I stared at the side of my mate’s face as we rested by the fireplace, still entangled together atop the large rug before it.
As much as I’d enjoyed our love making and the feeling of closeness it brought us, it also confused me. How could he be so cold and distant one moment and then so gentle and loving the next? His mood swings gave me emotional whiplash and I wasn’t sure how to feel.
“What’s wrong?” He whispered to the ceiling, his eyes still closed.
I ran a finger lightly down his bicep. “You confuse me.” I admitted.
He turned his head, training his eyes on mine. “I know. I confuse myself, too.”
I smiled briefly as I drew circles on his abdomen. “You were so hateful toward me, back in the forest... It hurt me very deeply.”
He closed his eyes as his brows drew together tightly. “I know... I was overwhelmed with both my dragon’s anger and my own. I lashed out. I’m sorry...”
“I’m sorry too. I should never have kept it from you. I was afraid that you would try to stop me from helping Warrick because you are always so driven to protect me from any risk.”
His hand closed around mine, stopping the light trailing of my fingers. His eyes re-opened as the pad of his thumb gently rubbed circles onto the palm of my hand.
“Brenya... I need you to understand...” His eyes burned into mine. “I wasn’t upset that you’d been looking for a way to heal Warrick. Of course, it irritated me. But I understood why you did it. I could’ve gotten over that easily. After all, your defiance and stubborn nature are what made me fall for you in the beginning...” He paused, sighing deeply through his nose.
“What triggered my dragon’s instinctual anger, and my own, was the fact that you’d been seeing Ronan behind my back. Ronan, the person who you nearly married, the person who would be happy to take you from me, the person who has hated me for nearly a century. I had never felt so betrayed in all my life... And beneath all of the anger, betrayal, and the jealousy... I felt the deepest sadness I have ever known.”
Sorrow flared inside of my chest at the raw emotion in his eyes. I could feel the echo of his despair and it burned behind my eyes. I’d caused these feelings.
Oh, how sorry I felt.
“I’m so sorry.” I whispered as the pain spread, seizing my heart in it’s icy grasp. “I have no excuse for what I did. I-I was selfish. I couldn’t see past my own grief and I was desperate to relieve it. I didn’t mean to hurt you, Dristan, I’m so sor-”
His lips covered mine, cutting me off. His hands cupped my face, holding me to him as if I were the most precious, breakable thing in the world.
He kissed me so passionately, with the most gentle amount of love. When he pulled back, he kissed away the tear that had fallen from my eye.
“Baby, listen to me.” He whispered against my lips. “I forgive you. Do not let sorrow and grief into your heart anymore. You must stop doing this to yourself. You made a mistake, and I overreacted. We are both at fault. We are both sorry. I love you, I forgive you, and that is all that matters. Let this grief go... Let it go...”
I nodded, my face still between his hands, feeling the guilt melting away.
“My reaction was uncalled for.” He said, staring into my eyes. “I was scared. I was hurt. I wanted to kill Ronan, and prove a point. I knew that he wouldn’t really die, but I wanted you both to see how angry I was. So I snapped his neck. It was a disgusting, childish thing to do... I hate myself for doing that in front of you, for letting you believe I would be so heartless... I regret it, not for him, but on your behalf. It was wrong of me. I am sorry.”
I smiled warmly at him. “I forgive you. Always.”
He leaned in and kissed me gently once more before pulling away.
“Please...” He whispered brokenly. “If you must defy me, if you must make decisions without me, if you must put yourself at risk... Then do what you must, but please... Do not ever go behind my back with Ronan again... I need to trust you. I am asking you here and now, Brenya, to defend me, to protect my heart, and to honor me, even when I am not present. I am asking for your loyalty, mate.”
My eyes alternated between his ocean depths as the vulnerability in them shined through. Silently, I wondered if he had ever allowed himself to be this open and emotionally vulnerable with anyone else in his life. I did not think so.
I brushed my thumb across his jawline. “Of course.”
“Swear it to me, as I will swear it to you.” He said, edging closer to my lips.
I closed my eyes. “I swear it.” His lips brushed against mine. “I swear it, Dristan.”
