The sun is barely rising when someone starts pounding on the door.
Pierce knows the exact time, is fond of it; it’s damn near burned into his retinas from his sleepless vantage in his bed. The irradiated red sun flashes behind his eyelids through each blink as he snaps his book shut and glances towards the door. It couldn’t be a witch—any witch who looked for him wouldn’t think of this inn or hesitate long enough to knock—and if someone from the Lancaster were on his trail the pitted wood would be shattered, or, he supposed, Lavinia's brood would be fond of staining it crimson. Mortals wouldn’t be about this early—he didn’t smell smoke and there weren't screams of peril—and he could practically hear the hell that would break loose in the hallway if the person didn’t stop knocking.
In all honesty, he should have gone further. The near miss in Sedgemoor was still raw in the back of his mind. Lavinia's slew of idiots could follow a trail, at least, and Pierce hadn’t made it more than ten spans before his hands had started shaking, and his trust in his magic had diminished completely. What was left of his trust was spent on burning the stolen cart on the side of the road with small artifacts in it—a fob from Dames Point that ticked quietly enough he almost forgot it counted down his seconds and a notebook that held scribbles he thought about enough times they were sharper than the quill could recreate them—setting the horse free with a firm hit against its haunch, and his clothes being dropped off at a house that vaguely reminded him of the one he had in Lancaster. Consequently, the house also yielded a decent change of clothing, albeit not his preferred attire, and, when he wandered to the tavern a few spans from the crossroads, the owner hadn’t questioned his acquisition of a small room, even when he simply handed over a sack of silver.
Instead of listening to any of the warnings pounding beneath his ribs, he crosses the six paces it takes to reach the door in a series of stumbling, shuffling strides and hopes to holy hell whoever is waking up his neighbors isn’t out for his blood.
He doesn’t bother with waiting long enough to recognize who is on the hallway, instead opting for tugging the wooden chair he's used as an impromptu lock and throwing wide the pitted door. Admittedly, it takes him longer than it should to recognize the jacket is similar but new and the hair is in a short braid, not a ponytail, but he sighs in relief anyway when the form is recognized. “Hells and heavens,” he murmurs.
Maura's body casts a long shadow into the room.
She looks uncomfortable, cagey, hands shoved into the pockets of her stolen jacket and not quite shuffling from foot to foot. She’s sporting a split lip, and there’s a smear of coal on her jaw, remnants of what might have been a ploy on a beard. She attempts to offer a smile, but it manifests like a nervous tic of her cheek. The harsh light emphasizes the hollowness of her cheeks, the starkness of the shadows beneath her eyes, and the exuberance harbored within them. He himself can’t be much better with the only light behind him being the flickering sun behind the trees.
She doesn’t say anything, predictably.
So Pierce does. “Where did the wind take you this time?” he offers, the question rhetorical, a greeting more than anything else. It’s been about two years since he’s seen Maura, but he learned long before then not to bother worrying—or looking for her—when she inevitably dropped off the world.
When her lips only tighten, he turns, shuffling back into the blessed near-darkness of the room, hears Maura catch the door before it can swing shut. The light scratch of her pulling the laces of her boots open breaks the silence.
"Heard the Lavinia's camp had problems," she says, and Pierce is exhausted, but he manages his knife-edge smile; Maura can act like she doesn’t care all she wants, but she’s never been able to not keep tabs on him.
"Good take, no injuries." Pierce sits down on the remade bed, facing her. "Well, Barclay sprained his ankle, but that happened after we left the radius.” Which, to be fair, if there were ever a good time to sprain your ankle, Barclay had found it. “But, you know,” he says, gesturing vaguely.
“How it is,” Maura supplies, expression softer now. “I do.”
“Barclay’s on his way to the Free States.”
“You stayed behind to…?”
“Wrap up.” He glances to the open window again, then to the bared book on the poorly-made desk.
“Permanently.” Pierce meets her stare. “You would have been a beneficial addition,” he continues, raising an eyebrow.
“You could have brought Asher,” Maura points out, never to be guilt-tripped—never to be manipulated, and that’s why she’s good at what she does, why Pierce has never been able to take the animal at the center of her, the wild, headstrong thing within her, and grab hold and control it, not for any sweet-talking or bribes or threats in the world.
“He had more important matters to attend to.”
