It was with great surprise—and no small amount of irritation—that after hours of tracking Mia through the forest, Vander at last found her. In the barn. Two bottles of mead deep. In his loft. Vander ground his teeth, and glared at the pair of scuffed boots dangling from the lip of his sleeping quarters. The smell of fermented honey was unmistakeable in the close dark of the barn.
Mia’s doeskin leggings stood out, pale and ghostly against the wooden landing. Mud flecked the pale material, and there was a small tear partway down one slim shin. Vander could see a sliver of flesh through it, the skin marred by a deep scratch that had long since ceased weeping blood. Vander wasn’t sure what he would like to do more: take hold of one of Mia’s ankles and yank her out of the loft—or commend her on the infuriatingly clever mess of a trail he had just spent hours deciphering. Because it was excellent. And hiding here, in his bunk—Genius. No one would have thought to look for her here. Least of all him.
Shaking his head, Vander looked down at his own boots, almost black against the greyish dirt. The creeping night hid the new scratches and water stains that marked the worn leather. The soles of his feet remained damp after a resigned trek through a bit of swamp. Another false trail, it had turned out to be. Vander pressed his lips together. She had led him on a merry little chase.
There was a swish of liquid and then a loud thunk from the loft. Vander lifted his gaze to glare at the boots that swayed to their own lazy rhythm. As he watched, Mia knocked her ankles together, once, twice... Taking a measured breath, Vander reached for the ladder and set his foot on the first rung. With each step he climbed, Vander clamped another iron manacle around his temper. He did not take well to being made a fool of, and Mia most assuredly had made a fool of him.
When Vander had promised Orden that he would find Mia, he had unwittingly made the mistake of assuming that it would be easily done. She was, after all, only a human girl, and in an emotional state at that. It had hardly seemed a challenge—and at first, it wasn’t. After sending Orden to the homestead to rest, Vander had set out for the clearing to start from the beginning of the trail. As he had expected, Mia had left a mess of broken branches and crushed grass in her wake, the extent of which spoke volumes to how she must have felt in the aftermath of what had happened with Orden. The foolish old man.
Vander had been in the midst of puzzling out the reason behind Orden’s rash behaviour, when he’d realized that the trail he had been following with half his attention, was gone—and had been for some minutes. Irritated and a bit disconcerted, Vander had resolved to banish all thoughts of Orden and his secrets, and instead direct all his attention into finding Mia and finding her quickly. He had then retraced his steps back to the place he’d last scented her and began anew. Only to lose her again. And again.
One moment Vander was on Mia’s trail, her scent strong in his nose, the next, all sign of her was gone. It took Vander longer than he would ever admit to uncover the sly bit of trickery Mia had employed to deceive him so effectively. Deer trails. Hundreds of narrow pathways overlapping and intersecting in a maze that spanned the entirety of the forest floor. Absolutely brilliant. Unendingly maddening. At no point could Vander be sure of Mia’s destination. Every time he thought he might know where she was headed, that certainty would be ripped from him as her trail went cold, forcing him to back track until he found it again. It was a humbling experience. One that set Vander’s teeth on edge and had his blood boiling.
The sun had reached the horizon and had begun its slow descent when Vander had realized his proximity to the homestead and cursed himself for a fool. And when he’d picked up her scent at the edge of the stable yard, he had been so furious—with her and with himself—that he’d nearly shifted right there. If only for the relief it would give him to bathe the coming night in the flames of his frustration. But that would have only succeeded in drawing unwanted attention and questions Vander would prefer to avoid.
It was almost comical how easily he had tracked her from there. Skirting all along the back of the house, ducking beneath windows, Vander had followed Mia’s scent first into the mead shed, and then, with growing uncertainty, into the barn. As he climbed the ladder up to the loft, Vander did not have to wonder what state Mia would be in when he reached her. He’d gone into the mead shed. He’d seen the empty spaces on the shelf above the fermenting barrels. If that wasn’t enough of a clue, the smell was. As prepared as Vander had thought he was, it unnerved him nonetheless when he raised his head over the edge of the landing and found Mia sprawled on her back, a hand wrapped loosely around the thick neck of one ceramic jug. The other lay on its side, discarded and empty, rolled up against a bale of hay.
