Note: Hey guys I've gotten a couple reviews and PMs on multiple sites asking me to not abandon this story, so I just wanted to address all these messages so there's no confusion. I swear I am absolutely not abandoning this story, and I guarantee it will have a proper ending (eventually). Chapters are going to take much longer than they did when I first started last summer as I no longer have any buffer chapters, so updates are going to be less predictable or frequent. (For reference, when I posted chapter 1 I already had drafts all the way up to chapter 7 and an outline for chapters 8)
Thank you all for reading, and an especially huge thank you to anyone who's reviewed or commented, it really does help me stay motivated when I'm struggling with writer's block or trying to get through round 3 of editing. 90% of the time getting a review will make me immediately drop whatever I'm doing and open up my word document (The other 10% is when I'm doing annoying real life stuff like eating or sleeping or working. Ugh real life, always getting in the way).
Anyways, thank you for your patience, I'm hoping that I'll be able to pick up the pace now that summer is here and I'm healthy again!
Sorry for the long note, on to what you're really here for!
I made it all the way to the front door, legs wobbling under me like a newborn deer's, before my brain caught up to my body.
Where was I going? Back to my old apartment to hunt down Nyguyen and Alvarez, without any clue as to where they were now? Yeah, that wasn't a stupid idea or anything. That would totally work out for me.
I sank down on my heels, heart still pounding double time, adrenaline rushing through my veins. A fight-or-flight response only worked when there was something to flee from or somewhere to go. I had neither. All I had was a phone.
It sat in the palm of my hand, almost comically innocent looking with its bright pink case. I could call right then, demand Nguyen tell me where Foster and Opal were and threaten to storm his castle and rip him limb from limb, as every part of me was demanding.
The only problem was that at the moment, I was about at threatening as a kitten. My arms ached when I so much as tried to lift them above shoulder-height. Calling Nguyen would solve literally nothing, and he and Alvarez would probably find a way to twist the call against me.
Ross would know what to do. He'd be able to come up with a plan that wasn't made out of stupid. Ross, who was still unconscious in Amahle's bed. Ross, who had nearly died.
I'd have to wait for him to wake up. The idea of waiting made me want to rip my hair out, every second seeming to doom my friends further. But the text was a few days old and, for all I knew, Nguyen had already killed them both, reveling in the pain and the gore like he had with me. Realistically, waiting a few hours wouldn't change anything. That didn't stop it from being torturous.
I crept into the kitchen to make tea and then blinked and found myself sitting on the floor in Amahle's spare room. There was a half empty mug of cooling tea in my hands. Right, clearly I was in prime condition to go rushing off to rescue my friends. Stupid. I was so stupid, so selfish. How could I have forgotten about Opal and Foster?
I curled into a ball of self-hatred and despair, and, despite myself, I fell asleep again. I had strange, indistinct dreams that didn't seem to have a beginning or an end, but all involved Nguyen sitting on my chest while he gently trailed bloody fingers across my cheeks. Somehow, with logic that only belonged in a dream, I knew it was Opal's blood.
I woke with an abrupt start, spilling the rest of my tea all across my lap. Ross was crouched in front of me and he jerked back, one hand raised, his face pale and drawn.
"Dassa's tits, I just thought you'd be more comfortable laying down," he said and backed off, standing and shuffling away.
I blinked blearily at him, brain not fully back online yet, still tangled in confusing dreams. The light coming from the window was brighter and afternoon-warm. My back and neck ached from sleeping against the wall- I had to have been asleep for at least a couple hours. The bed across the room was rumpled but empty.
"He's in the shower," Ross explained when he noticed my gaze, ineffectually trying to mop up my spilled tea with a stray t-shirt. "Amahle realized she'd let a filthy man sleep on her sheets and pitched a very quiet fit once he was awake."
"Should you be up?" I asked, because frankly, Ross looked like shit. Also, he'd been bleeding to death while I hauled him across half a forest fairly recently.
Ross rolled his eyes. "I'm not the one who nearly burnt himself out magically last night," he said and tossed the wet shirt out into the hall.
