I’d been in my fair share of bad spots: getting stuck in the wish factory barracks, the dragon incident, the grouslie attack, getting pinned down in the Unsettled Lands with it trying to kill me… I could rehash the ugly situations I’d been in all day, but I wasn’t looking to drag the point out. The heart of the matter was that I’d been in more unfavorable predicaments than I cared to remember. And yet any of those times were preferable to the one I was in right now. Wrists and ankles tied, having fallen on my ass with Hawk kneeling in front of me, smirking as if I’d just proven him right once and for all. “I did warn you this would happen if you insisted on staying in Salem. How many times did I warn you?” He squinted his steel eyes as he rested a muscled forearm on a bent knee, impervious to the fifth wind that shredded the rest of us. “I know you received my messages, so why didn’t you move to New York like I told you to?” He was still handsome in that rugged, ruthless way I remembered. He had the kind of look that drew you in at your own peril. For a little while there, I’d begun to trust him more than anyone. Come to look to him for answers. I’d done the unthinkable: I’d trusted him. And he was starting off our reunion with a reminder of exactly why I’d cursed him every day of the last couple of months. He’d used me up for months, sealing the deal with a kiss, before he tossed me away because it had suited his purpose. Like he told me to. Same Hawk, different day.
He still thought I would do as he directed, like I was the lost witch who’d just landed in Xest that first time, the one he’d saved from the wish factory. All those ignored letters hadn’t clued him in. Well, I wasn’t the same Tippi, not by a country mile. I’d learned a lot about myself since I’d allowed him to run me out of Xest. I guess that tended to happen after enough bumps and bruises. You toughen up, you build scar tissue—you adapt and grow. I’d adapted, and I was about to give him a good lesson on exactly what I’d learned. He stayed in his current position, saying nothing else as he waited for me to respond or say something silly, like Oh, of course you’re right. I made an error in judgment. Hell would freeze over before that happened.
Actually, considering how cold my butt was and my current situation, hell might have indeed frozen over, and it still wasn’t going to happen. My relationship with Hawk, or the one we’d had, ended the day he’d forced me out of Xest. I would never bow to his wishes again. I’d sworn to myself if I ever managed to get back here to Xest, I would do things my way. “I have no need for you or your lectures on where you deem I’ve gone wrong.” I wouldn’t bother filling him in on how much I’d wanted to get back here since the minute I’d left. If staying in Salem had gotten me back here, then it wasn’t a mistake. I was right where I belonged, finally, after months. There was only one thing I needed from Hawk before I didn’t care if I never saw him again. I thrust out my hands.
“Are you going to untie me or not?” He pulled a knife out of his boot and then cut the rope tied around my ankles. “If you actually knew how to listen, I’d continue to try to talk sense into you, but I know better.” As he moved to my wrists, it was obvious he was making sure none of his exposed flesh touched mine. I was all too aware of the sizzle our contact would have, and he clearly was as well. Seemed some memories lingered strong for both of us. I’d tried to bury the memory of the exhilarating sizzle a mile deep, right underneath the day he’d forced me out. So, if he was avoiding any kind of touch for my sake, he needn’t bother. A little contact wasn’t taking me down so easy this time around. The only contact I’d welcome would be in combat. I got to my feet, happy I had my jacket for this abduction.
Too bad I hadn’t had some warning and been able to pack a bag. Not the same problem it was the first time around, when I’d been dropped with nothing but my pajamas in the middle of a place I’d never imagined. I knew what I was doing this time, and I had some means. Zab could probably transfer my money back from dollars to coins, and I’d pick up a few things tomorrow. Although I’d need a few to get a hotel tonight. Did they have hotels in Xest? Couldn’t remember any, but I’d figure something out. I also had the minor problem of someone wanting to use me again. Whoever had paid for my abduction this time hadn’t been Hawk, the way Braid and Spike had taken off. As much as limited contact with Hawk would be nice, he must’ve known something to show up here and now. What was he up to, anyway? He’d moved a bit away and was scraping at the ground with his boot.
“Do you know if it was Marvin again?” You’d have thought Marvin would’ve given up on me working in the factory, but some people would always dig in. I mean, what use would I be when all the dandelions I’d touched had blown up? If he brought me back, he might end up losing his contract for magic with… Well, whomever. “I don’t know who hired them. Someone overheard them talking about a job involving you, and they called me. I didn’t get any other specifics.” It was likely Raydam. Or not. I wouldn’t work with him anyway, so wouldn’t he rather have me in Salem? When I did eventually figure it out, I’d probably thank them. They’d gotten me right back where I wanted to be. When they eventually came for me again, we’d have a little chat about how things weren’t going to work out the way they wanted, and it would be done.
