It has been quite a day. Orym’s forgery had been delivered that morning and all the pieces have clicked into gear. Their stakeout of the jewelry shop is planned; their party is assembled at the Raha Den. Treshi is walking into their arms in the morning. No one is even going to need to steal a crawler machine, Laudna thinks to herself, which would have been a thrill and a distraction, but not when it would make Imogen so stressed, and from the set of her mouth during that particular conversation, she thinks that it’s something to avoid.
They’ve gathered in the courtyard, a feast from the Den’s many food carts and stalls scattered across one of several wooden tables. The atmosphere is jolly, approaching rowdy. Imogen, who has picked at her first round of plates, has been persuaded to go back for a drink, and though she rolls her eyes, the accompanying smile lightens Laudna’s heart. She watches Imogen surveying a posted menu and traces her finger around a crack in her dish. She had hoped—after the pot holder had made a small, fond look break through Imogen’s drawn, hurt face, a chip of gold after so much digging—
But no; there hasn’t been enough penance done. She’s done nothing to earn trust. The shards of the rock are still cold in her pocket and she didn’t even get Imogen the T-shirt.
“Hey, you good?” Dusk nudges Laudna with their shoulder, and Laudna starts. “You seemed kinda checked out there.”
“Oh, no,” she says. “No, I’m completely fine.” It’s only their second day with Dusk, and yet the elf has been proving a wonderful friend, not to mention an invaluable addition to the party. Even something as simple as having a new face for when the conspicuous Bell’s Hells don’t want to be recognized has made such a difference, and Dusk’s warmth and energy are so heartening, to speak nothing of the thrill of the elf’s Feywild mystery.
“Okay, cause, you sure? Looked like you were sorta worried about her.”
“No, no,” Laudna says. “No, Imogen is incredibly capable.” She raises her voice a little as she says it, hopeful that Imogen might hear and notice the compliment; on FCG’s advice she has toned down the intensity of her supportive comments, but it has been hard, particularly when she can see that Imogen is hurting. Particularly when she has caused that hurt.
“You bet she is,” Dusk says, and she looks over at Imogen, her cheeks pinking slightly. “You guys known each other long?”
“Well, I suppose it depends on your time scale. A couple of years, and a bit more,” Laudna says. “And she has been remarkable since the very first day.”
“That’s cool, that’s cool,” Dusk says. “Hey, so like, on a scale of straightforward to elaborate, where would you put her? Like, in what she prefers when it comes to vibe.”
A somewhat bewildering question, but if Laudna knows anything, she knows Imogen. “Generally on the straightforward side.”
“Great! Awesome! Thank you.” Dusk grasps Laudna’s forearm and smiles sunnily. Then they swing themself out of their seat and make their way towards Imogen, passing what seems to be a brewing fight, a shaded stall with a short line for meat pies, a chipped mural. Laudna watches as she reaches out to touch Imogen’s elbow; Imogen pulls back reflexively, folding her arms across her body as she turns to face Dusk.
The strands of conversation make their way back to Laudna. She can’t see Dusk’s face, and settles for watching the elf fiddle her rapier back and forth in its frog as they ask Imogen some inaudible question. Imogen’s guarded, wary expression shifts to something like confusion, or shock.
“I don’t…” Imogen says in an undertone Laudna has to strain to hear. It’s gone quieter around her; beside her, Orym sets his flagon down. “I don’t understand.”
“You know, you and me,” Dusk says earnestly, their raspy voice chirping in a hopeful crescendo. “Like, on a date sometime. After we have Treshi—” they swing one arm through the other, as if to indicate trapping a small animal, “in the bag.”
“A date,” repeats Imogen. Her voice tightens, and Laudna’s hand tightens around her flagon with it. “You’re makin’ fun of me.”
“I’m not!” Dusk says, shocked. “You’re like the coolest person I’ve ever met. You’re so powerful and you know how to do so many things—you found us Birdie and Ollie—you saved my life!”
She did, of course. And she does, and she is.
“Suppose so,” Imogen says uneasily. Laudna reaches her mind toward Imogen in the way that does nothing on her own, that requires Imogen to meet it—but of course her head remains empty of all but her and, she supposes, somewhere, her unpleasant company. “I’m sorry, Dusk, I just—you’re makin’ a mistake.”
A no rises to the tip of Laudna’s tongue. There’s no mistake here. Now that the moment has come, it’s evident that this was always in their future; Imogen is young and beautiful and brilliant and lovely, and this is what people do when they are young and beautiful and brilliant and lovely. She should’ve thought of it sooner. They’d been on their date with Pretty, after all, unsuccessful though it had been, but the day has always been coming when Imogen would go on a date without Laudna there. And here is bubbly, cheerful, open Dusk, and now is that time, and of course Laudna’s all right with this, so why does she feel so bereft?
