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Anxiety was rising in Viv, shame churning in her gut, choking her as firmly as hands around her throat. She knew she had to calm down and breathe, she knew she had to get this back under control for both their sakes—if this continued as things were with Thys, they’d be furious with each other at the end, she knew they would be.
It was just like how things had been with Reese.
She could imagine that disapproval growing, imagine the cold disgust with which Thys would treat her after this. That she, someone fundamentally useless, thought she had the right to set terms, make demands, ask for things like communication as if it was easy. She hardly had to imagine her own hysterical screaming in return, hardly had to make up how the fight would escalate. The memories of it were almost drowning her.
But she wasn’t ready to be married! She wasn’t ready! She didn’t know Thys, that was the whole point of having to ask them things at all, if she knew Thys already then this wouldn’t be a problem!
“I, I want,” she tried to get out, but her voice was too high, her teeth were chattering, tears were welling in her eyes.
Thys… blinked. Some of their tall, stiff posture seemed to melt away, their brows creasing in visible confusion. “Viv? What…”
“I just, I just got out of a relationship, it was really bad, everyone hates me now.” She could hear herself babbling, tried desperately to get it back under control. “They couldn’t stand to have me around, not at all, I got sent here in exile b-because they couldn’t, and, I, I just, I don’t know how to be good to you, I don’t know if I’m ready, I didn’t mean—”
Oh no. She was worrying Thys now, she could tell. Thys had reached out to her, caught her by an elbow to stop her from hugging herself so hard that her nails were dragging at her sweater.
Viv tried to breathe, tried to loosen her own grip on herself. “I’m sorry, I didn’t know.”
“I think,” Thys said slowly, with audible alarm, “that I am beginning to see that.”
Thys’s lack of anger helped unspiral the anxiety. Guilt came in behind it; she hated getting like this, and she scrubbed at her own face with her hands, furiously. Thys pulled those away too, as if worried that Viv was clawing at her skin. “I’m okay, sorry. Sorry. I just. I really did just get out of a bad relationship. I just wanted to help you, and I like you, and I understand fae do things differently, I just didn’t realize. I didn’t mean to dis…to disrespect you—”
“I see that, too,” Thys said. “Hush. Hush.”
They pulled Viv into an embrace, and Viv let herself cry despite the guilt, hot tears that scalded her face in the cold air outside. People were staring at them, she knew they were, but she couldn’t stop it from happening, so she just cried until that knot unwound further, and then put her arms around Thys in return. Thys felt delicate under her embrace, as though their skin was fragile, even though Viv knew how strong they were.
“I’m not saying I don’t want to be your betrothed,” Viv managed, finally, when she’d cried enough that only shame was left behind. “I just. I only just met you. And things can go so bad even when you do know someone. I don’t even know what I did that got us betrothed.”
“I don’t do things like humans do,” Thys said softly. “You saved me, then offered yourself to me, and the moment I accepted it from you, I was yours. I am yours. You could break this betrothal now, if you wished. But…”
Viv managed to pull back. Her nose was so stuffy that her cheeks hurt, sinuses backed up way too far. “But?” she asked weakly.
Thys smiled and tucked some of Viv’s hair behind an ear. “If you wish to try, we do not need to marry immediately. We can be betrothed for a time and see how that is.”
It was completely unbelievable. Yet—
Viv had to admit it was happening. She let out a wet giggle, said, “Sorry,” again, and then just nodded. “Okay,” she said. “…Okay. I do want to try being with you. But if I’m… bad at it… I want an out.”
“I am,” Thys said delicately, and then hesitated, before finally pulling a scrunched-up, annoyed face. “I am one of the fae. We do not handle well our gifts being rejected, nor our hospitality ignored.”
“Who does?” Viv mumbled.
“Perhaps so,” Thys said, with a sigh. “I will try to understand. If we are different, then we must work harder. Yes?”
“Yes,” Viv said. She reached out and snagged their hand. “I’m so sorry I did this, I didn’t mean—”
Thys lifted their free hand and tapped Viv’s lips. “No more of that,” they said gently. “You have your reasons. I have mine. Let’s respect that.”
It was so hard to respect herself for this, but arguing would make things worse. Viv just nodded, and took a few moments to breathe. “So,” she said. “So. I… in the name of respecting. I still think I need to know about your past but, I… I really want to consider your feelings. I don’t want to hurt you again, or make you feel…rejected? Keep in mind I don’t mean to.”
“I’ll try. I will try,” Thys said. “Just know that I, too, can react sometimes.”
“That’s fair,” Viv said. Holding Thys’s hand tight, she tried to remember what she’d wanted to ask, the things that seemed relevant. “Are you reluctant to talk about these things because of… is it dangerous to you? I only want to know things you are willing or able to talk about…”
Thys shook their head, a rueful smile on their lips. “Oh, no! No. No danger. I simply don’t want to. The present is here holding my hand. I have no desire to think of things I have left behind me. And we do not like to be made to do things we do not desire.”
