Chapter Fifteen

Waking up like this definitely has its advantages, Sonea thought when she found herself held tight in Akkarin's arms and the sunlight creeping through the blinds. She could feel his warmth on her skin and his pulse slow and steady under her fingertips. Her own hands were entwined with his somehow, in such a tangle that she could barely tell where she ended and he began. It was, quite simply, wonderful.

Glancing at the timekeeper on the nightstand she knew that she still had some time to spare; she had promised Rothen that she would meet him after his afternoon lesson. Although the examinations at the University were officially over, the summer break did not begin for another week. Still, the usual euphoria among the novices was missing this year, and nobody could blame them.

Rothen had told her that many of them had already returned to their families for the summer; those who had lost relatives in the Invasion had been allowed to leave early. A few families had announced they would not let their children continue their education at the University for fear that something like this might happen again. They had been firmly reminded that a magician whose powers had been released would not just stop being a magician if they did not attend the University and that, if anything, such novices would only be a danger to their surroundings because they had not fully mastered their abilities. Apparently there had been lots of clenched teeth and a few families had actually threatened to retract their support of the Guild but the matter had been settled without any major political scandals.

Sonea sighed and closed her eyes again, perfectly content. If every morning could be like this, she would gladly put up with all the rest. I'd bow and scrape in front of the Higher Magicians if I could get a morning like this every now and again, she thought but of course, she wouldn't. She had too much pride still left for that, and either way it wasn't as if it would make much difference. She fully expected the Guild to make her and Akkarin's lives as complicated and annoying as possible no matter their behaviour, so she would not entertain them by playing the fearful novice again.

"Are you awake?"

She shifted so she could see him properly. "No."

"Ah. I cannot say I that blame you." Smiling, Akkarin freed one of his hands from hers only to pull their blankets a little higher and cover her shoulders. "If you were awake, we might have to get out of bed and be productive members of society."

"Well, it's not as if anyone is expecting us. I'm rather convinced that there are a lot of people who would prefer us to stay exactly where we are and not cause any fuss."

"While I would have absolutely no issue with that, I have every intention of causing as much fuss as I possibly can."

Raising an eyebrow, she pushed herself up to her elbows. "Oh?"

"I'm not going to let the Guild treat us like criminals for the rest of our lives. You can't be a Healer and help the people in the slums if there's an escort looming over you the entire time. I can't appear at official events surrounded by a wall of Warriors. If they want us to be of any use at all, they will have to give us some freedom. Besides," he said and a grin spread across his face. "Sooner or later, the two of us will cause a magnificent scandal."

"I'm sure they'll enjoy themselves immensely when that happens," she said dryly, settling back into the pillow with a small 'oof'.

"How do you feel?" Akkarin asked and reached for her hand again.

"I feel wonderful. Magnificent. I wish we'd done this earlier." Her body felt marvellously soft, as if there was no resistance to her movements. She might have been floating and she doubted she would have noticed. "There are much worse ways to wake up in the morning."

"I can only agree with you on that account. I'm glad you're... happy."

"I am. Very happy." His pulse was beating against her skin again and this proof that she was alive - that they were both alive and together right here and right now – silenced the voice in the back of her head. "However, no matter how much I would love to stay here into all eternity, I do think we'll have to eat something before long. And I promised Rothen I'd meet him after class."

"Ah. Rothen. I have been thinking that maybe I should talk to him about a few things."

She studied the fresh lines on his face, the scar over his heart that still hadn't fully healed, the crisscrossing map of knife marks covering his arms and shoulders. "Yes, I think maybe you should."

"He dislikes me."

"Can you blame him, really?"

Akkarin winced. "Point taken."

"Do us both a favour and be nice to him when you do talk. I could really do with a little less dramatics in my life." She sat up and very carefully lowered her feet to the floor. The familiar stiffness in her muscles returned almost immediately and she could not quite suppress the groan.

"Are you alright? Did I hurt you?"

"You do think quite highly of your abilities, don't you? It's fine, it's just my leg again. It's nothing."

