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Luck (almost)
It felt strange to wake up in the old apartment after so much time away, and even stranger to wake alone. Early morning shadows seemed just the wrong side of familiar, settling like dust on a life she had all but abandoned after the break-in. Thalia was not fond of self-reflection; at least not the sort that forced confrontation with the obstacles jutting like rocks from the smooth bed of a river. But things had changed. Calvin’s kindness made them seem less like obstacles and more like curiosities glinting like half buried treasure, and for the first time she was beginning to consider them without the deep-set fear tight in her gut.

She remembered to message Nox to find out how his meeting went, but sank into the oblivion of her sketchbooks for a long time before she remembered to send a reply. Thalia rarely looked back as she chose to now. The books lay splayed in piles, innards bared, pages torn loose when whim caught on the images within. She didn’t question the instinct that sorted piles from the tapestry of old work. Words jumbled around in her head like stories spun from the disparate scraps gathered from years worth of scribblings, and she sat amongst the debris, arms and legs smudged by graphite. Hair spun wild about her face. She stared at the mess she had made.

How do you see my nightmares?

She had brushed off the accusation without choosing to acknowledge the truth. But there had been other glimmers of what lay beyond that thinning veil. Seeing the man on the subway risen like a spectre from the pages of her sketches had terrified her beyond comprehension at the time. She knew every mark on his face; the stroke of every eyelash, the slope of his nose and cheeks; the exact hue of his skin, and the colours that made up his irises. A name haunted on her periphery, uttered from both his lips and Calvin’s the day they’d met in the market. Nox called her a dream walker, but Thalia never remembered dreaming. The images came from somewhere, though, and believing the impossible was surprisingly easy, even if she remained wary of what that might mean.

But she had still not told Nox of the drawings that drew bloody and dripping from her very soul; compulsion enough to blunt her fingers to stubs should the need ever be denied an outlet. 

Thalia had destroyed the painting that scared her most, months before -- the same day Kat had died in her arms. But traces of it drifted like scattered ash through the work heaped around her now, unnoticed until the images had been drawn together. She wasn’t sure she wanted to root around for understanding. Even blinking down at it now, trepidation dug claws in her stomach, and so she eased herself into the questions of kinder currents. She plucked a single page and rested it in her lap; a simple spring landscape, if one did not look too closely.

Aylin wouldn’t understand, and though she knew with certainty that she could rely on Nox to help her, she also knew it would be a reliance. Nobody will help us except ourselves. She checked her phone, seeking the time, and promptly discovered and answered his message:

@Nox Talk to you later then. Let me know when your first show is. I’ll be there :) 

Then she carefully folded her drawing. Her thoughts rippled in strange waves, reaching new shores; the rush of a crazy idea, though Thalia rarely bothered with such labels. She stood, head tilted as she contemplated the sea of paper at her feet one last time, then picked her way through to pack a rucksack. The last thing she remembered to do was change out of her pajamas before the door locked softly behind her.
The train sped from the city like a knifeblade. Late afternoon was a poor time to begin the whimsy of such a journey, not least when she found herself unsure exactly where she was headed. Leningradsky, Moscow’s oldest and most imposing station, had been teeming with commuters headed home when she wandered beneath the glowing departure screens, other passengers jostling her shoulders while she let instinct nudge her direction. Indecision rooted her for a long time, pulling a frown to her expression. The question of what the hell she was doing almost tugged her away, but in the end the impulse of her curiosity proved the stronger force.

Now starlight streamed beyond the window. Shadow engulfed the drawings littering her table, idle passings of the time. A great black stone curved into the sky, the sneer of faces hidden in its smooth surface. Stranger images had followed, disembodied and more tribal than anything she usually drew. Her thoughts fluttered curiously around meaning, but nothing significant stirred, and she soon grew tired of contemplating it. A yawn threatened. The carriage was quiet around her. She’d spoken to Nox some time ago, the remnants of that happy conversation lulling her into a content mood. He needed some good luck.

