“Happy birthday, Ethari.” Runaan clasped his hands tightly behind his back so the young craftsman wouldn’t see them shake.
Ethari looked up in surprise, but his expression shifted quickly to a smile. “Thank you, Runaan.”
The memory of Ethari’s birthday present to him that spring prompted him to speak again. Ethari’s tiny crafted mouse had gently teased him for being very quiet. “I wish you… a pleasant day today.”
Ethari’s brown brows rose, and his eyes widened. “He speaks, and he speaks again. You’re not trying to give back the mouse, are you?” A soft grin lurked in the corner of his mouth.
“No,” Runaan said, too quickly. His hands were nearly strangling his forearms. “I only thought… you might like… to hear my voice. On your birthday.”
Ethari’s mouth fell open in soft surprise. “I do like it.”
“Happy birthday, Ethari.”
“Runaan! You’re very kind. Thank you. Will you stay? We’re having moonberry surprise.”
Runaan looked past Ethari at the gathering of crafters sprawled across the lawn beside Ethari’s house—a happy, busy bunch, everyone holding or passing something. And talking. Runaan’s gaze dropped. “I… not this time, I’m afraid.”
Ethari gently punched his shoulder, and Runaan’s eyes widened at the unexpected contact. “Next year, then,” the young craftsman teased.
“O-Of course,” Runaan stammered. Feeling a blush of confusion rising in his cheeks, he nodded farewell and turned to go.
Ethari’s words snagged at his heels. “Wait. Where’s my wish?”
Runaan froze in alarm. Had he forgotten some birthday ritual? “Wish?” He turned halfway back, afraid Ethari would be upset.
But the birthday elf’s features wore only a sassy grin. “Last year you gave me a wish, and it came true. Maybe you’re lucky like that. So do you have another wish for me this year?”
Moon help me, he thinks I’m some kind of seer. Runaan gulped and tucked his hands behind his back. Facing Ethari fully, he lifted his chin and said, “I wish you a productive year in your studies.” That was good, wasn’t it?
Ethari’s polite smile spread into a genuine one. “Well, I can’t say I won’t need it. Thank you for your concern. I’ll try not to let you down.” He offered a formal bow and turned back to his party. “Moonberry surprise next year!” he said over his shoulder.
“Happy birthday, Ethari.”
“And a happy moonberry surprise to you!” Ethari scooped up a treat-laden plate that he must’ve set aside on purpose and pushed it into Runaan’s hands.
Runaan studied it. His mouth watered. Ethari grinned winningly.
Runaan sighed. “I suppose I can stay. For a bit.”
Ethari steered him across the lawn, through a gaggle of giggling friends, to a pretty wooden chair on the edge of the gathering. “That was my wish! What’s yours?”
Ah, yes. Ethari’s birthday ritual. This year, Runaan had remembered. He pulled a small item from the back of his belt and held it out. “I wish you many hours of enjoyment with this.”
Ethari took the book of ancient Moonshadow songs with eager amazement. Then he tsked and nudged Runaan with his elbow. “It’s okay, you can just say I’m bad at playing.”
“What? No, that’s not—” Runaan blurted, before getting himself under control. “You’re very skilled. Everyone would enjoy hearing you play more.”
“Does that include you?” Ethari murmured, keeping his eyes on the book.
Runaan frowned, perplexed. “Yes, of course.”
Ethari’s grin was light and teasing. “Alright then. Eat your moonberry surprise, and I’ll play some of these songs later on. But only if you stay so you can listen and make sure your wish is coming true.”
Runaan had never stayed so long at a party in his life. Heading home afterward, he had to admit that he hadn’t hated it.
“Happy birthday, Ethari,” Runaan wheezed, leaning on the craftsman’s window sill.
“Aah!” A comically loud thump echoed in Ethari’s bedroom as the elf flailed himself awake, tangled his legs in his blanket, and thudded to the floor in a whirlwind of limbs.
Runaan stared down at him in dismayed shock. He’d imagined his heroic dash across half of Xadia dozens of times over the past week. But it had never ended like that.
Ethari flipped the corner of his blanket off his horns and winced up at Runaan, huffing and puffing in his window sill. After a sigh and a grin, he said, “I’m glad you’re back safe. The village didn’t expect your squad until tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow would be too late.” Runaan hopped into the sill and crouched there, balancing easily.
Ethari gathered himself up and sat on the floor, wrapping his blanket around his bare shoulders. “Too late for what?”
Runaan tipped his horns as if the answer were glaringly obvious.
“Wait, really? Did everyone come back early, or just you?”
Runaan felt a flush creep up his cheeks, though he couldn’t explain why. “Assassin teams always work together.”
Ethari grinned sleepily at him and leaned back against his mattress. “Well, I appreciate the sentiment. No one’s ever woken me up just a few minutes before midnight to make sure they got to wish me a happy birthday on the right day!”
