do I look moderate to you
In which there is a party. 4k words
“I thought you weren’t holding a Masquerade.”
“Are you wearing a mask?”
Vissenta frowns at herself in the mirror. “No.”
“Then it’s not a Masquerade.” Deirdra pulls a brush through Vissenta’s hair, talking all the while. “Do you ever unbraid this and actually comb the tangles out, or do you just hope for the best until rats start living in it?”
Vissenta crosses her arms. “Those rats need a home.” Her eyes brighten when she sees Portia enter the guest room bearing a tray that holds a pitcher and two glasses. “Ooh, what’s that?”
“Water,” Deirdra says sternly, pursing her lips when Vissenta’s face falls. “Oh, you think I’m going to let you get ready for this party with a glass of wine in your hand? After the way I found you last week?”
Portia rests the tray on the vanity. When she turns toward the armoire, she claps her hands at the sight of the gown hanging from the open door. “Oh, Vissenta, you’re going to look amazing!”
Vissenta scowls. “I’m going to look ridiculous. What’s the point of the sword? Why am I going to have it on my back? Swords don’t go on your back.”
Deirdra rolls her eyes. “It’s decorative. I wanted to try at least some semblance of a theme, since everyone seems to think this is just another costume party.” She hands the hairbrush to Portia. “Pasha, sweetheart, could you help untangle this mess while I go look for some pins?”
Fidgeting in her seat, Vissenta tries to turn her head, only for Portia to grasp her on either side of her temples and steer her face toward the mirror. “Dee, you are not putting my hair up. You aren’t.”
“I am,” Deirdra retorts, rummaging through an enameled box to pluck out an assortment of hair pins, some plain and some jeweled. “How can you be the Queen of Swords with the same old braid hanging down your back?” She rests the pins along the edge of the vanity table. “Besides, the sword would get in the way.”
“It wouldn’t if I just wore it on my hip like a normal person,” Vissenta whines. “Dee, this is ridiculous. All I’m doing is a tarot demonstration, right?”
The troubled look on Deirdra’s face doesn’t inspire confidence. In fact, all it does is make Vissenta feel very, very uneasy, even more so when Portia seems to take this as her cue to hand over the hairbrush and make a graceful exit. “Dee?”
Deirdra pours a glass of water and hands it to Vissenta before pouring her own. “Vis, darlin’, we might… we might need you to give a little alchemy demonstration too.”
Vissenta’s heart sinks. “So is Sa- Alexander not coming?”
The look Deirdra gives her now is cheerful. A little too cheerful. “Oh, we can only hope he’ll show up, but I’d rather have a sure thing lined up.” She starts separating Vissenta’s hair into strands to start braiding, placing pins along the way to turn the braid into a crown. “You were just telling me a week ago about how you can make fireglass. I think that would be nice.”
They sit in silence for a long while, with Deirdra braiding and pinning and working a spell for curling as Vissenta stares into the mirror, her eyes gone unfocused as she turns the thoughts over in her mind. When she finally speaks again, her voice is small. “I fucked up.”
Deirdra meets her gaze in the mirror. “I wouldn’t say you fucked up.”
“You don’t know.” Vissenta wishes she could slump over against the table, but Deirdra’s hands in her hair keep her from burying her face in anything, and so she has to face how her cheeks go splotchy and her eyes well up as she tries to explain. “I overreacted, and I mean… who does that? Who just assumes the worst about everyone?”
“Other than you?” Deirdra finishes curling one last wisp of hair just in front of Vissenta’s ear. “I wouldn’t be surprised if Alexander has the same problem.”
Vissenta starts to shake her head, vehemently, until Deirdra seizes her by the temples and tsks. “Ow!”
“Don’t you dare mess up my hard work.” Deirdra sits beside Vissenta and reaches for a pot of pigment - something shimmery and purple, it looks like, and Vissenta automatically closes her eyes - and begins to dab color on her eyelids. “Now, what I was trying to say is that we all have things in our past that affect us. I’d imagine that being known as your mother’s ‘mistake’ would give you some trust issues and just…” She frowns. “Well, to be honest, several kinds of issues.”
