Stopping Time and Old HabitsMelissa Marr
Stopping Time and Old Habits
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A Short Story in the World of Wicked Lovely
Unlike some faeries, he didn’t bother with a glamour. He sat on a bench across from the tables outside the coffee shop. Their silent late-afternoon meetings had become a routine of sorts the last few months, and each week, the temptation to speak to him grew greater—which was why she’d invited a study group to meet with her this week. Their presence was to be incentive to keep her from talking to him.
It didn’t help. These together-but-not times were the closest thing she’d had to a date in months. She looked forward to seeing him, thought about it throughout the week, wondering what he’d be wearing, what he’d be reading, if this week he’d approach her.
He wouldn’t. He’d promised her choices, and he wouldn’t take them from her. If she spoke to him, it would be because she approached him. If she went to him, it would be of her own volition. If she wanted to stop seeing him, she could stop arriving here every week. That, too, was her choice. So far, she resisted approaching him and speaking to him. She did not, however, stop coming to the precise spot each week at the same time. They had a routine: he read whatever his book of the week was, and she studied.
And tried not to stare…or go to him…or speak to him.
She couldn’t see the cover of his current book at first. His taste was eclectic in genre, but consistent in quality. She glanced at the book several times, trying for subtle, but he noticed.
He still notices everything.
With a grin, he lifted the book—one called American Gods this time—higher, hiding his face as a result. The extra benefit of that move was that she could look at him unabashedly while they both pretended he didn’t realize she was admiring him. He appeared happier of late, far more so than when she’d left Huntsdale. Ruling the Dark Court had suited him, but advising the new Dark King seemed to suit him better. He hadn’t lost his taste for indulgent clothes, though. A silk tee and tailored linen trousers flattered him without being ostentatious. The silver razor blade he’d worn before was accompanied by a small black glass vial. Without asking, she knew it was the same ink that she had in her tattoo.
Maudlin or romantic? She wasn’t sure. Both maybe.
He lowered the book, taking away her unobserved access, and stared at her for several heartbeats. Often, he stayed invisible when he came to sit near her. This week he was very visible, though. She saw him either way, but when he was visible to others, it was extra difficult to keep her gaze off him. His visibility was an invitation of sorts, an extra temptation to approach him.
It means I could walk over and start talking to him.
“He’s got it bad,” one of her study partners commented.
Beside her, Michael was silent.
Leslie tore her gaze from Irial and looked at her companions. “He’s an old friend.”
The curiosity on their faces was obvious. She shouldn’t have met them here.
“A friend you don’t talk to?” Jill’s voice held the doubt that the others were too polite to voice. “What kind of friend is that?”
“One who’d move the earth for me, but”—Leslie glanced back at Irial—“not one who brings out my better side.”
His mouth quirked in a just-restrained laugh.
Got to love faery hearing. Leslie watched the girls check him out—as he preened for them. It wasn’t overt, but she knew him. His tendency to arrange himself to his best advantage was reflex more than choice.
“Well if you don’t want him…maybe I should go say hello.” Jill flashed her teeth in what passed for a smile.
Of course, I want him. Everyone who looks at him wants him.
Anger rose up inside of her as Jill stood and started across the grassy lawn that separated the coffee shop and the bench where Irial waited. Worse still, it embarrassed her to admit that she felt a familiar possessive pang. Irial was hers. That hadn’t changed, wouldn’t change.
Except that it did.
When she left his world—their world—she’d made it change. He still watched her, not in a predatory way, or even in an intrusive way, but she’d see him around campus. While Irial watched, Niall respected her requests not to visit; instead, he sent Hounds to guard her. Occasionally Aislinn’s rowan-people or the Winter Queen’s lupine fey looked in on her too. Leslie was safer than she’d ever been, guarded by the denizens of three faery courts, and pretending not to notice any of them.
That was an implicit understanding: she mostly pretended they weren’t there, and they pretended she wasn’t ignoring their presence. Sometimes ignoring the fey made her feel a kinship with Aislinn. When Aislinn was mortal, she’d had to pretend not to see them. They hadn’t known she had the Sight. Leslie, however, didn’t need to pretend.
Except for myself…and for him.
She smiled at Irial, letting the illusion slip for a moment—and immediately regretted it. He lowered his book and leaned forward. The question in his expression made her heart ache. She didn’t belong in his world, not even now that he was no longer the Dark King. Talking to him was dangerous. Being alone with him was dangerous. It was a line she couldn’t cross—not and still retain her distance. If she were to be honest with herself, it was the other reason she’d invited her study group this week. She could speak to them, say things she wanted him to know without admitting she was speaking to him.
She shook her head and turned away. There were moments when she failed, when she talked to the fey, but not to Irial.
Never to him.
