Author’s Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Rating: R (non-explicit aruna and descriptions of past abuse)
Spoilers: The Fulfillments of Fate and Desire
Characters: Astarth, Flounah, and various cameos
Summary: A look into Astarth’s mind and later life after the end of Fulfillments. Sometimes, the more things stay the same, the more they change.
Disclaimer: The concept of Wraeththu and all characters and situations pertaining thereto are the property of Storm Constantine, who has very graciously allowed her fans to play with them; no money is being made from this story, and no copyright infringement is intended or should be implied.
Author’s Note: My first Wraeththu fic. (Eeek!) I’ve only read the original trilogy and about a third of The Wraiths of Will and Pleasure, so bear with me if I inadvertently commit canon murder because of my ignorance of something that happens later on in the series. Arsche and Roz appear courtesy of my good friend Mr. Powell, just because. 😉
The Wind that Broke the Door
Chapter One: Preparations
“I thought I’d never have to do this again,” I complained to my reflection as I finished applying my makeup.
Damn Quince. Of all the nights he could have decided to get fed up with everything and leave, he had to pick this one. Fallsend was packed with foreign hara (mostly from Jaddayoth, but a good number from as far away as Megalithica), and most of them seemed to have descended upon Piristil. They were mostly here for the tour, of course, followed by a late supper and a rehashing of the delectable horror of having been in the very room where the inimitable Panthera had been chained, but there were always some who’d pay the extra few spinners for a night with a genuine Piristil kanene. (Not that there were that many of us left from the old days, but most hara only cared about the brand name, so to speak, so who was I to miss out on an opportunity to profit from this?) With twelve kanene currently living in the musenda (not including myself), plus four alternates who could be called in at a moment’s notice, there were usually more than enough to fill the demand, even on busy nights—until now, that is.
I sighed and scowled, blotting away a bit of excess lipstick. Quince, who I’d been relying on to entertain whichever of the Gelaming showed up that evening for the yearly audit, was probably halfway to Jaddayoth by now, fueled as he was by alcohol and self-righteous indignation; Semiru was due to deliver his pearl any day now; Yasmeen had broken his leg the day before and was staying in the House of Healing for the rest of the week; Roz was having one of his “episodes”; Ezhno was visiting relatives in Jasminia and wouldn’t be back for another two months, at least; it was Flounah’s utterly sacrosanct night off; and there was no telling where the hell Kelis had wandered off to this time. So with only nine kanene and a full house, I was going to have to pick up the slack.
I spun around. Flounah was standing at the door, watching me with folded arms—not quite inside my room, just far enough to be mildly insulting without giving me any real reason to object.
“How does it feel to be one of us again?” he continued, then narrowed his eyes and added in an all-too-audible undertone, “Not that you ever weren’t, of course.”
“Shouldn’t you be packing?” I said, pointedly turning my back on him again.
“I have a month; my things aren’t likely to run off before then, you know—unlike yours. Speaking of which, Ezhno hid your favorite earrings under that utterly tacky stuffed dragon of his. There’s probably a bunch more of your things in his room, too, but that’s where he usually stashes your jewelry. I’ll just put these here, shall I?”
He set the earrings down on my dressing table; the gold and rubies glittered up at me invitingly. I stroked them, sighing with regret, then put them back in their place of honor in the top tier of my jewelry box. I wouldn’t be able to wear them again unless I got my ears re-pierced, and I dreaded the pain.
Ah, what price beauty? my hostling’s voice whispered mockingly in my head—a ghost from the past I’d thought long-banished. I gritted my teeth against it. I can’t remember, I thought desperately. Not now. Not like this.
Turning to my wardrobe, I began hanging up the clothes I’d considered and discarded after my bath. It had been so long since I’d worn any of these finer garments that they’d drifted, ignored and forgotten, behind the more practical things I chose nowadays; most of them were badly mildewed or riddled with moth holes by now. Of the lot, I’d managed to salvage a few shirts, one of which I was wearing (along with a long black leather skirt, slit nearly to my hip, that Ezhno had borrowed from me a while back and “forgotten” to return), but even these were slightly musty. I’d had similar problems with my nail polish; it was all either dried out completely, conspicuously absent, or impossible to open because someone had glued the cap to the bottle.
“I don’t know why you’re even bothering,” Flounah said, picking up what had formerly been a silk blouse and holding it at arm’s length as though it harbored some unpleasant disease. “You ought to just throw these all out.”
