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you're a cinder, love

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The day the night returned, Thyme had felt absolutely terrible.

There had been whisperings all evening about a massive sin eater attack: Holminster Switch was gone, or would be soon, flattened and burnt to ashes by a flood of them. People flooding into the markets from Lakeland said they could see the massive column of smoke for miles around. And it wasn’t just sin eaters, apparently—rumor had it that a full-fledged Lightwarden had been spotted in the Holminster Switch town square.

Business, of course, was nonexistent; the tension in the air made it crystal clear that no one in the Crystarium had shopping on their minds at the moment, and the guards forbade anyone from leaving the city who wasn’t officially sanctioned, even if they were trying to help. So there was nothing that Thyme could do. No business to keep her busy, and nothing allowed to assist the people who needed it. Granted, not that she was certain there’d be much she’d be able to do, anyway—it’s not like throwing a strength tincture at a sin eater would help much.

Somewhat understandably, she’d thought, she’d felt nauseous and shaky for hours, and had to try very hard to suppress the urge to cry like a terrified child as she’d stood there helplessly, focusing as best she could on her ledger and her stock. Certainly not thinking about all those poor people fleeing for their lives, just like she had all those years ago, or how their bones would crack like splintered wood when the sin eaters caught them, just like her little siblings’ did, or the way their faces would twist and warp as they chittered and hissed and shrieked with glee, like her mother—

Well. The point was, she was having a hard time.

And then, just when she was about to give up on maintaining the pretense of work and go slinking back to her quarters to crawl under a blanket and hide from her own brain for a while, the sky had exploded.

An earsplitting, rushing roar, inconceivably loud, had shaken the Crystarium to its foundation. Bottles had rained from her shelves to shatter on the ground and she’d flinched powerfully, her hands flying to her face to shield herself from broken glass. The Crystal Tower itself seemed to sway where it stood. Many people screamed; she thinks she might have, too. And then, on some kind of deep-seated natural instinct, some illogical, ingrained desire to stare her doom in the face, she'd looked to the sky.

Just in time to see a blinding beam of white light shoot from within the smoke above Holminster Switch with the quickness of an arrow and plunge itself hilt-deep, straight and true, into the pool of light above, like it was lancing a boil.

There was a heartbeat’s worth of silence, and the world held its breath.

And then the light, the very heavens, everything she had ever known—splintered.

It pulled itself apart like it had been cleaved in half by a gigantic sword, and quietly fell away like a parting curtain. All at once the markets were plunged into darkness.

Across the crowd shocked murmurs spread like ripples. Then someone, she couldn’t tell who, gasped, and her stomach dropped in terror—but it wasn’t a gasp of fear. “Look!” someone else said, sounding awed. Her eyes hadn’t adjusted yet but Thyme could just vaguely make out the stunned silhouettes of people dotted through the marketplace, standing stock-still and staring at the heavens, transfixed.

With her heart in her throat she’d carefully picked her way through her stall, across the broken glass and spreading pools of ruined potions, and stepped into the crowd. She’d looked up, too.

And gods, there were stars.

Thyme had known that they existed, of course, tucked away somewhere beyond the endless light. But for the first time in her life, she was suddenly able to understand the stories about the stars and their constellations on more than just a hypothetical level, the way she had read about them in books. And gods, she’d never stopped to consider how the sky—something she’d always regarded as a reminder of inevitability and oblivion, a dangling blade waiting to drop and bite at her neck—how it could change all at once, from a roiling sea of light to a deep pool blanketing her in cool, inky shadow, and become so soothing and gentle and beautiful.

In that infinitely-long moment when she stood entranced before the heavens, neck craned to watch the sky, she felt the stars, felt how one could stare up at the sky and be filled to the brim not with fear, but with hope.

And she’d cried. How could she not?

Thyme could have stood there for the rest of the night watching them, and likely would have, had Roe not found her. It felt like it was only moments later, but it may have actually been hours; she wasn’t sure, but it didn’t feel like the time of night mattered much at the moment—the world had just been turned upside down, after all.

All she knew was that sometime after darkness fell Roe had come sweeping through the marketplace like a gust of wind in her trademark adrenaline-fueled, slightly fumbling enthusiasm, mussed and dirty-faced but all smiles, smelling of sweat and sunshine. It occurred to Thyme in that moment that Roe herself might have had something to do with the miracle they had just seen unfold, but her somewhat dazzled brain had suggested the idea in a very matter-of-fact, logical kind of way, in the same manner in which she would reflect on the wetness of water or the warmth of the sun. Of course Roe had done it, she had thought, somewhat maniacally delighted. If anyone could bring the night home, it would certainly be her.

