Free Story — Custody

[This was written for one of Cryselle’s Thousand Word Thursday pictures, despite being a bit over a thousand words. 🙂 Click HERE for the original posting, which includes the photo which inspired the story.]

Branden had just sat down on a stump in his yard to catch his breath after a good hour of log splitting when he heard a whirr of wings. It might have been a hummingbird, or a really huge bee, but he had a feeling it wasn’t. Sure enough, a moment later a tiny green dragon lighted on his knee.

“Flicker! Not again!” He sighed and stroked the little dragon’s snout with one fingertip. Flicker took to the air again and zipped around his head three times, then took off into a nearby elm tree to chase a crow through the nearly-bare branches. The larger bird cawed his anger for a few minutes, but ended up flapping away. Flicker chased him out of the cleared yard and into the wood, beyond Branden’s sight, then zipped back again alone, fluting his pleasure over dominating Branden’s small stretch of land.

Branden watched him swoop here and there about the yard, investigating the low stone house and the autumn-churned vegetable garden, and re-establishing his benevolent domination over the chickens, which ignored him as was their habit.

Then Flicker zipped back to to Branden’s knee and made a tweetling noise that sounded like a question. Branden shook his head and felt his pleasure in watching the dragonling fade. “I really shouldn’t, baby. If I keep feeding you, you’ll keep coming, and that’s not… not good.”

The next tootle sounded more like a demand, and the little dragon punctuated it with an angry orange flame the length of Branden’s thumbnail.

“Ho, all right!” Branden had to laugh at the offended indignation Flicker radiated. He was too small to really hurt anything larger than a hound — or an over-proud crow — but he always seemed to get his own way just the same.

And of course, Branden just happened to have a handful of smalt, the tiny dried fish Flicker loved, tucked into his belt. It was a habit left over from when he and the little dragon had dwelled together, and he hadn’t broken the habit because… well, because Flicker kept coming back to him.

He pulled out the small packet of oilcloth and unrolled it, then picked up one of the little fish and tossed it into the air. Flicker zipped after it, caught it, and landed on top of Branden’s head to crunch it down.

“Your hair is going to smell like fish for a week.”

The scolding voice was both familiar and expected. It also made Branden’s head duck and his heart clench, although he was able to keep himself from visibly wincing, which was an improvement. Little by little, right? Maybe some day he wouldn’t react at all when he heard Tol’s voice.

“I know,” he said, “but he fusses if I try to shoo him off, and it makes even more of a mess.” Tol knew that too; it was just something to say that gave Branden something to say back.

He heard Tol huff out a sigh, then his footsteps approaching through the dry grass. “You know if you keep feeding him, he’s going to keep coming back.”

“Yes, I do know,” Branden answered, “but he gets so upset if I say no, I can’t hold out.”

“You should just keep him.”

“We tried that, remember? He shows up at your place anyway, just like he shows up at mine now.”

“Maybe if you just never came for him…?”

“We tried that too.” Branden was doing his best to keep the impatience out of his voice, but Tol was just going over everything they’d thought of, everything they’d tried, everything that hadn’t worked. It was always the same — he was so logical, so methodical, and it was all so useless. “You’re the one who sent me a note saying to come get him that last time, that he was getting hysterical. And then when I did finally show up, he buzzed me like an angry bluejay.”

“I know!” Tol lowered his voice and repeated, “I know. I’m sorry. I just don’t know what to do.” He came closer and settled down on the sand-colored grass, crossing his feet and then lowering himself into a sit, as neat and graceful as anyone Branden had ever seen. Branden loved to watch him move, just walking down a path, or carrying in firewood, or shaping clay with his slender hands glistening.

Branden tossed another smalt for Flicker, who zipped up to snatch it out of the air, then zipped back to the top of Branden’s head. Branden heard him crunching, and could feel the grip of claws in his hair and the patter of tiny fish bits.

“I always loved how tolerant you are,” said Tol. There was a note of longing in his voice. “I’ve never been able to just ignore things like that. Like fish scales in my hair — it’s disgusting and I don’t know how you stand it. But it makes Flicker happy so you just… I don’t know, don’t care or ignore it or whatever it is you do that lets you stand to have a dragon eating fish on your head without your skin crawling.”

