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you're a cinder, love

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Roe stands on Cracked Shell Beach in Kholusia, neck craned toward the sky. She’s here to find Alphinaud per the Exarch’s instructions, although she has a gut feeling things won’t go as smoothly as intended—they never do. Also she’s been here for five minutes and she’s already got a pebble in her boot, which doesn’t feel like a great omen.

In her hand she holds a single sprig of thyme, flowering with tiny purple blooms. Her guide just flew off with the amaro that brought her here in tow, but before he left he told her that a fisherman on Cracked Shell Beach would tell her where to go if she presented him with thyme to mark her as an ally of the Crystarium—hence, the sprig. Admittedly Roe is somewhat confused as to why this brief exchange of information required quite so much secrecy, especially considering the instructions she received were essentially sit your ass down in the tavern up the road and wait, but at her asking the fisherman simply muttered a few words about “prying eyes” and cast a derisive glance at the hulking, garish city on the southern horizon. And rather than entertain further questions, the fisher simply assured her that he would send Alphinaud along to meet her and shut his door in her face with a loud thunk, leaving her standing alone.

And for some reason, instead of heading off down the beach, Roe found herself pausing after stepping off the fisherman's doorstep to watch the pool of light hanging above. Something about it draws the eye in a mesmerizing way she can’t quite articulate, although she has to squint into the glare to keep her head from aching.

Colors ripple and tumble into one another as she watches—warm, vibrant yellow to golden amber to blinding white and back again, with little splashes of red and lilac and suggestions of green and pale blue mingling among the rays that reach down to graze at the earth below like hesitant fingers. Its movement is unceasing despite the strangely humid air that hangs lifeless and still as the grave, and something about it reminds her of the lurid shine of a spill of oil beneath the hot sun. At the horizon the sky dulls and fades to a dark, sickly greenish-brown, as though a storm looms—but of course, nothing comes. The whole place feels eerie, dead on its feet.

With a sigh, Roe tears her eyes away from the heavens and begins trudging her way down the beach. Little petals of light dance through the air around her like embers, caught on a breeze that she cannot feel and faintly stinging like the touch of hot ash when they brush against her skin. The fisherman didn’t take the thyme from her, so she stuffs it into her pocket to hang onto. Why not? It smells nice.

Although her destination—apparently, a small fishing village called Stilltide—is just a quick jaunt up the road, something compels her to wander a bit further down the coast first before crossing back northeast to the settlement. Never a bad idea to get the lay of the land when you’re in a new place, she always says, and she needs to stretch her legs a little after the amaro flight.

…Okay, and maybe she’s a little on edge. Kholusia is eerily quiet, more so than she expected.

As she crunches her way down the coast, the sky reflects blindingly off the white pebbles at her feet. Despite how near Roe is to the water she can’t hear any sea birds, no matter how intently she listens—she supposes that’s probably not too unusual in these parts thanks to the lingering effects of the Flood on the local wildlife, but it still feels deeply strange—and, now removed from the hustle and bustle of the Crystarium, she can clearly hear something new as well, a sound she can’t put a name to but what must be an effect of the light: a low, haunting tone that reverberates quietly through her entire body, interspersed with high, almost bell-like notes that twinkle through the stagnant air like the sound of a distant windchime caught in a rainstorm.

Of course it’s just a sound, she knows, but it still seems to hum with an evil intent that twists at her stomach. And she can’t help but wonder what it must be like to live among this sound for one’s entire life: to have one’s every waking moment scored by it, to feel it at your back and through your bones and in your blood for decades. Do the locals even hear it anymore? It seems impossible that they wouldn’t—but, she supposes, they’ve certainly had plenty of time to get used to it, which is a thought that makes her feel both somewhat sad and vaguely ill.

Soon she reaches the mouth of a small river cutting its way through the earth and stops, taking a moment to watch the water as it rolls to meet the glassy green sea. Its murmur is not quite loud enough to muffle the light’s hum. The ocean at her left and the grasses to her right are utterly still and silent, as though they dare not speak into the gloom, and as she absently fingers at the thyme in her pocket, she somewhat stupidly finds herself thinking that she understands how they feel.

Deciding against wandering too far away from where she’s supposed to be going (mostly because Alphinaud would delight in the opportunity to tease her if she somehow got lost), Roe hangs a right and begins to head north. As she follows the river’s shore the beach soon gives way to grassland, gnarled weeds scrabbling at her boots as she picks her way across sun-bleached boulders and past the naked husks of trees toward a worn stone bridge in the distance. It occurs to her as she walks that Kholusia is something akin to the sprawling, windswept La Noscean plains she’s used to back home, but this version is sinister: La Noscea’s twin, a haunted, wrong shadow. The thought is… unsettling.

It takes a few minutes more before Roe reaches the bridge, which is much larger than it looked from afar and constructed out of huge blocks of weathered, crumbling stone, splashed with a sickly green lichen. Standing next to it makes her feel quite small. Stilltide’s aetheryte and shanty roofs peek at her from over the hill to the east, only another few minutes’ walk away.

But as she stands there, the hairs at the nape of her neck suddenly prickle as though she’s being watched. Something compels her to turn westward.

A massive natural rock formation looms in the distance, its two gigantic stone columns meeting above the winding dirt road to form a natural arch that cuts a huge shadow out of the sky and drapes it across the earth below. It looks as though it’s been here for eons, carved out of the island by the rushing waters of an ancient ocean that has long since receded. And there doesn’t appear to be anything amiss—she can’t see any movement, so it’s probably just some wandering beast lurking in the grass—but if there’s one thing Roe has learned over the years, it’s that her instincts are rarely wrong.

So Roe sets off at a light jog to the west, across the bridge. Stilltide can wait for a moment more; Alphinaud surely isn’t there yet, and the arch isn’t far, anyway. Worst case, she’ll have to take out a sin eater or something that mistakes her for its next meal, and maybe proactively save a few Kholusians from a grisly fate in the process. It’ll be a good warmup after that long amaro flight.

Once she makes her way down the road, she squints as she steps into the shade, eyes a bit dazzled by the sudden dim. And then she blinks, because what she found is decidedly not a wandering beast.

Tucked in among the boulders and scraggly brush growing beneath the arch is what appears to be a lopsided merchant’s wagon, left abandoned in the road. Its wood is splintered and sunbleached, with the distinct look of something that has seen many years in the great outdoors, and it’s on the small side, probably meant to be pulled by a single person rather than via chocobo, judging by the two long wooden shafts jutting out from its front which are connected by a handlebar, like a ladder with a single rung. At the moment, however, one of its large wooden wheels is wedged awkwardly in a pothole. And she’s no carpenter, but it’s pretty clear from its broken front axle that it won’t be rolling under its own power anytime soon. A flake or two of paint comes off on her fingertip when she curiously drags a finger along its side, and she immediately feels a little bad—the planks are decorated with delicate little flowers painted in a garland tracing the grain of the wood, and it must have taken someone many hours to finish.

Suddenly curious, she sidles to the wagon’s front to take a peek through its small, slightly ajar door. Packed in from floor to ceiling are crates of stoppered glass bottles filled with brightly colored liquids, burlap sacks overflowing with bundles of dried herbs and flowers meticulously sorted and tied with twine, and at least a dozen thick, well-loved books—maybe two dozen? A lot, regardless—piled haphazardly along its walls. At its back she sees a hunk of twisted black metal that looks like a small furnace, clearly designed to be portable but still quite weighty, she’s sure. Its wooden floor, worn shiny and smooth from years of use, seems to groan a bit under the load. It must be much heavier than it appears from the outside; perhaps that’s why the axle broke.

Something about it being here strikes her as strange, though, she thinks, as she continues to squint at the contents of the wagon. It’s clearly quite old, but its cargo is not; it seems actively used, certainly not like something that’s been here for long. So where, then, is its owner?

Her question does not go unanswered for long.


Roe bites back a surprised curse and jolts to attention so fast she thinks she might have pulled a back muscle.

A Viis woman is peering inquisitively down at her from over the wagon’s roof. She didn't speak loudly, but gods, Kholusia is so silent and still, her voice may as well have been as loud as a cannon blast.

“Oh— uh, hi,” Roe says, feeling quite foolish. “Sorry. I didn’t see you back there.”

The woman laughs a little as she gracefully sidesteps what Roe now assumes must be her wagon and into the light. And maybe the endless light is still dazzling her brain, but Roe immediately notices her eyes: catlike and bright against the deep, cool brown of her skin, in a mischievous shade of violet that reminds her of wildflowers. “It’s quite alright,” she says in a low, warm voice with a lilting accent that Roe can’t quite place, “I was rather hidden away back there. You can’t be too cautious when traveling through this area, I find… even if that means skulking about in the brush. Which, ah, I don’t make a habit of, I can assure you,” she comments, casting a somewhat sheepish glance back at the shadows she’s just stepped out of.

Now that Roe can see her properly, judging by her simple tunic and the toolbelt slung around her waist, it looks like perhaps she’s a botanist by trade: and a traveling merchant, if her wagon is any indication. She notices with a jolt that she’s quite tall, only an inch or so shorter than Roe herself—taller, even, if you count her ears, which are very fluffy. Her long, emerald green hair is tied back in a practical ponytail. When she meets Roe’s gaze again, her ears twitch curiously, and she tilts her head. Roe swallows unconsciously—it feels somewhat like she’s being studied for clues.

“I haven’t seen you before,” the woman says after a moment, with a small, becoming smile. “Did you just arrive in Kholusia, by any chance?”

Embarrassingly, it takes Roe a second for her to remember that her tongue still works.

“Uh, yeah, actually,” she says. “I just landed a few minutes ago.”

“I see!” the woman answers brightly, beaming as though she’s just solved a puzzle. “I thought so. We tend not to get many new faces around here, so I had my suspicions. Although…” Her voice trails off—she now looks slightly embarrassed, and her hand lands on the wagon’s roof to absently worry at a peeling chip of paint, working it between the pads of her long and slender fingers as one might a piece of gil. “I’m so sorry to ask a favor of you since we’ve just met,” she continues, “but do you think you could help me, if you have a spare moment? Only if you’re on the way to Stilltide, of course.” A somewhat awkward, lopsided smile tugs at the corner of her mouth. “My wagon’s given up the ghost, I’m afraid, and I can’t move it back up the hill by myself. So I’m slightly stranded.”

