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Hundreds of Words

Chapter Text

Unreality

 

She's afraid, the first dozen nights or so, to sleep.

Because it might be a dream; the moonbeams slanting through the loft window, the smell of Coll's pipe and the crackle of the woodfire in the room below, the quiet murmur of male voices that don't make her skin crawl. It might all vanish like mist in the morning, and she'll wake up in her cold chamber in Spiral Castle, with its stark opulence and bolted door.

It is, finally, Taran's voice, shouting from below, to shut UP and go to sleep already that silences the fears, and she does.

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Magic tastes sharp and metallic in her mouth. Saying the words is like licking a knife blade. She's never liked it, not even when it does useful things like opening locks. In Spiral Castle there was never anything pleasant behind locked doors, anyway.

But nothing's locked in Caer Dallben, except that always-shut Book. She's been shown silvery scarlines on fingers, but she stares at it, there on the table, until one day Dallben's hawkish gaze intercepts her and in one glance she knows he knows.

"No." She can hear the smile behind his whiskers. "You can't open it with magic."

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One of the kids is a stillbirth.

It just happens sometimes, Coll tells her gently; while she sniffles over the damp, tiny thing, with its button eyes and thimble of a muzzle and wee hooves that will never press the earth; and Taran tries to remark that it's just a goat and only the traitorous roughness of his voice keeps her from shoving him through the rail fence. And Coll is serene, quiet and practical, but when he turns away with its baby-frailty cradled in his coarse hands, a single drop falls from his eye, spotting the dust at her feet.

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The sharp iron bounces harmlessly from the butt-end of a log for the fifth time, and she growls in frustration. Three years on a farm and proficiency at this task still eludes her. At his derisive snort she straightens, stiff, and glares in his direction. She hadn't known he was there.

"You're going to chop your own foot off," he predicts, and she glowers at him, shifting the maul in her hands as though considering alternative uses for it.

"I'm not the one who went out fishing this morning without checking to see if there was enough firewood for the day," she hisses at him petulantly, "so maybe certain people should keep their advice to themselves, or else try to be useful for once."

He flushes, grins sheepish, and is at her side in a few long strides. "Here, give me that."

"No." She pushes away his outstretched hand, irritated with him for never taking her anger seriously; with herself, for how his smile disarms her. "Don't do it for me. Just show me how to do it right."

"Fine." He demonstrates. "Stand with your feet apart more. Now, spread your hands further out on the handle. When you swing, let the weight do the work, not your arms."

She is all awkward limbs and unfamiliar movement; metal bites mere splinters into the log. She filters an angry screech through her teeth.

"No, no, no." He's not quite successful at biting back laughter, but before she can blast him with the brunt of her outrage he's stepped around her, gripped the maul handle from behind. She's pinned in the space between his arms, her back firm against his chest and Llyr, when did he get that much taller than she? "Look, like this," and he covers her hands with his, shakes them loose of their abruptly convulsive grip on the handle, and slides them into the proper position.

"Now," he orders, into her ear, "keep your eye on where you want to strike, and swing it this way." His arms bend and straighten and his body sways like a sapling, taking her along with him; iron cuts through air; wood slides through hands; a rippling crack; stillness. She barely sees the log fall away in two halves. She's too busy remembering to breathe.

It's difficult, because he hasn't yet let go.

"Think you can do it now?" There's a note of teasing in his voice, but if she turns her head to see his expression…she mutters "yes", thickly, though it's a lie because she has no idea what just happened.

"Are you sure?" His breath tickles her ear. "I can show you again."

She throws him off, shoves the maul into his hands, and ignores how cold her back feels without him. "No. You can finish."

His eyes laugh green as he protests, "I thought you wanted to-"

"Never mind." She turns; storms back to the cottage.

Because he'd never let her forget it if he saw her smiling.

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Sometimes she stares at its perfect spherical mass and wonders why it's gold. Gold, when it should have been sensibly wrought of pearl, or abalone, or even moonlight-silver as everything else had been inside Caer Colur, cool and shimmery and iridescent like the sea.

But no – inexplicably, it is gold; its light blazes summer-warm like her flaming hair and that couldn't have come from Llyr at first either, not Llyr with his dark-headed Selkie daughters and black swans. And always, the not-knowing twists inside her, craving both the cold sea-darkness and the sun-gold light, and belonging to both and neither.

