Worth the Candle, Ch 116: Therapy

It was always the lulls that I treasured most.

“Okay,” I said to Fenn as the train rumbled along the Lion’s Mane. I reached into the backpack, visualized what I wanted, and pulled out a candy in an orange wrapper. “This is a Reese’s.”

“Are we going to be sick from all the sugar?” asked Fenn.

“Do you get sick from too much sugar?” I asked. “Because this is important cultural understanding I’m giving to you.”

“Okay,” said Fenn with a smile. “If I get sick, you’re to blame. Explain your Earth candies to me.”

“Alright,” I said. I unwrapped the peanut butter cups. “Now, this is an Earth detail that only us Earthlings would know. You take the paper wrapper off the chocolate, and — ah, see there?” I pointed to the center part of the paper cup, which had bits of chocolate and peanut butter stuck to it. “That’s a detail that you’d only know if you were from Earth,” I said. “Vintage Americana.”

Fenn stared at the residue. “Why?” she asked.

“You know, I don’t know,” I said. “I mean, obviously the chocolate sticks to the wrapper and then tears away because it’s partially melted and pretty thin without structural integrity, but the real question is why this travesty has been allowed to continue for something like eighty years. Probably it would cost an extra few fractions of a cent to change to a different wax paper that didn’t stick so much, which would mean millions of dollars in costs.”

“No,” said Fenn, smiling at me. “I meant, why are you showing this to me? But ah, this is one of those things you think is Serious, isn’t it, and now I’m in the know.”

“It is serious,” I said with a frown. “It’s very serious. This is the sort of person that I was before coming to Aerb.”

“The sort who complained about candy?” asked Fenn. “Yes, I suppose I can see that, Juniper Smith, railing against the,” she picked up the wrapper and looked it over, “The Hershey Company. You know, this has got nothing on how annoying elf candy is.”

“Elves have candy?” I asked. “I thought they mostly ate raw meat.”

“Oh, sure,” replied Fenn. “But you know how elf culture places all this importance on eating and consuming, right?”

“I really, really don’t,” I said.

“Well, I told you,” said Fenn. “Are you an inconsiderate hooman that doesn’t listen to his betters?”

“Right,” I said. “Right, right, I just meant that I don’t really ‘get’ the whole consumption thing. Like, you’re the only elf that I know even a little bit, and you don’t make a big deal out of your meals, so it’s hard to get a firm grip on what it actually means from the inside.”

“Well, meals are always a production,” said Fenn. “It’s the same attention to detail and precision that gets placed on almost everything else, and though the ritual aspects of it are simple, they have to be done exactly right, and if you don’t do them right, then — well, it only really applied to me, and they hated me, so you can guess that it wasn’t good.”

“Anything that I come up with is going to be worse than what it was,” I said. “You shouldn’t let my imagination run wild.”

Fenn rolled her eyes. “Anyway, most meals were put together by someone who did that as their jobs. They’d take the meat, slice it up, present it, and we’d all eat these arrangements, but the dessert, or thing that was sort of like a dessert, was always put together by the people eating it. The chef would bring out little bowls of things, mostly animal byproducts, and everyone would assemble their own little work of art, usually not more than a few bites worth. We’d present them to each other before eating.” She cupped her hands forward, like she was holding out a present for me.

“That doesn’t sound so bad,” I said. I frowned slightly. “Makes me think of frozen yogurt, actually. Wait, let me try something.” I dipped my hand back into the backpack and focused on my ‘order’.

“You look cute when you concentrate,” said Fenn. “So serious about candy.”

“It’s a dessert,” I said. “And I believe you meant I’m handsome.”

“That too,” said Fenn. She leaned forward and kissed me, and that continued on as I tried to make the perfect frozen yogurt for her, until eventually I pushed her away so I could present it to her.

“Ta da!” I declared.

Fenn looked down at my creation. It hadn’t come out quite the way I’d envisioned it, but the basics were there. It was a sloppy mix of base flavors, with heaps of different candy, dessert, and fruit piled on top, including four different syrups.

“There is nothing that I want more in this world than to bring you to meet my extended family and fumble your way through a dessert,” said Fenn. “It would be glorious. We’ll have to make sure that you can take ten or twenty elves in a fight before that though.”

I smiled at her. “Whatever would make you happy,” I said. “Now, we should eat this before it warms up too much.”

And that was how it went between the two of us, when we were alone and there was no pressure to talk about anything else.

The room was dimly lit by a handful of lamps, with the humidity of a conservatory and a wide array of plants hanging down above us. I wasn’t entirely sure why Bethel had decided on a semi-tropical theme for the room, but we just sort of accepted Bethel’s eclectic taste in rooms. A large, hexagonal terrarium sat to one side, with its own lighting, which showed a complicated scene made up of exotic plants, rocks, and water. It took me some time to realize it was supposed to be a stylized map of Aerb.

