[ Epilogue ]
"So tell me again," Keyd said, leaning in towards me, "why you cut down a tree and put it into your home."
"What planet are you even from?" Ashley said, staggering in from the garage with a plastic storage box labeled 'X-mas ornaments'. She set it down carefully in front of the bare Christmas tree and straightened up, shaking out her arms.
"Not this one," Keyd said. Ashley laughed and brushed her bangs out of her face.
"Thanks for playing," she said. "The tree's for putting presents under, because we tell little kids that a fat guy in a red suit goes around the entire world on a flying sleigh breaking into houses and bringing them gifts that he puts under a big gaudy tree. Actually, explaining it like that doesn't make it sound very normal at all."
"Trees and dogs in homes," Keyd said, almost to himself. As if on cue, Chester bounded into the living room, smashed his big head up against the back of Keyd's knees, pranced around him a few times, and then scampered off into the kitchen. I could hear somebody shaking his food bowl in there; probably Andrea. Despite what my parents had thought, she was actually really responsible about taking care of him. Except maybe the taking him on walks part.
"Hey, the dog likes you," I said. "Not sure about the tree yet, it's not as open with its emotions."
Keyd threw me a strange look, like he wasn't exactly sure if I was joking, and then huffed out a laugh and jostled my shoulder. "You're so strange," he said, and I felt his fingers skate up and down the back of my spine. He was really sticking with being more obvious and affectionate in public, and he'd always been more okay with that on Earth. I wasn't about to forget that time he'd made out with me in the middle of the mall, with all the makeup sample ladies watching.
"Am I the only one helping out here?" Ashley yelled suddenly from near the garage. "Al, come grab a box!"
"Okay, okay!" I gave Keyd a little pat on the shoulder and said, in Isji, "I have to go help my annoying sister."
"I heard that, I know you're saying something about me! I know that tone."
"Oh my god," I muttered, and Keyd laughed not-subtly against the back of his hand.
"I can help, too," he offered. "With—" he gestured, vaguely. "Christmas."
"You'd probably be handy with reaching high shelves," I said, grinning and elbowing him. "But you're a guest and my mom'd get real mad if she saw us putting you to work."
Keyd just made a face, shook his head, and nudged me out of the room with his hands pushing at the back of my hips. We got to the propped-open garage door just as Ashley was coming through with another box. She didn't angle it exactly right and the corner of the box clipped the doorframe, and the whole thing kinda shoved itself out of her grip and started to tumble towards the ground.
Keyd darted forward and got his hand under the edge of the box, tipping it back up and pushing it firmly back into Ashley's arms.
"Shit, thanks," Ashley breathed out, and then looked up and saw it was Keyd on the other side. She gave him a quick smile, and he gave her one back. I didn't know if it was the fact that Ashley knew the real deal about Keyd now, or that he kept writing to my entire family—including her—but she was pretty friendly with him now, and seemed to almost legitimately like him. Not just putting up with him for my sake, or because she felt bad for how she'd acted at my dad's birthday.
Actually, they'd had a weird bonding shopping trip earlier today, when Ashley and Andrea had announced they were going to the mall (probably late Christmas gift shopping) and Keyd had surprisingly asked if he could go too. I hadn't wanted to go, and I wasn't even sure why he wanted to go, but I didn't want to stop him. But I'd been kind of afraid to leave Keyd alone with my sisters. But somehow, it'd happened anyway. And I'd spent a couple of hours losing at video games to Adam and vaguely wondering what the hell the three of them could be up to.
They'd come back with clothes—specifically, clothes for Keyd.
"Why," I'd asked, because Keyd already had plenty of wearable clothes.
"He likes clothes, and he was kind of bored by the ones he has," Ashley had told me. "And, if you hadn't noticed, he's got a great body. And you just shoved him in some jeans and t-shirts. He picked all this shit out himself; he has good taste."
"Wait like five minutes and you'll stop asking why," Ashley'd said, and then she and Andrea had shut themselves in the guest bedroom with Keyd and a couple shopping bags. A few minutes later:
"Ta-dah!" Andrea had caroled, nearly shoving Keyd out of the guest bedroom, somehow, despite being practically half his height.
Of course he'd found the most-layers-ever option—a grey collared shirt, a charcoal vest over that, and then a matching blazer and pants. The only color was the deep red tie he'd managed to somehow put on right, or maybe Ashley had done it for him. It reminded me of his agistar sash.
