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What You Wish For and What You Keep

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CINDERELLA

 

For the first five years or so, she thought it was happiness that did it. Or, something that was almost happiness, but not quite - it was something to the side of real-world feelings, and it pulled her sideways after it. She could always tell when she'd got there, because she'd hear something go click inside her head, and for the rest of the day she'd feel like she was drifting through things. Nothing could catch her attention, and she didn't mind, although usually she wanted to be the person who poured her full self into everything she did; usually she wanted it with such earnest intensity that it made her father's friends call her things like 'adorable' and 'divine', which she bore with equally earnest good nature.

It felt like she was trying to tune into something more worthwile than lessons and chores and good manners, and it scared her, wondering what something like that could possibly be. Then the dreams started, and she understood.

The first time it happened, her father had just come back from abroad, and she was thrilled to have him home, thrilled to have his stories, and his gifts, and his pride in hearing all her minor accomplishments from when he'd been away. She fell asleep sure that an important future was waiting for her. Next time, she would go with him, and learn sorcery and alchemy and amass an army's worth of witches and werewolves for friends, from all over the world. As she drifted off her mind was full of the forest, with strange shapes in the shadows (her father's stories had been full of the forest), but as she slept the leaves changed to sand, and in the center of all the sand was a city...

-

The girl was a year or two older than Cinderella, maybe, and men already called her beautiful. She knew a lot - she knew the histories of a hundred kingdoms, and she knew how to draw a hundred animals in ink or paint, and she knew what face to make to convey any of a hundred levels of affectionate disapproval - but a lot of what she knew, she didn't care about, and a lot of what she cared about, she didn't know. Cinderella couldn't see what that was, exactly, but she could feel the caring sitting uncomfortably underneath all the rest of it, waiting for its chance to be used. Cinderella had never wanted to be anyone's friend quite so badly.

The girl was striding across a truly impressive private garden. The wind was blowing out her hair, and there was a funny smell on the air - maybe that was what that much sand smelled like - that told Cinderella she was really, truly not anywhere she'd been.

The wind itself felt funny, she thought absently, and tried to look down at her - the girl's - body, which was difficult because the girl wouldn't move her eyes. Eventually she glanced at her reflection in a fountain she was passing, and Cinderella gasped.

Oh god, she thought. She's in her underthings. She's forgot to put her dress on.

In a minute she was going to go out into the public garden (Cinderella knew as much of the layout of the palace - it really was a palace, and the girl was a princess - as the girl was thinking of directly) and people were going to see her, and it was going to be awful. Cinderella tried to make herself noticed - tried to fling her arms around, to think wait, wait as loudly as she could, but she was trapped in the girl's head, and there was nothing she could do. I'm sorry, she thought, sadly.

The girl went through an archway and suddenly there were other people around - a few guards sulking against hedges, a couple staring seriously at each other in the distance, and a small rotund man shuffling frantically towards her - and they were all in greater or lesser states of undress. Oh god, Cinderella thought again, faintly. She's the princess of underthings.

She felt a loud burst of laughter in the back of her head, followed by an overwhelming sense of tolerant amusement, and she was still wincing from the laughter when she realized this was the princess, responding to her. The shock of it sent her careening all the way back over the desert and the forest and the mountains, back into her bed where she woke up sweating and stunned and completely ready to believe in the reality of what had just happened.

-

She met the boy for the first time three months later, on the night when the snow finally fell after weeks of looking like it intended to. It'd been three months of dreams - there was a girl with brown hair and steady, careful hands imagining the world with only books as a reference, and imagining it beautifully; there was a delicate, doll-like child looking longingly up at her new stepmother's wonderful mirror; there was a prince who drew mermaids on his father's official papers, and didn't believe the old legends about them, but wanted to; there was a peasant girl alone in the forest who sang until her throat hurt, just because singing was the thing she loved best.

She loved them all, but she could never call them back to dream about for a second time. Sometimes she felt like they could almost hear her, or like they were somehow thinking with the idea of an audience in mind, but she couldn't really talk to them. At first she didn't think the new boy was any different. It started the way it always started: her father spent the day singing snow songs and ineffectually trying to help the housekeeper put up tinsel, and Cinderella cheerfully spaced out, and danced around underneath them, and for a few hours allowed herself to be no help at all. She fell asleep thinking about snow, and it stayed snow, this time. It was dark still, which was unusual, but at the top of an odd crooked tower, a light was burning...