“Before we start, we need to have some ground rules,” said Valencia. “First, I won’t say anything to either of you that I know to be false. I’ll work primarily toward trying to fix the problems in this relationship, and if I feel that’s impossible, I’ll work toward making the split as amicable as possible.”

“You think that it might not be possible to save?” asked Fenn. She looked over at me. “Come on, it’s a fight, they happen.”

“So you’re not all that pissed?” I asked.

“Didn’t say that,” said Fenn. “I’m agreeing to this mostly to hear you get told off by our darling little devil girl.”

“Fights happen,” said Valencia. “But I don’t want either of you to get your hopes up about what I can do, especially given that such a belief would be destructive to the process. What we’re doing here is, essentially, completely untested and far different than anything a devil’s skills have been used for in the past. Devils put people together as couples sometimes, and even make them fall in love, but that’s only so that they can be broken apart again. I’m aiming for something a bit more permanent.”

I shifted in my seat. “You’re going to use social fu in order to weld us together?”

“Ah,” said Valencia. “You feel uncomfortable with that. Why do you think that is?”

Fenn was staring at me.

“Well,” I said. “First, I don’t appreciate being called out, and second, I … kind of think that’s a big step? Like, I wouldn’t voluntarily alter my internal values to make Fenn my sole focus, and I wouldn’t ask, expect, or want her to do the same. The idea that she wouldn’t kill me in order to save Aerb is, frankly, insane. So I guess that I want us to go back to the way things were, rather than being bonded together forever.”

“What do you imagine the end state of your relationship as?” asked Valencia.

“I don’t know,” I said. “I thought that we had fun together. We enjoy each other’s company. I felt like we could keep doing that. Maybe in a year or two it would be something else, but right now … we haven’t been together for that long. Months, if you count the batches of letters. Less, if you don’t.”

“We’ve been through a lot,” said Fenn. “It feels like more than it’s been, at least to me. I’d hoped you felt the same. If you didn’t, maybe you should have said something sooner.” She folded her hands in her lap. “I offered to have your children.”

“You said someday,” I replied, but I felt a little bit of sting from that.

“You took what she said as notional or emotive, rather than earnest,” said Valencia. “It’s a recurring problem between the two of you.”

“You mean a problem with him,” said Fenn, frowning slightly. “I say things, and he brushes them aside.”

“You share culpability,” said Valencia. “You often deflect from unpleasant subjects, and you make a habit of being intentionally obtuse as a way of hiding your thoughts and feelings from others.”

“Yeah,” I said. “It makes it hard to tell when you’re serious or just making a joke. It gets really frustrating when you do all that and then expect me to be able to read your mind and know which is which, especially since you say things as a joke so you have cover in case you’re wrong.” It was the same way that she had flirted with me, come to think of it. Her flirts were jokes, but jokes that could either hint at the truth or be deniable as humor to make me uncomfortable. Jokes were a way for Fenn to protect herself. I had known that for a long time. I’d had some success in getting through them, but it was effort that I couldn’t always spare, and effort that I wasn’t always sure was wanted.

“She’s right that you’re dismissive,” said Valencia.

“I’m not,” I replied, a bit too quick. “I think of some things as jokes when they were only halfway meant as jokes, but that isn’t nearly the same thing as –”

“That’s not what I mean,” said Valencia. “You don’t treat Fenn as an equal in the same way that you treat Amaryllis as an equal.”

I tried my best to shift gears. “Is this about Amaryllis?” I asked Valencia.

“Ask her,” replied Valencia.

“Is it?” I asked Fenn. “Because you know that I chose you, and she cut her attraction toward me out entirely, and we went two months without anything happening –”

“You do not get points for not cheating on me,” said Fenn. She was glaring at me. “That’s basic decency. And no, it’s not at all about romance, you bonehead, it’s about how you treat us. If Amaryllis says something, you treat it like it’s serious, and if I say something, it’s just brushed off to the side, and I get why that is, I really do, but I also kind of hate it. I sometimes feel like I’m your girlfriend and nothing else to you.”

“You know that’s not true,” I said. “And besides, you’re the one who’s always joking about how you’re the laziest member of the group, and how you don’t care about anything so long as you can have a nap every once in a while.”

“Do you not notice that her words don’t match with what she does?” asked Valencia.

I stopped for a moment to think about that. “You mean the training she does with you?” I asked.

“Among other things,” said Valencia. “Do you understand that most of her efforts to assimilate Earth culture have been in service of forming a deeper bond with you?”

“I’m not sure that counts as work,” I said. I saw Fenn’s face fall slightly. “Sorry, but watching anime isn’t what I would call work, especially not when it’s not related to Aerb, and it’s not stuff that Arthur or I have ever seen.”