Vander remained frozen at the top of the ladder, watching Mia’s chest rise and fall with a steady consistency. Her face was a pale moon in the dark. Her lashes, long and black as ink, lay against the sharp lines of her cheekbones. With some discomfort, Vander noticed the damp sheen of her skin. She’d been crying. He wanted to leave, should leave, but when Vander tried, he found himself unable to go. His body ached to climb back down the ladder and pretend that he had never seen her like this, and yet he couldn’t move. Vander remained where he was and told himself that he had done his work. He’d found her, as he’d said he would, and now he could leave her to Orden. But he couldn’t. Vander looked at Mia and saw the deep indentations along her bottom lip. He saw the shine of dried tears upon her cheeks and the deep bruise-like shadows beneath her eyes.
He saw himself.
Himself as he’d been when shifting had seemed impossible. Himself when his human form had escaped his control. Himself after the deaths of his nest mates, when the future of Nethea had weighed heavily upon his shoulders. Vander looked at Mia and realized that though they were worlds apart, they were one and the same. The thought was unbalancing, immediately foreign and yet Vander could not deny the truth of it.
Wholly unaware of the turn of Vander’s thoughts—unaware of Vander at all—Mia lifted the bottle of mead to her mouth with an imprecise swing that sent most of the contents splashing down her chin before she fit it to her lips. Irritation crept in as Vander watched Mia finish off the bottle before slamming the empty container down with a force that reverberated through the floorboards and into the ladder.
Introspective moment over, Vander cleared his throat as loud as he dared and had the innate satisfaction of seeing Mia jolt half upright, her eyes flying wide in surprise. Then she saw who it was. Vander saw the tension leave her body as she leaned back on her elbow, and regarded him from beneath lashes like raven’s feathers. Her lips turned in on themselves, “Dragon breath,” she said, her voice raspy with drink, “what are you doing here?”
Vander stiffened, any kinship he’d felt with her vanishing right there. A low growl began somewhere deep in his chest and worked its way up his throat. Vander bit down on it as he climbed the rest of the way into the landing. “I might ask you the same thing.”
“Me?”Mia watched Vander crawl toward her on hands and knees and giggled. “Oh, I’m hiding.”
Vander shuffled himself into position, and hooked his legs over the edge of the landing so that they hung next to Mia’s, but not close enough to touch. “I’d gathered.”
“Then why did you ask?” Mia asked, straining to sit up. She swayed slightly, her shoulder brushing against Vander’s arm.
Vander looked down in surprise as Mia was used him as an anchor. She leaned into his arm, her bony shoulder digging into his flesh. He couldn’t see her face. Vander searched the rafters for something to say. “I suppose I was wondering what made you decide to hide here. In my bunk.”
Mia sighed. “It seemed like a good idea.”
“Until I got too drunk to get down.” She whispered and a cascade of giggles poured from her lips.
Vander fought to keep a straight face and failed as Mia rocked against him. He looked down at her, his mouth twisting into a bemused smirk, and wondered if he was being allowed a brief glimpse at the person Mia used to be before she’d come to Nethea. Before fear and anger had taken hold.
Mia gave a little sigh and went quiet beside him. Silence spread through the barn, interrupted periodically by the flutter of wings and the subdued chirping of young swallows settling in for the night.
“Are you going to tell Orden where I am?”
Vander tilted his head and found Mia looking up at him, her eyes large and black. It unnerved him to see the trepidation so clearly written on her face. “No,” Vander said.
She stared at him for a while longer, “Good.” Mia turned away, ducking her chin so that Vander could not read her expression. “I can’t talk to him right now.”
Feigning ignorance seemed the best way forward. “Why?” Vander asked, “Has something happened between you?” It was a dangerous game to play. He had no way of knowing how Mia would react, and given that she was well into her cups…Vander waited in tense silence to see if and how she would answer.