 

THE PRINCE

 

The boy didn't live in the tower. He was just there all the time because he thought living in a tower would be romantic, although he wouldn't have used the word romantic, because that was a word for girls to use. He'd never been suspicious of girls the way his playmates had been, and he'd never then switched over to being in awe of them, either. They were just there in the background, doing whatever it was girls did, and one day he would have to marry one, but he'd probably have figured out why he should want to, by that point.

The tower had belonged to his great aunt Tabitha Elsinore Allimane, who'd died recently of a broken heart. She'd been forty five at the time, so the whole thing was considered somewhat unfashionable: you died of broken hearts when you were young or when you were old, not when you were forty five. The boy hadn't liked her especially, but he hadn't disliked her either. She was family, and family was another category altogether from boys and girls. Family was a list of names on papers, in expensive ink and stamped with an array of intricate crests, and you couldn't feel strongly in either direction about names on papers.

He had a pile of these in front of him, which he was meant to be studying, but which he was actually drawing lions on. One minute the only things in his sphere of focus were the pen and the paper and the expanding lines, and in the next he felt suddenly sure there was something else there, something lurking uncomfortably in the space between his thoughts and the tower wall and the empty air. He felt a pressure in his ears and heard, without hearing, a voice from far away saying -ear me can you hear me can-

"Yes!" he said too loudly, smearing ink all over the Hartsdown branch of the Lennington side of Duke Prester's family. He felt the voice stumble to a halt and consider him. "Hello," it said at last, sounding closer now. "I'm Cinderella. Those are very lovely walruses."

He opened his mouth to say they weren't, but the presence was gone again. "Hello?" he said, to the space in front of him. The space did not respond.

It was nearly midnight now, so he collected his papers and his lantern, and climbed the eighty steps down to Tabitha Elsinore Allimane's garden, and then the hundred and eight back up the bluff to her real house, where he was supposed to be sleeping with a guard outside his door. He crawled in at the window and looked uncertainly at the even larger stack of papers on his borrowed desk. They were letters from his father, extolling the importance of behaving cooly toward cousin Leonen Archibald, and warmly toward cousin Harietta Melody Tamirin, and reminding him of the sort of experiences he was meant to be building on his vacation, and the sort of person they were meant to aid him in becoming. Above all, the letters stressed the importance of duty, which he resented, because duty was something he'd always understood. He didn't need helpful tips and character-building experience; he just needed experience, and his character would either build itself or it wouldn't. He liked being far away from his family, even though he loved them, and even though he didn't act any different than he did when they were there. He liked the chance to be himself all on his own.

And he liked the chance to sneak off to fanciful dead aunts' architectural whims, and pretend to be talking to ghosts. He grinned awkwardly to himself, extinguished his light, and slept soundly.

 

CINDERELLA

 

She didn't dream, the next night, but the day after that she nearly nodded off at breakfast, and for a moment she knew the boy in the tower was having breakfast too, and she knew what he was eating, and about his poor opinion of the marmalade. She was jittery the whole rest of the day. Her attempts to intentionally zone out met with little success, and she never got properly to sleep that night.

It was two weeks of half-felt glimpses, and only one very muddled dream about a girl who collected forks, before she got another chance. She wasn't sleeping, wasn't even dozing. She was rearranging furniture in her room in attempt to make it resemble a goblin palace (She was too old to be playing goblins, but she had always behaved more childishly in private than she did in public, and it had never hurt her yet) when someone said, "Is that you again?" and, "Goblins don't actually do the everyone-gets-thrones-but-the-king thing. They use wood thrones because wood is symbolically important, because of the goblin princess Eadburh's flight from the Witch King in his magicked wardrobe."

"Oh," Cinderella said happily, even though she knew that. The boy was talking too-fast and too-officiously in a way that meant he was afraid of what would happen if he didn't find something to say, which meant she needed to give him something to say. She could do that.

They played at being a council of goblins for nearly two hours. She thought his father might be some sort of diplomat, because he was knowledgeable on the subject of councils, but he let her reimagine the terms of the Wilwalch/Brokerfeld treaty because it would give one of her councilors a more dramatic backstory, and he wasn't at all smug the way she'd thought he might be.

She didn't feel foolish, playing a kid's game with a strange boy who was probably older than her. Real-world rules didn't apply here. She felt that playing kid's games was exactly what she was meant to be doing just then, and everything was right with the world.

