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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.

Chapter Text

Zoeya woke gradually, curled in a fetal position, head fuzzy with residual exhaustion. The ambient noise of the city filtered in through the closed window. A child giggled; merchants hawked their wares; raucous laughter echoed from somewhere down the street. The steady patter of foot traffic as people went about their lives soothed her. She teetered on the edge of consciousness, almost unsure of where she was – for a moment, she felt she might wake behind her family’s compound in the shade of her grandfather’s favorite lemon tree. Perhaps, if she stayed very still, Mother would let her be… just a little while longer.

Slowly, when the light bleeding through her eyelids became too much, Zoeya opened her eyes. The red brick wall next to her bed came into focus first; understanding this must be her room in the Pendants came next. The brooch on her neckerchief pressed into her throat. Her belt cut into her hip. Her toes ached. She looked down at her feet to find she hadn’t even crawled into bed – just fallen on top of the coverlet, fully clothed, boots and all. The marsh green fabric of her arbatel cloak crinkled and creased as she sat up and rubbed her eyes. Her hands were bare, she noticed. But why? And where were her gloves?

“Ardbert?” She called softly.

He didn’t reply. A gentle warmth suffused her chest instead. She placed her left hand over her heart.

Then she remembered.

Standing up quickly on unsteady legs, she rushed to the opaque crystal window and popped the latch. The panes swung outward of their own volition. A bright blue sky dotted with fluffy white clouds greeted her. The sounds of cheers and glasses clinking from the Wandering Stairs below swelled in her ears as she gripped the ledge for support.

“We did it,” she breathed in awe, smiling ear to ear. “We actually did it, Ardbert.”

She sank to her knees, closed her eyes, and leaned her forehead against the cool metal of the window frame. She saw him in her mind’s eye as he was just before they Rejoined: courageous, resolute, at peace with himself – every bit the hero he was always meant to be.

Thank you. I’ll miss you. I’ll always remember you, she thought, hoping whatever was left of him would hear. The warmth in her chest pulsed once and faded.

Remember us. Emet-Selch’s last words echoed in her mind. She sat back on her heels and took a deep breath.

“Don’t worry,” she muttered. “I don’t think I could ever forget.”

Zoeya opened her eyes and pulled herself up to the sill. Her stomach growled. “Yeah, yeah, I know, time for breakfast,” she grumbled back. She turned away from the window to the table, where two half-eaten plates of cold risotto remained. Wait… two?

Her heart jumped into her throat and her mind kicked into overdrive. Her eyes darted to the bench by her door – and sure enough, there her codex lay, her missing black gloves folded neatly atop it. A single fingerless glove much too large for her hung off the seat beside them. She took six careful steps. She reached out, half afraid it would dissipate into aether on contact, but her fingertips met supple leather instead.

“Holy shit.”

Zoeya fell into more than sat on the bench. She looked on in disbelief as her own traitorous right hand slipped into the gauntlet. It swallowed her entire forearm. Her digits barely peeked out of the finger holes. She wiggled her fingers twice, made a fist and let it go. She brought the back of her hand to her nose and verified the scents of oil, sweat and gunpowder. Her heart rate sped up and her blood rushed into her cheeks. “I actually did it.”

I’m not opposed to the idea. I would be lying if I said I’ve never had thoughts about you.

She grinned stupidly at her hand for far too long. She’d been right. He’d cared enough to be concerned for her. Hells, he all but confessed he paid attention to what made her happy. Her whole body tingled with the memory of his calloused palm against hers and his firm grip on her arm.

Zoeya shook her head suddenly, as if clearing cobwebs. “What am I, fifteen again?” she chided herself. “Getting worked up over holding hands?”

She slipped off the glove and dropped it back to the bench before she did something foolish. She really shouldn’t take this so seriously. Even a girl half her age knew friends should take care of each other. Sighing, Zoeya stretched her arms overhead until her shoulders popped. She got up and turned on the miniature orchestrion. An upbeat tune with a syncopated beat played as she made herself simple jam on toast. She tried to fight the pep in her step as she sashayed to her armoire and pulled out a fresh change of clothes. She indulged in a little hop-step and twirl across the room to the shower.

By the time Zoeya scrubbed last night’s grime away she’d given up the act. She belted out the chorus and swayed her hips to the beat as she teased the tangles out of her hair. She caught herself beaming like an idiot in the bathroom mirror as she dressed more than once. Twice while she towel dried her strands she peeked over her shoulder at his glove, just to make sure it was still there. Before she left her room, she doubled back to her desk and scribbled a quick reminder to herself.
- Buy Giott a drink
- whatever she wants
- Don’t tell her she was right
She smiled and tucked her codex and the glove in her purse on her way out.

