At this point, Catriel knew he should expect anything pertaining to Alex to take the worst possible path. It was like the boy resonated with trouble, attracting all manner of bad luck to him in droves. That was why it shouldn’t have surprised the soldier to locate the skinny Ahnnak at the home and business of Kai’s younger brother, but it did. Remiel was an undisciplined creature of comfort who carried no accountability for the potential weight of his actions. He was young. Catriel would allow him that much leeway to explain his behavior, but that was all. He had been assigned as the Guardian to the two healers living with him, and seemed to treat the oath as casually as he would one of the garish outfits he sold in the shop.
Remiel was an Ahnnak who was only going to learn when his mistakes got someone he cared for killed. If Catriel kept an eye on him, maybe he could prevent that from happening. At the very least, he could prevent Remiel from dragging Alex down with him.
The soldier escorted the two young Ahnnak out in the rain to get food. They placed a large order, enough for the two asleep in the house as well, and then stood under the eave outside the shop while the chef prepared the meal. Catriel took note of how comfortable Alex was with Remiel. The boy spoke confidently, and briefly explained their altered version of where he had been. Remiel nodded along, listening to the story, even if he kept giving Catriel uneasy glances from the corner of his eye.
Alex offered to carry the crate of food when it was ready. He picked it up once, then winced and sat it down. He rubbed his palms against his pants.
“Alex, your hands. Let me carry it,” said Remiel.
“Don’t coddle him,” Catriel warned.
“I’m not coddling him,” Remiel replied through clenched teeth.
“It’s fine,” Alex insisted. “I’ve got it.” He picked the crate back up and held tight, ignoring his sore hands. Remiel sighed, but didn’t argue. He walked alongside Alex back to the shop.
When they arrived, the Terran healer Sophie was awake and drinking some of the tea leftover in the kettle on the table. “Hi, Remi. Hi, Alex. Who’s this?” Her smile was bright, nearly matching her wild, fiery hair. Catriel saw the unmistakable resemblance to Alex’s roommate Uzzi. There was no doubt that they were siblings.
While Alex sat the crate in the kitchen, Remiel walked over to Sophie and kissed her cheek. “He’s nobody. Ignore him.”
“Remi, don’t be rude.” Sophie swatted his chest, then approached Catriel with her hand extended. “Hi. My name is Zophiel, but you can call me Sophie.”
“It is a pleasure to meet you, Zophiel,” he said as he took his hand. “I am Catriel of the Unborn, Secondary Flight Officer in Aerial Combat Unit Six-Two.” He bowed, touching her knuckles to his forehead. “I remain humbly at the service of any healer to E’din.”
Remiel made a disgusted noise and crossed his arms over his chest. Sophie just laughed. “You don’t have to be so formal here. Any friend of Alex’s is a friend of ours.”
“He’s not Alex’s friend,” Remiel snapped. “He’s a soldier.”
Sophie ignored him. She had noticed the wounds on Catriel’s hand when he straightened and released her. “You’re injured!” she exclaimed.
“It’s nothing,” he replied, but she bustled him to a bench with the irrefutable pressure all healers seemed capable of exerting. He sat down and allowed her to examine the wounds at her leisure.
“Oh, don’t help him, Sophie, he did it to himself,” Remiel complained from across the room.
“Go help Alex with the food, Remi,” she replied, her tone firm. The bronze-skinned boy groused, but did as she asked. “These holes go all the way through. Did you really do this to yourself?”
“It was to make a point,” Catriel replied.
She glanced up, examining the vertical slashes of black through his golden eyes. “You’re funny,” she decided. “I can see why Alex likes you.”
“I doubt that.”
Sophie raised an eyebrow. A curious smile touched the corner of her mouth. “I’ve known Alex for a while. Trust me, I can tell.” She resumed her thorough examination.