She slept most of the journey north, head cradled by her jacket wedged against the window. Moskovsky Vokzal must have already passed by, because when her bleary gaze was pierced by the welcoming arms of sunrise it was countryside whizzing past her nose not the urban crawl of St. Petersburg. She ran a hand over her face, sucking in a sigh. Aches dug into her shoulders, blazing like fire when she shifted to lean on the table. Her legs kicked out as she checked her wallet for the time. Just gone 7am, and still hours to go before terminus.

“Great idea, Thal.” She pushed the stray curls from her face, smoothing both her hands over her head. Idly she pawed through yesterday’s drawings, pulling free a clean sheet.
They passed into Estonia with little fanfare, just a cursory check of CIDs when they crossed Dominance borders. For a while Thalia watched the stretch of sea crowding the view beyond, sunlight streaming warmth across her skin. A smile played, but by the time they veered sharply away and plunged south, restlessness was beginning to steal at her patience. Still, it was gone noon before she finally gathered her things and hurriedly departed onto the platform.

It was a tiny station, more apt for the passing of freight than passenger. Grass punctured the concrete slabs, rippling in a sharp breeze that brought a shiver to the warm day. No one else lingered but for a couple sat beneath the plastic shelter. She splashed herself with cold water in the public bathroom, and tied her hair in a knot on her head. A frizz of fine curls puffed free around her face. She looked tired but for the grin, pleased to be free of the train’s confines, and more than content to discover a path like a dandelion’s seeds spread in the wind. 

Afterwards she wandered slow, as uncertain in her intentions as her long vigil at Leningradsky. Nothing felt familiar. But motivation as nebulous as fine gossamer did not dampen the wide-eyed enthusiasm with which she met her new surroundings. She bought some food and threaded through the town while she ate. Less than an hour passed before she found herself on a bus south, once more watching the scenery race past her reflection in the window.

Her eyes were weighted half-closed when her wallet rang.

“Hey, sis.” She shifted, rubbing a hand across her face, and fought off a yawn. The wheels bumped, rattling her teeth. “Yeah, of course I’m fine.” The tightness in Aylin’s voice should have been enough of a clue as to what soon followed, and yet Thalia was still vaguely surprised when the avalanche of where the hell are you; your apartment was a mess; Christ, I thought something had happened; why haven’t you called fell right on her head. She bit her lip, at least a little contrite for having let her sister worry. That had not been intentional.

“Estonia,” she said by way of guilty explanation. “I’m on a bus.”

Silence hung like a pall. Then, wearily: Estonia?”

Aylin was not ignorant; she herself had pointed out, with some alarm, the face of one of her patients in Thalia’s sketches. Neither of them ever talked about Yana, either, but it had still happened, the proof inked in permanence on Thalia’s back. She had considered it an ending at the time, though that seemed unlikely now, and yet the eerie strangeness was something Thalia had finally discovered surprising acceptance for after years of fear. It wasn’t like she was desperate for answers or the desire to explain; not for herself anyway. But confessing to Aylin would only incite her sister to worry. Most people did not take off in such a haphazard fashion. I have a feeling was not sufficient motivation for hopping on a train and travelling 500 miles with no clear destination in mind. I have a bad feeling even less so.

Particularly when your sister was a psychologist.

So it was probably a good thing they were practiced at pretending to be normal.

She promised to forward the details on where she would be staying (and glossed over the question of not having thought that far ahead). It would only be a few days (intended truth), and yes next time she did something so impulsive she would remember to call. Hardly enough to placate Aylin entirely, but it was probably wise for someone to actually know where she was. Blinded by the haze of wanderlust, it had not really occurred to her.
[Image: estonia_vaadeveetornist_ennloit_.jpg]

It was a few more hours before she finally alighted from the bus. Viljandi. The name meant nothing much, and yet something buzzed just on the edges of her thoughts; something that almost felt like deja vu, except she knew she had never been here before. The town’s streets trickled and wound like tiny rivers, bordered by charming wooden houses. Trees thrust along walkways and forested wide in the distance. Several times she caught sight of a wide lake and a crest of ruins above it, and though wonder stirred, it was not the direction her boots pulled her.

It was like seeking relief from an itch.

