Caught up in his own research, Sergei had given little thought to the emotions coming down the mental link he shared with his wife, Ree. Fascinated focus was common enough and he had long since learned to tune out the random snatches of words and sentences that came through when her preoccupation caused her to think loudly. However, nothing could have distracted him from the sudden feeling of despair that filled him. With Rasputin dead, her inheritance secure, and their first child on the way, he had not expected to feel that emotion from Ree any time soon, if ever again.
Where are you? he called, abandoning his own work to rush to her side as soon as he got the impression of her location by the far windows. The De Julie library being both large and well stuffed with shelves of books, it took several minutes to reach her. In that time, the despair had faded some, but she was clearly still in shock and had failed to express any kind of coherent words.
He finally found her curled in a chair, staring down at the book in her hands while tears streamed down her cheeks. Crouching before her, he set the book in her daily shrinking lap and gathered her hands in his.
“Love, talk to me. Vhat is the matter?” he said, the strength of his accent expressing the depth of his concern.
Ree savored the presence of her husband, taking a deep breath to clear her mind as she felt the familiar clasp of his hands about hers. Since they first met there had been something magical about the feel of his touch. She had once savored the stolen moments with him, storing the memories for an empty future she expected to live without him. Even now, married almost five years, she sought to store away the memory of his every touch and the peace it brought her.
But right now, the memory of how long they had been together only made her discovery all the harder to accept. She projected a request for a moment of peace, and basked in his presence until she felt she could speak.
“I found a book,” she began simply, trying to sort out her thoughts. “Hopefully something new because I could have sworn we tore this place apart when we were looking for references for Belle. Gotta remember to ask the librarian, what’s her name…” She was stalling and she knew it. Finally, she slipped one hand from Sergei’s grip and held out the book she had been reading earlier.
“The Balance of Power?” Sergei read quizzically. “I certainly don’t recall this one.” And he didn’t how it could have instigated such a sense of despair earlier.
“It’s about gifts other than magic and how to train them. Or at least, there are a few chapters on most of the major gifts, and some of the minor ones.” She had to pause and take a deep breath as tears threatened again. “The main focus is on dealing with those who have a mixture of more than one gift.”
“Like Belle,” Sergei breathed softly, his free hand running reverently along the edge of the cover. Ree nodded, and though he was not looking at her, he could sense her agreement. “This would have been very useful. Much easier than piecing something from all those old scrolls.”
That actually garnered a chuckle from Ree as she remembered the long hours spent in libraries all over the world trying to glean some sense from moldy old papers that discussed things people had long since forgotten. The laughter wrung a smile from Sergei as he looked back up at his wife’s face.
“I think the author used some of those scrolls, maybe even the same copies. There is a reference to that awful Sanskrit one we found in Calcutta … Only I think he understood Sanskrit better than any of us.” Ree couldn’t help but feel that they had failed all those years ago.
“And half a dozen other languages I’m sure,” Sergei said, projecting reassurance. “We were seventeen, love. And we still succeeded where all the people Sarah had hired failed every time.” His free hand claimed the book from her and set it on the table beside them before creeping up to caress her cheek. “Belle said herself that she felt better than any other time in her life.”
Ree sighed. “Yet maybe not for the reasons we thought,” she said plaintively.
“All right, love, up,” Sergei coaxed. “If this is going to be a long conversation, I am not having it on my knees.”
“Getting stiff, old man,” Ree teased as she stood, letting Sergei claim the seat. He was only a year older than her but years on the run and the abuse of that day had left both of their bones a bit sensitive to the vagaries of the world.
“Old man, eh,” he mock snarled, grasping her about the waist and pulling her down into his lap. His arms wrapped tight about her, cradling both her and their unborn child as he kissed the top of her head and pushed a memory from the night before down their mental link. “I seemed flexible enough for you last night,” he teased back as she blushed.
“Aye, well enough,” she said with a smile and tilted her head until she could steal a kiss from his lips. For a moment she considered distracting him further and just dropping the subject. She knew it would haunt her, however, and he deserved to know.
When he felt her determination, he encouraged her to lean into his shoulder and said, “Now that we are comfortable, explain. What have you found?”
“Apparently, blended gifts are notoriously unstable, and the stronger they are, the more unstable they are.” She shuddered at the descriptions of the results of unstable gifts the book had contained. “Given how strong Belle was, it was a miracle she was still sane when we met her.”
