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Saving Verakko: Chapter 15

Today is the day. I need to tell her everything. Verakko scrunched his chin and peered down at Lily, sleeping deeply, sprawled on his chest.

He ground his teeth. The haze of unprecedented joy that had overcome him the night before had worn off as the night had stretched on. After she’d fallen asleep in his arms, he’d finally searched his hands, frustrated to find them still mark-free.

But it didn’t matter. His eyes had changed, which meant he’d recognized her as a potential mate. Potential. He scoffed, knowing deep in his bones that it was only a matter of time before his stubborn marks appeared.

His marriage contract with Ziritha no longer bothered him either, now that he could get out of it easily by claiming Lily as his mivassi. No, the worry that had slowly seeped into his mind during the night concerned her acceptance of the bond.

How would she take the news that she was unequivocally his and he hers? That neither of them would ever be with anyone else? That the longer they were together from the time his marks appeared onward, the harder it would be for him to survive on his own?

He could keep his distance from her for a while, give her time to adjust. But once his marks appeared, it would be incredibly difficult to give her space, or so he assumed based on all the accounts of mating he’d ever heard. No individual lived happily once their mate was gone. Not a single one. There was no way of knowing how the mating bond would affect him, seeing as Lily was human. Would the bond be weaker? If his feelings for her now were any indication, no. Would he have the strength to stay away from her if she refused to accept the bond?

A slice of anxiety, different from the constant worry that had plagued him all night, hit as a thought occurred. What will my mother do if my marks do show up, but Lily refuses to make a commitment to me? Verakko swallowed. Would she force Lily to remain with him? And if she did, would Lily come to resent him?

Maybe I shouldn’t bring her to Mithrandir. He ground his molars and clutched Lily to him a little more tightly.

Lily made a small sound of discomfort, and he loosened his grip. She roused, yawning and stretching against him in a way that felt indescribably right. She gazed up at him, sleep still clouding her eyes, and smiled.

Fuck! Verakko inwardly cursed over and over as he looked at her. Couldn’t they just stay here? Pretend like the rest of the world didn’t exist?

Her eyes grew instantly worried. “Is everything okay?”

Verakko forced a smile and nodded. “Yes. I’m not looking forward to the rest of the journey, that’s all.”

Her gaze turned confused. “Wait.” She took in their position on the ground near the pool, and a crooked smile spread across her face. “Did I fall asleep?”

Verakko grinned despite himself. “You did.”

“Oh no.” She chuckled, releasing a sigh and propping her chin on his chest. “Well, I guess us both getting some sleep for once is a good thing.”

Verakko gave a noncommittal grunt. He hadn’t slept at all.

She tried to lift off his chest, but he hauled her back down.

She laughed again. “Don’t want to get moving?”

“Don’t want to go back to the world,” he said quietly.

Her fingers, which had been brushing up and down his stomach, paused, and she stared at him again with a sad smile. “We should talk, shouldn’t we?”

His stomach turned sour. More than you know, mivassi.

Lily released a sound of resignation and planted a soft kiss on his chest. “We’d better start moving soon, or I’m never going to be able to get myself to leave.” She ran her lips up the column of his throat, eliciting a low purr from him.

“Why?” he asked when she finally stopped.

She yawned again. “Anxiety-spiking pitch-black tunnels, or warm, well-lit room with a hot spring and a handsome, naked man? I need to force myself to leave now before I fully wake up and my sense returns.” Lily draped an arm over her breasts and peered around her.

Verakko nodded toward the far side of the room. “While you were sleeping, I washed and laid out our clothes, but they’re likely still damp from this air.”

As she rose to inspect the clothes, he studied the flare of her waist and the delicious curve of her ass. How long would it be until he’d see this again?

A lump formed in his throat as he watched her hop awkwardly from one foot to the next, trying to drag the damp fabric of her pants up her body. What if she doesn’t want me for a mate?

Lily brushed her hair off her shoulder and tipped her head in an attempt to see the marks from his bite. A piece of him seemed to crack, and he released a sharp exhale.

“What’s the biting about anyway?” Lily grinned at him as he dressed. “I’m not saying I didn’t enjoy it…” She padded over to him and curled her fingers around his neck, scraping her nails through his hair.

