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Fire and Blueberries

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“Odin Odin, stop the cart, I need to pick flowers for the guy who I've wanted to marry for a year now but I’m never going to ask him because I want him to ask me for some stupid reason weh weh weh stop the cart,” Odin muttered under his breath, rolling pastry out on the floured kitchen table. His fingers were covered in white flour and specks of pastry dough were clinging to the cracks of his knuckles. He scowled and forced the rolling pin into the dough in annoyance. The recipe book sat open in front of him, covered in flour and butter and his contempt.

“Well you got your goddamn flowers, Maggie. Got your flowers and your man and everything’s working out for you. I hope you’re happy. I hope you live a long and happy life and have fifteen hundred children. I hope it was worth me getting kidnapped my a g- goddamn demon.” His voice raised and his stammer came back briefly. With a huff of annoyance, Odin picked up the dough and slammed it back down onto the table to roll it from another direction.

All in all, it wasn’t shaping up to be one of his better mornings.

He and Maggie had spent the past few days visiting the dockside town, Fairlyn, where Maggie had been selling various dried herbs and plants to locals and visiting sailors. They’d raked in a good amount of coin, and Maggie had fallen over herself buying new herbs from across the sea to take back to Gil to make into tinctures and medical brews. She’d been giddy and grinning ear to ear the entire time. Odin’s job meanwhile had been to stand to one side of Maggie’s stall and look menacing. A pretty useless job since Maggie was more than capable of looking after herself, but she said it was more dignified to have a man there, and Gil was too busy with the medical centre to go travelling with her. So Odin had stood there, pipe in his mouth and eyes on anyone who looked like they might cause trouble. He was pretty good at looking threatening so long as he didn’t open his mouth. His mother had given him broad shoulders and a good few inches on the average farmer, and he had his father’s dark eyes. Pity the war had then gone and given him a tongue which didn’t work. He always felt it ruined his foreboding schtick.

Odin punched the pastry dough and turned to search through the cabinets for some sort of pan. He found an old cast iron pie dish tucked away behind an old kettle and scrubbed it with a huff of annoyance. Stupid demon couldn’t keep anything clean. This was such an aggravation.

He knew it wasn’t a good idea to travel between villages. The forests were still oozing with magic left over from the war against the Titans, and who knew what mutated monsters still lived in the trees. But Maggie’d been insistent. The war had been over for years, and people were beginning to travel from village to village again. It was a business opportunity, a chance to get some new people to buy her herbs. And she didn’t listen to Odin’s objections because she was a stubborn mule at the best of times. She said she was going with or without him. And of course, Odin couldn’t let Maggie go alone because she’d do something stupid and something would’ve happened to her. And it’s a good thing he had gone because something almost had happened to her, hadn’t it?

The pastry was pressed into the pie dish. Odin was so aggressive that his nails punched through the dough in some places, revealing the grey metal dish behind the crust. Whatever. He poured in the wild blueberries and sugar, making sure to squash as many berries as he could into pulp. He sucked the juices off his fingers then spat into the dish for extra measure.

Because on the way back home, Maggie just had to stop the cart and run down the little path with the rusted gate hanging off its side, because she’d seen some roses. Some stupid fucking roses growing around a derelict wall. Didn’t matter that they were clearly growing in a place with magic still in the soil, because no normal rose had petals that bright blue colour. No no, all that mattered were they were the colour of Gil’s eyes. And Maggie was going to bring back a whole bunch of them and give them to him and he’d finally come to his sense and ask her to marry him. Ask him yourself, Maggie, ask him to marry you and shut up about it. But a lady doesn’t ask, a lady has to be asked so she had to stop and gather the flowers. And she had to call Odin over to help because some of them were over the other side of the wall and she couldn’t reach. And Odin was a gentleman and for some reason he loved Maggie dearly even if she didn’t think anything through.

