“Mr. Dennison? You seem lost in thought. Would you care to share your insights on Rossetti’s poem with the rest of the class?”
Rich Dennison pulled his eyes away from the empty desk on the other side of the room. The other students were laughing, and even the teacher’s mouth was tilted wryly; Rich felt a familiar panic grip him by the throat and he covered it with an angry scowl.
“I don’t care about the stupid poem,” he muttered. The teacher rolled her eyes and moved on, and Rich glared down at the lines of words in his textbook, guilt and shame making his eyes sting. Because he knew, he knew poetry wasn’t stupid: hadn’t he heard the power of it in Jesse’s voice? Hadn’t he felt the magic of it himself? It felt like betraying Jesse to deny it.
The words on the page blurred as he looked at them, and he blinked hard, resisting the impulse to look back over at the empty desk. Jesse Rosen hadn’t come to school for four days in a row now and it felt like there was no magic in this world at all.
He hadn’t gone so long without seeing Jesse since they’d returned from Gwyliath six months ago. Sometimes a Saturday or a Sunday might go by without meeting at the library or the park, but most days Jesse was just part of his life. Part of himself. They hadn’t gone back to Gwyliath. It wasn’t that they didn’t want to, or that they thought they wouldn’t be welcome. It was just that the time wasn’t right, somehow. They never talked about it; they didn’t need to.
There were a lot of things they didn’t need to talk about.
Rich was just happy to have a friend, content to share his days with Jesse’s quick laughter and easy smile--because he did smile easily now, the pinched and wary look vanished into sunshine and warmth when he looked at Rich. If the other students wondered at the fact that Jesse and Rich had gone into the principal’s office bitter enemies and come out best friends, they didn’t mention it.
As the teacher talked about themes in Rossetti’s work, Rich looked down at the gold ring on his finger, with its circle of winged lions. The seal of Gwyliath, the sign of his knighthood there. Jesse never wore his; he said his parents would freak out. Rich’s mother never even noticed. He twisted the ring on his finger, feeling the solid warmth of it.
No one had answered at Jesse’s house when he had called.
He stared down at the poem, at the black words on the white page, reading them over and over, remembering the magic of Jesse’s voice.
For verily love knows not ‘mine’ or ‘thine;’
With separate ‘I’ and ‘thou’ free love has done,
For one is both and both are one in love.
When the bell rang, he stood up and left the school without looking back.
Jesse lived in a farmhouse pretty far from town; it was a long bike ride to get there. Rich had never been there, but he knew the address and he knew what it looked like from Jesse’s descriptions.
“It’s red brick, and my mother’s got like a dozen pots of petunias lining the driveway,” Jesse had said, grinning. “And there’s a pine tree with a tire swing left over from the last owners. It’s quiet there--late at night sometimes you can hear the river in the distance. I mean, I kind of hated it when my family first moved there, but it doesn’t seem so lonely now.” He’d brushed his long red hair back behind his ear, and his smile had turned shy as he looked at Rich. “I don’t feel so lonely now.”
Rich remembered the way the sunlight had glinted off Jesse’s hair as he pedaled hard and steady down the dirt road toward his house. There was science to explain why each strand seemed a different shade of copper or brown or red-gold: light refraction, pigmentation, genetics. Was it science that explained how much he wanted to touch it, or was that poetry? Was there really a difference, down deep where it mattered?
He saw the brick house, the pine tree, the petunias. His heart pounding, he left the bike by the mailbox, walked up to the door, and knocked.
The door swung open and Rich found himself blinking at a woman who had to be Jesse’s mother. “Are you Mrs. Rosen?” Rich said, hearing his voice shaking as she looked at him from hard flat eyes, feeling a horrible foreknowledge uncurling just below his heart. “I’m a friend of Jesse’s and he hasn’t been at school and I was afraid--”
“--I know who you are,” Jesse’s mother said. “And Jesse isn’t here, so you can just turn yourself around and go home.”
She started to slam the door shut, but Rich jumped forward and put his foot in it, holding it open. “Please, ma’am,” he gasped. “Is Jesse okay? Is he sick?”
At the last word, the woman’s face twisted in loathing. “Sick,” she snarled. “How dare you come here asking for him--did you think we wouldn’t know? Did you think we wouldn’t find out?”
Rich felt cold, cold down to the marrow of his bones, the kind of fear he had only felt when Fenris had loomed on the horizon, gray and baleful. But Jesse had been at my side then. “I’m sorry,” he stammered. “I don’t understand.”