Although—somewhat pathetically, perhaps—Roe’s instincts tell her to say yes immediately, she hesitates. A little part of her wonders if this might be some kind of trap; the fisherman earlier seemed very insistent that many people in Kholusia were not to be trusted. And obviously she would never hear the end of it if she let herself get ambushed immediately after setting foot on dry land by the first beautiful woman she saw: ah yes, she can practically hear Alisaie teasing already, that’s our Warrior of Light, falling for the oldest trick in the book as soon as it flashes her a wink and a smile. The scarcest hint of a bosom and she’s done for.

This woman is quite clearly unarmed, though, unless you count her botanist’s tools or the silver spectacles hanging from a delicate chain around her neck. And although every move she makes is measured and graceful, her anxiety is plain. Her eyes scan Roe’s face, awaiting her response.

Well, she doesn’t seem dangerous. And Roe’s certainly not the type to refuse an earnest plea for help under normal circumstances—especially not if the asker is as pretty as this one.

So she nods gives her a smile. “Sure.”

The woman’s face lights up with relief. “Oh, wonderful. Thank you so much—between the two of us it won’t take long, and I can make it worth your while, I promise. I have a bit of coin. Or I can offer you my assistance in some other way, if you like.”

“Uh, it’s okay, that’s not necessary,” Roe hastens to say, valiantly (and somewhat unsuccessfully) attempting to elbow back the mammalian part of her brain that’s highly intrigued by that choice of words. “I’m just happy to be of help. And I’m headed to Stilltide too, so it’s not out of my way or anything.”

“Perfect!” the woman says, and then she pauses, looking somewhat self-conscious. “Oh. I’m sorry, I clearly left my manners back up the hill,” she continues as she extends a hand. “My name is Thyme.”

Well. Roe may not be the sharpest tool in the shed (by her own admission), but even this is not lost on her. “Thyme,” she says. “Like the plant?”

“Yes.” Thyme raises an eyebrow. “Is that strange?”

“Oh, uh, no— just a coincidence.” Roe realizes with an embarrassed jolt that she waited a bit too long to take Thyme’s hand and awkwardly thrusts her arm forward. “I’m Roe. Nice to meet you.”

A curious smile blooms on Thyme’s face as she takes Roe’s hand in hers. “Likewise. So what’s the coincidence?”

Roe immediately feels moronic, but in spite of herself her mouth is still moving. “It’s kinda stupid,” she says, but Thyme looks at her expectantly, an eyebrow quirked in curiosity. “Roe is a nickname. I don’t use it much, but my given name is Rosemary. Uh, also like the plant.” She flushes. “Sorry. I’m rambling.”

Roe’s never thought of herself as the easily-flustered type, but this encounter is quickly making her revise that theory. In her defense, among the girls she finds in the taverns and smoky pool halls back home, she’s usually the one doing the flustering. But Thyme, with her fluffy ears and her sparkling eyes and her low, musical voice and that little curl to her lips that says she must know exactly what she’s doing as she keeps Roe’s hand in hers for just a moment too long, just long enough for Roe to notice how delicate and soft her hands are… gods. Is this what she does to everyone else? Roe feels like she owes some people an apology.

Thyme simply giggles— “that is a coincidence,” she says— and then she lets go. Roe’s hand suddenly feels uncomfortably cold from the lack of her.

Roe clears her throat in a not-at-all-awkward manner and stuffs her hands in her pockets as she turns to study the wagon. “Well, uh, I suppose we should get moving, then,” she says. “This thing won’t unstick itself, right?”

Thyme huffs out a quiet laugh next to her as she joins her. “Sadly, no. I watched it for a while, but it appears that’s not in its repertoire.”

Surveying the wagon, Roe purses her lips thoughtfully. Since the front wheels are being more of a hindrance than a help at the moment, the simplest way to move it would probably be to place herself between the handlebar and the wagon and brace the shafts against her shoulders, lifting the broken front axle off the ground entirely. Then she should be able to just wheel it back up the hill, using only its back wheels as though it were a very large wheelbarrow. Assuming she can lift it, of course—but, honestly, that's not typically a problem for her. Suddenly feeling very eager to have found what might be an excellent opportunity to show off her greatest asset, Roe suppresses a grin as she says “Lemme try something real quick,” and ducks beneath the handlebars.

Securing the shafts against her shoulders as one would hold the straps of a hefty rucksack, elbows out, she then slowly straightens her legs with a grunt—as she stands, she grips the bars tightly to keep them from sliding backward off her shoulders… and lo and behold, the wagon’s front wheel lifts from the pothole and the broken front axle swings free with a groaning creak.

Her height comes in handy here; she’s tall enough that once she’s fully upright again, the wagon’s front wheels dangle about a foot off the ground. She takes a second to make sure her footing and grip are secure, and then takes an experimental step forward: the bars dig into the curve of her shoulders a bit uncomfortably, but the wagon follows. It’s bulky for sure, but not as bad as she expected.

“Got it,” she says, looking up with a self-satisfied grin. Said grin only grows in size when she notes how Thyme’s brows have shot up into her hairline.

“My goodness,” Thyme says. “I suppose you won’t need my help after all.”

Roe laughs. “Yeah, it’s not so bad. I have to do a lot of moving huge stuff, though, so I’m kinda used to it.”

“Still.” Thyme’s eyes trace down the curves of Roe’s body, lingering perhaps a bit longer than strictly necessary. “It’s very impressive,” she says. That little smile of hers is back.

“Uh, thanks.”

There’s a heartbeat’s worth of pregnant silence, during which Roe’s stomach decides to show off by doing a flip.

Then Thyme tilts her head eastward with a wry smile. “Well. After you, then, Rosemary.”

After Roe takes a moment to make sure she’s got a good grip, they set off back toward the bridge—at first very slowly, as Roe tries to keep as little of Thyme’s cargo from shifting about as possible. The wagon creaks a bit in protest of the awkward angle at which she hoists it down the road, but the back wheels seem to hold just fine under the increased weight. Stilltide’s aetheryte is still visible from here; they’re not exactly moving quickly, but it shouldn’t take them too long to get there.

Once Roe settles to a slightly faster pace, Thyme falls in at her side. She walks cautiously but with her head held high, brow slightly furrowed as her eyes flick attentively back and forth across the horizon. Her footfalls are nearly silent as she softly pads her way through the dirt. Watching her in profile, Roe finds her eyes idly tracking the movement of her ponytail and the periodic twitch of her ears, and she almost expects her to rustle with the quiet shaking of leaves as she moves, her stride slow and graceful with the gentle, hypnotizing sway of a willow tree. 

With a concerted amount of effort, Roe yanks her mind back to the task at hand. The singing of the endless light is back, insistently buzzing in her brain like a fly caught in a window screen, and it’s possible that the noise is making her slightly stupid.

“So,” she says, eager to both break the silence and get the ominous thrum out of her head, “judging by those books I saw, I’m assuming this is your mobile library?”

Thyme giggles, light and twinkling, and Roe’s quietly pleased to see the tension leave her face, if only for a moment. “Not as such, no. Just a traveling apothecary.” She pauses thoughtfully. “Perhaps I should travel with fewer books, though.”

“Maybe. I mean, I won’t tell you how to do your job.” One of the bars is cutting into Roe’s shoulder a bit, so she shifts it with a small shrug and a grunt. “This thing is heavy, though. You’re pretty strong.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t say so,” Thyme says with a laugh. “It’s easier to move than you might think. Of course, when the wheels fall off… well, the wheels fall off, so to speak.” She shoots a mildly disgruntled look down at the front axle and wrinkles her cute, upturned nose.

Roe snorts. “Right, of course.”

“Luckily, though, I found you. Or you found me, I suppose. Thank you again for that.”

“Of course. I’m happy to help.”

“And I’m happy to be helped.” Thyme’s eyes twinkle merrily. “Although, if you’ll indulge my curiosity—where exactly are you from? You said you were new to Kholusia earlier, and you don’t seem local.”

“Ah. Yeah, I suppose I did.” Roe falters for a second—she remembers that she’s supposed to be here under some amount of secrecy, and it wouldn’t exactly be a smart move to go off blabbing about the whole Actually-I-Traveled-Here-From-Another-Dimension Thing to the first friendly face she met outside the Crystarium’s walls. But then again, she’s not exactly sure how she would even start to try explaining that… so she starts, instead, by deflecting. “Not much gets past you,” she says.

Thyme smiles at her playfully. “In all fairness, around these parts, you stick out like a sore thumb. As I said, we don’t get many travelers in general, but certainly not ones who are as… well-equipped as you.”

“I… see.” Roe recalls how Thyme watched her as she lifted the cart earlier, and is fairly certain she is not totally imagining the innuendo in her statement. “Well, uh, you’re right about that, I suppose. I’m from very far away.”

“Really?” Thyme’s eyes go wide. “How ‘very far’ are we talking, here? Outside Norvrandt? Beyond the Empty?”

“Uh, yes, sort of,” Roe says—of course, has no idea what “the Empty” is, although she supposes she could attempt to guess based on context.

For a moment, Thyme doesn’t respond. Then she speaks slowly, with the cadence of someone working through a particularly tough riddle. “The Empty is supposed to be nigh-uninhabitable already, from what I’ve read, but to come from beyond it… I didn’t think it was possible. No one does.”

“Well, in fairness, I don’t think it is possible for most people,” Roe says, and immediately feels highly self-conscious. “Uh, not that I think I’m better than most people, or anything,” she hastens to add. “I’m just an… unusual circumstance, I think.”

“I see. I don’t suppose you’d be willing to tell me more about it?” Thyme asks. Her eyes are positively gleaming with excitement, and Roe feels somewhat crushed to have to turn her down.

“I, ah, I’m afraid I can’t,” she says, and Thyme’s face falls, just a little. “I’m kinda sworn to secrecy. For now. It’s… complicated.”

“Oh.” Thyme sounds a bit crestfallen, but she smiles anyway. “Ah well, I would have gone away kicking myself if I didn’t at least give it a try.”

“Understandable. Sorry to disappoint.”

