Jay sat obligingly, watching her putter around in the kitchen. He didn’t really even have to think about his answer. “I think I’ll stay,” he said. “I mean, it’s nice to have your permission if I end up changing my mind sometime, but… it’s a weird town, Kingsport, but I like it so far. I’m making friends, and… I mean, I think I can see myself having a future there. I’ll have to figure out some of the more mundane details, but I want to stay.”
“I’m glad to hear that,” she said, running the water to fill the kettle. “I wouldn’t want to think I stuck you with nothing but that awful mission. It sounds like it went okay?”
He leaned back on the couch, closing his eyes. “I think it went okay, yes,” he said. As she finished making the tea, he told her about what had happened so far—about beginning to learn to dream, about finding her notes, about how he’d slowly pieced together the shape of the problem, found the Signs. He skimmed over most of the details about finding the flute—it touched too much on Louis’s past and Louis’s scars, just describing that they’d searched the City of Lost Cities and eventually managed to get it back from some Byakhee, that he’d seen it safely into Nyarlathotep’s hands.
And he told her about how he wanted to be like her—to build a neutral place, where people of any cult would know they were safe, but without committing himself to any one god. That as he’d learned the basics, he refused to go ahead with anything until he was sure it was balanced, how he’d begun to get close to people from several cults all at once.
“It’s rewarding work, if you can manage it,” she said, carrying in a tray that held her teapot, two dollar store cups, and a tin of cookies. “They’ll make it difficult for you, all of them, even though they’ll find it a relief to have a space that doesn’t belong to some great ancient god, and a friend who doesn’t belong to one. They’re all committed to their ways, I think, whether willingly or no. But stick to your instincts. They seem to do well for you.” She put the tray down, poured, and picked up her own mug. “I’m glad you’re making friends.”
“I am. I…” He worried at his lower lip. “I might have a boyfriend already? I’m not sure, we haven’t put it in those terms, but… we’re friends and, uh, we’ve hooked up.”
“Ooooh.” She grinned at him. “Who?”
“Louis. It’s—I mean, it’s why I asked him to come with me.” He found himself blushing a little, and corrected, “I mean, it’s not why I asked him to, but… we’d been spending a lot of time together, and I thought he deserved for me to offer. You know, that I shouldn’t just leave him behind.”
“Louis Castaigne?” She seemed surprised at that. “I suppose he’s around your age, it’s true…”
He lifted his brows at her and sipped his tea. It was slightly weak, like she’d always made it, since she tended to save her tea bags to use again. “Is it that weird?”
“He’s just an odd boy.”
“Is anything about this normal?” Jay pointed out blandly.
Grace shrugged the comment off. “Fair enough,” she said. “I hope it’s good for you both. I know he could certainly stand to learn to express his emotions more.”
“It’s been fine so far,” Jay said, a little flustered. “I know you two know each other already, but, uh, I’d like to bring him to meet you sometime. As my boyfriend.”
“He’s not really a dream-traveler—”
“But it’s possible. I know that. You know that, you allowed it for that other trip,” Jay pointed out. “I’m not going to rush it, but… if things get serious?”
She smiled, reaching over and ruffling his hair up. “…of course. He’s a nice enough boy and I would like to see him again.”
“Well, good,” Jay said. “‘Cause I’m hoping things do get serious. Speaking of that,” he added, pointedly.
“Uh-oh,” Grace muttered.
“Did you ever talk to her? To Y—the Dream Witch,” he corrected himself quickly. “Directly, I mean.”
For a moment, Grace didn’t respond, looking at him blankly as if to see if he’d stammer, excuse himself, walk it back. When he didn’t, she pulled a face at him. “Ughhh.”
“I’m just saying—”
“She’s an ancient being from the dawn of time,” Grace said. “I’m just a hopeless old biddy. I don’t have anything to offer her.”
