Part II: Twenty Years
Chapter 3: Cliffs
The room lasted forever, his long strides not eating the gap between Lena and him fast enough. People waved from desks and called his name while never missing a beat, their fingers busy tapping keys. Those working for the Dimension Development branch knew him well after the last four years. No surprise. He hauled Lena from this floor at least twice a month—once she turned sixteen—usually after someone caught her in an archives room.
What had she done this time? Another break-in? Harassing a busy drone?
He reached the overseer’s door and smiled as he returned greetings to some of the more familiar faces. Yes, Lena definitely made his job interesting. He leaned in for an eye scan, and then waited for what no doubt would be another lecture on keeping better track of his Guide.
“She keeps you running, doesn’t she?”
Tarek turned to Avery, who slipped from one of the many archives rooms as silently as air pushing through a vent. His smile widened. Pride. Undiluted pride held his back straight and made him light at the same time. “Wouldn’t have it any other way,” he said.
The Creation Lab overseer reciprocated his smile, though her eyes remained empty. “Your Pairing is satisfactory, then?”
Same question she asked almost every time he saw her over the past twenty years. Empty conversation.
“More than satisfactory.” Exact answer he always gave her, verbatim. Three words, nothing more, nothing less.
“I am happy to hear it, Protector.” Her gaze drifted to the room she just exited. “She’s a curious one.”
Another empty conversational quip they volleyed back and forth.
“That she is.” Tarek faced the door again, wishing this division’s overseer would let him in already. Avery’s depression was almost contagious, rolling off her in vaporous waves.
Unfortunately, he bumped into her often up here. When a retiring citizen put in a request for their next world, it was Avery’s job to ensure that world suited energy of Exemplian caliber. Couldn’t send strong energy to an undeserving, lower-evolved world, now could they?
“I would be happy to speak with her,” Avery said, subtle hope tinging her voice. “Perhaps you both cou—”
The door slid open, and Tarek sighed, relieved. Who said miracles didn’t exist anymore? He gave her a slight nod, and said, “It’s been a pleasure, Avery.”
Before she could reply—or finish her interrupted thought—Tarek dipped into the room, the door closing on her solemn face. The last thing he wanted to do was expose Lena to the misery that was Avery Larkin. No, the woman wouldn’t have a chance to extinguish Lena’s passion.
Deep breath. Tarek cleared his throat and attempted to wipe the smile from his lips before stepping forward. He couldn’t help it. Lena made him smile. All the time. Even when she tested every ounce of patience he possessed.
Cassondra Hale, Dimension Development overseer, sat behind a large, glass-topped desk. Her face—a serene mask so void of any pigment that even her eyes resembled the color of water running from a tap—showed no anger, no exasperation. Nothing. She just…was.
Lena sat opposite the woman, her stiff back to him. Where the overseer could blend into a wall, Lena resembled colors. Every color. All color, as if she were a living, breathing painting—an anthropomorphic canvas vivid enough to create storms inside his chest with one glance. She was life. Vibrant and full and consuming.
She was everything.
But right now, she was pissed.
“Please be seated by your Guide, Protector.” Cassondra waved a pale hand toward the vacant chair next to Lena.
“Thank you,” he said, taking a seat.
Lena refused to acknowledge his presence, her back now so rigid her spine looked in danger of snapping.
His smile returned full force before he could mask it again. Emotion of any kind—whatever she deemed to feel at any moment—brought him to the point of combustion, as if his psyche fed off it, needed it. In a world with bland people like Cassondra, Lena was a prism, transforming life into an ethereal rainbow.
He kept his gaze on Lena’s profile, her cheeks flush and lips pursed. Cassondra would get around to the lecture eventually so they could leave. Then he’d take Lena to Shalen, their favorite place in the world. She’d vent, call Cassondra every name but her given one, and then jump off the hundred-foot cliff. And he’d listen, contribute a few names of his own to the conversation for moral support, and be waiting at the pool below to make sure she survived her jump unscathed. A routine that touted perfection—perfection as he imagined it, at least.
“You do realize it is against regulations to browse archives without permission, yes?” Cassondra finally got to it.
Tarek faced her, settling in for the inevitable. One sentence down, only a few more to go.
“Aren’t archives there for learning?” Lena asked. “Don’t they exist for the very reason to read them?”
