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Big Enough to Hold Your Love

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“Thief, leave at once.”

John freezes where he is, and then turns a slow circle, and stares up at the ceiling for good measure, but no, his initial assessment was right, no one is here. Maybe he should have expected disembodied voices in a house that appeared from nowhere on the mountain near his home, though. “Uh, hi? This doesn't have to get violent or anything, I promise. Just need some of the nice things for the road, I'm sure you understand.”

“I do not understand. Leave me at once.”

Me? John looks around again, but there's still no one. “House, this really doesn't have to get violent,” he tries. “Like I said, I'm not staying. Just need a little something to get by.” No response. “House?”

“Nothing here belongs to you.”

“Yet. You've got to have some faith in me, house.” He finds a drawer that seems to be full of silver coins, which will do very nicely. Not as flashy as gold, a little less likely to draw attention as he goes from place to place.

“Those aren't yours.”

“I keep telling you, that is changing.”

There are a few moments of silence, and then the house spirit, or whatever it is, speaks again. The voice is a woman's, metallic and flat, but there's a hint of something he would call smugness when she speaks. “She's coming.”

“Who is?” he asks, just in time for all the candles to blow out and all the windows to shutter over, leaving him in the dark, darker than anywhere he's ever been before. He can still feel the coins, and closes his fist around a few, wondering if he can find his way through the halls to get out.

No doors open or shut, no windows creak, but there's a rustle, and then there's cold metal at his throat and someone's breathing on his shoulder. “You're in my home, and you're going to tell me why,” says a strange, sharp voice.

John doesn't try anything stupid, like moving or breathing too deeply, because whoever this is, she's deadly. “Because I needed something. To get away. But doing that takes money, and I don't have any.”

“So you thought you'd take mine?” The metal presses closer in, sharp-edged. Probably a knife, but a knife is as deadly as a sword, this close up. John really does not want to die today. “What are you running from, then, that means you can take what isn't yours?”

“You're standing in the dark, in a house that just appeared out of nowhere overnight. What are you running from?”

Breathing in the dark. “Get out.”

He really should. There's some kind of magic here, and from the size of it, it's probably divine. He shouldn't get mixed up in the affairs of a goddess, no matter what kind of goddess she is. But she's got a house that moves on its own, the kind of magic that could keep him interested forever. She's got a route out. “What if we went together?” he asks, and can't quite believe that he's daring to say it.

“What?” Clearly she can't believe it either, but she isn't stabbing him, and maybe later he'll wonder why she's threatening him with a very human weapon instead of just smiting him, but for now, it's enough of a threat to keep him wary.

“What if I stayed? We can run away together. We don't have to be alone.”

Her breath catches in the dark.

*

“There will have to be rules,” she says sometime later.

It's still pitch dark, and his eyes aren't adjusting, so that's probably part of the magic too. The house spirit, who the goddess calls Lucy, has asked three times if she's sure that the thief shouldn't just be thrown from the top of the nearest mountain, but she seems to have given up, and John is sitting on the edge of what feels like a bed, after being led through some hallways. “Rules, okay. I can handle rules.”

“Since you tried to steal from a goddess, that seems like it must be a lie,” says the house spirit.

“Enough, Lucy,” says the goddess, and sounds kind of fond about it. It's a good sign if she's fond of her house spirit. Some goddesses wouldn't be, so she's probably one of the nice ones. “First, you're never going to see me. If I'm here, it's going to be dark like this, and I don't want you trying to look.”

That draws him up short. “Weird, but okay. Mostly. I'm going to get really bored if I have to sit around in the dark all the time.”

“I won't be here all the time. I have duties. And I know enough not to enter a room you're already in, especially with Lucy's help, so I'll warn you before I make it dark.” She clears her throat. “Don't ask me too many questions. I won't answer them. If you leave temporarily, tell me or Lucy, so I'll know not to move without you. If you leave without telling us, I'll assume you've just gone.”

“Counterpoint: Lucy does not like me very much and will definitely tell you that I didn't check in with her so you leave me cold and alone on a mountainside somewhere.”

She laughs a little, but it's not a very happy laugh. “No, she won't. Will you, Lucy?”

