Aranea looked tired. Her eyelids were drooping, her shoulders were slumped, and she walked with a shuffling gate that would have done a zombie proud. Val considered the sorry state of the Spider Goddess and grinned.
It had taken more than a little effort for Val to get Aranea out of bed. It was a cold, rainy day, and they’d had a monumental dinner the previous night. Together those factors had worked on Aranea’s spidery instincts to leave her sluggish and curled up under the blankets, unwilling to be drawn out until Val had lifted her from the bed and plopped her down in front of a stream of warm water in the shower.
A fresh mug of hot chocolate and the promise of a surprise had secured Aranea’s wakefulness. Hot chocolate wasn’t a terribly “spidery” beverage, but that hadn’t stopped Aranea from claiming it as her own. Some things transcended the bounds of culture, habit, and even species.
“You promised there would be a surprise,” Aranea said as they walked together under Val’s umbrella down the rain soaked streets. “It occurs to me that you didn’t promise that it would be a nice surprise.”
Val gestured down and skipped over the puddle in front of them.
“You’re correct,” she said. “I did not.”
“Will you make that promise now?” Aranea asked, skipping over the puddle in unison with Val. The burst of energy didn’t seem to cost her much, suggesting that her shambling was mostly a matter of mood and preference.
“I think I’d like to see how much you trust me,” Val said, angling the umbrella to keep the runoff from a gutter from splashing onto them.
“There is both the question of how much I trust your intentions, and how much I trust your knowledge of my tastes and desires.” Despite her words, Aranea continued walking along at her slow and plodding pace. If she was eager to learn what the surprise was, she was being adept at biding her time and appearing patient.
“Are there different answers to those two questions? Or are you willing to go through with this blind?” Val asked.
“We’ll see I suppose,” Aranea said.
Val felt a blip of adrenaline ping against her heart. Aranea’s fatigue might have been due to the meal and the environmental conditions but her emotional lassitude felt like someone who was fading away. Val tried to stuff that concern down. If Tam’s ideas turned out ok, the danger of Aranea redefining herself into non-existence would fade away. The alternative, that she’d have to return to her home realm and resume her usual existence was less pleasant to consider, but even that wouldn’t mean they could never see each other again.
A goddess who came to Earth once a year for a vacation would be a small enough variation on the central idea that made up Aranea’s being that it wouldn’t put her in any peril.
It would be something they could have together.
But maybe not enough to base a relationship on.
Val could imagine meeting Aranea for drinks once a year. Maybe on the anniversary of their original meeting. It would be a delight, and a sorrow. They might manage it a few times, but long term, the reminder of what they couldn’t have would be hard to live with. They would both have to move on, their lives diverging whether they wanted them to or not.
Val unspooled the movie that was playing in her mind and dropped the footage in a mental garbage bin. Was it a valid worry? Certainly. Had it happened to other people? Absolutely. Was it worth borrowing trouble from a future that might never arrive? One which she was specifically going to do her best to avoid? Definitely not.
“However this turns out, promise me you’ll be honest about it?” Val asked.
Aranea chuckled and turned to face her.
“You’ll offer no promise to me, and yet you would extract one the hardest ones I can be asked to make?” Aranea’s tone was arch, but she was smiling as she spoke.
“Yes, I would,” Val said, without shame or regret.
“Very well, I will be honest about whatever it is you intend to inflict upon me. Remember that you have only yourself to blame that.”
“That seems fair.” Val knew she was playing with fire, but on reflection, she had to admit it was one of the more fun aspects of the current stage of their relationship.
They walked a few blocks in the rain, Val holding her pace at a speed that was comfortable for Aranea and Aranea continue to march forward at Val’s direction despite the ‘surprise’ visibly nibbling away at her patience.
“There are a number of people gathered here,” Aranea said as they crossed the last street before their destination.
“Yep. The convention isn’t open yet, but people started lining up last night.”
“It’s like a small city within a city.”
“This one’s been put on for a long time now. People know the crowds will be here, so they get permits for vending booths for concessions and pre-convention swag.” Val pointed towards the nearest both which was offering three flavors of fried dough and had accumulated a small crowd around it.
“Swag?” Aranea asked.
“Various bits of licensed merchandise,” Val said. “This con attracts a pretty wide fan base, so there’s plenty of stuff that people are looking for. New thing. Old things. Doesn’t matter what it is, someone out there will be collecting it.”
“And you think someone will have something in their collection which I might enjoy?” Aranea asked, her face a mask of disbelief and confusion.
“No. I’m not planning to woo you with props and memorabilia,” Val said. “We’re heading inside.”
She took them to one of the side doors which only the staff was normally allowed to use. Aranea’s eyebrows climbed even further up her forehead.
“You are a puzzling creature,” she said.
“Enjoy it while it lasts,” Val said. “I’ll be boring and predictable someday.”
She left out the ‘if we get to stay together that long’. Neither of them want to think of that.
Inside the convention center, away from where the exhibits were receiving their last minute setup touches, Val lead Aranea to one of the dressing rooms off the convention center’s main stage. Inside a woman with shockingly bright green hair and an uncountable number of tatoos was waiting for them
“I wasn’t sure you were going to make it! Let me see what we have here!” Georgiana Bell said, scurrying over to take a closer look at Val and Aranea.
“Who is this?” Aranea asked.
