddenly. From the sound, he thought he was next to a wall, so he reaches out to confirm, and the backs of his fingers brush over aged foam backing. She’s led him to a table.

“Sit. I’ll be back.”

She darts off, chattering in her language to persons unknown, and in her absence the tension envelopes him. With practice, he schools his face into a stoic mask, and carefully sets aside his cane to take a seat, shouldering the pressure presumed scrutiny hoisted on him. He manages to do both without hitting anything or making a fool of himself, all he needs now is to ease his own skittishness-

Immediately behind him, something small emits a loud shriek of excitement, and a second later, one of his hair strands is unceremoniously yanked on. Through the white jolt of pain, he hears a burble of a laugh. A baby? At shoulder level? A new, unknown proximity burns along his back, but the child’s laughter breaks whatever built up anxieties he may have had about being led into a room full of strangers. His fingers run down the length of hair until they happen upon a tiny, pudgy hand, just as soft as Callan’s, and more recently, Varian’s, had been, and just as determined in its grip on his hair. He definitely in need of a trim soon, then, he thinks when the hand yanks again. He eases his fingers into the child’s palm, replacing his hair with the width of his forefinger.

“Well hello, little one,” he says. His only response is a tiny growl and a pull on his finger, likely to guide it into a teething mouth. Lothar waggles his finger, resisting. “Aren’t you fierce?”

The child growls again, forcefully enough that Lothar gets the mental image of bared teeth, a brow furrowed in and infantile snarl. From what sounded to be across the table, a woman laughs. The child’s mother? She says something in the language he doesn’t understand, and the child’s grip tightens on his finger, but is pulled away. A chair creaks from the same general direction as the child, like a large figure turning around, and from a head above him a deep rumbling demand is issued.

Behind him at his own table, a ceramic mug thumps against the table surface. “What did you do?”

“The baby started it,” Lothar says, “Is his dad as big as he sounds?”

“Bigger,” Garona replies grimly, then speaks to the man in her own language. Lothar listens, trying to parse out the rhythm and tone. The man doesn’t necessarily sound angry, but as a father himself, Lothar knows parental instinct when he hears it. “He asks what you were doing with his son.”

“Retrieving my hair from his son’s grip,” Lothar says. “Tell him his son has a strong arm.”

There’s a momentary pause, whether caused by a searching expression or by mental translation Lothar would never know, but the conversation strikes up again between Garona and the man. Apparently, they’re quite a spectacle to the rest of the shop, another man chiming in from a few tables away. As inexperienced as he is, it’s hard for Lothar to pick out words from the flow of syllables, though he hears Gul’dan mentioned at least once. The conversation ends eventually, and the chair across from slides out and is occupied.

“Talking about me in front of me?” Lothar asks, as casually as he can.

“I brought you coffee,” is all he gets in reply. “Medivh. You know him.”

At least she’s to the point. He reaches out and manages to find his coffee unguided this time. “I do.”

“How?”

“And why would you need to know that?”

She grunts at him. “He didn’t come back last night.”

“Oh?”

“He’s known to disappear.”

You don’t know the half of it , Lothar thinks bitterly. “Listen, Medivh is a close personal friend. If he hasn’t told you anything, I won’t, either.”

“Would you trust him with your life?”

That gives Lothar pause, so he sips his coffee to cover. Extra sweet, with a burnt aftertaste, possibly bottom of the pot. “I did in the past.” But it’s been six years. People change drastically in less time.

The door of the place swings open and close regularly as customers come in and out. This time, however, Garona stops mid-thought, and Lothar doesn’t understand why until he hear a familiar voice.

“There you are. Why is it so important I come here now ? You know I’m- Oh. Lothar.”

“Khadgar.”

“Yes.” He can hear the gleam in her eye. “Good. You are both here. Talk. Maybe you can get this one to stop moping.”

Chapter Text

It’s a strange feeling, wanting to reach out and touch someone to confirm they’re actually there. Lothar hasn’t felt it in a long time, not with friends (dare he call Khadgar a friend?), and not outside of dreams. The crowd chatters around them without pause, the weight of all those unfamiliar voices resting on Lothar’s skin like a second membrane. He felt isolated, yet visible, like a specimen trapped between a microscope slide and coverslip. If he could feel Khadgar’s hand, he could identify him. He’s certain.

He opts for the less dangerous route. “Moping?”

“I’m not moping,” Khadgar sighs. Yep, that’s him, he’s actually there. The itch reach for him doesn’t subside, though. “I was busy.”

“Clearly.” They’ve only been at a standstill for five minutes after Garona took her leave. Before she left, she’d stopped and spoken with the family sitting behind Khadgar for a moment, but they left soon after she did, so perhaps it was just to collect their payment. “Well, then off you go.” Silence, but also the absence of a chair scraping back across the floor. Lothar frowns. “Did you want to talk? Or not?”

The table under his hand takes up a tremor, and for a moment he thinks it’s a light earthquake, except that his chair is still steady. The nervous tick in Khadgar’s leg again? Physical contact had stilled him before, but the context had changed. Lothar couldn’t be sure the same gesture would be seen as reassuring any longer. Just when the indecision threatened to snap his patience in two, Khadgar’s leg stops, and he sighs. “It’s Medivh.”

“What about Medivh?” Lothar isn’t proud of the edge his voice takes. Defensive, bordering aggressive, and wildly over-reactive to the conversation at hand, but he can’t disconnect in this situation. There’s no denying the stab of emotion though his chest, as irrational and inexplicable as it is. But if Khadgar heard it, he didn’t react.

“How long have you known him?”

Lothar contemplates this beyond face value. On one hand, Medivh had always been a private person. Discussing him with any other than Llane and Taria felt too close to betraying his trust for Lothar to be comfortable about being complicit in. On the other, he knew precious little of what his friend had been up to in the past six years. In the duration of those years, it hadn’t occurred to him to be curious. Though, now, after the revelation that Medivh had a large hand in bring an entire entourage of asylum seekers, he was beginning to grasp that he’d missed something huge, the depth of which he couldn’t fathom.

“Long enough he’s family in all but blood,” Lothar replies.

“Would you say he’s been behaving strangely?” He wonders if this is what Khadgar thinks casual sounds like.

“You haven’t known him very long, have you?”

“A year.” He sounds resigned now, with a sigh and a deep breath. Finally, his chair scrapes, the sound of it striking dread in Lothar’s chest. “Come on. I can’t talk about this here.”

Carefully, Lothar stands, awareness of his surroundings and just how many people were nearby flooding back with a vengeance. He can hear the door, has been able to for the past half hour or so that he’s been in the shop, so it’s not as if he’s directionless. Even so, he has no concept of the room layout, which left him vulnerable and about as happy about it as a wet cat.

He hardly pauses to give thought to the tiny grunt behind him when he negotiates standing from his chair. Khadgar on the other hand, stops entirely with a tiny, “Oh.”

Lothar frowns, but Khadgar doesn’t explain. To his side, he hears another tiny grunt, forceful with purpose.