He forced the pie into the hot oven and slammed the door shut. It was probably hot enough. He put some more kindling onto the fire just in case, jabbing at it angrily with the poker. Hopefully the pastry would burn. Or it wouldn’t cook through and they’d be left with a sloppy, uncooked mess. Yeah, that’d be great.

Demon’s shouldn’t get pie. Pie wasn’t for demons. Pie was only for people who didn’t jump out of the trees with bright orange skin and glowing red eyes and smoke billowing from their lips as they yelled about how you’re stealing their flowers and trespassing on their land. Odin grit his teeth, remembering how the demon had leapt from the branches and crashed down on the wall in front of them. Her hair had been dark and had billowed in the wind. Her clawed hands reached for them as she’d yelled. Trespassers, thieves, criminals. How dare they steal from her? And sparks had flown from her pointed teeth.

Odin had shoved Maggie behind him, as if that would do any good. He’d warned her that there was still magic in the woods. That’s why people didn’t travel from town to town, because things like this happened. A demon with a pointed tongue and feet that burned the moss she was standing on yelled at you, and said that you needed to pay her back for the flowers. And then you’d try to reason with the demon and explain you meant no harm, that you could pay with whatever coin it wanted, but your stupid tongue would get caught in your throat and you’d trip over the same syllable over and over and over again. That’s what happened when you went into the forest, Maggie!

And then the demon says you have to work off your debt. That one of you has to go with her and work as her servant, to pay her back for taking a few flowers. And then she growls and more dark smoke flows from her mouth and her skin glows. And she says that she’s being kind, because if you’d caught her in a bad mood the two of you would be burnt to cinders.

He’d never seen Maggie so terrified, her hands shaking on her stupid fucking flowers that had started this entire thing. And apparently when it was crunch time Odin turned stupidly noble, because he’d pushed her behind him and stammered that she should run. And when she protested, he shook his head. He’d stay. He’d be the servant. It wasn’t like he had any real reason to go back to the village anyway, the only real thing back there for him was Maggie. But she had her family’s herb shop, and all her friends, and maybe Gil. She should go.

Gil had better marry her after all this shit Odin’s going through to get those stupid flowers. Or at the very least, Maggie had better shut up about him. 

Congratulations on your engagement, my wedding present is saving the bride from a lifetime of servitude to a fire demon who lives in some old farm out in the country yes yes you're very welcome.

Why did a demon have a farm? Odin had expected to be dragged into some other dimension or maybe flung into a cave halfway up a mountain. Instead the demon had pulled him down the track in the forest, through more roses that grew through rocked walls, until the trees had given way to reveal his place. A little cottage whose roof badly needed thatched, and a wooden door with handprint-shaped burns all down the side. There was a well-tilled vegetable patch round the side of the cottage, and the distant sound of chickens and goats. Odin hadn’t had time to take it all in before being forced through the door and into a kitchen littered with plates and pots. The demon had promptly plunged her hand into the soot-covered oven, lighting the kindling in there and sending heat through the entire stove.

She was hungry, she told him. She wanted food. And Odin was going to cook for her. Then she’d left him there, flouncing away into the house and leaving dark footprints on the flagstone. And Odin had found an old cookbook on a shelf, and sorted through the pantry for some ingredients before deciding on blueberry pie.

Odin opened the door to the stove. The pie was done. Dark juices had bubbled up through the slits in the top of the pastry and it smelled of berries and sugar. He pulled the pie dish out and set it on top of the oven.

Okay, so this was his life now. Making pie for a demon who lived in an abandoned farm. At least the kitchen was well-stocked even if it was a mess. There was actually eggs and flour and a crock of butter, as well as vegetables and fruit and various conserves in the cabinets. Maybe demons farmed in their spare time. Or more likely they ate the farmers and took over their houses, then forced humans into slavery.

Odin huffed. He really didn’t want to work as a servant forever. But he also didn’t want to be burned alive. Real pickle, that was. If only his father could see him now. Look Father, aren’t you proud of me for living up to the family name? Isn’t this just what you hoped for? Aren’t you proud of me?

