If you never have to have the declawing argument with a pet owner ever again, ever, in a whole multiverse's worth of worlds, it will be too bloody soon.
Feferi's right, of course, you shouldn't shout at people, it makes them not want to give you their money, but they just stroll in with their cat's carrier in one hand and demand that you hack off bits of the cat's paws for the sake of their precious upholstery, and you have had a stressful month or two and it is only with effort that you held on to your temper this afternoon. With effort, and with the memory of the astonishingly lovely moment in the hall just a few hours ago when Feferi Peixes had said yes, she would love to come and have dinner with you, and then stood on tiptoe and very briefly kissed your lips.
You have not been kissed in a long, long time, and you had forgotten that lips were soft.
Now, turning the gas down under a mushroom risotto, you find yourself fidgeting anxiously with your hair, the way you have trained yourself not to do, and you make your hand leave off and go back to doing something useful such as stirring. Your hair is fine. It's tied back in a ponytail like it always is, freshly washed and conditioned. It is not a concern. There are actual concerns in the world, such as the future of the endeavor you and the Striders have embarked upon, and the state of your hair does not signify.
When the doorbell rings you hurry to let her in, and lose your words entirely because she is so beautiful in her pink coat with the cloud of her hair rippling and swirling in the cold wind, and it's only when she slips her arms around your waist and clings tightly that you stop staring like a poleaxed bullock and close the door and hold her tight. "--I've...I'm....the risotto," you stammer. It needs stirring.
Feferi lets you go, looking up at you, and smiles a cloudless smile.
A little while later you and she are sitting at one end of your long dining-table with mostly-cleaned plates in front of you. She's gushed over your cooking, but not to the point where you start to doubt the veracity--it's just...it's honest appreciation, and you feel the way you feel when you've done a particularly difficult surgical procedure, or given a worried owner good news. "I haven't got much for afters," you tell her. "Just strawberries. They're good, though, I got them from the farmer's market, they actually taste of something..."
"Strawberries are my favorite." Feferi smiles at you across the table, a curve of magenta-stained lips, and you feel your chest go tight. "No chocolate, though."
"Chocolate on strawberries is a mistake." You get up, collect the plates. "Just a minute."
You are thirty-seven years of age and you have been waiting for this night since you met this woman, and you are not going to screw it up. You get out a little sharp knife and quickly slice up the best of the farmer's market berries, tossing them in a bowl with a sprinkle of raw sugar, and as an afterthought hook a bottle of madeira out of the rack beside the fridge. In your head you'd done this so many times (and so much better, you'd remembered to have music playing, and you'd dressed better, and maybe taken a bit more care over tidying up your house) and it feels wonderful and strange to have all those daydreams layering over one another and becoming true.
Feferi has shrugged out of her little black bolero when you return to the dining-room. Underneath it she's wearing something soft, clingy, slightly shimmery, in a darker version of her trademark fuchsia. You want to touch all the curves and planes of her, feel how that delicate fabric moves and clings. You're pretty sure you're bright red, and sit down in a hurry with the bowl of strawberries and two stacked plates--and try for irony. "So very elegantly served, madame."
She laughs, and reaches across the table to lace her fingers with yours, absurdly oversized. "Relax, Equius. I'm having a lovely time."
"A very lovely time. You beat me to it, you know."
You look boggled. She laughs, squeezing your hand. "I'd wanted to ask you to dinner, but things kept cropping up and getting in the way. Now that everyone's more or less sorted out we both have time to spend on things other than crisis management."
"Have a strawberry," you manage.
Between you, half the bottle of madeira is gone by half past ten. "I'd better not drive," she says, complacently. "Is it awfully rude of me to demand that you put me up?"
"Superbly," you say, and now your confidence comes back almost all at once, in a rush, and you raise her hand to your lips.
Time has passed. You don't know how much and you've turned the accusing face of the alarm clock to the wall, because you don't want to let go of this moment, you don't want it to slide into the past and be a thing that is over. She lies sprawled half on top of you, the sweet-smelling mass of her hair falling in a riot of waves and curls and wiggles over your chest, and you can feel the beating of her heart, faster and lighter than your own, but sturdy and reliable and true, so true. You are wrung dry and happily exhausted, and you have not felt so young or so alive in...a very long time.
"Mmmh," she says, into your shoulder. "'Quius."
"You really have to look into taking on a partner for the practice."
You kiss the top of her head, warm and lovely. "I do?"
"Yes. Cause I'm not letting go of this again. I've wanted just this for so long now. You work so hard and you never rest and you never get to take the day off and just go and...and look at flowers, or to the seaside, or anything." She nuzzles you. "Anything that isn't continuing professional education."
You let your fingers work through her marvelous hair. It's so much longer than you realized, freed from its bonds and clips and pins. "Until now I had not had a reason to desire much time away from the office."
"Really?" She rouses enough to look at you through her eyelashes. Her lips are dark pink, slightly swollen from kissing, and you feel yourself stir again, helpless not to.
"Really. Because, well, you see, there's the importance of my work, and there's also the fact that you are there, at the office, that was no small part of my calculations--"
Feferi laughs, a gurgling totally unselfconscious laugh that lights the insides of your bones, and slips her hand down to cup you. "Why, Dr. Zahhak."
"I know," you say, "it's unprofessional," and then her fingers move and you can't say anything at all.