They made it to the Deity’s clearing with minimal excitement, at least in Sophia’s view. Connor probably felt differently.
He hadn’t been expecting the sudden appearance of Sophia’s friendly Djinn, Heal, a regular morning occurrence since she’d helped him and his cousins with their fears of both wide open spaces and tight, enclosed spots, one because it was so unfamiliar and the other because it was far too much so.
She had given them translucent blindfolds and led them, one by one, across the open meadow from the cottage to the archways of the forest, there they’d created a small village of pavilions and gazebos, minimal walls. The forest kept the worst of the weather out for them, and they were now enthusiastically discovering the wonders of nature and turning into very handy gardeners and botanists.
Heal materialised as they rounded a corner in the path, adding coloured streamers of light and a few illusory butterflies to his usual swirl of smoke – he tended to get theatrical when excited.
Connor reacted immediately, pushing Sophie behind him and drawing his sword. Heal looked at him quizzically, Sophie patted him reassuringly (it did feel a little patronising though) and walked straight past him to discuss her friend’s latest discovery.
Wisteria, the forest had decided to gift the community with a mature wisteria vine across a sun-prone gap and Heal was agog to know how this new species might present across the seasons. He was the first individual Connor had come across who seemed genuinely excited at the prospect of winter.
Once his heart rate had dropped and the discussion of winter (bare, to let the sun through when it’s colder), spring (purple flowers, you’ll love them Heal) and summer (green but a little lighter than now) had wound to a close, they resumed their trek.
Connor tried to study Sophie without being too obvious and without tripping over things. He failed on both counts. After his fifth stumble, Sophie grabbed his wrist and pulled him off the path and into a suspiciously convenient little picnic glade, complete with helpfully-placed fallen log.
Sophie sent a smiling thank you into the air and sat down, pulling Connor with her, then dropping his wrist in favour of pinning him with a hard look.
“We are not going a step further until you sort yourself out and tell me what on earth is going on. You’ve been acting strangely all morning. In fact, you’ve been acting strangely ever since I found you in the forest yesterday.”
Connor knew better than to argue with that look and that tone of voice. The problem was, he had no idea how to put his worry into words.
Sophia knew him too, “It doesn’t have to be perfect, and it’s fine if you start out muddled, you always come out clear in the end. Just start!”
He scrubbed his hand through his hair, “Okay, but please let me finish before you get angry at me, I’m sure plenty is going to come out wrong and you’re not going to like things and I hate it when I upset you.”
Sophia sighed and unbent enough to lean across and give him a quick peck on the cheek, an action so unexpected Connor nearly fell off the log. He gaped at her.
“Oh dear, I’ve made you even worse. It’s just, well, we’ve known each other forever and even when I’m cross with you, I’m never going to stop being your friend.”
That prompted a weak smile and another eye-avoiding, hair-messing hand pass. She sat back and gave him time.
It took a couple of minutes, but he started speaking, and everything tumbled out, disordered, unhappy and at times not terribly flattering to her, him or a number of other people, but she held to his request and stayed calm while the hurt finally came through.
When Sophia had gone for a walk following that awful afternoon tea, he’d wanted to follow her, but had been dissuaded by Sophia’s mother, who suggested a bit of breathing space was all that was needed. And then she hadn’t come back.
The terror over her safety had been relieved by the message from the raven, somehow no one ever thought to disbelieve it. But Connor couldn’t understand how everyone else, even Sophia’s parents, could let go so easily, not check for themselves that she was as the messages claimed, safe, well and content.
He couldn’t understand how the others could adapt so fast to her not being there. Yes she was missed, but no one did anything about it, while it was all he could think about. He went to Sophia’s home daily to read the raven messages, until the raven started visiting him instead of her parents. That somehow made things even worse and he couldn’t stay any longer.
There was a brief sideways slip into the various social disasters being created by Stephen’s fiancee, who Connor had very little time for, and essentially added yet another push for him to get away and find the one person who could sort it all out (Sophia did have trouble holding back a most unqueenly snort at this stage).
So he’d gone, and looked, and then found her, except she wasn’t her. That earned a wide-eyed look and a twitch towards checking him for fever before remembering the agreement.
The Sophie he knew was quiet and demure and would be sitting in the cottage mending or embroidering something, not jumping out of trees or conducting gardening tutorials with potentially dangerous mythical beings. Sophia was physically biting her tongue at this stage but a promise was a promise, even when only implied.
Connor managed to get himself out of the rather large hole he’d dug with the next muddled avalanche of words. He thought she was amazing, and so brave and smart (although he’d always known that) and clearly happy, it was just that it was more change and he didn’t think he was very good at it. The words finally wound down, and Connor was left sitting on the log, head down, waiting for a probably well-deserved tongue-lashing for being an idiot.
“So you want me to come back and marry Stephen so everything can be like it was before?”
Connor jerked upright in horror, “NO! Never. If he can’t appreciate you, he doesn’t deserve you. No, I just want to know you’re alright and happy. And if that means you’re being a different you that makes you happier then it’s good, it’s just I’m scared of losing you and you’re so precious.”
He gulped, where had that come from? He was in so much trouble now.
Sophia didn’t seem to agree. She launched herself at him and Connor found himself with the girl he cared for more than anything in the world halfway across his lap, arms around his shoulders, sobbing into his neck. Military training had not prepared him for this.