At least the pie smelled good and wasn’t a complete mess. If he was going to be a servant, at least he wasn't a terrible one. Odin found a tray in an old cupboard and loaded the pie onto it, along with bowl, spoon, and jug of milk. Then he carried everything through the kitchen door into a small living room. There was a fireplace in here, and a few chairs. Some books with burnt corners stacked on a table. Odin glanced around. A family had probably lived here before the war had everyone evacuating from the countryside to live in villages and towns. He left the living room into a small corridor with a staircase leading up. As he climbed the stairs, the dishes on the tray chinked slightly. Oh no look at that, he spilled some milk. Whatever. On the top floor, there were two more doors. One of them was open, leading onto a large bedroom with a double bed. The second was closed. He stepped up to this one and paused. Should he knock? Did demons want their human servants to knock?

Deciding to be safe, he knocked awkwardly with his elbow. “H- Hello?” His tongue and mouth stumbled over the words. Don’t burn me to a crisp, don’t burn me to a crisp, don’t burn me to a crisp. “I’ve got y- your, uh, pie.”

There was a strange sound coming from the other side of the door. Some sort of wailing? It was a little like a baby, or the wind. Was this a demon thing? Something demons did before eating? Odin had no idea. He hesitated in the hallway, deliberating what to do. Then he slowly pushed his hip against the door so that it swung open.

The door opened onto a second bedroom, smaller than the first. This one had a small bed pressed up against the opposite wall beneath a window with light green curtains. A round rug was sitting on the floorboards, stained with ashy footprints. There were a few small paintings on the walls, of cats and trees and children playing.

And sitting on the floor by the bed, with her knees up to her face and her head buried in her hands as she sobbed, was the demon.

The sound of the door opening had her looking up. Her eyes had changed from red to a bright gold, and there were fat tears pouring over her cheeks. They locked eyes across the room. And she immediately flared up, her skin glowing brighter.

“Don’t look at me,” she yelled, hands clenched and flames sparking from her tongue.

Odin took a hasty step backwards out of the room and into the corridor. More milk sloshed over the top of the jug onto the tray.

“S- Sor- Sorry.” His tongue twisted over itself in panic. “I’ll g- go back-“

But the demon suddenly shifted so she was on her knees and reaching out with her clawed hands. “No, wait! Wait, don’t go.”

Odin froze in position. He stared at her. The demon’s skin had stopped glowing and faded to a dusky orange. More tears dribbled down her face. And she said something he didn’t expect.

“I’m sorry.”

He blinked. “Y- You’re… Uh…”

The demon hunched forward. Her hair fell in front of her face, revealing the curve of her horns and pointed ears. Her hands wrapped around her front and she sobbed again. “I’m so sorry.”

Odin took a tentative step into the room. Was this some sort of demon trick? If he got close to her, would she eat him? Maybe if he gave her the pie, she wouldn’t eat him. Yeah okay, let’s give her the pie. He crossed the floor and placed the tray down on the rug in front of her. The demon sobbed and lifted her teary face. She had snot dribbling down her upper lip which she wiped away with the back of her hand.

Now that Odin stopped to look at her, he realised the demon was… Small. And thin. Maybe it was all the smoke and fire and swirling hair, but she’d looked huge on the walls outside when she’d been yelling at him and Maggie. But now she was tiny. Smaller than Maggie, at any rate. All curled up covered in snot and tears, sniffling to herself.

“W- w- what are you s- sorry for?” Odin clenched his hands, trying to steady his breathing and get the stammer under control. Breathe, you moron. Relax. Slow down and jump on the difficult sounds.

The demon blinked up at him. Her clawed toes dug into the carpet. “Yelling at you,” she said in a quiet voice. “And making you come here. I’m sorry, I just… I’ve been alone for so long. And I thought…” She tailed off into sniffles.

“Uh…” Odin had no response to that. He stared down at the pie instead. Pointing down at it uselessly, he said, “P- Pie?”