"I'm not the one who was bleeding everywhere last night," I countered and struggled to my feet. My skin still felt raw and uncomfortable, my joints popping with the smallest movement. My shoulders let me know that they sincerely did not appreciate me sleeping against a wall after all I'd done the night before. I barely held back a wince- Ross would probably force me to lay down if I showed any sign of being in pain.
"Amahle worked her magic, I barely have a scratch on me," Ross said and, when I shot him a disbelieving look, turned and pulled his shirt up to show me the huge burn on his back that had all but taken him out the night before. The comet shaped burn had faded overnight into flakey angry looking skin, with only the larger top section still bandaged. Ross was still covered in bruises, especially on his ribs from where the Durand thug had kicked him, but they looked days old, already yellow-brown on the edges. The twin scars on his chest were faded white with age, but looked shockingly bright in the sunlight and with the dark bruises for comparison.
"I had top surgery years ago," Ross explained, when he caught me eyeing them curiously. "It's how I fell in with the Durand's originally. They gave me money for the surgery in exchange for a few little jobs, mostly intel gathering." Absently, one of Ross's hands crept up to rub at the Durand brand on his shoulder. He sighed and continued, "I had the choice to walk away after the jobs were done, and I was going to, but then Jamie was taken and I had to stick around so I could use their connections to find him."
"Wait, you're trans?" I asked.
Ross rolled his eyes, and said, "Yes, Aster, I'm trans. I would have thought you'd have noticed, given I'm like five feet tall, but it's nice to know I pass so well. Or maybe you're just oblivious."
I was pretty sure it was the second one, but I wasn't about to agree with him on that. I bit my lip and then said, "Yeah, well, everyone looks short when you're as tall as I am."
Ross laughed, looking startled by the sound. "There is that. I've never felt as short as I have when I was around you and Tristan, giants that you both are."
"Be grateful you can find pants that fit," I said, eyeing my tea-soaked sweatpants. I wasn't sure if I had any clean ones left- I might have to go back to wearing pants that were too short again. Ugh.
I moved to right the fallen mug and spotted my phone, abandoned on the floor. The sight of it jogged my memory. Opal. Foster.
"Ross," I said, starting to shake with nerves. "I got a message from Nguyen."
"What?!" Ross demanded, his face growing paler, freckles standing out starkly on his face. "When? Last night?" He looked like he wanted to grab me and shake me by the shoulders, but was also swaying on his feet, like the effort of staying upright was all he could manage.
"No- it was from the day you rescued me. I never thought to look at my phone until this morning," I said.
This seemed to calm Ross down somewhat, his shoulders relaxing, a little colour coming back to his face. "Well. That's not as terrible as I was expecting. What did he say- just being a sadistic asshole as usual?"
"No- well, yes. But that's not what worries me. He has Opal and Foster- two of my friends from the city."
"You made friends?" Ross asked, brow creasing. "What in Dassa's name prompted you to do that? You know that any contact with anyone is dangerous."
I just stared at him, waiting for him to realize what he was saying.
"Why would you put anyone at risk like- oh," he said, stumbling to a halt, eyes going wide. "Amnesia. Right."
"Right," I said, crossing my arms.
"Sorry. I'm still a bit tired," Ross said. He closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose. He looked like shit, and I kind of terrible for immediately ambushing him with bad news the second he was out of bed, but I couldn't just cool my heels while Alvarez and Nguyen had my friends.
"Okay," he said after a long moment. "I am going to eat something and then Amahle and I are going to brainstorm a solution to this mess."
"I want to help," I insisted. I doubted I could be of much use, given my lack of memories, but I wasn't about to let Ross order me back to bed to rest when he was up and about.
"No, you're going to take a shower before Amahle starts shouting at you about getting her sheets dirty," Ross corrected.
"She's awful protective of them," I said, toeing the tangled pile of bedding on the floor where I'd slept. They were streaked in dirt, blood and leaves from our adventure in the woods, and I suspected that they were a write-off. I could kind of see where Amahle was coming from: that was probably the second set I'd ruined since Ross had brought me to her home.
"Between the three of us, she's had to throw out a lot of linens over the years," Ross agreed.
"I don't know why I even put up with the filthy lot of you," Amahle said as she passed by in the hallway.
"You know you love us!" Tristan shouted from inside the bathroom and Ross badly smothered a snort of amusement.