When Remiel and Alex returned from the kitchen, they were each carrying platters arranged with steaming food. Fresh roasted roots and skewers of grilled fruit, all garnished with a salted nut topping, filled the trays. It smelled amazing, but it reminded Catriel of how wasteful civilians could be. All this food could have been eaten raw or boiled without the needless addition of spice. Such extravagance had no real purpose. It was like the gold sign outside the shop- a tacky symbol of luxury that only served announce monetary success. It was pointless.
“There’s none for you,” Remiel told Catriel as he placed the platter on the table. “Spies for my family don’t eat in my house.”
“You’re being very immature,” scolded Sophie. “Enough.”
“Just let him bleed, Sophie,” said Remiel. “If you want to heal someone, heal Alex.”
Sophie glanced over. “You’re hurt?”
Alex placed his platter on the table and held up his hands. “Nope. I’m fine.” He was right. His skin was fully healed. All the little dots of blood had vanished.
Catriel knew the caltrop wouldn’t actually cause any lasting damage on the boy, but he didn’t expect the marks to fade so fast. Very strange.
“If there’s not enough food, Catriel can share with me,” Alex offered.
Remiel’s brow furrowed. He was a lot more expressive than his brother, even if it was just a lack of self control. “I’m not going to make you share, Alex. Fiends. Fine. The bastard can eat with us.”
Sophie frowned a bit. “Alex, why don’t you go wake up Zak? He’ll be happy to see you.”
“Okay,” the boy chirped, then practically ran into the other room. In a second, his feet left the ground, followed quickly by an impact and a grunt as Alex landed on Zak’s sleeping body.
“Alex!” came the surprised cry once the man had any idea what was happening.
With Alex temporarily occupied, Sophie turned to Remiel. “Alright, Remi, explain what the hell is wrong with you today.”
“It’s him!” the young Ahnnak exclaimed, pointing at Catriel. “He just showed up, and he made Alex hold this spiky ball, and he said he would hurt you and Zak if I didn’t answer his questions. He’s a spy. He’s working for my brother.”
“You know Remi’s brother?” asked Sophie. She still held Catriel’s hand, her fingertips lightly tracing the thin skin covering his wounds.
Catriel raised one wing in a shrug. “He is one of my commanding officers at Esh. I have spoke to him on occasion.”
“Are you friends?”
“No,” Catriel answered quickly. “The Wing Commander and I have a purely professional relationship.”
“Wing Commander?” Remiel tilted his head. “Since when?”
“Last year, after General Laeshiel recommended him for promotion.”
Sophie wrinkled her nose. “You know that guy too?”
“Laeshiel?” Catriel asked. “Yes. We served together in the war.” Which was a fact he never shared with civilians.
“Which war?” asked Sophie.
“The War with the Jinn,” Catriel replied, the words tumbling out. What was going on?
“Are you friends with Laeshiel?” the Terran healer asked.
“And did Remiel’s family really send you to spy on him?”
Catriel jerked his hand away from the fiery girl and stood. He saw the trails of her hazy yellow energy connecting to his skin. His wings bristled as he tried to rub the invasive feeling away. “You- What have you done to me?”
Unapologetic, the girl raised her round, innocent face toward him. “I only eased your inclination to lie. It won’t harm you, and the effects will fade in an hour.”
“You used your power to manipulate me?” Catriel stepped back, keeping out of her reach. “That’s prohibited. I am of soldier of the Isten. You can’t-”
“Oh, please,” Sophie scoffed. She stood and smoothed her skirts down around her hips. “I haven’t hurt you and it’s not like I’m asking for classified secrets. I just want to know if you’re a threat to my family.”
“And if I am?”
The Terran healer, with her mane of wild, fiery hair, smiled sweetly at Catriel. “If you threaten any of the men I love again, I will turn you inside out like a wet sock.”
Without question, Catriel believed her. He nodded, not trusting himself to speak. Even in the military, there were few medics who held equal power to this girl, and she would only get stronger with practice. She wasn’t someone to cross.
No wonder Laeshiel had organized a petition to have her bloodline protected by a Guardian, even if the assignment had gone to a worthless whelp like Remiel.
