Tansy unpacked her farmer’s market haul on the wide island in the kitchen. So many colors and textures and scents. She picked a tomato and pressed her nose to the soft red flesh, inhaling the spicy, sweet grass scent. The smell of ripe tomatoes represented the big change her life had gone through.
An Auxiliary Elemental, her powers were weak, her body weaker. She and others of her kind were the working class here on Earth to support the Warriors, the ones who fought the universal war against Chaos. Her assigned duties had been in the kitchen at the training base, cooking and creating the energy bars the Warriors ate to support the caloric needs of their powers.
Doing the same steps, every day. Using the same ingredients. Endless days of monotony and sweating and stirring pots and dying a little bit inside. Until Walker had come.
Delicately, diplomatically, he’d offered her a job. Keeping the secret of the humans living here from the Premiers was a small price to pay for freedom, for deliverance. For creativity and joy and contentment.
For the scent of fresh tomatoes.
She had a little bit of hero worship toward him for that, but getting the position had been mostly a fluke of timing. She’d needed to escape the Silverthorne base and Walker had needed a head cook here in Topaz Ridge. Walker had given her the money to buy anything she needed to get the kitchen ready, plus a weekly stipend for supplies. Plus a salary, which was unheard of for Auxiliaries. They were just supposed to accept food and shelter and necessities in exchange for the honor of serving the Warriors. And Tansy had, for a while. But it hadn’t been long before there’d been a yearning inside for something more.
And now she had everything ‘more’ she’d wanted.
Tansy smiled as she stirred the pot of pasta sauce on the huge gas range. Her own recipe and it smelled great. She sat the plastic spoon down on the stove-top as her timer dinged for her to drain the pasta. She hummed as she took two pot holders and grabbed the large pot by the handles, pouring the noodles into the colander in the sink to drain them.
As she shook out the last few clinging to the bottom, a new scent tickled her nostrils over the smell of tomatoes and herbs and pasta. A sharp, scorched smell that made her wrinkle her nose.
Burning plastic.
What the—
She slammed the pot down and flashed over to the stove, moving the plastic spoon that she’d placed on the stove, too close to the burner where the sauce was cooking.
Well. That was a loss. The big plastic spoon looked like something had taken a bite of it, the rest stuck to the side of the pan with a thin, black thread of smoke coming off it.
Stupid. She should have used a wooden spoon. Or simply not sat the spoon there on the stove. She should’ve been paying better attention.
As much as she loved cooking, sometimes she still wasn’t very good at it.
But she would get better.
With a deep breath, she turned off the flame and grabbed a clean pan. As she was about to pour the sauce into the clean pan to continue simmering, a Warrior ran in behind her yelling, “Where are they? How did they get inside?”
She glanced behind her and there was Rowan, the Botanical Warrior, small ornate hatchets in each hand. Soaking wet… and wearing nothing but a towel.
Tansy slopped a little sauce on the stove and sat everything down to try again in a minute when she could concentrate.
“Where are who?”, she asked, turning to him, forcing her eyes to stay above his chest. His defined, muscular, glistening wet chest. “How did who… what?”
Concentrate, Tansy.
“The Chaolt,” Rowan said, turning and backing toward her, hunched and wielding his hatchets in a protective pose. Well, at least it was easier to keep her eyes off his chest. But the white towel clung damply to a firm set of butt-cheeks shaped like two small hams, below a long back rippling with tensed muscles.
“Um. What?”
A bright pair of green-hazel eyes flashed back her way. “The Chaolt,” Rowan growled, his accent thicker with exasperation. “Where are they? Don’t you smell them?”
Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhh. The damn spoon.
“Um, Rowan, there’s no Chaolt.” She stepped toward the stove and held up the decimated plastic spoon. “I was cooking and I accidentally set this too close to the flame. It burned.”
He dropped his hatchets to his side and stood, facing her, looking from her to the poor spoon.
“No Chaolt,” she repeated, cheeks heating. Just her incompetence.
He stared at her as he lifted his chin and sniffed the air. The odor was already fading behind the scent of rosemary and basil and garlic. “I thought it was odd that I couldn’t sense them. Didn’t have the buzz.”
The buzz was a kind of clanging, blending, buzzing sensation in the brain of Elementals when the enemy, the Chaolt, were close. All Elementals felt it, but it was supposedly stronger for the Warriors.
She sat the spoon behind her on the counter and leaned against it avoiding his eyes, suddenly self-conscious. “Nope. Just a kitchen mishap.”
What if there had been a fight? Rowan would have fought the Chaolt in a towel?
She smiled a little bit. Only a Warrior would jump out of the shower to attack the enemy, to protect the innocent, unclothed. Because the towel truly couldn’t have lasted more than a few seconds.
“What it is you’re doing here?”
He’d turned to look at the island covered with fruits and vegetables, all in various stages of preparation.
“I’m cooking.”
“Your food is made with this?” he asked with a side-eye in her direction, motioning to the island.
“Yes.” She was prepping all the food for the week, peeling and chopping and packaging it to use quickly later on. She picked up a cucumber. “Are you hungry? Would you like something?”
She’d been cooking for the humans and their Warrior mates for a couple of weeks, but some of the Warriors were still hold-outs and ate only the energy bars. She tried not to take it personally. They literally didn’t know what they were missing. Rowan was one of them.
But Rowan shook his head and took a step back from the island. Then another.
She licked her lips, trying to think of something to say. “I’d be happy to make you something. Anything you want to try,” she said, gesturing with the cucumber.
“No,” he said with what looked like a tight swallow and a direct stare. “I’m good.”
He backed away another step, apparently only now aware he was wearing just a towel, because he was struggling to hold the knot with a hatchet in each hand.
“Are you sure? I’ve got—”
“No.” He shook his head, a few water droplets falling to his shoulders. “No. I have to go,” he said, turning away.
“Rowan—” she started, but he was gone. The only thing that remained was the scent of cedar quickly being drowned out by tomato sauce.
What had just happened? Why had he left so quickly?
She sat the cucumber back on the counter and sighed. A burned spoon and clumpy pasta and a saucy stove and a weird interaction with the Plant Warrior—
Oh god.
He was a Plant Elemental and she was cooking plants. Her eyes traveled from the decapitated-looking head of cabbage to the carrots and potatoes with their skin peeled away, to a dozen other things in various stages of torture and murder. Not to mention the pot of tomato blood and guts simmering on the stove.
She bent over and rested her forehead against her folded arms on the island, shaking her head back and forth.
No wonder he looked at her like she was insane. No wonder he avoided her. No wonder he didn’t want to eat her food.
His power was creating plants, giving them life, and here she was torturing and butchering them to death. Literally.
It would be funny… if it wasn’t.
Rowan was the only person she really had anything in common with here. They came from the same base, and while she’d never seen him from her post in the kitchen, that was still something. But he’d seemed to avoid her, avoid conversation with her. She still didn’t know him any better than she had the day she’d arrived and met all of the Warriors and the families of those with one. Even then, she’d been struck by the clarity of his hazel eyes, his accent. To have him here in her kitchen in just a towel was a chance she hadn’t wanted to waste, but she’d just chased him off in spectacular fashion.
But oh well. At least she had her kitchen and her job and the satisfaction of cooking almost anything she wanted for other people. And that was enough, right?