"Master Philip? My goodness, child, are you still here?"

Mack looked up from the book he was reading to stare at the red-faced woman who had paused in the doorway of the library, huffing and puffing, her hands full with a tray of discarded morning tea things.

She gave him an exasperated look.

"You're going to be late for the wedding! The chi-hata will be very disappointed if his own first attendant is late for the ceremony!"

Mack started and glanced up at the clock, a stately old thing that was kind enough to loudly chime away the hours so that he could keep track of how long he'd been here. Sometimes, when Rohan and Emerson were both out of town, he even stayed the night. If the next day were a market day, he would stay until the afternoon, and Erich would swing by and pick him up on the way back home. He always thought the housekeeper looked sad to see him go; the cook made for gruff company, she was always complaining, and the maids returned to their own homes every evening.

She looked more anxious than sad now, as she rushed over to him, setting her tray down before taking the book from his limp hands and replacing it on the shelf.

"Now," she said, as she hastily scooped up a few other books he'd left lying around, "Do I have to pick you up as well, or will you stop staring at me like a wide-eyed little lamb and be on your way?"

He hastily scrambled to his feet.

"How you make that husband of yours worry!" she remarked, hands on her hips, as he hurried about the room, grabbing up his hat and coat and gloves. It was nearly mid-winter now, and Erich would fuss at him if he arrived home without his hat and coat and gloves on, seeing as how he had only just managed to fully recover from his fall fever barely a week ago.

He paused at the great pair of doors, the O'Corrain crest emblazoned above them, a stately-looking affair, for all it was a common House. He turned and looked back at the housekeeper, who was emerging from the library, her arms full of tea things again.

"Won't you be late, too, Agnes?" he asked.

She made a face, blowing a bit of air through her red cheeks. "Oh, don't be silly. Well-bred young men don't expect to see their housekeepers at their weddings!" She smiled. "Now don't give me that sad face, child. I'll be there by and by, soon as I've got this place cleaned up a bit."

He nodded and headed outside, a gust of chill winter air blowing his hair back from his face—he always wore it down when he was in town. It took him about an hour to make his way through town on foot; a year ago, such a trip would have exhausted him, but now he was a farmer, his body hardened by his daily tasks—even if such tasks mostly included plucking bean sprouts and feeding chickens while Erich and the hired hands plowed and cared for the fields.

Once in the country, it was only a half an hour at most; they had one of the closest holdings to town, and he knew all the shortcuts by now, cutting across Sara Mullenbrook's corn fields and Aria and Janis Carrick's cow pasture.

He made his way quickly down the dirt and shell path to their small cottage—a home he'd thought small at first, but now understood to be fairly monstrous when compared to most surrounding houses.

"I'm home," he said, as soon as he lifted the latch on the heavy wooden door.

They were familiar words, and they were the first words he promised himself he would learn to say regularly.

He turned to shut the door and hang up his winter things. When he turned around, he had a face full of Emerson.

"WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN?" his friend screamed.

Mack smiled and took a step back; when Emerson followed, he reached out and put his hands on the other young man's shoulders. After a moment, Emerson blinked at him, his expression clearing slightly, though he was still panting.

"I'm freaking out, Mack," he finally admitted.

Mack patted one shoulder.

"But you're already married," he pointed out.

Emerson huffed, his hands curling into fists. "I KNOW that! So what the hell is wrong with me? Why am I so nervous?"

Mack shrugged, offering him another little smile before slipping around him. He had to change into his nice things.

Emerson followed him into the bedroom.

"Marta and Arthur were here," his friend said. "But they left right before you arrived. Said they had to go to the barn and see to the guests." He snorted. "They're so transparent. They just couldn't stand to be around me right now so they ditched me."

Both their friends had left the Academy not long after Emerson's marriage. Rohan's influence earned Marta a position at his old engineering school, while Arthur had returned back home to live with his parents, although he had twice come up to visit since then. Marta visited from time to time, when she wasn't busy with school. The frequency of her visits always increased when her best friend was out of town, of course—Emerson and Rohan were always busy with meeting other nobles and merchants, doing what they could to forward Rohan's plans for the city and beyond. Construction for Rohan's dam was well underway, and many merchants had invested in the forthcoming irrigation system.

Mack tugged off his shirt and kicked off his pants, tossing them into the wide whicker basket next to the closet. It had been a belated wedding gift from Muller's sister. I bet you're tired of looking at his dirty underwear on the floor right about now, she'd said, a knowing smirk on her face. She was wrong; even the sight of his new husband's dirty underwear still left him dazed over the incredible turn his life had taken. But he'd liked the way Erich had blushed when she said it.

"What if I forget my vows?" Emerson moaned. He fell back on the bed, crossing his arms and resting them over his distraught face.

Mack busied himself lacing up his new pair of pants before reaching for the rest of the outfit. He paused to run his hand over the fine weaving of the shirt his friend's husband had had delivered to their house a few weeks ago. Rohan understood him and how he felt about who and what he was now ... it was sewn in the style of a farmer's simple tunic, open at the neck, the long sleeves fitted to his arms. But it resembled a [i]gahi[/i] in that it trailed all the way down to his knees and was split at the sides all the way up to the hips. He knew it had to have been tailor made.