"I—fuck," I'd said weakly. Maybe I didn't care about clothes, but I sure cared about them when Keyd was in them. Andrea and Ashley had hung back in the doorway, looking real smug about my reaction, but I wasn't surprised Keyd could dress himself really well even here. I mean, it was overkill, but he looked amazing.
"I didn't know there were clothes like this, here," Keyd had said to me, sounding really happy and smoothing the blazer down.
"They're not, uh...for...everyday wear," I'd managed, because Keyd petting himself in those clothes didn't really help me at all. Ashley had just looked more smug about the whole thing.
So now Keyd had a couple pieces of really nice clothes. I didn't even know where they'd found things that near-perfectly fit a six-foot-six dude, or who'd actually paid for them—I still had some money in my lonely little bank account, but that hadn't been touched. And it also meant that Keyd was hanging around my parents' house wearing fitted slacks with matching vests and collared shirts because he liked wearing way more clothes than necessary. He was wearing that stuff right now. At least he'd taken off the tie. I kinda wished he'd go back to jeans and t-shirts, because it was seriously hard to look at him sometimes without every part of me going hot and eager and wanting to tear him out of all those clothes. And Ashley knew it too, which was even more embarrassing.
And right now, she was still blocking the doorway with her big plastic box, keeping Keyd and me out of the garage. "Naw," she said. "He's not gonna go in the dirty old garage in those clothes, no."
"He wants to help!" I said, at the same time Keyd looked down at himself and said, "hm, maybe no."
"Are you two serious," I said, while Ashley jerked her head towards the kitchen instead.
"You could go grab those candy canes Andy wanted to put on the tree for some reason," Ashley said. "I think they're on the counter."
"Candy canes," Keyd repeated. He had no idea what those were, but he could read English, so as long as the box was labeled he could figure it out. He headed off into the kitchen, leaving me and Ashley alone. My mom had to be in there, because a couple seconds later I heard her voice saying something. Keyd said something back quietly, and then my mom laughed. I heard a cabinet squeak open, and then Andrea's voice piping up. Then Ashley reminded me I was supposed to be helping with boxes, so I quit trying to eavesdrop.
Together we finished hauling the ornaments in from the garage (some of the boxes were kind of dusty and grimy) and kind of arranged them around the bare tree so there was a good open space for everybody to cram into later. Everybody in the family pitched in to tree-decorating time, even my dad, who didn't really care how or when things got decorated for the holidays. Now that all the stuff was in here we'd probably be starting soon. I could still hear my mom and Keyd and also Andrea talking in the kitchen together, and it made me smile to hear it.
"You know, his hair looks way better now," Ashley said, suddenly scooting up to my side. "Is that his real color? Did he used to dye it or something? Why black, of all damn things?"
"Long...story," I said. I was glad Keyd wasn't actually in the room when she'd mentioned this. "It has to do with the thing I wrote you about. The...cure thing, for him. That's the real color, but it's never really been that way." I hadn't really explained to her what I'd done to fix Keyd, because I didn't know how to put it in words. I'd mostly written to her tell her that he was fine and going to be okay, especially after I'd had a complete meltdown in front of her barely a month ago.
"Oh," Ashley said, and looked kinda sorry she'd brought it up. "Well. It looks way better."
"It really does," I said. "If you told him, it'd actually mean a lot to him. He's kinda sensitive about it."
Ashley hiked one eyebrow in the way I could never do. "You want me to flirt with your boyfriend-fiancé-whatever guy?"
"Not flirt, compliment! You can do one without the other, right?"
"Meh," Ashley said, shrugging one shoulder. "Also, can we discuss the beard?"
"It's weird. You look older."
"Hey, I was trying to compliment you, bro." Ashley nudged me, grinning. "Older in like, a mature way."
"Ew, don't flirt with me, that's weird."
Ashley laughed. "You're gross. And beardy. It's still weird."
"Keyd likes it." And it was growing on me, too. Bah-dum tisch.
"Oh, I see how it is." Ashley wiggled her eyebrows and made a little whipcracking motion.
"Okay, no," I said. "That's not how it works at all."
"Yeah, well, Robbie likes my hair long and you don't see me with endlessly flowing locks," Ashley said. Her hair was actually shorter than usual, in a layered cut to about the middle of her neck. It was cute, not that I'd tell her that. We could only say nice things about each other via insults, unless something was really serious.
"Yeah, but you like...have an opinion on your own hair. I don't. Neither does Keyd. So we don't mind what we do with it for each other. And d'you know how annoying it is to shave all the time?"