It turned out that Roe had tracked her down to ask if Thyme would like to meet up later for a drink to celebrate, since the night was back and all, but only if she didn’t have any other plans, obviously, she would hate to monopolize her time—but she needn't have worried as Thyme had said yes, of course, without hesitation. And Roe had burst into that adorable crooked grin of hers that was like watching a flower burst into bloom and said she would meet her on the catwalks above the Wandering Stairs in an hour’s time, to give them both an opportunity to prepare.

They’d exchanged a few words about the sky, too, naturally, and when Thyme had struggled to find the phrase to describe how precisely she was feeling (an uncharacteristic difficulty for her), Roe had reached out and quietly taken her hand seemingly on impulse, before looking momentarily shocked at her own bravery. Thyme had laughed, and they then had stood there for a few short moments in contented silence, shoulder to shoulder, looking up.

But then Roe had seemed to remember herself and let go, with an apologetic mention of the errands she needed to go tie up (and her need to go change her clothes, she’d said, casting a chagrined look down at her thoroughly filthy gear). So with a broad smile and a soft “see you later,” off she went. As Roe walked away, Thyme had thought she saw her quietly pump her fist in triumph.

Thyme, for her part, had slipped away from the markets not long afterward, heading back to her room for a few minutes to collect herself and to slip into something slightly more flattering than her work apron.

Now she climbs the metal stairs leading to the Crystarium’s soaring, meandering catwalks and begins to wander her way down them, looking for their promised meeting spot, idly thinking of how warm and comforting Roe’s hand was in hers.

She doesn’t come up here much; to her understanding it’s mainly a passage intended to be taken by workers or residents in need of a shortcut, and not random visitors like herself. For this reason it is quite utilitarian in its structure, its paths wide and stretching the entire length of the Crystarium. It is, however, nestled up among the beautiful blue-green glass windows that line the city’s domed ceilings, and the sky outside casts a beautiful, almost oceanic blue-green light on all who pass through. This, of course, assumes that there is light to pass through them; currently, during the Crystarium’s first night in over a century, the windows are dark. The catwalk is only dimly lit by the faint light of hastily-erected lanterns that line the marketplace and the Wandering Stairs below—she can faintly hear the sound of revelry and singing lilting through the air.

Further along the path there is an opening where one window should be, above the airship landing-side door to the Wandering Stairs, allowing an almost unimpeded view of Lakeland and the sky, if someone passing by should wish to pause and enjoy the sights. At the moment it looks as though it could be a portal to another realm: an enticing view of a cool black expanse blanketed with stars, and a cool night breeze that faintly plays over her skin.

This spot is where Roe stands, leaning casually against the catwalk’s railing with the stars at her back. True to her word, Thyme notes, she’s changed into something far less filthy, and the faint glow of the lanterns below cast warm, flickering shadows across her face. She holds a wine bottle in each hand, and she raises one into the air in greeting with a grin.

“I, uh… wasn’t sure whether you liked red or white,” she says as Thyme stops in front of her. “So I got both.”

Thyme giggles. “Of course. Can’t be too careful.”

Roe’s voice drops to a joking, conspiratorial tone. “Don’t go spreading this around, it’ll ruin my well-traveled and cultured reputation,” she says, “but wine isn’t my area of expertise. At all. I tried to ask Glynard down at the Wandering Stairs what he would recommend but he basically just shoved these bottles into my hands and told me to get out.” She chuckles. “They haven’t been this busy in years, apparently. Everyone’s partying it up tonight.”

The faint sound of shattering glass and a chorus of rowdy cheers rises up from somewhere in the general area of the Wandering Stairs. Roe gestures toward the source of the noise, bottle still in hand. “Exhibit A.”

“Oh, so is that what you had in mind when you asked me to join you?” Thyme asks, unable to resist the urge to tease. “Getting together to ‘party it up’?”

Roe shrugs and smiles, somewhat acquiescently. “If you want to, sure. Although to be honest, parties aren’t really my scene. I kinda figured it might be nice to just, you know, sit.” She sounds a little bashful. “If that’s okay with you?”

A flicker of self-doubt crosses Roe’s face for just an instant, and Thyme is happy to have the opportunity to quash it. “I would love to,” she answers, immediately.

“Oh, great!” Roe grins, so visibly delighted, and the sight of it sends Thyme’s heart soaring. “Here, sit down. I brought a blanket we can use.”