“Not if you tell me not to.”

That doesn't seem very enthusiastic, but John will take it for now, and he tosses in a question before the owner of the house can start in on more rules. “So, uh, what do I call you? I'm assuming I don't get a name.”

“Oh.” She sounds surprised, and all of a sudden very young.

“Your Majesty, maybe? You're more than a queen, if you're a goddess, but I don't know the proper address for a goddess because people don't actually meet goddesses that often.”

She makes some kind of complicated unhappy noise. “No, a queen won't do.”

“Princess? Duchess? I can keep going down the ranks, but stop me before I get to scullery maid, because I don't know the proper form of address for that either.”

To his surprise, and maybe even hers, she laughs for real. “You don't need to keep going. Duchess will do. You can—yes, Duchess. Not even Your Grace.”

“Okay. Duchess. I can handle that. Any other rules for me? I get that I'm kind of crashing here, so if you want me to cook or whatever, I will do my very best. I'm good at fixing things that are broken.”

“Well, then—what's your name?”

“John Jaqobis.”

“John. Stay and fix things that are broken. I wish you luck with it.” There's the press of a hand against his shoulder. “And have a look out the window, won't you?”

Before he can come up with an answer to that, mostly to tell her that he has no idea where the window is, the light is rushing into the room and she's gone, no sign of her at all. He stands up and looks around the room. A bedroom, probably hers, and that's a weird, intimate feeling, looking at her slightly rumpled bedding and a set of what looks like matching jewelry and knives laid out on a low table, so he ignores it and goes over to the window like she said to.

At home, he would be seeing the mountains, a gray day, with cold wind whipping through, his village in the distance. Outside the window is a flat, grassy plain dotted with flowers and no one else in sight. “Holy shit,” he whispers.

“Just try running now,” Lucy says smugly, but it's the last thing on his mind.

*

“John, it's Duchess.”

“Yeah, I kind of got that when the lights went out.” He puts down the improvised tool he was using to make one of the walls less rough and likely to scrape his palms the next time the lights go out unexpectedly and he needs to use them to guide himself. “You couldn't have told me that before you made it dark, maybe from the other side of the door?”

“Oh. I'm sorry.”

He's only been in her house for a week, but he's starting to get used to complete darkness, and starting to be able to find his way around despite it. He's not quite used to Duchess, who shows up and leaves with no pattern that he can discern. He's also not used to the fact that as far as he can tell, there's only one bed in the place, and while he's never awake for sharing the bed with her, he suspects he's not sleeping alone the whole time he's asleep.

He hasn't had the courage to ask Lucy yet, mostly because he's trying to charm her now that he's sticking around and asking if he's sharing a bed with her goddess is not going to endear him to her, probably.

“Don't be sorry,” he says when she doesn't continue. “Just maybe check if I'm doing projects before it gets dark. Can I do anything for you?”

They've talked some, since he arrived. Well, mostly he's talked. She asked him about home, and when that stung too much for him to give real answers, she asked about mortality in general, and then about his interest in magic, and then hours had passed in the dark, him sitting cross-legged on a rug and her on the same level from the sound of her voice asking him questions, and then somehow the conversation keeps going, whenever she comes back. This time, though, she's being weird.

“There's a friend coming to visit soon,” she says, and he blinks. “I wanted to warn you. You won't see him either.”

John stands up. “Oh, hey, you don't need to worry about it! I'll go outside, get some fresh air, you spend time with your friend without your, uh ...” He doesn't quite have a word for his role in Duchess's household, especially since Lucy insists on calling him “thief” still. “Your mortal,” he finally settles on. “Out of curiosity, is your guest a god or an acolyte? I want to know exactly how far I should be getting away.”

“You don't need to leave your home. I wanted to do you the courtesy of telling you, though.” She pauses. “He's a god, though. But you're under my protection and dominion, so you don't need to worry about anything.”

Home. That's sure a word he wouldn't have dared throw out there until he was old and gray and she presumably would still look the same, and he's pretty sure Lucy, as the relevant home, might have some objections even if she's not voicing them right now. “I know I kind of wished myself on you, so you really do not have to introduce me to your friends, Duchess.”

