“Asa?” Willow asked hesitantly.
She had been hovering in the back of the room since Asa first entered. They had more personal space now than any of them had in months, but they rarely had time to use it. They were both busy helping Yuri and Yuri was busy becoming the person he had trained to become.
He could tell from the second he walked in that she wanted to ask him something, but for some reason, she hesitated to speak up for several moments. She stopped and stared at him, neither of them seemed to be able to break that spell for a minute that threatened to stretch into eternity.
In some ways, all the familiarity they had managed to develop over the past weeks had evaporated as soon as they returned to Detreya. He was not sure about the exact cause of the increasing distance, but he knew that there was more stress in their lives now. It might be even more stress than when they were hiding out in the desert. He wanted to reassure her somehow that everything would be okay once they readjusted, but he was not so sure himself.
He always assumed that Yuri would someday be Duke of Detreya. He had been handpicked for the position. Asa told himself that he accepted it and he would adapt to it when the time came. Now that time had arrived and he was not so sure it was possible for things to ever go back to the way they were before. It left him with a hollow feeling in his chest. They all needed time to adjust, but in the meantime, they were missing a critical source of comfort and support during this period of adjustment. He wanted to believe that they could bridge the distance between them if they just tried to put in a bit more effort.
He smiled and turned to face her, “Hey, Willow.”
She took a deep breath and seemed to relax a bit. She smiled at him but did not seem to be ready to say anything more.
“It’s been a crazy couple of days, hasn’t it?”
“Yeah,” she readily agreed. “I think this might be the first time we’ve been alone together since everything just went wild.”
“I-I didn’t want to say anything around Yuri because he’s got more than enough to worry about right now—not that I don’t think you have plenty to worry about too—but I thought maybe you might be a little less distracted,” she started off slowly enough but her words started to pick up pace immediately and she quickly became difficult to understand.
“Whoa. Slow down.”
She laughed nervously and picked at her fingernails. She looked down for a moment and when she looked up again she seemed to have regained some of her composure.
“I can’t stop thinking that I should try to find a way back home.”
Asa thought he had prepared himself for just about anything she might say to him, but he had not expected that. He almost forgot she was not from this world. After spending so much time together, he found himself thinking of her as someone who just belonged with Yuri and himself. Now he was reminded that she was from somewhere else and she wanted to go back.
She wanted to leave them.
A jolt of ice-cold terror shot through his veins. He only felt as though he could handle all of this because he would not be alone. Without Willow, he did not know how he would cope while helping Yuri restore Detreya to order. More than a small part of him wanted to insist that he could not help her just to increase the odds of her giving up and staying. He cared about her too much to do that to her. It might be hard on them all to be separated, but if that was what it took to make Willow happy, he knew that he had to give it his best try.
She looked uncomfortable, shifting from one foot to the other. He knew he had waited too long to answer and now he did not know how to make it right again. If Yuri were here, he would jump in and smooth things over, but she had specifically excluded Yuri from this discussion to spare him the worry. That left it all to Asa and he was seriously screwing it up.
“It’s okay if you don’t have any idea how I could go home. I just thought since this is where Yuri disappeared from and where we both ended up coming back to, this might be the best place to look for a way home.”
“No. You’re right. There are some people in the city who might be able to get you some answers,” he explained quickly before things got any more uncomfortable.
“Oh,” she said. Her eyes lit up.
He had given her hope. It was not much, but the amount of emotion she saw in her eyes, he realized she was clinging to every breadcrumb. She deserved more information.
He sighed and pushed his hair back from his face. He would rather not dwell on how or why, but dealing with crowds always managed to make him feel grimier than anything else. He needed a bath before he could start to feel like himself again.
“We’ll have to wait for things to quiet down a bit, but I know a priest that might have answers to some of your questions,” he offered as a sort of diffusing statement.
Some of her enthusiasm certainly abated. The bright gleam in her eye dimmed a bit. The last thing he wanted to do was dangle hope in front of her and then snatch it away, but he could not imagine having a chance to find the old priest or Willow having time to talk to him until things settle down a little more.
She sighed and crossed her arms. “Is this as hard for you as it is for me?”
He tilted his head, unsure of exactly what she meant. Of all the possible options, he felt fairly sure he could answer in the affirmative to any of them. Until he knew for sure, he held back and waited.
She started to pace back and forth across the room. Asa knew she was getting herself worked up about something, but he hoped she would talk through it and manage to calm down.
“It’s hard watching everything change again and again. I’m always left wondering what my place will be now.”
“You know you always have a place with me and Yuri.”
“I know. I mean, I know you say that, but it doesn’t always feel like there’s room for me or reason for there to be room for me. It doesn’t feel right to commit myself to anything while I’m thinking about going home.”
He hesitated to do or say anything while she was still pacing and working herself up. It would be too easy to say the wrong thing and make the whole situation even more awkward. When she stopped pacing, he took the chance and moved over to put a consoling hand on her shoulder.
She turned toward him suddenly and hugged him. She pressed her face against his shoulder.
“I’m sorry.” Her voice was muffled but he understood her perfectly.
Her capricious changes in mood constantly caught him off guard, but he was at least able to offer her some comfort at the moment. If she wanted to be held, he could do that. He held her close and stroked her hair. For some reason, it was always easier for him to help when he did not need to talk. No matter how careful he tried to be, when he tried to console her with words, he always ended up feeling as though he put his foot in his mouth.
He was not sure whether he was helping or not at first. Then he heard her sigh and felt her shoulders relax. It was not much, but it was enough for him to know that he was doing something right.
She sighed again and took a half step back from him. He released her from his embrace and waited to see what would happen next.
“I’m sorry. I know that I end up making everything so much harder for you and Yuri. As long as I’m thinking about going home, I’m not committing to a relationship with you and that’s not fair to you guys.”
“It’s okay,” he tried to reassure her.
She stepped back, increasing the distance between them by several feet. “It’s not okay.”
He heard the threat of tears in her voice. He had trained to diffuse all sorts of tense situations, but dealing with a crying girl was not one of them. As long as she was able to hold it together, he might be able to handle this conversation. Once she started crying, he was not sure he would know what to do or say.
With a deep breath, she appeared to regain a bit of her composure before continuing. “You both deserve better than someone who always has one foot out the door. I know Yuri was looking for someone for a long, long time and maybe I’m not her.”
“I think you are exactly who Yuri was looking for,” he insisted. With her holding her tears at bay, he felt as though he could handle talking to her without fear of breaking her. “The way I see it, that search is in the past. It doesn’t matter at all now if you are who he was looking for because now that we know you we both love you.”
Words were not his forte, but in this one instance, he seemed to have gotten it at least right enough. He even managed to get a faint glimmer of a smile to appear on her face.
“If you want to go home, Willow, we’ll support you.”
“Yuri won’t want me to go.”
He smiled and resisted the urge to just gather her into his arms and reassure her that everything would be fine. He had gotten to know her over that past few months. She was often homesick and sometimes she seemed to want to distance herself from what was happening around her. Now she seemed conflicted about leaving, even though it has obviously been on her mind often. Whatever was going on with her now, he just hoped he did not make her feel worse by saying something wrong. There had to be a reason she decided to talk to him alone, and he hoped it was not just because she thought Yuri was too busy to talk.
“I don’t want you to go either, but if that’s what you feel you need to do, I’ll help you go home.”
She hugged herself and looked down at the floor a few feet in front of her toes, causing her hair to fall into her face. Without looking up she asked, “Will you help me tell Yuri? I don’t think I could get the words out if I tried to do it alone?”
“Of course,” he assured her. “Anything you need.”