Chapter 13

As predicted, Colm very much hated my idea.

As a sea storm battered the cottage, I explained to him that I needed help with Travelling. “We can’t stay here,” I explained. “We have a little while but eventually the Masters will find us, and they will send Guardians.”

Glowering at the bowl of soup that he held in his hand, steam curling up and around his face, he countered. “We can fight them.”

“Sure. And we can lose,” I said in response.

He arched an eyebrow at me, and I felt like pulling at the eyebrow and throwing it back at him. “You’re that easily beat?” he asked.

I sighed and put my own bowl down. “Look, you don’t know. We will die. Or be captured. Or something. But we won’t win.”

“I have fought Guardians before,” he said, defensive in his seat and in his voice.

I was not entirely surprised. “What happened?”

“We lost,” he admitted, voice hard, looking at me and in his face, there was a mixture of hatred and something else that I couldn’t identify but which held darkness and fractures of pain. “There were eight of us. There were two of them.”

I rubbed at the point between my eyes that constantly seemed to have a headache, a sharp, lancing pain that refused to go away. “We train for years,” I said, trying for gentle. “Kieren and I are relatively new pairs, and we have yet to lose a fight against anyone but another pair. Fighting is what we are trained to do. Constantly.”

Colm ran a tongue across his teeth and set his bowl to the side. Next to him, Diana still slept, the steady rise and fall of her chest the only indication that she was still alive. “You’re not like the others,” he said.

I got up, taking the bowls to the kitchen. He continued, his voice following me. “I’m not demeaning your ability. I’m saying you’re not like a Guardian. That’s a good thing.”

Rinsing the bowls in cold water, the hot still not working, I left them in the sink and leaned up against the cupboard to observe the much bigger man sitting in the chair. His largeness made the cottage seem very small. “And, if you’ve only fought against a Guardian pair once, how do you know that?” I asked, wondering if he would say anything about Darkside.

“I’ve only fought against a pair once, but we’ve been observing Guardians for years. We study everything we can about you and your kind.”

I laughed, a bark of a laugh that caught the room’s ambiance and turned it into something not quite as cozy. “My kind,” I said, heading back to the small living room area and the fire that flickered cheerfully in defiance of my mood and the storm outside the cottage. “I have no kind.”

Diana stirred on the couch, saving me from having to take the conversation further. From the depths of the many covers, a groan emerged, and slowly Diana sat up, looking around the room with an unfocused gaze. With fists, she rubbed at her eyes and then looked around again, catching sight of me and then Colm, her body visibly relaxing.

“We’ve moved locations,” she said, her voice gravely.

Colm got up and went to the kitchen sink where he filled a tea mug with water. I sat down at the edge of the couch to study her. “How are you feeling?”

She nodded, wincing as she did so. “A fierce headache, and a bit achy, like I’ve had the flu or something, but otherwise all intact.”

Colm returned with the water and two white pills, all of which he handed over. Diana took the water, looked at the pills for a moment, then with a shrug took them without question. She leaned back into the couch, resting her head along the backside. “How long have I been out?”

I glanced over at Colm who was watching me rather than Diana. I refocused on the woman. “Less than a day.”

She frowned, turning her head to look at me but not bringing it up from the couch’s back. “And yet, we are in an entirely different location?”

“Yes. We travel quickly.”

“I say. So, where are we?”

I took a deep breath, watching Tirius’s pair closely. “We are in Scotland, probably at the end of the 20th century.”

To her credit, Diana only blinked at the information, sitting up a little bit on the couch as she stared at me. “End of the 20th century?”

I waved a hand. “Somewhere in there. Time changes in relation to the properties around it, but yes, somewhere in that vicinity.”

“Right.” She glanced over at Colm. “And you are in on this?”

Colm inclined his head in my direction, loose hair falling to either side of his face. “She got us here. I was just a passenger.”

Diana nodded. “Yes. Well, I suppose that isn’t the strangest thing that has happened to me lately. That alien thing was definitely weirder than suddenly being in Scotland at the end of the 20th century.”

“A Diax,” I provided her.

“A what?”

“A Diax. They are a species of being separate from humans.”

Again, she glanced at Colm who looked on calmly.

“Great, well whatever the name, he was an interesting species.”

“It,” I corrected. “The Diax have no gender.” Her look consisted of a myriad of different emotions and I waved my hand as if to wave off her confusion, credulousness, and general lack of knowledge. “But that is not our most pressing concern right now.”

