Chapter no 22

Fourth Wing (The Empyrean Book 1)

The rest of November passes without mention of what happened at Sumerton, and by the time the howling winds bring snow in December, I’ve given up hoping command will release the information. It’s not like Liam or I can directly ask the professors without incriminating ourselves for reading what was obviously a classified report-even if it wasn’t marked.

It makes me wonder what else doesn’t make it to Battle Brief, but I keep that to myself. Between that and my growing frustration over my inability to channel-unlike three-quarters of my year-I’m keeping a lot to myself these days.

“Not entirely,” Tairn grunts.

“No comments from you, not after you almost let me hit the side of a mountain today.” My stomach churns just thinking about how far he let me fall.

The first-year from Third Wing wasn’t as lucky. She lost her seat during a new maneuver and ended up on the death roll this morning.

Rhiannon swings her bow staff, and I throw my weight into a backbend, narrowly escaping the strike. To my absolute surprise, I keep my balance on the training mat.

“Then stay on next time.”

“Start channeling and maybe I’ll be able to,” I counter.

“You’re distracted tonight.” Rhiannon backs off as I regain my balance, showing me mercy no opponent would during a challenge. Her gaze flicks across the mat to where Liam sits on a bench, carving yet another dragon, and returns to mine, giving me a look that says she’ll follow up later once I’ve been released from my constant shadow for the night. “But you’re faster than you used to be. Whatever Imogen has you doing is working.”

“You’re not ready to channel yet, Silver One.”

“As if there was ever any doubt,” Imogen calls from the next mat over, where she casually holds Ridoc in a headlock, waiting for him to tap out.

To my left, Sawyer and Quinn circle each other, preparing for yet another round, and behind Rhiannon, Emery and Heaton are doing their best to coach the other first-years we gained after Threshing while Dain looks on, studiously avoiding anything that has to do with me.

Per his recent orders, Tuesday nights are for squad hand-to-hand practice, because the full academic load we’re carrying, coupled with flight lessons and now wielding instruction for some of us isn’t leaving much time for the mat. A few of the farther mats are taken up by other riders with the same idea, one of which includes Jack Barlowe.

Hence why Liam refused when Ridoc asked to spar with him.

“You’re taking it easy on me,” I tell Rhiannon. Sweat drips down my back, dampening the tight-fitted tunic I chose while my dragon-scale vest dries on the bench next to Liam.

It’s not like he needs extra practice. He’s already taken everyone but Dain down to the mat, and part of me thinks that’s only because Dain refuses to be bested by a younger rider.

“We’ve been at this for an hour.” Rhiannon swishes her staff through the air. “You’re tired, and the last thing I want is to hurt you.”

“Challenges resume after solstice,” I remind her. “You’re not doing me any favors by holding back.”

“She’s not wrong,” a deep voice says from behind me.

In my peripherals, I see Liam stand, and I mutter a curse under my breath.

“Well aware,” I say over my shoulder as Xaden passes by our mat, accompanied by Garrick as usual. It’s impossible to rip my eyes away until he passes, though. Gods, I have it bad. “Go away unless you have something useful to say.”

“Move faster. You’ll be less likely to die. How’s that for useful?” he calls back, taking up a position on a mat closer to the center of the sparring gym. Rhiannon’s eyes flare, and Liam shakes his head.


“The way you talk to him,” Rhiannon murmurs.

“What’s he going to do? Kill me?” I charge forward, swinging my staff at her legs.

She jumps over the attack and spins, bringing the staff against mine with a crack.

“You’re likely to kill each other,” Liam chimes in, taking his seat again.

“Can’t wait to see how you two function after graduation.” After graduation.

“Haven’t let myself think past this week, let alone all the way to graduation.” Not when there are some very difficult questions I’m not ready to ask.

“Look, I know you’re…aggravated by how long it’s taking Tairn to channel,” Rhiannon says, circling me on the mat again. “I’m just saying on this mat with me is a way safer place for you to take out that anger than the giant, shadow-wielding wingleader.”

“I don’t want to take any of my anger out on you. You’re my friend.” I gesture loosely toward Xaden. “He’s the one who stuck me with a shadow I can’t shake because he thinks I’m his weakness. But does he help me?” I lash out with the staff, and she counters. “No. Does he train me?” Another lunge, another clash of our staffs. “No. He’s remarkably good at showing up when I’m about to die and eliminating threats, but that’s it.” He sure as hell doesn’t have a problem keeping his eyes off me the way I do him.

