Xavier lounged once more in the back of Andria's truck. The pit in his stomach only deepened with every lurch of the truck. His mind ran wild, wondering what Andria must think of him now. Perhaps she and Caolan were complaining about him only feet away. The girl Xavier attacked, and the friend Xavier has clung to for years on end.
What if Caolan left me, too? Xavier imagined. He shivered, and not only from the December chill.
In time, the pavement transformed into rocks. Xavier sat up to spot a two-story farmhouse much like Wilkinson's. The truck came to a halt. Xavier's heart pumped uncontrollably--is she still angry at me? Is she still scared?
Andria exited the truck. Not once did she look in Xavier's direction.
“Have you eaten?” she asked Caolan as he exited the truck as well. Xavier hopped into the driveway, keeping a watchful eye on the Princess. When neither he nor Caolan answered, she shrugged nervously. “I can cook you two some pasta.”
Xavier's stomach growled. He clutched at his abdomen, shushing it quietly so as not to draw attention to him. Andria clearly heard the rumbling, but she chose to ignore it.
“You know how to cook?” asked Caolan. Andria grinned lightly.
“Yeah,” she chuckled. “I can cook for myself now.” Only then did she glance at Xavier, who stared at his boots. The boys followed her to her porch. “If you two want to shower, I'll grab you some clean clothes. I think you'll fit my dad's stuff.”
'My dad?' Xavier wondered. Who is she talking about? He looked down at his new attire: denim trousers, a thin red shirt made of comfortable material, and Caolan's large coat made of a wolf's hide. He felt so small in them, as though reduced to skin and bones. He needed food in his system.
Andria let the boys into her home, flipping a switch that cast more lights to turn on around the roomy house. Xavier and Caolan gazed at a staircase, a corridor leading into a kitchen, and a collection of leather furniture before a grand fireplace. But immediately, a loud barking echoed down the hallway. Andria, slipping off her jacket and setting down the keys to her truck, lowered herself to her knees to catch a blur of brown that bounded from around the corner: a large German shepherd licked Andria's face, wagging its tail, before turning on the boys.
“Her name is Colonel,” said Andria, standing up. Colonel sniffed at Caolan's pants before pawing at his legs. Xavier stiffened; he hadn't interacted with a dog in years. Andria retrieved a small treat from a nearby box and called the dog's name. Colonel's ears popped up. “Sit, girl.” Andria snapped her finger and pointed at the spot on the hardwood floor in front of her. “C'mon.” Colonel did as she was told and was rewarded with her treat and a loving scratch on the head.
Xavier couldn't stop staring at Andria. She grew so much in the time they lost.
“I always thought you feared dogs,” Caolan spoke up. Andria shrugged.
“I had never met a puppy before,” she said simply. “And Colonel isn't like the wild dogs in Farradon.” She glanced at them once more before retreating upstairs. “Stay right there--I'll get you two some clothes.”
Xavier watched her climb the stairs, stiffening as he realized just where he was: a warm place that came to be his Princess's new home; a place in which she found a new family, new friends, new priorities. Something about this place, despite how cozy it felt, made him dread whatever would come next.
“Xavier,” Caolan said, approaching him. “You ought to relax. Andria is just as anxious as you are.” But is she? Xavier wondered. Caolan saw the question in his eyes. “This cheerfulness she has? 'Tis a mask. She is trying to make you feel comfortable.”
Great, thought Xavier. Even she can see that I am broken.
Boots thumped down the stairwell, and Andria descended the staircase with two piles of clothes in her arms. Xavier felt her trembling when she handed him his new shirt, trousers, and a warm pair of socks.
Again, she avoided eye contact--but she smiled. That was all he needed to see to begin healing. He only hadn't known it until then.
“There is a bathroom down the hall,” she told them, pointing to a door past the kitchen. “Feel free to clean up while I cook. I'll... I'll be a while.”
She grinned at Caolan first. Her smile for Xavier felt forced but much-needed. With that, she left them.
Andria could not stop her hands from shaking. This was worse than backstage before her first Swan Lake. This was worse than the awful jitters before homecoming elections and Rose Princess speeches. Worse than the morning she met her new mother and father. Worse than the night she ran away from a life temporarily lit by a crimson moon.
Nothing could compare to this, for she had never felt more guilty in her life.
Her mind twisted and wandered, lost in a gray haze as she shoved a large pan of macaroni into the oven. Half of her mind focused on the shower water down the hall. She knew that the moment it ceased, her heart would drop. That boy, she thought, that man, I've turned him into what he is now: betrayed. Abandoned. Broken.
The only thing she could rely on to save her from these burdening thoughts were Caolan's incessant, persistent, and frankly repetitive questions.
“What is 'cereal?'” he would ask, digging his hand into a cardboard box. “Why is your meat cold?” he'd say, pushing aside foods in her fridge. “What is this big, metal box anyway?”