Runaan’s flush grew hotter. He hadn’t considered that aspect before.
“You want to come in?”
The young assassin’s eyes went wide and he twitched in surprise, nearly falling out of the sill. “W-What?”
Ethari got to his feet and spread his blanket back across his bed. “For moonberry surprise,” he said over his shoulder. “I know it’s your favorite, and we have plenty left over down in the kitchen. You want some?”
Runaan could think of absolutely nothing to say to that. He took a breath, held it, and tried to look anywhere but at Ethari or his bedroom. He was already pushing the idea of keeping everyone at arm’s length just by visiting.
“Okay, no pressure,” Ethari said gently, and from a lot closer than he had been a moment earlier.
Runaan twitched again, partly in embarrassment for not realizing the craftsman had approached him. His arm flailed for balance, and Ethari caught his hand to steady him.
His smile was probably supposed to be soothing, but it set Runaan’s heart rate skyrocketing. “Easy there, I got you. You seem pretty tense right now. I appreciate you coming to find me on my birthday, but you really look like you could use a good night’s sleep.”
Runaan nodded and turned to go.
Ethari squeezed his hand and kept him in place. “Wait, you’re forgetting something. Do you have a wish for me this year?”
Runaan had had a wish to give, but in his flustered state, it entirely escaped his mind. “I wish you’d go back to bed and get a good night’s sleep too,” he blurted.
A wicked twinkle lit Ethari’s eyes, and he folded his arms across his bare chest. “Make me.”
Runaan stared at him, hesitant. “You don’t want to know how I put people to sleep, Ethari.”
Ethari’s grin slid off for a moment, but it returned, a little softer. “Okay, I’ll walk you through it, Mister Stabby. First, tuck me in. Second, bedtime story. Third, forehead kiss. Fourth, liberate some moonberry surprise on your way out.”
“Ethari… I can’t steal your food.”
“That’s right, you can’t. Because I’m giving it to you. Now come tuck me in.” Ethari leaped backward and sprawled across his bed, snickering.
Runaan took a long moment to breathe through several levels of exasperation before he silently let his feet down onto Ethari’s floor. He tucked Ethari’s blanket snugly around him, focusing tightly on his task and ignoring the birthday elf’s nearly audible grinning. Then he stood next to his well-wrapped prey and folded his arms. “Acceptable?”
Ethari wriggled happily. “Very acceptable. Story time?”
Runaan sighed aloud.
Ethari chuckled. “You pick. Any story you like.”
So Runaan sat beside him and told him the tale of Garlath, the First Assassin, and Ethari listened raptly until it was done.
“Thank you, Runaan,” Ethari murmured. “It’s different, hearing that story from an actual assassin.”
“As it should be,” Runaan allowed softly. Before Ethari could say more, Runaan leaned over him and pressed a quick kiss to his forehead, as requested. “I should go. Sleep well, Ethari.”
Ethari made a sleepy noise of contentment and snuggled beneath his blanket. “Don’t forget your moonberry surprise. I was only teasing about the forehead kiss, but I’d never tease you about moonberry surprise.”
“I— You— Ethari.” Runaan felt his cheeks heat all over again.
Ethari snorted with laughter. “Down the stairs, first door on your right. Just follow your nose and the mushroom lights. And Runaan.”
“Thank you. This was nice.”
It was nice, Runaan realized. He squeezed Ethari’s shoulder in farewell and went to liberate some moonberry surprise from Ethari’s kitchen.
He’d never tasted anything so delicious.
“Happy birthday, Ethari.” Runaan’s hands were trembling again, and he hid them behind his back.
Ethari looked over as he tugged the forge door shut. “Thanks, Runaan. Do you need me to fix something else for you right now? I’m happy to open back up.”
“No, I’m just… passing…” Runaan’s heart leapt into his throat. Had he been too obvious with his numerous repair requests?
But Ethari’s expression cleared. “Okay. Will I see you at the party later?”
Runaan’s tongue tied itself. “I… That depends…”
Ethari’s eyebrows bent in disappointment. “You have previous plans?”
“No,” the assassin blurted. “That is, yes. I…” A flush climbed into his cheeks as he heard himself stumbling over his words.
“Take your time,” Ethari said with a grin. “Your sentences are always worth waiting for.”
Well, that did his blush no favors. “Willyouwalkwithme?” Runaan blurted.
“Will I…? Sure.”
Ethari fell into step beside him, and Runaan led him out toward the very furthest reaches of the village. They paused by an old well, and Runaan leaned on its mossy stone lip, trying to order his desperately swirling thoughts. Lain had told him to confess his feelings. He’d assured Runaan that Ethari was definitely interested in him, too. Lain had managed it once, confessing his feelings for Tiadrin, and it hadn’t killed him. Surely Runaan could give it a try once, right?
“Is it true that the humans toss golden coins into wells to make wishes?” Ethari asked.