“So there’s definitely some anger there,” Rhiannon drawls as she spins away easily.

“You would be furious if someone took your freedom away. If you had Liam at your door every morning until every night, even as seemingly great as he is.” I dodge one of her attacks.

“I appreciate that,” Liam butts in, proving my point.

“Yeah,” she agrees. “I would. And I’m pissed on your behalf. Now, let’s put that anger to use.” Rhiannon rains another series of moves down on me and I keep up, but only because she’s doing exactly what I accused her of and taking it easy on me.

Then I make the mistake of glancing over her shoulder, toward the center of the gym.

Holy. Fucking. Hot.

Xaden and Garrick have stripped off their shirts and are sparring like their lives depend on it, a blur of kicks, punches, and rippling muscle. I’ve never seen two people move that fast. It’s a beautiful, hypnotizing dance with lethal choreography that makes me hold my breath whenever Garrick goes in for the kill and Xaden deflects.

I’ve seen countless riders spar without their shirts these past months. This is nothing new. I should be absolutely immune to the male form, but I’ve never seen him shirtless.

Every edge of Xaden’s body is honed like a weapon, all sharp lines and barely leashed power. His rebellion relic twists around his upper body and stands out against the deep bronze of his skin, accentuating every punch he throws, and his stomach… I mean, how many muscles are there in the abdominals? His are so rigidly defined that I could probably count every single one if the rest of him wasn’t so damned distracting. And he has the largest dragon relic I’ve ever seen. Mine consumes the skin between shoulder blades, but Sgaeyl’s mark takes up his entire back.

And I know exactly how that body feels on top of mine, just how much power-

My hip stings, knocking me out of my trance, and I startle.

“Serves you right,” Tairn lectures.

“Pay attention!” Rhiannon yells, drawing back her staff. “I could have… Oh.” Clearly, she sees what I do, what nearly every other woman-and several of the men-are happily watching.

How can we not when the two of them are mesmerizing?

Garrick’s wider, more densely packed with muscle than Xaden, his rebellion relic only extending to his shoulder, the second largest I’ve seen.

Only Xaden’s reaches his carved jawline.

“That is…” Rhiannon murmurs beside me.

“It sure is,” I agree.

“Stop objectifying our wingleader,” Liam teases.

“Is that what we’re doing?” Rhiannon asks, not bothering to look away.

My mouth waters at the muscled expanse of his back and that sculpted ass. “Yeah, I think that’s what we’re doing.” Liam snorts.

“We could just be watching for technique.”

“Yeah. We absolutely could be.” But I’m not. I’m shamelessly wondering how his skin would feel under my fingertips, how my body would react to having every ounce of that intense focus on me. Heat races through my veins and stings my cheeks.

A repetitive smacking sound draws my attention to the right, where Ridoc is tapping out with zeal. Imogen drops him, leaving him gasping for breath on the mat, and an unwanted and absolutely illogical flash of ugly, twisted jealousy stabs me straight in the chest at the pure yearning she can’t hide in her expression as she watches Xaden and Garrick.

“If you guys are this easily distracted, we’re fucked for the Squad Battle,” Dain barks. “You can kiss any thought of visiting the front lines goodbye.”

We all snap out of it, and I shake my head like that might clear the dizzying need that demands I do more than look at Xaden, which is just… ridiculous. He only tolerates my existence because our dragons are mated, and here I am salivating over his half-naked body.

It’s a really nice half-naked body, though.

“Get back to work. We have another half hour,” Dain orders, and I feel like he’s talking directly to me, which would be the first thing he’s said since my memory got Amber killed.

“She got herself killed by breaking the Codex,” Tairn growls.

Sure enough, when I glance his way, Dain’s eyes are narrowed on me, but I must be reading his face wrong. Surely that’s not betrayal pursing his lips.

“Should we?” Rhiannon asks, lifting her staff.

“Yep, we definitely should.” I roll my shoulders, and we start again. I match her move for move, using the patterns she taught me, but she switches up the next attack.

“Stop defending and go on offense!” Tairn demands, his anger flooding my system and throwing off my footwork.

Rhiannon sweeps low and flips me onto my back, knocking the wind out of me as I collide with the mat.