Maybe whoever sent for me didn’t really know who I was? Maybe they’d heard some rumors and thought I’d be useful and that they could use me. Although Spike and Braid had talked about how I was stronger, so the person who hired them must have known something… Didn’t matter. That was a problem for tomorrow. There was plenty enough to do tonight. I was brushing snow off my pants, getting my bearings, when the sound of water hit my ears. I turned around in time to see Hawk closing his flask. Oh no, not again. That puddle better be for him alone. I was done being told where to go and what to do. “What’s that?” I asked, pointing at it like it was the doorway to hell.
“I’m taking you home,” he said matter-of-factly as he tucked his flask inside his jacket. “You’re not taking me anywhere. I am home.” I took a step away, emphasizing my point. The days of Hawk dictating my every move were long over. I was my own agent. Had been since the day he kicked me out of Xest. “You’re going back.” He reached a hand into his pocket, looking for salt, as if his declaration was enough to make me fall in line. I could make a run for it but didn’t.
Those days were over, too. If there was one thing I’d learned about myself since this all began, way back with a séance, a ghost, and a bad debt, it was that I had no taste for running. It didn’t feel good, honest, or dignified. Running, to put it plainly, sucked. So did hiding, and that was all I’d done my entire life. From now on, the only time I’d be running or hiding was if a monster of biblical proportions was breathing fire at my back. “I’m not going anywhere.” He looked at me, his expression shielded. “You are.” I was so firm on my not running that a crazy part of my brain had decided moving closer was a bright idea, because before I thought better of it, I took a few steps toward him.
His eyes ran over my face, lingering briefly on my lips, almost as if he missed me or wanted to kiss me or something. Right before they deadened again. I wasn’t sure what his game was. Maybe he thought if he flashed a few fake emotions my way, I’d crumple. Not this time. “I guess anywhere but Xest is where you think I should be?” I asked. He was smart enough to not answer, because I was done with his input. “You told me once I could be more. Remember that? But more somewhere else is what you meant. Well, here I am, and I am going to be more, and I’m going to do it on my terms in Xest.
” If he wanted to puddle-jump me back to Salem, he’d have to drag me kicking and screaming. “This isn’t the place for you.” He said it softly, as if he felt bad or something. Another flicker of emotion, another breadcrumb to lead me away from my goal and to where he thought I should be. I should disengage, but that was easier said than done. As much as I wanted to be unmoved in any way by Hawk, something in me always burned brighter and hotter when he was near, and it was a fire that was hard to completely snuff out. “Give me one reason it isn’t.” “I’ll give you multiple. The thing in the Unsettled Lands, for one; the long list of enemies you’ve accumulated here. I could go on all night.
” “How is that any different from your situation? We were working toward the same ends. My enemies are yours as well.” It was all bull. If I had enemies, I made them by being aligned with him. Now that he was out of the equation, who knew what might happen? I might be fine with everyone. “It just is.” That was it? It just is? That thing in the Unsettled Lands? I’d actually gone head to head with it and survived. But I was the one who didn’t belong here because it just is? Why had I ever believed anything he’d said? He wasn’t worried about what was right. He only cared about what was right for him, and for whatever reason, he wanted me gone. The realization cut me like a thousand razors.
I’d thought I’d hardened myself to him since I’d been gone. I had…mostly. But not quite enough. I’d get there, though. He didn’t deserve my softness. “I belong here every bit as much as you do.” I gave him my back, daring him to try to force me into that puddle as I took a good look around, trying to get my bearings. Was that the old mailbox in the distance? The one I’d used to mail my letter to Lorinda? Yes. It was. Okay, town wasn’t too far from here.
I could be at Zab’s in under an hour. He’d help me get my money transferred back to coin and I’d go from there. I’d find a hotel next, and then a job soon after. I started walking, not looking back even as I could feel Hawk’s eyes burning into me. “Tippi, where are you going?” “Not your problem,” I said, refusing to look at him. I’d never take another order from him again. The fifth wind blew my hair back, and I breathed in the chill like it was the first time I’d taken a real breath in months. I was finally alive again.