“Aranea, this is Georgie. Georgie, Aranea,” Val said, returning the hug Georgie offered. “So, how do you think she’ll work out?”
“Oh my god. She’s perfect!” Georgie said.
“Yes,” Aranea said. “But for what?”
“Georgie is a professional costume designer,” Val said. “Also a member of the Second Chance Club in good standing. And also, a serious competitor on the cosplay scene.”
“Cosplay?” Aranea asked.
“You didn’t tell her what we’re doing?” Georgie asked.
“It’s a surprise!” Val said with a smile.
Georgie punched her in the arm.
“That’s not nice!” George said. “Not everyone is comfortable getting up on stage in costume.”
“Costume?” Aranea asked.
“It’s what I do,” Georgie said. “I help make people up as different fantastical characters. It’s fun thing to do at conventions like this, and the contest brings out some of the best talent in the country. Val was supposed to tell you all this.”
“She had other ideas apparently,” Aranea said with a scowl.
“Tell her what theme you’re working with this year!”
“I’ve been working for the last six months on a spider-lady design, but my model backed out a month ago. I’ve been looking for someone new to wear the outfit since then but no one’s had the right look.”
Val watched Aranea’s eyes widen slowly as her understanding grew.
“Why do you not wear the costume yourself?” Aranea asked, cautiously.
“I…I don’t like being on stage,” Georgie said. “I love seeing my work up there, but I kind of pass out when I’m up in front of people like that.”
“And you say I would fit into the costume you’ve made?” Aranea asked.
“Your bone structure is flawless, and your skin is perfect for the makeup I’ll be working with. I’ll need to make a few alterations to the costume itself, but that’s always true,” Georgie said. “Are you sure you want to go through with this though? I don’t like asking people to do anything their uncomfortable with. I mean if you wanted to you could just do the contest and not worry about walking the con floor to show off the design.”
“Walking the con floor? You mean I would get to appear in front of everyone as a spider for the whole day? Including a stage appearance?” Aranea asked.
“Yep. You can spend a whole day with people thinking ‘what an amazing spider lady’ every time they see you,” Val said, grinning.
Aranea licked her teeth and for just a moment Val was sure she saw the tiny hint of fangs Aranea displayed when she was hungry for something. Val grinned wider.
“Yes,” Aranea said. “I believe I could be persuaded to spend a day like that.”
As the convention wound to a close, Val found Aranea in Georgie’s dressing room, packing away the costume carefully. Despite a day on her feet and then hours afterwards at various con parties, Aranea had a brighter glow of life about her than Val had ever seen before.
“So, how did you like my surprise?” Val asked.
Aranea stalked over to Val. Calmly, and wordlessly, she took Val’s shoulder’s in her hands, and leaned in. Val thought Aranea was going to offer her a quick kiss and an amused quip but she was mistaken. There was nothing quick about the kiss Aranea gave her. When they finally broke apart for air, the building’s lights were off and Val was left feeling drunk, high, and weak in her knees.
“This was a most enjoyable day,” Aranea said, watching Val with a satisfied smile.
“Wow,” was all that Val could manage for a few moments.
“That is how I felt all day,” Aranea said. “So many people seeing me as a mythical spider figure. Their awareness of who I was through a false exterior which matched my inner truth. That was ecstacy.”
“That’s what I was hoping for,” Val said. “I didn’t know if it would work though. Or how strong the effect would be.”
“How did you think of it?” Aranea asked.
“I had help,” Val said. “Tam had the general idea of getting people to add to your story, to see you like I see you, so that it would be a little easier for you to live like this full time.”
“You wanted them to see me as a human woman in a costume?” Aranea asked.
“No,” Val said. “I wanted to honor both of the parts of your nature. You as a spider goddess and you in your human form.”
“I…thank you,” Aranea said, blinking rapidly.
“So what do I get if I say I have another surprise for you?”
“My undivided attention.” Aranea said, clearing her eyes.
The college classroom was abuzz with chatter, as all classroom’s are before the teacher begins. The chatter quieted down as Dr. Tereg walked in with someone new though.
“Hello class, we have a special guest lecturer today,” Tereg said. “Please welcome Professor Aranea Arana, she’ll be presenting for some new findings to us today on Arthropoda Chelicerata Arachnida.”
Val watched from the door as Aranea walked to the podium beside Dr Tereg and greeted the class. The lecture hadn’t even begun and Val could hear the students saying ‘hey, it’s the spider-lady!’ and ‘did she bring any tarantulas this time?’.
Some of the students looked terrified at that notion, but the rest were fully onboard for a lecture from an instructor everyone could see had both a passion for her subject and a startling breadth of information about it.
Catching Aranea’s eye, Val saw her drinking in the the focused belief and attention of the students. It wasn’t worship, but something better; recognition and appreciation for the things she valued in herself.
Val smiled. Conventions only came around every so often, but there were so many other ways that Aranea could be cherished for who she was that the worry Val had been carrying was able to drift away.
She hadn’t had to ask Aranea to change who she was. That never worked in a relationship.
Becoming more than you’d once been though? Val thought back on all the roles she’d played, and how they’d defined her for a time. She was still many of those things. Still a daughter. Still a warrior. Still a rule breaker, when the need arose.
She could still draw on all of those things, but with each day she lived, she had the chance to become something more.