As she was walking away from Halcyon, it occurred to Seya that she probably could have gotten some food out of the encounter, but she couldn’t bring herself to go back inside. At the very least she ought to have asked if Aren was still in town. He must know how to get in touch with his mother. Maybe she could go back tomorrow. Or maybe Aren had taken over Dalen’s clinic. He’d just started training to become a healer like his father when she left, so it didn’t seem such a stretch. Though with Winter gone, and the school in Montreides hands, maybe it was.
She paced around the neighborhood, kicking herself mentally—what had she expected, anyway? If the reason Winter was gone had been any less tragic, she might have been a bit relieved to be spared the humiliation of being thrown out of Halcyon for good. And possibly having the guard called on her. But it was too complete a blow, having this last chance and the one inarguably decent father figure she’d ever had both gone. She couldn’t even go to the temple where he’d been laid to rest to make an apology offering, because it was half an ocean away.
She flopped down on a bench to try and think. She couldn’t deal with the grief yet, but there was some powerful guilt kicking up in her for thinking about how thoroughly this had ruined her chances. Could she make it to Thelassa? The problem with that was all the people she knew who could have helped her were either dead or out of the country for the foreseeable future.
Probably if she just thought about it she could find other people she’d known, but none who could give her what she really needed, which was someone willing to overlook her lack of a proper pinnacle and give her a real job. Magic was pretty much all she knew—all she had. There wasn’t enough money in anything else to get all the way to Thelassa, even if she could cross the border without giving herself away to the military, or worse, DeGraffenreid. He was the main reason she hadn’t wanted to rely on anyone but Winter. It had taken months to persuade herself to do it; the last time she’d involved people in her life, it had ended badly. Very, very badly.
It had taken the army six weeks to put out the fire in Keraday.
Just thinking about that made her nervous enough to get up and walk right back out of town immediately, but she was so tired from walking all day, all week, she couldn’t summon the energy. She didn’t know what to do. A stranger loitering around town after dark was an open invitation to get picked up by the guard for suspicious activity, but so was sleeping on a bench in a park, though that was looking more and more like how things were going to play out. She slouched against the back of the bench and put her hands over her eyes. Maybe if she was sobbing hysterically when the guard found her they’d leave her alone.
More likely they’d drag her to one of the temples in town, an idea that sent a shudder of dread through her. It would be fine, she told herself. She’d rest a bit, just a couple hours, or until someone came to bother her. It wasn’t like people could sneak up on her, not with her spiritual sense. She reduced her external shields a bit, just in case, and laid her head on the back of the bench, one arm cradled over her bag out of habit, even though there was nothing worth taking in it. It was a quiet night, thankfully, and the area had a fairly calm resonance. If she looked at the surrounding energy as a meditative exercise, it was almost relaxing. The feel of the concrete under her feet, still warm from the heat of the day and humming with the resonance of the pedestrians who frequented it—things always soaked up a bit of the people who used them. The bench also had a nice feeling, restful, having been rather adopted by the spirits of the trees that shaded it. There were the safety wards lining the edges of the street—the standard ones, which meant this part of town was under city administration rather than a clan. An underground elemental line nearby, earth-seated, the heavy energy quiet in the evening with so few people drawing from it. The light from the streetlamp on the corner gave off a faint warmth at the edge of her interior-shielded sense range. She closed her eyes and let it all wash over her, until it blended into a background hum that was easy enough to tune out.
A couple of hours at most, she thought. Then—what? She still didn’t know. But she wouldn’t think of that. Not yet.
She wasn’t quite asleep when the sound of footsteps intruding on the quiet shocked her awake. A blast of bright blue light arced through the corner of her vision. She dove off the bench so fast she knocked her bag onto the ground, reflexively throwing up a defensive shield and reaching for what energy was available to strike back—but there were only two people in the world who knew her magic well enough to get around her sense when it was open like that. One was DeGraffenreid, who was, according to the newspapers, still wreaking havoc somewhere near Chelsa. The other was standing a few feet away, illuminated briefly by the blue sparks splintering harmlessly across the stretch of asphalt between them. The person she had wanted to see the least upon coming back to Starling, and the most. His fair skin was a little more freckled than she remembered, and he had gotten taller. The fine-boned features that had gotten him mistaken for a girl more than once when they were children had matured into something sharply attractive despite the scar his bastard of a father had given him. He was raking his fingers through his vibrant, unruly red hair—he never could keep them out of it—his pale green eyes bright with emotion.
She was so surprised she lost her concentration on the shield. “That’s a good way to get killed, Vico!” she said, tensing as he advanced on her. His emotions ran a gamut—anger, disbelief, bewilderment, grief—anger—before he remembered to rein them back for her, an old reflex that surprised both of them. A smile stole slowly across his lips as he settled on happy relief.