“As do I.” He whispered gently.
And then his lips melted onto mine, sealing our sacred promise to each other in the only way we knew how.
I strode though the corridor, my hand tucked into Dristan’s, as we made our way to the infirmary. Butterflies filled my stomach as each footstep brought me closer and closer to facing Warrick.
It had been so long... Much too long.
But I was finally ready.
We found Torryn and Andromeda waiting outside the door, both as ready as we were.
“Where is Aella?” I asked, my eyes searching the hallway for her lanky figure.
“She is inside.” Andi answered, smiling warmly at Dristan and I. Her eyes lingered on our joined hands and then she sent me a secret wink.
I beamed back at her.
“She has asked us to wait here while she heals Warrick. She insists that the healing spell is private and does not want anyone to witness it.” Torryn added.
“Won’t Warrick witness it, though?” I asked, raising a brow.
“He is under a sedative. One, because Aella did not want him to eavesdrop on the spell. And two, because apparently, it is a very painful process.” He explained, leaning against the stone wall.
“How long has she been in there with him?” Dristan asked.
“About thirty minutes. She should be nearly done, now.” Andi shrugged. Then a smile crept across her lips as she gazed at Dristan. “It’s nice to see you are finally finished brooding.”
He smirked at her and then pulled me closer, tucking me into his side. “Yes, it is.”
Warmth snaked across my body as his wing came around, shielding me from view slightly. With a barrier of privacy between us and them, he leaned down and pressed a soft kiss to my lips. I nearly purred.
Just then, the door to the infirmary creaked open.
Dristan’s wing withdrew, and Aella came into view as the door clicked shut behind her.
I stepped forward. “How is he?”
She bowed her head briefly, her hands folded in front of her, before she lifted head head and met my gaze with her large, black eyes. “He is weak, but healed. He will need a couple of days to regain complete use of his wing and for his strength to fully return.”
A sigh of relief left my lips and I felt my shoulders sag. It felt like an enormous weight was lifted from me, one I’d been holding up for ages.
“Thank you, Aella.” Dristan said from behind me.
She gave him a curt nod.
“May we see him now?” Andi asked eagerly.
Aella turned to her. “He is asking to see the princess, first. Alone.”
The butterflies in my stomach returned with a vengeance as everyone turned to look at me.
“Alone...?” I repeated dumbly.
Andi’s lower lip pouted out while Torryn remained relaxed, still leaning against the wall.
I turned to face Dristan, craning my neck back to meet his gaze. He smiled down at me warmly as his hand came up toward my face. He brushed his thumb along my lower cheek.
“What are you waiting for, love?”
I shook my head and smiled nervously. “I don’t know what to say to him.”
He nodded slowly. “Yes, you do.” He leaned down and kissed me chastely. “Go.”
The white room was chilly and bright as I stepped through the door. It smelled of antiseptic and plastic. It burned my sensitive nose.
I had not been here since my coma, so many weeks ago. All of the beds were vacant, aside from one, which was tucked into the far back corner near a painting of the sky.
He seemed to be asleep. His eyes were closed and he was laying on his stomach. His head was supported by his arms, which were folded into a makeshift pillow beneath him.
His torso was bare, and he had no blanket on top of him. Wasn’t he cold? Did dragon's get cold?
I tiptoed across the room, carefully and quietly, afraid to disturb him.
There was a chair beside his bed.
As I silently sat down, I noticed Sylvie’s scent lingering around the chair. She must’ve been here recently. I smiled as I pictured her here, sitting in this chair, talking quietly to Warrick as he recovered slowly. I wondered if he knew of her fondness of him.
Warrick’s face was peaceful and slack. His breathing was deep and even as he rested. He looked much younger when he slept, aside from the dark stubble that had grown in around his jawline, chin, and upper lip.
My eyes drifted toward his back. His violet wings, glittering in the light with deep shades of green and gold, were draped delicately over each side of his body, trailing down his muscled back. The ends hung over the end of the bed, between his bare feet.
They both looked strong and healthy, as if one of them had never been burned and reduced to bloody shreds of skin, hanging from the frame of his bones.