 

THE PRINCE

 

The next time it happened they were dreaming for real: they were sitting in a room that looked almost exactly like his father's study except that it was entirely chartreuse, and Cinderella wanted to know what his name was. He opened his mouth to tell her, and then closed it again.

He had seventeen names: his father's, his father's father's, his mother's maiden, his mother's father's, his uncle's, his father's best friend's, the patron saint of his country's, the patron saint of a small church in Fallowing his father particularly liked, the patron saint of games of luck, whose face his mother had had on a necklace, a popular folk hero, a less-popular folk-hero whose hair was the same color as his, two important figures in local history, a figure in the history of a country with which his father had wished to secure an alliance, the maiden name of his mother's best friend, and two further names which, so far as he was aware, were there because his mother had particularly liked them. These last two were the most honest, he felt, but they were 'Leudagar' and 'Baldomar', and could clearly not be used.

He had a fleeting intention to make up a name, and thereby reinvent himself as someone dashing and brave and unencumbered by his parents' horrible decisions, but he couldn't think of one in time. Instead he recited all seventeen, and in a last-ditch grab for daring spontaneity, asked her to choose. He could feel her attentive consideration, and it was still such a shock, having someone take him seriously as a person, as opposed to seriously-as-the-Prince.

"I like Baldomar," she said at last, and he thought, oh hell. He tried to convey the seriousness of his dissatisfaction with Baldomar: aside from being silly, it had the word bald right there at the front of it, and he did not want people to associate him in any way with baldness. His hair was important to him.

"It's like a knight in a fairy tale," she said, sincere and unmoved. "Baldomar the Good. You could always replace the B with something, and have Faldomar, or Galdomar, or Haldomar."

Somehow this idea was legitimately upsetting to him. He tried to send an air of apology, but couldn't convincingly manage it. She was still going, a distant buzz at the back of his head of "Ialdomar, Jaldomar, Kaldomar." It had stopped sounding like a word, and even less like something that in any way pertained to him. Stop, please stop, he thought, and she did, thinking only "?"

He didn't know why it bothered him; this time his apology was genuine. "I don't know, just pick something," he thought, and then, feeling her about to speak, amended, "not anything with baldness."

"How about just Mar," she said, sounding sorry even though she didn't need to be. "The Good Knight Mar?"

"The Good Prince Mar," he almost corrected, but locked that thought away before it could get to her. Instead he sent agreement, because he didn't want to argue, and Mar made as much sense as anything else. He felt guilty: he could tell she was thinking that naming him was important, that she had to get it perfect. Mar wasn't perfect. It was just another name.

"I'll like anything you call me by," he sent.

"Untrue," she thought, and bombarded him with a dozen things he would really not want her calling him, and he did the same, and thought, there we go, crisis of uncomfortable sentimentality averted. But it turned out he did like her calling him Mar. He didn't think of it as his Name any more than the three of his seventeen that were in most frequent use, but it was in a different category, and the existence of that category was comforting. He hung onto it several years past when he stopped believing in Cinderella - the more charming, more capable version of him in his fantasies got named that, when he needed a name - and when he was nineteen and his father gave him his first speech about how One Needs A Wife If One's To Become A Good King he thought, distantly, "yes, the Good King Mar."

 

CINDERELLA

 

"My father's getting married again," she told him. In the daydream they were back in Tabitha's tower, even though Mar himself was staying with a friend of his father's in the country. He sent an air of vague inquisitiveness, because he was trying to simultaneously talk the son of this friend out of purchasing a supposedly-ensorcelled statue of a cow.

"Oh!" she said. "Oh, don't let him buy that. We can talk later if you want."

He repeated the inquisitiveness, less vaguely this time.

"I'd love for him to have someone, of course," she said, after a pause to make sure it was all right. "But she isn't very... openly affectionate. I know some people aren't, but it makes me worry. She has daughters my age, and I'm worried about that too. I suppose I've forgotten how to talk to people who are really there."

She felt a flash of fear, quickly stifled, that once she had really-there people she wouldn't need to talk to him anymore.

"I'm not talking to you because I need you," she said. "I'm talking to you because I like you."

The statue of the cow sneezed in Mar's face, and she had to break off her moment of heartfelt sentiment to laugh at him. She felt his face twist into a grimace that she thought would look very silly from the outside.

Soon, she thought. I have to meet him soon.

But it's not like there needs to be a rush, she told herself. He'll still be there.

