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better be yourself (you'll make it)

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The light of the campfire dances before Tethys’s eyes, her skin warmed by its dancing embers, a shield against the chill in the night air. It’s been a long day, but sitting here in the dirt, legs crossed and hands resting on her knees as she takes in each deep breath, is just about the best moment of respite she could hope for. Dancing makes her feel alive, but it takes a lot out of her too. Here, listening to the rest of the camp winding down in the distance, she feels the tension in her shoulders that’s been building up all week begin to ebb away.

She inhales and exhales. Her eyes are half-shut already, but some rapid feeling at the back of her mind keeps her awake. Thoughts sift through her mind like sand through an hourglass. She isn’t all that interested in maintaining her train of thought as it flickers like the flames before her—she’d like to settle in for bed soon, and letting her mind run wild isn’t any way of going about that.

She rubs at the blisters along her arms and prods at the clothing left tattered by a day of battle. She purses her lips and pledges to clean the latter up come morning; she can hardly perform a proper dance if her sashes are torn.

At the sound of footsteps, Tethys tilts her head back. Two people are the most likely to approach her like this, and by the weight of his footfalls, she can narrow it down in a heartbeat. She meets Gerik’s smile with one of her own.

“Evening,” he says. “Room by that fire for two?”

Tethys’s eyes fall shut. “Of course,” she says, shifting to the side. She chances a glance as Gerik seats himself to her left. His cheeks are flushed—a combination of drink and giddy embarrassment, if she had to guess. “Wooing princes again?”

Gerik’s smile widens. “Doing my best. I played cards with Joshua—he cheated and then went off to persuade Natasha to dance. I don’t know if he’ll have any luck.”

“Hmm, probably. Natasha likes him well enough.” Tethys leans back and twists her braid around her finger. She should let her hair down to sleep soon, but for now, she’s more than content to keep it back—she’s been growing her hair out for years now, and while she’s satisfied with its length and the styles she can try out, she isn’t so fond of the way it gets in her face when it’s unbound. “And our other prince?”

“Asleep. I believe he and Prince Ephraim had another spat.”

“Ah. I should have known.” Making a clucking sound, Tethys crosses her legs and curls her fingers around her knees.

At this point, she and Gerik are past the point where words are particularly necessary, as nice as they can be from time to time. So she lapses into silence, finding herself with nothing left to say. Gerik follows suit with little more than a quirk of the head.

They sit there for a few moments. Soon, Gerik is scooting closer, pressing their sides together despite the fact that the fire eradicates most of the need for additional heat. Tethys rests her head against his shoulder.

She’s drifting, lucid enough to have the single coherent thought of I wish I’d put my hair down after all, when a blurry shape appears and seats themself on the opposite side of the campfire. Between the hair and the sword, it takes little time to identify Marisa, half-asleep as Tethys is.

Tethys sits up straighter to snap herself back to some modicum of alertness. She can feel Gerik’s knowing look, but she disregards it in favor of smiling and waving, jostling her shoulder against his to shut him up. “Marisa,” she croons, “how sweet of you to join us. Are you done chatting up your good buddy Princess Tana?”

Stoic as always, Marisa blinks. “We’re friends. Friends talk,” she says, though she doesn’t seem too confident in her own words.

Gerik nudges Tethys’s side. “Gadfly,” he says fondly.

“Is it a crime to be interested in my friends’ lives and romantic interests?” she returns in an undertone, though she’s sure Marisa hears from how she takes a sudden interest in polishing her sword. Tethys chuckles and leaves her be for now. Marisa’s genial presence alongside theirs is rare enough, let alone at this time of night, so she’ll not ruin it.

In the silence that overtakes them, interrupted only by the occasional crackles of the fire or the yelling of someone in the distance, Tethys allows her thoughts to wander. This scene is familiar, she thinks. She won’t let herself drift too far into the less fortunate past, but she’s spent plenty a night huddled around a fire with another person at her side. Though she thinks this might be the warmest she’s felt in some time.

While the thought is still hovering in her mind, she pulls her braid taut against her shoulder to undo it. Gerik leans away as she lets it fall around her shoulders. Tethys isn’t all that used to having it down, with how often it’s tied back during the day, so she takes a moment to shake her head and adjust to the itch of it along her back. She runs a hand through and uses her nails to untangle what knots she comes upon. It’s then that she realizes Marisa is watching.

“What? You must have a tough time with yours too,” says Tethys, gesturing at Marisa’s choppy hairstyle.

Marisa lowers her head, voice lost to the wind. Tethys thinks she catches the words looks soft and a slight flush in Marisa’s cheeks, and she smiles as she finishes undoing her hair. Gerik leans against her with a quiet, rumbling chuckle.

