Tomorrow, Roe and her companions set off on another journey. Tonight, they are at the Rising Stones: because Roe needed to be, to leave at sunrise with the others. And Thyme simply couldn’t be anywhere else—because she shall not be joining them.
This is not, by now, an unfamiliar feeling for either of them. They have grown used to these goodbyes, and for that matter, they had to quickly from the first—this, with the life they’ve chosen together, is simply how it has to be. And it is never, Thyme has learned, a question of if Roe must leave: it is always when, and how long, and how bad might it be this time, and what will we still have, when all is said and done. Her duty will always wrest them apart, sudden and sharp and sure like a guillotine blade.
And so it is tonight. Roe plans, with the others, to embark unto unknown shores on a journey that promises nothing: save that she may not live to see its end.
It is always bad, because it can never not be. But this time it is different: the shape of it is completely unknown.
And so, it is worse.
Outside, the sleepy streets of Mor Dhona at rest are blanketed by a dreary, thick fog, dyed a flickering yellow by lamplight, the color of smoke-stained parchment. Even tucked away safe inside the Stones, it seems to seep through the walls and curl along the floors and suck all the heat out of the air—the particular kind of damp, bone-chilling cold that one only feels in the smallest hours of morning. Their preparations were finished, and so they’d spent the night with their friends, many of them wrapped up tight in threadbare blankets to keep out the chill—and they’d swapped stories, both old favorites and new, and they’d laughed so, so much. The night was sparkling and warm, like the feeling when you’ve had just enough drink; wine-sweet and merry and comfortable.
But there was fear in the air too, of course, and then there was the dread, and then there was the grief that always followed, and all of it felt razor-sharp and only still invisible because they were choosing to keep their eyes closed—it lurked, ready, teeth bared, eager to snatch at their anklebones like a tripwire. Roe felt it loud and crystal clear, Thyme could tell: self-evident every time she fell silent and stared down at her glass for just a heartbeat too long, or whenever she quietly reached for Thyme under the table, to thread their fingers together and squeeze her hand.
And Thyme felt it too, pressing hard and unyielding like a boot to her throat every time she slipped away to the washroom or to the kitchens and found herself briefly alone and undistracted, and no matter how much she talked or laughed or smiled or drank it still hung heavy as humid air: the feeling of falling, the twisting of your stomach as you take one extra step on the stairs and your whole world swings wildly three degrees wrong. Of hurtling helplessly, inevitably, toward some sort of ending.
She’d wanted so desperately to bask in the light and the warmth of the others, to bury the fear down deep—shove it away, a firm and hard push to get her point across, and never let it bob back to the surface no matter how hard it tried—but nothing was quite enough to hold it back entirely, of course, because how could it be? To even try to hide from it felt futile; cowardly and stupid and utterly, pathetically insufficient. The feeling of being caught tossing frantic handfuls of dirt over a corpse.
They’d savored the evening as long as they possibly could, not just Thyme and Roe but all of them, gathered close around their tables like woodland creatures huddling together for body heat beneath the roots of an old, old tree, before one by one they all rose and set aside their emptied glasses, made their excuses to depart to bed, bid each other good night. And just like that it was over. Their last night slowly exhaled its last and quietly died.
All that remained was the cold dawn to follow: when Roe would step forward, unflinching, into the shadows, and when Thyme would not.
Soon there was no one left in the commons but a few guttering, drunken lanterns, some discarded cups stained prettily with thin crimson rings of wine dregs, and the two of them. Thyme had found herself dozing with her cheek on Roe’s shoulder, lulled by the fuzziness of her head and Roe’s arm wrapped easily around her waist, the solid feel of Roe’s breathing at her side. Eventually Roe had gently awoken her to carry her off to bed as easy as anything, and when they’d finally found themselves alone in the little bedroom tucked away on the far side of the dorms that Roe always used, oh, how Thyme had wanted her then, because this might be the last time, her heart had pounded, this might be the last. But the wine had made her fingers far too clumsy and her head too heavy and her thoughts too foggy and slow, and Roe had just kissed her full and soft as she wrapped her up tight in her arms and chuckled as she said “go to sleep, Tee, you can barely keep your eyes open”. And then the traitorous thing had gotten her fingers in Thyme’s hair and started to rub at the base of her ears in that oh-so-soft way that always makes her melt, and the rich rumble of her voice had pulled her underwater so easily, and she’d drifted away to dream of sunlight and the smell of wildflowers and Roe’s hands on her body, honey-sweet and gentle.
Now, some time later, Thyme is awake again, having been nudged out of a doze by seemingly nothing in particular. But she’s not interested in going back to sleep—and she’s not certain she even could.