Mia shrugged her shoulders, “Oh, you know. Nothing too serious, I uh—I just—I told him that I couldn’t uh—that I can’t uh—that I, that I can’t be a—a Guardian anymore.”
The casual manner with which she’d said it, the stumbling matter-of-factness, it had Vander feeling cold all over. He didn’t know how to proceed. How did he tread lightly when Mia was singlehandedly, and perhaps unknowingly, throwing away Nethea’s fragile future? Vander swallowed down the bile creeping up his throat. His voice sounded like a croak as he said, “Really?”
“Ya,” Mia said with a quick look at him. Then her eyes went back to her hands, twisting and writhing in her lap. “I uh—I realized that I’m not really uh—I’m not cut out for this stuff, you know? Not like—not like you,” Mia fixed him with eyes that were bright and watery, “you were right about me. I’m weak and—and—and I’m stupid I—I’m just some kid from New York—You don’t—you don’t need me. You can do this without me—You should go—I’d just slow you down—you know?”
Vander felt light-headed and sick to his stomach as Mia finished putting into words, his most desperate wish. This was what Vander had hoped. What he had thought but never allowed himself to say out loud. How strange, to be offered that which once filled you with purpose and excitement, and to feel nothing but dread and crushing shame. Orden may have been the one to throw the last piece of straw but Vander could not with good conscious deny his part in breaking her. Because she was broken and she was looking at him as if she expected him to say something—to tell her—what? That she was right? How could he do that when he was no longer sure that she was right? After all, there had to be a reason she was brought here. She was Chosen, just as he was… they were bound by some greater force. Were they not?
Doubt coated Vander’s tongue with its sour taste. He swallowed it down and asked her, “And what—what will you do?” If he were to go. If he were to assume the Guardianship on his own.
Mia’s eyes dimmed, and then she ducked her head, directing her gaze down into the dark beyond the edge of the landing. The end of her bound hair swept forward in a heavy swatch, black against the pale sheen of her skin. It didn’t hide the way she chewed her lower lip, sinking her teeth so deeply into the flesh that Vander wondered how she stood the pain.
“I guess I’ll uh—I’ll stay here.” Mia’s voice was quiet and hollow sounding, “I’ll stay here and uh—help around the farm, you know? I’m not good for much but I uh—I can be useful. Orden won’t like it—but he’ll forgive me—eventually—right?”
“I’m sure he will.” The words tasted bitter on Vander’s tongue.
“Ya,” Mia bobbed her head, a breath rattling through her, “So I’ll stay here—and you’ll go—and it’ll be fine. It’ll be great. I’ll stay here—I won’t go home cause I—cause I can’t and that’s—that’s uh—that’s okay ‘c-cause—‘cause—ugh!”
He was ready when Mia curled forward, her arms wrapping around her middle as if she’d suffered a mortal wound. Without thought or hesitation, Vander looped his arm around her thin shoulders and pulled her to him. Mia went rigid, as shocked by his touch as he was, then her breath flowed out of her with a high keening sound. She turned her face into his shoulder and fisted her hands in the grimy fabric of his shirt. Vander tightened his hold.
The smell of salt and pine, and musty swamp water mingled together as Mia’s warm tears soaked into Vander’s shirt. He didn’t know how long they stayed like that, perched on the edge of the landing, their legs hanging in the empty air. It seemed an eternity had passed before Mia finally stopped shaking, her body becoming soft and heavy as she leaned into him. Another before she stopped making those awful, pitiful gasping noises and her breathing evened out. It seemed like an eternity, and yet it was over in an instant.
Mia inhaled deeply, and let out a big sigh that left her warm and limp, utterly relaxed—as if she’d just breathed her last breath. The slow, regular rise and fall of her chest reassured Vander that she was in fact, still alive, and hadn’t just died in his arms. Only fallen asleep.