“Uh.” Khadgar seems to be at a loss, which doesn’t help at all. “Lothar, can you make your right hand a fist?” Unclear at what was happening, Lothar does, and feels Khadgar’s hands on his waist, turning him to face a direction. “Yeah, like that.” His hands are gone almost as soon as they shoot a thrill up Lothar’s spine. “Now use it to tap your left shoulder. With force.”

Now absolutely sure he’s putting on a display, Lothar schools his face to what he hopes is appropriately neutral and not annoyed as hell, and does what Khadgar says, a little of his anger bleeding in how hard he raps his knuckles on his shoulder. The annoyance melts shamefully quickly, however, when Khadgar’s hand finds his waist again, the warmth of his arm pressed into Lothar’s back as he’s led out. “What was that about?”

“It’s sort of like a greeting,” Khadgar explains,distracted. His arm slips away from Lothar’s back, only to perch on his arm. “A sign of respect.”

“From a baby.” Lothar says flatly. Back outside, the air lightens. He can feel the sun’s light though he can still taste the chill in the air. His mind clears, the anxious thrum that had gripped his muscles ease and he feels like he can focus again on the matters at hand. Speaking of hands, he reaches over to feel the one on his arm. Dry skin with fine hair, the bone structure of a pianist. Definitely Khadgar. The moment their hands touch, Khadgar’s grip on his arm loosens, but before he can let go Lothar traces the dip between bones until his fingers rest between the knuckles. With that delicate grip, he gently guides the kid’s hand down to his own, relieved when Khadgar let him.

“You would be rude to a baby?!” Maybe Khadgar let him since he was too busy being scandalized, but Lothar took this as a win. He offers a smile and a shrug in return, not willing to commit to a verbal answer, and from there the conversation dies.

“I’m not irritated at you,” Khadgar blurts after a few moments walking.

“Well, that’s good.” He almost adds because I haven’t been irritating before thinking better of it.

“Medivh has so many secrets.”

Light, Khadgar was young. It’s not often Lothar notices the difference in their age and experience, but when he does it hits him like a burst of ice cold water. “He’s not as deep as you may think. He cultivates that air about him, but it’s mostly brooding for show.”

Khadgar hums low in his throat. “No, it’s not that. I know he tends to get lost in thought.”

An understatement, in Lothar’s book. He remembers his friend’s teenage years well: the way his face wiped blank and his eyes zoned out. He’d worried more about Medivh back then; every time he paid witness to such a state, his friend returned to the present with a startled, haunted look. To his left, Khadgar continues on, though now his voice is low, as if he’s trying to explain it to himself.

“This is different. It’s hard to explain. He gets this look in his eye, like he’s left his body and someone else came back.” Khadgar sighes. “And as odd as he is, I wouldn’t even think to mention it if it wasn’t changing his art.”

With a squeeze of Lothar’s hand, the young artist turns them down a side road, and it occurs to Lothar that in his relief that Khadgar hadn’t run off on him again, he had forgotten to ask where the hell they were even going. The thought rings strange in his mind. He doesn’t remember ever resolutely trusting someone who wasn’t immediate family or employed by family after he lost his sight. “Where are you taking me, Khadgar?”

“What? Oh. To Karazahn.”

Lothar’s brow raises. “Do you think it wise to talk about a man in his own home?”

“Probably not, no, except he hasn’t been home in days.” Khadgar says, clearly unhappy about it but overall resigned to the situation.

Lothar bites back his reply, You do know that in itself is not unusual for Medivh? , and contemplates Khadgar. The boy truly cares for Medivh, and as such shouldn’t be dismissed so easily. Khadgar’s worry isn’t Taria’s worry, smothering and frustratingly well-placed, or Llane’s worry, which always tasted of learned over-caution. Khadgar worries with quiet purpose, poking and prodding around an issue as if seeking insight and possible solutions, all of which gave it an air of attentiveness too carefully laid to be trivial.

Khadgar apparently is lost in thought as well, and the majority of the walk to Karazahn is spent listening to their own footsteps on the concrete walkway. Lothar finds his thoughts turning from the enigma of Medivh and the mystery he carves into all who know him back to the warm palm in his hand. For the first time, he allows himself to examine whatever this is between them. Khadgar is close, closer than anyone outside of his family has been in a long time. They known each other a few short weeks, but Lothar trusts him. Had trusted him, almost immediately, so quickly that upon reflection he can feel the ghost of his sister raising an eyebrow. He’s easy to talk to, easy to touch. Comfortable, if Lothar had to pick one word.

He is old enough now that comfort and reliability hold worlds of appeal over passion, though as of late the idea of passion is no longer the stranger it had been for the past decade or so. He finally pays heed to not so subtle prodding Llane, Taria, Callan, and now Medivh have all had a part in, and pictures Khadgar, exactly as he is now but in a world where Lothar entwines their fingers rather than simply taking his hand. It’s startlingly simple to imagine. Khadgar’s hand in his own, the pleasant timbre of his voice in his ear, so essentially no change to what they have now, except the tantalizing idea of taking Khadgar home with him and never letting him go. Maybe even finding out how those plush lips feel on his own, or relearn what it’s like to have a warm weight with him on the couch, Khadgar’s curly hair tickling his throat.

As nice as that image is, Lothar remembers just how easily Khadgar spooked, how quickly he tamped down on Garona when she mentioned his relationship status, how easily Khadgar left him in the cold when Medivh revealed their connection. He had left his uncertain years behind him, too aware of life’s volatility to deprive himself of another’s company, but as mature as Khadgar is, perhaps he isn’t as mature in these matters.

Khadgar’s hand tenses in his own, shaking him from his thoughts.

“Did you call for a car?” He sounds confused, and angry.

“No? When would I have had the time?”

“Sir Lothar,” Marie’s polite tone (“Sir?” Khadgar asks, low enough to be self-directed), “I was instructed to bring you to Goldshire.”

Lothar’s planted himself on the sidewalk, mind racing. What could Llane need from him in the middle of a work day, so much so he’d send a car to Medivh’s? How would he even know where Lothar was, unless the car went to his place first, found it empty, and forced Llane to extrapolate…

What did it matter? He was going regardless. Carefully, he extricates his hand from Khadgar’s, and makes his way toward her voice. “Must be important,” he muses, shifting his direction toward the sound of the car door opening.

“You as well, sir.” Marie adds, when Khadgar doesn’t immediately follow.

“Me? Why?” That was interesting.

“Medivh requested it.” Marie replies, though it’s clear request wasn’t quite what happened.

“I should have known.” Khadgar says, irritable, and walks around to get in on the other side.

The ride draws longer than it should, Lothar barely paying attention to the yawning silence between him and the boy, his mind occupied by dissecting all the possible reasons Llane and Medivh would send a car without calling first. Usually it meant Llane was on his phone, which meant potential legal trouble, or publicity. Or severe traumatic injury. Or death threats. And though he knew it was useless to do so, Lothar kept turning all these possibilities over in his head. He doesn’t stop, not really, until the car slows to a stop and his door is opened.

