//Yet again all of you have my most, deep, and sincere apologies for going silent again. Depression and anxiety are rubbish as it is, but when you're fighting a war on both of those fronts at once, well... It's been bad. Meds are finally starting to work, and going to school again is making things a bit less rubbish. But I still had a BAD crash last year in all directions: mental, physical, and emotional. I'm absolutely SHIT at taking care of myself as it is, and after all of that it's put a lot of pressure on my husband, making things worse. it's been hard getting into the habit of doing just ONE thing each day, and doing it well. If I can do more, good, but I burned myself out hard with unrealistic personal expectations and I'm paying for it. Be kind to yourselves. Take care of yourselves. And each other, if you've got a person or people in your life. Meanwhile, there's only a couple of chapters left to this story. There's a light at the end of the tunnel and for once it isn't a train come to run my ass over. Thank you all, deeply, SO MUCH for coming back to read my silly, crazy project, and I promise to give you all an ending. Just give me a little more time.// Two weeks later was the Feast of the Winter Star, and Elliott was filled with happy energy. The year previous he had simply gone through the motions, but this time he was looking forward to visiting with the town and enjoying some communal food and drink. Lysander had been rather insistent upon refusing any sort of gift, but Elliott felt it almost a duty to get him something, and finally found an item that would satisfy both of them. It went into his pocket and stayed there firmly tucked under his wallet, so that it would not fall out. He took his time in journeying to the plaza, delighting in the bright strings of colored lights that outlined nearly every edge on every home, as well as the bits of green décor from evergreen vegetation. Little things, all, to bring life and comfort to a cold, empty time of year that was almost completely devoid of light. Lysander shared this with him, holding his hand and walking slowly and silently, smiling at the town festooned with color and gaiety, despite being bundled and wrapped up against the chill. They waved to passers-by and offered greetings, finally arriving at the plaza, making a sharp detour to the large, steaming pot on a table. Gus was stirring it, and grinned as they walked up. “H’lo! Good to see you two. Care for a cup of hot cocoa? I’ve got both marshmallows and whipped cream, whatever you prefer.” “Whipped cream,” Elliott said, just as Lysander piped up with, “oh, marshmallows!” They shared a laugh as Gus carefully ladled out two mugs, and both men took it upon themselves to add their own additions to their drinks. “Well, shall we go have a seat where it’s warm?” suggested the blonde man, nodding toward the bonfire that was being tended to by Lewis and Robin. Lysander needed no prodding, and gestured to both of them with his mug in greeting, as he was loath to let go with one hand for even a moment, happy at the warmth that seeped through his gloves. “Elliott, Lys, hey!” Robin beamed at them, setting aside a poker. “Good to see you two. The only reason I haven’t got a gift for you both is I don’t know how to wrap up gratitude. The both of you have been amazing friends for Sebby, and everything you’ve done for the town has been just great. Well, I’m going to check a few things, throw a stick at me if the fire gets too low, ‘kay?” They agreed to mind the blaze and sat down on a bench near it, sighing happily at the warmth. Both of them looked up and turned at the same time, catching the scent of freshly-baked cookies as Evelyn made her way to Gus’s table, assisted by Alex and followed by George. Alex set down the large package, opening it just enough to remove two cookies, which were grabbed gently by Evelyn. “I’ll take them to your cousin and his boyfriend, dear, you get George over to the fire so he can warm up.” Nodding, Alex pushed his grandfather’s wheelchair to a place by the bonfire where he could get close and relax, while Evelyn tottered over to Elliott and Lysander. “Happy Winter Star, dears, have a cookie, they just came out about ten minutes ago.” It took immense willpower to not devour the gooey, soft, chocolate chip cookies and try to enjoy them. Lysander sighed happily after the first bite. “Oh wow, this is amazing. I can only wish that I could bake like this. Thanks, granny, this is really hitting the spot!” “Thank you, that really means a lot. You both are eating well, are you not?” Elliott used the cookie to scoop up a little bit of whipped cream from his cocoa. “Very well, actually. Between what he is growing and our combined income we have been able to eat healthy, filling meals. We are both awful bachelors, terrible at taking care of ourselves and our needs, but we are brilliant at taking care of each other.” Patting his knee, Evelyn smiled at him. “I’m so glad for that. The year before was very unkind and many of us were quite worried about you. Seeing you two happy like this warms my heart, it does. And authors and musicians! Here in this town! Why, I am downright giddy to be in your presence, what with all of that talent. And Alex, too! Why, none of us had any idea that he had such an ear for music. George and I worried what would happen if he were to get injured while playing, but now he’s got something to rely on if he cannot play anymore.” Lysander blushed a little, ducking slightly under his scarf, and Elliott kissed him behind his ear. “I would not have thought to reach out to him for that. It’s rather a happy accident, isn’t