“Of course I’m not.” Dusk sounds perplexed, but heartfelt. “We talked about this, remember?” Laudna sees Imogen’s stress building silently, and the expected jerk of Dusk’s shoulders as she switches the conversation to mental. They stand silent opposite each other for ten seconds, twenty; Laudna tries to read their faces, but other than a slight flicker of eyes in her direction, there’s nothing. Sensing that Pâté wants comfort, she reaches down and grips his small hand.
There’s another beat of quiet, and then Dusk wrenches the conversation back into speech. Passionately, she says, “I mean it, I swear, just let me—” and she moves forward and presses her mouth to Imogen’s.
An icy shock. A dead-still heart. Okay, Laudna thinks, okay. There it is. All right. Beside her, she dimly registers her fellow Bell’s Hells falling silent, eyes turning to her.
The moment hangs still in the air for a quarter of a second before Imogen staggers backwards, her eyes wide and alarmed. She turns, her eyes lock to Laudna’s—and then she runs inside, the sound of her feet already clattering on the stairs just behind the door, the air behind her shivering like a storm.
“But—I’m sorry!” Dusk calls after her, “I’m sorry.” Her shoulders slump.
“Oh, dear,” Fearne says quietly.
Laudna realizes suddenly that she is standing. She feels frozen, the impulse to follow Imogen inside overwhelming. The hand not clutching Pâté feels a gentle touch, and she looks down beside her and meets Orym’s gaze. He inclines his head sideways towards the door.
She doesn’t need to be told twice. She cannot understand what’s wrong and she cannot really imagine that Imogen wants to see her, but if Imogen needs her, there she’ll always be.
The faded, battered wood of their door is closed, and behind it is quiet. Laudna knocks apprehensively, then leans in close to the crack. “Imogen,” she says in the gentlest and least supplicating voice she can manage, “Are you all right?”
There’s a long quiet, and as the seconds go by, she works to fortify herself against the wave of rejection threatening to envelop her. Then in her mind, Imogen’s voice, sounding shattered:
Imogen, she says back in deepest relief. Please. Let me in?
Another long pause before the door creaks open, the faint ghost of a telekinetic spell drifting on the air. Imogen is curled on their bed on the far side of the room, arms wrapped tightly around herself. Laudna slides her way in through the gap and moves to sit hesitantly on the edge of the bed. She reaches out to gather one of Imogen’s hands into her own, and as Imogen flinches back, some additional measure of hope shrivels in her heart.
“Please, Imogen, help me understand what’s wrong.”
Imogen’s voice is bitter. You were there.
There for what? She was there for a kind invitation, a compliment. But Imogen overwhelms so easily, and Laudna doesn’t need to recognize the hurt to recognize her pain. “Please,” she repeats, not knowing what else to say. “I know I haven’t been… deserving, of your trust, but I hope you can let me care for you—”
“I’m fuckin’ sorry, okay?” Imogen says without lifting her head, pain lacing each word. “All right. I’m sorry.”
Laudna’s life breaks, and it mends. “I’m the one who should be sorry,” she says, breathless for the opportunity to say it. “I can’t tell you how—”
“No,” Imogen says, cutting her off. “Not that. I don’t want to talk about that. It’s Dusk. I know… I can imagine how upset you must be.” At last, she turns her face towards Laudna. Her eyes are red but dry, the muscles in her jaw working in the way that means she is maintaining her composure with everything she’s got.
Not forgiven, then. The pain is acute. Pull yerself together, girl, says Pâté from her belt, and she swallows tears to say, with bewilderment that is genuine, “Darling, why would I be upset about Dusk?”
She’s said the wrong thing. Imogen’s face shutters again, and she rushes to fix it. “Dusk is a lovely, lovely person, Imogen, and anyone astute enough to see you for the wonder that you are is—well, anyone who isn’t is a fool. You’re the best among us. Look at you. You found Fearne’s parents with a single message. You can fly,” she says, and Imogen’s rueful smile is so welcome that Laudna wants to kiss something. “And you are the most gifted sorcerer I have ever met, and you will accomplish so much, and you deserve every, and I do mean every, mite of happiness that comes your way.”
“Laud,” Imogen says softly, and sensing an opportunity, Laudna rushes on.
“And—and please, listen, I-I am so sorry about your rock. I have the pieces still and we’re going to find a way to fix it, I promise, or I’ll find you a new one, I will. Maybe Dusk can help,” she says in a burst of inspiration, “They were just in the Feywild, and perhaps there’s a connection, if we were to help restore their memory—”
“Yeah,” Imogen says, but the affection in her eyes has fallen behind the distant veil of hurt again, and again the harder Laudna grasps for it, the shorter she falls. “Yeah. Maybe.”
“We’ll ask,” Laudna says, trying her best to sound more determined than shaky. “I’ll go back out and ask now, of course she’ll want to help—”
“Of course.” Disappointment and shame flood their way down her throat. “No. Of course. Whatever you want.”
