"Family" is a secret he doesn't share with anyone.
"Father" is a brittle word he clutches to his chest like a knife, all sharp lines and cold metal. It cuts at him, but he's afraid to let it go.
"Home" is nowhere, a place that doesn't exist, or shouldn't exist, not outside of nightmares he'd rather forget.
He panics whenever anyone asks, and won't give a straight answer.
Not that it stops them from asking.
He left at nineteen. He told anyone who asked, afterward, that his family had died. He stuck to the same method: stay vague, don't give details, don't confirm or deny anything, lean into the sadness you're supposed to feel, make it too uncomfortable for them to keep prying.
It works, for a long time. People assume that he's from somewhere terrible -- one of the regions to the south, that was hit hard with plague about six years ago, or else that something terrible happened to his family, a house fire or an accident of some kind or another. Magic accidents weren't uncommon, after all. It felt like every month you read about some poor family that had been demolished when a spell went awry.
All he has to do is say, I'd rather not talk about it, and immediately, everyone stops. They exchange knowing looks and don't pry.
There are rumors, he knows. What must have happened. He's heard them all. He leans into the truth of the thing: I'd rather not discuss the matter, and that's enough to protect him.
Tesh is the only one he doesn't have to protect himself from.
He'd been wandering for months when he found his way into the city. The way had been long and wearying, though not fraught with peril (as his mother had always implied, when she suspected him of wanting to leave). He'd walked most of it, managed to hitch rides here and there with others for parts of it, though not for many. They'd asked too many questions -- where are you going and what are you planning to do and is your family there, questions that he shrank from, not ready to answer.
He met Tesh in a traveler's rest, one of the cheap ones, where you could put in a shift in the kitchen or stables in exchange for a safe place to sleep and some supper.
Tesh owned the place. He'd inherited it, he said, from his grandfather, who had died two years before. He wasn't much past twenty, himself, but he ran it fairly and kept everything together. He didn't ask uncomfortable questions -- no where are you from or what brings you to the city. He greeted everyone the same way: "Hello. Looking to stay the night? It's two silver for a bed and supper, or you can help out around the rest. We're always in need of an extra pair of hands."
No matter how well-dressed travelers were, no matter how he could hear their purses clinking, he said the same to everyone: two silver, or you can help out.
Tesh made him the same offer, when he arrived.
"I don't have enough," he admitted. He'd gotten the name of the place from someone he'd met on the road -- a girl, Arianna, who had eyed him up and down when he didn't give his life story, and told him to seek out Tesh, if you need somewhere nice to stay, where they won't ask you for money.
"That's fine," Tesh said. "Can you cook at all, or wash dishes?"
Women's work, his father's voice rumbled in his head. Beneath you. No son of mine...
He straightened. "I can," he'd said, and that was that.
After a few days, Tesh -- perhaps seeing that there was something else, beneath the surface, asked him if he wouldn't be willing to stay on. "Your cooking is better than mine. I can't pay you much, not what you're worth, but I can give you a private room and two days off every tenday. Fair?"
He'd agreed, and that was how he'd come to stay.
Everyone comes to the city for different reasons. He's met a lot of travelers, since starting at the tavern, and heard all of their stories: I'm just passing through on my way home to the coast or I've come to visit my brother at the magician's college or my grandparents live in the neighboring city and we're all getting together to celebrate the solstice.
All of them are rooted in family. Some ask if he misses his family, if he's traveling to meet them, and he clams up every time they do.
Tesh helps him navigate these silences: "Jack, I nearly forgot -- there's a bottle of wine in the kitchen, would you mind bringing it out?", sending him away -- not always for wine, sometimes for tea or milk or coffee, something for their "esteemed guests" to drink, or something else for the table, silverware or extra plates or napkins. Tesh always blamed himself -- he was the one that had forgotten, captivated as he was by their fascinating stories, tales of where they'd come from and where they were going. Whenever he came back, Tesh would have successfully changed the subject, and the questions about his family would be forgotten.
Tesh never pries, and this is why he comes to love him.
He doesn't recognize it as love, at first, so different from what his parents had shown him, we love you and we do this for your own good, and he nearly runs from it, but Tesh helps with this, too. He sees what fears lie behind his eyes, and he surprises him, six months after his arrival, with a gift: a small calico kitten.
"To help with the mouse problem in your kitchen," Tesh says, though there are no mice -- both of them keep the kitchen too clean for that. "You'll need to feed her and take care of her, though."
He asks the cat for her name, and when she stares up at him seriously, her eyes too big in her face, and does not say anything, he decides that he's been given permission to name her, and calls her Ella.
He almost asks Tesh if this is all right, if he had a name in mind for her instead, but something stops him.
"She's yours now," Tesh said, when he handed him the basket.
He feeds her well -- maybe too well, better than he feeds himself -- and she learns quickly that he's a soft touch, that a meow or a tap of her paws will get him to give her whatever it is that she wants, whether that's food or attention or a toy to play with. He steals the strings from packages and dangles them for her, and she attacks them, chases the small pearl onions he drops as they roll merrily under the stove, or else bats at the catnip mice that Tesh purchases for her -- "to hone her hunting instincts," Tesh says, with a smile, though he knows better, knows that Tesh loves her almost as much as he does.