“I’ll explain on the way,” he said stiffly. Before he pulled away, he brought one of her soft palms to his mouth and kissed it.

“Are you sure you’re okay?” Lily looked at him quizzically. “Your eyes are black again.”

He covered up the strangled sound that burst from his throat with a cough. Instead of answering, he gripped her nape and pulled her in for a deep kiss. Could he ever live without this?

It took Lily a moment to open her eyes after he pulled away. He finished dressing, helped clean the small room, and waited by the door. She made a face of disgust as she slipped on her shoes.

At his questioning look, she explained, “Still wet.”

A smile tugged at his lips, and he opened the door. Lily frowned, shivering as a blast of cold air flooded through the opening, then rushed out of the room with balled fists. “Alright, let’s get this over with.”

They walked in silence for a few minutes. The mellow scent of fear wafted from Lily and scraped against Verakko’s senses like sandpaper. As the mating bond strengthened, her unrest became his. How much worse would it be once his marks showed up? He now understood why his aunt Yerew was always in such a bad mood whenever she fought with her mate, and also why their fights never seemed to last very long. It made him physically uncomfortable to know she was anything less than happy.

He studied Lily and watched her eyes continue to dart around the black tunnel, unseeing. She curled her arms into her body and hunched her shoulders, leaning into his side as he guided her through the passage.

Realization dawned on him. “Is it the size of the tunnel?”

“Is what the size of the tunnel?”

“I can smell your fear.”

She let out a small sound of agreement. “Well, yes and no. I can’t really see how big the tunnel is, but I keep imagining it’s small, and that apparently is enough to make me claustrophobic.”

“How can I help? he asked, voice tight.

“You’re helping. Just keep talking to me.” She scanned the space in front of her again. “Tell me about the biting.”

Verakko couldn’t suppress the flood of happiness he felt at her mention of his bite. “It’s something we do to make sure the female has our antivenom.”

“Antivenom?” Lily blurted, appearing startled. When he only stared at her, unsure what to say, she continued, “You put…injected me with antivenom? Why? Are you planning on biting me with venom at some point?”

Verakko chuckled and guided her forward again. “It’s for procreation. Each Swadaeth’s venom is a little different. All are deadly, but they aren’t all exactly the same. We can be harmed by one another’s venom if bitten, although the reaction would be more akin to a severe cold than death, as it would be in a non-Swadaeth. Since a child will have half the male’s genes and half the female’s, we inject antivenom to make sure the female doesn’t become ill from the child’s developing venom as it grows in her.”

He knew they were getting close to the exit because it was becoming warm, the dry heat from the Dakuun desert permeating the tunnel. Lily gripped his forearm as she shuffled through the dark and wiped sweat from her brow. How much of her current state was because of the heat and how much was a reaction to the meaning of his bite?

“So, you could get me pregnant?” she asked with an odd look of confusion mixed with something unreadable.

Verakko shrugged, feeling brief joy at the idea before a nervous fear settled in. Hadn’t she known that? “I thought you knew it was a possibility.”

An awkward twitch of her shoulders was the only response Lily gave for a moment. Then, she worried her bottom lip and said, “I guess on some level I know we’re the same species, but I never put two and two together. You’re just so different from me. It’s baffling that I might be able to have a…blue?—I don’t even know what color—baby.” Lily shook her head in disbelief and wiped her forehead with her shirt again. “It’s a good thing I have an IUD.”

Verakko scanned her body, not recalling any superficial device. “Where is it?”

She chuckled, her eyes still a bit wider than normal. “It’s inside me. A type of birth control.”

Verakko remembered Jade had been sure of her Earth-given birth control as well. Should he tell Lily her IUD might not be as effective as she thinks? “One of the humans, Jade, became pregnant while on a form of Earth birth control. I didn’t look into it, but it may be that your IUD is…ineffective.”

