Finding Ania at his door, dark hair bronzed in the light spilling out from the house, should have surprised Ced, but it only felt like he had fallen asleep without realizing. The trouble was, he couldn’t decide if it was a dream, or a nightmare. He wanted it badly enough, but he knew the conclusion.
Ania looked over her shoulder, one hand braced against the door frame, as if she was considering turning back. “Can I come in?” she murmured.
Ced considered it. Then he pushed the door all the way open and stepped back to clear the doorway.
She limped inside.
“What happened to you?” he asked.
“Trouble,” Ania said. She seemed bored with having to explain.
She took three steps down the hall and turned left, heading straight for the main room with its spread of chairs and open fireplace. He thought she might sit down – just sink into her favorite chair like she’d never been away, tear off her boots, and tuck her feet under her – but she stopped in the middle of the room. Slowly, she turned back to face him, resting her hands in the pockets of her travel coat.
“Where have you been?” Ced asked.
Ania glanced around the room, maybe marking its small changes, maybe just not looking at him. “I just came from Hillen,” she said.
“So, you were in the area,” Ced said. He took a slow walk around the room, almost sat down himself, then perched on the back of a chair. He wasn’t sure she wanted an invitation to sit.
“Is it okay that I’m here?” she asked.
Ced nodded, quick. “Yeah,” he promised. “It’s fine. Just… surprising.”
She smiled to herself. Turning, she circled toward the outside of the room, putting every chair in the room between them.
“You said you couldn’t trust me.”
Her smile deepened, but it looked painful. She ran her hand over the high back of a padded chair. “I’ve learned a thing or two about trust since then…”
He watched her shift her balance off her bad leg, then limp through the next step. “What happened?” he asked. He couldn’t keep the weight of concern out of his tone.
“Trouble,” she repeated, and the word seemed heavier in her mouth as well. She looked at him directly, for the first time since she’d entered the room. “It was only half my fault.”
“Ania,” he began.
“Don’t.” She came to a quick stop. For one instant, her gaze sharpened to a glare, then she pulled in a breath and relaxed. “You brought me into all this,” she said slowly. She shook her head, almost laughed. “You think when I was little I bragged to the other kids about growing up to be a hired knife one day? Or now?” She spread her hands. “It’s the only thing I’m good for anymore, so don’t look all shook cause I left here, but I’m still doing it.”
Ced held his teeth together. None of his ready responses – all warnings and lashings – would come out well.
“And you know, I say trouble, and I feel like you know exactly what I mean,” she said. “Because you’ve gotten me into enough, you know what it is. Like, I don’t have to tell you that I spent some part of the last week not sure how many heartbeats I had left, because… we’ve done that together.” She checked his expression, then nodded to herself. “Yeah…”
“So, you’re back around to blame me one more time?” Ced asked.
Ania looked down again, sinking back into her pained smile. “All those million times I was sitting next to you, thinking I might die… All those million times I was counting heartbeats…” She let out something might have been a laugh. It might have just been a need to breathe out. “The count always came up higher the closer you were to me.”
Surprised, Ced froze.
She looked down, shifted off her bad leg again. Her voice dropped. It lost its bite and came out on an exhale. “Funny how I never could put together that that was trust…”
Ced looked at the chair in front of him. He held his breath, waiting for her next word. Time drifted past, and he started to hear every creak in the room. The breeze hissed outside. Something moved upstairs. After a moment, he realized he hadn’t heard her breathe either.
He waved a hand at a chair.
“Sit down,” he said.