Weekly Illustrated Fiction Series:
No Dragons Press: A HIGH FANTASY Adventure
by Maggie Gibbs
Illustrations by Emily Ruf
Chapter Fifteen: Righteous Anger
The word bristle is a funny one, at least when it’s a verb. It sounds like such a goofy thing for a person to do. That is, until someone like Bradley manages to elude being broken up with, in addition to refusing to stay firmly out of reach in his own dimension. But when I lift my eyes to consider him, at that puppy-dog look on his face, the stagnant back burner I’d all but forgotten about flares back to life, and bristle is exactly what I’m doing. I am a goddamn pissed off porcupine.
A sweaty, disgusting porcupine.
I hurl my armload of wood down in the general vicinity of the neat pile of wood and wipe my face with an arm, freeing my face of sweat and hair but covering it with a liberal application of bark and debris.
There must be some scientific explanation for the complete and utter mortification I’m currently drowning in, some evolutionary need to avoid vulnerability at all costs—but right now, that thought is a footnote. Right now, all I want is to wipe my goddamn face off with something that isn’t covered in crap. The need is almost all-consuming. Then, maybe, I’ll be able to face this situation.
Bradley makes as if to say something and I give him a pronounced wait a minute gesture, heading into the bowels of Duc’s cooking station without looking at him. I don’t have to hunt for long; two large, leaf-lined pits in the ground contain an impressive amount of water—so that’s what he and Tristan had been doing.
The first one I sniff seems clean enough, and I avail myself of one of the nearby leaves managing to splash myself with enough of it to feel like I’d cut through most of the layers without contaminating the water, to the best I can tell.
I can feel Bradley’s eyes on me the entire time, watching me silently. Deliberately turning away from him, I bend to wipe my face with the inside of the front of my shirt—definitely not clean, but relatively clean, which is the best I can hope for.
Then, finally, I turn to Bradley.
He hadn’t moved from the place he stood, not since I’d told him to wait, and now he moves closer in slow steps, offfering me a small sideways wave and a tentative smile. He pulls at his hair for a bit, then shoves his hands in the pockets of his bomber jacket. “Hey.”
I scowl in the direction of Nate’s traitorous, cowardly exit, then settle for staring past Bradley’s knee at the stump behind him.
I am not making eye contact with him. He should not be here.
“I know I shouldn’t be here,” Bradley says. “And I promise, I will leave you alone. But there’s something I need to tell you first.”
Before I can even imagine what he could possibly say that would necessitate me sitting here listening to him, he says, “I’ve been talking to Nate and the others, and—Addie, why didn’t you tell me about the break-in?”
I bite back a snippy response and force myself to acknowledge that this is a perfectly reasonable question. Why hadn’t I told him about the break-in? The armed invasion of the apartments above the No Dragons Press building—in addition to converting Tristan into a pile of pale jelly and Nate into a person with a mysterious past and me into a jumpy, fidgeting jerk—had severely interrupted my break-up plans, and since then…well, it feels like it happened in another life. Or, I suppose, another world. I just hadn’t gotten around to telling him.
“Addie,” he says softly, and despite myself, despite everything, at the familiar way he says my name, a spike of warmth hits my stomach before it’s obliterated by my simmering anger.
Then he blinks at me, looking at me with liquid black eyes, looking more serious than I’d ever seen him look before. “They broke into your apartment, too. They were looking for you.”
My heart stops beating and plummets into my gut, becoming a cold, dense knot. As much as I don’t want him a part of my life anymore, and as much as I don’t want to believe him, if there’s one thing I don’t think he is, it’s a liar.
The armed soldiers who’d broken into Nate’s apartment . . . had also been looking . . . for me? His words have the ring of truth.
But . . . they saw me. I’d burst into the room and they had pointed their massive guns directly at my face and it had taken everything I had not to crumple into a pile of rubbery bones at their booted feet. The giant blond guy had looked into my face, into my eyes, and he saw me.
And then, there was that look, a look of almost . . . recognition. If they had been searching for me, they found me. So why did they stop what they were doing and leave? Maybe, maybe there were two groups of soldiers, and the ones who’d invaded Nate’s place simply hadn’t known to keep an eye out for me. Maybe Bradley isn’t talking about the blond soldier at all.