“I won't ask you to leave. He and I will stay clear of you, though with your permission I will introduce you to him. It can't hurt you to have allies.”

“Why would I need more divine allies?” John asks, a little alarmed.

Duchess hums, thinking. “You might not. But then again, you might. I would feel more comfortable if my allies, anyway, knew that you're under my protection.”

It's a little embarrassing being a grown man being told that he's being protected by someone, but then again, she's a goddess. In theory, all mortals are being protected or hindered by various gods. His relationship is just a lot more personal than most. “Fine, twist my arm, I'll meet your friend. But I still might head out for a little while so you guys can have real privacy. When's he showing up, by the way? 'Soon' could mean ten minutes or five years, for you godly types.”

“Sooner than five years, I think, and sooner even than the changing of the seasons, but probably not right now. You can go back to doing your project. I just wanted to warn you as soon as he let me know.”

John is torn. If he keeps talking, Duchess will keep responding until he starts yawning or admits to being hungry or until she gets called away to answer a particularly urgent prayer. But it means sitting there in the dark, nothing to do with his hands, no way of continuing to learn about the house and the magic he can learn from it.

“I'll see you later, then?” he finally says. He doesn't want her to get sick of him. The house is already against him.

“Okay.” John has just enough time to wonder if she's disappointed or just sounds that way before she disappears.

*

He wakes up a few mornings later to the sound of conversation outside the bedroom door. One of the voices is Duchess's, more familiar than any other voice but Lucy's, since he doesn't have anything else about her to familiarize himself with. The other one is a man's, and he's in the middle of saying “—truly a priest, or is he a paramour? Everyone is curious. You left after the wedding, and the next time any of us speaks to you, you have this man.”

“He's a friend.” John should really not be listening to this.

“But he's sleeping where a husband would be. One mortal died, so you replaced him?”

“Don't you dare say that either of them can be compared to the other, that either of them can be replaced.” He really, really should not be listening to this, but he also has no way of letting them know he's awake without letting them know he's been listening. “He's helping, Alvis. I don't want to ask too many questions about it.”

Alvis. That's an interesting name to hear. There aren't shrines to him in John's village, but he's prayed to him a time or two. The only question is just who Duchess is, to have the god of pain visiting her home and having this conversation with her.

“I think asking a few questions makes sense, when the last time I saw you, you were grieving. And now?”

“Now he's helping me.”

John rolls over in bed, because there really is only so much he can hear without feeling like a bad friend, since apparently they're friends. That's nice, even if he has no idea how gods and mortals can be friends. “Duchess? It's dark in here. Are you around?”

“My friend is here,” she calls through the door.

“That's great, give me a minute to wake up and I'll clear out.”

“You don't need to,” she says, but she doesn't sound convinced.

Gods apparently have no sense of privacy, because the door creaks open when he's still feeling his way into his clothes by touch, complaining under his breath that she could have let him see in the bedroom, since they were staying on the other side of the door. Apparently they're not, though, or at least Alvis isn't, because it's his voice interrupting John's attempts to get his head through the right hole of his tunic. “You're John Jaqobis, then,” he says.

“That's me,” he agrees, and mostly gives up on the shirt thing, even though he suspects that Alvis can see him just fine. “Just give me a few minutes and I'll leave the two of you alone, promise.”

“This is your home. I won't ask you to leave it.”

“I was telling Duchess out there the same thing, though. I don't want to get in the way, you two talk godly business all you like.” He finally manages to struggle his way into his tunic. “I know she's got things to take care of, friends to see. Nobody wants a boring mortal underfoot while that's all going on.”

In answer, the door creaks shut again. Hopefully with Alvis on the far side of it. John gets dressed as fast as he can and feels his way to the door and through it. “Come back whenever you like,” says Duchess, who was apparently just standing there. “I'll be here, and I won't move the house without you.”

“I know you won't, I'm way too charming.” He tilts his face up, though he doesn't know why he thinks of Lucy as being up when really she is the house from ceiling to floor. “That goes for you too, Lucy. Don't go anywhere without me.”

