2017 Polaris, New York
I shut the door to my apartment and wiggled my sore feet out of my shoes, which I loathed wearing because they offered no protection for my ankles. I had no choice but to wear them because the floors in the kitchen could get slippery, and boots were too warm for this season.
Jemier slept on the sofa, his body taking up every cushion. He’d fallen asleep watching a show about two handsome ghost-hunting brothers who traveled in an equally handsome car. Thankfully, he did not wake when I’d shut the door, nor when I had accidentally flung my shoe at the wall. Another miscalculation of my cursed human strength; I had trouble with motions that previously required far less strength, and I often overcompensated. I hadn’t realized until now how noisy I’d been; what could my neighbors hear? What attention did I draw to myself with my pathetic attempts to adjust to this cursed body?
Work had exhausted me, and the rain on my walk home had chilled me to my bones. I had no physical or mental energy to cook another meal, but I had waited for Jemier’s visit for so long and had a promise to keep.
I shuffled off toward the dryer, looking for a dry set of clothes, and eyed the closet where the spare blanket and pillow were. Should I offer them to him? I decided against it. I missed him, and he could not know it. He could not know how weak, sad, and angry I had become. Then he would worry I could return to old habits. Sometimes I wanted to. I wanted to do something about everything because no one had done anything about anything when it had come to me.
Yet I wanted him there because he already knew too much. I wanted him there because he knew me and accepted me, and I wanted him there because I did not have to lie to him as I lied to Brida and those I had come to know.
I let my hair loose from its tie and toweled it dry, then changed. Cooking would cause a ruckus, so I lifted every dish with care and did my best to keep him asleep. I didn’t need him to see how desperate I’d become for his friendship anyway.
He did not wake. He was a warrior before he was a politician, trained to keep watch and wake at the slightest of sounds. He must have been truly exhausted to stay asleep for as long as he did. Perhaps he pretended for my benefit.
I roasted poultry with herbs, a recipe I’d found on my tablet. Since he had seemed so eager to eat my carrots earlier, I threw in some of those too. The leafy greens I had originally bought had since wilted—melted into a black, mushy mess, really—and I threw them away, substituting frozen peas from a bag.
I tapped Jemier on the shoulder. He shifted violently, attempting to grab my hand. I snapped my hand away in time and smiled; I still had the muscle memory to dodge a trained Drakon soldier.
“Jemier. I told you I would cook for you.”
He rubbed his eyes and inhaled deeply. “That scent is from you?”
I hadn’t showered today, but I did not go from clean to ripe so quickly. “You’d best be speaking of the food.”
He gave me a sleepy, childlike smirk, and nodded lightly. “Let us feast.”
I did my best not to serve him, though I did hand him his plate. He took sparingly from the offerings, and I encouraged him to take more.
“You should eat more, Solin.”
“I don’t need as much. This is enough.”
“It doesn’t look like enough.”
“That’s because human metabolism is different, Jemier.”
“You refuse to refer to me as ‘drathos.’ You used to call me that.”
“Because you are not my cherished friend.” We set our plates on the dining table, which I had only used for eating once. I tended to eat at the sofa or at the counter.
I poured us wine, leaving the bottle on the table, then ate the first bite to show I hadn’t poisoned him. I don’t know if he’d even considered that, but he did start eating once I had swallowed.
“You cooked this?” he said, mouth full of food.
I took a sip of wine before answering. “No. I used my powers of coercion and brought in an executive chef.”
For a short moment, he believed me.
I scoffed and gave him an incredulous look. “I have no powers of coercion, Jemier. Other than my clearly unpolished silver tongue. And why would I bother bringing in a chef? To impress you?”
He gave me a half shrug. “I thought cooking for me was supposed to do that.”
I avoided his knowing, playful gaze and hid behind my wineglass. “Why are you really here, Jemier? It can’t be to check up on me. There are much better candidates for such a task.”
“I missed you, Solin. That is the truth. And there is little mayhem to distract me from missing you.”
Missing me wasn’t a distraction. Everything else was the distraction. “How could you miss me?”
“Because of all I had done to you, and you still focused attention on me.”
“Focused attention on you? When have I done that?” Aside from the myriad of days I’d spent waiting for him.
“You don’t treat me as everyone else does.”
“I treat you worse.”
“That is not a quality to miss. You understand that’s how unhealthy relationships work.”
“But we have a relationship.”
“We probably shouldn’t.”
“You don’t think so?”
I sighed and sipped the wine, focusing on the window instead of my guest. I expected him to burst through the silence in his normal fashion, but he never did.
“There’s another reason I’m here,” he said, paying more attention to the edge of the table than his food.
“Other than you missing me. Even though we’ve barely spoken since…” I twirled my fork in the air. “I can’t remember when, actually. Was it the balcony, or my capture? Years, or weeks?”
