The scent of fried eggs is what wakes him. It is strange. For once, Lir finds that he does not crave the dish despite it being one if his favorites in the past. The sun has not risen. The windows are open, and a swift breeze causes its gingham curtains to flutter. When Lir sees that it is Tobias who is cooking, he wonders if he may not truly be hallucinating. People you wish to see never show up uninvited. People you despise always turn up at every corner you walk—this is an unspoken rule, and nobody could pry such a belief from standing tall at the top of Lir’s list of tricks to be wary of. Until today, that is. “How can you be real?” Lir blurts, for lack of a better thing to say. “How can this be real?” He pauses, then points to himself. “How can I be real?” Has Lir’s brain conjured up Tobias’s image and placed it onto his actual savior as some kind of twisted coping mechanism? Does he want to see Tobias just that bad? Even in his final moments?
Even during—and after—death?
A preposterous theory… yet, it is a very possible one, if he is being realistic.
Tobias laughs like he would in the past whenever Lir asked too many questions, or when Lir would bring him seashells covered in sand from his daily beach escapades, after he started going out again for the first time in many a moon. “How does anyone know that they’re real?” he asks. The sound of his second snicker is light. Discrete. Gone in seconds like it never was. Nothing like Wolf—as fleeting as it may be, Lir hates the thought. Or, more precisely, he hates that he finds himself thinking so. Comparing, when there is nothing to compare.
“I don’t understand.”
“And you think I do?” Tobias puts down the pan. Eggs fall into plates. One, then two. “This is by far the strangest thing that has washed up on my beach.”
Lir’s brows hurt from squinting too much. “Your beach?” And, Thing? I’m not a thing! Lir wants to say, even if he does not, for Tobias has always been clumsy in his words, never purposely wicked, or mean.
His mentor pauses. “Here, I meant.”
Lir figured he did. He doesn’t comment though. “Why didn’t you say anything?”
Silence reigns for a second.
Five more seconds. It isn’t enough for Lir to assume the conversation has died, but questions start flooding his mind. Ones about the future. About the past. About now.
Tobias clears his throat. “I thought it’d be better this way.” He curls his palm around his cup of tea. His other hand is rested against his yurt’s wooden counter. Tobias’s lips purse together. He glances, downward, away from Lir’s figure. “I was young. I didn’t know any better.” His mentor scratches at his face. “Maybe I was also running away.”
Lir wonders why he’s talking as if he were some hundred-year-old man. Tobias is older than him by a few moons, not more. He surely still has much to learn, as we all do. “Why better? Why run?” Lir asks, because he genuinely wants to know this time. “What made you think that?” What could possibly make him think that?
Tobias sighs. “The army wanted to enlist me. I don’t want to be a strategist. It’s not what I’m made for.”
“Oh.” That makes a lot of sense, somehow. That they would want him. That he would not want to.
“And, because…” Tobias is staring at Lir again, right in the eyes, and Lir wishes he could know if his mentor is seeing an ex-pupil, a friend, or something else all entirely. “Goodbye means closing a chapter in one’s life. So I didn’t say it. Maybe it was wrong.”
His response takes Lir aback. “You didn’t want to leave?”
“I didn’t know what I wanted except that I didn’t want to fight for them,” he admits, with a shrug. “I’m still not sure I do… Know what I want, I mean.”
“I thought you were dead at first.” If someone were to ask Lir why he bothers to confess this, Lir would have no exact answer, only guesses. Out of spite. Curiosity. Out of anger. Hope. Out of wanting to reconnect with something he thought was lost forever; love, and all the chaos it entails. “I was relieved when I learned you were alive. But it still hurt.” Maybe more than if you had died, because now I knew you chose not to tell me. It was deliberate. I would never see you again. You knew this. And yet, you still did it, Lir thinks; even though he has no doubt that Tobias is smart enough to figure it out by himself, with the way Lir is trying to bite back tears. I wish you were dead so I could mourn you. I wish you were gone forever, so that I could stop thinking that you would come back, it was this kind of infatuation Lir had felt. It was not healthy, yet it was there, stuck to the soles of his feet, like the organs of mashed insects from a forest he’d sometimes lose himself in.