"Try that line again when you haven't just ruined another set of my sheets!" Amahle shouted back and went into the kitchen to being banging around.
"I'll buy you a new set!" Tristan said, followed by the sound of the bathroom door opening.
"With what money? I'm the only one of you lot that actually has a job!" Amahle retorted good-naturedly from the kitchen.
The whole scene made my heart ache in the happiest way- this house wasn't meant to hold two people, much less four, but the sheer casual familiarity I felt at being here with these three... I could only imagine what it must have been like when I remembered them. Old Aster had better have appreciated how great his friends were, like I did.
Tristan came into the spare room, dripping and swaddled in several towels. "She does have a point," Tristan said to Ross, grinning widely despite how wane and sickly he looked. "I should make you steal her some new ones."
"You're the one who had to go and get kidnapped," Ross said flippantly. "You have to suffer the consequences."
"Jerk," Tristan said and punched Ross lightly on the shoulder.
Ross rolled his eyes again and reached up to flick Tristan on the ear. Because of the height difference, Ross had to stand on his toes to do it, making it all the more comical. "Don't get kidnapped again," Ross told him sternly and then left the spare room.
"I'll do my best!" Tristan called after him.
That left me alone with Tristan, who was fresh from his shower. God himself could not have stopped me from staring. Tristan was clearly still suffering from his imprisonment, being too thin and his skin being obviously too pale even under his natural tan, but nothing could diminish his natural good looks. He had very nice, broad shoulders, and there was something about the slant of his hips.
Tristan noticed my blatant staring and went from startled to pleased in less than a second and waggled his eyebrows at me. "Your turn," he said with a sly grin.
"Sorry" I blurted, clutching my clean set of clothing to my chest harder and darted away before Tristan could reply, my face beet red. What was I doing? The man still saw me as his old lover, who was mostly not me, and he'd only just been rescued the night before. Clearly this meant it was the perfect time to ogle his worn-down frame. I was such a creep.
Showering was pretty uncomfortable, given how raw my skin was, the burned bands painfully sensitive to hot water, but I felt much better once I was clean and wearing fresh clothing- with jeans that fit, thank god. I twisted my hair up into a half-assed bun, my shoulders too sore to hold my arms up long enough to braid it back properly, and I wandered into the kitchen.
Amahle and Ross were sitting at the table while Tristan was cooking something that smelled mouthwatering at the stove.
"We need to consider how much knowledge the Durands gained from interrogating Tristan," Ross said, voice carefully neutral, but I saw Tristan flinch faintly nonetheless.
"Well, all of your old aliases are done," Amahle said, jotting something down on a pad of paper.
"And most of your safehouses," Tristan added. He stirred whatever was on the stove jerkily and added, "Though, I'm pretty sure they were all ones they had already found."
"I have a few aliases that Tristan didn't know about, so put that down as an asset," Ross told Amahle and then spotted me standing in the doorway. "Aster, come sit down. We're planning our next steps."
On the table, along with a steaming pot of tea, were several maps, a couple of sheets of paper covered in incomprehensible scribbles, and the pad of paper Amahle was writing on. It was divided into two columns, assets and liabilities. The 'assets' column was the shorter of the two.
"So, what have you decided so far?" I asked, unable to keep from shooting a glance at Tristan's tense shoulders hunched over the stove.
"We're still figuring out what we have to work with," Amahle explained, tapping her pen on the assets column. "Which so far is my home, your magic, Tristan's magic, once he's stable enough to use it, and some of Ross's remaining contacts."
"Which have been dwindling ever since we became Mria Yansi's number one enemies," Ross said with a weary sigh. "I still have a few friends within the Durand Family, but they're difficult to contact, and can't do much for us without drawing unwanted attention."
"Wait," I said, my hand freezing on the teapot I'd been about to pick up. "Play that by me again: you are friends with people in the Durand Family?" My heartbeat started to pick up the pace, adrenaline starting to race through my veins. Just thinking about the Durands brought to mind Nguyen's dementedly cheerful grin and the disgusted sneer of the Durand thug in the woods the previous night. It had been bad enough that Ross had said he'd once been part of them, but he'd said he'd defected. How could he have anything to do with them when they were capable of such violence? When one of them had nearly succeeded in killing us the day before?
