Gwinna is not very good at liking people. Animals don't much care about liking, not when understanding is of more use, and it was always much the same with Gwinna's mother, and thus with Gwinna. Occasionally, when she was young, she had tried liking people -- usually at Beltane over a flagon of elderberry wine -- but in the end, whether she kissed her fellow druids, or wandered away from the fire into the forest and talked for hours, had much less to do with enjoying their smile or conversation than it did with knowing the same trees, whispers in the breeze, responsibility to the earth. Understanding.
She understands Dusk.
She understands what it means to be afraid for your life, a trapped creature, mad with terror and willing to say or do nearly anything: this is why she lets him go, the first time. Gwinna doesn't want to see what nearly anything is, nor does she want to cause death without necessity. She understands, too, if a little less swiftly than she would like, that Dusk is at the point of desperate survival all the time, and not at all likeable.
At the Tower, on the edge of a vast desert where the sand reflects hot sun into Gwinna's eyes and makes her long for the time to bask as a snake or lizard, Dusk asks her, with lightly-treading words, if she thinks she's going to get away with it. Every one of their conversations sounds this oblique, full to the brim with things unsaid: does she think she can keep saving him. Does she think that she and her ridiculous, dangerous, likeable companions will be able to save the worlds. Does she think she can pull Dusk deeper into her debt without eventually giving something too.
That is when Gwinna kisses him for the first time, under the beating-down desert sun when Dusk is no longer made of shadows but instead in the body she made for him from dirt and ash and diamonds. He kisses shamelessly, nothing coy about it as she half-expected; his mouth is open to hers as though she is air or water or life, and he isn't wrong. His hands stroke over the spines on her back while she makes claws of her fingers at his waist, tries not to make them too sharp. Tries to keep from being too obviously relieved that he understands and recognizes her as almost no one else has ever done.
(Gwinna kisses him for the second time amid the strange giant ghostly bones of a dragon graveyard, but that is a mistake in calculation, something more than she really has to give, because by then --)
There is Aja.
Aja makes Gwinna feel like a fawn, something with wobbling limbs that could at any moment go in all directions, something new.
The first time Gwinna feels it, she and Aja are sitting together on a cliffside, catching their breath after fighting off the hungry chicks of a mountain roc. Aja, picking through the story with the care of one revisiting a hurt still unhealed, tells Gwinna how she escaped the place where she and other angelic creatures were being held captive, and Gwinna, seeing the distant sadness in her eyes and the smatter of freckles across her cheeks, feels wobbly.
This part is not real; this part is Zeth, and what Gwinna feels is empathy for Zeth's love of Aja, though she doesn't know it at the time. It passes.
It passes, and then in the Abyss, in a tiny hopeless fortress, with a hundred demons bearing down on them, Gwinna and Aja together find a way to open a door between worlds, and inside Gwinna it's as though every spring plant has burst into bloom all at once. That is real. After that -- after the Abyss -- the feeling never goes away, and there is for Gwinna a relief to knowing why, a relief in going with Aja and Lowen down a river in Hell to pull Zeth back out, to see both of them at once and to know the difference in her bones.
There is a difference between Aja and Dusk, too. Of course there is, as obvious as saying there is a difference between fire and air, but -- the difference is that Dusk is easy. Dusk, with his tail and his shadows and the smile that doesn't ever reach his eyes, Dusk who is always survival-desperate, he is straightforward, for all that he frustrates Gwinna and makes her want to sink teeth into him. Aja is thoughtful, thorough, carefully well-meaning, makes Gwinna want to be and do the same. She is worth approaching slowly, and with intent, worth taking the time to understand even if Gwinna cannot do it instinctively.
But Gwinna kisses Dusk, amid the strange giant ghostly bones of a dragon graveyard, when Aja is only a possibility and a hope and half-understood, while Aja is there watching, and Gwinna realizes she has made a mistake.