“If you count actual conversations, it was long before you came here.”
“Years then.” I shrugged. “I suppose I could understand the guilt you’d have over leaving me alone for so long. Although my prison sentence was longer, and you certainly didn’t make an effort then.”
“Solin, that was centuries ago. Why can’t we move past that?”
“Because no one came to see me, perhaps? Not my family, not my friends, and not even the person I—”
Too late. His expression said he’d filled in the rest of that sentence for me. “Who, Solin?”
“I didn’t mean you if that’s what you’re asking.”
“What if I am?”
He shrank in his chair.
I tried to meet his eyes without leaning so far over to the right that I’d also meet the floor. “Jemier, I’m not lying. I was seeing someone at the time. I didn’t mean to scare you.”
His eyes shot up at me. “I’m not scared, Solin. That’s why…why I’m here.”
I lifted my head and relaxed my grip on the fork. It fell to the plate with a sharp clank, startling both of us.
“You’re…” I narrowed my eyes at him. “You’re…like me? And you like me?”
“I think so.”
Adrenaline pumped through me. “You think so? You only think that you’re like me.”
I shook my head. “No, Jemier. Stop it. Don’t ever say that.”
“Why? I’ve said it about others before, so I might as well say it about myself.”
“Absolutely not. That’s Varin’s word, not ours. Never ours. You are not an abomination.” I wanted to stand. To hold him. To scold him for not telling me sooner. To yell at him for invading my exile and making it about him. About…us. I took a deep breath instead. “Jemier, the second part of what I said. Is that true too?”
His face pinked in shame. I’d never seen him look so guilty before. “I think I have feelings for you, Solin. I couldn’t leave things the way they were.”
“Actually, you could’ve.” I sipped my wine. “I’m in captivity right now, and you think that’s an appropriate time to confess your feelings to me?”
“You’re in exile, Solin, not captivity.”
“I’m not talking about this damn planet, Jemier!” I put a hand on my chest. “I’m talking about this body! This curse! Do you know what it’s like to get stripped of the very things that make you you? Do you?”
“You don’t need your magick to hear how I feel about you!”
“Yes, I do.” I stood and gripped the back of my chair. “Because I am not me without the powers that have kept me alive. Do you get that? I wouldn’t have survived anything without magick. It has saved me from so much more than you’ll ever know. And then you come at me with this? When I’m most vulnerable, unable to say no, unable to escape?”
His face twisted in disbelief. “You want to escape? From me?”
I breathed with a fury whose source I could not pinpoint. “No, but I’d like to know that I have the option.”
“You’ve always had that option.”
“Not in exile.”
“You ran away from Cydrithenna, not the other way around.”
“I was banished before I was exiled, Jemier. Do not mistake that as me running away.”
“I don’t understand.”
I thudded the chair against the floor. “Damn it, Jemier. Must I always be so literal? I did another bad thing, and my adoring, loving parents wanted to send me away for good this time. So I fled off-world, then I came here, and then Gaians died. And now I am stuck here in this cursed body trying desperately to claw at redemption.” If I’d had my strength, I could have crushed the chair beneath my fingers. I wanted to shatter it into splinters. “And then you come here and tell me that you’re like me. That you have feelings—sorry, think you have feelings for me. You don’t even know for sure.”
“This is new to me, drathos.”
“It’s Solin, and I don’t really know what to say to that, because I told you centuries ago who I was. You never had to hide anything from me.”
“I’m not hiding anything from you now.”
“Oh, shut up.”
“Drathos, this is not what I intended.” He stood. I put my weight on my back heel. He stayed behind his chair. “I’m sorry, I didn’t know that about your parents, and I didn’t think about the timing. I’m sorry, drathos.”
“I’m sorry, Solin, and I won’t interfere with your redemption. I’m here because the king doesn’t think this is possible for you, but I trust you more than him. I know you can do this.”
My hands shook. “I need a moment.”
I stood from the table. In seconds, I chose the bathroom instead of the outer hallway, though the hallway would have been a better mode of escape if needed. It had other doors to flee through, while the bathroom had a sorry excuse for a window.
I did not deserve his trust, and I did not deserve his company. Jemier had the admiration of the Federation Senate, the admiration of other factions, the admiration of the Drakons, and more importantly, he had the admiration of the king. I hated myself because I was hated. I was always hated. But Jemier didn’t accept that. He did not miss me out of perceived duty to the king’s son. He missed me because he actually did care for me, and the depth of that care had changed. Did I feel the same for him, or did this ruin everything between us for good?
I locked the door behind me like so many humans do in films. I gripped the sides of the sink and pressed my teeth against my tongue, giving me just enough pain to keep from collapsing into a pathetic heap. I wanted to destroy something. I could crack the mirror. I could crack the glass of the shower door too. I would need to clean up afterward if I broke anything. Not worth it.
