Nick, eyes turned outward to some reality known only to him, reached a ledge of exhaustion that left him breathless, heart forcing each beat in anticipation of cessation. If it would only stop, just stop, end it once and for all.
Stubborn, tenacious life carried on and pain crested in waves.
Going blind, the world swimming away into a blank hissing white, he tasted sour electric spit, felt the hot course of tears down his face, knew critical mass had been reached. This was it, Timecrash, the war of all possible perceptions bearing down on him. Body in revolt, dizzy, turning inside out, helpless, overwhelmed and alone.
Through the white din, he felt Taylor moving close to him, felt the warmth of a hand on the back of his neck, another one solid against his chest, counting off breaths, holding him, holding him… and a voice, too dim, too far outside the crash to be understood. A beat of silence and then the warm, clear comfort of the mind of another of his own, beaming into his brain diamond sharp. Too close to what he needed, the last whisper of his pride flared into existence and he pulled away from both the steadying hands, and the soft comfort of the voice in his mind, felt the dizzying rush of falling, the crack of bone as his face hit the table.
Exquisite pain, bright and bloody, bringing a sob he couldn’t bite back.
The echo of a voice brought his tear glittered gaze up, showed him a hand, reaching down for him. He grasped it, mistaking it in his sickness and confusion for the hand of death. Grasped it gratefully, longing for the sweet release of oblivion, sinking with mistaken relief into warm arms, into sweet nothingness.
“In the beginning they were beautiful…”
The snatch of dream leapt from Nick’s mind, audible to Taylor, beginning it’s maddening cycle in the boy’s brain.
“In the beginning they were beautiful… who, Nick, hmmm?”
He sat back, Nick’s sleeping head pillowed on his leg, warm breath heating denim clad skin, inhaling the scent that rose in hectic, feverish waves from Nick’s body.
Soap, whiskey, coffee, tobacco, blood, fear… intoxicating and overpowering, he could taste it.
His fingers wound through Nick’s hair, silver gold strands slipped sparkling from his fingertips. Silky, shimmering, as ethereal as the strands of life. Beautiful, and now that he looked, he saw that the young man sleeping here was also beautiful, beautiful and young and desperate and dying, ancient and ageless.
His hand stroked golden hair and his thoughts drifted, floating with the illusion of freedom, trapped though he did not know it, by a destiny that moved the world around him.
“In the beginning they were beautiful…”
He felt warm wetness on his thigh, glanced down at the silvery runnel of spit from the sleeping Traveler’s mouth, reached down, rubbed it into his jeans with a finger, fought the urge to slip the finger into his mouth, imagining the taste of whiskey, coffee and sugar, recoiling from the thought, fascination becoming revulsion, the hypnotic spell of the Traveler broken by the prosaic act of being drooled upon.
“My God, what’m I doing?! Put somebody else’s spit in my mouth?!”
More than a little sickened, he slid aside with a grimace, slipping a pillow under Nick’s head, moving to sit on the floor, curled against the couch, eyes now falling onto the limp hand thrown lightly across the faintly rising and falling chest.
His horror faded as quickly as the spot on his leg dried, and he found himself reaching up to touch the somnolent face once again, absorbing a sense and a knowledge he hadn’t possessed before, that the essence of the Traveler was one, defying individual physicality, and that like called to like with a power and a glory perhaps equaled only by a God.
“Still doesn’t mean I’m gonna let you drool all over me, man…”
He leaned his head against the couch, wanting contact, shying away from a physical union too intensely unfamiliar, resting a hand against the matted blond hair.
“You look really ragged Nick, y’know? I wonder how long you’ve been in system failure…”
It occurred to him that he had no basis of comparison, and wondered how he knew that the young man looked any more unkempt than usual. He didn’t know him, had never met him before… yet the new eyes in his mind knew differently, knew that he and this abused and wounded creature before him had been friends of old.
“In the beginning…”
In his mind the enormity of new being melted, translated itself into love for the young man sleeping above him in the light of the fire, and his hands stroked gently, eyes going dim and far away, hypnotized by warmth and fragrance.
As somewhere behind him, newly awakened senses registered the opening of the gate between worlds…
As in front of him Nick’s eyes opened, startled, grasped his hand and pulled him in close, one arm looping around him, instinctively protective even in his illness…
A young woman stepped into the room, and three sets of eyes connected for a moment that spanned eternity.
