Emily felt a sudden pang of shock when she spotted him in the water. What was he doing? Where did he think he was going?
She opened her mouth to call out to him, but realized that was absolutely pointless. She wasn’t even outside. Even if she had been, not only was he too far to hear her; there was no chance her voice would be audible over the sound of the rain, and of the sea crashing on the rocks below the lighthouse. But it was definitely him.
No one else would be so incredibly stupid.
She felt a rush of relief that she’d seen him at all. If she hadn’t bothered to look out on the sea - if she’d stayed wrapped up in the notes from their advisory meeting - she may have missed it.
Her hands were working at the buttons on her coat before she even recognized what she was doing. In another moment she flashed to the door, hopping as she pulled off a boot, gaining just enough presence of mind to remember that she should avoid being spotted using her Void-given talents.
She thought she might’ve heard her father calling her name from the floor below, but she wasn’t sure because she was already on her way.
The other boot off, she pulled herself – once- twice- three times, each time reaching just far enough. She felt as the wind picked up, the rain that had once been just a drizzle now angry little beads that stung on her cheeks.
This was a horrible idea.
And yet, she was already doing it.
Her Marked hand reached again and again, pulling her in steps down the lighthouse. She pulled herself out to the edge of an overhang, making sure she could spot him, and reached again, carefully strategizing a sequence of immediate reaches that could get her much closer, maybe even to some of the rocks below.
The first pull and she was out over the water, falling for just a moment before she pulled herself again, further, and she reached for the rocks off to her right – but nothing. Emily’s stomach leapt into her throat as she recognized the sensation of free fall. Even if she’d wanted to scream, she wouldn’t have been able to; her throat was closed, the pressure of gravity taking her breath away.
She reached again and again, but she knew it was pointless. The water rose up beneath her faster and faster. She hadn’t been thinking. She’d drained herself, going so quickly, and it would take -
She had just enough time in that brief moment to position herself like an arrow as she crashed into the waters below, her arms slicing through the foam, the force of her fall pulling her deep beneath the waves.
It took her a moment to get her bearings, to figure out which way was up, but the air in her lungs pushed her toward the surface – but it was so far. As she finally bobbed into the fresh air, she gasped, her chest burning and salt stinging her eyes. But she had no time to waste.
She glanced about just long enough to orient herself. If she was here now, then the last time she’d seen him-
She aimed and immediately swam at a driving pace.
She’d only had a couple months with him at the tower, and almost all of that spent in meetings with her father and other advisors – she still had so many questions unanswered. Why hadn’t she asked them sooner? What was wrong with her?
Well she wasn’t going to lose him now.
Again and again she took her gasping breaths as she swam, arms and legs taking her frustration out on the sea around her.
Stupid. So stupid.
He was stupid.
She was stupid.
What was she doing? She was the Empress – why? What could have possibly seized her that made her decide this was a good idea?
She slowed slightly, looking around.
Where was he? He should be – there, there he was. Still so far. But of course, he must’ve had quite the head start. How long had he been swimming? At least Emily had years of training that made her movements efficient - sleek and powerful - as she shot toward him. He may have taken well to swimming, but he just didn’t have the strength and pacing she had. She should catch up to him quick, with that in mind.
The thought didn’t calm any of her anxiety.
How far did he expect to go? There was no way he could swim back after all that. What was he doing?
She looked up again.
Still so far.
Desperately, as she stroked she stabbed her Marked hand toward him, trying to reach.
She slammed chest-first into the water – thankfully only a couple of feet up, but it still burned and stung. Closer. She was closer.
And at least she knew that her far reach would work again. How, she had no idea, but she wasn’t going to question how the Void chose to dole out power. Not when it was working in her favor, at least.
She paused a moment, breathing heavily as she tread water, pushing hair out of her face. The rain was coming harder now, big drops pelting the water around her. She turned, looking for a place to land. There. It was far, but not too far - past him, too - and there was enough space on the rocks to get both bodies out of the water. With that goal in mind, she set her jaw and returned to her steady pace, determined.