As Jemier knocked on the door, I considered notifying the Shadowfall Alliance of my presence. Let them kill me and be done with it. I could also renege on my promise to myself. If I proceeded with caution, if I abandoned all I believed in, I could turn the Alliance upside down until I was at the top.
Jemier knocked again.
I still wasn’t ready to see him.
“Solin, come out,” came his muffled voice from behind the door.
“Solin, please come out.”
“I said go away.”
I might as well act like a human child if that was how everyone saw me.
“I’m coming in there.”
“You’re not breaking down my door.”
“I’ll use the window.”
“You’re too big.”
“I’ll use the wall.”
I wiped my entire face of tears. “You will not use the wall!”
“So stop hiding in there!”
“I’m not hiding! You know where I am.”
“I can’t see you.”
“How is that any different than normal?”
“It isn’t, except now you can’t disguise yourself as a pillar. Will you open the door?”
“Will you go away?”
“I don’t need you here, Jemier. I don’t need your help. I don’t need your trust or your friendship or whatever it is you feel for me. I can do this on my own, and I don’t need you.”
“There is no shame in asking for help, drathos.”
I pounded my fist against the door, wincing at the pain that followed. “I am not your drathos! Why won’t you understand that?”
Silence, then very quietly a mumbled “I do understand that.”
“I said I—”
“I know what you said!” I hit the door again on that last word, and evidently, the force hit Jemier, who must’ve been resting his head against the door because I heard a reactionary grunt of pain.
“Sorry!” I said.
I heard something else.
“What did you say?”
“Did you not hear me or are you asking for clarification?” he shot back.
“I didn’t hear you.”
“What did you say?”
I growled and opened the door with force. “I said I didn’t hear you.”
“I said it’s been hard to deal with.”
“You’ve had quite some time.”
“Barely a breath in Cydrithennan time.”
“It does not take Cydrithennans so long to adjust. We are very Gaian in that respect.”
“Were you weeping, Solin?”
I scoffed and let my hair fall into my face. Without my powers, I had little else to rely upon to hide myself. “No.” I steadied my breathing.
“I know,” he said softly, putting his hand on the doorjamb for support. “I’ve had a hard time dealing with all of this. Knowing what you were denied because of something outside of your control. Knowing I cannot undo what I have done, that I have taken something from you that is rightfully yours. Knowing that you will never forgive me, and that our time as friends has been eternally spoiled.” He sighed and leaned against the doorframe, his large form embodying most of the space. “Knowing all of that, and still coming here to tell you how I feel anyway. You’re right, Solin. We are not drathos, not any longer. Maybe it’s our fault, or maybe it was done to us. Sometimes it feels like we’ve been manipulated into playing someone else’s life out.”
“What would it have even changed?” The vitriol had left my voice, replaced by tired curiosity. “Had everyone been honest with me from the start, or if Varin never died, would anything have been different? I would have been accepted into your circle of friends, do you think?”
“They’re your friends too, and they like you,” he said.
“I see you’ve forgotten all the times they mocked me, distrusted me, and undermined me.” He opened his mouth to defend them, but I interrupted. “Don’t say it. I had the same training and same experiences as all of you, and everyone always treated me as an outsider. Varin was the crown prince. I was nothing, not even worthy of a breath that wasn’t a laugh.”
“I am sorry, Solin.”
“I wish…I wish we weren’t going through this.”
“But we are.” I stared at the wall behind him. “I have important work to do.”
“I wish to help you.”
“It has to be done alone.”
“Solin.” He took my hand in his, trying to shake my gaze away from the wall and toward him. “Solin.” He shook me gently again and drew out the syllables of my name. “Soh-lihn.”
“Stop. If I accept your help, then I’ve failed.”
“You took Sam’s help.”
“You weren’t supposed to retort with that.”
He swung my arm. “We should finish eating. You made a fine meal.”
“Stop it, Jemier. We’re not boys anymore.”
He did not mention the fact that I had locked myself in the bathroom, but he also didn’t stop swinging my arm. “I could just pick you up and take you to your seat.”
“That’d be assault or battery. I’m not clear on the difference yet.”
“What are you speaking of?”
“Local laws as portrayed in film,” I replied. “Do not pick me up.”
“I won’t. Trust me, Solin.”
“I’m having a hard time with that. As should you with me.”
“What happened between us didn’t happen because of trust,” he said as we returned to the table.
I let go of his hand and took up my fork. “It did. You trusted me not to harm you, and I did.”
“You trusted me to trust your decision to leave, and clearly I didn’t.” He stuffed a carrot into his mouth. “I should have tried to find you on my own and heard you out first. Instead I came to collect you while you were clearly in crisis.”