“It keeps our food cold and fresh,” Andria told him. Like a child, Caolan looked over her shoulder, then at the sink.
“If I push this button, will I get hurt?” he asked with caution. Andria half-heartedly chuckled, shaking her head. She gathered some vegetable peelings off of her cutting board, poured them down the sink, and flipped on the garbage disposal. Caolan jumped at the loud, sudden noise.
“What is it?” he cried, gawking at the drain. “Do you keep beasts beneath your house?”
“No, Caolan,” Andria laughed, “it's a garbage disposal. It mashes up the food we throw down there, so it won't clog up the drains.”
Caolan looked at her with a blankness that must have meant he hadn't a clue what she told him.
“So you have tamed this creature?”
“It's a machine.”
“Oh.” Caolan thought. “Like the plow?”
“Er... Yes. Like the plow.”
Andria switched off the garbage disposal. And to her horror, she could no longer hear the shower running down the hall. Moments later, the bathroom door opened.
Shit, she cursed to herself. Out of the corner of her eye, Andria spotted Xavier wearing Henry's emerald Henley. In fact, Xavier kept smelling at the collar. Andria grinned. He probably hadn't worn a freshly-cleaned shirt in a long while, before last night. And he was probably surprised to find it still warm from the dryer. She sighed, recalling just how many inventions exist that they must have no clue about.
“My turn?” asked Caolan. Xavier nodded. Caolan collected his clothes, glancing at Xavier and Andria before exiting the room. Perhaps the tension between them, despite their lack of eye contact, was enough for Caolan to feel before he left.
Andria turned her back on the stove, taking in a deep breath before taking a good look at her old Guardian: he looked the same, only taller and looking more like a man than she ever thought he would; he reminded her more of Nathaniel than he did of himself, the way he sulked about nowadays. And there he was, still sniffing at his clean shirt--a little boy incubated in a man's body.
Andria knew he could feel her eyes on him. She gazed at his wet mop of chestnut hair.
“How long has it been since you cut your hair?” she asked him. She thought before that this would be a challenge, addressing the boy she once knew. It was not speaking to him that proved difficult--it was making sure he listened. Weakly, Xavier shrugged. He seemed afraid to meet her gaze. “I can cut your hair for you. If you'd like.”
In time, Xavier's eyes met hers. He cleared his throat.
“I... I don't n-need one.”
“You'll feel better,” Andria insisted. “Cleaner.” Xavier wrung his hands together, as though trying to wipe something off of them. Without another word, Andria grabbed a chair from the dining room and a towel hanging from the counter, placing it at the edge of the kitchen, beside the trash can. Gently, she approached Xavier and touched his arm. He flinched as though afraid.
“I do n-not wish to hurt you.”
“You won't.” Andria wrapped her fingers around his wrist and tugged him to the chair. She felt as though he were leading a little boy into the dentist's office. Xavier reluctantly took a seat. Andria draped a towel over his broad shoulders before retrieving a comb and a pair of scissors. Combing back his wet hair, she felt him only stiffen more, as though her touch stung. “Please relax.”
Xavier sighed and allowed himself, with effort, to lean back into his chair. She noticed his gaze flicker back and forth across the wall opposite them, which was lined with shelves displaying ribbons and photographs--traces of horse shows, track meets, and high school dances. Andria gazed at her diploma framed neatly on the wall, the most tangible proof she owned that her life no longer belonged to anyone else. Xavier didn't even know what it was.
She felt him lean forward, squinting at a photograph of her in a periwinkle gown and a sparkling tiara: a fraction of the Princess he once knew.
“That was homecoming,” she told him. “I was voted queen.” He perked up.
“It's some tradition they have in high schools here. The student body votes on a Homecoming King and Queen.”
“They chose you?”
“Mm-hmm.” Making sure Xavier looked straight ahead, she started to snip away at his hair. Xavier kept gazing at all of the pictures, a timeline of who she had become in the last five years, of the achievements she made. She couldn't tell what he was thinking, but it almost felt as though he had woken up.
“So you've b-been safe.”
“Yes. That's Rachel and Henry.” She pointed at a picture of a middle-aged man and woman who posed beside Andria in a sunlit field. “They took me in. They're in Washington for the weekend. Second honeymoon business.” She scoffed and rolled her eyes.
“They left you h-here alone?”
“'Course. Someone had to watch the farm.” Andria combed through Xavier's hair, brushing his clipped hair off his shoulders and into the garbage bin behind him. “I can handle myself now, Xavier. I always could. No one gave me the chance until I came here.”
“And you've been happy,” he said. It wasn't an implication or question, not even an assumption. He knew it was true, gazing at her accolades of the years passed.
