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The blasted light had returned. Sophrosyne was dead, Lamitt was laid to rest, and the godsdamned light had returned to plague every sinner. Giott took another swig of her ale at the Wandering Stairs, watching a tall, green-eyed Drahn woman with pale scales and a codex strapped to her hip approach through the crowd.

“Giott! If it isn’t my favorite helmless dwarf! How are you settling in?”

“Oi! Zoeya! If it ain’t my favorite beardless hobdaughter!” the boisterous auburn-haired woman returned. “Found work killing stray sin eaters. It’s a hell of a lot easier when they don’t come back to life.” She raised her tankard in salute. “Pull up a seat at the bar! First round’s on me. Unless you’re going to be a little goody two-boots again and ‘abstain’. “

“Nope,” Zoeya replied, popping the ‘p’ as she dragged a stool up to the counter. “You know we’re past that point in our friendship.”

Then to what do I owe the pleasure of your presence? Oh, brave and illustrious Warrior of – “

“Cut it out, Giott. Is it so unbelievable that I came here for your company?”

“Aww, that’s so sweet. I’ll be straight up with you though, I don’t swing my hammer that direction. No hard feelings.”

Zoeya rolled her eyes.

“No?” Giott teased.

“No. No, I called you because I want to get drunk.”

“You, of all people? And what’s with that look on your face? You look like you’ve lost your favorite hammer, or your heart’s desire turned you down.”

Zoeya became very still for a moment. Then she dropped her green eyes from Giott’s golden ones.

Giott was suddenly speechless. Her little jaw dropped as she saw the most uptight Drahn in Norvrandt drop her bag at her feet, her butt in her seat and her face into her hand with a sigh.

“Um… that’s not what I was expecting. I was expecting you to come up here with some hobshite job to do or need me to smash some monster’s face in.”

“Good to see you too, Giott,” Zoeya replied sardonically.

“Well, In that case – barkeep! The biggest mug of Wright ale you’ve got for my friend here!”

The Wandering Stairs bartender raised his hand in acknowledgement and set to it.

An hour and some aimless chitchat later, Zoeya was halfway through her fourth frothy stein. Giott drained her sixth to the last drop and slammed it to the counter. “Barkeep! Another round!”

“Can we just… slow down for a bit, Giott?” Zoeya wheedled as she swayed in her seat. “I’m getting really… tipsy.” Her pale cheeks were rosy, and her red-violet curls were already escaping from where she had tucked them behind her horns.

“Are you serious? Sodding lightweight. You better not fall off that stool because I am not putting your sorry arse back on it.”

Zoeya gave her a lopsided smile and giggled. “I’m not that drunk! I just wanted to talk.”

“Talk? You mean, about… feelings and shite?” Giott replied with dread.

“Yeah. It’s just… all my other friends here know him.” Zoeya stared absently into her glass and went quiet. A minute or two of silence went by before the dwarf sighed.

“Alright, what’s the whoreson’s name? I’ll find him and knock him flat on his backside before he knows what hit him.”

“No, Giott. He didn’t do anything wrong.”

“Didn’t do anything wrong!? You’re staring into your ale like it’s got the keys to the bloody empire of Ronka in it and he didn’t do anything wrong?”

“I didn’t… actually confess. I thought about it. But… things have changed, now. And I know he won’t want me. Not anymore.”

“None of that makes any bleeding sense. Start again. This time take it from the top. I need to know just how hard to hit the bastard when you’re done.”

Zoeya rolled her eyes again, but the edges of her lips ticked upwards for just a moment. Then she put her beer down carefully on the counter and watched the citizens of the Crystarium as they milled about the sapphire canopies of the Musica Universalis markets below.

“I’ve known him for a long time. Years, now. When we met he was just… a friend of a friend, really. An acquaintance in a larger circle I was included in after I moved to a new place. We knew of each other and were on good terms, but that was about it. He was the type that flirted like breathing with every woman who walked through a tavern door. I thought he was annoying to be honest,” Zoeya chuckled quietly to herself as she took a small sip of her ale. “I was so immersed in my studies that I really took no note of him past when I had to work with him to fulfill some request or achieve an objective.”

“So, what changed? Why get all twitter-pated about the man now? Did he start courting you just to toss you away for the latest flavor of the week?”

Zoeya laughed out loud at that, an inelegant, raucous thing that startled the Mystel man two seats down the bar into sloshing his mead on himself. He threw her a nasty look and ordered another.

“The opposite, actually. He fell in love with a childhood friend of his. He was truly devoted to her. It was very sweet.”

“So… you’re in love with someone who is already shacked up with someone else? Tough break, that.”

Giott watched as Zoeya stared morosely into her ale.

“No. I used to encourage him to confess, but he was always waiting for the right time, trying to be good enough. Then… she died.”

Giott didn’t know what to say to that. Zoeya sipped some more of her beer and gently set down the tankard.

“She was an incredible person. She… she willingly sacrificed herself to save people she didn’t know. None of us were ever the same after she passed.”