"Yeah, only about a third of my body every other day," Ashley shot back. "You just have half a face. That's barely anything."
"A face is pretty noticeable! You can't put pants on a face if you don't feel like shaving."
"You are dumb," Ashley said, but she was laughing. "I'm just glad Robbie doesn't wanna grow his. I've seen my friends get that like...rashy beard-rub all over their faces from kissing scruffy dudes. Eugh."
That happened to Keyd sometimes if we spent too long making out, but I wasn't gonna tell Ashley about that. "Why are we even talking about this?" I said.
"I dunno. It's kinda cool to like, talk boyfriends with you," Ashley said, shrugging. "See if we get annoyed by the same shit they do, even though you're a dude too."
I wasn't sure if it was cool, it was kinda too personal. "Neither of us have boyfriends, technically."
"Fiancés, whatever. Not that whatever the hell your situation is makes sense at all. But I get to go, right?"
"What? Go where?"
"To your wedding. The weird makes-no-sense magical alien one on another planet. I get to go, right?"
Where had this fucking come from? "Uh—"
"You honestly can't tell me you live with aliens and not even let me go over there even once. Plus I wanna meet Keyd's sister, 'cause she sounds awesome. Seriously Al, if you don't let me go, I swear to God I'll—"
"Okay, okay, you can come to my goddamn alien wedding! Shit, Ash."
Ashley looked real pleased with herself. "No way I'm missing it," she said. "No way."
I thought about half-naked singing and edible paint and was kind of sorry I'd said yes so fast.
"You know," Ashley said, after a couple of seconds, "you should really tell mom and dad about what he really is. And everyone else, too."
"I—yeah. I know," I said. "Just, shit, can you even imagine?"
"Nope. That's why you should totally do it," she said. "I can't wait to see that go down. Plus, you know, don't you want them to come to your magical alien wedding too?"
Of course I wanted my family to be there, and the only way to do that was to tell them everything. Absolutely everything. Aliens, magic, other planets, wars and peace treaties, everything. I just wasn't sure if I was really ready for that. Or if they were.
But I didn't actually know how long from now Keyd and me getting married would even happen, since the clar did marriage really...slow. As in it took years, legitimately, with endless little ceremonies and customs and rituals. What I'd seen Kir and Darban do was almost the end of the whole thing, an official and public record of them committing to each other after many, many, many years of proving that commitment. Keyd and I'd had just one year. And some people thought we'd pretty much proved how serious we were with all the shit we'd gone through, but there was still all the little ceremonies and customs and rituals to do, for public and legal reasons.
"I can't believe you guys have never been on a date," Ashley said suddenly, startling me out of thinking about complicated alien weddings. "How do you get engaged without even going on a date?"
When your alien boyfriend's dad-king arranges it for you, that's how. "There wasn't exactly time, with all the near-death experiences and wars and shit," I said. "We'll get to it."
"But you're gonna do the other thing, right?"
"You know. The thing. That you wrote me about?" Ashley said. She held up her left hand and jabbed a finger at her engagement ring.
"Yeah, yeah, I am, shh!" I grabbed both her hands, looking around to make sure Keyd hadn't slid back into the room and lurked around behind us or something. But I could still hear his voice in the kitchen with my mom. "Christ, yell about it, why don't you."
Because the clar version would take years for us to do, there was something else I was thinking about doing. Not even thinking about—I'd moved past that into actual planning. Proposing to Keyd the regular way, and have a regular wedding here, on Earth. I wanted it to be just as real here as it was there. Even though it was kind of not legal here, at least in California, but we could at least have the whole, whatever, ceremony and everything. For my family, at least.
That was the thing I'd written to Ashley about. I just wanted to tell her, because I'd done enough of not telling her things, and she was the only person who knew the truth about Keyd anyway. And I was going to ask him while we were here. I wasn't sure how yet, or when, but we were only here for a week and I'd have to figure it out. Ashley knowing that I was planning on it would keep me from putting it off or chickening out, because she'd know.
I even had a ring. It was probably stupid because rings didn't mean shit to the clar in a marriage way, and I didn't even know if they were even a thing here when it was two dudes anyway, but I really felt that if you proposed to someone you needed a fucking ring. Rysa had helped me with that part, because she knew what would fit him and also knew someone who could make one. She'd thought it was kind of weird herself, but when I'd told her about how marriage worked on my planet, she'd thought it was a really good idea.
