Chapter One Hundred Fifty Four
Eden/Pilot; Phaedos/Elseron; Phaedos/Atlas
Word Count: 2,042
The door to their chambers opened with a whisper of air. Pilot closed the historical account propped in his open hand and set it on the table beside his chair. Eden swept into the room with the same grace she always had but his breath vanished from his lungs at the sight of her. Lips curling in an appreciative smile, he said, "How did it go?"
Eden flicked her honey eyes to him and beamed back. "You knew where I was?"
An unimpressed quirk of his brow was all the confirmation she needed, but he answered her anyway. "Are you suggesting that I've lost my touch?"
Her smile was delicate - exactly the way he pictured her any time they were apart - as if it were a secret between just the two of them. He'd long ago convinced himself that she wore that smile for no one else, and he liked it that way. She said nothing, simply curled up on his lap in the overstuffed lounge chair and rested her head on his shoulder. She smelled like honeysuckle. Once she'd settled, he asked, "So did Elseron soothe your troubles?"
He couldn't see her face, but her voice was a low, warm rumble against his neck. "Mostly."
"What did he leave behind?"
"Nothing," she sighed, fidgeting briefly in his lap. "I don't know how we're going to juggle this, Pilot. It would be easier if they wouldn't accept me, if they forced me to hand off the crown. I don't even know this world, anymore. How can I lead them when I don't even know their lives?"
"Are you saying you've lost your touch? Eden, no one on Earth is capable of knowing people the way you do. You were built to connect, to plug in, to everyone you come across. It's what you are."
She was frowning; he could feel the shift in her jaw against his collarbone. "Maybe I'm too tired for that. I don't have it in me to manage two kingdoms. We'd have to separate, each take one for a while - probably a long while - until things get set up and into a system. Even then, we're going to be on the move constantly." Her exhale was shaky with fatigue and it pained him to see her so drained. She hadn't slept since they arrived, despite the sluggish way her body was forced to heal because of her neglect. Hours had passed as she paced their chambers before eventually leaving him to pace the throne room. Voice small and trembling, she added, "I'm only one person, Pilot. I think it's too much."
"Hunter can manage Cerceri, Eden. We have all the time you need." Gently, his hand rubbed her spine, trailing his fingers down the curve of her back in faint patterns. "You don't have to decide this instant. Take it all in; let the dust settle before you flee the scene. I won’t leave you, you know that."
"You might not have a choice."
He chortled, the low vibrations of it bringing a small, appreciative smile to her lips. Arrogance was ugly on most people, but it suited Pilot. He understood the magnitude of power that was harbored in him and he factored that in to everything. He was his inheritance and his inheritance was him. They would never be mutually exclusive - much the same way he saw the two of them, as a couple. They belonged to each other, as thoroughly, as powerfully, and as incurably as their inheritances were their own.
It was equal parts comforting and trying; often, she felt she needed to match his confidence, and she rarely could, but other times his ability to never waver was a soothing habit, something she found herself relying on more and more in recent years. She knew she was wearing down; that a life as long as hers had been was beginning to erode her willingness to take on new challenges. Instead of feeling enlivened by a fresh trial, she’d begun feeling the first trembles of exhaustion at the mere mention of trouble. She missed being young and naïve and freshly empowered.
She sighed into his shirt, knowing that there were some things one could run from, and some things one could not escape. It seemed Atlantis was falling into the latter category. Her once-home felt like a foreign planet; she could remember almost nothing of her early childhood. The city was unrecognizable to her.
“You said Hunter can manage Cerceri – do you really believe that or are you trying to placate me?”
She could feel his smile even though she could not see his face. His words were a rumble against her temple, “My love, I would never simply placate your worries. Hunter is my right hand man, if anyone in the Outer world can manage Cerceri, it is he.”
For a moment they were both silent, chewing over the realization that he’d called their home the “Outer world” – as if they really were Atlanteans.
“Maybe you’re right,” she said, her voice distant and breathy. “Perhaps we are more useful here for now.”
He was not nervous, though he’d expected to be. Elseron was an intimidating man to begin with – all height and scars and muscle and stoicism, but all of that only doubled beneath the question Phaedos had come to ask.
Elseron simply stared at him for a long moment, as if weighing his worth and his history and his heart. Phaedos wanted to leave; he wanted to remind himself that they were all adults, and he was a demi-god for fuck’s sake, and they could do as they pleased; but he knew better. He knew that without Elseron’s approval he would get exactly nowhere.