I fight for air that isn’t there.

“Shit, I’m sorry, Vi.” Rhiannon drops down to a knee beside me. “Just relax and give it a second.”

“And yet that is the rider Tairn chose,” Jack mocks, talking to someone in his squad as he grins maliciously at the edge of the mat. “I’m starting to think he chose wrong, but considering I haven’t seen you wield any powers, I bet you’re thinking the same thing, too, aren’t you, Sorrengail? Shouldn’t you have twice the ability to channel with two dragons?”

It doesn’t work like that with Andarna, but none of them know that.

Liam stands, putting himself between Jack and me as the first trickle of air dances into my lungs.

“Simmer down, Mairi. I’m not going to attack your little charge. Not when I can just challenge her in a couple of weeks and accidentally snap her scrawny neck in front of an audience.” Jack folds his arms across his chest and watches me struggle with pure pleasure. “Tell me, though, you are getting tired of playing the nursemaid, aren’t you?” His friend from First Wing offers him something-a slice of the orange he’s eating-and Jack shoves his hand away at the wrist. “Get that noxious shit away from me. Do you want me to end up in the infirmary?”

“Walk the fuck away, Barlowe,” Liam warns, dagger in hand.

I manage one breath, then two as Jack’s gaze rises from me to someone standing behind me. That look on his face, half envy, half shitting himself, means it has to be Xaden.

“She’s only alive because of you,” Jack spits, but the blood drains from his face.

“Right, because I’m the one who buried a dagger in your shoulder at Threshing.”

Finally breathing somewhat normally, I scramble for my feet, clutching the staff with both hands.

“We could just settle this now,” Jack says, sidestepping Liam to look me in the eyes. “If you’re done hiding behind the big, strong men.”

My stomach hollows out because he’s right. The only reason I don’t accept his challenge is because I’m not sure I’ll win, and the only reason he isn’t attacking me is because of Liam and Xaden. If I attack Jack now, they’ll kill him. Garrick’s hulking frame appears to the left, and I begrudgingly add him to my list of protectors. Hell, even Imogen has inched closer, but not on my behalf.

It’s only on his.

“That’s what I thought,” Jack says, blowing me a kiss.

“You ran,” I snarl, wishing I could lunge forward and beat the shit out of him, but forcing my feet to stay planted where they are. “That day in the field, you fucking ran when it was three on one, and we both know when it

comes down to it, you’ll run again. That’s what cowards do.” Jack flushes, his eyes nearly bugging out of his face.

“Oh, for fuck’s sake, Violet,” Dain mutters.

“She’s not wrong,” Xaden drawls.

Garrick laughs, and Liam muscles Jack off the mat when he leaps at me. Jack’s boots squeak against the hardwood floor as he unsuccessfully fights to hold his ground, and Liam forces him from the gym.

With a flick of his hand, Xaden shuts the huge doors with his power, locking Jack out.

“What the hell were you thinking, egging him on like that?” Dain marches toward me, disbelief raising his brows.

“Oh, now you feel like talking to me?” I lift my chin, but it’s Xaden who fills my vision as he steps between us. The fury in his eyes is palpable, but I don’t retreat.

“Give us a second.” His gaze is locked on mine, but we both know he’s not talking to me.

My pulse skitters.

Rhiannon steps back.

“You want to tell me why the fuck you’re not wearing that?” His tone is soft but deadly as he points toward the bench where my armor lies.

“I have to wash it at some point.”

“And you thought that would be a good idea during sparring?” His chest heaves, like he’s battling to keep control of himself.

I’m just trying not to notice his chest or the heat he’s throwing off like a damned furnace. “I washed it before sparring, knowing it could dry while your guard dog keeps watch, as opposed to sleeping without it because we both know what happens behind locked doors around here.”

“Not behind yours anymore.” His jaw ticks. “I made sure of it.” “Because I’m supposed to trust you?” “Yes.” A vein in his neck bulges.

“And you make it so easy.” Sarcasm drips from my voice.

“You know I can’t kill you. Fuck, Sorrengail, the entire quadrant knows I can’t kill you.” He leans into my space, eclipsing the rest of the room.

“That doesn’t mean you can’t hurt me.”

He blinks and shifts backward, composing himself in less than a heartbeat while mine still races. “Stop training with a bow staff. It’s too

easy to knock out of your hands. Stick to the daggers.”