“Dad?” Callan’s voice eases most of his fears. It’s likely he won’t fully relax until he hears Addy and Varian, not to mention Taria. Callan helps him from the car.

“Do you know what’s going on?” Lothar asks as they pass into the lobby and through, treading the familiar track to Llane’s office. (There’s a brief moment of pause when the staff try to stop Khadgar from following, but Lothar waves them away with a gruff, “He’s with me.”)

“Not really. He asked me to meet him here a few weeks ago for some family reason. He didn’t mention you would be here.”

“That’s not suspicious at all,” Lothar replies drily. They stop in front of the private elevator so Callan can enter the code. Khadgar hums, displeased, likely because of the confusion. Which reminds Lothar that whatever they were here for, it involved Khadgar and Medivh as well. Great, he can’t imagine why. They enter the elevator, which shuts quickly and lurches upward.

“I don’t think Uncle Llane knew he was going to call you until just recently.” Callan continues. “He was on the phone when I stepped in. All hand-wavey and stern, you know, the way he gets when he’s been surprised but doesn’t want to show it.”

The elevator glides to a stop, Lothar’s stomach briefly going weightless. “Only one way to find out.”

“--but has he been identified yet?” Llane’s voice fills the room, though he isn’t yelling. From the strained patience of his voice, this wasn’t the first time he’s asked that question. There’s a low electronic garble in reply, too far for Lothar to hear. Callan leads his father into the room, to one of the many comfortable armchairs Llane kept to make private meetings feel more intimate. “Good. That’s what I needed to know. Text me when that changes, and have Moroes on standby to release an official statement.” Another garble. Callan sits in a chair to his father’s side, but there’s no trace sound indicating their third guest has moved. “Not yet, but I’m about to.” Llane walks closer, close enough at least for Lothar to identify his sister’s voice. “I love you too. Interrogation time.” Taria laughs, if Lothar hears that right. “I’ll invite him, too.”

“Khadgar, why do you linger? Come sit.” Medivh says, apparently across the room.

“So this is the Khadgar that convinced Anduin to abandon all attempts at remaining a hermit.” Khadgar stutters an answer, but Llane is nothing if not a gracious host and Lothar hears his deft footsteps followed by the clap of skin indicating the signature Wrynn handshake. “According to Medivh, you’ve been indispensable to his work as of late.”

“I- Well. I wouldn’t- I mean-” From the sound of it, he’s being led further into the room. A couch cushion to Lothar’s other side compresses.

“Including today,” Medivh says, smoothing over Khadgar’s bumbling.Then, thoughtful, says, “Especially today.”

“How? I haven’t done anything.” Khadgar finally manages a complete sentence.

“Social media would beg to disagree.” Lothar’s head tilts at the noise, the faint clicking not unlike someone clicking their tongue. It’s the noise from one of the newer smartphone models, if he’s correct, the kind that has no keypad and simulates the clack of typing with pre-recorded noises. After a second of that noise, Lothar hears the clatter and roar of ambient noise. A video recording? He struggles to place the video, except that the recording equipment picked up everything, including the ambient noise Lothar’s brain would have filtered out. “You’ve gone viral.”

“That?” Khadgar ask, incredulous. “That couldn’t have happened more than twenty minutes ago- oh.”

“Is this about the baby?” Lothar asks, not bothering to find out what “going viral” meant, exactly. He could hazard a guess, and it didn’t sound pleasant. “Khadgar, what did you have me do?”

“It’s just a greeting!” Khadgar protests weakly.

“Oh sure, just a greeting.” Medivh says. The clacking starts up. “Typically one for family or close friends. Or strangers deemed worthy of respect. Something that hasn’t been expressed to any local until now.”

“Is it really that meaningful from a baby, though?” Lothar would agree, if he wasn’t so reluctant to align himself with open petulance.

“It shouldn’t be.” Llane, for his part, had busied himself with pouring drinks, one of which is pressed into Lothar’s palm. Callan turns down his uncle’s offer, and Khadgar thanks him. “And I for one believe it still shouldn’t be. However, it appears the community at large ascribe a great deal to the opinions of Durotan’s firstborn son.”

Silence. Then, in a small voice, Khadgar asks, “ That was Durotan?”

“Who’s Durotan?” The question slips out, as dangerous as light glinting off a knife’s edge, and Lothar feels his stomach drop. He’s in a room with two of his oldest friends and his adult son, all of whom knew Lothar’s jealousy. He can hold out on hope that they all haven’t noticed, but Medivh’s clacking stops almost as soon as he starts speaking.

“One of the community leaders.” Oh no. They definitely noticed. Funny how he could hear the Wrynn family eyebrow raise. “He’s not necessarily an ally at this point, but he seems to be a voice of reason in Gul’dan’s mania.”

“He was one of the last to agree to leaving.” Thank the light Khadgar continued to be oblivious, though his continued breathlessness stirs the irritation thrumming in Lothar’s chest. “The other clans can’t agree on most things when it comes to character, but everyone respected the Frostwolves.”

Llane hums his dismissal. “That may have been true in Draenor, but hardships change people. You should read some of his countrymen’s comments.”

“It’s a step, Llane.” Medivh interrupts. “One further than we’ve gotten since getting them here, and one more important than it may initially seem. I can use this.”

“Use this?” Lothar repeats. “You want to use a video of me in whatever you’re scheming?”

“Yes, though no more so than you’ve brought upon yourself already.”

“That I brought upon myself ?”

“Yes. What were you doing in that coffee shop? How did you meet the person who took you there? What did you do to endear yourself to a stranger’s child?” Medivh breathes. “You are a part of this world. Stop trying to deny it.”

“I’m not denying it!”

“Then why are you against being a part of this?”

“Because regardless of what I was doing there or who I went to see, I didn’t choose to become a tool in your game!”

“This is no game, Anduin Lothar, it’s life. And you and I both know what happens and what needs to be done about it never leaves much room for choice.” He loves Medivh like a brother, but sometimes that made the bleeding bitterness in the other man’s tone unbearably grating. “Meaning to or not, you struck a blow that can’t be unstruck, so you either tell me to do nothing and allow anyone to define what you did as anything they want, or you let me guide the definition into something meaningful. Why you want to make this a choice at all is beyond me.”

None of the others dare speak, and Lothar is seething too much to find the words to tell him just how wrong he is, when Llane’s phone chimes. After a second, Llane says, “Anduin’s been identified.” There’s a thump as he sits down, presumably at his desk. He sounds more tired than a simple meeting should warrant. “Would you like to add something to any statement we make?”

Lothar feels his jaw clench and works it free. “Tell them I didn’t want to be rude to a baby.”

 

In the end, Callan offers to drive his father home, which he accepts. Medivh and Khadgar take their leave, with Llane extracting promises from both they’ll hold off on any major displays until it’s clear how the majority felt about the video. Llane himself remains in Goldshire, stating he had plenty of regular work left to do in the meantime.

“So that was him.” Callan says once they turn into traffic.

