Warning: This work has been rated 16+ for language.
Stanton stared at Derik with wide eyes then rushed from the room. Derik reached behind him and slammed the door after Stanton. Then he turned back towards Jerica and Akeno. He ran a hand through his hair and strode towards her. “Little prick.”
Jerica slammed the tin down on the table a bit too hard.
“I know,” Derik said soothingly. “We’re gonna get you through this… somehow.”
Jerica crossed her arms, wandering across the room. She leaned against the edge of her bed, letting it take most of her weight as she turned back towards Derik with a deep sigh.
Akeno stood politely in the corner, but took a step forward. “I think this conversation would be best held without me here. I’ll go get us some food, Jer.”
“Okay.” Jerica nodded.
Akeno left and closed the door after him.
Jerica’s anger morphed to apprehension. This conversation was inevitable. But she still dreaded it. There was nothing in life she feared more than disappointing one of the men she respected. And she respected Derik most of all.
Derik strode towards her and also leaned against the bed, standing by her side.
Jerica didn’t look up at him. “Are you mad at me?”
“No.” His voice was calm.
She hesitated. That was good at least. But there was a fair bit between not being mad and actually being on her side. Being okay with who Rek was. “Are you mad at Rek?”
She hesitated again, still refusing to look at him. “Did you know?”
Derik was silent for a moment, then he shook his head. “No. I knew he and Nykim spend a fair bit of time together, but I didn’t realize it was anything more than friendship.”
That had been the goal. Not with Derik specifically. But in general. Jerica thought for a moment. She was still anxious that Derik might be angry with her. But she couldn’t seem the courage to meet his gaze to find out. “Are you mad we didn’t tell you?”
Derik sighed and rubbed his face. “I’m a bit hurt that neither of you felt like you could tell me… it makes me feel like I have somehow given the impression that my love for you is conditional, and—”
“No,” Jerica interrupted. She grabbed his hand, finally looking up to his face. He took a deep breath and turned his head to meet her gaze. She gave his hand a squeeze. “No. You are the best father that we—” she coughed, covering her mistake. “Rek – could ever hope for.”
“I parented you just as much as I parented Rek,” Derik said, giving her hand a squeeze in return. “Just because you didn’t have your parents here to watch you grow up doesn’t mean you didn’t have a father here who loves you very much.”
Jerica leaned against his arm and rested her head on his shoulder, leaving her fingers laced through his. “I love you, too.”
She still had so many questions about her own parents. Why hadn’t they tried to find her? Tried to reach out to her? Did they even care about her at all? She wanted to know. But for now, she just wanted reassured that Derik wasn’t angry with her. The fact that her parents were alive didn’t change the fact that Derik was like a father to her. Or that she’d kept this secret from him.
“Did I overreact about Akeno?” Derik asked. “Is that why Rek didn’t want to tell me?”
“No.” Jerica straightened, pulling her hand away. It pained her that Derik seemed to think it was his fault rather than their fear that kept them from telling him. “He and Nykim were together before – I mean… No. No, you were an appropriate level of angry when you figured Akeno and I out.”
It had taken her a lot of convincing before he believed that her and Akeno’s arrangement had been her idea, not Akie pressuring her. Most of the men were terrified of her. But Derik was still overprotective of her when it came to the soldiers. He’d have had one of his own men executed in an instant if any soldier so much as laid a finger on her without consent.
“They were together before you and Akeno were?” Derik asked incredulously. “This has been happening for over two years and I’m just now finding out about it?”
Jerica cringed. She hadn’t meant to tell him that part.
“It’s okay.” Derik took a deep breath. “I know what was at stake, until you got Levin to sign that edict. I would probably also keep this secret to myself if I wasn’t sure how someone would respond to the revelation.”
The moment of truth. “And… how do you respond?”
“I don’t care to know about his sex life any more than I care to know about yours,” he answered. “All I want is for you both to be happy and healthy and safe… and that is why I’m far more concerned about you than I am him. He actually wants his marriage.”
She shrugged, trying to shake away the self-pity that was piling on her shoulders again. She mourned what would inevitably to happen to her. But she wasn’t sorry. Rek needed someone to protect him from Levin. That’s why she came back from Aerik in the first place. At least, why she didn’t argue about it. She was here to people from Levin’s nastiness. “Rek’s marriage can’t happen without mine.”