"I know he would want to honor your traditions, the way you have his," she'd said. "It might be strange, but he wouldn't want anything else."
And that was exactly why I'd done it. So I had this ring. It was plain, real simple—a dark silver band with a narrow little strip of some warm orangey-brown stone in it, almost like tiger's eye. It wouldn't even fit on any of my own fingers; it spun around like a hula-hoop. The only jewelry Keyd ever wore were his family crest rings, and those were pretty specific-looking, and so I'd really had to guess at what Keyd would like. And the inside of the band had the word Lanos inscribed into it, which I knew for sure he'd appreciate.
"But you are gonna do it while you're here, right?" Ashley insisted. She waved her engagement ring at me again. "Lemme see it."
"No, Ash, he's in the next room!" Instinctively I shoved my hand in my pocket, closing my fingers around the ring. Ashley noticed, guessed what I was doing.
"You always have it in your pocket?"
"I'm afraid I'm gonna leave it somewhere he'll see, so yeah. Pretty much." Except when we went to bed, then I hid it inside my Dopp kit. It wasn't like Keyd rooted through my stuff, or that he'd even know what the fuck it was supposed to be if he saw it, but I was just weirdly paranoid about the whole thing. And nervous. We were already engaged and I was nervous, it was so stupid.
"Good," Ashley said, which seemed like a weird answer. But we didn't get to talk about it anymore because Keyd did come back into the room then, with my mom and Andrea. Keyd was holding the box of candy canes.
"Oh, good, is this all the boxes?" my mom asked, looking around at the boxes scattered around near the tree.
"Yup," Ashley said. "Who knows where the lights are, though."
"You dad already put them on earlier today, just to make it easier," my mom said, which gave me a little twinge of guilt. Usually our tree was up and done by like the first week of December, and right now it was two days before Christmas eve. I knew my mom had probably held off on doing the decorating because she was waiting for me and Keyd to get here. But we were still in the middle of trying to balance two races who'd literally been trying to kill each other a few weeks ago, and sure Keyd had wrangled a few free days for this, but not a lot of them. There was still a lifetime of work waiting for us back there.
So Keyd and I had only shown up yesterday, in our usual way of going through a rift and catching a taxi to my house so it looked like we were coming in off a flight. Ashley had already been here with her fiancé Robbie, who'd never met Keyd before and had honestly looked scared of him for the first few minutes. Keyd had learned that decent small-talk was to ask people what they did for a job, and Robbie had sounded like the last thing in the world he'd wanted to admit was that he was in nursing school. Which hadn't meant anything to Keyd at all. But after I'd muttered, "training to be a Healer," in Isji, Keyd had brightened up and told Robbie he was doing something 'admirable' and 'skilled' and I think it'd just completely floored the poor guy. But he hadn't looked as terrified of Keyd after that.
"Sometimes he gets shit from people for the nursing school thing," Ashley had told me later. "Especially from guys who look like huge meatheads."
"Hey," I'd said. "Really, giving him a hard time? He does realize the gay thing, right?" Ashley'd just shrugged at that, but I had a feeling she'd maybe said something to Robbie later. He and Keyd seemed generally okay with each other after that.
The thing Keyd actually found funny about Robbie was his name, because to him it sounded like a common name that the clar gave to dogs. The guy was actually trying to go by Rob now, but my family wasn't having any of it since we'd all thought of him as Robbie for the past four years he'd been dating Ashley and he'd probably be Robbie to us forever. Even Ashley didn't call him Rob.
But the best thing I think I'd ever seen in my life was when we'd all played Risk together last night. Me, Ashley, Robbie, and Keyd. Keyd, the trained soldier and military commander. He'd ended up handing us all our asses and taking over most of the world board, and I wasn't sure how hard he was trying.
"We have something like this, too," Keyd had said to me at some point. "Only it's not really a game."
"I'm not surprised," I'd said. He'd already completely knocked me out of play and I couldn't even be mad because I'd almost expected it. Ashley was hanging on the best in Australia and Robbie's last troops were getting annihilated in Asia.
"You guys have to talk in English, that's the rules," Ashley had called out. "None of this Polish stuff, 'kay?"
"Was that Polish?" Robbie had said, and then gotten distracted by Keyd bulldozing him out of Siberia. Isji probably didn't sound a damn thing like Polish, but this was the lie we were stuck in until I managed to come up with a way to tell the actual truth. Someday.