 

II:

 

CINDERELLA

 

Her father died, and she didn't dream for two months. She thought it was because she was unhappy, and she spent so much time trying not to be that Stepmother began talking about how she loathed a certain breed of empty-headed girl, who smiled prettily and could contribute nothing of substance, and how if a person was incapable of achieving substance on their own then substance must be forced upon them, for their own good and the good of those subjected to their company. This did nothing to improve Cinderella's mood. She gave up on being bubbly, and half-wished she had it in her to shout and rant and make an undismissible nuisance of herself. But she only half-wished, because her father was dead but the good manners he'd instilled in her weren't, and if she couldn't be kind out of kindness she'd be kind out of petulance, and die being kind, and Stepmother would never, never wear her down into a mockery of her former self.

It was an elaborate self-delusion, maybe, because there wasn't anything else she could actually have done. It wasn't in her to rebel in the way she thought Stepmother'd like her to, just so she could break her of it. She tried to think maybe that meant it wasn't in her to be broken like that, either, but couldn't help holding opposite suspicion: that she was already broken, was ready to be broken even before her father died, even before Stepmother came. She thought sometimes that perhaps she was intrinsically servile - she was so very good at being servile - so she might as well live like that as do anything else. The truth was that she'd been bored in her last life, for all her lessons and conversations and morning rides and new clothes. And now she was tired and angry and constantly sad, but she wasn't bored. She didn't have enough energy to be bored.

But she didn't stop liking herself, and she didn't begrudge herself her anger, and that kept her going until the day Stepmother declared that she would no longer sleep in her rooms, as their fineness was a major thread in the network of bad childrearing habits that had led to her becoming dangerously coddled. Cinderella was moved to the tower, and locked in for the night so that she could become properly acquainted with it, and have the solitude with which to consider her many misdeeds. Mar and his stupid romantic tower, she thought, helplessly. Being shut up in one is romantic too, I'll bet. But Mar wasn't there, and hadn't been there for a long time.

Her hands shook for an hour after the door closed, and then they stopped. She got ready for bed methodically, and went to bed thinking of nothing. That was the night the dreams came back.

It was a boy, this time, and all that was in his head was hate hate hate. It was soothing. She relaxed into the circle of his anger, and felt him smash apart his once-treasured possessions in the way she knew she never could. He was smashing them because they meant nothing now. Her things still meant something - they still meant too much. She wished he'd come smash them for her, too.

His only coherent thought inside the hate was Beast, and it was true, there was something seriously wrong with him. Cinderella didn't let it bother her. The really monstrous people used words for their monstrousness, she had reason to know, and if he wanted to forget his words, that was fine, that made sense. If he wanted to forget his words, she could hear him anyway, and she felt a little sorry about that, but mostly, inexplicably, she felt triumphant.

And then in the morning she woke up able to talk to mice.

"You go that way when you talk to big things, far things," said Wellie the mouse captain, two weeks later, waving her arms in a wide circle to indicate outwardness. "Small things go this way," she said, tapping her head vigorously. "You go insiiiiiiiiiiiide."

Cinderella wasn't sure how much sense that made, but she was willing to go with it if it meant she wasn't alone in her head anymore. She'd been sure the dreams were gone forever, but if they weren't it meant she had something to hope for, the sure knowledge of a world outside that was waiting for her, wanting for her. As long as she had something to hope for, she thought, she'd be fine.

-

The dreams didn't come back exactly as they'd been before. They only happened every few weeks, now, and her impression of the people in them was vaguer and more troubling. Usually, before, she'd dreamed about people like her: girls around her age who spent a lot of time making impossible plans for the future. Now she dreamed about anyone, and she was shocked by how many people there were that weren't like her. She never tried to talk with them anymore; she just watched, and waited.

She dreamed about a boy in green who was kind and cruel all at once, who could throw people away from him like worn out clothes, and would do it forever and not get bored. The next day she kept looking at windows like she expected to go flying out of them, and when Stepmother brought home an entire chest of embroidered table runners for her to repair, she smiled, because the cruelty of adults didn't mean anything, not really.

She dreamed about a witch who lived in a crumbling castle on a crumbling mountain, and spent sixteen years plotting the death of an innocent girl just because the only thing she found funny anymore was other people's suffering. The next day Stepmother sent Cinderella to the market for something they already had and she thought, God, how unimpressive this all is.

She dreamed about a woman far away, farther than she'd ever dreamed before, who was stranded on a mountainside, dressed as a man. Once Cinderella would've been shocked, but the ability to be shocked by incongruous trousers was apparently one of the things that had fallen by the wayside of her new life. She watched the woman numbly, and tried to understand: she was a soldier, she was going to save her father, she was going to show them all. The next day Cinderella woke up with dried tears on her face, but she didn't still feel like crying.