“Of course,” Cassondra said. “But they are not for you to read. Not now. Your instruction already covers world histories. All you are required to know at this point is in your training.”
“What they tell us is superficial garbage at best.” Lena jutted forward, almost climbing over the desk in her frustration. “They have nothing else to tell me that I don’t already know.”
“Because you have managed to steal classified knowledge that you are not at privy to know.” Cassondra’s voice didn’t elevate with every syllable as Lena’s did. No, she remained calm, as if speaking to an errant child.
Which pissed Lena off more. “So, you’re lecturing me—again—because I want to be better?”
Cassondra’s lips twitched. A barest hint of emotion, but it was there. She didn’t give her usual comeback to the question Lena always threw at her: Thievery does not make you better.
This reaction was new.
Tarek didn’t trust it at all.
He covered Lena’s hand and squeezed as Cassondra scrutinized her. Her fingers shook and her skin felt hot, as if rage burned her from the inside out. Tarek usually kept quiet until the end, when he promised to speak with his Guide regarding her actions.
He never did, even though Lena swore the last time was the last time—every time they left this office. Her fascination with other worlds—wanting to know every single thing about every single one—consumed her.
Wonder what she had learned today before they caught her? He’d get it out of her at Shalen after she had a chance to bitch about the injustice of rules. Who needed them, Lena always said. Not her, apparently. Status quo didn’t fit her well. And he was damned glad it didn’t, for the most part.
Cassondra folded her hands on her desk. “You are right, Lena.”
Lena’s fingers shook harder under his palm, her skin now clammy. Cassondra had never said those fours words in the same sentence. Hell, they concluded she never would a while ago. But she said them.
She said them.
“I—what?” Lena took her hand from his and rubbed it on the folds of her robe.
“You are right,” Cassondra repeated. “Mateusz and I have discussed it, and we believe you are ready to go into the field.”
“She’s only had fourteen years of training.” Keeping quiet was no longer an option, Tarek’s fear demanding him to speak. “At least ten years less than other Guides in the field.”
“Energy instructors claim she is a natural,” Cassondra said, “and she has obviously well-educated herself. I don’t see the issue.”
“Don’t see the—are you serious?” No. Not going to happen. Mateusz agreed with this?
Tarek opened his mouth again, ready to battle, but Lena nudged his foot. “I…I’m honored,” she said, her voice airy, “but—”
“Isn’t this what all that knowledge pilfering was about? Performing your duty to the human race?” Cassondra tilted her head. “Aren’t you ready?”
“Well, y-yes, bu—”
“You have the tools, and now it’s time to utilize them.” Cassondra turned toward a comp system to her right, pulling up holograms of different worlds, dismissing them. “Seek out my Guide and have your language translator implanted. Orders will be given in one week’s time.”
Tarek jumped up, his levitating chair shooting to the other side of the room with the force. “This is shit, and you know it!”
Cassondra focused on him without flinching. “Watch yourself, Protector,” she said, her voice even, unbothered.
No. No way. He stuck his finger inches from her face. “You—”
“Thank you, Cassondra.” Lena tugged on his arm until he pulled back an inch. “Please, forgive him. He’s…surprised, is all.”
Surprised? He almost laughed. Nothing Exemplians did surprised him, especially the asshats who sat on their gilded thrones, spouting orders to their underlings.
Lena tugged harder.
He closed his eyes, counted to ten, and moved away from the desk. If he did anything to the woman, authority would arrest him, mark him as a traitor—a Tainted—and he’d be sent to a cell, leaving Lena alone.
Tarek lifted his gaze to Cassondra’s, hating how unruffled she was. She had him by the ball sack, and she knew it. “Where are you sending us?”
She stared for a moment, and then resumed her study of the holographic worlds beside her. “You will know in a week.”
The door opened, a clear sign she was finished.
Tarek grabbed Lena’s hand and bolted, his fury so potent he could almost see it, his vision a red haze.
Neither spoke as they made it to the lift.
Neither spoke as the lift carried them to the middle floors.
Neither spoke as they stalked to his dorm.
But Tarek never let go of her. He couldn’t.
Once the door shut behind them, he released Lena’s hand, only to cup her cheeks and rest his forehead against hers.
He closed his eyes. Breathe. In and out…in and out…in and out…
“Tarek, listen. Listen to me, okay?” Lena covered his hands and pressed against his fingers. “Are you listening?”
