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one single thread of gold tied me to you

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Caleb hates mornings.

It’s a fact that’s been true his entire life. It is only out of necessity that he still gets up as early as he does now. Someone has to feed the animals, after all.

He tells himself the brisk walk to the barn every morning helps him wake up, but deep in his bones he knows it’s all a lie. As he crawls out of bed he wishes he could return to his warm blankets. Even so, he rubs the sleep out of his eyes and pulls on his boots and trudges out as dawn breaks over the horizon. It used to be a wondrous sight, the deep blue-black of the sky giving way to streaks of purple and pink and orange. The first time he stepped outside and saw it, it took his breath away.

It’s still very pretty. But it doesn’t stop him from wishing he could be back in bed.

The sun is fully up by the time the chickens and goats are fed and he’s collected any eggs that look ready to be sold and milked the goats. He sets whatever he thinks he’ll need for the week aside and places the rest in a basket lined with soft cloth. His herb garden isn’t as impressive as others he’s seen but he usually manages to get a bundle or two of basil or chives or rosemary and adds them to the basket. Every so often, he has a bit of milk he can spare to sell. 

Frumpkin usually sits on the kitchen table, watching as he prepares breakfast for himself. Caleb has tried to get him to stop, but he can admit it’s nice to have someone sitting with him. Especially when so many empty chairs stare back at him.

Too much space , he thinks to himself every morning. I don’t need a table this big.

But the house and all of its space came with the farm, and Caleb simply doesn’t have it in him to try and have something smaller built.

The plan had seemed so simple at first. Get a farm. Get a house. Everyone will have their own room and nobody has to go anywhere and they can still be the Mighty Nein, even in retirement. It was his own damn fault for handing the gold over and receiving the deed to the property before everyone else agreed to the plan.

Veth, understandably, wanted to be with her family. Caduceus wanted to be with his in the Blooming Grove. Fjord wanted to go back out to sea. Jester wanted to be in Nicodranas with her mother and Beau wanted to be where Jester was and Yasha wanted to be with Beau and Jester. So the girls made their own way to the coast and Veth and Caduceus made their own way home and Fjord, the only one to accompany him on his journey to his new home, had smiled and waved before turning and heading his own way and Caleb— 

Caleb stepped over the threshold of his house and realized he was alone.

With too much house and not enough to fill the rooms he can admit he’s become a bit of a hoarder. Every book he’s even had a passing interest in has been purchased and fills shelves in every room. He has two rooms for his own studies, a bedroom, a teleportation circle he set up in the attic that he’s only used a few times to visit Veth or the girls. There are chairs and a couch he never sits in in the front room, bought in anticipation for visitors who have yet to come. 

He’s been meaning to invite them, has no doubt they would come if he did, but the house is, to put it mildly, a bit of an embarrassment. They have a general idea of where he is and he tells himself that’s good enough. If they really want to know where he is, they know how to get in touch with him. Some nights he lays awake, not allowing himself to admit that he’s waiting for a message from someone. Anyone.

Even as far up the Menagerie Coast as Caleb is it can still get quite warm when the sun comes up, so he will usually wear a light cloak and hat on his walk up to town. The walk along the river is pleasant, dirt paths the whole way and fields that give way to small hills and trees that surround the collection of buildings that make up the town and it’s market. Gwardan is only a few days’ travel if he really needs something specific, but the stands and shops of the little town usually suffice and Caleb can trade eggs and milk and herbs for nearly everything basic that he needs. 

His basket is usually heavier on his walk back home, laden with food and books and any other curiosities he’s picked up. With a big city nearby it’s common for merchants to stop on their way, and Caleb has acquired plenty of trinkets and tchotchkes on his shopping trips. He likes to think they brighten up his home even if, for the most part, they’re really meant to fill bare shelves and cover lonely tables.

It’s just past lunch by the time he makes it home, and after that they day is his to do as he pleases. Whatever task he gives himself, be it housework or yardwork or studying, can carry him through until dinner.

It’s dinner that’s always the hardest. When he makes a meal for himself and sits at his table, golden sunset giving way to dusk giving way to the dark of night, that he can look at the empty chairs around him and feel well and truly sorry for himself. He fiercely misses the sound of people around him, creaks of footsteps down the hall or upstairs. Muffled conversation from another room. Signs of life from someone besides himself. 

He’s content. Really, he is. He wouldn’t still be sloughing through his daily routine if it really made him miserable. The farm is nice. The people in town are nice. His life is nice, he can put a roof over his head and food on his table and always has a good book to read. It’s the peaceful retirement he never thought he would ever deserve, much less attain.

But when he sits in silence for too long, when he crawls into a cold bed, when he wakes up alone… 

Caleb can, at the very least, admit that he’s lonely.

It’s a rainy night when someone knocks on Caleb’s door.

He startles, book slipping from his hands and clattering to the floor. Frumpkin hops off his lap immediately, back curved up, ears flat against his head and meowing at the door as the knock repeats. 

He’s grown lazy when it came to warding his property, Caleb can admit that to himself. Hasn’t strung silver thread over any door but his own bedroom for many, many nights. He’s allowed himself to start feeling safe when tucked away in his own little corner of the world for going on three years now. 