Runaan glanced over to see Ethari leaning on his forearms atop the edge of the well and gazing downward. “Humans have many odd traditions,” he told the craftsman.
Ethari glanced over at him. “This is a very roundabout way to give me your wish this year, but I like it.” He eased himself between Runaan and the lip of the well and hopped up, kicking his heels lightly against the ancient stone. With a cheeky grin, he asked, “So what’ll it be this year, Runaan?”
Runaan’s mouth went dry as he looked up at Ethari, sitting so boldly right in front of him. He’d loved this elf for far too long and not nearly long enough. But he’d held that love deep in his heart and guarded it as his most precious treasure. Could he truly let it out into the world, speak it into the air, and show Ethari his softest and most vulnerable weakness?
“I wish you…” His voice faltered, his gaze skated across Ethari’s cheeks, his lips, and off into the darkness, where he longed to flee. I wish you would kiss me. “…all the happiness under the Moon, Ethari… You, out of all elves, deserve it, and I… I would… make you happy every day if I could.”
Ethari’s soft gasp and wide eyes told Runaan that he hadn’t been expecting such a heartfelt confession.
Maybe Lain had been wrong.
Trembling, Runaan bobbed his head in farewell and hurried away. His cheeks were on fire and his chest was heaving. What was he thinking, trying to ruin Ethari’s birthday with an emotional outburst—
Ethari hopped off the well’s edge, caught his wrist, and spun him back around. Runaan gasped as he turned, with fear and hope and desperation mixing in his eyes and threatening to spill over. Everything was too big, too much, he shouldn’t have said a word—
A warm hand cupped his cheek and pulled him closer. Runaan spent a single dizzy heartbeat glancing down over his cheekbone at Ethari’s fingers before the craftsman’s lips pressed against his. He found himself encircled in a pair of powerful arms. Protected, not trapped. Treasured, not taken. Runaan melted into the kiss and let Ethari hold him.
Ethari pulled back with a smile and held Runaan’s face gently in his big hands. “That’s got to be a record.”
“W-What?” Runaan’s head was spinning, and his breath was erratic. Somehow his hands found their way to Ethari’s wrists and clung there.
“Wish fulfillment, Runaan,” Ethari murmured. “You wished me all the happiness under the Moon, and five seconds later, I had it. I really like your wishes. The rest of you is pretty amazing, too.”
Runaan’s eyes widened again, along with his smile, and in a moment full of joy, relief, and love, a moment most uncharacteristic of all his years of training, he threw his arms around Ethari and squeezed him tight.
“Happy birthday, Ethari.”
“Thank you, my heart.”
Runaan lifted his arm from beneath the covers, caressed his husband’s cheek, and pressed his forehead against Ethari’s. “Today, I wish for you to have everything your heart desires.”
Ethari’s big strong arms pulled Runaan close, and his laughter rumbled through Runaan’s chest as well as his own. His morning kiss was no less enthusiastic for its sweet sleepiness. “That’s another wish swiftly granted, love!”
Runaan’s soft, blushing protestations were promptly smothered by more kisses.
“Happy birthday, Ethari.” Runaan twined his fingers with his husband’s as they rode the well-used trail in the moonlight. Their mounts strode in step, ears perked, noses alert. The forest sang around them, full of haunting calls and echoing clicks.
“Thank you, Runaan. It’s so lovely out tonight.” Ethari’s smile glowed with happiness, and he squeezed Runaan’s fingers warmly.
Runaan nudged his moonstrider closer until his leg brushed against Ethari’s. Though he kept his eyes on the trail ahead, he smiled at the warmth that pressed through his boot. Ethari brought Runaan’s hand up for a soft kiss against its back and gazed across it at his favorite assassin with a gently expectant air.
Runaan smiled. “You want your wish, yes?”
Ethari’s eyes opened in mock surprise. “Oh, is it that time? Whenever you’re ready, love.”
Runaan raised his eyes to the Moon above and sighed happily. He returned his gaze to Ethari and murmured, “I wish you the most attentive and loyal of husbands. One who will take a lifetime to get to know you and treasure every moment of it. One who will hold your hand, come what may, and count it his highest honor.” He lifted Ethari’s hand to his lips and pressed a kiss against it.
He had half a second to savor the soft gasp of Ethari’s appreciation before his husband pulled him right off his mount and into his arms for a much more thorough kiss.
“Happy birthday, Ethari!”
Lain and Tiadrin lifted their glasses along with Runaan and clinked them against the birthday elf’s, while Rayla wobbled her sippy cup up to join them.
“Thank you, everyone,” Ethari said with uncharacteristic shyness.
Tiadrin’s gaze sharpened. “What’s up, Ethari? Something at work?”
Runaan and Ethari exchanged a look. How Tiadrin read the world was truly uncanny. Neither Runaan nor Ethari had told a soul.