He lived in fear of hurting Ella, the first few weeks they spent together. When she wound between his legs, finally settling at one of his feet, only to put her tail right where he had to step, he'd cried at her yowl of pain.
"It happens," Tesh said, sympathetic. "It was an accident -- you love her and you'd never hurt her, and she knows that."
She forgave him almost instantly, reappearing a moment later to rub her head against his hand as he sat, trying to catch his breath, and purring at him.
"See?" Tesh said. "You love her. You'd never hurt her -- because you love her, and you don't hurt the ones you love."
Love, that word again. He feels nothing but warmth and light and pride toward Ella, so unlike what his father had shown him.
No one will ever love you like family. Blood is a bond that cannot be broken. You will never know this peace with anyone else. It's what his father had said, the last time they'd talked about love. He'd punctuated every sentence with a blow from the bundle of switches, a familiar pain. What you feel for Aiden is not love, but something dark and twisted. Why do you want to hurt your mother so?
Now Tesh's voice echoes in his head, overriding his father's: You don't hurt the ones you love.
"I love you," he tells the kitten, as she grows into a cat.
She purrs at him, every time, as if to say, I love you too.
A pair of magicians, brothers, come to stay at the rest, and he's horrified to realize that he recognizes them. They were friends of his father's -- they'd trained at the same school, once upon a time -- regular guests of his mother's Midsummer party.
One of them recognizes him. "Xander!" he calls. "Is this where you are now?"
He hunches over the small table where he is rolling silverware for the night's meal, pretends not to hear.
"Xander!" the man repeats.
Tesh saves him.
"I'm afraid you must be mistaken," he says, his voice smooth and friendly as always. "That's my cook, Jack. He grew up in the city and he and I have known each other since we were boys together at the primary school."
"Oh!" says the magician. He squints at him from across the room -- he can feel his eyes on him, even as he continues rolling the silver. "My apologies, friend! You look remarkably like someone I used to know."
They fall into a discussion of something else, and he braces himself, half-expecting that Tesh will ask him an uncomfortable question later. He'd been there a year, by then, and Tesh had never asked anything more of him than kitchen questions or queries regarding his days off.
This will be it, he thought.
But when Tesh came to see him in the kitchen, later that night, he said nothing more than the usual: "Good night, Jack. Let me know if you need anything -- I'll be placing our grocery order tomorrow morning."
He surprised himself: "Thank you, Tesh. For -- in the dining room -- I did know them, but I'd rather no one from home knows where I am."
Tesh nodded once, sharp. "I know," he said simply. "You're welcome."
Guests come and go. Ella grows from a kitten to a cat, then surprises both of them when she comes home with kittens of her own. He and Tesh raise them -- Tesh jokingly calls them his children -- and they never discuss his past, where he must have come from.
At Solstice one year, Tesh drinks too much of the leftover barleywine they'd offered to guests, and comes to lean against the wall of the kitchen while he does dishes, cleaning up their informal party. There were more guests than usual this year, and so a bigger mess remains to be cleaned up, and it's well past midnight. Tesh is unsteady on his feet, leaning against the wall and recounting stories from Solstices past -- all amusing ones, about guests and their habits. He's heard them all before, but Tesh is a good storyteller, and it's nice to have company while he cleans up. Ella sleeps in her basket next to the dying fire in the hearth, and the kitchen, now nearly clean, smells pleasantly of lemons and cinnamon.
He finishes the last dish, wipes it dry with a towel, and places it back in the cupboard where it belongs before pulling the stopper in the sink.
"So," Tesh says, his voice low. "I feel like there's something you're not telling me."
He freezes. Here it is, he thinks. Four years in and here we are.
"What might that be?" he asks, trying to keep his tone light, friendly. "What haven't I told you?"
Tesh leans in. "That you love me, too," he says. He breaks into a grin. "I love you. I love you!"
He blinks. "I -- what?"
"You don't have to tell me," says Tesh easily. "If you don't love me, if I've read the signs wrong -- that's fine. You can stay here, I'll go away for a few days, and when I come back, everything will be fine. But I think you do."
He's not sure what to say, so he reaches out and takes Tesh's hand in his.
"I knew it," says Tesh. His smile, if anything, widens. "I love you, Jack."
"I love you too," he manages, soft -- but he's been telling a cat he loves her for years; he can say it back to the man he loves, can't he? You don't hurt the ones you love. Tesh loves him. Tesh has helped him, in ways big and small. Tesh will not hurt him -- he can feel it, deep down in his bones. Tesh loves me.
When Tesh kisses him, just a light peck, barely more than a brush on the lips, it's his turn to grin.
They move at his pace. Their relationship builds and slowly unfurls. Tesh doesn't pry, doesn't push him to do things he doesn't want to do, but lets him move as fast or slow as he wants to, all without saying anything negative.