For a few moments there is only the pattering of rain against the house. The creak of wood as it shifts against harsh winds. The storm had cropped up in the middle of the day, putting a sudden end to Caleb pruning the bushes in front of his house and instead sent him running to wrangle all of the goats to their barn and the chickens to their coop.

It kept going strong through sundown and doesn’t seem to be interested in letting up any time soon, if the sudden crack of thunder and flash of lightning are any indication.

It’s possible they’re just a weary traveler , he thinks to himself. Caught up in a storm. Hurrying to the first house with a light on they could find.

He steels himself at another thought.

Or it’s a trap.

He doesn’t have the components he needs for any particularly powerful spells on him, but he knows where they are. A simple sprint up the stairs and his study will have anything he needs to help defend himself. 

If he has a chance to make it up the stairs. 

Warily, Caleb approaches the door. He takes a deep breath. Reaches out and takes hold of the doorknob and turns, preparing for the worst— 

Only to be greeted by a very waterlogged Fjord.

“Hey,” Fjord says with a sheepish smile. “I was hoping you still lived here.”

Caleb stares and says nothing.

“I, uh. I was in the neighborhood,” Fjord continues as he adjusts his grip on the strap of a bag slung over his shoulder, talking loudly to be heard over the pattering of the rain against Caleb’s porch. “Figured I would come by.”

Caleb reaches out and can see Fjord stiffen reflexively, clearly not expecting Caleb to want to lay a hand on him.

But Caleb does, pressing his hand to Fjord’s chest and waiting for him to vanish at any moment, the way he always does in the dreams Caleb has when he’s fallen asleep in his chair by the fire, but… 

Fjord feels solid under his hand. “You’re really here,” he breathes.

Fjord’s brow furrows. “What was that?” he says, but just as soon as he’d reached out Caleb is stepping back and opening the door wider. 

“Come in,” he says, loud enough for Fjord to hear him, and Fjord smiles with relief as he steps across the threshold and into Caleb’s home. 

He’s soaking wet and seems embarrassed by that fact, looking down at his drenched clothes and dripping cloak and immediately saying “I’m sorry,” as Caleb closes the door behind him. Continuing with “I would have let you know, but it was all a little sudden-”

“Don’t worry about it,” Caleb interrupts. It all begins to settle in at once. Fjord, here, with him, in his home, and he feels himself filled with an excitement and energy he hasn’t felt in many, many months. “Here, your cloak…” 

He holds his hands out and takes Fjord’s cloak and bag, huffing under the sudden weight of the wet fabric and hurrying upstairs to his room to hang the cloak over his bathtub. A quick inspection of the clothes in Fjord’s bag reveal they’ve all been soaked by the rain, and he knows they’ll all need a good wash in the morning. He becomes suddenly, incredibly aware of how unprepared for guests he is as he scrambles to find towels and something Fjord could change into before settling on a tunic and pants that had always been a little big on him. 

“Dry off,” he says, pointing down the hall when he returns to Fjord, directing him to a bathroom. “Everything will be washed and dried tomorrow. I’ll put the kettle on.”

Fjord seems surprised but nods and heads down the hall without another word.

Caleb still half-expects it to all be a dream as he fills his kettle with water and lights the stove. Still expects to wake up with a sore back and Frumpkin pawing at his face, urging him to actually go to bed with an insistent meow, but instead he hears the sounds of movement in the house. Hears the creak of the bathroom door opening, hears the gentle thud of feet against wood as Fjord approaches the kitchen.

And he’s there when Caleb glances up, hair still damp and clothes a bit too small for him, but he’s there and he’s real and there’s stubble across his jaw and more grey streaking through his dark hair and his eyes are as bright as Caleb remembers them being and it’s enough to make Caleb giddy, ready to play as perfect a host as he can as he sits down with Fjord at the kitchen table and waits for the water to boil.

“Sorry again,” Fjord says as he sits, though he’s still smiling. “I really would have tried to give you some warning, but suddenly we were docking in Port Damali and being told we weren’t going to have work for another month, so—”

“You walked here?” Caleb asks, incredulous.

Fjord nods. “Just… kind of hoped you still lived here, I guess.”

Caleb blinks at him, still astounded. “I’m surprised you remembered where I lived,” he says before immediately realizing how rude that must sound, eyes widening and an apology nearly leaving him before Fjord laughs.

“Honestly? I was scared shitless that I was knocking at a stranger’s door. Kind of just trusted instinct to lead me the way I thought I remembered, but the storm certainly didn’t help with that…” 

Caleb realizes suddenly that it’s quite a walk to Port Damali. He stands, hurrying to his ice chest and searching for food even as Fjord tells him to sit.

“I’m fine, Caleb, really-”

“I doubt you have had anything to eat tonight,” Caleb says, returning to the table with bread and jam and cheese. “I’m not about to let you go to bed hungry.”

Fjord looks grateful as he tucks into the food and Caleb hears the whistle of the kettle on the stove. He brews the tea, something soothing and herbal that Caduceus had sent a few months back with a letter saying it would help with sleep. 

“You said you wouldn’t be needed for work for a month?” he asks as he sits down with steaming cups of tea for both of them. He hopes he can hide how eager he sounds, but if Fjord notices anyway he doesn’t call Caleb out on it and nods instead.

“Not sure what I’ll do in that time-”

“You can stay here.”