I snatched the erstwhile blouse away from him and threw it into the wardrobe, followed by the rest of the pile of clothing. Slamming the door, I turned to glare at him. “Do you need anything, Flounah, or have you just come to gloat?”
His eyes narrowed. “I don’t gloat.”
“Whatever you care to call it, then.” I went back to my dressing table to dab on one last bit of perfume, armoring myself with the scent of red—wine, blood, and roses. Somehar once told me that’s what my breath tastes like. I didn’t quite believe him, but it charmed me nonetheless, which is likely what he intended. “Is our esteemed guest here yet?” I asked.
“He’s in the dining room, looking over the accounts,” Flounah said.
I took a deep breath, steeling myself in a way I hadn’t needed to for years. “All right,” I said, pushing past Flounah towards the door, “if there’s nothing else—”
“Wait.” He rested his hand on my arm lightly, his voice unexpectedly gentle.
I turned back, expecting more mockery and wanting, needing, a reason to snap at him, but his expression was solemn.
“I don’t know about him,” Flounah said. “He’s Gelaming, yes, but there’s something—” He grimaced slightly, then shrugged. “I don’t know, it’s just a feeling, but…. Just be careful, all right?”
It was the tone of his words, rather than their message, that chilled me. “Of course I’ll be careful,” I said haughtily, trying not to show how much this warning had affected me. “I always am.”
“Arrogance doesn’t become you, Astarth,” Flounah said, shepherding me out the door and closing it behind us.
I glared at him. “Nor does your sneering,” I growled. “I’ll be glad when you’re finally gone, though I’m not sure how working in Immanion is going to square with your delicate Maudrah sensibilities.”
Flounah’s mouth twitched; it might have been a smile. “You complain now, but I’m sure you’ll be missing me within a week. You won’t have anyone to argue with, for one thing.”
“Except Ezhno,” I shot back. “We argue all the time—or hadn’t you noticed?”
“That’s not arguing. That’s you throwing your weight around and him retaliating in various petty ways. I’ll admit it’s diverting, but it isn’t exactly intellectually stimulating, is it?” He raised an eyebrow. “Or is all that petty sniping but a flimsy camouflage for something more… torrid, shall we say?”
“You, my dear,” I said, drawing myself up to my full height, “wouldn’t know torrid if it crawled up your soume-lam.”
And with that, I turned on my heel and went down to meet the Gelaming.
Chapter Two: Recognitions
Entering the dining room, I nearly bumped into Arsche, who was coming the other way with a basket loaded with dirty dishes. He apologized and made to continue on to the kitchen, but I stopped him.
“How’s Roz?” I asked.
Arsche’s face took on the expression of amusement and mild exasperation common to any discussion of his chesnari. “About the same. Last time I checked on him, he was huddled in our closet with Jancis’s second-best colander on his head. He seemed happy enough otherwise, so I left him to it.”
“Why is he wearing the colander?”
“He claims it keeps the Aghama from reading his thoughts.”
“…Oh. I think I just remembered why I don’t ask about these incidents more often.”
“I’m just thankful he doesn’t think he’s the Tigrina this time,” Arsche said fervently.
Before Arsche could go into any more detail about Roz’s secret life as Immanion royalty, I said my farewells and hurried into the dining room.
As always, the contrast between the new reality of this room and my memories of it shocked me momentarily. No longer was it the scene of staid, poisonously polite luncheons for embittered kanene—it had blossomed into the very soul of the new Piristil: a meeting-place for hara of innumerable tribes and creeds, a place to enjoy the delights of the present moment while learning the lessons of the past and gazing wide-eyed towards some far-future horizon. No matter what other ills the Gelaming have perpetrated in the pursuit of progress, this, at least, is something they’ve gotten right.
As I wended my way through the crowded tables, random snatches of conversation drifted to me above the clash and clatter of silverware. At one table, a green-haired young har from Hadassah (barely past his Feybraiha, from the looks of it) leaned close to an equally young friend and whispered earnestly, “Did you see those chains up there? Did you see them?” At another, a striking, olive-skinned Parasiel said to his chesnari, “I just hope it doesn’t rain again tomorrow, so we can catch the reenactment of the Liberation of Fallsend,” while deftly preventing their young harling from tipping the contents of his water glass into his older brother’s lap. Another table housed several Garridan, one of whom—who I recognized with a shock as Liss-am-Caar—was glowering at his drink as though it had personally offended him. “Tastes like sedu piss,” he sneered. “Give me the good old days, when you could get a decent glass of betica around here, and a har like me could make a living in this town without the damned Gelaming sticking their noses into my business. Eh, pretty?” He winked at me as I passed; I smiled back, a little nervously. I didn’t fear him, exactly—not anymore, at least—but it’s always unsettling to be noticed by a Garridan.