To my surprise, he doesn’t snatch it away just to prove he can.

“I was doing just fine until Tairn barged into my head with all his anger and distracted me,” I argue, my defenses rising like the hackles of a dog.

“Then learn how to block him out.” He says it like it’s just that simple. “What, with all this power I’m wielding?” My brows rise. “Or were you unaware that I’m still not channeling?” I want to throttle him, to shake some ever-loving sense into that beautiful head of his.

He leans in so we’re almost nose to nose. “I am annoyingly aware of everything you do.” Thanks to Liam.

Every inch of my body vibrates with anger, with irritation, with… whatever this electric tension is between us as we stand there, our eyes locked in combat.

“Wingleader Riorson,” Dain starts. “She’s just not used to the bond yet. She’ll learn how to block it out.”

Dain’s words sting like a blow. I inhale sharply and step back from Xaden. Good gods, we’ve been putting on a fucking show. What is it about Xaden that makes me tune out the rest of the world?

“You choose the oddest times to defend her, Aetos.” Xaden all but rolls his eyes as he looks at Dain. “And the most convenient times not to.” Dain’s jaw clenches and his hands curl into fists at his sides.

He’s talking about Amber. I know it. Dain knows it. Everyone in this whole, awkward room knows it. Our entire squad was there when Dain demanded I call Xaden a liar.

Xaden turns those unfathomable eyes back on me. “Do us both a favor and put the fucking armor back on,” he finishes.

Before I can counter, he turns and walks off the mat, meeting Garrick at the edge.

His back.

My quiet gasp is uncontrollable, and Xaden tenses for a second before taking his shirt from Garrick’s outstretched hand and tugging it over his head, covering the navy-blue relic of a dragon that sweeps from his waist to over both shoulders-textured intricately with raised silver lines I couldn’t see from across the gym.

Silver lines I instantly recognize as scars.

“You held your own and controlled your temper,” Tairn says, an immense swell of pride flooding my chest.

“She’s ready,” Andarna adds with a giddy jolt of joy that makes me instantly light-headed.

“She’s ready,” he agrees.

A couple of hours later, I rip my brush through my hair in the privacy of my room, still fully dressed down to my boots and armor. I still can’t believe I made an ass of myself in front of my entire squad simply because Xaden decided to train shirtless.

I really need to get laid.

I pause mid-brushstroke when a rush of energy races down my spine, dissipating in a heartbeat.

Well, that’s…weird.

Maybe it’s… No. It can’t be. It felt completely different when Andarna stopped time through me. That was a full-body flood that expanded through my fingers and toes, then…left afterward.

Another wave ripples through me, stronger this time, and I drop the brush, clutching the edge of the dresser so I don’t fall as my knees threaten to buckle. The energy doesn’t dissipate this time; it sticks around, humming under my skin, ringing in my ears, overwhelming every sense.

Something within me expands, somehow too big for my own body, too vast to be contained, and pain sears every nerve as I crack open, the sound reverberating through my skull like bones shattering. It’s as though I’ve been split at the very seams of the fabric of my being.

My knees hit the floor, and I throw my hands over my temples, trying to shove everything I am back into my skull, forcing myself to shrink.

Energy pours in-a deluge of raw, endless power-eroding everything I was and forging something completely new as it fills every pore, every organ, every bone. My head screams, and it feels like Tairn has flown too high too fast and I can’t pop my ears. All I can do is lie there on the floor and pray the pressure equalizes.

I stare at my brush, the hardwood floor biting into my cheek, and breathe.

In and then out.

In…and then out…surrendering to the onslaught.

Finally, the pain ebbs, but the energy-the power-doesn’t. It’s simply… there, prowling through my veins, saturating every cell in my body. It is everything I am and everything I can be all at once.

I sit up slowly and flip my hands to examine my tingling palms. It feels like they should look different, changed, but they’re not. They’re still my fingers, my slender wrists, and yet they’re so much more now. They’re strong enough to shape the torrent inside me, to mold it into whatever I desire.

“This is your power, isn’t it?” I ask Tairn, but he doesn’t answer.


There’s only silence.

Go figure, they’re always around, pushing into my head when I could use a little space, then nowhere to be found when it’s the other way around. I’d heard them say I was ready earlier, but I figured it would take a day or two for my mind to fully open that pathway once Tairn started channeling. Guess not.

