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after everything

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The house, far enough outside Bonesborough for some peace but near enough that it was a quick flight to Hexside for Hunter, was nice. After the dust had settled, after everything, Darius wasn’t exactly a Head Witch anymore; the new system of government spread responsibility more widely. He still played an active role, but he was also resting on his laurels a bit. He’d been instrumental in averting a genocide; he deserved some time to relax.

Well, to relax and to look after Hunter. The boy insisted he didn’t need much support, and the louder he insisted the more support he probably needed at the moment. It wasn’t just the refrigerator full of human food he took weekly inter-realm trips to stock (it wasn’t as though humans or those human-adjacent couldn’t be well-fed on Isles food, and Darius was more qualified than anyone to know what Hunter could eat, but the Isles-native safe foods tended to be fairly bland, while the Human realm had discovered all kinds of fascinating flavours they could cook with. Darius enjoyed the variety, and experimenting. It made him wish— well, it didn’t matter anymore), or the cardinal feathers in his drain, or the fact he’d needed to put an actual calendar with marked days in the hall to coax Hunter to shower at least three times a week. It was more about the screaming nightmares, the tendency to clam up about any injury out of left-over fear of being seen as weak, the constant, pathological need to prove himself clashing with sudden outbursts of furious individuality that Darius approved of in theory but wished didn’t trash his house so much.

It was a strangely domestic kind of frustration. He hadn’t felt so settled in a decade.

Hunter was at school for the day. Darius had settled in with a cup of tea, a good old record, and an enchanted chessboard that played just well enough to be a challenge without actually beating him more than one in five games or so, when there was a knock at his door. Darius groaned. Usually, when he had an unannounced visitor, it was either one of Hunter’s friends— unlikely, at ten o’clock on a Thursday— or Eda, trying to rope him into some scheme. Well, Eberwolf also visited without warning, but they didn’t knock.

Adjusting his robe and stepping back into his slippers, Darius headed to answer the door and was confronted with the last face he had expected to see.

“Alador?”

“May I come in?”

It wasn’t as though they hadn’t seen each other. Alador had been running support throughout the Day of Unity, flying his kids around in an airship, rapidly shutting down or redirecting his wretched Abomatons to restrain Graye and the Emperor’s other stooges rather than defend them. It had been good to see him so focused, intentional. Darius hadn’t really known he was capable of that anymore. Since then, too, they’d passed a few vague words; Eda’s human kid was over visiting Hunter all the time, and she was dating Alador’s youngest daughter, so they ended up in the same place now and then. It was the first time they’d seen each other on purpose, though, in years.

Alador looked terrible, honestly. He never exactly looked tidy, but he did have a spectrum from “slovenly because he was too interested in his work” to “an unwashed sleepless mess”, and he was firmly on the latter end, dark circles almost as bad as Hunter’s, greasy hair sticking up at awful angles, eyes red and lab coat stained. Darius was genuinely tempted to tell him to go and shower before entering his household.

Instead he stepped out of the doorway, wordlessly inviting him inside, fished out a second cup that matched the first, and poured him some tea.

Alador sagged into the chair opposite like a sack of flour, like the sleep was chasing him and would take his posture even if it couldn’t take his consciousness. He took the teacup in both hands and stared at it, and Darius sighed, touching the chess set to turn off its enchantment for the time being and playing a standard opening. He waited for Alador to speak, which he didn’t for some time.

“We’re dissolving the company,” he said eventually. “Everything was in limbo anyway, and it’s easier to split liquid assets than control. Starting again.”

“Are you here for business advice?”

“I’m not,” Alador said, and after a pause mirrored Darius’s opening on the chessboard. “Maybe I am.”

“Stop making weaponry,” Darius said dryly.

“That’s not what I meant.”

“So tell me.”

Alador took a long draught of his tea, blinking a little too much. He really was low on sleep. Darius took one of Alador’s imps with his tower.

“It looks like I’m getting full custody,” Alador said. “All three of the kids asked for it, and a couple of my old coworkers made statements as character witnesses— for me and for her.”

“Small mercies,” Darius said, still a little unsure why he was being told this. “I’m sure the children will be relieved.”

Alador nodded, and in a very small, low voice mumbled “I hope so.”

Darius blinked. “Is that it? You’re concerned about looking after them? Alador, your children have essentially gone without parents their entire lives— without good ones, anyway.” Alador visibly winced. “It’s true. That doesn’t mean not to make an effort, but it does mean you’re not going to— forget to fill their bottles and starve them to death. They’re not infants. They’re teenagers.”

“That doesn’t make it better,” Alador grumbled, face pinking.

“It doesn’t,” Darius agreed. “But it’s best to go at this accurately. Worry about making connections. Getting to know them. You can’t change that you weren’t there for them before. They may resent you for that, as is their right. Be there for them now.”

