GhostsMature

Chapter Thirteen
Atlas + Phaedos, by rhetoric
Word Count: 1,741 

Safely returned to Finneous’ hotel, Atlas sat upon the plush recliner in the living room.  Getting Elseron to allow her some time to herself after the incident had been one of the hardest things she thought she had ever had to do; it had been as if she had been forced to pry him from her physically.  In the aftermath, Caliope had prepared her some tea and Atlas clung to the ceramic mug with her fingers, desperate for the warmth and comfort it brought her.  Half an hour went by before she took a sip.  Caliope had long departed, leaving Atlas alone in the large common room.

She attempted to keep her mind blank; but as her father had once told her, trying not to think about ghosts is the best way to obsess over ghosts.  Despite her best attempts, her thoughts raced with a violent speed.  It was not the thinking that she found difficult – not even the problem solving, simply the weight of the thoughts.  She wondered what the collective weight of the entirety of Atlantis was, but she was certain she was familiar with the burden even if she could not name it.  She felt it upon her shoulders.

“Your highness?”  She recognized the voice immediately and had to consciously keep her fingers clamped around the cup.  She tried to smile warmly at him, to cover up that she’d been startled, and to hide behind a mask of platonic ease.

“Phaedos,” she said, “good evening.”

He held another mug of tea in his hand and she wondered how long he had been standing there.  She paused then, realizing the time it had to have taken him to make tea, and hesitated to acknowledge that she had not heard him in the adjacent kitchen.  His hand stretched the mug out to her and she got the feeling it was not the first time he had done so.

“I thought you might like a warmer cup of tea,” he said, his tone gentle and low.

She set the mug on the table in front of her and accepted the new one, though she wasn’t entirely certain she really wanted any at all.  Her first cup sat mostly unattended, after all.  She took a sip to keep from appearing rude, and the heated liquid rushed to fill her veins.  It was not the same tea that Caliope had made for her, and the flavor was intriguing.  A hint of spice lingered in the back of her throat.

“This is wonderful tea,” she said, as if to herself; her voice a soft murmur that barely disturbed the silence.

“It is my own blend,” he answered, still standing a few feet from the recliner.  He shifted, almost uncomfortably, and she glanced up to him.

“Why don’t you have a seat, Phaedos?  Perhaps we can talk.”

His eyes hesitated on hers for a moment before he obliged.  “As you like,” he said, stopping himself before he continued to call her ‘majesty.’ 

“Tell me, Phaedos, how do you feel about your world?”  She wasn’t certain what made her so blunt, but the question burst from her lips as if it had been there all along, hanging by a thread.

His eyes moved to her quickly, a little taken aback by the forwardness of her curiosity.  “I try not to,” was his only response.

Curious, she thought, and leaned back against the cushion.  She crossed her legs and allowed her foot to rock gently in the air.  She sipped her tea.  “Why would you wish to not think about your world?”

He was not certain where this conversation was going, but there was a darkness to her eyes that seemed foreign, even to him.  He wanted it to leave, for the brightness to return – he wanted it in a selfish, desperate way that he didn’t recognize.  “Because my world is not a good one, my Queen.”

He didn’t realize his words until they had already perforated the air between them.  If she took notice, she gave no inclination.

“Do you think your world simply needs time to change?  To become a decent, thriving civilization?”

He thought to himself, ‘what on earth are these questions about?’  Out loud, he said, “No, I do not.”

“Thank you, Phaedos,” she said.  He was struck with the notion that she had not thanked many people in her life, that the distinction of being among those few was more of a moment of pride than any of his time in the department.  She continued, “You’ve been most helpful.”

“I am glad I could be of service, Atlas,” he said, careful to enunciate her name so that the sound of it vibrated on his tongue longer than the others.  He let a pause fill the room for a long time as she sipped her tea, apparently lost in her own thoughts.  “I heard about the events of this evening,” he started, glancing down to the floor so her honey eyes couldn’t pick the words from his mouth before he got them out.  “I know you already have a guardian, I know we have only known each other a matter of hours, but I would very much like for you to consider allowing me the honor of protecting you.”  As a last minute thought, he added, “I have no other obligations, so I could travel wherever you need to go.”