Finally, I reached the table where our Gelaming visitor was seated. He sat alone, his gaze turned inward; the account books had been pushed to one side, and his long, slender fingers were wrapped around a steaming cup of tea. His eyes snapped up at my approach, startled; his hands clenched convulsively on the cup, then relaxed slowly, deliberately.
“Good evening, Tiahaar, and welcome to Piristil. My name is Astarth.” I smiled and held out my hand, for this is the new face of the musenda: sweet, winsome, well-mannered hara, eager to lead you, for the right price, into a world of arunic delights. But only for the right price.
The Gelaming’s expression didn’t change, but he reached out and clasped the hand I’d offered. His skin was startlingly hot against mine; I assumed it was from the tea he’d been mantling. Suddenly, his voice resounded in my mind, shocking awake disused senses with the visceral, crackling energy of electricity surging through long-forgotten wiring.
I am Eresh, he said.
I ripped my hand out of his grasp with a small cry and cradled it against my chest. The echoes of his mindtouch were still ringing through my head, making my whole body tingle unpleasantly with a sensation akin to the shock one gets from biting down on a piece of copper.
Please, sit, Eresh said, still speaking directly into my head. He indicated the chair across from him, and I sat, mostly for something to do.
I apologize if I’ve upset you, he continued, but I’m afraid there’s no other way for me to speak to you. I was badly damaged when I was very young, you see; not even the Gelaming can restore what I’ve lost. Or rather, he added, they could, but I prefer to keep the scars this town has left on me. Wouldn’t you agree?
I studied him closely, an uncomfortable realization dawning. Fine, pale hair, tightly plaited and pinned up at the back of his neck as though to prevent its escape; bone-white skin, underlaced with the fragile hint of blue veins; soft, wide eyes, round and silver as the moon on a cloudless night, and filled with knowledge best forgotten. He noticed my horrified scrutiny and uttered one harsh, painful bark of laughter deep in his throat, throwing back his head to reveal the severed stump of his tongue.
Yes, he whispered, catching my gaze again, I, too, know what it is to be bought and sold.
We sat in silence for a few minutes after that. An odd pang of guilt washed through me; we had all heard rumors about those like Eresh, but we’d ignored them—we had problems of our own, after all. Only those hara who had kept them, and those who had paid for the dark pleasures of a night in their company, had any idea they’d really existed… until the Liberation.
“How did you survive?” I asked, throat tight. “I’d heard they were killing you off—”
Eresh nodded sharply. And burning the bodies to hide their crimes before the Gelaming arrived, yes. I was one of the lucky ones, that’s all. He sipped at his tea, regarding me over the rim of the cup with an inscrutable expression, but said nothing else about the matter. Instead, he laid an elegant hand on the stack of ledgers next to his place.
You do the accounts yourself, I take it?
I nodded; I could do nothing else.
How very scrupulous of you, he said, his lips curving up into a tight smile. It all seems to be in order. He hesitated, stroking the cover of the topmost ledger in a thoughtful manner.
“But…?” I prompted.
I am a bit concerned about your use of the allotted subsidies. The money from them is mainly meant to fund the caste elevation of your employees, is it not? Eresh flipped open the book and paged though it, running his finger down the entries until he found the one he’d been looking for. …But here you state that the majority of last year’s endowment was used to repair the roofs over the kitchen and attic areas. He raised an eyebrow at me, as though daring me to argue.
“In case you haven’t noticed in your scrutiny of the accounts, tiahaar,” I said, “over seventy percent of Piristil’s profits come from the café and tours of the musenda. Also, the sort of hara who are interested in pursuing caste training are generally not the sort of hara who end up working in a place like this—product of the Enlightenment though it may be. I’m only protecting my—or rather, your—investment.”
