Kyr pulled into the diner’s parking lot on a whim, tired and hungry and sick of the endless road and suspicious-looking people who hadn’t seen Solan. He parked under one of the arc-sodium lights and stepped out into its orange glow, shoving his hands into his coat pockets for the walk across the lot to the diner’s front door. A few of the people inside glanced at him as he entered to the sound of the bell over the door, then glanced away without meeting his eyes. He didn’t really blame them; he’d gotten a look at himself in the car mirror earlier and been startled by how tired and thin and scruffy he looked after nearly two weeks of searching.
He mustered a smile as he walked up to the counter, where a red-headed waitress watched him warily, and ordered a double meal of chilli, fries, and fresh-baked bread. As the waitress was ringing his order up, he pulled his wallet out of his pocket and slipped both money and the photo he carried out, placing the photo on top of the bills and holding it there with one finger.
“I’m looking for this guy,” he said, tapping the photo gently. “He came up this way but I can’t... It’s like he disappeared.”
She glanced at the photo and her eyes widened, then she hastily looked back at her register, mumbling the total.
“Did you see him?” Kyr asked, beginning to get angry and trying not to let it show in his voice. “Please, he’s so important to me.”
“No, sorry.” She inched the bills out from under the photo and he let her, slipping it back into his wallet. He took the tray she handed him and carried it over to a table by the window, eating even though he’d lost most of his appetite.
The waitress came and sat awkwardly opposite him just as he was about to get up and leave. She pushed a curl behind her ear and looked around before leaning forward to whisper, “He was in here a couple days ago.”
“By himself?” Kyr asked, just as softly.
She shook her head so hard her curls bounced on her shoulders and looked around again, chewing on her bottom lip. “He came in by himself but... I looked out the window as he was leaving, ‘cause he asked me for help, and he was with one of them.”
“Them?” Kyr fought to keep impatience out of his voice. “Look, I’m not from here, so I don’t know what them means. This guy,” he took the photo out of his wallet again and placed it on the table between them, “his name’s Solan. I love him, and if he’s in trouble, I need to find him.”
“He was with one of the wild Fae. Big guy with antlers.” She held her hands up over her head, then dropped them back in her lap, looking sheepish. “They come down here sometimes but they know they’re not welcome to come in. So sometimes they have... I don’t know, littler Fae with them? Ones that look more human? Those ones come in the stores instead.”
“He asked for help?”
“Yeah, but you have to understand, nobody could help him. Not against wild Fae. You piss off one of them and next thing you know, somebody’s baby goes missing and somebody else’s house burns down. They’re vengeful.”
“No, I get it. Can you at least tell me which way they went?”
“North, into the mountains. I can’t tell you any more than that. Nobody goes up there.”
He nodded, then reached over and gave her hand a light squeeze. “Thanks for talking to me. I really appreciate it.”
“Sure.” She flashed him a quick smile and got up, straightening out her apron. “I can’t sit too long. People will talk.”
“Just a sec.” He caught her wrist and folded another bill into her hand. “Thanks, I mean it.”
She pocketed the bill and gave him another brief smile. “Good luck. I hope you find him.”
“Me too,” he muttered, watching her walk away.
He stacked his plates neatly and got up, ignoring the looks other customers gave him as he left the diner and went back out to his car. For a little while he sat in the front, waiting for the heaters to finish warming up the interior, and studied his map in the overhead light. He’d never noticed before that the majority of roads seemed to have been built around the mountains instead of through them, even though it must add days to any trip wanting to past the range. There were one or two roads through though—and there had to be, unless the Fae themselves could fly—and he dug a pen out of his glove box to mark the one that looked most likely.
He slept in his car that night, pulled over to the side of the road and curled up in the back seat under a pile of blankets, stirring a little every time lights from the cars outside splashed across his pale face. He dreamed of Solan sitting in the car beside him, laughing at something and then leaning over to kiss his mouth lightly, like he’d done while they were up at the Damascus cabin. Kyr woke to the dawn light still reaching for Solan, his fingers touching nothing but cold air.