A frown fluttered her brow, engrossed by some elusive instinct grown stronger and more strange the longer she chased it. Her thumbs hooked the straps of her rucksack, her gaze seeking a sense of the familiar with a sudden intensity that made her feel like she teetered on the edge of the world. Until her wallet buzzed in her jean’s pocket, and the enchantment abruptly dispelled like mist. She paused. The town had drifted behind her. Above, streaks of red and gold lit the clouds aflame, burning up the last of the day’s light. She’d fallen from the road. Already shadows clung to the boughs of the sparse trees dotted alongside. “Shit.” She twisted in a circle, senses dousing like a flush of frozen water.
The buzz had been her wallet’s dying breath. Thalia had little more than spare clothes and art supplies in her bag; certainly nothing sufficient for spending a night out of doors. Shadows marched alongside as she trudged back along the path she had made, squinting for a hint of the town’s lights in the distance, and discovering nothing. It would be full dark by the time she made it back, she wagered. If. With a frown she hoisted the bag back up her shoulder. Concern squirmed, tamped down. She hummed to herself as she walked, some half-forgotten tune she could not name. And tried not to think about what might watch from the dark.

(or why she thought there might be anything at all)

Chance took her the same path, past a cottage she had barely noticed the first time. Aylin’s warnings rang like chimes in her head as she hesitated, fingers running over the dead tech in her pocket, and yet still she paused. One glance behind at the gleaming throes of sunset waged war between two sets of doubt. It was a foolish trust, to bargain on the kindness of strangers, but she still knocked softly on the door. Uncertainty plagued her expression, but it warmed into a smile when the door creaked on its hinges.

“Sorry,” she hedged, biting her lip. Her fingers uncurled to offer the unresponsive screen of her wallet. “I’m a bit. Well, I’m a bit lost.”

The woman frowned, gaze fluttering over Thalia’s head. She spoke in the lilting tones of her own language, eyes narrowed upon the apparent lack of comprehension, until finally complaining, “English, english,” in a somewhat disparaging tone. “Alone?” she questioned. Then clicked her tongue and pulled the door wider.City folk.”

Stranger’s house or no, Thalia slept like the very dead that night, the exhaustion of travel pulled up like a warm blanket over her head. Bars of early morning light woke her like an urgent shake of the shoulder. A familiar itch crawled all along her forearms, almost like pain, and she rolled over blearily, reaching out a questing grasp for her bag. Any scrap of blank paper would do to relieve the pressure.

She paid little attention to the scribblings as she sat cross-legged amongst her sleep-mussed blankets, bent over her sketchbook, hair wild about her face. Some demanded more detail than others, but none pulled with any more than the usual intensity. She yawned into her hand. Nox’s words haunted, but she purposefully closed the book once the ritual was complete. Instead she retrieved the folded sheet she’d torn from the old book at home, smoothing it out across her lap like every line was not already emblazoned to memory.

The cottage was rustic, as one might expect of someone who chose to live so far outside town. Charms hung from beams across the ceiling and the wood floors warmed underfoot by thick rugs. Her gaze washed against everything curiously, though she did not wish to appear nosy. She longed to pause over the shelves, run her fingers along the spines of books, or peer at the faces immortalised in frames, but tangled her hands in a tighter grip over her shoulder straps instead. The woman was in the kitchen, caught in a lattice of morning light as she tidied away. Pale hair framed a severe face as she turned, a bare nod offered in greeting. Kindness did not have to be worn on the sleeve, and Thalia smiled nonetheless. “Ai-ta,” she said. Thank you, or what she hoped the word to be in Estonian.

“Aitäh,” the woman corrected. “You need directions back to Viljandi?”

Thalia shook her head, mostly since she did not plan on returning to the town until later. Explaining that seemed unnecessary, though, and now her wallet held a full charge she was unlikely to get lost. The woman’s attention lingered a moment longer, inscrutable, before she gestured a hand at the table. A bowl and spoon awaited alongside a glass of water, the other place settings already cleared away. “Then eat before you go.”

Surprise flickered for the extra hospitality, unexpected given the reserved nature of the dwelling’s mistress. Thalia’s expression lit with genuine warmth as she slipped gratefully into a chair. Aitäh,” she tried again, carefully. “I really mean it. I think I last remembered to eat in Tapa, yesterday afternoon. Your country is beautiful, by the way.” It looked a lot like porridge, but tasted like something else entirely; much finer in texture. Mixed berries sweetened the tartness. When asked, the woman only called it kama.

