The end of winter and Kyr’s twentieth birthday passed by at around the same time, and with the same amount of fanfare. He spent most of the day as he’d spent most of the days previously: working at the garage with Mr. Yorke, changing tires and learning to diagnose and repair engine problems. At lunch he walked down to the fish and chips shop to pick up some food, ignoring the increasingly hostile looks he got from the town’s population. No one had openly done anything yet, but with news of each clash between the Fae and human armies trickling in day by day, Kyr had the uneasy feeling it was only a matter of time. He knew he didn’t belong here anyway, and stayed only because of the dwindling hope that Solan would show up on the doorstep one day, smiling and safe.
He ate lunch in the back office of the garage, flipping absently through a newspaper and trying not to linger on anything related to war. These days that left him with a handful of the comics and occasionally the classifieds. When he was finished eating, he dumped his garbage and went back out to help Mr. Yorke, mustering up a smile that felt about as fake as the one Solan’s father offered him.
They rode back to the house later that night in silence and were greeted in the front hallway by the smell of baking. Kyr sniffed appreciatively and leaned against the wall to unlace his boots, feeling Mr. Yorke squeeze his shoulder on the way by. He walked into the kitchen to find them both standing by the table beside a small pile of neatly wrapped presents, a cake cooling on the kitchen counter behind them. Kyr stopped, swallowing hard against the sudden lump in his throat, then stepped across the tiled floor and hugged Mrs. Yorke fiercely, freeing an arm after a moment to pull Mr. Yorke in as well.
“It’s just a few small things,” Mrs. Yorke said when he let them go. “Open them and then we’ll eat.”
They’d bought him new clothes to replace his ratty torn jeans and the shirts he’d grown out of during a last brief growth spurt; a full sculpting kit including his own clay and paints; and a handful of small odds and ends that made him smile more genuinely than he had in weeks. Mrs. Yorke sent him to put them up in Solan’s room—still Solan’s room, though he’d essentially taken it over—and he ducked into the bathroom briefly to wash his hands and face before going back downstairs to eat.
Dinner was quiet but comfortable, the conversation kept to nothing more exciting than what they’d needed to fix at the garage that day. Afterwards Mrs. Yorke finished icing the cake and stuck a few candles in it, ordering Kyr to blow them out, then presenting him with the first slice when he did. He ate it slowly, still full from dinner, and then leaned back in his chair to settle his stomach, letting the quiet conversation between Mr. and Mrs. Yorke drift over him. His eyes slid shut and he dozed a little, until Mrs. Yorke roused him and told him to go get a shower and go to bed. He kissed her cheek and did as he was told, standing under the spray of hot water until he felt waterlogged, then quickly washed and got out.
Sleep took him almost as soon as he curled up under the blankets in Solan’s bed and he dreamed again of snow, still heaped in drifts and piles though in Arian Mawr the first buds had appeared on the trees. He saw the buck again but in the distance, its head held alertly up beneath the weight of its antlers. Solan stood beside it, one hand resting on its massive shoulder, his breath steaming out in white puffs in the chilly air. The buck was looking away from Kyr but Solan looked right at him, then let his hand trail down off the buck’s fur and began to walk towards him.
Kyr caught him up in a kiss as soon as he was close enough, a distant part of him fully aware that this was only a dream, no matter how real it felt. They were both breathless when he finally, reluctantly, let Solan go, and for a moment they just stood there, leaning their foreheads together.
“I’m not sure how long I can stay,” Solan murmured. “We wake up early. But it’s your birthday, isn’t it?”
“Yeah.” Kyr laughed a little. “Your parents got me clothes. I love them. I love you.”
“I know.” Solan glanced at the buck then slid his fingers under the hem of his shirt, pulling it up and over his head. Kyr noted absently that he looked like he’d been putting on muscle, then his eyes widened when he saw the new scars across Solan’s shoulder and side.
“These are…” He reached out to trace along the scar tissue over Solan’s ribs, feeling Solan shiver under his fingers.
“Healed.” Solan caught his wrist and kissed his knuckles. “I have a gift for you though.”
“You’re coming home?” Kyr’s half-smile faded at Solan’s slight flinch.
“I can’t, not yet. I’m trying.”
“I’ll wait.” Kyr forced another smile and made his voice cheerful. “So where’s my present?”
“Here.” Solan twisted to reach over his shoulder, digging his fingers into the tattoo there and pulling. A ghostly copy of it came up under his hand and he folded it around itself into a tiny glittering ball before sliding his fingers up the edge of Kyr’s ear to the silver cuff, leaning in to kiss him again at the same time. Kyr shivered and closed his eyes, and when he opened them he was standing in the front hallway of the dark house, his fingertips pressed to the four elements painting over the little table, his ear throbbing with a sensation that wasn’t quite pain.