The mountains loomed in his front window the rest of the day, gradually creeping closer the further north he drove. The towns and roadside diners gradually faded away, until the road he was driving on was empty of everything but fields and forest on either side. He passed the turning onto the main road, the one that led around the mountain range instead of through, without hesitation and continued along the road. It wasn’t well-maintained up here and he had to drop his speed to avoid slamming the car into deep cracks and holes.
He reached the hills by sunset and kept driving, taking small dirt and gravel roads when the main road ended, and climbing gradually, hour by hour. His stomach growled but he ignored it, his eyes fixed on the road as it dwindled away into darkness in front of him. The car bounded over the uneven dirt and his lights picked up the sudden shape of trees in front of him, a pair of massive oaks squatting right over the road and blocking it. He slammed on the brakes and shuddered to a halt a bare foot away from them, stared up at them in disbelief for a moment, then got out to take a look.
He’d barely taken a step away from the car before something grabbed him and slammed him into one of the oaks, lifting him up off his feet and cutting off his air. He struggled to free himself, digging his fingernails into an arm that felt oddly scaly to the touch and as firm as steel, feeling dizziness creep into his head with his dwindling air supply. Someone off to the side said something in a language he didn’t understand, and he felt fingers touch the cuff in his ear.
He kicked out as hard as he could and yelped at the pain that lanced through his foot at the contact with something hard and unyielding, despite his heavy boots. Harsh laughter broke the silence and the hand holding him dropped him in a heap in the snow. He stayed there on his knees, gasping for breath and massaging his sore throat, then looked up at the shadows standing over him.
“Go, human.” The voice was rough and growly, as though its owner had spent most of his life on a four-pack-a-day habit washed down with whiskey. “You wear Fae mark so we let you go, but you go.”
“No, I can’t.” His own voice sounded harsh and he could taste blood at the back of his throat. “I’m looking for someone.” He fumbled the photo out of his wallet and held it up, squinting into the shadows and wishing he’d left his car lights on. “His name’s Solan. I need to find him.”
“No, human, you go.” A powerful hand grabbed him by the collar and lifted him up like a puppy, swinging him over to the driver’s side of his car. He had to grab hold of the door to support himself when the hand let go. “Go now, fast, or we forget you wear Fae mark.”
“I need to find Solan,” he said through gritted teeth, trying to ignore the fear pooling in his belly. “And some guy with fucking antlers.”
“Antlers, hn?” He sensed one of the shadows move around so that he was blocked by them on either side. “Little human speaks of antlers. Antlers brings half-breed from human place.”
“Solan. That’s Solan. So let me thr—”
The hand wrapped around his throat again, cutting off both words and air. “Human goes. Or human dies.”
He scrabbled at the scaled skin, fighting for air, and nearly fell when the hand released him again. For a few long moments he just leaned against his car, wheezing and gasping for breath, while the shadows watched him without comment. He tried to think of a way around them and knew he wouldn’t find one, not here in their territory.
“Tell him...” He had to take another deep breath and swallow hard against tears. “Tell him Kyr’s looking for him. Please. Tell him I haven’t forgotten him, that I miss him. And tell your fucking antlers that I’m taking him back.”
“Bye bye, human.”
“Fuck you.” He dropped into the driver’s seat and pulled the door shut, locking it before restarting the engine. In the glare of the lights he caught sight of something huge and scaled green as an alligator before it melted away into the shadows again.
He reversed carefully down the narrow road until he found a space wide enough to turn around in, then kept driving out of the foothills and back towards the fields and forests. Once out of the shadow of the mountains, he pulled over to the side of the road, buried his face in his arms, and cried until he was exhausted. He didn’t feel much better by the time his sobs trailed off but he did still feel so angry he slammed a fist into the steering wheel, blatting the horn. Taking a deep breath to help calm himself down, he turned off the engine and crawled into the back to sleep.
He pulled into the first gas station he saw the next morning and called Arian Mawr while the attendant was filling his tank. Solan’s mother answered on the third ring and he poured out the whole story, from the start of his search through all the towns he’d visited to the chance meeting with the redhaired waitress and what had met him in the mountains. She was silent for so long after he finished that he thought he’d lost the connection, then she sighed, the noise crackling in the phone’s speakers.
