Have you found Blue yet?
Danny and Clare are no longer enemies, but her texts still carry echoes of their brief war.
And she knows exactly what he’ll be doing at four o’clock this afternoon, or on any afternoon of the week. He’s taking his sketchpad and a mug of hot red berry tea outside, to sit on their love seat under the arbour.
From there, he’ll watch the day’s deep darkness grow inside the forest, and possibly he’ll draw the wildflower garden again.
Or, more probably, he’ll draw Blue again.
The carved oak bench was his seventh wedding anniversary gift to Clare, and the sturdy arbour above was her gift to him on that same bright winter’s day.
No flowers or fruit have ever issued from the complicated ceiling of grapevines she wove through it.
Fallen vine leaves lie in a thin new carpet beneath his boots, and the afternoon air carries its first chill of autumn. He nips back into the hallway for his old combat jacket, inhaling its friendly forest smell as he shrugs it on, and trying again to jam the front door open against the springy resistance of a knee-high pile of junk mail in the tiled porch.
As soon as the house was theirs, back in those happy newlywed days and enjoying the first flush of his commercial success, they’d turned it around to face the forest.
What had been its imposing Victorian front elevation became a silent dismissal of the outside world, with the old front door bricked-up and all the windows shuttered. They hadn’t even used any of the old front rooms, preferring to focus their domestic life on the impressionist wildflower garden out back and the deep ancient woodland that all but encircled them.
Clare had removed the old front path and laid a new one around to their entrance at the rear.
He doesn’t reply to her text until he’s settled on the bench and taken his first sip of steaming tea.
Danny and Blue have been good for each other.
A human baby stolen from her cradle and named for her eyes that are sharp and startlingly different from the big golden-flecked brown ones all around her, she’s grown in courage and wisdom until she commands the respect of her adopted people and leads her own guerrilla band of fae fighters in the Forest War.
Ten years ago, it was she who helped Danny to build his rapid-rise career as a comic book artist.
And, yes, Clare was correct when she said that, in Blue, he described his perfect love.
His current sketchbook is filled with page after page of her face, but not even the hint of a storyline. The Fae Forest series is stalled. He’s left her in an impossible climactic situation, and he can’t bear to write her out of it.
He can’t let her go.
He sketches her again with quick, sure pencil strokes, sitting alongside him on the bench and sipping tea.
She’s so real he could talk with her.
“This is the last of the red berry tea. Clare picked and dried the berries. I don’t know which ones are safe.”
Blue doesn’t answer. She stares into the forest from his page.
He watches with her until his legs get cold.
Clare’s absence is a ghost in the room Danny’s life has shrunk into since she left him. She stares out from dark dusty corners framed by dancing firelight shadows, and notes without comment that their faded old leather sofa is now his bed.
He slumps on the solid slate bench inside the inglenook fireplace, stretching out his legs and wriggling warmth into his be-socked toes while his little pan of porridge oats simmers and burps quietly beside the open flames. He’s nearly out of oats, all out of tea, and he toasted his last slice of stale bread a week ago.
And the larder isn’t his only empty cupboard. Autumn is killing light bulbs every evening, and he’s down to his single remaining church candle.
Sooner or later he’ll have to walk to the village shop, and pretend not to notice the sideways glances. People in the village always liked Clare, but they’ve never been sure about him. He supposes the kindest description they could apply is eccentric. Those who prefer blunt honesty will use odd. Or weird. He can imagine them calling him the artist, with a certain inflection of the voice and a knowing look shared.
And they’ll be right.
He expects they wonder what she ever saw in him.
He doesn’t know, either.
They probably thought they knew what he saw in her. Practical Clare: doing everything for him, managing his everyday life so he could get on with creating Blue’s fantasy world.
All the way down to making sure his direct debits were in order before she left, so he wouldn’t lose electricity or water while living alone in his little world of make believe. Love in action, despite the sorrowful circumstances.
His heart swells with grief at the enormity of everything he left unsaid to her.
Because although all those things the villagers believe are true, they’re not the whole truth.
He’s always loved her.
He always will.
But if he ever knew what it was that she saw in him, he can’t remember now. She certainly never needed him. And it’s certainly no one’s fault but his own that he’s lost her.
He eats his porridge from the pan, and the final wooden spoonful of it is halfway to his lips when someone raps the heavy brass knocker on his front door. He pauses, listening to see if they’ll knock again or give up and go away.
They knock again. Firmly. Non-negotiably. Whoever it is, they’re not going away.
He laces on his boots and steps into the hallway, cupping his palm around the candle to shield its flame when it struggles in a dry draught. He’s already homesick for his fireside seat and his lonely solitude.
A pale moonlit movement looms outside the green and ruby stained glass at the top of the door, and a single set of fingertips drums a brief scale against the pane.
It’s Clare! She’s the only one who ever does that. She’s come home!
He throws open the door and falls back a step in shock.
Clare and Blue. Blue and Clare, together in one person, standing on his doorstep, eyes shining in his flickering candlelight.
She stands on tiptoe to kiss his cheek tenderly. She is wild and beautiful. Her scent is of the rich earth, and light lavender, and freshly fallen leaves.
Out there in the shifting gloom at the edge of the forest, her band of fae fighters crouch in postures alert and tense, their entire attention focused outwards at potential dangers from the deep darkness beneath the trees.
“We need you.” She takes his hand to draw him into the forest, if he will come.
His heart hammers. He wants to voice all the brooding thoughts he’s stirred and steeped throughout these last silent weeks, but he can’t squeeze them past the big lump in his throat. He can only drink in the vision of her, and marvel as love and happiness sing in his veins.
“I need you.” She squeezes his hand urgently. “I love you.” Her beautiful eyes pierce his confusion and shred his final scrap of uncertainty.
He lifts his combat jacket from the newel post, sets his candle flame to the mound of junk mail in the tiled porch, pulls the door shut behind him with a quiet click, and walks with her out into the night.