“Yeah?” She cuddled closer into his side as they made their way off of the school roof. The armor dug into her waist, but she ignored the discomfort, looking up at Jim.
Jim was biting at his lip, and she couldn’t recall just then if trolls cried. But humans did, so maybe half-human, half-trolls could too. And he looked close to tears. “Why are you still here? With me? How are you so… calm about this?” he choked out a laugh. “I’m not even close to calm about this.”
Claire ran a hand down his arm. “You’re still you, Jim.”
“I’m not, really,” he mumbled. “I’m never gonna be the same. But you… are you really okay with having this—” he gestured to all six feet of himself “—as your boyfriend?”
Frowning, Claire looked up at him and felt herself nodding before she had even decided what words she would use. “Jim,” she said slowly, trying to get it right, “this is part of my life now. Trolls, magic, goblins. All of it. For a long time, my brother was secretly a troll—and I learned to live with it! Not-Enrique is, weirdly enough, one of my best friends now. And I can read Trollish, and I love talking to Blinky and AAARRRGGHH!!! and all the other trolls I meet.
“If I didn’t know any of this stuff, this whole world,” she continued, “I don’t know, maybe my reaction would be different. But all I know is this reality, where I know you and I know the trolls. And I’m not going anywhere. Okay?”
Jim folded his arms around himself. “I feel like I’m not myself anymore,” he whispered. “I appreciate everything you guys are doing for me, but—I don’t know. I don’t feel like him anymore.”
She took one of his hands—with four fingers now, she noticed—and curled it around hers, holding it to her chest. “I know,” she said honestly. “And that’s okay. You’re allowed to be different now. You’re allowed to want or need different things. To like different things.”
A tiny smile tugged as his lips, as though he couldn’t resist it. He looked down at their hands, held to her chest, and flexed the fingers of his other hand. “You’re incredible, Claire.”
“Yeah. A little,” she teased, smiling back at him, then grew serious. “I mean it, Jim. I’m here for you. For moral support, for talking you down, for holding your hand, anything. All of it. If you need anything, I’m here. Just ask me. I want you to ask.”
He hesitated. “Do you think maybe, sometime, you could—” he paused, smile dropping. “No, never mind.”
“Uh-uh,” she shook her head. “You can’t hold anything back. That never leads anywhere good. Please, tell me.”
Sighing, he jerked his head to gesture toward where Blinky was conversing with Barbara and Toby. Strickler and AAARRRGGHH!!! were also standing nearby. “Okay, later, I promise. When we’re alone, though.”
Satisfied, she brought up their entwined hands to press a kiss to his palm. “Okay,” she replied, and Jim smiled before going to ask his mom a question.
What exactly, she wondered, did he want that he wouldn’t ask for until they were alone?
It turned out that she didn’t get to find out for a while.
“So. That was a crazy few days,” said Claire, nonchalantly.
She and Jim had been going nonstop for almost a week, since Jim had turned half-troll. From defeating Gunmar, to trapping Morgana, to leaving to find a new Heartstone. She’d left her family behind, graduated early from high school. Jim left his mother and Toby to protect the town. With the trolls, they’d been traveling under the cover of darkness for a couple of nights now, getting shelter in the daytime wherever they could, and this dawn they’d had the luck to stumble upon a whole series of caves. Thank goodness for the mountains.
At Blinky’s unsubtle wink and gestures for her to do so, Claire had claimed a tiny cave just for herself and Jim, while other trolls divided amongst themselves for their own sleeping arrangements. She’d lit a candle she had, since the cave protected them completely from the daylight, and gotten their belongings inside while Jim helped the other trolls get organized. Jim hadn’t protested at her insistence they share a cave—in fact, he hadn’t said much of anything since their final battle that wasn’t directions to New Jersey or other help to the trolls. He’d barely spoken to her at all except to consult on how to cross the highways at night or where was best to take shelter.
It wasn’t that he was processing or upset at her, she thought. Just… processing.
As expected, he only gave a vague half-smile, not replying to what she’d said. Claire stuffed a sweatshirt she’d stolen from a traveler’s stop under her head as a makeshift pillow. The cave floor was hard but not cold, leaving her grateful, since they didn’t have any blankets. Trolls didn’t get cold.
That apparently extended to Jim now, too, who didn’t appear to be cold at all and hadn’t removed his armor throughout the journey. Secretly, she suspected that he couldn’t—that his adrenaline was still running too high. Eclipse still thought he was in danger. She wished she could do something about it, casting a look to where she’d easily discarded her Merlin-made armor at the wall of the cave earlier.
“Hey,” she thought aloud suddenly, “what was that thing you wanted me to do for you?”
Jim turned his head to face where she was lying down. They were laying almost three feet apart, which she was secretly glad of since she certainly wouldn’t fall asleep against his hard, cold armor. “What was that?” he asked curiously.