Erich had received a shirt and pants, too, though his were fine but simple traditional farmer's garb. His husband had filled out since leaving the Academy; none of the things he'd taken with him fit anymore—he'd definitely taken to the farming life with gusto, and his body showed it. Of course, he'd immediately said they should refuse the gifts, but Mack must have given him a look so filled with shock and devastation that he'd relented.

It was so rare for him to have fine things these days.

He held the material up to his cheek, just for a moment, closing his eyes at the soft feel of it against his skin. When he reopened them, Emerson was half-sitting up again, propped back on his elbows, watching him.

"We had a bet," he said. "Rohan thought Muller would return them. But I said he wouldn't, for your sake."

Mack smiled at him, his eyes lowering.

Emerson got back to his feet then and walked over to him. Without saying anything further, his friend put his arms around him and pulled him into a hug.

"I'm really happy for you, Mack," he said after a moment.

Mack smiled.

"I'm happy for you, too, Remy."

He smiled to think of how things had stood only a year ago. Would either of them have imagined that they would be married now, and happily so, too? He would have thought himself too young, and nowhere near ready to be with someone the way he was with Erich now. Marta used to scold him for reading Arthur's romance novels—Life never works out like that, she'd say. But even she would now have to admit to having been wrong. Because sometimes life did work out the way you wanted it to. Not necessarily the way you planned it—but happiness, he was already beginning to learn, was rarely where you most expected it, and often arrived when least anticipated.

He closed his eyes then, and let his friend hold him for just a little bit longer.

The barn was beautiful. It was hard to believe that only this morning it had smelled of hay and grease and cattle feed. Now, there were sweet-smelling lanterns hanging from every nook and cranny, and strings of flowers draped over the stall doors and around the makeshift altar. The small, enclosed setting made the place seem bustling with people, despite the fact that there couldn't have been more than thirty or forty guests.

It was typical to hold winter weddings and other celebratory events in barns; nevertheless, he and Erich had been surprised when Rohan and Emerson had approached them about holding the wedding—well, vow renewal—here. The O'Corrain house—Rohan's aunt and uncle lived, of course, in the mayor's house—was surely ten times as large, and in a very fashionable part of town at that. But no, they wanted it here. What could he and Erich do but happily accept?

Mack tried not to feel nervous as he stood up beside his friend, Emerson delivering a few halting lines to his patient looking husband. Behind Rohan stood another young man, someone he had evidently been rather close to from school. Besides the four of them, and the priest (a local man), they were the only ones up here, while the rest of the smiling crowd looked on. A country wedding only called for one attendant each.

He sought out his friends in the audience—not his new friends, his new neighbors, but his own former schoolmates. There was Arthur, his long dark hair partially bound behind his head, a pair of lilies pushed through it. He was whispering to a plain-faced girl who kept trying to keep a straight face. She kept her hands crossed tightly under her breasts, but this didn't keep Arthur from touching her arm or her shoulder or her elbow. Cora, he thought her name was.

Not far from them sat Marta and a few of her new schoolmates. There was Devon, whom she and Emerson said had once had a crush on Rohan. On her other side sat a pixie-haired girl, Cloe, and her close friend Enid. Both girls kept clasping one another's hand and giving each other mawkish looks which he knew to be surprisingly genuine—they'd loaned him a novel once, and even he'd had found it a little on the sentimental side.

"Yes, I do," said Rohan.

Mack snapped his attention back towards the altar.

"And do you, Emerson Ratliff," said the priest, "continue to accept this man as your husband, in this life and in the next life?

Emerson had that old pinkish tint to his face, and his hands at his sides were fidgeting. Rohan smiled and reached for them, taking them in his own and holding them between them.

"I—I mean, yes, I do," said his friend. Then he smiled and let out a deep breath.

The priest smiled. "Then may the gods smile upon your union, in this life and the next."

Everyone cheered. There had been cheers at his own wedding, and he remembered Erich laughing at him when he must have started. He had never heard of people cheering at a wedding, not at the types of wedding he'd had to attend. But they did then, and they were now. Some even threw flowers or tossed little pouches of coin at their feet, and there were calls of "Kiss him already!"—impossible to know to whom the raucous command was directed towards, but it mattered little, as Rohan had already pulled his now grinning husband into his arms and kissed him until Emerson began to tap on his shoulder for air.

The crowd laughed, as did the couple. Even the priest was smiling. Emerson turned to hug him, Rohan turning to hug his friend, then the pair joined hands and moved towards the crowd to mingle. It was as simple as that. There would be dancing soon, after the food and the wine, just as there had been at his own wedding. It made him think of his own husband, and he wondered now where Erich could be.

"Fond memories?" said a voice in his ear. He turned to look over his shoulder and blinked up at a smiling Erich.

He smiled back, his eyes lowering a little.

Erich put his arms around him and pulled him gently close, his back now pressed against his husband's chest.

Mack closed his eyes, just for a moment, shutting out the revelry around them. He could smell the soap Erich had used and the sharp scent of his aftershave.

"Are you happy?" Erich whispered.

I don't remember what it's like not to be happy, he thought. They stayed like that for a moment longer, Erich's cheek pressed lightly against his own. After awhile, someone called out to them, and they went to join the other guests, the warmth of the crowd enveloping them. It was, like every day was, the first day of the rest of their life together, and tomorrow would be no different—not for them, not for any of them.

He was finally happy. Tomorrow might change that—but for now, he was happy.

And I've come home
Even though I swear I've never been so alone
I've come home

-Vienna Teng, "Homecoming"