The blanket in question is thick, tasseled and crocheted, and looks as though it was taken from off the back of someone’s living room couch—almost certainly Roe’s, that seems like something she would do. “I’m pretty sure no one ever comes up here at his time of night, anyway,” she comments as she spreads the blanket across the width of the catwalk, “but if they do, they can just step over us. We have a brand new view to enjoy now, after all,” she says with a grand gesture toward the window, “and personally, I don’t intend to move until I’ve gotten at least halfway through this bottle.”

They sit shoulder to shoulder with their backs against the catwalk railing, facing the stars. Roe looks a little out of place perched on the edge of the makeshift picnic blanket with her legs tucked into her chest, like she’s slightly, unconsciously worried she’s too big to fit. But she smiles happily as she uncorks the bottles. It occurs to Thyme with a small pang of something like sadness that Roe, with all the traveling and fighting that her lifestyle requires, might not have many moments like this one, where she can sit down with a new friend to share a drink without anything breathing down her neck. A chance to just… be.

“I got kicked out before I could grab any glasses,” Roe continues, “so I guess we’re gonna have to do it the fun way.” She grins rakishly and holds out the bottles. “Pick your poison,” she says. “Red or white?”

“White for me, I think.” Thyme plucks the bottle from Roe’s hand. She’s never been one to drink straight from the bottle like this—she feels a bit giddy, like a schoolgirl who’s broken into the family’s liquor cabinet. And Roe’s mischievous smile is not helping matters.

“Perfect. I like red better anyway.” Roe takes a swig before extending her bottle towards Thyme. “Cheers!”

They clink the bottles together. Thyme takes a sip of hers: it’s light and fruity and the alcohol is sharp on her tongue. “You know,” she says, “I’m glad you asked me to join you tonight. I was hoping for an opportunity to thank you.”

“Thank me?” Roe’s posture is relaxed as she leans back against the railing, her shoulder pressed just against Thyme’s. 

“Of course.” Thyme smiles. “You did save my life, after all, the first time we met. And I assume we have you to credit for the return of the night, as well?”

Roe sputters into her bottle, and that’s about all the confirmation Thyme needed to see. “Um,” she stammers once she’s finished coughing, “I’m not sure I know what you mean?”

“Oh, come now, Roe.” Thyme bumps her playfully with her shoulder. “A mysterious traveler capable of killing sin eaters with ease suddenly appears out of thin air, and then Lakeland sees the night sky for the first time in over a century?”

Roe’s cheeks have colored to match the shade of the wine she’s drinking. “That could just be a coincidence.”

“It certainly could be, but frankly I doubt that very much.” Thyme leans in, almost unconsciously pressing herself closer against Roe’s arm. “You've been the talk of the town of late, you know—speculation about where you came from and who exactly you are is rampant. I don’t think anyone believes this ‘just another traveler’ story, darling.”

Thyme fails to suppress a smirk at the look of mild horror growing on Roe’s face and presses on, emboldened. “Did you know,” she says, “not long after I got here, I happened to speak with Bragi—you know him, I assume, the gentleman who runs the markets?—and your name came up. He mentioned that you called yourself a ‘roegadyn’ when you first spoke with him, and had to be informed what a galdjent even was. I thought that was a ve-e-ery interesting detail,” she says, letting the word stretch.

Slightly shamefaced, Roe takes another sip from her wine. “Maybe it’s a nickname,” she suggests as she lowers her bottle, “that I, uh. Gave myself.”

Thyme chooses not to dignify Roe’s feeble excuse with a response.

“Oh,” she continues, “but to circle back to the return of the night for a moment: let us not forget that everyone says you’re close personal friends with the Exarch—singlehandedly the most mysterious person in all of Norvrandt, I might add—and I hear you were sighted reentering the city not long after he and the guard captain returned from their excursion to Holminster Switch.”

“Maybe he just took a liking to my winning personality?” Roe offers.

Thyme raises an eyebrow and waits.

And Roe, predictably, buckles almost instantly. “Okay, okay,” she says, laughing, raising her hands in mock surrender. “I admit that maybe I had something to do with it.”

Thyme laughs too. She leans back against the railing, satisfied. “You’re very bad at being inconspicuous, I’m afraid.”

“I know, I know.” Roe grins sheepishly. “But in my defense, that’s not usually my style.”

“I gathered. You’re more the ‘rushing in half-cocked to save the day, winning only by the skin of your teeth’ type.”

Ouch, Roe says, swooning comically against Thyme’s arm. “Madam, you wound me. I fear I may never recover.”

