A few hours later, Fin felt an unusual tickle run through his wings a few moments before the door to Crill and Sera’s home opened. His two hosts were working on the evening meal together, and Fin had been entertaining himself in the family area with a jar of colored sand. It was something he’d included in the leaf pack he’d brought with him from home. He nearly spilled the fine grains on the floor when he saw Jac enter the house. It was inevitable that his cheeks and wings blushed to a nervous pink when he saw Jac’s expression go from shock to uncertainty to a sad kind of relief.
“Fin,” the older fairy voiced, sounding uncertain.
Fin stood quickly from his spot on the floor and took a step toward Jac before doubt of his welcome made him hesitate. “Jac?” he said, uttering it like a question.
The silence filling the space between them felt incredibly heavy. Fin couldn’t remember anything he’d planned to say in that moment, and he’d never seen Jac look so insecure.
Then, Fin watched Jac’s demeanor go from hesitation to resolve, although what that resolve was, he couldn’t be sure. Still, a seed of hope bloomed in his chest when Jac closed the distance between them and simply pulled Fin into an incredibly warm hug.
The welcoming embrace surprised Fin, and for some reason made his eyes well up with emotion, but he hugged Jac back. “I wasn’t sure you’d want to see me,” he admitted into Jac’s shoulder. The arms around him tightened a little.
“I feared the same thing,” the older fairy admitted.
“I need to explain to you.”
“Yes,” Jac agreed, but he didn’t let go of their hug. They stood like that for several minutes, until Crill came into the room and made a noise of surprise.
“Uh, I’m sorry. I didn’t realize you’d arrived Jac. I’ll just go…”
Jac finally dropped his arms from around Fin, which left the younger fairy with a bereft emotion he didn’t expect. “No, Crill. It’s okay. Fin and I will go. We need to talk anyway.”
Crill didn’t look surprised, although he did ask a question. “Should I expect you here tonight?”
With just a moment’s pause, Jac shook his head. “No, I don’t think so. I’ll check in with you tomorrow.”
Putting an arm around Fin’s shoulders, Jac walked with him out of the house, and then made a motion upward. “Follow me.”
He flew straight up, and Fin followed automatically, although he wondered where they were going.
Jac continued a course that didn’t veer from its upward progression. He finally stopped when they reached the very top of the tree cover, and then settled on a sturdy limb and patted the spot next to him, inviting Fin to his side.
Taking a breath, Fin sat and then opened his mouth to attempt a start to his explanation, but Jac spoke before he had a chance.
“I’ve been thinking about you constantly for months, Fin,” the older fairy started, surprising Fin with the words. “And I have a lot I should probably tell you about those thoughts, but for now most of my focus has been on what happened after your Bond Guard meeting, and how I could have prevented you running from me as you did.” His tone had gotten much sadder, but he kept going. “I don’t know what you need to explain to me, but before you do, I need to tell you that I’m sorry.”
“Sorry?” Fin interrupted with honest surprise. “For what?”
“For the way I handled our relationship after my meeting with the Bond Guard. You wanted so much for me to tell you what had been said, and I kept cutting you off or delaying things.” He looked regretfully at Fin. “The Bond Guard told me I couldn’t let you know I was your mate until your time came, that you wouldn’t be able to handle the information yet, but that I could prepare for the time when you were. I was also struggling a little with some things I was told by the Guard, and needed to work through them. That’s why I had to delay fulfilling my promise to you, and it’s why I chose to move here to Apple Hollow after helping with the fire. I…didn’t trust myself around you just then. I’m just…I’m sorry, Fin, that I pushed you away and made you not want to be matched with me.”
He stopped talking then, and Fin just stared at him for a long minute, having not expected any of what Jac had just said. The information was rolling around in his head, and he tried to correlate what he’d just heard with his own take on what had happened. Jac was sorry? Jac had apologized? But, from everything Fin could see, Jac hadn’t done anything wrong. He had a feeling there was going to be a lot more to this conversation with Jac than he had initially expected, but he knew he had to make his own apologies first.
