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For a long, heartstopping moment, Toke and Zashiel stared at the feather's clutched in Toke's hand. They were fine and downy, more like chick fluff than proper feathers, but the dim yellow glow they gave chased away any doubt of what they were.
“Z- Zashiel?” Toke whispered. “What's going—”
Before he could finish, Zashiel's snatched the feathers from him and threw them overboard. Toke could only watch as they slowly drifted downward until they landed on the surface of the water. They were so light that they didn't sink, but the lake's current quickly swept them away from the ship. Toke watched them go, unable to tear his eyes from those feathers.
He was about to ask again, but Zashiel grabbed him by the shoulder and spun him around. As dazed as he was, his feet couldn’t keep up with the sudden motion, and he would have fallen over if Zashiel hadn't caught him. She didn't give him a chance to regain his balance, though. With a gentle but firm shove, she began to guide him toward the crew cabins. Inaska and the other acrobats continued to soar of above the audience in the background.
“Zashiel, what's going on?” Toke demanded. His voice was shaking, and there wasn't a smiting thing he could do about it. She didn't reply. “Zashiel, answer me!”
He wanted to dig in his heels and stop her, but the shock had left him too weak. So he grudgingly let her push him away from the show, away from the noise, away from—
“Hey! What do you two think you're doing?”
Both of them froze—Zashiel was acting jumpier than Toke had ever seen—and spun to see Treyn making his way over to them, face red with anger.
“I let you two on this ship in exchange for work,” he hissed when he got closer, “and you want to play hooky your first day? I should throw you both—”
“Toke is sick,” Zashiel interrupted him. Toke could feel her anxiety, but she still managed to speak clearly and confidently. “I'm bringing him back to our cabin.”
Treyn narrowed his eyes. “He was fine this morning. He was fine an hour ago! You want me to believe he fell sick after...”
He looked at Toke, and his voice trailed off. He ran his eyes up and down him, taking in his trembling knees and shaking hands. Toke felt his face flush with embarrassment. He was acting like a frightened child, not the Juryokine who had saved Hashira!
I just found feathers growing out of my back, he thought. I fully reserve the right to be caught off guard by that.
“Jula ka, kid, you're as pale as a ghost,” Treyn admitted. “Maybe you are sick.” He waved his hand, dismissing them. “Fine, go back to your cabin. If a single one of my performers get infected, you're going overboard, you hear?”
Toke nodded his thanks, not trusting himself to speak, and let Zashiel lead him inside. A minute later, she was shutting their cabin door behind them. They could still faintly hear Ludsong's music and the roar of the crowd from in here, and occasionally a firework would light up their porthole, but they were alone. Still feeling lightheaded, Toke shrugged off Zashiel's hand, stumbled over to his cot, and sat down on it.
“Okay,” he said after giving himself a few seconds to gather his thoughts, “okay, so I'm... okay.”
“Tell me what happened today,” Zashiel demanded, sitting opposite him on her own cot. “Everything!”
Toke hung his head. “Well, I...”
I fixed my wings—which you don't know about, so surprise!—and went for a quick flight around Tad Moru.
“I... I left the ship,” he said slowly.
“When?” Zashiel pressed him. “And what for?”
Toke shrugged. “I just needed to get away from, you know,” he motioned with his hands, “all this for a little bit. Treyn didn't have any work for me, so I thought I'd... go for a walk.”
Smite, he hated lying to her
“And what happened on that walk?”
“Nothing!” Toke said, just a little too quickly. Zashiel's eyes narrowed. “No, I swear! It's not like I went out and... I dunno... did something to make this happen!”
He reached into his shirt again, but there weren't any more feathers. He'd pulled them all out. It hadn't hurt a bit, and that surprised him a little. He would have expected pulling feathers to feel like yanking out hair. These had come off like dead skin after a sunburn, almost as if they were going to fall out on their own.
Maybe they're not mine, he speculated. Maybe they're Zashiel's. Or even Finch's!