Imogen closes her eyes. “Just… let me be alone, Laudna.”
She makes her way back into the courtyard, tears threatening to spill their telltale black lines down her face. The group have been huddled around the table and they look up, alarmed, as she splashes in. Dusk and Fearne are absent, but the looks on everyone else’s faces show that she looks as dreadful as she feels.
“Do you wanna… do you wanna talk?” Ashton asks, and Laudna lifts her sleeve to wipe the ichor from her eyes.
“No, that’s very kind,” she says. “Thank you.”
Imogen doesn’t come back downstairs, and as the evening drags to a close, Laudna begins to dread the night yet to come. There’s the question of their sleeping arrangements. The previous night, Chetney and FCG and Ashton had gone to their own rooms, and Dusk had piled in with Fearne, whispering giddily about the Feywild until late as Orym snored between them, and Imogen had looked at Laudna standing there awkwardly beside their half-empty mattress and sighed. “Well, fine then,” she’d said, and shifted towards the wall, leaving a stretch of bed wide enough that Laudna could lay beside her and never once touch.
Tonight, Laudna hangs back, thinking Dusk might want to bed down next to Imogen. But Dusk, who had returned to the table with their good humor only slightly subdued, lets their gaze slide right over the half-empty bedroll before turning to give Laudna a sympathetic smile, then crawling into the bed where Fearne is already snoring.
Laudna lays down carefully beside Imogen, conscious to keep the outline of her body away from the woman beside her. From the shallowness of Imogen’s breathing, she thinks she’s still awake, but there’s nothing more to confirm this than a slight stiffening of her shoulders as the mattress shifts to accommodate Laudna’s thin form. She wants, more than anything, to draw Imogen to her, to let her soft, newly re-purpled head fall into the crook of her neck, to put her arms around her and protect her from any dreams that might come. Instead, she folds those arms around her own torso and closes her eyes to wait for sleep.
It doesn’t come. The knowledge that Imogen is wakeful beside her keeps her mind alert, even as they both hold so still and the room creaks with others’ breathing and the sounds of night around them. She needs to fall asleep, poor thing, Laudna thinks, or she’ll feel so awful in the morning. What is she thinking about? In a wave of fervent hope, she prays that it’s not her fault that Imogen stays awake; the absence of her comforting rock to lull her off, or the dark, painful throb of a lie inadvertently told. But then, would she rather Imogen dread a dream? The storm, alone? She pictures it wailing around Imogen, the dust kicked up around her, the red sky pulsing with menace from which Laudna cannot protect her. No, neither; she would rather hold Imogen through the night, pet her hair softly, be there with water if she wakes. Gripping her hand as they fell into sleep has never brought her into the nightmare yet, but she has hoped it someday would. What if she’s ruined that chance forever? Consigned Imogen to hell alone?
Across the room someone shifts, and Laudna’s attention starts, but it’s only Fearne rolling over. Beside her, Dusk snores. She’s glad the elf seems all right, she thinks. She couldn't imagine being rejected by Imogen in one more way; this alone is nearly more than she can bear. Laudna settles back against the mattress. Why had Imogen rejected Dusk? Dusk is enthusiastic, good-natured, direct, charming. And it can’t be that she isn’t attractive enough, warm enough; she is vibrant with life. The two of them both are. And why had Imogen thought she would be upset? She is the piece of the puzzle that doesn’t fit, the puppet without a part in the play. Laudna sits up and checks on Pâté and Sashimi in their little wooden house, unmoving. They are the perfect couple, she thinks, tucking Pâté carefully under Sashimi’s wooden arm. She wonders whether Chetney had begun making a different girlfriend for Pâté before Sashimi’s arrival, what has become of her now.
Is it possible that Imogen thought that she, herself, was interested in Dusk? The thought bubbles up in the darkness. Laudna casts back in her memories and realizes, with alarm, that when their group was divided today on plans for how to deliver Orym’s forgery to Treshi, it was Dusk whose idea she had praised. Has she, perhaps, been so encouraging of Dusk’s mission to reunite with Fearne’s parents that she has neglected opportunities to encourage Imogen? Has she shown Dusk more favor than Ashton, or Orym, or Fearne? Is this, somehow, Delilah, manipulating, stepping in where she is not wanted to break everything that Laudna holds dear? She shivers and lays back down.
Time passes; she doesn’t know how much, how close she’s come to drifting into sleep. Every time she becomes conscious of another thought, lucidity is there, a curled and wakeful snake. After some long, long while, she feels a touch on her hand.
She opens her eyes. Imogen has rolled over and is looking at her, her face focused and quiet and sad.
The relief hits with the power of a drug. Laudna curls her fingers around Imogen’s without thinking, a reflex or a grasp against fear she doesn’t know, and when Imogen doesn’t pull away she thinks she might cry.
