We made our way down a fir-lined path to a gamer’s cottage, a two-story building on the river. The door was unlocked, Kieren pushing it open for us and we entered, pausing. If the cobwebs, grime, and general disarray was any indication, the cottage had clearly not been lived in for some time. Dumping the bags, a giant cloud of dust erupted from the floor, causing Diana to cough, which in turn caused her to get lightheaded and sit down on the duffel bag of clothes, glancing around the place with a look of detached tiredness.
“You alright?” Colm asked Diana, searching her face.
She nodded, waving a hand. “I am just going to sit a bit. Don’t mind me.”
Colm nodded, glanced at Kieren and I and then started toward the nearest door, which he opened with some force. It was a closet, empty. He stuck his head inside just in case, looking up and down before emerging and closing the door. I watched him stalk away, knowing that he was going to search the entire house before labeling it safe.
Kieren also watched, not as amused as I was, looking away from the larger Sideian with an ill-concealed look of irritation. “We’ll need additional supplies,” he said to me.
I nodded. “But not quite yet. Let’s see what we can do with what we have. I don’t know how long this will take.”
He studied my face. “Do you know anything about what they’re going to do?”
I shrugged. “I know that Diana has some way of contacting Tirius. Now if she can utilize it on command is anyone’s guess.”
“And that guy’s role in all this?” Kieren asked, jerking a chin towards Colm who now took the stairs two at a time, disappearing overhead.
“Is to protect her from us, the evil Guardians,” I said with a grin, trying for light-heartedness. Per usual, the light-hearted reply barely made a dent in Kieren’s solemn facial expression.
Kieren didn’t reply and to extract myself from the conversation, I looked around the large main room. There were a few pieces of furniture, two heavy couches covered in dark green upholstery, a settee in blue velvet, and a massive cupboard along one wall. Colm had dutifully opened the cupboard, finding nothing inside, but something about the cupboard seemed off and I studied it, tracking its dimensions.
I nodded towards it. “What’s with the cupboard,” I said to Kieren, keeping my voice low.
Kieren looked over to where I’d indicated. “It’s the door to the tunnel,” he said, a matter-of-fact.
“To the main house. This was used as a lover’s retreat back when my parents were still young, and still my parents.”
“There is direct access to the house that has other individuals in it?” I clarified.
Kieren caught my meaning. “It’s not been used forever.” As if to prove his point, he took my hand and led me over to the cupboard. The contact of his palm against mine created that weird jerking feeling in my chest and I pulled my hand away. Kieren let my hand go without a word, opening the cupboard doors. Leaning in, he reached up towards the top interior. I heard a click. Hinges creaked and groaned as the secret door pried itself open. Without light, there was no way to see further than just beyond the threshold of the secret door, but a waft of damp earth and coolness circled me.
“Is that how you’re going to betray us?” Colm asked, appearing at the bottom of the stairs and staring at the doorway. “Leave us here and slip into the dark to disappear?”
Diana snorted. “That’s rather dramatic,” she said faintly.
Colm spared Diana a glance but then noticing that she looked even worse than before, hurried to where she sat, kneeling in front of her. I watched him take her hands, checking for her pulse with his thumb.
“I’m okay,” Diana said, gently pulling her hands away. “I just need a lie down for a moment. I’m very tired.”
“Travel will do that sometimes,” I offered. “Is there anything worth salvaging up there?” I asked Colm who still kneeled in front of Diana.
“A few beds that aren’t covered in mold. We should have brought blankets with us,” he said.
“I can get them from the main house,” Kieren offered.
I knew as soon as he said it that Colm wasn’t going to be okay with the suggestion and sure enough, the large man glared at Kieren. “I’ll come with you if you go anywhere outside of this place.”
Kieren shrugged, nonchalant, easy. “Whatever you want to do.”
Not hiding my annoyance with the two men, I went to Diana and helped her to her feet, taking up the duffel bag she’d been sitting on. “Let’s get you layered up and find you somewhere to sleep. We can’t risk a fire, but we can bundle you up.”
“It does have heating,” Kieren said. “We probably shouldn’t use the lights, but the heating should be okay to use.”
“Should?” Colm asked.
I stepped in, sensing my partner’s patience level, forcing him to meet my gaze. “That’s great. If you can take care of it, I’m going to get Diana situated.”
Kieren, narrowed eyes, knowing what I did, only nodded.
I smiled in return, a real one, in thanks, and then turned to help Diana up the stairs.