Stupid , he thinks immediately. He probably has other people he wants to see, other things he wants to do. You’ll be lucky if he doesn’t take off the moment his clothes are dry— 

“Really?” Fjord asks, interrupting the sudden wave of thoughts that threaten to swallow Caleb whole. “I wouldn’t want to be an inconvenience.”

“Fjord,” Caleb replies, meeting his eyes and speaking with all the sincerity he has to give. “I promise, you are not an inconvenience.”

Fjord’s answering smile is a soft, slow, blooming thing but it’s beautiful to watch his face light up, to see him relax and settle into his chair as he takes a sip of his tea and sighs. 

“Okay,” he says, “I’ll stay,” and Caleb feels his heart leap in his chest. 

They don’t say much as they drink their tea but the silence is a comfortable one. Caleb finds himself already attuning to having another living being in the house with him (magical cats notwithstanding). He’ll have to start shopping for two and cooking for two and it’s only when Fjord yawns that Caleb realizes he’ll probably need to get another bed.

It had been something he’s been meaning to do for a while now but never quite got around to. It didn’t seem important in the moment, he always figured if anyone wanted to visit him they would let him know they were coming.

But he’s glad for Fjord’s sudden appearance. He’s overjoyed, actually. So overjoyed he already plans to give his bed up without question. It’s only when he mentions this that Fjord frowns.

“No. I’m not kicking you out of your own bed, Caleb.”

And Caleb frowns at that. “I’m not letting you sleep on that couch.” 

“And neither am I,” Fjord returns. “Is it… I mean…” he pauses, as if weighing the next words he wants to say, “Would you be… opposed? To sharing?” 

Sharing a bed. With Fjord. It wasn’t like they’d never done that before. Caleb can recall plenty of times they shared a room at an inn and each took one side of a bed, backs facing each other, Fjord so close and so tantalizingly warm that it made Caleb itch to turn around and reach out and close the distance between them— 

Sure. He could manage to share a bed with Fjord.

“No,” he finally answers. “I wouldn’t be… opposed.” 

“Then it’s settled,” Fjord says before lifting his cup to his lips and tilting his head back, draining the last dregs of his tea and standing when he’s finished. He grabs Caleb’s empty cup before Caleb can stop him and puts them in Caleb’s sink, gathering the remains of the food Caleb had offered and putting those away too even as Caleb stands to try and do it for him.

“You’re not waiting on me for a month,” he says as he closes the ice chest, looking at Caleb with an expression that’s only half-joking. “Get that through your head right now.”

Caleb huffs, displeased, but doesn’t argue. Giving in and letting him do what he wants is worth it, it means he gets to see Fjord smile again. 

It’s familiar even after all these years, going through a nighttime routine with Fjord. If Caleb tries enough he can imagine they’re at a little inn, spending one night with a roof over their heads before getting back out on the road first thing in the morning. Scraping up enough coin just for the privilege of huddling together on a mattress stuffed with straw. 

Caleb misses those days fiercely. 

Fjord is asleep long before Caleb and Caleb finds himself laying awake, Frumpkin curled up at his feet, staring up at his ceiling and the small parting of curtains that allows moonlight to spill into the room. The storm had settled and passed while they were in the kitchen and Caleb can already feel the cold mud he’ll need to trudge through in the morning.

But for now he is warm, turning over and facing Fjord who is curled up on his own side of the bed, softly snoring. For now, he can let himself relax and drift off into a peaceful, dreamless sleep.

Fjord is still there when Caleb wakes up, which comes as a pleasant surprise. As miserable as Caleb still is getting out of bed, he’s at least able to start the day with a bit of happiness in his heart. 

Even the dawn seems prettier that morning, cut through with the remains of clouds from the night before. 

“We have a guest,” he tells the chickens as he sprinkles their feed over the ground. “Be on your best behavior.”

The chickens respond in their usual way, which is picking at their food and giving the occasional cluck and fluff of their feathers. 

He decides to forego his usual walk to the market that day, especially when he returns to the house and sees Fjord already up and in the kitchen.

“You usually up that early?” Fjord asks. Caleb tries to make himself busy but Fjord seems to have found whatever he needs to cook and is frying up some eggs and potatoes, so he takes the hint and sits down at one of the two steaming cups of tea on the kitchen table. 

“Ja,” Caleb replies as he hunches over his cup, taking a sip and savoring the way he can feel the warmth of the tea filling him. “The animals need feeding.”

Fjord whistles, poking with a wooden spoon at the potatoes sizzling away in their skillet. 

“If someone had told me that you’d become a morning person, I would have bet every piece of gold I have against them.”

“Hey,” Caleb grumbles, looking up and lifting one of his hands, pointing a lazy finger at Fjord. “I do it. I do not like it one bit.”

Fjord glances over at Caleb and laughs at the sour expression on his face.

“Good to know I wouldn’t have lost that bet.”

He plates the food and sets Caleb’s portion in front of him. It’s simple eggs and potatoes but they’re well-cooked and well-seasoned and he can’t even remember the last time someone cooked for him. Probably the last time the Nein were together, he would have to guess.

“You’re not cooking every day,” he says between bites of food and Fjord scoffs, his own mouth half-full.

Caleb swallows and continues. “I mean it. You’re my guest.”

“At least let me help,” Fjord tries. “I already said I’m not letting you wait on me for a month. You’ve already been too generous.”

