Reid can’t find the antique shop. He knows exactly where it is because he’d walked through its front door every morning for months, but he can no longer see past its protections. Even though he’s standing between the two shops where he knows Madam Norna’s should be, he can’t focus his eyes on the storefront. It’s like it’s not even there.
He growls, ignoring the sour turn in his stomach when he stares too long, trying to break the concealment through sheer willpower. It’s early enough that the street is still quiet and anyone outside is engaged in their own little world, going to work or walking dogs or out for a morning run. Reid wouldn’t normally be at the antique shop for a few more hours yet, but he’s familiar enough with Maya’s class schedule to be sure that she won’t swing by the shop today until noon. He wants to be gone well before she arrives. It’s been three weeks since they last spoke, and Reid still can’t shake the violent shiver of betrayal he feels every time he recalls that final conversation.
“I need to see the madam,” Reid tells the shop through gritted teeth. He’d said the same thing yesterday and the day before, with no success. Today is his third attempt to gain entry, and he forces down his negative, spiraling thoughts about what he’s going to do if the shop has barred him forever. “I’m a customer. I came here for a solution months ago, but the promise made to me was broken. Is that the way things are done in the shop?” he challenges. “Fragile, unstable remedies that could fall out from under our feet at any time?”
He’s aware that taunting a mysterious, powerful force is deeply foolish and that he’d never hear the end of it if his sister knew what he was saying, but he manages to focus his gaze on a familiar door for a brief moment and he lunges. Reid’s hand closes on the doorknob and he twists, pulling the door open and hearing the jangle of the shop bell. He steps through triumphantly and lets the door swing shut behind him.
The antique shop looks exactly the same – a disorganized jumble of odds and ends shoved onto tables and bookshelves, empty of life except for Finn and Chronos. A momentary wave of relief pushes some of Reid’s anger and hurt out of the way. Finn looks up from his game of cards with Chronos and his eyebrows jump to his hairline.
Reid waits for the mocking to start, but Finn is silent. “What, no insults for me? Don’t want to call me a mongrel?” He’s here for a reason, but blowing off some steam beforehand wouldn’t go amiss and Finn is always ready for a fight.
“Not today,” Finn replies with uncharacteristic softness.
His sympathy is worse than his ire, and something ugly rears up in Reid’s stomach. “I don’t want your pity.”
Finn’s expression shifts into something that Reid can’t interpret. “Maybe it’s not pity for you.”
“Then who is it for?” Finn just shrugs, which only fuels Reid’s fury. Why, on the one day where a shouting match would actually make him feel better, does Finn not want to argue? It’s fucking inconvenient, is what it is. Reid takes a few deep breaths that do nothing to cool his temper. Fine, whatever, he’ll skip the quarrel and get to the point of his visit. “Is the madam in?”
Finn nods at the door to the stairs. “Go on up.”
Reid is still keyed up when he finds Madam Norna waiting for him. She’s just as serene as always, which grates on him. “How can I help you?” she asks, gesturing for him to take a seat.
The knot in his throat tightens as he obeys. “Same problem as last time,” he says, aiming for casual and missing by a mile. “The solution that you offered before seems to have fallen through. If your apprentice doesn’t want a familiar, then I’m going to need some other form of protection.” It’s stupid to avoid Maya’s name, but they both know who he’s talking about.
Madam Norna stares at him for a few long moments. “May I see the ring in your pocket?”
Reid freezes, feeling suddenly exposed. He probably hadn’t been meant to take the fox ring after Maya yanked it off her finger, but he did, and he hadn’t planned to admit that he brought it with him today. Reid doesn’t want to give it back.
“I won’t take it,” she assures him. “I just want to see it.”
He reluctantly removes the ring from his pocket and holds it up, far enough away that Madam Norna can’t make a grab for it. Her silence, which drags on for what feels like several minutes, weighs heavily on him. “How’s the shop?” he finally inquires to dispel the quiet, even though that’s not the question he wants to ask.
She knows who he’s asking after anyway. “Maya is still very new to this world. Understanding the nuances of fate and free will is not something that comes easily to her. What things are decided for us by our circumstances, what choices are ours to make – she struggles to tell them apart. She will learn with time.”
“What does that have to do with anything?”
“Why do you think she decided to end your contract?”
Reid clenches his jaw and returns the ring to his pocket. Maya had said that she didn’t need him anymore and that he was probably safe now, as if she knew anything about the kinds of people he was in trouble with. Admittedly, it’s been three weeks and no one has approached Reid yet, but there’s no telling when they might return their attention to him. “Don’t you know?”
Madam Norna hums neutrally. “How would you describe Maya?”