He took a deep breath and looked around, blinking as he adjusted to waking so suddenly and finding himself out of bed. His hand dropped away from the painting and after a slight hesitation, he went into the kitchen to get himself a drink and a spur-of-the-moment slice of birthday cake. As he ate he worked the ear cuff off his ear and held it up to his eyes to examine it closely. The plain silver outside was now streaked with red, green, blue, and white, and it shimmered when he held it up to the light. He studied it for a long moment, then put it back in his ear and finished his cake before going back upstairs and sleeping the rest of the night without dreams.
Another week passed without Solan, then a second and a third, until he walked out of the garage to go get lunch one day and realized it was closer to summer than to spring. He shaded his eyes against the bright sunlight and looked up and down the street, looking at the green lawns and fully leaved trees; the flowers nodding in the wind and children playing in a sprinkler outside a nearby house. Loneliness swept over him, threatening to wash him away until he shook his head hard, shoved his hands in his jeans pockets, and walked down towards the fish and chips shop.
Someone called his name halfway there and he glanced back over his shoulder, unconsciously curling his hands into fists when he saw Bran jogging to catch up with him. “What?”
“Look, I don’t like you. It’s your fault that Sol disappeared.” Bran took a deep breath. “But he cared about you, so I’m warning you for him. You gotta get out of town, Kyr. People are gunning for you, especially after last night.”
“Last night?” Kyr frowned. “I didn’t do anything last night. I worked in the garage, I went back to the house, I watched TV until bed.”
“You didn’t watch the news or open a newspaper?” Bran made a ‘tsk’ noise through his teeth. “I’ll show you.” He gestured for Kyr to follow him into the convenience store on the corner and after a wary moment, Kyr followed.
While the cashier watched them suspiciously, Bran led the way to the racks of newspaper and magazines, and handed Kyr the paper from the nearest big city. He didn’t have to look through it to find out what Bran was talking about; the headline emblazoned across the top in huge red type told him enough. The casualties on the Fae side of the previous night’s battle had been enormous, the biggest so far, and he knew enough about people—human and Fae—to know a good chunk of the town would be looking for someone to take out their anger on.
“I’m not the only human in town,” he said, folding the newspaper and putting it carefully back on the rack.
“Yeah, but you’re the one who got one of our boys shot and then missing. And you’re not established here. You don’t have roots.” Bran glanced at the cashier and leaned in, dropping his voice. “Like I said, I’m warning you ‘cause I cared about Sol.”
“Care,” Kyr said. “He’s not dead.”
Bran gave him a pitying look. “Okay. My point is, get your ass gone. Pack up, tell Sol’s parents you really appreciate all their help, and go.”
“I’m fuckin’ gone.” He turned towards the door then glanced back over his shoulder. “Thanks. I appreciate your help.”
The corner of Bran’s mouth twitched up in a slight smile. “Sure. If you do find Sol… Tell him I miss him.”
Kyr gave him a slight wave and stepped back out into the hot summer air, taking a deep steadying breath. His stomach growled but he ignored it, walking quickly back to the garage. He stopped outside Mr. Yorke’s office door, shifting his weight back and forth before taking another deep breath and going in to explain the situation. Mr. Yorke listened calmly, then told him to help close the shop up so they could go home.
“Of course,” Solan’s mother said when Kyr explained what Bran had told him. “To be honest, I’ve been expecting… something similar.” She sighed. “Not that I want you to leave.”
He chose his words carefully, like he was walking through a verbal minefield. “I love it here. I fuckin’ love you guys. But it’s been six months and I just… If Solan was coming back, he’d have come already. And I don’t think I can spend the rest of my life here, even if people weren’t out for my fucking head just ‘cause I’m human. So it’s probably good I’m moving on. Doesn’t mean I won’t visit, or call. I will, I promise.”
“I’ll be expecting it.” Mrs. Yorke took his hand and squeezed it, then rubbed at her eyes and added briskly, “I’ll pack you some food. Alex, help Kyr get his stuff packed up and out to the car.”
Hearing the dismissal in her voice—and sensing that she wanted a moment or two alone—Kyr got to his feet and followed Mr. Yorke up the stairs to Solan’s room. They didn’t speak much as they packed, but Kyr didn’t mind; Mr. Yorke had never been that talkative to begin with, and he wanted the time with his thoughts. By the time the last of his bags had been packed into the car, Mrs. Yorke had finished packing bags full of food for him, bringing them out and settling them into the front seat of the car.
“Remember you’re always welcome.” She kissed his forehead and smoothed his hair back. “Call me. Especially if you… hear anything.”