It was the first moment in her life where she felt the full responsibility of making a decision that would alter her safety in the future.  Every other moment in her life had been handled until then; Elseron had made certain she never needed anyone else – but could he protect her in this world?  She knew he could; of course he could, she thought, but should he have to do it alone?

She smiled at Phaedos and felt a strange sense of calm.  “I appreciate your offer, Phaedos; would you mind greatly if I took a little time to decide?”

The answer, as she had expected, was as easy and comfortable as his presence.  “Of course, your highness, take all the time you need.  The offer will remain on the table until you make it clear it is unwanted.”

*

“Why so soon, Princess?  Haven’t you had enough for one day?” 

Elseron’s voice was gentle but she shook her head as if he’d argued with her, adamant and almost childlike in her insistence.  “We have to go, Elseron; I don’t know why, I cannot explain it – but I know we must.”

He studied her face solemnly and she met his gaze, standing her ground and allowing the wellspring of stubborn determination inside of her to spring forth and gleam in her eyes.  “We must?”

“Yes, it is very important that we go,” she said, pausing for an instant before adding, “Right now.”

His fingers played against the blade of his axe idly; whether he was aware of it or not, she was not sure.  “All right, my Princess,” he answered, his words slow as if he expected her to change her mind any moment.  “We shall go.”

It was raining when they made their way out onto the street.  She was glad she’d pulled the forest-green hood up over her head; the raindrops hit the street with fat, explosive plops.  Puddles formed in the tiniest dips and crevices of the pavement.  She stepped over them delicately, her arm looped through Elseron’s – though gently, taking care not to cause his knife-wound any pain.  It didn’t matter to her that he’d already healed most of it.  She kept her head down.

They strolled in amiable silence through the darkened, wet streets.  The streetlamps glowed every few yards; she monitored how far they’d gone by counting the number of times the light faded into shadows before growing brighter once again.

They heard the footsteps trailing them simultaneously; she could feel his awareness in the sudden tension of his arm.  She kept her posture slack, uncertain of the perceptive skills of their stalker but unwilling to make the mistake of giving herself away.  Something that felt like a distant cousin to fear began to creep up her spine.  With a hint of panic, she wondered if it had been wise to go out again.  The city they were in seemed a dangerous place, more dangerous, she thought, than even Elseron could know.  She could feel the darkness of the residents in the air, pressing down on her like heavy shadows.  She tried to shake off the strange thoughts.

The sounds that erupted around her were terrifying.  She didn’t have time to turn, to see what was lurking behind her – or more accurately, whom – before she felt Elseron shove her to the side.  Her footing was quick and she caught her stride almost instantly. 

Elseron’s voice was a crack of thunder on a cloudless night – louder than anything she’d ever known, more forceful and compelling than she’d ever heard him.  He said, his ghostly blue eyes bright with adrenalin and fury, “Run, Atlas!”

Running was something she was good at, she told herself with only a hint of bitterness; she could run for hours if she needed to.  She didn’t argue – not with the hard, frightening way his jaw was set, not with the dangerous, unnerving glint to his eyes.  She swallowed down the sudden, overwhelming urge to protect him and ran.  Her feet hit the pavement with rhythmic, controlled slaps as she bolted down the street.  She wanted to look back, to put an action and an object to the sounds she could hear behind her, but she knew better.

She wasn’t ready to see what was going on behind her.

She turned a corner suddenly, hoping to throw off anyone that may have been monitoring her direction, and crashed into something firm and dense.  Someone grunted and, before she even realized she was falling backward, locked strong fingers around her arms to keep her upright.

She looked up, her breath coming in laborious gasps, and met a pair of dazzling sapphire blue eyes.  He swung her around behind him so he could peer around the corner, his motions faster and more controlled than she’d expected.  She didn’t pause to note exactly how unexpected they were.  His arm twisted backward, curling around her to keep her tightly against his spine, and she could hear his heartbeat thudding against her cheek.

“You’ve found trouble again, Atlas,” Phaedos said.

The End

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