“Well, that’s a yes,” she said, toasting herself and downing her moonberry juice.
“Are you up for consideration on the crafters’ subcouncil?” Lain guessed.
Ethari squeezed Runaan’s hand and smiled. “It would be a great honor,” he replied softly.
Runaan knew a cue when he heard one. “Then it’s time for my wish. Ethari, my heart, today I wish you the success you’ve earned and the honor you deserve. I know you’re a priceless gem, but I’m more privileged than most. You could give so much more of what you love to the Silvergrove if you were allowed to advance among the crafters’ guild. So if you wish it, then I wish it for you, too.”
“Awww,” chorused Lain and Tiadrin, leaning their heads together. Tiadrin added, “This one’s a real keeper, Ethari.”
Ethari’s gaze was as warm and soft as amber as he lifted his glass toward Runaan. “I know.”
“Happy birthday, Ethari.” Runaan spoke softly, trying to wake his husband, but only just.
Ethari stirred sleepily and patted the bed next to him, opening his eyes when he found it empty. He looked around in confusion and found Runaan standing beside him, bearing a big breakfast tray.
Runaan smiled and offered to set it in place, and Ethari immediately scooted up into a seated position and pulled his rumpled blanket smooth. The tray landed over his lap, and Ethari’s eyes widened. “You stewed a sangricot for me? Those are supposed to be for special occasions.”
Runaan tsked lightly and tipped up his chin for a quick kiss. “That’s enough of that. Your birthday is definitely special. And it’s only half a sangricot. But I may have filled the cream boat with sweetbutter.”
“Runaan…” Ethari tried to protest the extravagant topping, but his eyes were already sparkling.
“Shh. I wish you would let me give you things the way you do for me.” Runaan’s voice was wryly fond as he perched on the edge of the bed.
Ethari blinked. “Is that your wish for me this year?”
Runaan’s smile flitted from thoughtful to satisfied. “It is. You speak to me in gifts. I want you to hear my feelings just as clearly.”
“I’m melting just like my sweetbutter,” Ethari breathed.
Runaan picked up a spoon and scooped up a bit of sweet yummy fruit, offering it to his husband. After Ethari took the bite, Runaan chased it with a kiss.
Ethari leaned back against the headboard with a blissful smile. “Is this what it feels like to be married to me?”
Runaan scooped out another spoonful and held it up. His smile was soft as he replied, “This isn’t even close to that good.”
“Happy birthday, Ethari.”
Ethari clasped Runaan’s arm loosely, tethering them together. The bright summer sun shone through the branches and dappled his skin, while the cool water of the river buoyed them and cooled them. “Thank you, love.”
“I couldn’t leave you to evaporate in your workshop today. I hope you don’t mind the diversion.”
“My work will keep, this once.” Ethari pulled Runaan closer in the lazy current.
Runaan kicked lightly to turn himself just so, and their lips met just above the water line. His ponytail drifted under him, tickling his arm. A distant roar reached his ear, and he rolled onto his back again. “Today, I wish you a long life of comfort and security.” His hand tightened around Ethari’s arm to match his husband’s grip.
Ethari’s bright copper eyes gleamed at him as he smiled with a thick lock of wet hair stuck to his cheek. “My shade, why does your wish sound so ominous this year?”
Runaan bobbed up just high enough to see the river curve and then drop away in a misty cloud. “I go where my heart goes,” he said, pulling Ethari into a full and protective embrace.
Ethari buried his face against Runaan’s neck and held on tight as the water began to murmur and then roar in the distance. “And now you’re invoking our wedding vows!”
Runaan grinned as the waterfall’s precipitous edge approached and the world fell away. He pressed a cool wet kiss on his husband’s lips. “I will take any plunge with you, my heart.”
Ethari’s arms squeezed tighter. “I can’t think of a better way to fall than with you.”
Lain, Tiadrin, and Rayla could hear the birthday boy’s howl and the assassin’s exuberant whoop all the way back at their picnic spot.
“Happy birthday, Ethari.”
Ethari stared around the tiny dell in soft amazement. “It’s a… a garden?”
Runaan slipped his hand through Ethari’s and squeezed. “I thought this might make your gathering more efficient. And pleasing.”
Ethari’s brows rose as he looked from one plant cluster to another. Deep in the shadows at the low end of the dell, soft lunabloom glows radiated. Higher on the sunny slope, tranquilliums and poppledaisies nodded their heads. Nearby trees sported colonies of mushrooms both illuminating and medicinal, and the grass was carefully groomed with herbs, flowers, and useful shrubs that stayed to the edges of walking spaces. “How long have you…?”