“Oh no, there’s no need to apologize. I do love a good puzzle. And this is a lovely one.” She looks Roe in the eyes: another warm, inquisitive flash of violet. “Thank you for indulging me. You are very interesting, Rosemary.”

“Uh, thanks. Likewise,” Roe says, as eloquently as she can muster, which is not very. Thyme giggles a little, and Roe’s absolutely certain her cheeks have gone pink again.

There’s a brief lull in conversation as they draw closer to the bridge. The silence isn’t awkward; Thyme seems like she’s comfortable in it. But that serious look is back on her face before long.

“Thank you again for helping me,” she says quietly. Her gaze is locked on the road. “I know I’ve said that several times already, but… truthfully, I was starting to wonder if anyone would find me down there. There aren’t many people traveling that road these days.”

“Sin eaters?”

She nods. “Activity in Kholusia has been picking up lately. They still see far more in Amh Araeng and Lakeland, apparently, but…” Her lips harden into a grim line. “It’s expected that many people who leave the settlements never make it to their destination.”

“I see.” The wagon makes a particularly grumpy creak as Roe guides it through a rocky patch of road. “But you usually travel to sell your wares anyway?”

“I do. There are lots of people in Kholusia who need what an apothecary can provide, and many of them aren’t able to travel or pay. So I try to go where I can to help.” Thyme smiles, but the sparkle in her eyes is gone—her gaze is steely, and faintly sad. And there’s a grim note to her voice now, too, and a look on her face that Roe’s started to recognize among many of the people she’s met in Norvrandt so far: it’s a quiet kind of determination in the face of ruin, a sort of resolute tranquility.

A sudden pang shoots through Roe’s chest. Thyme’s unspoken implication is clear: and if I’m to die doing it, then so be it.

“Well, I’m glad I found you,” Roe finally manages after a moment, although it feels like not nearly enough.

“I’m glad too,” Thyme replies. Their eyes meet, and Thyme smiles: a real one this time, one that feels like pure sunshine. Roe can’t help but smile back.

But then—downright horrible timing, of course—Roe happens to spot a blur of movement over Thyme’s shoulder. A large, lurching shape, scuttling across a boulder.

Blindingly white.

Her stomach drops. “Ah, hells,” she mutters.

Thyme looks puzzled for a split second before a small look of horror dawns on her face, and she whirls around.

It’s a sin eater alright—not a huge one, but any sin eater is more than big enough. Its body is strangely humanoid, but at the same time far too lanky and bony, and it scuttles through the grass with the unsteady staccato cadence of a cockroach on six segmented limbs that bend and twist at far too many joints. Slender feathered wings that twitch as it moves sprout from its back, and its face is smooth and round with a pointed chin and long, elezen-like ears—an uncanny echo of the poor soul it used to be, no doubt. Its too-long neck swivels toward them at a sickeningly awkward angle. Roe hears Thyme suck in a small gasp through her teeth. The sin eater’s mouth falls open slowly and its brow slackens, almost as though it’s pleasantly surprised.

They stand there, frozen, silent.

Then it screams. An ear-splittingly loud screech like rusty nails on glass stabs through the air and into Roe’s skull, sending her insides twisting in nausea.

Poor Thyme flinches powerfully and takes a stumbling step backward, bumping into Roe’s elbow. “Oh,” she gasps, suddenly sounding very shaky.

And, well, it’s not like Roe wasn’t planning on killing the damned thing, but now she feels quite justified—nay, obligated—to pave the road with its face.

“I’ll take care of this,” she says, schooling her voice to be as level and calm as she can. Thyme turns back to look at her, and she smiles as reassuringly as she can manage. “Don’t move from this spot, okay?”

As Thyme watches Roe carefully lower the wagon back to the ground and shimmy her way beneath the bars, her brow furrows with confusion. “Aren’t you… unarmed?” she asks, haltingly, as Roe straightens up.

Roe grins broadly. This is one of her favorite questions. “Nope,” she says, popping the “p” between her lips.

Thyme blinks and her mouth falls open, probably to ask another question, but Roe simply takes her by the shoulder and gives it what she hopes is a comforting squeeze. Then she steps away, locking the sin eater in her sights. “Stay right there,” she calls back as she walks away. “I’ll just be a minute.”

And then she’s off, feeling her muscles faithfully coil and kick like pistons into the earth as she sprints at full tilt off the road and into the grass.

At her approach the sin eater howls with fury and hunger and rears up on its hind legs, wings flared and thrashing as its other limbs eerily twitch and flick like a beetle that’s been overturned. It’s huge, maybe twice her height, and its face tracks her movement, its elongated neck arched and undulating like a cobra preparing to strike. She dashes inward, making for its chest. It thrusts its neck down at her like a pecking bird and just barely misses her, its face slamming against the rocky ground. Though she doubts it feels pain from the impact, it shudders as though it is stunned, and that’s all the opportunity she needs.

With a grunt of effort she thrusts a powerful, heart-stopping punch upward into its bony chest cavity, roughly where its heart would be if it still had one. Something rough and scaly, exoskeleton-like, crunches against her fist. Another hit and its chest gives way to something distressingly wet and viscous that oozes out onto her hand. It screams and flails in pain with a wild swing at her face, but she throws a sweeping kick into its ribs that connects with a sickening crack and sends it crashing sideways, slumping into the dirt. One more good stomp to its head and it splits around her boot, something like an overripe piece of fruit.

Her mouth goes watery with nausea. But the sin eater merely twitches a little before falling still.

Roe huffs out a breath and swipes a hand through her hair. That one was definitely more style than substance; it couldn’t have lasted longer than ten seconds. Perhaps it was newly hatched. She stands and watches for a moment as its body dissolves into motes of blinding white light, losing its form as would a sandcastle in water. They drift up and away, mingling with the golden petals of endless light that flutter across the grasslands as though following a slow, aimless current.

She then casts a quick look around—no more sin eaters here, as far as she can tell—and turns on her heel to return to the wagon at a light jog. “Coast is clear, I think,” she says. “If there was any other wildlife in the area that might be likely to mess with us, I expect they heard that thing screeching and ran for the hills.”

She ducks to retake her position behind the wagon’s handlebar but stops, squatting in an inelegant half-crouch, when she notices Thyme’s feet have not moved. “Uh,” she says awkwardly, and straightens back up. “You okay?”

Thyme’s eyes are wide as saucers. “By the gods," she breathes, sounding somewhat starstruck. “What did you say you do again?”

“I… don’t think I did. But there’s not much to say.” Roe awkwardly scratches at the back of her neck. “I’m just a traveler.”

Just a traveler.”

“An… experienced traveler?”

Thyme folds her arms with a sly, extremely becoming smile, and Roe swallows hard. “If that’s only ‘experienced’,” Thyme says, “I’d love to see what an expert looks like.”

Roe yanks her eyes away from Thyme’s face and ducks back under the wagon struts, eager to hide her traitorously flushed cheeks, if only briefly. “Well, y’know,” she starts, feeling very awkward, “it’s always good to leave room for improvement, right?”

Thyme’s gaze remains locked on her as Roe hoists the struts back onto her shoulders and the front axle back into the air. “Oh, certainly,” she says, and levels her with a knowing smirk. “Although I can’t imagine there’s much left to improve on, in your case.”

And godsdamn it all, Roe is fairly certain that if she were blushing any harder, the heat wave emanating from her face would be visible from back on the Source.

Fortunately, it turns out that Roe was right about the sin eaters, and the rest of their journey toward Stilltide is more or less uneventful—charming, flattering, beautiful women notwithstanding. Roe hoists the wagon up the hill with only a minimal amount of huffing and puffing, and it’s not long before they make it through the gates and into town, where she does her best to lower the wagon safely to the ground without letting it crash back down into the dirt.

Once the wagon is safely back on all four wheels she ducks out from beneath the bars, eager to work the stiffness from her shoulders and back. Her muscles feel warm and relaxed after her impromptu workout. “Well, you’re all set,” she says after a moment, as she folds an outstretched arm across her chest and stretches it in the crook of her opposite elbow. Then she does the other. “I hope that your cargo didn’t get too, uh, jostled.”

Thyme, who is busy peeking inside her wagon and examining her stock, makes a satisfied noise. “No harm done—everything seems to be in its rightful place.”

“Great.” Roe grins as she swipes at a bead of sweat sliding down her temple. “I would have felt terrible if I ruined your stuff.”

Fingers interlaced, she raises her arms and tips her face back toward the sky, closing her eyes and huffing out a satisfied sigh as her back gives a small pop; and, not to get too full of herself or anything, but she is fairly certain she spots Thyme's eyes briefly flick down to the strip of exposed skin just above her waistband when she opens her eyes again. She lowers her arms with a grin.

Although if Thyme is embarrassed at being caught she makes no acknowledgement of it. “Oh, I’m sure you wouldn’t have done any lasting damage,” she says, smiling, and then she tilts her head with a slight pout. “But are you still certain you won’t accept any payment for helping me? I can pay you, you know.” 

“I’m sure,” Roe assures her with a shake of her head, “but I do appreciate the thought. Really.”

“Ah, well, I had to try.” She adds a beleaguered tone to her voice, but her smile is fond. “I’ve got to go find someone to help me get this repaired,” she says, gesturing at her wagon. “But thank you, again. Truly. And if you find me again while you’re in Kholusia, please stop by to say hello.”

“Of course,” Roe starts, but then Thyme steps in very close to her, clasping Roe’s hand in hers, and she very quickly forgets what she was going to say.

“It was wonderful to meet you, Rosemary,” she says, a warm, genuine smile on her face that utterly fills Roe’s stomach with butterflies. Up this close the violet of her eyes is intoxicating—and Roe thinks she can smell something fragrant and sweet. “Perhaps if we are lucky enough to meet again, we can sit and talk without any deadly monsters interrupting us.”

“That would be great,” Roe says, feeling somewhat dizzy and stupid with how close Thyme’s face is to hers.

Thyme steps away and gives her a cute little wave of farewell, and Roe feels her heart sink a little as she watches her head off down the street. What are the odds that they’re going to see each other again, really? Especially in such a dangerous place as Norvrandt. 