"Aster, calm down," Tristan said, suddenly standing behind my chair. His hands gripped my shoulders and I belatedly realized I was gasping shallowly for breath, my vision going gray from panic. "Come on, deep breaths, you're safe here. Focus on the wards of Amahle's house. They feel strong, right? Nothing can get to us in here."
I closed my eyes and tried to do what Tristan said, my mind reaching out to feel the magic in the house. It almost felt like I was somehow stretching a sore muscle to do so, but it was easy enough to do. The magic was concentrated outside the walls, in a dome-like shape and felt green, somehow, like a forest of vines were woven together around the house. Nothing unwelcome could get through.
When I opened my eyes again, I felt much calmer. We were safe here. I slumped back in my seat, feeling like I'd just run a race.
"Try to avoid doing that, while you're recovering from pushing yourself too far yesterday," Amahle said, expression pinched.
"He wasn't going to calm down any other way," Tristan said, voice curt. "You both have been pretty bad at explaining our current situation to Aster. If you had, he wouldn't have panicked."
"Tristan, I get that you're worried, but we've been doing the best we can-" Amahle started to say placatingly.
"No, you haven't!" Tristan snapped, startling me when his hands abruptly gripped my shoulders tightly. "You both keep forgetting that this isn't the Aster you both remember. I had to explain a hell of a lot to him this morning that I shouldn't have needed to, given how long he's been with the pair of you. Sure, some of it was things neither of you were around for, but he didn't even really know why Mria Yansi want to kill him! That's inexcusable!"
Both Amahle and Ross looked rather ashen at Tristan's words, neither saying a word when he fell silent.
I twisted in my chair to look at him, dislodging his hands in the process. "Look, things have been kind of busy. I know they didn't intentionally keep me in the dark about stuff. I was just a bit... surprised to hear that Ross still talks to some of the people trying to kill us."
"Being busy is not an excuse," Tristan said tightly, but his expression softened a little. "Ever since we've been on our run, our lives have almost always been like this. They should have made time. What you have to understand, Aster, is that I've also had experience with memory loss. You make stupid decisions when you don't know all the details." When he said this, he shot a look at Ross, who paled further and winced slightly.
"You're right," Ross said, voice tight. "I guess, in part, it felt like if I didn't fully explain things, you'd remember it all on your own. I'm sorry."
"It's okay," I said, ignoring how this made Tristan frown at me. "But you seriously need to explain why you have any contact with the people who nearly killed me last night and tortured Tristan."
Ross nodded quickly and steepled his fingers below his chin, seeming to try and gather his thoughts. After a long moment, he said, "The Durand Family is less... monolithic than you might be thinking. It's a global organization which technically has a single boss in charge of all of it. But in reality, there are hundreds of chapters, each with its own leader. Each chapter is influenced heavily by its leader. The chapter that I joined is rather lax compared to others. Technically no one is allowed to leave the Durand Family once they've joined, but the chapter I joined allowed for its members to 'retire' and essentially return to their regular lives."
"The chapter I joined was much stricter and was known for being especially bloodthirsty, for comparison. They would never have let anyone leave like Ross's does," Tristan added and finally sat down at the remaining chair next to Ross.
"Exactly," Ross said with a nod. "Technically speaking, the entire Durand Family is under orders to capture us and deliver us to Mria Yansi, but how hard they try to follow those orders varies a great deal."
"My chapter, usually called Kang's lot, since that's the guy who's been in charge for the last twenty years, took it as a personal insult when I defected," Tristan explained, a wry smile tugging at his mouth. "Because of that, a lot of the thugs we've run into over the years have been from that chapter, even though their territory is pretty far away from here."
"Nguyen and Alvarez are from a different chapter, a local one called the Brewmakers since they control most of the apothecary trade in this area. Their chapter isn't as dangerous as Kang's lot, but a lot of them are experts on tracking, which meant we've run into them frequently. Nguyen is one of their senior officers, and he nearly caught you on your own two years ago." Ross hesitated, and then continued carefully, "You nearly cut off his arm when you escaped, and he was beaten and demoted for letting you get away. That's why he has such a personal grudge against you."
"I- I nearly cut his arm off?" I asked, my voice sounding faint even to my own ears.
