Warning: This work has been rated 18+ for language.
It’d been three days since the nightmare. Aerik didn’t mention it. And Jerica sure wasn’t going to be the one to bring it up. So, they settled back into the rhythm of sparring and talking and teaching Jerica how to use the R’hyk. And pretended that that interaction never happened.
Today, Jerica had time to herself. Aerik had gone hunting for the two of them, and Kaidren was out hunting for himself. Aerik invited her along, but she decided to stay back. She’d found gardening was more peaceful than hunting. She got the same sense of intimacy with nature, but she didn’t have to kill anything in the process. Except for the weeds. Those could die.
Jerica bent over the bed of green beans, plucking the weeds and setting them in a neat pile next to herself. The sun was hot overhead, but she didn’t mind. She hummed a soft tune to herself. “See him there, your soldier boy—”
Jerica popped to her feet in an instant. She craned her neck towards Kaidren’s cave, trying to see what made the noise. Kaidren wasn’t in there. She’d been in the garden ever since he left, so she would have seen him come back.
She glanced around the area, but she was still alone. So, so padded towards the cave, silent and soft on her feet. She knew better than to investigate. She remembered what happened the last time she got near the cave. And yet.
She crouched down by the incline as she realized she heard footsteps inside the cave. Aerik? It couldn’t have been him, either. Unless he Transported in there… She couldn’t think of a reason why he’d do that. Besides, Transports didn’t make noise.
The footsteps were getting nearer.
She tensed, getting her feet under her so that she could fight – or run – if it ended up being some type of enemy. What if it’s not Aerik? It’s not like she’d know if it was someone she could trust if one of his Ranger buddies showed up. She still didn’t even know what country Aerik was from, much less if the rest of his comrades felt the same way about her that he did. Maybe I should go to the weapon room…
It was too late.
The shadow of a man appeared a few feet ahead of her. Her breath caught and she peered upward as the man’s face came into view and she saw – “Zander?”
His head snapped down towards her, then his face twisted in confusion. “Jerica?”
“What are you doing here?” She pushed herself to her feet.
Zander slid down the incline, brushing his hands on his trousers as he looked her over. His brown hair was ruffled and beard scruffy as he pursed his lips at her. “What am I doing here? What are you doing here?”
“Long story.” She waved her hand, dismissive. There was no concise way to explain, and she was far more interested in why he was here. “Why—?”
“Then get talking,” Zander interrupted. His temples were peppered with a bit grayer than the last time she’d seen him. His bushy eyebrows drew together, brown eyes filled with concern as he looked her over.
“I’m staying here with Aerik,” Jerica explained. It wasn’t a proper explanation. But she still didn’t want to be the one to be talking just then. “Why are you here?”
“Why are you—?”
“Zander!” Aerik’s voice called. Jerica looked up and saw him at the edge of the clearing, dragging a dead deer out of the woods behind him. He dropped his grasp on the bloody carcass and started towards them. “By gods, it’s about time you showed up. A lot has happened since you passed through.”
Zander still looked stunned. He gestured at Jerica, but his gaze was locked on Aerik. “She’s here.”
“Solid observation,” Aerik agreed dryly, meeting them near the center of the garden.
“Long story.” Aerik waved his hand like he was shooing the question away. “Short version: Femola and Levin are being dumbfucks – which I’m sure comes as a great surprise to you. Derik and I decided she’s safer here until they pull their heads out of their asses.”
“Oh.” Zander took a deep breath, then nodded. “Very well.” He looked back at Jerica with a grin. “In that case, I’m happy to see you!”
She grinned broadly, throwing her arms around him in a tight hug, like she usually greeted him when he turned up unannounced. He wrapped his arms around her just as tight, chuckling. She pressed her face against his chest, overwhelmed with so many emotions she didn’t know what to do with them all. “I missed you.”
Relief at it being Zander instead of someone she’d have to fight. Confusion at how in the world he’d gotten inside of Kaidren’s cave, and why he turned up when he did. Giddiness at getting to see him again. Derik felt more like a father figure to her – which left Zander to fill the role of favorite uncle. He was incredible. And he was here.
“I missed you too, kiddo,” he laughed.
Jerica pulled away, grinning up at him as she decided she was mostly just glad that he was here. She’d been enjoying her time with Aerik, no doubt. But it was always amazing when Zander showed up. The only way this could possibly get better is if the others that she cared about from Atraya came here as well.
Aerik strode forward and threw his arms around Zander. They beat each other’s backs, laughing as they came together in a hearty hug. Then they pulled away and Aerik grinned at Zander. “I also missed you.”
“Yeah, yeah, sure you did.” Zander waved his hand, but was grinning.
Aerik laughed then nodded his head towards the stairs. “C’mon. Let’s go inside.”
Aerik turned and started back across the clearing, towards the stairs. Zander wrapped his arm around Jerica in a side-hug. She wrapped her arm around him, too, and together they followed a few steps behind Aerik.
“Wait, okay,” Zander said as they walked. “So, you stayed here to get away from the jackasses, but how’d you get here?”
Embarrassment flooded into her before he even finished his question. He hadn’t even been here for a full two minutes yet and was already asking her questions that would humiliate her to answer. She flushed and sucked in a breath, trying to think of a softened explanation.