But as she somewhat glumly watches Thyme walk away, Roe has an idea: and it's thoroughly dumb and needlessly romantic, so of course, she feels like she has to do it.

“Hey!” she blurts, stepping forward. “Thyme—hang on a second.”

As Thyme turns back, a confused look on her face, Roe plunges her hand into her pocket. It should still be there…

“It might be a little crumpled. But I, uh, found this not long after I got here.” Roe feels quite foolish, but too late to turn back now: she holds out her hand to offer her the sprig of thyme from before. 

Thyme—the woman, not the herb—takes the sprig from Roe’s hand. She puts those silver spectacles of hers on her nose and examines it closely.

Then her face lights up with realization. She looks back up at Roe and smiles. “Well, isn’t this poetic.”

Roe grins, immensely relieved. “I thought you might like it.”

Thyme laughs. “It’s beautiful. Thank you.” She tucks the sprig into her hair. The blooms match her eyes. “What do you think?”

“Perfect.” The word trips from Roe’s tongue easily; it’s true, after all, so why not?

Thyme smiles, waves, steps away—and then she disappears around the corner. Gone all at once, but Roe thinks she left the scent of flowers lingering in the air behind her.

Roe turns, somewhat reluctantly, to enter the tavern. Maybe the endless light is making her stupid.

She tries to yank her mind back to the business at hand, the reason she’s here in the first place: finding Alphinaud, on orders from the Exarch. Saving Norvrandt, and her home too, eventually. One step at a time, of course.

But as she scales the tavern’s creaky wooden stairs and goes to push her way through its weathered swinging doors, she notices that for the first time since she set foot in Kholusia, a gentle breeze toys with her hair.

Chapter Text

Thyme flips open her ledger—a small and battered leather bound notebook—sighs discontentedly, and picks up a pencil. When work is slow, her mind wanders, and today is slower than average.

She sits behind the counter of a humble merchant's stall tucked away in a corner of the Crystarium’s Musica Universalis. Throngs of people going about their daily business buzz through the plaza in little clusters and their idle chatter floats about her head in a dull, soothing blanket of sound, but she, as usual, is at work alone, save for the few customers who drop by to chat and peruse her wares. She’s used to it—she has spent most of her life alone, after all.

Well, not alone alone. She wouldn’t be a very good businesswoman if she never had anyone to talk to. She knows plenty of people back home in Kholusia, having lived among them her whole life, and they’re always kind to her; someone always shouts a hello or gives her a cheery wave when she passes by, and she’s never without a place to rest her head.

But although Kholusia is her home, she has never come to consider its people her family. Not really. Her family is long gone, lost to the sin eaters decades ago. She was too young to even consider leaving Kholusia behind when they died, and she wouldn’t have wanted to anyway—the wound was too fresh, she was only thirteen, and the sunbleached fields and salty air and specters of their laughter floating on the dead wind were all she had to remember them by.

Now that over thirty years have passed she feels compelled to stay for reasons she can’t quite articulate, but she knows it’s not out of a particularly strong sense of community—which sounds cruel, certainly, but it’s merely a consequence of their situation. Although she loves her home, if there’s one thing she’s learned in her forty-five years, it’s that people in Kholusia tend to get killed rather regularly; and if somehow they don’t, they eventually end up giving up and leaving for Gatetown. And if they don’t do that either, they’ll try to eke out a living in Stilltide or Wright for as long as they can—a few months, years, maybe decades—before wasting away and dying of old age or disease or maybe just sheer hopelessness. It’s hard to feel hopeful under the endless light.

So she has grown used to the life she’s carved out over the last few decades, spent among neighbors, acquaintances, casual friends, and nothing more. Because, quite simply, the last time she had loved anyone dearly, with her whole heart, they were turned by sin eaters before her eyes and very nearly killed her.

Perhaps, she acknowledges, it is cowardly of her to close off her heart in such a way—and certainly, one could argue it is needlessly melodramatic. But changing her ways now feels unworthy of the effort it would require; loneliness has come to be a comforting presence, like an old, threadbare blanket she wears wrapped around her shoulders.

She has a fine life now, all things considered. Her business keeps her busy as she travels from settlement to settlement, and she’s happy to trade what she makes to the people who need it. She doesn’t make much money doing it, but that’s not the point. If she scrimps and saves she can net herself passage to the Crystarium via amaro, pay for an open spot in the markets, and even secure room and board for a time while she sells her wares to the denizens of the city. There are far more people there than in Kholusia, and many of them need things she can supply: potions, tinctures, salves used to treat common ailments, tonics meant to boost energy, induce sleep, or bolster strength, colorful liquids and powders and gels sold in skinny vials, squat jars, and bulbous bottles alike.

Of course, she’s no doctor (as she always makes sure to stress to her customers): merely an alchemist and apothecary, and a self-taught one, at that. But her work is good and reliable, and her customers almost always come away happy. She sells handmade soaps and perfumes, too, although those are more of a passion project—but the ladies and children of the Crystarium tend to like them, and she loves experimenting with the leftover dried herbs and pressed flowers she collects for her work to make them smell nice (she even sold a humble little bar of lavender soap to the Crystarium’s guard captain once—she’s still very proud of that). Any profit she makes allows her to stay for a few weeks longer and replenish the supplies she cannot secure in Kholusia, take the time to restock her inventory, etcetera. She could make a decent living in the Crystarium that way, if she wanted to stay. It’s safer there than anywhere else, after all.

Eventually, however, she always winds up returning home to Kholusia. She lingers in spite of herself, treading the same worn dirt paths, scaling the same hills, feeling the same light burning her neck. Day after day, year after year, trading where she can, idly trailing the ghosts of the family she can hardly remember. Feeling hope slowly seep its way out of her body like sweat under the endless sun.

As she blankly stares at the numbers in her ledger, she thinks of that day about a week ago when her poor wagon gave out and left her stuck on the side of the road for hours. She'd felt so foolish—she probably should have replaced the poor old thing entirely years ago, but she was sentimental about it since it was her mother's originally—idiotic, but there you are—and it had served her just fine until then, only requiring the occasional small fix.

Her hands had shook as she braided bits of grass to pass the time, as she waited for someone to pass by who could help, and the terror had hung heavy in her limbs and rattled in her gut like heavy stones. She remembers how acutely, painfully aware she was that she could be attacked by a wandering beast or a sin eater at any moment and, pathetically, there wouldn’t be anything she could do to defend herself; she had never been taught magic or how to wield a blade, and even if she had, she was utterly unarmed.

So she’d simply sat at the side of the road and waited for whatever may come.

The acuteness of the fear eventually ebbed away and dried to dust, leaving her feeling still, dull, waiting dormant in the grass as she watched the empty road, the shifting sky. Somehow the thought that she might be mere minutes away from her death had slowly drifted away from frightening and became more like a numb relief, a valve releasing in her chest. Like something she had been waiting for all her life was right around the corner and all she had to do, finally, was close her eyes. Gracefully let it in, with a sigh of relief.

Until that galdjent woman had appeared out of thin air to help her—that charming, handsome stranger with the crooked smile and honey-golden eyes who’d saved her life as easy as breathing. She’d had warm, rough hands and a boyish, cheery voice and an air about her that made Thyme feel something akin to hopeful for the first time in who-knows-how-long. And suddenly, so, so strangely, dying was the very last thing Thyme had wanted to do.

And the fact that she’d said her name was short for Rosemary…

Well, as Roe had said, it was just a coincidence, and Thyme had seen far too much sadness in her life to ever really put faith into the concept of a higher power. But if there was a god somewhere out there, they were probably laughing their head off at their little joke.

A few days after they’d met, Thyme packed up her things and set out on another trip to the Crystarium to stay for a few weeks. It wasn’t because of Roe, of course; she’d had no idea, at the time, whether she would even be there. But she’d be lying if she said she hadn’t had her on her mind for the whole amaro flight over.

Now, even this far removed from Kholusia, Thyme keeps overhearing stories about her: excited whispers passed among the townsfolk about a mysterious woman appearing just in the nick of time to help fetch something, deliver a message, or whisk someone from the jaws of a monster that would surely have made them its supper otherwise. It seems she’s been keeping herself busy over the past few days. Funny how people can’t seem to get her out of their heads, even if they met her only briefly.

To be honest, Thyme thinks as she idly doodles a flower in the margin of her ledger, she can’t really get her out of her head, either.

If nothing else, she’d certainly cut a dashing figure. When she’d carried Thyme’s broken wagon back up the hill to Stilltide it was so effortless, as though it were made of nothing more than air—not to mention how she faced down that sin eater armed with nothing more than a fearless smile and a laugh. And Thyme was certain she saw her cheeks color a bit when they first touched hands, utterly flying in the face of her earlier boldness, and oh, that little moment of hesitation was so cute—

Thyme snaps her ledger shut with a small, frustrated huff. Now is not the time for schoolgirl crushes. Especially when she has work to do. She stands and goes to fetch a box of healing potions from the groaning metal shelves at the back of her stall—her supply is getting low, and the last members of the guard who came by to restock nearly cleaned her out entirely.

But as she kneels to arrange the bottles in a neat row in her stall’s display case, she thinks of the sprig of flowering thyme Roe gave her, now kept carefully pressed within the pages of one of her weathered old journals, and cannot entirely keep herself from smiling.

“Excuse me! Anybody home?”

Thyme jumps a little, having gotten lost in her own thoughts. She looks up: a handsome pair of amber eyes with long, dark lashes are peeking over the countertop.

And as fate would have it, of course, they belong to Rosemary.

Thyme’s stomach gives an excited leap. She almost didn’t recognize Roe at first—it seems she’s exchanged her dusty traveling gear for a casual, crisp button up rolled up just past her elbows. Her short auburn hair, before somewhat dusty from the Kholusian road and stuck to her forehead with sweat, now looks crisp and sharp, close-shorn at her scalp and shiny. And gods have mercy, she’s wearing glasses now.

Her eyes get wide as Thyme meets her gaze. “Oh— it’s you!” she says, grinning. “I thought I recognized those ears poking over the counter.”

Thyme straightens hastily with a surprised smile, smoothing her hands on her apron. “I was just thinking about you,” she says, before she’s even realized the words were in her mouth.

“You were?” Roe smiles shyly. “Good things, I hope.”