She sat up a little straighter at those words. Her color was coming back, a pink high in her cheeks and I could tell whatever it was that Colm gave to her was starting to have its effect. “Tirius,” she said as if she was speaking to herself.

“No,” I corrected her. “I mean yes, but first we need to change locations. It isn’t safe here.”

Diana snorted. “Of course it isn’t, because that fits into this crazy narrative.” She paused, looking down at her hands. “Perhaps I am actually dead.”

I again wanted to rub at that spot between my eyes but kept my hands firmly in my lap. “You’re not dead,” I repeated, trying for gentle but not entirely succeeding. “Not yet anyway,” I added.

Diana looked up, frowning.

“That helps,” Colm said drily from where he now sat in front of the fireplace. The room had warmed, but there was still a decided chill to the air and Colm appeared not to enjoy the temperature.

I ignored him, focusing on the woman in front of me. “We’ll be safe. I’ve got to go for a bit, just a small amount of time, barely a few moments, but I need to go and get my partner to help us leave this place.”

Diana, clearly confused, looked between Colm and I. “Why can’t we just leave?”

I grimaced, giving in and rubbing between my eyes. “Not quite that easy.”

As if this last statement took the remaining bit of her energy and focus, Diana lay back against the couch again, closing her eyes. I watched her for a moment, wondering at the situation, wondering at her and wondering if Cana had been correct about the woman’s relationship with Tirius.

It seemed so unlikely.

I got up, turning to Colm. “I know you don’t want this, but we’ve got to leave, and I can’t take the two of you again. I’ll lose myself or I’ll lose you. Not something that you want to happen.”

Colm caught and held my gaze. “He’s not a good person.”

I frowned. “None of us are. Not really.” I glanced over at Diana and then back at Colm. “How many have you killed in your lifetime?”

Colm inclined his head to concede the point, but unbowed, his eyes sought out mine and I was hard-pressed to look away. “There is a lot more to your partner, a lot more than what you think there is.”

I sighed, a rush of aggressive air. “Fine. Tell me. Instead of skirting about the subject. Tell me. What did you and Cana discover in your hours of observations?”

He hesitated and I felt the knot in my stomach form and grow tighter and tighter as I waited for his words, for his explanation of what he was talking about, but in the end, Colm remained silent and I exhaled, long and loud, irritated. “Look. We need help. I only know of one solution. Whatever it is that you think that you know about Kieren will have to be put aside because we have no other option. We can’t stay here because we’ll be found out eventually. We can’t live in this timeline because we have no money or way of making our way through this world. I can’t Travel with the two of you. So. This is it.” I pointed at Diana who had opened her eyes at my speech. “If you want her to find Tirius, then I’m guessing we need somewhere secure where we’re not going to be interrupted.”

Diana sat up a little bit. “How are we going to do that anyway?” she asked, pulling our attention to her.

“Simple. You reach him in the same way you have in the past,” Colm replied.

Diana’s face went pale, but she nodded slowly, clearly thinking about the implication of his words.

“Great,” I said, interrupting. “Still need a safe place.” I took my black jacket from the hook I’d placed it on earlier. “I’ll be back in moments.”

I left them, not bothering to walk out the door, instead closing my eyes and Traveling to the coordinates that Kieren had rattled off forever ago. Like with the cottage, I tried for a different day than Kieren and my original Arrival. I was partially successful. Instead of the sun and midafternoon of my first Arrival, it was the middle of the night and rain poured sideways with a wind that pushed me around even as I tried to recover from the Travel. The location was the same, however, and I slowly made my way towards the house in the dunes.

Getting close to the house, I dropped down onto my belly and peered through the night at the lighted inside. Not knowing exactly the time of my arrival, I was relieved to see that I’d been rather accurate in my calculations, and I could make out Tirius, Kieren, and I in the living room in front of the fire. It was the night before we’d gone on our mission. I just had to survive the night and hope that I wouldn’t freeze to death.

With nothing to be done but get out of the night into somewhere somewhat dry, I went quietly around the house to the side where a separate garage was located. We’d been through the garage upon arrival and the only thing in there were two more vehicles like the one in the drive. The door was locked, but the window was easily broken and big enough that I could shimmy my way inside, being careful of the jagged glass. The garage was warmer than outside but still cold and I tried the vehicle doors, relieved when I found the doors to the bigger car unlocked.

