Chapter 4: Shalen
They sat in a semicircle at Lena’s favorite spot, under the largest apple tree in an orchard minutes away from the cliff. No one said anything, all focused on the flat stone Lena had engraved few years ago:
Nan: she was hope in a world without it.
The words were somewhat skewed, as Lena was better at digging up information on worlds than craftsmanship, but she had refused Tarek’s help.
She leaned up to pull weeds from the edges of Nan’s memorial as tears glided down her cheeks. Normal occurrence when they sat here. He wanted to brush them away, heal whatever the older woman’s death bruised.
Once, when Lena’s tears had refused to stop, he told her as much. She curled closer to him, still sobbing: I don’t want to heal it; I want the hurt to always be there. Wherever she went, I hope somehow, deep down, she knows someone will always miss her. It’s all I have to give, a stone and my promise.
The breeze picked up, bringing with it the smell of fruit and lilacs, and lifted hair to wisp around her face. She was perfect, whether laughing, crying, or snubbing rules and committing theft.
He tilted his gaze toward the treetops and examined the budding apple blossoms, trying to curb his need to, well, need her. Most of Shalen’s “nature” was a hybrid version of what Exemplar used to be millennia ago. But all the genetically modified beauty was still beauty. He had no trouble ignoring its origins.
Farren shifted with a soft grunt, interrupting Lena’s quiet mourning and Tarek’s futile attempt not to ogle her while she did it. As a child, she fascinated him. As a woman…damn, so many other things.
Tarek focused on Farren. Lena was smart to invite him, the peace here more healing than time alone in a barren dorm room. “How’re you holding up?”
Farren shrugged. His younger face so pale the freckles dotting his skin would’ve glowed in the dark. “You know, like shit.”
Lena placed her hand on Farren’s forearm, sympathy filling her eyes with more tears. She didn’t say anything, since no words existed in any language that would ease rebirth’s pain, but her touch seemed to bring some color back to Farren’s cheeks.
“Are you going back into the field?” Tarek asked. As Farren did for him after his rebirth, Tarek would give in return. Talk. Just talk and not pretend it didn’t happen, but not bring a spotlight on the subject, either.
Farren shrugged again, his attention now on Lena’s hand patting his arm. “Don’t know. Eadmund opted to keep our Pairing intact. So…”
Pairings—between a Guide and Protector—always severed after death. Well, unless the living person chose to keep the tie. Most did, as the connection ran deep. In death, that bond, when broken, created a sort of phantom pain that festered for a lifetime.
“You could always work for the ERP; they need good instructors. I’m sure Eadmund wouldn’t mind a stint with the program.”
Farren gave a weak smile. “Yeah…”
“Enough, both of you.” Lena plucked grass from her form-fitting pants. Every time they left Cynosure, she took advantage of it, replacing her Guide robes with comfortable clothes. “We didn’t come here to be sad. We’re here to forget everything but what’s directly in front of us.”
“You know what’s in front of me right now? You and Tarek.” Farren looked toward Nan’s stone, not budging. “What if they send you to Andor? It’s bad there, worse than Arcus ever was.”
Lena said nothing as she hit Tarek with all her worry through those sherry-colored eyes.
Andor and Arcus, the bastard worlds Exemplar deemed only suitable for human waste, the universe’s dumping grounds. They sent all bad energy to those two worlds, every drop. Human souls considered unworthy of another life in a safer, more evolved world. Hell, Arcus didn’t even have a human population, the habitat unsustainable for them. That world had monstrous tree-squid, animals most human energy became in their next life. And now Farren believed Andor was worse?
Fear instantly curled into Tarek’s stomach, the kind of fear that eats and eats until it leaves the chest cavity empty. Would Cassondra send them there? Would she punish Lena with possible death?
“Why did you go to Andor in the first place?” Tarek asked Farren. “We don’t even collect energy from there anymore.”
Farren rubbed his face with a yell, scaring some of the birds from their perches in the trees. He stayed silent for a moment, and then said, “Cassondra thinks she can save the world, speed up its evolution. Give good energy and take away some of the bad.”
“That’s—what the hell is she thinking?”
“Universal domination, I suppose,” Farren said with an empty chuckle. “But who knows?”
“That’s just…” Was there a strong enough word to describe the stupidity? Crazy, self-righteous bitch.