“I would never do that, thief,” she says with blatant sarcasm, but it's worth it for the way Duchess laughs.

Her shoulder brushes his when he passes her in the hall, and she can see him. She would know to get out of the way if she wanted to.

John really has no idea how to deal with that, so he ignores it instead, and goes out to explore the region where the house is currently settled and poking around the outside of it looking for magic he can examine.

*

“Husband?” he asks that night, when Duchess has climbed into bed and left him in the dark yet again. It's not a smart question, especially when it makes it obvious he was eavesdropping, but he also figures he deserves to know, if he married a goddess without knowing it. And besides, normally she waits until he's asleep to get in bed, so something is clearly different.

She sighs. “I wondered how much you'd heard. He shouldn't have said that.”

“I'm not trying to ask you for anything. I just want to know.”

Rustling in the dark. He can paint a picture of her propped on her elbow, watching him, and wonders how accurate it is. “There are rules, for gods, about what mortals can be to us. Priests and acolytes, of course, those are standard. Lovers, even ceremonial spouses, there are benefits to that and no one objects. You just turned up and stayed, and since you're living in my house and drinking from my cups and sleeping in my bed, it was assumed.”

“Is that why you kept me?” he asks, curious.

“I kept you because I like you. You're something different.”

She sounds a little unsure, and John lets the silence draw out, and thinks about the weeks he's spent in her home now. She's given him a place without complaining, encouraged him to study magic. And he hasn't minded having to stop whenever she's home, because she's just as good as magic and would be even if she weren't a goddess. “I don't have to be if you don't want me to be,” he offers, the closest he dares when he is, after all, just a lowly mortal.

For a few minutes, he thinks she's going to pretend to be asleep, or that he'll be abruptly plunged into the twilit not-quite-total darkness of her home at night with the shutters closed as she disappears. Just as he's about to pretend to fall asleep himself, or maybe tell her that she should ignore everything he just said, there's a flurry of movement and her mouth presses against his with a shock like the first burst of taste from an overripe berry, all richness and the reminder that she's not human. “You'll always be something different,” she whispers, “even if you're my lover as well.”

John thinks he knows her well enough by now to recognize the offer implicit in the words, and he pulls her in to kiss her again.

Everything might be better, if he could see her, but that doesn't really matter so much. He can still hear her, and taste her, and oh, he can feel her forever, and he gasps out the only name he's got for her, cutting it short while he tries to make her feel half of what she's doing for him.

Midway through, she starts laughing. “Dutch,” she says, catching the syllable that he can still manage. “I think I like that.”

John still wakes in the dark in the morning, but he doesn't mind that so much, because it means she's still there.

*

Everything changes, and nothing changes. Dutch—who keeps the nickname and refuses to answer to Duchess—isn't around more than before, since she still has plenty of duties, but whenever he's getting ready to sleep, she'll join him, and when she's around, she's with him more often than not, instead of leaving him to his own devices.

“What would you do, if you could do anything?” she asks a few days in, when they're out in the garden that moves along with them from place to place but disappears when it suits Lucy for it to disappear. It's day, he can feel the sun on his face, and it's a little disconcerting not being able to see, but he doesn't mind too much. Maybe someday she'll trust him enough to show him her face, tell him who she is besides Dutch.

“I'm living in a magic house getting to do research, traveling to all the best places without all the boring walking, and there's you. Life is pretty good.”

“No, it's ...” Dutch sighs and shoves his shoulder. He suspects she's got a sibling, considering how easily she does that, and there's a little pang when he thinks of D'avin, but not enough to ruin a pretty amazing afternoon. “There's a tradition. When we take a mortal lover, we offer them a gift.”

John shrugs. “Like I said. I'm living in your home, which is even starting to like me, and I've got you. What kind of presents do I need?” He thinks about it for a few seconds, picks through the layers of what she isn't saying, and winces. “It's a sorry-I-can't-give-you-ambrosia present, isn't it?”

“Johnny—”

She sounds unsteady, ripped-apart, and he thinks about the mortal before him that made her so cautious. Alvis talked like it was recent, though recent for a god could have been a century ago. He doesn't know of any mortals marrying goddesses recently, anyway. It must be awful, to have to mourn for eternity. If he were her, he'd give up on mortals completely. “Hey, I didn't ask, did I? I didn't ask for anything. I don't need your guilt gifts, or immortality. It has not been long in the mortal scheme of things, let alone the immortal. We can just do this.”