"Nothing? Didn't Marin say it was healing nicely? That doesn't sound like you should still be in pain."

"It's fine, Akkarin, really. I'm used to it; it's alright."

"Have you talked to someone about this? And what do you mean that you're used to it, you shouldn't be used to pain-"

"I am not having this conversation while neither of us are dressed. Or on an empty stomach, for that matter. Let's just – let's find something to eat first. No, don't even start, I am not having this conversation while I am naked." She shrugged into a dressing gown and made her way out of the bedroom door, trying very hard not to limp.

There were two trays of breakfast balanced precariously on top of the mess on their guestroom table in what seemed to Sonea an unnecessarily passive-aggressive manner. One of them included a pot of cold sumi, which she could only wrinkle her nose at in dismay. She chose a small roll and bit into the crust with a satisfying crunching noise. Immediately, she felt less grumpy. "We'll have to work something out regarding a servant," she said around a bite of food. "I wouldn't care either way but things would be so much easier if we knew who to talk to about missing dinner."

"Hmmm." Several letters had been tucked under their door and Akkarin was already deep in thought over one of them. He handed another one to Sonea; the paper was thin and tinted yellow.

Her aunt had already replied to the note Sonea had sent yesterday evening, which meant she must have found and paid a scribe almost as soon as she had received it. The letter was short by necessity, as hired scribes often charged by the line, but Jonna assured her that the family was safe and that they had found a place to stay after the destruction and confusion of the Invasion. Glad to hear you're both well, hope to see you soon, she had ended, and signed her name herself. Sonea felt a pang of guilt at not having sent that note earlier; she didn't say so in her letter but Sonea knew that her aunt had been worrying herself sick about her – and Akkarin, apparently. Would she be allowed to go and visit her family? She had no intention of spending the rest of her life on Guild grounds but while the Guild might not deny her an audience with the King, they might object to almost everything else. I suppose this is what Akkarin meant about making a fuss, she thought. I can accept almost anything but they won't keep me away from my family.

On the other side of the table, Akkarin was frowning at the piece of paper in his hands. He had not touched the food.

"Bad news?" she asked.

Sighing, he folded the letter back into its envelope. "I don't know. Is it? I had an agreement with Takan that he would leave Imardin as soon as the Ichani were dealt with. I know he only stayed here this long because of me, and I had no intention to… he could have left. After. I'd hoped he would be far away by now, wherever he decided to go."

"You destroyed the blood gem?"

"It was too dangerous. Those gems can be horrible tools in the hands of the wrong person. Takan destroyed his just after we arrived in the Slums. Either way," he said, waving the envelope, "it seems he didn't hold up his part of the arrangement. This is from Ceryni. I wrote to him yesterday to ask after the general state of affairs in the City, and he says Takan has been staying in the Slums ever since the Invasion."

She waited, her aunt's note in one hand, the half-eaten roll in the other. Her dressing gown was tied very loosely around her waist, Akkarin wore a black shirt and trousers. She almost wished they hadn't bothered getting out of bed.

"I don't know what to do," he finally admitted. "He deserves to go home. He only followed me out of Sachaka because he didn't know what else to do. I've kept him here too long. I don't know why he is still here."

"He's your friend," she said gently. She slipped the letter into her pocket. "He must have heard you were injured."

"He shouldn't have stayed."

"He probably wanted to make sure that you were alright."

"I was supposed to die!"

The force of this statement took them both aback; Sonea winced and ducked her head, tried to choke back tears. "Please don't say that. Please, please don't say that."

"Sonea…"

"No. I don't want to hear it. You didn't die. You're alive. We're both alive."

He reached for her, his expression unreadable, his dark eyes blank, and she drew back. She had to sit down anyway, before her legs gave in and betrayed her. The bliss of the morning was gone, a dull ache had spread through her body and the muscles in her injured leg had begun to twitch painfully. She sent impulses of soothing magic to control the pain, as she had been doing continuously for weeks.