Vissenta leans back, blinking her eyes open wide. “He’s what now?”
“Vis, I wasn’t finished!”
Vissenta leans back even further. “Nuh-uh. Nope. You’re going to tell me right now.”
“It’s not my story to tell,” Deirdra snaps. When Vissenta quails beneath her tone, she sighs. “I just think the two of you have quite a few things in common, is all.”
“Oh no.” Swatting away Deirdra’s hand, Vissenta stands and pours herself another glass of water. “He’s still more normal than I am. He is, Dee.” She downs the water in just a few gulps and starts to pace. “I’m just a… gods, what even am I? Armand thought I was a bargaining chip, the twins thought I was an untapped power source, and Marcelie…” Her voice catches.
Deirdra stands and pulls Vissenta into an embrace. “Marcelie did her best,” she whispers. “She just didn’t know what else to do with a scared little girl.”
“She put me on a ship with nothing, Dee, and now what am I?” Vissenta rubs furiously at her eyes. “I still only know how to fight, and I don’t know how to do anything else.”
“You do.” Deirdra lifts Vissenta’s chin up. “Darlin’, you’re smart as hell, you’re a brilliant card-reader, and you’re the best friend I could’ve asked for.” With one more tight hug, she guides Vissenta over to the armoire. “You didn’t ruin anything. You might even find you get another chance.”
Vissenta snorts, dropping her robe to step into the silvery lavender gown. “That only happens in books.”
Deirdra clasps the back of the gown closed. “Never say never.”
Vissenta has to admit: Deirdra planned a damn good party.
She’s avoiding the wine, even though she’d like nothing more to soothe her jangling nerves as the time for the alchemy demonstration draws near. The thought of screwing up what she knows is already a difficult transmogrification spell is bad enough. Best not to add alcohol to the mix. At least, not until after it’s done.
She’s also more than a little irritated at the decorative sword on her back. She’d told Deirdra repeatedly that no self-respecting Queen Of Swords would carry her weapon for the aesthetics, and yet here she is, swanning around with the stupid thing bumping against her shoulders and ass while she’s just trying to play nice and socialize.
And of course, she can’t stop thinking about Alexander, as much as she wants to not think about him, and she finds herself constantly searching for a familiar shade of red every time she enters a new room.
It’s all adding up to make her… tense.
“Shit!” Vissenta spins around, and the hilt of her absolutely useless weapon nearly knocks Deirdra’s drink out of her hand. “Ugh. See? See, Dee? This is why I need to have the sword on my hip.”
“And make it easier for you to draw at a moment’s notice? No thank you.” Deirdra’s voice is mild, but there’s tension in her own shoulders as she takes Vissenta’s hand and steers her away from a table laden with canapés. “It’s almost time for the demonstration,” she says, her voice going high and sing-song. “Last one of the night.”
“Oh, so no pressure at all,” Vissenta retorts sourly as she swipes another handful of bite-size spanakopita from the table. As she pops them into her mouth one-by-one, she scans the hall that they pass through, still looking for a flash of red. “Have you seen…?”
Deirdra looks over and relaxes a bit, an apologetic smile on her face. “Not yet. But I haven’t seen Asra either, and you know the two of them are close.”
“Hm.” Vissenta flexes her fingers and rolls her shoulders back. “Well. Guess I’d better get this show started.”
The many and varied demonstrations that have happened throughout the evening occur on small risers placed at the center of each room, with little fanfare to announce the start. Still, word must have spread that the final demonstration of the evening would be in this room, and there’s more people than Vissenta is entirely comfortable with, milling about and chatting excitedly. She holds her hand out to Deirdra. “Pebble.”
Deirdra presses the stone into her hand and closes her fingers around it. “You’re gonna knock ‘em dead.”
“Or myself.” Vissenta exhales sharply. “Actually, that’s preferred.”
And with that, she takes the small stage.