it?” “This place has changed more in the last two years than it has in the last twenty,” chuckled Lewis, who was just arriving with his own cup of cocoa. He accepted a cookie as well, his mustache bristling like a broom as he smiled while chewing. “Although I can’t argue with constants like Evie’s baking being delicious.” Taking another bite, he sipped his cocoa and sat down. “I finally got about to reading your first stories, Elliott, the ones you got published in that magazine. They’re damn good. I’m surprised that you were so hard on yourself about not getting the book going, but…” Sighing, he ate the rest of the cookie and licked his fingers clean. “I suppose that I can understand the frustration of being so close to a goal but being unable to achieve it.” “Do you have a favorite?” Elliott asked, feeling slightly embarrassed about basically fishing for praise, but he was genuinely curious about the mayor’s opinion. Lewis took a long drink of cocoa as he thought. “A Legend from the Gem Sea,” he replied, smiling warmly, “I was flabbergasted that you had done such a sweet and poignant twist on the town’s tradition. It brought tears to my eyes, and not many things do that anymore. Heh, almost reminds me of Lex proposing way back when. …So long ago…” Looking curious, Lysander finished his cocoa. “I remember the story of the pendant in that it’s a tradition of sorts, but kinda forgot about it and haven’t thought of it in years. Heh, well, until the other day, anyway. So what, grandpa went and found a seashell or something?” Elliott tried not to smile as he put an arm around Lysander and waited for Lewis to elaborate, and the mayor’s smile was sad but not unhappily so. “Same as I told Elliott the pendant story when he was looking for writing inspiration, I told Lex about it when he was thinking of proposing to your grandmother. The legend goes that on rainy nights, if their love for another is true and pure, one can find a lost mariner on the beach who will give them a pendant to give to their beloved. It was rumored to be fashioned by the mermaids who live in the Gem Sea, and is imbued with magics that will protect the couple and provide happiness and longevity.” Even more curious, Lysander leaned into Elliott’s hug and made a thoughtful noise. “Okay, yeah, now I remember it. Damn, it’s been, like nearly twenty years since I heard that story, but I was a kid back then, so it didn’t make much sense, and was ‘grown-up stuff’ anyway, so I sorta forgot. Heh, it’s a sweet legend, though, and I can see how Elliott adapted it. It makes a lot more sense now, and even more tragic.” “I bet, but Lex, well… Your family never does anything half-assed. He sat there and thought about it over three beers. Then, with no warning, he shoved his wallet at me to settle the bar tab and ran outside. Into the rain! Now, mind you, I was also rat-arsed drunk by then, so I had no idea what he was off to do and couldn’t be assed to follow, but figured that I might as well clear his tab before I forgot. …Though I did have another drink at his expense, heh! We did that all the time, so it was just his turn.” He laughed and swirled the dregs of his cocoa in his cup. “Goddamn near midnight I was getting changed out for bed when I heard this awful banging on the door, and it spooked the shit right outta me. So I hauled ass through the house, worried that Lex had gone and hurt himself on some fool errand again, threw open the door, and he stepped in, soaked to the bone. Damn fool was grinning like an idiot, now completely sober, and showed me a lovely shell he’d found on the beach that he had scrounged up. In the rain! He asked me if I thought she’d like it or if he should go find another.” Shaking his head, he laughed again, wiping away fond tears. “He had no artistic talent, he was a musician, so he sought out the town artist and got it decorated up nice and put it on a chain. Poor sod didn’t have much cash to blow on a shiny ring, and he was all about personalized gifts anyway. He was terrified that it wouldn’t be good enough, but it was all worth it when he proposed, and I don’t think I had ever seen her so happy before. She never took it off after that, and I remember at her funeral that she still wore it. …Ah, sorry, that was…” Lysander shrugged, patting Lewis’s shoulder. “No, it’s okay, I don’t remember much of her, she died when I was really too young to remember much, but I do recall that necklace. I never asked about it, it was, well, like I said, grown-up stuff, it was just something that she had and was hers. I probably wouldn’t have thought to ask about it for several years later, but… Yeah.” Sensing the need for a slight shift in topic, Elliott took Lysander’s mug. “You seem to be in need of a refill, dear, let me get that. Lewis, would you like another?” “Not just yet, I’m feeling pretty good from this one right now.” “Thanks, love, you don’t mind?” “Not at all.” He gave his partner a kiss and this time couldn’t suppress a happy, silly smile. The way that Lysander’s smile touched his own eyes, the way they crinkled at the edges and got even warmer… That was something that only he would ever see, and that made a delicious pain well up in his chest. Walking back over to the kettle, he was about to refill the mugs when Leah arrived. He glanced over his shoulder and saw that Lysander was out of earshot, but dropped his voice a little anyway. “Hello, Leah, how goes the…project?” Taking a mug for herself, she put in a couple of marshmallows, paused, then put on a bit of whipped cream, unsure as to which she wanted more of. “It’s going great. I was right, and there’s enough for