Into the Hollow: First Chapter!

CHAPTER 1

Free

 a + b = c

In Theory, Anyway

 

The last present Daddy gave me was a gun.

Not a minute after I unwrapped the used .22, he took me out back to shoot rusted targets lined on the woodpile. After missing the first shot, I hit every can. Even though misery clouded his eyes then, Daddy beamed and set up more so I could do it again. And I did, the cans falling to the snow-covered ground with every blast of the gun. Ain’t you a natural, Free?

That was my eleventh birthday, almost seven years ago, but the memory of my father’s words gave me confidence, especially now. They played in my mind as I peered into the scope, not moving. This shot had to count; we couldn’t spare the ammo for a second one. A natural, a natural, a natural…

“Shoot him, Sissy.”

“Quiet,” I whispered. We lay prone atop a bed of rotting vegetation, probably covered with ticks I’d have to pick off both of us at home.

Deep breath.

His neck stayed in my sights, the shotgun barrel propped on a fallen hickory branch, my cheek against the cold stock.

Steady.

Stop shaking, dammit!

I prayed for luck and pulled the trigger. Boom! Heavy wings flapped, kicking up dirt as gobbling echoed through the morning fog.

“You got him!” My brother ran to our kill, the rest of the flock escaping into the thicket.

I grinned when he tried to lift the gobbler by its legs, and looped the shotgun strap on my shoulder. “You doubting me, Little?”

“Never,” he said, the early chill turning his breath to smoke. He attempted to pick up the bird again, failing. It probably weighed more than he did.

“Good thing.” I stood and brushed off my jeans before collecting our supper from Little’s struggling hands. “C’mon. We’ll get Daddy to cook him up while we’re gone.”

“Can we shoot another one tomorrow?”

“Sorry, buddy. This here’s probably the last hunt. Not much ammo left.”

“Oh.” He hurried after me as I led us out of the woods. “Can we have potatoes, too?”

“None left.”

“Darn.”

I loved how he spoke. He didn’t have the sharp twang like Daddy and me. Little’s clean voice brought Needles, California, to Poplar Branch, West Virginia—America’s dirty secret. At least that’s how I saw our hiding spot in Middle of Nowhere, Appalachia.

I pointed to some rocks before he tripped over them. “Hey, remember the ginseng around here? That root we told you about?” At his nod, I continued, “Well, Daddy got himself a nice haul last night. If all goes the way I expect, food won’t be a concern for a while.”

His footfalls were loud, sounding more like a full-grown man than a skinny five-year-old boy. “Will we get our lights on, too?”

“No electric here. Already told you.”

A pause. “When are we going to stop camping, Sissy?”

“Soon.” I guided Little down the steep ravine toward the road.

Camping. What Daddy and I had told him four months ago when we arrived at the shack we lived in now. Every time he asked when we’d be going home, I’d tell him the same thing.

Soon.

The only lie that fell from my lips and hit his ears.

Once we made it to the narrow road, Little pulled out the blue calculator I bought him before we left California. As he typed, the burn scar running along his left palm by his thumb flashed, and I had to hide my wince behind a smile.

“Okay, what’s six thousand two hundred and twenty-seven times one hundred and forty-two?” he asked, concentrating on the calculator with his brow scrunched.

I thought for a minute as we shuffled along the road, moving aside when a line of fracking trucks rumbled past. “You make it too easy. Eight hundred eighty-four thousand, two hundred thirty-four.”

He squealed, skipping a few steps ahead. “That’s right! That’s right!”

“Of course it is.” I laughed as he tapped more numbers, giving another problem I answered just as fast. My passion had amounted to nothing except a fun trick to amuse Little, but I’d be a human calculator if it made him happy. I’d be anything.

“All right, enough for now.” I pulled his hood up when a gust of wind blew it down. “You know what? As soon as I get the sang cashed in, I’m taking you out for pizza.”

“Really?”

“Really.”

“Can we have soda, too?” he asked, stuffing his calculator back into his coat pocket.

Soda, not pop, and something we never wasted money on. But there were always exceptions. “Pizza wouldn’t taste good without it.”

A smile lit up his face.

I lived for his smile. I swear I’d die for it, too.

He clasped my hand. “You’re my favorite.”

“Right back at you.”

He said that instead of “I love you.” I had no idea why he said it, but I enjoyed being his favorite. He was mine too, after all.

“Now, we—” I glanced up as we neared our house, and the warmth his happiness gave disappeared when a newer pickup truck pulled into the driveway behind our beat-up Buick.

“What, Sissy? What’s wrong?”

“Nothing.” I crouched in front of Little when we reached the yard and tweaked his nose as the truck’s engine revved beside us. “Go on in and wash up with the pot of water on the stove. Careful not to get burned, you hear?”

His blue eyes finally left the shiny red truck and met mine. “Who are they?”

“Nobody you need to worry about.” I stood on legs begging to give. “Get to it. And save some water for me. I don’t feel like going to the well again this morning.”

“Should I get Dad?”

I shook my head. “Let me see what they want first.”

“Are you sure?”

“I’m sure.”

“Okay.” He eyed the truck once more and ran to the porch, jumping over piles of scrap metal and old toys.

I hated that he couldn’t lock himself inside. Dry rot had claimed this place probably before I was born, and a good kick had enough power to send the door—and the walls—flying into the living room.

After Little made it inside, I dropped the bird away from any garbage and shrugged the shotgun strap off my shoulder. Took a deep breath. Then went to the truck.

They won’t know it’s not loaded, Free. Don’t panic.

Tinted windows hid the occupant, but that wouldn’t intimidate me—on the outside. Inside, vomit begged to splatter the door panel. I tapped the window with the tip of my gun, and when it rolled down, I aimed at the bulbous nose of an older man. “Can I help you with something?”

He smirked, showing off a nice set of dentures. “Well, I hope so. You know who I am?”

“Can’t say I do.” I inched the barrel closer until it almost touched the man’s face.

“Put your gun down, girl. I just want to talk to you.”

“I’ll keep it where it is if you don’t mind. What do you want?”

He turned away long enough to grab something from his passenger seat. “You recognize this?” He tossed a floppy gray hat out his window, the thing landing at my feet.

I refused to give it my attention. “No. Why?” Please leave, please leave, please leave…

The man’s watery eyes turned to stone. “You tell your daddy if he wants to steal from me, he better be ready to pay the price.” He shifted into reverse. “You make sure to give him the message, let him know you and I had a conversation.”

He backed out, his fancy truck not bothered by the ruts in the driveway. When he disappeared down the road, I sank to my knees.

Not good.

What the hell had he gone and done this time?

I stuffed the hat in my back pocket and stayed there, my eyes shut against the gray and fog and cold, wet filth seeping through my jeans.

My mind went to work:

Eight hundred ninety-two divided by sixty-eight…

Times twenty-five…

Minus two hundred point forty-three…

One hundred twenty-seven point fifty-one.

Keep. Calm.

I opened my eyes and stared at our shack—a home that wasn’t any kind of home. If Daddy had done something to jeopardize—

The ginseng. Goddamn ginseng.

The turkey went in one hand, shotgun in the other. Every step toward the porch ignited my anger, making it hard to see past it. But Little wouldn’t witness the rage. He’d been through enough without me losing it in front of him.

“Who was it?” The door hadn’t closed before Little tugged on my wrist. His face, naturally pale and full of freckles, whitened more, making his orange hair appear fluorescent. My little carrot. He had belonged to me since the day his mama gave birth to him.

“Someone Daddy knows.” I set the gun down on the way to my knees. “Don’t go outside for a while without Daddy or me, okay?”

“Why?” His eyes were older than they had a right to be.

“Just listen to me.” I cupped his cheek. “You know I’d do anything for you, right?”

“I’d do anything for you, too, even hurt bad guys.”

Don’t cry.

“I don’t need you to hurt bad guys. I need you to get ready.” I stood, clenching the turkey until its leg bones dug into my skin and added, “Remember, Little, wherever you go, I’m right behind you. No matter what.” My promise to him.

“And I’ll hold out my hand so you never get lost.” His promise to me.

“I’m counting on it. Now, you go on and get dressed. Check yourself for ticks. I’m letting Daddy know we’re leaving soon.”

“What should I wear?”

“Your black pants and my gray sweatshirt.”

“But those pants have holes in them.”

All three pairs of pants he owned had holes. “Only in the knee. Hurry, can’t be late.”

As soon as our bedroom door shut, I stormed through the living room, furnished with three old lawn chairs arranged near the wood stove and a couch with no discernible color, to the bedroom beyond it. No need to knock. He slept sounder than a corpse.

I stared at him, sprawled out on the stained mattress. His shaggy beard and filthy clothes made him look vulnerable. Even the grime caked under his fingernails, evidence of his digging, hit me in the heart. But dammit!

He knew better.

The turkey landed square on his chest, feathers and blood flying above him.

“Hey!” Daddy shot up, and the bird fell to the floor as he swiped at his chest. “What the hell you doing, baby?”

I pulled his hat from my back pocket and flung it at him, saying nothing.

I didn’t need to.

“Damn.” He reached for it and sat on the edge of the bed. “He come here?”

“Who is he?” I wouldn’t crack. I wouldn’t.

“Duffy Sloan. Owns a stretch of land up a piece.” Daddy met my scowl, his brown eyes, so much like mine, full of contrition. “Byron works for the guy on and off, told me about a few honey holes.”

“Why you listen to that jackass is beyond me.” I sat next to him, the squeaky springs protesting the extra weight. “And why the hell you leave your hat there?”

“Heard dogs and got spooked. The thing flew off on the way out the woods.”

I shook my head. “This Sloan guy probably has trail cams all over the place, and… Byron, Daddy? He’d turn in his own kid for ten dollars.”

“Byron let us stay here, didn’t he? And what choice do we got? Your check barely covers food.” He took my hand and squeezed. “If I could find a good hole, a patch that would give enough sang…”

He used to have a great job in the mines near Bluefield, an hour from here and where we used to live. But he gave it up to start over in California two weeks after my eleventh birthday. Exactly thirteen days after Mama died. He couldn’t risk it, though, going back to his old boss to gain real employment. Not now.

So, ginseng—Daddy’s answer for money.

“You can’t be stealing. If he goes to the cops…”

“He ain’t going to no cops. These boys handle their own up here.” He held our joined hands against his heart. “What should we do? Use them smarts God gave you and help me out.”

“Would he let you slide if you gave back the sang?”

He chuckled and said, “Not likely.”

“Can he prove it was you without the hat?”

“I didn’t see no trail cams, Free. I’m thinking all he’s got is Byron’s word.”

“Which isn’t worth a thing around here.”

“True.”

I took a minute to think, but the answer was obvious. Sometimes the line between right and wrong became so thin it disappeared.

“I’ll take it into Dillinger’s before work. Get rid of it,” I said, finding him grinning. “You think you dug a pound?”

“A tad under, maybe.”

That would give us a good amount of cash, and I’d risk this Duffy fellow’s threat for it. Once. “Don’t do it again.”

“I swear.”

Little ran into the room, his smile on full volume. “Guess what, Dad? Sissy’s taking me to eat pizza and soda!”

“That’s great, little man.” Daddy released my hand and caught Little in his arms, kissing the top of his head. “What would we do without our Freedom?” He sighed and said to me, “We gotta stay here for a while longer.”

I nodded, rubbing Little’s back. “Wish we could go back to Needles.”