The tea had been a bad idea, Taylor knew it just looking at the parchment pale face of his friend. The effort to choke the hot liquid down seemed to exhaust him.
“You’re really sick, aren’t you?”
He reached for Nick’s shaking hand, frowning concern as Nick laughed bitterly, raking pale hair forward, hiding his eyes.
“You’re damn right I’m sick, but at least I’m alive. So many ghosts, oh Taylor you don’t know how close it was…” He choked, swallowed, looked up at Taylor with miserable, lusterless eyes. “God, help me…”
His voice trembled as badly as his hands, and he pushed Taylor away, shoving his chair out with a jerk, bringing the woman to his side in an instant.
“Where are you going?”
“To be sick…”
Shaking her head, she watched him go, a gently placed hand restraining Taylor’s move to go with him.
“Let him be. His pride is suffering enough.”
“Why his pride? Everyone gets sick…”
She smiled, taking the boy by the hand, leading him to a room he’d never seen, one banked by enormous double fireplaces, filled with glowing radiant heat.
Bare of furniture, the floor was covered with lush cushions, and he dropped down onto them, inexplicably weary.
“Taylor…” She stretched out next to him, gently took his hand, held it. “Nick isn’t just sick, Taylor. He hurt himself and he hurt you, and worst of all he hurt someone he was charged with protecting. And unlike you…” Her expression turned dark, pain flashing in golden eyes. “Unlike you he can see the end result of his negligence. He’s hurting inside from a lot more than a timecrash. Let him salvage what he can.”
“Yeah well…” Taylor’s glance followed the path Nick’s staggering form had taken. “What if he needs help?”
“If he needs help, he’ll ask for it.” She squeezed his hand and he let her, resisting the urge to pull away. With her touch came a surge of strength, relief from the too tired to breathe exhaustion shaking him in its grip.
“I don’t understand what’s happening.” His gaze went blank, the frescoed ceiling blurring away as tears of confusion drowned his eyes, breath catching in relief as Nick stumbled in, threw himself down onto the cushions in front of the fire, found himself crawling nearer to him, slipping in close to his side, relief as Nick’s arm slipped around him.
“What’s happening is that you’re finally joining us, Taylor…”
He turned toward her voice, torn between the two of them, and she leaned forward, pressed against the cushions the three of them shared, started to kiss him, lips brushing his softly. He responded in spite of himself, kissing her back, and she pulled him closer, out of the safe circle of Nick’s arms, the soft sticky sweet of the kiss suddenly pain, as her teeth sank in, bit hard, pulled back, leaving him licking thin salt blood, the pain sending a little thrill through his spine.
“It’s blood, Taylor, blood calls to blood.”
Her finger touched his bleeding lip, daubed it onto his cheek, onto her own, finally touching the crimson stained finger to her lips.
“Unreality steals your fear, doesn’t it Taylor? Do you fear me?”
He shook his head, shock rendering him mute, powerfully excited.
“Do you know why?” Again the headshake and she smiled, leaning forward to kiss him again. “Because I’m not real, Taylor. I’m not the woman you see in front of you.”
He rested a hand, hot against the skin at the base of her throat, feeling the heartbeat beneath his fingertip, felt the heat and the rhythm of her breathing, smelled the clean scent of sweat that rose between them, tasted honey.
“You’re as real as I am.”
“Yes, as real as you are… and as he is, but are any of us what we seem?”
He looked at Nick, sleepy and unconcerned in the firelight, and took real notice of his own lack of fear. He should be afraid right now, he knew. The very air redolent with the sharp scent of adrenaline. But where was it? Dampened… dimmed… taken and scattered, not allowed.
His expression hardened as he looked back at her. He’d had enough games.
“Do you people ever make sense?”
She laughed then, leaning toward him again, halted by the hand he held out against her.
“Just tell me what’s happening. Stop messing with my head, and messing with my body, and tell me.”
“Tell me what you want to know.”
He curled back around Nick, brief familiarity a thin safety net in a world full of shimmering velvetsoft seduction.
Felt warm comfort as the man’s arm slipped around him again, let his head rest on his chest, heard the heartbeat, reassuring and strong.
The pull of tactile sensuality drew Taylor closer to the man, his eyes shadowed by the thick lashes guarding his secret desires.
His hand floated back into Nick’s hair, twining, twisting as his words drifted to the woman lying beside them.
“Why are you here?”