She cleared her own bowl when finished, and did not linger. The sun was cold and bright outside. For a moment she stood disorientated, struck by the absurdity of why she was here, so very far from home -- on the trust of little more than blind instinct. Uncertainty beat in her chest, like such intangible motivation might slip through her fingers before she could truly harness it; that she would be left with the ashes of something that just sounded plain crazy. Aylin was going to have a mountain of questions, and Thalia wasn’t convinced she would have any answers.

Noise broke the spell. 

She twisted where she stood, and watched a man setting up ladders by the side of the house. A tray of paint glistened on a workbench alongside; such a mundane intrusion to the chaos of her thoughts, it calmed her abruptly. She hadn’t seen him last night, but then she had more-or-less crashed out the moment succor was assured. He was as blonde as the woman inside, though it seemed a common enough trait of the country. Far fewer lines crowded his face, but for the pinch of concentration between his brows.

Thalia paused.

She knew she needed the daylight, yet she still approached, dropping her rucksack at her feet. This family offered sanctuary; it was the least she could do to pass the kindness on. A morning’s work hardly was too much to ask, and something stirred when she looked at the shadows creeping the edges of his expression like the promise of rain on a clear day.

“Can I help?”

He was already halfway up the ladder when he peered down at the intrusion. The weight of his stare might have flayed the skin from her bones, the resemblance of both appearance and mannerism suggesting perhaps he was the woman’s son. Probably Thalia could have taken greater care of her appearance, but since she planned to spend most of the day navigating the forest it seemed a pointless indulgence. She’d braided the hair away from her face, but left the rest a wild tangle down her back. A scrub of water at the sink pinked her cheeks clean, but it was far from a sud-soaked shower. It made her a little uncomfortable, despite that she doubted the scrutiny had anything to do with what she looked like. 

“The visitor,” he said. “Eha says you are the strangest apple on the tree.”

Thalia’s lips quirked an amused smile. She took no offense. “I work in Moscow as an artist. I’m just travelling.”

He offered no response, though something flickered behind his eyes. He indicated she help herself to a brush.

It was afternoon by the time she found herself released from the chore. Koit did not speak much, yet the silence was surprisingly comfortable. Something intuitive kept her from disturbing those still waters, for she certainly had no problems creating idle conversation if she’d suspected simple shyness. Every now and then she stole glances at his expression, and if she could not quite press a finger to what she perceived, it slithered like a sad knot in her chest. By the time the second wall was complete, he plucked the brush from her hand to shoo her on her way.

“You won’t make it back to town if you spend all afternoon helping me paint.”

He was right, and she had something else she needed to do first too. Indecision captured her expression before the offer of a small smile won a beam from hers. She heaved the bag to her shoulder, uncaring of the paint staining her hands.

An hour passed to the trust of some inexplicable instinct. The sun peeked warm through the trees, and Thalia did not think on much beyond the pleasant cast it left on her skin. Water trickled a distant melody long before she really became conscious of it, and by then she could practically see the sluggish trail of its grey body ahead. She followed it upstream, watching the glitter of its surface like she watched the expression of an old friend, until wonder filled up her expression. Her skin prickled.

She crouched, staring out wide-eyed at the water; at the plants crowded at its banks, at the sliver of sky above. Wind caressed like a welcome.

“Hello, you impossible thing.”

The drawings of people she could almost explain away; Moscow teemed with them, enough to perhaps seep unnoticed into her subconscious and leak out later. But this was a landscape she had never seen before, the river’s overgrown banks not a tourist spot she might have noted in a travel brochure. Sat cross-legged in the grass, she pulled the drawing from her bag and smoothed the crumpled paper out. A shiver cooled, more awe than fear. Impossible. And yet real all the same, in every line and cast of shadow. Proof, but only to her.

Even so the page fluttered quickly unnoticed under her fingertips, her attention caught on something infinitely stranger. Narrowing her gaze on those grey depths, something stirred like plucked strings within. Like seeking like. Charmed she edged closer, finding her feet. It called. She was a strong swimmer, but it was still a mad idea. Once captured, though, she had a hard time letting it go. Her heart hammered as she toed against the bank, unfurling her new sense out into the waters. Something was down there. Wonder stole what wisdom remained.

