My eyes open, and I'm lying across Ryker's bare chest. "Good morning," he says softly as he strokes my arm lightly.
"Good morning," I smile. As I stretch, Ryker props himself on his arm and leans over me to kiss me softly.
"I can't believe you're with me again," he whispers.
"I won't leave you ever again," I promise, kissing his lips once more.
"It was horrible..." he explains, his expression contorted as if in pain. "Losing you."
I'm struck with every bit of his grief and another emotion I've never quite experienced before. It causes a tear to trail down my cheek. "What is that?" I ask.
He doesn't seem to need elaboration. "It's what I felt while you were…" he trails off, breaking eye contact. "It was like I was dead too."
My hand reaches up to caress his face, attempting to restore the happiness we both felt only moments ago. We lie in bed – wrapped in each other – until our stomachs will no longer allow it. The corridors are empty as we amble through them hand-in-hand toward the dining hall. "Where is everyone?" I wonder aloud.
Passing through the main entrance lobby, we're intercepted by Elder Ryker. He grins widely and greets us cheerfully. "Good morning, you two! I had your breakfasts sent to my study so that we could discuss a few matters, though it's a bit past breakfast now. I hope you don't mind eating cold food."
Ryker and I smile at each other sheepishly. "We don't mind, Elder," says Ryker.
In his study, a lavish breakfast is set out on one of the tables with three chairs placed around it. "This is too much," I observe.
"Nonsense!" protests the elder. "You've been dead for a week, and Ryker hasn't eaten anything since you've been gone. You both require ample nourishment."
"You haven't eaten?" I ask Ryker worriedly.
"I've eaten," he proclaims, but his eyes avoid mine. After watching him a moment, he confesses, "I haven't eaten much. I ate once. Two days ago, I think."
"Were you just going to let yourself die?"
"Yes, he was!" the elder replies for him. His pleasant tone and toothy grin seems rather inappropriate, but I've grown used to his bouts of strange behavior. "Please, sit and eat."
We do as he says and begin devouring food like starved animals. I must have been hungrier than I thought, I think. When all that is left are a few bites of fruit and our beverages, Ryker asks, "What is it you wanted to discuss, Elder?"
"We need to discuss a plan of action against Tiris and Reginald. For the past several months, visions have flooded my mind, and it won't be long before other casters see them as well, but by then it will be too late. Tiris will show his true self very soon."
"How soon?" Ryker leans forward in his seat inquisitively.
"Very soon, young Ryker. This year in the fall."
Ryker hangs his head and runs his fingers through his hair. "How?" he asks. "What will he do?"
"His magic is very strong. Now that so many trust him, they will be unsuspecting. Together, they have been planning this for years and years, and when Fino became Tiris' familiar, it only exacerbated the danger we will face."
"What do you mean? Will he burn everything?" I ask in horror.
"There is so much more, and so much that I still don't understand. Often my visions are clouded or broken, and I'm not able to clearly foresee what is and what will be. I have seen all three of them surrounded by dragons, but it is not like the place you described to me, Esha. It is nearly barren, and the dragons there seem ruthless. Did Piers mention another island, sanctuary, or even a place of exile for dragons when you spoke to him?"
I shake my head.
"We need you to return to Piers in order to find out what you can."
"I don't know how to return there. We spent most of our time above the clouds. I couldn't see anything."
"Then you'll have to do your best. Without knowing Tiris' current whereabouts or plans, we'll be at a great disadvantage."
"How will I get there? There aren't any dragons that can fly me there."
"Sync will go with you. She'll transform into a dragon."
"And if Piers tells us about another island, should we travel there as well?" asks Ryker.
"It would be helpful to know if that is in fact where Tiris and the others are staying, and it would also be helpful to know what they're up to, but it would be unsafe for Esha to go alone."
"Alone? I'll be with her," notes Ryker confusedly.
"No, Ryker. Esha will go alone, with Sync of course."
"No! She will not go alone. She will go with me or not at all."
"The dragons invited her and her alone to their home. Dragons do not trust humans after all they have suffered, and it would be unwise to test their loyalty to Esha by bringing you along with her. Esha must go alone. I understand your reluctance, given her recent death along with your physical and emotional anguish, and that is why I advise that Esha not travel there immediately. You need time to reconnect with each other."
"When do you advise that I go?" I ask.