The second floor consisted of several rooms and several bathrooms. I saw what Colm meant by the beds and eventually found a double-wide with a mattress that didn’t look like it was growing a new species. Taking the clothes from the bag, I threw some more sweaters and socks at Diana who stood at the door. She caught them. I laid the rest of the clothes out on the bed to cover the mattress. Distantly, there was a rushing sound and then air started circling the room from a vent in the ceiling. It caused dust to whirl about in a tornado effect and I stepped out of the room, coughing, pushing Diana back behind me to wait for the dust to settle. That we were getting warmth from the vents was only slight compensation for the dust covering everything, but one look at Diana showed me she had no objections and wanted me to get on with it. I redid the clothing on the bed so she could lay down. She wore two more sweaters and had taken off her boots to add socks. Still, her face was pinched, and she curled into a ball despite the heat.
“Are you very cold?” I asked, scanning her face.
She opened her eyes to look at me. “I’m just not feeling quite right. I’m not cold, but I’m not warm either. Just this weird in-between feeling. Existing.”
The effect on her body was likely a combination of the many things that she had gone through in the last little while. She was in an entirely different timeline from her own, Traveling for the first time, and altogether in a situation that was challenging her not only physically but mentally as well. It was a wonder that she was still thinking coherently and still awake.
“Try to close your eyes at least, see if you can fall asleep. I’m going to go back down and make sure those two don’t kill each other. We need them both.”
Diana nodded and then closed her eyes, seeming to sink further into the pile of clothes atop the bed. I left the door open, not entirely sure that the air was healthy, and then made my way back downstairs.
The Sideians were no longer in the main room and a quick look into the other rooms showed they were not anywhere within the house, which I should’ve surmised as the entire vibe had evened out and the tension I’d felt for the last little while had dissipated. One of them had closed the cupboard and I left it closed. I’d rather it closed though the illusion of safety was just an illusion.
I tried not to think of that, heading towards the large kitchen area at the back of the house. There was a giant stove with eight burners, and three ovens in the wall. Though the house was supposed to only be used for hunting and clandestine love affairs, there were a considerable number of luxuries that spoke of Kieren’s family status. In fact, as I wandered, looking into cupboards, drawers, and opening random doors, a picture started to form suggesting that Kieren had come from a very wealthy, very influential, and very powerful family. It was only those with a great deal of power and wealth that lived so effortlessly with it. There were none of those flamboyant touches to suggest a new wealth or wealth being desperately held on to. From what I could tell, Kieren’s family did not show off their money in obvious ways, just in the expensive construction and the material used.
And this was the hunting lodge, I mused, running a hand across a marble-like slab of countertop. I couldn’t even imagine what the main house looked like. We were such different people, my partner and I, and this added another layer of that difference. No matter what the Warden, Tirius, or Masters said, we couldn’t help but be products of our environments, including the ones that we lived in before moving to the Master Realm.
Laying a palm on the counter, the cool beneath my skin, I stared out the large kitchen window at massive fir trees and felt the familiar tightness in my chest.
I needed to have a conversation with Kieren. I needed to figure out where I stood with our partnership. But before we could have that conversation, I knew I needed to fill Kieren in on what was going on with Colm and Diana. He held Colm in such contempt, which wasn’t a problem in and of itself, but I needed his understanding, or at least, I needed him to know the details of the situation.
A clatter at the front of the house pulled me from my reverie, and I dropped my fingers from where they had settled against my lips. Though I left my staff in its holster at the base of my spine, on silent feet made my way back towards the front of the house, tense for confrontation.
It was Kieren and Colm. Kieren held an arm full of blankets, and behind him, Colm held a box. Neither men spoke to one another, and both gave me a look of annoyance as they walked towards me.
“Diana is in the third room on the right,” I said to Kieren.
He nodded and with his blankets, took the stairs two at a time.
Colm walked by me into the kitchen.
I followed him, pausing in the doorway to watch.
“Your partner doesn’t speak very much,” he said, putting the large box down on the counter.
“Not to people sending him constant death vibes,” I replied, meandering up beside him and looking into the box. It was full of food. There were wrapped loaves of bread, things in cans, and various unrecognizable vegetables. Colm started to unload the box, bringing one thing out after another until the counter was full. Large white bundles were the last items he pulled out.
“Where did you get all this?” I asked, absently picking up different cans and reading the labels.
“The main house. Like your partner said, the only individuals in residence were the staff, so it was easy to get in and out of there without anyone noticing.”
“Until they wonder where all their food went,” I said, glancing up at the Sideian who was observing the kitchen with an expression bordering on disgust.
“There was plenty of it. This wasn’t even a quarter of the supplies that were in that place. The kitchen itself was about three times the size of this one. Cleaner though. This place is nasty.”