three, so I’ve got backups in case one breaks or I want to try different things. I’ll be done by the end of the month.” She took a sip and grinned after shooting a glance at Lysander. “When’re you planning to ask him?” Both mugs were full again, and he added marshmallows and whipped cream to the appropriate ones. “I was thinking the Flower Dance. We first met there, so…” Giggling into her drink, she bounced on her toes. “That’ll be so perfect. And like I said, I’ll totally be done by then. The painting will be easy, it’s just fiddly as all hell doing any carving ‘cause I’m always worried about cracking it. I know it’s sturdier than I think, but I’ve never worked with it before so I don’t wanna push too far. I’ve actually been scouring the beach for similar shells so I can do a bit of practice work, just in case. So! Did’ja ask his parents?” He ducked his head and blushed in a gesture similar to Lysander’s a few minutes earlier. “That I did. They were…ecstatic to say the least. Mother approves as well, though that is hardly a surprise. She and father have always wanted the best for me, and they have taken a particular shine to him.” There was laughter by the bonfire and Leah nudged him. “C’mon, let’s go have a sit, can’t let those drinks get cold, right?” She sat down across from them, next to Evelyn, eating a cookie that she’d grabbed before walking away from the table. Lysander gratefully accepted his mug again, nuzzling Elliott’s chin with the top of his head. The blonde man sighed happily as he put an arm around his partner’s shoulders once more. Conversation resumed, about Winter Star gifts, more stories about the town and its inhabitants (particularly Lysander’s grandfather, who was apparently quite the troublemaker in his youth), and several cups of cocoa and snacks provided by Gus. As the night made itself comfortable so did the two men, now alone to their own devices as other friends filtered in and out to chat and then disappear to talk to others. They counted the stars and constellations in the clear, dark sky, snuggling up against each other from the cold, though the bonfire to their backs was deliciously warm. Chuckling at a thought, Lysander nudged him and confessed to getting him a gift for the season after all. “Check your tablet, I bought a couple of books that you were looking for and dropped them onto it when you weren’t looking.” Elliott perked up at this, not having expected anything, as he’d already stated before that he didn’t need anything. Still, he had bought that tablet specifically to read e-books and the like, as while there was a library here, the nearest bookstore was out in Zuzu city, and he had also wanted to pick up magazine subscriptions. Digital copies meant that he wouldn’t have stacks of both read and unread magazines that he likely would never get the energy or courage to throw out, and could be archived for later reading when he needed space on the device again. …And also because it tickled him something fierce to have a digital copy of his- their book. It felt so futuristic somehow, and he could read while listening to music. He reached into his pocket, under his wallet, and produced a simple ribbon, in a dark, matte green. “I thought that this color would look rather nice with your hair,” he said, reaching up to undo the one that Lysander currently wore, “you really should get a couple of others, I’m amazed that you’ve only had the one this entire time.” He was right, as the nearly-black green looked bold against the copper hair, standing out while still complementing. Lysander reached back to touch it, feeling the way it held back his hair, and laughed as he smiled, remarking that he was terrible at taking care of himself and his own needs. “I’ll have to look for a few others soon, thanks for the suggestion.” Elliott reached out to hug him, once again feeling that pleasant ache as Lysander put his arms around his shoulders, leaning into the embrace. After a quick glance to make sure that they weren’t too much on display, he cupped Lysander’s cheek to hold him in place for warm, lengthy kisses. This made the other man nearly melt into him, and he was quite happy to hold him even more closely for support. “…I guess we’re getting good at this ‘relationship’ thing, hunh?” Lysander asked softly, resting his head on Elliott’s shoulder as they resumed their shared inspection of the winter skies. Much later they discarded their outerwear by the front door, putting on house slippers as they went to the kitchen to make a late-night snack before bed. Lysander rubbed his arms as they undressed a little while after that, and Elliott took his hands in his own to blow on them for warmth. “No matter how hard I exercise I’ve never developed the metabolism to really fight the cold,” Lysander sighed, “but I dump heat like crazy. Summer never really bothers me.” Elliott stripped him of his shirt, having already discarded his, and hugged him firmly, relishing the skin-to-skin contact. It was mutual, as Lysander almost greedily absorbed his warmth. “Mm, this is so good. Well, let’s curl up so I can steal all of your body heat.” Hardly one to disagree with such an offer, the rest of their garments were removed and set aside, and the light turned off as phones were plugged in for power. Elliott curled up on his side, an arm under the pillow as he wrapped around his companion, an arm around his waist and legs wrapped around one of Lysander’s. Nuzzling his neck, Elliott nibbled an ear and chuckled at the shivering giggle it produced then began to drift off in happy comfort. “Y’know, that was neat.” “Mm?” “Grandma’s pendant. That’s pretty