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For a moment, it's as though he's said something in a foreign language.

Because the words I cannot come with you are too utterly unthinkable for her to entertain the notion that he could mean them. So her first instinct is to laugh; but he won't meet her eyes, and the laugh dies before it is born and she blazes straight past fury to panic.

The words keep coming, and she wishes he'd stop because now they're all too clear; gentle words and noble and as merciless as armor-piercing arrows, every one of them straight to her heart, where there'd been no armor to begin with. She's dying inside, slain slowly by words, and the worst of it is they're all true, and so very, very him, and she can't even wish he'd chosen differently.

Because the irony is, had he done so, she could not love him so much.

 

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They stopped him mid-boast, as arresting as any broken string.

The piercing clarity of Taliesin's eyes was already unnerving, even when they were in Taliesin's face where they belonged. Seeing them shining from the face of his son was enough startle anyone used to seeing them elsewhere. They were so much older than the rest of the lad.

Their intensity unsettled him less than his sense of their keen perception. There was mirth, not reproach in their frank light; yet he felt, under that grey gaze, that if all men had such eyes, his harp strings would be safe forever.

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"I am charged to deliver this into the king's hand."

The courier is weary, having ridden hard for days, but even in his fatigue he can sense the tension in the air. Men cluster in the courtyard; snatches of their conversation prick at his ears.

"An ill mood…"

"Ever since that emissary…where was he from?"

"All in black…"

"Hasn't slept…"

He is led to the council table, where the mood does nothing to quell disquiet as grim-faced advisers trade covert glances while their golden-headed monarch paces the floor. Parchments delivered, their deliverer awaits an answer.

Pryderi snorts at the sunburst crest on the seal, and his handsome face settles in hard lines as he reads. But suddenly he draws his sword from the scabbard and binds it naked to his side, raising eyes as grey and cold as the blade.

"Tell them I will come."

It is, somehow, not comforting.

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The cold and the sound; both creep upon her black unconsciousness so stealthily that she'll never know which wakes her; so simultaneous they seem linked, connected…except the sound is mellow, golden like drops of sunlight, a thing that could have no relation to the icy teeth gnawing at her bones. No, they are adversaries; the sound presses onward and the cold quails before it and she realizes it is music; a melody that curls around her like a quilt until her numb extremities tingle. Her eyes open and blink confused at a dancing red-gold flicker, interrupted by vague shadowy forms.

She has a moment's impression that the light moves in rhythmic synchronicity with the music and that both are birthed from the same place. Wood, broken, splintered and consumed, glows in the heart of fire like the chunks of an earth-fallen star. The music swells and entwines, seeping into her mind because it is familiar, too, somehow, and knows all the right passageways, unlocking and wandering through doors she'd shut and forgotten.

The muffled murmur in the background separates itself into voices she knows. Doli's, gruff and somehow reverent; Taran's, startlingly close, almost in her own head, which she becomes suddenly aware is cradled against his chest. And Fflewddur's voice, a voice she associates with joy and warmth and laughter, yet now it holds a note that rends her heart; she finds his face in the light and sees his hands stretched achingly empty toward the fire's inexorable song.

With a wordless cry she starts up, only to fall back, stiff and weak with cold. Taran catches her arms and pulls her into the warmth of his shared cloak, but it is Fflewddur who locks her gaze in a look of shared, pained understanding, and in the fire reflected in his clear eyes she sees a spell book burning, a part of herself consumed in the relentless flame of sacrifice.

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He had never seen her without it until they were wed.

It was an ever-present detail; always there, shimmering and beckoning underneath the hollow between her collarbones, and though in recent years his gaze had lingered over it and its surroundings appreciatively, its permanence was so fixed in his mind that the first time she took it off, he could hardly have been more startled had she removed her own hair.

It was the last thing she discarded at night, a ritual he learned not to interrupt after spending a painful and anticlimactic half-hour having the long silver chain disentangled from his hair. It knocked repeatedly against his forehead and cheekbones and he had the odd, singular sensation that it was actually laughing at him; that smooth silver-curved goddess-smile grinning tolerant amusement at all his ridiculous angular maleness. When he said as much she laughed too, the gleaming crescent of her teeth mirroring its shape, kissed his petulant chin, and did not contradict him.