And then Elseron smiled, and Phaedos felt as if the air had been let back into the room.
Elseron said, “You have my blessing, Phaedos.”
Atlas cinched the robe around her waist and pulled her long hair free to rest around her shoulders. The only light in the room was from the fireplace to her right, and the light caught in her curls and illuminated her face. She was bruised, still, having refused to let the healer waste his gift on such trivial injuries, and the dark blacks and blues distorted her features. Phaedos sat on the edge of her bed a few yards behind her, looking rather out of place in such a lavishly feminine bedroom. He had refused the healer entirely, and his wounds took a visible toll on him. He held a small object in his hand that she couldn’t make out in the dim light through the mirror, and he rolled it around between his fingers in silence.
She spun her chair to face him and studied his posture and the strange furrow of his brow. “What is on your mind, Phae?”
His cerulean irises darted to her briefly before he shrugged and pocketed the trinket. He said, “It’s hard to believe we finally made it here.”
She smiled, though the light of it did not quite reach her eyes. “Yes, it is a little surreal, even to me.” She wanted to ask if he would be staying in Atlantis, now that he knew her intentions, but it was a question she could not find the strength to ask.
He stood from his spot on her bed and turned his body to face her. Every bruise and blister and scab on his body pained her; she wanted to see him healed, to be able to forget – however briefly – the damage his body had taken in her name. It was the greatest toll on her heart to see him so battered and fatigued and to know that had she not weaseled her way into his heart he would be healthy and safe in the Outer World, to know that he would never have gone through the horrendous things they had all experienced.
Yet, she knew, that if it hadn’t been for Phaedos she would be dead a dozen times over. He had saved Atlantis, whether he realized it or not. He and the others had been the only things keeping Atlantis from its demise. Atlas wondered if the people of her city would welcome them as they should, she wondered if they would welcome their new Queen or if they would rise up and reject her. Atlas wondered a great many things that had no predictable answer, but her uncertainty did not stop her from making her choice.
Phaedos’ gaze absorbed every iota of emotion that flit about her features, piecing them together to glean her thoughts. He said, “Tomorrow Atlantis will take a step into the future, but until then, how about you give me a tour of your great city?”
They walked through the orchard in silence.
She had shown him every corner of her city; at first, he had asked hundreds of questions, but as the tour went on he didn’t need to. Every corner, every sign, every scent and voice and footprint elicited a new piece of information from her without the need for a spoken question. She told him every insignificant thing she knew about the city. The total population, the average age of death, the number of children the average family had, the lowest and the highest incomes in the entire city. She regaled him with stories of her childhood; how she’d cleverly evaded Elseron to sneak into the kitchens and steal some snacks in the middle of the night, or of the other children she played with, even a few stories of her mother and the King, whom she never accidentally referred to as her father, eve n once, although she had spent the vast majority of her life believing him to be. There was nothing but love in her voice when she spoke of the King, but there was a more obvious depth of love when she mentioned Elseron. She told him the secret ingredient in the recipe for sousala, the most popular pastry in all of Atlantis, made in only a single shop on Arain Avenue, by the bookstore. She showed him her favorite spots to hide as a child, and the secret routes she’d taken to escape Elseron’s ever-present watch when she was first blossoming into a woman.
With every fact, every detail, every observance and story, his resolve deepened.
He knew Eden would be a wonderful Queen, he knew she was the rightful heir; but what he knew even more was that Atlas loved this city, she loved these people, more than she loved anything else. More than anyone else could possibly love anything. Eden had been pulled away from her home too early – he knew if she’d stayed that she would share Atlas’ intimate fondness for every crevice and granule of soil in the city; but she hadn’t been given that opportunity. No matter how long the vampire Queen stayed in Atlantis she would never be the caliber of royalty that Atlas would be. She would never instinctively know the city, the people, and the needs the way Atlas could.
And so there was but one thing to be done, and to his knowledge, there was only one person to do it. But for now, he would keep such plans to himself.
They paused in the middle of the rows and rows of trees, taking in the glory of the sight and the aroma of the foliage. Atlas’ fingers twisted into his and she let her head rest against his shoulder. His pulse was even and sure, despite the nervousness creeping into his mind. He had very little time left, he reminded himself.
“Atlas,” he said, his voice lower than he’d intended, as he shifted his body and dropped to his knees. The tiny ring was already pinched between his index finger and thumb, lifted so she could see it in the low evening light of the shield. “I know the sacrifice you’re making, and I know what it entails. I wish to remain at your side, as your husband and your guard, if you’ll have me.”