"This is a one-sided war we're in, Aster," Tristan said. His expression was sad as he continued, "And one that will probably kill us all eventually. We're up against impossible odds, we can't afford to hold back at all. It was a miracle that you managed to get away from Nguyen that time. He chased you across half a city, even while heavily injured, and he nearly caught you. If I hadn't made it back to get you, he probably would have succeeded in capturing you. And given how angry he was, I'm not sure he would have followed orders to take you to his boss, he might have just executed you on the spot."
I bit my lip and nodded silently, even as my gut churned. I'd known this whole thing was dangerous, but this conversation was really hammering that home in a new way. I couldn't even imagine being in so much danger that cutting off a man's arm was simply a small part of my escape. It terrified me, and only made me worry more about Foster and Opal.
"Anyways, my contacts within the Durand Family are mostly from my old chapter, the Riverside Dogs. They've been passing me information since even before you destroyed the barrier spell in Mria Yansi. It's been critical in helping us keep one step ahead of the Brewmakers and Kang's lot, but more and more of my contacts have been under scrutiny with every escape we've had." He sighed deeply and said, "I only have a few left, and if we go after your friends, I'm pretty sure the last of them will have to fall out of contact with me or risk being found out. And the penalty for what they've been doing for us is almost certainly death."
"Which would mean our deaths, since we'd lose our ability to stay ahead of the game," Tristan added.
"So, in short, we're all screwed," Amahle said with a laugh she clearly didn't feel.
"Not you," Ross said. "Your identity and location are shielded in all of our memories, so the Durand Family wouldn't have gotten that from Tristan's mind."
"I'm not letting the three of you go off to get killed on your own while I'm safe and protected like a princess in a tower!" Amahle snapped and leapt to her feet, her dark eyes flashing dangerously.
"And I'm not letting you get killed pointlessly," Ross growled, his expression uncompromising.
"How about... we focus on a plan that involves none of us dying," Tristan suggested, ignoring the dual glares this garnered him. "I'm just saying, we aren't dead yet, so let's try and plan to keep it that way."
Neither Amahle nor Ross seemed terribly appeased by his words, but Amahle dutifully sat back down, the pair of them still shooting each other dark looks.
"Most of our assets at this point boil down to our individual skills and the money we have left, along with anything Ross had that I didn't know about," Tristan continued, like he and Ross hadn't just implied that planning a rescue would almost certainly mean our deaths.
Before I could think, I blurted, "Are you all really okay with doing this?" When they all stared at me in confusion, I continued, still babbling like an idiot, "I mean, it's my fault that Nguyen took Foster and Opal. You shouldn't have to suffer because I made a stupid decision." I bit off the rest of what I wanted to say and ducked my chin in to stare at my knees, my chest aching. I was the reason Foster and Opal were in danger. That was hard enough, heart wrenching enough, all on its own. I couldn't handle being responsible for the deaths of my remaining friends.
"You couldn't have known what would happen," Tristan said, voice achingly gentle. I clenched my jaw against the sob trying to make its way out of my throat, tears pricking at the corner of my eyes. "You were scared and alone, of course you'd make friends."
"Bu if I hadn't, they wouldn't be in danger!" I snapped, looking up sharply. Tristan looked taken aback, at a loss for words, but Ross wasn't, his expression growing sharper.
"If you hadn't made friends with those women, Nguyen would have found another way to hurt you," Ross said bluntly, leaving no room for pity in his voice. "Losing you a second time has pushed him beyond any sense of restraint. If not these people, he would have threatened your parents, or someone else you care about. He knows you're more... open to psychological attacks with your memory missing, and he was going to take advantage of that regardless. So, stop wasting our time by blaming yourself and try and help us make a plan."
"Ross!" Tristan hissed, but I wasn't offended. Ross had told me exactly what I needed to hear- not an absolution of my actions or my guilt, but instructions on what I could do to fix it.
"You'll probably have to take my magical ability off the 'assets' column," I said musingly, looking over Amahle's list. "I barely know how to do anything, right now."
"I wouldn't go that far," Amahle said and gently picked up my forearm and gently tapped one of the bands of irritated skin there. "I'm guessing you subconsciously remember more than you think, given what you were able to do last night."