All of a sudden, her hands are on his face, and she's kissing him, and John kisses back, because there's no point in second-guessing a good thing.

*

John wakes up, and he can see. It's not unusual, really, even now that he and Dutch are spending more time together. She's still a goddess, with a goddess's duties, and now that he doesn't have any duties of his own, he tends to sleep late.

But last night, Dutch got back after two full days away dealing with some kind of divine politics that had her upset and on edge both before and after she left, and she was still in bed when he fell asleep, holding on to him like she didn't plan to let go any time soon.

And there's still warmth and weight at his back, which means … he doesn't know what it means. Maybe that she's done hiding. Maybe that she fell asleep and was tired enough that her magic failed.

John should really wake her up and ask. Or close his eyes long enough to stumble his way out of bed.

But he's curious, and at this point he doesn't care who she is, what she's the goddess of. She's Dutch, and she's given him everything. He's not going to turn on her if she isn't the goddess of sunshine and light. And she can be angry, but it's going to have to happen someday. Or at least he really hopes so.

Maybe she'll be angry, or hurt, but he can talk to her, try to convince her that it's okay.

John cranes his neck until he can look over his shoulder and catch a glimpse of her face before he can talk himself out of it.

She is asleep, that's the first thing he notices, hair in a mess all over her face and her pillow. She looks tired, like she really needed the rest. John thinks about the stories everyone tells about gods, that if you meet one face to face that isn't in disguise, you know who they are right away, and apparently it's true where he would have chalked it up as exaggerations, because he has no reason to recognize Yalena Yardeen, second of her name, goddess of assassins and murder, but somehow he does.

His movement wakes her up, because of course she wouldn't let herself rest that deeply, and her eyes fly open, meeting his, and his stomach twists, because there's not even a moment of shock there, just pain and horror. “John, no,” she says in a whisper.

“I don't care,” he says urgently, which maybe isn't the best way to put it, but he's in the middle of turning over, trying to find a way to keep her from fleeing. “I don't care, you could be anyone and I still wouldn't. It can be better this way, right? With me knowing you?”

Dutch is already shaking her head, and John reaches out, but within a second, she's gone like she was never there at all.

*

“She won't come back as long as you're here,” Lucy informs him almost two days later, when John is close to wearing a hole in her floor. They're still in the same place Dutch left them, but she could be anywhere. It's not like he could chase her down the road.

“I know that,” John snaps, and sits down on the bed. It's still rumpled, and he can't stand to sleep in it. “Shit. She really won't, will she? I don't know why not, but if she won't, I should leave. She deserves to be able to come home.”

It's been no time at all, in the grand scheme of things. A few months, maybe, though he's lost track of how long it's been exactly. But Lucy feels like home. Dutch feels like home. The thought of leaving, even if it's the only way of letting Dutch come home again, is horrible. He thought he wanted to travel the world learning about magic, but apparently he was just waiting for this, and it barely lasted because he couldn't keep his damn curiosity in check.

“I don't know why Yalena left,” Lucy says, to his complete shock. “She has been happier with you than she's been since her last mortal died.”

John tries not to wince. The last mortal lover dies young, and John goes against her wishes and spies on her. It's going to be a long time before she takes another. “I think if she were that happy with me she maybe would have trusted me.”

“You're the only one besides Yalena who has lived here. She let you stay even though you're a thief.”

“Yeah, I know, I was a bad idea, you don't know why she was happy when I was around. I don't either. I mean, I'm charming, but not that charming.” He makes himself stand up. Dutch deserves her home back, so he needs to pack his things and get out. “Don't worry, you don't have to tell me how much you'll miss me. I know.”

“I don't know why you're leaving,” Lucy says, and he stops even though she can talk to him just as easily anywhere in the house. “I told you she's happier.”