But if I’d been home instead of with the guys . . . if I’d been alone . . .
Then, through my icy terror, another thought intrudes. I hold up a hand. “Wait a minute.” I look at Bradley, who now looks immensely sheepish. He meets my gaze, but barely, as I pour as much righteous anger into my glare as I can without pulling a muscle. “Were you in my house?”
Once, while I was out of town, I gave him a key. This key was for the express permission of watering my plants until my return—one of those troubling loose ends I knew I’d have to tie down eventually—and there had been absolutely no invitation on my part for him to use it again. To my knowledge he never had—he still rang the bell if the door was locked. I just hadn’t gotten around to asking for it back. I’d all but forgotten about it, as I assumed he had.
A shiver runs through me. How many other times had he used that key?
“I know I shouldn’t have been in your house, but I—I wanted to grab a few of my things,” Bradley is saying, now looking more earnest than sheepish. His eyes lock on mine. “I didn’t want the reason we were together to be because it was too hard for you to end it.”
As a tiny flutter of warmth takes up residence somewhere in my chest cavity, the smallest bit of icy rage begins to melt.
Seriously? Have I completely lost my mind? Maybe it’s the fact that Bradley is one-fourth of the people I know in the whole world, or maybe I’ve been kidding myself all along about wanting to end things, but him following me into the bubble like a creepy stalker gave me an extra push at just the right time. In any case, this is not exactly convenient.
I lean heavily against a largeish rock, sending a longing look in the direction that Nate had disappeared, wishing desperately that I wasn’t alone with Bradley. The icy wall I’d put between us is beginning to melt in earnest. He’s blasting right through it, the bastard. If Tristan’s secret power is dimensional travel, Bradley’s secret power is this.
No. He is not going to do this to me. Righteous anger.
Bradley shifts on his feet and clears his throat, a low sound that sends some of our less-than-horrible times flicking through my mind. Some of those times were actually very nice. Some, the ones I’m trying very hard not to think of at the moment, were pretty great.
“I know I’m not the only one who wants to keep you safe,” Bradley says, ignoring my turmoil, and he meets my gaze once again.
Which, I am determined, makes no impression on me whatsoever.
“We all have to look out for each other, especially now. I’m not going to push you, Addie. But I’m not going to stop looking out for you, either.”
There is a short pause in which I am utterly, completely, speechless. Then Bradley ducks his head in a little bow and moves away in the direction of Tristan, Duc, and Nate.
What the fuck just happened?
Staring at the ground, I slouch even deeper against the rock, thinking furiously. Who is this person—this gentle, sympathetic person—and what has he done with my smug, indifferent dick-head of a boyfriend?
And . . . I hardly dare wonder . . . is he planning on sticking around for awhile?
I scrub my face with my knuckles and let out a groan. Where is my calm, collected, ready-to-pivot, ready-for-anything professionalism? Not only do I owe it to the rest of the group to keep it together—and I definitely do—but it’s the only way—the only way—I’m going to be able to handle being stuck in another universe with Bradley.
I jump about a mile in what is the exact opposite of calm, collected professionalism, then tell myself that was the practice round. “Yes, Duc?”
“Sorry,” he says. “I didn’t mean to startle you. I was wondering if you wanted to help me out. There’s a little bit of light left to forage by, and I’m working on trying to put together some dinner.”
I peer at him suspiciously, thinking absently that “Light to Forage By” would be a decent band name. “Trying to make me feel useful?” Which, I suddenly realize, was exactly what Nate had been doing. I should be embarrassed, but I let out a rueful laugh and shake my head. It had worked, hadn’t it?
Duc smiles and pulls me to my feet, terminating my first real respite since Nate had dragged me through the woods like a human wheelbarrow and ignoring my dramatic groan. “Feeling useful is your business. I want you to be useful, because I’m running behind on dinner I need an assistant.” When my stomach voices its emphatic opinion on the matter, he laughs.
I nod, shoving the weariness in my muscles aside. “Let’s do it.”
But as we turn and walk away, I realize there’s one person who hasn’t come to talk to me yet since my freak-out, and who doesn’t seem to be anywhere in sight.
I will away the guilt that springs up inside me at the memory of snapping at Tristan, promise myself I’ll apologize properly when I can, and trail Duc into the woods to help gather dinner.
Whatever that might mean.