“That was him.” Lothar agrees. He’s clipped when he doesn’t mean to be. Callan is not at fault for the dark mood his father is in, but he’s never been good at reining emotion from his voice. If Callan takes it personally, he doesn’t show it. Though perhaps he’s used to it by now.

“Hmm.”

“Hmm? What does that mean?”

“Well.” His son was smiling, which alone was cause enough for suspicion. “I see what Aunt Taria means when she says you have a type.”

Lothar groans, but without any edge to it. “You laugh now, but wait until she gets invested in your love life.”

“I’m sure you’ll enjoy it way more than I am right now.”

Lothar just nods, shrugging. His boy has a point. The sound of the car engine fills the blank. He’s struck by how comfortable the lulls in their conversations feel now. He distinctly remembers before Callan left each pause was pointed, usually an insult disguised as restraint. Distance did what years of negotiating a shared living space couldn’t, all their differences fading in importance.

“I like his voice.” Lothar says after a while, more willing to answer his son’s unasked questions than his sister’s pointed ones. “And his strength.” Callan huffs at that. “I know it’s not obvious, but it’s there. It has to be to stick with Medivh while he’s working.”

“Maybe.” Callan still doesn’t believe him, but that’s okay. Time will prove one of them right. “Has Medivh always been this--” he can’t seem to decide on a word “--moody?”

For a minute, Lothar hears Khadgar’s tone from earlier, hesitant, seeking confirmation, and that is enough for him to reconsider totally brushing off the question. He thinks back, recalling Medivh as they grew, as his relationship with Llane bloomed and later included his sister. How he started his art career (much earlier than was common knowledge) and how it took a life of its own. How he never lost his wild streak, how fearless he was following in their footsteps as they served in the most unstable parts of the known world. He’d found a way to apply his talents to the decidedly ugly work of peacekeeping. Applied them so well, in fact, he was considered one of the top working photojournalists.

“He has always pushed himself to do right,” Lothar says, each word laden with thought. “He treated each project like it would be the most important thing he’s ever done, and this is no different. This time I think he’s invested too much of himself, has put so much in the stakes that he has to be right.”

They had reached Lothar’s estate in the meantime, and spent a moment listening to the garage door open to let them into the secured parking space. Callan pulls in, but doesn’t move to shut the garage door or turn off his car. Lothar lets his hand rest on the passenger door handle, waiting.

“I should go back to campus.” It comes as an apology.

Lothar offers his son a reassuring smile. “You have your own responsibilities now.”

And that should be that, so he opens the door to get out. As soon as the door latch releases, Callan says, “Dad?” Lothar stops moving, ear turning to his son. “What was grandpa like? When you were growing up?”

So Taria talked to Callan. Hardly surprising, that was quite a sum of money to be stayed by a single person’s discretion. They had buried Lothar’s father a few scant years back, the details of which were blurry to him.

“He was strict, but not unkind. Stubborn to a fault, and frustratingly reasonable.” He had to be, since Lothar insisted on running off with Llane at every given opportunity. He remembers his father joking that Lothar had been born impatient and ready to move while Taria inherited all the poise. “He treated everything like it was a test and never told me the rules. It was frustrating, until I realized all the times he would tell me I passed, I had acted for moral reasons. After that, it was easy.”

“Would I have passed Grandpa’s tests?”

Lothar laughs. “You? You I’ve never even worried about. You have your mother’s temper and your aunt’s smarts. You wouldn’t have ever needed testing in the first place.” He waits, but there are no follow up questions. “Thanks for the ride. Goodnight, kid.”

“Good night.”

 

In the morning, Lothar gets a blessed single hour of peace before his phone pings with a message from Taria. One he assumes is a warning, though he isn’t able to access it before the onslaught of calls from unknown numbers begins in full. He endures a full ten minutes of ignoring the chiming announcements, refusing to answer any of them, before turning off his phone entirely. If Llane or Taria needed him, they would know where to find him.

This strategy works for all of two hours, until, halfway into his morning run, he hears his door swing open and bang against the wall.

“Anduin!” There’s a flurry of rustling clothes--was that Khadgar objecting in the background?--followed by the two distinct thump of Medivh kicking his shoes off. Lothar feels for the button to put his treadmill in a complete stop, using as much of his iron will to slow his breathing to a normal rate. “Anduin!” Closer this time, in the hall outside Lothar’s work out room. “Oh good, there you are. Taria asked me to check on you since you cut off your only connection to the outside world.”

“Great.” Is all Lothar has breath for at the moment. He reaches for his water bottle, using thirst to cover just how carefully he’s listening. Medivh makes his usual fuss, shuffling around with contemplative hums and sighs of despair over Lothar’s decor. But just underneath that, there is a second set of shuffling. Lothar finishes his drink, and wipes his mouth. “Please tell me he’s not mentoring you in manners.”

He doesn’t miss Medivh’s low chuckle, but he’s more interested in the stillness from the hall. “I didn’t know we were coming here.”

“He did want to come, though,” Medivh adds to Khadgar’s dismay.

“No!”

“Insisted on it, in fact.”

“I told you not to go anywhere without me again-”

“Again?” Lothar interrupts. There’s a weighed pause, during which Medivh sighs.

“Sarge is officially back in Stormwind.” Khadgar says. “And he struck last night. Without help. In a highly monitored area.”

Lother pinches the bridge of his nose. “Medivh.”

When Medivh replies, it’s with familiar, quiet resolve. Even after all these years, he’s still the same unflappable, stubborn ass. “It was necessary to move quickly.” Lothar hears a sharp clack, presumably one of his decorations being set back in place on a shelf for effect. “Plus, I’m a little disappointed in Stormwind’s best if The Morass is under heavy surveillance.”

“I could’ve sworn you were with me in Llane’s office when he expressly asked you not to do anything rash.”

“Terrible advice, really.” Lothar makes a noise of protest but Medivh barrells through. “These people are not like those of Stormwind. Llane has no context in which to deal with them and therefore cannot know that doing something as silly as waiting to respond makes him look disingenuous and weak-willed.”

“That’s not the point!”

“But it is a point.” Whatever Lothar’s about to say startles and dies in his throat. This is not a tone he’s familiar with from Khadgar. He knew the boy had some inner strength but this level of confidence? Not so much. “Believe me, I know why you’re angry and I share part of it, but Medivh is right in saying doing nothing would have ultimately worked against Llane’s future plans.”

“You’re both sure of it?”

“Absolutely.” Medivh says at the same time Khadgar says, “Mostly.”

Lothar’s still isn’t convinced, but a more rational part of his mind points out there’s no way he has all the information he needs to make a sound judgement, so he recaps his water bottle and sighs. “I presume we have much to talk about, but I’m showering first. Make yourselves comfortable.”

“Here?” Khadgar asks.

“Yes, here, unless you want to face Llane right now.”

“We’re staying here.” Medivh says with finality.

And with that settled, Lothar leaves the room before he could dwell on how strange it’ll be to have Khadgar in his home.

