Stuck With You - Chapter 4

After discovering that Dray was one of her soulmates, she'd feared that each of her friendships were doomed to start with arson and a shoving match.

Chapter 4
Summer 459, one year ago

Blythe glared down at the mixing bowl in her hands. She'd mixed this healing paste a thousand times and today it refused to come out the right consistency. First it had looked okay but smelled funny, so she'd tossed it out in case it caused an adverse reaction on someone's skin or made their arm fall off or something. She should have kept that one, though, because the next had turned out lumpy no matter how much she mixed it. That, too, had gone into the trash. The third had been more of a soup than a paste, so she'd added flour as a neutral ingredient in the hope of thickening it. That had worked oh so well and now her favorite bowl was coated with something that more resembled hardened plaster than paste. It wasn't even noon and it was already shaping up to be a day she wanted over and done with.

A familiar head popped into the open kitchen window as she tugged in vain at the spoon. "Blade! You're gonna be late!"

As though Sol had any right to talk. She was pretty sure he'd never been on time for anything in his life. "I know. Go ahead. I'll be there as soon as I finish this thing-"

With one last hard tug, the paste gave up its fight, and both it and the spoon went flying towards the window in one congealed mass of failure. She winced as it took out a flowerpot before bouncing off Sol's shoulder. At least the bowl was still in one piece.

Sol didn't wait around for more kitchenware to be lobbed at his head. He vanished from the window, making room for sunlight to illuminate the dirt spilled over her once-clean floor. With a shake of her head, she set the bowl on the counter and reached for the broom. If only Etri had been the one at the window. He would have offered to clean up instead of scampering away and she could have gone back to working on this stubborn paste.

Her eyes returned to the empty window as it hit her what exactly Sol had reminded her about. Frit! As if this day couldn't get any worse, she'd forgotten that she wanted to get to the bonfire early so she could talk to Etri. She let the broom fall into the corner and dashed out the door in clothes still dusted by flour to head for the troupe's central meeting place. It was tradition for each carnival troupe to gather together for a bonding exercise on the first of every month. While this was something she begrudgingly went along with, it was Etri's first-first with this troupe. He didn't know anyone yet besides her and his brother, and he certainly wasn't going to be comfortable with...

She reached the bonfire out of breath but with time to spare. Their ringmaster still spoke, his usual spiel about camaraderie and support that Blythe always tuned out because she'd heard it once a month for the past three years. Blythe had thought to ask Sol if his and Etri's previous leader had been this dry, with the hope of subtly figuring out how Etri got around his touch aversion there, but she kept putting it off. Even if Etri had simply been comfortable with his long-time troupe or if he'd managed to avoid these get-togethers altogether, she still should have asked so she could help him here. She could kick herself for being a terrible friend.

Etri and Sol were hard to miss considering they towered over everyone else gathered in the circle. She stuck her tongue out at Sol as she walked past and instead of making a face at her like he usually did, he nodded at Etri with a worried frown. Now she felt even worse because her hunch was right. Etri didn't seem to notice her when she stepped up to his other side. His head was bowed with his attention fixed on his boots and she had the feeling that he was using his long hair to screen out the rest of the world. The hand with the solid black mark clenched tightly at the dark fabric of his coat. Sol held his other hand and murmured something to him that had the tone of reassurance. She didn't recognize the words, which meant he was speaking Montglacian and wasn't a good sign because the two only seemed to speak this when Etri was on the brink of a panic attack. She wouldn't have recommended using the language of a place Etri and Sol hated as a grounding technique, but it generally worked and she wasn't about to suggest they try something else.

She leaned close enough that he would hear her, without being so close as to touch him, and whispered, "Etch? You okay?"

Without raising his head, he dropped his death-grip on his coat and lowered his hand to his side. When his hand brushed hers, she took it lightly in case she read this signal wrong, only to have him squeeze it as tightly as he had his coat. Etri's relief struck her like a punch even though she always muted her touch telepathy when she wasn't in the process of healing someone and she scrambled to build a stronger mental wall without having to let go of him. By the time she got this back under control with his thoughts on the outside where they belonged, the girl on her left-- she didn't bother to look and see who it was-- had taken her other hand and the inevitable chanting began. She ignored the words about unity and togetherness and other things she found far too sappy and instead looked over at Etri to make sure he was handling this okay. When he noticed that he had her attention, a soft smile briefly turned up the corner of his lips and he squeezed her hand again. A smile was good. A smile meant he was comfortable and not freaking out about having to touch someone. Hand squeezing, which he was doing again, meant he was comfortable with her in particular.

Okay, all this hand squeezing was kind of strange. She leaned towards him again and whispered, "You sure you're okay?"

That smile again, followed by another hand squeeze. He couldn't just... talk? As she was rolling her eyes, he lifted their joined hands high enough to catch her attention. Oh. Well, that certainly explained the squeezing.

The mark on Blythe's right hand had blossomed into full color to match the half-color on Etri's left. Ever since she had grabbed Dray three years ago and the black marks on her hands half-changed into a rotating rainbow, she had wondered when the rest of the change was going to happen. Her left hand was still half-black, implying someone she had yet to touch. When Etri released her hand so she could look at it, she had to amend that count. The fingertip of her index finger remained black, which she guessed meant there were two more people, but who knew? Soul-marks were such a strange, unpredictable thing, and normally she hated uncertainty, but she had to admit that knowing her best friend was meant to be important to her didn't have any downside. After discovering that Dray was one of her soulmates, she'd feared that each of her friendships were doomed to start with arson and a shoving match.

It could never be that way with Etri. She wanted to protect him and if whoever belonged to the black marks that half-remained on both of his hands so much as looked at him rudely, she'd knock them out without hesitation. With healing-induced sleep or her fists, it didn't matter. Sol grinned at her when she caught him looking at her hand and she modified her thoughts again. If whoever was the three marks on Sol tried anything with him, they'd also have to deal with her. She wouldn't let anyone hurt her friends, although that probably meant she should be more careful where she hurled healing paste in the future.

As she vowed this to herself, Etri leaned down to whisper to her, "You do not mind being stuck with me, yes?"

She bumped her shoulder against his arm and hoped he wouldn't mind this type of contact any more than the hand holding. "No more than your dopey brother does."

Etri glanced over at Sol who was still grinning like an idiot before squeezing her hand again. "Then you must like me greatly."

"Wouldn't be your friend if I didn't. Besides, you've never set my pillow on fire."

Within five minutes Sol would be telling her all about the time he managed to set a rock on fire, but for now Blythe felt she had made her point.

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