“I know,” Farren said. “Trust me. The only good thing about my death is the elders seem to be reconsidering their assent to Cassondra’s plan.”
“Let’s hope.” Tarek inched closer to Lena as if the nearness could protect her from any future trips to those two worlds. Maybe he should take her into Heterodox. They’d never assumed he’d be crazy enough to hide there.
Lena interrupted Tarek’s burgeoning plans. “What did I say?” She held up a hand when he opened his mouth. “I said we’re going to forget everything—everything—for the next few hours. Especially our first assignment”—she pointed to Farren—”and your rebirth, and Andor and Arcus and all other worlds. Forget it, all right?” She stood. “Now, come on before it gets too dark.”
Yes, just throw her over his shoulder and run. Escape into the bowels of Heterodox and stay camouflaged amongst the prostitutes and drug addicts, or run somewhere deep in the woods with the genetically altered boar and deer to hide behind.
But he wouldn’t. She’d never let him, anyway. Tarek stood on legs still numb with residual worry. “All right, then. Let’s go.”
Farren remained on the ground, peering up at Lena and squinting against the sun. “I’m not jumping,” he said.
“Oh, hell yes, you are.” She reached for his hand and dragged, not doing a thing to move the much bigger man. “Get your moping arse up, and get it in the hovercraft. I’m driving.”
Farren watched her, his lips twitching as she struggled to bring him to his feet. “You drive? Yeah, I just died. Don’t want to do it again.”
Tarek laughed when Lena scowled, which then garnered a smile from Farren. See? She had that effect on everyone, not just him. She bloomed as bright as the lilacs littering the orchard.
Lena dropped Farren’s hand and nudged him with her booted foot. “Get. Up. You’ll thank me after your first jump.”
“If I survive it.” Farren pushed to his feet, shaking his head, but still smiling. “I don’t have a giant to save me from drowning.”
“Unlucky for you,” Lena said, grinning.
Tarek clapped him on the back as they followed Lena to their ride. “Don’t worry, I’ll save you, too.”
“Aren’t you chivalrous?”
“All the time.” Tarek opened the passenger door, trying to forget what Farren said. Forget his own cowardice and stanch the desire to lock his Guide away from the universe. Cassondra wouldn’t send them to Andor. She wouldn’t. “Ladies first.”
Lena cackled from the driver seat and started the quiet engine, while Farren punched Tarek in the shoulder on his way into the back. “Ass.”
Tarek chuckled and gestured to the safety belts, ignoring the insult and the slight sting from Farren’s fist. “Buckle your harness.” He jumped in just as Lena took the hovercraft off the ground.
Ten minutes later, they landed on the bank near a warm pool below a hundred-foot waterfall. Lena clicked off the engine and faced Tarek with a wide smile. “Ready?”
“No,” he said, his lips struggling to frown. Her excitement was as potent as her sorrow.
Her door lifted. “Well, you better get there quick. It only takes me eleven minutes to hike that cliff now. My personal best.” She jumped out and signaled to Farren in the back. “Let’s go.”
Farren grumbled and cursed in Desis, a language many higher-evolved worlds spoke in one region or another, as he got out.
“Hey!” Lena kicked off her boots and threw them on the bank. Next went her pants and shirt, leaving her in her underthings. She continued bitching in Desis all the while. “I’ll have you know I’m not an idiot and this is not a lame-ass thing to do.”
Farren grinned as he shed his clothing down to a pair of underwear. He switched back to Exemplian, and said, “Awe, you’ve gotten your language implant. Baby girl all grown up now.”
As the two bickered back and forth in a few other languages, Tarek smiled, undressing, as well. Leave it to his Guide to make a person feel alive only two weeks after death. Farren fell for Lena’s color just as he had.
Tarek dipped into the pool as they climbed the slippery rocks adjacent to the waterfall. He never jumped because: 1) he didn’t handle heights well, and 2) he needed to be at the bottom just in case Lena needed him. The first time she had jumped, when she was about ten, she smacked the water’s surface on her stomach, stunning her. Remembering that day sent a shudder down his spine. If he hadn’t been at the bottom to pull her out—no, his mind couldn’t even go there.
Not all memories he stored away and rehashed during long nights were pleasant. Her desire for near-death experiences only made his possessive need to keep her safe obnoxious at times. Like now, when she lost her grip as she climbed the slippery stone to plunge a hundred feet into a tiny pool.