Caleb huffs. “What, by not even having a bed for you?” He ignores the dismissive wave of his hand that Fjord gives at that, but softens a bit. He doesn’t want to spend the whole month arguing about this. “I will accept a bit of help from you, if you insist upon it.”

“And I do,” Fjord says, looking more proud of himself than he should at getting Caleb to give in. Caleb assumed by now it was obvious to pretty much everyone how easily he’d give in to almost any request Fjord had. 

“You can start by teaching me whatever it is you do in that barn every morning.”

Caleb nearly spits out his mouthful of tea at that, covering his mouth with a hand and stifling his giggles until he can swallow. “Have you so much as seen a chicken before?” 

Fjord rolls his eyes. “You know, I figured eggs had to come from somewhere.”

“And what about milk?” Caleb’s grin widens. “You know what? I will gladly teach you how to care for the animals if it means getting to see you try to milk a goat.”

Fjord’s chest puffs out as he straightens his posture. “Fine. How hard can it be?”

Caleb only laughs again and takes a proper sip of his tea before setting the cup back down.

“I'll get the wash basin ready when we’re done eating, if you’d like,” he says, glancing up. His eyes settle on the too-tight Fjord is still wearing, how sleeves that would be quite loose on him instead frame the soft, strong muscle of Fjord’s arms, how the neckline dips enough to give him a tantalizing glance of Fjord’s collarbone— 

“I should probably have more than one shirt for the month,” Fjord agrees, pulling Caleb out of his spiral of thoughts as he looks down at himself. “Though this is a pretty nice shirt.”

“Thank you,” Caleb replies, taking one last sip of tea to ward off his suddenly-dry mouth. 

They clean up after breakfast together, and Fjord takes it upon himself to wander around the house as Caleb sets about getting out the wash basin and some soap, filling the basin from a hose on the side of the house. 

“You sure do have a lot of space in there,” Fjord comments when he comes out, arms laden with a still-damp bundle of his clothes. They’re beginning to smell, and Caleb is glad Fjord is okay with giving them a good wash. 

“Not by choice,” Caleb replies. He gestures to show Fjord where he can set the clothes down, getting on his knees and dunking one of the shirts in warm, soapy water before running it against a washboard.

Fjord takes a few more trips to bring the rest of his clothes out, as well as his cloak. The two of them settle into a rhythm, Caleb washing the clothes and Fjord wringing them out and hanging them up to dry. Caleb knows it’s approaching noon as they work and the sun is beginning to prove it, beating down on them both. 

“Surprised you don’t just do this with magic,” Fjord says as he wipes at his brow with the back of his hand. Caleb only shrugs and dunks a pair of pants into the water. 

“It keeps me busy,” he replies. 

Fjord considers that for a moment before getting back to work. The silence between them is companionable and that’s almost a relief for Caleb. Some small part of him was beginning to get afraid of awkward silences, of time making things tense between them. But Fjord still whistles as he works and gives Caleb a victorious clap on his back when they’re done and all of his clothes are hanging out to dry in the sun and Caleb feels himself relax. 

Time had changed them both, certainly. There’s a little more grey in their hair. Fjord has laugh lines now. Caleb knows his own hands can start to shake at the end of the day and they both get a little more tired after a day of work than they used to. 

But deep down Caleb can tell Fjord is still exactly the same, and the realization comforts him.

They spend the rest of the day on Caleb’s porch. Fjord tells him of working trade routes on the coast over the last few years, of stops in Nicodranas to see the girls and one trip further inland when he could manage to visit the Blooming Grove. Caleb is happy to see Fjord’s devotion to Melora remains as steady as ever, and when Caleb asks to see it Fjord summons the Star Razor in front of them for what he says is the first time in a while.

“I think She understands why I haven’t needed it much,” he says, turning his wrist and watching the blade glint in the late afternoon sun. “Deuces was always better at actually talking with her, but… I think She’s happy I haven’t needed it.”

As the sun begins to set they collect Fjord’s now-dry clothes together, Caleb telling Fjord he can claim any one of the empty closets in the house as his own for the month. 

Caleb insists on cooking that night and Fjord indulges him by letting him play the good host, keeping their glasses full as they drink and reminisce and the evening passes happily, the two of them leaning on each other as they make their way up to bed.

Despite his instincts telling him to let Fjord sleep, Caleb nudges him awake in the early hours of the next morning. Fjord grumbles, burrowing further into the covers for a moment.

“Thought you wanted to help,” Caleb murmurs as he finishes lacing his boots up and stands. Fjord only grumbles and throws the covers off, swearing under his breath. 

They make their way to the barn together, Caleb mentioning that Fjord will need to get a proper coat if he wants to keep doing this with all the certainty of someone who knows Fjord will not want to keep doing this. It only takes a few snaps of his fingers to light the lanterns in the barn and the goats begin to stir, knowing that light means food is soon to arrive, and he notices Fjord eyeing the animals warily before they make their way to the chicken coop. 

Caleb is beginning to think that along with turtles, Fjord is afraid of most small animals. He hands over the bag of feed, sprinkles a bit of it to demonstrate the best way to spread it, and steps back behind the fence to watch Fjord work. 