He felt Nick’s hand stroking his own hair, then down, gently rubbing his back, sighed a little as a sleepy peace stole over him.
Her hand came to rest gently on his, their linked hands resting on Nick’s belly, bringing a solid thrum of energy he read as excitement.
“You know the answers to that already. Why ask me things you already know?”
“I don’t know though.” He reached up, took her hand, fingertips pressing fingertips. “I don’t know anything except that I’m here… and he says it’s out of time. And he’s sick.”
“He says, Taylor? You sound as if you don’t believe him. Come with me.”
“Just to the kitchen. I have things to do, Taylor, and you’re right… you need some explanations.”
“What things?” He moved away from Nick reluctantly, the sweet call of warmth and life a seductive draw that wanted to claim him forever.
“Who do you think put the coffee you were drinking here? Or the wood for the fire or the coal for the stove? Who makes sure the gas is here and the ice is delivered? Do you think those things appear on their own?”
He slid into a chair, eyes tracking her every motion, mind still singing sweetly to the resonance of the sleeping man down the hall.
“This place, Taylor… oh.” Her hand came to rest for a moment, tender against his cheek. “I know your confusion, I understand it. When you lived here, you had no way of knowing what this place was. You weren’t meant to know, Taylor.” She worked absently, opening cupboards and jars, words counterpoint to movement. “You would have known… but you weren’t born to this Taylor. Circumstances changed you, changed what you are. It wasn’t meant to be, do you understand?”
She heard real pain in his voice and pinned his gaze with her own.
“You were never meant to be a Traveler, Taylor. You were brought here to do a job, and then be sent home. You were mortal. That’s why you thought it was just a place, just “back in time” so to speak. In your mind it was just another place in the world of whatever year it was that you had been brought to, just another apartment, peopled by families, used to house the people of the time, but it wasn’t Taylor, it wasn’t. When you were in here you were only on the fringes of that time. Because you were in the nexus.”
He shook his head, swallowed against the ache in his throat. He wanted to go home, wanted Nick, wanted some kind of warmth, anything to replace the fearful voice of this woman, telling him things he knew would break him.
“They brought you here, Taylor, because of what this place is. For the duration of its existence in human perception, this place has been a junction, a place that has existed virtually unchanged through each moment of mortal understanding. Because it exists simultaneously in time, it can be used simultaneously in time. Do you understand?”
He didn’t, and he dropped his eyes to the tabletop, ashamed.
“No Taylor, no…” She tipped a finger beneath his chin, tilted his face up to hers. Her sugary scent filled him again as she leaned in close, kissing him gently, nuzzling his cheek with her own. “No shame, no regret. You will understand, but your mind is mortal now. Not so flexible… listen to me.” She held his hands in hers, raising them off the table, squeezing. “The apartment here, is a junction between mortal times. There are many many such places, safe havens, refuge to the Travelers. And because they are for the Travelers, a Traveler from each human time span agrees to keep them. To provide them with anything another Traveler to that time will need. Clothes, food, fuel, money… anything. I keep this place, in this span of mortal years. My own home time, do you see? It’s used by the Travelers, and less often by the Keepers, as needed and it falls to me to make it well. I take in the mail and buy the groceries and see to it that nobody who stays here will want for anything.”
“Do you live here? You weren’t here when I was…”
“No. I don’t live here Taylor. I don’t live out of time, no one can for very long.”
“But you said it was in your home time.”
“Oh… Taylor. The time you perceive at this moment, the time you brought yourself and Nick into, that is my home time. This place…”
She glanced around the room with a vague, all encompassing wave.
“It’s in null time. A node in time, a nexus, a junction, an intersection. Perfectly existent in so many times, perfectly situated simultaneously in all of them. OUT of time, Taylor. If you chose to be here in another time, it would be here for you in that time.”
Grasping something of the idea, he let go her hands, moving to stand at the window, forehead pressed to the glass, as was his won’t.
“If I went to a time before it was built? What…”
“You would find something else here.”
“Perhaps… perhaps not.”
“And when it’s not here anymore?”
“There is no future time it is not here.”
“How can you know that?”
“The same way you do.”
“But I don’t!” His frustration sent his hands flying to his hair, tugging hard, bringing blood in tiny rivers on his forehead.
“You do… you do, and when you let yourself, you will see, Taylor.” Her arms slipped around him, turned him to face her, and he felt her fingers touch the tears on his cheeks, her tongue lick lightly at the blood.