Alador slumped even more, which hadn’t seemed possible. He jumped his line of imps with a snorseman, taking the piece Darius had captured before from the side of the board and fiddling with it, passing it between his stained fingers. Residue. He’d always left residue. Messy. No control. Darius had found that so attractive, once.

“You always tell me the truth,” he said, eyes fixed on his own hands.

“I was a rebel while you were outfitting the Emperor with weaponry,” Darius said dryly. “No I don’t.”

“I deserved that,” Alador said.

“Yes, you did.”

“I’ve—“ and here Alador looked up, made eye contact, which was rare for him. He was really making an effort. The same gold, the same heavy lids, new crow’s feet, new barely-visible veins. “I’ve made a lot of mistakes.”

“I know,” Darius said. “So have I.”

He’d uncritically served the Emperor for years, so proud of his place as Head Witch. He’d bought every stupid excuse, sewed up gashes he’d fully believed were from accidents on duty and never suspected. He hadn’t intervened when he could have, hadn’t realized despite all the damn evidence how much pain his lover was in, hadn’t until so long after that he’d had to find out from Hunter slowly admitting the provenance of his own scars and putting the pieces together. Stupid, oblivious. He’d been the one to coven seal especially promising students. It was considered an honour to be sealed by him, impressing upon their vulnerable wrists the channel by which Belos meant to murder them. He’d got his lover killed, he knew now, with a moment of carelessness, and then he’d frozen so badly when the Porter boy’s illusion turning Belos’s mind inside-out had showed him that fact that he’d almost failed to keep himself alive. That would have left Hunter all alone again. He’d made an idiotic assumption, before, and nursed his own injured pride, loathed Hunter for years thinking he had his father’s face, let him be abused too right under his nose. There was only so much a person could do, going forward from all that. There was only so much a person could do, but he had to do it.

“I shouldn’t have let you go,” Alador said, and Darius’s thoughts ground to a halt.

“That’s what you’re here for?” he asked, stunned. Alador nodded.

“I’ve been thinking about it,” he said, eyes down to his imp piece again. “I shouldn’t have— I’ve missed you. And now that things are starting to settle—”

“It’s been twenty years, Alador.”

“Thirty.”

“If it was thirty, I’d be nearly fifty years old,” Darius said. “That can’t be so. Look at me.”

Alador blinked, processed, and then chuckled, a little of the tension going out of him. He put the chess piece down, had another sip of tea. “We’re the same age,” he said.

“Don’t question me.”

“But I came here to ask a question.”

Darius sighed, raking a hand through his hair, leaving grooves that would fill back in in a minute or so. “The witch I was at seventeen would be in your arms already,” he said. “But we’re not seventeen anymore. Things have changed, both of us have changed.”

“But I’m changing back,” Alador said. “Or— changing again. Can’t I— try to do right now?”

“Do right by your children,” Darius said, feeling sorry but not guilty at the sinking look on Alador’s face. “But this ship has sailed. Long ago. You know that, don’t you? You can’t expect me to have been just pining for you for all this time.”

“I was,” Alador said, and Darius sat up straighter, irritated.

“Don’t lie to me,” he said. “I know you loved her.”

“I can’t remember why,” Alador replied. “She’s— she treated me like an employee, like all she wanted was— was for me to build things for her to sell. The way she treated the children, the way she— always thought she knew best—“

“She isn’t a good person. Neither were you.” Alador flinched again. Darius continued. “But listen to yourself. If she had always treated you that way, you wouldn’t have married her. I remember what you two were like in school, you know; I used to torture myself with it. I remember her filling out your agenda book and making check-boxes for you so you’d finish your homework. I remember the way you relaxed when she leaned on you. I remember visiting you and finding her on her scroll in your bedroom just keeping you company even when you were too deep in your work to talk.”

“But she wanted me to make weaponry right from the start. She was— she said horrible things to our classmates, do you remember? And with the kids, Titan, she hated it when they cried—“

“And you went right ahead and made weaponry, Alador. You weren’t exactly the kindest witchling either; I remember the way you ignored people, didn’t care when your experiments got them hurt. I thought that was charming at the time, you know— that you were so dedicated that collateral damage didn’t even register. And don’t try to tell me you were a good father.”

A dark look went across Alador’s face, almost nauseated. Darius made a mental note that that was a button to press only when absolutely necessary.

“You got better,” he said, more gently. “She didn’t. That doesn’t mean you didn’t love her. That doesn’t mean she didn’t love you, at least at first.”

There was a silence, broken only by the soft clicks of chess pieces as they played. Darius captured Alador’s queen, and wondered if he’d let him do it for the metaphor’s sake or just gotten sloppy.

“So that’s a no, then,” Alador said, eventually.

“It is.”

“Even though I’m getting better?”