“Belle’s sanity was questionable from day one,” Sergei quipped, trying to lighten the mood again.
“Really, caro. This is the woman you planned to marry,” Ree teased back though her heart wasn’t fully in it.
“And would have done happily,” he countered, his tone a little sad. Part of him would always long for his lost love, even as he knew part of Ree longed for her as well.
“Aye, I know,” she said softly, nuzzling her head against his shoulder as she remembered the love that practically radiated from the duo almost from the day they met. Everything she wanted and everything she thought she would never have, all rolled into one. She both longed for those days of complete companionship and never wanted to go back to the heartache she had lived with constantly, loving Sergei completely and refusing to admit it even to herself for fear of losing the deep friendship she shared with both of them.
“Belle was always a bit odd, but so were we all,” Ree said with a sad smile. “How much was from her family and how much from her gifts we may never know. However, I do fear that she was on the path to true insanity, and it would not have been pretty for her or anyone around her. On that, the author was quite clear. Apparently, he knew a telempath who lost control of her mind when he was a child.”
“Oh my,” was Sergei’s only reply. He stared at the window casement as he imagined the damaged possible from a gift such as Belle’s. Telempathy had quite a potential for misuse, manipulating and maybe even destroying the minds of those around the bearer, if it were strong enough. The thought of that happening to Belle … no wonder Ree was so distressed.
Ree felt him come to his conclusion, and wished that were all she had learned. “No, that’s not all. There is no way to train away the instability.”
“But Belle was fine,” Sergei protested. “I don’t know what it was that finally settled things in the end, but she was fine.”
“Yes,” Ree said, “she was fine. But not because of the meditations and potions. She was fine because of us.”
Sergei was puzzled by that statement. Ree was hiding something, and he didn’t know quite what. “Explain,” he begged.
“The only way to stabilize a mixed gift is to find several people, each with one of the gifts in the mix, and for them all to bond. The minor gifts provide stability for the mixed gift, and the mixed gift enhances the minor ones,” Ree said flatly before turning her face into Sergei’s shirt and waiting for him to parse it all out.
At first Ree’s words made little sense, but Sergei worked over it for several minutes. Belle had a gift that was a powerful mix of telepathy and empathy. If the book was right then she would need a bond with a telepath and an empath to find stability. He was a telepath of middling ability, a gift he had honed in his youth as a tool to help survive his rather horrific family. The bond he and Belle had shared had become unbreakable by anything but death … but there had been no empath. Unless …
“You’re an empath?” he asked in surprise. That was something he had never even suspected.
“It’s the only explanation,” Ree said with a shrug. “I’ve always been a little sensitive to the emotions around me, but I thought it was just a good grasp of body language … though it would explain why I knew about you and Belle immediately.”
“You did seem a bit different the next day, not that you weren’t pretty quiet most of the time,” he said contemplatively, thinking back to the fond memories of those early days together. “I just figured we were radiating that horribly in lust air that teenagers are so good at.”
She shook her head and in an embarrassed tone said, “No, I knew the night before. It’s not something I’ve ever been able explain, or dared ask about. But I was sitting in the library doing homework and just knew you two had gotten together. I think that’s the same instant I first realized why I cared, or at least part of it.”
“Hmm?” His inquisitive noise was meant to encourage her to continue, both because she sounded like she needed to say this and because he was rather curious. Even now she was rather closed lipped about her deeper emotions in those days. At the same time, his hand slipped through her hair in a manner he knew she found deeply comforting. It was something her mother used to do when she was a child.
“It was like I had an epiphany,” she said, grateful for all his comforting actions. “Between equations I just knew I loved you … and that you and Belle were together. I spent the next few days convincing myself the whole occasion had been some kind of dream. Maybe I had a crush, but I couldn’t have known about you two until I saw you again.”
“But it wasn’t a dream,” he said. It wasn’t a question. He had always known his wife was something special, he just hadn’t known how. They had come to expect the empathic aspects of their bond back before that day, when Belle had been alive to be the cause. Somehow, they had never questioned its continued presence.
There was one more thing that he understood. “And I wasn’t your only concern that night.”
Ree couldn’t repress the swirl of confusion and dismay that rang between them, but neither could she deny the truth of his words. “I’d been exposed to such things as a child. DC isn’t the most liberal area, but neither is it the most conservative … but my grandmother was very strict about certain things. I knew very early on that I would marry to strengthen the family and bear an heir to carry the family on. That I might have feelings for a woman … it wasn’t even to be thought … and so I didn’t. I didn’t even understand, just filed it under friendship since that was an acceptable category and didn’t think further.”