“He likes it, and it doesn’t bother me. I can comb out the bits after, and the oil makes my hair shiny.” Branden threw Tol a grin, but he had to put some effort into it.

Branden had always been the tolerant one in their relationship. He never had to make much of an effort; when someone important to him — or some thing, like Flicker — was happy, that made Branden happy too, and he’d never been one to fuss over little things. That was Tol’s job, fussing and straightening and insisting that everything be just so. It came in handy, truly, because some things really were best done just so, and for a while, the two of them had complemented one another to a fair note, mostly by Branden giving in and doing things the way Tol wanted them.

But there were so many little fusses and fribbles that didn’t make any sense to Branden, more than he could remember without making a production out of it. Who cared whether the new milk was in a bowl or a pitcher, so long as it was in the cold cellar? Why did it matter that his dirty shirts were on the floor in the corner when they wanted washing anyway? They weren’t in the way, so why fuss?

“Maybe… maybe one of us could move,” Tol suggested, his voice slow and hesitant. “Maybe if Flicker didn’t know where to find whoever he wasn’t living with, if there was more than half a league between us, he’d learn to be content?”

“Were you thinking of moving, then?” Branden asked. He had to admit it might work, but he wasn’t keen on uprooting himself and moving out of the range of a determined dragonling.

“I… perhaps.” Tol watched Flicker chase away a bumblebee, then come zipping back for another fish. “Lady Cadridge is still nagging me to accept that year’s patronage she’s been offering for an oak’s age. If I accepted, she’d be pleased if I moved nearer to her. I could probably get her to include a cottage right on the estate if I asked sweetly.”

A tiny fin fluttered down past Branden’s nose. He blew it off his upper lip, unable to look at Tol.

“It’s a fine opportunity,” he allowed, still staring off into the trees. “I’ve always granted that. Her Ladyship is a bit difficult at times, but your work would come to the attention of other nobles and wealthy folk. You’d be set up fine even if you left her after your year.”

“I know. I mean, yes, it would be very good for my reputation. It would open many doors.”

Tol didn’t sound terribly enthusiastic for someone who was talking about a bright future with many expensive commissions.

“If that’s what you want to do, then you should do it,” said Branden. “It’s your life. I’d be happy to have Flicker if you can’t keep him.”

Tol groaned and fell backwards, flat into the grass. “I don’t know! Or rather, I do know — I don’t want to be beholden to Lady Cadridge for even a month, much less a whole year. But we can’t keep… doing this. We need to stay away from one another and Flicker won’t let us and it’s driving me to melancholy. I can’t do this anymore!” He crossed his arms over his eyes, as though he were blocking out the world.

Even lying on the dried, dusty grass, Tol was beautiful. Branden knew Lady Cadridge wanted to have him under her patronage not only for the fine pottery he made, but also as a jewel in her court. Having Tol move onto her estate would please her very much, Branden knew. And if Tol didn’t agree to move, she’d be summoning him as often as she could, sending her carriage for him, providing fine clothes and shoes and whatever all else he might need to grace her salons, defeating every protest.

She’d be a generous patron, Branden knew that. And he still resented her for it, because all she saw was Tol’s flawless skin and graceful movements, his fine cheekbones and broad shoulders, his huge brown eyes and the perfect tiny corkscrew curls of his hair. It was all surface, all about being able to look at a beautiful thing and say “Mine,” and have her noble friends envy her the possession.

Branden had loved Tol since they were both gawky teenagers, back when Tol was skinny and awkward and tripping over his own suddenly-grown feet. Branden loved how Tol could find beauty in so many things, and create it with his hands. He loved Tol’s precision, his determination that everything be exactly perfect, and his ability to make it so if determination could achieve it.

But that same yearning for everything to be just right had pried them apart. Branden couldn’t be like that, couldn’t live like that, couldn’t change himself into that — not even for Tol.

“I don’t know what to do. I don’t want you to go, but I don’t know how to make you want to stay.” Why not say it? Branden thought. He’s going to leave, going to move out into the world, to a more beautiful place where everyone is raised to do things just so. Tol’s a natural; he should have been born there. He’s just going where he belongs.