Eresh smiled again—a genuine one this time. I understand completely, he said. And while it’s not my decision to make, I believe those in charge of such matters will take a generous view of the matter, as well. Speaking of which, Tigron Calanthe sends his warmest regards. He also asked me to inquire as to whether he might hold a small book signing in your establishment when the fifth volume of his memoirs comes out next year.
I snorted. “Knowing him, it’s unlikely to be small. And how utterly remarkable that the release should coincide with Tigron Pellaz’s Golden Jubilee! I’m almost moved to feel cynical about it.”
Eresh’s smile grew wider. So that’s a no, then?
“Not only is that a no, you can tell him that if this book starts with some variation on the sentence ‘I am the Tigron Calanthe’, followed by several paragraphs describing how damn gorgeous he is, I’m going to track him down and beat him to death with my copy. He’s put that in every book so far, and I, for one, am tired of it.”
I’m sure he’ll be delighted to hear that. Eresh stood up, smoothing down his already immaculate robes, and reached for my hand.
Well, now that we’ve attended to the business of the evening, he continued, shall we turn to the matter of pleasure?
I let him draw me to my feet, heart lurching in apprehension. “Don’t you want to see the rest of the place first?” I said, a little desperately.
Oh, I went up with the tour earlier, he replied. The guide seemed a bit new, but I believe I picked up the important bits.
“Oh. Well, then. I, ah, hope all your questions were answered, then? You know, most hara never hear about this, but that dark stain on the floor of Panthera’s old room isn’t really blood. It’s a funny story, really. You see, Salandril had bet Ezhno that—”
Eresh’s sigh gusted through my head, interrupting my frantic flow of words. Just take me upstairs, Astarth. You can fall to pieces there.
Chapter Three: Revelations
Lying in bed several hours later, I listened to the wind driving the rain against the windowpanes and shivered. Eresh had left sometime earlier, and the house was utterly quiet, apart from the fitful complaints of the storm outside. I might have been the only living creature for miles; oddly, this comforted me. In the blessed anonymity of darkness, I wept.
Aruna with Eresh had been nothing like I’d expected, and that was just the problem—I didn’t know what to expect anymore. He’d been tender with me—embracing me with the silken strands of his uncanny hair, breathing reassurances into my mind, crooning hoarsely in the back of his throat as he skillfully guided me into his depths—but I could only think about all the times before, in this same bed. Bite, scratch, tear, scream. Fight back, but not too much. Let him hurt you. I’d bitten my tongue raw in the effort to keep from lashing out; the palms of each hand bore the crimson crescent impressions of the fingernails I’d longed to gouge across Eresh’s white skin.
I didn’t want to cry, but I couldn’t help it; the tears came from someplace inside me that had been growing and festering since I’d first come to Piristil—perhaps even earlier. It wasn’t just sorrow. There was rage, too—against this town, against all the hara who’d ever lived here, even against myself. I could see no end to it, unless the world itself ended.
The door was closed, and I’d bitten down on my hand to muffle my sobs, so I have no idea why Flounah came into my room; I didn’t even know he was there until he touched my shoulder.
“Astarth?” he whispered. “Are you all right?”
I turned over to look at him. The candle he held cast an odd, flickering light across his face, lending his normally austere features a gentle radiance. He ran a hand back through his wet hair; the scattering of droplets dislodged by this action gleamed like rare jewels on the dark cloth of his coat as he regarded me with concern. Concern… not disgust, as I’d expected. Words bubbled up in me then, and I was powerless to stem their flow.
“I thought this was just an inn when Jafit brought me here,” I rasped, tears still sliding down my cheeks. “I’d been on my own for too long, and he said he would take care of me. I was so naïve…. He came into my room a few nights after I arrived, reeking of betica, and dragged me downstairs by my hair, all the way to the entrance hall, laughing the whole time. I didn’t realize what was going on at first, not until he started ripping my clothes off. I screamed then, and fought him, but he smashed my face against the floor, again and again, and then—” I closed my eyes and swallowed thickly. “…When it was finally over, he coated his hands in my blood and painted the door with it—huge smears of it across the wood, across the doorframe…. It took the staff days to clean it all off. I knew, I knew there was no way it could all be mine, but I’d barely touched him. I knew I could never leave after that—that I’d have to stay here forever. My blood’s in this house now, part of it. I’ll never leave—I can’t.” I sighed. “Isn’t that stupid?”