The elder answers me, ignoring Ryker's frustration. "Within the next two weeks. We should gather what information we can as quickly as we can."
"No!" Ryker shouts again.
"Ryker," I say softly, gently taking his face in my hands, "I was perfectly safe the last time I visited with them. Ira and Piers - all the dragons – they won't let anything happen to me. They will make sure I'm safe."
Placing his hands atop mine, he closes his eyes and takes a deep breath, then releases it slowly. "You don't know what it was like, Esha."
"I won't let that happen again, I promise."
Gazing angrily at the elder, and without making eye contact with me, he finally utters, "If this is how it must be." Then he pulls away from me and leaves the room.
"Ryker," I call, but he's already gone.
"Give him time." The elder's hand rests reassuringly on my shoulder.
"Esha, come to me when you're ready to leave. Sync will be ready to leave with you."
"He doesn't know this," Sync pipes, though I have no idea where or what she is at the moment, "but I already know where the dragon island is. I've been there before."
"Okay," I say, speaking to them both.
"I'll tell you more when we leave," she adds. Then I take my leave.
Not knowing where Ryker made off to, I decide to go to the garden. I lay in the dampened grass, staring into the sky, past the trees and tall flowers.
"Ryker isn't with you?" Téo's voice is distant, but I'd recognize it anywhere. I sit up and search for him, but I can't locate him.
"Téo? Where are you?" He startles me by leaping down from a tree only a few feet away from me. "But you-" I stammer. "Your voice… How did you-?"
"I can throw my voice," he grins. "One of the many talents of a rogue." Lying down beside me, he asks again, "So where's Ryker? I thought you two would be inseparable after what happened."
"Partially. I think he's mostly afraid."
"Afraid? Of what? You're back now."
"I have to leave again. Elder Ryker is sending me on a mission alone."
"What?" He props himself up on his elbow, looking at me with the same expression Ryker did a little while ago. "Why? Is he insane?"
"I have to visit with Piers again. We need information about Tiris. His visions of Tiris are clouded, and Piers may have the answers we need."
"How will you get there alone? Why alone? I don't understand."
"Sync will be with me, transformed as a dragon. I have to go alone because the dragons trust me, and he feels that taking Ryker may break that trust."
Téo sighs and lies back down. "I see," he whispers, throwing his arms over his face. "Though I don't like it either."
We're both quiet for several minutes - me, watching the clouds some more, while Téo lays with his face covered. Then he breaks the silence. "Ryker loves you," he says simply.
"And you love him," he states.
I swallow before answering. "Yes."
He lifts himself back up again, leaning close to me. He's grinning, but his eyes are filled with sadness. "Good. I'm happy for you two." I decide not to say anything, but rather watch him as he seems to consider saying more. "Esha," he continues softly.
"May I have just one more kiss?" he asks, finally making eye contact with me.
Regardless of my feelings for Ryker, I can't deny what I still feel for Téo, and it never really felt like he and I found true closure. Without saying a word, my mouth twitches into a small smile, and his curls into his adorable half-grin. He kisses me gently at first, gradually pressing against me harder, and I tangle my fingers in his short blond hair, pulling him toward me. When the kiss finally breaks, he pulls away and lets out a sigh of content.
"Figures that my first love would be Ryker's soul mate," he chuckles sadly.
"Téo," I start, but he cuts me off.
"No, Esha. It's okay. I'm happy with the way things are. I'll be fine." Standing, he takes a deep breath, holding it in his chest and releasing it slowly. "You should go find Ryker. He may be upset, but he needs you. Trust me." And after faking another half-grin, he walks away.
I search several places in hopes of finding Ryker - our bedroom, the dining hall, the lounge, but I finally find him in the stables with Dragon. "Hi," I say softly.
"Hi," he replies, keeping his eyes on Dragon as he strokes his long face.
"Ryker, I don't know what to say. I'm so sorry."
He shakes his head. "Don't be sorry, Esha. You have nothing to be sorry about. I'm just afraid of losing you again, that's all. I'm not angry with you or even with Elder Ryker."
I approach him slowly and wrap my arms around his torso. He tightens his arms around me as well, warming my chilled body. "I love you," I whisper.
"I love you," he whispers back. "We'll figure this out; it'll all be okay."
A/N: Happy New Year everyone!