She tries to remember how Alexander explained this particular working to her, and the principles of transmogrification, and all the rest of the jargon that he still managed to make sound like a damn poem whenever he explained it to her. But when she looks up and scans the faces in the small crowd, it all evaporates, and she simply smiles weakly. “So. I, um. This is how you… make fireglass.” And with that, she closes her eyes and cups her hands around the pebble and draws on her magic.
Alchemy takes the kind of magic that she’s not used before. She has to work for it, seek it out, dive into a part of her mind that feels adjacent to wherever her more natural clairvoyant abilities exist, but is just different enough to feel as if she’s doing everything in reverse. Like if she had a sword in her left hand, rather than her right.
When she opens her eyes, just slightly, she looks down and focuses on the shimmer of purple around the small pebble. Seeing her magic take shape, take color, was perhaps the most exciting thing when she began learning from Alexander, and she wasn’t shy about letting him know her delight.
And he never made fun of her for it, or treated her like she was childish. In fact, he’d been just as delighted to watch her learn.
Stop it. It’s been a week. She can’t wipe at her eyes right now, but she can blink, and she can tilt her face up to the ceiling as she regains her bearings. Instinctively, she begins to murmur the incantation, feeling the way her magic shifts, and it helps guide her back to the task at hand. I can do this. When she looks back down, her eyes scan the crowd again.
And he’s there.
Vissenta stutters mid-sentence, and as she does so, the pebble drops into her hands. The pebble, which is halfway through its transformation, and is hotter than anything Vissenta’s ever felt in her life. “Fuck.” She hisses in pain as she drops the distorted piece of stone, its glassy surface marred by bubbles. She can barely hear the wave of concerned exclamations that ripple through the crowd as she locks eyes with Alexander.
She can’t bear to look at him for more than a few seconds. He’s started to move already, through the crush of people, and Vissenta follows her instincts: she runs.
She gathers up the skirt of her dress in her fists and hops down from the risers, ducking and weaving out of the room as well as the awkward sword jostling against her back will allow. At the door opposite of where she’d come in, and opposite of where Alexander had been standing, she finds Deirdra. “I need a drink.”
Deirdra takes her by the shoulders. “Vis? Sweetheart, are you all right? What happened with the spell?”
Vissenta shakes her head and grabs Deirdra by the wrists and begins to drag her out of the room. “Dee, I mean it, I need something to drink, some fresh air, and something to hit, in that order.”
Deirdra cranes her neck around Vissenta. “Did you know Alexander’s here?”
“Gods, he’s dressed better than you are.”
“Oh, fine.” Deirdra pulls Vissenta to the closest table laden with coupes of golden, fizzing wine and passes one over. “Do you really want to hit something?”
Vissenta tosses back the drink and seizes another. “Absolutely.” She eyes the swords hanging along the wall, sizing them up, and snatches one that looks like it might actually be useful, unlike the joke of a practice sword strapped to her back. “I’m going out to the gardens.”
It might be a tree, but gods, it’s satisfying to hit.
That’s all Vissenta can think as she swings the blade in her hand, landing blows on a tree that she hopes neither Nadia nor Deirdra are particularly fond of. She’s long since discarded her prop sword on the ground, to give her more freedom of movement, and she swings, and thrusts, and even tosses in an imagined parry and riposte.
She’d forgotten how much she missed being able to do this.
Her heart and stomach are still churning, and her head is still spinning, and she knows it’s not from the wine. The way the blows of her sword send a shock up her whole arm - force against unyielding object - helps her push it down. Because if she allowed herself a moment to stand still, a moment to breathe and think about anything other than this sword and this tree and this absolute farce of a night, she’d crumple.
Gods, she might even cry.
Her heart nearly stops at the sound of Alexander’s voice and she whirls, still brandishing the sword, the tip of which whizzes mere inches from his nose. “What?”
His eyes are wide and trained on the sword, which she still holds pointed at his face. “Your fighting form is… very good.”
Vissenta narrows her eyes. “I know.”