*~*
The joy suffusing the city was downright infectious.

Still humming to the song playing in her head, she beamed at every passerby on the way down the stairs as her bag bounced against her hip. They responded with pleased grins and delighted salutations. She spotted her neighbors from down the hall on the first level as she tied her long curls back into a messy ponytail.“Alfric!”

The balding man with ruddy skin and pale horns jutting along his chin turned towards her at the sound of his name.

“Ah! If it isn’t the hero of the hour,” he responded, cheeks wrinkling with his gap-toothed smile. She rolled her eyes.

“You know I don’t like having that word tossed around.”

“Doesn’t make it any less fitting,” he quipped in return. He leaned on his cane and drew her into a one-armed hug as she descended the final step. “Good to see you in one piece, my dear.”

His wife, a petite woman with jet-black scales and silver-streaked hair flowing over her shoulders, eagerly trotted over and joined the embrace. She squeezed them both so hard Zoeya lost her breath.

“Margery, please!” she wheezed.

“Well, you deserve it,” the woman grumbled in that sweet-and-sour way of hers. “Running off to save the world again not two days out of your sickbed. I made a whole pot of soup for you that had to go to waste.”

“Oh, so into my stomach is ‘a waste’ now, is it?” Alfric complained.

“Always,” Margery responded in monotone as she released them both.

Zoeya stepped back and took a full breath. Then she lifted her arms and turned in a circle. “See? I’m alright. No need to worry.”

“Who said anything about worrying?” the old woman replied as she patted down Zoeya’s arms and torso anyway, automatically searching for hidden injuries. Satisfied there was nothing life-threatening after her brief examination, she smiled and reached up to tuck a loose tendril of hair behind the flat blade of the younger woman’s horn. “It is good to see you out of those battle robes for once.”

“It’s been a long time since I wore civilian clothes. Feels a little strange, to be honest.”

“I used to feel that way when I came home after a long deployment with the Guard,” Margery agreed sagely and gave her a brisk pat on the cheek. “You’ll get back into the swing of things before you know it.”

“I hope I get the chance to. What did you two get up to last night?”

“I feel like we should be asking you that,” Alfric countered slyly. “What are these rumors about a man visiting your chambers?”

Zoeya nearly choked. Margery smacked her husband’s arm with the back of her hand.

“Forgive my gossip of a husband. Sometimes he just can’t keep his mouth shut.”

“It’s not gossip if it’s true,” Alfric wheedled.

“It’s no one’s business if it’s true!” Margery scolded.

“You’re no fun, darling.”

“You knew that when you married me.”

“He’s just a friend,” Zoeya interjected hastily, determined to redirect the rumor mill before it truly spun out of control. “I had a couple drinks, he took me back to my room, made me drink water and eat something and put me to bed. Can I get on with living my life now?”

“How boring,” Alfric whined. Then he fixed her with a hawk-eyed stare. “Are you sure that’s all?”

Zoeya fought back the irritation in her voice and fixed him with a look of equal intensity. “That’s it. Thanks for letting me know my door is being watched, by the way. I’ll keep that in mind in the future.”

Alfric took a step back and raised a hand in recognition of a boundary crossed. Margery gave him scathing look that said I-told-you-so. Then she turned back to Zoeya. “Don’t let us keep you, dear. May you find shade wherever your path takes you.”

She smiled back. “Same to you.” Then she nodded curtly to Alfric and walked away.

The couple watched her go.

“Are you happy now?” Margery murmured to her husband as the Master of Suites flagged Zoeya down on her way out the door. “Of all people, I’m sure the Warrior of Darkness can take care of herself.”

“Yes,” he mused. “But it never hurts to have another set of eyes. She’s still young, after all.”

*~*

Zoeya cursed underneath her breath as she climbed the stairs to the Ocular. She’d been so focused on her objective last night that she hadn’t thought about the risk of being seen. She’d become far too comfortable in her anonymity in the First. Former anonymity, she chided herself, cursing again as she almost missed a step in her distraction.

How could she have forgotten about Alfric? Of course the old man would have people watching her door. A sharp mind hidden under a harmless façade - He reminded her so much of her late grandfather it was uncanny. He probably had eyes on the movements of every person of interest living in the Pendants. If that old coot wasn’t some form of spy before he retired she would eat her shoes. If he even is retired, she thought bitterly.