He looked new.
My eyes then drifted up the wall and settled on the large painting hung there. It was a lovely painting. A deep blue sky, littered with puffy, white clouds with mountains and trees in the distance. I hadn’t noticed it there before, when I’d been a patient here.
“It’s a poor excuse for a window.” Warrick’s voice suddenly said.
I jumped slightly before lowering my eyes and finding his.
He gazed up at me with dark brown eyes. The way his brows were raised caused his forehead to wrinkle. He smiled warmly as I blinked at him.
“I was losing my mind with the lack of windows in this damned place. So I made my own.” He said, still smiling.
I felt the corner of my lip quirk upward. “You painted this?”
“You didn’t know I was an artist, did you?” He chucked softly.
I shook my head. “I had no idea. It’s very beautiful.”
He closed his eyes and sighed. “I’ve painted many of them while I’ve been here. I did my best to capture the sky as it looks in my memories, seeing as I was never going to fly again. I felt like I had to paint them... So I would remember...”
My eyes burned a I stared down at his sleepy face. “Yes... Because of me.”
His eyes snapped open. “No, Brenya,” He moved to sit up, pushing himself off of the bed with his forearms, but when he groaned in pain, I pushed him back down by the shoulder. He panted through his teeth, groaning.
“Warrick, don’t move! You still have healing to do.” I scolded him.
“Gods damn it...” He growled, baring his teeth with his eyes squeezed shut.
I watched helplessly as he breathed through the pain. After a full minute, his face finally relaxed again and his breathing returned to normal.
“Is that why you haven’t come to visit me, then? You feel like this is your fault? I knew it...” He grumbled.
“Of course it’s my fault. This happened to you when you saved me from the lava, Warrick.” I reminded him, my voice dull.
He laughed, shaking his head. “Brenya, it wasn’t your fault. I made the choice to risk myself. I alone am responsible for this. No one else.”
I stared down at him with furrowed brows. “A choice you wouldn’t have had to make if I hadn’t been so weak and inexperienced.”
“But my choice, regardless!” He snapped. He glared up at me with flared nostrils.
I gaped at him, a bit shocked at his display of frustration. I’d never seen Warrick show anger before, especially not toward me.
His face fell at my expression and he sighed. “I’m sorry... I just hate the way you somehow find a way to blame yourself for everything that happens. Sometimes, bad things happen. And usually, it is no ones fault. It’s just... Life.”
I pressed my lips together. “I know. It’s something I am working on...”
“Then start here, now. Okay?” He said, turning his head to look at me better.
I stared at him silently for awhile before finally nodding subtly. “Okay...”
“Brenya, I made a conscious choice that day. I knew I would more likely be burned than not. I knew it was a risk. But you must understand that the choice was mine. And I would do it again, every time. No question.” He said seriously.
I shook my head slowly as I gazed down at his onyx depths. “But why? Why would you do that for me, Warrick?”
He smiled gently. “Because it is my duty. Because you are the princess and my future queen. The people’s future queen. You are the future, Brenya. You will lead us into a better life. I know it. And that is something that I would gladly burn for.” He
My vision grew blurry as his words touched my heart. I felt the hot tears spill over my cheeks before I could stop them.
“Besides...” He added, reaching up an wiping a tear away swiftly. “If I had let you die, Dristan would’ve killed me anyway.” He joked.
A small sound escaped my lips. Something mixed between a laugh and a sob. “Warrick, I’m so sorry.”
“Don’t be sorry. Even if you hadn’t miraculously found a way to fix my wing, I still wouldn’t want you to be sorry. I don’t blame you at all, princess, and I don’t want you to blame yourself either, alright?” He said, his eyes crinkling at the corners the way they always did when he smiled.
I nodded, wiping my tears away. “Okay.”
“Good.” He said, pleased. “Now, how has Dristan been while I’ve been away? Have you been keeping that grouchy dragon lord in check?”
I laughed quietly. “I think so... Mostly... Well, not really.”
He laughed wholeheartedly, but winced again as the movement stung his wing.
“Are you alright?” I said, moving closer to him. My hands hovered over his back, not touching him.