“We’ll be all right. Everything will be fine.”
He leaned back far enough to see her face. So pale now, all her color gone, a clear canvas, except for her eyes: brown, like sherry, and bright against her ashen complexion. “She’s punishing us,” he said.
Lena’s mouth struggled with a smile, failing. “I know, but we can do it. We will do it.”
“Why, Lena? Why did you have to go up there again? You promised…”
She winced, her sherry eyes now hooded with guilt. “Sorry, so sorry.”
So many other admonishments wanted to fall from his mouth, but he wouldn’t berate her, or make her feel guilty. Her passion, her curiosity, vitalized him, made living here more than tolerable. She made it home.
He remembered how excited—confident—he had been when he and Roderick went to their first world together. Not this time. Not with Lena. She was…different. Twenty years. He’d had twenty years with her and it only felt like minutes, seconds.
“I can’t lose you.” He pulled his hands from her face and tucked long strands of dark hair behind her ears.
“You won’t. Ever.” Her smile finally won, giving some color back to her cheeks. “We’re stuck until death and death and death do us part.”
“Only three?” he asked, already feeling better. She did that. She had always done that for him.
“I’m assuming I’ll be quite tired of you by then.” She winked. “I’ll have to find myself some new energy to keep me on my toes.”
He laughed and shook his head, going to his comp system. “You do that. Hopefully karma will give you a headache as large as the one I have.”
Her snort lifted his spirits more. “Hey, I happen to be enjoyable company.”
“That’s another word for it, I guess.” He grinned, his fingers busy punching in Mateusz’s number.
“What are you doing?”
“Mateusz will end this. I’ll beg, grovel, promise to chain you up after training hours…whatever it takes.”
“No!” Her hand stopped his before he could tap in the last number. “I want to go, Tarek. I want to.”
He faced her, his fear sneaking back in. “Why?”
“I’m ready.” She lifted her chin. “And we’ll be just fine. You know why?”
He shook his head, his finger itching to insert that last digit.
“I have you.”
“I have you, and you have me,” she said. “I trust you, so trust me, too.”
Trust her? Of course he trusted her. Trusted her above any being in this world and the next.
Tarek brought her hand to his heart. “You’re going to drive me insane, Lena Mi.”
“That’s the plan.” Her laugh made his heart beat faster, despite the memory using her last name provoked.
Lena was fifteen when her governess, Nan, had revealed the truth before she died—and moved on to another world. Her past was something Tarek had never wanted her to know, and after she screamed at him for keeping it secret, she clung to him, sobbing. Tarek sat with her for weeks while she cried herself to sleep. She lost her governess and discovered she was a bargaining chip all at once.
Lena had decided her last name after her refusal to take his, saying she wouldn’t accept his pity. Her logic: A last name says I belong to someone, anyone, even just a little piece. I only belong to me, not you. Just…Mi.
Mi went on her formal transcript the next day, replacing an arbitrary name Mateusz had given her.
She patted his chest, bringing his mind out of the past. “Now, I’m going to find the little weasel who follows Cassondra around and finally get my language implant. Then we’re going to Shalen, and you’re going to speak to me in every single language that pops into your head.” She stopped and pulled in a gulp of air. “And then I’m going to jump off the cliff—and jump again and again—and you’re going to have a fit every time.”
Yes, she was all the colors. “Is that how it will be, then?”
“Absolutely.” She went to the door and hesitated. “How’s Farren?”
Tarek shrugged. “He’s coping as well as can be expected.”
Two weeks ago, a group of thieves ambushed Farren and his Guide in Andor, a world where no Exemplian wanted to go. Farren had managed to pull his Guide home before he died of gashes in his chest. The Guide lived. A case of wrong place, wrong time, but that consolation didn’t help getting over rebirth.
Lena pressed the access panel, her palm the only one besides his able to get into his room, and the door opened. “Well, tell him he’s coming with us.”
“I don’t think he wi—”
“Bring him, even if you have to bound and gag him.” Before she left, she added, “Nothing brings a person back to life better than a cliff dive.”
As soon as the door closed, he sank to his bunk, having a hard time knowing what to feel. She had always managed to do that, too. He should be angry, scared. And he was. But he was so many other things mixed with it.
A cliff jump to feel alive? No, he had something more potent.
Lena became his dark-haired, sherry-eyed cliff the moment he saw her.