She'd thought she'd understood why the dreams worked, before, but it was obvious they weren't about happiness, although she was happy some of the time, now. She tried out different explanations - they're about power, they're about hope, they're about strong emotion in general, they're about being what I need - but nothing quite worked. Especially not the last, because Mar didn't come back at all, in dreams or otherwise. She didn't need him, though, exactly. She could get through on her own, and she was. But she wanted him, and in a world where wanting is a luxury, getting what you want can seem far more important than getting what you need.

"I'll see you again," she thought, at the empty space where the way to make him hear her used to be. "I'll find you and then we'll go find all the rest of them, and we'll all be fine, we'll be great, you'll see."

She felt like as long as she kept saying it it would keep being true, but a funny thing happened, which was that she started to forget about Mar. She didn't think about the dreams when they weren't directly relevant, either. She had too much else to do. For a project she tried to figure out how to talk to different kinds of animals (she kind of got there with birds, and dogs and horses she thought could at least understand her, and the cat might be reading her mind rather than the other way around) and then whether she could get into their heads the way she could with humans, in dreams. That phase didn't last long, because the three seconds she managed it were so disorienting that she had trouble figuring out how to walk for the rest of the day. She never tried to look at the minds of the humans around her, even on the rare occasions when they had visitors. She wasn't sure she could keep track of where she ended and another person started, if they were so close together, and she thought the people her dreams picked for her must have some kind of pattern or purpose, which she'd throw off if she tried to pick people on her own.

-

There was no earthly reason behind Cinderella's obsessive surety that she must, must go to the ball.

There were many earthly reasons why she would want to go at all. The palace was supposed to be breathtaking, and she might never get to see it otherwise. There'd be hundreds of people there who weren't in Stepmother's circle, and would look at her and see an ordinary girl glad to be at her first ball, rather than whatever it was Stepmother looked at her and saw. There'd be hundreds of people who were basically good, there to remind her that most people are basically good, that most people look benignly on a girl at her first ball and would never think that family means servitude. The world of people who go to balls, she thought, would be the world of her dreams before Stepmother came: the world of people who were hoping, and hadn't learned how to understand cruelty.

So of course she wanted to go to the ball. But she felt herself wanting to go to the ball before she even knew there was one, and as she took the letter up to the music room she knew hearing it would come as a confirmation, not as news.

It was possible she'd just retroactively convinced herself of all that, but certainly she behaved oddly in the wake of the announcement. She couldn't focus on anything; it was like her attention was being pulled by a single, steady thread leading directly to the palace, and she knew nothing was more important than following it. She didn't phrase it that way to herself until afterward, of course. It seemed far too fanciful a thought to have in the midst of her washing and mending and following orders.

Later, she thought that when her stepsisters pulled her dress apart, it hadn't felt like they were attacking her, so much, as like they were attacking the thread. She herself could bear attacking, but the thread was fragile - new, she thought then, and later, new-remembered. It was the place where the door in her mind had been to the uncomplicated dreams, and to Mar. She'd been pounding on it ineffectually for years, but now that it was nearly in sight she couldn't recognise it. (Well, she thought, of course she couldn't. She'd had to re-learn how to be happy in every other way, so why not this one as well?)

It's been broken, she thought at first, as the door swung closed behind Stepmother, leaving her irrevocably on the wrong side of it. It's been broken, and what am I supposed to do now? And then there was another thread, and another door, and a voice that sounded like voices sounded in dreams.

"I'm your Fairy Godmother," the Fairy Godmother said, and Cinderella thought, oh. It's magic, magic's real, I'm real.

I spent years thinking there were people out there on my side, and it's true. There are. It was almost worth not going to the ball, knowing that.

Of course, going to the ball and knowing would be the best possible outcome, and for a miracle, the best possible outcome was exactly what happened.

 

MAR

 

He noticed the dress before he noticed the girl. It was about five years out of style, and the color had never been fashionable that he could remember, and the fabric was wrong but he couldn't tell how. He couldn't really tell it was fabric at all. Just then, surrounded as he was by heavy brocade in sickly yellows and lilacs, and entombed, himself, in a scratchy beige mess of gold embroidery, it looked like the best thing in the word.