“Naturally.” Thyme leans against the countertop, the potions she was restocking discarded at her feet, forgotten. 

“What are you doing here? I’ll be honest, I didn’t expect to see you outside of Kholusia.”

“Oh, I travel to the Crystarium now and again whenever I can afford the passage to sell my wares at the markets. Just for a few weeks at a time, usually, until I run out of stock. I suppose our schedules overlapped.” She smiles broadly—she feels a bit silly, getting this giddy about seeing someone she barely knows, but how can she help herself, really? “What about you?” she asks. “What brings you to the city?”

“I’ve been staying here, too, actually.” Roe gestures over her shoulder in the general direction of the Pendants. “I was only in Kholusia for a little while—the Crystarium is kinda my, uh, center of operations, I guess. I’ve been doing a lot of traveling.”

“I’ve heard. I was wondering if I might see you around,” Thyme says, and she can practically see Roe perk up.

“You… heard?” Roe sounds pleasantly surprised.

“Oh, yes.” Thyme grins. “You’ve made quite a first impression on the people here. I hear a lot from sitting in the markets all day, you know.”

“Oh. I… hope it wasn’t a bad first impression,” Roe says with a grimace.

“No no, quite the contrary! You’re very popular.” At this, Roe puffs out her chest somewhat proudly like a peacock, and Thyme is utterly unsuccessful at suppressing a small giggle. “But even if they didn’t like you, I’m certain they wouldn’t be unkind—the city is full of warm, hardworking people. They’ve all been very kind to me over the years.”

Roe smiles. “That isn’t surprising. I haven't been here long, but it’s a lovely place.”

“Isn’t it just? And, well, perhaps this is just the Kholusian in me talking,” Thyme adds, casting a somewhat wistful glance upward, “but the architecture is just stunning—when the light hits the stained glass above the markets just right, it’s absolutely breathtaking.”

Roe chuckles. “I’ll bet,” she says. But she’s not looking up, at the glass—she’s looking at Thyme. With a thoroughly charmed, almost painfully earnest smile on her face.

And oh, it is so hopelessly endearing. Frankly, Thyme is mildly astonished that receiving this look from Roe didn’t knock her clean off her feet and send her careening into the shelves at her back.

“Oh— but that’s not important, I’m sorry,” she says after a beat, remembering herself—and Roe seems to jolt herself back to attention. “You’re here for supplies! What can I help you with? Since I just arrived in town a few days ago, I can almost guarantee that if you need something that I don’t have here—” she gestures toward her shelves as she picks up the box of potions at her feet and hefts it onto her hip, “—I have the ingredients to make it for you back up in my quarters. And,” she comments with a smile, “my prices are very reasonable, I assure you. Especially for a friend.”

“Well, I suppose I can’t rightly say no to a good deal,” Roe says cheerily. She pulls a slightly crumpled slip of paper covered in a looping, handwritten script out of her pocket. “Let’s see,” she says, turning her eyes to the list. “From the apothecary, I need… a bunch of potions and ether—probably a dozen each, if you have them? And… ugh, sorry.” She sighs somewhat exasperatedly and squints. “Hang on. Gods, Alphinaud’s handwriting is terrible.”

Thyme stops short, setting the potion box back on the counter. “Wait. Alphinaud? That elf boy?”

“Yeah.” Then Roe looks up, surprised. “You know him?”

“Oh, yes,” Thyme says with a fond smile. “We actually met in Stilltide—gods, it must have been about a year ago now? He found me at work one day and asked if I could teach him a little more about botany. He wanted to make himself useful to the townsfolk in any way he could, he said, and that often involved wandering about in the fields looking for specific plants for medicines or cooking… And he was so polite, and just as cute as a button. I couldn't say no.”

Roe stares, stunned, for just a second, and then she bursts out laughing. “Oh, so that’s how he knew what barley seeds looked like!”

Thyme giggles. “He did spend a bit of time mistaking pebbles on the ground for seeds, at first,” she says, and Roe lets out a somewhat undignified snort.

“Oh, I’m not surprised,” she says, still chuckling, with the distinct cadence of someone who is very familiar. “He’s the smartest person I know, but he’s not exactly well-versed in more… outdoorsy pursuits. Gods, I still remember how proud he was of himself once he learned how to reliably gather decent firewood. I was trying so hard not to laugh at the look on his face I think I cracked a rib.”

“You poor thing. I can only imagine.” Thyme props an elbow on the countertop and cups her chin in her hand. “So you’re colleagues?”

“Mhm, we’ve worked together for ages. Although it’d be more accurate to call him family, at this point. Him and his twin sister are like the siblings I never had.” Roe smiles, and something about it is gentler than before—she’s suddenly got the unmistakable, quiet glow of a proud big sister, and Thyme thinks she feels her heart begin to melt, just a little. “Alisaie is her name,” Roe continues, “and you'll definitely know her if you see her, she looks just like him. They're both great kids.”

Her mouth twists into an adorable pout as she turns her attentions back to Alphinaud’s shopping list. “But I swear, we’ve been complaining to him for years about his stupid cursive,” she grumbles quietly. “Would it kill him to use print for once?”

Roe squints again and raises the paper closer to her face. And Thyme recognizes that particular look on her face—she does it herself, sometimes, when she doesn’t have her glasses.

“Are you having problems seeing?” she asks.

Roe looks up.

Thyme balks. The words left her mouth before she even realized they were coming. “I’m so sorry,” she says hastily, feeling her stomach drop. “That was far too forward of me. You don’t have to answer.”

After a beat of silence, to Thyme’s immense relief, Roe gives her a warm, reassuring smile. “Nah, you’re alright,” she says breezily. “It’s a fair question—I’ve actually only got one good eye.” She points at the deep scar cutting down from her left eyebrow, through her eyelid and onto her cheekbone. “This thing isn’t just here for looks, I’m afraid.”

“I see.” Thyme feels a little pang of guilt. “I’m sorry to hear that.”

“No no, it’s okay, it happened a long time ago now.” Roe pauses. “Kinda refreshing, actually. Most people don’t ask me that sort of thing.”

“What do they ask you, then?”

“Oh, all sorts of things,” Roe says as she leans in, propping her forearms on the countertop. Their faces are much closer now, Roe’s body language languid and easy. Thyme thinks she can faintly smell something spiced and warm—her soap, perhaps. “How tall are you, how did you get so strong and charming and ruggedly handsome, can I buy you a drink… those are just the most common ones, of course.”

“Mhm.” Thyme matches Roe’s playful smirk with one of her own. “And you get these questions often.”

“Oh yeah,” Roe says, and it trips off her tongue easily in a lazy, charming drawl. “I’m thinking I’m going to have to start handing out informational flyers or something. You wouldn’t happen to have a lead on a printer, would you?”

Thyme snorts. “If I find one, I’ll be sure you’re informed.”

“Much obliged.”

There’s a little moment of silence, then, when the two of them just look at one another—not an awkward silence by any stretch, just a natural, momentary lull in conversation. But Roe seems to suddenly grow self-conscious in the midst of it, her cheeks going just a little pink, and drops her eyes back down to her shopping list with a tiny, somewhat bashful smile.

Goodness, she is just too cute.

Suddenly Roe’s face lights up. “Ah!” she proclaims. “Antidotes, of course. We need a dozen of those too, if you have them.” She stuffs the paper back into her pocket and removes a small coin purse, out of which she pours into her palm a small quantity of gil. “This should be enough to cover it all, I think?”

Thyme lets Roe drop the coins into her outstretched hand—for just a moment the calloused pads of Roe’s fingers brush against her palm, and it sends a little jolt of excitement springing through her stomach like she's a lovestruck schoolgirl. Embarrassingly, Thyme has to silently count the coins twice to make sure she hasn't forgotten how to use her numbers.

“It most certainly is,” she finally concludes, thank the gods. “Hold on just a moment and I’ll get your order packed up.”

Roe waits patiently, once again leaning casually against the countertop, as Thyme tucks the money away in her register and slips into the back alcove of her stall—bulk orders like Roe’s are common, and she’s confident she has enough backstock to cover it. She fetches a small empty crate from a shelf and begins to stock it with antidotes.

“So… you make all these yourself?” Roe's voice, echoing from the other side of the shelf Thyme is currently studying, sounds quite impressed.

“Of course.” Thyme peeks out at her through a gap between crates, her brows arched in a teasing smile. “You didn’t assume the herbs and bottles and the gigantic alchemy furnace I was lugging around were just for show, did you?”

Roe grins sheepishly. “Well when you put it that way, it sounds dumb.”

“Now, Rosemary. Those are your words, not mine.” As Thyme reemerges, returning to the counter to fetch ethers from her front display case, she shoots Roe a small wink.

“You, ah, don’t have to call me Rosemary, y’know,” Roe says, smiling shyly. “Most people don’t.”

“I know,” Thyme says airily as she arranges ether bottles in Roe’s crate. The bottles clink together lightly as she does so. “But I like it.”

Roe’s cheeks flush a bit, a hint of pink beneath the faded red tattoo splashed across her cheeks. “Yeah?”

“Mhm.” Thyme, who has now moved on to carefully removing a dozen potions from their box for packing, pauses. She levels Roe with a more serious expression. “That said, if you don’t like it, I’ll stop. Just tell me.”

“I don’t mind.” The words tumble hastily from Roe’s mouth, as though she wasn’t quite expecting them, and she looks a little embarrassed. “I, uh, didn’t used to like my name much. Hence the nickname. But it’s okay if you use it.”

“Oh, good. Because I didn’t really want to stop.” Thyme resumes arranging the potions, now adding a bit of paper to ensure the bottles don’t crack in transit. “Hmm. Rosemary and Thyme,” she says slowly, smiling as she feels the words roll off her tongue. “Sounds a bit romantic, doesn’t it?”

“It, uh. I guess it does.” And yes, Thyme verifies with a quick glance up at Roe’s face, a bright red blush has started to creep across her cheeks. Thyme briefly fights to keep a mischievous grin off her face and utterly fails.

They chat a moment longer, just long enough for Thyme to ensure she’s counted Roe’s order properly. When she finally slides the small crate of bottles across the countertop for Roe to take back with her, it’s with a small amount of reluctance.