Alexander takes a deep breath, but he doesn’t step back, even as he keeps staring at the tip of the blade. “I…” He swallows nervously, his Adam’s apple bobbing, and he finally tears his eyes away from the steel in order to meet Vissenta’s stare. “We need to talk.”
“Do we?” Vissenta takes another step closer, but Alexander still doesn’t step back, in spite of the sword still trained at his chin. “I didn’t think there was a whole lot more to say.” Then, an idea begins to grow in her mind, and she can feel a manic grin slowly spread across her face. “Unless, of course, you want to show me how good your fighting form is.” She nods at the prop sword on the ground. “If you can beat me, we can talk.”
Vissenta counted on Alexander to give it a try. What she hadn’t counted on was the way he picks up the sword, as if he’s testing its weight and balance, and immediately takes the stance of someone who knows exactly what they’re doing.
She’s the first to move, as rash as she knows the decision might be, and she mentally curses herself for likely broadcasting her every intention as Alexander deftly blocks her first swing. “Nice form, MacRionnag.”
Something’s changed in Alexander’s face and voice and general demeanor. Vissenta notices, even as she’s doing her very best to knock him flat on his ass, that he moves with much of the same confidence he has when he’s in his lab. He’s in his element, as if he’s done this before, and she makes a mental note to ask him exactly where, when, and how he’s done this before.
No. You’re still mad at him.
The gown he’s in - clearly Asra’s doing, and Vissenta makes another mental note to thank Asra for several blessings on this day, including an advantage for dueling - doesn’t do him too many favors when it comes to maneuvering or footwork, particularly on the stairs they’ve now moved to, and Vissenta prays that she isn’t going to trip on her own hem as she ducks to take a swipe at his knees.
Alexander manages to stay upright and unscathed, though he looks a bit less steady and sure as he twists around to try and catch sight of Vissenta. “That’s not fair!”
“Lots of things aren’t fair.” Vissenta is vaguely aware that a crowd has begun to gather around them, but all she can think of is winning. She pushes him up to the veranda, waiting to see if he’ll stumble on his way up the stairs, but no matter what she does, no matter how she comes at him, he keeps his balance until they’re both on level ground. “Gods, you can’t dance but you can do all of this?”
“Not the same thing,” Alexander pants, twirling rather impressively as he tries his level best to knock Vissenta’s sword from her hand.
As the fabric that falls from his shoulders moves with him, Vissenta knows just how she can win. And it certainly won’t be fair. “How do you think I learned how to dance?” She ducks behind him, behind the falls of gauzy blue, and when Alexander turns to try and spot her, she catches the tip of her sword on them and throws him off balance. He lands on his back with a thud, and Vissenta plants her feet on either side of his waist as she tips his chin up on the end of the blade. “So, have I won yet?”
Alexander looks up at her, eyes wide and chest heaving. “‘Leannan’ means ‘beloved,’” he blurts out.
All of the air is knocked from Vissenta’s lungs, and she drops the sword with a clatter. “What?”
Alexander shoves himself up to sitting, still looking up at her. “It means… a few things. Lover. Sweetheart.” He clears his throat and shakes his head. “The leannan sidhe is a beautiful woman of the Folk who… takes a lover. And possesses their soul.” The words all come out in a rush, and when he finishes, he looks up at her again, his face gone red from more than just exertion.
Vissenta’s suddenly aware of the hush that’s fallen over the knot of people gathered around them, which includes Deirdra and Nadia and Asra. Her own face burning, she reaches for Alexander’s hand and pulls him to standing. “I have a guest room,” she whispers. “And we have to talk.”
Vissenta realizes, as she shuts the door behind her, that her dress is a wreck. The clasp in the back is just barely holding on, the filigree at her shoulders is completely askew, and there’s grass stains all along the hem.
Alexander’s outfit hasn’t fared much better. There’s where Vissenta shredded the bright blue tulle hanging from his shoulders, and the gold spaulders holding it in place look worse for the wear. Vissenta winces when she gets a look at another tear in the deep purple of the gown’s hem. “Oh, I didn’t mean to do that.”