“I noticed several different mushrooms fruiting on the trees last autumn during the rains,” Runaan explained. “The dell’s angled floor means it has plenty of sun and shadow in close proximity. I spent some time studying specific growing areas for the plants you use most often, and then it was just a matter of finding some struggling specimens and giving them better homes here.” He sighed. “Sun’s Tears won’t grow this deep into the forest, unfortunately. But they’re worth the trip.” He turned and lifted Ethari’s hand to his lips. “You have extra duties now, and I know your time is precious. Since I can’t wish you more time in the day, I wish you more time to do what you need. So I brought the forest to you.”
Ethari pressed his hand against his chest, still drinking in the garden. When his gaze finally landed on Runaan, his expression was softly ecstatic. He murmured, “You think I can’t make time stand still? Come here.”
Runaan had no idea how long their kiss lasted.
“Happy birthday, Ethari.” Runaan’s voice was a bare murmur.
The forest fire hadn’t reached the village. A small mercy. But the garden was gone, and many of the fruit trees northeast of the Silvergrove had been damaged or lost. The elves solemnly worked their way through the burnt swath of the woods, hoping to salvage roots and cones and rescue any animals who had managed to take shelter.
Ethari’s tears had dried hours ago, but they still carved tracks through the soot on his cheeks. When he turned to Runaan, his eyes were full again and his bottom lip trembled. He shook his head wordlessly, and Runaan pulled him into a gentle embrace and smoothed a hand along his back.
When he pulled away, he showed Ethari what he held. A lunabloom tuber, still plump and pale, protected by the earth though its blossom had perished in the fire. “Life from death,” Runaan murmured. “The forest will return, and all the life in it.”
Ethari nodded and clung to his tunic. “Give me a wish, Runaan.”
Runaan cast a glance over the blackened landscape. The sharp tang of woodsmoke hung in the air despite the bright sun. The heavy rain that had doused the flames left a muggy burnt slick on every breath. He pressed his forehead against Ethari’s and folded his husband’s fingers around the rescued plant. In the dark shadow of Ethari’s palm, the pale root glimmered ever so faintly.
“Today,” Runaan breathed, “I wish you peace, and may the fullness of the cycle buoy your heart. This is not the end, only an end. All begins again.”
Ethari sniffled and nodded against him. “Let’s plant this together. A new start.”
“A new start.”
“Happy birthday, Ethari.”
Ethari took his lute from Runaan’s hands, wearing a question in his eyes.
Runaan smiled. “Play something, and I’ll sing.”
Ethari’s fingers strummed the strings eagerly. “Anything I want?”
Runaan trailed a hand across his shoulders and sat back to back with him on the couch. “You know I know about three songs.”
“That’s never true, love.” Ethari picked out a soft, romantic tune, and Runaan tucked one hand under Ethari’s thigh in agreement. The craftsman played slowly, rocking in time to the music, and Runaan leaned against him and swayed, singing in that clarion voice he knew his husband loved to hear, singing of love and promises and trust, singing of moonlight and dancing and knowing.
When the song was done, Runaan leaned his head back atop Ethari’s shoulder. Ethari pressed his cheek against Runaan’s and said, “You sing and even the birds stop to listen.”
Runaan hummed thoughtfully. “I welcome their critiques.”
Ethari chuckled and set down his lute. “What do you wish for me this year, my heart?”
Runaan turned and tucked himself against Ethari’s back, twining their fingers together and wrapping their arms around Ethari in a soft hug. “I wish you dexterity. Your hands are your will in the world, and I would have you touch it in every way you please.”
Ethari hummed softly, rumbling against Runaan’s chest. “Every way?”
“Then let me at that lute again, my heart. I want to hear you sing again.”
“Happy birthday, Ethari.”
“You can’t be serious!”
“I’m doing this.”
“Runaan, you’ll hurt yourself.” Ethari kicked his feet in mild protest as Runaan managed one more step up the tree house’s interior curving staircase, but he clung to Runaan’s shoulders, holding as still as possible otherwise. The last thing he wanted was to throw off his husband’s balance.
“I will not. I can carry you.”
“You don’t have to prove it by hefting me upstairs like a helpless invalid. I can walk, you know.”
Runaan stumbled and set Ethari down on a step as gracefully as he could. He panted with effort and sank to one knee, resting a hand on Ethari’s shoulder. “Let me be romantic for once. It’s not my strong suit.”
Ethari goggled at him. “Yes it is. I’m fluent in Runaan now. You’re the most deeply romantic person I know.”
Runaan’s cheeks warmed and he smiled. “Well now I have to finish carrying you.”
Runaan tugged Ethari to his feet, bent down, and hefted his sturdy husband over his shoulder. Then he started up the stairs again, wobbling only a little bit. With three steps to go until the landing, he groaned and muttered, “I wish…”
Ethari drooped across his shoulder, thinking he knew what Runaan was about to say. But Runaan persevered and made it all the way into the living room and over to the couch, where he tumbled with Ethari and lay gasping for breath in his arms.
“I wish you would allow me to carry all your burdens, no matter how heavy,” Runaan panted, finishing his earlier thought.