But that didn't explain how they'd come to be stuffed down the back of his shirt. The thought of Finch sneaking up on him just for that almost made him laugh. What was more outlandish, though? A Sorakine warrior putting feathers in his shirt... or him growing them himself?
“You're sure?” Zashiel asked, her voice as hard as an axe on the grinder. “Nothing out of the usual happened at all?”
Toke shook his head. “No, I swear! I...” He paused, and a shiver ran down his back. “Wait, there was something.”
“What?” Zashiel demanded.
“I- I had another one of those weird surges of power,” he answered.
He was in dangerous territory now. He'd had the surge while he was flying. One flap of his wings had shot him over a dozen feet up into the air. How was he going to explain what had happened without telling her what he'd been doing?
Lies. More lies.
“I got jostled in a crowd,” he said, the falsehood burning his tongue as it slithered past his lips. “Someone bumped me. I bumped him back, and...”
“And he went flying into the canal.” Toke put on his guiltiest face. It wasn't hard. “I only nudged him, though, I swear!”
Zashiel looked at him for a few seconds, and Toke began to worry she had seen through his lie. But then, without saying a word in reply, she got up, walked to the edge of the room—and slammed her head against the wall!
“Zashiel!” Toke yelled, springing to his feet. A spiderweb of cracks had spread around the impact point and, Toke was startled to see, a gash now ran from one side of Zashiel's brow to the other. “What the smite are you doing?”
He grabbed her by the shoulders, trying to haul her away before she could hurt herself again, but she brushed him off casually with her superior strength. Toke gritted his teeth. Why couldn't he have one of those power surges when it would actually be useful? He waited, ready to spring into action the moment she even looked like she was about to hit her head again. He might not be able to overpower her, but he could at least make himself weigh enough to throw her off balance.
To his relief, though, she just leaned her forehead against the wall, smearing blood on it, and...
No... way, Toke thought.
“Z- Zash?” he asked timidly.
She didn't reply. Slowly, Toke extended a hand, intending to put it on her shoulder, but stopped himself. There wasn't much he and Zashiel hadn't seen over the past year, but the only time Toke had ever seen her cry was when they'd discovered Navras' room of mutilated Sorakines. And even then, she had only cried because her mind had been broken. Tonight was different. He could tell by the way she quivered with her face pressed against the wall, struggling to hold in the sobs. Tonight, it wasn't her mind that had been broken.
It was her heart.
“Zashiel,” he said a little bit louder, “tell me what's going on!”
“I've failed.” Toke could barely make out the words with her face mashed against the wall like it was. “I'd thought... I thought what we did might fix things, but... no...”
Toke waited for her to continue, but when she didn't he clenched his fist. His wrist tingled unpleasantly with pain, but he ignored it, increased his weight, grabbed her by the shoulder, and anchored himself to the wall behind them. The sudden shift in gravity caused Zashiel to spin around like a dancer, a shocked look on her face, and Toke immediately re-anchored himself to the floor.
“Zashiel Kal'Brynden,” he snapped, pointing his finger directly into her face, “you've got exactly five seconds to start explaining yourself!”
Zashiel blinked, but then her shoulders slumped and her head hung so that her long yellow hair fell in front of her face. “It's nothing,” she mumbled.
“If it's got you this upset, then it's not nothing!” Toke argued, trying not to yell at her.
“You wouldn't understand, Toke,” she insisted. Without looking at him, she went and sat back down on her bed, her posture speaking of complete and utter defeat. “You're not a Sorakine.”
Toke barked out a laugh. “Yeah? Well, I'm not exactly human either, am I?”
That only served to make Zashiel hunch over even further. With a sigh, Toke knelt down in front of her.
“From the looks of things, I might be more of a Sorakine than we thought,” he quipped, trying and failing to sound lighthearted, “so maybe I'll understand more than you think.”
For a long minute, Zashiel didn't reply. Then, in a voice so quiet Toke almost thought he'd imagined it, she whispered, “This is what they meant. Taint not the blood, taint not the skies, lest you lose the eternal prize.”