“Jac,” he said quietly, and with his nerves close to the surface. “It sounds like you were trying to do right by me, not push me away. I’m the one who hasn’t behaved as I should. I really need to explain why I ran that day, but I think…I think I might hurt you when you understand.”
Jac looked at him, and Fin felt like the other fairy was trying to look into his mind and see the words before they were said. Then, tentatively, Jac slid his hand over Fin’s and squeezed it gently.
“Before you explain, can you answer a question for me?”
“Um…sure.” Fin didn’t know what would be asked, but he’d try to say whatever Jac wanted.
“We both know that the Bond Guard has said we are each other’s ideal match. The bond we create between each other has the potential of being rich and deep. But, I need to know, do you want to match with me? Do you want to be my mate, Fin?”
It was not a question Fin expected right then, and he wasn’t entirely sure he even knew the answer. He did his best to be honest, but his throat tightened painfully as he did so. “I want to try,” he choked out. “I’m not sure I understand what the Bond Guard sees for us. You weren’t who I expected to be told was my mate, and I’m still trying to…adjust…to that. I do want to try though, with you.”
Jac’s face became very hard to read, although that Fin’s words weren’t what he had hoped to hear was clear. He turned toward the dimming sky, not looking at Fin as he spoke very quietly.
“You want to try. I wasn’t who you expected.” He murmured very sadly and almost to himself. “There’s someone else you want, isn’t there, Fin? You didn’t run because you saw me. You ran because you didn’t see who you wanted.”
With fear, surprise, and sadness warring in him, Fin confirmed Jac’s words with a nod, and then started the explanation he’d promised.
“Remember when you found me at Rock Arch awhile back and we fought?” He continued without waiting for an answer. “I made a friend there. Her name is Luna, and she was who I expected to be matched with. I met her when some of us transplanted saplings there to save them and strengthen the tunnel home of the mole, Talpi. I was drawn to her and started to visit Rock Arch in the hopes of seeing her again.”
Jac had grown very still, clearly listening, but not reacting at all, and Fin’s inability to read him made him talk faster.
“I was attracted to her, and we became good friends. I saw her almost every night—well, whenever the dreams didn’t call her away—and I was so happy when I was with her that I believed she would be the mate the Bond Guard would lead me to. I hoped for it, planned for it, so I wasn’t prepared when the Guard told me the first fairy I’d see when I left his home would be my mate and it ended up being you. I thought it would be her.”
He was breathless by then, so he stopped talking and turned an imploring gaze to Jac, hoping for understanding, for forgiveness, but Jac was still silent. His eyes were no longer looking at the sky, but down toward the ground, his head hanging slightly and his hands clasped between his knees.
His silence was unnerving enough, but his utter stillness after Fin’s monologue sent chills of anxiety throughout the younger fairy. It was unsettling that even Jac’s wings were absolutely still, not moving even with the evening breeze blowing around them.
“Jac?” Fin tentatively lifted a hand to touch the other fairy’s shoulder, but stopped short of his destination, suddenly unsure if it was the right thing to do. “Please say something.”
The deep breath Jac took at least erased the statue-like impression he’d been doing, but there was such sadness in the sound that it didn’t ease Fin’s worries.
“You haven’t said the words, but they’re in your voice. You loved her—you still love her. How can you match with me when your heart belongs to someone else?”
“But it doesn’t,” Fin debated, and that finally brought Jac’s gaze to meet his. “It’s true—unfortunately—that I did offer my heart to Luna, but she was wiser than me. She knew better than I did that we wouldn’t be matched, and she tried to prepare me for that. She guarded my heart better than I did, and she made sure I didn’t give it away.”
Jac didn’t look wholly convinced. “I’m not sure you truly want me to have it though. I think—I fear—that you still wish to give it to her.”
Timidly, Fin inched himself closer to Jac until their legs brushed against each other. Jac didn’t pull away, which Fin was grateful for. “I think I’m learning some things about hearts, Jac. I think it’s things my dad and Luna and the Bond Guard were all trying to teach me, but I didn’t understand.”