“Oh, I’m sure you’ll be fine,” Thyme laughs, giving her another affectionate nudge with her shoulder. “I have treatments for that, anyway.”

“For injured pride?” Roe casts a melodramatically distressed look up at Thyme through her lashes, feigning great suffering. “Because I’m pretty sure this is fatal.”

Roe laughs loudly as Thyme playfully shoves her head away. Though, Thyme’s curiosity is beginning to get the better of her.

“So… if you don’t mind my asking,” she asks, “apart from you, the Exarch, and your companions—why am I the only other person in the Crystarium who seems to know what happened?”

Roe takes another swig from her bottle. “Well, it’s probably not going to be long before people start to put two and two together. I mean, I certainly like basking in fame and glory as much as the next guy—more than most, even,” she comments with a smile. “But we’re trying to keep the story of what happened under wraps for now, because, well… if everyone knew that we were responsible for taking out the Lightwarden, and that we’re also here in the Crystarium with them, things might get kind of…”

She trails off and casts a look down at the crowd milling about the markets and tavern below. Her face hardens into a serious expression. “Chaotic,” she finishes. “Which isn’t what anyone needs right now. Word spreads fast in Norvrandt, I’ve learned, so we need to get out ahead of it, if we can. We don’t exactly know what’s going to happen next.”

“I assume that your plans with the Exarch don’t end with just this Lightwarden, then.”

“Yeah,” she says, simply, softly. “There’s a lot more work to do.”

They slip into a beat of reflective silence. Thyme is struck by how easily Roe cast off her cheery, playful demeanor from before; as the lanterns’ shadows play about her face, sharpening her jawline and brow and casting the jagged, deep scar across her eye into sharp relief against her skin, she looks determined, resolute. Like a soldier.

Maybe it’s the wine, or her rapidly-burgeoning crush, or both—but at this moment it’s not difficult at all for Thyme to think that Roe might be able to banish all of the endless light, to save the world. She feels herself come to believe it absolutely, like how she now believes in the stars.

“So of course, here I am, spilling everything,” Roe then says, back to her joking, self-deprecating tone. The corner of her mouth curls into a lopsided, awkward smile. “I… guess this is where I ask you to keep what I just told you a secret. Would you mind?”

“Of course not,” Thyme says. Truthfully, Roe could have asked for just about anything with those big golden puppy dog eyes of hers; Thyme would probably have happily obliged her. 

“Oh, good,” Roe says, leaning back against the railing with a measure of relief in her voice. “Because I think Alphinaud might have strangled me otherwise.”

Thyme snorts into her wine. “I’d pay to see that.”

Their talk is easy, light, playful, and the minutes roll past with the ease of a river’s current—though of course, the wine helps. And it’s not too much longer before they’ve both mostly drained their bottles. The alcohol warms Thyme from the inside out, quietly burning away her inhibitions, emboldening her enough to nestle into Roe’s side after a time, resting her head on Roe’s shoulder; and Roe, her long legs now casually splayed out across almost the entire length of the blanket, shyly wraps an arm around her, pulling her close. Her body is hard and strong but warm, like everything else about her, and pressed up against her Thyme feels protected, safe. Below them the revelry burns on; it’s no wonder, given the momentous occasion, but even still no one approaches the catwalk and their little hiding spot, tucked away in the sky, remains unnoticed. 

Eventually—after hours, perhaps, long enough for their conversation to naturally grow stiller, contented, the silences long and easy—Roe happens to cast a glance upwards toward the sky. A smile spreads across her face. “Thyme,” she says, quietly, gently nudging her from her contented, wine-induced silence. “Look.” She grabs Thyme’s wrist with one hand and points upward with the other.

Thyme looks.

And oh, then, for the first time, she sees the moon.

It’s full and round and gorgeous, even more beautiful than she’d ever thought to imagine, and it almost looks like she could pluck it from the sky and hold it in her palm if she wanted. It hangs serenely above them, perfectly framed by the spread of thousands, maybe millions of stars that she’s still getting used to the idea of. And she couldn’t tear her eyes away even if she wanted to.

She feels Roe’s hand slide around hers and entwine their fingers and her stomach does a weird little twist—of joy, of hope, of something she’s never been brave enough to allow herself to chase, something she never thought was for her, that she never felt she had the right to want—but she feels so safe and warm and the moonlight is casting beautiful dappled shadows onto their skin like she’s never seen before and she’s actually happy, for the first time in what feels like decades.

Maybe this is the moment she’s been waiting for, that she never knew she needed. On an almost-unconscious instinct she turns—Roe is not looking at the moon, but at her.