Alex skipped back into the room, dragging a groggy man behind him. “Zak is awake! Can we eat now?”
Sophie turned toward them a smile. “Of course, Alex. Help yourself.”
“Don’t I get to put a shirt on first?” asked the Terran man, following behind Alex without resistance. “We have a guest.”
“Catriel doesn’t care,” said Alex. He slid onto a bench at the round table. “Right, Catriel?”
“No, it’s-” Catriel covered his mouth with a hand. In fact, he didn’t mind the view at all, but that wasn’t something he should admit. Zak was a well built young man, and his pants hung low on his hips, revealing the trail of dark hair that led lower. Catriel looked at the ceiling. “I, um… I need to step outside.” He turned and left the building before he could say something else to make a fool of himself.
The last thing Catriel saw as he hurried down the stairs was Remiel’s smug expression. From above, Zak’s concerned voice asked, “Did I do something to offend him?”
“It wasn’t you, sweetheart,” said Remiel, revealing another layer of information about the household that Catriel would have to examine later, when his head was clear. “Ignore him. Let’s eat.”
Catriel hurried into the backyard. He turned his face up and opened his wings, allowing the light drizzle to splatter against his skin and feathers. He breathed in deep and tried to clear his thoughts, though he didn’t know if it would help.
Until he regained complete control of his mind, his mission was compromised. One wrong word. That’s all it would have taken for these children’s simple, pampered lives to be put at risk. If they discovered the truth about Alex…
Catriel looked down at his injured hand. He wondered if Sophie had ever exploited her power like this over the boy. As he stared at his palm, he noticed the hazy glow at the edge of the puncture wounds. His flesh was mending back together, even as he watched. The quickened recovery was fueled by the residual healing energy trapped within him.
Just like Alex’s quick recovery.
These children were messing with forces they didn’t understand. Watching over them was going to be a nightmare.
Catriel withdrew a sharp blade from under his wing, held out his forearm, and began cutting.
There was more than one way to use up healing energy.
“Um, sir? Excuse me. I hope I’m not bothering you.” Zak stepped outside. He had a shirt on. He was also carrying a bowl of food. “I wanted to apologize for earlier, and- Oh, fiends, your arm!” The young man sat the bowl down and hurried to the soldier’s side.
Catriel flexed his fist, examining his work. “It’s fine. Tzakquiel, was it?”
“Zak, but what do you mean, ‘Fine’? You’re bleeding.”
“Yes, I am,” said Catriel, a little relieved. Long, shallow slashes covered his inner arm from wrist to elbow. The first ones, closest to his hand, were mended and sealed as if hours had passed, even if it had only been a few minutes. Further up his arm, the effects lessened, until the highest bled freely, dripping bright, crimson blood onto the mud.
“Let me help,” said Zak, but Catriel thrust one of his crisply feathered wings between them.
“I would prefer if you didn’t touch me,” said the soldier.
Zak backed up, looking a little hurt. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to offend you.”
“There’s no offense. I think I’ve just had my fill of healers for the next decade.” The soldier felt more like himself, at least, like the last remnants of the girl’s energy had finally burned out of his system.
Zak tucked his hands under his arms. “Yeah, they told me what they did. I’m really sorry about that. Zoph and Rem can be a little impulsive sometimes.”
“What is your relationship with them?” Catriel asked bluntly.
“Excuse me?” Zak’s brown eyes widened.
Catriel tried to think of how he could word it without coming off as judgmental. “My primary mission focuses on Alexiel, but there is some overlap with a request made by one of my commanders.”
“You mean Rem’s brother.”
“Yes. He did not send me to spy, but he did request that I help if Remiel finds himself in any trouble.” Catriel cleaned his dagger on his sleeve and sheathed it. He felt much better, even with the blood loss. “I was not aware of a connection between the two young Ahnnak until today, just as I was unaware of Remiel’s status as your Guardian.” He looked over at the healer, whose tight, tiny curls were collecting heavy beads of rain until the weight grew too heavy and the water dripped onto his smooth skin. “But it’s more than that, isn’t it?”