That taken care of, Tethys relaxes her shoulders and lets her thoughts drift once more. She wonders about every tomorrow—more significant thoughts, like will we die or will we win , as well as thoughts that really aren’t too important in the long run but are important to her. Will I get to dance? Will Ewan set something other than an enemy on fire? Will Prince Ephraim or Prince Innes—or, gods forbid, both—do or say something dangerous, impulsive, and stupid? What pronouns will I feel like using?

She twists her wrist around, absently letting her bracelets clink against her arm. The feeling of cool metal against her skin should be unpleasant, but instead it’s soothing, a gentle sensation to play beneath her considerations.

Marisa notices. “What are you doing?”

“Thinking.”

This seems to satisfy Marisa, or at least not capture her interest enough to inquire further, but Gerik chimes in, “About?”

Tethys lowers her arm. “What gender I’ll be tomorrow,” she remarks, catching Marisa’s head lift again out of the corners of her eyes. “I can never quite predict it. I haven’t drifted much from being a woman as of late—which I don’t mind, of course—” she settles a hand over her heart “—but it’s just the slightest bit boring.”

Gerik knows this, a conversation sparked over drinks after Tethys had noticed the scars beneath his pecs. They’d shaken hands and laughed over the unexpected similarity. Their individual relationships with gender are very different—Tethys’s fluctuates, though she’d realized at age eleven that she wanted nothing to do with being a man, thankful only that Ewan was young enough that he doesn’t remember her as anything but Tethys now, and while Gerik hadn’t known he was a man until his later teenage years, he’s staunch in his identity thereof—but they can at least bond over straying from the norm in that regard.

Marisa, insofar as Tethys knows, hadn’t known this, and she notices a flat stare upon her. Tethys tilts her chin up. It could be just another of Marisa’s strange habits, but Tethys still asks, “Is that odd to you? That sometimes I’m not a woman, I mean.”

“No.” Marisa’s expression is as impassive as ever. Her hands curl almost instinctively around her sword where it rests at her side. “I’ve fought with and against many men, women, and people who aren’t either, and gender has no bearing on victory. It serves little purpose. I don’t care what people see me as so long as they respect me as a swordfighter.”

Tethys almost laughs—she doesn’t know why she would have expected anything different. “So you could say that your gender is simply swordswoman?”

“Sure,” says Marisa with a shrug.

“Do you…” Tethys presses her tongue against her teeth in consideration. “Would you mind if I alternated pronouns for you sometimes? Calling you they or he on occasion in addition to she. There are others, too, but I feel we should begin with the more traditional sets.”

Marisa shrugs again, fingers tapping along the sword’s hilt. “I wouldn’t mind. Call me what you want.”

“All right.” With a hand to her chin, Tethys decides to practice, clearing her throat and adopting the storytelling voice she used to use with Ewan: “This is my dear friend and ally Marisa. They are a fantastic swordfighter. He’s pretty intense and not very sociable, but I like to think I get along with them well anyway.”

Something sparks in Marisa’s eyes, spurring affectionate laughter from Gerik. A smile lights Tethys’s face.

“See, that’s nice, isn’t it? On the days I feel more inclined toward going by they/them, you’ll be the first—well, third, actually, but first in spirit—to know.”

Marisa nods, loose hair grazing her cheek. “Okay.”

Tethys rests her head in her palms with a smile, her elbows perched upon her knees. Before she can get too distracted, though, very familiar footsteps come slamming through the dirt. Tethys turns to see a small shape rushing toward them.

“Hey!” comes a shrill voice Tethys knows better than any other, and Ewan just about flings himself into her side, almost bowling her over—Gerik catches her on reflex, steadying her with a hand on her shoulder.

Once she’s able to breathe again, Tethys clutches her temple. “How do you still have energy? We were battling for what felt like hours today.”

Ewan scowls. “Yeah, and Eirika didn’t let me out on the front lines, so it’s all stored up.”

“That’s Princess Eirika to you.” Tethys doesn’t care all that much about titles, and neither do Eirika or Ephraim, as far as she knows, but she’d rather ingrain it into her brother that most people do than see him get hurt because of it. “And would you have rather been trampled by the enemy cavalry? Honestly.” She gives a beleaguered sigh, the exasperated older sister act (though there’s certainly more than a little truth to it) honed to perfection over the years, and folds her arms. “If you’re so wound up, stoke the fire.”

He doesn’t even look offended at being relegated to this duty, just excited to have some sort of outlet. He leaps to his feet and blasts the campfire with a quick fire spell, hot enough that Tethys and Gerik lean back at the same time. Marisa doesn’t even seem to notice.

Ewan turns back with a proud grin. “Good enough?”

“And then some. It’ll burn all night long at this rate.”

Ewan’s grin only seems to widen, and he flops back down beside her, still seeming to have a significant amount of energy within him. It must not run in the family, because Tethys’s eyelids are growing heavier by the minute.