"What even was that?" I asked, also eyeing the strange bands of angry skin. They hurt much less than they had when I'd first woken up that morning, but my skin still was brightly banded. I hoped it wasn't permanent, I had enough weird accidental magical tattoos after what had happened with the protection spell.
"It was a high magic technique," Tristan explained. "A sort of last resort, cache-all spell. You basically pull all of the magic out of your core and will it to do whatever you need it to do. It's incredibly powerful and can be used in any way you can think of, as you probably saw last night, but it's exceptionally dangerous. You can easily burn yourself out, since magic belongs in your core for a reason. More importantly, using it like that can easily kill you, either from a lack of control while using that much magic all at once, or by draining you dry."
"So, in short, don't do that again," Amahle translated when I just blinked dumbly at Tristan's stern expression.
"I am honestly not sure how I did that," I admitted, but added for Tristan's sake, "But I'll try not to do it again."
"You being able to do that probably has to do with the spirit fountain," Tristan said. "Since you learned a lot of high magic subconsciously, I expect you know how to do a lot of it, even with your memories of learning it all removed."
"Which would explain what you said when we made your fake dragon's eye," Amahle added thoughtfully.
"It's still not something we should rely on. It might be safer if we leave Aster here with Amahle while all of this is happening," Ross said firmly. Somehow, he managed to agree with me while still pissing me off a little, which kind of summed Ross up in a single sentence. I didn't want anyone counting on me for things I couldn't follow through on, but I wasn't about to let Ross, who was still weak and worn looking, march out the door to fix my mistake.
"And when exactly did we agree to leave Amahle here?" Amahle demanded sharply.
"You stayed behind when we went to get Tristan, the situation now is essentially the same," Ross said very calmly, which only served to rile Amahle up further.
"Oh no it isn't. I only agreed to stay behind because we didn't have time to make a plan that would allow for all of us to go," Amahle said hotly. Her hands clenched into fists on the table as she ground out, "I am not letting you waltz right back into harm's way without me again, Ross."
"That isn't your decision." Once again Ross grew colder, his voice dangerously flat, even as Amahle's temper burned brighter behind her dark eyes.
"The hell it isn't!" Amahle slammed her hands onto the table, making the teapot rattle loudly. Tristan and I both jumped, but Ross didn't even flinch, still coolly meeting Amahle's gaze. His lack of reaction seemed to only piss Amahle off further, as she snarled, "It's my life! I get to decide what I do in it, not you!"
"This isn't your fight," Ross said calmly, his green eyes glinting frostily.
Amahle snorted bitterly. "Right, of course it isn't. Well, Ross, I hate to tell you, but you made it my fight every time you turned up at my door asking for my help." She got to her feet and stormed out of the kitchen, then paused in the doorway and added over her shoulder, "Also? Fuck you, Ross."
The kitchen was silent, the sound of Amahle stomping out of the house into her garden made all the more obvious with the three of us not speaking.
After a long moment where we all listened to the faint sound of Amahle swearing passionately outside, Tristan said, very casually, "Ross, buddy, you seriously fucked up here."
Ross's mouth thinned, and the first hint of rage entered his eyes as he snapped back, "It's bad enough the three of us are dead men walking. Amahle didn't sign up for any of this. She wasn't in the city when we all decided saving those people was worth more than our lives."
"No," Tristan agreed placidly. "But she did sign up for it every time she let us come here. She could have turned us away the moment we told her why we needed her help. She isn't stupid, Ross. She knew what helping us meant."
Ross held Tristan's impossibly calm gaze for a long, tense moment, before all the will seemed to run out of him. He slumped forward, elbows on the table, face buried in his hands. "She has a family, a job, a life," he said, his voice sounding impossibly small. "I didn't ask her to give that all up for m- for us."
Tristan smiled sadly and replied, "She wouldn't be Amahle if we had to ask." He eyed the kitchen window and tilted his head slightly, considering the sound of Amahle's continued swearing. "I'll go talk to her, give her someone to yell at so she can calm down a bit." He paused and grabbed Ross by the hair, forcing him to meet his gaze, his expression dead serious. "But the second she's calmed down, you are acting like a rational adult who is her friend and talking to her. Got it?"