“Well, screw you,” said Fenn, crossing her arms. “And you get that a lot of elven culture is ripped off from Japanese culture, right? We’re carnivores, and most of our meals are delicately prepared slices of raw meat. That’s almost exactly sashimi, and sushi is like the bastard child of elven and human culture. And then past that, half of elven culture is the exact polar opposite of Japanese culture, like someone took wabi-sabi and decided to explore the opposite direction of it entirely, which seems like a thing you might have done and just forgotten about. Part of why I was ‘wasting time’ looking into Japanese culture is that I thought it was meant to be a reflection on elven culture, or maybe the other way around, and we could learn something from it.”

“You never told me that,” I said.

“I did!” shouted Fenn. “I tried, anyway, but I said wabi-sabi, and you apparently didn’t have any idea what that meant. Instead of asking me, so I could tell you, which is what you would have done with Mary, you just brushed me off and wanted to talk about something else instead. And that’s the whole frustrating thing about you. Sometimes you save my life with a blood transfusion, and sometimes you just don’t give a shit about me. The end point of that is me saying, ‘hey, I have a bad feeling, we should take off’. You left me behind so you could go play the hero.”

“You were the one that left me behind,” I said.

“I don’t think this is a productive line of conversation,” said Valencia. She shifted slightly. “We should focus on the root issues. Fenn, do you think you understand the reasons that Juniper might sometimes act dismissive toward you?”

“Because he’s so up his own ass that he can’t –” began Fenn.

“If you want this process to work, you’re going to have to show some charity,” said Valencia. “Don’t insult him.”

Fenn folded her arms. “You want me to be polite?” asked Fenn. Valencia nodded. “Okay, well. Juniper likes to monologue about things that he gets off on, whether that’s game design or tabletop games or Nash equilibria or worlds and how they’re designed. Right?”

I gave a curt nod. “You said you found it endearing.” I’d have stopped, if I thought that she wanted me to, or if she’d said something, like a grown adult should have done.

“I do find it endearing,” said Fenn. “The problem is that it’s a one way street. At best, you listen to what other people say and break it down into a Juniper-understanding of things.”

“I have no idea what that means,” I replied.

“May I?” asked Valencia. Fenn gave her a nod, arms still crossed. “What she means is that you have a way of modeling information as either facts or systems, reordering them into a framework that works within what you understand to be the totality of existence.”

“What does that even mean?” I asked.

“I’m not sure that the concepts fully translate,” said Valencia with a frown. “Just a moment, let me get a different devil.” Her face sagged slightly, but after not too much time she returned to the same studious expression she’d had before. “Ah, you understand the philosophical roots of the Second Empire, don’t you?”

“Sure,” I said. I was a little bit confused by the non-sequitur. “They were … I don’t want to say the equivalent to the Enlightenment, since Uther more or less started that on Aerb, but they were something similar, at a larger scale.” Also, Nazis.

“You think the way they did,” said Valencia. She left that sentence hanging there, all by itself, not quite an accusation to be answered, but somewhat close.

“They were top down,” I said. It was the second time in an hour that I’d had to defend myself as not actually being a fantasy Nazi. “Most of their mistakes were mistakes of thinking that the world would easily bend to the imposition of mortal rules. Even if that were true, a lot of their rules were, as I understand it, stupid.”

“So you don’t believe in rules?” asked Valencia.

I frowned slightly at that, then looked to Fenn. “Does this have anything to do with our relationship?”

“Do you think she’d be asking if it didn’t?” asked Fenn.

“Well, do you know where she’s going with it?” I asked.

“No,” said Fenn, frowning at me. “Probably she’s going to say that you’re bad at seeing things from someone else’s point of view.”

“Not quite,” said Valencia.

“Good,” I said, crossing my arms, then uncrossing them when that seemed like it would signal defensiveness. “Because frankly, I think that I’m pretty good at seeing other points of view.”

A slight look of consternation crossed Valencia’s face, just for a moment, which I assumed was intentional on her part, either a piece of her strategy here, or maybe just a signal of her internal emotions she was allowing herself to express. “I would say that you’re good at disassembling a variety of viewpoints and reconstructing a version of them which maps cleanly to your view of the world and how things work within it.”

“That’s the same as what I said,” Fenn added.

“And that was one of the sins of the Second Empire?” I asked. “They ignored the world as it was and mapped their version of reality in places where the territory wasn’t conducive to that mapping? That seems like it’s just a sign that their map wasn’t very good to start with.”

“It’s why you have a hard time with the locus,” said Valencia.

I tried to think that over before I offered a response. “I will accept that as true.”

“It’s why you have a hard time with me,” said Fenn.

