Thomas stepped outside onto the porch to meet Lisha in the dooryard. It appeared as though she had walked here. Quite the walk from town in either direction on this road, but she didn’t seem to be bothered by it. Dressed in a pair of hiking boots, a sturdy jeans, and a light sweater she looked ready to hike a few more miles.
“Well hello there,” Lisha said.
Her long strides brought her to his side in short order. Thomas could see now why she could walk as far as she must have without being tired. His legs wouldn’t be able to take that without training. Maybe she had a combination of both long legs and training? Either way he found it impressive. What he didn’t find impressive was how close she stood next to him even though he took a polite step back.
“What brings you out this way?” Thomas said, deciding to ignore it for now.
“Oh I just thought I’d stop by and visit for a bit,” she said, tracing a finger along his collarbone. “Mind if I come in? It’s a bit chilly today.”
She should have put on a coat before coming out then, but Thomas opened the kitchen door and let her in. Her smile was warm but for some reason didn’t quite reach her eyes the way Rhae’s rare smiles did. He raised an eyebrow at the sway of her hips as she sauntered inside. Something felt off about all this, but Thomas couldn’t place it. Ruffling his hair, he sighed before entering and closing the door behind himself. He just didn’t have enough sleep to focus and deal with this right now.
Galen greeted them both with two steaming mugs of cider and a plate of fresh sugar cookies. Lisha was already sitting at the table and took her offered mug of cider appreciatively. Holding the mug with both hands, she closed her eyes and breathed in the vapors mindfully. Setting the mug down, she plucked a cookie from the plate. She took the time to examine it with a placid expression and then dipped it into the cider. Closing her eyes once more, she nibbled the dipped cookie until it was fully consumed. Thomas stood there at the door and watched her, almost transfixed. He noted how different she was from Rhae, who usually just barreled through everything. After giving Thomas a sideways glance, Galen silently excused himself to join Rhae. There was no sign of Nessa anywhere.
Hesitant, Thomas joined Lisha at the table. Clutching his mug of cider like a talisman, he stared into it as if to find courage or something. A cookie smacked him in the nose, bounced off, hit the rim of his mug, and landed on the table.
“I don’t bite,” Lisha said. Her eyes sparkled with an impish gleam. “Much.”
His brow creased as he sipped his cider. He didn’t know how to respond. Despite her politeness, it somehow came off rude to him. She didn’t know him at all yet here she was acting familiar with him.
“Oh lighten up little snow bunny,” she said. She stood up to walk around the table. “I swear to the gods I’m not here to eat you.”
“I didn’t accuse you of that,” Thomas said. Suddenly he found it difficult to meet her gaze.
She leaned over him from behind, sliding her hand down his chest. Her lips were uncomfortably close to his ear. He couldn’t pull away from her. The strong smell of apple blossoms clung to her and spun his senses. Shouldn’t he have noticed the smell before? He couldn’t be sure but he thought he heard her whispering as a finger traced its way back up along his ribs to linger at his neck. Feeling far away and dazed, his heart pounded in his ears as her velvet lips touched the crest of his jaw. His eyes closed as she tipped his head back, willing his body to move.
“Perhaps,” Lisha said, “this is what the snow bunny wants?”
Her lips were a mere breath away from his. Danger screamed through his nerves yet everything wanted it at the same time. Why couldn’t he move? Where was everyone?
“That bunny wants nothing from you,” Rhae said.
Lisha pulled away from him. The smell of the apple blossoms cleared away and Thomas opened his eyes. He stumbled from the chair, trying to clear his head. His lungs burned as he gasped for air. What was that scent she had him breathing in? Clenching his fists, he fought back the trembling too. Nausea hit him in waves as Rhae backed Lisha towards the kitchen door.
“I’m sorry,” Lisha said. She held up her hands in a soothing gesture. “I didn’t realize the two of you were an item.”
“An item? Fucking bitch,” Rhae said. She jabbed a finger in Lisha’s direction. “You fucked him up nine ways to hell and the only thing you care about is if we’re an item? Fucking twat, I’ll gut you. Sorry doesn’t even cut it.”
“So you’re not an item?” Lisha said, taking a step forward.