The sensation made him shiver, and he caught his breath, struggling with emotions he didn’t understand.
“Why do you do that?”
In his mind he heard the voice of a dimly remembered cinema monster, “I like to do it, I enjoy it…” and for the first time felt fear.
What was this thing that readily claimed not to be a woman, insinuating in the same breath that he, Taylor, was not what he had always assumed?
What brought her, it… here to this place he had come, seeking refuge, seeking shelter for Nick, thinking he was in control?
He stepped away and she caught the scent of his fear, wisely stepping back, giving him the distance his mortal emotions needed.
“I touch you because we are Travelers, Taylor. Because we are one. We are not three people, Nick, Kim, Taylor…”
“Your name is Kim?” His shock could not have been more pronounced, and she laughed, forcing herself not to hug him.
“Did you think I had no name? Yes, my name is Kim, and no Taylor, I am NOT a monster, I am not a vampire, yes I do know what you’re thinking. I’m a Traveler, like Nick. Like you. And I touch you because I have to. Between us, between Travelers Taylor, the need for touch is immeasurably strong. It’s what sustains us, what keeps us alive. We draw our strength from one another and our emotion, our feeling, our desire to continue living. A Traveler alone dies mortal. We cease to be separate entities and become one with the web. We have to touch, we are unable NOT to touch, to kiss… to be as one as we can. It’s our sanity. But understand…” She paused, weighing her words for a moment.
Kim was an old Traveler, comfortable and settled in the unique chemistry of her race, but Taylor… Taylor was new, and still human, still haunted by mortal perceptions and ideals, and inhibitions.
“Taylor… there must be touch. Without it we die. But between us there is little lust, scant desire for more than touch. Sexual release is possible of course, and ultimately enjoyable, but it happens rarely and is largely a forgotten experience.” She smiled again, tucked a wayward strand behind his ear. “You, being young and being so very mortal, you have not forgotten. But you see you can kiss me…” Her lips touched his again, and this time he kissed her back, helpless in his response. His hand slid into her hair and she guided his head to her shoulder, letting him rest, feeling the rasping breath in and out of his throat.
“I know you feel strength Taylor. Do you feel desire?”
He bit his aching lip, not wanting to tell her, when the obvious right answer was no, that not only did he feel it, but it was about to drive him smack out of his mind. Could she not see his desire?
She caught the thought, both with that peculiar mental hearing, and in the racing beat of his heart.
“I’m sorry Taylor, I don’t mean to make you uncomfortable. You’re still so very human, so very young…” She stopped the hand that reached for his face, dropped it to her side, bringing an ache to him that he didn’t understand.
Not a desire for sexual gratification, though that was there too, of course it was, but a need for contact as intense in it’s way as any hormonal desire he had ever felt.
She saw it in his eyes, nodded as she reached again for his hand.
“Touch you will crave, and will find as overbearingly pleasurable as any mortal experience, and this Taylor, is essential to your life. The drive is as strong as it is because without it Taylor, you will die.”
“You are mortal?”
“Yes… but not really.”
“You can die?”
“Given the right set of circumstances, or certain deprivations, but we live longer than you can possibly imagine.”
“No. Keepers are immortal. We can, and do, die.”
“You’re not human?”
The urge was on him, as he wound deeper into the web, and he went with it, no longer afraid to touch her, craving the feel of her skin against his hand, needing the very contact his sensibilities told him was wrong.
His finger traced the line of her jaw, slid beneath her neck, felt the pulse beat.
“You’re alive though! You’re warm… your heart is beating I can feel it. I could hear Nick’s…”
“Yes of course I’m alive Taylor.” She bit back a laugh, knowing what visions of vampires and the undead must be filling his 21st century teenaged mind. “I’m very much alive. But I’m not human.”
“At this time… yes you are. The effect is cumulative, with each moment of your passing as a Traveler, you shed some of that precious humanity, become more what we are. How old do you suppose I am?”
He looked, eyes taking in dark hair with wispy strands of gray at the temple, faint laugh lines in the corners of the eyes and mouth. Not as young as he’d first believed, but certainly not old.
“I don’t know…”
“The age you see, Taylor, the image in front of you is the image of myself in my 31st year. That was the last year I experienced aging on any kind of human level.”
“How old are you though?”
“Taylor, it’s impossible to count. There is nothing to count, I exist outside time. I no longer move in the mortal ideal of time. I am motionless. Alive, changeless.”