Silence. Then: “You know we can’t.”

***

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The Pairing-Chapter 10: Interference

chapter10

Chapter 10: Interference

The ride to Shalen remained quiet. Not because neither of them wanted to continue the conversation he started in Lena’s dorm, which he didn’t at that moment, but authority even rigged the shuttles with listening devices. Only personal dorms were free from prying ears, the one law elders gave in favor of Synod members.

Privilege…

Tarek landed close to Nan’s tree, killing the engine. Here they were, ready to take the biggest risk in their history together. As her Protector, he was failing. Lena deserved someone stronger—someone who didn’t love her as thoroughly as he did.

An issue he couldn’t solve. Loving her was as natural and necessary to him as his heart beating.

Without a word, he got out and headed toward Nan’s tree, Lena right behind him. Once they sat, he again broke their no-touching rule and brushed her cheek with a fingertip, memorizing her as he always memorized her, taking mental snapshots of each moment. “Are you sure about this?”

She turned into his hand before he could pull away, surprising him. “No.”

“Then why do it? We can wait, try to get an assignment there, talk to Teenesee without any fear of repercussions.”

Tears slipped down her cheeks and wet his palm, killing him. “I’m so tired, Tarek. Tired of being this thing who steals life. Thinking about the lives that I’m going to live here, working for them as a monster, it makes me sick. I just… I don’t want to lose me.” Her hand came up to cover her heart. “But I’ll do it, live here life after life, as long as you do because…I don’t ever want to live without you, even at the danger of losing myself.”

His heart stopped. She had never… Not since that night, so many years ago. He knew they both felt the same, an unspoken pledge to each other. But she had never said it.

Now, more than ever, he wanted take her from this world. Hide her. But he couldn’t, an impossibility due to their Exemplian “privilege.” So he gave her the only promise he could keep, a promise not even Exemplar could steal from them. “Wherever you are is where I’ll be. In this world or another, I’ll always find you.”

Tears shimmered brighter in her eyes, and she snuggled to his side. “You know you can’t.”

He wrapped his arms around her, wishing his faith could absorb into her skin. “I can, and I will, Lena. You will never have to be without me. I won’t let them take that.”

Silence filled the air, except for her quiet sobs. What to say? How to make her believe? Maybe he needed to stop this now, stop the emotion before they couldn’t go back to their normal, to the secrets Exemplar forced them to keep.

But then she gave him everything.

“I love you, Tarek. I wish I had told you that every day. I wish so many other things.” Her confession was a whisper, but powerful enough break his heart and mend it at the same time.

Why did this moment have to be the first time she said those words? Yet, he’d take what she gave and lock her words away, refuse to give them back.

He leaned over and placed a soft kiss on her cheek. “And with every breath in my body, I love you. I will always love you, no matter how many lives we live.” He told her with his lips touching her skin, as he always wanted to tell her.

Her body quivered under his touch. “So, what do we do now? How do we…?” She pulled back and met his gaze. “How, Tarek?”

Hope sprouted in his chest. “We just do it, love.” This, exactly this, was all he had ever needed from her. He wanted to yell toward the star-lit sky, thank whatever it was that made her change her mind.

But then he looked at her, really looked at her.

Her smile fell, as if reality barged into her mind. “Wait. I…Wait. I don’t thi—”

“No, Lena. No. Trust me.” He covered her balled fists, massaging her fingers until they relaxed.

“I do trust you.”

“Then don’t say what you were going to say.”

Worry still stained her face, but she nodded.

He said nothing else for a moment, afraid to break the connection. Afraid to give her a reason that would change her mind. But he had to make one thing clear.

He pushed to his feet, lifting her with him. “Let’s go.” He hesitated. “But this will be the only time, Lena. I won’t put you in danger again to clear your conscience. I want to love you, without any threat outside of keeping it from the elders.”

She tilted her head to meet his gaze. “I want that, too. I…need it.”

Tarek smiled. “Good.”

Her hand came up to his cheek, drawing small, fiery circles on his skin. “Your dimples… I dream about them. I dream about you.”

Love. The word was too small, not colorful enough. He pressed a lingering kiss against her lips, a chaste touch, reverent. If he had it his way, they’d spend the night under different circumstances. But her morals wouldn’t allow either of them to forget.

“Starting tomorrow, I’m going to build you that cottage,” he said. “With a fireplace made of your stones, right here, away from everyone.”

She scrunched her brow. “But, how can we do that? Live together? Not to mention buy this land?”

“I have three hundred years of funds I’ve never spent.” He shrugged, his mind made up. “And Protectors live with their Guides all the time.”

“Not up here, they don’t.”

“Well, we’ll just have to change the status quo, won’t we?” He smoothed a thumb across her cheek, her velvet skin causing his to spark. “Ready?”

She inhaled, and exhaled slowly. “Wherever you are, right?”

“Right.”

Yes, they’d have to be careful, and yes, they were about to blow the cap off some shady Exemplian activity. In reality, they’d always have to look over their shoulders now—a small price to pay to be able to love her. Finally.

Finally.

He should’ve known better.

“What’s wrong?” Lena looked up at his outreached hand.

He didn’t answer, sweat now pouring from his skin. Even as he tried to force the tear open, he knew the struggle was futile. Someone blocked him. Someone a hell of a lot stronger than he was.

“Tarek?” Lena’s fingers curled into his shirt, the hum of his suit underneath adding to his panic.

He lowered his hand, shoved her behind his back, and pulled his taser from his holster. “Someone’s blocking me.” As the words left his mouth, an authority shuttle hovered close to the ground before landing silently beside his.

“Oh, no.” Lena clutched his sides, her fingers digging into his skin. “Oh, no, oh, no.

Tarek held his taser, waiting. He couldn’t reassure her, tell her everything would be fine. No one had ever bothered them up here. Not once.

Somehow, some way, authority knew everything. And now they’d pay for it.

The shuttle door opened, and he almost lifted Lena over his shoulder and took off running. It would’ve been pointless, though.

No one got away from Winston.

“What’s going on here, big man?” Winston sauntered over, calm and completely deadly. “You planning a trip?”

Tarek backed up, one arm behind him grasping Lena, whose shaking body vibrated against his back. “Obviously you know, don’t you, sir?”

The tattoos peeking from the collar of Winston’s suit stood out on his dark skin, evidence he’d spent some time in Heterodox. He nodded, crossing his arms, no weapon in his hands. He didn’t need one. “You got to be careful where you talk about things.”

What? They were careful. The only place he and Lena discussed anything was in Shalen and in their dorms—Oh, no. “They tapped our rooms.”

Cassondra tapped your rooms. She has a knack for that covert shit. Believe me.” Winston tilted his head and looked behind Tarek. “Come on out, Lena. I ain’t going to hurt you.”

When Lena moved, Tarek stopped her. No. He didn’t trust anyone, especially the authority captain.

Winston smirked. “Cute. But you holding her behind your back wouldn’t do anything if I were in a different mood.”

Still, she stayed behind him as he said, “If you have no plans to arrest us, then why are you here?”

“Because I like you. And you’re lucky Cassondra likes me. Woman confides in me more than I care to admit.”

Tarek spared a quick glance behind him at Lena, knowing what Winston’s revelation would mean to her. Excitement lit her eyes. Yes, exactly. Of course he knew her. The authority captain just made it onto Lena’s list of people for future interrogation. He faced Winston again, grateful that for whatever reason in the past, he made a decent impression on the guy. “Thank you, sir.” What else could he say?

Winston unfurled his arms and gestured to the sky. “Don’t thank me yet. After I unblock you, and you still decide to take off for Empyrean?” He waved his hand, and instantly Tarek felt the lines open up to him again. “When I come after you there, I won’t be so friendly.”

The wind was still and the birds quiet, as if understanding the severity of the situation. Apples and lilacs that usually comforted him turned his stomach inside out, the odor too sweet, to innocent.

Damn.

This was it, then. Nothing else they could do.

Lena pushed on Tarek’s back until he let her by his side. “It’s illegal to tap our rooms.”

Winston laughed. “So is snooping around in the archives rooms. What’s good for you, gotta be good for her.”

Lena stood closer to Tarek’s side, her body a delicate flower in a windstorm. “I didn’t—”

“You did, and she knows. And the only reason she hasn’t had authority snatch you up is because her curiosity led to illegal activity of her own. Last thing she wants is to go to the elders with info she got from personal chambers.”

“Well, I’m willing to deal with them.” Lena stood taller, moving away from Tarek, making his nerves jump. Winston might be an impossible foe, but he could be the front line if the captain decided to get pissed, giving Lena a slim chance to get away. “My infraction is mild compared to hers. No Exemplian willing to sacrifice their life to the cause shou—”

“Save it, Guide.” Winston raised a brow. “Whatever you found, she don’t like it. Don’t care what you know, either, but it bought you her personal attention, and that ain’t good.”

Lena’s face paled, and she said nothing. She only shared her secrets with Tarek.

Winston leaned back on his heels, his tone carrying nothing but calm truth. “So again, since I like your Protector, I decided to cut you a break, warn you to knock your shit off.”

“Why?” Lena stepped forward. “It can’t only be because Tarek’s a good guy. You risked a lot coming here for a simple ‘like.'”

Winston was silent for a moment, staring holes into Lena’s unflinching face. When she dug for information, she forgot everything else, including potential danger. Then he said, “You ain’t the only one who knows the truth about things. And you ain’t the only one who hates it.”

Yes, the man definitely made her list.

But now he also piqued Tarek’s interest. Kendal’s depressed visage slid into his mind—and so did her new habit of spending time with Winston. “People like who?”

“Don’t worry about it.” Winston’s eyes hardened. “I’m telling you this as a favor.” He pointed at Tarek, some of his calm evaporating. “Don’t. Go. If you do, I’m coming for you.”

“But, but we were invited,” Lena said, her voice airy. “Teenesee asked me to come to her.”

“That won’t go over well with anyone; the treaty has no bend in it.” Winston turned, heading back to his shuttle. “She knows what you’re planning, and she’s already got my platoon waiting for that moment you punch through Empyrean’s line. Satellites are pointed and ready, shooting every angle of Teenesee’s keep. Don’t go.”

Lena ran after Winston, her desperation causing her to stumble in the tall grass. “Wait, please! What truth do you know? What? You can’t just leave!”

But he did, without even a backward glance.

She spun to him as Winston’s shuttle jetted into the night. “What now? What do we do?”

Tarek holstered his taser with an unsteady hand. “Nothing. We do nothing. It’s over.” All of it was over. This fucking place would never let them live. Ever. Cassondra heard everything. Everything.

“No, it can’t be over. There has to be another way.” She hurried to him, bunching his shirt in her fists. “We can’t let her win.”

“It’s not about winning,” he whispered, untwining her fingers from his shirt. “All it’s ever been about is surviving. Something we forgot.” He dragged his body to their shuttle, trying to keep the fury inside, keep it from exploding.

“I won’t accept it. I won’t.”

He lifted the doors then turned to her. “Get in, Lena.”

She glared at him, her face so white it reflected the moon. “There are other people, more information to know. Winston said so. Maybe we can find out who, and—”

He held up his hand, done with this. Done with all of it. Her death flashed in his mind, a waking nightmare—and the fuel he needed to ensure it didn’t happen. She wouldn’t persuade him of anything, not anymore. The only worry he had now was protecting Lena from Cassondra’s wrath. “Whoever he’s talking about is as chained to this place as we are. Don’t you see that?”