Rhae pushed her back and drew her knife. “Get out,” she said.
“I’m out,” Lisha said, hand on the door knob. “I wonder if he loves you just as much.”
The thrown knife missed Lisha head by two inches, sinking into the wooden door frame of the office door behind her. Melodious laughter filled the air as Lisha let herself out. Rhae kicked the door shut with a scream. Thomas couldn’t remember when he had collapsed into his vomit on the floor or when he vomited. He wasn’t able to lift his head up for that matter either. His hands shook and his limbs felt like jelly. Galen’s fingers pressed his forehead and temples.
“Let’s get him on the couch,” he said.
Rhae helped Thomas to his feet and with Nessa’s help guided him across the kitchen. As they passed the table, he looked where he was sitting. Where the tossed cookie had landed was now a crumbled mass of moldy leaves. Galen peered at it and wrinkled his nose.
“We need to call Celeste too,” said Galen.
Slowly, Thomas woke from his dreamless sleep. He vaguely he remembered his mother’s soothing voice and healing touch. Galen and Nessa came and went with the hazy time. Woven through all of that was the constant presence of Rhae. Usually angry, sometimes worried, and occasionally crying, she never left his side. Turning his head, he found her hunched over in sleep. Her arms pillowed her head on his bed with her fingers just in reach of him. Gingerly, he brushed a ruby lock of hair from her face. She really had been crying. The movement betrayed him, waking her.
“Thomas you bastard,” she said, punching his arm. She stood up and glowered at him. “You damn near died. You have any idea how scared everyone was? We had to bring you back.”
“You mean CPR?” Thomas said.
“Yes,” she said and started punching him again.
Thomas caught her wrists. “Stop. Stop,” he said. “I’m okay. You saved me and I’m okay now.”
Rhae collapsed on the edge of bed, sobbing. Her face buried in the sheets. “I thought I lost you.”
“Come here,” Thomas said, tugging her hand toward him.
She snuggled up on the bed next to him. The smell of her was clean and warm, like summer wind and sunshine. Thomas smiled into her hair, drinking in the comfort of her just being here. It felt safe to be here like this. It always did. This was home.
“You’re all I have Thomas,” Rhae said.
“I told you before,” Thomas said, “Everyday I live because of you. I’m not going anywhere. That hasn’t changed.”
“Because I fished you out of a river?” she said. Propping herself up on one elbow, she looked at his face.
“And poisoning now too,” he said, cupping her jaw and running his thumb along her cheek.
“So we owe life debts now?”
“Yes,” Thomas said. He smiled, dropped his hand to his lap and gazed out the window. “But that’s not exactly why.”
“Then why?” she said, pulling his face back to hers with her free hand.
“I live because of you,” he said. “You’re my everything. I promise. As long as you’re with me, I won’t leave you.”
Rhae nodded and rested her head on his chest. “That’s fair then,” she said. “Then you’re stuck with me forever.”
“I can live with that.” Thomas wrapped his arms around her.
“Galen said Lisha used a plant called Inlecebra Debilitas,” Rhae said, “It mimics the powers that are innate to succubus and incubus. She managed to slip it into your cider before you drank it, but most humans don’t react to it the way you did.”
“Why would she need to use that?” Thomas said.
“Perhaps Mr. Snow Bunny is sexy,” Rhae said.
“That’s not what I’m getting at,” he said. He knew this could go badly, but he needed to process this and he needed her to hear him out. “You’re not funny, I almost died.”
“Oh, so you wanted her to kiss you?” Rhae hopped off the bed and glared at him over her shoulder.
“No, now listen to me,” said Thomas. “None of this makes sense. Think about it. She’s a striking woman. Everything about her says she’s used to having men wrapped around her finger and getting what she wants.”
Rhae folded her arms but didn’t relax as she turned around. “I saw the way she clung to the detective,” she said.
“That’s my point,” he said, “and he’s not dead or we would have heard about it by now. So why did she show up here and use that on me during the first visit?”
“Why? I’m younger than the detective. In theory he should be wiser and more experienced.”
“And clearly she didn’t expect you to die from it.”
