X remained focused on Solo. “I won’t know how to handle things until I reach her, but I will do something. All I need is your permission.”
“Don’t do this, Solo. Please.”
“X,” he whispered. “Do it.”
“No! Don’t be an idiot,” Dr. E said with a sharp shake of his head.
“What, exactly, do you want me to do?” X insisted, still ignoring Dr. E. “Be specific.”
How well he knew the importance of words. “I want you to—”
“No,” Dr. E interjected harshly. “Are you kidding me with this?”
“Save her,” Solo finished. “However necessary, whatever the cost to me, save her.”
“Consider it done.” A grinning X vanished.
“Idiot!” Dr. E shouted, stomping his foot. “Do you have any idea what you’ve done?”
Yes. He did. He’d turned to the only avenue available to him, trusting in a power greater than himself. And he couldn’t allow himself to worry about the outcome. Something he’d noticed over the years: worry always weakened X further, and strengthened Dr. E.
Solo glanced at the tiny man who so often fueled his rages, no longer surprised to find his skin devoid of color. “Go away.”
“You cannot . . . how dare you . . . Oh!” Dr. E vanished too.
“Hey, no fair, I smell food,” Criss said, drawing his attention to the cages.
Good. He couldn’t allow himself to think about Vika, and a distraction had just presented itself. “Your nose is working correctly. I have food.” Delivered by Vika.
When would that fact cease to shock him?
Criss stretched her arm through the bars and waved her fingers at him. “Share with me. I haven’t eaten in days.”
“That’s your own fault. You wasted what you were given.”
“For a good cause!”
Was that so?
He opened the bag. The corners of several of the biscuits had crumbled off, and the crisp bacon had broken into multiple pieces. His mouth watered and his stomach rumbled. “You want half?” he asked, taking a section of a biscuit and a quarter of a bacon slice and tossing them at her.
First rule of fishing: Use the proper bait.
She caught the pieces with surprising grace and, with a speed his gaze struggled to track, stuffed both portions into her mouth as if she feared someone would try and take them away from her. Her eyes closed as she savored the food, her skin brightening . . . radiating a pearls-in-sunlight sheen . . . making his eyes tear with its radiance.
When her eyelids popped open, her eyes were the same bright shade. “More,” she said in a deep, throaty voice.
“Why will you take food from me and not from Vika?”
“I don’t want to give her the satisfaction of watching me beg for every scrap.”
“She offers freely.”
A growl from Criss.
“Are you a fan of honey?” he asked.
“Honey? Give me!”
Caught you. “I will . . . after you vow never to harm Vika again.”
“Sure, sure. Now give me.”
“You will vow not to hurt her with words, food, rocks, or anything else, and I will give you half of the bag’s contents.”
Dr. E made another appearance. There was a fresh cut on his cheek, and his robe was torn. His shoulders were stooped, as though his head was too heavy to hold up. “Now you’re going too far. That food is yours. You need to keep your strength up.”
His? Or Dr. E’s?
“The otherworlder has gone without nourishment far longer than Solo has,” X suddenly said, causing Solo’s attention to whip to him. “It’s only right that he share.”
His robe had a single singe mark, just over his heart, and his skin was pale, lines of strain branching from his eyes, but he was grinning just as happily as before.
“And haven’t you heard?” X added. “It’s far better to give than to receive.”
“The girl?” he whispered.
Satisfaction radiated from the being. “She is safe.”
“How?” He’d heard nothing, and so little time had passed.
“Darkness cannot remain in the light.”
He wasn’t sure what that meant in terms of Vika’s safety, but allowed the subject to drop. Vika was safe. That was all that mattered.
“So you got a crush on our keeper, do you? I thought so,” Criss said. “Well, the romantic in me approves. It’s a real beauty-and-the-beast-type story, and I’m in! When my brothers come to get me, and they will, I’ll make sure I only kill Vika a little bit so that there’s something left for you to have as a souvenir. I vow it. You’re welcome. Now, please. Give me the honey!”
Somehow, he managed to maintain a blank expression. He wouldn’t discuss his feelings for Vika—whatever they were—and he wouldn’t allow himself to react to being called a beast while there was nothing he could do about it. However, he knew how to keep score. That was strike two for Criss. At three . . . poor dead girl.
That’s what everyone would call her.
“Not good enough,” he said. “Vow what I demanded.” He pretended to bite into half of a biscuit. “Otherwise, you get nothing.”
“Okay, okay,” she rushed out. “I vow it. I won’t harm her again. Ever. With anything.”
A moment passed, and her entire body shook as though hooked to an electric generator. Her spine jerked into total alignment, going ramrod straight. “What was that?”
“A reminder that you will not like the consequences of breaking your word,” he warned.
She popped her jaw. “You’re a tricky Jolly Red Giant, aren’t you? Well, that’s okay as long as you give me the rest of what you promised.” Those long, elegant fingers waved with more vigor.
He tossed her the portion. Just as before, she caught the food and devoured every morsel.
“Can’t you do anything right today? If you wanted to share with her, fine, but you should have made her work for it,” Dr. E griped. “And by ‘it’ I mean half of the smallest biscuit, not half of the entire bag.”
Sighing with contentment, Criss lay back in her cage, a rare gem in a sea of dull stones.
His life would have been easier if he’d speculated about Criss all night. Instead, it was Vika he was drawn to, Vika he wanted to talk to, Vika he wanted to learn about and . . . Vika he wanted to save, even from himself. His hands curled into fists. She was his ticket out of here. He had to do whatever was necessary, even to her.