Fresh Cut Grass wasn't the only one watching Imogen sleep tonight.
It sounded creepy when she thought about it, but Laudna didn't really care. She liked things that were creepy.
When Imogen was having a dreamless night, there was a peace that settled over her body that Laudna rarely got to see when she was awake. It was the sort of thing she only experienced when they were out on the road together and there was no one else for miles. In the city like this, and even on the road with just their new friends, so much of her energy was dedicated to keeping other people's thoughts out of her head that she was always tense, like a wire stretched taut until it was ready to snap.
But here, lying in bed at the Spire by Fire, she was practically boneless in Laudna's arms. They were both especially clingy since Laudna's resurrection, so it was no surprise that she had cuddled up in Laudna's embrace the moment she fell asleep. Not that Laudna minded. In fact, she was enjoying it. She got a close-up view of Imogen's sleeping face, her smooth, unbothered brow, her lips slightly parted to let out slow, quiet breaths, her cheeks and nose just a little pink from the chilly night air.
She looked like an angel. More than usual. And Laudna wished desperately that there was some way she could give Imogen this kind of peace in her waking hours.
Laudna sighed, restless, and nearly jumped when she heard a quiet throat-clearing sound behind her.
"Sorry, just noticed that you aren't asleep," Orym whispered. He had taken first watch and was sitting cross-legged against the wall facing the door to their room, just a couple feet away from Laudna and Imogen's bed. "Not that pointing it out will help, but you need sleep more than the rest of us right now."
Laudna sighed at that, looking back over toward F.C.G. who was standing on the other side of the bed, blank eyes pointed at Imogen. He seemed to be in some kind of low power state, because he hadn't reacted at all to Orym speaking.
"I got enough rest when I was dead," Laudna whispered, tossing a grin over her shoulder at Orym before she slowly extricated herself from the bed. Imogen barely moved, just making a tiny sound of contentment when Laudna pulled the blankets up to her chin and leaned down to press a kiss to her forehead.
"Is it too soon to make that joke?" she asked as she sat down beside Orym on the floor. He smiled at her, and she immediately felt more comfortable.
"You're the authority on coming back from the dead," he said with a raise of his eyebrows, and Laudna had to stifle her laugh. "Although, Fearne and I are catching up."
“Oh, right,” Laudna whispered pensively, squinting a bit in thought. The tail end of that fight with Otohan was a bit murky in Laudna’s mind. Rightfully so, but still. “I wasn’t the only one Otohan killed that day, was I?”
Orym reached out and placed a hand over Laudna’s on the floor between them. There was something about Orym that made it easy to forget how small he was. It wasn’t like he had a large presence or anything, that he took up a lot of space. It was more like he was so constant and steady, in Laudna’s mind he was as big as a house. But his small, calloused hand on top of Laudna’s made her fingers look even more overlong and spindly than they already were.
“No, you weren’t. And that reminds me, I have a couple of apologies to make to you,” he said gravely, and in true Orym fashion he looked her steadily in the eyes as he continued. “As I understand it, Letters only had enough energy for one spell, so he brought back Fearne. And Fearne was in the same boat energy wise, so she uh…” Orym paused, scratching the back of his neck for a moment in a move that Laudna had learned he did when he was unsure of his next words. “She flipped a coin, and it came up me. So… I’m sorry about that.”
Laudna tilted her head curiously and flipped her hand over so she was holding Orym’s.
“My dear Orym,” she sighed, smiling sadly. “It sounds like that was fate’s decision, not yours. You’ve no need to be sorry.”
“Yeah, well,” he sighed, glancing past Laudna at the bed behind her. “You didn’t see the look on Imogen’s face when I came back and you were gone.” Laudna stiffened. “Not enough apologies in the world for that.”
What a dreadful concept: Imogen being sad or hurt and Laudna not being there to try to make it better. Laudna being the cause of it, even. She swallowed hard, pushing herself not to dwell on it, and squeezed Orym’s hand.
“Well it was probably for the best, in the end,” she said, forcing lightness into her tone. “Sounds like odds were just as good that you’d have brought Delilah back.”
She wasn’t scared to say her name anymore. She allowed herself a moment of pride at that. Small victories.
“Which brings me to apology number two,” Orym sighed. He must have heard movement in the hallway, because he held up a hand and listened intently for a moment. But it was likely just another guest staying at the tavern passing by the door, because he relaxed and looked over at Laudna again before much time had passed. “It was my idea to bring you back to Whitestone. I didn't realize how scared you'd be when you woke up, and I'm truly sorry."
Laudna leaned over (and down a bit) and bumped her shoulder gently into Orym’s.
“That I can forgive you for,” she whispered, and this time she didn’t need to force warmth into her tone. “I never would have gone back there by choice, but it was where I needed to be. There’s certainly a part of me that never would have healed right if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes.”