If he tries to apologize, for not wanting to move as 'fast' as he thinks he should, Tesh rebuffs him. "I'm glad we're together," he might say, and reach out to take his hand. "You are worth waiting for."
He waits for something bad to happen -- for Tesh to grow impatient and replace him with someone else; for him to lose his temper and snap at him -- but it never happens, and eventually the fear does not fade, but relaxes: it is unlikely that anything bad will happen, but I'm still ready if it does. It's the closest he can come to to letting go.
Tesh never asks about the scars on his back, the way he flinches if approached too quickly from behind. He learns to navigate around his fears -- just as he'd done in the kitchen, he incorporates this into their private life, as well. Tesh never touches him where he does not want to be touched, learning quickly what will make him freeze, what is welcome and what is not.
"I'm here for you," Tesh says. "I love you."
Slowly, he begins to believe him.
Slowly, he begins to thaw.
Two years after the Solstice confession, Tesh says he wants to marry him. "If you're amenable, I mean," he adds, cheerful. Tesh is expecting a yes, of course and he can tell, but he still hesitates. He's never asked any awkward questions, never pried into where he came from or where home is. Tesh has been nothing if not patient and respectful, and he wants to reward this -- to tell his story -- but it still sticks in his throat, every time he wants to tell it.
He does want to tell it, too. He wants Tesh to know the full narrative of where he came from, why he left, and why he will never go back -- but something stops him.
If he knew, would he still love me?
Most of his father's words have faded, but there are still some that linger in the back of his mind:
If anyone knew what you are, who you are -- why, they'd hate you, my boy.
He hesitates, and Tesh, bless him, does not press him for an answer, but kisses him on the forehead.
"Think about it," he says.
He spends all of a season, thinking. Tesh doesn't push him. Their relationship stays the same -- happy, calm, a safe space.
Eventually, he begins practicing, telling the story to Ella and her kittens: My father is a semi-famous magician, and when he found out I didn't share his magical gift, he began to hate me...
Ella looks up at him with solemn eyes, every time he tells it. She's a good listener, and doesn't mind when he has to stop and wipe his eyes.
I see you, the cat says. I understand.
Eventually, he tells Tesh.
He gets drunk before he does it. Tesh has always said that he's welcome to whatever he'd like to drink, be that wine or something else, and he's never abused it. He hardly drinks at all, not even on special occasions, so it doesn't take more than a glass of wine before bed and he's ready to tell the story.
"Tesh," he says. "I'll marry you, but first I need to tell you who I am."
Tesh raises an eyebrow but doesn't say anything besides "Oh?"
"Sit," he says, gesturing at the edge of the bed, and Tesh sits. "This is important, I --"
He stumbles through the whole sad story: his father, his mother, the cold house that was never home, the city far to the north that he left and will never return to, his father's hatred and his mother's feigned ignorance, the family he'd sworn he'd never rejoin, the coldness they called love and used as an excuse to hurt him.
He tells it all in a detached way. He's found that if he does so, he doesn't cry before he reaches the end.
He finishes the story, and waits for what he fears will come next: I'm sorry, but I don't want to marry you anymore.
Tesh looks up at him and doesn't say anything, and he fears the worst.
"That's it," he says. "I left and I came here, and that's it. You know the rest."
Tesh stands, embraces him. "So you'll marry me after all?" he says, into his ear.
He manages a nod before he begins to cry.
"It's nothing I hadn't guessed, my heart," says Tesh. "I love you for who you are, not where you came from."
He blinks a little, at this. "I love you too. You know everything now."
Tesh laughs and pulls back, holds both his hands. "Not everything, I don't think, but enough. I'm glad you felt you could tell me. I love you."
"I love you too," he repeats, and it's like a weight has been lifted.
They marry in the spring. Friends come, from inside and outside the city, and they hold the ceremony in the traveler's rest itself, in the main room. There's dancing afterward, and good food. Tesh insisted on hiring someone else to cook for the day -- "because you deserve some time off, after all."
Tesh's sisters come, from across the continent. They wrap him in enormous hugs, as soon as they meet him: "We're so glad he met you! We were afraid he'd never find a nice man and settle down! Welcome to the family!" and he feels very welcomed, indeed.
It is after the party has ended, when everyone has departed for other rests or bedded down for the night, that he finally lets himself sit and look to the ring on his finger, the mysteriously-clean main room (the sisters have taken care of everything -- "it's your wedding day, Jack! You can't do the dishes!"). Ella comes out of hiding and winds around his legs, and Tesh sits on the sofa next to him.
"So," says Tesh. "How does it feel?"
He smiles. "No different from before, though it's nice not to have to clean. We should invite your sisters over more often."
Tesh laughs. "Welcome home," he says.
He realizes, sitting next to Tesh, that it is.
Blood harmony gets defined as "expression for what it sounds like when siblings sing together, that biologic chemistry — I think that speaks for itself."
Family has a unique ability not only to support and nurture, but to hurt one another. Not all harmonies are beautiful. Some are very ugly, as are some family ties.
Thank you for reading.