Then she has an idea. “Actually—stay put for just a moment? I’ll be right back.” Roe looks at her questioningly as she slips back behind her shelves to examine her inventory.

The item she’s looking for is… there, in a crate shoved into the corner, right where she left it when she arrived this morning. She kneels and fetches a small vial—it’s got a tiny handwritten tag fastened to its neck with a loop of simple twine that reads ‘for minor injuries’.

“So,” she says as she returns to the shopfront, “I imagine that in your line of work, you tend to get a lot of little scrapes and bruises.” She presses the vial into Roe’s open hand. “This is a treatment that’s quite popular among members of the guard—it may sting a little, but it will help the healing process along. Just add a few droplets as needed, once a day. And I probably don’t need to tell you this, but it’s not intended for anything major. So be sure to see a professional if you break something more significant.”

Roe looks dumbly down at the vial. She seems taken aback, her cheeks still slightly pink. “This… wow, yeah, this will be very helpful.” She beams up at Thyme. “Thank you. This is really sweet of you, Thyme. Uh, how much do I owe you for it?”

She begins to dig for her coin purse with her free hand, but Thyme, having expected this, quickly intervenes; she gently plucks Roe’s hand from her pocket and gives it a little squeeze. “Nothing,” she says. “Consider it a thank you gift. For my hero.”

And Roe, bless her heart, now looks utterly stunned, her mouth fallen slightly open. If it were possible for steam to shoot out of her ears, it probably would have. “I… are you sure?” she asks, hesitatingly.

“Of course, Roe, don't be silly. It’s just one tincture—I can always make more. And besides,” Thyme remarks with a grin, “one: you didn’t allow me to pay you when you helped me out before; and two: the look on your face is payment enough, anyway.”

“If you say so,” Roe says. The pleased, surprised smile blooming on her face makes her eyes crinkle adorably. “I suppose I’ll just have to come back and buy more things later, then.”

“Frankly, with this kind of customer service, I’d be shocked and appalled if you didn’t.”

With a small chuckle Roe hefts the box onto her hip, but stops short before she turns to go. “So,” she starts, somewhat hesitantly, “I’ll see you around?”

Thyme nods, unable to stop herself from smiling. “You know where to find me.”

Roe flashes her a sparkling grin and waves with her free hand, a shy little flick of her wrist, as she steps back into the marketplace crowd. Thyme waves back.

Once Roe rounds the corner and leaves her line of sight, Thyme plops back onto her stool with a sigh and reopens her ledger. She’s got another hour or so before the markets close, and with how slow business has been today, she should have time to finish balancing her books.

But she finds after a few moments that she can’t seem to bring her focus back to the numbers. Her heart is still pounding, and she keeps smiling idiotically down at her pencil.

She’s not used to this—the mere thought of someone making her chest feel torn open and exposed, her heart like a newly sprouted bloom quavering in an early spring breeze. She feels ridiculous, but gods help her, she keeps seeing that bashful smile in her head, thinking about the warm color of Roe’s eyes. Remembering how explosively she burst into that huge, delighted laugh of hers, filled with life and joy and fire.

She wonders, absently, if she’ll have the chance to make her laugh like that again. If their parting words were any indication, perhaps she will.

Chapter Text

Roe has had a very, very long day.

She spent the vast majority of it running around Amh Araeng, having been pressed into service by both the extremely enthusiastic populace of Mord Souq and the desperately overworked carers at the Inn at Journey’s Head, who were still attempting to reassemble themselves after the loss of Tesleen. This meant, of course, since “helping” in Roe’s case is traditionally “running errands and killing things”, most of her afternoon was spent jogging through the desert, becoming viciously sunburnt and being attacked by wandering coyotes and gigantenders any time she paused for breath.

And then, once she had finally cleared off her checklist, right as she was about to head back to the Crystarium for a long, cold shower and the stiffest drink imaginable, a sin eater that came out of nowhere had practically landed on her head, and—not to put too fine a point on it—she pretty much got her ass kicked.

It wasn't her fault. Frankly, she’s not sure how anyone in Amh Araeng manages to do much of anything while they’re half-blind from the endless light bouncing off the desert sands and directly into their eyes.

Whatever. Hopefully she’ll get used to it. At the moment, however, she’s just finished stumbling back to her Pendants apartment after a very bumpy and painful amaro flight, and she’s more concerned with moving as slowly and rigidly as possible as she unlocks her door and slowly lowers herself down onto the edge of her bed. She’s no expert, but it feels like she might have a broken rib or two. It certainly wouldn’t be her first time, and that would certainly explain why it hurts to breathe. 

Although, to be fair: by the Matron’s teats, everything hurts.

Now safely seated, Roe lifts up her (newly blood stained and slightly tattered) shirt to peek at the angry red and purple bruise about the size of her head splashed across her ribs, and, perhaps unwisely, gives it an experimental poke. As she no doubt should have expected, it fucking hurts, and she just barely bites back a loud swear that her neighbors would have hated her for, instead groaning loudly through her teeth. There’s a few small cuts down there too, some of which look a little too deep for comfort and haven’t stopped oozing yet.

And although the worst of it is in her chest, her face is also throbbing. She drops her shirt to check a small mirror on the wall next to her bed and nearly recoils in surprise, her ribs twinging in protest—her rapidly swelling black eye looks more like a piece of flank steak than part of her face. She’s got a nice collection of scrapes and cuts spread across her cheeks and forehead, too, including a particularly nasty, stinging one on her temple. All in all, she looks and feels like she got in a fight with a herd of stampeding chocobos and lost. Feeling tired and sore and extremely sorry for herself, Roe sighs, and immediately winces. Getting comfortable enough to sleep tonight is going to be a trial.

It’s after midnight now, she thinks; it’s been a while since she last checked a clock, but her body’s telling her it’s very late. Unfortunately, since she hasn’t been on the First for long, the whole endless light thing really messes with her head—especially when she tries to rest. She can only assume that any aspiring First merchants who decide to break into the drapery business must make a killing.

With the notable exception of whoever made her curtains, clearly. They’re far too thin to do much of anything other than slightly dull the insistent brightness outside, and she’s got to keep them cinched tighter than an Ishgardian lady’s underthings to even stand a chance at getting some sleep these days.

Roe shoots the window an annoyed look, and then feels a bit stupid. Maybe getting something to drink will help her relax—or at least distract her from the throbbing in her face.

She slowly raises herself to her feet with a grunt of pain and stiffly hobbles to the washroom to make herself a little less disgusting. After she’s relatively cleaned up, she fetches and changes into a less bloody set of clothes from her dresser, leaving her ruined shirt and horrifyingly stained handwraps in a heap on the floor for her future self to deal with. Then she makes for the door, shutting and locking it behind her, intending to pay a brief visit to the Wandering Stairs for a nightcap. 

Unfortunately, it’s a bit hard to move with her ribs acting up, not to mention how weakened and wobbly her legs feel from hours of running around (in sand, no less—Roe only willingly jogs in sand if she's doing some kind of high-resistance cardio training where the point is to get her ass kicked. But, like, consensually, and not in a literal, got-trampled-by-a-sin-eater sense). So her pace down the walkway outside her apartment is slow and unsteady, as cautiously as she can manage lest she accidentally go tumbling over the railing, and she only makes it past about half a dozen doors on her way toward the staircase before her stilted limping has her grumbling curses under her breath at a volume that is perhaps a bit too high, given the late hour.

And just as she has this thought, she hears a noise from just a little ways behind her: the soft click and gentle creak of an opening door, followed by a quiet, melodious voice—currently sounding slightly confused.


On impulse Roe twists around to look and immediately regrets it. “Ow, fuck—”

In quick succession she stumbles, cracks her knee against the hard wooden floor, curses loudly, remembers the time of night, and realizes how much noise she’s making dragging her sorry carcass down the walkway. She glances back toward the door with an apologetic wince and wouldn’t you know it, it’s Thyme, concernedly poking her head through the entryway of a dimly lit apartment. Roe must have stopped outside her door by chance.

Of course. Why wouldn’t Roe bump into the prettiest girl in all of Norvrandt on the one occasion where she happens to look like Leviathan himself used her as a toothpick.

“Hey!” she says, hastily straightening and immediately suppressing a cringe at the pain it sends bouncing through her ribs. “Uh, fancy seeing you here.”

Thyme smiles and opens her mouth to respond, but then her gaze lands on Roe’s black eye and her brows shoot up into her hairline. “What happened?”

“Ah, this? This is nothing, I just got whacked around by a sin eater. I should be fine.” Roe grins and attempts to lean cooly on the railing behind her, but her elbow slips and she wobbles a bit. “You should see the other guy.”

Thyme snorts out a laugh as she steps out into the hallway properly. Her hair is down—it’s the first time Roe’s seen it not in her signature ponytail—and it's slightly damp and wavier than usual, curling about her shoulders. She’s also barefoot and wearing a sleeveless, elegantly embroidered nightdress that hits her at about her calves, which makes her look like she strolled right out of a moonlit meadow from a romance novel. Even her pajamas are beautiful, Roe thinks. Talk about unfair. And then she thinks, with a spike of something approaching horror, oh gods. What if Roe woke her up.

But Thyme’s looking at Roe with that lopsided little smile of hers that Roe is very quickly learning she absolutely cannot resist in any capacity, and it certainly doesn’t seem like she’s about to tell her to buzz off. “I was actually headed down to the Wandering Stairs for a bit, but I’m, uh, not moving around so well at the moment,” Roe explains, awkwardly swiping a hand through her hair. “Hence the noise.”

Thyme folds her arms and leans against the doorframe. Roe tries very hard not to note the swell of her breasts beneath the thin, white fabric of her nightdress and fails miserably. “So,” Thyme says dryly, “and please, do let me know if I am understanding this incorrectly: rather than seeking medical attention, while boldly pretending you’re not about to fall over unconscious from loss of blood, and looking like that—”  She gestures toward Roe’s bloodied face, and Roe’s ego gives an indignant, pained squawk— “you were planning to just… go get a drink. Am I on the right track?”

“Uh. Yes?” Roe attempts a winning smile, but her eye chooses that moment to give a particularly powerful throb, and it comes off more like a pained cringe instead.