She shook her head. “Maybe not.”

Yes. Done.

He lunged for her, sweeping her up and carrying her to the shuttle, dumping her into the passenger seat.

“Hey!” Lena pounded on her door to no avail. He had it locked and secured.

When he jumped in, he said, “You want to know who he’s talking about? Kendal. Trust me. And that woman hasn’t been okay since her rebirth.” He smacked the steering lever with a yell. “We’re finished! No more. This has to stop now.”

She swallowed, her throat bobbing as fat tears dripped from her eyes. Defeat drained her face even more. She understood. Kendal didn’t have enough sanity left to help anyone. “Are you certain it’s her?”

He lifted the shuttle into the sky. “No, but that’s one thing we can find out.” Tarek steered toward home. “Stop talking. Her ears are everywhere.”

Hours later, he paced his dorm, Lena mute on his bed, afraid to go to her own room, afraid to speak in his. In the silence, his comp system dinged. “You’ve a new message, Protector Tarek Montigue, from Dimension Development.”

Tarek stopped in front of his machine, glanced at Lena, and then read the screen.

Assignment Update: Collect weak energy from Andor. Distribute to Arcus. Leave at dawn.

The Pairing-Chapter 9: Plan B

Chapter9

Chapter 9: Plan B

Empyrean Request Rejected. New Assignment: Collect from Parturit Arbos. Distribute to Parvus/strong, Cavae/weak. Tomorrow before dusk.

Tarek stared at his comp’s screen, the flashing red letters blinking, blinking, blinking.

Four times in the last week, the same three words dinged into his room from Dimension Development after Tarek put in the request. Except this time, they attached another assignment to it, a subtle “Shut the hell up and stop bothering me.”

Jackasses.

Tomorrow was Empyrean’s quarterly collection day. Now they’d have to wait another three months before attempting to get to Teenesee. Until then, he’d have to try to keep Lena from the archives rooms. What she discovered about Cassondra and her brother wouldn’t sit tight for too long. No, she’d want more information. More evidence to prove Exemplar was the evil overlord unjustly ruling the universe.

Yes, Lena had appointed herself humanity’s savior a long time ago, taking the Exemplian oath to an entirely new extreme.

Tarek rubbed his scalp, his empty laugh filling the room as his stomach turned sour. Cassondra’s punishment all those years ago continued to haunt them both. Three decades later and Lena still hadn’t forgiven herself for sending that Empyrean woman’s energy to Andor—the world full of nothing but misery and hate. Retribution fueled Lena’s drive, but now she’d have to put that on hold, which would undoubtedly piss her off.

If only her quest for justice didn’t supersede everything else.

He sighed and booted down his machine. She had waited thirty years to go back to Empyrean. Hopefully she could wait a while longer—and he’d make sure she kept her tenacity at bay until then.

Now for the hard part: breaking the news to her.

Food he’d hydrated earlier now sat like stones in his gut, his nerves tumbling it about until he had to give in and inject a nausea blocker. Okay, breathe. No puking, not yet, anyway.

After his stomach finally decided to listen, Tarek donned a shirt, tucked in the hem, laced his boots, smoothed back his short hair, and went through about a hundred more needless tasks before leaving his dorm for Lena’s.

The looming conversation wasn’t exactly high on his list. More than likely, he’d have to talk her out of storming Cassondra’s office to demand she change their assignment to Empyrean. That definitely wouldn’t go over well. Not. At. All. Perhaps he’d carry out his usual threat of tying her up until reason overrode retribution.

The halls buzzed with hive-like efficiency, everyone ignoring him as he rounded corner after corner. Everyone except for some floor authority drones scouting the halls. One even stopped him with a few arbitrary questions when he drew closer to a screening room, different worlds flashing on at least fifty screens while Guides from Dimension Development studied them. Their faces were expressionless as they watched unknowing people drudging through their day, people with no clue about reality, believing their world was the only one in existence.

Exemplar had eyes everywhere, the universe’s watchdog.

Finally, he reached Lena’s wing, her door last on the left. Despite the anxiety rippling through his nervous system, approaching her dorm always filled him with longing. His life dwelled beyond that barricade of metal and stale technology, his everything.

Tarek paused at the end of the hall, adjusting his wrinkled shirt—stalling. Enough. Go tell her. He shuffled forward, his gait slowing with each step, the cowardice attacking him not ready to relinquish its spot.

Once he made it to her room, he lifted his hand for the access panel, though his clearance was unnecessary. The door opened to Lena standing on the other side. She dragged him in by his rumpled shirt without a word. Not that she had the strength to move him, but he went along with it. Any excuse for her to touch him.

Pathetic.

But pathetic was fine with him, had been for a long time now. Gave him character—something he tried to convince himself of during those endless nights without her.

“So?” she said as soon as her door shut. “Was it another ‘no’?”

Tarek pursed his lips and nodded.

He expected rage, anger at least. Shouting and maybe throwing things around her cramped dorm.

He didn’t expect her calm.

This reaction scared the shit out of him.

She straightened her shoulders and lifted her chin, her face resolute. “Well, all right, then. Time for Plan B.”

“Plan B?” He stepped forward, ready to—damn. He had no clue. “Lena, whatever you’re thinking…”

She rushed to her bed and yanked open a box sitting at the end. “I’m done with thinking.” She turned to him, a contego suit in her hands. “We’re going there. Tonight.”

“No. Absolutely not. That’s the exact opposite of what we’re doing.” He gripped her shoulders and hunched until they were eye-level, trying to emulate her calm on the outside while terror scorched him inside. “If we get caught, and if Teenesee doesn’t kill us, we’ll be marked Tainted.” He gave her a shake when her gaze slid behind his shoulder, his terror now squeezing his lungs. “Listen to me! They’ll execute us and send our energy off to a low-level world, or worse. Put us in one of those damn rooms, turn our minds against us.”

“I know the risks.” She focused on him again, and lifted a hand to his cheek. “But everything will be fine. Teenesee… She invited us.”

He squeezed her shoulders tighter. “Thirty years ago. Why? Why is it so important to talk to her this minute?”

Red stained her cheeks and her eyes narrowed to slits. “Are you serious?” She shrugged from his hold. “I’ll tell you why, Tarek. Because I’m tired of being a monster!”

“You’re not a monster, Lena. And this…this fight, or whatever it is, we can’t do it alone.” He rubbed the back of his neck, frustrated. All he had to do was tell her no, and this matter would drop. She couldn’t leave without him. Just tell her no!

Lena’s bottom lip trembled, even as she held her chin high. “If we talk to Teenesee, tell her everything, get her support, we can stop Cassondra from sending any more undeserving energy to Andor.”

Wait. No. This wasn’t the plan, truth spreading. If Lena told Teenesee what they did to her people all those years ago, what Exemplar was still doing to them…? No. She couldn’t.

Tarek closed his eyes for a moment, his fists clenching and unclenching, not answering at first. Panic wouldn’t let him. “You can’t tell her,” he whispered.

She paced the tiny room, her excitement palpable. “I can. And after I tell her the truth, show how I want to help, she’ll tell me what I need to know, too. Exemplians being Wardens… I need to know if it’s true.”

“Lena—”

She stopped in front of him, acting as if he hadn’t tried to speak to her. “And if the elders are aware of Teenesee’s anger, they’ll be forced to stop Cassondra. No more strong energy to Andor and definitely no energy to Arcus. Exemplar can’t survive without Empyrean resources. Our entire healthcare system is dependent on those emerald rocks they pull from the ground.”

She regurgitated everything he already knew—and nothing he cared about above her life. “None of this matt—”

“It does matter! If Wardens are actually Exemplians, then…then all the energy collecting has been one big lie.” She threw her hands in the air, a suit leg whipping her cheek. “Please. I have to know.”

He stared at her, not speaking, trying to grasp onto control, refrain from tossing her floating bed into her ticking comp system.

“There’s no law against being truthful with a Warden,” she said, now twisting the contego suit into a ball. “We can’t be marked Tainted if, during our invited trip, the truth accidentally comes out.”

He exhaled as her logic soaked into his growing anxiety. Faulty logic, but she made enough sense. No laws did exist, seeing as most Exemplians sent on collection assignments had apathy that rivaled Cassondra’s.

And they could leave Exemplar. Go to other worlds, as long as they were back in their dorms at curfew. Only Empyrean had a no-trespassing stipulation in the treaty…

Which happened to be the biggest problem. The chance of Teenesee killing them was a high probability.

Yet, she had invited them, something she had never done that he was aware of, and thirty years was like days to a Warden who had lived for probably as long as her world existed.

Tarek scrubbed at his hair. All of this had become too complicated, and he wanted to tell her no.

But he never could.

His gaze landed on the bunched suit in Lena’s hands. “What’s this?”

“A contego suit.”

He rolled his eyes, pissed that he was actually contemplating her idea. “I know what it is. Why do you have it?”

“Contrary to your belief, I’m not looking to die, and since we won’t be collecting…” She smiled and raised a brow.

“You’re completely, annoyingly impossible.” He gestured to her bed where the box sat. “How’d you get it—wait, just…” He shook his head. “Don’t tell me.”

She clapped her hands together and excitement sparkled in her sherry eyes, as if she were years younger. “So, are we going?”

Damn it! When she looked at him like that, all hopeful and trusting, he had no power. None. He sighed. She had the magic to persuade him to do about anything. “Well, today’s good as any to die, I guess.”

She laughed and lifted the hem of her robes, shimmying into the suit. “You’re such a worrier.”

“That makes one of us.”

Her robes lifted to her thighs, and he caught the hint of creamy flesh, undoing him. He forced himself to face the door, although Lena was an expert at switching wardrobes without revealing too much skin. But the tiniest glimpse shot lightning through his nervous system. He couldn’t even swim with her anymore unless she wore a bodysuit. Pathetic was one thing, self-torture he could live without.

While she fussed with her clothes, he worked to slow his breathing, and said, “I don’t want to open a portal at the collection post, too many people.” If only a portal block didn’t exist in all the dorm wings. “The safest place without a block would be—”

“Nan’s.”

Right.

The sound of her heavy robes landing on the bed echoed behind him. “You can look now,” she said. “I hate talking to your back.”

He turned, and almost stumbled backward. She looked vulnerable and strong at the same time.

So perfect, different.

Always different.

Something came over him while staring at her thin body drowning in that too-large suit. Courage? No, more like desperation. Maybe going on a potential suicide mission stoked the fire he had kept on embers for years. But regardless, words left his mouth before he had a chance to swallow them.

“Well, I don’t hate when you undress in front of me.” He moved to press the button on her waist, her heat seeping through the fabric as the suit shrunk to fit her. Her scent, what saturated her dorm as well as her skin, assailed him. Lilacs, like the flowers blooming in their orchard.

“Um…” She gaped at him, little gasps escaping her mouth when his fingers skated across her side.

He leaned in next to her ear. “My willpower can only stretch so thin.”

Rarely did he ever bring up their “pretend.” But times like this, with his anxiety high, and danger so, so close, he needed to remind her. Make her understand how she affected him.

“I…” She paused, swallowing. “Maybe… I mean, we—”

“Don’t.” He dropped his hand, defeated. Stupid of him to bring it up now. Stupid. “I’m not satisfied with ‘maybe.’ Never is better, easier to deal with.”

She closed her mouth and nodded.