Reid narrows his eyes at the evasion but complies. “Bold, stubborn, rude. Powerful.” Her skill with curse breaking is nothing short of incredible, especially for someone who has no idea what she’s doing.
“She doesn’t like things being decided for her,” Madam Norna adds. “She has strong opinions about people having the freedom to make their own choices.”
“I don’t understand what you’re trying to tell me.” The madam is always going to be a mysterious figure, but giving a straight answer now and then probably wouldn’t kill her. Reid isn’t reckless enough to say that out loud, though.
“You’ll understand soon.” She pauses for a long moment. “You’re here for a reason, but it’s not because you want a new solution.”
When Reid parses that statement, he flushes. “She said that she doesn’t want a familiar anymore. Even if I wanted that –” which he doesn’t, even though the fox ring is still in his pocket and he can’t bring himself to give it back to Madam Norna “– she would have to agree too.”
The sound of the bell downstairs interrupts their conversation and Reid’s heart jolts when he hears Maya call out a greeting to Finn and Chronos.
Madam Norna doesn’t look surprised. “Her class must have been cancelled,” she says evenly.
The timing is too convenient to be a coincidence. Did Reid only find the antique shop today because this was going to happen? Or was Maya’s schedule changed because Reid finally located the door? Reid huffs. He could spend all day trying to puzzle out the ways of the universe, but it wouldn’t get him anywhere. “Are you going to help me?” he asks.
She shakes her head. “I can’t help you.”
Great. His time and effort had been wasted, then. Reid mutters a goodbye (because he was raised right, even if he isn’t feeling polite right now) and leaves Madam Norna’s room. He hesitates at the top of the stairs when he realizes that Maya is going to be between him and the front door. He doesn’t have any other options, though, so Reid descends.
Maya is behind the front counter, elbows resting on the glass case near the register. She looks miserable. Good. Reid forces his face blank when she glances towards the creaking stairs and spots him. Her expression clears briefly before crumpling again, probably remembering their last encounter.
Reid takes a few steps into the shop. Finn makes the wise decision to wash his hands of the impending confrontation by heading for the stairs himself, dodging around Reid to do so, and Chronos scampers close behind him. With the potential spectators gone, Reid finishes his walk to the front counter.
“What are you doing here, Reid?”
He glances at the clock. “I could ask you the same question.”
Maya makes a face. “My professor got sick and couldn’t make it in today. You?”
“I asked Madam Norna for protection again because someone ruined her last solution.” That hits the mark. Maya winces and looks down, focusing on chipping at her nail polish to avoid making eye contact. Reid wishes that the victory didn’t feel so hollow.
He follows her gaze and his eyes snag on a large, ugly mark on her forearm. “What’s with the bruise?”
“Angry customer when I was out of the shop.”
“I thought you said you could handle things without help from anyone.”
Her face darkens. “Yeah, I said that, but…”
For a few moments, it looks like she isn’t going to continue, and god knows that Reid won’t be able to drag it out of her if she digs her heels in. However, Maya just exhales sharply and mutters, “I didn’t mean it even when I said it.”
“You didn’t mean it,” Reid repeats, livid and incredulous and (goddamnit) hopeful. “Then why did you do it?”
Maya sets her jaw and finally meets his eyes. “Why do you care? You’re free from our contract now; you don’t have to be trapped in the shop with me all the time. Why aren’t you happy?”
“What?” he hisses.
“You didn’t want to be here,” she says like she’s spelling it out for a bairn. “You were forced to be my familiar by circumstances outside your control, but I released you from it. It’s not like you wanted to be my pal or spend every day here.”
“You never asked me. Maybe I started to like it here.”
She shakes her head, looking dangerously close to tears, and what is going on right now? “I was holding you back. You put your life on hold to be my familiar, and it was past time that I stopped being selfish.”
“Where the hell did you get that idea?” he demands. “Don’t put words in my mouth.”
“You said it yourself when that couple came in for the blessing,” she argues, obstinate as always. “One of them asked if you wanted bairns of your own, and you told them that you were too occupied with other things to consider it. I knew for sure then that being my familiar and spending all day in the shop was a distraction from your life. You couldn’t choose to build a family, or do whatever else you wanted, because you were here.”
Reid’s fists tighten at his sides. “Are you kidding? You didn’t want my help anymore because I said one thing?”
Maya laughs, but it’s empty. “It wasn’t just one thing. You came in with your friend – Izzy, I think? – and I realized that I have no idea what you do outside the shop, or what you want to do with your life. You’ve mentioned a sister once, but do you have other family? Friends? A career that you left for this? I don’t know, Reid, because I never asked, because I took you for granted.”