Jill was beside him now, and he spoke to her. No doubt he said something charming but dismissive.
Leslie stared at the page, her notes blurring as she tried to look anywhere but at Irial. Resolutely, she read over the words in her notebook. School was the one thing that helped her focus; it was how she had kept it together when she lived in Huntsdale, and it was how she had continued to hold on the past few months. She’d rather hurt and keep trying than hide from her feelings. Irial had helped her see that.
Seeing anyone else near him hurt. Seeing him hurt. Not seeing him hurts more. That was the challenge, the dilemma she couldn’t resolve: his nearness made her feel safe, made her feel loved and valued, but it reminded her of what she couldn’t have. Two faeries, arguably the two most tempting faeries in the world, loved her, and she couldn’t be with either of them—not without sacrificing too much. She couldn’t be a good person and be in their world. Maybe if they were part of any other faery court or if she were a different sort of person, she could build a life with them, but the future she’d have in the Dark Court wasn’t a future that she could accept. Monsters don’t become house pets, and she didn’t want to become a monster.
“Well”—Jill plopped down in her
seat again—“that was interesting.”
“What?” Leslie’s heart sped. She might have the Sight, but that didn’t give her faery hearing or reflexes.
“He said—and I quote—‘Tell Leslie that I send my love or anything else she might need.’” Jill folded her arms over her chest, leaned back, and studied Leslie’s expression. “Gorgeous guy, apparently loves you, and you—”
“Drop it.” Leslie’s calm faltered then. Her hand started shaking as she gathered up her notes. “Seriously. He’s…a part of my past. He’s why I moved here. To be away from him.”
Michael put a hand on Leslie’s arm. “Is he threatening—”
“No. He isn’t here to hurt me. He…he’d protect me at his own risk. Our situation is just”—she looked in Irial’s direction and caught his gaze—“complicated. I needed space.”
She didn’t look back at her study group. No one spoke, and she couldn’t think of anything else to say. The awkwardness of the situation was more than she wanted to deal with. How do I say that I love and am loved by…Dark Kings? Faeries? Monsters? There weren’t words to explain—and the only one there who deserved her explanation already knew it.
She stood. “I’ll catch you in class.”
She slung her bag over her shoulder and walked away. She paused after she passed him and whispered, “Good night, Irial.”
“Be safe, love. I’ll be here if you need me,” he promised her. There was no censure in his words; he gave her the reassurances he knew she needed: that he loved her, that he protected her, and that he did so from a distance.
Faeries don’t lie, he’d once told her, so listen carefully to what we actually say.
By every mortal standard, the worst faeries in the world were those in the Dark Court. They fed on the baser emotions; they engaged in activities that the other—also amoral—faery courts repudiated. They were also the only ones she truly trusted or understood.
Irial watched her walk away until he was sure that she was within sight of her guards. She grew stronger every week. If any mortal could’ve survived the Dark Court, it was his Leslie. Her strength awed him, even as it manifested in choosing to continue loving two faeries but to be with neither of them. Few mortals had the mettle that she did.
But being strong didn’t mean that she should hurt. If he had his way, she’d spend the rest of her life cosseted. And that life would be as long as Niall’s. Irial had learned centuries ago that the world didn’t always bend to his will. Unfortunately.
After he was sure Leslie was far enough away that she wouldn’t think he was stalking her, he walked away from the coffee shop. There were always guards near enough to hear her if she cried out for help. He’d prefer that there were guards walking alongside her, but she would suffer more for that. Their visible presence saddened her, so the guards had been ordered not to crowd her. At least not all of the time. It was a delicate dance, watching her but not being too present. In this, as in so many other things, Leslie was an anomaly. She accepted their guardianship, but not their omnipresence. She accepted their love, but not their companionship.
Everything on her terms or not at all. Just like Niall.
He walked only a block before he saw Gabriel leaning against his steed, which was currently in the form of a deep-green classic Mustang. If Irial asked, Gabriel could spout off the year, engine, and modifications his steed was currently adopting, and for a moment, Irial considered doing just that. It would be more entertaining than a lecture.
Gabriel pushed away from the car. “What are you doing?”
Irial shrugged. “Checking on her.”
“And if Niall finds out…your king who told you to stay away from her? What do you think he’ll say?” Gabriel joined him, walking in the direction Irial had already been going. The car didn’t follow.
“I suppose he’d be angry.” Irial smiled to himself. Angry Niall was far more fun than sulking Niall. If it wasn’t so counterproductive, Irial’d spend more time actively trying to provoke his new king. My only king. Sometimes the fact that he had a king amused Irial to perverse degrees. After centuries of leading the Dark Court, he was monarch no more. He’d returned to what he was before, a Gancanagh, fatally addictive to mortals, solitary by nature—except that Irial had never really been one to follow anyone’s conventions but his own. Rather than resume solitary status, as was typical of former Dark Kings or Queens, he swore fealty and stayed in his court as advisor to his new king.