Flounah reached out to me, his face pale. “Astarth, I—”
I yanked away from him. “I don’t need your pity.”
He set the candlestick down on the headboard and sat beside me. “I’ve never pitied you, Astarth,” he said softly. “Aghama knows I’ve felt nearly everything else since we first met, but pity isn’t part of it. Why else do you think I’ve stayed here so long? It’s not for the money, I promise you.” He gazed at me sidelong, pinning me in place with the weight of his regard. When he reached out to me this time, I couldn’t turn away.
“You have such remarkable hair,” he murmured, running his hand through it. “The color of fire, or good, strong wine. Such a shade doesn’t exist in Maudrah; the Aditi would surely kill you in the street if you dared to flaunt it.”
“I know—I’ve been there,” I snapped, not entirely comfortable with the direction the conversation was taking.
Flounah smiled and ran his thumb across my jaw. “You should grow it out again,” he said, ignoring my ire. “I think you’d be stunning.”
I opened my mouth to protest, and found myself caught by his. Flounah’s lips opened against mine, offering his breath; I took it automatically, and was lost. He tasted of summer moonlight on the ocean—dark and light, heat and cold, sweet and salt—and I drank it in greedily. My hands met his when I reached for the buttons of his shirt, and we worked together, clumsy and trembling, to remove his clothes. Once he was free of them, we lay there for a long time side by side, unsure of each other—not touching, but unable to look away. Is this right? I wondered. Is this right?
At last, Flounah sighed and half-turned away from me. “We maybe shouldn’t do this,” he said. “I’m leaving tomorrow, and—”
“Tomorrow?” I frowned. “I thought you still had a month.”
“I ran into Eresh on the way back from the tavern,” he said. “He offered to take me to Immanion with him when he leaves in the morning. It’ll be faster by sedu, and I won’t have to spend any of my savings on a horse. I’m sorry; I should have told you this before I—”
I pressed a finger to his lips. “Don’t worry about it. Even if it’s just tonight… it’s enough.”
Flounah hesitated. “If you’re sure….”
I growled and pulled him against me. “You talk too much, Flounah.”
He laughed, then pressed his lips to mine again.
It was awkward at first, almost alien, as though we were the first hara to ever take aruna. But we grew more comfortable with each other as the night wore on toward morning, rediscovering sensations and emotions long buried in the smothering muck of Fallsend. As the gray light of early morning began to filter through my window, we finally lay still, floating on lingering waves of pleasure; I blinked dreamily up at the forgotten candle, watching as it guttered itself out in a pool of dark blue wax. “I never thought it could be like this again,” I whispered.
Flounah carded his fingers through my hair, gently rearranging the sweat-dampened strands for me. “Shows what you know,” he replied, grinning, and leaned in to kiss me again.
When we finally broke apart, neither one of us was smiling. We both knew what this morning would bring.
“I’ll write,” Flounah promised, “and visit as often as I can—more often, even.”
I sighed. “It’s not quite the same, though, is it?”
“No. No, it isn’t. I wish you could come with me….”
“So do I.”
We just lay there for a while then, not trusting the fragility of the moment to mere words. I placed my hand on Flounah’s chest, feeling his heart beat in perfect rhythm with my own, and came to a sudden decision.
“Flounah,” I said, propping myself up on my elbow, “I want to bear your son.”
He stared at me in shock for several long seconds, then burst out laughing. I sat up, folded my arms across my chest, and waited for his sudden fit of hilarity to subside. Finally, he looked up at me and sobered.
“You’re serious,” he said.
“You’re the only one of us who’s bothered to take up the offer of caste elevation,” I pointed out. “Just think of it as giving me a return on my investment.”
Flounah shook his head. “Astarth, I can’t just get you with pearl and leave an hour later. It’s not right.”
“For whom, pray tell?” I inquired, raising an eyebrow.
“Well, you, for a start, and for the harling—” He ran his fingers through his hair. “I just don’t want you to regret it later.”
“I won’t. I promise.” I took his hands in mine, squeezing gently. “Please, Flounah—I want to have something of you besides a memory. Something that really matters.”
He looked away, swallowing hard. When he looked back at me, his eyes were dark and solemn.
“All right,” he said.
That morning, just as the first rays of sunlight broke through Fallsend’s omnipresent haze of smoke and clouds, Flounah broke through the seal deep inside me, and our son was conceived.