She can tell it’s extremely early: the room is still pitch-black, save for only the slightest strip of cool, limpid light that slices through the thickly curtained windows, its color stuck floating somewhere between moonlight and pre-dawn sun. The night air’s chill has soaked deep into her body, and it feels cool and satisfying in that just-right sort of way that is most comfortable when one has just woken up in a warm bed to the sounds of birdsong and the colors of an autumn sunrise. And on any other early, early morning it would be so easy to just curl up into a ball and drift off again. But that, of course, is not possible today.
The bed is just barely large enough for the two of them, having been built humbly and cheaply and only for one. Roe is still fast asleep beneath her, sprawled out on her back with her limbs haphazardly stretched in all directions, except for the arm that remains loosely around Thyme’s waist, heavy and comforting. Her lips have fallen slightly parted, and she is utterly unguarded and open and so, so beautiful. And although the wine-sweet haze Thyme fell asleep with has lifted away, the desire—the want, the need, the this might be the last—remains, and as she listens to the steady rhythm of Roe’s breath and feels the rise and fall of her chest against her body, it curls and flickers deep within with the gentle warmth of a candle’s flame.
She shifts close, slow, slow, careful not to jostle her, to press her lips to the softness of her breast; to draw up along the line of her chest and graze the softest kisses she can along her collarbone, along the firm muscle of her shoulder, now relaxed with sleep. It isn’t until Roe feels Thyme’s lips at the column of her throat that she startles awake with a quiet snort—which is just the cutest thing Thyme’s ever heard—and groggily mumbles her name into the dark.
“I’m here,” Thyme whispers, and she kisses the crumpled, sleepy little line between her brows.
“What time is it?” Roe’s voice is thick and gravely.
“Still early.” Thyme shifts, settles her head back onto the pillow, nuzzles close so her forehead just grazes against Roe’s temple. “Before sunrise,” she says, and Roe huffs out a tiny little sigh.
“Gods,” Roe breathes. She shuts her eyes again. “I thought that was it,” she says, so soft it’s almost inaudible—and she doesn’t speak again, but her meaning is still clear: I thought we were out of time. And Thyme doesn’t say anything back, because she can’t, because her throat feels tight and sharp like there’s a knife plunged through it.
The bedframe creaks grumpily as Roe wriggles onto her side, settles back down so that the two of them are laying face-to-face, their bodies mirrored, matching parallel lines. Their faces are close enough now that their noses can almost touch. And Thyme finds herself staring at her: at her long, long lashes, the little smudge of Hellsguard-black on the tip of her sharp, strong nose, how the amber of her eyes is slightly muted in the dim, deep like the color of violinist’s rosin or rich, dark honey. Because—idiotically, perhaps—it feels like she has to. Like if she closes her eyes for even a moment Roe might disappear entirely, a shadow evaporating into sunlight, and Thyme will lose her forever, far, far too soon.
Roe just looks back at her, quietly, clearly doing the same; she’s so still, the particular kind of stillness she only allows Thyme to see. And gradually, as Thyme watches, Roe shuts her eyes—slowly, blinking sleepily like she doesn’t mean for them to close. It is still very, very early, after all, and the poor thing was dead asleep until a moment ago.
And oh, Thyme loves her so sharply, so deeply. She feels the slight give of the mattress beneath before she’s even realized she’s moving, as she leans in close and kisses the gentle curve at the corner of her mouth, as softly as she can. “Don’t go back to sleep, love,” she whispers, feeling so, so selfish, but Roe stirs into her touch and sighs, slow and deep.
“I don’t want to,” she mumbles, awake now, but with eyes still shut. “Don’t want to waste more time.”
Thyme feels the knife again, swallows hard. “Talk to me, then,” she says softly, as Roe opens her eyes. “What are you thinking about?”
Roe’s face breaks into a tiny smile—crooked, bashful, just a touch sleepy. “You,” she answers after a moment, “of course,” and Thyme thinks her heart will burst. But Roe stops, then, wets her lips, swallows, and the smile is gone. “Tee,” she continues, “about tomorrow. If… if I don’t—”
And Thyme knows what she’s going to say, and it’s the most horrid thing in the world, and she can’t help but squeak out a “No,” so sudden it surprises even her.
Roe’s eyes widen, just a little. “Tee—”
“I can’t,” Thyme says, helplessly. “I know. I just— I can’t, darling. Let’s not talk about it, please.”
Roe simply looks at her for a moment. Then: “All right,” she says quietly. She cups Thyme’s face in her hand so, so softly, as she skates the pad of her thumb across her cheek. “That’s okay.”
Thyme reaches for her, then, too, and hesitantly traces the bow of Roe’s upper lip beneath the pad of her finger as one might touch a piece of art. Roe simply looks at her, utterly still and pliant beneath her touch.
“I dreamt of you tonight, you know,” Thyme whispers, hearing her voice go wobbly and tight in her throat.
Roe smiles. “I did, too.”
And Thyme’s heart breaks. She does not know what to say.
