Refugee (Chapter 16)

The reassuring thud of the arrow hitting its mark was typically like music to her savaged spirit. She fired off another arrow. Usually target practice soothed her, but nothing could soothe her now.

"Bad mood?"

She started in surprise; she'd been so entrenched in her melancholy that she hadn't heard anyone approach. She was even more surprised to discover that it was Max. Her arm lowered, her lips parted as her heart leapt in anticipation. She hoped he had come to speak with her, to try and salvage their tattered friendship. She couldn't handle it if he had only come to reinforce his intense disapproval of her and her decisions.

"Max." Though she tried to sound as aloof as he was with her now, she heard the longing in her voice. He heard it too as he offered a small smile and ran his hand nervously through his shaggy blond hair. "I haven't seen you around."

He shrugged before stuffing his hands in his pockets. His eyes shifted nervously to the target as he started to rock on his heels. "Been busy. There's a war coming you know."

"So I've been told."

"Glad to see you're still deadly with that thing," he said glancing at her bow.

She didn't know what to say, didn't know what she expected from him. What had once been simple and easy, was horribly awkward and uncomfortable now. "Yeah."

"How have you been?"

"I've been better," she admitted unable to lie to him. "You?"

"Possible imminent death and destruction aside, I've actually been doing better."

Hope surged through her. "Really?"

His smile widened. "Yeah, really. I'm not looking forward to going back into that palace, but I am looking forward to getting some revenge."

"You're not going to do anything crazy are you?" she inquired worriedly.

"Me? Nah, I'm not angry enough for something like that anymore, but it will be nice to free some others."

"It will," Aria agreed. She wanted to ask if he would ever stop being so angry at her, but the words froze in her throat. She couldn't bring herself to utter them, mostly because she was frightened of the answer. "I'm glad you're doing better. I know it was awful for you in there."

His smile had fallen away; he was staring at the target again. "It's been an awful time for all of us recently. Hopefully that will change soon."

"Yes," she whispered, knowing it wasn't going to change for her.

"Are you happy Aria?"

If he had asked her that question four hours ago, she would have given him a resounding yes, that despite everything that was going on, she was happy. She was frightened of the future and the possibility of losing a loved one, but happy. "Yes." It was the first lie in the web she was now creating.

"That's good." He rocked back on his heels again. The awkward tension was enough to make her want to scream. "I'm sorry about what happened the last time we saw each other. I lost my temper, I never meant for that to happen."

"It's ok."

He shook his head, his forehead furrowed as his clear blue eyes turned turbulent. "It's not ok. I still feel this is a situation you shouldn't be in. That's he too old for you, too different, it's not natural…"

"Max," she whispered. Her heart ached and her body felt as if it were starting to shred into a thousand pieces. She knew they were all valid points, but to her they had never mattered before. They certainly didn't matter after the conversation she'd just had with Jack and Ashby. She couldn't stand here and listen to even more reasons why she shouldn't be with Braith, why she couldn't be with him.

He seemed to sense this as he nodded slowly. "But even so, what I did never should have happened. I could have killed you. I feel awful about it, it really made me rethink everything, made me look at what I was becoming and I didn't like that person."

"You're a good person Max. You had some terrible things happen to you, any person would be different after."

"I suppose."

"It's my fault. You were in there because of me…"

"No. I could have escaped being caught; I chose to go in there with you. I chose to let myself be captured. That's not your fault."

"But it didn't go the way you expected."

He finally looked at her again, finally met her eyes head on; finally seemed to see her for the first time in awhile. "Does anything?"

She pondered that for a moment. "No."

"I thought I'd be the one that rescued you, but then neither of us knew what Jack was, and I honestly didn't know how awful it was going to be in there, how drained I would be." He shied away from her touch as she squeezed his arm. Feeling as if she had been slapped Aria went to pull away but he seized hold of her hand. "It's not you; it's been awhile since someone touched me. I don't like being touched much since being in there."

For the first time since she had spoken with Jack, she felt something else unraveling inside of her, something strong and determined. She realized then that no matter how devastated she was, no matter how much she was going to hurt Braith, it was the right course to take. No one should have to go through what Max and countless others had been forced to go through. "What happened to you in there, it will never happen again, to anyone, if we win."

Max's smile was tremulous. "That's the only thing keeping me going."

"Max…"

"It's ok Aria." His eyes had become distant again. His fingers tightened briefly around hers before he slowly released her hand. "I've come to accept it. I can see that you love him, that he loves you. I'll move on, I didn't think I would, but there are things I never thought I would get over and I'm already starting to come to terms with them. I'll get over this too."

"You will," she assured him. "I never meant to hurt you."

"I know. You tried to tell me how you felt; I just didn't want to hear it. It's my fault too." He nodded toward the target. "How bout we forget some of this for a bit and I kick the crap out of you in some target practice."

"As if," she snorted, chuckling as she handed her bow over to him. For the first time a semblance of normalcy settled over them as he grabbed an arrow from her and stepped to the line she had created in the dirt.