Wicked white, what would Thancred think? He played everything about himself so close to the chest. He’d given her a small opening to work with. The last thing she wanted was the rumor mill changing his mind. She didn’t want to think about what would happen if he took it all back because of this. Or… had he already known they would be seen and come anyway?

She stopped in her tracks and felt her cheeks flush at the thought. Thancred’s specialty was espionage, after all. He had to have known there were eyes in the walls. Was last night tantamount to a declaration of intent? But no… he’d been shocked at her honesty. He’d admitted he thought she’d asked him away for other reasons. Other reasons, indeed, her inner voice taunted.

Suddenly she became very, very still. Her mind rewound last night’s memories and played them in fast-forward. That appraising look he’d given her when the door closed. The way his eyes burned her skin.

Forgive me, I’m… a little rusty. Been on the road too long.

This is the last thing I expected when you asked me to come to your chambers.

She covered her mouth with her hands and sank to her knees as the realization hit her like a freight train.

Somehow, so single-mindedly focused on confessing her feelings as she was, she'd completely missed every damn thing staring her in the face. All she'd absorbed from the conversation was rejection or possibility without thinking of why he was even there to begin with. There was no platonic intent whatsoever on either side last night. He knew her door was being watched and came anyway, fully expecting a completely different course of events. And had he been any lesser sort of man… no wonder Alfric had interrogated her.

Zoeya groaned and rubbed her face in shame. “I’m such an idiot.”

Yet, as she considered the possibilities, a trickle of molten warmth coiled low in her belly. The more she thought about what last night could have been, the more the foreign sensation grew and spread, leaving her scales warm and skin fevered. She pressed her palms against the cool crystalline floor for some limited relief. Her breathing instinctively changed to a slow, shallow pattern when she recognized the response overtaking her. She sat back on her heels and laughed under her breath. “Oh gods. This is really going to be a problem.”

A bit out of practice, indeed.

*~*

It took several minutes of sitting alone in the hallway before Zoeya finally composed herself. Thanking whatever deity deigned to give her the unexpected privacy, she took a deep breath as she reached the crystalline doors and knocked on the entrance to the Ocular.

“Enter,” a familiar voice answered.

“There you are!” Alisaie greeted her warmly as the doors swung shut behind her. “Decided to sleep in today?”

“I think I earned it this time,” Zoeya sassed back and ruffled the girl’s hair. Alisaie pulled away and batted at her hand.

“I would say so,” Alphinaud added, smile wide. Zoeya smiled back and pulled him in for a quick hug.

The Exarch stood in the center of the Ocular. His hood was thrown back, ears free and perked in her direction. His natural arm was bound in a sling, weight heavily on the staff in his crystalline hand, but his hair was washed and the gashes on his nose and forehead were well healed.

“It is good to see you awake, my friend.”

She crossed the floor to him with a few quick steps and a jaunty flick of her tail.

“That’s my line and you know it, G’raha Tia.”

He gave a watery smile as she pulled him into a gentle embrace. “I couldn’t pass up the chance to return the sentiment.”

“How is your gunshot wound healing?” She asked, slipping easily back into her role as group medic as she held him at arm’s length and examined him. “I can debride and redress it for you later if you’d rather not have a stranger poking at your back.”

His cheeks seemed rather red after she completed her circuit. Concerned, she placed a hand on his forehead. “Any fevers? Chills?” His nose twitched and she cocked her head. “Weakness or feeling faint?”

“I assure you, I am as healthy as can be, all things considered,” he demurred, looking down and away from her before offering a half smile. “I’ve known Chessamile for fifty years, you know. Trained her myself. She’s quite capable.”

“I suppose the head of Spagyrics will do,” she sighed dramatically, returning his grin and giving his crystal shoulder a squeeze. “My offer still stands if you change your mind.”

G’raha opened his mouth as if to reply but was interrupted by the low squeal of door hinges.

“Ah,” he said, tone falsely bright, eyes flicking over her shoulder. “It seems we are all here.”

She took a step back and turned around.

“My apologies, everyone,” Y’shtola greeted the group with a yawn. “The Night’s Blessed wouldn’t allow me a wink of sleep until dawn. All it took was one person – “she gave a pointed look at Urianger, ”- calling my by my true name in public to get them all upset. I told them they could all call me by name and next thing I knew….”

“I do believe they were overjoyed by the knowledge thou cares for them so,” Urianger stated with a twinkle in his eye. "Runar in particular."