“There are days I would like to kill your grandmother for what she has done for you,” Sergei snarled softly, his fingers tangling in her hair in his frustration.
“She can’t touch me anymore,” Ree reassured her husband, the fingers of one hand weaving through his where it rested against the bulge of their child. “And despite it all, I think I turned out pretty well.”
“Da, I’ll stand by that,” Sergei agreed, tilting her head up to plant a kiss upon her lips. “And someday we will finish deprogramming all those little quirks she left behind.” Ree snorted at his choice of wording, but nodded. “So, these bonds needed to find balance, they are bonds of love?”
Ree nodded again. “The mental bond we share is a side effect, far as I can tell. You and Belle bonded when you admitted your feelings for each other, and it became stronger the longer you were together. I joined you when I finally admitted to myself that I didn’t want a life that didn’t include both of you. It was as close as I could come to consciously admitting my love. Or maybe Belle knew something more and just didn’t bother to point it out to both of us.”
Sergei chuckled. “Da, she was strong enough to know both of us better than we knew ourselves.”
“True. I think that day had never happened, I might have sorted myself out eventually. Lord knows you two were a horrible influence on me in every other way.”
Sergei chuckled. While Belle’s forward and shocking manner had never fully rubbed off on either of them, both had come out of their shells in many ways thanks to the brash southerner. With more time together, who knows what might have happened. Especially since he’d had the occasional thought in that direction himself, that he’d never felt free to voice.
“I never would have been able to explain it to my grandmother.” Ree sighed. “In some cultures our relationship would have been considered the equivalent of marriage. That would have solved a few things with her.”
“You mean I had two wives?” Sergei said, admitting to himself that phrasing of it was kind of appealing. “For that we would have just kidnapped you away from her.”
“Men,” Ree said and elbowed him in the ribs. “Anything that includes multiple women makes them happy.”
“Hey,” he protested. “Not just any women make me happy.”
“As long as you limit yourself to window shopping,” she said in a faux resigned tone, elbowing him in the ribs again. “Though you could have as easily ended up with a wife and a husband depending on the circumstances.”
“Nyet,” he said fondly. “Bonds of love, remember.” He had never imagined loving two women at once, but now he could never imagine loving anyone but his Belle and Ree.
Ree laughed. She knew what he was thinking, and quite agreed with him. She could not imagine giving her heart to anyone but Sergei and Belle. But that thought reminded her of the last thing she had read in the book.
“There’s something else,” he said, catching the change in her mood almost as fast as she did.
“The last section I read was on what happens if a member of the group dies,” she whispered, her heart aching for her lost friend.
“We pulled through, love,” he replied, kissing the top of her head.
“But if Rasputin had chosen to focus on you or me instead of Belle …” she started, an odd sense of panic filling her mind. He cut her off before she could work herself into a frenzy.
“Then those who survived would have held together,” he assured her, even as he felt her firm disagreement.
“No, balance would have been lost,” she said with a shake of her head. “We were like a stool with three legs. Remove one leg and the whole thing collapses. Belle’s gift would have gone unstable again and taken the other of us down with her.”
“Insanity and death,” he said, the consequences sinking painfully into his mind. Now he really understood what so upset his wife. Given the number of times each of them had wished it had been themselves that died rather than Belle, it was hard to discover the urge to be grateful she was dead.
“Pretty much in that order,” she replied. “Especially give the state we were in.” Those long months of recovery had been hard enough. It shook her to the core to think that it could have included a long descent into madness that no one would have understood.
“Then how did we survive?” he asked. “If the three legged stool analogy is accurate, we were still short a leg.” As he spoke he held her all the tighter, her physical presence in his lap reminding him that they had survived, no matter what that author said, and they were now truly building their lives together.
“Most of the time …” she began hesitantly, “loss of one leads to the death of all … if not immediately than over the next few years … Basically a couple of miracles let us survive that day, and a few dozen more ensured we never fell into a deep enough depression at the same time. One of us was always there to talk the other back into life. The hunt for revenge might have been a factor too.”
Sergei let out a bark of laughter, though it was a bit harsh given the mix of emotions rolling through him. “Revenge, the urge to tweak the hell out of your grandmother, the desire to save the world … and now we have this.” He caressed her stomach, still amazed by that sign of a growing new life.
“No more death,” she said, setting her hands atop his.
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