I agreed but being in unsavory locations was part and parcel with avoiding others.
Usually quiet, Kieren clattered into the kitchen, putting a large pot down onto the counter next to the food. He looked around, the same kind of expression as Colm’s on his face. “Have at it, cook boy,” Kieren threw at Colm.
Colm ignored him, for which I was grateful, and I walked over to Kieren, taking his arm, which tensed under my palm. “Come on, I haven’t exercised in a very long time. Come spar with me.”
I knew he would’ve rather sat in the kitchen and glared at Colm the entire time the other man cooked, but he relented under the pressure of my hand, following me at of the kitchen.
“Don’t get caught,” Colm called as we left.
Neither of us commented, and I was thankful that Kieren limited his opinion to the scowl on his face.
“He’s right though,” I said as we made for the front door. “We need a place that we can’t be observed.” I glanced over at Kieren’s hard jaw. “By anyone.”
Kieren caught my meaning and nodded once, leading me out the front door and taking an immediate right off the porch and around to the side of the house. Once upon a time, the side yard must have consisted of hundreds of different plants, the old garden peeking out here and there, though everything was overgrown and because it was winter, showed very little life. Kieren walked along a barely visible brick pathway that led away from the house and under an arched doorway and into a small lawn bordered by an evergreen shrub taller than both of us. Theoretically, we could be observed from the second-story windows of the house but observing was not listening and I wanted to relate the situation to Kieren the best I could. I wanted to try to make him understand why I planned to go along with Colm and his idea of contacting Tirius. And more, I wanted to convince him that finding Tirius was indeed the highest priority, though I wasn’t too sure of that last bit myself.
“Weapons?” Kieren asked.
Thinking about it, I shook my head. I yearned for the physicality but not the danger. I took out my knives and placed them on the overgrown lawn, followed by my staff that I laid on top. Kieren did the same, also stripping out of his long sleeved-black shirt to a tank he wore underneath, exposing his shoulders and arms to the sun that had started to warm the area, at least a little bit.
We squared off.
How many times had we done this; this sparring back and forth, this movement, dance-like as we circled? It was hard to remember, the number was so high, the movements so familiar. I came down low, sweeping my foot, catching his ankle which caused him to become unbalanced. He caught himself with his particular cat-like grace, vaulting back and using his longer reach for an uppercut towards my chin. I leaned back, my stomach and back muscles protesting the movement, and rolled my torso around to bring my arm across for a side-jab to his exposed kidney. He caught my fist, his large hand enveloping mine. I twisted up and out of the tight grip, catching him with my other fist, kicking with my left towards his knee, which he avoided at the last moment. My punch caught him at his shoulder, a flash of pain and surprise crossing his face, but he stepped towards me in the way I’d done with Colm, not away from the pain but with it, in it. I knew the move though, so unlike Colm, I countered up close, bringing my arm up between us and outwards. He caught it, grasping my wrist this time. Twisting me, I resisted his strength, but he was always stronger, and he moved me towards his chest. I flexed my thighs, pushing back against him rather than away, throwing him off balance once more. It was enough that his grip loosened, and I moved, twisting again, breaking free and taking several steps back, breathing heavy.
Kieren flashed me a smile, also breathing heavily. His hair had started to come loose from the caul at the base of his skull, a single length of dark hair falling against the side of his cheek and sticking there with the sweat that beaded his skin, bright and sparkling against the brown.
“You’ve not lost too much ground,” he said, eyeing my stance for weakness.
“I’ve gotten some real-life practice in lately,” I replied, though refrained from adding that one of those was a sparring bout with the man in the kitchen. Kieren would not take that very well. I wanted to start up a conversation about Tirius, about the situation, but Kieren pressed me, coming in with a low attack towards my legs. I could only respond with physical movement, unable to do anything but parry and jab, kick and scramble.
I moved, and lost myself in the movement.
We continued like that until the sun started to set on us. At some point during that time, Diana had come out of the house, wandering into the area and then pausing to watch us spar. We both recognized her arrival as we traded blows but ignored her and continued. She eventually sat down to watch us, and it wasn’t until Colm joined her that Kieren and I, by silent agreement, parted, bowing at our waists in each other’s direction, familiar in a way that we hadn’t been for quite some time.
Dripping in sweat, clothing clinging to my body, a cool evening wind flowed through the area and I shivered, goosebumps appearing along my skin. I wrapped my arms around my middle to try to hold in some of the heat. In step, Kieren and I made our way towards where Diana and Colm stood. Diana got up as we approached. She looked much better, rested, though there were still significant shadows under her eyes.
