Stuck With You - Chapter 8

His impulse to protect and touch Adair was not only acceptable, it was fated. Yet he could not be sure... "You have many marks, yes? It may be one of them. Blythe, perhaps."


Chapter 8
Winter 460, a few more days later

Harsh light far more dazzling than daylight prevented Etri from seeing anything but Blythe and the six wooden targets lined up across the stage. This was intentional; Sol knew his fears and lit the stage lamps as blazingly bright as he could. With the audience out of sight, Etri could convince himself that this was merely another knife juggling practice with Blythe, one such as he shared in solitude with her each day. Performance never failed to set him on edge despite the presence of one who meant so much and the aid of the stage itself. In addition to the lamps, auditory weaving built into every stage prevented audience distraction by muffling their voices. While sound could pass through the intangible barrier, it became muted, making it nearly impossible to pick out individual voices unless they, too, were on stage. Etri would forever appreciate a country where weaving was so readily available.

It did, however, have its disadvantages. When one of the troupe's acrobats hoisted herself up onto the stage and passed through the barrier, her sudden shout of Blythe's name came without warning. As Blythe turned her head, Etri lunged with his own weaving at the knives he had tossed. The shadow caught them just as they reached her. He held his breath until the blades safely passed through Blythe and into the target behind where she stood. It was unlikely the audience would notice the split second of intangibility and would assume he had intentionally thrown the knives around her instead of to her for her to catch and throw back. It was always a risk to use his weaving in public, but the safety of Blythe mattered above all else. She was his soulmate and his best friend, and he would do anything in his power to protect her, up to and including telling off the girl for disobeying troupe rules and putting Blythe into unnecessary danger.

He took a few deep breaths to calm his nerves at the thought of confrontation, only to have his heartbeat speed up when the acrobat spoke to Blythe. "Come quick! Your roommate's sick and Wysta wants you!"

Logic would have dictated remaining behind for further information. Logic, however, was irrelevant when the situation involved Adair. His condition must be serious if Wysta deemed it important enough to send someone to interrupt their performance in such a dangerous and urgent manner. Despite the message intended for Blythe, Etri dashed through the carnival and then the performers' camp at her heels. Adair had been in perfect health when they'd left him with Sol, so perhaps one of Sol's inventions backfired and caused him harm. If this were the case, surely the message would have stated an injury and not an illness...

If it was an illness, it was one entirely unfamiliar and, at least at first glance, not dire. Adair sat next to Sol on one of the cots in the lead healer's wagon and it was Sol's reaction, not Adair's, that first belied the normality of the scene. He clutched the hand of his friend so tightly he hid from view the rainbow mark designating Adair as a soulmate. However, it was Adair's complete lack of reaction to Sol's painful grasp, Blythe's touch to his forehead, or Wysta's repeated attempts at calling his name that concerned Etri most. Adair had proven himself much like Sol in that sitting still for any length of time should be an impossibility, yet here he was, still as a statue or one of Sol's sculptures made from garbage. His soft brown eyes, usually so warm and amiable, failed to notice the presence of his friends or their concern. Despite all effort to gain his attention, he continued to stare vacantly at the wall across the wagon.

Blythe grabbed Sol by the front of his shirt and yanked him off the bed. "What happened to him?"

Sol released Adair's hand so he could free himself from her grip. Adair's hand and arm hovered in the air for several seconds before slowly lowering to rest on the bed. "I don't know! We were just playing cards and I got bored and so we went to find you guys and then he started doing this thing where he just stares. I had to carry him here and it's like he doesn't see me. Why doesn't he see me? Is he mad at me? I was trying to let him win because he didn't know how to play the game and I wanted to teach him but I'm not very good at teaching and do you think he's mad because I was cheating for him? Should I-"

"Solei, please sit over there so Blythe and I may work." Wysta's bracelets jingled when she pointed to the cot against the far wall. "I said you may be contagious and you disobeyed my instructions to stay at home."

Sol's lower lip and voice both trembled. "Did I hurt him? I didn't mean to hurt him! He's my buddy and my important and I never want to hurt him!"

