Jade whirled at the sound of Zak’s voice, and he emerged from the hallway by the captain’s quarters, blocking the doorway to the med-bay. Even in the dim light, she could see him cock a black eyebrow.

“Are you feeling all right? I’m surprised to see you up and about.” Zak strode closer and stopped an arm’s length away, his hands stuffed in his pockets. “Ben is still unconscious. We’re going to try to find Finn in Lucrum to get more experienced help for him.” He studied Jade, his gaze lingering on her puffy eyes. “Can’t sleep?”

“Did you know?”

Zak furrowed his brow and tilted his head. “Know what?”

“Who I am? That my real name is Adeline?”

Zak froze. He opened his mouth, closed it, then spoke slowly. “I take it they told you, finally?” He shook his head and muttered, “And tonight, of all nights.”

She nodded and he sank against the wall.

He covered his eyes with his hand and dragged it down his face with a heavy sigh. He slitted his eyes open to look at her. “I see.”

“Why didn’t you say anything?” Jade couldn’t help the fresh tears that flooded her vision as she stared up at Zak. “How long have you known?”

He didn’t meet her eyes. “I’ve known you since you were born.” Zak’s words were pained. His gaze flicked away from her, and his brows knit together. “I was with Garnet when we had to flee the palace.” His hands fisted. “I knew when they changed your name, when they created the cover story. I promised to keep that secret safe.”

She gaped. He was there? With me? When the royal family fell in Doldra?

“And you didn’t think to mention to me, ‘Hey, Jade, you’re not who you think you are’? Or, ‘Hey, Jade, you don’t need to lay flowers at your own grave’?” Hurt leaked out with every word, and she clutched his arm until his gaze met hers. “Aren’t we friends?”

“Of course we’re friends.” His voice was low, strained, and his broad shoulders hunched over. “I couldn’t say anything. It wasn’t my place.”

“Your place?” Jade scoffed, her body tense, itching to fight. Too much emotion, too much hurt, too many lies. “Is it my place? Is this,” she gestured to herself, unable to think of what word could describe her newfound status, “why you can barely look at me these days? Because you have this opinion on who I’m supposed to be?” She whirled away, fighting the tears that sprung to her eyes. She turned and marched back, poking Zak’s chest with her index finger. “Your place is as my friend. My friend who doesn’t lie to me my entire life!”

Zak’s eyes narrowed and he straightened, looming over her. “You are my princess, first and foremost. My place is behind you, to watch your back and protect you. I’m your Guardian.”

“I thought you were supposed to be a Guardian of the Barrier.” Like your brother.

He shook his head. A muscle worked in his jaw, and his Adam’s apple bobbed as he swallowed. “I’m your Guardian.”

Tears slipped down Jade’s cheeks and she fisted her hands. “I don’t want you to guard me. I want you, as my friend, beside me.” She looked down and watched the wood blur. “I want to know I can trust you with . . . everything. With me.”

“Jade.” Zak’s calloused hand lifted her chin toward him.

She scrubbed at her eyes while trying to even out her breathing. Her lungs ached.

“You can always trust me,” he whispered. Regret and sorrow and countless other emotions she couldn’t name swam in his eyes. “I’m sorry I couldn’t say anything before. Truly.”

“Is this what you meant last summer? When you said I was so much more?” Jade tried to hold back her sniffle and failed. A fresh thought occurred to her, and she rocked back on her heels. “Is that why you defended me from Weston? Because I’m a princess?”

Zak’s lips had turned up at the edges during her first question, but his shoulders drooped at the accusation in her tone. He pulled an inky blue handkerchief from his pocket and pressed it into her hand, then stepped back with a sigh as she wiped at her eyes and blew her nose. He watched her askance, and enough light spilled from the med-bay that she could see his cheeks color.

“Partially.” Zak closed his eyes and ran his hands through his hair, leaving long dark strands askew as he crossed his arms. “I stopped him because you’re my princess. I also stopped him because you’re my friend. But it’s not my place, so—”

“What’s not your place?” Jade interrupted. “Don’t give me any of that steam about what’s anyone’s place or not. I’ve been hearing too much of that excuse.” She scuffed her boot against the floor and settled her hands on her hips. She was desperate for answers, desperate to hear him explain, desperate to understand what he was thinking behind those curtained eyes. “Please, if you haven’t ever done it before, just this once, look at me and treat me as the person I am. Not the title I was born as. Not some princess of a country that I’ve never called home. Me. Jade. The mechanic. Your friend.” Her shoulders sagged, and she dipped her head down, squeezing her eyes shut. This day had dragged on long enough, draining her of all emotional energy. “Please.”

Warm arms wrapped around Jade, and her eyes flew open. She returned the hug and rested her cheek against his strong shoulder.

“Forgive me.” Zak’s words were low, husky. “But you asked. And I can’t refuse.”

“Refuse what?” Jade clung to him, unwilling to risk him stepping away. “What I said? That I want you to treat me as me? Whales, Zak, it wasn’t an order. It was a request.” She leaned back to look up at him, fisted his shirt in her hand, and let the fingers of her other hand skim up his arm.

His eyes softened and his lips quirked in a half grin that hinted at the mixed emotions hiding within him.

Her tears threatened to overflow for the umpteenth time that evening. Why, oh why, did her heart ache at the simple sweetness of the smile that he aimed at her? It filled her soul to the point of overflowing, and she wasn’t strong enough to contain it all.

He tilted his head down, brushing his forehead against hers, his touch, soft, hesitant. Then he pressed his lips against hers.

Jade’s world flipped upside down. Chemical reactions in the boiler room had nothing on this. Molten energy flowed through her body, leaving her tingling from head to toe, and she gasped against his lips. Then she clutched the back of his head, and pulled him closer.

Zak’s hand slid under her loose braids as he crushed her body against his and deepened the kiss. His arm wrapped around her, preventing her from sliding to the floor while her muscles liquefied under the heat of his passion.

Jade’s heart hammered, threatening to break out of her ribcage, as they broke apart for air. She tilted her head back to regard him. His eyes blazed even as he offered her a heartbreakingly bittersweet smile.

Zak released her from his hold and gently ran his hand from her neck down to her fingers. She shivered under his touch. He lifted her hand and kissed the back of it, still holding her gaze. “You deserve so much more than me.” Zak shook his head with a glance at the captain’s quarters and med-room. “And you deserve better timing for all this.” He bowed low and stepped back, regret etched around his eyes. “I’m sorry.”

RJ Metcalf

Author of the Stones of Terrene Chronicles