I crawled in to wait until morning.

The night passed slowly. Both wet and cold, I tried to sleep, closing my eyes against the blackness of the garage and the darkness of my thoughts, but the best I could manage was to focus on my breath, the slow inhale and exhale that relaxed my body but did little to help the whirling mind beyond my focus. When morning came, the light filtering in through the broken window, I uncurled from my spot in the backseat, cold in my bones, muscles protesting. Unable to see the front of the house from the window, I let myself out the door facing away from the house, and then low to the ground, found a spot behind a set of bushes near the side of the garage.

More waiting. My stomach growled and my mouth was parched, but I’d been in worse scenarios and though the wind bit at me, my clothes had dried through the night and I curled in on myself to keep most of my heat contained, the cold at bay, focusing on the scene before me. At least the sun shone down, the small amount of warmth permeating, helping to keep most of the shivering to a minimum. Still, I counted the time, relieving the ache in my legs by stretching them out and in, watching the door closely so that when I caught sight of Kieren and I leaving I was able to tuck myself further down into the bushes.

There was a moment that I thought Kieren sensed me, but it might have been my imagination, Kieren and my past self walking away towards the dunes without so much of a glance to where I hid.

Next, I watched Colm’s arrival with interest. It came with a shimmer down the driveway, his large body appearing in the afternoon sunshine and then disappearing again as he hid from view, though thankfully on the other side from where I was hiding.

If Colm had Traveled to the location, likely we would have felt something in the shift of air and energy; but as he used this device that Cana mentioned, there wasn’t the usual push along my person. Even if we hadn’t already left, neither my past self nor Kieren would have picked up on the other Sideian’s presence.

I watched the earlier version of me Arrive after the events at the lab, Kieren at my side, both of us oblivious to the Sideian waiting for me, shivering from what we had just gone through and witnessed. A part of my psyche wanted to help that past version of myself, even as I knew that wasn’t how it worked, but it was uncomfortable to watch Colm appear behind me, wrapping his large body around mine and disappearing.

Kieren stood there, knives appearing in his hand, but I was already gone, whisked away. It was my only chance, knowing that he was likely to Travel, and I popped around the corner of the bush, ducking when the knife came my way.

“It’s me!” I yelled, crouching low. “Kieren, it’s Wren.”

The wind whipped, the ocean crashed somewhere distant, and I slowly raised my head up to see Kieren a body length away. Jaw clenched; stony green eyes met mine. I put my hands up, waving. “Hi, yeah, and no I am not here as an attack, that was not a Guardian that took me, and yes I’m okay, but I need your help.”

  Kieren still held one of his knives, positioned at his side for a quick throw. I carefully and slowly turned, showing my back to him to retrieve the knife now stuck in the siding of the garage. It took quite the effort, the knife embedded to its hilt, but I managed. Turning, I presented it to Kieren, blade towards me.

He stared, trying to see something, but then took a step forward to take the knife. “What happened this time?” he asked, putting the knives back in their holsters, though not relaxing, body still coiled with tension.

I laughed uneasily, more of a gasp than a laugh. “I have this funny thing that people really like to whisk me away without explanation; this time by a group of people that are looking for Tirius, rather than Tirius himself. Go figure.”

“Looking to kill Tirius?”

I shook my head, keeping my distance from Kieren, watching him warily as he still looked like he might attack at any provocation. “No, not exactly. Apparently, Tirius has disappeared from time.”

“This time?”

“All time.”

Kieren frowned, a crease appearing between his eyebrows, his body relaxing slightly as he thought about that. “But then…”

I interrupted him. “I know, then we wouldn’t have a memory of him, which means that he has disappeared but still exists.”

Kieren glanced away from me, taking in the scene around us. The sun had started to descend into the Western portion of the sky, casting shadows. I shivered in the wind and motioned towards the house. “I need to grab a heavier jacket and some more clothing.”

Watching me, his stillness felt familiar, and in that familiarity, a bit threatening. “Why?”

“Well because where we are going is cold and there is a woman who can apparently find Tirius, but she is dressed only in a hospital gown and needs clothing, and if we can find something, we should probably get Colm a jacket as well.”

“Colm?” Kieren asked.

Deciding on action, I took a deep breath. “I’m cold, Kieren. I will explain inside.” Walking around him, feeling his presence heavy at my back, I let myself in the house without betraying the unease I felt at the situation. Something with Kieren was off, and I knew it was distrust but didn’t know how to combat my partner’s natural inclination to suspect everything.