“That’s really good to hear,” Orym said in that wonderfully sincere way of his, and the two of them sat in companionable silence for a moment and listened to Ashton and Chetney snoring in almost-harmony.
“Oh, goodness, I still haven’t thanked you,” Laudna said suddenly, taking Orym’s hand again. “You’re the one that called me back. Well I suppose technically Pike Trickfoot did, but I heard you as well. What you said was just so lovely, Orym. Thank you so much.”
Orym sounded a bit choked up when he quietly said, “I meant every word.” But then he looked at her strangely and Laudna wondered if she had said something wrong. “Did you really only hear me and Pike?”
Laudna thought about it for a moment. The whole event was a bit foggy now. There had been the mystery voice: Pike, she would later learn. Then Orym, and it had been like she could see him, sitting at her side, holding her hand, blooming flowers in her hair. It got murkier after that, but…
“No… no, I heard F.C.G., but he sounded so far away I couldn’t understand him,” she began thoughtfully. “And… and Imogen, I heard Imogen’s voice. But…” She frowned as she examined the memory. “Hm. I think whatever was left of Delilah at that point was blocking Imogen’s words.” Orym’s eyebrows ticked up in surprise, and Laudna shrugged. “Delilah never liked Imogen. She makes me too happy, and Delilah preferred me miserable.”
Orym looked torn between smiling at Imogen making her happy and frowning at Delilah making her miserable, so Laudna let her gaze drift over to Imogen. She was moving a bit in her sleep, stretching her arms out across the bed like a dozing cat, and Laudna couldn’t stop the question from slipping out of her.
“What did they say?” she whispered, glancing back at Orym to find him smiling at her rather sadly.
“I don’t think it’s my place to tell you,” he said wryly, and Laudna rolled her eyes playfully. “But I’m sure both of them will if you ask.”
“You’re right, of course,” Laudna sighed, and Orym returned her gentle shoulder bump from before. As always, her eyes fell back to Imogen as she shifted in her sleep, and that same anxiety that had kept Laudna awake was suddenly clawing its way up her throat. "She won't really tell me much about those five days I was gone. Did… did something happen to her that I should know about?"
"Yeah, you died," Orym said immediately, and Laudna would have rolled her eyes again if he didn't sound so serious. He gave her a long look that made her feel rather like he was peering into her soul. "I don't know if you realize how much it affected her, Laudna. She was like… a shadow of herself. An echo. If you hadn't come back, a big part of her wouldn't have either."
Laudna swallowed hard, sadness settling in her stomach like a stone.
“But she’s… she’s so capable,” she whispered around the lump in her throat with some difficulty. “Surely she would have… recovered, soon.”
Orym’s hand was on hers again, and she almost jumped at the contact.
“She slept beside your body whenever she could,” he said in a voice strained by sadness. “She refused to say that you were dead, always tiptoed around it by saying you were gone, or you fell. I think…” Orym paused, sighing heavily, and Laudna just wished and wished and wished that none of it was true, but she knew it was. “If we hadn’t managed it, I don’t think she ever would have stopped looking for a way to bring you back.”
Laudna closed her eyes and shook her head.
“Well that won’t do,” she murmured, and she tried not to sound like she was crying but she absolutely sounded like she was crying because she was absolutely crying. “She has so… so many things, important things to do.”
Orym was silent for a long time, and when Laudna opened her eyes he was looking at her with a thoughtful frown.
“Can I make an observation?” he asked delicately, and Laudna had no idea where he was going with this, but she still nodded. “You want to give Imogen a better life. The life you missed out on. Right?” Another nod. “If you want this better life to be what she wants, you have to be in it.”
Laudna stared at Orym, unblinking, as she struggled to let that statement sink in.
“The way you talk sometimes, it sounds like you think she’ll eventually outgrow you, or not need you anymore,” he continued, and he sounded almost cross. That was the only thing that stopped Laudna from nodding in agreement. “That’s not gonna happen, Laudna. You need to understand that. You’re worth so much more, to all of us, than what you can do for us.” Laudna sniffled, and Orym took one of her hands in both of his. “There may come a day when she doesn’t need you, or me, or anyone. But I am completely certain that she is always going to want you by her side.”
Laudna looked down at their hands, his so warm and sure, hers so cold and shaky. She sniffled again, brusquely wiping black tears away with the back of her free hand.
“How can you be certain of that?” she whispered, smiling sadly at Orym. She sounded small. She felt small. Orym sighed, rubbing the back of his neck again.
"Honestly?" Orym asked gently, and Laudna just nodded. He looked down at their hands too. "Seeing her when you were gone… was kind of like looking in a mirror back when I lost Will."
The implications of that statement blew Laudna’s mind, and Orym must have noticed her reeling because he patted her hand and gave her a few long moments to just breathe and try to reconnect herself to the ground.