So, instead—slowly, feeling dreamlike and hazy and not quite awake and terribly, terribly sad—Thyme pulls her in by her chin to kiss her.
The angle is slightly awkward but that doesn’t matter, because Roe stirs into her touch to deepen the kiss, breathing out a sigh as their legs entangle beneath the thin, threadbare quilt that threatens to slip away and onto the floor. And then nothing matters anymore, finally, except for the feel of Roe’s mouth against hers, the press of her tongue against the valley of Roe’s lips, easing them apart, the rough warmth of Roe’s skin beneath Thyme’s fingers. Nothing matters except Roe’s hands as they drag along Thyme’s back, as she slides her palm up the gentle curve of Thyme’s spine to knit her fingers in the hair at the nape of her neck.
And Roe shudders as Thyme nuzzles into her throat, noses up against her chin so she can kiss the hollow beneath her jaw. She stifles a low groan as Thyme sucks a bruise into the softness of her skin, and just barely manages a breathless “Tee, the others’ll hear,” and that’s a good point, but—
“We’ll just have to keep our voices down,” Thyme murmurs back, and gods, they’ve barely even undressed, the two of them, only rucking their clothes up or down or away just enough for skin to meet skin, because the sun will be up in a few hours and then it’ll all be over and there’s just no more time. And this might be the last time, Thyme cannot help but think, this might be the last, and the thought flares and prickles beneath her skin like a fever that will not break. And so she kisses Roe harder, deeper, for so long that she loses her breath and then even longer still, because to part from her would be unimaginable.
But it’s good, even still, because Thyme is just aching to take Roe apart, and because when she drags her mouth downward and finds the peak of Roe’s breast through the thin cotton of her shirt Roe bucks her hips and whines the most incredible, breathless noise into her hair. Her hands clench hard in the cloth at Thyme’s shoulders to pull her in close and tight and desperate, just as desperate as Thyme feels with her broken heart pounding so hard and loud she’s certain every single other soul in the Stones can hear it.
They are both aching so terribly, she knows, crushed under the weight of unimaginable grief for a loss that has not happened yet, that gnaws at them sharp and hard like the sting of frostbitten fingers. And the only way they know to find any relief is to touch. To breathe each other in, deep and hard, and to push, and to feel. So often the two of them choose to take things slow, to savor each touch as if their other half is made of glass—but this is not a night for that, because this might be the last, Thyme’s blood roars in her ears. So how could she, and how can they?
And Roe doesn’t want to either, Thyme can tell, as her breath hitches and stutters in her chest with every brush of Thyme’s lips, as she doesn’t resist at all when Thyme bears down against her with her full weight, driving her into the creaky old mattress with a grind of her hips, as Thyme drags her mouth and hands greedily along the ridges and curves of flesh and bone and muscle and cloth like she might never have the chance again, as she presses her thigh between her legs and feels Roe arch into her hard. Because Roe’s so strong, so full of life, so bold, so large—but still she yields to every touch like her only purpose is to bend, to fold, to sway in the wake of her like wild grasses in the breeze, to worship at her feet. Like all she’s ever wanted, somehow, was to be hers.
She groans softly as Thyme presses a deep kiss to the hollow of her breastbone, as she rakes her palms along the slats of her ribs, up to palm at her breasts. And if this is to be their last, Thyme thinks, she intends to make every moment count. “If you want,” she starts, breathless with the weight of it, but she’s not even able to finish her question, because:
“Please,” Roe says, her voice just edging into a needy whimper, honey-sweet and breathy, “Thyme,” and if Thyme had needed any convincing, oh, that certainly would have pushed her over the edge.
Since Roe’s had this room for years and they’ve stayed here together so many times before, Thyme knows just where she keeps her things; it only takes her a few moments to unearth a little box from beneath the foot of the bed, shimmy into the leather straps she’s worn so many times, fetch the little bottle of oils they always use. Roe’s already stripped off her own clothes and tossed them away, and now quietly watches her from bed, her eyes dark and glassy as they track the movements of Thyme’s hands while she prepares—oiled fingers dragging down, back up, down again—then she reaches for Thyme as she approaches, silently beseeching, before she peels her chemise up and over her head so reverently, still, as though she has not yet had the privilege, as though she hasn’t done it a thousand times before. As they resettle on the bed its old rusted bedsprings squeak into the chilly air in protest, and Roe sinks into the mattress with a muffled groan, back-first, once Thyme gently pushes at her with the pads of her fingers. Thyme slides up the length of her to settle astride her hips, their bodies flush, parallel lines; she wraps a steadying hand tight around the firm, solid curve of Roe’s waist, bends down to kiss her full and soft—
And when Thyme slowly, slowly rocks forward and pushes into her, Roe’s eyes flutter shut and her face tips back toward the ceiling, baring the new, shining red marks Thyme’s worked into her throat, and she gasps out a noise like all the air has been punched out of her lungs, and oh, it feels so cruel, how beautiful she is.