I went to the closet in the room I’d used and smiled to myself when I heard Kieren follow me. Technically I had enough time to tell him the entire story, being able to arrive back at the cottage in a relational time to when I left. But a sense of urgency propelled me into action without explaining.

It would be easier to have Colm tell him anyway, though that was an interaction I wasn’t looking forward to.

“Are you going to tell me what happened?” Kieren asked from where he stood at the bedroom doorway. He leaned against the door jam and watched as I pulled clothing from the closet and piled it on the bed to sort through.

Holding up a long-sleeved gray shirt I tried to figure out if it would fit Diana. “Honestly, I’m not sure where to start,” I said as I added the shirt to the take pile.

“How long have you been gone, in your time?”

I paused in folding a sweater, frowning as I thought about it. “Six days? Or six cycles.”

“And you are here on your own free will?”

Snorting, I continued to fold the clothes. “As much of my own free will as is possible lately.”

“Wren,” Kieren said, voice warning. The tone wasn’t forceful or even that apparent, but I knew it for what it was, and I turned to look at my partner. I’d missed him, that was obvious in the warmth I felt at seeing him, the feeling that I now recognized as being ever present when I was with Kieren. What wasn’t as clear cut was the reason behind the sudden nervous energy coursing through my system.

I met his gaze. “I am here of my own free will,” I emphasized. “But what I’ve seen is a lot. I’ve been shown evidence that you and I have been compliant in manipulations; that we’ve done things that has caused considerable harm to timelines. I’ve been shown a world that is outside of any timeline, in which individuals from many different experiments have come to co-exist, but outside the reach of Masters. I have met a woman who is not a woman and I’ve been attacked by a squad of Guardians. There is a lot. And although I will tell you all, right now I want to get these clothes, bring them back to Diana and Colm, and then have you help me Travel them to somewhere we cannot be found by Guardians or Masters. Once there, I can explain, and perhaps we can figure out a solution to this giant, complicated, knot of a problem that we’ve found ourselves tangled in.”

With the words hanging between us, I watched Kieren for a moment longer, but his facial expression was his normal blank intensity as if he could figure out the entirety of everything through sheer will. I read the tension in his shoulders and in the careful way he nonchalantly leaned against the door jam, but per normal, he stood in his silence.

I returned to my task, precisely stacking the last of the clothing before turning to fully face him. “I need your help, Kieren, that’s what partners do.”

“But are you, you?”

Frowning, I studied his face. “Who else would I be?”

A shift, his long body leaning further into the wood of the doorway. “An imposter, a trick. Your twin.”

I put my hands up. “Is that even possible?”

He raised an eyebrow.

I shook my head. “I am me. Not this twin that haunts me, or a clone, or anything else. I am not a trick come to harm you or trap you. Just me. A little bit older than you now, with a little more time to me, but me. I’m not sure how to prove it other than connecting via the interface, and we obviously can’t do that.”

Enduring the long look, I waited to see what Kieren would say, wondering what off the wall question he would come up with that I would have to answer as proof of my words. I hoped that I would be able to answer it and I eyed him, watching his face that never changed expression as he listened to my speech.

Instead of a question though, he surprised me, walking towards me with quick, long strides. Without comment or explanation, he wrapped an arm around my waist and pulled me against his body, enveloping me, arms strong and secure, chest hard.

Then he kissed me.

His lips were warm, soft and hard all at once. For a breath, stunned, I remained still under the contact, mind racing as an onslaught of desire coiled up from my belly. I resisted the kiss for just a moment, pushing it away, but there was the feeling, pressure, heat, this knowledge that I’d been denying. And it wasn’t only my reaction, I could feel Kieren’s response through the connection, a wave of desire from that point that tied us together.

My hands came up to his face, my fingers sliding into his black hair, and I kissed him back.

The room disappeared on his groan, a low sound in his throat as the kiss deepened, his hand at my waist, another in my hair. Everything fell away, time narrowing down to the lack of space between us, his tongue sweeping against mine, his hands at the base of my spine, warm suddenly against my skin as he pulled me even closer to his body, a body responding to our intimacy.

Then he was gone. Suddenly and completely. His hands dropping away. He stepped back to create a space that felt frozen in comparison to our heat. I’d closed my eyes at some point, and I blinked them open several times to try to return to the present. Kieren’s face was flushed, his hair mussed where my fingers had been moments before, breathing heavier than was normal, but his expression was one that gave nothing of his inner thoughts away.

