By Ellie Margot
Recovering was a bitch. Riette tried to still her movements. Today was her third attempt at making her body listen to her commands. It was also the third time she had failed.
When she tried to open her eyes, the thrumming in her head began. It pulsed, a second heartbeat louder than her own. And even her blood felt different. Her cheeks warmed, and images of Zeke flashed in her mind. His chiseled jaw. His broad shoulders. His hands as he did whatever he’d done to bring her back from the edge. Mage magic? It was freaky to her, unnatural, but she couldn’t argue with its rewards.
She was still alive to complain. That was proof enough of its power. She knew to be grateful for that. She also knew Zekariah, the biggest, baddest, strongest mage in existence, would make a shit nurse.
After three days of regaining consciousness, she’d seen him exactly once, and that had been on accident. He had been on the other side of the door that Corin had kept shut. Riette wanted to pretend that he had been trying to come in to see her. She also wanted to pretend that he felt differently in his skin, like she felt in hers. Had the bond changed her on a chemical level? Was she herself?
Her head thrummed again. The veins in her temple pulsated to music she couldn’t hear.
The door opened, and Corin walked in. “I brought soup.”
“Fuck soup,” Riette grumbled.
“There’s our little sunshine,” Corin crooned, not taking any of her attitude.
Riette sat up quickly on the bed. She grabbed her head as she strained forward to see through the small crack Corin had left in the doorway. It let her see precious little of the room outside of it.
Riette had stumbled the last time she’d tried to get out there. Something about her equilibrium was off. She knew she needed more time to recover, but she also knew that the mission they were on was too important to mess up by taking time off. She needed to save her world. She needed to help Zeke in the process. Vitan would burn without her getting back mentally and physically to where she was before.
Riette needed more power, not less. She needed strength, not weakness.
She was too busy trying to strain to see through the crack in the doorway that she didn’t pay Corin any mind as she walked over with a small bowl and drink cup. Corin placed them on the small table closest to her and then returned to snap the door closed with a thud. The sound felt too final for Riette.
Riette hated to feel trapped. It was something from her childhood. She got it from her father. Tight spaces made her anxious.
“Too soon,” remarked Corin.
“For what, exactly?” Riette mumbled. She slumped back against the pillow. The moment was lost.
Corin went around the room and made herself busy touching random items. Fixing things when Riette and she both knew they hadn’t been touched. Riette also had the feeling that Corin was avoiding eye contact with her.
Riette’s tattoo tingled on her shoulder.
“There’s nothing going on out there you need to worry about,” said Corin, looking at the pillows she fluffed behind Riette’s head.
Riette shrugged away from her, trying to catch her eye. “Corin, are you saying there’s nothing to worry about or that there is nothing I should be worried about as I rot away in here?”
Corin rolled her eyes and put one hand at her hip before she cut Riette a look. “Riette.”
“No mom voice,” said Riette, putting up a hand to ward it off.
Corin shot her another look, but her gaze softened. “If there was something dire going on, I doubt we’d leave you in the wings. He wouldn’t allow it.”
“He who? Zekariah? Cassian?” Her stomach flipped at the last events before she found herself bound by weakness in bed.
“Take your pick,” said Corin. She picked up the soup from the counter space and handed it to Riette. “It’s hot.”
Riette picked up the bowl and brought it to her lips. There was broth in the bowl. Small vegetables were cut up and floated inside. She recognized Corin’s handiwork from their time moving from place to place. They had taken turns taking on the kitchen duties. Corin was just about the only one in the group who didn’t just assemble whatever vegetables could be had or Vitan roots.
In truth, they had had so little opportunity to breathe while running from place to place. The mission had been too important. Riette had needed to stay focused as much as she could to find Corin and then to find answers to her grandmother’s hidden words. That had brought them to Zeke and one step closer to finding a way to save Vitan. Luxuries like food worth craving were something they had long gone without.
The house they were currently in, from what Riette could gather, was only given to them as a favor to Guy. He had used one of his many contacts in Esper to source this for them, but Riette had seen so little of it while being in the small room.
“Bark and Barry?” Riette asked. She forced herself to sit up more and to act more like herself. She also chose to ignore the throbbing on her shoulder as her tattoo surged with power she didn’t yet fully understand. She knew she had gained something from her bond with Zeke, but she hadn’t been strong enough to make sense of it. She wondered if her body would ever get used to it. She also wondered darkly at night as she stared at the ceiling in between fits of being unable to sleep if their powers would not mesh well together inside of her, leaving her to always feel restless. Broken from the inside.
“They’re fine,” said Corin. “They scratch at your door at night.”
Riette smiled. She wasn’t being kept prisoner. Bark and Barry, her Vitan sapling and furry terror love, were the only things that had kept her sane.