Ethari huffed a soft laugh into his hair and held him close. “The things you do to prove your love, Runaan. You can stop now. I do believe you love me, possibly more than is strictly allowed.”
“Shhh. I will break what rules I like, for whom I like,” Runaan mumbled.
Ethari let out a soft gasp. “Well, now I’m complicit,” he sassed.
Runaan’s eyes were luminous in the dim room. “I trust you with even my deepest sins.”
“Moon help me, you’re irresistible when you’re dramatic,” Ethari breathed.
Runaan’s smile was beatific. “Also, I may have pulled something in my knee.”
“Happy birthday, Ethari.” Runaan pressed a soft kiss against his husband’s ear and returned to gently brushing his hair.
Ethari sat peaceably between Runaan’s knees, eyes shut, humming happily, as the village moved quietly around them. “Thank you, love. This is so nice.”
“Having your hair up again?” Runaan began to brush Ethari’s hair into a thick crown tail.
“That too.” His hands found Runaan’s ankles and gave them a squeeze.
Runaan curled Ethari’s hair into a messy bun and dropped a kiss between his horns. One hand brushed lightly across the back of Ethari’s neck, now exposed to the summer air. “There you go, nice and cool.”
Ethari snuggled back against Runaan and sighed happily, resting his muscular arms over Runaan’s knees.
Runaan leaned forward and wrapped his arms around Ethari’s shoulders. “I wish you comfort today, my heart.” He leaned his ear against Ethari’s, and they sat and listened to the breeze, the birds, the murmur of distant conversation.
Ethari chuckled and reached up to embrace Runaan, locking his fingers behind his husband’s shoulders. “Wish granted, love.”
“Happy birthday, Ethari.” Runaan gently took his hand.
“This isn’t how I wanted to spend it.” Ethari frowned, disappointed in himself.
“I know.” Runaan scooped up a fingerful of healing salve and warmed it with his hand before soothing it across the burn that marked Ethari’s palm. “How’s that?”
Ethari looked down, but he nodded and his shoulders relaxed in relief. “Better.”
“It’s not too bad,” Runaan assessed, studying the damage. “It’ll heal soon. I’ll put some more on for you before bed.”
“It’s no trouble. I’ll take care of it.”
Runaan tilted Ethari’s chin up until their eyes met. “How many times have you patched me up after a particularly rough day of training, my heart? Let me help you. It’s my privilege to do so.”
Ethari smiled and relented with a sigh. “This must be what it feels like to be you.”
Runaan swallowed and looked down for a moment. Finding his husband’s eyes again, he murmured, “I am so much stronger because of the love you give me. I wish you all the care and tenderness you deserve, and I won’t rest until you have it.” He leaned in for a soft kiss and then pressed another just to the side of Ethari’s burn.
Ethari broke into soft chuckles. “You can rest then, love, because that’s another wish granted.”
“Happy birthday, Ethari.” Runaan stood behind Rayla and rested his hands on her shoulders as she wrapped her arms around a giant pot of lunablooms.
“It’s lunablooms!” Rayla exclaimed helpfully, struggling to hold onto the heavy pot.
Ethari strode across the workshop and easily lifted the heavy flower pot. “I love them,” he said promptly. “But why are they in a pot?”
Rayla pointed helpfully at the dark corner to the left of the workshop door. “You’re always saying how it’s too dark over here and you’re worried someone will bump into your boxes. So I asked Runaan if we could bring you something pretty to light up the corner for you, and he said maybe we could find some lonely lunablooms who would want to come live in your workshop and keep you company while you work!”
Runaan smiled at the way Ethari’s face lit right up. “Oh, that’s lovely,” the craftsman purred to the flowers. “Do you want to stay here with me? I’ll give you plenty of shadow and I’ll mist you every day—it does get a bit warm in here, but you’ll be in the coolest corner I have. Maybe a moss wall to help with the moisture? I could seed some moss for you, yes I could! A nice cool corner for my bright new friends.” He turned once in a slow dancing twirl and bowed as if dipping the flower pot.
Rayla giggled, while Runaan wore his soft smile proudly.
Ethari looked up as if suddenly remembering they were there. “So, yes, the flowers are going to stay. Rayla, will you help me name them?”
“Yes!” She darted forward, leaving Runaan behind, and pointed. “This one looks like a Garlath to me.” Ethari nodded judiciously.
They settled the big flowerpot in the corner and turned it just so. While Rayla darted up the ladder to grab a mist sprayer, Ethari caught Runaan’s hands and pulled him close. “Thank you, my heart. You can light up my life anytime.”
Runaan kissed him softly. “I’m glad you like the idea. I wish you wouldn’t stumble in the dark. We’re always here to help you. It’s what family does.”
Ethari’s smile beamed like the moon. “What would I do without you two?”