Rhiannon. I have to tell Rhiannon. She’s going to flip that I can finally go to Professor Carr’s class with her. And Liam? He can stop pretending that he can’t channel just so he isn’t forced to leave me for an hour a day.

Heat washes over me, prickling my skin and centering low in my stomach.

Odd, but whatever. It’s probably just a side effect of the power. I throw open the lock on my door and yank it open.

My vision blurs and need slams into me, robbing me of every logical thought besides satiating the overwhelming-

“Violet?” The fuzzy shape of a man stands in the hallway, and I blink Liam into focus. “You all right?”

“Are you sleeping in the hallway?” I grip the doorframe as an image of falling fills my mind, and I feel the sizzle of flakes as they make contact with my heated skin. It’s gone as quickly as it appeared, but the driving, thundering desire remains.

Oh shit. This is…lust.

“No.” Liam shakes his head. “Just hanging out here before turning in.”

I look at him then. Really, honestly look at him. He’s more than handsome, with strong features and sky-blue eyes that are startlingly beautiful.

“Why are you looking at me like that?” He sets his knife and semi-carved dragon down.

“Like what?” My teeth sink into my bottom lip and I debate rubbing against him like a cat in heat while demanding he appease this unimaginable ache.

But he’s not who you really want.

He’s not Xaden.

“Like…” He cocks his head to the side. “Like something’s going on. You don’t look like you feel-you know-like yourself.” Oh shit.

It’s because I’m not myself. All of this, the need, the lust, the craving for the one person who I’m meant to be with…it’s Tairn.

Tairn’s emotions aren’t just overwhelming me; they’re controlling me.

“I’m good! Go to bed!” I step back into my room and slam the door while I still have the mental capacity to do so.

Then I start pacing, but that doesn’t stop the next blast of heat or the compulsion to-

I have to get out of here before I make an epic mistake and take Tairn’s feelings out on Liam.

Grabbing my fur-lined cloak in one hand and pulling my hair up with the other, I swirl the fabric over my shoulders and fasten the clip beneath my throat. A second later, I peek out the door, and when I’m sure the coast is clear, I fucking flee.

I make it to the entrance of the spiral steps-the ones that lead to the river-before I have to lean back against the stone wall and breathe through the fog of Tairn’s emotions.

Once the wave passes, I race down the steps, keeping one hand on the wall in case I’m pulled under again.

The mage lights flicker on as I approach and fizzle out as I race by, as though this newfound power is already at work, stretching into the world.

Away. I have to get away from everyone until Tairn finishes…whatever he and Sgaeyl are doing.

I stumble out of the stairwell and emerge at the foundation walls of the citadel. Snow fills the sky, and I tip my head back, savoring the brief kiss of snowflakes on skin that’s heated for all the wrong reasons.

The air is crisp and chilled, and-

My eyes pop open at the scent in the air and I whirl, my cloak whipping out behind me as I find the source of the sweet, easily identifiable smoke.

Xaden is leaning back against the wall, one foot braced on the stone, smoking and watching me like he doesn’t have a care in the world.

“Is that…churam?”

He blows out a puff of smoke. “Want some? Unless you’re here to continue our earlier argument, in which case, none for you.”

My jaw practically unhinges. “No! We’re not allowed to smoke that!” “Yeah, well, the people who made that rule obviously weren’t bonded to Sgaeyl and Tairn, now were they?” A smirk lifts a corner of his mouth.

Gods, I could stare at his lips forever. They are perfectly shaped and yet entirely too decadent for the slashing line of his jaw.

“It helps with…distancing yourself.” He offers me the rolled churam and cocks an eyebrow at me-the one with the scar. “Beyond what shielding does, of course.”

I shake my head and cross through the newly fallen snow to brace my weight on the wall beside him, letting my head fall back against the stone.

“Suit yourself.” He inhales deeply on the churam and then puts it out against the wall.

“I feel like I’m on fucking fire.” That’s putting it mildly.

“Yeah. That happens.” His laugh holds a wicked edge, and I make the utterly unforgivable mistake of turning to see his smile.

Xaden, while brooding and bossy, dangerous and lethal, is a toe-curling sight that makes my pulse quicken. But Xaden laughing, his head thrown back with a smile curving his mouth, is drop-dead beautiful. My stupid, foolish heart feels like there’s a fist around it, squeezing tight.