“I’m not actually convinced that I do,” I said. “Like, okay, you’ve been trying to do more but hiding it under the guise of not actually doing anything, and you make jokes so that no one will call you out on your imperfections because –” because you’re so horribly insecure “– because you grew up with the elves, and they would slap you down whenever you did anything at all imperfectly.”

Fenn frowned. “Is that what you think of me?” she asked.

“I mean … yes?” I asked. “That’s not all I think of you, but if I had to break you down into a set of simple algorithms and their sources, then yeah, I would say that’s a big part of why you act the way you do. You joke a lot, and those jokes all serve some purpose, which is usually to cover for your failings, to push people away, or to avoid potential problems.”

“My failings?” asked Fenn. She was scowling at me.

“I really don’t think that’s such a shitty thing to say,” I replied. “I have failings, you have failings, even Val has failings, though none come to mind at the moment. I’m saying, if you fuck up, you treat it like a joke rather than owning up to it. Your default is to just brush things off, or bury them, and you try your best to not be serious, even when that’s what the situation warrants.” I shrugged. “I get it.” I glanced at Valencia, whose impassive look gave away nothing.

Fenn seemed a bit pissed, but she opened her mouth and then closed it again, and let out a deflated sigh. “I’ve been trying to get better,” she said. “I’ve been trying to tell you things, as much as I can, I’ve been trying to be more serious, I’ve been getting the crap kicked out of me by Val, it’s just, I don’t get rewarded for it, I get punished. I come looking for a seat at the table, and you push me away. You make me feel unwanted.”

“Come on,” I replied. “You know that I want you.”

“You want me in one specific way,” said Fenn. “You want me as the outwardly happy woman who hides her damages and acts as though she doesn’t give a shit about anything.”

“That’s not true,” I said.

“It is,” said Valencia. Her voice was soft. “A bit.”

“It is?” I asked.

“It may not be the way you think of yourself, but Juniper, the way you think of yourself is not the way that you actually are,” said Valencia.

“Do you remember after we came down the tower in Parsmont?” asked Fenn. “I was trying to talk about serious stuff with you and you were just getting distracted by, I don’t know, random bullshit about worldbuilding. And when I told you that I was going to try to be better, you just made this token effort to support me and then blew me off like it wasn’t actually important.”

“I had other things going on,” I said. “And you said that you didn’t want me to help, so it seems like there was nothing that I could have done to win. It was lose-lose.”

“There are a number of problems with your relationship,” said Valencia, taking the reins. “Fenn, you often want Juniper to act of his own accord, even when you’ve either expressed disinterest in his help or advice, or actively told him that you didn’t want it, even when you did. Juniper isn’t terribly good at reading those complexities.”

“I shouldn’t have to be,” I said. “I try to say what I mean, and everyone else should too.”

“Except that when Fenn does, you ignore or deflect,” said Valencia. “This is, in part, also due to your failure to read social cues. You have an image of Fenn, one which you prefer, which doesn’t match up to who she actually is, and you often mistake forthright behavior for coy, joking behavior.”

I frowned at that. “You’re saying, essentially, that I don’t treat Fenn with the complexity that she’s owed?”

I thought back to the letter that Fenn had written me, laying out how she’d had an illegitimate child she’d never told me about. She’d said that I had an image of her, and that she was worried that if I ever realized that she wasn’t who I thought she was, I wouldn’t love her anymore. At the time, I’d thought that was absurd, and it hadn’t changed my feelings toward her, but I was seeing echoes of that argument here, and I wondered whether she had been more right than I’d known. I was about to say that out loud, but I could immediately see what Fenn would say, ‘oh, so when Val says it, it’s worth listening to’, willfully forgetting for a moment there were reasons for me to trust Valencia’s logic more than Fenn’s.

“It’s deeper than that,” said Valencia. “There are disconnects between the two of you, both in terms of who you are, who you think you are, and who you think the other is. Those are the things that we need to very delicately reconcile.”

“Very delicately … because otherwise we’d fall out of love?” asked Fenn.

“One or the other would, yes, or neither would, but the relationship wouldn’t be salvageable,” said Valencia. “This is the reason I thought it would probably take a few hours of discussion. It would be better to resolve things over the course of weeks or months, a little bit at a time, but the problems between the two of you are already interfering with our ability to function as a group.”

“If we’re talking about what happened at Speculation and Scrutiny, I’m not even sure that’s true, given that things worked out in the end,” I said.

“You arguably both broke democracy,” said Valencia. Her voice was calm and understanding. I sort of hated the level of control she had. “One of the primary pillars supporting group unity has been kicked out from under us, and there’s nothing to replace it. Amaryllis agreed that any self-modification would be mediated by the group, and you’ve set a precedent that the will of the group and established order could both be bucked at a moment’s notice. Grak was already only hanging on by a thread, and without group unity, he’s likely to go through with leaving us once we have the money he thinks he needs.”