“Happy birthday, Ethari.” Runaan held out a steaming cup of tea.
Ethari took it gratefully and breathed deeply of its herbal aroma. “Thank you, my shade. It’s perfect.”
Runaan led Ethari outside into the cool summer evening, then up around the stairs to the far side of the tree house. He indicated the cozy bench that rested along the top of a sturdy limb. “Sip your tea. I’m going to rub your shoulders for you.”
“Oh?” Ethari sat happily and took a sip, and Runaan settled behind him. He pulled Ethari’s scarf free and began pressing his fingers along his husband’s tired muscles.
Ethari groaned happily and had another sip. “This is lovely. But why the special treatment?”
“It’s your birthday.”
“And…? I saw you and Rayla cahooting at breakfast. What should I be prepared for? Are you going to paint my toenails again this year?”
Runaan dug his thumbs against Ethari’s trapezius muscles and said, “If you like, but you won’t need to be limber for that.”
“Limber?” His husband laughed. “I’m always limber.”
“That you are. But this year Rayla’s idea needs you to be extra comfortable.”
Ethari sipped again. “Alright, love, keep your secrets.”
“I usually do.”
Once Ethari was nice and relaxed and he’d finished his tea, Runaan led him up around the last curve of the tree house steps. There, Rayla stood waiting with an eager grin, a harness, and one hand on a taut rope that vanished off into the trees.
Runaan grinned as his husband’s eyes went wide. “I’m suddenly less comfortable,” Ethari blurted.
In just a few minutes, Runaan and Rayla convinced him to give their new zipline a try. Runaan went first to wait for him at the bottom. He popped to his feet and watched Ethari zooming between the trees, whooping in a most un-Moonshadow-like manner. When he slid to a stop above Runaan, he hung in place, laughing. “That was the best!”
Runaan touched his foot. “I wish you would let go so I can catch you when you fall, my heart.”
Ethari looked down with a soft smile. “Well, how can I resist, then?” He loosed his harness and fell, and Runaan caught him in a spinning hug that tumbled them to the cool grass. He cradled Runaan’s face in his hands and pressed an enthusiastic kiss against his husband’s lips. “It’s only natural to fall with you.”
“Happy birthday, Ethari.” Runaan paused in his picking and held out a ripe sicklefruit.
“Thank you, Runaan.” He accepted the slender, silvery fruit and peeled it, exposing the blue-black fruitmeat inside. He took a big bite and hummed appreciatively. “Mmm. Harvesting all this food is hard work. Good thing this fruit practically picks itself.” He chuckled, and Runaan leaned over for a soft kiss.
Rayla’s voice floated over from the other side of Ethari’s restored garden. “Are you two being weird again?”
“No,” the husbands chorused.
Ethari chuckled, but Runaan flushed lightly. To cover it, he flicked a sicklefruit at Rayla, and she caught it without looking. When she looked at him in triumph, he nodded at her skill and said, “Remember to keep your energy up. An assassin must know and use the bounty of the land whenever it’s needed.”
“Yes, Runaan.” Rayla took a bite and kept picking flickpeas with her other hand.
Ethari sighed fondly. “Her sass is on the uptick. I think she’s discovered that boys exist.”
Runaan’s eyes widened, and then he shot Rayla a worried look.
Ethari turned his chin back and fed him a bite of sicklefruit. “No, not like that. She’s getting older now. Soon enough, her gaze might fall on some pointy assassin in your ranks.”
Runaan’s gaze returned to Rayla more urgently. “Who? Has someone been talking to her?”
Ethari set down his snack and took Runaan’s face in his hands. “Stop that. Rayla’s been trained as well as any assassin in history. You saw to it yourself. And now you think something about her has escaped your notice?”
Runaan blinked and looked down, uncertain. “It’s, it’s very important to me that she…”
“I know. And you’re doing them proud. I know you are. They left her with the elf they trust most in this world, Runaan. That’s you. Your best will be good enough.”
Runaan’s brows lifted, and he slid his gaze to Rayla, across the garden dell. “I hope so. But I’m not the only one they entrusted her to. So perhaps she’ll choose someone else. Someone… softer.” His eyes found Ethari’s. “Rayla is much like me. Perhaps her match is destined to be like you.”
To Runaan’s surprise, Ethari offered him a teary smile before hiding it behind his fingers. He glanced at Rayla for a moment before murmuring, “That’s terribly soft of you, my heart. Is that your wish for me this year?”
Runaan scooted closer and took Ethari’s hands. “Not every assassin needs another assassin. The dark ones crave the light. We seek balance, not uniformity. Rayla will find who she is meant to find, and her happiness will be ours. So today, on this most special day of the year, I wish you patience for what must come, as well as for what comes after that.”
Ethari squeezed his hands tightly. “And I wish that you’ll be beside me for every step of the journey to come.”
