“I’ll have the large tea, and one of those mini muffins.” Xena placed her order at the cashier. The teenager smiled at her and nodded, typing her order into the computer and hitting enter. The machine made a small noise as it generated the bill.
“Why don’t you both take a seat, we’ll send your order to you.” She told us warmly, handing me the bill and a table number.
“So, what is our plan for this night?” I asked her, Xena had been bobbing up and down since she came back to the hotel from her meeting and found Reece and me cuddled in bed. Needless to say, she’d thrown the Alpha King out with startling ease before lecturing me about how this was a vacation and I needed to get out of the hotel. Truth be told, I was still rather exhausted, but Reece assured me that this was normal for someone who had just been marked.
I’d only woken up a few minutes before Xena had stormed in.
So, here we were, settling on a small two person table and waiting for our coffee and tea at 5 p.m. and strolling through the streets of the main town. It was getting dark, due to the surprisingly strong cloud cover. Luckily, we’d both remembered to carry umbrellas and we had a car anyway.
“I’m thinking we’ll go out for this midnight feast thing. I read it on one of the hotel boards, they’re doing a huge feast at midnight at the Triora top.” Triora was one of the four mountains that surrounded this place. “It’s an annual thing hosted by the hotel with tour guides and like tons of delicious food,” she added, her tone laced with excitement.
It sounded like a fun plan, but the dark clouds above were a threat. Xena followed my gaze, “Oh don’t worry, it’s only five right now, the shower will come and go by ten o’clock max.” She informed me, opening up the weather app on her phone and turning the screen towards me.
“Okay then it sounds good.” I cheered, doing a small jiggle of excitement. The waiter came with our order and left. “So, I was thinking that we visit the lake, before grabbing a light dinner - we don’t want to be too full for the feast - and then directly go for the feast?” I asked and she looked up from her tea and nodded happily. “Sure, let’s do that.”
The lake was called Ora Lake, and it was a popular tourist location for camping overnight. It was one of the biggest lakes in the state, and despite the large crowd that came to it everyday, it was supposed to be very clean.
“We can go check out the tents and rates and everything and then decide if we want to spend one night there,” I suggested as we made our way back to the car. “God, I hope they have tents available!” she whined, crossing her fingers - a childhood habit. I laughed at her cuteness before getting into the driver’s seat, it was my turn to drive today.
Switching on her phone, she put the location of Lake Ora and hit navigate.
“It says twenty two minutes,” She informed me as I moved the stick into gear and eased out of the parking space.
“Hey, do you want to invite the others too?” Xena piped up suddenly, her eyes fixed on Google Maps. I kept mine on the road, “Others? You mean Reece and all?” I asked her, just to be sure and I could see her nod from the corner of my eyes.
“Turn left here.” She added, when I didn’t reply immediately. As much as I wanted them to come, this was our vacation. I’d promised Xena that we’d go for one since so long and when we finally got here I couldn’t be distracted.
“I know what’s going on in that tiny head of yours.” She informed me, and I tried to not respond to the ‘tiny.’ Instead, I shrugged, keeping my eyes on the road because I was a responsible driver. “You know, it’s not like they’re only your friends. I had fun with them too. Don’t think that only you might leave me alone, I might.” She joked, but put her hand on my shoulder to make sure I got how sincere she was.
I considered her words. She did have fun that day. And you always made friends on trips so it wasn’t completely wrong to do so.
“There is a problem though.” Xena spoke thoughtfully, and I gave her a quick side gaze before turning my eyes back to the road. “What’s that?”
“Aren’t they too posh? I mean, I don’t know how they will be if we put them out in the wild, among the grass and insects.”
At that, I had to stop driving the car to finish laughing.
“I met that guy, Noori’s brother Nate.” Xena informed me as we drove. Turned out that she had accidentally forgotten to navigate and we reached farther away from our destination before she realized that she had a job to do.
“Yeah, I met him today as well. I didn’t even know that she had a sibling!” I told her, my eyes flicking to her phone screen because I knew she’d already forgotten about the next turn. Lucky for us, I was an excellent driver and there were hardly any cars around us.
“He’s cute.” she said quietly.