She sat up straighter and nodded. And she looked so pathetic and miserable sitting there with her lower lip quivering that Odin kneeled down and cut a slice for her along with a little milk on top. The demon took the bowl from him with a murmured thanks, and started eating. She took a few tentative bites using her fingers, still crying quietly. And then her face crumpled and more tears flowed as she shovelled more and more pie into her face, giant handfuls of berry and pastry until the bowl was empty and she licked her fingers clean. Then she put the bowl down and wailed again.

“It’s so good,” she cried, covering her face with her hands.

“Thank y- you?” Odin sat down on the carpet, utterly bewildered. He cut her another slice which was promptly devoured. The third slice was eaten more slowly. The demon chewed, her lips stained blue, her clawed hand picked at the pastry. Tears glistened on her face. Odin rested his head on his hand and watched her curiously.

She looked human. Sort of. She had orange skin, horns curling back around her skull, and pointed teeth, but still pretty human underneath all of that. A short human woman with a round face and small frame. Wearing an old dress that looked to have been sewn and patched up a thousand times over the years, and bare feet with clawed toes. She glanced up at Odin, and then back at her plate. Chewed. Swallowed.

Then, a quiet, “Thank you.”

Odin nodded. He tapped his hand on his face. This thing in front of him, it didn’t act like a demon. Not like the ones he’d read about in books. It had at first, but now it just seemed like a human with different colours. Maybe she just had a lot of magical blood in her family? Magic ran in Gil’s family and it gave his skin a blue shimmer in the sunlight, and Maggie had inherited her witch grandmother’s bright green hair. Maybe this was just a girl with a whole boatload of magic in her system. Maybe living out in the countryside had infected her with more magical energy like the roses outside.

He swallowed and decided it was time for a little diplomacy. Okay tongue, don’t fail now. “Uh… So, uh. W- w- what… Uh, who are y- you?”

The girls’ eyes widened. Another tear dribbled down her cheek. “I’m so sorry.” Her hands went to her face and her lips turned down, pointed teeth biting into her lower lip. “I never even told you my name, I just yelled at you and… I’m sorry.”

“D- d- don’t ap- apologise,” Odin said, holding out one hand. “My n- name’s Odin. What’s yours?”

“Ava.”

“Ava?”

“Mmhm.” Her hands fell from her face to hug her knees to her chest. “Ava Ire. Of the Verthurst Ires.”

“V- Verthurst? The v- village up in the Sa- Sagemount M- M- Mountains?” Odin licked his lips and rubbed a thumb over his jaw.

Ava nodded. “That’s where my grandparents live.” She paused and more tears dribbled down her cheeks. “Lived.”

Odin’s brow furrowed. “Oh. Yeah. It was d- des- destroyed?”

“In the war,” Ava said miserably. Another tear rolled down her cheek. “There was a battle and the spells reached the village. W- We could see the fires from here and my parents went to try and help. I stayed here. Waiting for them.”

“Oh…” Odin pressed his hand into his knees, unsure how to respond to that.

Her toes dug into the carpet more. “They didn’t come back. A- And I was crying, and calling for them, b- because I was scared and h- hungry. And then…” She sniffled and swallowed. “I, I think it was a witch. From the war. She found me and told me to be quiet. And I asked her if she’d seen my parents.” She bit her lip. More tears rolled down her cheeks. “And she hadn’t. And she told me to be quiet again. That I shouldn’t cry, and it was useless to cry during a war. But I couldn’t stop. And she said to shut up, and she said I should be angry instead. But I couldn’t stop crying! And she said she’d help me stop crying! Then she… Did something.” Ava’s eyes closed and she took a shuddering breath. “A spell. I don’t know. She grabbed me and I felt something hot on my arms, like I was on fire. And I think I passed out. The next thing I knew, I was waking up in the forest l- like this.” She held out her clawed hands. “I looked like this.”

“Wow.” Odin reached out and picked up a blueberry from the pie dish, popping it into his mouth. He chewed and swallowed. “Th- that’s rough. H- how l- l- long have y- you…” He gestured.

