“Be reasonable, auntie,” Viv said, with some impatience, into the phone. “I don’t see how telling you that I’d pay you back for the cost of breaking lease is ‘throwing your gift back in your face’.”
Aunt Bethany let out an enraged, tea-kettle sound. “You need the place I rented for you! That’s why I rented it! Do you really think that moving in with a partner within two weeks is a good idea?!”
Normally, Viv would say no. She’d say it both because it was common sense, and because she’d spent her entire life bowing to what her aunt insisted was the right thing to do.
But after the last week? She found herself hard-pressed to be intimidated by her overbearing aunt. “Sure, it’s fine,” she said. “We’re good with it. And my partner really loves the cats.”
“You can’t do this to me,” Aunt Beth groaned.
“I’m not doing anything. Like I said, I’ll pay the fee.”
“With what money?! Both of us know you don’t work, and with no driver’s license, I can’t see how you’ll ever get a job. You can’t count on living on your partner’s kindness forever, you know,” Beth said, as if she hadn’t fully expected Viv to live on Beth’s kindness forever. “What will you do when you two break up?”
When, not if, Viv noted. Again, normally, she’d think that was fair. After all, things between her and Reese had gone sour in the worst way. But Reese had never tried to work things out with her, and Thys had been willing to struggle against their own nature in the name of communication and understanding. “I mean, if that happens,” Viv stressed, “I’ll be fine. I just got a job working at a nearby coffee shop—”
“Where you’ll make a pittance alone, I’m sure—”
“—and I’m actively working with the Twilight Council to get properly trained, so I can get a job in witchery after we’ve got all my new abilities sorted out. I’ll be fine even if the worst happens. You don’t need to worry about me so much.”
For a moment, Aunt Beth was silent. And then, bitterly, she said, “You’re not even a real witch, Viv! Even if you’re not lying about the things you’ve told me about your new powers, they only work at night now anyway. During the day, you can still barely get a spell off. Do you really think this is the path for you?”
Viv swallowed, trying to force the pain down. Beth wasn’t wrong—Viv hadn’t realized it during the time they were dealing with everything, since it all went down so fast and at night. But her newfound abilities were somehow tied to light and shadow now. While her abilities during the daytime weren’t entirely as awful as they’d originally been, they were faint shadows of the night magic she’d learned to do.
Thys theorized it was because dealan-dé were nocturnal by nature, so, when Thys’s power eased open Viv’s channels, it was tied to that. Besides which, when they’d been bonded, Thys was still being drained by the lanternfish, so that might have affected things too. The Twilight Counsel was experimenting, but they didn’t seem to think it was too odd, necessarily. When channels open oddly, odd expressions of magic can appear, they’d said.
After all the years of Beth’s refusal to let Viv do anything but practice in the traditional way, as if it was possible to break down the blocks in her through repetition alone, she was acting like this when Viv had finally figured out something that let her actually work?
She supposed that Beth must feel pretty bitter that after finally washing her hands of Viv and sending her away to be an embarrassment far away. It probably stuck in her craw that the moment she gave up on Viv, Viv started doing just fine.
Briefly, she considered turning this into a real fight—but there was no point. There was no convincing Beth, she’d learned that years ago. “So what?” Viv said instead. “People still need magic at night. And if that means I’m not a real witch, maybe I’m something different now. That’d be cool.”
“Viv, you can’t just—”
“Got to go, auntie,” Viv said. “I’m going to be late for an appointment.”
She hung up, then stared down at the phone, stewing a little. Pebbles was already curled up in her lap where she was sitting on the couch. But the moment she was off the phone, the other two cats came over too. Beano hopped up, shaking the couch with his weight as he flumphed over, leaning his side against Viv. And even aloof Notch came over and wound against her ankles in passing, trying to comfort.
“Thanks, guys,” she muttered, then almost jumped as Thys too leaned in from behind the couch, draping their arms around Viv and hugging. “Sorry, I’m okay.”
Thys hummed softly. “I feel as if I should pay a visit to your aunt.”
“You really don’t have to.”
“I feel as though I should,” Thys said. “I would like to put a little fear into her.”
Viv laughed, shaking her head. “She’s just…” A sigh. “I don’t know. She means well, I think, but she’s been emotionally invested in me as a project more than a person, so I don’t think she knows how to take all of this. I’m okay. She’s family, you know, but… I don’t need her to approve of me. I’ve got you.”
Notch nipped her toes, making her jump.
“I’ve got you, and these three,” Viv amended, smiling ruefully. “But thanks, Thys.”
“I do know what you mean about family,” Thys said. And then, abruptly, “Gwyffelydd.”
Thys kissed the top of Viv’s head. “From my lips to your ears, my true name. Do not use it in public, if you would not mind. Humans may use it for all sorts of purposes, and, besides, it’s rude.”