He’d fight to transform their pretend to reality until every ounce of life left his body—but only if she gave him more than a “maybe.” Yet, asking that of her before running toward probably the least intelligent decision he had ever made was unfair to them both.

“Put your robes back on. Don’t let anyone see the suit.” He went to the door and palmed the access panel. “I’ll get mine and meet you in the hanger.”

She said nothing else, and he didn’t expect her to.

The Pairing, Part III-Chapter 8: Secrets

Chapter8

Part III Thirty More Years

Chapter 8: Secrets

Synod life wasn’t all work. Exemplians celebrated things, not many things, but every year, citizens from all sectors—except Heterodox—celebrated Sine Custode.

Celebrate.

Right.

Who wouldn’t want to rejoice the day Exemplar’s advanced population figured out how to function without a Warden? Whatever happened to the guy—disregarding the fables many passed to younger citizens, the lies—the end of nature became the beginning of a new standard. A synthetic nature.

Tarek threw back the rest of his whiskey and grimaced from the burn. The low murmuring of “celebrating” in the commons wing of the main building aggravated him. So many people crammed in here: Synod members from both Cynosure and Shalen, and retired members from Abrogation. People from all levels of the Synod hierarchy attended to thank…well…each other for science and the nonexistence of those pesky miracles nature always provided.

Everyone, excluding the elders.

No one ever saw them, knew who they were, or how many hid behind opaque shields from the rest of the world. They could have been anyone, since talking to them in their little room with their omniscient voices piping in through the speakers—

No, damn it. Thinking about all this shit only made his aggravation escalate.

The origin of the one Exemplian holiday, or the mystical elders, wouldn’t get his attention tonight. None of these people interested Tarek, either, not Farren hitting on some Guide in a far corner or Mateusz in deep conversation with a few other overseers, including Avery Larkin.

Only one person concerned him now.

Lena.

She should have been here an hour ago. No doubt she used this opportunity to pry. Everyone who was anyone corralled themselves in this room, away from their computer systems and confidential information. She’d become stealthier these past thirty years, since that day in Empyrean, knowing when to snoop and when not to. He clenched his fist tighter around his glass. That night, after they returned from their first collection, was the best and worst of his life, and another something he didn’t want to think about.

He strode to the closest drink hydrator and punched in another whiskey. As he watched the brown powder moisten and flare with ethyl alcohol, Kendal drifted by, catching his attention.

Well, there you go. A miracle: looked like one other person interested him, and he wished like hell she didn’t—not for this reason. He missed her, the woman Kendal was before her last death. His pseudo-mother, who now refused to allow him in her home, wasn’t Kendal anymore; she was Kendal’s ghost.

Her robes hung on her thinner frame, and air blew from a vent above, lifting the ends of her limp hair to show just how sunken her cheeks had become. A year she’d been this way, since her last rebirth. She’d died three times before and had always bounced back in the month the Synod allowed for acclimation. What made this one harder? What information could she have possibly carried over into her new life that turned her so utterly different?

Tarek sighed. Too many questions with no answers. But she’d come around—she had to. Mateusz wouldn’t be able to hide her condition from the higher-ups forever.

He grabbed his drink when the hydrator dinged and watched her float through the crowd, not at all pulling off normal, until she reached Winston standing near the door. Seemed Kendal spent more time with the authority captain than Mateusz since her death.

Interesting. Sad.

And another situation he had zero control over.

He downed his whiskey in one gulp, concentrating on the burn coating his throat, his gaze remaining on Kendal.

“Is this how you spend your time now? Peeping on other people while sulking in the corner?”

Tarek sputtered, his glass slipping from his hand and landing with a splattering clunk on the spongy floor. Janitorial machines scuttled to snatch up his mess without a sound, their robotic limbs dumping the glass shards into their canister bodies. A few people glanced his way as the machines cleaned, their faces showing no interest, just mild irritation as they returned to their conversations.

Yes, those mindless drones weren’t surprised.

But his body tingled with both excitement and a fair amount of apprehension. He swallowed, attempted to turn, failed, and swallowed again. No, she couldn’t be here, not her…

“Well? You planning on growing enough balls to say hello, or are you gonna keep staring at that poor girl talking it up with Winston?”

He smiled and frowned at the same time—missed and cringed at her way with words. Her lack of couth, rather. Finally, he grew those balls she spoke of, and faced her with his hand out. “Wilma. It’s nice to see you again.” Weak, but the greeting was the only one tripping around his mind.

She snorted, not moving to shake his hand. “Is that right?”

“Yes, of course. I… It’s been…what? Over a hundred fifty years? Tarek lowered his hand, wiping his clammy palm on his breeches. “I’m surprised to see you at something so tedious.”

“Are you, now?” She crossed her arms over her chest, giving him nothing else.

What the hell did she want to hear? Not a thing came to mind, so he kept his mouth shut and stared at her, feeling like a new energy again. A new energy in the presence of greatness.

Her unruly dark curls went everywhere as they always had, framing her pudgy face. The woman was about a foot and a half shorter than he was and as round as she was tall, but her stature never fooled him.

Wilma, on record, was the strongest Protector ever to grace Exemplian soil. Stronger than him, than Winston, Cassondra, everyone.

She kept drilling him with those blue eyes full of life and power, and he cracked. “I don’t know what you want me to say,” he said.

Her lips twitched, and her eyes danced with what he could only surmise as humor derived from his noticeable discomfort. Finally, she laughed, a loud, obnoxious sound, and slapped him on the chest, sending him back a good inch or two. “You always were too easy, boy.”

Calling him “boy” after he had lived for over two hundred years in his first life, and fifty in his second, sounded absurd—but not from Wilma. Who knew how old she was or how many lives she lived. Simplest answer: a lot.

Tarek rubbed his now-aching chest, actually happy to see her. She was another anomaly. Strong, capable, and the most “alive” person he knew besides Lena and Farren. An oddity, especially since Wilma had lived for centuries upon centuries.

“So…” What to say to a legend? What? “Where’ve you been? What…ah…branch are you with now?”

She crossed her arms again and jutted a hip. “Well, that’d be none of your business.”

His face burned as he grasped for an inane question that wouldn’t sound intrusive, though asking her where she worked was as mindless as asking about the weather.

Okay… Let’s try this again. “Fair enough. Are you still in the north building? I hear they’ve renovated the dorms.”

Such drivel to ask her, and if he didn’t have so much damn respect for the woman, he’d literally run to the other drink hydrator across the room.

She tilted her head with a quick glance over his shoulder. “Nope. Moved on.”

“Really? Where?” He crossed his arms, too, mostly to hide his fidgeting.

“That would also be none of your concern.”

“Ah…” He let his arms fall to his sides, defeated. Talking to her was like being a newbie and going through ERP training all over again.

Wilma looked over his shoulder a second time, thankfully indifferent to his embarrassment. “Looks like your Guide made it to the party,” she said, her gruff voice a little rougher than he remembered.

“How’d you know about my Pairing?”

“I still keep tabs on you, boy.” She snorted again, a sound Tarek remembered well, despite over a century of not hearing it. “You were my least annoying student, after all.”

“I… Thank you?” he said, and then all his attention turned to his beautiful Guide.

Every color.

Even after all these decades, she was still his beacon, as if a room hid in gray and misery until her color saturated it with life. At fifty-years-old, she appeared twenty, younger than twenty. But her eyes were haunted, their collection trips stealing small chunks of her soul.

If only he could take her pain and give her back the innocence she had before Empyrean.

Relive that night, after they had returned, but under better circumstances.

He wiped the sides of his mouth, watching her as she shuffled toward him, acknowledging people here and there. Wilma went ignored, which had never happened when he occupied the same space as her.

But Lena had that magic…

She made it to his side, careful not to touch him. A precaution they had both adopted after that night. A celibacy he forced on himself that was both torture and the only other option available. No other women—none—they didn’t even exist for him anymore.

And he was certain if Lena found interest in another man, that man would no longer be breathing. Jealousy was a nasty beast, but an emotion he fortunately hadn’t had to experience in reality. Knowing Lena wanted different as much as he did, he settled with what neither of them could give.

Though tonight, Lena barely glanced at him, her cheeks flushed and awe turning her sherry eyes to jewels. He didn’t put that reverence on her face. No, her veneration belonged to the irritable, paunchy Protector in front of him.

Lena bunched the front of her robes in her fists, gawking at Wilma is if she were a hologram exhibit. “Protector, it’s… Wow… I’m…”

Wilma squinted, nodding with every broken word Lena spit out. When she finally gave up, Wilma raised a brow, and said, “You got some sort of stuttering problem, girl?”

Shock rounded Lena’s eyes, her hands clutching tighter to all that white cloth. “N-no?”

“You sure?”

“Um… Yes?”

Tarek moved as close to Lena’s side as possible without touching her. Yes, he protected her from everything, even her stuttering tongue. “Nice seeing you again, Wilma,” he said with a smile; he couldn’t help it. The woman’s lack of filter was refreshing. “I hope we can get together, catch up.”

Wilma ran a hand through her messy hair, getting her fingers stuck at her nape. “Yeah, don’t hold your breath. Ouch, dammit!” She yanked her hand from her head, bringing with it a clump of black hair she let fall to the floor for the janitorial machines. “As much as I’d like to stay and listen to your Guide try to speak, I gotta go deal with some of these blowhards.”

Tarek laughed even as Lena stiffened beside him, forgetting how idiotic this holiday was, and forgetting Kendal’s depression. If only they all could view life as Wilma did. “Try not to hurt anyone while you’re at it.”

“I’ll do my best.” She punched him in the shoulder on the way to a huddled group of overseers. “They’ll be sorry they demanded my presence, I’ll tell ya that!”

Tarek tried not to wince as he pressed against his throbbing shoulder. Damn, the woman could throw a punch.

“Oh, no.” Lena covered her face, shaking her head. “I made a complete ass of myself.”

Tarek pulled her hands away, chuckling. “I wouldn’t say complete.”

“How do you know her? You never told me you knew her?”

“I don’t know, know her. She was one of my instructors many, many, many moons ago.” Tarek shrugged, finding Wilma with her dull audience, some of them with bulging eyes and pursed mouths. Whatever she said to them was enough of a surprise to garner real emotion. “She’s rough around the edges but smart.” He frowned, rotating his shoulder. “And strong.”

“More than that! She has telekinesis and telepathic abilities. Her skill with manipulating minds is legend—”

“Wait, wait, wait.” He blocked her view of everything in the room but him. “How do you know all this?” Dumb question.

Lena lifted a dainty shoulder, her blush deepening. “I found her file.”

“Really? Because I’m almost positive her file is classified.” He bit the inside of his cheek to curb his smile.

“Oh, come on! How could I not look? I didn’t see all of it, just the important things—her history. Her background is so much like mine, and she’s so different. Plus—”

Tarek tamped down the air. “Okay, all right. Save the excuses. I get it.” Wilma, like Lena, had no given last name—both original Heterodox citizens. Difference between the two was Wilma had refused to take any arbitrary last name, opting to maintain her one-word moniker. “Anyway, where have you been?” Another dumb question.

Color drained from Lena’s cheeks as her Wilma-envy left to make room for worry. She glanced at Cassondra, who held court with some of her minions across the room. “I found out something.”

“What?” That look, thinned lips and hardening eyes, meant one thing: whatever she discovered wouldn’t be good. Hell, it usually never was.

She tugged on his arm for a split second to get him moving toward the exit. “Not here.”

“Where, then?”

