Title: Fifty Steps To Falling In Love
Summary: Gary expected the outcome of this arranged marriage to be typical. An heir, and maybe a friend if he was lucky. If not, as much time away from the sure-to-be-air-headed-flirt. However, nothing in Gary's life has ever been typical. Especially not Cythera. A story about Gary, Cythera, and the fifty steps to falling in love.
Dedication: To Ari/HiddenWings, with love from Anya/Lady Silvamord. :D I'm terribly sorry this took so long; I just thought it would be best to get this beta-read since it was for exchange, and I waited a bit too long to send it to get it back in time. My apologies, and I really hope you enjoy this, and have a very lovely spring.
It is a long engagement, with many months for the involved parties to get to know each other – not exactly becoming best friends, but at least comfortable with the presence of one another. Still, in the immediate weeks after her marriage, Cythera pines for home. She misses her elderly mother and father, and her four younger brothers. In contrast to her childhood, the fief of Naxen seems so…empty. It is a hole inside her that nobody can fill quite yet, no matter how…interesting…her husband is proving to be.
Not in a bad way.
Sometimes, when he finds time away from his duties, he takes her riding through the deserted, sprawling forests with the young mare that had been one of his wedding presents to her. During these times, Cythera can almost forget her homesickness. It's a bit obvious that Gary still feels somewhat off-balance in her presence, but she doesn't mind. They have the rest of their lives to get completely used to each other, and oddly, she takes comfort in that small fact.
In all honesty, Gary had been dreading the few months they would spend alone together at Naxen, a boon so generously provided by his beloved cousin Jonathan. He had gotten to know Cythera a little over the span of her courtship, but not nearly enough to ascertain the depths of her personality. At the time of their introduction, he hadn't expected much. She was, after all, a lady of the court, and their first and foremost skills involved strange things like arranging flowers, pouring tea, and flirting. None of which would prove useful to him.
However, his opinion of her began to change as they got to know each other, slowly and grudgingly. He saw intelligence in her soft gaze, and found that she was quite capable of carrying on an engaging conversation in a multitude of topics besides the weather and the Queen's health.
Gary finds the months that they spend at Naxen an ordeal. Not in an unpleasant way; Cythera's company is quite pleasant. It's just that he had expected to deal with one kind of woman, and got an entirely different type. He is fairly sure he prefers Cythera's type to just about any other airhead out there, but now he has to come up with a whole new plan of action.
("It's not necessary to refer to women using terms of military strategy," Raoul points out once, amused. Gary ignores him.)
All this confusion as it is, Gary has to admit to feeling a small modicum of regret when the day comes for him to return to the palace, with Cythera to join him two weeks later.
Their parting is a bit awkward. They stand one foot apart, Gary spends the entire time wondering if he should take her hand and profess her deep sorrow at leaving her behind, and Cythera spends the entire time wondering whether he wants her to take his hand and profess her deep sorrow at seeing him go.
In the end, he ends up kissing her on the cheek. He finds it an acceptable compromise. Cythera blinks, and then smiles, surprised. Before he turns to go, she unties her silk scarf from around her wrist and gives it to him.
In turn, a look of surprise passes over his features as well, before being replaced by a quick grin and a gracious nod.
When she returns to the castle, she finds that from her room, she can see the departing royal party, and is startled for the second time in as many minutes to find that she will miss him, this clever, dryly humorous individual who she barely knows.
One of the first things Cythera discovers about her husband is that he has a soft spot for cats, of all things. Cythera personally finds the creatures disturbingly ambiguous, unlike the expressive, joyful dogs her father kept. After seeing the way Gary fawns over the black cat Faithful, though, Cythera takes a trip to the market.
When Gary comes home after a late meeting that night and finds his wife waiting up for him, a little calico kitten purring in her arms, he surprises himself and the other two occupants of the room by hugging Cythera and the cat so close that the kitten mews in protest, and Cythera has to fight the urge to giggle at the thought that this is the most expressively affectionate she's ever seen him. It'll take some getting used to, but this is something she wouldn't mind becoming accustomed to, after all.
Gary tries to pass off his back pain as chronic and then slip off to continue working himself to an early death, but then Cythera puts her hands on her hips and glares at him in a way that brooks no argument. Then she points to the armchair. "Sit. Now."
That is perhaps the first time that Gary realizes that, underneath her generally mild demeanor, his wife just might prove to be a force to be reckoned with. The thought makes him shudder.
Cythera loves potatoes. Gary just cannot understand why. Potatoes, after all, are vegetables, and real knights scorn vegetables.