Wordlessly, Ross nodded and Tristan nodded back, satisfied. He got up and left the kitchen, heading out into the late afternoon sun. A moment later, Amahle started shouting again. From the sound of it, she was displeased to see Tristan not only out of bed, but out of the safety of the house.
Ross sighed deeply, rubbed a hand across his face and pulled Amahle's list closer to him.
After an awkwardly long silence, I said, "I think I might have something to add to the 'asset' list."
Ross looked up, still looking like he was recovering from the rather intense argument. "What is it?"
"Well, thinking of Foster and Opal got me thinking about all that happened before I met you- I have a ridiculous amount of money in my bank account, if that's helpful. But more importantly, maybe we could call Officer Nikolaidis?"
Ross's eyebrows shot up. "We do know he isn't Durand Family, given he had plenty of time to haul you in, but what do you think he could do to help us?"
"Well, technically the Durand family is a mob group, right? So even if they have people on the police force, I'm guessing that they can't completely stop the police from investigating them. Maybe he could dig us up some information," I explained.
Ross nodded, expression sharpening thoughtfully as he said, "More importantly, Foster and Opal aren't on the run, or on Mria Yansi's hit list. Them going missing will be noticed by their families and their friends. They will most certainly have been reported missing. If Nikolaidis can give us information about their missing persons report, we might be able to figure out where they were taken," Ross added, the last of the stress leaving his expression as his mind raced through the possibilities. "It wouldn't be as good as my contacts within the family, but it's not nothing. Thank you, Aster, I would never have thought of that- I'm too used to being on the outside of normal society after either being on the run or being part of the Durand Family."
"It's no big deal," I said and shrugged. I paused and then added, "Do you smell something burning?"
Ross swore and ran over to the stove. "Burnt, again," he said, poking whatever was in the pot with a wooden spoon. "This is the third time Tristan's tried to make this for us. I swear this recipe is cursed."
I followed him over, peeking over his shoulder at the pot on the stove. It smelled pleasantly spicy and rich under the burnt smell.
"Hey, Ross, can I ask you something?" I asked carefully, as Ross tried to see if he could save whatever Tristan had been making.
Ross grunted in agreement.
"You and Amahle... Are you two...?" I couldn't finish the question, mostly because I wasn't entirely sure what I was asking. There was some unspoken thing between the two of them, which had been obvious since the moment I'd seen them together.
"It's nothing," Ross said, is voice tight. He didn't sound angry, though. More like he was full of regret, or even a bit wistful. Definitely sad to say the least.
"Are you sure?" I asked doubtfully. That was a whole lot of something to be nothing.
"My decisions in life already put one person I care about in danger I couldn't protect him from," Ross said, voice very soft.
Jamie, his little brother, who we'd rescued, but who had come close to being killed.
"I'm not going to make the same mistake twice" Ross added.
"Even if she's already in danger anyways?" I asked, because the situation between Ross and Amahle was markedly different than the one surrounding Jamie. Amahle was an adult, one who could protect herself. As Tristan had said, she knew what she was getting in to.
"I'm not going to make the same mistake twice," Ross repeated, still staring down at the bubbling pot like it held the answers to all of his questions.
"What happened with Jamie wasn't your fault, you couldn't have known he'd be taken," I protested, because it was the truth.
Ross didn't reply for a long moment, and finally said, "I think this is salvageable, go see if Amahle is done shouting at Tristan and we can all have an early dinner."
I wanted to throw my hands in the air in exasperation. Fucking Ross and his feelings.
Instead I grumbled, "fine," and stomped outside, feeling impossibly frustrated. Congratulations, Ross, you've successfully annoyed all three of your friends in the span of half an hour! Your prize is our eternal irritation!
Tristan and Amahle were sitting on the plastic chairs where Amahle had first shown me how to sense magic. It was almost impossible to think that hadn't even been a week ago.
Tristan took one look at my face and laughed. "Ross?" he asked, gesturing for me to sit on the remaining chair.
"One day he is going to explode from repressing all of those feelings he doesn't have, and I am going to laugh," I grumbled and sat down with a thump.
"Ah, you tried to convince him being a human instead of a very convincing robot was okay," Tristan said knowingly. "A conversation many of us have failed at having with him."