John sighs and rubs his hand across his face, because he's so tempted. He could stay, and keep hoping that Dutch will come home, and know the whole time that she will as soon as his tiny mortal lifespan is over, and she'll grieve for him, but that doesn't mean she wants to live with him right now. “I told you. Happy doesn't mean she trusted me. Tell her … when she comes back, tell her I'm sorry, okay? And that if she ever wants to track me down, I haven't changed my mind.”

“Then don't give up,” says Lucy, and she sounds frustrated when usually the most he can get out of her is vague annoyance. “This doesn't make sense.”

“I don't know what you want from me, Lucy. She's not comfortable with me, and she can wait forever, whereas I've only got a few measly decades. She can wait me out.”

“Go, then. Thief.”

Ouch. Okay, then. John heads to the bedroom and starts packing up his meager possessions, and wonders if he should be leaving Dutch a note. “I don't know why it matters so much that I know who she is,” he says midway through, not really expecting a response. “So she's the goddess of murder. Better her than someone else, you know? At least she's a good person. Goddess. Whatever. She doesn't exactly seem to relish the job.”

No response. Apparently Lucy is done with him.

“No wonder she tries to have the occasional mortal around. From what I can tell, her family is complicated, and most of the mortals she meets must either be planning someone else's violent end or, you know, dying violently.” And John's as far from all of that as anyone can get, a farm boy with delusions of grandeur and a fast mouth. He must have seemed completely harmless, until he was doing the one thing she'd said from the start he couldn't. That's an unpleasant thought. “And no wonder she and Alvis are friends.”

Still no comment, but John finds himself turning all the thoughts over anyway. He's been wondering, on and off, just what he does for Dutch, besides occasionally make her laugh and these past weeks, please her in bed. She would have been within her rights to kill him the second he tried to steal from her. No one would blame the goddess of murder for sending a thief to the Underworld.

But he said they could both stay there, and she agreed. All she wanted was to not be herself. Or maybe, he thinks, turning it over from a different angle, trying to fit the pieces together, she wanted to be herself, but herself isn't really Yalena Yardeen, goddess of murder and assassins. Maybe she'd just rather be Dutch.

And she left when she thought she didn't have that option anymore.

“Shit. Lucy, we need to go after her,” he says, dropping his half-packed bag. “I know she can find you. Can you find her?”

“I thought you'd never ask, John,” says Lucy, more smug than a house spirit has any right to be, and the world outside the windows blurs and changes.

*

John has seen all sorts of things in the mortal world by now. He's seen mountains, woken up to find himself staring out at an endless expanse of ocean with the house perched on top like the water was solid, walked through a forest of trees so old they blocked out all the sunlight, depending on Dutch's mood, or Lucy's.

The divine realm is something different, though. It's a forest like any forest, at least this part of it is, and Lucy swears that Dutch is nearby, so John goes out into it and feels every hair on his body stand up. There's something in the air that isn't very friendly to mortals, or at least that's meant to make them uncomfortable, and there are strange birds singing in the trees, a song that almost sounds like words.

There's a light through the trees, and he goes towards it. The forest seems to stretch, like it doesn't want to give him what he wants, but he thinks about Dutch and grits his teeth and walks until he reaches a house.

It's a small one, smaller than Lucy, and he knocks on the door and isn't surprised when Alvis Akari opens it, a mild frown on his face. “John Jaqobis,” he says. “You can see me this time.”

“Is Dutch here? If she wants me to go, I'll go, but I want to talk to her.”

Alvis just watches him with his head tilted. John only saw Dutch for a few seconds, but she looked scared and tired and as mortal as he is. Alvis is different, something in his eyes that makes John want to back up a few steps, but he holds his ground. “We're the gods no one really prays to,” he says. “No one prays for pain. No one prays to die at the end of a knife. But we do our best to keep those under our domain company. It's a hard life, but necessary.”

“I'm not here to pray to anyone. And I'm not here for the goddess of murder. I'm here for her, that's it. If she doesn't want to talk to me, I'll ask Lucy to take me back to where I found her and I'll go.”

“It makes it fascinating to see mortals who aren't in pain, who are fully alive,” Alvis continues like John didn't say anything at all. “I avoid the temptation. She usually does as well. In the end, it always ends in pain for us, when a god can't win permission to give their mortal a taste of ambrosia.”