“I don’t want to be rude,” Viv said, tipping her head back and gazing up at Thys warmly. “I’d be a lousy wife if I did, wouldn’t I?”
Thys pinked a little. “You would! Yet I cannot imagine you being a lousy wife, and so… so there.”
“So there,” Viv echoed back. She reached up, snagging some of Thys’s strangely-dusty hair, tugging them down for a kiss.
For a moment, they just kissed, soft and warm and wet, one kiss turning into another into another. Thys’s hands slid off Viv’s shoulders, down, forward, and Viv let out a little groan, then pulled away, blushing. “You know I’d love to, but we really are going to be late.”
“Hmmm,” Thys said dubiously.
“If it were just meeting the guys after, that’s one thing,” Viv said, going even redder. “But given the rest…”
“Yes. We should not keep that one waiting,” Thys said reluctantly, and pulled away. “Later, then.”
“Later,” Viv promised eagerly. She’d definitely look forward to it.
They’d definitely had time after all, Viv thought ruefully, checking the time on her phone for the fifth time. Thys seemed to be thinking the same thing, pacing small even circles directly around Viv, their cheeks puffed out a little with mild irritation.
“Yeah, I know,” the ticket seller said dryly. “This happens a lot.”
“What does, darling?” Lithway asked, sweeping into the room. The spider-woman just shrugged, gesturing at Viv and Thys instead of answering, and Lithway seemed to beam, sweeping around to shake their hands. “There you are! I thought you might have left. So sorry to be held up, I had to work out some technical details with my orchestra, you know how it is.”
“Sure, yeah, of course,” said Viv, who had noticed that Lithway had come from the direction of the apartments overhead, not the practice area backstage. “Because of the new piece, right?”
“Of course,” Lithway said. “Best to get everyone started as soon as possible.”
The day after they’d defeated the shadow woman, Lithway had abruptly cancelled all remaining performances of The Lanternfish’s Lure and refunded outstanding tickets. They had announced a new play, Tatterdemalion, to begin instead in one week, and that anyone who wished their tickets to be transferred rather than refunded would be guaranteed seats.
They refused to explain to the press the sudden change, but the press was accustomed to Lithway’s whims and it hardly got any commentary beyond the announcement itself. Viv and Thys had their own theories, of course, which they had discussed behind closed doors, but it didn’t matter. If the issue was closed and Lithway no longer wished to be spreading news or information about their own kind, so be it.
Viv studied Lithway for a long moment. As she’d thought, Lithway and the shadow woman were very clearly the same thing, although Lithway, to the best of her knowledge, had never appeared as anyone but Lithway, as anything but shadow. She wondered if that was an inherent difference—if there were multiple type of shadowfolk, and Lithway was warning them about the other kind—or if Lithway just chose not to steal lives and faces the way the shadow woman had.
There was a third option, of course, that she didn’t like thinking about—that Lithway did, and just, nobody knew about it. Yet they’d clearly been concerned enough about the shadow woman hunting in Branwin Valley to subtly warn people about the threat, so perhaps that last was impossible after all.
“Something on my face?” he asked wryly.
“Is anything ever?” Thys asked, as if thinking the same thing Viv had.
Lithway beamed at them both, beatific. “Why, masks sometimes. The theatre does demand it. Rarely makeup; it tends to be a little garish on me, darlings. Are you here to tell me how things went?” They led the way into the back.
They did, taking turns explaining what happened with the shadow woman, and both being careful not to put into direct words the conclusion they’d made that the ‘lanternfish’ was just one of the shadowfolk. As Lithway had said before, conclusions they formed on their own time was fine—but he didn’t want to be responsible for things getting out.
After Viv explained about showing the memories to the fae lord, Lithway reached for her head. She flinched slightly, and Thys stiffened, but Lithway just ruffled her hair. “It sounds to me as if you treated my request with respect, which is all I can ask for.”
She nodded after a moment, and looked up into their shadowy eyes. “I understand your reasons for wanting to keep things secret,” she said, instead of anything more specific. “But aren’t you worried that your play might draw more attention to you than you wanted? What if the… the lanternfish had said something to someone?”
Lithway considered that, leaning back and reclining on a chair made of the shadows that surrounded them. “Well, it’s possible, but she’d have a hard time finding someone here to tattle to; she’d have to successfully make it back to… wherever she came from,” Lithway said, finally. Their tone was vague. “Valleys are places for misfits, you know. Not always, of course, but so many of us are humans who had reason to wander away from human-first societies, or monsters who, likewise, had reason to leave their own realms or the Otherworld to live somewhere new entirely. Perhaps I am a misfit as well, when you think of it that way.”
