Venus turned to see what had caught their attention.

“Michael,” she exclaimed, rising. He didn’t look very good. Eyes sunk deep, black shadows in crescents beneath. Leaves stuck in his hair. 

How did he find us?

A pant leg was soaked with blood. He had his hands stuffed in his front pockets.

“W-What happened to you?”

“Come in, son,” Ith commanded.

Michael limped forward.

She watched him in frenzied silence. Then ran to his side, stuck her shoulder under his left arm and helped him walk. “What are you doing?” she whispered, fiercely.

When they reached Zaren, Michael gently pushed her away and knelt, letting out a grunt when his knees hit the floor.

“Thank you, your highness.”

Aetha rose from her chair and moved toward Michael. “Let me ease your pain, my son.” She lifted him easily.

Venus wasn’t sure who to focus on, worried about how Michael’s presence would affect the situation. A human meeting their Gods couldn’t be good. Yet, they seemed happy he was here, like they knew him. How was it possible? 

Aetha touched his forehead and his grimace softened. “Michael, you’ve done a great service. We are eternally grateful you brought Venus home. Why son, would you do such a thing? You’ve put your life in mortal danger.” The look on her face revealed she already knew the answer, but wanted Michael to say it. She brushed a leaf out of his hair and then walked back to her chair, sitting.

Michael reached down, felt his leg and raised an eyebrow. “It seemed like the right thing to do,” he responded. “And, thank you. Whatever you did, my leg is much better.”

She inclined her head. “Of course, Michael.” Then she glanced at Ith, touching his arm. Her movements tender, loving.

“Is that the only reason?” Ith asked, reaching over, stroking Aetha’s hand. 

“No. It isn’t. The biggest reason was that I wanted to keep Venus safe.” He turned and looked at her, his eyes filled with—she couldn’t place it. She’d kneeled next to him so he remained between her and Zaren. 

Venus quickly glanced at Zaren and noticed the straightness of his back. He seemed to be working to keep his mind clear. A part of her wanted to laugh at him, poke fun—ask how it felt to have his thoughts read like an open book. Of course she didn’t. Their situation was too serious. His face remained blank, unreadable to probably everyone else. She knew it was an illusion. After years of spending so much time with him, it’d become easy to recognize his different tells.  At the moment, his jaw clenched and unclenched. He stared down. What troubled him? She wondered what the Gods must think of whatever he was working so hard to keep hidden. 

He’s not upset I helped Michael? Maybe he knew where the conversation was headed. Should I be worried?

“You’ve no reason for concern, daughter. All will be revealed in time.” Aetha’s beautiful eyes danced back and forth between Zaren and Venus.

“You wanted Venus safe? You’ve accomplished that. She is safe. I believe there’s another reason,” Ith said.

Michael lowered his head, giving Venus a sideways glance. “Yes, that’s true,” he whispered.

“Michael?” Venus cleared her throat.

He lifted his head. Clearly, he answered, “I’m in love with Venus.”

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