“Be careful!” Panic made his voice loud, almost shrill.
Her laughter answered him as she scrambled up the last few feet, Farren right behind her.
“Not funny,” Tarek mumbled, wading deeper until he couldn’t touch bottom. He looked up in time to see Farren barreling toward him, his arms and legs flapping and a howl on his lips. Tarek rushed out of the way. “Straighten your le—”
Farren’s splash sent ripples almost all the way to the bank. A few seconds went by, and Farren remained underwater.
“Damn it.” He’d have to save the redheaded bastard after all.
Tarek swam to Farren just as he surfaced, coughing up water. A few slaps on the back, and Farren managed to breathe normally, though his pale chest flamed red with the telltale sign of hitting the water wrong.
“Need to straighten those legs,” Tarek said, treading water beside him.
“Advice is always more useful before the act, brother.” Farren howled again. “But damn, what a high.”
“So I hear.”
“You’ve never jumped?”
Farren laughed. “Coward.”
“Precisely.” Tarek pointed up. “Now watch how it’s done.”
“Nah. I’d rather jump again.” Farren swam for the bank, and hesitated. “You know, the way you look at her… It’s obvious.”
“What’s obvious?” Tarek’s gaze lifted toward Lena as she readied to jump.
“She’s not just your Guide, not anymore.”
Tarek’s breath caught. “That’s—I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Yes, you do,” Farren said, his voice quiet. “Just be careful. Remember what comes first.” With that, he left the pool and headed toward the cliff.
Denial raced through Tarek’s veins and filled his throat until he almost gagged on it. Farren was wrong—completely wrong. So…why did his heart slam against his ribcage and his limbs turn numb?
No, this wasn’t what he needed to think about now. He shook his head and gave Lena a thumbs-up. She nodded, getting into position. Her process never changed: back straight, arms up with hands reaching out, and face tilted toward the sky. After a few moments, she let herself fall as if she were prepared to dive into forever.
“Straighten your arms.” He whispered the command. She’d do it before she met the water, as always. But knowing she could make the jump blindfolded didn’t ease the worry from watching her fall.
Her splash didn’t match the sloppy entry Farren made. The water barely moved as if the pool welcomed her in, missing her. In seconds, she broke through the surface, her long hair a dark cape fanning her bare shoulders.
Iris fish nibbled at his toes, their tickling assault going unnoticed. He stayed where he was, treading water, mesmerized by her. Even now, after coming here at least twice a week for years, she savored the pool’s warmth, a soft smile caressing her lips as she floated on her back. This place was theirs, a place where she could be her and he could be him.
His fingers itched to glide through her hair, trace her jawline. He wanted to promise her things.
Farren got into his head, only explanation. She was his Guide, nothing more and certainly nothing less. He had always felt protective, honored to have her in his life. But at that moment, he—
What the hell are you thinking?
He pictured her as an infant, a little girl, the younger version of the woman she was now. She needed him to keep her safe, not…
Not anything more.
“Where are you right now?” Lena paddled to him, concern on her face. “Don’t, all right? Don’t worry about where we’re going.”
His face burned as shame rode up his spine and flamed his cheeks. His mind wasn’t on their imminent assignment—where it should’ve been. But he’d never tell her, never let her know how much he… What? What did he want?
Tarek swallowed, and then gave his brightest smile. “I’m not worried.”
“Liar. Those dimples don’t fool me at all.” She backstroked to the bank, kicking water in his face. “Now, get outside of that brain and enjoy the water. I’m going again.”
“We only have a few more hours until curfew.” Even though he’d live two lives, he—along with everyone else in the ERP—had a curfew. Safety reasons, elders claimed. More like control.
“Screw them,” she said, sloshing from the water. “Farren is just about normal again. A few more jumps and he’ll be where he needs to be. More important than bedtime, don’t you think?”
“We get back after curfew again, and they’ll definitely send us to Andor.” He meant it as a joke, but even the thought brought out that overbearing desire to hide her from the universe.
“Wherever we go, I’m not afraid. You’ll protect me.” She wrung out her hair and flung it over her shoulder. Her body, lithe and strong—and barely covered.
His heart dipped. More than my Guide…
Farren’s warning dug into his brain: remember what comes first. “I’m not invincible, Lena.”
A flush colored her cheeks before she looked toward the sky. “Well, you are to me.”