Blythe looped an arm around his waist and led him over to the corner cot. "I know you don't, sweetie. Please sit down so we can figure this out, okay?"

With a sniffle and a nod, Sol listened. After Blythe and Wysta finished checking over Adair and had began to theorize about the potential cause of his condition, Etri took Sol's vacated spot on the bed. He wished to take Adair's hand as Sol had done, to reassure himself that Adair remained flesh and blood, and it was an effort of will to keep his hands firmly locked together on his lap. It would be improper to allow himself to touch someone he had known only a few days.

To avoid the temptation of contact, Etri stared down at his own hands and the half-changed marks representing Blythe and Sol. On both hands the shifting rainbow granted by his two discovered soulmates intermixed with the original black stain indicating a soulmate yet to be discovered. Now, as often happened when his attention was drawn to his hands, he found himself questioning his decision to hold onto old traditions. He could instead touch as freely as Sol and discard the last few customs as his brother had done. It was always the fear of being found unwelcome, of the other person recoiling away, that kept this decision alive. It was possible Adair would not mind and that a few days of friendship no longer meant impropriety, yet Etri would not try this now, not when Adair could not respond with either consent or disapproval.

When the healers' conversation turned into an interrogation of Sol, Etri closed his eyes to attempt to shut it out. Raised voices, even when not directed at him, left him unsettled and with his stomach in knots. He breathed in deeply once, twice. They were not angry at Sol, nor would anyone confront Etri himself. He would remain here for the sake of Adair. Adair was his... yes, Adair was his friend and he would not allow discomfort to chase him away. Caught inside his own head, it took Etri a few moments to realize that the bed had shaken. The healers were across the room with Sol, which meant... Etri's eyes flew open in time to see Adair pass through the doorway. No one else noticed; still they argued only a few feet away. A choice between delaying to get Blythe's attention and following Adair to be sure of his health was not a choice. The safety of Adair could never be a choice. He left one of his knives on the bed to alert Blythe that he was with Adair, then sprinted after him.

Etri need not have hurried because Adair was in no hurry. He walked as though his legs were weighted, with slow steps heading for- "Atair! Watch out!"

Adair swerved just in time to miss walking face-first into the neighboring wagon. Etri's hope that his warning had been heeded was crushed when Adair continued his slow, steady trudge westward with no reaction to the presence of Etri or anything smaller than a house. If Adair would not respond, perhaps his destination would grant an answer as to why he walked in a daze. With this thought in mind, Etri stayed near Adair when he left the camp and entered the city. Adair had no more narrow misses with walls, but the same could not be said for people. Adair paid them no more heed than he had Etri, which resulted in collisions with anyone who blocked his path. The strange looks they received did nothing to ease Etri's earlier apprehension and his apologies quickly became short, anxious mutterings directed more to the ground than to the victims of Adair's inattentiveness.

He turned away from apologizing to the shoes of yet another stranger to find Adair no longer in sight. In a sea of taller people, Adair was a head of dark hair among many. It was only the flash of his familiar blue shirt that caught Etri's eye in time to prevent disaster. As Adair started his oblivious shamble across the street, Etri grabbed him by the waist and hoisted him out of harm's way. He ignored the rude gestures and shouts and deposited Adair back on the sidewalk, only to have him step off the curb again. Etri's worry about touch was rendered moot. Again he caught Adair by the waist and carried him away from the street.

Once out of the flow of pedestrians, Etri set Adair down in the doorstep alcove of a shop closed for the night. Having learned better than to let go, he rested his hands on Adair's shoulders. Adair attempted to continue his blunderous trek until he found himself stopped by Etri, yet still he tried to walk forward. Etri had no desire to hurt him, so instead of tightening his hold, he leaned down until he was eye level with his friend. Was it purely hope causing him to see what there was not, or was there a little more spark of life in Adair's eyes? They seemed a little more focused, although not enough for Etri to believe that Adair was aware of him. A passing snide comment about getting a room made Etri step away, but he gritted his teeth through the worry that they were being watched and returned his hands to Adair's shoulders. Softly he spoke Adair's name.

