“C’mere Little Warrior,” Stefan called from her doorway.
Playing with a single curl, Amadhay eyed him for a moment before deciding that she had nothing better to do. Dropping the book she had been reading on her bed, she launched herself through the curtains. Stefan whistled at her to hurry her along, so she took a moment to stretch out and smooth her hair back over her shoulders. Bouncing on the balls of her bare feet, she continued to fidget with her hair as she stood before the scaly skinned man.
“Yes?” she asked.
He turned in her doorway, looking back at her as he nodded toward the hallway. “I want to show you something,” he told her.
She narrowed her eyes, always suspicious, especially given the way everyone had been acting lately, but nodded, following close behind him. “Something like what?” she asked, moving to his side.
He grinned down at her. “You’ll see,” he told her, scratching the top of her head to purposely muss up her hair. She fixed it back over her shoulders and gave him a look, but his teasing made her feel slightly better about his presence.
“Gimme a hint,” Amadhay pleaded, batting her eyelashes innocently.
“I know that look, little one. You gutted me the last time I fell for it.”
Amadhay giggled. “But this time I want something from you, so I’m just being sweet so that I can get it,” she teased him.
He tugged at her hair, making her sigh. He seemed to have a strange fixation on her hair because he was always touching it, always tugging at it. “You’ll see when we get there,” he told her, tossing his arm over her shoulders.
She didn’t pull from him like she normally would have because it comforted her to know that someone still liked her. Even if it was Stefan, it was nice to have someone willing to touch her. She leaned her head into his side as they continued walking to the front door. He paused once there, not saying anything, and after a click Amadhay realized that he was waiting for her to call out her pass code, which made her smile.
“Green sleeves,” she said, standing up straight.
Stefan ruffled her hair as he moved his arm from her shoulders. “This way,” he gestured to the beach, which was empty of all people, as it had been since the trouble with the twins. If she had to guess, she’d say that Atlas was feeling unwelcoming to everyone outside, knowing that any one of them could be another spy. As she looked over the empty beach, one thing caught her eye. Sitting in the middle of the beach, far enough back that the water wouldn’t take it out, was an intricate sand castle. It was even better than the ones she had seen before, which was saying something because the more she had gone to the beach, the more she had seen intricate sand castles (that Ribbon or Kimiko invariably ran right through).
This one, though, took away her breath. It was almost life size for her, standing taller than she was, with functional archways and carefully sculpted windows. She forgot Stefan as she moved closer to the castle, staring at it in enraptured intrigue. It reminded her of a much more well formed version of the castle she, Amaya, and Hlala had painstakingly drawn when their father had asked them what kind of secret hideout they wanted. He had never gotten around to making it for them, because right when he had been gathering the materials, the Ridden War had started and then when he had come back, it had only been a few months before he had been killed.
She reached out and touched the sand, finding it well packed enough that it didn’t crumble under her touch. She blinked rapidly a few times, feeling a silly burning coming to her eyes that she tried to ward off by smiling.
“Do you like it?” Stefan asked, making her look from the castle and to him.
He had made this, for her. She wasn’t sure how he had found the schematics or how he even knew about the castle at all, considering the only other people who knew about it were Hlala and Indigo. The two of them still had copies of the drawing, which meant that either somehow he had stolen the picture from one of them or that Atlas had gone through her personal belongings and taken it, for some reason, from her room. She was betting it was the second option. No matter how Stefan had found out about it, the fact remained that he had made this for her. And only her.
“I love it,” she told him honestly, running her fingers over the sand lightly.
“I was thinking that we could make you your own castle, call it the Red Castle.”
“As long as you don’t paint it red,” Amadhay laughed, still staring at the sand castle.
“You can go inside of it,” he urged her, but she couldn’t. It was enough for her to just stare at the outside. To look inside of it would have completely floored her. It was a system overload, much like her first full day with the Palnoki had been, when she had realized her dreams of Stefan and the room hadn’t been dreams. She knew that if she were to go inside and it looked as she had always imagined it, that she wouldn’t want to leave. It didn’t matter that it was sand. It was hers.