Soon Thyme feels her muscles beginning to burn with every grinding roll of her hips, beads of sweat cutting down the plane of her back. Her hand claws at Roe’s hip, gripping her so hard she feels almost certain she’ll be bruised, but Roe does not want her to stop, and Thyme does not want to stop, either, and so she does not. Roe hooks her legs tight around Thyme’s waist to pull her deeper, her arms slung around Thyme’s shoulders with her fingers digging tight against the flesh of her back like even now the two of them still aren’t close enough, and she is soft and needy and gorgeous as she buries her face in her throat and takes her to the hilt. And she is hers, all hers, forever, no matter what happens to either of them—if Roe returns, or if she does not.
And Thyme knows this as surely as she knows how to breathe, how to feel the sun on her skin or the wind in her hair. The thought flutters in her stomach, goes twisting around her heart like the spread of creeping vines and grips her hard and steady.
Roe tumbles over the edge with a whimpering, wordless cry that she just barely manages to muffle with a hand clapped to her mouth, her eyes squeezed tightly shut. Thyme follows not long after, stars popping behind her eyelids as her pulse roars in her head, as the feeling of her release takes her so strong and hard that she almost forgets herself—but Roe reaches up to her, presses the broad, warm pads of her fingers against Thyme lips, and helps her to remember to breathe.
Always ready to catch her when she falls. It is a comfort, and it is the most heartbreaking thing in the world. Thyme eases off, gently, wrests the harness off her hips, and drops it off the bed and away.
And then Roe’s arms are around her, so warm and sure and true, and Thyme feels her shudder as she buries her face in Thyme’s hair. “I love you,” she says, her voice tightly choked and sounding so, so small. She holds Thyme tight, like a clenched fist. “I’m so sorry.”
And Thyme finds that she cannot say anything in response.
They fall asleep again, eventually, and it is not long enough at all.
The morning hours go lurching past in a too-quick, stumbling rush, even though all Thyme wants, more than anything, is for them to slow. The sun rises fully and the Scions rise with it, and then all too soon Thyme joins them on the hill from which they will depart to say her farewells.
Standing with Roe, away from the others—who have been casting sympathetic, regretful looks at the two of them all morning, and are now no doubt intentionally giving them a wide berth—Thyme feels herself beginning to cry, and damn it all, she didn’t want it to go this way because usually she’s so good at keeping herself together. But this time is so, so frightening, and she keeps thinking about the way Roe’s voice trembled as she said I’m so sorry, and she doesn’t want this to be it.
The tears come anyway, of course, and so Roe cups Thyme’s face in her hands to swipe them away with the pads of her thumbs, and kisses the tracks cutting down her cheeks. “Come back to me,” Thyme whispers to her, tiny and cracked. “Please.”
And Roe simply answers “Always,” soft as sunlight and resolute as stone, and Thyme knows she means it, forever, as long as there’s still blood in her veins and air in her lungs and even further still. It is a small comfort in the face of their broken and rebroken hearts, but even still, Thyme finds, it is enough.
And then, all too soon, it is time, and Roe steps back, and then Thyme stands alone and small as the Scions and their retinue slip away. She watches them until they vanish, and then she stares at the spot into which they disappeared, until all she can see are the dark shapes dancing across her eyes from too much light, from the bright, sharp blue of the vast, empty, devastating sky.
Roe is gone.
It is always bad, because it can never not be. But this time, it is worse.
Alone and silent in the wake of her, Thyme feels shattered.
She wants to chase after her. She wants to never move again. She wants to let her legs give out beneath her and drop to her hands and knees, to stain her skirts when she crushes down against the grass, to tear its blades between her fingers as she weeps and screams into the dirt until her voice is ruined. She wants to give in to the white-hot, starving pain in her chest and cave in entirely, to implode like a dying star. She wants to be driven out of her head and into oblivion, where at least there she cannot feel.
Thyme does not do any of those things.
Instead she turns, stiffly, and walks away. She goes home. And she resumes her life.
Each day to follow, she wakes up alone. The house is too quiet with just her rattling about—too empty, too dark, too cold. But each day she thinks I am one day closer to seeing you again, and she keeps her head as high as she can manage.
She begins to pick up the pieces of her broken heart, one at a time, although they splintered sharp enough to cut her fingers, although she doesn’t want to do anything except stare up at the heavens and wait—and it is hard, as always, but she does it anyway, because that’s what Roe would want her to do, and Roe would be heartbroken, too, if Thyme didn’t.
And she does it so that someday soon, she hopes, she can collect up all the pieces she’s gathered and empty herself out into Roe’s open, steady hands, and then Roe can help her piece herself back together, one bit at a time, and paint her cracks over with liquid amber.