He waved a hand. “I’m fine.”
I relaxed a fraction and brought my hands back to my lap. “I brought you something.”
His eyes lit up. “Really? A gift, for me?”
“Don’t act so shocked!” I said, slapping his arm lightly.
He grinned, raising a dark eyebrow.
I stuck my tongue out at him as I fished the small package out of my cloak pocket. I’d wrapped the small white box in a red bow. I smiled as I handed it to him.
He took the box, eyeing it like a child on Yulemas morning. I struggled not to giggle as he lifted it to his ear and shook the package gently.
It rattled noisily.
His eyes found mine as he smiled widely. “What is it?”
I shrugged and crossed my arms as I leaned back in the chair.
The way he unwrapped it was sweet and slightly comical. He was so careful, as if it were made of something quite fragile. He carefully pulled the ribbon, unraveling the bow, his eyes shining with excitement all the while.
“You act like you’ve never received a present before.” I teased, watching his slow process.
“I haven’t. Well, not since I was a child.” He said swiftly.
My jaw dropped. “What?! That’s horrible. What about Yulemas?”
He smirked up at me as he pulled the last of the ribbon free. “We haven’t celebrated holidays around here for nearly a century. Not since the war started.”
My brows furrowed.
That would have to change. Everyone deserved a happy Yulemas. It was still four months away... But I made a mental note to have a celebration with the entire Aviary when the time came.
“Hmm...” He hummed, gripping the top of the box. I pressed my lips together as he lifted the lid and peered inside.
He pulled the gold chain out, along with the several charms attached to it. His eye met mine, wide with surprise, as he realized they were rune charms.
“How did you get these?” He asked in shock.
I smiled proudly. “I made them.”
His brows rose even further. “Did you?”
“Impressive, princess.” He grinned. “Thank you, truly.”
“You don’t even know what they do, yet.” I laughed.
“It doesn’t matter. I’m grateful, no matter what they do.” He beamed.
I blushed as I took the necklace from him and showed him each of the three runes. “This one enhances your speed, so you can outrun lava and anything else that tries to harm you.” I explained quietly. “This one enhances your pain tolerance, so you will never know such agony again.” I felt my throat growing thick with emotion as I struggled to keep my voice from breaking. “And this one makes you immune to fire, so no flame will ever burn you again.”
I took his hand and placed the charm necklace in his palm, avoiding his eyes. I closed his fingers around the gift and then scooted away, leaning back in my chair as I stared at his hand.
When he remained silent for a long while, I finally lifted my face and met his eyes.
He was smiling at me so warmly, so genuinely, that it broke the dam. The gratitude, happiness and friendship in his eyes overwhelmed me.
I burst into tears, and despite how much I was sure it hurt, he pushed himself off of the bed and wrapped me in a tight hug. He held me for a long while as my cries quieted, never speaking. Only letting me cry.
When I stilled, he pulled away and sat on the edge of the bed.
I lifted my eyes to his, feeling a bit embarrassed.
“You are incredibly thoughtful, princess. This is the best, most special gift I’ve ever received. Thank you, from the bottom of my heart. You are a wonderful friend.” He said sincerely.
I smiled warmly at him as he secured the necklace around his neck. When it was in place, his eyes widened a bit. “The pain is hardly there, now.”
“It works, then. Good.” I said, nodding.
He laughed quietly. “I’ll bet I can finally beat Dristan in a race, now that I’ve got this speed boost as well.”
“I highly doubt that.” Dristan’s voice murmured.
I turned as the door opened widely, and all three dragons strode into the room.
"Hello, old friend." Warrick beamed.
We spent the next several hours together, all of us, in the windowless room of the infirmary. The joy of Warrick’s recovery, of the togetherness we all shared, was something I cherished deeply. For awhile, it felt like everything would be okay.
I listened to the laughter and happy chatter around me as the time went by.
But as my eyes once again settled on the painting above the bed, I felt that fleeting happiness seeping away. As I gazed at the mountains behind the painted sky, and studied the trees surrounding them, I could only wonder how we were going to get through our next task.
For the fight was far from over.
It had only just begun.