“The question is,” Thomas said, “what was she expecting?”
“To steal your first kiss from me you dumb ass.”
Surprised, Thomas’ face grew hot as he looked down at his hands.
Thomas sighed. He really meant what said by her being his everything, but did she understand that? Rhae had many suitors back on Terran. He lacked the courage to be one of them.
“What? You thought I didn’t know?” she said, “As much time as we spend together I know you have never courted a soul.”
“It’s not that,” Thomas said. “It’s just, I don’t know.” The words fumbled to a stop.
“Thomas if you are ever going to find a lady then you need to get out there,” she said. “Do you need me to give you time for the ladies? I can back off. It’s just you seem to attract the creepy ones.”
“No,” he said. “I don’t need time for the ladies.”
“Oh.” Rhae sat down in the chair by the bed. After a pause, she said, “Is it the pretty boys then?”
“Damn it Rhae.” He looked up at her. Now he had to say it and she was going to laugh at him. “It’s you. All this time. I want… you’ve been with… and… I can’t compete,” he said, hiding his face in his hands, “I don’t know how and I’m not ready.”
Rhae’s face softened as she took his hands into hers. “I didn’t realize you’ve been waiting for me,” she said, “and this whole time I’ve been angry with you for ignoring me. Now it’s my turn to wait for you.”
She combed her fingers through his hair, damp with sweat. He still wasn’t quite well and needed more rest. This was more than just an allergic reaction. Galen mentioned that it seemed the plant had been laced with a toxin of some kind but none like any he had seen. Once in a while Rhae could swear his pupils had faint red rings around them. A slick layer of sweat shined over his skin even though he shivered.
“I’m cold,” he said.
“Lay down,” Rhae said, “and I’ll wrap you up. I’ll ask Galen bring up some tea.”
Thomas opened his eyes, the red rings around his pupils were back. “Can you smell that?”
“What?” Rhae said. She tucked the blankets around him, carefully sniffing.
“Burnt mint,” he said, “It’s really faint, but it’s kind of like that white woman.”
Rhae froze. She could smell it now. Ripping the blankets off him, she smelled his chest and neck. He did smell a bit like her. Quickly Rhae put the blankets back on him.
“Get some sleep,” she said. “I will tell Galen.”
Thomas didn’t sleep. Inlecebra Debilitas was non-toxic, but Lisha mixed a toxin with it. Chances were Galen knew this and instructed Rhae to report anything odd. Rhae wouldn’t have left for any other reason. The loneliness echoed in his heart as his mind buzzed and swirled. Incoherent thoughts flickered by, teasing him. His mind reached for them, desperately as his chest tightened. What was he missing? What was he not understanding? At least now he knew for sure Lisha can weave enchantments. He knew she did more than drop a few leaves in his cider. She whispered in his ear. She traced something on his flesh. He was immobilized. With labored breath, he struggled to clear the cluttered brain fog. Everything was so sharp just moments before. Then like a ripcord, from head to toe, his blood felt like it went up in flames. A scream shredded his throat, begging for death.
“Thomas we’re here,” Galen said. He placed a steady hand on Thomas’ forehead.
“I have the rosewater right here.” Rhae set the bowl down on the chair and placed the towels on the bed.
“Rhae,” said Thomas. He reached for her blindly.
Rhae caught his hand and knelt next to the bed. “I’m here.”
“I need you out of the way,” Galen said.
She climbed up over Thomas to his other side. Since his bed was against the wall, it meant that she had to stay on the bed next to him. Glaring at Galen, she took Thomas’ hand into hers again. Galen didn’t question her. He simply nodded and began to fashion a compress with a towel using the rosewater to break Thomas’s fever. Celeste entered the room, gracing it with the light of her winged aura.
“I’m not sure because it doesn’t grow on Earth,” Celeste said, “but based on what you said, it might be Ruta Cremesin.”
“Talk later,” Rhae said, “heal him now.”
“I can only heal what I understand,” Celeste said. “If the toxins do not match the plant I’m talking about then I will fail again.”
Tears welled up in Rhae eyes. She cupped Thomas’ hand in both of hers now in prayer. “Don’t leave me,” she said, “You promised.”