“What now?” Lir is glad Tobias doesn’t apologize. It would be useless, more of a farce than anything else.
“I shouldn’t be here.” By here, Lir means both in Tobias’s home, and being alive, allowed to breath so naturally when nothing about this is natural. “I should be dead.”
The face Tobias wears makes his heart sting. He wishes he could take the words away, and the pain that comes with them, but he cannot. They needed to be said. “You aren’t, thankfully.”
“Thankfully?” Lir cringes. “You think this is a good thing?”
“It’s neither good nor bad, it just is.”
“I don’t remember you being so laid-back.” The thought that this might not be the real Tobias returns, and haunts him for at least a good minute.
Tobias smiles. There is sadness in the gesture, something bittersweet. The sun peeks through the curtains. It illuminates half his figure, as if he were some kind of holy being. “Four years is short, Lir, but it is long enough to change a person.”
It’s true. Lir has changed—significantly—too, even if it feels like he hasn’t.
When he looks back, he doesn’t ever remember being twelve. Eleven. Nine. Five. Four. Two. Zero. Non-existent. Not here. Not present. Alive. “Are you going to turn me in?” If Tobias does, Lir isn’t sure he would have the energy to run, or if he would even want to. What is there to live for, when he has already perished?
Tobias drops his cup back onto the counter. The water that strays beneath its weight makes half an O appear beneath its porcelain shine. “I would never.” He finds Lir’s side once more. He takes Lir’s palm between his own, as if it were something precious, not an issue, not a threat. “You can stay.” Tobias squeezes his hand. “For as long as you like, you can stay.”
The statement makes Lir scoff. He turns his head away, but keeps his fingers where they are—still, almost to the point of being permanently merged with Tobias’s skin. “You know I can’t do that,” he mutters. “If they find out that you’re harboring me, they’ll kill you.” And as much as Lir had wished him dead on nights when he could barely breathe, one look at the man’s face is enough to change his mind. He does want to be responsible for the death of a person that has changed him. He does not want Tobias to die.
“And so, I am to leave you be?” The hurt that surfaces in Tobias’s gaze does not go unnoticed. His mentor looks away. Their hands start to shake, though Lir is never sure whether it is he that trembles, or Tobias, or the both of them, together. “Do you not know what will happen if you are caught, too?”
“Of course, I do!” Lir snaps, with a bit too much anger—or at least, more than he had intended. “Of course…” he echoes, a tad quieter this time. “You taught me. You taught me everything. I haven’t forgotten.” He bites his lip, then whispers, “I couldn’t ever forget.”
Tobias reaches for him. The careful brush he leaves against Lir’s unruly head of hair reminds Lir of when he would cried, and Tobias would be there, always.
Of when he laughed, and Tobias was present, too.
But then, Lir remembers, that no matter how far the past is from the present day, he will never be more than a pupil Tobias’s eyes. And now, Lir isn’t too sure what it is he is mourning anymore.
“Lir?” Tobias’s voice is both a sound he cherishes and despises all the time. He wishes he could hear it always. He wishes he could never listen to again. It hurts like drowning did, though in every other way.
“I’m not staying,” he declares, as his eyes meet with Tobias’s own. Lir’s have turned a deep shade of yellow. They glow in dawn’s thin light. “I’m not staying,” he repeats. “I won’t put you in needless danger.” And then, he stands up.
They both freeze.
Yes, Lir had wanted to leave, but he shouldn’t be able to. Not like this. Not without a wheelchair, or the help of his arms.
“Lir.” Tobias gapes in disbelief. “You— Your legs, they—”
The moment is short lived. Soon, Lir feels the weakened muscles of his legs failing him.
He topples over.
He curses the world. Again.