Thyme peers at her for a beat, her brow quirked, with a teasing smirk on her face, and Roe is fairly certain she feels herself shrink an inch or two. Then Thyme sighs resignedly—but not unkindly—and shakes her head. “Well, assuming you’re not married to the idea of falling down the stairs…” She gestures again toward Roe’s eye. “If you’d like, I can take a look at that for you. I’m no medical professional, but I have practice treating injuries. And a tonic that should help with the pain.” She grins wryly. “And I won’t charge you for it. This time.”

Thyme’s got a point; that sure sounds like it beats falling down the stairs. Unhelpfully, Roe’s heart gives an excited flutter at the thought of entering Thyme’s apartment. “That’s really generous of you,” she answers slowly, “but are you sure? It’s late, and I wouldn't want to impose…”

But Thyme cuts her off. “I know,” she says, and she takes a small step backward so that the shadows of her darkened room almost envelop her, inviting Roe to follow with a gentle swish of her skirts and a smile that feels almost indecently alluring. And then she casts this look back at Roe with a playful tilt of her head. “But I insist.”

And, well. That settles that. When she’s done gawking stupidly, Roe follows Thyme into her apartment, heartbeat hammering in her throat.

The door closes with a small click behind them. “Have a seat,” Thyme says, brushing her hand across the small of Roe’s back as she slips past. It sends a jolt through Roe’s gut. “I’ll be right with you.”

Thyme quietly pads her way across the room to her workbench, behind which are dozens of potions and tinctures arranged in rows on several towering, groaning metal shelves—her backstock, Roe assumes, as she gingerly lowers herself onto the overstuffed sofa in the room’s center. The apartment is lit by a few dimmed lanterns, mounted sparingly along the walls. A candle flickers from the coffee table at Roe’s knee, its flame casting dancing shadows upon the books and abandoned teacups spread haphazardly across the table’s surface. Not a speck of light from outside is getting through the dark, thick curtains pulled tight over the window, Roe notes with a small amount of envy. Thyme must have been getting ready to go to bed. The air smells faintly sweet with something floral that Roe can’t quite put her finger on. 

Roe absently fiddles with a bit of loose thread on one of the sofa’s throw pillows as she tries not to have a schoolgirlish freakout session about the fact that she is currently sitting Thyme’s living room. “Thanks for inviting me in,” she says after a moment, once she’s regained control of her faculties. “Sorry for making a racket outside your door.”

“Oh, don’t worry about it,” Thyme responds airily as she plucks a few medicine bottles from her shelf. “I was just doing a bit of reading before I turned in for the night—you didn’t wake me up. Besides, I always like seeing you,” she adds, almost as an aside, like its just a thing she can say, and Roe feels herself flush enough that she’s certain it’s visible even on her currently very fucked-up face.

“Oh,” she eventually says, intelligently.

But then Thyme makes a little hmm noise and says “Hold on a moment—I believe I need a few more supplies,” and she slips across the room and through a door into what Roe presumes is her washroom. It’s hard to say for certain in the dim light, but Roe’s pretty sure there’s a proud little smirk on her face.

Gods. It seems like every single time the two of them bump into each other, Roe winds up redfaced and stammering; frankly, she’s beginning to suspect that Thyme’s attempting to set a personal record.

But she’d be lying if she said she didn’t enjoy it. Just a little. Not that she’d tell this to anyone, of course.

She silently thanks the Twelve that this isn’t the first time they’ve seen each other since their happenstance meeting in the markets. They next met in the Cabinet of Curiosity completely by chance, when Roe had stopped by on an errand for Alphinaud, tasked with picking up some dusty old tome he needed. After finding the book in question and making for the door, eager to get the dust of the library out of her nose, she’d just happened to notice Thyme bent over a weathered journal at a table in the corner, tucked away behind a towering stack of books with her emerald hair mussed and frizzy, her glasses sliding down her nose and a smudge of stray ink from her pen on her cheek. She’d looked so content nestled in among the bookshelves and working on gods-knew-what that Roe had found herself awkwardly hovering next to a nearby armchair, not wanting to disturb her if she was busy but desperately, entirely pathetically hoping to have the chance to talk to her.

Thyme, of course, had spotted her lurking and beckoned her over with a smile and a wave, and so Roe had found herself lingering in the library for a few hours—far, far longer than she had originally planned. Roe had even cleaned the ink smudge off of Thyme’s cheek with the pad of her thumb, in a moment of earth-shattering bravery that had had her walking with a spring in her step for hours. Eventually Moren himself had come by their table and politely (albeit somewhat nervously) requested that they move their conversation elsewhere, as the library was meant for quiet study, so Roe had reluctantly left and allowed Thyme to return to her business. But the sound of Thyme’s giggle had bounced around in her head for the rest of the day.

And… for several days to follow, if she was being honest. Much to the delight of Alisaie, who had caught her staring dreamily out the window of her room like a lovestruck teenager on the following morning and taken it upon herself to begin teasing her relentlessly.

But Alphinaud, for his part, had taken a different tack: equally fond of both Roe and the object of her burgeoning affections, he had found several opportunities to send Roe down to the markets to obtain more supplies from Thyme’s shop to replace ones he had “accidentally” nudged off of his desk and let smash on the floor. And the Crystarium, though undoubtedly large, is not so massive to make it uncommon for two people to infrequently bump into one another, especially if they tend to frequent the same spots.

As such, before long, Thyme had quietly become a small fixture in Roe’s days—a friendly face and playful conversation that could be counted upon to raise her spirits, no matter how tired she was. And at the moment, as she watches Thyme reenter the living room, supplies in tow, with her cracked ribs and swollen face throbbing like a drum, she is certainly in need of a good spirit-raising.

“All set, I think,” Thyme says softly as she sets her things on the coffee table: a small roll of gauze, the medicine bottles, and a dampened washrag. She gracefully lowers herself to sit at Roe’s side. “Now hold still for me, and let me take a look at you.”

Almost before Roe realizes what’s happening Thyme has scooted even closer, tucking herself against Roe’s hip, and she takes Roe by the chin, firmly, but not forceful, to gently tilt her head to better cast light onto her face. Obediently—and quietly, nervously delighted, as her heart takes a flying leap into her throat—Roe allows her.

Thyme’s eyes scan across Roe’s face, marking the cut on her temple, her black eye, the scrapes across her cheek. She tsks quietly and adjusts the angle of Roe’s chin, just a little, and Roe follows the guidance of the gentle pressure of her fingers; they feel decidedly cool against Roe’s skin, but not at all unpleasantly so. Her voice drops to a low purr that curls along Roe’s jaw to meet her ear, silky and smooth. “You know, you really should take better care of yourself.”

“Yeah.” Roe’s palms are suddenly sweaty. Thyme’s body is pressed up against hers in a way that feels quite intentional. “You, uh, aren’t the first person to tell me that.”

Thyme chuckles, her breath tickling Roe’s cheek. She’s got a tiny, catlike smile on her face, her lips slightly parted in a way that makes Roe’s stomach flip. “Maybe you should listen,” she murmurs.

“I’ve never been very good at listening.” Roe’s tongue feels heavy in her mouth. Thyme huffs out a quiet laugh, her fingers still lingering on Roe’s face. She’s clearly not looking at Roe’s injuries anymore.

And it almost feels like Roe shouldn’t be looking at her anymore, like she’s a nervous teenager who just got caught staring at the classmate she has a crush on and if she doesn’t tear her eyes away right now everyone will notice and point and laugh—but gods, their faces are so close now, maybe an inch or two apart, and Thyme’s eyes are such a warm, beautiful shade of violet that looks like the lightning-soaked flicker of dark, summery stormclouds in the sleepy candlelight that bounces about her living room, and she can smell Thyme’s shampoo, or her soap maybe; it’s citrusy and light and reminds her of a fruit she can’t quite place.

Thyme’s gaze drifts downward, just a little, to trace Roe’s lips. The air between them feels electric. 

It would be so, so easy for Roe to lean forward and just—

Then Thyme turns away and reaches for the small medicine bottle she’d set on the coffee table next to them—Roe lets out a tiny breath she didn’t realize she was holding—and puts a bit of gauze soaked in some kind of strong-smelling liquid to the cut on Roe’s temple, leaning in just a hair so that her breasts press against Roe’s upper arm. Roe almost doesn’t notice the way it stings.

“Close your eyes and hold still,” Thyme says. Her eyes remain locked on Roe’s temple, but her lips curl into a teasing smile.

Roe shuts her eyes. Gods. She’s definitely doing this on purpose.

“So,” Thyme murmurs after a moment, her voice low, “not every sin eater is no match for you. Color me surprised.”

“Y’know, that’s the same thought I had when this one nearly landed on my head.”

“It was flying? How exciting.” Thyme presses something warm and damp against Roe’s eye—the rag from before. “Sorry, this might hurt.”

It doesn’t, not really. “Yeah, it kinda… squashed me. I let my guard down for a second because I thought I was in the clear, and then, well. I wasn’t.”

Thyme makes a sympathetic noise. “Sounds painful.”

“It wasn’t great.” Roe cracks her other eye open. “It let me come see you, though.”

“Hmm. Perhaps I should send it a thank you note.”

“You could certainly try—but I don’t think they’ve figured out how to use postboxes yet.” Thyme giggles, and her breath gusts against Roe’s cheek.

They drift into a contented silence, then, for a few minutes; the late hour is beginning to show itself in how Roe’s body seems to sag into the sofa, how her muscles faintly quiver, demanding rest even as she tries to hold herself as still and steady as she can.

But Thyme, to her credit, doesn’t feel the need to fill the empty air with conversation, either, and as before, when they walked through the fields of Kholusia, it’s not uncomfortable in the slightest. In fact, Roe is fairly certain she’s not been more relaxed than this in weeks.

The room is quiet, comfortable; Roe casts her mind away from her stinging skin and listens intently to the quiet slosh of the medicine in its bottle and the soft rustle of fabric, and regulates her breathing to be as slow and smooth as she can manage. Keeping her eyes shut is getting easier by the moment, though, as her eyelids grow heavier.

Then Thyme breaks the silence with a small, surprised noise. “Roe— you’re bleeding.”