She hooked her bag on a tree branch, draping her jacket overtop. Discarded her boots and wiggled from her jeans. No caution tempered her. She dived clean in. Despite the warm day the water welcomed her with a bone-chilling grasp, running cold and curious fingers over her Spring-warmed skin. She kicked down further, blinded by the churn of mud and grit, yet unafraid of the dark. Whim tried to coax small lanterns with her gift, but her concentration failed beneath the greater lure of that feeling. Of something familiar. One hand braced against the riverbed. She reached out, questing with the other, until her palm lay flat against something hard and smooth, her fingers curling over the angles of a lid. 

Then pain flamed hot. 

Surprised bubbles zipped from her mouth as she yanked back. Panic seized. She fought hard for the surface, head breaking gasping and coughing against the water sucked in. Her hand throbbed like her whole heart writhed in the centre of her palm as she swam for the bank, gripping tight against land with the other, squeezing the grass and mud like relief. She heaved herself out, yelping when her weight touched the wound unthinking. Her arm gave way.

“Shit.” She pressed her forehead into the dirt for a moment to steel against the pain before she tried again, this time careful. At the tree she yanked on her jacket, regretting the thoughtlessness of her plan now she realised she had little to dry herself with. And finally forced her gaze to the ruin of her palm, raised red like a strange paint splatter. She held it at the wrist like she could somehow divorce herself from the thrumming agony, aghast and confused and in awe.
[Image: thiefrune.jpg]

The pain sprung tears to her eyes, and yet she stared a long time, motionless. She couldn’t fathom how something had burned her under the water, but that wasn’t the particular strangeness to capture her attention. The wound circled in a strange pattern, like the spokes of a wheel. She wriggled her fingers and winced. The fact it hurt was probably a good thing; it meant there were still working nerves beneath the burned flesh. That was about where the good news ended, though.

She struggled back into her jeans and boots with her one good hand, tightening the laces as much as she could and tucking in the ends. Her gaze strayed time and again to the river, like a siren beckoned from the deep. A nestle of power? She didn’t understand, but it charmed her anyway, the curiosity narrowing her eyes until pain cut her short. She needed a pharmacy at least, maybe a hospital. Though how she was going to explain the injury was anyone’s guess.

Reluctantly she marked the location on her phone, letting temptation snare one last time with the crazy urge to go back down there. Then she gathered her things.

The trudge back was less pleasant with the distraction of her hand pulsing agony like a heartbeat. Her damp skin cooled uncomfortable, chafing with every movement. Even the murmur of some silly song laboured to steal her attention to something pleasant. She concentrated on one foot after the other. And not tripping over her own laces. 

Time trickled onwards, until she realised her legs were beginning to ache.

“Did you fall in the river?”

Thalia spun to a voice behind, genuine surprise widening her eyes. She knew she’d have to traipse past the cottage, of course, but hadn’t intended to impose upon its hospitality again. If Eha thought her an odd apple before, the state of her now was hardly going to endear her further. Mud streaked her skin, her hair a ratty mess from the river water. “Ah. Well. Something like that.” She hazarded a rueful smile.

Paint flecked Koit’s hair and forearms, which were folded against his chest. His gaze followed the path she had emerged from before it settled on her, but Thalia was peering beyond to the freshly painted cottage walls, pleased to see the job finished. “You went the wrong way for town,” he said. “Knew you’d have to come back this way.” His eyes narrowed with something that might have been suspicion, but also might have just been natural stoicism. Since she didn’t have any reasonable explanation to offer, she only nodded.

“I’m headed back now,” she offered after a moment’s silence. Her head tilted, uncertain why he’d stopped her. Usually the diversion would have been welcome, but even if curiosity rippled, the throb of her injury caused the greater wave. Hesitation lingered before she lifted her palm, aware it would only create more strange questions.  “Actually, I had a bit of an accident.”
She sat with palm outstretched, patiently watching as Koit tended to her burns. It hurt rather a lot actually, no matter how delicately he applied the salve. Eha sat on the other side of the kitchen table, murmuring words in Estonian that of course Thalia did not understand, but they did not sound particularly happy. Koit’s gaze flickered when she scraped back her chair and stood, frowning a little at the corners of his mouth, but he did not watch her go.

