The solitude of rural living bereaves its practitioners of many comforts. After his time in the Valley of Storms, many of Faust’s old habits, born and quashed in Central Country, seem too distant to ever belong to him. They merely haunt his memory, remnants of an era burned up in a flash of elation and pain, giving rise to newfound routines.
Losing track of time while reading, though—now that’s a habit he’d be hard-pressed to rid himself of.
Faust pores over a tome at his desk, taking notes on the practices of ice magic. With the weather warming considerably and the once muted sunlight now bearing down on the courtyard, outdoor training session had become uncomfortable and, at times, unbearable. Not even Heathcliff could keep from exhaling sharply every now and then as the sun scraped along their backs during a botany lesson in the garden.
The sage had mentioned an item from their world—an “ice pack.” Something to cool off with when overheated, but also to treat swelling and bruising. It sounded a bit juvenile when compared to the remedies Faust could impart with a simple spell, yet the concept intrigued him. With a bit of magic and the use of eternal ice, the pack could stay cool forever, making it useful for hot afternoons at the training grounds or missions to boiling climates.
The book’s blue cover is worn down to the quick of the binding, and its pages are filled with ancient lettering along the margins, far too old for Faust to understand. The sharp angles of the letters betray a rigidity as cold as the pages, yet not without an air of diligence.
Who the annotations belong to, Faust isn’t sure. Oz had handed the tome to him without a word or room for probing. Though Faust had been a bit hesitant to ask anyone in the manor for help, he respects Oz and his proficiency with the element enough to request his knowledge from time to time. Just enough to complete the task himself, though, as learned wisdom from practice is worth much more than a quick solution.
A crisp scent burns at Faust’s nose with each page he turns. Phantom notes of peppermint, and an odd hint of syrup. A strange find, indeed. Oz must have dug through the library archives to find it. Faust will have to offer him a show of gratitude, somehow. Perhaps a meal, or—
A meal. Had supper passed already?
Faust rises too quickly for his stiff limbs and peels back the curtains. The moon leers at him from its peak in the sky—hungry, waiting. How could the sage could look up at it with the fondness that touched Murr’s gaze? All he sees is a testament of loss. Of all he can still stand to lose.
Well, Nero’s food is good enough to eat cold. Good enough to draw him out of his room midway through his research, too—he never recalled loving food so much that he would wander meekly through the halls in search of leftovers. That is, if there are any left. Knowing Bradley, the thought is naive at best.
He pokes his head out of his room and examines the hall for a rogue Figaro or a watchful Lennox, both of whom seemed to have an infatuation with standing near his door. Be it luck or the hour, neither of them are there to witness his pursuit.
With a quiet footfall, he descends the stairs, stopping on Shino and Heathcliff’s floor to make sure they’re sleeping properly. The hall is as hushed as the muted light of the sconces along the walls. Shino, Arthur, Cain, even the sage . . . all seemingly asleep. The thin wedge underneath Heathcliff’s door is blanketed in darkness—a stark contrast to earlier days, when Faust would catch him awake at the ungodly hours he had come to keep, anxiously tinkering with clockwork to soothe his worries.
As he arrives on the ground floor, he expects a kitchen as dark and quiet as the manor he traversed. Yet a wash of amber light greets him from the doorway, brushing the tips of his boots. A humming in a familiar pitch comes from within, soft and languid.
As if expecting his arrival, Nero doesn’t look up from the counter. His apron is tied along his waist, and a towel rests over his left shoulder, spattered with a brownish sauce.
“There you are.” Nero finishes plating something and flashes him a wry smile. A bit of flour dusts his cheekbone. “You skipped dinner. Shino and Heath missed you.”
Faust steps inside, closing the door behind him so as not to wake anyone else. “I was reading and I lost track of time,” he says, albeit a touch guiltily. Perhaps he could join them tomorrow.
He studies Nero’s back, watching him move about the kitchen with ease and force of memory. Something else gnaws at him, and he clears his throat, adding, “You didn’t stay up for my sake, did you?”
Nero stops beside the sink, raising his voice above the water as he scrubs his hands. “I wanted to try my hand at a new dish.” He shuts off the tap and gestures to a plate on the counter. “And I figured you’d be hungry for something, after everyone else went to bed.”
Furrowing his brow, Faust inches closer, surveying the dish. Something is folded within a crepe, perfectly browned. Is that an egg? Meat? A sprinkle of herbs?
Galette? Faust frowns. He hadn’t told the sage about his preference for the pastry, had he? No, he wouldn’t have offered up something so trivial in their discussions. The only other person here who would know is—
“Have you been talking with Lennox?” Faust says, peering accusatorily at Nero from behind his glasses.
Nero laughs and tosses the towel down on the counter. The kitchen is nearly spotless, save for some dishes and utensils left to soak in the sink. No ingredient is wasted—no errant smattering of egg lines the counter, no hill of flour here or there. Had he not experienced Nero’s pride in his craft firsthand, Faust would have believed Nero had conjured the food out of thin air. As expected of a credible chef. With a little less sleep, Faust may have praised him.
“C’mon, Teach,” Nero says, “do you really think I’d waste my precious little time outside of your lessons talking to people I don’t know?”