“Thank you,” she whispered.
“Don’t just thank me,” he stated, making her look back at him. “Someone who really cares about you gave me the picture when I told him you were sad. He said that making this might cheer you up.”
She nodded, assuming that to be confirmation that Atlas had given the picture to him. Even when they weren’t talking, the man still wanted her happy. It almost made her want to forgive him for being such a complete jerk, but she couldn’t. In fact, it only made her more irritated. He had stolen it from her room on base with the Phoegani. He had taken something incredibly valuable and personal to her, one of her few belongings that truly held sentimental value. And then, to top it off, he hadn’t had the decency to do something himself, instead delegating making her feel better to someone else.
Stefan pulled her in for a hug before she had a chance to say any of that. Only for a few breaths did she fight the hug, trying to pull back from him, trying to stay angry and distant. After that, however, she relaxed into it, pressing her head into his shoulder. She missed this, this physical contact. With Ribbon avoiding her and her avoiding Atlas, Kimiko being gone on some mission, and Tenshu busy with other things, she found that she was missing her Monkey and Benjy more and more. Or rather, she missed their hugs. They had never stopped touching her just because they were irritated with her for not listening to them.
“I know sometimes it doesn’t seem like it, but everyone here cares about you. We’re all just incredibly protective of each other, and you are now one of us. So with that comes dealing with having others be upset with you when you do something stupid.” He paused for a moment and Amadhay frowned, upset that even Stefan thought she was in the wrong. Even though he couldn’t see it, he seemed to know she was frowning because he stroked her hair gently to calm her.
“I’m not going to defend Atlas,” he quickly continued when she started to argue, “Because he’s wrong. You were right to fight and it was within your rights to deal with the bones. But you have to understand that he thinks he’s doing the right thing for you,” Stefan spoke gently before placing a kiss to the crown of her head, making her sigh.
“How? First he yells at me for not letting Diable hurt me, then he tells me to sit on my hands and do nothing, he makes Ribbon avoid me, and he won’t talk to me, but sends you to make me happy.”
“Atlas didn’t send me,” Stefan stated, “I did this on my own.”
“Fine, Atlas gave you the picture.”
“Atlas didn’t give me the picture.”
Amadhay frowned, pulling back so that she could look Stefan in the face. He let her, and she studied his serious expression. If Atlas hadn’t given it to him, then who had?
“And you don’t have to do nothing, Little Warrior. I know of so many things you could do if Atlas would only stop seeing you as a child he has to protect. You’ve been a warrior since birth.”
“Can you make him?” Amadhay asked hopefully, gripping his forearms.
Stefan laughed. “No one can force Atlas to do what he doesn’t want to do.”
She deflated. “Then can you at least tell me what I could be doing so that I can go around him?” she suggested, doubting that he would even consider it.
He did, though. He regarded her for a moment before looking around, to see who else was there. Seeing no one, he leaned in to her. “Atlas can never know that I told you,” he stressed, making her nod seriously.
“Atlas can never know what?” Atlas’ voice came from within the sand castle, making Stefan and Amadhay jump apart from each other and look guiltily inside. Well, Stefan looked guilty. Amadhay merely looked annoyed that he interrupted them. Atlas stepped out from inside of the sand castle, standing up tall and straight once he no longer had to lean down to avoid knocking the castle down or making a hole.
“Nothing,” Stefan quickly stated, crossing his arms over his chest. Amadhay slanted a glance first at the snake-man and then at Atlas.
“Stefan was just showing me the castle he made for me,” she said, glaring at the sand wall beside him. “But apparently you found it first. Hope you didn’t ruin it,” she snapped, making him glare down at her.
“I can assure you that I didn’t ruin your present,” he replied before turning his angry glare to Stefan. “Come with me. I have a mission for you.”