 Lily’s steps faltered. She stared into the darkness for a moment, then gave a deep sigh and shrugged. “Well, shit.” She laughed. She threw her hand in the air in a gesture that said the new information was just a grain of sand on an ever-growing dune. “I guess we’ll see what happens. I can’t imagine it won’t work, though. It isn’t like the pill.” She pointed, or attempted to point, accusingly at him and grinned. “But you’re wrapping it next time.”

Wrapping it? Verakko mulled over the odd phrase before the words next time registered, and his shaft twitched. The end of the tunnel came into view ahead. She’d taken the news that she could become pregnant pretty well. Maybe she’d take the news that she was his mate well too?

As soon as they got outside and she could look him in the eyes. He’d tell her then. His heart jumped in his chest with every step closer to the exit they got. Neither of them had eaten last night, and he was thankful for it, knowing his stomach was ready to turn at any moment.

When they finally reached the exit and stepped out, Verakko expelled a large pent-up breath. He pulled Lily through the door and watched her take in the first sight of his homeland.

Her eyes were wide, and her mouth hung slightly open. He peered at the scenery and tried to see it through her eyes. They were standing a few hundred feet away from the base of the black mountains. The tunnel had deposited them far from the mountains to ensure the crumbling sides, which often collapsed after heavy sandstorms, didn’t block the tunnel.

The blazing sun was high overhead, shining down on a sea of glittering black sand. Towering dunes formed farther away from the mountains, barely blocking out the view to his city, only a day’s walk away.

“It’s beautiful,” Lily whispered. She gulped and gave him a forced smile. “And a little bit terrifying, to be honest.” She reached out and clasped his hand in hers, tugging him along as she trudged forward up the nearest dune. The small gesture was so natural and affectionate, it made his breath hitch.

“It can be quite dangerous if you don’t know what you’re doing.” He stared back over the rolling hills of sand, recalling the days and nights he’d spent out here while serving in his city’s infantry. “It may not look like it, but the desert is alive. Watching where you step is the most important thing to keep in mind. If the sand looks anything other than smooth, tell me immediately.”

Lily raised her brows and scanned the ground anxiously. “Yep, that’s gonna give me all sorts of nightmares.”

As they came to the top of the dune, a glint in the distance caught his eye, and he pointed toward it. She spun, shielding her eyes.

There it was. Mithrandir. The new city, with its towering buildings, was visible from a great distance.

“Wow,” she breathed. “It almost looks like a forest. The buildings are weird. Why are they so wide and flat on top?”

With a resigned sigh, Verakko slid behind her, twining his arms around her waist and breathing into her hair. “They only look flat. They’re actually sloped inward and lined with solar panels. The mist and rain collect on the roof and are guided down through the center of the building and into large filtering systems underground. Then the water is pumped up to the top, where it falls back down again.”

She scrunched her brows. “Why? Isn’t that wasteful?”

Verakko chuckled. “No, not wasteful. The water is used as needed, and if there’s a shortage, the water is managed better. It’s an unnecessary luxury. The architect designed the building to be self-sustaining, but he also took into account my people’s penchant for extravagance.” He gestured grandly to the buildings, pretending to speak as though enraptured. “When visitors come to our desert city, they’re awed by our lush gardens and never-ending waterfalls in the center of every building.”

Lily chuckled. He shook his head, having always found the feature to be pointless and ridiculously opulent. Although the water was all used, he felt it could’ve been utilized more efficiently. A flash of excitement raced through him again. If he wasn’t marrying Ziritha, that meant he wouldn’t need to move back to Mithrandir either. He could stay in Tremanta with Lily, where technology was prized above gaudy displays.

She rested her head against his chest. “I can’t wait to see the city.”

With great effort, Verakko slipped his hands from around Lily and turned her until she was facing him. “We need to talk before we go to the city.” He ran a hand over the back of his neck.

Lily nodded slowly and glanced to him with worried eyes. “I agree.”

“I’m not sure you should go to Mithrandir. I think Tremanta would be a better place for you right now.” This thought had come to him repeatedly last night, but he’d ignored it, knowing it would mean he’d have to be apart from Lily for a short while. But the more he thought about it, the more honorable a decision it appeared to be. “I don’t know how my city will react to humans. They may not even be aware of your existence yet, and the Queen of Tremanta is giving humans certain liberties that my mother may not.” Like the right to choose not to be with me, he thought, wincing as though a knife had sliced into his gut.

