Refugee (Chapter 13)

After eight days Aria was exhausted, aching and feeling a little disheartened. She was also in desperate need of a blessed shower, or at the very least a bath. Her hair was a matted mess she wasn't certain she'd ever be able to untangle, and she had more mosquito bites than hairs on her head. She loved her woods but despised this area of hell they had wandered into.

She'd never ventured into the swamplands before, and she couldn't believe her father had chosen this part of the forest to take refuge in. She would like nothing more than to find him and escape as swiftly as possible from this land of muck and filth. Her feet were blistered and her shoes hadn't been dry in three days. Yet they trudged endlessly onward through acres of dirty water. Ashby had given up complaining, but Gideon had taken to muttering about how he wished he killed humans. Xavier remained blessedly silent, though he grimaced often.

She could handle the mud and dirt, it wouldn't last forever, and she'd been filthy plenty of times in her life, but the smell… The smell was enough to make her want to vomit, and it had definitely induced more than her fair share of gagging. She couldn't get away from it and it twisted her stomach in ways that she had never thought possible. But then again, that could also be the incessant hunger that was tearing at her. She'd only planned on seven days of supplies; she had realized three days ago she should probably start rationing her food. She was growing increasingly hungry and she was beginning to agree with Gideon's craving to kill something.

Braith was becoming steadily agitated. Then again, they were all becoming short tempered and frustrated. He'd carried her more than a few times but she didn't want to seem weak in front of the other three, so she insisted upon walking most of the time.

The suction from the thick mud caused her feet to make a loud popping sound as she stepped onto solid ground. A dying pine lifted its branches to the fading light and she tilted her head back to peer into it. Light refracted off of something within the branches. Heaving a tired breath, Aria's shoulders slumped wearily.

Braith grabbed hold of her arm as she grasped the scratchy bottom limb. "Are you ok to do this?" he demanded gruffly. She managed a small nod and a smile. "I'll go…"

"It won't hold your weight and you don't know what to look for once you're up there."

"Something shiny."

"Yeah, something shiny," she agreed tiredly. "Which none of us will see if the tree collapses beneath your weight."

Thankfully, despite his foul mood, reason prevailed as he released her arm. She was slower getting up the tree, the blisters on her feet along with her weighted clothing and shoes made it difficult to move as freely as she normally did. Her hand curled around the piece of tin hanging from a thin line. She lifted herself further up, bracing herself as she stared over the treetops. Relief shot through her as she spotted the next marker only a mile away.

Pulling the piece of tin free, she made her way slowly back down the tree. "About another mile."

"How long is this going to continue?" Gideon demanded.

Aria shrugged as she wiped the matted hair from her forehead. "I don't know. Hopefully we'll get there soon."

Her head was beginning to pound, her stomach rumbled. Braith cursed as he pulled her pack from his back and tugged it open. Rummaging inside he pulled out her meager assortment of supplies. He shoved some dried meat, a canister of water, and a bag of nuts into her hands.

"Eat."

Saliva rushed into her mouth, the rumbling in her stomach increased. Her hands were shaking. "I have to ration the supplies, I can't eat…"

"I'll find you more food."

The swamp was vast and imposing but so far they hadn't encountered much wildlife, and there were few plants she was certain she could eat as she was unfamiliar with this area. She'd seen what could happen to a person when they ate something they shouldn't, and though they had survived it, they'd been sick for a week. Besides, she wasn't the only one going hungry right now.

"Braith…"

His hands enfolded hers, holding her tight. "Eat." She strived to stick to what she knew was right.

In the end, hunger won out. Shaking a little she broke off a piece of meat and lifted it to her mouth. Braith's shoulders fell in relief. "We'll make camp here for the night."

Aria watched as the four of them moved around, establishing a small camp. She wiped the salt from her fingers and took a sip of lukewarm water. They conferred with each other, but Aria wasn't paying much attention as she chewed slowly on the nuts, savoring each bite as she tried to make them last.

"I'll be back."

Aria blinked up at Braith in surprise. "Back?"

"I'm going to search for some food. Ashby and Gideon will stay with you. You'll be safe."