Toke froze. Taint not the skies? Did this have to do with his wings? He looked at her, as wretched as a kicked puppy, and immediately felt bad for thinking that. Something was obviously torturing Zashiel. Keeping his wings secret from her was far from the top priority right now.
“Come on,” he prodded her, putting his hand on her knee. “I want to help, but I can't if you keep shutting me out. Tell me what's wrong!”
Finally, she looked up at him, eyes shimmering with unshed tears. Toke's breath caught in his throat, almost making him hiccup. So beautiful. Even when she was as beaten down at this, looking at her could make Toke's heart pound harder. He loved her. He couldn't stand seeing her like this. He wanted to make her happy again, no matter what it took.
Well, as close to happy as Zashiel ever is, he thought wryly, thinking back on the scowl that usually adorned her face.
Zashiel opened her mouth, and for a second Toke thought she was actually going to answer him. Instead, just like he'd known she would, she forced all the rogue emotions down inside of her, composed her expression again, and stood up.
“It's nothing,” she said, looking past him without even a quiver in her voice.
Toke sighed. It was amazing how she could just choose not to feel whatever emotions were distracting her. Amazingly infuriating. And he wasn't going to let this drop without a fight.
“Don't give me that,” he shot back, pointing at her. “Whatever's going on, it just reduced you to smiting tears! Answer me!”
“Toke, I'm flattered by your concern, but don't you think the fact that you're growing feathers is the more pressing matter?”
Toke's arm fell back to his side. In all the excitement, he'd let himself forget about the... Sucking in a breath, he reached back and put his hand down his shirt again. No more feathers, though his skin was a little pockmarked where he'd pulled the old ones out.
“All right, fine,” he reluctantly conceded. “But promise me we'll talk about this later.”
“Promise me, Zashiel!”
Zashiel sighed, but nodded. “Fine, I promise. Now...” Without warning, she grabbed the hem of Toke's shirt and yanked it over his head. Toke yelped in surprise, but the motion was so clean that it didn't snag on his head or arms. That left him with only his jacket and harness to cover his chest, though.
“Off with it,” the Sorakine girl commanded, and Toke complied, removing the leather straps and throwing it all on his bed. Putting her hand to her chin in thought, Zashiel stepped around behind him to look at his back. A moment later he felt her fingertips delicately brush his skin around the pockmarks.
The irony of the situation nearly made Toke laugh.
Any other night, I'd be jumping over the moon to have Zashiel demanding I take off my clothes, he thought. Tonight, he would have given anything not to be in this situation at all.
“Does it hurt?” she asked from behind him.
“No. I didn't even know they were there until I pulled them out.”
“How long do you think they were there?”
Toke thought about it, and stiffened a little in surprise.
“They must have grown in just today,” he exclaimed. “I took a bath this morning, but there weren't any feathers then. My back didn't even start itching until I was nearly back at the ship. This all didn't start until...”
“Until after your power surge,” Zashiel finished for him. She came back around to his front, nodding slowly. That haunted look was back in her eyes, but it vanished the moment she saw Toke looking at her. Toke sighed, but put it from his mind.
“Yeah,” he agreed. “Do you think those are what's causing this?”
“What else could it be?” Zashiel asked, going over the lean her back against the wall.
A pit formed in Toke's stomach, and he looked up at the porthole. A flash of yellow light and a distant boom marked another firework being shot off. The crowd cheered, though Inaska and the other acrobats were doubtlessly finished by now. Yellow light. Yellow feathers glowing like a piece of the sun had been trapped inside them. Sudden surges of incredible strength. Toke absentmindedly raised his hand and rubbed his wrist, which was still sore from all the flapping it had done earlier. Zashiel didn't seem to have anything else to say, so he let himself drift off into the void where he could concentrate.
Toke was a scientist. He always had been, even before he'd learned how to fight. His mind was a place of facts and logic. He didn't like this. The things that were happening to him spat in the face of logic.
Are you sure about that? he asked himself. His head jerked up in surprise. A year ago you were given the power to control gravity. Is growing feathers really where you choose to draw the line of plausibility?