“Behave,” he tells the birds as Fjord begins to carefully scatter the feed, which means the chickens swarm at the first given opportunity. Fjord shrieks, stumbling back from them as they hurry to peck at their food, before seeming to realize they could easily get under his feet. He tries to back up and look around at the same time and Caleb bursts into laughter as Fjord falls back, ending up flat on his ass. The bag of feed slips from his hand and spills out onto the ground and the chickens, seeing even more food, rush over and around Fjord to peck at that instead. Fjord looks absolutely at a loss for what to do and Caleb hurries back into the coop, shooing the birds closest to Fjord back, unafraid to nudge them away with his hand when a few of them don’t move. He scoops up the feed bag and helps Fjord out of the enclosure, brushing dirt off of Fjord’s back as Fjord curses.

“Fuckin’ birds,” he spits, though Caleb knows there’s no genuine heat to his words. “The eggs can’t be worth it.”

“Well,” Caleb replies as he leads Fjord back to the barn, “they make for good meat, too.”

While seeing Fjord fail miserably at feeding the chickens was amusing, Caleb is genuinely glad to see that it’s a little easier for him to feed the goats, considering all he has to do is put out some fresh hay. 

“We’ll let them outside for the day after milking,” Caleb explains as he grabs a few empty buckets, “but while they’re in here they’ll be much easier to milk.”

Fjord is clearly nervous as Caleb guides him through the steps of milking a goat, but Caleb is pleasantly surprised when Fjord takes to the task with ease. With a bit of help they’re done before the sun is even fully up, returning to the house as Caleb explains the next part of his daily routine.

“The walk to town is nice,” he says, heading into the kitchen after Fjord holds the door open for him, “but please don’t feel like you have to come with.”

“Caleb,” Fjord says, leaning against the counter as Caleb works, “I mean this with all the sincerity in my heart-” 

Caleb looks up at that, quirking up an eyebrow, but Fjord really does look genuine as he continues with a soft smile.

“-I truly don’t have anything better to do.”

Caleb is sure it isn’t meant to be a compliment but he feels his cheeks warm anyway. He looks back down at the basket of eggs in front of him, but suddenly realizes he’s lost count.

“Then you’re welcome to come along,” he finally says. Out of the corner of the eye he sees Fjord’s smile widen before he pushes himself off the counter, hears him moving around the kitchen and putting the kettle on. He glances up at Frumpkin, who blinks up at him from his usual napping spot on the windowsill over the kitchen sink.

“None of that from you,” he tells the cat, who simply gives a little chirp and lays his head back down. Caleb’s blush lasts long after he’s finished counting the eggs.

It’s easy for them to settle into their own routine. Despite his insistence that Fjord can do as he pleases, on most days Fjord seems content to help Caleb with whatever he has going on. He’ll spend some afternoons picking through Caleb’s collection of books that’s been scattered throughout the house, or spend others walking down to the rocky shoreline only a few minutes away from Caleb’s home, but for the most part he seems to want to spend time with Caleb. Most nights end with them sitting together on the couch, fire crackling away in the fireplace, as they either chat or simply sit in comfortable silence. 

Caleb doesn’t know what to do with any of that. 

He knows Fjord isn’t going to stay. Even though he knows this little routine, this little reliance on someone else, this warm body laying next to him every night, is only temporary he still can’t help but lose himself in it. He lets the looming deadline of Fjord’s return to Port Damali fade to the back of his mind, lets himself rely more and more on Fjord’s presence beside him day in and day out. 

But time passes too fast even when languid days seem to endlessly fade in and out of each other, and Caleb wakes one morning knowing Fjord only has a few days left before he will have been here for a month. 

Caleb wonders if Fjord’s realized the same thing, because he’s quiet on their walk to the market that morning. 

The center of town is uncharacteristically busy that morning, and it’s only when Caleb hears a distant crier announcing the date that he realizes. 

“Harvest Close,” he says. “I can’t believe it’s that time of year already…” 

His voice trails off as they continue running their errands, darting between people pulling up tents and setting up booths.

“We should come back,” Fjord says as they’re leaving town later that morning. “The festival’s tomorrow, right?”

“If you want to cut it that close,” Caleb replies, keeping his eyes on the trail ahead of them.

“Close?” Fjord asks, then seems to realize. “Oh. I mean. Yeah. If I, uh. If I leave really early the next day, I’ll make it back to port in time.”

He almost sounds sad, but before Caleb can wonder why that would be Fjord is wondering aloud about what games the festival might have and Caleb is smiling and reminding him of the last time Fjord failed miserably at a carnival game, and the sour mood between them passes. 

They make their way back to town at sundown the next day, the last bits of warmth in the air and daylight in the sky fading as they finally reach the festival. Lights have been strung up all along the town square, and Caleb can guess that the crowd of people around them is every local from miles around, all coming together for one night of revelry before they need to begin preparing for milder winter weather.

He allows Fjord to pull him along to whatever stall catches his attention. Fjord insists on paying for candied apples for the both of them, and Caleb happily accepts the treat when it’s offered to him. Fjord is bundled up in his new coat and a scarf borrowed from Caleb, and Caleb is just honest enough with himself that he can admit how cute Fjord looks, especially under the golden lights hanging up all around them. His cheeks are flushed, his hair long enough that he’s pulled it back into a loose ponytail on the top of his head, and as Fjord looks around the festival with wonder in his eyes Caleb makes sure to commit the sight of him to memory.

His heart aches when he remembers that this is Fjord’s last night with him, but before he can dwell on that sadness any longer Fjord is pulling him along to something else.