Faust purses his lips, halfway to calling him a bullshit liar, but Nero slides the plate down the counter to him.
“It’d be a waste to throw it out, so are you going to eat it or not?”
“I’m not some stray you can throw your scraps at,” Faust says, though his bite is weakened as he surveys the glistening egg nestled in the center of the golden crepe.
He hardly remembers the last time he had the privilege of enjoying galette—dishes like this were hard to come by in the Eastern town he solely ventured into for clients, complicated by his refusal to eat anything made by humans. Cooking only with ingredients from his garden didn’t afford him much variety in his diet, either. Yet he cannot forget that first bite, where the egg ran over the crepe, mingling with the savory notes of the meat and herbs—
“Hey, that’s not a bad idea.” Nero’s enthusiasm prompts a small flinch from Faust, ripping him from where he was mired in his senses. “Maybe the cats will eat it.”
With a deft swipe, Faust snatches the plate away faster than Nero can reach for it. “You can’t feed this to a cat. Do you want them to get sick?” He forces out a hefty sigh and takes up a fork. “I’ll eat it if it’s going to cause this much trouble.”
Only when Nero chuckles and turns his back to him does Faust begin to eat. Although Nero says he is a drifter with no real ambition, there is passion in every bite, in that nuanced harmony of sweetness and salt. Faust lets the flavors drown his senses, dragging him down until he is submerged in the sea of memory.
He remembers the last bastion of peace. That very last day before that very last night, before gauntlet-clad hands rapped on his door in the castle they made their stronghold and stole him away to its depths.
Deep blue ribbon. White hair crowned in sunlight, lashes dripping with its golden ichor. Shoulders broadened by time and the weight of lofty dreams.
A celebratory afternoon on the castle terrace, ideas of the future spilled like ink. Lennox pouring them an aromatic blend from a chipped teapot stenciled with red flowers. The smell of chamomile and honey. Crepes stitched with savory fillings. Raucous joy from the courtyard. His hands trembling around his teacup with a giddy disbelief—it was right there, in front of them. He could almost grasp it.
And oh, how his friend had smiled. Too placid to be virtuous, too tense to be righteous. He would have followed the conviction in that smile anywhere. It blinded him, obscured his fate. The kindling in the hand before him, and the match in the piercing blue of that stare.
The fire that would soon consume their shared sky.
“What’s wrong?” Nero stands on the other side of the counter, the stems of two glasses tucked between his fingers. In the other hand, he touts a wine bottle by its neck, the label embellished with a gold-painted star chart. “Did Owen switch the salt and sugar again?”
So that’s what Shino had been complaining about when he mentioned salty pie.
“It’s delicious.” Faust spears another forkful with a bit too much enthusiasm. “For my first time trying the dish, that is.”
Nero sets the glasses down with a short laugh. “Seriously,” he says, pouring them each a share of wine, “I’m not used to dishonest guys like you.”
“Coming from you, I refuse to hear it,” Faust says between bites, though there is a warmth in his tone not unnoticed by him. Perhaps it’s the spirit of being awake in these twilight hours that prompts him to offer, “I used to cook galette often when I was younger. With my family.”
“Told ya I could sense a fellow cook when I saw one,” Nero says with an unabashed grin. He takes a hearty swig of wine that leaves Faust balking across the counter and laughs around the lip of his glass. “Weird to imagine someone like you sharing breakfast with his family, though. It’s a chore getting your ass up before noon every now and then.”
Nero’s words remind him of mornings he thought he forgot. The fog of sunrise in that distant village, standing on tiptoe beside the hearth, watching wrinkled hands crack eggs and flip crepes with expertise. The warmth from each forkful that filled up his heart as he stared out the large windows, studying the light of dawn as it rolled over the lavender fields and brushed them with gold. The ache of home.
Faust swirls his wine around in his glass, burgundy waves crashing against its walls. For once, he is eager to fill the silence—and he isn’t even drunk yet.
“Sometimes, if we were fortunate enough to have it, my grandmother would add in some cheese. It was our favorite.” He inhales the smoky sweetness rising up off the glass’ curves. “We would even invite friends from the village over to share.”
He drinks hurriedly before he can say anything else. The taste is oaky, lingering in his throat, rich with ripened fruit. Faust indulges in another sip.
“Huh. I’ll try adding in cheese next time.” Nero scratches his cheek and dislodges that bit of flour, unbeknownst to him. “Maybe we could make it for the kids someday.”
Someday. That word, frozen in time. A word that bore dreams aloft, that guided heroes to their proverbial epochs. A word of conviction—one that used to break from his lips with pride and hope, but now caught in his throat, strangled with memory.
A belief. An unspoken promise.
Nero regards him from across the counter, leaning his weight on his elbows with a soft curve to his lips. In the golden light of the kitchen, that guardedness Nero always laces with his expressions, with his laughter, ebbs away. Faust follows the sincerity in his smile—the invitation to shed his past and come to the table with only an appetite and a conversation.
When he speaks next, his voice is soft, yet brushed with his own conviction. A new start.
“Someday,” Faust echoes.
The weight of the word breaks through the night like the dawn—and its wake, relief.