A moment of silence passed as the bar’s patrons bustled around them. Zoeya raised her gaze into the middle distance, staring at nothing but her own memories.

“He threw himself into his work. We both did, really. But his line of work didn’t often cross paths with mine. We went our own ways, only seeing each other when all our friends met up once in a while. All I knew is that he was running himself ragged.”

Zoeya turned to observe the markets again and began to smile softly as she rested her chin in her hand.

“After that I came here. To the Crystarium, I mean. And when I met him again… he was like a different person. Curt. Defensive. Very little sense of humor at all. But he had adopted a little girl - an orphan, just like him, with nowhere to go - so bright, and brave, and sweet. He devoted himself to protecting her and raising her.” She smiled shyly, and her tail began to gently swish back and forth.

“We started traveling together again, all over Norvrandt. We fell into this sort of rhythm that felt… like a family. He started to open up to me. To relax enough that I saw glimmers of his old self. One day in Ahm Araeng, when he trusted me enough to talk about her, and what he wished he had done while she was alive… I realized I was already a lost cause.”

Zoeya took a large swig of her ale. “Sad, isn’t it?” She chuckled with a self-deprecating smile. “I’m in love with someone who is still in love with a memory.”

Giott watched as her friend drained the tankard dry and dropped it to the counter with a clatter.

“So, let me get this straight. You’re besotted with some poor sod who doesn’t even know because you’re too craven to compete with a dead woman?”

“Giott!” Zoeya cried, offended.

“Sounds like a ‘you’ problem to me. Barkeep! Another round!”

“I swear, I told you – “

“Yeah, but you haven’t told him, gravel-for-brains. Let the man make up his own damn mind. Then you can drown your woes in some quality ale when you have a real problem to cry about.”

“I told you, I can’t,” she hissed. “I’m… not well. I can’t be with him right now. Not when I don’t know if I’ll survive what comes next.”

“But that’s the best time to screw a man’s brain’s out!”

Zoeya’s jaw dropped. She flushed, went pale, and flushed again in quick succession. Giott threw her hands up in exasperation.

“Then fuck him after. I don’t care. Didn’t realize I was talking to a vir-”

“I am NOT. Wicked white, can we just drop this?”

“Only if you buy the next three rounds.”

“Done.”

The dwarf grinned wickedly. “It’s your funeral.” She reached for her refilled tankard. “I hope this sinner at least has a damn impressive beard. You know what they say, the longer the beard – “

Zoeya pushed her off the stool. Giott hit the ground laughing.
*****

It took three rounds of liquid courage, but after the Dying Gasp was over, she finally asked him to speak privately in her quarters. Giott’s words echoed in her mind as they climbed the Pendant’s stairs. Sounds of laughter and joy suffusing the city night muffled as Zoeya pulled her chamber door shut. His footsteps seemed loud in the sudden quiet. She took a deep breath and turned to face him.

Thancred’s back was to her, gunblade still strapped across it. He looked around her quarters absently and shrugged. Then he half turned her direction and opened his mouth as if to say something trite.
Her gaze met his. He froze. His pupils dilated, and his jaw snapped shut. She could feel the flush rising in her cheeks and flooding down her neck to her scales as his eyes drank her in from head to toe.

“Thancred?”

After a few beats, he looked away. He coughed surreptitiously into his fist and walked over to the upholstered bench closest to her chamber door. “Mind if I sit?”

“Oh! No, please, sit wherever you like – “

He sat heavily, his blade clanking against the backrest.

“– and feel free to take off your weapon. I’m reasonably sure we’re safe here tonight,” she teased half-heartedly.

“Ah. Right. Proper visiting etiquette and all that. Forgive me, I’m… a little rusty.” He smiled ruefully as he unslung the blade and leaned it against the chamber wall. “Been on the road too long.”

“Yeah. I know the feeling.”

He leaned back, arms crossed and relaxed. “So? What did you need to speak to me about?”

She watched his biceps strain the fabric of his coat while he sat, nonchalant, waiting for her to say something. Zoeya tore her gaze away and did her best to act normal while she walked over and sat beside him on the same bench. Two full ilms of distance between them, both fully clothed, and yet she had never felt so exposed and raw. She looked down at her hands.

“Thank you. The white auracite – if you hadn’t intervened when you did… I wouldn’t be here.”

“None of us would be. I just did what had to be done.”

“I know. You would have done it for anyone else, especially with the whole star on the line,” she said ruefully as she took off her gloves and flexed her fingers. She unclasped the codex from her belt and set all of it carefully on the open seat beside her.

“Everyone else did the real work. Especially you.”

She shook her head. “Believe me. Without you, I wouldn’t be here now. I don’t just mean that literally.” She took a deep breath. Courage, Zoeya. “Getting to know you again, seeing you raise Ryne… talking by the fire while we were on watch together, having you at my back every day… every memory is precious to me.”

The crowd roared outside – cheering for gods know what – as Zoeya took a chance. She reached out, gently taking his still gloved right hand in both of hers. He offered little resistance as she tugged off his fingerless glove and laced her fingers between his. She spoke softly, knowing she needed to say it before she lost her nerve.