Still. She is in bed, miserably sniffling and coughing, in the grips of a particularly nasty cold. Gary despises being ill, himself, so he figures that the least he can do is make an effort to help her feel better.
When Cythera wakes up after a particularly fitful night, feeling rather congested, she looks up, bleary-eyed, to find Gary standing at their bedside, holding a steaming hot bowl of…
"Potato and onion soup," he offers, holding out a spoon. "My mother used to make it for me when I had a cold."
Cythera smiles weakly, and takes a sip. It might possibly be the oddest-tasting substance she has ever had the misfortune of sampling.
"I made it myself," Gary says, clearly proud of himself. "Raoul helped with chopping the onions, though."
Cythera smiles again, this time for a different reason. "I find it quite delicious."
During one of their riding excursions in Naxen's forests, it starts to rain. Gary finds an area of relative shelter immediately for both themselves and their horses, and after the horses are safely inside, he ventures out of the small cave to find his wife. He is torn between amusement and distress when he sees her standing in the middle of the clearing, her face turned up toward the slate-gray sky. Her ash-blonde hair has escaped from its pins, and cascades down her back in soaked, curly tendrils, and her light periwinkle gown clings to her skin.
"Cythera," he calls, and when she turns toward him, he gestures in the direction of the cave. "It's warmer in there. And dry."
She peers back at him through the raindrops on her eyelashes. "It's not that bad out here, really."
He makes his way toward her, narrowly avoiding stepping into a large puddle of mud, and then removes his heavy riding cloak, throwing it over her shoulders. She frowns at it for a moment, and then unclasps it, her small fingers slipping on the silver fastening, before repositioning it so that it rests over both of their heads, creating a small tent.
Gary blinks. "Is this a hobby of yours, then?"
"You could say that," she replies, unruffled, as she watches the rain beat down on the forest around them, saturating the leaves a darker shade of green.
They're probably both going to get horrible colds, this time. Maybe even die of pneumonia. Be that as it may, Gary stands next to her under the cloak until the rain dies down into the lightest drizzle, drops of water sliding harmlessly off the cloak, to fall to the ground below.
Gary is driving himself insane over their six-month anniversary present.
Flowers are too trite. He gave her enough jewelry as part of their wedding presents, and he doesn't want to seem redundant. Their personal library at Naxen, as well as the shocking amount of books that Cythera brought along with her, have their literature needs fulfilled for quite a long time. He has enough fancy stationary sets for both of them. Clothing would seem overly familiar. He knows Cythera adores dogs of all shapes and sizes, but they already have Artemis the kitten, which she gets along with quite well.
"I'm at a complete loss," he confides to Jonathan, his head buried in his hands.
Jon smirks. "Gareth the genius of Naxen, at a complete loss. Who would have seen it coming?"
After she returns from visiting with Thayet on the evening of their six-month anniversary, Cythera is quite shocked to find a life-size cocker spaniel made entirely out of chocolate sitting on their bed. Then Gary emerges from the shadows, haphazardly clutching a bunch of daisies, which he offers to her sheepishly. "Happy half-anniversary, Cythera."
Cythera shakes her head and accepts the daisies, sniffing them delicately. Then she glances up, the bunch of daisies still obscuring her up to her eyes, the corners of which crinkle, as if she's trying to hide a smile. "Gareth, this might be the strangest thing anyone has ever done for me."
Artemis the cat meows in agreement, darting suspicious glances at the large chocolate dog invading his territory.
Gary shrugs, and fights a smile himself. "At least it's memorable."
Cythera sets the daisies down on the dresser and wraps her arms around him, her head resting neatly under his chin. "Thank you."
Gary pats her back, and tries not to look to pleased with himself.
Later, after he is relaying the story of his success to Jonathan and Raoul, the latter gives him a knowing smile. "It looks like somebody's getting a little attached."
Gary chokes on his tea.
It is a bit of an unusual scene, with Gary chipping off parts of the dog's ear and eating it, while Cythera tackles the issue of its fluffy tail, and the cat skulks at the foot of the bed, looking agitated. This is more chocolate than is healthy, and she'll probably not be able to eat anything tomorrow. Yet, this is the happiest Cythera has been in recent memory.
Gary is slumped in his armchair at the end of a long day, too exhausted to do much but sit there and watch Cythera tease Artemis with a ball of yarn. He observes her and the cat for a long while, but when his mind starts to go off on tangents on how delicate and shell-like her ears are, Gary falls out of his armchair, and ignoring his wife's alarmed glance, drags himself to bed.