“I’ll leave as soon as you’re done,” Thalia assured. Aylin accused her of being tone-deaf when it came to imposing on the time and generosity of others, but she had not meant to lean on their hospitality twice. Though Koit had offered.

He shook his head. “That’s not what she said, or what she means. She’s superstitious, that’s all.”

Thalia winced as pain lanced, and Koit’s lips compressed. He said so little. And he didn’t ask any of the obvious questions. It made her nervous to wonder at the gears turning in his head unknown, but it wasn’t like she actually had any sensible answers to offer. Not for any of it. So she only peered quietly as he began wrapping a loose bandage, biting her lip quite miserably because none of it was pleasant.

“You can stay here tonight. Eha is making up the bed.” He began methodically packing the first aid kit away, screwing the lid back on the salve, and wiping his hands down on a scrap of kitchen roll. Thalia blinked, testing the mobility of her fingers. They felt stiff. Stay? “And tomorrow,” he continued calmly, finally meeting her eye, “you can show me where that happened.”

That night she tried not to sleep, for the first time wary and a little afraid of what it might bring. Not that she ever remembered the dreams Nox told her she must have, but the itch had been building for days, urgently spilling scribbled sketches each morning. That wasn’t unusual in itself. But she’d always had a sense of its coming, her moods like shifts in weather, and the darkest of them consumed. The last time had been before that girl had died on the tube, when something had stopped the train in the blackness of the tunnels. 

Red on her fingers like blood and fire.

She’d ruined the painting before it ever saw the light of day. Like that was an ending.

An ending comes an ending comes an ending comes.

There was a beat in her head like war drums, building as if the memories might crowd whether or not she closed her eyes. Mussed blankets nested around her legs. She was hunched, rocking into the heel of her hand, pressed tight to her forehead. Tears leaked. Her other hand throbbed.

She couldn’t let it happen here, in the home of strangers.

Yet still she fell asleep.

Grey dawn light filtered through the drapes. Thalia woke stiff as a board, as though she had spent the whole night running. Her hair snarled a thorny briar on her shoulders as she pushed herself up, yelping when she laid pressure on her injury. Other hurts joined the first, widening her eyes as she curled up to brush her palm across her calves. Scrapes and bruises stung. Her arms and chest too, prickling with dried blood. There had been injuries upon waking discovered in the past; small things too insignificant to question, and quickly gone. Not like this. She shivered. They’re going to think I’m crazy.

Maybe she was.

She dressed in a hurry, untangling her hair as best she could, hiding what she could of her new wounds. The morning’s urgency was not as she had feared; it still brewed, like the weight in the air before rain, pregnant with promise. A woman’s face grew form in her sketchbook while she ate the kama Eha served. Familiar, but not the one she had shown Nox. A beautiful face, almost too fine to be properly human. The eyes took all the work, like the rest were seen through a white storm, almost insubstantial.

She felt Koit’s shadow behind her. Imagined the frown. He plucked the pencil from her grasp and placed it flat on the table. “Your hand needs rest.”

Thalia grimaced. “It’s complicated.”

He grunted, pulling out a chair to sit, a blue-glazed mug of coffee nursed in his grip. His fingers were blunt and square like a workman’s hands. There was a silver wedding band on one. 

Koit was right about the hand, but he didn’t understand the compulsion; how viciously it held her, how jealous it could be of strayed attentions. She hadn’t told Nox about that either. How, denied the right implements, those images would still find a way to be born. Her hand felt doused in flame, swollen and raw, barely able to translate the delicate precision required, but while she drew it had been bearable. The lesser pain.

Beside her, Koit reached to twist the page, looking at the rushed image. “They say the Boatman of Viljandi met a woman on the lake with eyes like that. He searches for her still, an old man now.”