Her arms ached and her muscles burned. Her feet felt far too heavy, and she was so glad she hadn’t tried this with heavy water-logged boots on. She hadn’t done this much swimming in ages. She needed to incorporate it into her regular training again.
She was gaining on him, but Emily was amazed to find him still going. He must have been swimming for ages. They must be at least a mile past the lighthouse. She wanted to call out to him, to tell him to slow down, but her brain was oxygen-deprived and overwhelmed with the wind and the rain and the sea, and then on top of that all of the potential dangers, and all of the cover story they’d crafted around his sudden arrival – it was just too much.
Finally, as they neared the rock she’d picked out for safe harbor, she made an attempt. “Li-” She coughed as she called, choking on sea water. Spitting furiously, she tried again. “Lir! Outsider!” She dropped his assumed name. Her voice was hoarse, but it must’ve traveled, because she saw him slow, turning around. She didn’t stop her swimming, a fierce scowl of determination set on her features. She’d be damned if she gave up now.
As she got closer, she was able to read a bewildered expression on the Outsider’s face. He looked shocked to see her. Reasonably, she supposed. Not many empresses would dive headfirst into the sea to chase after some errant advisor.
But of course, he wasn’t just an errant advisor. He was the Outsider. He was - he had been - the god of the Void. And she wasn’t about to let him run away.
He seemed to be at a loss for words – a fact that may have piqued Emily’s interest, had she not been busy trying to save his skin. As his mouth opened and closed, searching for words, she ran out of patience.
With an angry growl of frustration she thrust her Marked hand toward him, pulling his body through the water, the resistance making her grit her teeth in an unexpected spasm of pain. If he said anything, his words were lost to the wind and the waves.
“What the hell-” Emily let out a grunt of exertion as she wrapped a firm arm around his waist and reached for the rock.
She felt rather than heard her agonized groan, feeling as if her own arms were being pulled on the rack instead of just the magic. Spots clouded her whole field of vision, forcing her to close her eyes, but she felt the stone under her, pressing into her cheek. She curled her legs into herself reflexively for just a moment, pushing down another pained cry, just the smallest of sounds escaping her clenched jaw as her hands flexed and clamped into fists. Breathe. She needed to breathe.
All she could hear was the pounding of blood in her ears - all she could feel was the heavy tremors that shook her ribs with the strength of her exhausted heartbeat as she panted. She lay flat on the rock until she could feel the rain hitting her back again, her heavy breaths scattering the water that dripped down her face.
The groan pulled itself from her body laboriously. She hurt all over. She knew without trying that her powers would be useless for some time. She’d never had this happen before, and some corner of her brain that was still functioning wondered distantly if in overdrawing her Void abilities she’d instead taxed her physical resources.
The stone under her moved and her hands slammed down, grappling blindly for a handhold, opening her eyes briefly only to close them again as spots and lights swam in her vision.
She heard the “oof” as she winded him.
Oh. Yes, that made much more sense. Not the rock moving, no - just the Outsider, laying next to her, trapped beneath her heavy right arm. She didn’t care that she’d winded him. She was still winded herself, so he might as well suffer, too.
The hand that had pushed him back down grabbed a fistful of his shirt for leverage as she rolled herself onto her side. She flung a leg over his, pulling her body closer and clipping her neck on his shoulder clumsily as she blindly aimed her head to speak to him. “You-” Her breath was hot and pained, and she felt her lips on his ear at the same time as she was far too exhausted to move. “You - aren’t going - anywhere,” she managed at last. She couldn’t say more, focusing on breathing.
Her angry breaths gradually adjusted to relieved sighs.
To her shame, she felt hot tears slipping down her face. Exhaustion, anger, relief, shock – all at once. She tucked her chin into the crook of his neck, burrowing there, and held her breath in an attempt to stop the sobs that wanted to wrack her body. It didn’t do much good, as tremors still passed through her erratically. A shuddering inhale and she held it again, trying to force the tears to stop. Stop they didn’t, but at last she seemed to get them down to a manageable burning trickle.