There is a nudge at the edge of her mind, a knock. An invitation, more intimate than an instruction, a message, a phrase spat in anger. Laudna feels her hands tremble, and she opens herself to Imogen.
I’m sorry, and it comes out in a rush, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry, I never intended to lie to you but she’s never done anything like that before, I swear to you, not since my death, and had I known I could’ve kept you safe from her, it was all my failure and all my fault, and if we find—I find—a way to repair it, I’ll never touch it again—
Laudna, stop. She stops. Imogen closes her eyes again and exhales heavily, in the way that means that she is steadying herself. I’m… I’m glad it’s gone.
Her breath stills within her.
I told you it was makin’ me feel safe. But the longer it’s gone, the more I think that maybe that safety… wasn’t really what I thought. There’s a pause. I dunno. Like it wanted to do somethin' with me. Imogen pauses again. Was it doing somethin' with me?
The question is vulnerable, a tremor barely concealed. Laudna tries to think back to before the crystal shattered, the days warped with emotion. Perhaps you seemed, I don’t know, a bit restive. But you’ve been going through so much.
No more’n you. Imogen looks away. …She’s talkin' to you again. You tried to tell me.
Not this. She can’t do both Imogen’s fury and this. Laudna has been trying very hard not to dwell on the feeling of the moment when her hand locked around the rock, the pulse of foreign power, her body not her own. The blame can be hers. Is hers. Laudna grips Imogen’s hand. She is my burden, Imogen, not yours.
Laud… Are you safe? From her?
There is no way to answer this that will protect them both. I won’t allow you to have anything to fear from her again.
Imogen sighs. She still hasn’t let go of Laudna’s hand, and Laudna holds it closely, warm, a shelter. We’ll keep you safe, dearest. And look, you keep us safe. You saved Orym from such a gruesome death.
Not without you.
You saved Dusk.
Imogen withdraws her hand. Dusk.
Panic rushes through Laudna; the conversation has gotten away from her somehow, and she reaches frantically from its hem. I don’t know if I’ve done anything to make you think that I don’t want you to see them, but Imogen, it couldn’t be further from the truth. You deserve the world.
I don’t want to talk about Dusk, Laudna.
All I mean to say is that I would understand and support you in anything—
I said don’t. Imogen’s mental voice is sharp and Laudna pulls up short.
I can’t do this, Imogen says, and the connection breaks off.
Laudna twists her hands together. “Well, good night, then,” she says. She isn’t really expecting a response, and none comes.
The following morning arrives too quickly. By the time Laudna falls into slumber, light is kissing the horizon, and when she wakes, Imogen and the others have gone. She lays for a moment on the empty bedroll, and then remembering their appointment with Treshi, ignores her stiff joints’ complaints and pulls herself upright, pulling on her dayclothes, gathering up the puppets from their small wooden home—still exactly as she’d left them, a small disappointment—and tucking Pâté into her belt.
“You’re up!” Dusk calls cheerfully as she emerges into the courtyard. Half-empty plates are scattered across the table, and Orym is polishing up a sword as Ashton flicks little paper footballs over the mess into FCG’s open mouth. “Imogen thought we should let you rest, you know, big day ahead.” A bolt of hope springs through Laudna, that their conversation had made a change, that she might be forgiven. She allows herself to check, and Imogen’s attention is on her; a smile splits her face, and Imogen offers a wobbly, forced half of one in return before she looks away.
It’s a start. Her voice is light and it will not betray her. “I had thought our appointment was early?”
“Plan changed,” Chetney pipes in. “Fucking jewelers are closed.” He scratches his nose with his chisel, sounding almost satisfied.
“I went by to set up guard and they’re locked for the day,” Orym says tiredly. “Had to find our runner again to send Treshi somewhere more private—feed him a story about our exchange being compromised, you know. He’s meeting us in an alley a few streets over in about an hour.”
“Like I’d been saying we should do in the first place. A confrontation in a shop, never gonna be private. Not a good idea.”
“Sure,” Orym says, “You’d know about that, Chet.”
“Laudna, come sit! You gotta eat!” Dusk beckons to the space next to her. “It’s good stuff.” They’re sitting across from Imogen, who doesn’t look up from the table. A start, it seems, is only a start; Laudna feels herself start to plunge towards anguish and grasps to catch herself on the railing of circumstance. Have they been talking, has Dusk tried again to show her how earnestly their feelings were meant? Has she interrupted something? Imogen doesn’t want to have Laudna involved, she’s made herself more than clear. There is the sting of rejection to the thought, but no, this is fair, this is deserved. She wouldn’t trust herself either, wouldn’t trust hands that she can’t control, a body that follows the gestures of another. If Imogen is ever to take Dusk’s interest sincerely, she has to give them space. She cannot prostrate herself on a pointy rock for Imogen to step on but she can stand back for Imogen’s happiness, which is almost the same thing.