“There’s nothing left of Darili Irid,” I said. “I talked to him about it, in private. Where’s he going to go?”

“That’s not for me to say,” said Valencia. She turned away from me. “I’ve already collected too many secrets, most of them on accident, and it’s not my place to reveal them all.”

“Do we need to be worrying about Mary?” asked Fenn.

“You need to be worrying about each other more,” said Valencia. She was looking at Fenn. “Juniper needs you, but the specific way in which he needs you is as someone fun and unserious. He might not put it like that, but it’s one of the reasons that he loves you. You’re his refuge from the stress he faces. You need to remember that he’s young and doesn’t really understand what he’s doing in relationships.”

Valencia turned to me. “Fenn is trying to be someone better. She can’t be what you need her to be, not if she’s going to become that other person, at least not in the short term. If you want to keep dating her, or eventually marry her, then you’re going to have to cultivate an appreciation for her that extends beyond her ability to make you laugh and keep things down to earth. Unfortunately, you’ve been ignoring all the parts of her that you don’t like, which is going to make that difficult.”

Valencia sat back in her chair and closed her eyes. “Just a moment, I need to get another devil.”

“We’re sure burning through them, aren’t we?” asked Fenn. “Sign of a good relationship, that.”

“Yeah,” I replied. I wasn’t really in the mood for jokes.

“I’m really waiting on tenterhooks for the moment she fixes everything,” said Fenn.

“I can’t,” said Valencia, opening up her eyes. “I’m sorry.”

“Can’t, meaning, what?” I asked.

“I said that I wouldn’t lie,” said Valencia. “I’m trying my best, but devils aren’t suited for this. They have the understanding of people necessary to manipulate, but all that fine-grained manipulative power is geared toward improving people in the short term so that they can be broken down later on. You both understand the problems now, right?”

“Not really,” I said. “I mean, we seemed fine yesterday.”

“No,” said Fenn. She was slouched down in her chair.

“No?” I asked.

“No,” said Fenn, more firmly. “I love you, but …” she trailed off. “I shouldn’t have sent you that letter.”

“If you think that I love you less,” I began.

“No,” said Fenn. “I mean, I shouldn’t have been so much of a coward that I needed to send it in a letter, and because I did, it screwed the whole thing up. I was waiting, really nervous about what you would say, and then when you responded, it was, you know, a few weeks later for me, and a few weeks later for you, and the whole thing sort of shifted us around without us ever being face to face, and when we came back together I think I’d changed a little, or at least I’d tried to, and it’s just felt off since then.” The words were coming out fast, slightly disjointed from one another, as though she’d thought about this a lot and was trying to get it all out now without fully remembering the things she’d been thinking in the shower. “I told you that I’d prepared a campaign of Arches, and you gave me this look like I’d pooped in your cereal. You think that I’m dumber than you, and we’ve both got soul magic, so it’s not really a secret that’s true, but I’ve still been wishing that you wouldn’t treat me like I was dumber. We’ve been out of sync. Partly it’s the backpack, and all the effort I’ve put into learning about Earth, which seems like it just annoys you, when you get it at all. That’s how I’ve felt since getting out of the time chamber. And we still haven’t really had an in-person talk about a bunch of the stuff that we said in letters, because I’m scared, and you’re scared too, but for you it’s more about not wanting to rock the boat because you’re happy where things are, and for me it’s just … feeling shitty about myself.”

We sat in silence for a moment. There were a lot of things that I wanted to say. Not talking about things was, in a way, our default mode. We’d spent a lot of time together, and most of it wasn’t spent talking about serious things, it was superfluous, light and airy, as she’d said back in Barren Jewel. I wanted to make up all sorts of justifications for why I was in the right, or claim that she was changing the script right when we’d gotten on stage.

The truth was, Valencia was right. The thing that I loved most about Fenn was how easy it was to be with her. It had felt natural, and Fenn was right, it had felt less natural since we’d gotten out of the time chamber, even if I felt like our letters should, by rights, have drawn us closer together. I didn’t know how to deal with her baggage. I barely knew how to deal with my own.

I stayed silent.

“Fix it,” said Fenn. She was looking to Valencia. “Just manipulate us however you have to. Say the magic words, even if they’re false.”

“I don’t think there’s anything I can say that would fix the underlying issues,” said Valencia. Her face had fallen. “I could try, but you can’t convert someone in the course of a conversation, not unless you’re converting them in a direction they were already predisposed to. And … I’m not going to prey on your guilt or insecurities.”

I swallowed, feeling a hard lump in my throat. “What does this mean?”