Lena didn’t answer until they were out of the room and in the lift heading toward the underground shuttle hanger. “Nan’s.”

Perfect. Where else would they go? He glanced up at the lift’s ceiling, counting the cameras pointed at them. No one lurked over shoulders in Shalen, not at their spot, anyway.

Ten quiet minutes later, Tarek landed in the orchard. Lena had already shed her robes to reveal her usual Shalen attire underneath—breeches and a form-fitting top that most Protectors wore. And before the engine cut off, she had her door up and her feet on the ground.

She beat him to Nan’s stone and placed the rock she took from Lyrion, a mid-evolved world they had collected from days ago, on a pile of others. A habit she’d begun after their only trip to Empyrean. One stone from every world, and now she had about thirty in her little collection. Some so large he had to hold both the rock and Lena during their return trip home, while others were small enough to fit in her palm. And so many colors made up her pile, from vermilion to onyx to colors so exotic, Exemplar didn’t even have a name for them.

They’re for our pretend house, she had told him. We’re going to build our pretend fireplace with these real stones.

Their pretend. A pretend saturated with love as tangible as those stones.

“So,” he said, sitting beside her as she dug in the center of her pile until she found her book. “Tell me.”

“Wait. Let me get it down first.”

His skin itched as she wrote in her book before speaking, knowing she wouldn’t say a word until everything she’d learned sat on a page. Those books were her back up, her “just in case.” In case of what, he really didn’t know and a question Lena hadn’t been able to answer clearly.

What he did know was her mission for most of the last thirty years had been to peel away the lies surrounding Exemplar’s nucleus. In their rock pile, right in the center, Tarek constructed a compartment for what had to be at least ten books full of the info she excavated not only on Exemplar, but different worlds, more worlds than he knew existed.

Finally, she slammed the book shut and tucked it into its hidey-hole. “You’re not going to believe me.”

“Doubt that.” Of course he’d believe her.

Lena smoothed back her hair, the wind catching it and flapping it around her pale face. She opened her mouth, hesitated, and focused on the glowing moon, hovercrafts blinking occasionally with the stars. The only sounds penetrating their small piece of bliss were night birds cawing to one another and the sporadic plop of an apple dropping from its branch somewhere in the orchard.

After a few moments, she focused on him, breathed in deep, and said on the exhale, “Cassondra has a brother.”

He froze, the twig in his hand falling to the ground. A sibling? Births were rare, but—a brother? “Explain.” This wasn’t the worst of it. Knowing Lena, she saved the most horrid detail until the very end.

She bit her lip, her face shaded with the undulating shadows that always accompanied the trees at night. “I…I didn’t believe it at first. I thought it was some sort of mistake, a glitch, but then I kept reading the histories.”

“What histories, Lena?” he whispered, not sure if he really wanted to know.

As if on reflex, her hand moved to still his bouncing leg. “Arcus’s. He…he lives there.”

Instantly, his body began to tremble. So, so bad. The world populated with giant tree-squid, the dominant species. Not one human lived there, except Casimir—the Warden.

“Lena—”

“No, I know what you’re thinking, but hear me out.”

Tarek stood, too fueled by…what? Anger? Fear? “Impossible.” He paced, the birds’ song now screaming in his ears. “How could that be? Humans can’t live there. Only Casimir can survive the elements.”

She stood, too, her eyes shining with excitement. “Exactly.”

“What? No.” He backed up, as if the distance would separate him from her words. “That’s—no. Casimir couldn’t possibly—”

She straightened her back and lifted her chin.

Oh, no, that look. Not good. Not good at all. “What are you thinking?” he asked, leery.

“I’m thinking this is why Cassondra has given Andor good energy and why elders keep allowing it, no matter how many of us complain. I’m thinking she wants to show those crotchety bastards it can be done. You know, save a world from itself, evolve it into a functioning part of the universe.”

He stared at her, not comprehending. Then, as if the answer slammed into his brain, everything clicked.

Why the elders denied his request to stop distribution and collection for Andor.

Why Mateusz got nowhere with them, either.

Why Cassondra sent good energy to Andor, energy like the Empyrean woman who still invaded Lena’s dreams.

“She wants to get permission to do the same with her brother’s world,” he said. “Start with the most dangerous, change it, and then maybe…prove Arcus won’t be as difficult?”

She nodded so vigorously, he feared her neck might snap. “Yes.”

But humans can’t survive there,” Tarek repeated, as if that were enough information to argue the point. “And… if you’re right, Casimir’s Exemplian. How could he be Warden of a different world?”

“I don’t know, but going to the elders is out. I’ve no doubt they know already, and asking them would only put me in danger of a Tainted judgement for infiltrating classified files.” Lena went to him and cupped his cheeks. “Only a Warden could give us the answers.”

“And which Warden do you propose we ask?” But he already knew the answer, and it terrified the hell out of him. He covered her hands, absorbing her warmth and selfishly holding onto her touch for a few stingy seconds longer.

Lena moved her hands from his cheeks to rest on his chest—another clear violation of their unspoken, no-touching rule. “You know who. It’s time we go back to Empyrean—and finally have that talk with Teenesee.”

The Pairing-Chapter 7: Confessions

Chapter7Pairing

Chapter 7: Confessions

They were home. Safe. In zero danger of Teenesee’s wrath. No, instead the Warden saw something in Lena and demanded he bring her back—to talk.

Tarek had told her what Teenesee said as soon as they were safe in Exemplar’s capital, amongst the monotony of high evolution. He thought she’d be relieved, excited.

He thought wrong.

Maybe that information changed her. But more than likely, the lie Cassondra forced them to tell had done it.

Maybe.

Regardless of the reason, Lena faded. Her color dulled, almost matching the vapid citizens they passed on the way to their dorm rooms. Others well into their third or fourth lives. Others who functioned instead of lived.

Silent. Lena became so, so silent after her tears and pain and clutching to him.

She had refused his reassuring, hollow words, and when they reached her dorm, she had refused his company. “No,” she told him, breaking her silence. “With you, I keep feeling, and I don’t want to for a while.”

So there he lay, on his floating bunk, pissed off and with no one to take it out on. Oh, he had tried. Mateusz was lucky he’d left for the night, now safe in his home away from here, with Kendal and their happiness. The kind of contentment one used to coat ugly truth, burying it under fluff and nothing.

No worries. He’d find his friend tomorrow, and if the bastard hadn’t gone to the elders, Tarek would—once he smashed those absurd glasses into the older man’s face.

His comp system tick, tick, ticked in his ear, never quiet, always on, driving him insane. Food he had hydrated, pasta or something, sat in the machine’s chamber untouched; it steamed and reeked of spices and tomatoes. That smell made his stomach roil.

He turned to his side, flopped to his back, roared in his soundproof room so loud the ticking became invisible. He yelled and yelled and yelled, reaching out to punch the wall behind him, one arm draped over his closed eyes, his bed swaying.

Her pain. It ate at him, gnawed his insides until everything felt raw. Yes, they had to lie. Yes, lying to someone like Teenesee made him feel dirty and sick, but more so for Lena, whose moral compass surpassed his by leagues.

Her depression…like a rebirth.

“Sorry,” he said to the vacant room. “I’m so fucking sorry.” His hoarse voice was no match for the comp system, its droning tick outlasting his yelling with steady assuredness.

If only he could protect her from everything, especially this world and its cold rules.

Tarek lifted his hands in the air, those tiny scars littering his fingers stark white against his tan skin. He’d fought when protecting Roderick, killed in dangerous worlds when his Guide needed him to. Physically, he could take on so much. Fend off most people and most things. But what hurt Lena at this moment he couldn’t shield her from, making him feeble and useless.

So sorry…

If she’d let him help, talk to him, may—

A yellow light flickered above his door, followed by a click and the screen above it flashing on. His comp’s tinny, false voice announced, “You’ve a loiterer outside your chamber, Protector Tarek Montigue. Shall I alert floor authority?”

Floor authority was like the older, weaker grandfather of the Synod’s authority. A joke, really. They roamed the dormitory halls looking for infractions that never occurred.

“No, not necessary,” Tarek said. He shifted to get a better look at the grainy feed, and his heart expanded, pushing against his ribcage. “Shut down for the evening.”

“As you wish,” his computer replied. Soft clacking filled the room as his system booted down into sleep mode, only leaving behind the incessant ticking. It went ignored.

His mouth dry, his body rigid, he zoned in on the screen.

Open the door.

Tarek wouldn’t open it for her; the decision had to be hers. But… Please. Press your hand to the panel.

He didn’t breathe, didn’t move, his gaze cemented to her hesitating form as she stared at the access panel, looked around, and stared at it again, her hands folded in front of her.

Please, Lena.

Finally—finally—her palm lifted. In seconds, his door swooshed open to her standing there, face pale and mouth quivering. Her robes swallowed her thin body, trapping her in fabric. Maybe that was the reason she just stood there, watching him with her haunted sherry eyes. His body wouldn’t listen, either, when he demanded it to get up and go to her. Just as her robes held her captive, the sorrow on her face imprisoned him, crushed him.

Her body twitched, and she backed up, shooting a quick glance down the hall.

No. No, he wouldn’t let her go. But his damn legs, as if his brain were demanding he let her leave, running through all the reasons why she couldn’t stay with him. Alone. In his dorm. So he did the only thing he could manage.

He reached his arms out to her.

A sob escaped her throat, slaying him, as she rushed to his bed, the door closing silently behind her. She tripped over her hem, almost falling, but he caught her around the waist and lifted her to his bunk, nestling her against his side. Her tears burned his bare chest as she burrowed her face against his flesh, her fingers kneading his skin, as though she attempted to crawl inside him. And if it were possible, he’d have allowed her. Allow their bones and muscle to meld together.

She didn’t try to speak as she wept, and he didn’t force her. He used his arms and hands to convey what he couldn’t say aloud.

I love you, I love you, I love you.

Hours had to have passed, centuries, before her heartrending cries softened to spasms, her thin shoulders jerking with involuntary movement. His hold tightened, his thumb rubbing, soothing as each tremor attacked her.

“I felt them, Tarek.” Her raspy whisper brushed against him.

He continued to glide his thumb, up and down, up and down, as he stared at the ceiling. “Who?”

“Those souls. I…I felt their fear and sadness, heard their memories, their dreams.” She paused after her voice hitched. “The woman I sent to Andor…she was a grandmother who knitted her children socks and told them stories and loved them with everything she had. And I sent her to live a life of suffering in spite of all that.”

“I’m sorry. I…” Such an empty, fruitless word. Empty, empty.

She clung tighter to him. “I can’t go back to Empyrean, look Teenesee in the eye, and have her believe I… I’m… I’m not different. I’m a monster.”

“No, you’re not.” He tilted her chin with his free hand, needing her to see the conviction in his gaze. “You’re light and color and feeling. You’re everything that is opposite of a monster.”

Tears welled in her eyes again, but she closed them and rested her cheek on his chest. “I don’t deserve you. I don’t.”

Deserve him? He laughed, a quick, short snarl at the absurdity. “Now you’re being ridiculous.”

He felt her smile against his skin, so much better than the tears. “That’s not exactly the most encouraging thing to say, Protector.”

“Well, it’s the only thing you’re going to hear after saying ridiculous things.” He grinned toward the ceiling after she snorted and rubbed her nose on him before using her sleeve to dry her face.

“But…” Her voice quieted, back to serious. “I never want to do that again. I can’t. That woman, her memories will follow me now. They’ll chase me wherever I go…be there every time I close my eyes.”