Tol made a distinctly un-beautiful noise and rolled over, his face still buried in his crossed arms. He had dust and grass stems and a couple of crawly bugs stuck to the back of his jerkin and britches; it was the messiest Branden had ever seen him since… well, ever.

Flicker zipped down and picked off first one bug, then the other, gulping them down and then tootling triumph as though he’d just killed a pair of wyverns by himself.

“I don’t want to know what he’s doing, do I?” asked Tol’s muffled voice.

“No, you don’t. They’re gone now, though.”

Branden watched a full-body shudder pass through Tol from his head to his ankles.

Tol rolled over and sat up, all in one smooth move. He looked up at Branden and said, “So you don’t want me to go?”


“But what difference would it make? Aside from perhaps solving our problem with Flicker? We’re not together anymore, so why does it matter where I live?”

“We do see each other, though. I can’t… we couldn’t seem to, to live together. But I still like seeing you.” Branden looked away and shrugged. “I like knowing you’re about, and knowing that I’ll pass you on the road, or see you in the village. And I like that Flicker brings us together every few days.”

“That’s why you keep feeding him.”

“No, I feed him because he gets upset if I don’t, and I can’t stand to see him upset.”

“You can’t stand to see anyone upset. You’re the most accommodating person I’ve ever met.”

“I can’t stand to see people I care about upset. It’s not just everyone.”

“Branden….” The helpless tone made Branden look at him again.

“Branden, we can’t do this. It doesn’t work. We tried, remember? Even more than we’ve tried with Flicker, and it doesn’t work.”

“But we haven’t tried not living together,” said Branden. Then he stopped and thought about what had just come out of his mouth.

“We’ve been ‘not’ living together for the last four months,” protested Tol.

“No, I mean, we haven’t tried being together, but living apart.” It sounded crazed, but not. Branden started to feel hopeful for the first time in, well, nearly a year, which was about the length of time he’d started tip-toeing around Tol at home.

“What, pretending we’re courting again? We did that already and we couldn’t wait to be together always.”

“But we didn’t know. I mean, we didn’t know it wouldn’t work.” Branden slid off the stump and onto his knees in front of Tol. He reached out and laid a hand lightly on Tol’s brown wrist. “I love you. I still do. I can’t not — I’ve tried that too and it didn’t work either. I can’t seem to make you happy if we’re living together, so what if we just didn’t live together? You could stay in your place and have it exactly as you like it, and I could stay in mine and be my own self in it, and we could get together whenever we liked.

“We could even trade sleeping back and forth, so long as we didn’t try to, to… I don’t know, make each other’s homes our own. You never, well hardly ever tried to fuss around when you visited me before, remember? And I always — all right, mostly remembered to leave your things exactly how you left them, because they were yours, not ours. It’s different in someone else’s home. So if we each have our own home, it’d feel different when we vist, and we wouldn’t fuss each other so much.” He paused, then asked, “Could we try? Please?”

Tol stared at him for a handful of heartbeats, then beamed one of his sunrise smiles. “You’re brilliant. Have I ever told you I love how you always see the simple answer?”

“You might have mentioned that a time or two,” said Branden, smiling back. “It took me a while to see this one, though.”

“I’ll wager Flicker saw it. He’s been waiting for his brainless people to catch on.” Tol held out a hand and Flicker settled onto it. He got finger-rubs from both his people, and gave a happy tweetle.

“So we’ll try?”

“We’ll try. I’m here, and it’s nearly supper time, so I might as well stay the night, yes?”

“Yes. I even have some clean linen I can lend you in the morning.”

“I’d appreciate that,” murmured Tol. He got up onto his own knees and leaned into Branden. “You always took care of me beautifully, when you weren’t driving me crazy.”

“You were always easy to take care of, except when you were going crazy.”

“But we’re going to fix that, yes?”

“Yes,” said Branden, and he leaned forward for a kiss.

This was how things were supposed to be, neat and precise, everything in its place, which meant Tol in his arms, and in his bed. Or himself in Tol’s bed, either one.


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