“Yes, well. Joy doesn’t leave much time for sleep,” Y’shtola groused as Ryne emerged from behind her.

“Zoeya!” the redhead cried as she rushed the warrior for a hug. The force of her tackle caused the rogue tendril from that morning to slip it’s bounds again. Zoeya laughed and squeezed the girl back. “It was wonderful! I’ve never seen so many happy people in my life! We bought all kinds of street food, but then Alphinaud passed out on the couch. Alisaie and I played games all night without him. He even drooled.”

“I did not!” Alphinaud spluttered in consternation.

“Yes you did,” Alisaie teased. “You should have seen your face!”

Zoeya squeezed the girl in her arms tighter while the twins bickered behind them. “A sleepover?” she chuckled, brushing the girl’s bangs out of her face as she let her go. “Sounds like you three enjoyed yourselves.”

“At least someone did - I didn’t touch a single dram of alcohol. No thanks to this fiend.”

His posture was easy and relaxed as he strolled into the room. The circles under his eyes betrayed a lack of sleep. Five-o-clock shadow across his chin and his hand combing through damp ash-blond strands showed he was fresh from a hurried bath. His leisurely steps came to a stop just a few fulms away from her. He set his right hand – still missing a glove – on his hip and gave her a genuine smile.
Zoeya’s stomach turned a somersault.

Then Thancred crossed his arms, sighed, and gave Urianger a look that could melt glass.

“It appears you did not enjoy my recitations of your youthful romantic exploits, my friend,” the astrologian mused innocently.

“Oh, that’s right. Only the best of friends are completely unable to keep from mortifying you in public with your past indiscretions. I forgot.”

“What else was I to do, when it came to mine attention thou briefly left the festivities with some unknown individual and returned shortly thereafter?”

“You didn’t need to rouse the entire Wandering Stairs just to torment me.”

“Come now,” Urianger scoffed. “You could have imbibed any time you wished. My tales did garner no small number of attentions for you. There were ample opportunities for complimentary spirits.”

“All with strings attached!” he sniped back.

“Oh? Dost thou not intend to reclaim the lost gauntlet?”

Thancred narrowed his eyes before he looked away and coughed surreptitiously into his bare fist.

“Nevertheless,” he muttered after a short pause, voice low and even as his gaze met hers, “I drank naught but water until dawn.” He gave her a small, secretive grin. “Can you imagine?”

She was suddenly very, very aware of the supple leather concealed so casually in her purse.

“I… yeah,” she breathed. His amber eyes followed her fingers as she reached up and pushed the stray curl back again. Her other hand slipped down to rest nonchalantly on the bag hanging at her hip as she shifted her weight. She could feel her pulse skip as his eyes flicked to the movement of her lower body and back to hers. She smiled. “I think I can.”

She caught Y’shtola’s eye from across the room. The mi’qote woman’s gaze was vaguely curious as she put a hand on her hip and twitched her nose.

G’raha Tia tapped his staff twice on the crystalline floor. “Shall we get to business then, my friends?”

They discussed all the mundane, everyday considerations that would go into rebuilding and restructuring after averting the 8th Umbral Calamity. G’raha would continue researching a way to return them to the Source without dying; Alphinaud, Y’shtola and Urianger would return to their respective posts; Thancred and Ryne would travel to Ahm Araeng with Alisaie to learn all they could about the Wall and the borders of the Empty. Zoeya would return to the Source, chiefly to apprise the remaining Scions of recent events and ensure the mothercrystal was still in working order. When G’raha began mentioning time equilibrium and activated the portal, she stopped him.

“Wait – you mean right now?”

“Well, yes,” he continued. “The flow of time between Shards is unpredictable, but for now it is relatively stable from here to the Source. Best to depart now before a day there becomes a moon here again. At present you should be deposited by the beacon in Mor Dhona within a week of your original departure.”

“A single week there for six months here,” she marveled in disbelief. “What is the ratio right now?”

“One hour for every three on the First.”

“Do you have any idea how long that will hold?”

“Unfortunately I do not. Which is why time is, quite literally, of the essence.”

She turned and looked to each of her friends, hoping against hope they would sense her hesitance. Instead they voiced their unconditional support one by one. By the time she stepped into Thancred’s downcast line of vision, rippling blue surface of the portal casting shadows over her skin, Zoeya knew she was out of options. The others chattered behind them as he met her searching eyes without so much as a hitch in his breath. Then he crossed his arms and spoke so quietly only she could hear.

“We’ll talk when you get back.”

She took that promise with her into the void.