Chapter Text

Lothar lets the water run hotter than normal, relishing the heat as it runs in rivulets down his chest and back. When he finally shuts the water off and steps into the steam his skin feels new and raw, and yet he still can’t determine how he feels about Khadgar’s presence in his home. Not for the first time, though certainly not since Callan moved out, he curses the lack of a personal bathroom in the master bedroom. Just in case, just because he trusts Khadgar’s curiosity more than he does his sense of privacy, Lothar pulls on his sweatpants, though he leaves his probably disgusting work out shirt where it is on the floor. Sure enough, he hears a tiny punched out yelp when he steps into the hall. Khadgar. Fantastic. Well, it’s too late now to go back for his work out shirt.

“Having a good look around?” Lothar asks, continuing to dry his hair. Khadgar is in his way, but that doesn’t stop Lothar from stalking up. It’s comparatively chilly, and he really wants a shirt.

“You have a lot of pictures.” He notices when Khadgar is nervous he resorts to blurting out facts. And the boy is nervous, Lothar can hear his breathing pick up, could practically hear his heart race. There’s a primal appeal to it, really, so Lothar doesn’t say anything, doesn’t stop until he’s practically chest to chest with the boy. “I- uh- Was just- uh- there’s a- uh-”

“Khadgar,” Lothar practically whispers, flashing his teeth, “you’re blocking my room.”

Khadgar swallows audibly, then scrambles around Lothar and down the hall to the relative safety of the living room. Still grinning, Lothar makes his way to his room and finish getting dressed. He picks one of the flannels today, the material soft and worn between his fingers. He re-enters his living room adjusting the buttons of the sleeve so they roll up at the elbows properly. “So. Medivh. What trouble have you cooked up for us today?”

“Trouble?” Medivh asks, offended. From the sound of it he’s perched himself on one of Lothar’s easy chairs. “I merely used the resources Gul’dan provided with his display in the Morass to show him what we think of those with little to no regard of their host city.”

“He scraped the residue into the shape of demonic shadows stretching from the gate.” Khadgar supplies form the general vicinity of the couch. Either he had finished snooping, or convinced himself to behave. Regardless, he sounds considerably calmer now that the focus was off of him.

“And you’re certain no one saw you?”

“Oh, well. I didn’t say that.”

Medivh .”

“No one recorded me, if that’s what you’re worried about.”

“You know how hard it is to keep your identities separate.” It was different back when Sarge was the famous guerilla artist and Medivh was just a credited photojournalist. But now they are both world-renown for different reasons, it would be easier for the theorists to correlate locations Medivh has photographed in and recent Sarge activity. It’s been years since Lothar’s been privy to just how close those who look to expose Sarge have gotten, but from the occasional update from Llane, Medivh’s only saving grace as of late has been the dearth of published photographs. “And now you’re saying you had an audience?”

“I always have an audience, Anduin,” Medivh says, irritable yet resigned, as if he expected to be reprimanded but still found the process tedious, “and it’s always who it needs to be.”

“Who?” Now it’s Khadgar’s turn to be incensed.

“Durotan.”

Lothar is too astonished by Medivh lack of sense to reply, and when Khadgar finds his voice it’s small and genuinely curious. “Why?”

“We need an ally. Not just a neutral party, someone within their community to whom others will listen to, who will also listen to and talk with us. We don’t have that, but with Durotan we might. He already has proven he isn’t susceptible to whatever rhetoric Gul’dan is feeding his countryman, and that he’s willing to acknowledge one of Stormwind’s own.” Medivh finally pauses long enough to breathe. “Llane’s best efforts have already proven we can’t help them without involving them.”

Lothar crosses his arms over his chest, unimpressed. Medivh’s pacing alone told him his friend had thought long and hard on how to word each sentence. And if Lothar didn’t know better, Medivh sounds nervous. “You’re practice pitching me.”

“...Yes.”

“Taria didn’t ask you to check on me.”

“No.” But he reconsiders. “Well, not in so many words.”

“Great. Now that that’s out of the way, what are you planning?”

“Durotan asked to meet. I think he should meet with Llane.”

“Even better. Now, why are you here , Med?”

Medivh doesn’t answer immediately, but Lothar knows to wait him out. He takes a step further into the room, coming up to the couchback and rest his elbows on it. To his left, Khadgar seems to stop breathing, though whether it’s because of Lothar’s new proximity or because of the figurative stare down going on between two old friends is hard to tell. To his right, where the easy chairs are set up adjacent to the main couch, he hears the sound of fabric being smoothed over, as if Medivh thought feeling out the texture of the fabrication of his surroundings would somehow fill in the deficit of a proper verbal response.

Finally, Medivh relents. “I may have started a riot with this latest move.”

“May have.” Lothar repeats.

“No reports yet, but any interference on Gul’dan’s Gateway is sure to draw retaliation.” Khadgar says.

Lothar shifts his focus for a moment, knowing from experience Medivh will fume and resist every word of explanation on his own work and that Khadgar at least had valuable insight on framing the situation for an outsider. “And why is that?”

“Gul’dan’s Gateway has a sister sculpture in Draenor. One built by Sarge, which turned up sometime after Durotan and his people agreed to the mass immigration.” He can hear Khadgar’s college education in his voice, the toneless intoning of facts laid out in well-studied and efficient sentences. “He situated it near the docks. It was the last thing many saw of their homeland.”

“Khadgar here has photographed it several times, one of which has become quite famous.”

Classic Medivh, always throwing personal pride in as a means of deflection. If Khadgar notices, he doesn’t allow it to distract him. “One you insisted I submit and take royalties for. Anyway, Gul’dan’s Gateway is considerably flashier and uses more resources to remain lit, but is undeniably a symbol of home for the refugees. To have that symbol demonized, literally, won’t be overlooked.”

Lothar runs a hand through his drying hair, feeling all the world like a father to an unruly teen. Not that Callan was ever this much trouble, but still. “What possessed you to make that your retaliation to Gul’dan if your primary concern is unity?”

“Was that a pun, Anduin?” Medivh asks. Lothar’s head turns, however, he hears the front door open again in the hall. “You really are a father.”

“Dad?” Callan calls, as Medivh says Speak of the devil. with no small amount of irony, “Aunt Taria said you turned off your phone.”

“Callan! I haven’t greeted you properly yet, have I?” The chair Medivh is sitting on creaks when he stands, and his footsteps are long and sure as he approaches Callan. “You’ve grown at least a foot, and I see your voice has stopped cracking.”

“Uncle Medivh,” Callan greets him back, the sound of cloth on cloth as the two hug. “Ha, yeah. It’s, well, been a while.”

“Six years, as I’m constantly being reminded. Callan, this is Khadgar. We met while I was abroad.”

“I’ve hear a lot about you, Khadgar,” Callan says, and Lothar doesn’t groan at his son’s tone on the off chance Khadgar hadn’t noticed it.

“Have you?.” The couch shifts, two palms meet with a soft clap of a handshake. “I’ve heard a lot about you as well. I think after Uncle Lothar, you’re Adariall’s favorite family member.”