Chapter Four: Recollections
Winter had come again—a miserable season anywhere, but doubly so in Fallsend. A tendril of icy wind found its way in through a tiny crack in the office wall, finagling its way under my clothing and making me shiver. Resolving for the thousandth time to get the cursed thing filled in properly, I huddled closer to the fireplace; a log shifted with a small crackle and sigh of sparks as I reread the last lines of Flounah’s latest letter.
“I promise I’ll visit you again this spring, my flame. I’m already counting the days. Until then, don’t let the weather depress you too badly. Seasons come and go, but my feelings for you remain constant.”
I snorted softly. “It’s been nearly four years, and you still won’t use the word ‘love’? Silly har. I’ll bet you still get Calanthe to write the sappy bits for you, too.” But I carefully refolded the letter and tucked it into my shirt pocket anyway.
I stood and stretched, yawning until my jaw cracked. Winter might be hell otherwise, but at least I didn’t have to deal with strange hara tromping through the house; the cold, gloomy weather of a Fallsend winter is an effective deterrent for even the most determined tourists.
Gwinnel glanced up from where he was sprawled on the hearthrug with his sketchbook and colored pencils. “Father’s coming to visit?” he asked, carefully shading the wing of a phantasmagoric butterfly with a whisper of violet.
“This spring,” I said. The very words sent a thrill of anticipation through me.
“Good. You’re moody when he’s gone.” Replacing the violet pencil, Gwin selected one of the darkest green after careful consideration, frowning slightly as a lock of his unruly red hair fell into his eyes.
I smiled down at my son and brushed the offending curl away from his face. “I suppose I am.”
Leaving Gwin to his drawings, I went out into the hall. I was feeling restless, uneasy in my skin for no discernable reason. It didn’t make sense. All of the kanene had the season off; none of them were even in Fallsend at the moment, except for Roz, who was staying with Arsche and his relatives in the lower town. The staff were going about their usual duties; I’d seen Orpah duck around the corner when I left the office, avoiding even the hint of extra work. Everything was as it should be.
No sooner had I thought this, than a powerful gust of wind seemed to rock the house on its very foundations. The front door slammed against the opposite wall with a wail of ancient hinges and a splintering crunch of wood. The force of the gale nearly knocked me off my feet, but I steadied myself against the wall, gasping from the bitter cold of it.
All of this took place in less than five seconds; by the time I’d finished wiping away the tears stinging my eyes, the wind had fallen back to an occasional sullen draft.
“Well, let’s assess the damage,” I muttered grimly; I didn’t relish the thought of spending the rest of the winter without a front door.
The door was in even worse shape than I’d expected. From top to bottom, the impact had split it into two jagged halves—beyond repair, even for the best carpenter. Sighing, I laid my hand against the wood, then jerked it back with a curse.
“Well, of course you got a splinter, you fool,” I berated myself as I tried to yank the offending object out of my palm. “What else did you expect?”
As if agreeing with this assessment, a chorus of low, ugly laughter reached my ears.
What else did you expect, Astarth? Jafit’s ghost hissed mockingly. Only my imagination—I hope—but it filled me with despair nonetheless.
You know I’ll never let you leave, he continued. More than that, you’ll never let yourself leave.
I turned away from the ruined door and looked out across Fallsend. Nothing but filth, despair, and ruined dreams can live here in the depths of winter, despite the best efforts of the Gelaming. Behind me lay security, or at least familiarity; ahead of me was the entire world. As I stood there, balanced on the knife-edge of decision, the wind rose again, blowing into my soul to wash away all the pain and helplessness of my life in Piristil. I closed my eyes and spread my arms wide, letting it fill me.
When I turned back to the hallway and the ruins of the door at last, I was weeping. Not the anguished, soul-wracking sobs of the night my blood first bound me to this house, nor the bitter, wrathful tears I’d shed after Eresh’s evening with me—this was the rain that falls to bless the earth after a hundred-year drought.
“You’re dead, Jafit, and so is your power,” I whispered to the silence around me. “I’m leaving now, and there’s nothing you can do to stop me.”
Gwin had come out into the hall at some point, unnoticed during my inner turmoil; he stood there in front of me, clutching his sketchbook and pencil case, wide-eyed and pale, but defiant. “You’re not going without me,” he declared, lifting his chin as though he expected me to argue.
The last of my tears turned to laughter even as I took his hand. “Then let’s go.”