“You said you can’t live outside time.”
“And I do not. But my existence follows no rules of passage. I do not move ahead, I do not age in any way you can understand, yet. I live in time, because it is impossible not to. But I do not exist in time.”
Behind them a door slammed, and a new voice spoke.
“He’s the same. Kim, don’t confuse him any more than he is.”
Taylor should have jumped, should have been startled as the new male voice boomed through the corridor. Should have. Didn’t. Because deep in his mind, Traveler senses had registered and categorized the arrival of this new Traveler, long before he spoke.
“I see Nick in there, he didn’t beat it, huh?”
The newcomer winced, shaking his head.
“Hurts when that happens. Hello Taylor, I’m Zeb. Are you ready for this?”
“Ready for what?” Zeb’s pale eyes widened in shocked surprise and flashed to Kim, who sat in sheepish embarrassment. “You didn’t tell him?! Kim!!” Shaking his head in mock outrage, the Traveler reached to hug the woman, lips meeting in what Taylor had begun to think of as the inevitable kiss.
“Take him with you Zeb, and see what you can do with Nick. Before it starts.”
“Before what starts?”
“A fight, Taylor. A battle echoing even now through the web of all of us, refusing the weave and unraveling the Keepers’ work. A fight for a life and a soul.”
“My brother’s soul…”
“You know more than we give you credit for. Come with me please, there’s something you need to see.”
Futility saps the will out of you, y’know? When you know beyond a shadow of any doubt that no matter what you do you will not have any effect on any given outcome, it pretty much drains away any urge to go on. Of course the mercurial and unpredictable nature of human beings really requires that you go on anyway… no matter what outcome you know is in effect, there is always the chance that something, at the last minute, will change it.
That’s what George had on his hands, while I was timeburned, sick and out of time, while the Travelers were gathering, already seeing the eventuality of the situation, already knowing their places and getting into position, while Taylor learned exactly what and who he was and Isaac haunted his family with illusions of normalcy.
George had Zac, who couldn’t hold on, and the foreknowledge that he had already lost him. See, when Zac’s eyes started to pulse it was already too late. He’d already slipped and those red flashes were just a reflection of what had already happened. Why else did Jake’s ranting rendition of the Mountains of Madness strike such a chord in him? He recognized what was happening to him. Poor kid, what a hell, can you even imagine worse? To be able to see your own insanity and eventual end? With no idea how to stop it, especially since every sense you owned told you it had already happened? If paradox could ever be said to occur, it would be times like that, when you stand outside time and look at what hasn’t happened yet, a split second after it happens… over and over and over.
The kid’s mind was on the edge of oblivion, and George had already seen it go over. He knew there was no hope, and worse than that he knew that he was going to act in futility and drain his own energy to dangerously low levels.
He tried anyway, God bless him, because George is just that kind of guy. If there’s any glimpse of a breath of a thought of a chance, he’s the sort of person who’ll go for it with everything he’s got. What he hadn’t counted on was the Travelers.
If he’d known they were massing to help him, he might have slowed down a little, and things might have worked out differently. But he didn’t know. I knew, and I knew he didn’t know, but I couldn’t tell him. Trapped out of time with Taylor in control, holding me there while he tried to fathom his own existence, too weak to fight him, too sick to care, I couldn’t let George know that he had help and that the outcome was already changed. Too far gone.
So, George and Zac acted on their own, and what George finally did, he did in an extremity of fear, panic, pain, and love.
You see, he knew he couldn’t teach him. Not now, not now that he was already slipping. If he held him, he’d kill him. If he tried to slow his descent long enough to teach him anything, he’d blow his brain. There was only one thing to do and he did it, and God help us all.
Right there in front of him.
That one door, longed for and sought in dreams, a door that brought him awake night after night, sobbing out longing, grasping blindly at the remembered peace that lived beyond it.
Bliss on a breath, and Zeb turned to him, smiling.
“You’ve touched them and they call you. Never deny that call, Taylor. It’s who you are. Go in…”
Zeb’s hand reached past the boy’s head, pushed the door gently, watching silver light spill from it’s easy swing.
“Go in and see what we’re up against, Taylor.”
The two stepped through, tense muscles going limp as the strands peculiar and familiar energy took over, draining much of the emotion from their souls, imparting impassive peace, enabling them.