“Is that right? Damn, I’ll need to work harder to replace him.”

“Usurper.” Lothar says fondly. “So what does your delightful aunt want of me now?”

“Uh. You mean aside from worrying? I think she’s working with Moroes on the press. She wanted me to ask you if you’re hardline opposed to interviews.”

Before Lothar could ask Why would they want to interview me? , Medivh says, “Of course he is, but we should keep the option open anyway.”

“It’s fine, Med, I can always use another life manager.”

“I’ll tell her you’re a no for now,” Callen says. He must be texting her, because a moment later he says. “Now she’s asking if you have plans. And if you’ve heard from Medivh.” Whatever Medivh’s answer was is nonverbal. “You pulled a Sarge piece on the Morass last night, uncle?”

“Yes.”

Callan whistles. “That looks like a lot of work. I like how you did the eyes.”

“Thank you.”

“And Aunt Taria just sent me five knife emojis.”

Medivh sighs. “I’ll head to her office. Khadgar, do you mind staying here? I don’t want Lothar to feel abandoned.”

“Uh-”

“I can give you a ride, uncle. She wants me to pick up the kids and drop them off, anyway.” Lothar kind of hates how easily Callan falls in line with his uncle’s scheming

“Excellent. Anduin, I’ll leave my apprentice in your capable hands.” Medivh claps a hand on Lothar’s shoulder as he passes on his way out of the living room.

“I’ll see you, Dad.” Callan says, following Medivh out.

“Try and make sure they don’t kill him, would you?” Lothar asks, pulling his son into a quick hug before he can flee. Callan chuckles.

“No promises.”

The front door opens and closes in quick succession, leaving the two men in the awkward realization that they were intentionally left alone together.

“You do know Callan replaced some of the family photos with Hello Kitty stickers, right? And a butt. There was at least one butt.” Khadgar asks after they appreciate the silence. Lothar laughs.

“I didn’t, but that’s not surprising.” Lothar, for his part, straightens up and makes his way around the couch to sit down. “He wasn’t happy with me for pretty much his entire teenagerhood. For someone who gave me grief over unwittingly sharing a best friend, you’re taking the news that I have an adult child pretty well.”

The couch shifts, accompanied by indistinct shuffling of cloth. “He kind of came with the surprise shared best friend package.” Wow, Lothar didn’t realize how much he missed that dry humor. We’re in trouble , he mentally tells his heart, which responds by picking up a beat. “He seems confident in himself. Many people his age don’t have anything figured out. I didn’t.”

“That would be his aunt’s influence, I’m afraid.”

“I really don’t think so.” Khadgar replies. “You hold a lot of their respect. Maybe more than you realize.”

That earns a furrowed brow and lips pulled back into a grimace. Respect? He knows they love him, and worry about him (way more than they should, in his opinion), but respect him? Perhaps he’s become too insular to know the difference. And while his former command experience tells him that an outsider’s eyes would create a more complete picture and wouldn’t miss things that he’s been desensitized to, he still couldn’t quite believe it. “It can’t be that much more.”

“Hmm. Okay.” Not the most eloquent response, not that Lothar can come up with a better one. “I think Medivh wants your support before he goes to Llane. For the idea of meeting with Durotan, not for… other things.”

“Of course he does,” Lothar says. “He seems to think I can make people agree to do stupid things.”

“Can you?”

Lothar thinks back, the slideshow of his misadventurous youth flashing through his memory. “... Yes.”

“Then there you have it,” Khadgar says with quiet triumph, and Lothar can’t disagree with him.

 

You can’t shut out the noise of an engine, nor the mournful, unbroken cry of the air as you slice through it. When Lothar could fly, they were his two constant companions. Well, that and his ground control, but more often than not he was alone in the air. There was a time he preferred it that way.

When Cally died, it was like someone broke his ribcage open and flipped off a switch inside him. At first it wasn’t pain, exactly, more like the glaring absence of all feeling. Life was vibrant around him, yet somehow that vibrancy could no longer touch him, nor he it.

He remembers holding Callan, still small enough that his head fit comfortably in the palm of his hand, and trying to find the joy in it. Where was his anxiety? The fear he would never be the generous man his own father was? Or his excitement? He had spent hours holding Cally, his entire world the scent of her hair, their shared warmth, and his palm resting on the soft skin of her belly, his heart rate picking up every time Callan moved. It feels like it should be impossible for emotions so intense to evaporate, yet here he is, in the suffocating silence of the home he shared with his wife not two days ago, feeling nothing. Callan snuffles in his sleep, then wakes, his face scrunching up into an infant’s wail. He should feel something about that, right? But he’s locked away in his own mind, locked out of time and of his own body. To move was unthinkable, undoable.

His sister’s hands enter his field of vision, snapping him from his trance.

“He must be hungry,” she says, calm as can be, and takes Callan into the kitchen to mix some formula.

Blinking, he looks at the entryway to the living room, and sure enough, his sister’s two shadows stand in the threshold, eyeing him with all the concern his sister should have shown. Llane moves first, approaching without hesitation. Lothar buries his face in his hands, unable to meet their eyes. “Anduin.”

Llane’s hand is warm and solid on his shoulder, his weight on the couch undeniable, and finally the trance is broken. All the pain he knew he should have felt rushes into the emptiness of his chest, engulfing his heart so surely and deftly all he could do is cry out. In an instant, Medivh is at his other side, his arm joining Llane’s on Lothar’s back. Between them, their hands holding his heaving sides together, he lets himself mourn for his wife, and for his son who will never know her and will likely never know who his father was before losing her.

He endures a month and a funeral before Magni requests his presence at a site in the Hinterlands. Taria takes Callan and tells Lothar to go, to get out and do something before he wasted away.

“I apologize in advance,” Magni says on the drive up to what he calls the Aerie, “Khardros doesn’t believe in paving the roads. You’d think a man as obsessed with runways as he would appreciate a smooth drive on land. I’d accuse him of doing it on purpose to discourage company, but for that to be true he’d have to stop requesting Bronzebeard reinforcements entirely. So it must just be to annoy me.”

He wonders if this is a favor for Llane, as the Thane of Ironforge doesn’t comment on or acknowledge Lothar’s silence. Around them, the scenery changes as they pass through the hills from dense green shrubland to the yellowish highland’s grass. The trees are thick here, and, despite the Thane’s warning, the dirt road’s been packed down over the years.

“I’ve got no complaints.”

“Aye? Try driving here in a downpour. You’ll have complaints.” The air in the car relaxes from a tension Lothar hadn’t previously noticed. He hazards a looks at his companion. Magni was an old family friend, one of the many who knew Lothar growing up through his friendship with Llane. The Thane is smiling now, the grey threads peppering his beard standing out all the more with the curve of his mouth. “Sorry to drag you into this, big man. Khardros has been developing this line of jets for years, and not a single one of my men want to test’em for ourselves.”

“Let me guess, Llane said he had an available pilot.”