Half a smile quirked, despite the deflation of her mood. “I don’t know who she is either.”
He told the tale while they walked, of the mysterious woman on the lake, vanished before the boat reached shoreline. It was a folk song, actually, though he would not sing it to her no matter how she coaxed. Those purple eyes haunted the boatman to his death. Still, it passed the time and distracted her from their destination -- and from that prickly feeling in her stomach. Koit was perfectly matter-of-fact about it, but there was nothing normal here. The cuts and scrapes opened overnight itched now, a constant reminder. A buzz of fear was mounting like the steady footsteps of an old friend growing closer. Her stomach turned.

Koit’s hand reached to steady her when she tripped in the undergrowth. Thalia braved a smile, though it felt like the expression surfaced through an oil slick. He frowned. It wasn’t like it was the first time he’d looked at her as if she was something strange, but this time she blinked away from the scrutiny.

An ending comes an ending comes.

“My mother is…” he said after a moment. “Well, you should know she lives where she lives for a reason.”

“And you?”

He didn’t answer. 

The clearing had not changed, but a shiver crept over her skin, prickling like an ice wind. Thalia folded her arms about herself, lip caught between her teeth. Her hand throbbed anew. The call from the water was faded, like the echo of something old. She pointed and shrugged. He was going to think her mad (probably he already did), and she had not fully considered following a stranger into the forest. Another item to add to the list of things not to admit to Aylin.

Koit dumped his rucksack in the grass and ran a hand over his short hair.

Thalia sat abruptly, pulling her knees into her chest. Her hair sat tangled on her shoulders, like she was a creature coaxed from the forest itself. Her companion asked no questions, and she was not even remotely sure why he had insisted on coming here. “I drew this place,” she admitted suddenly. “Months ago. Most likely from a dream I don’t even remember having. There are other places I will find. And faces belonging to people I’ve never met. And worse.” It flooded out, and with it a sense of relief. She did not enjoy secrets.

Strain pulled Koit’s gaze. He did think this was crazy, she could see that in his expression. But he only nodded.
Into the silence she explained everything, inwardly waiting for the moment he would baulk. But he only watched the waters while she talked, twisting the wedding band around his finger. For the first time she considered that he was the one not being completely honest with her; that he knew something beyond what she was telling him -- something that clearly softened the blow of its strangeness. Her head tilted, perplexed, and for a moment she wondered if she ought be afraid, but if he was perhaps the most severe creature she had ever met, nothing about him spiked her instincts to fear. Still, she wished she had given Nox a little more detail about where she was, and with whom.

“You seem very calm,” she said eventually. Koit sighed rather than offer any real answer.

“Your hand,” he said. “You can’t go back in the water.” 

Water streamed. Koit gasped as he emerged, and Thalia crawled to the bank to help, but he only directed her to pull the towels from the bag. The box had not reacted to his touch; she saw it curled in his grasp, and flinched away from it as she did as she was told. The shadows had lengthened and begun to recede since they began. She fumbled for the zip and upended his supplies, ignoring the sharp protest of pain in her palm.

Koit draped the first towel around his shoulders. His pale hair flattened close to his skull, and droplets of water followed the hollowed line of his cheeks. Thalia didn’t notice the churn of mud as she sat alongside him. There had been something frenetic about him in the search, like a man clinging to salvation, and so she was gentle with him now -- as if, were she very quiet, she might be given the chance to rummage through the pieces and fix what was broken. It drew her like moth to light.

Koit rubbed a hand over his face. He placed the box between them, and Thalia’s attentions realigned like he offered a viper. 

Marks were scorched into the wood, and she did not need to hold her palm alongside to recognise their sameness. How was still a mystery. Or as much as the power remained a mystery -- they both realised that much. The why was bigger than the how though. She wanted to laugh, but it got so caught up in her throat she was afraid it would come out as a sob. Panic gnawed all her edges the longer she looked at it, so she didn’t.

“I dreamed,” he said then. “Of the woman I saw you drawing this morning.”

Thalia’s attention jerked up. Her eyes were round as saucers. Koit looked at her, and opened the lid.
She leaned in to see, but would not touch it. Koit plucked it between his fingers; a simple golden pinecone, its surface inlaid with an intricate pattern of vines. He glanced askance like she might have an explanation to offer, but she only shrugged softly for such a strange and meaningless bounty, cradling her injured hand in the other. The wind had cooled off, and she was cold now. And tired. And more than a little afraid.

