January 14th, 2060
There was a fire burning.
I couldn’t breathe, couldn’t see past the smoke in front of me - only the dying poppies at my feet as I trudged forward. I could hear the march of a thousand footsteps close by.
“Paige!” “Paige, stop!”
Nick. His voice was filled with anguish. I had to find him.
“Paige!” He was close. Very close.
His hand reached out to me. No, not Nick’s hand, my father’s.
“Seillean, where were you?”
I reached out to grasp his hand, but the contact burned with a hiss and I let go. I looked at the word “kin” etched into my skin.
The swish of a large blade, and a thud.
I woke with a start, breathing heavily. As nightmares went, this was far from the worst I’d ever had. Not even the worst this week. But it was the first time my father had featured in one and it left me rattled.
I concentrated on my breaths, and held a finger to my pulse, willing it to slow down. I glanced around the room, my eyes adjusting to the darkness. It was hard to tell what time it was, but probably still a few hours before dawn based on the relative quiet of the Parisian streets below us. Warden was still asleep on the chaise lounge across the room.
Good. He’d adjusted to whatever odd hours my recovering body demanded without question, but I still felt guilty sometimes. He was able to move more freely here than in London and finding aura was less of a risk, but he rarely left my side. He’d been a dedicated nurse, but nothing was healing fast enough for me, physically or mentally, and the frustration was turning me into a rather difficult patient.
My mouth was parched, as if I’d actually walked through the smoke in my dream. I slowly eased myself out of bed and walked over to the small kitchen. As quietly as I could, I poured myself a glass of water from the sink and brought it to my lips. But as soon as I tried to swallow, my throat closed up.
I gagged and quickly coughed the water back up into the sink. I’d barely taken a mouthful of liquid but my reflexes were still haunted by the waterboard. I couldn’t stop coughing, gasping for air like I was suffocating again. My hand gripped the edge of the sink and my eyes watered. I couldn’t get a handle on the panic that had stirred in my chest.
I felt his dreamscape a moment before his steady hand on my back.
I closed my eyes and tried to focus. His thumb was making slow strokes under my shoulder blade, and I tried to match my breathing to it. After a couple of minutes I finally succeeded, but still felt winded.
“Thank you,” I said quietly, my voice raw. “Sorry I woke you up.”
“You need never apologize.”
We must’ve had this exact exchange half a dozen times, but the patience in his tone never changed. I sighed.
“Will it ever stop? I’m so sick of this.”
“It has only been two weeks. Give it more time, and practice.”
“Two weeks,” I repeated sullenly. “It sounds like nothing when you say it like that. Instead of fourteen miserable days stuck in a tiny, dingy flat.”
It was not exactly tiny, nor dingy, but I was back to being irritable. Something about the number fourteen sparked something in my mind though.
“Wait, what’s today?”
“It is the fourteenth of January. So technically only thirteen days since we arrived in Paris,” he corrected me, with a glint in his eye that I’d started to equate with a smirk.
I looked for any other signs that he knew the significance of the day, but unsurprisingly found none in my Rephaite cohabiter. It’s not like immortal beings had any reason to celebrate birthdays.
We studied each other for another moment before he asked, “Are you still thirsty?”
I ran a hand through my hair. “Yeah, but not enough to try again.”
He placed a hand on my cheek, gently rubbing a thumb under my eye.
“You appear dehydrated. It is your decision, but I believe another attempt might be beneficial.”
I took another deep breath and nodded. I'd learned that he was usually right.
“Try just a very small amount in the glass at first. A spoonful. And don’t try to swallow right away, let your mouth get used to holding the liquid first.”
My hand shook as I followed his instructions, but he didn’t take the glass from me. Much as I often needed his help these days, I appreciated that he never babied me.
This time I succeeded in getting the water down. It soothed the burn of my throat from the earlier coughing. I sat down at the small breakfast table and Warden joined me for the twenty minutes or so it took me to get through an entire glass. Afterwards I felt exhausted again.
“You should lie down, Paige. Get a few more hours of rest while I am out. I’ll bring back something for you to eat before I search for myself.”
I yawned and nodded, getting to my feet. He watched closely as I walked back to the bed and lifted my tired limbs, but made no move to assist. Once I was settled, he placed a burner phone on the stand nearby. Not that we’d really need it - the golden cord was a much better alarm bell, but I didn’t argue.
“I will return shortly,” he said at the door, shrugging on his coat. “Sleep well, little dreamer.”
When I woke a second time it was to the smell of coffee, and something…bread-like.
Morning light was peeking through the drapes and I could hear the soft hum of voices and car horns outside. I knew it was past time for me to take more pain medication, but curiosity got the better of me.
Sure enough, there on the kitchen table was a french press full of steaming coffee and next to it a plate of the largest, flakiest croissants I had ever seen. Neither of which were the most interesting thing waiting for me. There was also a vase of red flowers.
There were a few meanings to choose from. Temperance was most common, but somehow I didn’t think Warden was trying to preach to me about sobriety. Take care of yourself for me would be more likely. And yet I remembered a third, which made my cheeks warm: fragile growing passion.
I took a step closer to smell them, and wondered how he’d managed to find any in bloom at this time of year.
Next to the vase was an envelope. I opened it, and a familiar wing-shaped pendant slid into my hand, along with a note.
Happy Birthday, Paige.
While a celebration may not be appropriate given the circumstances,
the fact that you have lived another year on this earth is no small feat.
I am very grateful that you have.
And please do me the honor of holding on to this once again.
A smile grew across my face, and I was suddenly grateful that Warden wasn’t currently present. I needed some time to let the flush fade away from my cheeks. I slipped the pendant over my head, the metal cool against my skin. I traced it’s outline with a finger as I read the note again.