"I'm not trying to say your relationship is the same as ours was, it's just… the nearest comparison I have," he whispered. "She was… adrift. Unmoored. And I remember that feeling well."
Eventually, after a few more times wiping black tears from her face with the heel of the hand not clasped in Orym's, Laudna nodded slowly.
"I can… try, to start thinking better of myself," she acquiesced, though the words were difficult to say. "It should be easier with Delilah gone, I think. I hope."
Orym smiled at her proudly, and Laudna was startled by how nice that felt. Then Orym's eyes unfocused a bit and he seemed lost in thought for a moment.
"Huh. I think I just put something together," he murmured.
"What do you mean?"
“When we went into that… that dark dimension, where Delilah had you trapped,” Orym began quietly, and his voice fell into that low rhythm he used when he was explaining a plan. “Whenever we saw you, saw memories of you, it was like you were made of this… flickering black flame. Like a strong wind could come by and you’d just be gone.”
Laudna nodded, trying to picture what he described. Imogen murmured something in her sleep and they both looked over, but she didn't wake, so Orym continued.
“But there was this heart glowing inside the black fire, this strong purple light. Not flickering,” he explained thoughtfully. “Now I don’t want to toot my own horn here, but I’m pretty observant.” Laudna let out a helpless little laugh, and Orym smiled. “If I wasn’t, I probably would have assumed that purple light around your heart was the same purple energy that made Delilah’s form in there.” Laudna frowned at that idea, but Orym wasn’t done. “But it was different. It was a different shade, a different light. It sparked.” He took Laudna’s hand again and she met his eyes. “It was Imogen’s light, Laudna."
Laudna stared at him, unsure of what that meant but feeling a growing warmth in her chest regardless. In the center of her… was Imogen's light. What a pretty thought.
"It makes sense now. You said it yourself, Delilah never liked her," Orym said quickly. "Maybe because she couldn’t get to your heart anymore. Imogen was keeping it safe from her.”
Laudna laughed again, quietly, and shook her head at the absurdity of it.
“Or perhaps… Delilah couldn't even find my heart anymore,” she sighed, lifting a hand to her chest and finding that once again, her gaze had fallen back to Imogen. “Because Imogen has it. It’s hers. It’s been hers since the moment we met.”
Laudna took a few shaky breaths as she let herself believe it. Allowed the possibility of a future with Imogen to fill her mind. Orym was right, she had fixed herself into the idea that eventually, she would be alone again. Imogen would move on to bigger and better things, and Laudna would have done what she set out to do.
But how much of that had been Delilah whispering in her mind, telling her that she would never be worthy of Imogen's love? Telling her that her friends would turn on her and leave her behind?
“Well shit, Orym,” Laudna muttered, looking down to find him watching her with a cautious smile. “I thought you were going to help me fall asleep, not drop several earth-shattering revelations on me within the course of a few minutes.”
“In my defense, I did ask you if I could make an observation,” he pointed out gently, and she barely had time to roll her eyes before she pulled him into a hug. He laughed into it for just a moment before he hugged her back.
"That you did," Laudna sighed when she pulled back, wiping the last of the tears away from her face. "Thank you, truly. I needed to hear it."
"Anytime. Now get some rest."
Laudna had just gotten to her feet when Imogen jerked in her sleep, hands grasping at the space beside her in the bed and finding nothing.
"Laudna?" she murmured, a note of panic cutting the sleepy tone of her voice.
“I’m here,” Laudna whispered, quickly slipping back into the bed and wrapping her arms around Imogen as fast as she could. “I’m right here, my darling.” Imogen let out a shuddering sigh of relief as she curled up in Laudna's embrace, burying her face in her shoulder and breathing her in. “I’m never far.”
“Got scared,” Imogen whispered, hands tightening in the fabric of Laudna's sleep shirt for a moment. "Thought you were gone."
“I’m so sorry, dearest, I couldn’t sleep, so I was talking to Orym,” Laudna murmured into Imogen’s hair, and she could feel her relaxing as she began to run a hand slowly up and down her back.
“No no, don’t apologize,” Imogen murmured sleepily, and Laudna felt her shaking her head against her shoulder. “I just… want you close.”
Laudna wrapped her arms around Imogen even tighter, picturing herself holding all of their broken pieces together, and Imogen sighed comfortably.
“I’m not going anywhere,” Laudna said firmly, putting as much certainty into the words as she could. “Not without you.” Imogen's breath slowed as she slipped back toward sleep, and Laudna suddenly felt bold enough to whisper, "After all, you have my heart."
Imogen made another content little sound as Laudna pressed a kiss to the top of her head.
"You would know," Imogen murmured, and Laudna could hear the smile in her voice. "You have mine."
Laudna couldn't see Orym, but she could practically feel his smug little grin as she finally drifted off to sleep.