Later, he watched it dangling from its nail on the beam, winking its twice-reflected light at him, and wondered if it was one of those baffling mysteries Dallben had mentioned…and how on earth Dallben would know.

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It has never occurred to him to wonder about Dallben's past before – probably, he realizes shamefully, because he's always been too selfishly wondering about his own.

But now, with the astonishing claims of three baffling crones tickling his mind, he can't help casting covert glances at the countenance of the old man lit flickering by firelight across the room. Trying to find any remnant of a dimpled, rosy child somewhere within the withered features and mist of grey whiskers, some clue that the cantankerous old enchanter had once known the youth and foolishness he was so impatient to train out of him.

It's impossible, ludicrous, almost makes him laugh out loud.

He might as well try to reach up bare-handed to touch a star as span the insurmountable distance between himself and this incomprehensible man. But something in the tremor of the careworn hands, in the glitter in the half-lidded watery eyes and weary slope of frail shoulders, turns mirth suddenly aside.

He wonders if Dallben even recalls the years before a magic potion laid the weight of knowledge so heavy upon him, and if his impatience for frivolous talk exists because he cannot remember what it is to think thoughts that are not grand and deep.

Had it hurt, to be turned out of the old hags' cottage, the only home he knew, for no fault of his own? Had he wandered long, homeless and kinless, with naught but the cold comfort of that moldering old Book?

Had Dallben ever wondered who he was?

The stars, after all, seem to hang very low sometimes.

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"What do you think he is, really?"

It's a playful question, bandied in a mellow, amber evening when the chores are done and the grass-shadows long. He gambols after the goats, pounces on mice, gnaws on supper's castoff bones, pauses to scratch one ragged ear with a gangly hind foot; they are watching, affectionate, amused, from the front doorstep.

"You know, there are some queer sorts of mixes among the Fair Folk, they say. Things that look like women, only with frog legs. Or bull-headed men."

She pulls a wry face. "What are you suggesting?"

He laughs. "Only that if you're that curious, perhaps next time we see Doli you should ask him if any of the lady-folk fancy…I don't know – wolves? Look at him."

"Ugh." Her nose wrinkles disgust, but her expression softens when the creature capers past in pursuit of a dragonfly. "I refuse to consider…but he has to come from somewhere, doesn't he? How can he be the only one?"

A snort. "He can be, if he's a half-breed. Like a mule, only rarer."

She's shelling peas, and throws an empty pod at his face in recompense for his flippancy. "Hush. Here he comes."

He circles thrice before folding his ridiculously long, hair-tangled limbs at their feet and gazes at the two of them adoringly, and only the jointed fingers-and-thumb creeping up to steal peas from her lap, the oddly-tuned music of his speech forming itself into human words keep her from reaching down to scratch his belly.

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He will always feel unworthy of her sacrifice. He confesses as much again, early one morning, while they recline by a window, studying the last star fading into a turquoise dawn.

She listens patiently; cuts him off with gentle firmness. "Taran. I'd have given up an eternity without you for just one day with you. Don't imply you'd not have done the same for me."

Before he can answer she stiffens, her clear eyes piercing his soul like crystal shards. "Though come to think of it, you didn't."

Her palm against his mouth blocks his protest. "I know why. And it doesn't sit well with my pride, you know, coming in second to your sense of duty. You could at least allow me the comfort of believing, had all else been equal, that you would have chosen as I did."

He assures her of it by every method he can think of.

"Then don't ever bring it up again," she commands, after a contented sigh. "If you do, I'll remind you that it's All Your Fault to begin with."

"Forgive me?" he murmurs, into her hair, and feels her cheek swell as she smiles.

"I'm speaking to you, aren't I?"

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It comes, like a thunderbolt, from nowhere.

He's waiting in silence broken only by cricketsong and grass ripping against a horse's teeth, waiting because he's been ordered to do so, not because he understands why. And all in a moment the earth heaves and groans underfoot, and with a deafening roar the seeming-immovable stone walls before him rend themselves like an old garment. A crackle of lightning shatters the clouds and the towers writhe in their death throes, battering the outraged sky.