“I suspect they’re with Mekhi now,” Corin said. “He’s all but adopted them.”
“He was always good with animals,” said Riette, smiling. She saw a similar reaction cross Corin’s face. She seemed better than she had ever been. More alive. There was more blood in her cheeks.
Gone was the girl who’d given up the world for adventure as she left everything behind to leave Vitan. In her place, Corin had become a woman, haunted by her journey, sure, but mature and happy with Mekhi by her side.
A tinge manifested in Riette’s belly. She would never be jealous of her cousin Mekhi. She was happy for him, for them both, but there was something about finding your other half that she had yet to fully experience. Even if she thought something wasn’t unrequited with Zeke.
Trinity opened the door. She slammed it behind her and looked up at the ceiling. She let out an aggravated breath and closed her eyes.
Corin and Riette shared a glance. “I’ll leave you all to it,” said Corin, stealing an exit.
She moved to the door, and Trinity took a few steps into the room, which gave Corin enough room to pass. Trinity moved closer to the bed before throwing herself at the end of it.
Trinity had been in a few times to chat with her. She seemed brighter too, and Riette wondered if that was a side effect of getting some of her power out.
Elves all had natural-given powers, but Trinity, born outside of Vitan and abused, had never had the opportunity to tap into hers. Her grandmother had marred her marks, disallowing much of her abilities to come to the surface. Riette’s connection with her in the few troubling situations that had called for her to bond with Trinity were her main times of access. Riette wouldn’t let herself think about any other times Trinity had been forced to let her powers come to a head.
Trinity looked at Riette again and then flopped her head back against the small blanket that adorned Riette’s bed. She stared up at the ceiling and let out a breath.
“Have I told you I hate this place?” Trinity asked.
“Hey, at least you’ve seen it,” said Riette.
Trinity looked at Riette again. “Darling, there’s nothing to see. We’re so hidden in nothing, in some cabin Guy found, that the lightning that is dying to strike us again, I’m sure, is as lost as I feel.”
Trinity sat up in bed quickly. She leaned all her weight on one arm. “Wouldn’t you be, if your boyfriend was avoiding you and someone else wouldn’t leave you alone?”
“Is all but fucking missing,” Trinity ranted. “And don’t get me started on Guy.”
Riette smirked. Guy had always wanted Trinity. “Taking advantage of Cassian being gone?”
“It’d be comical if it wasn’t so tragic,” said Trinity. She closed her eyes and shook her red hair out before opening her eyes to focus in on Riette.
When Riette had first woken up, Trinity had been one of the first to see her. She had been worried. Riette thought that Trinity was going to hate her after finding out that her boyfriend, the guy who swore up and down that he had never had feelings for Riette, did at one point a long time ago. That wasn’t the case, though. Trinity was the first one to not let her past or anyone else’s define them.
“He doesn’t need to avoid me,” said Trinity softly.
“Maybe he’s hiding from you because he doesn’t know what to say.”
“It’s not going to get better by him staying gone,” Trinity spat bitterly.
“Cassian,” Riette started. She let out a breath. “Cassian needs to process things by himself.”
“It’s been fucking days.”
Riette looked down at her body, covered in the ratty blanket they had found upon arrival, and then looked back at Trinity. “Yeah, I’m aware.”
“Shit,” said Trinity. “I’m complaining, and you’re stuck in here collecting dust.”
“Don’t sugarcoat it.” Riette adjusted herself on the pillow better. “I’m not exactly a beacon for male attention either right now.”
“Zeke is hardly around any of us,” said Trinity.
“You let him out?”
“He’s not a puppy, darling. He’s a mage. You’re about the only one here who could go head to head with him. Samantha is too busy licking his boots when he is around.”
“Licking his boots?” Riette asked.
“Not literally. I forget how sheltered you all are sometimes.”
“Like fresh-faced babies,” said Mekhi, opening the door.
“You were listening in?” asked Riette.
Riette’s face warmed. She knew her mother’s heritage helped hide some of her blushing when it did occur, but thinking about Zeke overhearing still made something heavy form in her gut.
“He didn’t hear me, did he?” asked Riette.
“Zekariah is an outdoor dweller. He comes in just to sleep, normally in sight of your door and then hops, skips, and jumps away from all of us.”
“We can’t just let him out like that,” Riette said. “What if he leaves us? Do you know how fucked we’d be?”
“Fairly,” said Zeke, appearing at the doorway, filling it.
Riette stiffened her shoulders. The doorway had been opened when Mekhi entered, but she hadn’t thought to ask if Zeke was outside of it.
Zekariah still stood at the doorway. His body filled the small frame, and he kept his eyes mostly on her, though he cast Mekhi and Trinity a look to show he saw them.
The tattoo on Riette’s back seemed to thrum with a dull ache. So many moments from the time before she was in the bed ran through her mind, making it hard to focus. The memories were too much to process.