It took a few minutes, but finally everybody in my family had piled into the living room and was poking at the ornament boxes, flopping back the interlocking tops and rummaging through them, already picking ornaments out. My mom was trying to keep everybody kind of organized and count heads to make nobody was getting left out up in their room or something. But nope, everybody was here, stuffed into the living room with a ton of ornaments and a nice empty tree that somebody'd plugged in, so now it was all lit up with white lights.
Aaron was still gruff and weird around Keyd, but he wasn't as aggressively rude as he'd been back in September—mostly he just ignored Keyd. And almost me. He'd kind of grunt and nod, or grunt and shake his head, and that was about as much as he'd interact with me if I tried. Right now he was hanging around near the doorway, at least partly inside the living room. Almost participating. He was staring at one of the boxes like he wanted to open it, but couldn't let anyone think he was actually gonna have fun.
My dad and Keyd were also pretty okay with each other. Keyd still called my dad 'sir', and their interactions were all real quiet and low-key when they happened. Keyd had admitted to me that he'd told my dad that he'd been in the military, which I hadn't thought was a good idea at all, but it'd given them a common thing to talk about, and it had seemed to change something about the way they interacted. One soldier to another, I guess, even though my dad had never really seen combat.
"Oh, Keyd, you don't have to stand back there!" my mom said suddenly. "You're certainly welcome to help out."
"Me?" Keyd said, startling. In all the normal chaos that was seven people trying to hang ornaments on one tree, I hadn't even realized he wasn't doing anything, but I should've figured.
"Hey, yeah, it's fine," I said to him, gesturing at him to come over. He took a step forward, but then hesitated. My mom headed over to him immediately.
"You're almost part of the family now," she said, and handed him the ornament she'd just picked out of one of the boxes. Keyd accepted it carefully with both hands, and partly returned the encouraging little smile my mom gave him. But when she turned around, he almost looked panicked, now cradling a tiny angel made out of dried painted pasta noodles that'd been made by one of us kids as some kind of school craft project.
"Where?" he mouthed at me, when I moved over to him. I was really trying not to laugh, but it was pretty sweet how awkward he was acting about this. Then again, he came from a culture where fucking up traditions was kind of unacceptable.
"It doesn't matter; anywhere," I told him in Isji. "Pick a spot and go for it."
Keyd watched Ashley and Andrea jostle each other over a branch they'd both tried to hang something on at the same time—a fuzzy felt owl and a jointed wooden dog that kinda looked like Chester—with Ashley finally winning and getting to hook the little owl onto the tree. Then he moved forward, and reached up and gently hung the little pasta-angel on a branch way near the top, not getting in anybody's way. My family had some tall people in it, but Keyd definitely won the height contest.
"Well, now we know who can put the star on," Ashley said, watching him. "Without knocking the tree over." She shot a pointed glance at Aaron, who scowled back.
"One time," he said, while Adam and Andrea snickered. I tried not to, because Aaron was already mad at me enough. And he hadn't exactly knocked it over, it'd ended up tilted awkwardly against the wall for a while until we'd managed to push/pull it back up again. The only damage had been a few old ornaments that'd been on the edge of falling apart anyway. That'd been, what, like two years ago? Like almost everything in my life at this point, it felt like much longer ago. This last year really had felt like a decade crammed into twelve months.
The tree decorating went on noisily and chaotically, like usual. My mom took a bunch of pictures, and kept stopping us to pose with each other as the tree got more and more decorated. Keyd mostly picked the shiny gold and silver balls instead of the endless weird handmade and kitschy ornaments we'd hoarded over the years, but he seemed more comfortable with that. He did look at a lot of the ornaments on the tree, which had to seem really strange to him. Little golden trumpets, needlepoint Santas and elves, wooden reindeer with pipe-cleaner antlers, snowflakes made out of cheap clear plastic beads, tiny frames with ancient family pictures in them, feathered plastic birds that clipped on to branches, keychains from our old roadtrips to Utah, weird craft projects done by all of us kids that really had nothing to do with Christmas at all, strands of plastic red and green beads. And Andrea's box of candy never had enough tree to fit all the ornaments, so some always got left in the bottom of the boxes, scattered inside tissue paper and old scraps of wrapping paper.
Aaron, who actually usually liked doing this, tried to slink out early, but my mom caught him and herded him back into it. He probably didn't like that Keyd was invited. Nobody, according to Ashley, could really figure out what Aaron's exact problem was because he wouldn't talk about it. Keyd still kinda suspected him of being gay, but I wasn't so sure. We'd never been super close with each other—Adam was a lot more like me and despite a bigger age gap we got along better—but I'd seen a lot of Aaron's relationships and breakups and they didn't seem like a cover or confusion or denial. Not like mine'd obviously been, looking back at them.