Zeb watched, the small smile still on his face, as Taylor reached to pull a swath from the shimmering air, smiled as he saw the ache run from the boy’s heart, sighed in relieved knowledge that despite Taylor’s ignorance, he was competent and skilled. Saw the blue of the boy’s shine flash an incandescent gold and felt the answering pulse inside himself.
Felt the echo and reverb of recognition, felt the link between their essences connect and fire, for a moment the intensity of the sensation driving away the effect of the strands, brining him back his bliss, tears to his eyes.
“Mine… dear God, mine…”
After linear hundreds of years alone, aching with the emptiness howling inside him, Zeb, once again, irrefutably, had a partner.
He slipped warm fingers along the boy’s cheek, bringing his own face close… met the boy’s eyes and blinked, saw behind them a cascade of shattered crystal, knew, backed away. Too much, too soon, too close.
He didn’t understand yet, wasn’t quite part of the web. Too much intimacy, fighting the allusions of the 21st century mind, where touch was equated with sex, and men did not kiss without being branded, where religion and love were so inextricably mixed and infinitely at war, would shatter him as that visionary crystal had shattered.
“My God, I could kill him if I’m not careful…”
Zeb stepped away, relinquishing the contact he craved, reaching past the dazed face to separate a single glowing strand.
“Taylor…” He let neutral calm settle over him again, tucking that unfulfilled and blissful longing away deep inside, for later.
“Take this and let me show you.”
“Show me what?” The dreamy voice matched the eyes, following the sparkles and glimmers of life along the thread.
George sighed, backed away reluctantly, from the fight inside Zac’s mind. He couldn’t hold him, he’d already fallen. He just hadn’t chosen to perceive it yet.
When he did, and it would be soon, he would be lost.
“Zac, you understand the problem, don’t you.”
Zac looked into the old man’s eyes, ran over the wrinkled face, saw the illusion for what it was.
“You live a lie, George, you’re not old.”
“You’re wrong there my friend, I’m infinitely old. Older than you’ll ever be unless we… Zac, do you see the problem? Do you?”
Zac shrugged, the enormous sense of “I know” inside him only an echo of an idea he did not understand.
“I know I feel like I’m falling, and I know why, but I can’t hold on.”
“You can’t hold on…”
George rubbed aching eyes, feeling his age beyond any shadow of doubt.
“You can’t hold on because you don’t know how, and with your mind fighting itself I can’t teach you how. There’s no time Zac, do you understand?”
“I thought you said time wasn’t real.”
“Oh damn it Zac!!” George’s hand slammed into the floor, the hollow bang making the boy jump. “Time is real as long as you perceive it as real!! You insist on seeing it as linear as you always have, and you’re fighting to hold your place in a reality that doesn’t exist except in your mind!! And you want ME to hold you here Zac, and I can’t do that! I can’t hold you to an illusion! You have to start helping me, do you understand?!”
Zac backed away a little from the flashing in the old man’s eyes, swallowing his own anger, choking on it. Unpalatable, it flowed up out of him again and he jumped up, unable to sit any longer.
“Don’t you yell at me! I didn’t ask for this, you did this to me! You and your magic and your using people, and you who lost my brother! You dropped him George, you made me go get him! You and all of the rest of the people like you did this to me, and now it’s supposed to be my fault?!” He caught a breath suddenly as the floor seemed to tilt beneath him, swallowed, gagged a little as nausea flooded him, quick there, quick gone, leaving him wide eyed and staring, eyes again pulsing with the regularity of a street light.
“What was that?!”
“You, slipping out of this perception of time again. Spare the temper, Zac if you’re so desperate to hold to this place. And don’t forget that those “people like me” are also people like you. You were born to this, Zac.”
“You said it’s too soon, you said it’s too soon!”
“YES IT IS!”
They were screaming into each others faces now, oblivious to their surroundings, frustration, anger, panic and helplessness driving away false pretentions of civility.
“Yes it is and that is wrong Zac, but unless you work with me you are not going to survive, no matter who’s fault it is!”
“It’s not fair…”
The anger faded, leaving in it’s wake not a Keeper, not a warrior, but a scared young man, little more than a child, confusion etched in sharp relief on features only beginning to edge from the fairness of babyhood.
“It’s not fair George that you can do this to me and then tell me it’s up to me to fix it. I don’t know how, don’t you understand? I don’t know how, I need you to help me!”
The boy’s anguished cry made the old man’s decision for him, and he reached out, one rough callused hand catching the edge of the Zac’s coat, pulling him close, arms wrapping around him.