And this was why he loved her. No other Guide he knew allowed an energy to affect them as she had. She felt. She cared. People to her weren’t a commodity. His thumb stilled on her arm. “Then stay away from the archives rooms, Lena. Do as you’re told, and she won’t punish you.”

She didn’t respond, telling him what he didn’t want to hear. Her trips into those rooms to dig wouldn’t end, not unless the people who assisted her break-ins no longer helped. Perhaps that was his next course of action: find her conspirators and threaten them with both bodily harm.

At least her tears dried and the tremors abated. He’d give her silence on the subject to prevent more sadness; he’d give her anything just to have her color bloom with its usual luster.

“Tarek?”

His eyes snapped open, the first indication he’d been drifting to sleep—with her in his room. She possessed that magic: the ability to make him whole, give him peace simply by occupying the same space. “Yes?”

She snuggled closer. “Teenesee’s beautiful, isn’t she?”

He smiled, taking his hand from her arm to settle on her waist, too relaxed to remember decorum. “She is, but it’s not a good thing. Her beauty has killed people.” Other Wardens were deadlier, like Andor’s. The man could force a person to live their greatest fear with a touch.

“And her daughter?” Lena’s body tensed. “She’s beautiful, too, yes? And not deadly…just gorgeous.”

He wavered, and then simply said, “Yes.” Before, he wanted Calian’s attention to affect her, but after her crying, the last thing he wanted was for her to feel anything but relief and comfort.

“I saw the way she looked at you.” Lena’s body remained stone, except for her fingers splayed on his stomach. She nervously pressed against him, causing his entire body to catch fire, ignite from the inside out. Calian’s looks didn’t have that kind of power, not over him.

Only Lena.

Always Lena.

He slammed his eyes shut—and gave her a piece of his truth. “The same way I look at you.”

Her hand stopped, and she gasped, a tiny sound full of surprise and…and something more.

Tarek wanted to bite back his words. Intimacy of the present made him forget the past. Forget his place. Forget how elders frowned on a Paired couple becoming romantic. Forget they lived only to be a cog in Exemplian’s cause.

“Say something.” His voice whispered into the room, pleading with her.

She remained quiet, the silence stabbing him in the gut, ripping him apart. Then her fingers resumed their delicate, beautiful torture along the ridges of his abdomen, calming him and scorching him at once. “I want to pretend.”

What?

Not good enough.

“Lena—”

“I want to pretend I’m allowed to love you.” Her fingers pressed and pressed, as if she were committing him to memory. “And I want to pretend you love me.”

Tears burned his eyelids, surprising him. He swallowed. “You don’t have to pretend that, Lena.” A confession, but not quite, his cowardice too strong to allow more truth to fill the room.

She let a sigh escape, hot against his skin, and he felt her sorrow wet his chest. Her warm tears forced him to purse his lips, curb his own misery. What should have created happiness only amounted to regret, and he had known it would. Exemplian “privilege” came with too many stipulations.

But Lena didn’t acknowledge what he’d said; she just continued pretending. “I want to pretend we have a little cottage in Shalen, beside Nan’s stone in the orchard. I want to…to pretend I wake up next to you, and we live only for us.” Her hand moved from his stomach to his thrumming heart. “For this.”

Now, more than ever, the urge to hide her away, love her like he needed to, wrested him. “I want that, too, love.” He couldn’t tell her he loved her, but calling her what ingrained in his very essence dripped from his lips as natural as breathing.

This moment, now, she was his—all of her. And he was hers, as he always had been.

Lena lifted her cheek to find his gaze, her color flowering her face. Her bright eyes shimmered with love and a tinge of sadness. Her love. He wanted her to look at him like that forever. Until the day he died. Longer. “And I want to pretend I know the feel of your mouth on mine. I want to pretend I know…”

She didn’t finish.

She didn’t have to.

Tamping down all the warnings booming through his head, he pulled her up until they were face-to-face. He refused to say a word, not wanting the fragility of this newfound bond to disintegrate to dust, leave it unexplored.

He leaned up, his eyes locked with hers. The first touch against her lips was tentative, asking, but even that tiny connection sent wave after wave of heat and fire and power through his body. As if he hadn’t really lived until his mouth found hers. And when she moaned and demanded more, her lips insistent against his and her salty tears mingling with her taste, he weaved his fingers through her hair and brought her closer, absorbing her. Taking all she gave, and giving everything he was in return.

This.

This was love, all-consuming, unpretending.

Too soon, she broke away, leaving him yearning and ready to beg for more. She searched his eyes, traced his bottom lip with her index finger, and let her tears fall in heavy drops against his cheeks, his swollen mouth. “But it can only be pretend, can’t it? They won’t let us, not while we’re Paired.”

“Lena, please.” Her name was a plea. A promise. To hell with those bastards. They controlled everything, but they couldn’t have this.

She shook her head and slid from his bunk. “If they found out, our punishment would be worse than what Cassondra did to us. Much worse.”

She was right. So absolutely, frustratingly right. But he didn’t care.

Tarek swung his legs over the side of the bed and jumped to the floor, stalking the few feet to her. “I would protect you. I’ll always protect you.”

She smiled a sad, soft smile and cupped his cheek. She then reached on her toes, kissed the corner of his mouth, and whispered in his ear, “But I’m not strong enough to protect you.”

He gathered her into his arms and held her close, screaming inside his brain, crying inside his heart. “I don’t need you to—”

“Yes, you do.” She pulled away and palmed the access panel. As the door opened, she turned to him. “In my room, one thought repeated in my mind, scaring me. And I had to come here to—” She bowed her head. “I needed you to know, to understand…you’re my heart; you have been my entire life. And if anything happened to you…because of me…”

Nothing will happen.” His words were desperate, grasping at something this world would never let him have.

Lena released a quiet sob. “I know.”

And then she was gone.

The Pairing-Chapter 6: Collection

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Chapter 6: Collection

One heavy, wooden door creaked open as soon as they hit the threshold. Not surprising. Collection in Empyrean was always scheduled, same time, all the time—a stipulation in the treaty. Unscheduled visits to Empyrean were forbidden, and if some idiot rogue Protector thought to go against the rules, Teenesee would make short work of the intruder, keeping the energy as penalty.

The punishment didn’t hurt the lawbreaker, not really. Yes, death happened. But death wasn’t the end, was it? No, the maleficence only pissed off the Synod. Losing unplanned energy to the next strongest world never boded well, hence the ever-present threat of authority tracking down wayward Exemplians not willing to follow protocol. Hell, the risk of Winston Candell on one’s ass usually created enough of a deterrent. The authority captain enjoyed a fair amount of respect, mostly due to fear.

But none of that mattered now, not today. Today, at this exact time, Teenesee expected them.

Tarek chanced a look at Lena, her face now pale and bottom lip trembling. “Breathe, Lena. Just breathe.”

She inhaled deep, exhaling slowly. “I don’t want to lie.”

“Shh…” Tarek clenched her hand tighter. “Don’t say that, not here.”

“I—”

“No.”

Walls had ears, despite the illusion of privacy.

But no one met them as they navigated corridor after corridor. A welcoming party wasn’t necessary; Tarek knew the way. Only one room in this cavernous place, with its buoyant marble floors and opulent red silk wallcoverings, could Exemplian collectors go. Anywhere else ventured—a wrong turn or attempt to explore the mysterious Warden’s keep—and those ears hiding behind walls turned into weapons held by Empyrean’s military.

Tarek had no plans to explore, now more than ever. In and out operation, no deviations. Lying to someone whom he respected tasted bitter, coating his mouth with acid, and he wanted nothing more than to get it over with as quickly as possible. But he’d do it—to keep them alive, he’d say whatever it took. If only Lena had the same outlook on self-preservation.

They passed bust after pedestaled bust of important figures, an homage to those Teenesee and her people held in high esteem. Centuries upon centuries of history revered here, nothing like Exemplar, where only the future counted. As their boot soles thudded against the sleek floor, Lena stumbled while adjusting to walking through a structure suspended in air and taking in the décor at the same time. Tarek steadied her, still quiet, afraid any sound would activate Lena’s conscience, make her say something that would get them both killed.

Fucking Cassondra. The woman knew exactly what she was doing, giving them this assignment. A clear message to Lena: stay out of Synod affairs, stop prying, or face consequences.

A woman that dangerous, running one of the most important branches in the Synod—unbelievable was all he could come up with.

Finally, the blue door appeared. A blue that didn’t resemble the sky, but a bruise, mottled and distorted. The only bruised door in the entire home as far as Tarek understood. And behind that door would be the Warden, more than likely one or both of her daughters, and a cot. Nothing more. In a keep with huge, arched windows allowing the breeze to waft in and polished history everywhere eyes landed, the room was a misfit. A prison-like place with no windows and no color—except the blue door.

He stopped and pulled Lena to his side. Deep breath. Another. He didn’t want to knock. More than anything, he didn’t want his knuckles connecting with the blue. Sweat dribbled from his hairline and traced down the sides of his face. Lena’s hand turned clammy in his, her fingers shaking despite the determined set of her jaw and unwavering gaze. But, they could do this. They could. And when they made it home, he’d go to the elders himself, file a complaint, do something.

“All right,” he said, as much to himself as to Lena. “This shouldn’t be too hard, the easiest collection you’ll ever have, actually.”

“Understood.” Lena’s tongue darted out, wetting her cracked lips, her eyes glued to the oppressive door. “Knock, would you? I don’t think I can.”

He lifted his free hand. One rap against the door. Two more.

Quiet shuffling answered, followed by the door giving way to a dim room. The woman who answered wasn’t Teenesee. No, she was the gorgeous younger version of the Warden. Calian, her eldest daughter. Sleek red hair, smooth ebony skin that begged to be touched, and eyes that glittered topaz.

Surprise brightened her face, the sneer twisting her lips transforming to a beaming light. “Tarek!” Calian said in Empyrean, bowing her head and hiding her smile. “It has been years. Decades.”

Oh…right… Calian.

Lena stiffened beside him. Her language translator implant seemed in fine working order. Unfortunately.

Tarek swallowed, trying for professionalism he couldn’t quite muster. “I’ve been Paired again.”

Obviously.

He had all but forgotten the woman’s…fondness for him, the threat to Lena superseding anything else. The attention used to flatter him when he had come here with Roderick, and he even considered acting on the temptation a time or two. Calian was older than he was by centuries, and no doubt knew her way around a man. But the Warden would’ve had his head. Death didn’t scare him much then, but Teenesee’s respect meant more than a tryst with her heir.

Now, looking at Calian’s iridescent face, simmering with sex and promise, all Tarek worried about was how Lena reacted to the woman’s attention.

Did she care? Did she even notice?

“Come in, Protector. Let us be done with this.” Teenesee spoke from the shadows, her lyrical voice as hypnotizing as her face—in the most literal sense possible. All Wardens had particular abilities, and Teenesee’s happened to be heightening her beauty. When threatened or in battle, she transformed to an irresistible, dangerous foe. No chance to fight back if you couldn’t function beyond a drooling, doting idiot.

Thankfully, the Warden kept her weapon under wraps today, her beauty only mildly paralyzing. Tarek sighed, relieved. At least now he wouldn’t embarrass himself by acting like a slobbering twit—not counting his awkward exchange with Calian.

Saving him from any more small talk, Teenesee’s voice interrupted Calian’s appreciative assessment of him. She stumbled to her mother’s side; her eyes apparently not yet finished taking him in.