My heart beat heavily as I sat down to my little breakfast, but I felt lighter than I had in weeks.
After I’d finished what I could handle of the buttery pasties I cleaned up the kitchen and picked up the few stray medical supplies and clothes that had wandered around the common space. I laid down on the floor and went through the few physical therapy exercises that our medical contact here had prescribed. I was eager to get back to real strength training, but today I pushed the frustration aside and concentrated on completing the movements as best I could. I noted with satisfaction that one in particular seemed to require less effort now.
I wiped off the slight glisten of sweat I’d worked up and dressed in fresh clothes. Getting my head under water to wash my hair was still something I couldn’t manage without Warden’s help, but my curls weren’t terribly oily as I ran my fingers through the tangles.
I decided to take the last of my coffee out onto the small balcony of the flat, to give myself a little reward of fresh air. It was milder outside than I thought. The side of the building blocked most of the wind and the direct sunlight felt wonderful on my face. I could hear a busker on the street playing music.
The sound of the door opening and closing inside broke the calm spell, but I stayed still, curious if he would join me outside. After a moment I felt him beside me.
“Good morning,” he greeted. “Are you feeling better?”
“Very,” I replied, and caught his gaze. “Thank you. For everything.”
His eyes were still fading back to gold after feeding, but I could see the warm flicker behind them. “You are welcome.”
I set my mug down on the wide railing and turned to face him fully.
“I mean it. I know I’ve been…difficult lately. But I really do appreciate how much you’re helping me. I know it can’t be easy.”
He studied me for a moment and his eyes dimmed a bit when he said quietly, “No, it is not easy. But not for the reason you imply.”
I tilted my head.
“It is…difficult to watch you suffer.”
My chest tightened, and instinctively I reached out to put my hand on his, over his heart. His hand came up to cover mine.
Neither of us broke eye contact for several moments. Finally, I voiced what I’d been wondering all morning.
“How did you know? About today?”
“It was listed in your file. From when you were captured.”
“And you remembered?”
I picked up my mug again, more to give myself something else to do with my hands than because I wanted the coffee.
“I don’t suppose Rephaim have birthdays, do you?”
“No. Age is an entirely human construct. We mark time by years only as it relates to time on Earth, but it has no measurement in the Netherworld. There are no seasons there to derive a cyclical structure.”
I nodded. “Right.”
“I do not find it so strange a tradition though,” he continued. “It shows an appreciation of life, which many Rephaim accuse humankind of lacking.”
It was one of the things I had learned not to take for granted about Warden. His understanding of humanity, his acceptance of us.
“Do you… have many happy memories of your birthdays?” he asked, in a tone I would almost describe as shy.
“Not many. A couple, from when I was little. Nick always tried to do something special, but I was usually able to talk him out of it.”
Nick. Saying his name shot a pang of anxiety into my heart. I hadn’t heard from him since we parted. One of our contacts here had been able to confirm that he made it to Sweden, but nothing more.
Below us, the busker had changed tunes to something slower, jazzier. A smoky woman’s voice joined along, singing in French.
“Do you know this one?” I asked. With his predilection for gramophones, I wouldn’t be surprised if Warden was familiar with most songs.
“I do not.”
I listened for a few measures, trying to recall my French lessons years ago. “She’s saying: ‘ Time flies and runs .’ …something ‘ in my heart ’ … ‘ I will wait for you to come back.’”
It was good, and most definitely banned. Perhaps in Paris it was less risky for buskers to perform banned music. I was about to ask Warden whether he knew, but when I turned my head to look at him again he was holding out his hand, palm upwards. A silent invitation.
Once again, my heartbeat turned into a heavy thud. I placed my hand in his, and slowly Warden took me into his arms. His other hand gently but firmly held my lower back, his thumb stroking a familiar steady pattern in time with the music.
Despite his creative methods of training me for spirit combat, we’d never really danced before. I wasn’t sure what I would have expected - some elegant waltz perhaps - but he simply guided us in a small, slow circle. I still wasn’t entirely steady on my feet, so I allowed myself to lean into his embrace, wrapping my arm around his shoulder and pulling our clasped hands closer to our chests. The warmth of his body shielded me from the slight wintry breeze that carried the music upwards to us. Our dreamscapes danced around each other.
“What does she say now?” His voice was low in my ear, and it rumbled through me.
I listened to the lyrics again and translated roughly: “I will wait night and day...I will wait forever, for you to come back...I will wait.”
We continued to sway for a moment as she repeated the refrain. Then he said softly, “And so shall I.”
I tilted my head up to meet his gaze, and saw the confirmation in his eyes. He still wanted me, no matter how long it took.
I thought about the Spaewife’s words, saw the image of the Lovers on the card in my mind. I thought about Nick and Zeke, and his warning to not wait until it was too late. I thought about Finn and Kayleigh.
And suddenly I didn’t want to wait any longer.
I slipped my hand out of Warden’s grasp and pulled his neck down to kiss him. I felt the familiar explosive rush, but there was also something else this time. Something different. This kiss was both stronger and softer at the same time. It felt like coming home.
When we broke apart, he brought his arms fully around me and rested his forehead against mine. He whispered something in gloss. We stayed like that for the rest of the song.
“Warden?” I broke the silence tentatively.
“You were asking about my birthday... any happy memories I had.”
He pulled back slightly to look at me.
“This one,” I said, letting a smile spread fully across my face. “This one will be a happy memory.”
And I could’ve sworn I saw one start to spread on his lips as well, before they closed over mine again.