“Six years.”

“Oh.” Yeah, Verthurst had been destroyed in one of the final battles of the war. A few months after that, the last of the Titans had been killed down by the Southern Mountains. Had she been living out here for six years? Alone? Fuck. “W- why didn’t y- y- your parents evacuate to one of the cities earlier?”

“The farm,” Ava said. “We couldn’t leave the animals. And the war hadn’t come this far North, we thought we were safe. Until Verthurst…”

“Have y- you been alone? This wh- whole t- t- time?”

“Yes.” Ava hunched over again. “I’m sorry, I haven’t seen people in so long. Nobody comes out here any more. Not since the war. And I can’t go into town l- like this. And then, I saw you and I was so excited to see people, but then I saw y- you were stealing Mama’s roses! And I got so angry! A- And when I get angry, I can’t control myself. I say things I don’t mean. And I made you come here and cook for me and I said I’d burn you up but I didn’t mean it, I’m so sorry, I shouldn’t have done anything, I just didn’t want you to leave. And then I ate all the food you made and it was so good and now I feel sick.” She sobbed louder. “But I haven’t eaten good cooked food in so lo- ho- hong.”

“Ah, d- d- don’t cry.” Odin reached forward, his hands hovering in the air. Shit, he was terrible with people crying. “Uh, it’s okay n- now. I’m not m- mad or anything.”

“But I was so mea- hean.” Ava clutched at her hair. Tears poured down her face. “I haven’t seen anybody in so long and the first thing I did was yell at the- he- hem.”

“But y- you didn’t m- m- mean it. Y- You were just…” He floundered, trying to figure out just what you can say to stop a cursed girl from bawling her eyes out. “Surprised?”

Ava sobbed, slowly quieting to a few sniffles. She wiped at her eyes. “I’m sorry. I’m really sorry. I haven’t spoken to anyone in so long.”

“Y- you’ve said.”

“I’ve never… Nobody’s ever seen me like this.” She sniffed. “I’m sorry.”

“Ah.” Odin scratched his chin, desperate for something to say. “D- Do you n- n- need anything? Water?” After crying that much, surely even someone with fire magic needed to rehydrate.

Ava nodded and got to her feet. She helped Odin gather up the plates and carried the tray back downstairs to the kitchen. Odin sat at the dirty table as she poured water from the old tap into a large jug and placed it on the table. Odin drank a glass as Ava gulped down three. She then sat there, both hands clutching the empty glass.

She hiccuped. “Th- thank you. For cooking.”

“It’s okay,” Odin said, waving his hand. “I’ve n- never had someone c- cry because of m- m- my cooking before.”

That had Ava giving a short laugh before more tears seeped out of her eyes. “I’m not very good at cooking,” she admitted. Her shoulders hunched a little. More tears splattered onto the kitchen table. “I just wanted to eat something warm.”

“G- Glad I could p- provide.” He glanced around the kitchen again. There were sooty handprints all over the white walls, and dirty pans stacked unwashed by the wooden sink. A cabinet against one wall was full of pristine china, which seemingly hadn’t been used in the entire six years Ava had been here alone. A half-eaten peach was sitting on one counter, balanced on top of a copper kettle. He looked at her. “This p- place is a m- m- mess, you know.”

Ava’s eyes widened. Her cheeks glowed bright orange again and she bore her teeth. “Well, I’m sorry,” she snapped. “I haven’t had much help cleaning it up, living here by myself! Oh.” She stopped, staring down at her hands. The glass had melted in her grip, turning into a misshapen lump. “Shoot.”

Odin gave a shaky grin. “I just m- meant… I could help y- y- you clean it up. A little.”

Ava’s face flickered with shock. “What? No, you don’t have to do that. You’ve already cooked something, and I was so mean.”

He waved his hand to get her to stop. “Y- you can clean too. M- maybe y- y- you’ll feel better with a clean, uh, kitchen.”