“You have options,” said Valencia. “You can stay together, which I think would likely result in cycles of unhappiness as you fought and made up. It’s possible that might be enough for the both of you. Whether it is or not depends on the sorts of situations we find ourselves in. Maybe you could both grow into a different relationship from the one you have right now, one that’s less prone to argument and discontent.”

“Or we could break up,” said Fenn.

“That has its own problems,” said Valencia.

“Yeah,” said Fenn. She slammed her fist down onto the chair and broke something wooden in the arm.

“I don’t think it’s come to that,” I said. “Can’t we just resolve to be better? I’ll try to take you seriously, if you try to make sure that you’re not asking me to read through layers of social cloaking to know when you’re joking and when you’re not, or when you’re joking but also serious. Okay?”

“You’re suggesting a restructuring of your relationship, not just in the way that you relate to each other, but in what you both expect from a partner,” said Valencia.

“I — yeah. So?” I asked. “If that’s what it takes, then yeah, I don’t just want to throw it all away.”

“No,” said Fenn. Her voice was distant, cold. “It was a mistake.”

“What was?” I asked.

“Us,” she replied. “I love you, that hasn’t changed, but … we need to take a break.”

“Are you seriously dumping me?” I asked. “How is that even going to work? I see you every day, we’re attached at the soul, we can’t just go back to … what, being friends?”

“We made good friends,” said Fenn. She kicked at the rug beneath her chair. “We can do that again, until I can figure some things out.”

“I don’t even think it makes any difference,” I said. “We’d have all the same problems as companions as we have right now, if I accept the premise that we do have problems.”

“I need to figure out how to be my own person,” said Fenn.

“And how the hells are you going to do that?” I asked. “We’re together all the time.”

“Yeah,” said Fenn. “Maybe that’s going to have to change, just a little bit.”

I stared at her. She wasn’t looking at me.

“Are you serious?” I asked.

“You get that the whole reason I was ever with you and Mary was that it felt like home, right?” asked Fenn. “And if we’re not together, as a couple, I don’t think it’s going to feel like that, or maybe it will feel like all the shitty homes I’ve been a part of. I’d just be following along, risking my life for … I don’t know.”

“To do good,” I said. “The fate of Aerb is on the line. You can’t just bow out.” I could feel desperation clawing at me. I hadn’t gone into this therapy session thinking that things were really that bad between us, but it seemed like the chickens had come home to roost, all at once.

“I can bow out,” said Fenn. “I’ll talk with the others first, but … Juniper, we want different things.”

“We don’t,” I said. “I love you.”

“But the thought of being with me for the rest of your life is a little bit of an off note, isn’t it?” asked Fenn.

I clenched my teeth together, not saying anything, because she was right.

“I’m sorry,” said Valencia. Her voice was soft. “That’s not how I wanted this to end.”

Fenn got up and walked out of the room, closing the door softly behind her.

“You’re not a great therapist,” I told Valencia. “I don’t know what you were planning on doing for a career, but I wouldn’t recommend couples counseling.”

“Are you mad at me?” asked Valencia. Her voice was still soft, and she was sitting in her chair like she was worried that I was going to hit her.

“You don’t know?” I asked.

“You are,” said Valencia. “I screwed up.”

“Yeah,” I said. I closed my eyes. “At best, you overestimated your abilities, at worst, it was deliberate sabotage.”

“Juniper,” Valencia began.

“I’d assume that was what it was, except I don’t see what you gain from it,” I said. “Maybe you could see a way to make things work, but thought we’d both be better off in the long run if we didn’t have each other? I’d almost call that noble, but we asked you to fix things, and you fucked it up, deliberately, because you thought you knew better.”

“You’re hurting me,” said Valencia.

I opened my eyes and looked at her. She was crying, not sobbing, but with tears rolling down her face.

“They never believed me,” said Valencia. “My father and his people, they always assumed that they were talking to a devil, they thought that every cry for food or water was simply a plot of some kind or another. I lived with a gag in my mouth for much of my life. Unless I can prove myself, that’s how people will always treat me, once they know I’m non-anima. You were supposed to be different. You were supposed to have faith in me.”

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I was out of line. I think I’m just shook up from earlier today. Seeing you lie about what your powers were doing, it … it’s not about you, it’s about me feeling shitty about myself and looking for someone to blame.”

“It’s okay,” said Valencia. “I know your faults.”

“Yeah,” I said.

“I didn’t know about you and Maddie until halfway through,” said Valencia. “It would have been helpful.”

“And … what do you know?” I asked.

“You dated her,” said Valencia. She shrugged. “It’s one of the sources of Fenn’s insecurity about your relationship.”

“Our relationship, which is now, apparently, over,” I replied. I felt hollow inside, like someone had scooped out a piece of me. “The whole thing with Maddie was complicated,” I said. “I don’t really want to get into it right now.”