Jay frowned at Grace. “Putting aside the ‘hopeless old biddy’ part since, I mean, time seems to not have meaning for you anymore,” he said bluntly, “I mean, you have a lot to offer. You’re a brilliant journalist. You stayed neutral in a city where everyone’s expected to pick sides. You completed a Dream-Quest, and I might not know much about dreaming, but I do know that’s a one in a million thing! You’re a—a great catch for anyone you’re interested in!”
Grace’s face screwed up more, mortified and embarrassed and clearly just hoping to put him off. “Noooo,” she groaned. Then she sighed, fiddling with a lock of hair, gaze downcast. “She literally eats people,” she said finally. “If I had anything to offer her, if I had any ability that she didn’t have, or any knowledge, anything, she’d eat me to gain it for herself. So I can’t have anything to offer her, or I wouldn’t be here.”
Well, that was horrifying, theoretically. But after the last day, Jay somehow couldn’t even find it in himself to be bothered by that. “You’re still in touch with each other,” he pointed out.
“Why would she keep in touch with someone if she didn’t get something from it? Clearly she gets something out of your company.” He sipped his tea, pointedly. “Just think about it, anyway.”
“…I’ll think about it,” Grace agreed. She snapped a cookie in two and ate a half, then said, “Well. It seems like you’re coming along nicely with your dreaming. Have you gone anywhere on your own already?”
Jay allowed her to change the subject. “I went to Ulthar,” he said. He described what had happened, rescuing the cat, the cat following him home. “I mean, I’ve since learned that he’s kind of an eldritch cat, but… I like him. I can come back, right? I can take him to meet you?”
“Of course you can come back,” she said. “And I’d like that very much. The cats of Ulthar are still just cats, but… unlike the cats in our world, they still remember where they came from. So they’re just a little closer to their origin.”
Jay thought about the strange horned form he’d seen, and was about to quibble that it was more than a little, but let it go. Ulthar acted like a cat, anyway, and most of the time, he looked like a cat, and that made him basically just a normal cat. Sure, he told himself. “Well, I’m glad to have him with me,” he said instead. “I think you’ll like him. Can you give me any tips on dreaming? I’d… like to learn more. I’d like to learn more from you.”
Her eyes widened, and then she smiled, ducking her head. “I’d like that too,” she said, and ate the other half of her cookie, brushing sugar off her hands. “All right, let’s go over some basics.”
They chatted for a little while about that, Jay taking mental notes on the quick tips she gave. He could still sleep normally—it would just be harder now, but it was good to do so once in a while to refresh himself. The Dreamlands was both a physical world and a metaphysical one; he could travel there just in dream form or, by going through the door, in physical form. Most gates into other worlds were in paintings, doors, or windows, so he had to be cautious of those—primarily in the Dreamlands, since there were many of them there, but even in his own reality, if it had a frame, the inside of that frame could go somewhere else. Just like the door she’d built in her house.
From there, they moved onto more mundane topics, onto what items in her house she wanted him to keep, or anything specific she wanted done—but she had little to offer there. Anything that hadn’t been in the will, she didn’t care about, though she cautioned him that she’d found numerous powerful items over time as she’d investigated, many of which she’d forgotten about. If he could recover her files, or read through more of them in the Library, he might find records of those items. “When in doubt, though, the Dylan family should be able to tell you if you’re handling something awful. I suppose the Castaigne boy might as well,” she added, “though I don’t know that he’ll pay attention to much that isn’t relevant to him.”
“He will,” Jay said. “I’m sure of it.”
“I’m glad, then.”
There were a few pieces of jewelry that she suggested his mother might like, and that got onto the topic of the family. He caught her up on what they’d been up to recently, telling her all the little family anecdotes, along with everything big he could think of from the last eight years. And then, almost hesitant, he asked, “Is there… anything you want me to pass onto them? Anything you want me to tell them on your behalf?”
“I think it’s best they think I’m dead,” Grace said. “There’s no explaining this without pulling people into it.”
Jay nodded. “Sure, but… I mean, I can say that I found things around your house. You did keep journals. So… if you want to pass on any thoughts, anything you want them to know, I can do that. I’d just say I found it in your records, that you were thinking of them at some point.”