Ava blinked at him. “Why are you being so nice to me?”

“I don’t kn- know.” Odin shrugged. “You lost your f- f- family in the war. M- maybe you deserve someone being n- n- nice to you after that.”

Oh God, please don’t start crying again, he thought as Ava’s lower lip quivered. He wasn’t good with feelings, he was already coming a bit unravelled. But luckily, Ava just took a deep breath and sniffed, nodding a little.

The two of them spent the rest of the day cleaning the kitchen. Ava was quiet and sniffled occasionally, and Odin was perfectly fine with no conversation. Meant he could concentrate on scrubbing all of the old pots with the one bar of soap he could find in the entire house. Ava dipped her hand into the water every so often to keep it hot, her hand glowing orange with fire. And she stood next to Odin, drying the pots with her magic, careful to not melt any of them. When all the pots were finally scrubbed, Odin hung them on their own hooks above the oven. He then handed Ava a dustpan and told her to clean out the ashes from the stove and give it a scouring too, whilst he wiped down the table and counter tops.

It was kind of funny watching the scary fire demon who’d terrified him earlier, crouching on the floor with her head inside a stove. She had ash and soot on her arms up to her elbows, and dirt on her cheeks, but she kept working until the stove was cleaned out. Odin was working on the counter tops which were absolutely terrible. When they were cleaned, he found a ratty old broom and started to sweep all the ashes and dirt out of the kitchen.

By the time they were done, the sun was beginning to set. But the kitchen looked halfway decent. Something you could actually take pride in.

Odin leaned in the doorway, watching the sun set over the mountains, and pulled his pipe out from the pocket of his britches. He filled the bowl of the pipe with dried florem mortem, noting that he was running low and would need to pick up some more when he next saw Maggie. The warm smoke filled his lungs as he breathed in. Then out. In the distance, he heard chickens and a river. The sound of goats. From the kitchen behind him, the sound of a fire being lit in the stove.

He looked over his shoulder. Ava was facing away from him, peering into the stove and holding out a hand to light the kindling inside. Her hair hanging down her back was the dark red of Autumn. He could see the tips of her horns peering round the tops of her ears. Odin breathed out the smoke and stepped back into the kitchen.

“Are you hungry?” Ava asked, still crouched by the stove. “I have some sausages still, and potatoes. And there’s some fresh spinach, too. I- I can try and make something.”

At the mention of food, Odin’s stomach grumbled to remind him that he hadn’t eaten anything that day except a small slice of blueberry pie. So he nodded and watched Ava run into a nearby pantry and grab food. Odin clenched his pipe between his teeth as she started to cook the sausages in a pan. He stood next to her and chopped potatoes to be boiled. Then he took over the cooking entirely when it became clear Ava didn’t really know what she was doing and was in danger of burning everything.

“How can you n- not kn- know how to cook sausages?” he said with a small smile.

“I’m bad at temperatures,” Ava snapped, her skin flaring orange. She breathed out smoke and shook her head. “Sorry. I never bothered cooking by myself. I- I just ate things raw.”

“You c- can do that?”

Ava raised her eyebrows and opened her mouth. As Odin watched, her throat and tongue began to glow and he could feel heat radiating from her mouth. She snapped it shut. “It cooks on the way down.”

“R- right.” Odin tapped his pipe against his lip and focussed on cooking. He wasn’t the best in the world, but he’d been cooking for himself for years so it was serviceable. Ava moved around the kitchen behind him, digging out some chipped plates and cutlery. She also poured them both more milk from a jug in the pantry.

Odin’s eyes wandered. Over the row of pans above the stove, across the door to the pantry that was hanging open revealing shelves of jars and dried herbs, to the back wall with the crockery cabinet full of white china. And hanging on the wall next to it, a photograph of a family. Odin squinted. He could make out a man with a prominent moustache, and a woman whose long hair was pulled back into a bun at the top of her neck. Then, in between them, a small girl who was clasping her hands in front of her and staring out of the photograph with wide eyes. Odin breathed out smoke. He turned the sausages over in the pan.