At some point Aaron'd either grow up and talk to me or I'd force him to, but Christmas seemed like a bad time to get in a family fight. And Aaron being moody wasn't real unusual for him anyway. My dad ended up putting the star on the top of the tree, which was probably the better idea. Then my mom wanted us all in front of the tree for a picture, and when I put my arm around Keyd's back as we were shuffling all in together, Keyd put his around my shoulders. I was probably grinning like a stupid moron in the picture because of it, and I didn't really care. It was just...really nice, to have Keyd here with my family, and almost all of them being fine and comfortable with it.
"I'm eating one of these," Adam announced then, taking one of the leftover candy canes out of the box and starting to unwrap the plastic from it.
"No!" Andrea protested. "It's for the tree!"
"Not before dinner," my mom said, still fiddling around with the digital camera.
"It's Christmas," Adam whined at the both of them. "And there's no more room on the tree."
"Well, at least share it," my mom said, like she really didn't want to waste the energy arguing. "Don't eat the whole thing yourself."
"Fiiine," Adam said, and broke off a piece when Ashley stuck her hand out to him. Aaron shuffled out of the room without really looking at anybody, and for a second I thought about going after him, trying to talk this out. But it wasn't gonna work that way; I'd have to wait for him to be ready.
When Adam waved a piece of candy cane in my face I took it, and looked around for Keyd. He'd moved back to the wall, sort of considering the Christmas tree and the whole room from a distance. I moved up to his side, nudged my shoulder against his and snapped my piece of candy in half.
"This is for eating?" Keyd said, puzzled, and took the little chunk I'd offered him. He turned it around in his fingers a few times, then made a face when it started to stick to him. "Ugh. Ugh, why?"
"Just eat it, dude," I said, laughing. "It's candy."
Keyd popped the piece in his mouth, and immediately made a weird face and a grunty noise in the back of his throat. He obviously hadn't expected it. Kinda reminded me of the first time he'd tried soda, which he still hated.
"That's...strong," he said, still twisting his face around like he maybe wanted to spit it out.
"Not your thing?"
"I—" Keyd clacked the piece of candy cane around against his teeth, and lifted a shoulder. "It's not so bad."
I grinned at him, slipped a hand around his neck. "C'mere," I said, and tugged him into a cool minty kiss. Keyd cupped my face and I felt sticky candy traces on his fingers.
"So," I asked him, once we'd spent a minute or two enjoying ourselves. "How'd you like decorating your first Christmas tree?"
"Interesting," he said, and tilted his head as he looked back at it, sitting in the corner of the living room glowing with white lights and draped in weird knick-knacks. "Unusual. But...it's pretty. I'm glad to do some of this, with you, your family."
"Yeah." I found his hand, gave it a squeeze. "And you really are, you know. Part of the family."
His grip on my hand got real tight. "Thank you," he said quietly. "That...means much."
"Well, you know, it wasn't actually up to me," I said. "And I know it wasn't real great the last time you were here, but...that was actually my fault, I handled the whole thing so fucking bad, and I'm just glad that most of my family isn't taking that out on you." Just Aaron, but he was angry at the both of us.
"I could say similar about myself," Keyd said, giving me half a smile. "Except, some of my family did...take it out on you."
"Okay, so we were both terrible at coming out," I said, laughing. "But it's kinda working out, you know, in the long run. People are handling it. My family and your people."
"Mm." Keyd gave my hand another little squeeze. "I think so too."
Sometime later Keyd and I were hanging out in the TV den together, sitting on the couch and not doing much of anything. It was nice. Doing nothing was so underrated, especially since we never had time to. I could tell Keyd was a little restless by the way he couldn't sit completely still, but he was keeping himself busy by kind of giving me a shoulder massage with one hand as I leaned against him. The TV was on but turned down low, just enough to be a nice mild background noise.
"What's the time?" Keyd said suddenly. Which was weird, he never really cared about specific times because the clar were kind of casual with them. I craned my neck over the back of the couch to look at the clock.
"Ah...'bout six-thirty," I said, and Keyd made a little noise and climbed off the couch. "Hey, where're you going?"
Instead of answering, he held out his hand to me. I took it, and he pulled me to my feet. He cupped his hands against the sides of my face, then moved them to my shoulders and squeezed. He looked kind of nervous.