“I knew you couldn’t be dead,” he said.
She moved back a pace at his swift advance, backing into the bench and reaching from long habit for her lost shield. Vico had been her best friend and only reliable ally since they were seven years old, but she also knew better than most how a decade could change a person. Plus things had been a little strained between them right before everything happened, on account of his blossoming relationship with Jayen.
Vico ignored her hesitation and threw his arms around her in a crushing hug. With the physical contact she got a very clear picture of his emotional state, the weight of his feelings even stronger than his arms around her. Normally she avoided letting people get within touching distance of her for just that reason, but this was Vico. Her bond brother. No, former bond brother—she had severed that connection herself, even if it had been like tearing out half her heart to do it. No matter how much time had passed, no matter how much his feelings grated against her raw, exhausted sense, even if he ended up swearing her up and down the whole town, she couldn’t push him away. He was very deliberately putting his more positive feelings at the forefront for her, and that consideration amazed her into speechlessness. She threw her arms around him, burying her face against his shoulder. Like that first moment at Halcyon, she felt, just a bit, like she had come home, the same wrenching, bittersweet feeling.
“I didn’t quite believe it when Micah said he’d seen you,” he said, and his voice was tight enough to break. He released her and held her out at arm’s length, looking her up and down, reaching out experimentally with his sense as if he was trying to connect to some faint, frayed thread of their old bond, but after all this time it was well and truly gone. She felt his pang of regret for that, and more than just a pang of anger. Seya crossed her arms and looked away. She knew she deserved nothing of the careless, cheerful smile he pasted on like a mask, nothing of the care with which he tucked his more negative feelings away from her. He flopped down on the bench like a great, oversized cat and grinned up at her. “You look like hell, Seya.” He patted the bench next to him.
She swallowed the lump in her throat and dug for her voice. “Too bad I can’t say the same,” she said as she sat. His right hand rested on his knee, and she could see his pinnacle mark. Malthusius.
He saw her looking and shrugged, with a smile that savored strongly of bitterness. “I know, right? But there weren’t a lot of options with a war on. You can’t really tell now, but the town was pretty torn up by the time it all settled down here.”
“I wasn’t judging,” she said. She have the right, not after everything. Didn’t have to like it, though. “Does that mean you and Jayen are still…”
His smile twisted into a grimace. “Not as such.”
“I’m sorry.” She tried to sound like she meant it.
He shrugged again, rolling his eyes expressively. “Ah, you know Jayen. He hasn’t changed much.”
“Color me shocked,” she said.
“I guess you went by the school.”
“Yeah. Heard about Winter and Dalen.”
“Damn shame about that, you know?” He broke off, eyes glittering with tears. “Not too many people like them around.”
“Yeah.” Between Dalen and Vico, she felt like the worst person alive.
“Corin went a little off after she left. Got him in the pride, I think. He tried to hassle the new schoolmaster into selling him the property after she left but that didn’t work. He won’t fight any duels that are offered to him, plus he still has connections to Montreides. Apparently Winter went back home to recruit him after Dalen took ill, trained him to inherit the school.”
“Winter actually went home?” As far as Seya remembered, she had refused all form of communication with the Montreides after she left them, and they hadn’t exactly been beating down her door over it.
“It was the talk of the town. He’s the illegitimate son of Montreides’ current bondmaster.”
“He seems…nice. I guess.”
“Oh, you met him?”
“He’s a decent sort. I haven’t actually met him, but I live nearby, so I see him walking around the neighborhood on his errands sometimes. Way more like Dalen than Winter, from what I’ve heard. People like him. Not too bad on the eyes, either.”
“Hmm,” she returned, noncommittally—it had been too dark to really see him well, but she did remember his kind, dark eyes, and the genuine concern in his aura.
“So…you’re back,” said Vico.
“What? Oh, well yeah, for the moment. I came back to see Winter about—” She hesitated as a sharp ache lanced through her left arm, up from her gloved hand. “—some stuff.” Smooth, she thought with a grimace. Vico wasn’t an idiot. She let her left hand slip down out of his line of sight. The glove covered most of the scarring, but hiding it was a strongly ingrained habit.
“Oh,” he said, looking away. He had composed himself and his shields while they spoke, enough that she couldn’t read his tone or his aura anymore. “Where are you staying?” he asked.
“Well, this bench seems comfortable enough,” she said. “And, you know. Cheap.”
“Come on, Seya, that’s not safe. There’s been a lot of shit going on around here lately. You can stay with me.”
“I don’t want to impose,” she said.
“Impose! What the hell is that?!”