Cythera calls him Gary sometimes and Gareth others; at first he thinks that his names switch when she's displeased with him, but he soon discovers that she thinks both names are "absolutely lovely" (Gary twitches; he hasn't felt so unmasculine in at least a week) and uses whichever she pleases at any given time. In order to pay her back for the "absolutely lovely" comment, he takes to calling her Cythers, or Cyth-Cyth, or whatever other ridiculous nickname pops into his head. At these given occasions, Cythera shudders a little, and her left eye twitches slightly.
Gary finds it very amusing.
This is the second time they've been caught out in the rain together. This time, when Cythera stands in the middle of the clearing and loses herself in the harsh rhythm of the rainfall, Gary doesn't waste any time trying to convince her to come inside. He takes her cold hand with two of his own, pulls her close to the warmth of his body, and kisses her until both of them are soaked through and through.
She pulls away from him a while later, looking flushed despite the frigid and damp air. "And you always said that I was going to catch my death of cold."
Gary takes those words as an invitation to leave the rather freezing forest behind, in favor of the warmth of their bedroom and each other.
(Cythera is happy that in the months since their marriage, his powers of perception have improved so much. Perhaps there is hope for him, after all.)
They intertwine their fingers together and take a walk around Naxen the morning after that particular rainstorm, content with the comfortable silence that falls around them.
What you see with Cythera isn't always what you get; the first time she handles a bow and arrow, she miraculously sends the arrow thudding straight into the center of the target. She laughs and chalks it up to beginner's luck, and out of all the other men in the practice yards, Gary is the only one who isn't surprised.
In these times of great stress, there are few things that can bring a smile to Gary's face. One of those is the sight of Cythera chasing a muddy Artemis the cat throughout the Royal Palace. Artemis is like Gary in that both of them have a somewhat irrational fear of bathtime.
The first three times Cythera asks him vaguely about names he finds pleasant, Gary is terribly excited, believing that his wife is going to surprise him with another adorable kitten for his birthday. The fourth time, two weeks past his birthday and still no new kitten, Gary is vaguely puzzled. The fifth time, he is also vaguely puzzled. Then Cythera throws a book at his head, and he gets it.
For several years to come, Gareth III of Naxen, referred to by the general populace as "Gnat", resents his parents deeply and passionately. He loves them, yes, but the resentment is still there. Thanks to his father's "reticence" (that's what his mother claims, anyway) for choosing names – or, what Gnat calls pure, unadulterated laziness – he got stuck being yet another Gareth. Gnat. A bug, for Mithros' sake. He grows up with individuals possessing names such as Faleron, Kalasin, Seaver, Merric, Roald, Liam, Thom, or Jasson.
Gnat feels extremely unlucky.
Then, one day, his sister is born. And he realizes that maybe; just maybe, Cynreth of Naxen might have more to complain about than he does.
Gary hasn't yet told Cythera that he may possibly love her. It doesn't matter, because she thinks she knows anyway.
For another anniversary, when Gary comes home to a seven-year-old Gnat playing army commander with his cavalry (Artemis the ever-enduring feline), with a life-sized chocolate cat sitting on their bed and Cythera holding daisies, he kisses her and says that he counts himself immeasurably lucky to have this to look forward to for the rest of their lives.
"Being in love feels like I'm getting violently ill," Cythera remarks to Thayet one day. "Is it supposed to be that way, or is that just because it's Gary?"
Gary has Cythera, Gnat being remarkably successful at page training, Artemis the cat as hale and healthy as ever, Cynreth, who is teething on Gnat's wooden weaponry, and the northern, remote expanse of fief Naxen has never felt so much like home.
Cythera has stumbled upon one of her old diaries from when she was still a fifteen-year-old girl awaiting her arrival at Court; she reads it from cover to cover, and smiles at the final thought that her life has turned out a million times better than even her wildest dreams.
Gary never thought anything would ever be as frightening as his Ordeal, but waiting for Gnat's birth proved him completely wrong.
Sometimes when Gary remembers that in the initial days of their marriage, when all he had hoped for in Cythera was maybe a friend, if he was lucky, he has to fight the urge to laugh.
Shopping with Cythera is an interesting experience; Gary always remembers the time they came back from the market with various essential oils, a few dreamcatchers, some sandalwood soap, celestial charms, a small quantity of precious minerals – in short, well, everything in the market except what they had set out to buy. Which was a wellness charm for Artemis. Since that day, Gary has never let Cythera go shopping without the balancing and more sensible forces of Alanna the Lioness.