The horse rears, screaming, straining at her rope, and he nearly releases her, nearly lets her bear him away in mutual terror because the castle is coming down - dear gods, it's actually coming down - but one thought holds him, frozen with horror, every obligation of nobility and decency condemning him in a single appalling realization.

He should never have let that girl go back inside.

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She nestles next to him like the most natural thing in the world, this child with her malnourished face and love-starved eyes, and where did she learn this trick? -this innocent cuddle against his shoulder, making him wish he'd listened to all those admonitions about producing an heir. Was this a taste of it, fatherhood?

Perhaps it isn't too late, after all...she has no family; she needs a home; his castle is small and drafty but it need not be lonely. How might it be, to bring home this ray of sunlight, this blazing temper and silver laugh? She'd shake up his crotchety staff satisfyingly, but would she be happy? He desires her happiness, but saw enough in that castle, heard enough of her history to know it might take more than four walls and a scatterbrained bard-king who's never raised a rosebush, let alone a daughter.

His turn on watch. He lays her gently upon his cloak; she sighs a name and it isn't his, but he smiles. Youth calls to youth, then; and her heart already knows what it wants, even if she doesn't.

He leans over, kisses the top of her golden head. Both greeting and farewell.

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Sometimes she stands alone, in the shining new tower looking westward toward the sea, listening, waiting, trying to sense the gossamer end of the thread that trails back to something beneath the depths and shifting moonlit mysteries, that thread she'd never even realized was there until she'd cut it. And she wonders, a little, about the long succession of queens holding its other end; whether they know why she had to sever it, and whether they've forgiven her for it.

Whether any of them would have done the same.

She can't have been the first to feel pulled halfway between sun and sea. Perhaps her ancestors had learned to harness that tension, playing opposing forces against one another to strengthen both, but nothing in her unnatural education had helped her find balance. Then again, perhaps there was none to be found, and one was simply obligated to live with a pair of dueling inner dragons. In which case, that line of enchantresses whose fevered blood ran in her veins might envy her the freedom of choosing to let it go, to release both fire and water and bind herself to the earth, the land - the thing that needed them both.

So now, even though she no longer hears voices in the pounding surf, no longer sees certain colors in flames, she cannot regret her choice.

It was the only one she'd ever made that was truly hers alone.

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"You should have told her."

He looks up sharply at the tone; accusatory words, but strained, as though they had burst forth against the will of the speaker. He had not even realized that Taran had followed him into the room.

It is unlike the boy to be anything but reverential to a fault in his presence, but it is no trouble guessing the cause of what drives him now. Taran's face is flushed in anger, but his gaze is pained and troubled, torn in many different directions.

Gwydion winces at the sight. At the sound of his own misgivings spoken aloud by this boy, who once thought he could do no wrong. Any such utterance by a warrior or advisor under his command would bring on a swift reprimand for insubordination, but he cannot bring himself to stern speech now. It is all he can do to look Taran in the face.

In the face. He realizes, with a sudden little chill, that the boy is as tall as he is. Taran stands, in this cramped chamber in Dinas Rhydnant, silhouetted against a window; slim, but broad-shouldered, straight as an arrow, his head thrown back in challenge. Their eyes meet on a straight, even line.

Gwydion waits, stoic, for whatever must be said.

Taran swallows hard. "You used her as bait. You knew it was dangerous, and you didn't warn her. You didn't let me warn her. We could have...made her part of the plan, and instead you just let her-" he breaks off, his breath labored.

Gwydion struggles. An insidious whisper in his mind reminds him that it is outrageous to be expected to explain himself to an underling. Better judgment wins; he measures his words carefully. "I did. I said, at the time, that I was not happy. There was nothing else to be done."

Taran looks away abruptly, out the window, his knuckles white against the sill. A muscle twitches in his jaw. "I remember." It's a thick, resentful mutter. "I followed your orders. I watched and waited and stayed at the castle. I did everything I was told and I still-" He cuts himself off before his voice can betray him completely. "She was almost lost."

Lost.

Gwydion stiffens. A wave of grief washes over him, as though it were yesterday; that white-faced messenger bringing news no one wanted.

The rumors are confirmed. The island lies in ruin; only the castle still stands, and it barely. The queen's body was found, unmarked but lifeless, upon the dais in the great hall.