“No, as much as I hate to give Karrdil any credit, you were right to trust your king, and no, do not excuse my actions. I don’t, and the Gaians don’t either. You should follow their lead.”
“Do you really think you’re in danger here?”
“Of course, and I should be. That’s the whole point of this punishment, isn’t it? If the family of the man I accidentally killed should find me, they should seek vengeance. If the Shadowfall Alliance should find me, they should seek vengeance.”
“Sam hasn’t hurt you, has he?”
“No, and he’s not exactly with them anymore. I’m not clear on the details.”
“But he found you. How can you be sure?”
“He has a way of tracking the signature of portals, so he knows when one of us arrives.” I didn’t have enough wine to finish this conversation. I topped off our glasses. “The Alliance can apparently track them too. Sam says he can stop them. Still, you should be careful if you insist on thinking about having feelings for me.” I smiled.
He returned the smile. “Have we ever been like this?”
“Going from fighting to getting along? Yes. All the time.”
“No, like this.”
I skewered a carrot and shook my head. “No. You’ve never visited because you missed me and mistook that as having feelings for me, and I’ve never cooked dinner for you.”
“It is a fine meal.”
“We’ve gone over this already.”
“I mean it is truly a fine meal, Solin.”
“I’m certain you’ve had better Gaian food before. Surely at that tavern?”
“Different food. Not all of it good.”
I did not know how to take the compliment. “Understand that I can’t thank you.”
“I understand. I don’t think you should thank me. I do not compliment you to garner gratitude.”
I gave him a regretful look, and we ate in silence for a while, processing our reunion. I finally broke the tension by asking him about the Netflix show, which I had already watched at length but gave up on. It reminded me too much of my own life, and I couldn’t enjoy something that upset me so often. I suppose that made it rather good fiction.
I set our dishes in the sink, and we retired in relative silence to the sofa, still sipping our wine. I could bear the quiet no longer and clicked on the news only to pick up my tablet and surf for supplemental information on each story we received.
My Gaian constitution could not keep up with the mix of meal, wine, and the exhaustion of seeing Jemier again. Sleep screamed at my eyelids to close, but Jemier remained wide awake.
I awoke when he slipped his hands under my body to carry me to bed.
“I’m awake,” I yawned.
“I’m cursed to be exhausted.” His hands were still beneath me. “I can walk to bed on my own.”
He brushed a curl out of my face. “Let me take care of you.”
“I don’t know how to process your kindness, so please don’t. Also, your other hand is still under my back.”
“You’re crabby,” he said, and he hoisted me effortlessly. I didn’t fight him despite my irritation. He only saved me a few footsteps and a modicum of energy.
“Crabby? You’re already sounding Gaian,” I said.
“Imagine the looks of the court when they hear your Drakon peppered with Gaian slang.” I smirked at him when he set me down.
“The king does find me more irritating lately.”
“Are you tired?” I said suddenly.
“I already slept.”
“That’s not what I asked of you.”
“That’s not what you asked. It wasn’t a command.” He grinned.
“Oh, shut up.”
“I am tired.”
“Did you fit on the sofa?”
“Do you trust me enough to sleep on the sofa, knowing I could kill you in your sleep?”
“You won’t kill me.”
“How could you know?”
“I know. Are you telling me I can stay with you while I help you?”
I hesitated. “Yes.”
“Thank you, Solin. It is a very kind gesture.”
“It’s nothing.” I retrieved the spare bedding I had purchased just for him, proving I could indeed travel without his assistance. “I have these if you want them.”
“Thank you. I could have gotten these myself.”
“It’s not your duty as a guest.”
He chuckled and settled down on the sofa. “Thank you.”
My hand reached for the light switch. “Jemier. I’ve been thinking about you too.”
He gazed up at me. “You have?”
I should have said this while I had a pile of bedding to hide behind. “I don’t know if it’s in the same way. I only know that you’ve been showing up lately. You’ve tried harder to keep our friendship alive than I have. Even when I didn’t want you to care for me, you showed up and assured me I had a home. You might have tried to bring me in, but you also came to my trial and spoke up for me. And that…that’s confusing for me. We were so close as boys, Jemier. You’ve literally healed my wounds.”
His cheeks glowed rose pink. “You’re my friend first, Solin. Always.”
“I’m sorry about earlier. Feelings aside, you confided in me a great secret, and I completely glossed over it. And I did want you here. In fact, I was starting to wonder what took you so long.”
“Yes, I was.” I turned out the lights. “You may continue to watch your show if you’d like, but I warn you, the later installments are infuriating.”
Jemier sat up and smiled at me. “I shall venture forth with caution.”
I gave him a half smile. “Good night, Jemier.”
He gave me a dreamy look in return. “Good night, Solin.”