Maura shakes her head, chuckles. "It took a while to find you." He gestures to the room at large. "This is very…"
"Very," Pierce echoes.
"Different. For you."
"There’s a distinct lack of alcohol, cigars, or botanicals," Pierce rattles off, swinging his feet up on the bed and leaning back. He has the money for extravagance, but, sometimes, extravagance is exhausting. Sometimes a place off the crossroads where you have to check the mattress for vermin is comforting.
(Sometimes it reminds you of years ago, when you were fresh-faced and consulting a younger woman whose High Kingdom accent hasn’t bled out yet, whose eyes are the same shade of amber as yours, who hasn’t killed a man but wants to, asks to, needs to.)
Maura stands off to the side in a way that could be considered awkward if it’d been anybody else. Pierce glances at her form. “New jacket,” he admonishes, and it coaxes a laugh from Maura, who rolls her eyes, shrugs out of the jacket, and joins Pierce on top of the blankets. It’s smaller than they’re used to; then again, whenever these occurrences manifest, Pierce often takes the floor. Maura's body heat radiates out from where she’s propped up against the wall, left leg pressed up against Pierce's right, skin to some cotton blend. She smells a little like oil, like smoke, like earth.
And she’s stiff, like she tends to be, like she has to take some time to remember how to stop being the person she becomes when she leaves, like she needs to familiarize herself to this life, to work passed the block in her throat and file down the rough edges of herself to fit back snug in this broken jigsaw of existing.
"Lancaster," she offers finally.
Pierce thinks about that. It’s farther than he thought Maura had gone; his search had stopped in Bentley, in that hole of a town she had supposedly died in. “For?”
"Loose ends. Clear my head."
Meaning Maura had business to take care of and then took some time to play lone wolf, to take refuge in long days of silence, in single-man jobs, in rooms probably not unlike this one. She’s never been gone for two years before, but, to be fair, this was her first time.
Pierce doesn’t understand the appeal of isolation, but he knows Maura needs it sometimes, like how Asher needs it, like how Keeva, his daughter he had no clue existed until months ago, can’t stand it. It’s quiet for a moment, the easy, familiar silence starts to lull Pierce to remembrance, but Maura shifts over and leans down and kisses his cheek before he loses himself. He relaxes the way he does only at the end of a decent night, when his gaze has skipped heads on instinct, when his quarry is in his hands or on the floor.
Last time, it wasn’t like this. Last time, Maura showed up and everything was off, their uncle was dead, tension crackled, twisted, jittered up his spine in a terrible way. Pierce doesn’t remember who threw the first punch, but he remembers the moment of shift, of something sparking in Maura's eyes and Pierce stepping towards her while she slid down the wall of his study, memories sliding down her cheeks and sobs tearing her throat, the door still open to the endless confines of the forest.
Sometimes that’s what it takes for things to go back to normal.
Maura leaves and Maura returns, and they yell or cry or both, or go on a walk, or feign platonic affection in some dodgy inn room on the outskirts of some town he won't remember.
What they don’t do is talk about it. And that’s good. That’s easy. Uncomplicated. He’d rather act like they’d been siblings for the entirety of their lives, that she had grown up with him, than take his jumbled mess of thoughts and try to hammer them out into something coherent.
When she leans back, Maura has her hand on Pierce’s arm, the blank pale of her fingers in stark contrast to the dark shirt Pierce’s wearing. She pauses, her fingers tense lightly, rise to brush close to his eyes.
"You’ve put up with the stress remarkably."
"Adequately,” he corrects. “Time still passes when you aren’t here, Maura.” It’s the wrong thing to say, Pierce knows, even before the syllables cut off his tongue. The subsequent stretching beats of silence confirm it. He’s great at keeping Maura’s eyes off his cards, but hells if he doesn’t show his hand at the worst moment every time. Eventually, he looks away from the blank wall, towards her.
Maura regards him carefully. “You missed me?” she asks, and it’d be the perfect mix of humor and nonchalance if it weren’t for the caution in her eyes, in the way her fingers press into the small wrinkles formed around his eyes.
There’s nothing Pierce can say to that question without opening up one hole or another, so he closes his eyes. Of course I did, you dolt, there’s some sort of emotion in this mock-camaraderie. I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t care for the state of your being, let alone if you were still on this plane of existence. The words were simple enough; the implications were not.