Uh oh. I know that tone. That cute, shy, tone that she reserved for the very special.
I threw her another glance. “Xennnn?” I stretched her name, enjoying the way she avoided my gaze by studiously looking out the window. Look at your phone screen woman!
“What? I just said he’s cute.” Good god she was playing with her fingers! “Yeah, he is cute, but why are you blushing already? Did you even talk to him?” This girl, such a romantic.
“No, I don’t even think he saw me..” Huh?
“He was talking to Sienna out in the hall. It was only later that I asked her who he was,” she admitted and my jaw dropped. What had gotten into her? She wasn’t that shallow to only fall for his looks.
“Is this why you suggested we invite them all?” I smirked and her entire expression morphed into one of horror. “What! No! That’s not- It’s not! Ugh!” I burst out laughing at her awkward sputtering.
“We’re here!” I sang, as I parked the car and looked out to the huge expanse of a lake. It had just suddenly appeared out as we reached the slight elevation, and came into our view. “Well that was easy, it was just straight straight straight.” Xena muttered hurriedly, her face still showing a tinge of red. I snorted at her statement, “May nobody be as blessed as her in road sense.” I uttered the silent prayer as I got out of the car. Poor girl hadn’t once looked at her phone, or felt the car turning.
The lake was beautiful. It certainly wasn’t the largest lake I’d seen but it had an implicit charm to it. The shape was irregular, with large green banks surrounding most of it, except for one section that was enclosed with dark forests. Bright barricades were put between the trees and the grassy banks, demarcating the safe and prohibited areas. Few, but considerable people sat on the short grass, talking to each other or just enjoying a good book. There were a few even in the water and I found myself itching to go inside as well. Something about the water always called out to me.
“There! I see the board.” Xena’s outstretched arm pointed to the large sign we were looking for. It took us seven minutes of walking to reach the camping grounds. Bright multi colored tents were put up everywhere, all in various sizes. Just the thought of staying here got me all excited. Luxury stays had their own pros, but tents had their own allure. It wasn’t hard to find the main tent. it was completely white, and it stood the tallest of them all. A shaggy man sat behind the makeshift desk, ruffling through a bunch of papers as we walked in.
“Evening ladies!” His accent made me swoon. “How may I help you?”
“We’re umm, looking for tents?” Xena said lamely and he laughed. “Alright, for what day?” Swoooooon. “Tomorrow.” I told him, since we had no solid plan tomorrow. “For one night, right?” he asked, turning to me now because my best friend was too busy staring at everything else in the room. What was going on with her?
“Yep.” We’d decided to continue later on if we really liked it. “And how many people would that be?” His friendly face turned back to his papers, probably checking for availability. I counted mentally in my head. Reece, Grey, Sienna, Dani, Noori, Nate, the two of us.. and Hank? Would he like to come? What about Atticus? Although I didn’t think that Atticus would have the time being the hotel manager and all.
“Eight. Tentatively.” I told him, looking at Xena for confirmation but she wasn’t even paying attention. Something about her seemed so restless today.
“Would you like one large tent for eight people? Or several smaller ones?”
“One large tent for us all.”
“Very well, I’ve made the reservation for tomorrow from 1 p.m. You can pay when you come tomorrow. This-” He handed me a pamphlet - “Is your tent and how it looks. Please have a look, we’ll set it up for you tomorrow morning itself!”
Xena and I spent some time by the water, just sitting and sipping on juice. She was against aerated drinks. She asked me about Reece and I tried to be as truthful as possible.
“He’s trying really hard to make up for it, I can tell.” She said and I gave her a quizzical look and she shrugged. “The way he looks at you, like you’re his entire world. Sometimes I actually feel like he’s tied himself to you.” My jaw dropped at how accurate her observation was. It seemed that we were very obvious to her now. “Ideally, I would gag but it’s nice to see you so happy after so long.”
I smiled a shy smile, looking back at the tranquil waters. “I think so too.” I admitted out loud. It was nice here, the relaxing breeze, the evening light, light noise from people around us, and my best friend.
“But man, is he possessive.” I added, thinking about this morning. My hand immediately went to my neck, lightly poking to see if it was still sore. When I’d awoken earlier today it was a little overwhelming. Everything was intense and it took me a minute to get used to how I felt. Like I was connected to another human being. Reece’s simple touch on my cheek was like setting alight a fire. A warm, delicious fire.