“No, that’s all right,” she says, a little stilted. “Actually, you know, I’ll just leave the two of you be—Ashton,” she says, as the next paper football bounces off of FCG’s brass chin and onto a plate of bacon grease, “I had a question for you, if you wouldn’t mind?”
“Hey yeah, what’s up?”
“It’s about something to do with, you know, the… walls. In the room,” she finishes inadequately. “Letters, if you have an opinion, I’d value it too.”
Ashton gives her a funny look, but stands and follows. Behind them, FCG bids a cheerful goodbye to the table and turns to join.
“So, uh. What the fuck was up with that?” Ashton asks as they step into the hall.
“Nothing,” Laudna says, promising to hold herself together better today than the day before. “Just felt that I should give them some space.”
“You haven’t talked yet, I take it.”
“Oh, no,” Laudna says, “No, we did, no. It’s, well, yesterday Dusk expressed interest, romantically, in Imogen, and I wanted to facilitate, so to speak—to not get in the way of anything, that is.” She reaches for Pâté on her belt, threads him to her fingers. What d’you think yer playing at, he says silently to her. That ain’t right, pushing the girl away like that when you love her and all.
“Not like that,” she says uncomfortably to him.
You tell yerself that, sweetheart, but you and I both know the truth.
She looks back up at Ashton and FCG, and though Ashton’s face ripples back to impassive and Letters’ metal grin remains as fixed as always, there’s sympathy there.
“It sounds like you want to talk about it,” Fresh Cut Grass says soothingly.
“Do we want to go there again, though, really?” Ashton says in an undertone.
“Well, you saw how taken Dusk seems to be with her. How could they not be, truly! Anyone with eyes—but then she said no, and she seemed to think that I’d be upset by it, and I don’t—I can’t let that be my fault too,” she says. “She deserves to be with someone, and Dusk is so wonderful, and I just want her to be happy. Like I told you.”
Yeah, happy with her tucked against yer bosom while ye sleep, says Pâté.
“She deserves everything,” Laudna says, ignoring him. “Anything she wants. That’s all I want.” Tears suddenly burn in her throat. “And if she’s happy then I won’t feel so—bad—anymore.”
“All right.” FCG’s voice is coaxing. “And you mean bad how, exactly?”
The question scarcely even makes sense. Laudna’s eyes well further, and the automaton seems to take a mental step back.
“Feel the feelings, that’s okay, that’s great. Maybe we should start somewhere else. Have you heard of an emotion wheel? Sometimes it’s useful to have a tool to help you understand what it is you’re feelin’.” FCG is all earnestness, and she feels a rush of tremulous gratitude even as Ashton groans.
“I don’t think I have, no.”
“So there are levels of emotions, okay, picture them in a big circle like a pie, with the strongest simplest ones inside, and then they get more specific the more layers out they go. What would you say is your main emotion—sad or bad or fearful?”
Laudna sniffles. “Well… all of them, I suppose.”
“We’ll do one at a time and narrow down from there,” Letters says. “So within sad, are you hurt, guilty, lonely—”
She nods urgently. Yes, these, yes.
“Well, then we move out a ring to embarrassed, disappointed, remorseful, ashamed, abandoned—”
“You sure this is useful?” Ashton says uneasily. “I mean, look at her face.”
“Naming a feeling always helps.” FCG is firm. Ashton looks to Laudna, who nods again, assent.
“Fuck it,” Ashton says. “Okay, so it’s fine. Let’s focus on the Dusk thing, maybe? You said if Imogen and Dusk were to date—which, okay, fucking wild-ass choice that would be—you’d feel less bad.”
“I would,” Laudna says, wiping her nose. “Yes. I think so. They both deserve—h-happiness. At whatever cost.”
And yer supposed to decay alone?
“Hush, Pâté,” Laudna says disconsolately.
Letters and Ashton exchange a look. “Well, let’s focus in on that abandoned,” FCG says gently. “Now, I don’t want to overstep and I’m only speculatin’, but is it possible that jealousy is in the mix there somewhere as well? It sure had seemed like you and Dusk were getting close.”
“Well—yes,” says Laudna. “But I would never begrudge them Imogen.”
“Letters,” Ashton says, “I appreciate what you’re doing here, but do you really think it’s Dusk that we’re talking about?”
“Well sure.” Fresh Cut Grass sounds bewildered. “Listen, I may have only observed one date, and it may have been an unorthodox one, but the things that make up feelings seem pretty straightforward. There’s laughter, touchin’, eye contact—”
“Have I been touching Dusk too much?” Laudna asks Ashton, fear blooming around her. Did she do so on her own, or was this, too, another’s influence?