Jesse’s mother shoved him hard in the chest and he staggered backward. She disappeared into the house and he thought she was going to slam the door shut again, but she reappeared a moment later with her fist curled tight around something. “Take your filth elsewhere!” she shrilled, hurling something at him that landed at his feet with a sharp metallic ting.
Rich bent down and picked up the ring with the golden lions, twin to his own. The woman was still talking, her voice shaking with vehemence, taking the purest, truest thing in Rich’s heart and smearing it with venom and bile. Rich stumbled backwards, Jesse’s ring clutched tight in his hand, tears blurring his vision.
The door closed on her final words: He’s not here anymore. You’ll never see him again.
He rode his bike as fast as he could from the Rosen house until he couldn’t breathe any longer, and then he pulled over and sat in the bracken on the side of the road, sobbing. Gradually, words and phrases from the torrent of abuse started to come back to him, started to make sense: Crazy stories when we confronted him--said you were knights--paranoid delusions--psychiatric evaluation--
He wiped his eyes hard and took a shuddering breath. Okay. Okay. Jesse had saved him when he was imprisoned by Skrymir. This wasn’t any different. It was just his turn.
A few hours of careful research at the library, a purchase of a good map, and he was on his way.
Oakland Center was a cluster of crumbling brick buildings surrounded by looming yew trees, dark in the dusk. The whole place was hemmed in with tall wrought-iron fences--more to keep in than keep out, Rich suspected. He found a place where a tree grew close to the fence and clambered up its trunk, inching out across a branch until he could drop down on the other side.
The lawns were heavy with cold dew that dragged at the hem of his jeans as he made his way cautiously up to one of the buildings. It was three stories tall, its windows barred with heavy iron, and Rich stared hopelessly at it for a moment. Then he picked up a pebble and flicked it at the first barred window, his heart hammering in his throat.
A face appeared in the window--an older man, frowning and unfamiliar. Rich met his eyes, pleading: Jesse? he mouthed. Jesse Rosen?
The man’s eyes narrowed, and Rich braced himself for the raised alarm. Then he nodded slightly and pointed to the left, holding up four fingers: four windows down.
Rich managed a smile before he began to inch his way toward Jesse’s window.
“Jesse,” he whispered at the window, tapping on the glass through the bars. “Jesse, it’s me.” For a moment there was no answer and Rich felt panic and despair making his knees shake, but he bit his lip and forced himself to stand steady. He was a Baron of Gwyliath, he had been knighted by King Fridiof IX himself; he would not run.
Then the window sash was thrown up and Jesse stood there in the moonlight, staring out at him.
His hair--his beautiful, beautiful hair--had all been shaved off close to his head, and his face looked haunted and drawn. But his eyes were clear and undrugged, and when he recognized Rich they went wide with shock and he surged forward to the window, putting his hands between the bars as if desperate to touch Rich.
Rich brought Jesse’s fingers to his lips and kissed them, and Jesse made a harsh sobbing sound of pure joy.
“You’re real,” he whispered.
“Of course I am,” Rich said against his cold fingers.
“It was all real,” Jesse said. “They told me it wasn’t real, but it was. Gwyliath. Fenris.”
“The daughters of Eryd,” said Rich. “With their spears of light. All of it was real. You and I are real. We are real.”
Jesse’s eyes were bright with happiness and with tears. “You came for me,” he said.
“Of course I did,” said Rich.
“I can’t get out,” said Jesse, tears tracking down his face. “The door is locked, Rich. You’ll get caught--you have to go, get out of here, please.”
“You idiot,” Rich said fondly. “You forget--we’ve got these.” He held up Jesse’s ring to match his, glinting in the silver light. “We’re getting out of here,” he said, and saw in Jesse’s eyes the realization that “here” meant much more than Oakland Center.
“Yes,” said Jesse, and held out his hands for Rich to drop the ring into.
Smiling, Rich shook his head. He took Jesse’s hands again, feeling them shaking in his, and slipped the ring onto Jesse’s left ring finger. Then he took his own ring from his pocket and put it into Jesse’s hands. “Your turn,” he whispered, holding out his left hand.
He watched Jesse’s face as the ring slid onto his finger and realized he had never been so happy in all his life.
“Are you ready?” he said, taking Jesse’s hands in his.
“Oh yes,” whispered Jesse as their rings came together. “Let’s go home.”
Only the moonlight and the shadowed yews saw them vanish, their hands clasped tightly together.