***

Braith followed her laughter around the corner of the building. The sound of it caused his lips to twitch involuntarily upward. Stepping around the corner of the house, he froze at the sight of Aria standing in front of Max, smiling smugly as she handed the bow over to him. For a moment Braith was too stunned to move, and then rage tore through him. Beside him, Jack groaned.

"I thought you were watching her!" Braith snarled.

"Braith."

His brother went to grab his arm but he was already storming across the field toward them. Aria turned toward him, the smile on her mouth froze in place, apprehension flashed across her features but she remained otherwise immobile. Max dropped the bow to his side, but Braith was well aware that the boy would like nothing more than to fire one of those arrows into his heart.

Aria's paralysis broke. She grabbed hold of the bow as she stepped in front of Max. "What is going on?" he demanded, never breaking eye contact with Max. Even without the bow he was a threat.

"We're just taking target practice," she answered.

"You shouldn't be with him."

"He's my friend, Braith."

"He nearly killed you the last time you saw him."

"It was an accident. A mistake, we've talked about it."

"And that makes it better!?" he barked.

Her hands twisted on the bow. He became aware of the fact that she might also like to take a shot at him. "Yes," she grated through clenched teeth. "It does."

Max shifted nervously behind her. "I should probably go."

"Yes," Braith informed him at the same time that Aria snapped, "No."

Frustration filled him. As he reached for her, she smacked his hand away. "Aria…"

"He is my friend Braith and that's not going to change, no matter how much you disapprove." He didn't get a chance to argue further as she slammed her bow into his chest and stormed off. Jack stepped swiftly out of her way as she stalked past him, shooting him a dark look as she went.

Max stood uncertainly, looking torn between wanting to bolt, and wanting to laugh out loud. Braith glared at him. "If you hurt her again, it will be the last time."

Max nodded, an infuriating smile played at the corners of his mouth. Braith fought the urge to punch him but the boy hadn't done anything wrong, at least not yet. He didn't trust him though, not for one minute. In fact he thought the best thing would be for Max to leave and never return, but unless Max made that choice himself, or unless he did something to Aria again, it looked like that wouldn't happen anytime soon. Max was important in the cause, and for some unfathomable reason, Aria cared for him.

Braith turned away from him and moved swiftly into the house. She was in the room they had shared last night. She looked exhausted and worn, far more so than the encounter outside should have made her. He was bewildered by the distressed look on her face, the dark circles that marred her beautiful blue eyes.

"Did he do or say something to upset you?"

"No," she answered tiredly. "He apologized, and then he tried to help mend our friendship. I miss him Braith, I know what happened before but we were once good friends. I wouldn't have survived after I left the palace if it wasn't for Max. I was heartbroken and he helped to ease some of that."

Braith didn't like to think about that time, it hadn't been easy for either of them. "He's in love with you."

Tears shimmered in her eyes. "Maybe then, but he's accepted that I don't feel the same way about him, and he's trying to move on. He may not approve but he knows that I love you."

"I don't approve of him either."

"I wish you would learn to get along. Max was an important part of my life, and I would like to have him back in it. I'm not foolish enough to believe it can ever be the same, but I'd like to at least see the two of you come to some sort of understanding with each other."

"And if he hurts you again?"

"He won't."

"But if he does?"

A single tear slid free. "I'll stay away from him then."

"He almost killed you last time."

"Braith stop! It was an accident, a mistake. I will never know what happened to him in that palace. I was lucky that you stepped forward to take me from that other vampire." Braith's hands fisted, his muscles locked as he recalled the bastard that had almost owned her. "I can only guess at what was done to Max. You especially should know it couldn't have been easy or pleasant."

"That's not fair."

"Nothing is fair!" She practically screamed the words at him. He was startled by the ferocity of her reaction, the devastation that radiated from her; the tears that suddenly burst free and streamed down her face. He'd seen her cry before but he'd never seen this level of emotion over something he hadn't even realized was bothering her so much. She was almost irrational, something that she never was.

"I didn't realize this was upsetting you so much." He told her as she dropped her head into her hands. Her shoulders shook as she sobbed quietly. Her cries only increased when he wrapped his arms around her, pulling her against him. Desperation radiated from her as her fingers dug into his back. "Arianna…"

"I'm sorry," she sobbed. "I'm so sorry."

He was unbelievably confused. He'd been around irrational women before, not for long because he usually left them behind if it happened, but this was Aria. His unbelievably proud and fierce Aria was sobbing uncontrollably for some reason that he couldn't even begin to fathom. Her exhaustion must be getting to her, a fact that was evident in her pale face and shadowed eyes.

"For what?" he demanded, frightened and uncertain of what her answer would be.

She shook her head, seemingly unable to speak through her tears. He grabbed hold of her cheeks, pulling her face from his chest. "What are you sorry for?"

"I just…" she broke off, swallowing heavily as she tried to suppress her tears. "I just know how much you don't trust him, and I know I frightened you today. I didn't mean to."