“I said—” she yawned. “A few days ago, when we were talking. I told you I was there for you if you needed anything, you said there was something you’d tell me when we were alone. We’ve been going nonstop since then, and this is our first time alone. So? What was it?”
For the first time in a while, she saw emotions other than grim determination on Jim’s face: recognition, embarrassment, and shyness. “It was nothing,” he muttered.
“It was something,” she pressed. “Come on, Jim. You promised you’d let me be here for you. I want to be here for you.”
“You already are,” he smiled, but at her insistent look his smile faded. He ducked his head and put a hand on the back of his neck, his nerves peeking through. “Okay—it’s just… don’t laugh, okay?”
“You know I wouldn’t.”
He shrugged, avoiding eye contact. “It’s just that this body… feels different, has different instincts and stuff. You know how trolls are groomed sometimes by the gnomes? It’s not that,” he said hurriedly at her raised eyebrow. “I don’t want that, really. But I think it’s… kind of like that?” he looked at her expectantly.
“Jim,” she said finally, but with patience, “honey, you still haven’t told me what it is. I’m in the dark, here.”
“I want you to touch my hair!” he burst out, and then Claire had the delight of learning that he could in fact still blush, despite his half-troll nature. “I mean,” he mumbled, “just like… run your fingers through it, maybe?”
Claire very carefully didn’t make a face or anything else that Jim might interpret as judgment—everyone’s stress meters were still running a little high after the final battle, and she didn’t want to instigate a fight, especially when she didn’t think this was anything worth judging anyway. Everyone had their own ways of relaxing. If this was a new one of Jim’s, thanks to his trollish nature, she could roll with that. She moved the candle away from in-between them and scooted herself closer. “Turn over,” she instructed, before he could go any redder. When he did roll over until his back faced her, she sat up a little and pushed her fingers through his black-blue hair tentatively, easily avoiding the horns.
Like she’d shocked him, Jim shuddered all over at the touch.
“Okay?” she asked, nervous.
“Yeah.” Jim’s voice stretched out the one word long and low, a testament to how sorely he’d needed this. As she resumed the stroking, his muscles went limp and he relaxed against her hand for what she knew was the first time in days.
She kept going. Scratching her nails against his scalp, she discovered, caused him to completely melt into her ministrations. Deciding to take advantage of this time together before they needed to sleep, she said quietly, “You know, if you could get Eclipse off, I could rub your shoulders, too. I bet you’re super tense, knots everywhere.”
Abruptly, he sucked in a breath. “I can’t get it off,” he confessed, tongue loosened by how the hair-petting was calling him to sleep. “I’ve been… I’ve been trying. Since we left Arcadia.”
“Okay,” she murmured. “That’s okay. Are you still hyped up from the battle?”
“No,” he answered, the word tinged with his frustration. She kept carding a hand through his hair, waiting for him to finish. “I just feel like… the fight isn’t really over yet. I haven’t done everything I need to do.”
Without knowing for sure, she had a pretty good guess what that meant. “You avenged Draal,” she murmured. He gave another full-body shudder, but for a different reason this time. “I know it doesn’t feel like enough,” she continued, “but you did everything you could. You avenged him, and you saved all of the trolls, and you defeated Gunmar. Jim, Draal would be so, so proud of you right now.”
Jim pushed himself back until he was pressed up against her. His armor wasn’t as cold as she had thought. “I just—” his voice shook. “I wish I could have saved him. There’s so many I wish could have saved. Him—he’s the worst.”
“Draal had no regrets,” she replied, swallowing back her own tears. “Except maybe that he didn’t get to meet you as a troll.”
He choked on a sudden laugh. “Yeah, probably,” he agreed, his voice thick. “He would have loved that.”
They lay there in a comfortable silence for a few minutes. Calmly, she stroked through his hair until she felt him eventually go boneless again. She leaned over him until she could see that his eyes were closed, and heard his breathing go deep and even. Lightly, she pressed a kiss to his cheek. “He’d be so proud of you,” she whispered, so he wouldn’t wake up. “I know I am.”
When she woke in the evening, it was to find Jim lying in front of her, her arm wrapped around his waist. In normal circumstances, she’d be pretty pleased with the situation.
The surprising part about all of that, though, was that he was practically naked.
“Oh my god,” she said, forgetting to stay quiet.
Jim shifted and opened an eye warily. “What’s wrong?” He caught sight of himself and sat up. “Oh my god!”
“Eclipse went away sometime in the night,” she said faintly, feeling the tips of her ears burn pink. She could still feel where he'd been sleeping, his back to her front—he'd been oddly warm.