"I'd…like you to get dressed," he said.
"I am dressed." Unless he'd smooth operator'd me out of my clothes when I wasn't looking, but—nope. Still dressed.
"No, something different. Not…" he waved his hand, gesturing at me. "More nice?" He poked his finger into a little hole along the shoulder seam in my sweatshirt. "Not with that."
I laughed. "What's this about?"
"You'll see," he said. "I want to show you why."
"Okay, you got it," I said, knocking the side of my fist lightly into his chest. "More nice."
I hadn't expected to get his full-on smile out of that, but I did. "Good," he said, and I really had to hold back on just forgetting about getting dressed more nice and pulling him into the guest room for a while. But no, we were still trying not to do too much of that in my parents' house and Keyd obviously had some reason for this, and I was interested it what it would be.
I went back into the guest bedroom by myself, checked myself over in the bathroom first. Beard looked fine, hair looked fine, everything fine. But I still ran a comb through my hair and splashed some water on my face, especially since there was still some sticky spots left over from Keyd's candy cane fingers. Then I changed into some slacks and a black sweater over a button-down. Keyd had different ideas about what dressing nice meant, but I figured if it wasn't good enough I could just try again. I left the guest bedroom and headed back out to the living room.
Keyd obviously hadn't had to change, but he'd put on more clothes. He'd already been wearing dark pants and that button-down that was somewhere between grey and silver and uugh fuck, sexy. Now he had a tie and vest on too. He was leaning against the kitchen doorframe, that charcoal blazer over his arm, talking to Ashley. It surprised me a little; not that they were talking, but the way that they were. She was standing close to him, gesturing in firm little movements as she talked at him, a real listen-to-me-and-pay-attention thing. And he was definitely doing both.
I bumped into an end table on purpose, and Keyd and Ashley looked around at the same time.
"So do I get to know what's going on yet?" I said, and Keyd shook his head and reached for me. I took his hand. "All right then. Am I at least more nice enough?"
"Perfect," Keyd said, even though I looked like a total slob compared to how he was dressed. But I think I blushed, because Ashley laughed at me.
"You look real purdy, Al," she said in a kind of drawl.
"Imbraejatul ganne dejj," Keyd said right in my ear, which only got me blushing more and trying to dig my elbow into him because of how sappy it was. He dodged it with a laugh, and then got me up against the wall and half-pinned me there with his shoulder, his hand on my hip and his fingers under the hem of my sweater. I shoved at him with my free arm and called him something stupid in Isji that only made him laugh again.
"You two are dumb," Ashley said, because she was still standing right there. "This is like watching preteen boys flirt."
"You do a lot of that? That's creepy," I said around Keyd's shoulder. He was running his fingers along my stomach and I was trying to catch his hand before he started actually doing something. Because Ashley was right here and...and Keyd was fine with that. With touching me like this in front of her, in front of anyone at all. And it was a lot more than just hand-holding or putting his hand on my back or a quick kiss. I caught his hand anyway, but kept it there under my shirt.
"Hey," I said quietly, and squeezed his fingers. He ducked in and nudged his temple against mine.
"Hey," he said back. His mouth brushed against my cheek.
Behind us I heard Ashley walking away across the room, and was pretty glad she wasn't hanging around to watch. Maybe Keyd was comfortable with this now and that was great—but Ashley wasn't his sister.
"You didn't get us all dressed up just to make out with me, did you?" I asked Keyd, joking even if it almost sounded like something he'd do.
He shook his head, still nudging the side of his face up against mine. He had me pressed pretty good to the wall. "A reason," he said. "Soon."
I really wanted to know what was going on, what Keyd could have possibly planned, because he'd obviously planned something. I wasn't even surprised that he'd managed to do that on another planet he barely knew anything about, because the guy was fucking efficient at everything. But he obviously wasn't gonna tell me even if I kept asking. So I'd wait.
"Hey guys, your limo's here," Ashley said suddenly. She was looking through the curtains on the front windows, our towards the street. I could see our across-the-street-neighbor's really ridiculous inflatable giant snowman glowing behind her head. I thought I saw car headlights washing over our lawn.
"Limo," I said, but Keyd caught my hand and led me towards the front door. I threw one look back at Ashley, who just looked real smug and pleased with herself, and suddenly I was pretty sure why she'd been grilling me about me having the ring earlier.