Viv let out another weak giggle. “Again, who does?”
“Perhaps so,” Thys repeated, but they were smiling still, more relaxed now.
“Okay,” Viv said. She took another deep breath. “Keep in mind I’m just trying to figure out the… the victim profile? Why this lanternfish is chasing you. So not all my questions might seem to be related, and if you really think I don’t need to know, you can tell me.”
“That’s fair,” Thys said. And then, almost coaxingly, “That is kind. It’s a beautiful compromise.”
Viv sort of shrugged. Beautiful, huh. “Okay. So. You’re supposed to lead an army? Against what enemy?”
“No specific enemy,” Thys said. They were still looking at Viv tenderly, still holding her hand carefully, as if having realized Viv was fragile, but their voice grew cooler as they talked of it. “It is not that we are at war, though the fae have had wars in the past, and peace treaties, and so on. But I am of a rank that if it is decided by the Courts that we should go to war, I would be expected to draw from my lands to gather an army and to lead it in what we do.”
That was interesting. It built a picture of Thys as some sort of noble who was a vassal to a higher power. Viv was reminded of feudal power hierarchies, where the king would grant land to his nobles or knights, and they in turn would oversee the people who lived on and worked that land, but if the king said jump, they had to jump nevertheless.
Then again, Thys hadn’t said that, and Viv knew she couldn’t assume. Still, she didn’t want to ask directly if it was exactly like that—if Thys had wanted to say it, they’d have given their rank or whatever—so she took a different tack. “Why would you be unable to escape?”
“It’s smothering. I am in an odd position where I am… powerful. I had access to an army, if I needed it. I had lands at my fingertips to rule over. And yet I was a spoiled pet to those more powerful than me. I was expected to always do what was expected, and do it for them. And so I ran away. I took advantage of them not thinking I would do so, but I would not be able to fool them twice.”
“You don’t have the right to say no?”
“Few people do, with the fae,” Thys said.
Given that Viv had become betrothed without meaning to, she could see that. “What did they want you for?”
“I am a good singer. I am lovely to look at. I can sense disaster, which is a powerful boon to the Court. And I was raised to rank and power, so it is just what was expected. If I returned, I would be chided for my rebellion, and praised for my return, and then reinstated with power to do whatever I wished except leave.”
“If you could raise an army, could they really stop you from leaving?”
Thys said, “I am not sure I would make it come to a civil war that others would fight and die for so that I could have my own autonomy.”
That was…fair enough. Viv swallowed. “I… I don’t think I have any other specific questions,” she said. “Dandelion gave me an idea of your powers, so I won’t ask further about that; if you have something that’s useful, I imagine you’d say. But… do you know what the lanternfish wants from you?”
“I don’t know,” Thys said softly. “Out here, I’m but an extremely minor celebrity with a small fan following. I like it that way. So I don’t know why I would be a target. If the lanternfish were fae, I would think they were envious of what I gave up, or angry if I made things more inconvenient for them. But it isn’t one, so I don’t see how those things could be relevant.”
“Okay,” Viv said. She squeezed Thys’s hand again. “That’s it. I don’t think I have any other questions…”
Thys’s brow creased. Hesitantly, they said, “I had been going to bind you to ask your questions here or not at all. But… I suppose… if you need to know me to love me, that would be an ill-fated thing I would do to us. If you think of something you must ask later, I will… try to remember, and be kind enough to answer.”
Tears prickled in Viv’s eyes again.
“Oh. Oh no,” Thys said. “You’re doing it again. It’s happening.”
Viv burst into a giggle and scrubbed at her eyes. She had a tear-headache and her mouth tasted terrible. “No, I was just happy. You’re being very kind even though I was so unreasonable.”
“Was it unreasonable…?”
“Anyway,” Viv said, voice shaking slightly, “we should figure out what we do with the rest of our day. It’ll be evening soon and I don’t know if the lanternfish will act once it’s dark. We were told it was stronger in the dark. If we want to not bring new people in, Varsha might be able to help with scent if needed? Snakes have a good sense of smell, and she’s your friend, and lives in the same building that this thing is hunting us in. So… that might be an option.”
“Oh!” Thys seemed to straighten. “That’s a clever idea. I think you’re right, she might be good if we need that.”
“And otherwise? I think we should try to track down Isaac. I can try to use him to get connected to the Council. Maybe we can get a spell that can get triggered which can fully light an area. If I can carry it in my pocket, we don’t need to involve someone else. Powerful witches can enchant items for other people to use, even if they can’t cast spells.” Like me, she thought with only a small amount of self-loathing.
Thys nodded. “…It might be good to see if the healing is proceeding as expected, too. However, what should we do first, my sweet? Isaac was on call last night, but I believe he usually works days, so he may be unavailable if we do not act soon. Yet Varsha may too be unavailable soon, since she’ll start work in the evening. So… we should decide fast which we should go to see, if we need to get it done before night falls.”
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