“That sharing a heart with someone isn’t just how you feel about them. It’s a choice too—maybe even more importantly. It’s true that my heart felt—feels—love toward Luna, but I am not the right mate for her, and she’s not the right one for me.” It was hard to utter those words, but he managed to say them without faltering. “It’s my choice now to care for her just as a friend, and my choice to make a connection to you and hopefully be a mate you deserve.”
Jac’s posture was still guarded. “Do you truly choose me, Fin?”
It was a question that begged for honesty, yet gentleness too. Fin moved another inch closer and shyly reached for Jac’s hand. “If I didn’t choose you, then I wouldn’t have come at all. I would have stayed with Luna and probably tried to force her into a match with me, but that wouldn’t have been kind.” He felt Jac’s fingers squeeze gently around his, and he returned the gesture. “I want every fairy to have as happy a life as possible, and as my dad helped me realize, that means participating in what is best for them, and not pulling myself or them into bad choices. I know many fairies bond quickly with their match.” He felt a little shame for his next words. “I’m not sure that will happen with us. I think I might need some time to feel out the connection the Bond Guard says you and I can make. That doesn’t mean I’m not going to try though.” He forced himself to look Jac in the face. “Are you mad?”
Fin slowly shook his head. “No, I’m not mad.”
“No…well…maybe,” Jac admitted. “I would, perhaps, wish for a quick bond, but maybe that’s not the right path for us. Also, you’ve been very honest with me, and I need to offer you the same I think.”
“What do you mean?”
Jac’s expression became sheepish. “My initial reaction when the Bond Guard told me who my mate was to be was not the most joyous either.”
Fin thought about that and couldn’t help a sliver of upset over those words. “What do you mean? I wasn’t who you wanted?”
“Not exactly that. I didn’t have any fairy in mind for a mate, so I was anxious to hear what the Bond Guard would tell me. When he did reveal your name to me, I had some reservations.”
That single word seemed to hold such letdown that Jac quickly tried to explain more. “It wasn’t that I didn’t like you, Fin. I did…I do. I just thought you were kind of immature and…annoying sometimes.”
Fin’s sincere offense for some reason made Jac chuckle, which helped break the seriousness of their conversation. “I don’t mean to insult you,” he assured, and pressed an affectionate kiss to Fin’s temple. “I just thought you had some growing up to do, and it seems I did to. I did get over my bother quickly though. I’ve watched you from a distance, Fin, and I’ve spent months preparing and imagining our life together.”
“Really. Want to see what I’ve been working on?” Jac rose, keeping Fin’s hand in his, and Fin readily stood with him.
“Am I going to like it?”
“I hope so.”
Jac’s wings flapped strongly and he was soon leading Fin back through the trees, giving the younger fairy a bit of hope and excitement blooming in him.
“Whose house is this?”
Jac had brought him to the entrance of a lovely-looking dwelling. Like Crill and Sera’s home, this one was also built into a sturdy tree, but the roof over the entrance was made of colorful pond pebbles instead of twigs, and the path to the front door was wonderfully squishy moss instead of stones.
“It’s our house,” Jac answered. “At least, I hope it will be. It’s part of what I’ve been doing to prepare for you. I wanted to have a home ready for you. Do you think…would you like to see inside?”
Fin didn’t answer at first, just looked wide-eyed at the abode’s entrance, and then back to Jac. Traditionally, newly mated fairies moved in together right away, but usually it was with either their parents or close friends while they got to know one another better. Few couples immediately had a place that was just theirs. It made Fin both excited and anxious, but he did want to see inside.
Jac opened the door and motioned for Fin to enter ahead of him. The younger fairy walked into what was clearly the main living area of the home. Windows had been whittled out on either end of the room, at just the right angles to catch the rising and setting sun. The ceiling was arched, and on it beautiful carvings of vines and flowers graced the space. And on the walls themselves, Fin saw that wooden planters were sculpted straight from the tree, and the beginnings of Forget-me-nots and wild violets were peeking out.