Confused, Roe opens her eyes. Thyme is looking down. Roe notices with a jolt that crimson blotches of blood from the wounds on her abdomen are bleeding through the fabric of her shirt.

“Oh. I, uh, forgot about those,” Roe says, and curses inwardly—another shirt ruined. Why does she keep buying so many white shirts, anyway?

Thyme’s eyebrows have returned to their vacation home about her hairline. “You… forgot,” she says, slowly. “About the oozing wounds on your stomach.”

Roe shrugs, and then winces. “In my defense, everything kinda hurts.”

Thyme sighs, not unkindly, and shakes her head. “What am I going to do with you, Rosemary,” she says—exasperated, but clearly fond, and Roe feels something warm bloom in her chest.

“I dunno. You tell me,” she answers with an impish grin. “You’re the expert.”

“Well, for starters, I’ll finish what I’m doing here. Then I’ll give those a once-over.” Thyme pauses for a moment, in the middle of placing a bandage on a cut on Roe’s cheek, and gives her a slightly more serious look. “But I’ll need you to remove your shirt, if I’m to be able to see what I’m doing. Are you comfortable with that?”

And Roe’s stomach flutters uneasily. She’s never been particularly bashful about this sort of thing; frankly, Roe thinks, she looks damn good, and she certainly spends enough time working on her body to warrant a little showiness. But something about how forwardly Thyme asked, specifically checking to make sure she was okay with it first…

It feels… different. Good, but different.

“Yeah, that’s fine,” she mumbles. Her throat is suddenly very dry.

“Good.” Thyme’s teasing smile returns as she resumes sticking the bandage to Roe’s cheekbone. “To be honest, I would have been a little disappointed if you’d said no,” she says, playfully poking at one of Roe’s shirt buttons.

“Well, far be it from me to refuse, then,” Roe responds, as smoothly as she can manage while trying to keep her face from turning as red as a tomato. The look on Thyme’s face is pleased and somewhat smug, like a cat who’s just caught its dinner.

In a few minutes Thyme declares Roe’s face to be as treated as it can be, under the circumstances, and Roe slightly nervously unbuttons and removes her shirt, leaving herself sitting somewhat stiffly on Thyme’s sofa in only her bra and trousers, carefully positioned to avoid getting blood on any plush surfaces. Notably, Roe thinks she sees Thyme’s eyebrows almost imperceptibly raise at the sight of her abs, and feels a surge of idiotic triumph—if it didn’t hurt to move, she might just be pumping her fists in the air.

Then Thyme’s eyes move to the giant, blooming bruise on Roe’s side, and she sucks a bit of air through her teeth. “That must hurt. It’s no wonder you were having difficulty moving.”

“It’s not as bad as it looks,” Roe says, quite confidently, before a tentative prod of Thyme’s fingers to her abdomen shoots a bolt of pain through her ribs that makes her feel like her intestines are making a bold escape attempt through her mouth. She groans and screws her eyes shut before she can accidentally vomit all over Thyme’s nice sofa.

Thyme snorts quietly. “Not bad, you say.”

“I swear it’s not,” Roe mutters through gritted teeth. She cracks an eye open. “I’ve had worse, believe me. I could eat cracked ribs and broken fingers for breakfast.”

“Of course.” The knowing smile on Thyme’s face quite clearly means you are a gods-awful liar, but she blessedly leaves that part as an implication. “Well, unfortunately, if the ribs truly are cracked, there’s not really much I can do, I’m afraid,” she continues, sounding apologetic. “You’ll need to see a full-fledged healer for that. I do have a tincture that will help with the pain, though—it’ll make it a bit easier to breathe until you can get yourself fixed up.” She looks to the cuts and scrapes on Roe’s stomach. “And I can do something about those.”

“If you don’t mind, that would be great.” Frankly, at this point, Roe wouldn’t mind an excuse to get Thyme’s hands back on her, broken bones or not. A little pathetic: perhaps.

But, thankfully, Thyme beams. “I’m happy to. Lay back for me?”

Thyme moves to kneel on the floor, a throw pillow placed beneath her knees as Roe very slowly shifts to lay against the sofa’s arm, propping herself up against it with a grunt of mild discomfort. Thyme picks up the medicine bottle. “There’ll be a little sting,” she says, “same as before. Hold still.”

The medicine does sting, but Roe doesn’t mind. As Thyme works, methodically cleaning each injury one by one, the room slowly fills with a drowsy, contented silence that spreads through the air like a warm fog. Candlelight dances at Thyme’s back, casting morphing, entrancing shadows onto the walls.

Thyme’s full lips are pressed together into a hard line, her brow ever-so-slightly furrowed. But there’s a softness in her eyes too, a little sparkle of fondness and contentment as her fingers move slow but confident across Roe’s skin, tracing the curves of muscle and bone. 

And Roe finds herself staring at her as she works, desperately hoping that Thyme’s intense concentration means she won’t be caught in the act, with her heart feeling twisted into a knot in her chest.

Thyme seems… happy. Happy to help, yes, like she’d said—but also, thrillingly, just happy to spend time with her, even though Roe’s hardly being very entertaining company. And gods, obviously she was already beautiful, but right now, in this quiet, shared moment, she’s practically aglow.

Truthfully, if Roe has to admit it to herself, it’s almost painful to look at.

Because, quite simply, she doesn’t want to get her hopes up. She can’t get her hopes up. She’s the Warrior of Light, for fuck’s sake: it’s not her job to get her hopes up, it’s her job to go where she’s told and to fight and to kill and to save the world. And to die trying, if that’s what’s on the table.

It’s certainly not her job to… fall in love. If that’s even what this is. Truthfully, it’s been so long since Roe has allowed herself the company of… well, much of anyone, to be honest, that she’s honestly not sure. And hells, on top of all that—which is still a lot, mind you—she's not even from this star. What on earth would they do about that?

But in spite of all this, she can’t help but think: that moment before that was only a second or two but seemed to stretch for eons, when Thyme looked her right in the eyes with that tiny little smile, with her fingers still gently holding onto Roe’s chin, admiring her like a bloom she had just plucked from the earth…

Roe’s eyes fall shut. It might be nothing. Or maybe not.

Either way, she wouldn’t mind an excuse for Thyme to hold her like that again.

She feels the plush sofa against her back, soft and firm and warm. Thyme’s hands are comfortable and cool. She breathes, and she waits.

And waits.

When Thyme next says her name it drops from her lips in a murmur that’s almost more suggestion than sound, a flower petal brushing against her skin.

Roe’s eyes flutter open. She’s not sure how long it’s been. Minutes? Hours? It feels like she might have fallen asleep, but she’s not sure. 

But Thyme still kneels next to her, looking up at her like she was waiting for her to open her eyes. “You’re all set,” she says, hushed. The medicine bottle is gone—Thyme must have put it away—and Roe’s wounds have been carefully cleaned and bandaged. “You’d best get going, I’m afraid—it’s very late.”

Roe sits up, slowly, gingerly. And she feels like she has to say something, but it almost feels wrong to talk now, to break the silence that still surrounds them in a warm, peaceful cloud.

So when she speaks, she does it very quietly, and as earnestly as she can convey. “Thanks, Thyme,” she says. “I owe you one.”

“I’ll hold you to that,” Thyme says. Her eyes shine playfully as she leans forward. She has Roe’s shirt in her hand, and she presses it against the hollow of Roe’s breastbone. “And don’t forget this.”

Embarrassingly, Roe feels heat rising to her cheeks. Thyme’s face is very close. “Thanks,” she mumbles.

“Of course,” Thyme says as she removes her hand and sits back on her heels, grinning somewhat wickedly.

They get to their feet—Thyme with effortless grace, as usual, but Roe is still a bit stiff and hobbled thanks to her ribs. She pulls her shirt back on and pays extra close attention to make sure she doesn’t mix up the buttons.

“Oh— sorry, hold on.”

Thyme slips away for a second as Roe moves to open the front door, but it’s only to fetch a tiny bottle from her workbench and press it into Roe’s palm, curling Roe’s fingers around it. “Take a spoonful of this before bed, with a glass of water. It will help you breathe better.” Her hand lingers, clasped around Roe’s. “And go to sleep as soon as you can after you get back,” she says, her lips curling into a fond smile. “I mean it. I know you’re not the type to go easy on yourself, but you need rest to heal, darling.”

And Roe’s stomach—which has already been doing a lot of acrobatics this evening—drops down to her toes, as the word seems to echo through her brain, over and over, like the sound of a stone colliding with a cavern wall.

Darling, Thyme said. Darling. It’s just a word, she has to hasten to remind herself: two little syllables, the kind of thing friends call each other all the time. Not necessarily anything more than that. But, gods, Roe would be lying if she said that the sound of it didn’t shiver through her entire body and send her helplessly longing for it, chasing the high of hearing it again, in a thoroughly stupid, completely impractical, absolutely embarrassing way.

Oh, no. Roe’s got it bad.

“I will,” she finally answers, hoping somewhat pathetically that she didn’t take too long to respond. Thyme’s fingers are still curled around hers, and Roe doesn’t want to pull her hand away.

It seems, Roe notes hopefully, like Thyme doesn’t either. But she does, finally, with a quiet “good night, sleep well” and a cute little smile that launches Roe’s heart into her throat. And when Roe slips out the door of Thyme’s dim, cozy apartment, having never felt more reluctant to go to bed in her life, stepping back into the endless light and murmuring crowds of the Crystarium feels like a slap to the face.

Suddenly Roe’s absolutely exhausted. She returns to her room and takes the medicine, as instructed, before splashing some water on her face and giving her teeth a quick and somewhat negligent cleaning. Her terrible curtains are then cinched as tightly shut as she can manage. After she undresses, she crashes into bed with all the grace and elegance of a tree hit by lightning. Her ribs still ache and her face still stings, but she can breathe easier now, thank the gods. So she stares at the ceiling and waits for sleep to claim her.

And she thinks of Thyme: calling her “darling” and pressing the glass bottle into her hand, its sharp corner poking into her palm. The taste of the medicine is still on her tongue, bitter and strong. She wants to savor it.

When her eyes finally fall closed, she dreams of candles, the smell of summer blooms, and cool fingers on her skin.

Chapter Text

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.