The person in the dress wasn't part of the crowd, wasn't attempting to look like she was doing anything other than lurking in the doorway, and that was good. Don't be part of this crowd, he thought. This crowd cannot possibly be having a good time. (He was pretty sure he'd yawned at some of them, which was unpardonably rude and not princely at all, but he hadn't been feeling like being princely. He'd been feeling like throwing a temper tantrum. He felt guilty now, looking at the girl in the dress: she didn't look like a person who would ever yawn at someone who didn't deserve it.)

The girl started looking around, and he was embarrassingly happy at the thought that if she was lost then he could go rescue her, and thereby rescue himself from not-yawning-duty. He was moving before he had time to consider how absurd that was - people were looking at him - but it was too late now. Sorry, he thought to the girl. They're about to be looking at you, too.

It's not like she's being eaten by a dragon, he thought. She's standing around in a hall. There was pretty much no excuse for him.

He was in front of her now, and she was staring at him like he might or might not be a horrible monster, and she needed time to make up her mind. This had been such a bad idea.

"Are you lost?" he said, and was surprised to hear himself sounding confident, like he was behaving totally normally.

"I was looking for the ball," she said, inanely, because the ball clearly was right there.

"You've found it," he said, and then, because it made sense to say and because he couldn't just walk away after that, "Will you dance with me?"

She was still staring at him, but there was something different now. It would be unspeakably embarrassing if she said no, but then she said "I would love to be rescued from the hall," and he was pretty sure he hadn't said that bit out loud. He hadn't even been within speaking distance of her yet. And there was something wrong about the way she'd said it. It had more open emotion than words were supposed to have: triumphant, confused, relieved, sure, and under all that was something disturbingly familiar, something that made him want to give up on the ball for good and just run away from her, and never stop running.

He realized belatedly that it sounded wrong because he hadn't heard it with his ears, and she hadn't moved her mouth to speak. He got it, then, and now he was the one staring dumbly. I thought I made you up, he thought.

"No," she sent back, and, "Mar." Then she grabbed his hand and led him back into the middle of the dance floor, and talked to him the whole time about nothing important, and for once dancing didn't seem so bad at all.

 

III: EPILOGUE

 

CINDERELLA

 

Mar's father (who had fifteen names, four of which were the same as Mar's) had their honeymoon all worked out, down to the wine lists of the places they'd be dining.

After he'd flung this on the table and left in a flourish of good cheer (he always left them in this manner, in some way managing to indicate his expectation that they would, upon being left alone in any room, immediately set about the process of creating grandchildren for him, and also to indicate his approval of that state of affairs. Mar dealt with this behavior stoically, but she could tell he found it disturbing. She herself did not feel able to be disturbed by anything ever again, and enjoyed regarding Mar's father with fond tolerance.) Mar stared blankly at the desk-lamp and said, "Ah, so" and Cinderella took pity on him and said, "So where shall we go?"

His look of desperate relief was entertaining. She was finding everything entertaining lately.

"Anywhere you'd like," he said, in his Benign Prince Voice, "as long as it isn't on that list."

Cinderella started to answer and then felt suddenly unsure. Honeymoons were supposed to be all about the two of you, was the problem, and if she wanted the perfect fairy-tale romance she had better stick to the tried and true. She already knew that the tried and true could make her happy.

But she didn't want the perfect fairy tale romance. She wanted something that was very like the perfect fairy tale romance, except that instead of the perfect fairy tale hero and heroine, there's her and Mar. Mar who's a real person, Mar who she knows. If it's her and Mar, instead of the hero and the heroine, they can do anything they want. And she did know Mar, so she knew avoidance wasn't the only reason he went away all the time to play the cool, collected visiting dignitary. He liked the idea of far away, and he liked people, and he liked to have a project. Like her, pretty much.

"There's some people I want to meet," she said.

"People like, your brain-buddy with the dishwashing birds, people?" he said, and she loved that he remembered that.

"Yes," she said. "It's going to take some figuring out, all I know about some of them is that they live near a forest."

Cinderella caught another glimpse, then, of his relief that being engaged was actually something he liked, rather than something that involved wine lists. It was a thought that'd been all over his head since they met, and she'd been politely ignoring it, because his father really was overbearing, and she should give him time to recover from it. Also it kind of made her want to hug him forever.

"That sounds really great," he said, meaning it entirely.

Cinderella gave into her desire to hug him, and pressed her face into his neck, which was the perfect height for it. His arms came up to circle her back, certain where his words were still-hesitant, and she thought, real.