Aerik stopped walking and turned back to them with a smirk as he goaded, “Yeah, Princess, how’d you get here?”
She scowled a bit.
“Hmm?” Zander stopped walking and looked down at her.
“I got captured in the war,” she said, chagrined. Then she stepped away from him a bit and raised a finger, making a defense. “But that wasn’t my fault.”
“Captured how?” Zander’s eyes snapped open wide as he looked her over again. “What happened? Did you get hurt?”
“First of all, they cheated,” Jerica said, defensive.
“All’s fair in love and war,” Aerik cut in.
“The Chijurru was not fair,” Jerica argued, turning her gaze back on him. She glared a bit, sour at remembering what’d happened. “And I wouldn’t have gotten captured without it.”
“Wait.” Zander rubbed his face. “What? You got captured by a Chijurru? How did it even get up to you?”
Jerica glanced towards Aerik.
He smirked. “Do tell.”
“It was threatening Kieran.” Jerica felt heat in her cheeks, and hoped she didn’t look as embarrassed as she felt. She looked back at Zander, hoping he understood why she had to do what she had to do. “So, I jumped off the wall to kill it.”
“Dear gods, Jerica!” Zander scolded, eyes getting wide again. “You can’t just – my gods. Are you hurt?”
Zander sighed, frowning at her, then looked towards Aerik. “I’m gonna guess that you’re to thanks for that?”
Aerik inclined his head.
“Thank you.” Zander turned his gaze back on Jerica, frowning. “You –” he huffed a sigh. “You need to stop being so reckless. What if it’d killed you?”
“Then I’d be dead.” Jerica shrugged. It wasn’t a pleasant thought… but it hadn’t happened. So, it didn’t matter. “And it wouldn’t be my problem anymore.”
Zander scowled at her.
“Look, it turned out fine,” Jerica said. “I ended up here. Haven’t had to deal with Biryn or Levin or Femola in weeks. All good. Derik doesn’t even want me there.”
A pang of sorrow shot through her at her own words. That didn’t feel nice.
“Derik wants you to be safe,” Aerik corrected. “Up here. With me.”
A gust of wind whooshed past them. Jerica tensed as huge shadow passed over them. Kaidren landed a few meters away, the entire ground shaking beneath him. He was still as terrifying as the first time that she’d seen him. Massive. Dangerous. Here.
“Kaidren! Hello!” Zander called brightly, throwing an arm up in a wave of acknowledgement. He looked at Jerica, then smirked as he realized Jerica had taken a step backward to position him between herself and the dragon. He looked back at Kaidren. “I take it the two of you have gotten acquainted.”
Kaidren snorted and his gravelly voice filled her mind once again. “I don’t like her.”
Jerica didn’t like him, either.
He’d overreacted. And there was no reason for him to hit her as hard as he’d hit her.
“Ahh, she’s not so bad once you get to know her.” Zander wrapped his arm around Jerica’s shoulders, pulling her around so they were standing side-by-side, looking at Kaidren. “Rough exterior, but inside? Softie.”
Jerica scoffed. As if that was what she needed just then. Kaidren already disrespected her far too much to add on that level of embarrassment. “I am not.”
“Not!” she insisted.
He raised an eyebrow, looking at her skeptically. “Then explain McCroakers.”
“My gods!” she hissed, scrubbing her face. She was sure she must be blushing by now. Why in the world did he feel the need to bring that one up?
Aerik cackled. “Ohh, our old friend, Knave Neville.”
She sighed, defeated, as she closed her eyes. “Gods.”
“Oho, you know about Ol’ McCroakers?” Zander turned his grin towards Aerik.
“You ever take him out for ‘a hop’?”
“I was a child,” Jerica protested.
“But you’re still embarrassed about it,” Zander laughed. He gave her a playful shove, then started towards the stairs. “See you later, Kaidren!”
“Zander,” Kaidren inclined his head. “Nice to see you.”
“You as well!” Zander answered with a bright grin.
Zander started down the top stairs. Jerica glanced at Aerik, then up at Kaidren, then rushed after Zander. She didn’t want there to be any chance of her being left alone with Kaidren. That had ended badly the last time.
“Do you have food?” Zander called over his shoulder. “I’m starving.”
“Of course, you are,” Aerik said flatly. “When are you not?”
“Hey, you know full well that the food on that shithole isn’t edible.” Zander stopped at the door, looking up at them. He glanced at her for half a moment, then cleared his throat and cut inside. “And, you’re right, I am always hungry.”
“On what shithole?” Jerica asked, interest piqued as she followed him inside.
“I’m gonna grab some food,” Zander deflected. “Are you hungry?”
“I know what you’re doing,” she huffed.
“Okay, but are you hungry?” Zander questioned, never slowing his pace as he started towards the pantry.
“Zander,” she said tersely. The more he refused to answer, the more she wanted to know. “What shithole? Where were you?”
“You better still have that tea I like.” Zander let the pantry door swing shut behind him.
“You can’t—he can’t just,” Jerica scoffed, turning towards Aerik with a scowl.
“Give it a minute,” Aerik said patiently. “He’s more agreeable when he’s not hungry. And I promise you that the secret he’s trying to keep is less interesting than the ones you’ve been asking me about. Let’s go sit down and wait for him to join us.”