For a moment Zac struggled, and if he’d persisted, George would have let him go. Instead, as George had hoped, the stricken posture relaxed and the boy let himself be held, inhaling the warm, human, completely comforting smells of tobacco, coffee, old flannel, a fragrance that was George, and was everything that had ever meant “safe”.
George held him carefully, more than hugging him, sensing him. Contact this close was more than a comfort, it was information. He could feel the rapid fire heart beat, fear energized and exhausting, could hear the blood pulsing too fast through veins dilated with adrenaline. Could smell the sour tang of fright layered under the chemical perfumes of laundry detergent, soap, shampoo.
“He’s too clean, he’s too pampered, damn it, this boy isn’t ready for this…”
He sighed, smiling ironically that something as ridiculous as hair that
smelled dirty would have made him feel so much better about the whole thing.
The voice was muffled inside the bulky coat, and George laughed, feeling for a moment as if disaster could be avoided. He could see the outcome, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t change it.
“Zac, come out of my coat. Look at me.”
The boy complied and George saw, with proud satisfaction, no trace of tears. He’d hugged him but he hadn’t fallen apart. Good. That was good.
“I’m trying to help you. Our options have been taken away from us, Zac. For whatever reason, you fragmented when you awakened, and the normal ways of teaching aren’t going to work.”
“Why did that happen?”
“I don’t know Zac, it could be you’re just too damned young. The reasons aren’t important right now. What is important, is that you’re fighting it and it’s killing you. How do you feel?”
Zac’s face darkened as he thought about it. He didn’t feel any too good, weak, queasy, with a thumping headache that had more or less been there all week. He felt, he thought, as if he had a good working case of the flu. And he felt alone. Just… alone.
“I feel horrible. And tired. Why George? Tell me that, tell me why.”
He felt anger rising up in him again, bit it back. George was not the enemy, he reminded himself. George was trying to help him. George with his supernatural friends and George who knew all the secrets. George who was playing with him… “STOP IT!!”
The mental shout at himself was loud enough for George to pick up, and he felt the ripples down the strands.
No good, there was too much spillover. If Zac, as unstable as he was, was able to send this chaotic energy out into the ether, well…
Nodding, the old man set a block, locking the wild rogue energy that was Zac into the immediate environment, sealing the two of them, effectively, in a bubble. A bubble impervious to mental, but not physical, energies.
Out of time, the Travelers scattered throughout existence blinked, looked up from their tasks, scented the change.
Inside the bubble, George and Zac faced off.
There are times I wonder if the Keepers don’t deteriorate as they get older, supposedly wiser. That’s when they seem to make all of their dumbest decisions.
George, for instance. What was so tough about Zac’s question? Why was it happening to him? Easy one even for me, and I’m nothing close to being a Keeper. Zac went out of control because he had no means to cope, simple as that. Accustomed his entire life to being connected, profoundly and completely, to his family, he now found himself cut off by the very shields his Keeper abilities instinctively set in place. Alone in his head for the first time in 14 years. And of course all of this coming so close on the heels of his brother being thrown into oblivion and slowly, painfully pulled out, by him. He faced activation and then enforced dormancy, only to have the natural awakening progress on schedule almost immediately. Hell, it was just too much for him, would have been too much for anyone, too many blows with no recovery time, and only barely into his teens… it would have blown me away too! Of course he fragmented, who wouldn’t have? The kid fell apart, plain and simple. But George, bless him, never thought of that. A Keeper won’t accept a simple answer if they can spend four years searching for a complicated one.
And that shield!! I mean… what was he thinking? So Zac sent a little wave of instability down the timetubes, big deal. Not like we don’t all do it. Sure, it would have made us uncomfortable and yeah, it could have impacted on some of us, but it was nothing compared to what he did when he sealed the two of them behind that wall.
A Keeper’s wall. A big, fucking high mental wall.
There was no way any mental energy could get out of that bubble. More importantly, there was no way anything, or anyone, could get IN. When George put up that block, he effectively cut himself, and Zac, off from the world they existed best in. The other Keepers and the Travelers could see them only by direct viewing of the strands. We couldn’t feel them. We couldn’t reach them. We couldn’t communicate with them, nor them with us.
To put it bluntly, they were in crisis… and they were on their own.
This story is not finished and will most likely not be,
unless Sheryl doesn’t happens to change her mind,
and chooses to pick up the pen again.