25.2 | Defiance

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By the time he crashed through the door of Dimitrovich Manor, Nika had passed out again. In a number of heartbeats, he entered her bedroom, but stopped short at the balcony's open doors and the lanky boy sitting beyond them.

"What the hell are you doing here?" Ren hissed.

Elliot Mirza turned around, jaw dropping when he beheld them.

As Ren set Nika down on the bed, Elliot crawled into the room. Crawled—as if he lacked the strength to stand.

"M-Misha told me that she was missing." He shook his head. "Oh my Oldbloods, is she..."

Ren wasn't paying much attention, too busy studying her wounds more closely. Checking his rage was a monumental task, and he couldn't stop the tremor in his hands as he lightly patted Nika's cheek.

"Wake up," he said. "Tell me what they did to you."

"I think I'm gonna be sick," Elliot exclaimed.

Ren snarled, "Don't you dare throw up."

When frigid fingers touched his arm, his focus returned to Nika. She dangled somewhere between sleep and wakefulness, between life and death.

"Tatiana," she managed. "Cave in the forest... Lu."

At that, Elliot scrambled onto the bed. "You saw Lu?"

Nika met the boy's eyes for a brief moment, then her features twisted.

"Tatiana wanted...the pendant"—ragged, taxing breaths—"...I wouldn't tell her...where it is...but then she...she brought Lu and I..."

Nika gave Ren a dire look. "They were hurting her. I had to tell. I'm sorry."

He rhythmically swept a thumb over her cheekbone. "Don't apologize."

"They'll come after the necklace."

"It doesn't matter. You did the right thing."

"I couldn't let them hurt her."

Elliot seized her hand. "Shhh, Nika. It's okay. Everything will be okay."

She kept muttering incoherently, despite Ren's attempts to find out what, exactly, had been done to her. Would they need an antidote for toxins other than belabane? Had magic been involved?

Nika was just beginning to come out of her daze when Misha burst inside, a medic trailing behind him. Ren recognized her as Val, the same one who'd helped Nika last time.

He stared, fire roaring inside his veins, as she assessed them. He'd never forget her disgust after she'd seen the massive, hand-shaped bruises on Nika's throat. What was she thinking now?

"It's not like that," said a weak voice.

Ren whirled around. Nika glared at Val, and Oldbloods be damned, there was a flare of challenge in those half-opened, emerald eyes.

Such raging defiance in this girl. Before, he'd thought it was childish and petty. But now, he knew it would save her life.

Some kind of understanding clicked between the two women, and Val moved forward, her medical kit in tow. Ren drifted back, watching from as she rapidly examined Nika's wounds.

"Flecks of belabane have been rubbed into the muscle and tissue, but not into the bloodstream... Torture techniques," Val muttered. Ren's hands curled into fists.

Val stared at Nika's face for a moment, then, without looking, she ordered Ren to take her into the bathroom. As he carried her down the hall, Nika clenched his shirt and buried her face in his shoulder. He was amazed that she hadn't shed a single tear yet. Anyone else—himself included—would've been spewing like a fountain.

When he nudged into the bathroom, Val ordered, "Put her in the tub." Then she laid out her medical kit beside the sink.

Ren obeyed, then knelt beside Nika, whose head sagged against lip of the tub.

"What can I do?" he rasped, tucking her hair behind an ear.

All the medic said was, "Get out and let me work."

She bent down and started unbuttoning Nika's shirt, and Ren immediately looked away. She was probably going to combat the belabane poisoning by soaking Nika in the water. And based on the herbs that were laid out on the counter, she would have a remedy for the infection and fever.

Ren slipped out of the bathroom and closed the door. He aimlessly walked down the corridor until he came upon Misha, whose bewilderment couldn't be masked.

"What if my dad had something to do with this?"

Ren just shook his head, unwilling to even consider that idea at the moment. Instead, he regarded Elliot, sitting at the top of the stair case, head in his hands. An occasional sniff was enough to indicate his mood.

Ren lowered himself beside the Serafi boy, the exhaustion settling thick and heavy over him. "You should go." He didn't bother disguising the weariness in his tone. "If anyone finds out you're here—"

"I'm the closest thing she's got to a friend," Elliot snapped, "so I'm not going anywhere."

Tears streamed down his cheeks, and his eyes were puffy. But there was no sign of wounded pride. He clearly wasn't afraid to cry, nor was he concerned with the emasculating appearance. Emotion didn't terrify Elliot Mirza, and Ren envied him for it.

"Well, I hope you don't mind some company," Misha said, finding a place on his left. "Because I'm staying, too."

"The more the merrier," Elliot muttered.

So they sat. And they waited. 

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