It takes a few cups of mulled wine for Fjord to get the confidence to try a carnival game, but once he sets his mind to one he’s determined to win. It’s the same game he’d failed spectacularly at so many years ago, and Caleb watches with eager anticipation for whatever the outcome of this ends up being. 

“You see this?” Fjord asks as he holds the sandbag up, not even waiting for Caleb to respond before answering his own question. 

“This is redemption.”

The sandbag completely misses the basket. 

Caleb sets a gold piece down and says that Fjord’s next few rounds are on him.

It does take another gold piece, but with a loud whoop of victory Fjord eventually manages to get the sandbag through the furthest basket. The woman running the stand seems very relieved as she gestures to the wall of trinkets and toys behind her, probably meant to entice children to the game more than anything, and tells him to pick a prize. 

Caleb’s been eyeing the prize wall himself and has some idea of what he thinks Fjord might choose, thinking it might make for a nice memento of this time they’ve spent together. Perhaps it will even inspire him to visit again someday— 

And then Fjord is handing over a little stuffed cat. It’s black, about the size of a kitten, and it looks up at Caleb with two bright green button eyes. 

“Fjord-” he starts as he takes the offered gift, prepared to hand it back and insist Fjord pick something that he can take with him, but Fjord’s warm hands close around his and he interrupts before Caleb can say anything else. 

“I know it’s probably the only thing you’re going to be able to accept from me,” he says with a wry smile, “so take it. As a thanks from me to you, for letting me stay with you.”

I’d do it again in a heartbeat , Caleb thinks.

“You’re very welcome,” he says instead. Fjord lets his hands go and Caleb mourns the loss of their warmth immediately, but it does allow him to tuck the toy into the breast pocket of his coat, the head and front paws still sticking out. 

The stalls of the festival have been arranged in a circle around the crowd, and Caleb briefly wondered at the point of the arrangement before a band suddenly strikes up and some ground is cleared in front of the players. Someone who Caleb can guess is with the band begins to pull couples out of the crowd, encouraging them to dance, and Caleb can tell the moment they glance over that someone around them is about to be pulled out too. 

“Oh,” Fjord says when they beckon him forward. He looks unsure, glancing to Caleb as if asking for help.

Caleb decides he’ll blame the wine that’s still warming his belly when he takes Fjord’s hand and says “would you like to dance?”

Fjord relaxes almost immediately, expression melting into an easy smile as Caleb pulls him out into the group of couples spinning each other around. The band is playing a jaunty tune, something Caleb guesses to be an old folk song, probably Elvish in origin, and it’s close enough to a sea shanty that he’s comfortable in letting Fjord lead them around in a light little dance. He can feel the warmth of Fjord’s hand on his waist even through his coat, relishes in the sensation of Fjord holding him so close and guiding them through the dance. 

His eyes never leave Fjord’s and Fjord’s eyes never stray from his and they move easily, fitting against each other so perfectly that Caleb can’t stop the stupidly romantic thought that maybe they were made for each other from entering his head.

Fjord only allows them to separate when he wants to spin Caleb around, quickly pulling him back in the moment it’s done, and they dance for what feels like forever.

Or, at least, for two or three more songs. 

The band slows and the dancers slow in response, and Caleb realizes the next song they’re playing is a waltz. 

“Let me?” he says when Fjord’s own steps begin to falter, and with a grateful nod Fjord relaxes and allows Caleb to lead them in the next dance. 

He hasn’t properly waltzed since he was a child, since they were being taught how to be flawless guests at fancy parties, but he still remembers the steps like they were taught to him yesterday. The dance is simple enough and it’s easy to lead Fjord in gently moving together to the beat of the song.

“You’re a natural,” he says, still looking up at Fjord, noticing that the ruddy brown blush that’s darkened Fjord’s cheeks seems content to remain on his face all night.

“You’re a good leader,” is Fjord’s easy reply and Caleb feels his own face warm at that. 

The rest of the dance passes in silence between the two of them. Caleb is lost in the music and in Fjord’s eyes, the world around them fading until it feels like they’re the only two people left in it. Caleb doesn’t think he would complain if that were the case. He desperately wishes that there was no more world outside of the two of them, no reason for Fjord to go. He’s gotten too used to having someone else around, to having a human voice respond when he talks and a warm body to sleep next to at night. 

The song begins to slow and with it so do their steps, until Caleb is standing still and looking up at Fjord and Fjord is doing the same, looking down at Caleb. 

They’re suspended in that silence for a moment, some unnamed, sudden tension between them, but it feels so natural to let his eyes close when he sees Fjord begin to lean in… 

But the band starts up another song, kicking off with a bang of horns and drums that startles them both apart, and whatever spell there was between them breaks when Caleb slips his hand out of Fjord’s and opens his eyes. 

Whatever stricken expression he just manages to catch on Fjord’s face is quickly controlled, smoothed over with an easy smile that Caleb can only tell is forced because he’s known Fjord long enough to know which of his smiles are real. 

“We’ve got a long walk ahead of us,” he says, cold rushing in and making him shiver as they separate. “We should probably…”

He can’t bring himself to finish his sentence but Fjord nods anyway, hands shoved into the pockets of his coat as he leads their way away from the dancing and out of town. 