There is nothing I wouldn’t sacrifice, nothing I wouldn’t give to have one unguarded moment with this man I’m going to be tethered to for the rest of our lives.

This has to be Tairn. It just…has to.

And yet, I know it isn’t. While I’d admired Liam upstairs, I am completely, utterly obsessed with Xaden.

His eyes meet mine in the moonlight. “Oh, Violence, you’re going to have to learn to shield against Tairn or his escapades with Sgaeyl will drive you mad-or into someone’s bed.”

I squeeze my eyes shut just so I can escape his gorgeous face as a jolt of heat flashes through me, making every inch of my skin tingle and burn. I reach a hand out to steady myself against the wall again. “Oh, I know. I am horrified to see Liam again.”

“Liam? Why?” He pivots to face me, leaning against his shoulder. “Where the hell is your bodyguard?”

“I’m my own bodyguard,” I counter, resting my cheek on the icy stone.

“And he’s in bed.”

“Your bed?” His voice is like a crack of lightning.

I pry my eyes open to meet his gaze. The snow makes everything so much brighter, highlighting the furrowed line of his brow, the firm set of his

mouth. “No. Not that it should matter to you.” Is he jealous? That’s…oddly comforting.

He looses a breath, his shoulders dipping. “It doesn’t matter to me as long as you’re both consenting, and trust me, you’re in no condition to consent.”

“You have no clue what I’m capable of consenting-” Undeniable, unquenchable need nearly takes me out at the knees.

Xaden’s arm wraps around my waist, steadying me. “Why the hell aren’t you shielding?”

“Not all of us have been given lessons! He just started channeling before all…this, and in case you forgot, you’re only allowed to attend Professor Carr’s class if you can wield.”

“Always thought that was a ridiculous rule.” He sighs. “All right. Crash course. Only because I’ve been where you are and woken up with more than a few regrets.”

“You’re actually going to help me?”

“I’ve been helping you for months.” His hand flexes at my waist, and I swear I can feel the warmth of his touch through my cloak and leathers.

“No, you sent Liam to help. He’s been helping me for months.” My forehead puckers. “Weeks. Almost months. Whatever.”

He has the nerve to look offended. “I’m the one who burst through your door and killed everyone who attacked you, and then I removed the other threat to your life with a very public, very polarizing display of vengeance.

Liam didn’t do that. I did.”

“The crowd wasn’t polarized. They were all for it. I was there.”

“You were torn. In fact, you begged Tairn not to kill her, damn well knowing she’d just come after you again.” That point was still debatable.

“Fine. But let’s not pretend that you didn’t do most of that for yourself. It would be inconvenient for you if I died.” I shrug, blatantly poking at him to help ignore the rising tide of lust thundering through me.

He stares at me with disbelief. “You know what? We’re not fighting tonight. Not if you want to learn how to shield.”

“Fine. We’re not fighting. Teach me.” I tilt my chin. Gods, I barely reach his collarbone.

“Ask me nicely.” He leans closer.

“Have you always been this tall?” I blurt the first thing that comes to mind.

“No. I was a child at some point.” I roll my eyes.

“Ask me nicely, Violence,” he whispers. “Or I’m gone.”

I can feel Tairn at the edge of my mind, his emotions ebbing and flowing, and know the next wave is going to hit hard. How freaking long can those two possibly take? “How often is it like this with them?”

“Often enough that you’re going to need proper shields. You won’t ever be able to block them out completely, and sometimes they forget to block us, like tonight. That’s why the churam helps, but at least it’s like walking by a brothel instead of actively participating in one.”

Well…shit. “Right then. All right. Will you teach me to shield?”

A smile curves his mouth, and my gaze drops to his lips. “Say please.”

“Are you always this difficult?”

“Only when I know I have something you need. What can I say, I like making you squirm. It’s like a sweet little slice of payback for what you’ve put me through these last couple of months.” He brushes the snow off my hair.

“What I’ve put you through?” Unbelievable.

“You’ve scared me nearly to death once or twice, so I think saying please is a fair request.”