Gary finds the weak flames of his Gift to be an extreme embarrassment, and avoids using them as much as possible. Once, though, thanks to the wonderful persuasion skills of his betrothed, Cythera of Elden, Gary lights a small orb of fire for her, dancing in the palm of his hand.
"Oooh," she says, fascinated. He can see the patterns of the flames reflecting in her eyes. Then she glances up toward him. "I find it breathtaking."
Gary closes his hand into a fist, flushing despite himself. "My lady, the fire…is…pink."
Cythera draws herself up to her full height, looking rather unruffled. "My lord, I personally believe it's more of a magenta."
Gary looks like he doesn't know quite what to say.
"I enjoy magenta," she adds, at last.
Gary opens his hand again, and the magenta fire springs back to life.
As an adult, Gary is a generally more stoic individual than he was in his days of headstrong youth. He hates admitting it, but Cythera, in all of her beautiful, vaguely ethereal oddity, makes him want to smile more than he has in a long time.
At twelve years old after reading too many poorly-written romance novels, Cythera swore up, down, right, left, and center that she would never, ever feel "butterflies" of any sort when it came to any man.
One month into her marriage, she is forced to eat her words.
On one of the few Cythera-governed trips to the market, the newlywed Gary and Cythera pick up a one-thousand piece puzzle of a map of the world. Later, Cythera defines their very first "bonding activity" as the one week straight they stay up every night to finish the puzzle.
Luckily for everybody involved, Gary never tried his hand at writing poetry for Cythera. He did devise several rough drafts in his mind, though, all of which employed the extended metaphor of Cythera as a cloud – beautiful, yet intangible, and seemingly so far out of reach.
Standing on the battlements of Castle Naxen for the first time, even beside Gary who's been here a million times before, makes Cythera feel as if she could merely reach up and touch the sky.
Years later, Cythera still loves standing atop the battlements. From here, she can see her husband, despite his half-joking protests of aching joints, teaching a sixteen-year-old-and-still-somewhat-clumsy Gnat the finer points of swordfighting. Cynreth is clutching the now-very-elderly-cat Artemis to her chest (Cythera is starting to wonder if Artemis' lifespan is entirely natural), wide-eyed and fascinated as she looks on.
The wind blows a little, rustling the last autumn leaves from their tentative grips on their branches. Gnat trips on a rock and falls down face first, narrowly avoiding impaling himself on his own sword. Gary attempts to look stern, but can't help but laugh at his eldest as he swings Cynreth into his arms. Artemis pads over to Gnat, and settles himself on the groaning teenager, before proceeding to groom himself, and Cythera laughs.
She thinks it's the closest she's ever been to heaven.
The late evening glow of the sun's last rays turns Cythera's ash-blonde hair into a dark shade of raw honey, and she squints into the distance.
"It's not far from here," Gary assures, tugging on his horse so that he can level with his wife of exactly two days. "From this hill, you can just see the sun slip under the western battlements."
They are slightly ahead of the rest of the party by now, and they urge their horses forward. Gary has described his home, the expansive fief of Naxen, to her before, but the sight of it as they reach the crest of the hill takes Cythera's breath away.
Gary can't help but smile. "Welcome home, my lady."
Cythera likes to explore Naxen under the cover of moonlight – this place is strange and new, but something within the very stones of the ancient castle seems to call to her.
Gary finds it shocking and downright unnatural that Cythera has never been to the ocean – for their first anniversary, he takes her to the coast of Pirate's Swoop, and when it is finally time to return to the capital, she declares tearfully that she doesn't want to leave.
Gary smoothes her hair beneath his hands. "If I could, I'd move Naxen here, you know. But I think we'll have to be content with trips twice yearly."
Cythera looks up at him and manages a smile. "That would be absolutely wonderful."
"The Court is pleased to announce the arrival of Lady Cythera of Elden."
Raoul untangles himself from the curtains he is currently hiding in, to look appreciatively at the young woman gracefully descending the grand spiral staircase. Then he elbows Gary in the ribs.
Gary narrowly avoids choking on his water, just in time for his eyes to meet the inquisitive gaze of the Court's latest newcomer, across the ballroom.
He bows slightly, risk of choking be damned.
She arches an eyebrow and nods in return.
"The beginning of a beautiful relationship," Raoul warbles, effectively breaking the spell.
Gary elbows Raoul in the ribs.
Raoul chokes on his water.
(Back across the room, Cythera of Elden flicks her fan open to hide her smile.)