My face, however, was burning, a rising heat as I stared, stunned.

“I’ve missed you,” he said, and his voice was different, far off, the voice he used in political situations when he wanted to make an exact statement and no mistakes.

I shook my head, running a hand through my hair. “What are you even talking about? What was that? What?” I stumbled over the words, the shock of the situation falling like waves and severely limiting my ability to concentrate.

Something shifted in his body, tension falling from his shoulders and he gave me a quick grin that completely changed his expression. The smile was crooked and it warmed his eyes, though I felt a tension behind it, some emotion I couldn’t name. “I had to be sure,” he explained.

“By kissing me? How is that going to prove anything?” I asked, and my voice ratcheted up a level though I tried to control it.

“It did,” he answered and then turned towards the door. “I have a bag you can put those in.”

I watched him disappear into the hallway and I stood there suddenly alone; very cold and very alone. Distantly, I felt him still, the reaction he had presented before leaving the room at odds with the buzz of desire and sadness I felt through our connection, but as I tried to sort out what had just happened, I started to doubt the legitimacy of what I felt coming through the bond. I started to doubt the reality of it, the kiss shaking up more than just my emotions.

Gathering my thoughts, I angrily shoved what just happened into the recesses of my mind and slammed the door shut on it. I felt tricked, hurt, and underneath, still heated with how my body responded. Tears threatened, tears that were not at all appropriate and were weakness. I hurriedly wiped at them, hearing Kieren return, focusing not on the man but on the clothes that I systematically and with precision placed in the bag he provided.

After gathering food and additional weapons, we returned in a spiral of Arrival. The storm that had raged when I left still raged full-on with sideways rain that bit through my clothing. As always, we Arrived at the top of the cliffs, the windswept grass about us a sea of green and browns. The wind pushed us, grabbing at our hair, and it succeeded in grasping some of Kieren’s black strands from the caul at the base of his skull, the strands a whirl about his head as he blinked at me through the rainfall.

“This way,” I said and led him to the cliff edge and down. Carefully, I made my way down the path, Kieren close behind, focusing on my footstep, ignoring the lingering emotions.

“This is the cottage,” he shouted as he followed me, the duffel bag of clothes slung over his shoulder.

“Yes,” I shouted back, the wind taking my words and swirling them away towards nothing.

Gaining the rocky beach, we made our way slowly against the weather, and though it had, theoretically, only been moments since I left, I was relieved to see smoke rising from the chimney of the cottage, just visible in the dimming light. I made sure to knock on the green door and call out before opening it. Nevertheless, I found Colm positioned in front of the couch, protecting Diana who clutched blankets before her. Colm held his curved blades in both hands, crossed before him, guarding.

“Just us,” I said, taking a step into the cottage closely followed by Kieren.

Colm kept his blades ready as he studied Kieren, who studied him back.

I got out from between them, letting them do their stare down as I dropped the duffel of food into the kitchen. I took the bag from Kieren who had barely walked fully into the cottage, dripping on the stone immediately in front of the doorway.

“Kieren, Colm; Colm, Kieren,” I said as I took the bag to Diana who was watching the display with a flicker of amusement. I smiled at her in understanding then handed over the bag. “Clothing. Some of it should fit,” I said.

Diana extracted herself from the blankets and took the bag. “Thanks,” she said, and slowly got to her feet, unsteady but growing in stability as she walked from the somewhat warm living area towards the hallway and the freezing part of the cottage.

I looked at the two men who were still watching one another, both still in their contemplation. “Don’t kill each other,” I said, following Diana down the hallway.

She was in the bedroom pawing through the bag. “I wasn’t sure of your size,” I said, startling her into a jump, but she just nodded and pulled out a pair of dove gray trousers and a rainbow-colored soft sweater. “And there was only one size of shoes,” I continued.

“They are all my size,” Diana said looking at the clothing and then taking out the black boots to check their size as well. I wondered at that but refrained from questioning her, figuring she wouldn’t have an answer anyway.

I sat on the corner of the bed as she got dressed. To her credit, she only blushed as she pulled the white shift over her head, white flesh prickling with goosebumps in the cold, black underthings stark against her paleness. Relief washed over me to see that the black lines had all but disappeared.