After long minutes of silence, she said: "You didn't want to survive. You were going to sacrifice yourself and you very nearly succeeded. I don't know if you were afraid of what would come after or if you are just tired of being alive. I can't begin to understand whatever it is but I need you to live. I need you because I absolutely cannot do any of this alone. I need you because every time I wake up at night and I can't feel your pulse I'm so scared I forget to breathe. I'm falling apart and the fact that you're alive is the only thing that's still holding me together. And if that means I'm being terribly selfish then so be it. Please. I need you."

She ran her fingers through the tangles of her hair and closed her eyes for a moment. He was still standing there, three steps away on the other side of a table, but his hand had dropped to his side and he was staring at his feet. He looked lost in the mess of boxes and books and breakfast trays. Maybe that was how he always felt.

"I don't want this either," he said very quietly. "I don't want it to be like this but I don't know what to do to stop it."

Sonea took a deep breath, exhaled slowly although her throat was so tight she felt like choking. She pushed herself to her feet and stood, shaking and unsure. "I'll get dressed," she said. "Then we'll figure something out."

She was definitely limping on her way back to the bedroom but she was not inclined to concern herself with that. There was a puddle of black silk on the floor that took her a few puzzled minutes to take apart until she had found her own clothes. They looked quite rumpled, having spent the night in a careless heap; she would have to do something about that before she went to meet Rothen. She had to use the doorframe and various pieces of furniture as support to reach her chair, and sank down cursing through her teeth. She sent another particularly expressive profanity to follow simply because it felt extremely satisfying.

Akkarin's eyes widened ever so slightly, but whether with amusement or disapproval Sonea couldn't tell.

"Now." She took a deep breath. "Talk to me."

"You said you didn't want to hear it."

"I did. I changed my mind. Talk to me." She watched him sway on his feet, colour drained from his face. She bit her lip. "And sit down, for goodness sake, before you faint."

"You're one to talk. You can barely walk five steps without support, I don't think you're in any position to –"

"This is not about me." Pulling up her good leg to sit on it, she fixed his gaze with what she hoped was determination. "I'm fine. I'll talk to Marin. Anything you want. Now talk to me."

"Is this an interrogation?"

Sonea shrugged. "It'll turn into one if you don't talk to me. Come on, I'm trying to help you and I cannot do that unless you tell me what's going on. You want to die, is that it?"

"No."

She could have screamed. Akkarin wasn't looking at her; he had twisted his hands in his lap as soon as he had reluctantly but with visible relief sunk into his own chair and now appeared to be studying his fingers with intensity. She considered walking over to him but given the throbbing in her muscles and the way his shoulders seemed to ward off any kind of sympathy, she stayed where she was. There was a narrow table between them, just a little too much distance.

"I don't want to die," he said finally. "But I would not have objected to it. I had no – I didn't plan to survive."

"This isn't the war anymore. We've won. We're safe."

"I know. And I'm glad we are. I would not give this" - he encompassed the room and her in a wide-swept motion - "for anything. I know what I'm alive for now."

She nodded. "Promise to tell me when you forget."

"I will." He was still looking at his hands but the tension was gone from his body; he didn't look ready to snap any longer. She decided to take that as a good sign. "Before the Invasion," he began, after a while, and so quiet she could barely hear him, "before I even began teaching you, my purpose in life was to keep Kyralia safe from the Ichani, who were only a threat because of me, because of my mistakes." Akkarin paused and Sonea held her breath, waiting. "I wouldn't have had a purpose after we'd won. If we'd won. Why would I stay alive? I still don't know." Now, thankfully, his eyes met hers again. "But I think maybe I don't need to know."

"No," she said softly, "we don't. Why is anyone alive? I could have died a hundred times in my life, and who knows what things might have turned out like if I had." She ran a hand through her hair. Her fingers got stuck in last night's knots she hadn't had time to brush out yet. "I trust you if you say you're alright now but please don't ignore it. Talk to me when you need to. Please?"

"I promise."

"Good. Now you're going to send a message to Takan and somehow arrange that the two of you can discuss matters. And after classes end you are going to meet Rothen in the University and talk to him. I'll join you for dinner."

"I thought you promised to see him?"