“That was impressive,” she said, handing Kieren’s long-sleeve shirt over to him. Kieren flashed her a grin and I smiled as well. She studied both of us in turn, a look that echoed back to Tirius in some strange way. “How long did it take to get that good?” she asked.
“A long time,” Kieren and I said in unison.
Diana laughed and shook her head. Colm watched us with ill-concealed annoyance, which all three of us systematically ignored. I picked up my weapons, then handed Kieren his.
“Is there hot water?” I asked as we made our way back to the front of the house. Letting ourselves into the warm interior, the smell of homecooked food wafted from the kitchen.
“Should be,” Kieren said at the same moment that Colm said that dinner was ready.
Feeling better than I had in some time, I smiled at the two Sideians, amused more than annoyed as they shared glares. “I’m doing a shower first; food next,” I said and then left the three of them to it, taking the stairs two at a time and heading for the bathroom I had spied earlier.
Like everything in the house, the bathroom was disgusting; dirt grimed the ivory bathtub, something was growing in the sink, and I only glanced at the toilet, not daring to open it. But, the shower worked, the pipes putting up a fight but eventually giving up clear water. Freezing at first, the water slowly turned warmer until it scalded my hand and I had to turn it down. Stripping out of my clothes and my weapons, I left them on the floor, sad that I had nothing clean to put on, but more than happy that I was under hot running water, even if there was no soap.
A knock at the door interrupted my enjoyment and I peeked my head around the dirty glass doors. “Yep?” I asked, expecting Kieren and somewhat surprised when the door opened and Diana’s head peaked around the edge.
“I have clothes if you want them,” she said, showing me a pile of clothes that she held in one hand, not coming any further into the bathroom.
I knew the smile I gave her bordered on manic, but she didn’t seem to mind, giving me a smile of her own and leaving the clothes on the counter. With the door closed once more, I retreated to the water and stood there for as long as my short attention span could handle. Sooner than I’d liked, I started to worry about the Sideians downstairs and reluctantly turned off the shower. I stood for a moment in the steam, breathing deeply into my belly. There were no towels, so I made do with my dirty clothing, drying off the best I could before putting on a pair of the gray trousers. Grimacing, I replaced my breast binding not having another, and then pulled over my head a soft pale pink sweater. Running hands through my now long hair, I briefly thought about taking a knife to the length, shortening it, but instead twisted it into a low knot. Kieren had shown me how to do the knot during a rather difficult mission that involved a great deal of very long blond hair and falling into a river.
Wiping a hand across the steamed mirror, I looked at my reflection. The clothing was a little too big, Diana being taller than me with a larger chest and butt, but the fabric was soft and clean. I wiped at the black shadows under my eyes but they refused to go away and I scowled at my reflection, wondering if I was ever going to be rested, clean, and in my own clothes ever again.
I took up my weapons and dirty clothes and left the bathroom, the smell of dinner calling me from downstairs, hunger replacing the darker thoughts.
Finding everyone in the kitchen, I went to the stove and ladled out a generous portion in the one remaining bowl and joined them at the table near a set of bay windows. There was an easy silence among the three individuals that I found strangely reassuring. It was as if everyone had put aside their pettiness, tiredness and general unease to enjoy the meal that was before them. I took the chair between Diana and Kieren and started in on the stew. It melted in my mouth, my body groaning on some instinctive level as I gave a thumbs up to Colm who was watching me closely to see what my reaction was to the meal. I polished off the first bowl and it wasn’t until I was mostly done with the second bowl did I sit back, resting my hands on my stomach and looking around the table at my companions. Everyone looked better, rejuvenated, which meant that we needed to talk about our next steps.
Colm, seeming to read my mind, pushed his own bowl away and then from his sleeve pulled out what appeared to be a small handheld communicator. I felt more than saw Kieren tense next to me, but he remained silent and waited, a patience that surprised me. Colm keyed something into the handheld device and then pushed it over to Diana who glanced at it but let it stay where it was on the table.
“What is it?” I asked for the other woman.
“Instructions on how to communicate with Tirius, or at least attempt to communicate with Tirius,” Colm said. “We don’t have exact information on how it can be accomplished, only rumor and what we’ve observed, or what Tirius has observed, but it should be enough to at least point Diana in the right direction.”
I reached over for the device and took it up. Colm tensed but didn’t say anything. The information was in Diaxian, which was strange especially as Diana likely couldn’t read the Diax language, but I easily read over the contents, frowning as I did so. “This is really vague,” I said, handing over the device to Kieren who waited for it.