“It isn’t about that, Alador. I’m not waiting for you to tick some box of being a better man. I just… moved on. The opportunity passed. It’s over.”

“You moved on?”

“I moved on.”

“You have someone?”

Darius sighed, again, having a long sip of his tea, arranging his words.

“I did,” he said, eventually. “Even if I hadn’t, I don’t think I’d be accepting your suit, now— though if I hadn’t, I really wouldn’t be the man I am now, so it’s impossible to say.”

“Did, not do?”

“He was murdered by Belos,” Darius said, keeping his voice even despite the clump in the back of his throat that formed whenever he tried to talk about it, that never wouldn’t. Alador nodded, like he was putting the pieces together.

“For wild magic?” he asked.

“No,” Darius said. “For being with me.”

Another silence followed.

“I should go,” Alador said, and made to get up. Darius caught him about the wrist with a tendril extruded from his bun— the right wrist, and against his surface he could feel the rough scar where Alador’s sigil had been burnt out, mirroring his own. He shuddered and consciously lowered his own mass’s physical sensitivity.

“Is that really all you came for?” he said, irritated. “Bed me or nothing?”

“I didn’t mean to— to go straight to that,” Alador protested, face flushing again. “I was going to offer to take you out. Like I should have, like—“

Darius huffed. “Try again, this time without trying to make a case for yourself as a considerate suitor. I’ve already told you no.”

“So shouldn’t I leave?”

“You don’t think I’m worth anything if you’re not romantically entangled with me?”

That stopped Alador short, baffled him, made his brow furrow.

“That’s not what I mean at all.”

“Then sit back down and finish the game,” Darius said, letting go of his wrist. Alador, thankfully, did as he was told.

“We can try again,” Darius said as he put Alador in check but not mate. “To be friends. I do miss that.”

“You do?” Alador asked.

“I do.”

“What would we talk about,” Alador said morosely, taking the snorseman Darius had used to put him in check with one of his imps but leaving his king unprotected— Darius checkmated him immediately with a tower, smirking proudly as Alador sighed and settled back into his chair.

“You’re in charge of children almost as suddenly as I am,” Darius said. “How do you make yours shower?”

“I… have never paid any attention to that.”

“Of course you haven’t,” Darius teased. “I helped Hunter dye part of his hair red and despite my providing a plastic cap for him to use the first few nights, he still left stains on his pillowcases. He watches flyer derby stunt compilations on his scroll at three in the morning and thinks I can’t hear him. He didn’t know shampoo and conditioner were separate items.

“You don’t even have hair anymore,” Alador said, with a hint of a smile. “Why do you care about shampoo?”

He has hair, and it’s stripped enough already,” Darius said. “The point is that he’s sixteen.”

“Sixteen,” Alador repeated. “The same age as the twins. Should we try to set him up with Edric?”

“Did you just assume he preferred men because he’s my kid? I mean, you’re not incorrect, but that’s an absurd reason to guess it. I think it’s almost sweet of you?”

“No,” Alador stammered, flustered. “I— no, that’s not— Emira has a girlfriend, is why. She told me so. Her name is… Vines? She’s a healer. A beastkeeper? Both. I’m trying to remember these things.”

Darius poured him some more tea. “Good,” he said. “Do try to remember. And no, don’t try to set your son up with Hunter. I can promise it wouldn’t go well. A potential date thrust upon one by a parent? Instant hard pass for any teenager.”

“My parents encouraged me to be with Odalia,” Alador mumbled. “Once they saw how well she kept me on track.”

“Instant hard pass for most teenagers, then,” Darius said, trying to keep the mood from sagging without leaving the comment unacknowledged. “Besides, Hunter’s barely learning to have friends. He needs time.”

Alador nodded, slowly, considering.

“Her name is Viney, by the way.”

“What?” Alador asked.

“Emira’s girlfriend. It’s Viney, not Vines. She’s on Hunter’s flyer derby team.”

Alador’s brow furrowed. “You know this, and I don’t,” he said, not angry but definitely frustrated.

“It comes more naturally to me,” Darius said. “People do, I mean.”

“You’re not exactly sociable,” Alador pointed out.

“Just because I often don’t like people doesn’t mean that I can’t remember their names,” Darius said. “Just keep doing your best. Write them down.”

“I don’t know how to do this,” Alador said, staring down at his own wringing hands. Absently, Darius tossed him a tower piece to play with. “I’ve been a father for sixteen years and I have no idea who my kids are.”

“So learn,” Darius said, flatly. Alador gave him a cross look.

“It’s not that easy,” he said.

“I didn’t say it was easy. I said you have to do it.”

Alador looked angry, at first, but then he relaxed, smiled a sad little smile that Darius could imagine his past self melting over and wanting to kiss. He observed the total lack of said desire now, comfortably.

“You do always tell me the truth,” Alador said.

“Of course I do,” Darius replied. “I’m your friend.”