"I did but I think it's much more important that you sort out your – well, let's call them differences. It won't do if you just stare and glower at each other every time you are in the same room. I won't have it." She shifted in her chair to stretch out her legs. She had been almost free of pain when she had woken up but apparently that had been a decidedly temporary state. For only the briefest of moments, she closed her eyes and sent a stream of soothing magic through her protesting muscles. When she opened them again, Akkarin was watching her.

She sighed. "Don't."

"You said you wouldn't have this conversation until you were dressed, and, rather unfortunately, you are." The joke was forced and his smile a shadow of its full potential but Sonea laughed nonetheless.

"I did say that, didn't I? Very well." She folded her hands. "Go on, then."

"I'm worried."

"I know."

"About you." The way he looked at her managed to make her angry and set her heart fluttering at the same time. He was trying to protect her again, he was always trying to protect her; she liked to think she didn't need his protection but it was strangely comforting to know she had it nonetheless. "I worry about you day and night. I want to know what I can do to make you safe and happy but I can't do any of that unless you tell me when something is wrong."

"There's nothing really wrong," she said, knowing he wouldn't believe her because she didn't even believe herself.

"You're in pain," he said.

"Not all the time."

He raised an eyebrow.

"I'm not in a lot of pain all the time. I can usually manage it – it doesn't take a lot of power."

"You shouldn't need to use any power on it at all. I am not a Healer but even I know that almost three months is too long for you to still be in pain – is it just your leg, or anything else? Your hand, your ribs?"

Sonea shook her head. Their victory over the Ichani had left her bent and broken in more ways than one, but most of her injuries had mended without much trouble. Her hand, maybe, remained a little stiffer than it had been but did not hurt at all when she moved it, unlike her offending leg. "I'm sure it's nothing serious," she said, then reconsidered. "At least, nothing to lose sleep over."

"But you are losing sleep over it, aren't you?"

Heavens damn him for knowing me so well, she thought, and an assortment of other, more unsavoury things. "I'm fine."

"You need to talk to Marin," he said firmly.

"He doesn't think anything's wrong, as you well know, since you were in the room the last time he looked at it."

"Sonea, something must be wrong if you are in so much pain. If he can't see it, maybe you should ask a different Healer." Akkarin rose to his feet and came to stand beside her. She reached out for him without even thinking and he took her hand. "How bad is it? Be honest with me, please."

Shrugging, she intertwined their fingers. "Most of the time it's bearable, really. It's not always this much of a problem."

He waited, and she gave in.

"I can't walk sometimes," she admitted, her voice small. His hand tightened around hers and he frowned deeply.

"Right now?"

"I'd rather not try," she said, which, she supposed, answered his question. She took a deep breath and continued: "I should be fine in a couple of hours, and until then I'll stay here and study and I'll come meet you for dinner."

Akkarin eased their hands apart. "You need to see a healer. Today. I'll send someone to come here as soon as possible."

"There is no need for that," Sonea insisted. "I can make my own way to the Healers' Quarters if it doesn't get better."

"Please, Sonea, don't argue about this. I'm trying to help."

"I know. I know, Akkarin, but I was studying healing before we, well, left, and I can't find anything that is actually wrong. The bones have healed much better than I could have hoped for, there is nothing actually wrong." She emphasized the last two words by drumming her closed hand on her thigh, grimacing at the impact. She was angry, now, she realised, even though she really didn't want to be.

Akkarin shook his head. "That's it. I'm fetching Vinara." He straightened and walked back to the bedroom only to emerge again moments later, fully dressed and with his hair neatly tied back. "I'll talk to Rothen today and arrange to meet Takan. After we know what's wrong with your leg."

##

I really have no excuse other than saying 'UNIVERSITY AND ADULT LIFE SMACKED ME IN THE FACE WITH RESPONSIBILITY'. Which isn't a very good excuse either. BUT this one is all of six pages long. Six! And things happen! Wow! I definitely haven't abandoned this fic and I am so so sorry that updates are taking this long. Hopefully you'll enjoy yourself anyway! Love, Jo xx