"I know."

Kissing her tenderly, his fingers lingered briefly on her cheek before he reluctantly released her. She munched on the rest of her nuts as she watched Xavier and Braith head back into the swamp. There weren't as many places here to hide and find shelter, but they soon disappeared from view behind some high grass and rotten trees.

Finishing off her nuts Aria wiped her hands on her filthy pants and turned her attention to the pack Braith had left behind. She didn't speak with Ashby or Gideon as she pulled out a pair of lightweight pants that were dirty, but nowhere near as dirty as the ones she wore now. "I'll be back."

They didn't try to stop her as she slipped away in search of a place that would offer her at least a little privacy. She found a spot behind a drooping willow with its branches dangling into the water of the swamp. She cleaned the muck from her filthy pants before slipping her other pants back on. Remaining blessedly barefoot she made her way back to the camp with water to boil.

Gideon and Ashby were sitting by the pine; Gideon was leaning tiredly against it as he watched her from under hooded eyes. Ashby looked haggard, even when he had been exiled to a life of solitude and deprivation he'd never had to endure this kind of hardship. He was not prepared for it, and it was more than apparent that he didn't like it. Making a small fire, she heated the water and retreated back to the willow to wash her body the best she could before returning.

Aria settled onto the blanket. She didn't think she'd ever been this bone weary and exhausted. She meant to stay awake until Braith returned but when she laid down on the blanket, exhaustion won out. It was dark when she woke again. Braith's arms tensed around her as she attempted to sit up.

A sigh of relief escaped her as she rolled onto her back. She didn't know when he'd returned but he was nestled against her, his broad chest pressed against her side, his arms wrapped around her. The numerous stars were bright in the vast night sky. She'd never seen anything like it before. The trees blocked the stars in the forest, the light reflected them in the palace, and she hadn't bothered to take the time to look while in the desert.

Now she stared up at them, awed and fascinated by the seemingly endless sky. "Shouldn't you be asleep?"

"It's beautiful," she breathed.

He remained unmoving for a long moment before turning onto his back also. His fingers found hers, entwining firmly as he pulled her against him. "It is."

She rested her head on his chest, unable to take her eyes from the sky as the moon began to poke its head over the horizon. It was nearly full and the color of blood. Aria shuddered; it seemed a bad omen to her. Braith ran his hand nimbly up and down her spine, causing goose bumps to appear on her skin as he pushed the edge of her shirt up and his fingers found bare skin.

Her eyes drifted closed as pleasure swamped her. She pushed at the edge of his shirt, eager to feel his own bare skin beneath her touch as she melded against him. Her hand splayed against his firm stomach and she was suddenly consumed with the need to feel more as she stroked over the solid flesh of his chest.

His mouth was soft, tender against her cheek, then her ear, and finally her lips. Heat spread through her, she couldn't hear anything over the rush of blood in her ears. He pushed her back, leveling himself slowly over her as he pressed her into the spongy ground. He clasped hold of her face as he kissed her with a reverence that left her breathless.

She couldn't think straight. He encompassed all of her senses as his hand enclosed her breast. A gasp escaped, something inside of her seemed to snap as her fingers dug into his firm back and she pressed closer to him. She was lost in a sea of need. He was so strong and powerful and yet he touched her with a tenderness that was humbling and shook her to her very core.

His arm wrapped around her waist, he lifted her as he pulled her against him, and leveled himself more firmly between her legs. The buttons of her shirt had come undone; he bent to press tender kisses against her chest. His dark hair blended in with the night surrounding them, but the light of the moon highlighted the planes of his face. She couldn't get enough of watching him as he moved over her. She dimly thought that perhaps she should stop this, they'd never gone this far, but then she realized she didn't want to. She wanted this; she wanted him, more than she had ever wanted anything in her life.

He was back over her, his mouth claiming hers as she shook and trembled, and clung to him as pleasure swamped her. Heat flooded her; she was unfamiliar with the sensations coursing through her body as she grasped his solid biceps and tried to keep from completely falling apart. Everything was right in his arms. Right now, in this moment, there was no fear but only the love they shared.