“I know you’re not ready. I know you’re not over her yet – Minfilia, I mean. But when you’re ready, I’d like to start something new. With you. If you want to.”

She tentatively looked up to meet his eyes.

His face was slack with shock.

She was so nervous she was sure she could hear her own heartbeat. She waited with bated breath as a thousand thoughts raced across his face.

Finally, he spoke. “I’ll be honest. This is the last thing that I expected when you asked me to come up to your chambers.”

Shame and embarrassment washed over her in quick succession. She looked down at her lap and released his hand.

“I… see. You were under the impression I um… wanted something else from you.”

“Quite.”

Tears sprang unbidden to her eyes. She furiously blinked them back. “Sorry I gave you the wrong impression. It won’t happen again.”

Zoeya stood up quickly and left his glove next to him on the bench. She walked over to the window and opened it without a word. The night sky greeted her as she clasped her hands tightly behind her back, the cacophony of the Crystarium revelers below surging into her ears. She heard his armor creak and shift as he stood. She concentrated on breathing deeply and slowly as his blade scuffed against the wall and his sword belt jingled. He took three heavy steps towards the door. He paused. She imagined he must have his hand on the doorknob, racking his brains for something to say to make this less awkward. She waited to hear the squeal of her door’s hinges. Breathe, she chided herself. Just focus and breathe, until he leaves.

But the sound never came.

Instead he approached her. Slowly, giving her a wide berth, letting her see him in her peripheral vision before stopping an arm’s length away to her left. Cautiously, after several breaths more, she turned her head to look at him. His arms were crossed and his gaze unfocused, seeing past the stars in the sky to whatever preoccupied him. She noted absently that he hadn’t put his glove back on. He shifted his weight as he looked down and away from her.

“It’s not what I expected,” he murmured quietly, “but I didn’t say I was opposed to the idea.”

Zoeya was speechless.

“I am familiar with physicality. I might be a bit out of practice, but I’m confident enough in that department. I am… not as skilled in other matters. As you well know.” He turned his head towards her just enough to see her without looking her directly in the eye.

"I respect you as a fellow Scion above all else." He swallowed and stood very, very still. "That said, I would be lying if I said I've never had thoughts about you. I wouldn't be here otherwise."

Zoeya stepped to the window without a sound. She swung the panes shut and latched them with a click, muffling the volume of the city below once more. Her gaze on the floor, she turned to him, leaning her weight against the glass and stuffing her hands into her robe while willing them with all her might to stop shaking.

Her voice quavered. “I thought there might be something between us. A subtle spark. I kept dismissing it as some passing fancy brought on by being so close all the time. Then one day… I realized it wasn’t. Not for me. I always think about you and what you might say, even when you aren’t around, even when I’m alone in the Hills of Amber or in a crowd of anxious nobles in Eulmore.”

Her throat grew tight as she looked up and into concerned hazel eyes.

“You’re shaking like a leaf,” he said in disbelief. “I don’t know if I’ve ever seen you do that.” He raised his hands as if to reach for her but aborted the movement half-way. “Would you come sit down? Please? I would feel a lot better knowing you won’t literally fall for me.”

That startled a laugh from her. She covered her mouth quickly, watching as a surprise washed over his face and was replaced with a small, fond smile. Then he turned to her table – set with a sumptuous spread, courtesy of the Master of Suites - and motioned for her to take a seat. She rolled her eyes but did as she was bid on wobbly feet.

“I think that’s possibly the worst pick up line I’ve ever heard.”

“I think it’s probably the worst one I’ve ever used. But you can’t say it didn’t work,” he teased back as he sat beside her. He poured two glasses of water and passed her one. “Drink,” he ordered. “I don’t want to see you get up from the table until you drain the last drop.”

She raised an eyebrow at him and was prepared to snark back when he started loading up her plate with risotto al Nero, a fresh slice of baguette and blood tomato salad. “How did you know? I’m impressed,” she said, fascinated, as her stomach began to rumble in earnest at the scent of food.

“It’s easy to tell what makes you happy. Helping people, learning new things, and eating good food. Not necessarily in that order,” he stated matter-of-factly.

“I meant how you knew my favorites. You’ve been paying attention to what makes me happy?”

He stopped mid-reach for a cup of broad bean soup. He looked about to say something, then shrugged his shoulders and grabbed a fresh pixie apple pie for her instead. He filled his own plate, sat down and raised an eyebrow at her. “Eat your food.”

“Yes sir,” she replied with a knowing smile.

He was right – she felt much better with a full stomach. So much so that the events of the day finally caught up with her, and she began to nod off at the table. Thancred steadied her with a firm hand around her arm as she stood up from her chair. He made sure she didn’t trip on the step up to bedroom area before he let her go and headed to the door.

“Can we talk again tomorrow?” she asked tentatively. “We never truly finished our conversation.”

“Of course.” He stopped, hand on the doorknob, and gave her a smile that made her heart flutter. “Goodnight. Sleep well.”

Then he closed the door gently behind him and she passed out as soon as her head hit the pillow.