Lily’s eyes shot back and forth, digesting the information, before landing back on him. A shy smile lit her face. “But what about you? Will you go to Tremanta with me?”

Verakko could feel his pulse thrumming through his body. “Yes. Eventually. I just need to settle something with my mother first.”

Her eyes brightened. “You would go with me? Does that mean we could date?” Lily’s gaze turned quizzical. “But I thought your mother had to choose a wife for you from your city.” Her shoulders slumped, but then that determined look returned to her eyes. “Do you think it would ever be possible for me to negotiate a contract with your mom? I’d only want to pretend we were trying to get pregnant, obviously, and we could keep extending the contract if that’s allowed, but it could be a way of dating.” Lily looked at him, embarrassment clear in her features. “I know we’ve already been over this… I just thought…after last night, maybe you’d thought of a different solution?” She lifted her brows at him hopefully.

“What if I told you we could be together forever, as mates?” he said hesitantly, tracking every expression that crossed Lily’s face.

Her brows shot up momentarily, then drew together. Her expression turned distant as she thought, muttering “mates” under her breath.

Verakko could heart his heart pumping in his ears as he waited with bated breath for her reply.

“Uh…” She bit her lower lip. “A week ago, I would’ve said you were crazy, but…” She nodded uncertainly, tipping her head from side to side. “Maybe if we could date a while first.”

Fuck. “There’s something I need to tell you, Lily.”

She narrowed her eyes at him. “What?”

“I lied before, about what my eyes changing means.” She remained silent, so he reluctantly continued. “When a Clecanian’s eyes change, it means they’ve recognized a potential mate.”

“It doesn’t have to do with your health?” She shook her head in confusion. “Then why did you tell me it did?”

“Well, at the time, I didn’t want to scare you away. You were already so wary of me.”

“Scare me off?” Lily studied him and crossed her arms over her chest, her confused expression becoming more suspicious by the second. “Verakko, tell me whatever it is you’re trying to say. I’m not following. You think I’m your mate? What does that mean? I thought it meant married for life. But we aren’t married, so how could we be mated?”

“When a Clecanian recognizes a potential mate, potentially the one person in the universe meant for them, their eyes will change,” he explained, trying to mentally force her to understand what they were to each other. “Then later on, when they’ve recognized them fully, marks appear on their hands.”

“One person in the universe…?” Lily blinked at him, then her lips parted. “Soul-mate.” She said the words calmly, but her eyes were alight with some unknown emotion. “You think I could be your soulmate because your eyes turned black?”

He let out an exasperated breath. “I felt you were my mate from the first day, but I was so confused, because my eyes hadn’t changed.”

“But you made me think you couldn’t be with me for some reason. If you thought I could possibly be your mate, why wouldn’t you just tell me?”

His muscles tensed at the accusation in her tone, and he began pacing. “At first, I didn’t tell you because I didn’t think it mattered. You didn’t like me very much and I didn’t recognize you, so I decided I must’ve been imagining the pull I felt toward you. But then things between us changed.”

Verakko’s gaze darted around wildly. He wanted her to understand the chaos that had been brewing in his mind. His reasons for keeping all this from her had seemed sensible at the time, but now, saying them out loud, he knew what they’d all been. Cowardly excuses. He hadn’t told her because he hadn’t wanted her to know about his engagement and treat him differently. That was the truth of it.

“I thought that maybe if my marks showed up and I knew you were my mate, everything would resolve itself, and my contract would’ve never mattered. But then they didn’t show up, yet my feelings for you only got stronger, and—”

She held up a hand. “Wait, what?” She licked her lips, and her chest started to rise and fall more quickly. She scrunched her lids closed in thought and shook her head. “You…you mean you’re married?” Her eyes flashed open at the last word, and Verakko recoiled at the anger flaring in their depths.

His skin broke out in a rare cold sweat. “No. Not married. Betrothed. But,” he added quickly as her breathing started to become more labored, “that contract will be void as soon as I announce that I’ve recognized you.”

Despite the scorching heat of the desert, ice sluiced down his back as he waited for her reaction.

