He stared down at the brush and paint before him with cold, unseeing eyes. His hands lay still on either side of the bowl, too afraid to touch it, lest the memory of his husband’s precise hands on his skin sink too far into the shadowy depths of his mind to be recovered.
He had to do it. He knew he did. He’d been putting it off for far too long already.
His eyes shifted to the elf sitting across from him in the glass. He was nearly unrecognizable at this point. The dark circles under his eyes put his inability to sleep on display for all to see; how could he sleep knowing he would never wake to his lover curled up tight in his arms again? His usually bright, optimistic amber eyes had lost their playful twinkle long ago; laughing and smiling seemed too painful to do alone. He had lost a lot of weight due to his odd eating habits; what was the point of cooking when he would be eating in the deafening silence of the kitchen alone. His hair was shorter than it had been since he was a young boy. He’d gotten frustrated with it one day in the forge, always falling into his face and getting in the way, and his already weakened mind could handle no more. He had taken a fistful of it into his trembling hand and tore through it with a freshly sharpened dagger. He had cried for a long time that day, and the villagers who finally found him, sobbing at his worktable with a blade in one hand and half of his hair in another, had decided he should stay away from weapons for a while.
It had been nearly a year since Runaan’s lotus had sunken, and the loss had destroyed him both mentally and physically. The first few weeks he had kept himself moderately sane through denial, but he could only avoid the truth for so long. Runaan was gone. For the first time in his life, Ethari felt truly alone. He found himself trying to recreate the life he’d had. He would often talk to empty rooms, pretending Runaan was there with him. He refused to wash anything that held Runaan’s scent, and kept at least one article of his clothing with him at all times. He tried to recount every lovely memory he had with his husband every night as he lay, unable to sleep, on his side of their bed.
But every day it faded. Just like the marks on his skin, his memories were slowly beginning to blend together and change. He found that sometimes, when he wasn’t thinking about much at all, he could hear Runaan’s voice perfectly in a memory. But other times, when he desperately tried to recall what his voice sounded like, just so he could hear it for a moment, he couldn’t remember at all. He was exhausted. He felt that his body and mind themselves were fading away with his markings.
They were barely there anymore. If he looked very hard at where they were in bright light, he could still see some faint traces, but they were all but gone by this point. He had been using any and every excuse he could think of to get out of repainting them. He didn’t want to do it himself. Runaan had painted his markings for nearly the last two decades of his life.
He still remembered the first time he’d asked Runaan to do it. The shocked blush on his face, the happiness and love twinkling in his eyes. How he’d studied and practiced Ethari’s markings on paper dozens of times to make sure they would be perfect. How gently his rough, calloused hand held Ethari’s cheek to steady his face as he brushed the paint across his cheeks. How Ethari had had to place his own hand over Runaan’s because he was trembling. How soft and warm and passionate the kiss they’d shared afterwards had been. How Ethari had looked into the mirror, seeing his lover’s careful and precise strokes on his cheeks for the first time, and grinned wider than he’d ever done in his life.
His heart ached painfully, and he ghosted his hand over his cheek. Right where Runaan had held him the first time.
He remembered watching Runaan improve his technique. Helping him learn to use a paintbrush properly, since he’d had no artistic schooling before. Watching him practice the markings over and over as the time to repaint them drew near. Feeling his confidence build in every stroke with each repainting until he could bang out a perfect set of markings in under half an hour. Of course, they always drew it out much longer than it needed to be. The joy of the ritual was not in the act itself, but in the intimacy of it. Sitting with their legs crossed over one another on their bed, naked and vulnerable and softly holding each other close. Running gentle hands over each other’s skin as they painted, slowly and carefully. Sharing quiet kisses as they worked on one another, never saying much beyond the occasional “I love you” or “you’re beautiful” whispered in each other’s ears.
He felt he might vomit from the violent twisting of his gut. He looked back down at the bowl in front of him, his hands forming tight, trembling fists now. He felt the hot tears running down his cheeks before he realized he was crying.
He had to do it. He could not avoid it any longer. It was already well past due. Runaan was not here. He never would be again. He had to do it himself. An ugly, guttural sob ripped its way from his chest, and he dropped his head into his hands in defeat. He had no choice.
He cried for a long time, until he ran out of tears and his cheeks dried up uncomfortably. He sniffed and sighed heavily as he wiped his face clean with a warm towel. He spared only a glance at the pitiful elf before him. Another few minutes of staring at the paint and the brush, working himself up to it, and he finally found the strength to move his hands.
He took the small bowl carefully into his trembling hands. He face screwed up for a moment at the contact. It felt wrong. This was for Runaan to do, not him. But Runaan wasn’t there anymore.
He willed himself not to cry again and took a deep, steadying breath. He stared into those cold, lost eyes with determination.
“You have to.” He choked out loud, his voice raspy and weak from the combined lack of speaking and excess of crying he had done in the last year.
“He isn’t coming back, you can’t just run away from it anymore.” He reasoned.
The elf didn’t seem to listen. His chest felt like it might collapse from the sadness and frustration weighing down on him as if he were buried alive.
“Just get it over with, you won’t forget him. Just get it over with and walk away and be done.” He begged.
The elf just glared back at him. He grit his teeth, squeezing his eyes shut and shaking his head for a moment. He took a few more steadying breaths before opening his eyes again.
“They don’t have to look good. You just have to do it.”
He had a silent argument with the elf before him for a long moment, staring into his eyes intensely. Finally, he released a deep sigh. He softened his gaze, offering empathy to the elf across from him.
“He would want you to.” He managed, his voice barely above a whisper.
He stared back at the paint, then at himself, then back to the paint, and back to himself. Slowly, with a trembling, uncertain hand, he picked up the paint brush and swirled it in the magical paint. He took one final deep breath as he lifted it to his cheek.
And for the first time in years, since before he was married, back when he and his husband had only been courting, Ethari painted his markings on himself. They were shaky, ugly, uncertain, sad, but they were there, and he had put them there himself.
Something inside him settled in that moment, as he gazed upon the markings he chose for himself so long ago, changed and claimed by his husband over time. He was not happy, nor even content, but he was able to lay one uneasy fear to rest as he cleaned himself and his mess up. Now, he knew he would be able to heal.
Because even without his beloved, Ethari was still himself.