Reid brought Izzy to the antique shop two months ago. “You’ve been thinking like this for that long?” Maya nods, and he frowns. He must still be missing something here, because he knows that Maya isn’t shy with questions. “If you thought it was a problem, then why didn’t you ask about my interests? We aren’t short on spare time in here.” He hopes she doesn’t notice his slip with the present tense, as if he’s still a regular in the shop.
“I didn’t know if you would want to share that,” she confesses. “What if I’d been thinking we were friends all this time and then it turned out you didn’t want to chat about your personal life with some nosy coworker you were stuck with?”
Reid is coming to the startling realization that this whole thing may have sprung from a series of overblown, dramatic miscommunications. “Stuck with? When I agreed to be your familiar, I knew what it meant. I knew better than you what it meant, apparently. I agreed to spend my time here and drag you out of harm’s way and do whatever else was required to work in the shop. You just assumed that even after I got used to everyone, I wouldn’t want to be here or be your familiar. Why couldn’t you ask me?” Reid is on a roll now and he can’t stop the words spilling out of his mouth. “You said that you wanted me to be free from the contract so I could make my own choices, but I made mine. I was here because I chose it.” Maybe he hadn’t liked it at first, before he knew Maya and Chronos, but he’s allowed to change his mind. “You’re the one who – who threw it back at me because you didn’t make the choice to be here and thought no one else would.”
She stiffens at the accusation and a few tears slip out. “What kind of choice was that for you?” she croaks. “You were in trouble and needed protection.”
Maya is right about that, but he can’t back down now. “If I had the choice again, I’d still do it.”
“Why not find something else?”
“Because I give a shit about what happens to you.” Maya’s complete ignorance about the world they live in means that she needs someone at her back to keep her out of trouble. The nasty bruise on her arm proves that going it alone isn’t an option. “And I thought it was the same for you about me, until…”
“It is the same for me.” Her voice sounds wrecked, and she’s definitely crying now.
Reid suddenly starts to feel exhaustion settling over him. It’s been an emotionally taxing argument. “You were worried that not asking about my personal life was a failing, right?” he checks, voice softer now. She nods. “I didn’t ask you about your life either. I don’t even know what you’re studying at school. Relationships of any kind are not a one-way street.”
“I’m sorry,” she whispers.
He swallows. “Yeah. Yeah, me too.” Reid is still hurt from the last time, but he can see now why she thought she was doing the right thing. If she had approached him about it, though, he could have told her flat-out that she was mistaken.
“Now what?” Maya asks quietly. He’s not sure whether the question is directed at herself or to him until she clears her throat and continues: “What do you want? I, uh, know it’s pretty late to ask now, but still.”
Reid knows what he wants. Madam Norna had identified it immediately and had spoken about Maya and choices in a way that now makes much more sense. However, despite his desire to be her familiar again, Maya’s broken promise can’t be taken lightly. He won’t be played with like that, dismissed and banned from the shop every time they fail to communicate and Maya makes a unilateral decision. She is going to be the next Madam Norna. Her actions have weight, and someday the scale will be much greater than the interpersonal relationship between them. “I want to come back to the shop, assuming I can find it again, and I want us to sort through our misunderstandings.” They can rebuild the trust that Maya had shattered.
“You’ll be able to find it again,” she declares, sounding sure of herself, and Reid lets that particular worry go.
They’re both quiet for a while, neither moving away from the counter, and Maya begins to look uncertain again. “Do you want to be my –”
“Don’t,” Reid cuts in. “Not yet.”
“Right,” she says, crestfallen.
“I said not yet. We need to understand each other better if we’re going to try again. I want to, but not if you’re going to make decisions for both of us without asking.”
Maya nods. “I want that too.” She tries for a smile. “The shop has been too quiet.”
“I’ve missed the shop.” That’s not the whole truth, though, and Reid is the one insisting on better communication, so he forces himself to finish the thought: “I missed the cat and, you know… you. Not Finn, though, he can fuck off.”
She laughs a little and wipes at her eyes. “Do you want to go lose at cards to the wee shite with me?” Reid nods, relieved at the mention of returning to normal activities. “I wonder sometimes how Chronos would react to a regular cat. Do you think a customer has ever brought one in?”
“No idea.” Reid almost stops there, but then decides to try a personal question. “Do you have a cat? Or any other pets?”
Maya’s expression lightens with the realization that he’s inquiring about her life. “I can’t have a cat in student housing,” she tells him. “I had rabbits growing up. What about you? Do foxes keep pets?”
As Reid answers her question, he knows that it’s going to take time for them to restore the trust that they’d built over his months in the shop. There will be more conflicts and more misunderstandings as they work together to find their balance as friends. Still, it feels like the worst of it is behind them. Reid is hopeful that they’ll get to a place where Maya will ask him again to be her familiar and he will trust her enough to agree.