“It’s been a long time, Vico. Things are different now. I don’t want to cause problems—”
She had to stop because he reached over and smacked her lightly upside the head, exactly the way he had always done when they were teenagers and she had said something particularly stupid. “How long did I live with you after my father nearly killed me the first time? Impose.” He scoffed. “Get off your ass, you’re coming with me! And you’re taking a bath first, because you are not sleeping on my couch looking like some kind of gods damned derelict!”
It was hard to argue with that logic. And she had to admit she really did want that bath. The offer of his couch was so much more than she had hoped for the end of this terrible day that she was hard pressed not to break down in front of him. She managed it, though. Barely. “Okay,” she said, her voice flat and hoarse with the effort.
She leaned down to pick up her bag with hands still shaking from adrenaline and the fact that she hadn’t eaten anything since morning. Vico immediately took it away and threw it over his own shoulder—a safeguard against her changing her mind, she realized. It was kind of touching, and exactly the kind of subtly manipulative thing he would do.
He put his arm over her shoulder and half-dragged her along. His weight felt warm and familiar despite the niggling sensation of all the feelings he was suppressing on her behalf. She had missed that anchoring presence so much. Of course without the bond he couldn’t be her anchor anymore, but she had gone so long without so much as a friendly touch that she could not resent the discomfort. Ten years, she thought. Ten years worth of him that she had missed. She refrained from prying too deeply into his feelings, or asking the awkward but necessary questions—like whether or not he was going to tell Corin she was back, and how he had managed to become Malthusius bonded in the first place, when Corin had hated his Sancerre blood like poison. And why he wasn’t unloading on her the way she’d expected. And what else he was upset about, because she could tell it wasn’t just her. His aura was a tangled mess underneath all that outward composure.
She looked up at him—it was strange that she had to look up at him, the last time she’d seen him they’d been about the same height. “How’d you get so stupidly tall?” she asked, leaning into him against her better judgement.
He laughed. “Late bloomer. Jealous?”
“No, it’s just weird.”
“Meanwhile you’re still the same damn twig of a thing,” he said, but after a moment the flash of humor faded out, replaced by concern. He looked down at her, and the question was there. Without their bond to filter everything through, he couldn’t quite keep things away, not when they were this close, so he had to know she could feel the weight of it between them. He didn’t ask, at least not out loud, and she didn’t answer, just let him pull her along as she clutched at her shields with all the control she could muster.
Vico refused to let go of her until they got to his place, as if afraid she would evaporate if he so much as looked away too long. Probably not an unreasonable fear, if she were to be honest. In between the relief and exhaustion was a growing anxiety that this was a mistake, that she shouldn’t involve him, that he would be better off if she stopped this now, before she hurt him again.
His place proved to be a cramped one bedroom apartment in an older complex belonging to the Malthusius, on the third floor, overlooking the street below and an even older residential area across the way, a heavily Malthusius-affiliated spot. She could tell by the lines, heavy with the earth and fire seated magic of the Malthusius bond. Vico waved at the spare, modest interior as he ushered her in. “I’d give you a tour, but this is pretty much it,” he said dryly. “Bath is through here.” He pushed her through the bedroom and into the bathroom. “You can drop your clothes outside the door there, I’ll put them in the wash for you. And the rest of this,” he added, and she winced at his expression as he studied the contents of her bag—all clothes, all travel-dusty, stained, patched—it had been a hard few months. She made a vague sound of acquiescence and shut the door behind her, but it was only after he left the bedroom that she locked the door and began to strip. She didn’t want him to bang in unexpectedly and see something that would complicate things. Like the network of scars on her left hand. She hadn’t taken the glove off for more than the few minutes it took to renew the wards since Keraday. Taking it off now, she avoided looking at them herself, tossing the glove into the sink and starting a shower. She scrubbed under the hottest water she could stand, then ran herself a tub full and sank into it with a moan of pure pleasure. Gods, but she had missed proper baths.
She was practically asleep in the water when Vico came tapping at the door. “You’re hungry,” he said.
Not a question. Seya winced again; she had never been able to break the habit of projecting whenever she let her guard down even a little. “I haven’t eaten anything since this morning,” she said, a little ashamed at how needy she sounded.
There was a frisson of distress from him at this revelation. Tears sprang into her eyes. “I’ll make you something,” he said.
“Thank you,” she said, around the tightness in her throat. She hoped he wouldn’t notice, but it was Vico. Of course he noticed.
“Sure,” he said, softly. “Anything, love.”
The tears spilled over at being called that again after so long. “Thank you,” she said, her voice barely audible to herself. “I’m sorry,” she added, even more quietly, but he did not hear that because she had waited until he was gone to say it.
Before she left, she’d have to find some way to say it to his face.