“I asked for you, actually.” Magni replies easily. “There’s not another pilot in the world my men will take on their word. Plus, if I remember my own daughter’s first month correctly, I figured you’d hop at the opportunity for a full night’s sleep.”

Truth be told, Lothar wasn’t looking forward to a quiet night at the inn. He keeps finding himself turning to check on Callan, only to have to remind himself Callan is with Taria and Medivh back in Stormwind. It was setting up to be a long week, the way he already missed his son’s tiny hands on his face, or the ball of warmth he created when he fell asleep on Lothar’s chest. Aloud, he says, “Much appreciated.”

Khardros meets them at the Aerie gates, waving them through. Magni gets held up giving his keys to a young cadet, apparently needing to go in great detail how he’d murder him if he got a single scratch on his car.

“Sir Lothar. It’s good to see you, old friend. I heard about your wife.” Every time Lothar thinks he’s gotten used to it, an unexpected mention of Cally shoots him in the chest. It’s not as bad as it had been the first few weeks, especially not as Khardros yanks him into a hug before Lothar gets lost in the man’s pitying blue eyes. “You’re too young a man for that kind of tragedy, lad, and I’m sorry it happened. Cally was a lovely woman.”

“Thank you,” he murmurs into Khardros’ shoulder, knowing by now the only thing he can do is endure the condolences as gracefully as possible and hope they’re kept short.

“Aye. Now,” Khardros lets him go. “On to business. Follow me.” He turns quickly and marches down a pebbled path that led around the bulk of the building. “We’ve been working with the Gnomes on these babies for years. They’re finally flight ready, and all these Bronzebeard pilots act like we want them to sit on a bomb!”

They turn the corner onto a huge airfield, with a line of long buildings built into the mountain. Each building front is taken up by a massive mechanical door, the nearest to them open to reveal a sloped passage into a subterranean air hangar. Within the hanger, Lothar glimpses sprays of sparks, hears the metal clanking of hammers and wrenches. Others are polishing strangely shaped planes with rags. Khardros leads him toward the center, away from where most of the work was being done, to a real beauty. She’s deep brown and blinding white on the wings, her body a golden tan. Khardros has painted an eagle’s head along the nose.

“This is the GRF-90, our latest jet propulsion engine prototype. She should get you soaring as high as the mesosphere, maybe even higher. Technically there’s enough thrust to straight up launch you clean into the nether, but no one wants that -”

“A griffin.” Lothar says, touching his hand to the gold-tipped nose appreciatively. “Let’s see what she can do.”

The ground falls away faster than he’s ever seen it. In no time, he’s over the Great Sea, the water distant and dappled, reflecting the sun back up in brilliant sparks. Above him, a blue abyss yawns, and ahead he spots broken coverage of mountainous white clouds. It doesn’t take long before his jet is among them, the puffed white crests inching by like drifting giants. Up close, he can see the layers of white mist that make them up, the individual wispy tendrils revealing that what looks solid and opaque on the ground is nothing more than hundreds of thousands of tiny white particles suspended in the wind.

Lothar climbs a little higher, and then higher still. Higher than anyone has ever been before, so high he turns on his oxygen and flexes cold fingers, wondering briefly if he’ll break free of the atmosphere entirely. The clouds drop away much like the ground had, and from up here he thinks he can see the curve of the planet. He knows objectively that he is going very fast, but he feels more like those clouds: suspended in the endless blue nothing, the emptiness he feels inside reflected back by an all-consuming void just beyond his vision.

“Are yeh coming back, lad?” Khardros asks in his headset, snapping him out of his daze. He checks the fuel, and instantly sets in motion a descent, as well as a wide turn.

“On my way,” he replies, as though he hadn’t just experienced emptiness as peace rather than pain for the first time in weeks.

On approach back to the mainland, as he slowly lowers himself back into an ever-thickening atmosphere, he knows this is just a memory. In reality, he’s miles away, in his home in Stormwind, one tragedy and eighteen odd years away, trying to figure out what’s holding him back from just asking Khadgar if he could hold him. Kiss him. Be with him. He had found comfort in these clouds once. Been able to bury all his pain in their eternally slow, eternally rolling fields. Now he wonders if he’s been trying to bury Khadgar here, too.

 

“Yeah, he directed me to the kitchen for a drink, and when I came back, it was like he wasn’t there anymore.” Khadgar’s voice drifts into mind. “He seems perfectly fine, it’s just that he can’t seem to hear me.” Taria’s voice, small and electronic. Clearly on the phone. “Does he do this a lot? No, it doesn’t bother me. Of course I’ll stay with him for a bit.” She must say something funny because Khadgar chuckles. “Sounds like Medivh. I’ll let you know when he comes back around. Thanks. No problem. Bye.”

The boy sighs, and there’s a clack as he sets the phone down on the coffee table. “Lothar?”

“You can let her know I’m back.” Lothar says drily. “Figures she’d turn you into a spy, too.”

“I can’t imagine why she’d worry that much.” Khadgar replies just as drily. “Where’d you go? Not that you have to tell me.”

Lothar doesn’t answer immediately. He doesn’t think Khadgar would believe whatever he came up with if he did, but Khadgar seems content to wait while Lothar cobbles together an answer. “I was remembering. Flying. How I started. Why I started.”

“Why did you start?” Khadgar shifts on the couch next to him, as if drawn in.

“My sister thought it was to escape. And it was, partially.” Who else has Lothar explained this to? He doesn’t remember ever voicing it before, come to think of it. Not even to Llane. “Cally, my wife, she died giving birth to Callan. I wasn’t in a good place after, certainly not fit to be a first time parent.”

“I’m sorry,” Khadgar starts awkwardly.

“It’s been eighteen years, Khadgar, the pain has faded.” Lothar hopes the smile he offers is reassuring. “Anyway, it is true. I would leave for a week or so at a time, run test flights on whatever new engine they had for me, or some routine checks on recently maintenanced birds. But it was never to get away. Not really.”

“So if it wasn’t that, then what was it for?”

“You’re alone up there.” Alone, and small, suddenly aware of your own insignificance. “Not in a bad way, though. It’s breathtaking. Calm. There are no expectations, no apologies, no empty house to remind me that I’m missing someone. It’s a good place to learn how to be alone again.”

“Yeah?” Another thing he deeply appreciates about Khadgar, how he holds quite reverence for whatever currently holds the center of his attention. With certain people you could just tell when they held onto a moment with kind and careful consideration. “Yeah, I think I understand that.”

“Really? Is this the tragic backstory you hinted at?”

Khadgar laughs. “I don’t know if it’s tragic, necessarily. Repressed, maybe. I don’t know how familiar you are with Dalaran, but Lordaeron treats the school as a parental entity. They accept students as early as four and raise them in the city, schooling them into their college years. Even going so far as to dictating their professional careers.”

“I heard a little about it. Med would’ve hated it. I’m glad he got stuck with us instead. How old were you when you were taken in?”

“Six.”

Lothar whistles.