Lily paced, eyes wide with furious disbelief. “This whole time? You’ve been lying to me this whole time?”

“I never technically lied…” Verakko’s words died in his mouth at the glare she suddenly leveled on him.

“Technically?” Lily spat. “Technically! You’ve let me go on believing I wasn’t good enough to be with you.”

“I never said that. You—” Verakko tried to reach out to her. She all but leapt away. Was that what she had in her mind? That they couldn’t be together because of some fault on her part? Verakko flushed with shame.

“You may not have said it, but that’s the conclusion I came to based on what you did and didn’t tell me! You said your mom, the Queen, would negotiate your marriage. You said I wasn’t an option for you and you can’t date. What else was I supposed to think? And this whole time you’ve been cheating on your girlfriend?” Lily yelled and began pacing again. Her arms whipped around wildly as she spoke. Her brows raised in brief surprise as though a thought had just occurred to her. She turned to him, seething. “You made me a part of it. Last night… I never would have… Why didn’t you just tell me?”

Verakko searched for an explanation, unsure how to make her understand that nothing but the fact that they were mated mattered anymore, but came up empty. He studied her face and winced. She was furious, spitting mad, but deep in her gaze he could see the hurt. It hadn’t registered in her at first, her initial reaction of anger overpowering, but the pain from his betrayal was rising now and settling itself alongside her anger.

“I’ve only met Ziritha a few times. That contract doesn’t matter anymore,” he pushed desperately. How to make her understand?

She paused her pacing and took a few steps away from him, a stray tear running down her cheek and scalding his insides. “Okay, tell me this. What if your eyes hadn’t changed? What would’ve happened then?”

“I…” Verakko snapped his mouth shut, clenching his jaw. Wasn’t that the problem he’d been working through for the past three days? Up until learning about his eyes changing, he hadn’t known what he was going to do.

Lily nodded, her chin trembling. “That’s what I thought. You would’ve married her, wouldn’t you? When would you have told me the truth, huh? When we walked into the city? Right before your actual wedding? Would you have strung me along until the last possible second to give yourself time to recognize me?” She shook her head and backed away from him down the side of the dune. “I know one thing. If that’s what soulmates on this planet do, I don’t want one.”

She was distancing herself from him both physically and mentally. He could see the emotion written plainly on her face vanish. Verakko cracked; he was losing her. “I didn’t know what else to do, mivassi!” he shouted, gripping his head with both hands.

“That name!” Fury flared to life on her face again. Her steps became clumsy as she backed away from him more quickly, heading down the opposite side of the dune. He followed. “Because you’re engaged! I’m the alternative.”

Lily stumbled, and Verakko’s eyes shot down to her feet. Cold terror sliced through him at the sight of rippling ground. He raised his hands. “Lily, stay still, you’re—”

“No! You…” A large purple bulb rose behind her, its thick stem slithering out of the sand and its petals swirling open. Another tear leaked out, and she focused on his eyes. “Your eyes. They changed again.”

He sprinted toward her as fast as he could, but he’d let her venture too far away. Her eyes widened, and she spun around just as the petals parted to reveal a long, deadly thorn. There was a flash of movement, then Lily was crumpling to her knees.

“No!” Verakko roared, catching her before she hit the ground. “Lily? Lily?” he yelled as he wrenched her away from the hidden curling vine-like base of the vonilace plant, now reaching out from below the sand to drag her under and siphon the moisture from her body.

“What was that?” she breathed, her eyes going in and out of focus.

“Stay awake, Lily,” he swayed with everything he had. Pain sliced through him as though someone had ripped his heart out of his chest.

Her eyes widened briefly, then grew hazy again.

“Fuck!” Verakko lifted her into his arms and ran. He needed to get her to the city. To the doctor. Lily’s lids slid closed, and she grew limp.

“Stay alive. Stay alive. Stay alive,” he swayed over and over, putting all the force he could muster into the demand.

As though the universe sensed the importance of speed, his pace suddenly increased. His feet carried him across the desert faster than he’d ever gone before. Without stopping, he peered down at his hands and saw his marks. Bright blue and taunting.


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