Then, of course, the mistake is compounded: they learn that Dusk has come to the dragon graveyard to kill his namer, with a tiefling and an aasimar, and Gwinna chooses to stay because she understands, and Aja chooses to stay because -- because --
Even after Dusk's accursed Genth namer has bound Gwinna and Aja's souls to his, Gwinna doesn't know. Even after they lose Dusk, and return to Ellesmere, Gwinna's mind racing with a hundred different plans, each more absurd and useless than the last, pacing the room while Aja sits quietly and breathes out despair, Gwinna doesn't know. And Gwinna doesn't know, when Aja stands and comes to her, who starts the kiss, which is, in its own way just as drowning-desperate as her first kiss with Dusk had been.
The difference, of course, is that bringing someone back to life is easy; saving them from your own mistakes is the hard part.
Zeth knows something about that.
It's only some months after the defeat of the Prismatic and the collision of the planes that this occurs to Gwinna. She's too busy stabilizing the various planes in the aftermath of their merging to spare much thought for her own small dramas, and it's only by chance that she runs into Zeth, in what is still nominally the astral plane, where they've both stopped to rest at an inn near the border to the material plane.
Zeth doesn't look like herself -- or like what Gwinna has, probably arbitrarily, come to think of as what Zeth looks like, blonde hair and implishly upturned nose; she looks, in fact, like a certain aasimar done without much attention to true detail, as though Zeth were wrapping herself in a familiar form for absent comfort. (Gwinna is getting better at understanding small unspoken needs like that.) She notices Zeth because of the passing resemblance, and knows it's Zeth because she's learned what Zeth smells like, a strangely sterile smell, like polished stone.
She glides over to where Zeth is floating, waits for Zeth to notice her. Waits for Zeth to smile her crooked smile, recognizable on any face, and waits too for Zeth to deal the opening blow, which Gwinna feels is hers by right. But Zeth makes it even gentler than Gwinna was expecting, and only asks, mildly, "Where's your shadow?"
"Somewhere," Gwinna replies. Dusk is with the druids, at the moment, acting as Devran's assistant while she accustoms herself to her new body. "I'm not his keeper," Gwinna adds, and accepts it when Zeth throws back her head and laughs, scornful and theatric.
"Sure you're not." Zeth makes a show of wiping tears from her eyes, though Gwinna sees none. "Where --"
Gwinna thought she would be braced for this blow, but, seeing it coming, she blurts, "I only know when the moon is dark or full," as though by honesty she could somehow pour apology into those words. Zeth merely looks at her, coldly, and when Gwinna tries again she still cannot find the right words, says, "My Hell-marks are gone. I don't know how. I wanted to do more but mostly I've made everything more difficult." The lines of Zeth's face are shifting, and not quite settling down, becoming a strange queasy shape halfway between Aja's true face and the one Gwinna thinks of as Zeth's. Gwinna feels sick and says, "There are so many things I would have done differently, but not -- not loving Aja. I can't apologize for that."
Abruptly as a stone dropped in still water, Zeth's face loses all traces of Aja, settles into the other shape; to Gwinna's astonishment she looks thoughtful now, rather than angry. Slowly the crooked smile returns. "Yeah," Zeth says. "I know the feeling."
They do not part friends. Gwinna doesn't have friends; she is unsure whether Zeth does, either. What they have is uncertain: not the rock-solid trust that Gwinna has with those companions with whom she saved the world; certainly not love. Perhaps understanding. Perhaps in time Gwinna can ask Zeth what shape she wants things to be, what, if they cannot change the past, they might do differently in the future.
It takes Gwinna some time (fourteen months, twenty-eight nights with Aja, moonlit wanderings of the planes while they talk and learn each other's minds, quiet spaces swallowed by darkness while they touch and learn each other's bodies) but eventually she realizes that, left to his own devices, Dusk has done something absurdly unexpected, and recruited Zeth as a drinking companion.