Apparently they've got to have a conversation before he can get to Dutch. “But what, I'm just too big a temptation to resist?”

“Maybe so.” Alvis shrugs. “I know pain. So does she. We know enough to know that sometimes putting it off is all you can ask for.”

“Then why isn't she putting it off?” John asks, frustrated, but he can answer his own question, or thinks he can. It would be worse for her if she thought he was pretending, that things had changed for him just because of what she's the goddess of. “Look, I'm going to hurt her in a few years, but I'm trying really hard not to do it now.”

“I know. She's the one you have to convince,” says Alvis, and steps aside to let him in.

*

Dutch is on the far end of the house, but Alvis doesn't bother escorting him, just points in the right direction and waits. Someday, John could probably like him, but right now he mostly finds him more than a little intimidating.

He's glad not to have a witness to him finding Dutch, though. She's sitting by a window, knees drawn up to her chest, and refusing to look at him, and he may be new to seeing her, but he knows her well enough to guess how nervous and upset she is.

“I'm sorry,” he says. It's as good a place as any to start. “I should have been more patient. Or I should have asked. Or something.”

She glances at him and then away, too fast for him to be able to guess what her reaction to that is. “You don't need to apologize,” she finally says.

“I do, actually, or you would have stuck around. So I'm sorry. But I'm not scared of you, or anything like that, if that's what you're worried about. You're still Dutch.”

Dutch straightens up, but she's still not looking at him. “I'm the goddess a man prays to when he wants his aim to be true killing a king, the one a woman calls on when trying to choose the right poison to put in her husband's drink, patroness of dishonorable tactics and bloody death. If you're not scared of me, you're a fool.”

“Well, that was dramatic.” He sits down, since apparently she's not getting up, and she breaks and looks at him again. It's just another second, but he's counting it as a win. “Thing is, if I was going to pick someone to be the patron of all of those things, I would definitely pick you. You wouldn't want some kind of monster in charge, right? They wouldn't know which prayers should be answered and which shouldn't.”

“You say that now, but this is what I do, Johnny. It's what I am. I'm Yalena Yardeen, second of my name, and I always will be.” She swallows, and this time she looks at him for real.

“I always thought that was unfair, that you don't even get a name of your own, just because of what your family is like. Are you allowed to change it? You have to admit, Dutch, goddess of murder and assassins, has a nice ring to it.”

“Johnny.”

He shrugs, helpless. “I don't know what to tell you. If you want to send me away because I broke the rules, that's fine, do it, I'll go. Lucy will be glad to see the back of me.” Though he's less sure of that than he was just a few days ago. “But if you're trying to get rid of me for my sake, that's bullshit, and also my decision.”

“I couldn't bear it if you regretted it and left me.”

John dares to move a few inches closer to her. “I can't see the future, but right now, I don't care. Like I said, you're a good person, no matter what you're the patron of.”

“I'm not. But you make me want to be.” Dutch reaches out, and he grabs her hand, which is way easier now that he can actually see it. “If you think you can … please stay.”

“As long as you'll have me.” He winces. “More realistically, as long as I live.”

One corner of her mouth twitches up in a smile. “I never did give you a gift, did I? We'll have to talk about what that means.”

He has a sudden stomach-swooping suspicion, but that's a conversation they don't need to have today. He stands up instead. “If you're talking like that, I think probably you've forgiven me. Are you ready to come home?”

Dutch stands up too, and kisses him. It's so much better when he can open his eyes and see her smiling when she lets go. “There was never anything to forgive.”

*

“I knew you could do it, John,” says Lucy when they get back, after excusing themselves to Alvis and walking back across the forest, which felt much more welcoming when John was walking along holding a goddess's hand than it did when he was alone. “Welcome home, Yalena.”

Dutch still looks nervous, whenever she looks at him, and John isn't fooling himself that the coming weeks or years will be easy, let alone centuries if Dutch was serious about her implication earlier. But he smiles, and she smiles back, and that's worth something. Seeing it is worth something. “Call me Dutch, Lucy,” she says. “And it's good to be back.”