Grace smiled, leaning in and wrapping an arm around Jay in a hug. “All right,” she said. “That’s smart thinking. Tell Susan that I hope she’s worrying less about money. That girl worries too much. Ah, and tell Do-Hun that I miss his cooking.”
He hugged her back, holding on tight. “I’ll tell them,” he promised. For a moment, his heart ached. “I’ve missed you,” he said, abrupt, almost explosive. “I’m just… I’m so glad I could see you again.”
“I’m glad too,” she murmured, hugging him back just as hard. “Don’t come here every night or anything—I want you to explore, and grow, and all that. But… well, you can come back whenever you want. I’ll be here. I’ll always be here.”
He wiped his leaky face on her shoulder and nodded. “I will,” he promised, voice rough. “I love you, Aunt Grace.”
“I love you, Jae-Hyun,” she told him, and kissed the top of his head. “You’re a good boy, a kind boy. I’m so glad my legacy hasn’t harmed that at all.”
Laughing shakily, Jay finally pulled back, wiping his eyes. His tea was empty, and he’d eaten as many cookies as he could. “It hasn’t.” he said. “I… I should go. I have people at home waiting for me.”
For a moment, her expression was wistful. But she nodded. “I’m glad you do,” she said simply. “I’ll see you soon?”
“I’ll see you soon,” he promised.
Jay woke up in Aunt Grace’s bed still fully dressed, feeling Ulthar making biscuits on his prone body and purring loudly. He scrubbed his eyes as he opened them, finding them wet, then pulled his cat down for a cuddle.
Sunlight was streaming in through the curtains; from the quality of it, he guessed it was around noon. He could hear the shower running in the bathroom where the wall was shared with the bedroom, and realized, to his surprise, that Louis must not have gone back to his own house to wash up.
With Ulthar tucked purring against his side, he groped around on the bedside table until he found his phone, then checked it. He had five messages from Camden, each more worried than the last, except that between four and five, a message had gone out from his phone:
He’s fine – Louis C.
Not very subtle about Louis having been over, Jay thought wryly, which might have explained Camden’s sudden awkward reply of just Thx. He considered for a moment, then typed back:
Yes, I’m fine, sorry! Louis got back before me. The world is safe and I’m not dead. I’ve got some stuff to take care of but if you want to meet in a couple of hours for a coffee or something, I’ll catch you up. He’d clearly nearly given Camden a heart attack, after all; the least he could do was give him all the news in person.
Jay sent the message, then yawned, getting up and opening the curtains, gazing out at the sun-drenched wooded landscape outside with a sense of satisfaction. Mine, he thought smugly. Ulthar squinted into the light, then burrowed into the blankets, so Jay left him there.
What else should he do today, he pondered. Maybe, if he popped into town to meet Camden, he’d also stop in to check in on Hannah. He probably wouldn’t have another load of Grace’s things ready for her, not since he definitely planned to take the day easy, but… it sounded like she wanted some company now and again. He’d originally been thinking the surprise should be flowers or chocolate, since it sounded like that was the sort of thing she wanted, but since he’d hooked up with Louis… well, maybe he’d see if he could loan her a book or game instead. Something they could talk about later, but was a little less… weighted.
But that could wait. There was a reason he’d told Camden that he’d meet in a few hours; he had plans to make today a slow, quiet, sweet day. He’d been in such a rush before, with the world’s end bearing down on him, but… that was over. And this was his home now, it was his community now.
All those things the flute had promised him, he could make them himself, right here, by living it. He had plenty of time.
Jay headed into the hall, knocking on the bathroom door. “It’s me,” he said.
Grinning to himself, Jay opened the door. Louis was in the shower, naked but for his mask, a gorgeous sight even though the water was running faintly pink with blood.
“Room for another?”
“Please. I can’t get my back well on my own.” But Louis’s tone was a bit knowing, a bit mischievous, and he gestured at Jay with a languid hand. “You want to get out of all of that?”
Jay beamed at him. “Absolutely,” he said, and shut the bathroom door behind himself.
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