When they sat down to eat, it quickly became apparent that Ava hadn’t used cutlery in a while. Her clawed fingers were having difficulty holding her knife to cut. She stabbed at her food clumsily, and breathed smoke when Odin tried to help her. His hands hovered over his own plate.

“You d- don’t have to use a kn- knife and f- f- fork if you don’t want to,” he said. “I don’t m- mind.”

But Ava’s cheeks glowed and she didn’t meet his eyes. “Mama said it’s polite,” she muttered, her shoulders hunched. “When company’s over.”

Odin watched her struggle for another minute. He licked his lips and put his knife and fork down. Then picked up a piece of meat in his fingers and ate it.

Ava’s eyes shot up to him. Odin shrugged. “I d- don’t mind.”

There was a long silence and Odin wondered if he’d insulted her and she was going to set the entire kitchen on fire. But Ava’s mouth eventually twitched into a smile and she sat back in her chair. And she began eating with her hands, scarfing the food down happily. Odin grinned. He blew on his fingers and kept eating with her. When they were done, Ava sat back in her chair and glared at her hands.

“I hate my fingers,” she muttered, twitching her fingers. Her nails were about an inch long, and wickedly sharp. Tainted a darker red than the orange of her skin, they seemed in some lights as if they’d been painted. Ava turned her hand over, still glaring at them. “It’s like walking with knives on my hands.”

“Mm. That’d s- suck.” Odin relit his pipe and started smoking again. He looked across the room at the photograph on the wall, gesturing to it. “Is that y- you?”

Ava followed his gaze and nodded. “Yes. Me and my parents. That was the year before the fire,” she said.

“Ah.” He nodded, sucking on his pipe. “You look like your m- m- mother.”

“No I don’t. I look like this.” Ava gestured to herself. Orange and red, with horns and claws and a pointed tongue.

Odin shrugged and scratched behind his ear. “I m- mean like… You’ve got her f- f- face shape.” He got up and walked across the room to get a better look at the picture. Yeah, Ava looked like her mother if her mother had been dipped into a vat of clothing dye. Same round face and huge eyes. But she had her father’s nose, as well. “Did y- your parents have red hair too?”

“Papa did,” Ava said. She got up to come and stand next to him. “But I didn’t. My hair was brown before this happened.”

“Mm.” Odin nodded. He blew out a smoke ring pensively, frowning at the picture. Before the curse, Ava’s hair had been shorted and darker. Her ears had been hidden by her hair, instead of poking though. She’d had little bags under her eyes and skinny wrists. She probably hadn’t struggled with cutlery or melting glasses when she got angry. Odin tapped his pipe on his lower lip.

“Y- You said you haven’t gone into t- town for y- y- years,” he said slowly.

Ava shook her head. “I can’t. Everyone'll be scared of me. Like you were.”

“I’m n- n- not scared any more,” he said.

Ava looked up at him. She smiled softly.

Odin smiled back at her. He took a suck of his pipe. Breathed out. “L- listen, I was j- just thinking. I have some f- f- friends who know some m- magic. M- maybe there’s a way to… Reverse? This?” He cocked his head to one side. “If y- you want, I can ask them?”

“Really?” Ava stared up at him. “You think there might be a way to reverse it?”

Odin shrugged. “I don’t know. M- m- maybe? I’m n- not a wizard, I d- don’t-“

“Please!” Ava grabbed Odin’s sleeve, taking him by surprise. He gulped as more tears started to glisten in Ava’s eyes. “Please… If there’s anything you think you can do… I don’t want to stay like this. I don’t want to look like this for the rest of my life.” Her claws dug into Odin’s shirt, tearing little holes in the sleeves. “Please.”

Odin took a long breath and placed a reassuring a hand on Ava’s arm. “I c- can’t p- p- promise anything. But I’ll d- do my best. Okay?”

And the smile Ava gave him was the most radiant thing Odin thought he’d ever seen.