Colm shrugged. “We only have what Tirius imparted and what we could gather. There isn’t a lot. Cana believes that the lack of information actually helps to solidify the idea that partners do exist and is not just a myth or idea thrown around for a good story.”
I nodded. Cana had said as much to me as well.
Diana glanced at the handheld and then looked over to where Colm was watching her expectantly. “I am not going to ask what it says because I want to do it myself first, to see if I can. If I can’t then I will take whatever advice is on that thing.”
Colm studied her, his eyes were intense, and I shifted in response, an instinct to protect the other woman. But she remained stoic under his study.
I broke into the silence. “It makes complete sense to do that,” I told Diana. I remembered that feeling in the cell and knew whatever I’d done had been purely instinctual. Instructions, especially the vague instructions on the device would likely muddy those instincts.
Kieren placed the device carefully on the table, frowning but only enough to cause the small line to appear between his eyes. “There is no documentation for any of this type of communication method,” he said, slowly, as if feeling his way through the words.
Colm snorted. “Doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Not everything is recorded for some Master to know about somewhere.”
Colm’s tone would have normally triggered an aggressive response but Kieren just stared at him, far away and thinking of something that had nothing to do with Colm’s dismissive words.
“What is it?” I asked in place of the silence as all eyes were on my partner.
Kieren glanced down at the device and shook his head. “This is the same as partnering, the same kind of inherent connection, but there is something off about the description there, something that suggests a biological connection.”
I shrugged. “It’s possible that there are biological connections. Beings are connected through DNA memory, our cells carrying a historical marker of past lives even. Collectors have recorded numerous examples of such relationships, especially within the human timeline. And then there is the aspect of communication on a sub-atomic level, which is also biological.”
“But between individuals in different timelines?” Kieren asked.
The comment brought me up short as I thought about it, trying to remember if there were Collections that explored similar relationships in other timelines. I then realized where this thread of thought was going and looked sharply at Kieren. “Are there instances of Guardian partners from different timelines?”
Kieren met my gaze, dark green eyes that neared to black holding me in place. “No.”
Something shifted in my solar plexus region. I wanted to ask him how we had become partners; force him to tell me what he knew, if he knew anything at all. I wanted to know if the Warden had ever let Kieren in on the “why” behind our partnership. But once again that conversation was not one that we could have at that moment, so I stayed silent, even as Colm broke in.
“What does that have to do with anything?” Colm said. “Tirius is from the human timeline. So is Diana.”
I blinked and looked away from Kieren to focus on the other Sideian. “Yes. It has no relevance,” I said, not surprised to find Diana closely watching me, but she remained silent with her observations and questions. “Where do you want to do this, then?” I asked her, changing the trajectory of my thought.
“Living room,” she said immediately. She pushed back from the table. “And no time like the present.”
“Should you get more rest?” Colm asked, concerned, which I found amusing in some distant part of myself that still found things amusing.
“I’ll be fine,” Diana replied and stood up.
We all followed her to the living room, leaving our dirty dishes for later.
At some point Colm or Diana had cleaned up some of the main living space, the dust not quite so thick and the cushions of the various furniture either dusted clean or flipped to present a cleaner and less aged side. Diana took a large leather chair near the wide front window, curling her legs under her. Thick draperies of what might have been dark green at one point hid us from view, cozied us within the confines of the lodge. I sat on the long dark blue couch in one corner, curling my feet up and under me. Colm stood at one side of the fireplace and Kieren the other, though when Diana stared at them for several moments, they got the idea and left their standing positions to sit down; Colm in another chair and Kieren at the end of the couch I sat on.
Diana closed her eyes.
We tried not to stare at her.
I guess I knew that it was very unlikely anything would happen immediately, or even happen at all, but as the time clicked by and darkness turned into deep night, owls outside hooting and the sound of crickets, I wondered how Diana could sit so very still for so long. At some point I dozed, sinking further into the couch cushions and leaning my head back. Flash dreams of a gray sea, rocky cliffs, and a cottage invaded my sleep. I woke off and on to check on Diana who still sat perfectly straight in the chair, her eyes moving underneath her eyelids though her body remained still.
I dozed again but startled awake when Diana shifted, stretching her legs out and letting her booted feet fall to the wood floor, a loud thump causing Colm to start where he too had fallen asleep waiting.
Diana looked pale and drawn once more, though her eyes were feverish bright and the smile she gave us bordered on too big. “I know where he is, but this isn’t going to be easy,” she said, looking at each of us in turn, eyes lingering on Kieren. “Not easy at all.”