Like he’s ever played fair a day in his life. I take a deep breath and swat at a snowflake that lands on my nose. “As you prefer. Xaden?” I smile sweetly up at him and inch a little closer. “Would you pretty, pretty please teach me how to shield before I accidentally climb you like a tree and we both wake up with regrets?”

“Oh, I’m firmly in control of my faculties.” He smiles again, and I feel it like a caress.

Dangerous. This is so damned dangerous. Heat flushes my skin, so hot that I debate tossing my cloak to the ground just to get a little relief. Notably, Xaden isn’t wearing one.

“And since you asked so nicely.” He adjusts his stance and brings both his hands up to my cheeks, cradling my face before sliding them back to hold my head. “Close your eyes.”

“It requires touching me?” My eyes flutter shut at the sensation of his skin against mine.

“Not at all. Just one of the perks of not thinking too clearly. You have incredibly touchable skin.”

The compliment makes me suck in a breath. So much for controlling his faculties.

“You need to envision somewhere. Anywhere. I prefer the top of my favorite hillside near what’s left of Aretia. Wherever it is, it needs to feel like home.”

The only place I can think of is the Archives.

“Feel your feet hit the ground and dig in some.”

I imagine my boots on the polished marble floor of the Archives and wiggle them a little. “Got it.”

“That’s called grounding, keeping your mental self somewhere so you aren’t swept away by the power. Now call to your power. Open your senses.”

My palms begin to tingle, and a flood of energy surrounds me, just as saturating as it was in my bedroom but without the pain. It’s everywhere, filling the Archives and pushing at the walls, making them bow and bend, threatening to break them. “Too much.”

“Focus on your feet. Stay grounded. Can you see where the power flows from? If not, just pick a place.”

I turn in my mind. The barrage of molten power is flowing through the door. “I see it.”

“Perfect. You’re a natural. It takes most people a week just to learn how to ground. Now, do whatever you need to mentally do to wall yourself off from that current. Tairn is the source. You block that power, and you’ll have some control back.”

The door. I just need to close the door and twist the enormous, circular handle that seals the Archives off for fire control.

Desire makes my heart pound, and I grab on to Xaden’s arms, anchoring myself in reality.

“You’ve got this.” His voice sounds strained. “Whatever you create in your mind is real to you. Shut off the valve. Build a wall. Whatever makes sense.”

“It’s a door.” My fingers dig into the soft material of his tunic, and I mentally heave myself against the door, forcing it shut one inch at a time.

“There you go. Keep going.”

My physical body trembles at the effort it takes to mentally shove the door closed, but I get it there. “I’ve got the door shut.”

“Great. Lock it.”

I imagine spinning the giant handle and hearing the locks click into place. The relief is immediate, a cool blast of snow against my feverish skin. Power pulses, turning the door clear. “It changed. I can see through the door.”

“Yeah. You’ll never be able to fully block him. Got it locked?” I nod.

“Open your eyes, but do your best to keep that door locked. It means keeping one foot grounded. Don’t be surprised if it slips. We’ll just start again.”

I open my eyes, keeping that mental picture of the shut Archives door, and while my body is still heated and flushed with warmth, that inescapable, driving need is blessedly…somewhat muted. “He’s…” I can’t find the right words.

Xaden studies me with an intensity that makes me sway toward him.

“You are astonishing.” He shakes his head. “I couldn’t do that for weeks.”

“Guess I have a superior teacher.” The emotion swelling through me is more than joy. It’s euphoria that has me grinning like a fool. I’m finally not only good at something, but astonishing.

His thumbs stroke over the soft skin under my ears, and his gaze drops to my mouth and heats. Hands flexing, he draws me forward a few inches before he suddenly lets go and retreats a full step. “Damn it. Touching you was a bad idea.”

“The worst,” I agree, but my tongue skims my lower lip.

He groans and my core melts at the sound. “Kissing you would be a cataclysmic mistake.”

“Calamitous.” What would it take to hear that groan again?

The inches between us feel like kindling, ready to burn at the first suggestion of heat, and I’m a living, breathing flame. This is everything I should run from, and yet denying the primal attraction I feel is completely, utterly impossible.

“We’ll both regret it.” He shakes his head, but there’s more than hunger in his eyes as he stares at my lips.

“Naturally,” I whisper. But knowing I’ll regret it doesn’t stop me from wanting it-wanting him. Regretting is a problem for future Violet.

“Fuck it.”