Toke shook his head. That was different. By swallowing Zashiel's feather, his body had gained the ability to produce juryo on its own. That was where his gravity powers came from. It was nothing like what was happening to him now. Growing feathers? Sudden surges of incredible strength? It was almost like he was...
A chill washed down his spine. Slowly, he looked up at the Sorakine girl sitting across from him. “Zashiel?”
“Hm?” she replied without moving.
Toke hesitated. He couldn't believe he was even considering this. But he had to ask. He had to know.
“Zashiel,” he said again, “is it possible that I could be... turning into a Sorakine?”
“Don't be ridiculous,” she snapped without hesitation.
“Your feather made me able to control gravity. You're sure it couldn't have any other side effects?”
“Side effects like growing feathers?”
“Toke, drop it!”
Her answer wasn't surprising, and yet Toke had a hard time breaking eye contact with her. He looked down at his knees. What was surprising was that he found he didn't believe her. Her answer made sense, but the tone of her voice and the quickness with which she had popped off that answer... was she the one lying to him now?
Of course not! he scolded himself. She's right. The very idea is ridiculous.
And yet, he hadn't imagined those feathers.
“There has to be a logical explanation to this,” he said out loud, standing up.
Zashiel looked up at him, and that cool, collected confidence was back in her eyes again. “There is one. We just have to figure out what it is.”
“And you're sure—positive—that there's no way I'm turning into a Sorakine?”
He let out his breath, and then nodded. “All right. Fine. I guess there's nothing we can do except wait and see what else happens.”
“How do you feel?” Zashiel asked, looking up at him.
“I feel fine. A little scared, I guess.” He stopped. “No. More than a little.”
With a rustle of clothing and feathers, Zashiel stood up. The room was so small that she was able to cross it in two short strides. Toke opened his mouth to say something, but was silenced when she flung her arms around him and pulled him close.
“It's all right to be afraid,” she said, pressing his face against his shoulder so that he couldn't speak. “I would be too. But I'm here for you, Toke. I'm not going to let anything happen to you.”
Despite her comforting words, Toke felt his ire rising. She still wanted to treat him like he was helpless. She hadn't been the one to kill Navras and crash the Terracaelum. It had been him. And yet, he couldn't bring himself to snap at her. Zashiel, the beautiful Sorakine he'd fallen in love with, was hugging him. Her warmth seeped through her jacket and into the bare skin of his chest. Slowly, he hugged her back, holding her as close to him as he could.
She cared for him. Loved him as a brother. Even if she didn't love him the way he loved her, just having her here should have been enough for him. It made him feel guilty that it wasn't. He held her tighter, as if the gap between their hearts would grow smaller the closer together they were. He loved her. He loved her so much that it made his heart ache just thinking about her. Surely there was a way to make some of that love spill over from his heart to hers.
Toke tentatively raised his head from her shoulder and turned it so that he was looking at the side of her face. Slowly, he began to inch closer to her cheek.
In an instant, the hug was over. Zashiel withdrew so quickly that Toke was left with his arms hugging the empty air in front of him, leaning in to kiss a woman that wasn't there. Zashiel stepped away, facing the bed, and Toke noted her rigid posture.
Smite, he thought, frowning. All I've done is made her mad again.
“You've been through a lot today,” she said without turning around. “You should get some sleep.”
“I'm fine,” he argued. “I just...”
“Treyn doesn't expect you to come back out and work again tonight. Sleep.”
Toke's spirits fell. He wanted to tell himself that he'd been close, but he knew better. Every time he did this, he pushed her farther away. And yet, what else could he do? He couldn't ignore his feelings any more than he could ignore his empty stomach. With a sigh, he laid down on the cot and stared up at the ceiling. Outside, more fireworks shot off into the sky.
NEXT TIME: Well, I’m glad Zashiel put that whole “turning into a Sorakine” nonsense to rest. We can all trust Zashiel. She’s got no reason to lie, right? Right?