“How are you feeling?” I asked, studying her movements as she pulled on the clothing.

“Are you testing me?” she replied, buttoning the perfectly fitting trousers.

I tilted my head. “Why do you ask?”

“Because it’s something Tirius would do, watching me get dressed to see how I would react, to judge my state of mind, to see my physical response to things.” She pulled on the sweater and then leaned down for the socks and boots.

Her explanation caused me to smile, recognizing her words as truth. “I guess I am a little bit. More, I wanted to see how you’re feeling, and our bodies often tell more of the truth than our words do.”

Finished with the boots, Diana sat on the bed, flushed, breathing just a little harder but otherwise looking a lot better than she had during the entire short time I had known her. She studied me in turn. She had sea-gray eyes that took in my person as if she was seeing beyond me to something that lay within. I saw then, the glimpse of what I’d looked for before, something that would explain the connection between Tirius and this woman sitting in front of me.

I got up. “Let’s go make sure they’re still alive.”

“I passed?” she asked, grabbing the bag and then giving it over to me when I put my hand out.

“You did,” I said.

The Sideians were silent when we came back to the front room. Colm sat on the couch staring into the flames leaping in the fireplace. He’d positioned himself on the couch, feigning relaxation, though his shoulders and jaw gave him away.

Kieren sat the small kitchen table, watching Colm, not even pretending to hide his distrust.

I dropped the duffel bag to the floor, the sound a loud shot in the room that had both men tensing in reaction. I looked between them, noticing again the similarities in their persons. They had the same light brown skin, smooth over high cheekbones and strong jaws with almond-shaped eyes. Colm was bigger, about the same height but broader in shoulders, arms, and chest. He wore his hair down, a dark brown that fizzled with lighter brown, falling in waves around his face. In contrast, Kieren’s hair was once again severely contained at the back of his head, his long body lean and tight under his black clothing. Colm resembled a lion; Kieren, a panther.

I was annoyed with the both of them but knew I only understood a small fraction of what was going on in their heads or between them. There was the element of Guardian and non-Guardian, but I also wondered if there was some lingering Sideian politics that I didn’t know about.

“We need a location,” I said to break the silence. All eyes turned to me and I stood in my stillness as the attention pushed against me. “Somewhere we can Travel but somewhere that is protected, or at least somewhat protected, from Guardians and Masters.” I looked at each of the three beings. “We need space and we need time.”

Kieren shifted at the table. “Darkside,” he said.

I groaned before I could contain it and he flashed me a look that spoke of sympathy.

“No,” Colm said.

“What is Darkside?” Diana asked.

I looked over to where she sat next to Colm. “It is a city in their home world.”

“Sideia is no longer my home,” Colm replied.

I decided to ignore the comment, though I filed it for later. “It has the advantage of being lawless,” I explained to Diana. “We can Travel there, which is a pro but also means we would be under the Master’s umbrella.”

“I have resources,” Kieren said, who watched me with an intensity I didn’t understand.

“No,” Colm repeated.

Kieren glanced over at Colm. “Do you have a better idea?”

Colm spread his hands out. “Why not stay here?”

“I thought I explained that?” I said, letting my exasperation bleed through. “This location is known. It’s only a matter of time before they comb enough of the timeline to find us. No, we need somewhere that is different, somewhere Tirius did not frequently visit.”

“He traveled everywhere,” Kieren said.

“He did,” I agreed. “But avoided Darkside and Sideia in general.”

“Why?” Diana asked, emerging again with a question.

I shrugged. “I’ve no idea. He wasn’t or isn’t one to share those things.”

She nodded, looking down, but not before I caught a flash of interest and perhaps something a bit darker crossing her face. Jealousy, maybe? I wasn’t sure how to navigate that minefield though and hopefully wouldn’t have to. I tried for diplomacy. “How about we just try it? We go, and then if we have to leave, we do.”

Colm jerked his head at Kieren. “He could be leading us into a trap.”

I frowned. “Why would my partner lead us into a trap? He’s on the run too.”

“Because he’s the Warden’s heir,” Colm said, hard words falling as stones into the room. Kieren made a sound and Colm’s gaze flickered to where Kieren sat. “You tell her, or me?” he asked my partner.

I looked over to Kieren who was not concealing the dislike bordering on hatred he felt for the other Sideian. “Kieren?” I asked, though I already knew and hardly needed a confirmation.