neat.” Elliott’s pulse skipped for a second, but he told himself to hush and listened. “The story behind it?” “Mm-hmm. Little things like that with so much character. How a local legend inspired someone to go and do something so crazy but so sweet. That’s… I wanna be able to do something like that myself someday. To do or make something that someone carries with them the rest of their life that has special meaning like that.” Biting his lip, Elliott was almost unable to keep from bursting into laughter. So close! His big plan was so close to being revealed by night-time musings! “I just… I’m kinda sad that I never asked about it, y’know? I had all that time with grandpa and I never bothered to ask about his past and grandma and all that. And now…it’s all gone. Too late.” The way he got quiet told Elliott that he was trying to hold back tears, and he squeezed him in a warm hug, brushing his cheek with gentle fingers. “You always live in the ‘now,’ my love. Never in the past, and always looking toward the future. It is not because you lack respect or interest, it is because you are full of life and love and energy and dwelling on what was takes away from what is now and what will be. If you truly feel despondent about this, talk to Lewis or your father. I am certain that they will once more leap to regale you with stories, smiling the entire time. And you know what?” “Mm?” “One day others will do this for you, too. They will ask for the stories of your youth and mischief, of all that you endured and how you came out stronger for it all, of your compassion and love, and your unending zest for life. They will all smile and laugh, because those memories will be precious to them, memories of someone that they love and treasure that enriched their lives beyond what they thought could be possible. You are already doing that, dearest, remember who we talked to tonight, recall how your actions in less than a year have already changed lives and shaped futures. You will be remembered, and you already have done things that people will carry with them throughout their lives. “ He flexed his left hand for emphasis. “I fell badly last year, you remember, and even though it healed I was still plagued with stiffness and the occasional ache. But you figured out what to do, and in a week it was gone. As if it had never happened. And you already have made something that a person will carry with them forever. My novel. Our novel. The one thing I had sought for years but had eluded me. And you came to me, full of life and light and love, and you helped me create something more amazing than I could ever imagine. I could never have done it alone, for all that I desired and dreamed about it. The only thing more precious than that is you.” Lysander sniffed again, this time actively fighting tears, and he got up to turn over and press Elliott flat onto his back so he could lay across him, tucking his face into Elliott’s neck. “…Thanks, love. I... I don’t… I dunno what to say. Just…” There it was again, that delicious, sweet, painful ache in his chest. Like something welling up inside of him that was too big to be contained by his mere mortal form, something that threatened- no, demanded to consume him. Something so powerful it almost left him dizzy, drunk upon the sensation of loving and being loved. He had heard so often of such a phenomenon but had scoffed at it. How could pain be beneficial like that? How could love hurt but be good at the same time? Now he understood, now he was enlightened. It was not just the euphoria of having someone so close and dear, but also the knowledge that it was fragile. That someday it all must end and one of them would be alone. That was what true beauty was, after all, wasn’t it? That which is ephemeral and rare is considered to be beautiful and valuable, and therefore must be protected. He felt the pinprick sting of tears in his own eyes as he dismissed the thought that someday one of them would be left behind, and oh, oh, how it would crush them. But not yet. Not now. Right now, they were together and happy, and more than ever Elliott knew that it was the right decision. He would ask at the Flower Dance, and they would build so many things together for a very long time. Together… “I love you dearly, remember that always. And if you should ever forget then I will be delighted to remind you.” Sniffing again, though still happily, it was Lysander’s turn to trap Elliott’s leg with both of his own, and adjusted the pillow for the both of them. “I love you, too, so much. And I won’t forget, but I’ll make you tell me over and over, ‘cause I never expected someone to say it, and I don’t know if I’ll ever get used to that.” “How long will it take, then?” Elliott whispered, wrapping a lock of copper hair around a finger, “weeks? Months?” Lysander was silent for a moment before he chuckled and pressed his face further into Elliott’s neck. “…A lifetime. Do you think that’s greedy?” Once more, that ache, that pain, starting deep in his hips and arcing out and up all the way to his throat, constricting everything in its path. “If that is what it takes then you shall have it, my dear. I love you. And I will say it again tomorrow, and the next day, and every day after that I can hold you in my arms.” He squeezed Lysander tightly, fingers tight in his hair as they both laughed. Now warm and relaxed, he felt himself begin to drift off once more, and noticed with amusement that his partner was already ahead of him. It is said that we feel pain to know that we are truly alive. I always dismissed this, but now I know it to be true, and in this moment I have never felt more so.