And the princess?

He had asked it in a tone whose implications no one present could possibly have mistaken.

Angharad?

A whisper, reluctant. A traitorous elopement. Disappeared. Not seen to leave the island; presumed dead.

Lost.

Taran is staring at him again with that expression of uncomprehending anguish, the face of one who has discovered that the gods of his childhood are mere men after all. Gwydion has no words, remembering the blind rage at an unknown man; the need to blame, to accuse, to find a reason for his pain. To turn anger into a shield against it.

"You are angry," he acknowledges, finally, "as am I, that anyone dear to you should come to such peril. Especially if it could have been avoided. And perhaps, in this, I erred. Given more time, perhaps I could have found another way." He sighs, feeling suddenly weary, and runs a hand across his face, pulling at his own clenched jaw to loosen it. "It is not given to any one of us to know every possible outcome of our decisions. I did what I must. More lives than Eilonwy's were at stake."

Before the last words are cool in the air, he regrets them, for Taran recoils. "Is that what it means to be a prince? A leader?" The betrayal is as palpable as bile in his voice. "To be willing to sacrifice one for the sake of all? Any bait will do, if it will trap an enchantress who threatens your crown?"

The words sting like a lash and the Prince fights down the anger they threaten to release, but a thread of it runs through his return. "A leader will sacrifice himself before any other. As I would have lain down my life, no less than you, for her. Do not think, had we lost her, that I would not suffer as keenly."

A face burns into his mind's eye; sea-green eyes and an arch expression crowned in red-gold; he shuts his eyes and turns his back toward the boy. This boy who loves the girl who should have been-

But he never allows himself to think that.

The sound of the sea, a distant mournful rumble, drifts in through the window.

Taran stammers, his voice low and cowed. "My lord, I...I'm sorry." Gwydion turns back, gazes at him impassively. "I spoke out of my own grief," the boy continues. "It was insolent of me to question you. Forgive me."

"Nay," the Prince murmurs, "It is I who ask your forgiveness."

The anguished face turns to him, disbelieving.

"You asked if it means this, to be a leader," Gwydion says. "I tell you: sometimes there is no good way. Sometimes all ways are bleak, and you must choose the one that seems least so." He takes a step toward the window, stands beside Taran, looking out. "Whatever the outcome, some - perhaps many -who look to you will be unhappy. And you must bear the weight of their unhappiness, as willingly as you accept their praise and admiration when all is right with their world."

Taran bows his head. "I would not add to your burden."

"We all add to one another's burden," Gwydion answers, "as well as to each other's joys. And that is why we all bear them - or enjoy them - together. Such is the lot not only of a prince and a leader but an assistant pig-keeper as well, if they mean to stay friends."

Taran meets his eyes again, a glimmer of humor touching the corners of his gaze. "It hardly sounds fitting, does it?"

Gwydion smiles. "Then say not a prince and a pig-keeper," he replies, "but one man and another - no more or less."

The boy blinks, and blinks again, and his face flushes dark. His drooping shoulders straighten and he turns to look out again, obviously both pleased and embarrassed, though in his eyes the Prince can still see sadness - the monument to a buried idol.

Taran clears his throat. "Lord Gwydion," he says, and hesitates, before continuing, haltingly, "Do you think a princess would ever wed a...well, someone who isn't a prince? Or even nobly-born at all?" He glances at him anxiously.

Gwydion forces his face into a smile he does not feel, and hopes his voice holds no trace of revelatory bitterness.

"I am told," he admits, "that it is not without precedent in certain families."

 

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"Stop talking half a minute," he says, "and listen."

She does so, not out of any sense of obligatory compliance but because she is out of breath. The air, sucking sharp into her throat and coming out in cloud-shadows against the white brilliance of the ground, is insufficient for both speech and walking, when walking takes so much effort.

So she falls silent, scowling a little at him, but he only smiles, amused, and whispers again, "Listen."

She listens, into a stillness, a velvet breathlessness. As far as sight, the world sleeps under a diamond-flecked shroud. The trees stand silent around them, branches jutting out in bare and brittle grey bones with the sky pouring blue into the shivering cracks between.