“Only because Levin decided to be a dick.” Derik sighed.
“In a shocking turn of events,” she said sarcastically.
There was a moment of silence between them, before Derik sighed again. He shook his head. “I can’t fix this one for you, Jer.”
“I know.” Hopelessness settled in the pit of her stomach. She knew that Derik couldn’t get her out of this. And if Derik couldn’t then no one could. She was going to have to lie in the bed that she made. “I’m not asking you to.”
“I’ve never seen a more selfless act of love.” Derik wrapped his arm around her and pulled her in for a side-hug. “The fact that you sacrificed your future to save Rek’s is just… astonishing.”
“You sacrificed more for me.” Jerica shrugged.
“I quit a job when my bosses tried to murder my family,” Derik said. “And then relocated to raise my niece. I didn’t have to consent to spending the rest of my life with a roach like Stanton Fillmore as my husband.”
‘The rest of my life’ echoed in her ears. But she shoved it away. Forced herself to begin bottling up all these nasty emotions. Shoving them down. Replacing them with a weak attempt at humor. She smirked crookedly at him. “I mean, it’s never too late. It’s legal now.”
Derik snorted. There was a brief silence, then, “Darrana?”
Jerica laughed. “Didn’t want you to think I was serious about that part.”
“I certainly didn’t.” Derik smiled and shook his head. “You’d have to get knocked on the head pretty hard to go from nemeses to lovers… although, if this were a book, it might not be all that out of the question.”
“It’s out of the question,” Jerica said firmly. “She’s terrible.”
There was a rap at the door.
Jerica tensed and inhaled sharply.
Derik looked down at her, then pursed her lips and looked at the door. He gave her shoulders a squeeze and then stepped forward. “I’ll get rid of them.”
Appreciation welled up in Jerica.
Derik strode forward and opened the door, blocking the room with his body. Protective.
“Baba!” Rek gasped. “I…”
Jerica straightened as she heard Rek’s voice. Her heart fluttered. She hadn’t expected to have to talk to Rek so soon after the fact. She thought that he’d steep in his new engagement. Celebrate with Nykim. Not show up on her doorstep while she was talking to Derik.
Jerica crossed her arms over her abdomen, protective.
Derik glanced over his shoulder and raised his eyebrows. A silent question of whether to let Rek in or not. She nodded. The conversation was inevitable. May as well get it over with. Even though her emotions still felt so raw.
“C’mon.” Derik stepped back.
“Baba, I…” Rek stepped inside the room, turning to keep his gaze on Derik. He swallowed hard. “I can explain.”
“What’s there to explain?” Derik asked, turning to shut the door. “You’re in love.”
“I…” Rek took a shaky breath but nodded. His eyes were wide with fear as he looked at Derik. “I do love Nykim… and I understand if that’s something that you can’t—”
“My love for you doesn’t come with conditions, Rek,” Derik interrupted gently. He opened his arms invitingly. “I’m happy that you’re happy.”
The tears in Rek’s eyes dripped down his cheeks as he rushed into Derik’s arms.
Jerica’s throat constricted again. She blinked away the tears that stung her eyes. She didn’t want to cry again. Didn’t want to look like she’d been crying when they went back to the Council Meeting. She swallowed hard, trying to focus on the wholesomeness of the moment. Rather than the hopelessness of the situation she was in.
Jerica looked up as Rek pulled away from Derik and stepped towards her.
“I’m sorry.” He wrapped his arms around her in a tight hug. “I’m so sorry.”
“You haven’t done anything to be sorry for,” Jerica murmured. She’d decided she liked Aerik’s way of saying that more than just telling Rek not to say sorry.
“I’m so sorry,” he said again. She could feel him trembling against her body as she held him tightly. He sniffled in her ear. “Gods, Jer, what did you do? You shouldn’t have done that. I’m so sorry.”
“I’m not sorry,” she breathed.
“Yet,” he scoffed. He pulled away from her and looked down at her, distraught. “I wish you could take it back. I never meant for this to happen.”
“I know.” She took a deep breath. “I didn’t either.”
“We’ll get through this.” Derik stepped forward and hooked his right arm around Jerica and left around Rek, then pulled them both close. “One way or another. Together.”