The night breeze picks up suddenly, sending a strand of Thyme’s hair dancing across her face. A bit of it gets stuck to her lips, moistened from the wine, and as Roe raises her other hand—slowly, tentatively, with a shyness that is incredibly becoming—to smooth it away, her eyes seem to smolder with something deep and quiet, an unmistakable, reverent desire. Thyme’s heart pounds, pounds, pounds in her chest like it’s fit to burst and she’s certain Roe can feel it as it flutters wildly through her veins like the beating of birdwings, thrumming against Roe’s wrist where their pulses press together, their fingers laced. Her eyes are such a gorgeous shade of amber, warm and bright and kind, even in the dark.

And then Thyme finally gives in to temptation and leans in to kiss her.

Roe makes a quiet little noise of surprise when their lips meet and Thyme briefly fears that she’s overstepped, but then Roe’s eyes flutter shut and she pulls her in closer with a hand at the small of Thyme’s back and the other lacing in her hair and oh, she definitely wants this too. Roe kisses like she seems to do everything—gallant, but never too forceful; she’s syrupy sweet, slow and sunny and still like a lazy summer morning, and oh so gentle. Thyme curls her arms around Roe’s shoulders and pulls her close, closer, not close enough, and the evening has been such a dreamlike haze of miracles that it hardly seems like this is even happening but yes, she’s here, she’s real, smelling of mint and sunlight and making the most adorable little noises against her lips when Thyme presses her tongue into her mouth and rakes her fingers through the stubble at the nape of her neck. Roe’s fingers knot into the silken fabric at Thyme’s waist and pull her in tighter and Thyme reflexively sucks in a gasp through her teeth, which pulls a little rumble of satisfaction from deep within Roe’s chest as she kisses her harder, just a touch faster, and Thyme can feel that fiery, passionate heart of hers searing like wildfire through the air between them.

In that moment she feels something buried deep within her heart tear and fall away, like the sky did before.

For so long she had been afraid, stagnant, dull and cracked but somehow still shambling forward like a statue brought to life, unfeeling and weathered around the edges. But here, now, burrowed in the warmth and the shadows with Roe at her side, the stars twinkling down from above—something small and glowing that always nestled deep within her, dormant, neglected, flares to life with a sudden burst like a match and quietly grows, and grows, and she presses harder, fiercer, wanting to taste, to feel. For so long, for decades she felt as though she was drowning, but she’s finally breached the ocean’s surface and she’s pulling in greedy lungfuls of salty air and against all odds, she’s alive.

When they pull apart to breathe it’s slow, reluctant, and Roe leans forward by just a hair, unthinkingly chasing her. She lingers, lips parted and slightly glossy with Thyme’s lipstick, and when her eyes finally flutter open she looks a bit stunned, like she’s just been beaned in the head with a rock. Her lips curl into a dreamy smile. “I didn’t want to get my hopes up that this would actually happen,” she murmurs, her voice gone low and gravely.

“Oh, you didn’t?” Thyme huffs out a quiet laugh and cups Roe’s cheek in her hand, slowly, softly, running a thumb across the sharp line of her cheekbone as she would trace the petal of a delicate flower beneath her fingers. “I didn’t think I was particularly subtle with my interest.”

“I suppose you weren’t.” Roe unconsciously leans into her touch, like a puppy happy to be petted, and the feel of it fills Thyme’s chest with fireworks.

“And the starlit picnic idea, although truly wonderful, and romantic beyond measure—” Her other hand finds Roe’s and she raises it to her lips, pressing a soft kiss against the back of Roe’s knuckles, feeling their calloused valleys. “—is not precisely something that one would suggest platonically.”

“Oh, damn—really? Sounds like I’ve got some folks to apologize to, then.” Roe’s eyes twinkle merrily. “You know, you can kiss me again. If you like.”

So she does. It’s even better than the first time.

To her satisfaction, it leaves Roe breathless. “Wow,” she murmurs, once her eyes flutter open.

“Can I take that as a good review?”

“Oh, yeah. You’re in the top three, for sure.”

“Hm.” Thyme leans in for another kiss. “Not quite good enough for my liking,” she breathes, and Roe laughs against her mouth.

She won’t say she’s in love. Certainly, not yet.

But there’s something here, she knows—something precious and young growing in her heart that gutters like a newborn flame, and Thyme knows she must keep it guarded, lest it wither and die in the cold winds that threaten to snatch it from her hands. But her hands, she knows now, are able, and she thinks she’s ready to fight for it. And, at last, she won’t be fighting alone.