“That’s fine,” said Valencia. “Amaryllis doesn’t know?”

“No,” I said. “Not really a thing that I ever want to talk about with anyone, ever.”

“Amaryllis would prefer to know,” said Valencia. “She has her narrative theories, and I have little doubt that whatever sins you think you’ve committed play into them. Raven is templated from Maddie, created from Maddie’s character, and narrative logic would dictate that we’re going to meet her within the next few years, if not considerably sooner.”

“Sure,” I said. I leaned back in the chair and looked over at the terrarium. “Sure, bring it all on, one horrible hit after another, what do I care?”

“You’re going to be okay,” said Valencia. “It might be a little bit awkward with Fenn, and it won’t feel good, but I think this is for the best in the long term, even if the timing isn’t ideal.”

“Yeah,” I said. “Jesus Christ, we have to go back and talk to those assholes about whether or not they want to kill me.” I leaned forward and rested my face in my palms. “This is dicks.”

“I agree,” said Valencia. “I wish that I could have done more. The problems are fixable, just not in the short term. If you value the relationship, you can work to get her back, the same as you’d do if you were in the relationship. Treat her well, pay attention to what she says, include her on important decisions, and ask her questions if you’re confused about what she means instead of just letting what she says blow past like a gentle, unimportant wind.”

“Poetic,” I said with a frown.

“I phrased it that way so you’ll remember it,” said Valencia.

“Yeah, I probably will,” I said. I let out a sigh. I didn’t feel like moving. “Cheer me up?”

“You want me to fill the role that Fenn was filling?” asked Valencia.

“It sounds terrible, when you put it like that,” I said. “Do you think that anyone would miss me if I just slunk off for a week or two to get my head on straight?” I looked up at Valencia. She was smiling at me. “What?”

“You’re so morose,” said Valencia, still with her faint smile. “But no, you’re not allowed to wander off and wallow while the world slowly collapses into dust around you. There’s work to be done, and unfortunately, you’re the only one that’s going to be able to do it.”

“Doesn’t seem fair,” I said.

Valencia raised an eyebrow.

“Right, sorry again, you know all about not fair, I guess on both sides of the coin.”

I paused and actually took the time to think, but my thoughts wandered to Fenn. What were the rules now? Was I supposed to not look at her? To just shut off the part of myself that was attracted to her? To literally do that, on the level of my soul? I had little doubt that was what Amaryllis would do, if faced with the same situation, especially given we were in the middle of something important that should ideally have my full attention. I wasn’t about to complicate matters further by bringing it to the Council of Arches, nor was I onboard with the idea of soul-surgery in any case, but I did give it enough thought that I had to consciously reject it.

There was this concept of grief as having five different stages, which wasn’t really that grounded in science, but nonetheless sometimes helpful for people to get a handle on their emotions. At times like this, I liked to run through them all as quick as I could, just to try them on for size.

Denial was easy. Of course Fenn and I weren’t really broken up, it was just a bump in the road, and we’d still be seeing each other enough that the sparks that had initially drawn us together would eventually rekindle something. We couldn’t share a room together anymore, obviously, but it wasn’t hard to imagine that while we were splitting things up, I could just say that I missed her, or ask for one last kiss, or something.

Anger was easier. If it had been such a problem for her, she should have said something sooner, instead of letting it fester, and if she knew me as well as she thought she did, she should have realized that I sometimes needed more direct prompting. There were a lot of things to be angry with Fenn for, and faults that I could pick at, little things that I had let slide at the time but were eager to come crawling back. I could tell, already, that it was going to sting that she’d been the one to dump me. I could feel a coiled serpent of anger inside me, a familiar one, all my worst impulses brought to life, and I had to remind myself that I was just trying anger on for size, it wasn’t actually what I wanted to feel. It didn’t get in more than a lick of flames.

(“You are better than her,” the serpent hissed. “If anyone was going to dump anyone, it should have been you that ended things with her.”)

Bargaining? I’d already done some of it, but I could have amplified it more, prostrating myself to Fenn in order to try to save what we’d had together, calling to mind all the good times we’d had together. Fenn, in her sundress, as we sat on a picnic blanket at the bottom of the bottle, wasn’t that worth staying together for? Couldn’t we have that again? It felt like I had just let her go without a fight, and maybe that was a sign that I agreed on some level that we shouldn’t be together.

I’d had enough depression in my life that I didn’t need to simulate how that might feel. It was already tinting how I saw the world, crowding out the serpent of anger that was my next-strongest feeling. I couldn’t really afford depression at the moment. Valencia was right, the timing was terrible.

Of the five stages, that only left acceptance. I tried to imagine a world where I had made peace with Fenn and I no longer being a couple, and I just couldn’t do it. Logically, I knew how I would behave, but it was like looking at a different person in my mind’s eye, and I couldn’t see how I would ever bridge the gap between myself and that person.