They didn’t seem to be inclined to say more than that, so Thys and Viv shared a look, neither entirely sure what Lithway meant by that. Still, rather than prying, they simply bowed. “We’ve got something else to be getting to, my lord, so if you are satisfied, we will take our leave,” Thys said.
“Break a leg with your new play,” Viv added.
“I shall endeavor to break both,” Lithway said, and waved them off with a smile.
“We were going to start without you,” Star said impatiently as they joined the group around the table. Viv let fall the curtain that blocked their booth off from the rest of the Good Neighbours pub, an attempt to give the band privacy to have fun as customers for once, rather than getting swamped as celebrities.
Star had already set up a Dungeon Master’s screen in front of himself, which was great for hiding his almost complete nudity. Judging by the character sheets scattered around, the group had gotten a good ways into finalizing everyone’s initial pass at character creation.
“Sorry, sorry,” Viv said wryly. “We got a bit behind on some important business.” As Thys began digging out their supplies from the bag they carried, she added, “So what’s everyone else playing? Since I’ve played before, I can switch if I have to.”
“Tiefling Cleric,” Varsha said promptly. “I felt that having an experienccced healer wasss an important part of getting our sssessssssion to go well.”
Dandelion sort of shrugged a shoulder awkwardly. He looked slightly uncomfortable, and maybe out of his depth, but was clearly willing to give it a shot, if just as something he could do with his friends. “I spent a lot of time reading the rules and I settled on a dragonborn sorcerer. You’ll have to bear with me when I look up spells, though, the rules system for this is… well, it’s a bit much.”
Adrien looked like he’d had four beers already, judging by the pints gathered around himself. “Sexy gnome bard.”
“So you’re just playing yourself,” Caoihme said, rolling her eyes.
“Hey,” Adrien protested. “First of all, I know how to play myself best of all, so I’m going to win roleplay. Second? Thanks for calling me sexy.”
Caoimhe stuck her tongue out at him, then turned back. “I am playing a somewhat aged human fighter,” she said. “I decided to base my character on Lt. Ripley from Aliens. Obviously, a high fantasy version. I also brought homemade sugar cookies!” She lifted a container from beside her on the bench; in it, Viv could see they were iced like pumpkins and bats.
Thys finished pulling their supplies out, and tapped their papers on the table to square them. Viv turned and watched with interest. They hadn’t really discussed their characters together in advance since Viv had largely been occupied with big changes like moving all her stuff over to Thys’s apartment and job interviews, so she was eager to see what Thys had come up with.
“I would like,” Thys said, “to be the Archfey patron to Viv’s warlock.”
“So you’re just playing yourself too,” Adrien said.
“You can’t play an Archfey,” Star said with exaggerated patience. “You’re level 1.”
Viv half-lifted a hand. “I was also not planning to play a warlock.”
“But you are a warlock in real life!” Thys protested. “And I presume I am your patron?”
Waggling that hand, Viv said, “I mean, I don’t want to play me, though. I wrote up a sheet for a snooty elf paladin. I’d want him to learn to be a better person and really embrace the good side of his alignment rather than the lawful side over time, but that’s where I’m at with that.” She pulled her own sheet out.
“But! But!” Thys protested, waving their papers, “I wrote up your character sheet and everything!” They showed the table. The character’s name was even Niaviv.
“Why don’t you play the warlock, then?” Star suggested lightly. “We could use another spell-slinger anyway, and it might be fun to put yourself in someone else’s shoes.”
“I…” Thys considered, looked aside at Vivian, looked back at their character sheet, the nodded. “All right. I am Niaviv, Nia for short. A very, very beautiful warlock who has not yet realized that she has made a deal with her patron. …perhaps I should pick not an Archfey patron, then, if we are moving away from ourselves…”
“Now you’re getting it,” Star said cheerily.
The group had a little more tabletalk to finalize character building as appies arrived and Viv put in an order for a pumpkin cider. The spooky music playing throughout the pub was prerecorded this early in the day, not live, but that was fine. She’d have plenty of chance to hear everyone here play live later tonight for their Halloween performance.
“Okay, looks like we’re ready,” Star said finally. He leaned forward over his DM screen and gave everyone an ominous stare as, in a spooky voice, he began his opening narration. “It is a dark and stormy night, and you have recently all happened to stop at the same tavern to get out of the rain during your respective travels. You had a fine meal, and bedded down for the night, but you wake in the darkness with some confusion, no longer knowing where you are. The tavern appears abandoned, and in the distance, a castle looms…”
Vivian closed her eyes, letting the narration wash her away. It was a familiar opening, in a way, waking in the dark, confused, alone—
But in real life, she knew exactly where she was, and had her lover and all her friends around her.
She couldn’t ask for a better way to spend Halloween.
[Head on over to the Author’s Notes/Story Q&A?]