She felt him shift, turning toward her at least slightly, but he said nothing.
At long last, when her breathing no longer shook with repressed sobs, she sniffed and opened her eyes, blinking to clear them of the muted spots. They were bloodshot, her face twisted in a mask of hurt and relief.
He was staring at her, his pale eyes almost glowing in the dark. He looked… confused. His brow was slightly furrowed as he regarded her almost scientifically, eyes roaming over her face. “I’ve never seen you like this.”
She scoffed reflexively, rolling her eyes frustratedly despite the pain it caused her. “Of course you haven’t,” she snapped, “I-” She shook her head, at a loss for words, averting her eyes to glare at his collarbone.
A moment’s silence passed.
When she spoke again it was quieter. Smaller. “Why would you do that?” She blinked stubbornly, dismissing her tears, even as she adjusted her leg higher to hook him even closer, latching on. Her eyes remained purposefully fixed elsewhere. “Why would you leave me?” She hadn’t meant to add the “me,” and yet it had slipped out. Even she could hear her heart breaking, and she hated it. She hated feeling weak. Especially in front of him.
“I…” He couldn’t answer the question. He just stared at her, seeming almost amazed. “…I’m not beholden to you, Emily.” His voice was gentle even as doubt invaded his tone.
She finally met his eyes again with a glare that burned, and her reply was fierce. “Yes you are.”
In a flash she’d rolled onto him, sitting up as she straddled him, wincing momentarily and falling forward, only to place a hand on either side of his head as she glared down at him, caging him. “I am Emily Drexel Lela Kaldwin, and as Empress of the Isles I demand you stay.” She’d set her jaw again. The way she did when she refused to budge.
He still stared at her with that odd look. Amazement. Reverence. Almost in a daze, his hand lifted to trace that stubborn jaw. “Alright.”
She blinked, her mouth opening in surprise. “I- ‘Alright?’” She’d expected more of a fight. Truly, she’d expected some lecture. What she didn’t expect was the crooked smile that slowly twisted his lips, his hand still cupping her face.
“‘Alright.’ I’ll stay.” His thumb traced the curve of cheek idly, watching her stunned expression with amusement.
Her brow furrowed, confused and irritated. “But then why-”
“I wasn’t leaving,” he interrupted, shaking his head, bemused by her odd mercurial nature.
Her eyes sharpened to a glare and her voice came out wry and flat. “It certainly looked like it.”
There was sheepishness in his tone as he glanced away. “Ah, yes… I can see how that might…” His hand dropped from her cheek as he trailed off, but she caught it.
“I didn’t tell you to stop.”
There was a moment of pause. Gradually he placed his hand back on her face, which had reddened slightly despite the stubborn imperious look, and she leaned into the contact, expression softening.
“I didn’t tell you to stop talking, either,” she reminded him quietly.
A small chuckle rumbled through his body. “No, you didn’t,” he agreed. His fingers continued to stroke her skin, moving over her chin, cheek, jaw, down to her neck for a brief moment, making her eyes flutter closed for a fraction of a second. “I don’t know why I came out here,” he admitted finally, voice low but still audible over the slowly calming rain. “I suppose… the sea sort of… calls to me.”
She raised a skeptical eyebrow, but made no comment, just moving the slightest bit in the echo of a nuzzle against his palm.
He chuckled again. “There’s really no other way to say it. I realize it wasn’t… wise exactly. I probably could have done it differently. But I needed to do it.”
Her lips pursed, holding back a retort and instead letting out a pointed, “Mmhmm…” She was unconvinced.
“If it makes you feel better, next time I’ll warn you.”
“Next time you’ll come on a boat with my father in daylight and clear weather and you won’t be wearing your council clothes,” she scolded.
He hummed his agreement. “Whatever you say, Empress.” His words were tongue in cheek as he watched her reactions with the same look he’d been giving her all night, that amazed clarity. As though he’d never seen anything quite like it.
And he hadn’t.