Andria smiled to herself. “Very happy.” She removed the towel from his shoulders. “All done. There's a mirror down the hall if you want to look.” Xavier only stood and approached the wall, however. Humbly, Andria shook her head. “All those things--they're just ribbons and pewter trophies. They don't mean much now. No big deal.”
“But they are.”
Perhaps he was overwhelmed with shock that she had made such a life for herself--living in a big, warm house with two caring parents, surrounded by rewards and blazing headfirst into a future that was bound to be plentiful. Either way, Andria knew something changed between them. When he faced her once again, he looked her in the eye. He did not shy away. She was no longer merely the long-lost Princess in his eyes. She was independent. She was someone new.
Xavier still observed the photo wall by the time Caolan had left the shower and Andria was setting the table. Each trophy on the shelf featured a female figure in the midst of a sprint, and etched into each was a peculiar name: Clara Evans.Is that who she is now? he wondered. A different girl?
“Xavier?” Andria called from the table, setting down plates at a long table. The only thing that tugged him away from the photo wall was his growling stomach. He retreated into the dining room and took a seat beside Caolan; his light hair was still wet and he smelled particularly of lavender, much like Andria's own hair.
“I smell so wonderful,” he said to himself, pleased. Andria grinned as she set a pan of macaroni in the center of the table and sat down. Xavier and Caolan peered into the pan to see mounds of cooked, yellow noodles. “Why... why is it yellow?”
“It's made with cheese.” With a large spoon, Andria dragged a portion onto her plate. She offered it to Caolan first. “Go on, try it.” With some more of her persistence, Caolan and Xavier served themselves some of the macaroni. In minutes, however, Caolan was serving himself more.
“I hadn't any clue you were a fine cook,” Caolan remarked as he ate. He said many more awestruck things, but they were nearly incomprehensible with his mouth so full of food. But it migh've been something about magic.
Within minutes, the entire dish was devoured--primarily by Xavier. He couldn't help but eat anything before him, he felt so starved. Even when his stomach felt full, he couldn't stop eating. Andria brought from the kitchen a bowl of green salad in the middle of the table.
“Don't eat too fast,” she cautioned him. “Or you'll trow it up.”
“Damn, Xavier, save some for the man who broke you out!” Caolan scoffed. Xavier chuckled and kept eating, but Andria glanced in between them with furrowed brows.
“You... broke him out?” she questioned.
“Aye. Your father had no intention of freeing him,” answered Caolan. “So I broke him out.”
Andria played with her food. Xavier wondered if the oasis was on her mind. “I do not consider the King my father anymore,” she eventually declared. “My father here in Sublimity is much kinder--less cruel and full of rage.” She glanced at her family photo once again. Caolan gawked at it.
“Dain,” he cursed under his breath. “Whoever painted that portrait is better than the painter at court.”
“Henry's a veterinarian.” Caolan cocked his head to the side. “A physician for animals. And he's taught me all I know. I've always planned to go to med school.”
“You wish to be a physician?”
“Yeah. It's a very rewarding job, if you love it. Healing people.” For a moment, she met Xavier's gaze, but she quickly looked away.
You are absolutely right, Xavier thought to himself.Andria took some time to consider her thoughts.
“I know why you two are here,” she spoke. The air grew tense. “But I've decided it already: I am not going back.” Xavier's heart sank through the floor. He clenched his fists, trying to control the rage that flooded his bloodstream. Stop, he willed himself, stop right now. Let her speak. Hear her out. “Down here, I have the world unrolling before me. Up there, I'd be nothing more than an assistant. A pawn. Something the Court can manipulate.”
Xavier couldn't hold it in.
“So after all the y-years I spent r-rotting in a cell,” he spoke up, “it will all be for nothing? I must accept this failure?”
“You haven't failed, Xavier,” Andria persisted. “You found me. But life down here--it's better.”
“Perhaps for someone who didn't mind leaving her family. I haven't seen mine in years.” Andria furrowed her brows.
“You wanted to come with me in the first place.”
“Because you were terrified of going alone.” Xavier heaved a deep breath. “There is nothing for me down here.”
“And there is up there?”
“There is a family waiting for me to return home. To redeem myself.”
“Ah--and I am the one thing in between you and redemption.” Andria's voice broke, but she held her composure. “You helped me escape, Xavier.”
“And you left me behind.”
“I thought you were right behind me!”
“The night you left, any freedom I had was completely stripped from me,” Xavier raised his voice. He rose to his feet. “What have you been doing? Riding your horse, going to school balls? Look at this place--I would have killed to have lived a life of luxury, but I had to grow up in a cell, eating stale bread and drinking dirty water in complete darkness. Beaten by the wardens. Ashamed any time my little sister wished to visit me--.”
