Chapter 16—The Journey Home

Lucien:

While life without her had been a series of scarcely distinguishable empty days, her sudden return was overwhelming. The first light of the sun was upon me when I finally settled to sleep, but no sooner had I shut my eyes than the door was flung open with such force as could only be a tornado or Natara. It was the latter, and she had no mind for dallying this dawn.

Tristan shared her enthusiasm, nickering his excitement to see his favorite person again as soon as she stepped out into the yard. By the time I finished yawning she had already hugged the horse around his neck, mounted, and begun to eye me with impatience. After two nights without sleep I had no objections to letting her drive as apparently she planned. With no sign of Marcus, it was Madison who saw us off with a wave from the porch.

To an outside eye, all that had changed since our first journey here was that this time she sat in front. How unseeing an outside eye could be. In fact, the only thing that stayed the same was my desire for Tristan's hooves to never stop moving. While riding, it was only natural for my arms to be around the waist of a woman who was not my wife, and I think I could have been content to remain there for the rest of time.

Natara:

It wasn't until he was slumped forward onto me, fast asleep atop his horse, that I stopped to think about how my move had affected Lucien. I instantaneously felt extraordinarily selfish for failing to consider how his life had been unfolding in my absence, especially since I'd spent so much time lamenting my own adjustment and loneliness. I had wondered about him, of course, but before I felt his head come to rest on my shoulder, it hadn't occurred to me to worry about him as well. Since he remained back home, in my head very little was changing for him with my departure, but as soon as I spared him a second thought I realized just how alone I had left him.

The guilt was so sudden and strong that I called the horse to a halt as soon as we reached a quiet clearing.

"Lucien. Lucien, come on, we have to get down." His groan let me know he was awake; his eyes squeezing more tightly shut against the light let me know he didn't want to be.

It wasn't too far into a tirade on his uselessness before he acquiesced, tumbling off the equine and loosing his arms so that I could do the same. Tristan seemed happy for the rest, though not as much as we were.

We sat by the creek, all at once alone together the way we so often were as children. Only now I was no longer the girl I had been before, a change I sensed in my oldest friend as well.

"I wish you had never left."

It shocked me that he would say such a thing, though perhaps it shouldn't.

"I didn't have a choice," I reminded him, and myself as well.

"We always have choices," he countered with an uncharacteristic rancor that led me to snap back bitterly,

"Then I made the right one!"

He swallowed. We both looked at the water. I always won what little arguments we had, but today it brought me no satisfaction. The time that passed before he spoke again felt both entirely too prolonged and ephemeral.

"Do you love him?"

Just when I thought that Lucien was done either surprising or angering me, he resumed all the more. What would make him ask such a thing? What did it matter? It irritated me, too, that he'd not know the answer somehow.

"I only last night stopped hating him. Are you insane?"

"I might be," he answered with an inscrutable expression.

And then he reached for me.