“You too.” He rested a hand on the open driver’s side door and glanced up at the house, then gave them both a hug before sliding into the seat. “Love you guys. Thanks for taking care of me and putting up with me for so long.”
“Any time.” She raised a hand as he backed out of the driveway, and his last sight of them was their waves as they stood arm in arm and said goodbye under the light of the setting sun.
He turned towards Aldeen without much thought behind the move, driving throughout most of the night. A few times he came across roadblocks guarded by nervous-looking soldiers barely older than he was, and each time he was waved through after one of them scrutinized his ID and another studied his face. He arrived back in the city as dawn was breaking and found a motel to sleep in for a few hours.
He showered after he woke up and shaved, trying to make himself look at least somewhat presentable. After drying off his face and hair with one of the motel towels, he dressed in his cleanest jeans and T-shirt, then checked out and drove over to his father’s house. For a few minutes he just sat in the driveway outside, looking up at the sweeping façade, then slowly got out of the car and went up to the front door. He hesitated again before knocking, straightening his shoulders and taking a breath as he waited for someone answer.
“You,” Magdalin said when she opened the door, leaning her shoulder against the doorframe. In one hand she held a half-full martini glass. “What do you want?”
“Checking in. Proving I’m not dead.”
She arched a manicured eyebrow then stood aside and let him into the house. “Your father isn’t in. He’s taking Marigold to school then he has graduation ceremony arrangements to make. I take it you won’t be walking with the rest of them.”
“Not unless they let you graduate just for fucking existing.”
“Don’t swear, Kyrianos,” she said, but absently. “Are you going to bother waiting around for him?”
“What crawled up your ass and died anyway?” He turned to face her, fighting down a flash of red-hot anger. “I left, I moved out, I’m just here to visit. Get off my dick already. I’m not going to be here long, but yeah, maybe I wanted to see my dad, not that either of you really give two shits about me.”
“You want to talk about not giving a shit? You’re the one who vanished for six months without even a phone call.”
“Yeah, I’ll bet it really fucking weighed on you in between hair and nail appointments.”
“I fucking tried to take care of you!” she screamed at him, so suddenly that he took a step back and only stared at her in silence, eyes wide and startled. She stabbed a finger towards his chest, nearly spilling the martini glass in her other hand, and he realized she was well on her way towards drunk, even though it wasn’t even close to noon yet. “You were a horrible ungrateful little shit when I got here, and you grew up into an even more ungrateful little shit. I did my best, but you treated me like dog shit. All I wanted was for you to respect me, even if you couldn’t look at me as your mother.”
“Because you’re not,” he said, anger flooding his voice. “My mother was my mother, and then you came in one day and started trying to order me around. You weren’t anything more than my father’s fucking bedwarmer.”
She slapped him so hard her nails drew blood from his cheek and he staggered. “I love your father, and he loves me. And if you weren’t so worthless yourself, you’d see that. You’re pathetic. Get out of here and don’t come back.”
“Fine!” he yelled at her. “Fuck you too! I don’t even know why I bothered to come back.”
“Me neither. We’re perfectly happy without you.” She hauled the door open and the rest of her martini slopped over the glass and ran down her wrist. “Happier. You only bring trouble, Kyrianos. Go back to wherever you were hiding. I hope you die there.”
He flinched and saw her eyes widen slightly, but before she could say anything else, he left, kicking the door shut in her face. It opened while he was walking back down to his car but he ignored her calling his name and just slid into the driver’s seat, giving the keys a harsh twist in the ignition to start the car. He backed down the driveway recklessly and shot straight out into the road, narrowly missing being T-boned by an oncoming truck. The other drive laid on the horn and yelled out the window at him, and he flipped his middle finger up in return before gunning the car down the road.
He drove aimlessly for a while, taking turns at random, until the tight angry ache in his chest loosened and the urge to start hitting things until he couldn’t hit them anymore faded away. He parked on the side of a street and went into the nearest fast food place to get some lunch and ate it in the car, aimlessly looking out the window at the shops lining the street. His eyes settled on a sign advertising the benefits of the army and asking for recruits, and he thought of telling Solan that his only real plan was to join the army after school.
You’ll be killing people like me, Solan’s voice said from his memory.
“You’re not even here,” he said out loud, the sound of his own voice startling him with how tired and old it was. “And I really don’t think you’re coming back.” He touched the cuff in his ear. “But maybe… maybe this can help me find you. And what else can I do?”
Solan’s voice said nothing but he heard Magdalin instead, telling him he was worthless and useless. He heard Marigold calling him a loser, and got out of the car in a sudden convulsive jerk, wiping his mouth nervously on the back of his hand. He stood outside the recruitment office for a few minutes, reading the poster over and over again, listening to the voices inside his head, then opened the door and walked inside.