And then Gideon released a snort. Braith froze above her, his mouth stilled upon hers as his head slowly came up. His bright gray eyes latched onto hers, burning with excitement and frustration. She was torn between longing to continue, and the reality that they were not alone.

In the end, it was Braith that made the decision. His hands trembled as he buttoned her pants and shirt back into place. A sense of loss filled her as he slowly moved off of her. A muscle ticked in his cheek as he pulled her against his side, pressing a gentle kiss to her temple as he lay next to her.

"I lost my head; I shouldn't have let it go so far. I tend to lose myself in you."

She thrilled at the admission. "I wish it had gone farther," she confessed.

He chuckled as he nuzzled her hair. "Do you know the constellations?" She shook her head as she turned her attention to the brilliant sky above them. She struggled to ignore the yearning that still thrummed through her body, but a deep ache remained. "That one, with the three stars at the end, and the four grouped together like a cup is the Big Dipper." Aria settled against him, comforted by the deep timbre of his voice as he pointed out the different constellations.

***

"Dad!" Aria squealed in delight as she raced across the clearing to the man standing in the middle of it. David's face came alive with pleasure; his smile lit his features as he braced himself for the impact of her body. He grasped hold of his daughter, laughing happily as he enfolded her in a big hug and spun her around.

Braith warily eyed the people surrounding them as he made his way forward. He wanted to grab Aria from her father, pull her back, nestle her at his side where she belonged, but he fought the urge as her father placed her down and cradled her cheeks with the palm of his hands. The humans studied him, shifting uncomfortably as they whispered among themselves. These were not the humans of The Barrens. These humans had been abused and terrorized by vampires. They knew only fear toward his kind.

"Are you ok?" Aria's father demanded.

"I'm fine," she replied with a brilliant grin that eased the knot in Braith's chest. He wanted her back, but her happiness was far more important at the moment.

"Where's William?" David asked worriedly when he realized his youngest son was not present.

"It was too tricky to move everyone through the forest, immortal or no, they're unbelievably loud," she informed him with a mischievous smile. "William stayed in the caves with them." David's hands tensed briefly on her face. "He'll be fine dad, I promise. We've been with them for awhile now."

Her father's gaze flickered toward him. Braith knew David disapproved of their relationship but he didn't care. The man was not going to tear them apart. "I see."

"Hellion!"

She released her father as her brother Daniel broke free of the crowd. "Daniel!"

She was laughing as she threw herself into his arms. Braith bristled, his fingers twitched as his jaw clenched. It was her brother, he reminded himself fiercely. Even so, it took everything he had not to pull her away from the slender man hugging her. Unlike his siblings, Daniel's hair was wheat colored but while he didn't share their coloring, he did have the same bright blue eyes that William and Aria possessed.

"Dear Lord you stink!" Daniel blurted.

Aria laughed loudly as she took a step back from him. "We've been wandering through swampland for the past three days."

"That would do it," Daniel agreed.

"I'm sure you're eager to clean up." Though her father said the words to her, his gaze was intent upon Braith.

"Very much so," Ashby agreed.

There was a shifting among the humans, and then Max stepped forward. Anger surged through Braith. Hope spread over Aria's face and lit her eyes as she took a small step toward him. Max held her gaze for a weighted moment before he turned and disappeared into the crowd.

Aria's shoulders slumped as despair settled over her. No matter how much he didn't want her near Max, he hated to see her upset in any way. He would like to shake some sense into the selfish bastard, wanted to kill Max for making that crestfallen look appear on her face. Daniel watched him warily as Braith stepped forward, his arm brushing against hers as he offered as much comfort as he could right now. Aria turned to him; tears burned briefly in her eyes before she blinked them back and forced a smile.

"Perhaps we can go somewhere a little more private," Braith suggested.

"Yes, of course," Daniel said. "This is one of the few areas in the swamps that aren't just water and mud. It's not very hospitable but there are some homes here and we've erected temporary shelters."

The crowd parted as Aria's father led them down the street of the small town they had taken residence in. David led them into the ramshackle remains of a small house. Braith watched Aria carefully as she picked her way over some broken boards. He was braced to grab her if they happened to give out. David stopped to speak with a few younger men before leading them into what remained of the living room.