So far Dusk has mostly made himself scarce on nights with a full moon or none, or, if he and Aja have met, they have been impeccably polite to one another. Aja asks after Dusk; Dusk, for his part, does not ask after Aja, though he once found a bite-mark on Gwinna's inner thigh and traced it wordlessly, with considered intent, until Gwinna was trembling and flushed and breathless. Gwinna does not want that to be an isolated incident, but she still doesn't know how to say so without also speaking all the things that still go unsaid between the three of them, so she stays silent until the night when, coming out of the trees into the clearing where she intends to meet Aja, she is instead greeted with the sight of Aja and Dusk, sitting together against a tree-trunk and laughing.
No -- not Aja, Zeth, with her polished-rock smell and subtle tells of posture. Dusk senses Gwinna's gaze from the trees first, his laughter trailing off; Zeth, too, stops a moment later, peering into the trees. "Gwinna?"
"I -- I can find somewhere else --" Gwinna says, flustered, and clenches her fists on the realization that she has implied a mutual need for privacy, hers and Aja's, Zeth's and Dusk's. She imagines that for a moment, feels unaccountably dizzy. "I mean --"
"No, Zeth and I were just passing the time," Dusk says, gesturing her into the clearing. "We have for a while now, to give you and Aja space."
The air compresses down in Gwinna's lungs. This is much worse already than her conversation with Zeth, trying to apologize for becoming to Aja what Zeth used to be before the Prismatic, before Hell. Gwinna looks at Zeth anyway. "Do you need space?" she asks. "I've -- I've been taking every moon. You could have some, I didn't think --"
Zeth shrugs, shrugging off Aja's form at the same time. "Neither did Aja," she says lightly. "I think the offer would mean more coming from her."
Gwinna looks at Dusk; Dusk shrugs, a wry twist to his mouth that Gwinna can read as an acceptance of his own time with her, much more than he was ever expecting to have. Pressure builds behind Gwinna's eyes, like an earthquake, like a collision, and she realizes with some surprise that she is on the sudden verge of tears. She laughs instead. "Did you ask?"
Zeth's eyes narrow, answer enough, and Gwinna laughs harder. She didn't realize that, for all her useless inarticulation, for all the ways in which she doesn't know how to simply like people, or get along with them, how to ease into any of the social niceties or long conversations that this situation should have, she still understands what should be done. She swallows her laughter as best she can, and says, "Do you want the offer?"
Silence stretches; moonlight fills the clearing. Dusk is smiling the faint smile of someone who already knows he'll get what he wants no matter the outcome. Zeth's face is very blank. And Gwinna feels Aja materialize behind her; feels Aja's sudden, surprised hesitation.
"Yes," Zeth says, quiet.
Dusk tips a curious look at her. "Who are you going to be?"
For a moment, in consideration, Zeth shivers into a form that looks like Gwinna -- like Gwinna before, with dark hair and no nimbus of light -- but it is only for a breath, and then Zeth is blonde again, shrugging, turning her face up to Aja. "This, I think."
"Oh," Aja says, a breath of surprise, and Gwinna turns to her, unsure what to say but confident, by now, that she will find her way to understanding; but Aja is already taking her hands, with the beginnings of a brilliant smile on her face, that look she gets when there is a puzzle ahead of her and she can't wait to figure it out.
In the end it takes time. None of them are much good at saying what they need to, which, for all it reassures Gwinna, does present a minor obstacle; the fact that Dusk and Aja don't much like one another, a greater one, but not insurmountable -- because they do understand one another. Eventually they become a complex of touching points: Dusk gets his hands and mouth on Gwinna with the same hungry desperation he always does; Aja follows the raise of bruises with her own sweet careful touches, until Gwinna is shivering and writhing and clawing stripes into Dusk's back while she kisses Aja's hair; and somehow her fingers have ended entwined with Zeth's on the curve of Aja's hip while Aja's legs and Zeth's tangle together as they kiss.
It feels like planes settling into alignment. It feels messy and half-disastrous and wonderful.
It feels like something permanent.