Gabriel scowled at him. “Seriously, Iri, you can’t see her if you want to stay in the court…and you know he needs you. You don’t expect him to put up with this, do you?”
“I wasn’t planning to tell him. Are you planning on spilling my secrets?” Irial stopped and stepped in front of his friend and former advisor. “Tell him the things I do when I’m not dutifully awaiting his attention?”
“Don’t be an ass.” Gabriel punched Irial. The force of it knocked Irial backward. Blood trickled from Irial’s lip. The Hound had always hit with enough force to draw blood. Several garish rings on his hand assured that every punch would wound—or leave behind distinct bruises.
“Now that you’ve made your point”—Irial licked the blood from his lips—“tell me: have you found her father? Or the wretch?”
Gabriel shook his head. “Niall didn’t want you knowing about that.”
“Niall doesn’t always get what he wants though, does he?” Irial watched a pair of coeds sizing Gabriel up. He spared them a smile that had them changing their path to approach—until Gabriel snarled at them.
The moment evoked a longing for simpler days, when he’d first met Niall and the three of them had traveled together. Various Hounds and Dark Court fey joined them here or there, but Gabriel was always with them to keep Irial safe. Niall was an innocent of sorts: he’d had no idea that he traveled with the Dark King, no idea that he himself was a Gancanagh. He was young and foolish, trusting and forgiving.
Until he met me.
Gabriel shrugged. His loyalty was to his Hounds first and then to the Dark King. A former Dark King, friend or not, fell somewhere after that. “I’m not disobeying my king, Iri, not even for you. If he wants to tell you, he will. Come on. Let’s go back to Huntsdale before he—”
“No.” Irial wasn’t in the mood to argue, at least not with Gabriel. The Hound was obstinate on his best days. “I’m not with Leslie, so you don’t need to intercede for the king. Unless he sent you after me?”
Gabriel held out his bare arms where Irial’s commands had once been written out, where Niall’s would now appear. “There are no orders here.”
Gabriel shook his head. “I thought he was an ass when he was with the Summer Court and trying to stay away from you, but you’re both a pain these days. Either work your shit out or walk away from the court, Iri, because this isn’t how you obey your king or work anything out with the one you claim to love.”
Irial didn’t answer. There wasn’t anything to say. His feelings for Niall and his feelings for Leslie were tangled together. He wanted Leslie to live surrounded by the protection of the Dark Court, indulged and cosseted while she lived out her mortal life. He wanted Niall to woo her and bring her home. He couldn’t truly have a relationship with either of them, but he’d done what he could to make them safe to have one with each other. If they were together, he’d have both of his beloveds in one house. It was the closest to a relationship with them that he thought possible. It was also what would make them happiest. They were just too damn difficult to take the obvious path.
Which is part of why I love them.
Leslie let herself into the building, wishing for a moment that Irial had walked her home or followed her. She knew she was safe, knew that her building was secure, knew the logical things that should make her feel okay. She still had panic attacks, though. Her therapist assured her that she was making great progress, but the hypervigilance was worse at night. And in close spaces. And in strange spaces. And in the d
ark when I am alone. Sometimes, she thought about inviting her faery guardians in so she wasn’t alone. My very own monsters to chase away the fears.
Now that she felt her own emotions, she wished she could give him the ones that left her shaking in cold sweats from nightmares she barely remembered. She wished she could give him the edge of the bad emotions—to nourish him and to let her get sleep.
It didn’t work like that, though. Since she’d severed her connection to Irial, she was left with mere mortal solutions. She went into her apartment, turned the door lock, but not the bolt. Not yet. She flicked on a light and then another. Then she checked each window. She opened the closets, peered under the bed, and pushed the shower curtain aside. It was obvious that no one would fit under the bed: there was no room. It was impossible to hide behind the shower curtain: it was gathered. Still, if she didn’t check, she’d be unable to rest. Once she was confident that she was alone, she turned the bolt.
Her pepper spray stayed in reach though. Always. Her phone was in reach too. The therapist, the girls in group, they talked about the difference between being cautious and being unwell. They claimed that she was being rational, that caution wasn’t bad, but she didn’t feel very rational.
“I’m afraid,” she whispered. “But it’s okay to be afraid. It’s normal. I’m normal.”
Silently she fixed a salad and took it into the living room. She slipped a DVD into the machine, so the silence wasn’t as weighty. The opening of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, a show that she’d found on DVD and loved, made her smile. It was a strange security blanket, but it never failed to remind her that she could be strong. That I am strong.