"Is there a lake around here?" Aria asked.

"Yes, but I've instructed them to heat water for a bath." Her face lit, joy spread over her as she looked eagerly at Braith. "For all of you." Braith felt almost as excited as she looked. "I thought you would prefer to talk after you were clean."

"I sure would," Ashby agreed eagerly as Jack entered the room. "Look at what the cat drug in!"

Jack's nose wrinkled. "I'd say the cat mauled you and hauled you through sewage from the smell and look of the five of you."

"And feel."

Jack grinned; he grasped Braith's hand firmly as he clapped him on the arm. "Good to see you brother."

"You also." Jack released him; his smile grew as his gaze raked Gideon's miserable, filthy form. "Well now, this is a pleasant treat."

"Wish I could say the same," Gideon retorted.

Jack laughed loudly as he shook Gideon's hand and then Xavier's. "Long time no see."

Xavier simply bowed his head briefly in response. Braith stood stiffly, immobile as he watched three young men carry in five separate wooden tubs. It took almost a half an hour before enough water was brought in to fill them. Aria remained by her brother and father, the brilliant smile never left her face as they talked.

"Go on," David urged her when the last of the water was brought in.

Braith was aware of the fact that four of the tubs had been taken into one room, while the other had been kept separate. Aria looked at him as he took a step toward her. "Wait," David said sharply.

Braith's hands fisted at his side. He could control his need to pull her away from them but he wasn't going to leave her alone and vulnerable while she bathed. He didn't trust most of these people, and he sure as hell didn't trust Max. The boy was lurking around here somewhere and he'd almost killed her once.

"Not alone," Braith growled.

David looked as if the top of his head was going to blow off. Braith stepped closer to her, pressing against her arm. "Its fine dad," Aria assured him. "It's not what you think. He won't even be in the room."

"She's not going in there alone."

"Aria is perfectly capable of taking care of herself!" David snapped.

"I know she is, and she's also perfectly capable of getting herself into trouble." Aria shot Daniel a dark look as he guffawed loudly. "I don't trust these people. I don't trust Max. Whether you like it or not, she is not going in there without me to stand guard."

"Braith!" Aria hissed as her father's eyes narrowed in rage.

"Who the hell do you think you are!?" David demanded.

"Hers." The simple, startling answer knocked some of the anger from David. Daniel's mouth dropped as Ashby shook his head. Xavier watched intently and Gideon simply strolled out of the room toward the other tubs. Jack dropped his head into his hands and began to massage his temples. "And she is mine." He touched her arm gently, nudging her toward the backroom. She hesitated, seemingly torn as she gazed from him to her father and back again.

David didn't protest anymore, but his jaw was clenched in displeasure as his gaze bored into Braith's back. The room they had brought the tub into was small with a single window in the back. Braith closed the shutters, locking them into place before turning back to her. Steam rose from the tub, a small sliver of soap had been set on the floor on top of some towels and clean clothes.

"A little diplomacy goes a long way," she murmured.

"They have to understand…"

"He's my father Braith. I know you don't understand what that means, not in the same way that I do, but he loves me. I'm his little girl. This is hard for him, it's hard for Daniel and William, but it's especially hard for my father." She was right, he didn't understand that. "You need to be nicer, and more patient." She tilted her head, peering up at him as she smiled faintly. "Do you think you can do that?"

He grasped hold of the collar of her shirt and pulled her closer. "I can try, for you."

"Just for me?"

He grinned. "I sure wouldn't do it for anyone else."

She laughed as he began to slide the buttons of her shirt free. He slipped it from her shoulders and tugged it from her arms. He touched her shoulders briefly and turned away before he couldn't. He listened as the rest of her clothes fell away before she slid into the tub with a groan of pleasure. It was excruciating torture. His teeth grated, he stepped into the doorway, leaning against it as he fought the urge to turn around and go back in there.

His body was so taught with strain from not looking that he didn't know she had approached until he felt her fingers slip between his own. He relished the supple feel of her skin against his as he pulled her against his chest and held her close.