“You cannot blame me for a plan that went south,” Andria said firmly. Her eyes sparkled with tears as she looked up at her Guardian. She didn't even care to rise to her feet and meet his level. She had his attention right where she sat. “I cannot even express to you how sorry I am that you had to live that way. It sickens me to even think about it. But it's over now, and I promise you--if you stay here, you will have nothing to worry about anymore.”
“I don't know if I can trust your 'promises,'” Xavier spat.
Andria's face grew hot, and the room fell silent.
Don't let go, he said long ago.
I won't, she answered him. I promise.
How twisted their lives have become.
“I don't belong there, Xavier,” Andria stated at barely a whisper. Still, she commanded all the air around her to freeze--a kind of control she learned from the King that she could always command without any effort. “The Court and its people were cruel and barbaric, and sexist. I never have belonged there and I never will. You cannot convince me otherwise.”“You could manipulate the King's Court, Ande,” Xavier insisted. “You are a different woman now--they would listen to you.”
“The Court barely even listens to my father.” Loudly, Andria rose from her chair and began picking up their dirty plates. “Perhaps you have loved ones to return to, Xavier. And I don't blame you if you want to return to Aramore for them. But I have no one, and I'm sure you know that. You just want me to redeem you.”
“Taking me back would be the most selfish thing you could do, especially as my Guardian. I am finally happy.” She quickly wiped away a tear that escaped down her cheek. “Don't you dare try to steal that from me.”
With that, Andria picked up her plate and cleared the dining room. Xavier pushed away his plate, slumping into his seat. Caolan said nothing; he just let the air stiffen around them.The weight of the world crushed Xavier's chest. He couldn't breathe. With a sigh, Xavier rose to his feet. “I need some air,” was his excuse. And before Caolan could even try to coerce him to stay, Xavier escaped through the back door.
Andria's words lingered on Xavier's mind for hours. He sat on the porch until the sunset painted the wide and distant sky a deep purple, falling beneath the hill-crested horizon. A breeze chilled his bones, and he wrapped his jacket around him--something Andria had called a 'windbreaker.'
As the house settled, Xavier retreated indoors. Andria was nowhere in sight. Xavier wandered until he found Caolan through an open door, sprawled out on a queen-sized bed at the center of the primarily-empty room.
“There you are,” yawned Caolan. “You are late, so it seems you'll be the one sleeping on the floor. Unless you want to share. In that case, we'll have quite the story to frighten Iz with back at home.” Caolan laughed at the mere thought. “Runa, imagine her face!”
Xavier rolled his eyes, deciding upon the floor. He laid on the carpet with a sigh. The simple thought of his sister threw his heart into free fall--the torturous, mixed sensation of falling and soaring. She has no doubt made herself a much better Guardian than him, figured Xavier. His chest tightened out of both jealousy and pride.
Caolan shut off the nearby lamp after removing his shirt and cuddling into a collection of pillows on the guest bed.
“Feeling better?” he spoke through the darkness. Xavier shrugged. “Andria was quiet after you left outside. Don't take this the wrong way, but... I suggest you are kinder tomorrow.” Xavier shifted so his back faced Caolan.
“I know,” he muttered. “Trust me, I do. I don't know what c-came over me today.”
In the night, Xavier could not find the comfort to sleep. His mind ached for rest, but no respite came. Each of his dreams were short and unpleasant, mere testaments to his restless, reeling mind. In time, the relentless pattern of Caolan's snores bothered him enough to bring him to his feet.
A nagging sensation would not leave the back of his mind. There remained a task to be completed--but what was it? Sighing, Xavier left the guest room. He was unburdened by any hunger or thirst, only by a muddled, agitated mind: a duty he had yet to fulfill.
Xavier tip-toed up the stairs, passing a sleeping Colonel on his way. At the top of the staircase was Andria's closed bedroom door. This is where it began: one duty, to protect the Princess at all costs, day or night. To wait beside her door to ensure no trouble came her way, and that if it did, he would be there to defeat it.
He pressed his ear to the door before pressing it gently open: Andria, wearing an over-sized sweatshirt, was cushioned into her pillows and mop of light brown hair. Her shoulders rose and fell in her slumber. She basked in the kind of rest Xavier envied: the purest, most vulnerable sleep, without worry etching creases into her round and pretty face.
Out of shameful routine, Xavier shut Andria's door and sat beside it. He heaved a deep breath. This is what I was born to do, isn't it? he reasoned. There is no sleep for someone like me--only vigilance. A passage of the Guardians' Book of Morals sprang into his mind, in the form of his father's voice: Now, repeat, son, he heard; Respite and peace is brought by hard work, he heard, and the knowledge that my royal is safe.
Xavier shut his eyes, pressing his face into his knees. Damn, do I miss you, he prayed. Yet a smile quickly lit his face, realizing where he was. Raising his eyes to the ceiling, he did not feel so alone in the grand scheme of Runa's plan.
“Thank you,” he whispered, the taste of redemption fresh on his tongue.