He glanced over at me. “Was,” he said. “I was. Until this happened.”

Colm snorted and I felt it like a blade across my nerves. The larger Sideian sat forward, elbows on his knees as he looked at me. “I don’t even know why I’m here having this conversation. Wren, your partner is the heir to the Warden position. That doesn’t suddenly go away because he went and found you. You don’t think this is all just a way to gather information for the Warden? You really think that we go with him and Guardians are not going to show up and kill us, take Diana, do whatever they need to do?”

His words circled and circled and landed. “You have proof of this?”

Colm rubbed his face, running a hand over his hair. “I have enough.”

“But not enough to prove?”

He got up from the couch and walked towards me as if to emphasize his words with touch. He stopped when Kieren got up from the table, shifting as if to put his body between mine and Colm’s.

I addressed the large man in front of me. “Look, if that’s true, and I’m not saying that it is, but if it is, then there won’t be any Guardians.”

“Why?” Colm asked, pinning me.

“Because he wouldn’t be done gathering information,” I replied, keeping my gaze on Colm’s and nowhere else.

The Sideian frowned, studying my face and then with a half shrug, walked back to the couch, sitting next to Diana, working through my words, clearly trying to understand my logic.

I refused to look at Kieren, not wanting to see the lack of expression on his face. He would give nothing away to Colm, even if the accusation was false, because that would put him in an inferior position. I knew that, but I also knew what I was feeling. Colm’s words hadn’t helped the queasiness in my stomach or the questioning voice in my head that kept getting louder and louder. My partner and I needed to get several things sorted, and I was also honest enough with myself to know that I needed to get some things straight in my own head and heart. Now, however, was not the time.

I took up the duffel bag with the food, adding it to the duffel bag of clothes, and then focused on Diana who was clearly unsure of what was going on, her look confused as she glanced between the three of us. I tried for a smile, knowing it came off as more of a grimace, but she smiled back, clearing some of the confusion from her features. “Are you ready?” I asked.

She shrugged. “I’m not sure what I should be ready for, but sure.”

“We’re going to Travel. It’s disorienting. It might cause you to become sick. That’s completely normal.”

“Again, don’t know so I can’t say for sure if I’m okay with it, but I also don’t appear to have much of a choice.”

I nodded. “Yes. Welcome to the group.” Glancing over at Kieren, he read my look and got to his feet, silently walking over to me and taking one of the bags from my shoulder.

“I want to explain,” he said, lowly, under his breath, back towards the other two, looking down at me from his height.

I looked up at his familiar features. “I know you do,” I said, and left it at that turning away from him and towards Colm and Diana. I put a hand out. Diana got up from the couch immediately, Colm following more slowly. Placing Diana’s hand in Kieren’s, I took Colm’s and then grasped my partner’s hand. His hand was warm and giant, enveloping my smaller one easily.

“The location?” I asked Kieren.

Glancing down at our hands he seemed to see something, observe something, but whatever it is he saw he kept it to himself, meeting my gaze with his own.

He gave me the coordinates. I closed my eyes, feeling his presence, starting the process of co-Travel in the way we’d learned in training prior to the introduction of our interfaces. Without the interface, the energy field felt more chaotic, slippery, therefore not nearly as powerful, but it was enough and a lot better than the situation would have been if I had tried it alone.

We Traveled.

Arrived.

It was a much easier process and though nausea beat at me, I focused on my breath, the feeling dissipating in moments. Diana was throwing up onto the road, her hand against a brick wall, Colm near her, blades in hand though his own color was ashen and pale.

“We should move,” Kieren said quietly, checking his weapons, his appearance precise and contained.

I nodded, hitching the bag on my shoulder and going over to where Diana breathed with shaky inhales. “The feeling will go away,” I said. I kept my voice low, emulating Kieren’s tone. We were in an alley, that was clear, very early morning with a purple hue enveloping the world, but I had not recognized the coordinates and in a flash wondered if I had been wrong to trust my partner.

Shoving the thought away, I put my hand on Diana’s arm. “Come on, it’s better to walk it off.”

To her credit, she took my advice, straightening up from the wall with a slow inhale and exhale. Her face still looked like death, gray with watering eyes and bluish lips, but she pulled a hand through her hair and nodded once. A bit shakily, she walked towards Kieren who was waiting at the alleyway’s entrance.