Jim’s blue hoodie was much too small due to his giant growth spurt as a half-troll, hanging at his ribs and leaving his stomach totally uncovered. His jeans and shoes had obviously given up completely after his transformation, with no trace of them to be found, and all he wore were some boxers that had probably been somewhat big on him in human form. In half-troll form, though, it looked like they were probably tight enough to eventually cut off his circulation.
“Oh my god,” he repeated, sounding like he was torn between elation that his armor was gone and mortification at his current… predicament. She was getting to see that blush again.
After a few more seconds of embarrassed gawking, Claire snapped herself out of it with a shake of her head. “Okay,” she said determinedly, checking her watch. “It’s almost four in the afternoon. We have at least an hour before most stores close, there’s an outlet mall about a mile from here in the nearest town. I’m gonna go get you some new clothes. What do you think you are now? An extra large?”
“Maybe extra-extra large, just to be safe,” he said miserably, tugging at the ripped edges of his hoodie for dramatic emphasis. “Man, I can’t believe this thing is gone. I’ve had it forever.”
Without meaning to, she found herself not-quite-laughing at the awkward picture of Jim standing there, fidgeting with his torn clothes. “I’m just gonna… guesstimate on pants,” she offered, pointedly not looking anywhere near the relevant area.
“Thank you,” he squeaked, but managed to shuck off his discomfort long enough to ask her if she had her phone before she left the cave.
“I do,” she showed him, and blew him a mocking kiss that had him blushing all over again as she hiked her way back to the town they’d passed last night.
Clothes shopping had never been Claire’s favorite pastime, but she had to admit, “shopping for my half-troll boyfriend” gave the activity just the flair it needed to make it kind of exciting for her. She took great joy in picking out a huge blue hoodie to fit Jim’s frame—not quite the same shade as his old one, but hopefully close enough for him to like it—and some jeans and a pair of sweatpants. She also grabbed a belt for the jeans, just in case, and a large t-shirt for if he overheated in the hoodie. Shoes were a lost cause without measuring. Jim would just have to go barefoot a while longer. Claire gritted her teeth before grabbing two pairs of boxers that would hopefully fit until she could go properly shopping. “The things we do for love,” she grumbled, stuffing them into her basket and ignoring the blush making its way down her face.
The checkout girl looked at her purchases in something approaching abject horror, but with too little interest to actually be horrified. “Do you have a rewards card with us?” she asked, monotone, before glancing up at the clock on the wall.
“No,” Claire smiled and handed the girl her mother’s emergency credit card. If her mother saw the bill and wanted to know why she was using it at the Old Navy of all places, Claire decided she’d rather pay it off herself and also maybe swallow her tongue rather than explain that she’d woken up curled around her half-naked troll boyfriend this evening. Yeah, that was her plan.
The trek back to the caves didn’t take long, even with the bags, but she found herself hurrying anyway so she could get back before nightfall. As soon as the sun went down, they could continue on their way, and the sooner they’d get to the new Heartstone. It was going to take long enough, considering summer’s longer days and shorter nights. She didn’t want to be responsible for wasting even five minutes they could use.
Jim was standing at the edge of the cave, just outside of the sun’s reach, when she arrived, and he broke into a smile when he saw her. “Thank you so much,” he said, his gratitude a little too obvious to be anything other than desperate, and grabbed for the clothes. Claire obediently stood with her back turned, drinking from the water bottle she’d refilled at the mall, while he changed.
When she got the go-ahead to come in, she turned and saw Jim in the jeans—no belt needed, thankfully—and hoodie. Presumably, boxers on. “Everything feel okay?” she asked anxiously. “I can go someplace else tomorrow if you need—”
“Everything is perfect,” he interrupted, dropping a kiss on her forehead. “I love the hoodie. Thank you.”
“I thought you’d like that.” She felt an irresistible smile pull at her lips. “So, now that you’re decent, what’s next?”
“Sunset’s not for another hour or so. The trolls won’t wake up until then. We’re kind of stuck, for now.”
“So you’re saying,” she pushed herself into him until she was cuddled in his arms, “that we have some free time. To ourselves. Alone.”
“Yes,” he grinned lazily down at her. “I’m saying exactly that, though I’m not sure what you’re implying, Miss Nuñez.”
She pulled at his shoulders until he bent down a little, so she could reach up and run her fingers through his hair. As he gave a shiver, biting his lip, she smiled. “I’m implying, Mr. Lake, that we get to spend time with each other. No Blinky trying to well-meaningly give us space. No trolls getting in the way, asking a billion questions. Just us. And everything else... is just…” She leaned up toward his lips, stopping inches away, and let the word roll off her tongue. “Crispy.”
Jim rolled his eyes and snickered. “Okay, I had that one coming.”
“You did,” she laughed, reaching up on her tiptoes to press a kiss to his lips. She moved to grab at his hand, entwining their fingers together tightly, and closed her eyes to let him kiss her back.
All things considered, the journey to find the new Heartstone was not off to a bad start.