She rolls her eyes and reaches over to ruffle her little brother’s hair. Noticing something, she toys with the strands curling around his ears. “This is getting long,” she comments, careful to keep a neutral voice.

Ewan squirms, enough to knock Tethys’s hand off his head. She lets it fall back to her knee as he rubs the back of his neck, scratching over the messy ends of his hair. “Yeah,” he says with a grimace. Try as he might, he doesn’t have the best poker face. “I want to try cutting it myself, but I might need your help fixing it up.”

It feels like just yesterday Tethys cut it for him the first time, months—a couple of years, in fact—before he’d come to her with a less open-ended admission. She can still hear his timid voice saying I think I’m a boy—can still feel his hands clutching at her arms as she’d wrapped them around him and welcomed him to the club, then slid them both down to the dirt so they could have a more eye-level conversation. Those words aren’t as accurate now; every day, he grows more into a man. It terrifies Tethys as much as it fills her with pride.

But she smiles. “Oh? How mature of you, Ewan.”

He sticks his tongue out, and both she and Gerik—though his is more muffled—laugh. Across the campfire, Marisa looks up, jarred by the sound. She tilts her head with the ghost of a smile. Tethys flashes a grin back and flicks Ewan in the arm.

“Ouch,” he complains, lacking any real hurt.

“Oh, hush. My nail didn’t even touch you.” Once, a commonplace gesture had turned dangerous on pure accident when Tethys had started experimenting with her nails. They’re on the blunt side now, a thin crescent of white extending from her nailbed, but they know from experience that long nails should be classified as a weapon.

Ewan still grumbles, but he doesn’t move from Tethys’s side. She and Gerik share looks.

This seems to remind Gerik of something. “Oh, hey, Ewan—” Ewan stops mocking his big sister to blink at him “—would you want to try some more vocal exercises tomorrow morning? We can squeeze in a few minutes while we’re traveling.”

Ewan lights up. “Sure! Yeah!”

Across the campfire, Marisa pauses. “Vocal exercises?”

“Yeah.” Gerik glances at Tethys and Ewan, the latter of whom looks to Tethys for guidance and gets an encouraging nod. Ewan follows suit and nods. “Making voices deeper isn’t very easy without hormones or magic, but I’ve been teaching Ewan some of the exercises I did to make my voice lower when I was younger. Oh, and they help with breathing control during combat.”

Marisa nods, mulling that over, and then says, apprehensive, “Can I try them?”

“Of course,” says Gerik, surprised but pleased. “The more the merrier, right, Ewan?”

“Sure,” says Ewan again, now looking at Marisa with something like curiosity. “You want your voice to be deeper? It’s already pretty low.”

“So is yours.” Marisa can’t know what a compliment that is for Ewan, but he glows all the same, and Tethys rubs his shoulder. “The chief said they’re good for breathing control. I don’t mind my voice, but that sounds useful.”

“I can teach you some extra exercises that focus more on that side of things,” says Gerik.

Marisa’s cool gaze flits between their faces and her sword, which now rests across her knees in a way that can’t be comfortable but that she doesn’t seem to mind. (Then again, she had slept surrounded by swords as a kid. Tethys still shivers over that very thought.) “I wouldn’t mind having a deeper voice. Like I said, that sort of thing doesn’t matter to me. But thank you.”

Gerik nods, smiling a little, and reaches around Tethys to pat Ewan’s head. He wiggles less than he had when Tethys had done the same, but he still scoots away with a scowl and smooths his roughed-up hair back into place. Tethys can’t help a bit of fine-tuning, licking her thumb and brushing back another loose strand. Ewan swats her away. Marisa’s clipped laughter is softer than the crackling flames, but it makes them all grin nonetheless.

After a moment, Marisa sheathes her sword and stands. Tethys expects her to leave, and Gerik is already halfway through opening his mouth for a farewell when she circles around the fire and comes to sit on Ewan’s other side. She doesn’t sit as close to him as the other three are to each other, but she does glance at Tethys over Ewan’s head.

Tethys smiles and reaches around Ewan to squeeze her shoulder. Marisa jumps, but she settles down after a beat, wild eyes melting into something warmer and more comfortable. Gerik gives her a thumbs-up from Tethys’s other side, and Ewan grins, half-asleep as he is.

The four of them sit there, settling back into the quiet tranquility of the evening, relaxed in their weariness and comfortable with themselves.

Had she more energy, Tethys would be more than willing to get up and dance, tugging the others along. A one-sided waltz with Marisa; a flippant tango with Gerik; a lively jig with Ewan. But her joints are sore, and her eyes are heavy, and while normally she would love to spring to her feet and entertain her fellow soldiers, she finds herself wanting to do little else but sleep while she’s able.

So for now, she simply leans against Gerik, Ewan, and Marisa, closing her eyes as she lets the warmth of the fire and her companions’ presence wash over her.