“Don’t risk yourself going back alone,” she said. “Come here, Kyr. Stay with us for a little while.”
“No. I can’t.”
“Why not?” He tried not to yell it, but his voice still rose.
“I’ll do my best to explain when you get here. Drive safely.” She hung up on him.
He glared at his phone, and jumped when the attendant knocked on his window to tell him the tank was filled. He nodded in return and dropped the phone onto the passenger seat, then pulled out of the gas station and pointed the car’s nose back towards Arian Mawr.
The anger faded in the days it took to get there, and by the time he parked in the driveway, all he really wanted to do was fall into a real bed and sleep for a month. Solan’s mother met him at the door and pulled him into a fierce hug, kissing his cheek, where stubble was growing out into a patchy dark beard. Then she pushed him out to arm’s length and looked him over, her frown deepening as she took in his worn boots and faded jeans, his scruffy tired face and overlong hair, the fading bruises around his throat.
“Bath,” she said, pushing him towards the stairs. “Bath and then bed. Take Solan’s room. We’ll talk when you look less like you’re about to collapse.”
He thought about protesting but instead hugged her again, tight, before making his way up the stairs and into the bathroom. While hot water was running into the tub, sending curls of steam into the air, he studied his face in the mirror, scratching at the patches of beard. He’d lost some weight despite the steady diet of fast food and he made a mental note to go out running the next day, both to blow off steam and to get back into shape. Stripping off and gingerly putting his dirty clothes in the laundry hamper, he climbed into the bath and relaxed back in the hot water, closing his eyes.
He dozed a little and pulled himself back out of the tub once the water got cold, wrapping a towel around his waist and walking down the hall to Solan’s room. He paused a moment outside it, just touching the door’s surface with his fingers, then took a deep breath and walked in. The room didn’t look any different than it had the last time he’d been here but this time he felt like a stranger, walking awkwardly to the neatly made bed and sitting down on it. Someone—Solan’s mother or father—had brought his bags up and stacked them neatly at the foot of the bed, and he leaned over to find a pair of clean PJ pants to sleep in. He thought he might find it hard to sleep in Solan’s bed without Solan there, but within moments after closing his eyes, he drifted off.
Solan’s mother woke him later and he stumbled down after her to eat dinner at the table with both of Solan’s parents. Solan’s father looked as tired as Kyr felt, leafing listlessly through his newspaper, though he managed a smile in greeting when Kyr sat at the table across from him. Kyr mustered a smile in return and said a quiet thank you for the food Solan’s mother set in front of him, forcing himself to eat all of it.
After dinner, Solan’s mother sent her husband into the living room with a slice of coffee cake and took his seat across from Kyr, sliding another plate of cake and cream across to Kyr. “I said I had some things to tell you when you got here, didn’t I?”
“Like why you won’t go get him.” Kyr heard the raw anger in his own voice and stuffed a forkful of coffee cake in his mouth.
“Because I can’t. Because it’s safer for him if nobody knows who his mother is.” She ran long fingers through her hair, pushing it back from her face. “I used to be one of them, living there in Awen in the mountains. We were wild and free, but I met Solan’s father and suddenly that wasn’t enough. So I left and there are people there who have never forgiven me for that, for falling in love with a human and leaving and having a half-breed son. And it is vicious up there. Half the reason they haven’t yet joined the fight is probably because they can’t stop fighting each other long enough to organize.”
“So what do we do about Solo?” Kyr asked quietly, stabbing his cake with his fork.
“For now, we wait. Hope that Solan gets free on his own. I’ve been in contact with friends, but it’s tricky.” The look she gave him was slightly defiant but mostly exhausted. “This is the best way I can to defend my son.”
He reached out and took her hand, giving it a gentle squeeze. “All right. I can wait a little while, I guess. I’ll do what I can to help out around here. Stay out of sight too, ‘cause I bet nobody really wants to see my face.” He smiled a little.
“We do.” She kissed his forehead and gave him a little pat on the shoulder as she got up and went into the living room, leaving him sitting alone in the kitchen, struggling to fight off a homesick wave of loneliness.