Tarek bit the inside of his cheek to hold in a groan, especially when Lena jabbed a subtle elbow to his side. She did notice. And her noticing made him ecstatic and ashamed at the same time. How to explain to her nothing happened without explaining why it was so important for him to explain it to her?

He would, though. Tell her about this part of his forgotten past—when they returned home. Lena could yell and accuse all she wanted, and in the deep recesses of his twisted mind, he hoped she would scream and fight. Show she didn’t like the woman’s appraisal of him. As selfish and backward as it was, he wanted her to hate it.

But…later.

Tarek moved forward, tugging Lena with him. He craned his neck to meet Teenesee’s gaze, her frame towering over his six and a half feet of height. “It’s good to see you again, Warden.”

Teenesee didn’t recognize his greeting, letting him know loud and clear she didn’t feel the same. Instead, she scrutinized Lena, actual curiosity gleaming in her jeweled eyes. No one spoke while she evaluated Lena like cattle. Finally, she said, “You are new, are you not? Young.”

Lena moved ahead of Tarek, her hands folded demurely in front of her. “I am, Warden. And thank you, for your generosity. I…I am honored to meet you.” She swallowed, and spit out, “As well as your daughter.”

Teenesee remained quiet.

Seconds passed. Hours.

If the deafening silence went on any longer, Lena would crack, and Teenesee would kill them. As appealing as a life here sounded, since knowing Lena, Tarek had no plans to live without her—now or during any life after this one.

He dipped his foot into the tension bunching inside the room. “This will be my Guide’s first collection, but I assure you that your people are in capable hands.” Only a half-lie, Lena was capable.

“I shall hope so.” The Warden nodded once to Calian. “Leave us, my daughter. I’ll not have you distracting this Guide’s Protector during her first time.”

Well, shit.

Heat traveled up his spine and scorched his cheeks as Calian smiled softly at him on the way to the door. Before she left, she brushed a hand across his forearm. “I hope to see more of you.” Her gaze slipped to the fuming Lena, whose lips thinned to disappearing. “Now that you’ve been Paired again.”

“Ah…yes… I… Yes.” Not smooth, but he never claimed to be.

Once she left, Teenesee gestured toward the cot, a bland, uncomfortable contraption Guides complained about after a collection trip there. Most believed the rickety bed was a silent message from the Warden, a metaphor for Exemplar’s intrusion into her world: uncomfortable and unwelcome. “Please, Guide, make yourself ready.”

Lena moved forward, her hand out and back straight. “Lena. My name’s Lena Mi, and I promise… I…”

No, Lena, don’t. Tarek’s hand went to his side, where he holstered a taser on his hip. It wouldn’t do much, but hopefully it would stun the Warden enough to get Lena the hell out of there.

“I don’t like collection, either,” Lena finally said in Empyrean, her outstretched hand beginning to tremble. “I don’t know what else to say but that.”

Teenesee tilted her head and crossed her arms, a slight curve lifting her mouth. Was that respect on the woman’s face? Tarek wouldn’t know; he’d never seen it before. Not toward him, and not toward Roderick.

The Warden unfurled her arms and actually clasped Lena’s hand. “I admire your candor…Lena Mi.”

Tarek’s grip loosened on his weapon and his knees threatened to give. Now, if Lena would just leave it at that. Please leave it alone.

Lena pumped the woman’s hand a few more times, her mouth opening and clamping shut again. Tarek knew her well enough by now; she wanted to tell Teenesee, admit their intended plans. If she did, there’d be nothing left to do but beg the Warden to show mercy, see reason as they had to see it. Cassondra tied everyone’s hands, one person with a secret agenda and apathy enough to turn her back on the entire human race to realize her goal.

Without another word—miraculously—Lena released Teenesee’s hand and lay supine on the cot, just as she had done a thousand times over in training. Her robes fluttered over the side, the bright white of the fabric making her look both ethereal and vulnerable.

As if a sort of feral instinct commanded it, Tarek rushed over to stand at the end of the cot with his hands resting at his sides, one near his taser. The precaution wasn’t necessary in a routine collection in Empyrean, but that didn’t concern him.

Teenesee glanced in his direction and raised a brow as she stood at the other end of the cot. He ignored her inquisitiveness to focus on his Guide. “Take your time, slow breaths, imagine your center…”

He crooned the same words again and again as Lena evened her breathing, her hands folded over her abdomen. Cassondra was right about one thing: Lena was a natural.

Her light slipped from her gaping mouth, its green luster animating the dingy cell of a room. Guides in their energy form captivated him before, but Lena’s glow, the very essence of her, mesmerized him every time he had the fortune to stand in the same space. This was privilege at its best.

Teenesee held her now-luminous palm over Lena’s body, which still pumped oxygen and blood and life as if on mechanical support. “Come, take your life,” Teenesee said to Lena’s energy.

And even though Lena couldn’t respond, she heard.

I’m scared, Tarek.

Advantage of Pairing: Lena could use telepathy with him in this form. Regrettably, he had to speak aloud. Some Protectors had telepathic ability  and more, like Winston. But not him.

He wet his dry lips. “Don’t be. I’ll be right here.” He refused to look in Teenesee’s direction as he spoke.

Lena hovered just above the Warden’s radiant palm, staying inches from her. All Lena had to do was touch the woman’s flesh with her light, absorb the lives she reluctantly gave, and zip out of here. It’d only take minutes for Lena to distribute; she just had to collect the damn energy.

You can do it. You can do it. You can do it.

He replayed the mantra in his mind, wishing it would transmit to her. But her green glow floated there, pulsating and hesitant.

“All is well, Lena Mi,” Teenesee said. “You must do what you must, and I shall do the same.”

The Warden’s coaxing helped, and Lena’s vacillating light finally bobbed to the proffered energy. As soon as the two orbs released from Teenesee’s hand, Lena’s energy expanded, the red and gold Empyrean glow turning her green to a rainbow of color. She didn’t falter again, and rocketed from the room—to give new lives to two people. One would become a “privileged” Exemplian once a rare pregnancy transpired. The other…the other would more than likely start a new life sooner in Andor, a life most certainly filled with fear and hate and pain.

Tarek held still, watching Lena’s chest rise up and down, holding his own breath. Just a few more minutes, and they’d be finished, with only the aftermath of guilt to handle. He could do that, as long as she was safe beside him to doing it, too.

“Your suit,” Teenesee said, interrupting his vigil. “Why do you leave in on in here? Do you not feel safe?”

Tarek didn’t miss the challenge in her voice. “Of course I do, Warden.”

“Then I’m afraid I do not understand.”

He didn’t answer right away, debating between truth and an empty excuse. Finally, he went with the former. “I promised her.”

Silence.

Then, “She is different, is she not?” Teenesee’s voice, like music and honey, melted against his ears like a balm.

Different? Too small a word. All the colors, every one…

“Yes,” he said, his gaze remaining on Lena’s empty shell.

“And you love her.” It wasn’t a question.

But Tarek wanted to answer, a confessional of sorts. Admit a potentially sinful thought to a woman who cared nothing for the sinner. He nodded, and whispered, “Yes.” To say it aloud, admit it, made him light and heavy. Scared and so ridiculously exuberant.

“It is not hard to understand why, Protector. I have a feeling about her, this Guide.” A pause. “She may just change the universe.”

His head snapped up, surprise rippling down his spine, prickling his skin. Teenesee didn’t give two shits for Exemplians. And she never asked questions, never made predictions. “How do you mean?”

Teenesee smiled. She smiled! “Sometimes, one knows.” She smoothed the front of her emerald green tunic, hesitating as if debating her next words. And then she shocked him again—more than shocked him. “Bring her back soon, not to collect, but so I may speak with her.”

What? Never had Teenesee—What?

“I… I don’t know if—”

“Find a way.” She gestured to Lena’s body. “My intuition…it is never wrong.”

As soon as the words left her mouth, Lena’s light ripped into the room, gliding into her open mouth. She lay still. A moment went by, and a few more followed.

Tarek pushed Teenesee’s unexpected words to the back of his mind and moved from the end of the cot to sit on its edge, waiting.

Waiting.

Waiting.

As if a switch clicked, Lena’s eyes popped open and promptly filled with tears. A cry left her lips.

Cry, after cry, after cry.

Tarek gathered her in his arms, stroking her hair, whispering incoherent words in her ear, willing all of his strength to seep into her flesh. He rocked her, back and forth, ignoring the fact that a Warden stood in the room next to them. Lena’s reaction, it wasn’t normal. All of this… feeling.

Of course she was different, and the Warden saw it, just as he always had.

“Lena…” He nuzzled the top of her head, his arms cinching tighter with every sob she gave. Her pain was his pain—her fear was his fear. What happened? What happened to you? But he knew already. He knew.

“Please.” She gripped his forearms so tight her fingertips whitened. “Take me home, Tarek. Please take me home.”

The Pairing-Chapter 5: Glitches

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Chapter 5: Glitches

More than my Guide.

Tarek’s brain replayed those four words for the past week, awake or asleep.

Redheaded, observant jackass.

Farren had to voice it—bring truth into the open and air it out. Make Tarek think about Lena more than he already did. He noticed how she twirled her hair while studying live satellite feeds from other worlds, biting her lip in concentration.

How she picked over the peas in her stew as they talked about nothing important in the cafeteria.

How her smile made his heart lurch when she spoke to others in the hallways or during training, always willing to give her complete attention to anyone asking for it.

Shut up.

Shut up!

Shut up!

Now wasn’t the time.

Lena sat next to him in Mateusz’s sparse office, her chin held high as she pretended not to be nervous. So brave, even when the next few minutes could bring them closer to death. Assignments remained confidential until the moment before a scheduled leave. Another rule unexplained. Another rule everyone followed without question.

Everyone, except Lena.

“This is insane,” she said to no one in particular. “Wouldn’t it make sense to tell us earlier, give us a chance to prepare?”

Tarek said nothing, his leg bouncing overtime.

“I must follow the rules just as everyone else,” Mateusz said, his face ashen and pinched. “And you will not be sent to any world not yet covered in your studies, I assure you.”

“That doesn’t answer the question, sir.” Lena subtly placed a hand on Tarek’s bouncing knee, calming his nervous tic. Where he was ready to leap from his chair, she kept her head—the usual lately.

“It’s a question I can’t answer.” Mateusz laced his fingers together and rested them on his desk, his gaze drifting to a hologram of Kendal smiling and tucking hair behind her ear. “I wish I could. I wish I knew where you were going.” He shook his head, and added, “I wish you had more training.”

Tarek’s temper almost snapped, but the last thing he needed to do was grip Mateusz up. Assaulting the ERP’s overseer would only make their situation worse. “We’re going because of you.”

Weariness dulled Mateusz’s eyes. “What are you saying?”

“I’m saying”—Tarek leaned forward, his finger inches from his supposed friend’s face—”you agreed to this. You.”

“Agreed to it, yes.” Mateusz stood from behind his desk to stare out the glass wall giving a clear view of Cynosure bustle. “But…” He left his sentence to linger.

“Why?” Tarek’s fingers clenched the chair’s metal armrests so tight, his nails bent with the effort.

Mateusz bowed his head, quiet for a moment. Then, “I don’t have much choice but to agree with the woman.” He turned to Tarek. “Cassondra is my superior, too, my friend. When she demands, I must comply.”

