The inn at Crossed Roads wasn't home, but when Sylvie returned to it after a few days' jaunt to explore, it felt closer to one than most places she had been to.
Nico seemed to be at home everywhere and with everyone. Over the weeks preceding their expedition she had snuck under the walls Sylvie had built around herself by simply acting like them becoming friends was natural. The casual touches—a hand to the elbow to get attention, a pat on the shoulder—had shown Sylvie how she had distanced herself from people, simply because these things had become so unusual to her.
The few days of trekking through wilderness meanwhile had shown Sylvie that she wasn't used any more to carrying her whole gear on her back. She would take care of that as soon as she put the pack down in her room.
Hellos and welcomes slowed that down a bit, but thanks to Nico promising a full report later they made it through.
"Not a very informative trip, but thanks for coming," Sylvie said on the doorstep.
"At least it was entertaining. Would you like a shoulder-rub?"
Startled by the sudden change of topic without a change of tone, Sylvie stopped rubbing the back of her neck and couldn't think of the proper answer.
"You would not be imposing. If you'd like to be talked into it, just nod." Nico kept prattling on, grinning, right over Sylvie’s stifled laughter, “And I’m good at it, or so I’m told, and doing something you’re good at tends to be fun, and doing something that makes a friend feel good tends to do the same—”
“All right, I’m convinced.”
They shed packs, shoes, and jackets and ended up sitting on the bed, near the edge. Sylvie folded her hands loosely in her lap and tried to relax. She could feel Nico’s knee lightly touching her thigh, warmth seeping through the cloth. Warmer still were Nico’s hands, gently kneading the tension out from between Sylvie’s shoulders.
But in turn her chest seized up. Sylvie took deep, even breaths, trying to smooth away that attack of nerves. She didn’t want to cry, even less than usual when she couldn’t even explain why.
“Hey,” Nico said gently, concern shimmering through her tone, “this exercise is meant to relax you. Am I doing something wrong?” Her hands rested lightly on Sylvie’s shoulders.
“No. I don’t know.” After an unsteady breath, Sylvie noticed that she was leaning into Nico’s touch, and said the first thing that came to mind. “Could you just hold me for a bit?”
“Sure. Let me just…” Without loosing touch of Sylvie, Nico scooted back against the wall and stuffed the cushion in the small of her back.
Sylvie followed her slight pull and leaned against the smaller woman’s chest.
“Comfy?” Nico put an arm around Sylvie’s back.
Sylvie shifted a little, nestling her face against Nico’s neck. “Mhm. You?”
“Me, too.” She stroked Sylvie’s back lightly.
“You have nothing to be sorry about.” Nico almost whispered. “You can have as much of my time as you want.”
Sylvie relaxed. She listened to Nico’s heartbeat, and moved with her breath. Soon she was breathing in when Nico breathed out. The rhythm of the strokes on her back fit in there somewhere. When she cried, it was not painful, just her eyes flowing over with warm tears. Breath, heartbeat, thoughts, everything slowed.
Feeling warm and protected and accepted, Sylvie drifted into sleep.
Nico had the vague impression that the impact crater was too small for the body that had caused it. She also had the distinct impression that the molten mass at the bottom, deep iridescent green like beetle wings, was not a meteorite, particularly when it started moving.
It flowed together and rose, like a slime mold attempting to take on a humanoid form.
A psychic message flooded Nico's mind, which put it in words as "Fear not!"
After a moment's pause, she answered, "If you're going to tell me I'm pregnant, there will be trouble."
Some thoughts want to circle in your mind endlessly, stealing time, blurring focus. Doubts and worries are fond of that. They crave attention. They need some of it, rightfully, too, but take as much as they can get.
I've found that some rituals help. I guess it's how confessionals help those that belong to a church that practices it.
I don't, so I had to try and come up with my own way to take those thoughts out of my head so I could have a good look at them, giving them what they wanted, with the effect that I needed.
That's why I spent more time than some people liked carving the names of friends on little wood plackets, and "be safe" on the reverse, and burned them. Carving takes more time than writing. Fingers and eyes work, the mind remembers the person. My worries for my absent friends go up in smoke and crumble to ashes.
Today's problem is harder. The people I killed yesterday... I don't know their names. I hardly know their faces. What I have to focus on to anchor them outside my head is their deaths, my blade cutting their flesh, their blood covering my hands.
There is still the impulse to fight guilt with justifications and apologies, when what is needed is one undiluted prayer: Rest in peace.
Light played on the iridescent feathers of the Kingfisher mask. The huge, dark glass eyes looked strange. An enticing danger, a challenge. Or mockery?
Nico shook her head and looked around her room. It was small, the mask was bulky, and she was foolish for not re-selling it. Though she wasn't so short on either cash or space she couldn't afford a bit of sentimentality. That was all there was to it. Right?
There were people in town she could consult to find out if the mask was enchanted or haunted. But quite apart from the cost, she didn't want to. She was quite sure the feeling of being someone slightly different when wearing it was all in her head. It was the same in other situations where she had to, or wanted to, pretend.
And if she was wrong? Well, it would be rude poking into the mind of anything with a personality, particularly if you liked him. It. Whatever.
That was a better reason than, I like the little thrill of this doubt.
Nico ambled away from the main hubbub of the party, and found Daaren on the veranda, apparently watching the gardens. She propped herself up next to him, and asked conversationally, "So, why'd you leave?"
The view from the shoulder of the Tellanot - that's a mountain, in case you didn't know - is amazing. If you inch right to the edge of the cliff, and lean forward, You get a feeling almost like falling up into the sky.
I guess I was caught up in admiring it a bit too much, for the next thing that happened was that I fell down past the ground; the edge had crumbled. I twisted and tried to grab the new edge, and Daaren successfully grabbed my wrist, and well, the usual you'd expect happened. With me down the cliffside and him flat on the path, he said, "Don't look down."
I looked him in the face while trying to find some purchase with my other hand, and feet, and asked, "Sure, but tell me why."
He didn't answer until we were lying both on sound rock, panting, myself more than him. Sound rock has benefits, too.
Then he answered, "I thought you might get stupid ideas. Like jumping."
Made me laugh until I couldn't breathe at all anymore. Right to the point, that's him.