Runaan closed his eyes and leaned his forehead against Ethari’s. “You speak my deepest hope, my heart.”
A faint sound alerted Runaan, and he reached up and snagged a single flickpea out of the air. He shot Rayla a pointed look with one raised brow, only to see her sassily mirror it back at him. With a suspicious squint, she called, “You are being weird over there!”
“Happy birthday, Ethari.” Runaan rested his forehead against the cool barrier of the cursed coin and felt his eyes burn with tears.
He’d been counting every breath since Viren had imprisoned him, holding his focus, sharpening his will. He’d marked the cycle of the Moon, the turn of the days, the changing of the seasons. And still, nothing had changed. No release, no rescue, no departure, no end in sight. He was here until the Moon saw mercy and changed his fate, but sometimes the Moon wasn’t merciful. The perfect rhythm of its cycle always told Runaan exactly how long he’d been trapped.
So he knew. He knew in his bones. In his soul, in his arcanum, in every breath he took. He knew that today was Ethari’s birthday.
And he was missing it.
A hopeless hand pressed against the golden window. His knuckles bent, pressing fingertips hard against the immovable surface. He imagined—remembered—all of Ethari’s birthdays, as if they dangled like charms on a bright ribbon that wound off into the darkness. Moonberry surprise, family picnics, quiet rides, surprise gardens and flowers, excitement, tragedy, love, and laughter. Every birthday he’d ever shared with Ethari, every dazzling smile, every loving glance, every soft murmur. And always, his wishes. The ritual had practically manifested itself, but Runaan had loved it every year.
His other hand pressed against the ache in his heart. I may not have you, my light, but I remember you. I remember you. You were real. And you loved me.
Tears edged Runaan’s eyes. He had spent weeks trying not to think about the fact that Ethari would reach the afterworld someday, expecting to finally reunite with Runaan, only to be disappointed once again. The thought had horrified him. He and Ethari had intended their love to last an eternity. If Runaan never got out of this hellish penny, Ethari would seek his soul in vain.
But now, despite his tears, a fierce smile crossed Runaan’s face and held. It didn’t matter if he never got to see Ethari again. Didn’t matter if his husband crossed over without him—this year or in a hundred years. Time was an illusion, but Ethari’s love was real. Runaan had felt it, been blessed and carried and embraced by it, every day for a score of years now. And if the love Runaan felt pulsing through his mind was real, then so was Ethari, who had gifted that love to him with an open heart and a gentle soul.
Runaan didn’t need to find Ethari. Runaan already had Ethari. His husband’s love radiated out of his own memories and lit his prison every day.
I am loved. I am loved.
His tears fell freely as he leaned against the aperture of his cage, his body belying the pulsing thoughts that filled his mind, still straining toward freedom, toward home. Toward the source of that radiant love.
“Today, I wish…” Runaan’s throat closed on a sob, and he had to start over. “Don’t mourn for me today, my heart. Please, remember us, and live. Live, for me. Live, and sing, and dance, and build your darling trinkets. Walk in the shade, tend your garden, play your lute. Your grace and beauty are incomparable, and if you fade away, none can ever replace you. Not in my heart, and not in this world. Please, my heart. Stay. I wish you to stay, and find again the peace your beautiful soul deserves.”
Far away across the land, Runaan’s wish bubbled to the top of the ritual pool below the tree house and sent ripples rolling across its perfectly mirrored surface. Sitting sadly on the broad stone rim, Ethari turned curiously as the ripples caught his eye. His brows lowered as he studied the pool for a long moment, tracking the ripples back to the area they originated from. A silent hush fell as the world held its breath just a little too long.
Then Ethari shot a prayerful glance up toward the Moon, took a deep, steadying breath, and started pulling off his boots.
Some years later
"Happy birthday, Ethari.”
Ethari turned around, already smiling, and his gaze landed on the sweet treats Runaan and Rayla held in their hands: Good King Ezran’s moonberry tarts, decorated with frosty swirlies that steamed cold in the rich summer air of Katolis.
His tiny gasp of delighted surprise made Rayla nudge Runaan with her elbow. “Told you he’d like them.”
Callum landed beside Rayla with a soft thud and dispelled his wings. “Hey now, I do believe that was my idea?” he teased. “Only the royal best for the finest craftsman in all the land.” He lifted one tart from Rayla’s plate and offered it to Ethari with a graceful bow. “Trees to sweet you, Ethari. Happy birthday!”
“Trees to sweet you, too, Callum.” Ethari bowed back with all his usual grace and accepted the birthday treat.
Rayla facepalmed at her beloved’s antics, and Runaan sighed wistfully. “That is, alas, the love of my life,” he murmured.
Rayla groaned. “Ditto.”
Runaan nudged her and smiled. “How did we get so lucky?”
Rayla lifted a tart and tapped its baked edge against Runaan’s tart in a sweet toast. “Someone must’ve made the right wish.”