And soon Maura’s talking again, breath quick and light, babbling about how crooked the streets are or how she met a man who pronounced her name wrong, called her beautiful, and she made sure he knew she was more than that much, while Pierce listens quietly as a subtle reminder—you’re back, you’re here, you’re somewhat safe, don’t stray for so long.
The sun has fully risen when Maura’s words run out, its light streaming in through the thin curtains and prodding Pierce slowly into reluctant awareness. The weight dipping the bed beside him is an anchor, is a reason to sit up and press the heels of his hands against his eyes. It's the reason they leave and start walking towards Bentley, towards the only home they've known.
Sometime during the night, Maura changed into a shirt two sizes too large for her. She’s sitting in a tree next to a river like the one behind his house, the love letter that was sent to Pierce a couple days ago open in her lap next to his notebook. She hasn't slept—Pierce would bet anything on that—and won't, probably, until they're back in Bentley, the familiar chaos of trees and an overgrown garden giving her enough security to keep her eyes shut.
(Pierce was able to admit a long time ago that nothing feels like home quite like any place where Maura, Keeva, and him are together. It's going to take Maura a while to get to that point, he thinks, even if Maura keeps tabs on him when she's decades away.)
Pierce leans against her tree lightly, notices the wisteria digging into its bark, using it to further its life. "How long?" How long will you be gone this time? How long will it take you to remember you despise stability? How long until I’m not enough to drag you back? He stumbles over the last thought. How long until you’re ready to face Bentley again?
Maura hums quietly. "After you take a bath?" Maura prompts, closing the letter and raising an eyebrow at him.
"—she says, unaware that she's a hypocrite who smells like the inside of a lantern."
Maura smacks his head with the letter, but she's grinning her half smile, and Pierce convinces himself that’s a victory. "To think you’re supposed to be a gentleman.”
"And you were supposed to be the charming, delicate flower."
"Well, neither of us quite lived up to expectations."
"Expectations are investments in disappointment, Maura," Pierce allows, climbing down the river bank and stretching his shoulder across his chest as he readies himself for the cold.
"No," says Maura, "to wish is to hope, and to hope is to expect," and then she laughs, chuckles, when Pierce sends an astounded glance her way. “You’re not the only one fond of classics, brother-mine.”
Pierce lets the sound of the water against boulders devolve into white noise, stripping out of the few remaining articles of clothing he's got.
"We could skip a meal," comes Maura’s voice, muted through the thin air and the sound of the rapids, but Pierce can hear the cautious exhaustion in her voice. "We could just go straight home."
And Pierce steps into the river, water matting his hair down flat to his head and drilling a entombing him. He thinks about Bentley, about the fork in the road, about the wisteria their mother had planted, and about the weeds undoubtedly choking the herbs.
Once the water runs clean and his dull headache dissipates, he steps out and dresses quickly. He turns tells her the water is warm—Maura rarely figures out if he's lying before dousing herself in frigid water and cursing wildly, he figures he deserves some sort of compensation for last night—and glances towards the twisted tree she's taken to as refuge.
She’s leaning back on a branch, precariously tilting towards the open air. Her hair is falling out of its braid—he can’t deny his fingers itch to tug it into her trademark ponytail—and her eyes are closed, her chapped lips open slightly. “It’s all a bit tragic, isn’t it?” He blinks, bites his cheek. “I could live a hundred lifetimes in a hundred different worlds, in any version of reality, and I’d still end up here, chasing ghosts.”
“As opposed to a life of bravery and sacrifice?” As opposed to a normal life where our mother didn’t run away for fear of murder? As opposed to a life where storms were simply storms and life was a chance to give freedom, not a fate?
“As opposed to a life of imagining hair colors and names.” She sighs. “Don’t let it end like this, hm? Rewrite the Throssia name, please.” Then, the branch snaps to its natural position, she stands, meets his eyes in a sudden act of forced happiness. “We could skip a meal,” she repeats. He nods.
"We could," he says, eventually, once he’s somewhat sure in the line of her mouth, in the form of her hands. Dimly, he notices her boots are half-tied on her feet; her cheeks are stained with blush. He notices she’s lost the stiffness; the set of her shoulders is relaxed, comfortable, trusting. She fixes his collar with nimble fingers; the smell of oil makes his head spin again, but he buries the notion. “Let’s go home.”