“I left around our equivalent of a grad school program, so about twenty years spent within Dalaran’s walls.” The couch shifts, and Lothar expects the nervous twitch in his leg to reappear. Instead, he feels Khadgar’s hand take his an guide it until his fingertip brush a smooth expanse of skin. It takes less than a second for him to recognize the inner wrist, two narrow expanses of hairless skin divided in half by the raised seam of a tendon. But Khadgar doesn’t stop there, he gently pulls Lothar’s hand in, guiding his fingertips up over the meat of his forearm. Lothar’s brow furrows, because just below the wrist are raised ridges of scar tissue. “They integrate themselves into your entire life, so thoroughly you don’t even notice. Well. I noticed, but I wasn’t supposed to. I knew my teachers knew I knew, too, because after awhile they started restricting my travel off of campus. They kept adding extensions to the time it would take me to complete their program.”

While Khadgar spoke, Lothar traces three lines, one vertical down the center and two more unconnected but branching out from the middle at an angle. Above them, further up, he finds what he thinks is just a curved line, but around the apex of the curve the very tip of his finger brushes on another ridge further up.

“Have you ever been to Dalaran?”

“Can’t say that I have.” Can’t say that I want to, now. He thinks to himself, grimly. The second ridge next to the curve is a circle, and on a hunch, he travels just a little farther up the boy’s arm and find another gently curved line bending the opposite way from the first. An eye.

“The entire campus is walled, and the walls are about eight feet high. They say the first inhabitants of Dalaran were secretive, that the arts and knowledge they kept often drew accusations of sorcery and with it persecution, so they made all the outward facing buildings windowless except for the watch towers. Each gate out of the city has an entire building built into it, so all ways out were fortified by multiple, windowless rooms.”

“A prison?” Lothar asks. He’s now traced the entirety of the scars once, and has no plans of stopping.

“There are no bars. No locked doors except to the more dangerous or expensive materials. When I left, no one stopped me.” Khadgar muses. “But yes, a prison. Anyway, what I mean to say is, with the walls, and the layers of spires and turrets, not to mention the surrounding foothills, I never saw the horizon for twenty years, except in pictures and art.”

Lothar doesn’t know what to say. Khadgar chooses this moment to pause, and his hand covers the back of the one Lothar is using to trace his scar to press it down until Lothar’s entire palm covers the full mark. An eye, three rays pointing to his palm and his thumb and his pinkie.

“Even when they’re no longer in your head, they can own your skin. It’s why they don’t stop you at the gates, or bar the windows, or lock the doors. The mark of the Kirin Tor can open doors for anyone who bears it. I can’t tell you how many times I almost uncovered mine. It could have paid for food, or lodging. Could have guaranteed passage when I had none, or safety when my own was uncertain. But I never did.”

Khadgar’s hand, the one attached to his bared forearm, clasps around Lothar’s forearm. Lothar, in turn, shift his grip on Khadgar’s scar, to mirror him.

“I didn’t because they expected me to. Because to use their symbol would put me in their debt, and one day, they would collect and I would be at their mercy once again. Not that that mattered when I was cold, or scared, or starved.” Khadgar is close enough on the couch Lothar can hear how raw his voice is. More importantly, he can feel their knees touch, and hear where each individual breath takes place between words.

“What mattered was, I lived along the sea before my parents sent me to Dalaran. And I must have forgotten that, in the sheer mass of tutelage I received over those twenty years. But once I broke the forest road, once I could see the harbor, and beyond it, the optical illusion of the sea trying to touch a parallel sky for as far as I can see... I knew that I would never give that horizon up again. Not if I had a choice. Not even if it meant I would always be alone.”

Lothar recognizes an ending when he hears one, and offers a smile, one he hopes is tinged with gratitude. Khadgar hasn’t let go of his arm, hasn’t turned away. Finally, Lothar says, “Why are you telling me this, artist?”

Khadgar chokes a laugh, clearing his throat a little (and if it’s too wet for someone who wasn't almost just crying, Lothar doesn’t point it out). “Because. Your family is determined to share your stories with me. It isn’t fair to you. I don’t have anyone that knows me that well who can do the same for you.”

“Hm.” Lothar scoots in a little closer, his knee making contact with Khadgar’s thigh. “My family. You know they’ve been telling me something lately.” Carefully, aware that Khadgar now appear to be holding his breath, he reaches up about face level. To his surprise, Khadgar presses his cheek into Lothar’s palm. “Something maybe you should hear, too. You don’t have to be alone anymore.”

Lothar’s thumb brushes over the corner of Khadgar’s mouth, all the stimuli the boy needs for his breathing to stutter back. Lothar leans in a little further, the warmth of Khadgar’s face just ahead. He stops here, waiting, hoping, but willing to drop the offer at Khadgar’s bidding. He almost pulls back, but Khadgar exhales sharply and closes the distance between their lips.

Lothar is chaste at first, the delicate skin of his lips catching on the cracks of dry skin on Khadgar’s. They break apart after a second, Khadgar taking a shakey breath, before Lothar lets go of his forearm and grasps for his waist to guide him closer. Their lips meet again, this time Khadgar’s are wetted, and Lothar parts his in suggestion. Khadgar’s lips part, but he pulls back, panting. Lothar’s stomach flips, and he’s about to apologize for going too far, when Khadgar’s hand pushes his shoulder until his back is to the couch, his leg swinging over Lothar’s until he’s sitting on his thighs. Khadgar’s mouth is hot on his, open lips, and Lothar can taste his favorite brand of coffee, mixed with menthol and cigarette smoke. For a single, glorious moment, his entire world is Khadgar’s mouth and the shape of his hips in Lothar’s hand.

And then Khadgar’s phone dings. They don’t stop immediately, though they freeze for a moment before finishing this kiss. He can hear the curiosity burning in Khadgar’s head, but instead of reaching for his phone, he kisses Lothar one more time, softer and sweeter than the two before, his entire body resting against Lothar’s.

“It’s just a text from Garona,” he murmurs against Lothar’s lips. Lothar responds by sliding his hands up Khadgar’s thighs to his waist, then around to the small of his back, keeping him close. “She can wait.”

Except as he says this, his phone dings again. And again. Enough so that Khadgar tenses, before slowly relaxing and leaning in for another kiss. The damned thing dings a fourth time, and Khadgar freezes mid-kiss. Lothar dips his chin, breaking the kiss but keeping his forehead against Khadgar’s. “Maybe she can’t. Go check.”

He chuckles over Khadgar’s growling whine, and feels the boy shift back on his lap and press into his hands, presumably to reach behind him for the coffee table. It takes some shifting and reaching, straining Lothar’s hold on his back, but after a few attempts Khadgar makes a noise of triumph.

“Durotan wants to meet us. Now.” Khadgar says after a moment.

“We don’t have Medivh-”

“Just you and me, she says.”

“Did she say why?” Khadgar scoffs in response. “Fair. Well. Alright. Maybe we should.”

Khadgar drops the phone on the couch, shifting his weight back to his knees and wrapping his arms around Lothar’s shoulders. “Maybe we should. though, maybe they can wait a little while longer.”

And Lothar’s grin is soon covered in another kiss.