In that, Peta was right. Cactus would never be able to stand with me in the things I had to face, or the path I had to walk. A tiny piece of my heart broke and I let it go, breathing through the pain and tightness in my chest. My first friend.
My first real love.
But he was . . . not right, not for me. And that truth, ah, it stung as deeply as any wound I’d ever had, perhaps deeper. The part of me that was still the little girl who’d loved him so fiercely didn’t want to let him go.
But the woman I’d become knew better.
“Talk to me, Lark.” He whispered my name as he stepped close, and his hands closed on mine, the closest I’d let him get to me since the battle. The heat of his skin warmed my fingers, stealing my resistance to his charm. I made myself pull away. “Let me help you, please. I gave you room when you needed it, followed you all over this continent without questioning why you ran without thought.”
We stared at each other. How could he not understand my silence? How could he be so blind to what had happened? He’d been there at the battle; surely he’d seen the price we paid to defeat Orion and his demon army. Did he feel nothing for those we’d lost, for the things we’d seen and done to save the world?
His eyes were full of sorrow, but not for anyone else. The worry was for his own desires, his own needs. I took a breath and broke my silence, my voice hitching on some of the words from lack of use.
“There were more deaths in the elemental world and the supernatural world . . . facing Orion and his demon horde . . . than we have ever seen. Their deaths mean that you and I and Peta have survived. Can I not honor them the way I see fit? To acknowledge that without them, my silence would be eternal?”
His eyes dropped along with his shoulders. He ran a hand over his head and scrubbed at his hair, messing it further. “I’m a selfish ass.”
“Yes, that is true. Nice that you can finally acknowledge it.” I turned and walked away, but not before his head snapped up, his eyes flashing with irritation.
Peta sneezed, shifted, and leapt for my arms. I caught her and she placed herself on my shoulder, balancing easily as I strode forward. “Apparently that wasn’t the response he hoped for.”
Apparently. I nodded, but reined in my words. Silence for the dead . . . I didn’t say what I had only to shut Cactus up. Those who had fought at our sides and fallen, their deaths were all around me. The faces of those we’d known and depended on, friends, allies, and brilliant fighters. Dead. Lost to the other side of the Veil.
Ashes to ashes.
Ash. His name tightened around me like a serpent coiling its body, constricting every breath I took until I was forced to slow my feet. That was the other reason I’d run. I’d thought he’d find me. I thought Ash would seek me out but he hadn’t. I’d seen nothing of him as I’d silently crossed the continent and the fear in me had grown. Ash would never have left me. Peta dug her thin claws into my shirt until their tips brushed my shoulder. “What is it? There is a pain in you I have felt only when we are separated. A loss so deep, it can only be of someone your heart rightly belongs to. But your family survived the battle. What is it?”
A rumble across the sky drew my attention and whatever I might have said stalled in my throat.
Clouds formed in deep-gray tumbling masses that rolled over one another toward us. Distracted, I didn’t answer her right away. Or maybe I wasn’t ready to say his name out loud.
“Yes, Bella and the others survived. But . . .” I kept my eyes glued to the sky, looking for even the slightest twitch of lightning deliberately not answering the first part of her question.
I didn’t have to.
“You mean Ash, don’t you?” she said softly. It hadn’t gotten past either of us that he was “put away” somewhere while still under my father’s rule. Not an oubliette, but closer to a banishment. From what Peta told me, he snuck back to the edge of the Rim every few months to soak in our home and recharge. Without doing that, he’d have gone insane in a few short years.
My conversation after the battle with Blossom, a fellow Ender from the Rim, had left me shaken.
Ash had not come back for over a year; even though my sister Bella, the new queen of the Rim, lifted the banishment on him, he’d not returned.
Cactus drew up beside me, his eyes going skyward.
“You think we have trouble?”
Peta snorted. “Please, Lark is nothing but trouble. There is only one person who outstrips her in that, and she’s no longer an issue.”
Rylee. Tracker and savior of the world was an even bigger magnet than me when it came to chaos and strife. Seeing as we had common blood in the power of Spirit, it shouldn’t have been a surprise. But Peta was right: Rylee was no longer an issue, seeing as how we’d stripped her of the very thing that made her that magnet. Which meant I was now number one in the world when it came to trouble making.
“Lark, we will be at the Rim soon. We will be able to rest, eat, heal. And we can talk about this, about what we’re going to do now that you don’t have to save the world. You can have a life now, a family if you want, a home you aren’t always trying to protect.” Cactus grinned as he rubbed a hand up and down his own arm several times.
Still I couldn’t seem to find the words to speak to him.
At least not the words he wanted from me. I strode ahead, knowing that until I made it clear we were done as anything but friends, he would follow me.