I could never get used to this feeling. He didn’t let me get out of his arms till he was certain that my neck wasn’t hurting me anymore. “You are so stiff all the time!” He’d scolded me gently. “If only you relaxed, it’d have swollen less.” How could I explain to him how nervous he made me?
He was so sure of everything. This was his world, not mine. Everything about it both scared and enthralled me. “Something on your mind?” Xena asked, and I shook my head. “I was just wondering about your interview. I have no idea how it went!” I was such a shitty friend!
Xena laughed breezily, “It was fine. Great actually. Got lots of material and I’m sure my boss is going to be happy with the results. Mr. Deta’s a good man, done a lot for the environment and the wildlife.” she had a faraway look in her eyes as she played back whatever memory from their interview.
“And now you can tell me what’s on your mind.” Xena added, sort of as an afterthought and I got caught off guard. She knew me too well. I decided to give her the abridged version. “I just think that our worlds are too different.” I started ans her head turned to me, “You mean he’s a millionaire CEO and you’re not?”
“Yes.” And you know, different species too.
“Flo, come on, this is hardly an issue. It’s not like you’ve come from nowhere. Such things will be fine with time. What else?”
“And you know, responsibilities that come with being involved with him.”
“What, like to keep a good image for the media? Or in front of his employees?”
“Yes.” And you know, be a good - gulp - Queen. The word tasted sour in my mouth. I wasn’t cut out for this job description.
“I think you’re stupid. You’re like one of the most well behaved people I know. You barely make scenes, you’re polite to even the meanest people and you have a hard working attitude.”
At that I turned my gaze towards her, my eyes wide and warm. She gave me a side smile, “Yes, this is really what I think of you.” she informed me before I could ask. Shutting my mouth, I turned my gaze back to the blue waters, my heart warm and consoled. I’d deal with the royalty part later, right now I was just itching for Reece.
“Did umm, did she wake up?” Xena asked me suddenly and I turned to face her. I didn’t know if bringing her up would disturb Xena after yesterday but she seemed fine. She even woke up and went for the interview!
I shook my head in resignation, “No, there was too much silver in her system,” I told her and she threw me a quizzical look.
Crap! I had to be more careful about these things!
“Uh, I mean there were too many wounds- It’s just a phrase.” That was probably the worst cover up in the history of cover ups! Get it together woman!
Xena gave me a confused smile before letting it go. Her expression then turned somber again, “Do they know when she will wake up? Or if she will..” I could tell that it hurt Xena to even phrase it like that. Somehow both of us felt very responsible for this girl. We’d tried so hard to keep her alive we hoped that Noori and her team had it under control.
“They haven’t even identified who she is yet. Everything about her is a mystery.” I informed her, trying to avoid the mental images of her mangled form spattered in red, the yellow dress muddy and ripped to shreds. I shuddered involuntarily. She looked like she could have been very pretty, like someone important. Not someone who just stumbled in at the wrong place and at the wrong time but someone who was viciously targeted.
My heart clenched at the thought of her attackers. There were less painful ways to kill someone than with the sadistic methods they had attempted. If she woke up, how would she be able to cope with all that pain that had been inflicted on her?
“I’d once interviewed a war veteran who suffered from PTSD, it wasn’t pretty.” Xena informed me, her face still holding it’s somber expression.
“I want them dead.” I blurted out suddenly and her surprised eyes landed on me. “That’s usually my line!” She managed, before eyeing me again. “You’re the ‘forgive everybody and live in harmony’ type” She observed and I couldn’t help but question it myself as well.
What had gotten into me?
“Although, I must say I’m liking the change. The world has shit people that don’t need compassion because they have no moral compass anyway.” Xena said darkly, no doubt still thinking about our mystery girl in the woods. I gave her a shrug, not understanding what was making me feel so offended about this incident and protective of the young woman. It wasn’t sympathy, it wasn’t like a ‘she could have been me’.
No, it was like she was our responsibility. Since when did I take such initiatives?
Since you started accepting the bond, a small, inner voice told me.