"Ross has feelings," Amahle said quietly. She had lost all of her anger from the kitchen, and just looked tired. She might not have snuck into a Durand Family base, or been held captive by them, but, I realized with a pang of guilt, she'd been dealing with just as much shit as we had. She'd spent hours waiting for all of us, unable to know if we'd been successful, or if we were even all still alive.
Even worse, Ross had nearly died while she'd been healing him the night before. With both Tristan and I out of commission, she'd been all alone. I couldn't imagine how scared she must have been, even while having to forge ahead anyways.
Part of me really wanted to go back inside to smack Ross. Not her fight, my ass.
"He feels a lot more deeply than a lot of people do, and it terrifies him," Amahle continued, her gaze distant even as she looked out at the garden.
"I know that, we both do," Tristan said, patting her on the knee. "But he's such a child sometimes, it makes it hard to deal with him."
"Friendship is never easy," Amahle agreed and turned away from facing the garden, her eyes focusing back on the pair of us. "Anyways, Aster, did you come out here just to get a break from Ross or was there another reason?"
I blinked, and then remembered why I'd come outside. "Ross says we can probably eat the thing you were making, Tristan, even if it's a little burnt."
"Again? Damnit," Tristan said, making an exasperated face as he stood.
Dinner was delicious, if tense, and was followed by Amahle ordering a grey-faced Ross to bed. It was very telling that he didn't protest and meekly did as she said. Amahle left to run errands she'd been neglecting over the past days due to dealing with the constant flow of patients in her home, leaving Tristan and I alone. I was also feeling the consequences of the previous day, my shoulders screaming at the smallest movement, and I went to lie down for at least a short nap. Tristan curled on the bed with the stack of spellbooks and journals I'd found in my apartment.
"You should sleep too," I said drowsily from the floor. The makeshift bed had no business being so comfortable, it felt like I could sink right through the floor to the earth below the house. In the back of my mind, I could feel the comforting rustle of the vine-wards surrounding the house, keeping us safe. It was incredibly soothing.
Tristan shook his head. "I'll just have nightmares if I try to sleep before I'm completely exhausted."
"Should have asked Amahle for one of her sleepy drink things," I argued, my words starting to slur around the edges.
"Those knock you out, but don't give you a very deep sleep," Tristan replied, followed by the sound of rustling paper. At some point my heavy eyelids had drifted shut, and I had to fight to pry them back open.
"Go to sleep, Aster. You don't have to worry about me," Tristan said gently.
After struggling to keep my eyes open for another moment, I gave in and fell asleep.
Predictably, I had another terrible nightmare involving my bloody-mouthed twin. Because I'd gone over a week without one, and I was long overdue.
"This is your own fault, you know," my twin said, patronizingly apologetic. He patted my hair like you did to a child or a dog, even as my own hands wrapped around his throat without my consent.
"You can't kill the truth," he said and started to laugh that awful, hysterical giggle that appeared in every dream I had of him. "You can't change the past, you've never been good enough, and you're going to kill all of them."
"Shut up!" I screamed and jackknifed up out of my dream when I felt a hand on my shoulder.
I blinked slowly, trying to comprehend the abrupt switch from my dream to reality. It was darker in the room, probably just after sunset. Tristan was crouching on the floor next to my bed, one hand outreached from where he'd touched my shoulder before I'd flinched away.
"Are you okay?" He asked worriedly, dark eyes wide.
"I'm fine," I said, running a distracted hand through my hair only for it to immediately get stuck. It had fallen out of my shitty bun while I'd slept and had managed to get impossibly tangled.
"Yes, I could tell that from reaction you had to me waking you up," Tristan said dryly. He sat back on his heels and let his hand fall to his side without touching me.
"Did I wake you up?" I asked. I had to imagine I'd been thrashing around, probably whining or sobbing in my sleep, which would have been disruptive in such a small room.
Tristan frowned, a small crease knitting his dark eyebrows together. "No, I wasn't asleep yet," he said, gesturing at the pile of books on the bed. "And you were totally silent. I only woke you up because I think I figured something out."
"Figured what out?"
"I think I know how to get your memories back," Tristan said and held up his cupped palm. "Using this."
In his hand was the blood-red gemstone I'd found in my apartment.