“There is no too much,” Ashton says, sounding very tired. “Every person sets their own too much. Letters, look, sometimes ten silver isn’t the same as a gold, all right?”
“All right,” says FCG uncertainly, “but that isn’t the way money works at all.”
“Anyway, look, you good to go back downstairs?” Ashton asks Laudna, who takes a deep breath and wipes at her face. “No, there, you missed a spot. Seriously, that black shit is gross, I love it.”
They arrive back to the midst of—well, Laudna would expect that it’s preparations, as the hour of Treshi’s arrival comes near. Chetney is sharpening a chisel, and Imogen and Orym stand to one side, clearly in quiet conversation. Fearne is braiding a twist into Dusk’s short mop of hair as the elf lounges on their elbows across the table, looking reverently over at Imogen. Laudna wipes again at her face and puts her hand preemptively over Pâté’s mouth.
It’s no good; they can tell she’s been tearful. Imogen’s eyes tug towards her, and she sees her face fall in worry. Laudna thinks she’s on the verge of stepping towards her when Dusk’s head whips around.
“Laudna, hey!” She waves her over vigorously. “Do you like? Fearne’s showing me how, I can do yours. Oh, shit, are you okay?” Dusk reaches out for Laudna's hand. She takes it without thinking, a moment of friendly contact, and as she looks back to Imogen, the worry that had been on Imogen’s face has shifted to pain. She pulls her hand back quickly, hoping to abate it, and is relieved to find that she’s able.
Dusk gives her a funny look, and she scrambles to remember what to say. “Just fine, truly but thank you.”
“We were just plannin’,” Imogen says loudly. “For the thing. Laudna, you can help pull the ghost distraction again if we need to, yeah? Chet’s on board.”
“Oh yes,” Laudna says, “Yes, that was a fun one, wasn’t it?”
“I’m going to turn into a giant snake,” Fearne says peaceably. “No one likes a giant snake.”
“I think we only need one distraction, though, Fearne,” Orym says.
“No, it’s okay, I’m going to do it.”
“A giant snake would be amazing,” Dusk says. “Or, like, a fey snake? Something totally big and glowy and, you know, spooky—“
“I think Laudna’s got it,” Imogen says.
“I can do spooky,” Laudna says immediately, and the timid smile Imogen gives her sings with joy.
Imogen clears her throat and looks away. “Anyway,” she says, “I think it’s go time.”
It goes wrong. It goes wrong the minute Dusk steps into the alley, cage bead in hand, and gets jumped. It goes wrong as Ashton charges the crawler gang and gets frozen, immobile, hammer halfway through a swing. It goes wrong as Fearne summons Mister right into the hands of the man disguised as Treshi and it goes wrong as Imogen, eyes flashing, steps in front of Laudna and casts a witch bolt that rebounds at her outstretched hand, crackling and purple, and the warm heartbeat inside Laudna pulses and Imogen goes down and the warm heartbeat throbs and necromantic energy pulses out of Laudna and people go down around them and the world goes black.
When she wakes, they’re surrounded by the scorched signs of lightning, and her head is in Imogen’s lap. She can tell even still cocooned in the darkness of her closed eyes: the burning smell of dirt struck by electricity, the softness of Imogen’s thighs and the warm feeling of her breath. And her voice in Laudna’s head, she realizes, saying her name. She pushes her eyes open and meets Imogen’s gaze, furious and tear-stained and focused on her alone.
“You’re all right,” Laudna says, her tongue thick in her mouth, and Imogen’s head drops with relief.
“Never again.” Her voice is hoarse. “You’re not going to do that ever again.”
“Do what?” Laudna croaks, and Imogen closes her eyes and shares with her a memory: Waking painful in the dirt outside to see dark energy streaming from Laudna’s hands, finding their enemies, withering them; it’s not a spell Laudna has ever seen before, not one of her own. In the memory, Imogen yells her name—Laudna’s own memory fills this in, a desperate sound—and she sees the last of the darkness leave her as she looks at Imogen and crumples to the ground. And as Imogen’s shared recollection cuts off, another of her own returns from the dark, a whisper in her head: See, then? When you bring me power, I share.
Laudna scrambles back on her elbows, leaving Imogen’s arm outstretched. “I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry,” she repeats. “I’m so sorry, Imogen, I promised she wouldn’t—”
No, Imogen says into her head so fiercely that she stops short, her chest shuddering.
All of this and you’re worried about me. Gods, Laudna. They look at each other.
She broke your rock.
Fuck the rock. Imogen reaches out a hand, and relief and fear swim in her throat. She extends her own, looks at it. Imogen kneels towards her and takes it.
She can’t have you. I’m gonna break her, Laudna. I’m gonna break her for you.
“Hey, she’s okay!” Dusk calls from nearby, jogging into view and then, seeing the scene, coming to an awkward stop. “You know, I can come back—”
“It’s fine,” Imogen says firmly, standing and pulling Laudna up beside her. Laudna’s feet sway slightly under her and Imogen holds her steady. “Everyone else doing all right?”