A few of Caleb’s dancing lights accompany them on their walk home, lighting their way with the same golden glow as the festival they just left behind. They walk in silence, both huddled tight into themselves against the cool air. 

It’s almost a relief to Caleb when he finally sees the lights of his home in the distance, but the abrupt realization that this is the last night he’s going to spend with Fjord brings him back down. 

“You up for a night cap?” Fjord asks when they finally get inside, his first words since they left the festival, and Caleb is silent but he quickly nods. 

He keeps it simple, opening a bottle of wine and pouring tall glasses for the both of them. They sit in front of the fireplace in his living room, Caleb stretched across the couch and Fjord sitting in a chair. Frumpkin lays on his back on the floor between them, belly exposed as he soaks up the warmth of the hearth.

It’s a peaceful scene. Domestic, even. Caleb just wishes it wasn’t tinged with so much silence.

“You’ll probably need to get to bed early,” he says quietly, glass still half full. 

Fjord nods but he stares into the fire. There’s a tension in his posture, a wrinkle in his forehead from how hard he’s frowning. 

“Is everything okay?” Caleb asks, afraid there’s something Fjord isn’t telling him. Some grave danger he’s going back to face on his own, something he’s running from that he’s scared to return to.

“It’s fine,” Fjord replies, even though his voice betrays that it is very much not fine. He runs a hand over his mouth and down his chin, heaving a sigh as he continues to watch the crackling flames. 

Caleb sits up, setting his glass down on his coffee table. “Fjord, whatever it is you don’t have to face it alone.”

“Caleb,” Fjord says miserably, “really, it’s not-”

But Caleb continues undeterred. “You might be a bit late to port and it will take a while for a letter to reach Nicodranas this time of year but we can get in touch with Jester. Surely she can let the others know something is wrong and we can all help with whatever-”

“It’s not that!” Fjord snaps, and Caleb goes silent. Fjord’s face immediately fills with frustration and remorse and he tries to run a hand through his hair but seems to forget he had it pulled up, only getting more frustrated at the loose bits of hair that fall out and frame his face in streaks of grey and black. 

“I’m sorry,” he says. “I’m just…” He huffs a small, humorless laugh. “I guess I might as well tell you. You deserve to know.”

He tucks a bit of hair back behind one ear and looks up at Caleb. His expression is one of desperation, of remorse, and it immediately worries Caleb. He doesn’t know what kind of weight Fjord has been carrying but he wants to help with whatever it is, wants to ease whatever pain is making Fjord so miserable.

Fjord takes a deep breath. 

“I love you,” he says.

Caleb blinks once. Twice. He thinks he must have had more wine than he thought, because he could have sworn he just heard Fjord say that he loves him, but that doesn’t make any sense.

“Caleb?” Fjord asks and Caleb’s world shifts back into focus and he sees the same stricken expression from earlier, the one Fjord had tried to hide with a smile. 

“Please,” he says, looking more and more miserable by the second. “Say something.”

“I’m sorry,” Caleb says, so lightheaded he’s glad he’s already sitting down. “I’m sorry, I just. I thought you just said that you…” 

His voice trails off, and Fjord only looks more heartbroken. 

“I love you,” he says again. “Caleb, I think I’ve loved you for years now. And I’m so sorry it’s taken me this long to come visit. And I’m sorry I didn’t tell you until now. I thought I could run from my feelings but I couldn’t, and I spent so much time missing you and wishing you were with me, wishing the Nein would have a reason to get back together just so I could see you one more time.” 

He begins talking faster, voice growing higher with anxiety when Caleb continues to stare silently at him. “And I can see you don’t feel the same and that’s okay, really it is. I promise there’s no hard feelings, and I would completely understand if you never want to see me again but I just thought you deserved to know that these last weeks with you have been the happiest weeks I’ve had in a very very long time and I just hope someday you can forgive me because I’d love to come back someday-”

“I love you,” Caleb says suddenly, interrupting Fjord’s frantic words and stopping him up short. 

Fjord’s voice is quiet now when he gives a soft, scared “Excuse me?” 

“I love you,” Caleb repeats, getting more and more sure of himself with every word. “I’ve loved you for so long, Fjord.”

Fjord still looks unsure. “Please don’t say it for my sake,” he says. “Don’t say it just to make me feel better.”

“I’m not.” Caleb stands, approaching Fjord’s chair slowly. “I have spent almost every night this month wanting to reach out and hold you. I have spent every night up until you came wishing that you were there beside me. I bought this house hoping someday it could be full of people and I hoped beyond all hope that I could be lucky enough to have one of those people be you.”

Without preamble he straddles Fjord, hands on his shoulders as he settles into Fjord’s lap, and Fjord’s eyes are wide with disbelief but his hands still move to Caleb’s waist, his hands warming Caleb through his sweater.

“I don’t want to leave tomorrow,” Fjord says, voice barely above a whisper, wide eyes looking at Caleb like he’s bewitched him, like he’s entranced and Caleb is the most wondrous thing he’s ever had the privilege to behold. 

“Then stay,” Caleb replies like it’s the most obvious solution in the world. “Stay for as long as you want.” 

“For as long as you’ll have me,” Fjord says fiercely and then he’s leaning in and Caleb is closing his eyes and that tension from before is back, has seemed to multiply one thousandfold with the declarations of their feelings, and Caleb only feels it break when Fjord’s lips meet his, warm and soft and sure. 