Being early, the area outside the alley was empty. The wide street with wide sidewalks, large warehouses on either side, sparked a memory and I glanced over my shoulder. Docks rose up towards the sky, various ships tethered to the 20 or so levels reaching up towards the atmosphere. I sort of knew where we were, though mostly because of Kieren’s description of the shipyards that were close to one of his old family’s homes. The ruling families on Sideia had complexes located in each of the major parts of the world. Darkside, for all its lawlessness, was one of those positions of power and as such Kieren’s family had a large plot of land, or so I could recall. The rest of what to expect was entirely conjuncture.

I caught up with Kieren who had taken the sidewalk with long strides. “Is there going to be anyone there?”

He glanced over at me, not at all surprised that I’d surmised our destination. “There might be in the main house, but not in the game house next to the river. And even if there are individuals in the main house, it will be limited to staff. It’s winter. The family is south.”

I nodded, hoping that his memory of the way his family moved from season to season was still accurate. “Is this before or after?” I asked.

Stepping off the sidewalk and leading us across the road, Kieren pointed to where a giant wall had emerged. The wall was easily six stories in the air, with sheer sides of gray and a fizzing security system of blue electricity above it to discourage anyone from going over the top. Kieren led us towards a double door in the side of the wall, a guard stationed immediately outside of the door. The guard wore red and black.

“Before,” he said, nodding towards the guard and I understood.

I stepped back, touching Diana’s arm so she would slow enough to allow Colm to catch up. With the two of them at my side, I explained that Kieren had brought us into the timeline before his transference. He did this in order to use his position as a member of a powerful family to get us through the security protocols.

“Will it work?” Colm asked, voice low as we watched Kieren approach the guard.

“It will work if the guard doesn’t know Kieren personally,” I admitted.

The three of us slowed further, giving Kieren space enough to operate but not enough space to seem suspicious. The Sideian guard was a young male, several cycles younger than Kieren, who, by the look on his face took his position very seriously; that was until Kieren must have introduced himself because the lad’s whole body seemed to deflate backward in what was clearly fear.

The guard nodded several times before he opened the door, unlocking it with a code. He hastily stepped back to let Kieren and the three of us pass through, refusing to look up as we walked by, fear still evident in his posture.

Colm gave me a curious look as if to ask who exactly Kieren’s family was before he became a Guardian, but that was not my story to tell, and further, I had little understanding of Kieren’s family and their role in Sideia. If the guard’s reaction was any indication, the influence his family had was one based on fear and I didn’t need to add ammunition to Colm’s already existing dislike.

The reputation, whatever it was, got us through and we joined the more populated Darkside on the other side of the great wall guarding the shipyard. The city slowly started to move and waken as we continued to walk down a broad sidewalk along storefronts. Traffic picked up the further we got from the shipyard, cafés appearing with people sitting in the morning sunshine despite the cold, sipping steaming cups of liquid.

Checking Diana, I saw her face still had not regained the color she’d had in the cottage and I knew her reserve of energy was greatly depleted, though she said nothing and kept walking at the quick pace Kieren had established.

“Nearly there?” I asked Kieren, falling in exact step with him. When he looked over, I switched my gaze to Diana.

Kieren followed my eyes and then nodded in understanding. “Just a little bit further.”

I dropped back again to relate the news, not missing the flash of relief in Diana’s face.

Kieren hadn’t exaggerated. He took us down a sideroad, the storefronts giving way to brick, three-story buildings with trees in front. The trees were embedded in the sidewalk, reaching upwards with stark branches. In the summer, the leaves would create shade on the streets and against the buildings, providing relief from the intense summer heat. A few houses down, Kieren took another corner, suddenly bringing us up to a wall made of gray stone. The wall towered over my head.

“Are we supposed to jump it?” Colm asked behind us, looking up at the expanse of gray.

Kieren ignored him, walking along the wall until he came to a wooden arched door with a heavy iron lock on the handle. We watched as he ran his hands down the side of the stonewall until he found what he wanted. He wedged his fingers into the caulking bordering a stone the size of my palm. He pulled, fingers straining into claws. The stone came with a rush, causing him to stumble back slightly. Placing the stone down on the ground, Kieren reached into the now exposed hole, retrieving a key from the blackness.

The key protested within the lock, a squeal echoing in the morning, causing all of us to glance around nervously. No one appeared and Kieren pulled the door open on silent hinges. He replaced the key and the stone and then the four of us slipped into Kieren’s familial residence, closing the door behind us.

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