“Oh yeah,” Dusk says. “I mean, mad as hell that we got ambushed and pretty beat up. But FCG’s got us back up and standing. You were amazing out there,” she adds, and Imogen and Laudna each dart a look towards the other. “Both of you.”
“Thanks, Dusk,” Imogen says.
Dusk moves as if to leave, and then turns back. “Hey, I know this is a bad time,” they say.
“That’s all right,” Laudna says shakily at the same time as Imogen says, “It is.”
“I just wanted to say—we’re all good, right? No hard feelings. I’m sorry, and I get it.” She looks at Imogen. “All you had to do was tell me, you know?”
“Well,” Imogen says, “Sure, but…” She trails off, then fixes Dusk with a look that Laudna knows is accompanied by her silent voice. Dusk seems to listen, and after several long moments, Imogen steps away.
“I’m gonna go get you some water, Laud,” she says. “You always do it for me.”
She and Dusk watch as Imogen walks inside. Pâté stirs meaningfully at her side.
“She’s something, y’know,” Dusk says to Laudna, who tries not to crumple visibly. “No, no, hey,” they rush to say. “That’s not—look, I didn’t mean to get in between something.”
“No, that’s all right, I support it,” Laudna says, hearing for the first time how false her own words sound.
But Dusk just shakes their head. “I asked her, you know, about the two of you, to make sure I wasn’t walking into anything. There were so many vibes! You two have crazy vibes and I just couldn’t tell what they were. What I should’ve asked is… what happened?”
“I broke her rock,” Laudna says, but the words aren’t true and she knows they aren’t true and Imogen knows they aren’t true. She reaches down and rests her fingers on the top of Pâté’s head. “There’s a necromancer… a woman in my head. The woman who murdered me. She talks sometimes, usually nothing much, I’m going to get you, you know, empty threats. And, well. Not so empty sometimes, it seems. She took my hand as her own and she broke the rock.”
Dusk scrunches their nose. “And this rock was… important.”
“It certainly felt that way.”
“You know, that really makes more sense!” Dusk says cheerfully. “That explains a lot. Okay.”
Laudna is nonplussed. “The woman in my head?”
“Oh, sure, I guess,” Dusk says, unfazed. “I meant the lovers’ quarrel.”
Told ya, din’t I?
“Oh no,” she says, withdrawing her hand from Pâté’s head. “No, that’s not… we’re really not. She’s my best friend. The very best of friends!”
“Sure,” Dusk says, looking confused. ”But you love her. I mean… right?”
“Deeply,” Laudna says, “of course.”
“I don’t remember much about my life before, but I remember what love feels like,” Dusk says wistfully. “There are all different kinds. Sometimes they get so mixed up that you can’t tell which one’s which. Sometimes it’s a whole bunch of kinds at once, even.”
She bops Laudna’s chin gently. “So like, I love you like a friend. I liked Imogen like more. Doesn’t matter, really. We talked. I get it. She’s yours.”
After a rest, and a meal, and a resolve to recommit to the mission tomorrow, the wounded day winds into bandaged evening, and the group settles in. For the first time in Laudna isn’t certain how long, Imogen seems—calm. The tension she holds in other people’s presence doesn’t abate, never abates unless it’s the two of them as hermits together, but a gentleness has restored itself to her. When Laudna puts her hand on her shoulder, she doesn’t step away. Her hand reaches back.
That night, Laudna lays beside Imogen without being conscious about the placement of her limbs, with Imogen curled against her, and when she’s fallen asleep, when the others have all fallen asleep, she places Pâté on her chest, looking squarely into his little skeleton eyes. All right, she thinks to herself with resolve, all right, little friend, there was something you wanted to say.
You ready to admit it, then?
“That I love her?”
That yer horny for her, the rat says, and she imagines that his little eye winks.
“Pâté,” she whispers, scandalized. “What if she heard you—she’ll be so bothered—”
Nah she won’t. Look at ‘er. Pâté turns his little head towards Imogen and Laudna’s gaze follows; her head is tucked against Laudna’s bony shoulder, her face pressed almost into the crook of Laudna’s neck. She shifts in her sleep, winds an arm further around Laudna’s waist.
“It’s all right, though,” Laudna tells Pâté. “It’s all right if she doesn’t feel that way.”
She does. What’re ya, afraid to look at it? Afraid to let it happen? Come on, girl, we’re both of us dead puppets, we might as well live a little.
“Stop it,” Laudna says in frustration, and she tosses him sideways towards the dollhouse where Sashimi sleeps. “Go on home and live yourself.”
She’s tried to keep her movements small, but when she settles back down and returns her gaze to Imogen, her eyes are open. “What’d he say?” Imogen whispers quietly.