Zak bit his lip. “If Rem didn’t tell you…”
“Do you think he’s ashamed?”
“No! Of course not! I love him.” Zak’s brow furrowed. “I’m married to Zoph, and I love her, but I love Rem too. The three of us are bound together.”
A triad. That’s what Catriel suspected. “And you’re happy?”
“Immensely,” declared the Terran. “They mean everything to me.”
“Then you’ll understand that I am only here to help. I am Alexiel’s acting Guardian, but his proximity to your family allows my protections to extend here. It is my duty to keep you all safe. I am not your enemy.”
“Yeah, I understand,” said Zak. “And I can probably get those idiots upstairs to understand, too, but man, did you really have to punish Alex like that? They’re really protective of the kid.”
“Yes, I’m aware of that now. I’ll take it into consideration going forward, but I also need all of you to understand that my primary objective is to keep Alexiel alive. There will be consequences when he breaks the rules I’ve put in place to keep him safe.” Catriel shook out his wings, shedding the water that clung to his oiled feathers. “When I returned to Archridge this morning, I discovered he disappeared. I spent the entire afternoon tracking him through the streets of Marut, terrified that I would find him dead or dismembered in a gutter. I’ve never been so worried in my life.”
A slow smile crept on to Zak’s face. “Oh, I get it.”
“What?” asked Catriel, suspicious.
“It’s not just about your job. You’re fond of Alex.”
Catriel glared at the Terran healer. “My personal feelings have no place in my duties.”
“But it’s true, isn’t it? No, no, it’s fine. You don’t need to explain. I understand. There’s something special about Alex. It’s hard not to like him.” Zak walked back over to the bowl of food he placed on the ground when he first noticed all the blood. He picked it up and offered it to the soldier. “Here. I brought this for you. You’re probably hungry after chasing Alex all day.”
Catriel accepted the bowl, taking care not to touch the healer’s skin. “Thanks,” he grumbled.
“You’re welcome. Hey, do you mind if I call you Cat?”
The soldier’s feathers bristled. “Yes, I mind.”
“I was beginning to like you, Tzakquiel.”
He laughed. “Alright. Understood. Catriel it is. Do I need to add your rank when addressing you as well?”
The soldier rolled his eyes. “Catriel will be plenty.”
“Well, you’re welcome to come back in whenever you’re ready, Catriel. I promise we’ll be on our best behavior.” The healer gave a lazy salute, which would have been offensive if he’d had any military training. “I’ll leave some bandages by the door. We try not to bleed in the shop if we can help it.”
Catriel waited until after Zak returned to the house to try a bite of food from the bowl. It was a seared melon, lightly salted and glazed with a complex blend of spices. It was delicious, and Catriel decided it would be even more wasteful if he didn’t eat everything that had been offered to him.
When he was done, he stood at the back door and wrapped his arm with the strips of cloth left for him. A few of the cuts were still bleeding, but not enough to seep through the bandages. He went back upstairs, a little more cautious than before.
Zak, Sophie, and Remiel stood when he reached the top step. Alex remained seated at the table, sucking seasoning off his fingers. “Thank you for the food,” Catriel said. He sat the bowl on the table. “I think it’s time I return Alexiel to Archridge.”
“Before you go, we have something we want to say to you,” said Zak. He nudged Sophie.
She stepped forward, a little abashed. “Sorry about altering your mind without your permission,” she said apologetically.
“I’m not sorry about anything,” stated Remiel. Zak pinched his side. “Ow! Fiends, alright! I’m sorry, too. Whatever.”
Alex got up and came to Catriel’s side. “Can we come back this weekend?”
“We’ll see, Alexiel. You need to follow our rules.” He glanced at the other three children- because that was all any of them really were, just children pretending to understand the world. “But I think we’ll be able to find time to visit.”
Alex smiled. He said goodbye to his friends, then he and Catriel flew back to Archridge to establish the guidelines they would need to survive the coming years.