Lena cleared her throat, her fingers now squeezing his overactive leg. “Like agreeing to send Guides to collect bad energy in Andor…in exchange for giving good?”

Mateusz flinched. “She has the elders’ approval.” He pushed his glasses up with the tip of his index finger, his gaze returning to outside happenings. “I can’t deny her anymore on that than I can on this.”

Brilliant. Just perfect.

“She’s a monster,” Lena said, her voice low as if she feared her words had the power to escape the room and find Cassondra’s ears.

Tarek said nothing to disagree with her. Cassondra was a monster, a human being who forgot empathy, compassion…a basic respect for life. He watched the hovercraft traffic zipping past the glass wall with Mateusz, gauging what little normalcy Exemplar possessed. People had to work, had to shop for food, clothes, tools to replace tools no longer working. Normal, seemingly just like any other world he’d been to where people lived for the sake of living.

Yet, one huge difference existed between Exemplar and the rest of the universe: other worlds believed they had one chance to be all they could. It would’ve been nice to experience that kind of urgent normalcy. Always living because dying never ran too far behind. What a lie.

A polite ding filled the pregnant silence filtering into the room, and Mateusz strode to his comp system. “Your orders,” he said, hitting a button.

Tarek’s normal: orders, all the time, life after life.

Cassondra’s hologram appeared, as translucent as the woman’s skin. Her languid gaze touched everyone in the room, stopping on Lena. “You will be going to Empyrean. Energy you deem worthy will come here.” No niceties, no false politeness, just straight-to-the-point commands.

Tarek sighed, his body loose with relief. Empyrean was Exemplar’s sister world, almost as highly evolved. Lena relaxed beside him, too, her shoulder slumping against his. He looked down at her and winked, causing her to smile as she mouthed, See?

Okay, so all the hours coming up with contingency plans if things went bad, the dark nights allowing anxiety to show him a slew of what-ifs, summed up to zilch. Not a bad thing at all.

Until the damn woman opened her mouth again. “And the energy you declare unfit for Exemplian life will be discarded in Andor.”

Tarek stiffened. “You’re serious?”

He kept his voice even, using every ounce of willpower to remain stoic. She controlled who went where. A pissed off Dimension Development overseer equaled a trip to a shitty world.

“I’m always serious, Protector.” She nodded to Mateusz, her hologram flickering. “See that they receive the coordinates I’ve sent you.” She clicked off before Tarek could utter another word.

“It’ll be fine,” Lena said. “It’s just distribution, not collection. Everything will be fine.”

Tarek heaved as logic warred with fear. Scientific glitch number one: a Guide’s body had to be present in the world they collected from. And Lena would be collecting from Empyrean, not Andor. So even though she would have to send “unfit” energy to Andor, only her energy would be dropping it off, her body safe with him in Empyrean. The shell needed protected. A dead body couldn’t host an energy, now could it?

But still… “Cassondra’s sending innocent people to Andor,” Tarek said. “People who don’t deserve a horrid next life.”

Lena shrugged, though her grim face belied the movement. “Simple solution, I’ll send them both here anyway, safe and sound, regardless of what Cassondra wants.”

“If you deviate from orders, Cassondra will notify the authority, and you’ll be marked Tainted,” Mateusz said, his voice elevated with concern.

Panic rode up Tarek’s spine, forcing him to stand, Lena following beside him. No, not that—never that. A Tainted sentence ended in two ways: years in a cell where sadistic bastards spent hours a day making sure the traitor relived every personal fear, or execution with energy sent to a lower-evolved world. Punishment to the extreme, as only Exemplar knew how to do.

Tarek shook his head. “We won’t deviate.”

“How can Cassondra prove anything?” Lena’s body inched closer to his, as if she needed his nearness. Good thing, because he needed her close, too.

“Warden Teenesee gives only two lives during collection, one strong, and one not.” Mateusz drummed his fingers against his desk, worry straining his brow. “It’s stated as law in the treaty.”

All worlds except Exemplar had Dimension Wardens who held energy of the dead. They usually cooperated, though the amount of energy given to Guides depended on the treaties that each Warden had with Exemplar. Usually being the operative word.

“I’ve read the damn treaty. But”—she glanced up at Tarek—”there are no weak energies in Empyrean, not really.”

“I know.” Tarek scooped her into his arms, giving in to the urge to touch her, wishing it’d be enough.

“We’ll be responsible for ruining a life.” Lena burrowed closer to him, her trembling hands splayed across his chest.

“I know,” he repeated, at a loss for anything else.

Truth of the matter was Empyrean energy was just as strong as Exemplar’s. Even the frailest person’s energy could further the evolution of a world. But one was always weaker, and this time, that one innocent person would suffer a life in Andor.

And if the Warden found out Lena sent one of her people there—no, she never would. “We can’t let Teenesee know,” Tarek said.

“Smart idea.” Mateusz tapped his bottom lip, rocking back on his heels. “Wars have erupted for less.”

Histories told of world wars, and nothing but death was the outcome, hence the treaties. But knowing Empyrean’s Warden well, she’d fight for every single person in her world. Every. Single. One.

“Yes,” Tarek said, holding Lena closer. “Definitely can’t tell her.”

Lena rested her cheek against his chest, her heat hitting him in his thrumming heart. “How do we go there…and lie right to her face? I don’t thi—”

“Exactly, don’t think,” Mateusz said, sympathy clouding his face. “Please, Lena, adhere to command or face consequences, your only choice.”

“But—”

“I’ll beg if I have to,” Tarek said, hunching until he was eye-level with her. He prepared to get on his knees and prove himself if necessary. “This once. We can’t fix it now.”

She studied his face, her lips pursed and eyes hard. For Lena, right and wrong was black and white. There was no in-between. Thankfully, she nodded. “This once.”

“I’ll go to the elders myself. Just don’t expect—Damn it!” Mateusz slammed a fist on his desk, closed his eyes, and then opened them, resuming the calm façade he always maintained. “Open your portal here this time.” He spit out the coordinates. “And turn on your suit before you leave.”

Before Tarek could do it himself, Lena reached under his arm and turned on his contego suit. A soft whir vibrated through his skin, assuring him no weapon of any sort, whether a bullet or an angry animal, would puncture his body.

Lena wouldn’t have it so lucky. Science glitch number two: Guides never wore suits, the protective fabric making it hard for energy to release from the body.

“Leave it on, Tarek. Promise me.” Her eyes demanded he listen.

The suit became annoying after too long, the zing to the skin causing it to feel raw—main reason why Protectors shut it off once they felt an area secure. A mistake Farren had made in Andor.

He nodded, gathering her hands in his. “Promise.”

“The sooner you leave…” Mateusz pressed a hidden button on the edge of his desk, causing the glass walls to darken. “And I promise to do what I can to stop this…this lunacy.”

“Thank you, friend.” Tarek nodded to Mateusz as the older man left the office, and then focused on Lena, her sherry eyes drowning in worry. “My turn to tell you it will be okay.”

She swallowed. “I know. It’s just… I’ve never…” She pointed up.

“Yes, well, last part of your training covers it.”

“Lot of good it does me now.” Some color came back to her cheeks as she glanced up. “Does it hurt?”

He kneaded the small of her back, loosening the tension bunching there—and creating fire against his fingertips. No. He shook his head. “Think swimming through fog. If you can jump off a hundred-foot cliff, you can travel through a portal.”

She snorted. “That easy, then?”

He smiled. “That easy.”

She slid her hands from his chest to wrap around his waist, her cheek flush against his glowing suit, torturing him in the best possible way. “I trust you.”

He had to bite his upper lip and look to the ceiling to prevent kissing the top of her head. Damn you, Farren! Damn you. He let go of her with one hand and lifted it in the air. “Ready?”

“As I can be.”

He searched his mind for the coordinates, a slight hum coursing through his body and traveling to his elevated fingertips. Once the information clicked, the atmosphere split and crackled. Air gushed from the tear as their feet left the ground.

“Don’t let go.” As soon as the warning left his mouth, the portal sucked them in. Traveling through world lines mimicked the sensation of being in a vacuum, silent and compressed. The few-second trip constricted every part of the body, but almost in a pleasant way, as if swaddled in a velvet cloth.

And just like that, they landed in paradise. Paradise as Tarek always believed it to be.

He reached behind to unclench her hands, massaging her stiff fingers as he moved back a few paces. “Lena?”

“Are we there?” She kept her eyes slammed shut. Her face so white, the veins in her forehead resembled an ancient road map.

Tarek continued his gentle assault on her fingers. “Open your eyes.”

“I…” She squeezed her eyelids tighter until the skin against her temples crinkled.

“Do you still trust me?”

“Of course I do.”

He turned her to face the villages. “Then open them.”

Slowly, Lena raised her eyelids, and gasped. “I’ve read about this place, watched satellite feed, but…” Tears brightened her eyes. “It never seemed real.”

“Exactly my reaction the first time,” Tarek said. The first time, the second, the fiftieth…

Villages hovered in the sky, dotting the landscape into infinity. Buildings sat next to each other in every town in a sort of abstract symmetry, tall and squat, muted and spectacular. Bursts of yellow, red, or green painted one, while directly beside it was a salmon-colored structure. That pattern of no pattern repeated itself over and over.

Tarek nodded toward the music wafting down to them from the closest village. “Hard to believe, but it is. Real, I mean. Sweat and muscle built these towns, and animals aren’t spliced with other species or created in labs.” He clasped her hand because at that moment, not touching her made him feel empty, as if a part of him were missing. “No book or hologram or even live satellite feed can show it properly.”

She laughed, even as tears trailed down her cheeks, catching him off guard.

“Are you all right?” he asked, stopping himself before he brought her knuckles to his lips. What’s wrong with you?

“I’m more than ‘all right.’ I’m perfect, utterly perfect for the first time ever.”

“Disagree.”

“What?” She glanced up at him, absently pulling their joined hands to her heart.

He swallowed, his attention on their hands, absorbing the sight as fervently as their connection, the touch surpassing skin and racing straight to his chest. “You’re always perfect.”

Surprise widened her watery eyes, but then she smiled, enveloping him in her color. “I… Tarek?”

“Right. Well, then…” Tarek looked away, not ready to answer her questions, whether voiced or silent. He led her toward the flesh-colored drawbridge leading to Teenesee’s keep. “Just remember we’re here to work. And”—he waved to a few farmers mining emerald stones from the fields, Empyrean’s natural power source—”I don’t know what you’ve dug up during your pilfering sessions in the archives rooms, but Teenesee isn’t exactly fond of energy collection.”

“I hardly blame her.” Lena copied his actions, smiling at unsmiling Empyreans in the fields. This world happened to be the only other world with a population who understood the multi-dimensional universe—and not a soul living here enjoyed that knowledge. “This world doesn’t need any help evolving. They’re essentially giving away resources to avoid a war.”

Tarek nodded as they drew closer to the keep, his nerves shooting up. “So you have educated yourself with a bit of truth. Good.” He stepped onto the drawbridge’s smooth surface, keeping Lena’s hand firmly in his.

“Is Teenesee as dangerous as the histories claim?”

Tarek walked forward, silent for a moment, adjusting to the bounce and sway of the bridge as they advanced farther into the air. Dangerous? Yes, the woman was probably one of the most dangerous beings in the universe. But she was also fair—and smart. All attributes that added up to instant respect on his part.

Finally, before they reached the towering doors, he answered her. “Just remember the truth, Lena. Never forget it.”