“Oh, not much.” Laudna turns to face her. Her dear face, creased with sleep. Eyes never so unguarded as in a quiet room with quiet dreams. It’s that rare openness that makes her say it. “Are we okay?”
Imogen closes her eyes, and she’s still for so long Laudna thinks she’s fallen back asleep. We’re okay, she hears in her head. Are you okay?
Laudna holds her breath and tries to be honest. I don’t know. I’m afraid.
I am too, Imogen says, and it’s almost a relief, because if someone is there with her, she isn’t facing it alone. But we’ll figure it out.
A long pause. Laudna can sense her faltering, almost on the edge of speech.
I really am sorry, Imogen finally says, and Laudna can tell the words are hard to say. For pushin’ you away. I should’ve known—I do know. You’d never.
It was both of us who were betrayed, Laudna says softly.
Yeah, and we’ll fix it. We’ll solve it. Together.
Your storm. My puppeteer.
Imogen looks distressed. You’re not a puppet, Laud.
Laudna doesn’t know what to say to this. A tear leaks out, and Imogen reaches to wipe it away.
The mood holds, and they’re quiet, and then Laudna admits into the darkness, I cried on Ashton.
Imogen’s nose crinkles. You didn’t.
I did. And Fresh Cut Grass.
I yelled at Orym in Taste of Tal'Dorei. In his head.
Imogen draws back, confused. Dusk.
Laudna, I thought she was so into you. I thought you were so into her.
I didn’t like it, Imogen says uncomfortably. I don’t like not—being with you.
Laudna feels an impulse, then. A compulsion to bring her hand softly to Imogen’s cheek. She freezes very, very still.
Are you okay?
Her hand stays where it is. It stays where it is. She reaches out experimentally and her arm moves as far as she wants it to and no further. This is no one else’s troublemaking. Her own decision. Her own desire.
I am, Laudna says, and cautiously, she lays her hand gently against the soft curve of Imogen’s jaw.
Imogen’s eyes lock to hers and there’s a hitch in her breath that makes Laudna feel as though she’s been lit through with sparks. They lay like that, breathing together, Imogen’s face warm in her hand. Her own breath feels shorter, suddenly. Her cold body feels like it’s burning, the world stilled around her.
The way Imogen looks at Laudna now holds a question, tender and fierce. Slowly, so slowly, Imogen brings her own hand to Laudna’s face. To Laudna’s lips. She traces the lower one with her thumb and her eyes darken, flinty and possessive, and Laudna is overtaken by a rush of desire that she has felt before. She has felt it before. It’s her own.
She leans forward into Imogen’s hand, presses their foreheads together, not a new gesture but one newly filled with need. So little space remains between them, so little and too much. She wants it to be none. She wants Imogen to make it none.
Please, she manages to think along their bond. Please.
Imogen’s eyes blaze then, and she closes the last few inches between them and then her mouth is on Laudna’s, greedy and electric and hungry. Yes, Laudna thinks, yes, and she is kissing back.
Imogen rises up around her; Imogen, her sweet lightning-struck smell and her clever hands and her brilliant mind and her talented lips; Imogen, her voice in Laudna’s mind as Imogen floods her senses. Mine, Imogen is telling her over and over, or maybe repeating even just to herself, Mine, and she sucks on Laudna’s lip, mine, and she bites at it, mine, and her body presses flush against Laudna’s and the heat is everywhere, mine.
It’s a miracle and a promise and an answer.
Yours, she thinks back with everything she has, yours, and Imogen pulls back for just a moment to look at her burningly before Laudna pushes forward again, and it’s Laudna who kisses her, who runs her fingers through Imogen’s hair and across her shoulders and over her chest, Laudna for whom Imogen’s breathing goes shallow, Laudna for whom Imogen’s eyes spark and who Imogen presses to the mattress and whose face is kissed, over and over. Only yours, she thinks and Imogen’s mind pulses with want, yours and hands move to buttons with rising need. And then across the room there’s a deep, sleepy breath from Fearne and they become conscious, suddenly, of Fearne and Orym and Dusk sleeping against the other wall.
Okay, Imogen says, her face flushed, a disbelieving, exultant smile cracking her face as open as Laudna has ever seen it. Okay. Wow.
Laudna grasps for Imogen’s hands and steadies herself, pulls the wide-flung pieces of her mind back together. Very wow.
We could’ve been doin’ that this whole time, huh?
How many nights has she wanted this, unknowing? How many years? We can keep doing it again, she says hopefully, and Imogen laughs.
I’d really like that.
The threads of love between them are tangled and precious and more numerous than Laudna could ever have realized. Laudna presses Imogen’s hands to her face, then to her mouth, then to her chest, where the pulse of her heart beats slow and steadfast and warm in a way that is herself and no one else, she knows it, a way that is hers and Imogen’s alone.