It was true, but it didn't warrant this. "Don't cry Arianna, it's ok."

Absurdly, she began to cry more. He pulled her back against him, rocking her as she buried her face in his chest again. A large sob escaped her; she bit on her lip hard enough to draw blood which he scented in the air almost immediately.

"Braith?" Jack's voice interrupted.

Closing his eyes, he suppressed a groan as he turned her, making sure she was hidden from the doorway, and Jack. "Go away."

"Braith, it's time to redo the vote."

"Can't it wait?" he demanded.

"It's fine." Aria pulled away from him, she wiped at her eyes as she took a step back. She wouldn't meet his gaze, or Jack's, as she focused on the far wall.

"Aria…"

"I'm fine Braith. I'm just worn out, it's been a grueling road to get here and it's catching up with me now. I'll be fine after a good night of sleep." He was torn. He didn't want to leave her, not while she seemed so overcome with emotion. "Go. Go on. Give me a minute to wash up and I'll be down."

"Are you sure you're ok?"

She smiled tremulously. "Fine."

Reluctantly, he left her behind as he joined his brother in the doorway. Jack's jaw was locked, his gaze worried as he looked to Aria. She didn't look at either of them as she turned to the pitcher on the old nightstand and poured some water into a bowl.

***

Aria slipped one of the gray cloaks around her shoulders pulling the hood up before sneaking silently out of the house. She knew she wouldn't make it far before Braith realized she wasn't there, but luckily Gideon had taken up residence only two doors away. She was shaking, trembling with trepidation as she moved swiftly through the shadows.

This was the path she had always thought she would take, the path that would lead to an early death. She had not chosen this path but rather, it had chosen her. She hoped that Jack was right, that they could somehow dilute Braith's blood in her system. It would not be a happy life without him, but as miserable as she would be, and even if she wasn't with him, she was also excited to see how everything would turn out. She was eager to see what Braith would do as a leader, the changes he would make. She knew they would be good changes and it would be a good world for those under his leadership.

All she needed to do was focus on the people whose lives would be saved as a result of her choices. Lives that would be far better than anything she had experienced. Braith would be good, he would be kind, and he would be fair. She was willing to do everything she could to see this terrible situation through, including going to Gideon now. Hopefully Braith would eventually find a way to forgive her and move on. The possibility that he never would nearly broke her.

If Jack was wrong about being able to dilute Braith's blood with another vampire's, than there was only one solution, and she was certain Jack would never be willing to carry it out. Jack would not allow her to be harmed, and he most certainly would not be the one to do it.

Gideon would understand though, and though he wasn't a bad man, she felt he would have no qualms about being the one to end her life in order to ensure peace. Swallowing heavily, gathering her waning courage, Aria took a deep breath, twisted the knob and slid silently into Gideon's temporary house. He was in the study, the shadows and planes of his face were highlighted by the candle before him. He looked up at her as she entered.

He didn't seem surprised to see her as she slid the hood of her cloak back. "I spoke with Jack and Ashby."

Gideon froze for a moment, his hand curled around the pen he was holding. "I see."

She was silent as she gathered her courage to speak. Once she uttered these words she would never be able to take them back. "I understand what needs to be done."

Gideon placed his pen down. "You do?"

For a brief moment tears shimmered in her eyes before she blinked them back, thrust out her chin and nodded firmly. "I do."

"He cannot know about this."

"He never will."

Gideon appeared lost in thought for a moment. "Your relationship cannot progress."

She flinched; did everyone know their business? For a moment she thought her composure would crumble. "It won't" she whispered.

Aria remained silent, watchful as the flame flickered over Gideon's features. What was she doing here? The right thing or at least that's what she told herself. But was it really the right thing? She was betraying Braith; she was going behind his back and plotting something that would devastate him. This was right on so many levels, but it was wrong on so many others. Guilt tugged at her heart, perhaps if she went to Braith…

She broke the thought off. He would never agree to let her go. He would never listen to reason. Jack was right, if she went to Braith and told him everything, he would take her and leave here tonight. There were so many things she loved about him; his determination, his stubbornness, and his love for her were among the things she loved most. Unfortunately, those three things completely worked against all of them right now. This was wrong, she would hate herself forever because of it, but she could live with that as long as this all worked out and Braith was able to establish the world she knew he could.

She turned away from Gideon, but her step was not so sure or as silent as she made her way to the door. "You know what this may mean for you?"

She stopped in the doorway, her head turned back as she studied him over her shoulder. "If we are unable to dilute his blood in me my death may be the only solution to separating us for good."

"And you accept this?"

"It's what I came to you for," she breathed half fearful he would tell her no; half fearful he would refuse to be the one to do it. She'd taken a risk coming to him for this; it could all backfire on her.

"No one else can know about this." There it was then, the deal had been struck. If another vampire's blood, and distance, did not break Braith's ability to track her they both understood what would have to happen.

She would die, and Gideon would be the one to do it.

"They won't," she vowed.