One second he’s out of reach and the next his mouth is on mine, hot and insistent.

Gods, yes. This is exactly what I need.

I’m trapped between the immovable stone of the wall and the hard lines of Xaden’s body, and there’s nowhere else I’d rather be. The thought should sober me, but all I do is lean in for more.

He tunnels a hand through my hair, cradling the back of my head, angling me for a deeper kiss, and my lips part eagerly. He takes the invitation, sliding his tongue along mine with expert, teasing strokes that have me clutching at his chest, fisting the material of his shirt to pull him closer as desire dances up and down my spine.

He tastes like churam and mint, like everything I’m not supposed to want and yet can’t help needing, and I kiss him back with everything I have, sucking on his lower lip and scraping my teeth over him.

“Violence,” he moans, and the sound of the nickname on his lips makes me ravenous.

Closer. I need him closer.

As though he can hear my thoughts, he kisses me harder, claiming every line and curve of my mouth with a reckless edge that makes my body sing. He’s just as needy as I am, and when he shifts his grip to my ass and picks me up, I wrap my legs around his waist and hold on like my life depends on this kiss never ending.

The wall digs into my back, but I don’t care. My hands are finally in his hair and it’s just as soft as I imagined. He kisses me until I feel thoroughly devoured and explored, and then he sucks my tongue into his mouth so I can do the same.

This is complete and utter madness, and yet I can’t stop. Can’t get enough. I could live forever in this tiny slice of insanity if it means keeping his mouth on mine, leaving my world narrowed to the heat of his body and the skilled stroke of his tongue.

His hips rock into mine, and I gasp at the delicious friction. He breaks the kiss, sliding his mouth across my jaw, my neck, and I know I’ll do anything to keep him here with me. I want to feel his mouth everywhere.

We’re a tangle of tongues and teeth, questing lips and hands as the snow falls around us, and the kiss consumes me the same way the power had before, so thoroughly I can feel it in every cell in my body. Need pulses between my thighs, and I jolt at the simple knowledge that there’s nothing he could do that I wouldn’t welcome. I want him.

Only him. Here. Now. Anywhere. Whenever.

I’ve never been this out of control over a single kiss. Never wanted someone the way I do him. It’s exhilarating and terrifying at the same time because I know that in this moment, he has the power to break me.

And I’d let him.

I surrender completely, melting into him, my body going pliant against his and losing that mental foothold he calls grounding. A flash of light burns behind my closed eyes, followed by the boom of thunder. Thundersnow isn’t uncommon around here, but damn does it summarize how this feels, wild and out of control.

But then he breaks the kiss with a sharp gasp, his brow furrowing with something akin to panic before he slams his eyes shut.

I’m still struggling to draw a full breath when he abruptly steps away from the wall and palms the backs of my thighs, setting me on my feet again. He makes sure I’m steady and then retreats a few feet, like the distance will save his life.

“You have to go.” His words are clipped and at odds with the heat in his eyes, his ragged breaths.

“Why?” The cold is a shock to my system without his body heat.

“Because I can’t.” He rakes both hands through his hair and leaves them on the top of his head. “And I refuse to act on desire that isn’t yours. So you have to walk back up those steps. Now.”

I shake my head. “But I want-” Everything.

“This isn’t your want.” He tilts his head up at the sky. “That’s the fucking problem. And I can’t leave you out here on your own, so have just a little mercy on me and go.”

Silence ices over between us as I get ahold of myself. He’s saying no.

And the shitty part about it isn’t the chill of chivalrous rejection. It’s that he’s right. This started because I couldn’t tell Tairn’s emotions from my own. But those emotions are gone, aren’t they? My door is wide open, and I don’t feel anything coming from Tairn’s direction.

I manage a nod, and then I flee for the second time tonight, climbing the steps as quickly as possible to get back to the citadel. My shields are open, but I don’t bother stopping to shut that mental door, since Tairn isn’t barging through.

Common sense prevails by the time I reach the top, my thighs burning from the workout. Xaden stopped us from making a huge mistake.

But I didn’t.

What the hell is wrong with me? And how could I have been a heartbeat away from ripping off my clothes to get closer to someone I don’t like and even worse-can’t fully trust?

It’s harder than it should be to keep moving in the direction of my dorm room when all I want is to go right back down those stupid freaking steps. Tomorrow is going to suck.

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