Vander felt the tension drain out of his shoulders and the tightness in his chest ease until he his breath came easier. He waited until he was sure that she was really asleep, and then he waited some more before he dared to look at the girl in his arms. What he saw made his chest crack with pity. Mia looked so small, like a child nestled against his side. Terribly fragile. Vander clenched his jaw. Anger burned like a hot coal low in his gut, but for who, he wasn’t yet sure. He closed his eyes, sending out a tendril of his consciousness toward the house.
Breahn was in the kitchen, her thoughts turning anxious circles within her head. Vander brushed against her consciousness in a soothing manner, and felt relief bloom within her. Then he found Orden.
“Meet me by the well.” Vander retreated back into his own head before Orden could make a reply. Before he could ask questions or demand to know where Mia was. She needed to rest. Orden could wait to make things right tomorrow. If they could be made right at all. Looking down at Mia, her small hands fisted loosely in his shirt, Vander wasn’t so sure.
A minute dragged by while Vander listened to Mia breathe. She slept so peacefully, her breath a faint whisper of air in the dark. Vander despised the thought of moving her, but he had no choice. He was out of time.
“Come on,” Vander murmured, loud enough he hoped to wake her.
“Mmmmmm…” Mia’s grip on his shirt tightened and she nestled her head more firmly against his side.
Mia was a lump, heavy and boneless with exhaustion and drink. She was of no help as Vander hauled her away from the landing’s edge and maneuvered her awkwardly toward his bed roll, laid out on the straw.
Nothing about what he was doing made sense to Vander as he tucked the edge of his blanket under Mia’s chin. Where this sudden desire to protect her—from Orden, or herself—had come from, he couldn’t say. He just felt it. Like an ache beneath his breast bone. Vander stared at her, perhaps hoping to find an answer written on her face.
She looked so young, the sharp bones of her jaw and cheeks softened by sleep, the hollows beneath her eyes filled out. Lips that had only ever been pressed into a tight scowl or pulled back from her teeth in a snarl, now seemed full and soft, slightly parted to allow for deep breathing. Inky lashes, stuck together with tears, fluttered against pale skin.
“Why are you being so nice to me?” Mia’s voice was a rough croak that shook Vander from his observations.
She made a sound in the back of her throat, as if it had taken enough effort to speak in the first place without having to repeat herself. Vander almost smiled.
“I said, why are you being so nice to me? I thought you hated me.”
Vander swallowed, his mouth gone dry. Hadn’t he just asked himself the same question? “I uh—” Vander frowned, searching for the right thing to say. The truth came easily. “I’ve been where you are,” He paused, “and I don’t hate you.”
Mia watched Vander through a thick patchwork of lashes. He couldn’t read her, had no way of knowing what she thought of his admission. If she even believed him.
Vander stared as Mia rolled onto her side and after a few grunts and a heavy sigh, went still. And when he couldn’t find a reason to stay, Vander climbed down from the loft and went to meet Orden at the well.
As he walked through the barn and then out into dark stable yard, Vander felt strangely off balance. Shaken after having seen Mia in such a state. After she’d let him see her in such a state. Worry gnawed at his gut like an over-eager dog. Worry for the future. Worry for Mia who had felt so insubstantial in his arms, broken by grief and the actions of two prideful Dragons.
Things could not be allowed to go on as they had. Something had to be done. Something had to change. He and Orden had gone about it all wrong, Vander saw that now. Mia was not like Euan or Reiner. She was not an orphan, nor was she Nethean. She had a family, a life she missed desperately and would give anything to return to. How could they expect her to put that aside for a world she had no ties to?
Guilt solidified in Vander’s gut as he neared the well. A dark shape could be seen leaning against the pale stones. They had been fools to expect Mia to give all of herself to a cause she didn’t fully understand—a cause she didn’t believe in. And when she had inevitably failed, they’d blamed her and not themselves. Vander could not believe how blind they’d been, how stupid not to see what was so clear to him now. Mia had trained, she’d done everything they had asked of her—or at least tried to—but her heart hadn’t been in it. It never was. With every step he took, Vander grew more certain of what had to be done. He had to hope that the Keeper would agree.