All remained as it was until Adair blinked a few times, slowly, but in much more rapid succession than his previous stare. His hand came up to rest against Etri's chest. Etri fought the urge to check that they were not being watched and spoke his name again.

This time it was enough. Adair's eyes came into focus, then darted around as he took in their surroundings. He clutched the front of Etri's coat with a hand that trembled slightly. "Etch? What happened? Where are we?"

Etri brushed Adair's shoulders with his thumbs in what he hoped was a soothing manner. "You are safe. You were unresponsive and Blythe and Wysta could not discern why. You then walked into the city as though in a daze. Are you now well?"

"Yeah... At least, I think..." A frown came over Adair's face and he tipped his head backwards until it tapped the wall behind him. "I did that sleepwalking thing again, didn't I? That's how I got to the carnival in the first place."

"You have done this before?" Etri let his one hand fall from Adair's shoulder and brought the other to rest between Adair's head and the wall. The last thing Blythe would want would be Adair bringing harm to himself. While the building stones were not traffic, Etri wished to take no chances.

Adair smiled sheepishly and stood straight, releasing Etri's coat and lowering his arm. "Yeah. It's my map doing it. It's over... there. Yeah, that way. I gotta go get it while I can still feel where it is. I think it wants me to find it."

As much as Adair's stolen art held importance to him, it must not be allowed to let him act so rashly. "I believe first you should see Blythe. You nearly walked into traffic and I wish her to determine that you are truly well before you seek that which you lost."

"I did what?"

It seemed that Adair had no memory of what occurred while he was in a weaving-induced trance. This was all the more reason to return him to the healers. "You were unaware of your surroundings. I brought you here so you would not be harmed."

Adair bumped his head against the wall, this time with more vigor. "This is so dumb. I'm so dumb. If I didn't let it get stolen, this wouldn't be happening."

Again Etri placed his hand between Adair and the wall. "Please stop this. You must not come to harm now that you are awake."

"I'm not going to hurt myself." To Etri's relief, though, Adair stopped. A moment later Adair took his hand and held it between them. "Etch! When did this happen?"

A realization that had nothing to do with Adair's question left Etri reeling, as though he was the one knocking his head against stone. Adair did not mind his touch, which meant it was proper to touch him. Adair was not disgusted or thought it unwelcome. He wanted to touch Etri.

It wasn't until Adair held their joined hands up to eye level that Etri saw that which Adair questioned: his soulmark had changed. A quick check of the other hand revealed that both were now a shifting chromatic pattern. He knew he had not touched anyone else, only Adair. "It is likely when I carried you from the street."

Adair gasped and dropped Etri's hand, leaving him wondering if his assumption about Adair's approval of touch was incorrect. Adair lifted the hem of his shirt, which was bewildering until Etri noticed the matching marks peeking out from Adair's waistband above both hips. Before Etri could say anything, Adair threw his arms around his neck. "You're my sentinel!"

Etri wrapped his arms around Adair and he could swear he felt Adair smile even through the thick coat he wore. His impulse to protect and touch Adair was not only acceptable, it was fated. Yet he could not be sure... "You have many marks, yes? It may be one of them. Blythe, perhaps."

Adair pulled back only far enough to look up at Etri and the intensity in his gaze denied all possibility of an incorrect guess. Etri would do anything to keep this boy with his expressive eyes in his life forever. "You protected me. Blythe and Sol care, but you're the one who kept me from getting flattened. You knew I could be in danger and followed me. One of my marks has to be a sentinel's. That's you, assuming you want to be stuck with an artist who sleepwalks into carnivals and traffic."

There was no hesitation or doubt left in Etri's mind. As a sentinel, he would protect Adair no matter the situation, and if that meant protecting Adair from himself until he recovered his map, so be it. If it meant a furious Blythe because they retrieved said map before checking in with her, so be that, as well. Etri took a step back and caught Adair's hand. "Lead me to your map. I will help in whatever manner you wish."

Adair's warm fingers threading through Etri's matched the warmth of the smile he gave. Perhaps it was not such an improper thing to touch someone after a mere week of friendship.

- First Chapter / Next Chapter -

CONVERSATION

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