Alexander follows her gaze. “I told Asra this was an absurd thing to wear.”
“Oh no,” Vissenta says hurriedly. “Don’t say that. It looks…” She sighs. “Looked wonderful.” When she looks into Alexander’s eyes, she sees that his gaze has softened, even as it’s still tinged with worry. “I… Sacha, I’m sorry.”
Alexander looks taken aback. “You’re sorry?”
“Yes!” Vissenta crosses her arms and starts to pace, just as she’d done mere hours ago in this same room, though it seems like it could have been days ago by now. “I mean, who reacts like I did? It was… it was stupid, and it was juvenile, and I should’ve gone into it with more…” She waves her hands in the air and huffs. “Realistic expectations.”
“Realistic expectations?” Alexander takes a step towards her, gently grasping her waving hands to still her motions, to still her anxious pacing. “I was the one with unrealistic expectations.”
“How?” Vissenta looks up at him. “How, exactly, was it unrealistic to expect me to act like a normal goddamn human being?”
Alexander looks like he’s ready to start pacing around now. His eyes are wide, even a bit pleading, and he holds on to Vissenta’s hands as if for dear life. “I thought…” He takes a deep breath. “I thought you were joking when you told me. And, and…” He lets go of her hands in order to start running his hands through his hair, as if he might start trying to pull it out by the roots, but seems to think better of it and instead sits carefully on the edge of the bed as he rests his forehead against his palms. “And I underreacted, if anything. I thought… I mean I think… I mean…” He trails off, searching for the words, still not meeting Vissenta’s eyes.
Vissenta sits next to him, unsure if she should reach out to take his hands, or rest her hand on his back, and so she simply folds her own hands in her lap instead. “Keep going,” she says, softly. “It’s just me, Sacha.”
“But you’re not just anyone,” he says in a rush. “Vissenta, I don’t let people get close, and for what I thought were very good reasons, and then you just…” He does look up at her now, his expression somewhere halfway between a smile and tears, if such a thing were possible. “You were… there. Always there, and not letting me forget you for even a minute.”
Vissenta bites her lip to keep from smiling too wide. “I’ve been told it’s one of my most irritating qualities.”
“One of your most endearing.” Alexander does truly smile now. “I mean it.”
She can’t help her disbelieving snort. “So what, I just wore you down?”
He shakes his head. “No. You…” Alexander reaches one hand up, as if he might tuck a stray lock of her hair back, and hesitates, stopping just short of actually reaching forward. “I wanted you around. Want you around. I just didn’t think I’d be able to…” He trails off again, his eyes moving to trace the features of Vissenta’s face.
She tilts her head and purses her lips. “Sacha?” When he doesn’t immediately respond, she feels her heart hammering fit to burst from her chest, and the flutter of her nerves makes her start to smile.
“I love you.”
Vissenta’s still smiling, and now it turns to a grin, and before she can stop to think, she begins to laugh. She laughs with relief, and with something more, and it takes her a moment to realize that she’s the only one laughing. Taking a deep breath, she takes Alexander’s hands and laces her fingers through his. “I’m…” She snorts, giggling again, and needs a moment to control herself before she can begin again. “I’m... sorry. I’m not laughing at you, I promise.”
When Alexander still doesn’t reply, she untangles one hand to reach up and run her thumb over the crease between his brows. “I’m happy, Sacha. Believe it or not, those are words I haven’t exactly heard much before.”
His answering smile is tentative. “So I should say them again?”
Vissenta doesn’t give him a chance. She lunges forward, wrapping her arms around his neck and knocking him back onto the bed as she slants her smiling mouth over his. Pulling back from the kiss, she looks down at him and beams. “I love you, Sacha.”
He pulls her down for another kiss, but not before murmuring against her lips: “I love you.”
Her hands in his hair. “I love you.”
His hands tracing a line down her back, sliding down the dress that’s just barely holding on. “I love you.”
Over, and over, with every kiss, every touch, every inch of fabric that slips away between them, they repeat the words, back and forth. "I love you."
“I love you.”
“I love you.”