“Don’t try to do too much,” he said. His voice was still low and rumbling, like it had rusted over from lack of use. Blood worked its way into her cheeks. She swallowed. The pulse she was already trying to get ahold of beat rapidly against the skin of her wrist as she kept it close to her temple.
Zekariah, one of the most powerful mages in existence—the strongest one if anything she heard could be taken seriously—was in the small room with her. She opened her eyes. One hand held the side of her head still as she let out a shaky breath. She tried it again. She let out another breath, and some semblance of control entered her body.
“We’ll leave you both to it,” said Trinity. She grabbed Mekhi’s shoulder and turned him toward the door. Zeke stepped aside to let them pass.
“Can I call bullshit?” asked Mekhi. “I barely get in the room to see my cousin, and I get escorted out to make room for the mountain-turned-man?”
“Complain outside,” said Trinity. She pushed him out of the door but turned to wiggle her eyebrows at Riette, in plain sight of Zeke.
Kill me now. Anytime.
It was one thing to face Zeke. It was quite another to face him without having her shit together, injury or not.
Zeke moved closer to the bed but stood next to it. Trinity had shut the door behind her, but Riette could easily hear Mekhi and the others on the other side of the door.
“Take it easy,” Zeke said. He reached out a hand but thought better of it and placed it back by his side.
“I’m fine,” she hissed through almost closed teeth.
“You are about as far from fine as your friends are out there worried about you,” said Zeke. It was a lot of words for Riette to process all at once.
She blinked. Instantly, she ran through the events she could remember. Was anyone hurt? Did anyone else get injured like she did? Why was she still in bed feeling broken and sorry for herself if they were?
“No one’s hurt,” he barked. “Shit, I can see the thoughts whirling around in there like they can’t sit still.”
“Were you always this mouthy, or am I more sensitive to it now?” Riette asked, lifting an eyebrow.
“That sounds more like you, but you still look like a particularly hot part of hell warmed over.”
Heat rushed into her cheeks. Riette bit the inside of them before she let her lips open to say something particularly embarrassing.
She knew there were more important things to worry about. She knew from Zeke’s words that her crew was freaking out and needed her to not do the same, and she knew that she had to do something with the information they had received, not sit there trying to recover.
She also knew all of those things took priority over getting googly eyed over some guy.
Riette looked at Zeke again. He took up most of the room. The air seemed to shift with every breath he took, and he let her look. Their normal interactions had been nothing but her saying snarky shit to him and him returning it, but that? Saying nothing and looking at each other made her feel something else entirely.
It was a distraction, and they both had too much to lose to let themselves dive into that further.
“Hell has always been a part of who I am,” she said. “Comes with the package.”
Zeke raised an eyebrow. “Most girls would get pissed about being called a problem, let alone labeling themselves as one.”
“I don’t get off on not being honest, especially with myself,” she said, and she ignored the pang in her chest that told her she had become fairly practiced in avoiding things.
“They let you watch over me like this?” she asked as she sat up in bed. She didn’t smooth her hair, but she did crack her back as she moved to get up.
“Let is relative,” said Zeke. He settled into the small chair he was sitting on in the corner of the room. It looked like it could shatter under his muscles’ weight, and his face showed that he knew that.
Riette lifted an eyebrow, waiting for him to continue.
“They’re not in the position to argue with me,” he continued, adding almost nothing.
Zeke gave her a look she didn’t recognize. It made something warm pool in her belly, but he didn’t let it stay on his face for long. Before she could study it, he had stilled his expression and turned the look back into what he always had around her: one of mild curiosity.
“You look pretty good, considering,” Zeke said softly.
“I have two beautiful women around me all day,” Riette said matter-of-factly, thinking about Corin and Trinity. “I know I look like shit right now.”
“Not possible,” said Zeke quickly, but he didn’t elaborate at first. The words just hung there between them. Then Zeke smirked. “Even with the two heads you have right now, you’re still trouble.”
“Shut up,” Riette said, rolling her eyes. Her skin felt on fire. There was something else too. Inside of her, she felt a pull, like another line of emotions touching hers.
Zeke’s eyes flitted over her face. “It’s the connection,” he said grimly. “Ignore it.”
“What does that mean?”
Zeke bit the inside of his cheek. He really was too big for the room. He towered over Riette from where he stood, but Riette didn’t feel afraid. She felt invigorated by him being near her, even though she still knew there were a million other things that should be on her mind.
“We’re bonded now,” Zeke said gruffly. “Linked.”
“When you saved me?”
Zeke gave a curt nod. “It runs both ways. I can feel how you feel and you me.”
Riette’s cheeks warmed again.
“So if I told you I wasn’t attracted to you in the slightest?” Riette asked.
“I would know it was bullshit.”