“I know it’s kind of empty right now,” Jac’s voice said from behind him. “But I thought you might want to help decide on furnishings. I’ve been collecting bunny fur to make a couch and chairs. A fox family is saving their cubs’ molted fur for me as they lose their kit layer, so we can use that as we wish as well, and there’s a running stream nearby that has some really smooth stones if you want to pick some for an eating table or anything else.”
Fin couldn’t do much more than nod as he took it all in. Jac stepped to his side, looking uncertain. “If there’s anything I did you don’t like, we can change it. And um, there’s more. Do you want to see?”
Another nod, and Fin’s hand was grasped in Jac’s. They rose together to the ceiling where a cleverly hidden door was unlatched, and then flew upward through a circular tunnel before coming to another door. Jac opened it and brought them up into what was clearly their abode’s cooking space. Almost the entire perimeter of the area held decorative shelving fashioned into the wooden walls, but several spots also had flat counters of gray and red shale. A fire stove made from river rocks stood against one wall, its careful positioning and design showing there was no way a cooking fire would spread beyond the stones.
Fin moved around the space, taking in everything in silent awe. When he looked to Jac, the older boy’s lips twitched in a sweet smile and he held out his hand. “There’s one more room.”
Fin willingly put his hand in Jac’s, and the two of them once again went through a hidden ceiling door and upwards to the home’s final space.
There was no secret that this was their dwelling’s sleeping quarters. A four-poster bed of beautiful elm graced the room, with a lovely canopy that looked to be spun from rose silk draped over it. It was striking, but it made Fin’s wings tremble.
“Fin? Fin, are you alright?”
He turned to Jac, feeling too much all at once—nerves, happiness, anxiety, appreciation, uncertainty. “It’s…it’s all wonderful, Jac, but I can’t…I’m not ready….”
Strong arms abruptly wrapped around him, and the embrace grew warmer as Fin felt Jac’s wings encompass them. “Hey, it’s okay. Shh, Finny. Don’t shake so. I won’t force anything you’re not ready for.”
He hadn’t been aware of his shaking, but he felt the tremors now, although the comforting embrace helped. “It’s all so much.” Fin’s words were muffled against Jac’s chest, but they were heard.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to overwhelm you. I only wanted to show you that I care, that I’ll do anything for you, runt.”
The nickname Jac had bestowed on Fin months ago was now said so affectionately that Fin found himself calming further. He stayed in Jac’s embrace but tipped his head up to meet the other fairy’s eyes. “I can tell you care. I’m sorry for not being ready.”
Jac lifted a hand to trace a finger down Fin’s cheek. “That’s not something you have to apologize for. We don’t have to live here yet, or ever, if it’s not what you want. It’s okay.”
Fin shook his head. “No, I want to live here, with you. It’s a great place. It’s…it’s the bed I’m not ready for. My dad told me, and the Bond Guard explained, but…I’m not sure I can….”
Jac hushed him again and tucked Fin’s head against his neck. “Fin, I don’t think I’m ready for that between us either. It’s too…personal. We have some other things to figure out first. If you want, we can go back and stay with your parents or mine for a time. We can even live separately for a while if you want. There’s no reason to rush.”
Fin’s cheek rubbed on Jac’s smooth skin, considering his offer. “I think being apart wouldn’t help, but could we stay with our parents first, just for a while?”
Fin felt a kiss pressed to the top of his head, and he relaxed a little more. “Thanks, Jac.”
Eventually, Jac’s wings and arms released Fin. “We’re going to be okay,” he promised, sounding more assured than Fin felt. “Are you hungry? I have some food stored in the kitchen. We can eat and then head to one of our parents.”
“Are you sure? It’ll be late when we get there.”
“I don’t think they’ll mind, but maybe we could go to your parents? Mine don’t know who my mate is yet, and I’d rather not have to introduce you as my match in the middle of the night.”
“Okay. And yeah, I am a little hungry.”
So they returned to the kitchen, and Jac routed around until he set out an apple cake that Sera had made, and some roasted black walnuts he’d collected.They ate without talking, and shortly after were on their way to Fin’s parents.