Outside on the front steps, Christmas lights were bright and gaudy and blinking all over the neighborhood. The neighbor's yard full of inflated snowmen and Santas and giant plastic candy canes (which Keyd had been really startled by yesterday) flashed with colored lights. Our house just had a white string of lights that wound around the column of the porch and colored ones strung along all the roof edges, and a wreath on the door.
And right now, there was a sleek town car idling at the end of the driveway, headlights gleaming off the back end of Aaron's big truck. It looked just like one of those fancy cars you hired to take you and bunch of friends and your dates to prom. Except...nicer. This was for me—for us? Who was paying for this stuff?
"What's—" I started, but I already had a pretty good idea of what.
And Keyd was looking shy and uncertain, his lower lip pulled partway into his mouth. He pulled his fingers through his hair, then touched the back of my hand.
"A…date," he said, and fuck, yeah, I'd been right. "Your mother and sister—they helped me. I wasn't sure what to do, or how, but…."
My mom and Ashley had helped Keyd figure out how to take me on a date. Our first real date. And he'd even involved a car, which he hated. I barely even knew how to feel about that. Touched and embarrassed, mostly, and…overwhelmed. I actually couldn't talk for a couple of seconds.
I finally managed to say, "wow", and Keyd looked even more nervous.
"It's okay?" he said, and caught my wrist. "Because I wanted to do this for you, with you, and I know you said you'd for me, but—"
"Keyd, shut up," I said, looking away from him because if I didn't I was gonna lose it. My eyes were getting real embarrassingly hot and watery. "Shut up because if you talk anymore I'm gonna fucking, like—just don't talk for a second. You'll make it worse."
"Worse?" Keyd said, and then he seemed to realize how worked up I was getting. "Oh," he said, and sounded relieved. A smile melted onto his face as he breathed out a breath he'd obviously been holding.
"I'm good, I'm not upset, I'm good," I said just as he stepped closer, catching my belt loops and tugging me forward.
It wasn't really a kiss as much as it was just him resting his mouth on mine and breathing on me. Neither of us could stop smiling long enough to turn it into anything more. A couple of seconds into it, Keyd started laughing and that made him really useless at it. And then we were just grinning together with our noses mashed up and our hands on each other and everything was fucking perfect.
"Okay," I said, eventually, finally, when I remembered we had a limo waiting on us. I seriously, honestly, couldn't wait to see what the hell he'd planned, or what my mom and sister had helped him plan. It was obviously gonna be stupidly romantic and thoughtful, way better than I ever could've done. "Okay. You wanna take me on a date here or what?"
"Yes," Keyd said, and ran one hand down the side of my face before giving me an actual kiss, soft and light. "Yes."
I stepped back and hopped down off the step, then glanced back at him when I realized he wasn't following along. He was still standing on the porch, his hands in his pockets, watching me with his head tilted to the side. Smiling just a little. White Christmas lights blinked around him and shone off his hair and shirt. I put my own hand in my pocket and closed my fingers around the ring in there, the cool metal warming up against my fingers. Yeah. Everything about this was right.
"So, come on then," I said, reaching for him. "Come with me."
Keyd gave me that amazing smile of his, and took my hand.
Yes, this is actually the end! Of the whole series! It only took me eight years (again!) Well, of the drafts. I'm still doing the rewrites, and there are about 10 more stories planned in this universe at the very least. I know that this also basically feels like a beginning, because the entire clar world has changed drastically, but that's not what Alan and Keyd's story is intended to include. They made the change, and now other stories will pick up the repercussions and outcomes and other events that come about because of this.
SOMETHING TO TAKE NOTE OF: The new rewrites are starting to become Patreon only. This is because I want to publish this series in some way and having the full versions publicly up on the internet for free is a little damaging towards doing that. Tenebrism and the two chapters of Chiaroscuro are up, and those will stay up, but not too far from now Nocturne will be coming completely down, as will Skiagraphia. I want to give people a chance to read all of Skiagraphia since it's finally done, so both stories will be up for a little while, but they will eventually be taken down. All of the rewrites will be going up on Patreon though, and you can find links to that on my profile page.
And a serious thanks to anyone who stuck with this very long, sporadically-updating, fluctuating-in-quality bunch of drafts! Anyone who favorited or followed or especially commented, thank you! It really means a lot (in fact, it means the most to me) that people are enjoying what I write, since that's really all I want to happen. To tell stories people like. And there will be a lot more stories to come in this world, you'll see all of these character again in some way or another. :)