"Oh," she breathes, a sigh frosting into her hair. Before her eyes, an airy filigree of ice floats over a low-hanging twig. Higher up, every gnarled wooden finger is strung with crystal beads, each shattering the sunlight into sparks.

A tinkle of faery chimes breaks the silence as another tree, somewhere, shakes off its jewelry. Below them, a cloud of snow, blown from a branch by an errant breeze, drifts like a wraith through the dark firs.

"Oh," she says again, past the lump in her throat.

"If you cry," he warns, "the tears'll freeze on your face."

"I'm not crying," she protests, but she is.

He looks away politely, having learned this much, at least, and says, after a moment, "Why did you make such a fuss about coming out?"

"I've always hated it," she sniffs, swiping at her eyes with the back of a rough woolen mitten. "When everything is freezing and damp, with never enough blankets or stockings or firewood." She sweeps her arm across the expanse of silent, winter-wrapped trees, the smooth flow of dimpled cream beneath. "I've never seen anything like this."

"Not in Spiral Castle, I reckon," he acknowledges. "But didn't you ever go out?"

"Only when Achren made me go into the courtyard with no cloak and stay there until I was shivering and almost blue," she answers, failing to swallow the bitterness in her voice. "She used to punish me that way."

He stares. She pretends not to see the smoldering anger behind his eyes, casting her own down. The white powder underfoot glitters with shards of rainbow fire.

"Then...then you've never actually...you've never just played in it?" His voice is incredulous. She turns to look at him; his nose is a red strawberry over a woolen scarf. His eyelashes, under his fur-lined hood, are frosted white and she wants to laugh but the question makes her too sad.

"I never played anywhere."

He stares again, so long that she's embarrassed. She marches away from him, boots crunching knee-deep through the feathery, blue-shadowed brightness.

She's arrested by the cushioned blow of something thumping between her shoulder blades, something that feels firm but crumbles instantly with a puff and hiss. Startled, indignant, she turns. "Did you just-"

But then her face is slapped full of burning cold softness that turns instantly to wet, freezing froth in her mouth, and she gasps at the shock of it as he brings both mittens to his cheeks in mock remorse. "Oh dear, I didn't think you'd turn around!"

She shrieks and dives, hooking into the snow with both hands, flinging it wildly at him in great fistfuls, missiles too impulsive for accuracy. He dodges them with a whoop, turning to stumble back along the trail they've broken, down the hill toward the cottage, pausing just long enough to pelt her again. It's a mistake; before he can turn back she's plowed into him like a blizzard, sprawling him into a deep bank. He flounders there, bundled-up and clumsy, yelping when she scoops an armful of snow over his face. He roars, scrambling up, shedding white clumps like a bear prematurely awakened from its den. Their laughter curls, dragons' breath, on the icy air.

"I'm hot," she gasps presently, in astonishment.

He chuckles. "Because you're dressed properly. And you're moving. I told you."

She looks down at her layers of wool and grins, throwing back her hood.

"You've got snow in your hair," he observes, with what sounds like admiration, and she feels her cheeks tingle.

"That's your fault."

"I'll teach you to sled next."

She lies back into the drift, staring up, through the white-web embroidery, into the blue. There's a memory, hazy and half-formed; she follows a tall, dark shape and merry laugh; stepping high into deep footprints cut through the cold banks and giggling when strong arms swing her out over the sparkling air. She shuts her eyes, grasping, but it's gone, just like the tiny crystal stars on her sleeve that dissolve into nothing when she looks too close.

"Sometimes," she whispers, "I think I've lived here before."

From the corner of her eye she sees the quizzical angle of his head. "Not here, exactly," she explains, "I...I don't know what I mean. There's something...it's like trying to catch the wind."

"I think I know," he says, after a brief silence. "It's being happy. Being home."

She looks at him then, at that crooked smile and strawberry nose, and then away, because it's too much, still, this happiness; it's a trembling, wavering thing, a candle flame afraid of being blown out before it can grow.

He clears his throat self-consciously at her silence. "I mean...that's how it seems to me. I'm sure it would take longer for you to feel...I mean, I know it's not quite home for you, but I hope it's...that you're..."

She tosses a fistful of snow at him, the flame inside her burning warm. "Stop talking," she whispers, with a grin, "and listen."