I looked to Valencia. “Can you see how this goes for me?” I asked.

“I can’t read the future,” said Valencia. “I can’t even read minds. My best guess is that things will be awkward for a while, you’ll try your best to be more aware and accepting of Fenn. Whether you’ll succeed or fail … I think you’ll succeed, personally, but it might go either way.”

“You’ll promise to try your best to manipulate us?” I asked.

Valencia shifted in her seat. “No,” she said. “I don’t actually think you’re that good together.”

“Ah,” I said.

“I didn’t sabotage you,” said Valencia.

“I didn’t say it,” I replied. Not that I would have to, if you can read it on my face. “Sorry, can you drop the devil now? I don’t really think it’s necessary for this. If we’re just talking, I mean.”

“I’ll keep it for now,” said Valencia, folding her hands. “And I’m letting you know that, rather than just faking it, because I think it’s important that you know I’ll be honest with you about that. I’m sorry that I faked it when I used the infernoscope, but I would probably do it again.”

“Okay,” I said. I stood up from my chair and stretched. “Can I ask why you think we make a bad couple?” No, why we made a bad couple, past tense.

“Right now, or in the future?” asked Valencia.

“Either,” I said. “Both. I mean, I know what you said about us having different needs …” I trailed off. I didn’t really like thinking about it, but I did want to hear what Valencia said.

“In a proper relationship, both people become better for it,” said Valencia. “Fenn was clinging to you because you were the first person in a very long time, maybe ever, who didn’t mark her as being abnormal.” I wondered whether that included Amaryllis, but held my tongue. “She wasn’t making you a better person. You weren’t making her a better person. You indulged each other, and annoyed each other when that indulgence wasn’t there. There was no introspection on the nature of the relationship, not that there needs to be, if you’re naturally responsive to each other’s needs … which you weren’t.”

“And if we do change?” I asked, still frowning. “You still think we wouldn’t be good together?”

“There are possibilities,” said Valencia with a shrug. “Telling you about them makes them a little less likely, I think. You already struggle with entitlement, in part due to your unique position within the world.”

I grit my teeth, just a bit. “Meaning that if you tell me what I need to do, I’ll do it with the expectation that I’ll get something out of it, and that will be less effective than simply doing things for their own sake, or because of internal motivations? That kind of thing?”

“Yes,” nodded Valencia.

I let out a sigh. “Okay,” I said. “Sure, I’ll just … try to be better. And if I fail, you tell me, okay?”

Valencia nodded.

“Alright, let’s go in for round two with these people, I guess,” I said with a sigh. “And let’s hope I’m not required to be chipper.”

The worst thing about going to school in a small town was that you couldn’t actually escape your problems or your past. That was triply true in high school, since I had to see the same old people in the hallways. Victor Clark, the boy I’d attacked because he’d said the thing I least wanted to hear at the time I least wanted to hear it? I still had classes with him, even after the school administrators shuffled our schedules around so they could minimize that conflict. We were a class of a hundred fifty students, which meant seeing the same people over and over again, unavoidably, especially in the electives. The anger I’d felt toward him was slow to fade, given that every time I saw his face I thought about his stupid, guileless face saying, ‘God works in mysterious ways’, as though he’d meant to comfort me.

I sometimes thought about what it would be like if we’d been young adults living in New York City or some other equally large metropolitan area where you never saw the same person twice unless you really wanted to.

I saw Tiff a lot. I had three classes with her, and we ate lunch during the same period. We never actually formally broke up, but then, we’d never actually formally been dating either. She always made me feel like a wounded animal, like I was just limping along hoping to happen on food and shelter that I didn’t have the energy to find for myself. When I passed her, it was in stony silence, not wanting to say or do anything that would invite her to say something to me. I was always disappointed when she didn’t.

My fantasy version of Tiff looked hopeful at seeing me pass by. Fantasy Tiff was always on the verge of trying to break the ice with me, always trying to get me to warm back up to her. My wishful version of my ex-girlfriend missed me terribly and wanted nothing but to comfort me. It wasn’t actually like that, even if it was sometimes hard to see past what was in my head, or what I wanted the truth to be. Tiff wasn’t quite afraid of me, but she recognized that there was something ugly in me, and maybe that made her sad, and maybe she did want to fix me, but she wasn’t ever on the verge of reaching out to me.

There were other bridges I burned a little more thoroughly, and I was stuck with seeing those failures too. After the Fel Seed incident … well, it’s usually true that people think about themselves more than they think about you, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t think about you at all, and I suffered my share of dirty looks.

Our little group on Aerb was close, maybe a little too close, and the thought of those same looks from them had my stomach in knots.

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Worth the Candle, Ch 116: Therapy

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