“I’m a good listener,” she said quietly, offering a small smile for the furrows dug into his brow. He placed the pinecone back in the box, where it had nestled upon dried leaves untouched by the water’s tomb. She did not ask about his dreaming, sensing it was not the root of his discomfort. She had no answers to offer anyway.

“You don’t know what it means,” he said bluntly. Disappointed. “I thought--” He shook his head, cut short, and looked like he was about to stand. Then the effort drained from him. He met her gaze wearily.

“I never thought I’d come back here. My mother is… she has always been eccentric. Superstitious. I never believed. Not sure I do now.” He glanced down at his hand, touching the silver ring, jaw clenched. Thalia watched quietly, though compassion softened her soul. He searched for a meaning she did not possess in order to give, though she wished she did. “The Sickness,” he said at last. “Last year. It’s why I came home.” He rubbed his face. “Fucking magic, of all impossible things, so why not this? He would’ve--” The hand scrubbed over his head, and he drew silent. After a moment he slammed the lid down, and made to stand.

Thalia pushed herself up too. She gathered their things quietly, shrugging the rucksack over her shoulder. Koit tucked the box under his arm. She glanced back at the river before she slipped her hand in his and squeezed. He did not let go.

Eha pelted questions upon their return, and Koit offered short replies. All of it in Estonian. Thalia pulled a seat at the kitchen table and slumped into it, listening to the cadence of their rapid words, not sure how much she would have absorbed even if it was in a language she understood. After a while Koit dumped the box on the table and lifted the lid. The soft glow of it hit Thalia’s cheeks before she even thought to look at what she already knew rested within. Her eyes rounded. Beside her Eha thumped heavily into a chair. 

The pinecone pulsed with the soft streaming light of morning's first glow.
She was tired yet dare not sleep. The guest room was dark now, the cottage around her quiet, and she sat nestled in the blankets and pillows Eha had arranged for her. The soft glow of her wallet lit her face. Aylin would only worry, and in all honestly the friends she could confide in numbered few. She had spent years ensuring only the most ephemeral of connections, terrified every time her sketchbooks began to unravel truths she had no way of knowing about the people she cared for.

@"Nox" Hey. I don’t think I’m going to be able to make opening night. Won’t bore you with the strange, sure you have enough of your own ;) I’ll call soon, kay? I want to hear more about the new crush x

She set the wallet aside and tucked her chin onto her knees. The cuts and scrapes she had awoken to that morning still stung, and her hand ached something fierce, but it was not pain keeping her up. Something heavy lodged in her chest, a familiar burden; one that had been brewing for days seeking outlet. Had she been home it was the sort of night she would have shut herself in the studio, ready for that terrible dam to burst -- and prepared to wash with it. All her supplies were there; paints and canvas, paper and pencil.

Here she would be limited.

She bit her lip; tried not to think about it.

You can’t stay awake forever.

But she could try.


She knew as soon as consciousness swept in that it was going to be bad. The cushion beneath her face was wet, the tears still clinging half-dried to her cheeks. Her heart hammered as she pressed a sob into the pillow, begging herself to silence. Grey light drifted passed the curtains, and though the shrill song of birds chirped outside, everything else was still. Frantic, an arm reached out for her bag, and then she was stumbling from the bed, seeking the relief of paper. Her arms burned, the muscles tight, and hunched she drew fast and freehand. Tears pattered, blurring the lines. Her hand was on fire. Blood soaked through the bandage.

The paper ran out before the need, the pages torn and scattered like a storm’s debris when all clean space was gone. No no no no.

The walls were next, until the stub of the pencil snapped -- one after the other, all gone, and still her fingers ached (and this, oh this, was what she had been afraid of). She could not stop, not any more than her heart could cease its pumping and leave behind anything but an empty shell.

Her frightened mind unhooked from the pressures of her body, and time gushed unchecked. She was sobbing when everything stilled, curled somewhere on the floor, and agony was the first curious guest to investigate her returned consciousness. She did not notice the shelter of arms at first, nor the soft sooth of a voice. A blanket warmed her shoulders, and cool swipes ran against her brow. She sank into the comfort, wordless and miserable.

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