“Forever,” Caleb gasps when the kiss is finally broken and they’re both heaving for breath. “Forever…” 

And then Fjord’s mouth is on his again and his hands are everywhere, running up Caleb’s back and over his chest and gripping his hips and it’s so much, it’s too much.

It’s not nearly enough.

“Can I take you to bed?” Fjord finally asks and Caleb wraps his arms around Fjord’s shoulders, nodding before meeting his mouth again.

Fjord holds Caleb close as he stands, Caleb’s legs wrapping around his hips as he maintains his grip on Fjord’s shoulders, and he can’t help a startled laugh. 

“Still so strong,” he says as Fjord begins to walk to the stairs and ascend them.

Fjord scoffs. “You’ve just always been a beanpole.”

“Your beanpole now,” Caleb replies, finding a spot on Fjord’s neck he can reach and kissing it and giggling when Fjord has to stop and nearly loses his grip on Caleb’s thighs.

“Y-Yeah,” Fjord says, taking a tentative step up after catching his breath and adjusting his hold on Caleb. "Mine."

He lays Caleb down on their bed but is quick to straddle him and Caleb is more than happy to keep his arms around Fjord, holding him close. Never allowing too much distance between them. The night is a pleasant blur after that, heavy petting giving way to more and more contact and Caleb has waiting and imagined and fantasized about a night with Fjord so many times but still he never imagined it could be quite so good, that they could move so naturally together. And the best part of the night comes when they lay together in the aftermath of it all, sweating and sated, and Fjord pulls Caleb close against his chest and they fall asleep tangled together.

The next morning, Caleb wakes long after the sun has risen. 

He sits up, abruptly aware that it’s much later than usual. He reaches to touch the spot where Fjord had been and the indent of his head remains in his pillow. 

His heart sinks when he feels that the spot has grown cold.

But just as soon as he starts to fall into a spiral of despair, of worry that Fjord had changed his mind in the middle of the night and left for the coast after all, he hears the sounds of movement within the house, smells the faint aroma of breakfast drifting up from the kitchen. 

The squeak of the house’s old floorboards betrays Fjord’s footsteps up the stairs, though Caleb can tell he’s trying to be quiet when he slowly opens the door to their bedroom and peeks inside, only to frown when he sees Caleb sitting up against the headboard of the bed.

“You were supposed to still be asleep,” he says, abandoning the pretense of silence as he fully opens the door and steps inside, arms laden with a tray of food and steaming cups of tea. 

“I was,” Caleb replies, watching with a soft smile as Fjord approaches the bed and sets the tray down between them before slipping back under the covers. “Until just a few minutes ago.”

Fjord still makes a little noise of disapproval. “Still ruined my breakfast surprise.”

“Color me surprised,” Caleb says, plucking a slice of apple from one of the bowls on the tray and biting into it. “Truly,” he continues through a half-full mouth, “I don’t think I’ve ever had someone make me breakfast in bed before.”

Fjord laughs, taking a bit of fruit for himself but leaning in before he eats it, giving Caleb a kiss on the cheek instead. 

“I love you,” he says. He speaks so simply, so easily. Like it’s the most obvious thing in the world. It makes Caleb’s heart swell in his chest, bursting with warmth.

“I love you too,” Caleb replies, turning his head and meeting Fjord’s lips with his. None of the heat from last night is in the kiss but it still feels so right and sets butterflies fluttering in the pit of Caleb’s stomach.

Fjord bends down, pressing a soft kiss to one of the dark marks he’d sucked into Caleb’s neck the night before, and a pleasant shiver runs through Caleb at that.

“Keep doing that,” he warns, “and your breakfast will go cold before we can eat it.”

Fjord grumbles but he does pull back, popping the apple slice into his mouth and settling against the headboard. Comfortable silence passes between them while they eat and Frumpkin purrs away in Caleb’s lap.

“The chickens still suck,” Fjord abruptly says, breaking the silence. It’s so unexpected Caleb can’t help but burst into giggles, leaning over and resting his head on Fjord’s shoulder. 

And when Fjord reaches over to take his hand, Caleb gladly accepts.

Caleb still hates mornings. 

No amount of Fjord’s good mood and cajoling will ever make him enjoy getting out of bed at any time before noon. 

But he’s able to sleep a little later now, not getting up until dawn has just broken over the horizon, spilling golden light over the world. Fjord is by his side as they work, caring for their humble little homestead. They cook breakfast before Caleb makes his way up into town and Fjord gets to work tending their garden.

Caleb was never able to grow much more than herbs before, but with Fjord’s care the garden has flourished. All sorts of vegetables grow along with the herbs now, along with a blossoming little tea shrub that had somehow survived Fjord’s most recent trip home from the Blooming Grove.

When Caleb comes home the two of them spend the rest of their day however they please. Some days they go down to the beach, others they relax together on the porch. Sometimes they take a day for themselves, Caleb working in his office as Fjord works around the house or tries out a new recipe in the kitchen or indulges in a long afternoon nap.

But no matter how they spend their days, their evenings are always spent with each other. They eat dinner and relax and go to bed curled up together, warm and safe under their covers. 

And Caleb knows that even if he hates mornings, he will always love waking to Fjord’s soft voice and warm hands coaxing him up and out of bed.

And isn't it just so pretty to think-

All along there was some invisible string

Tying you to me?