“She could use a change of scenery,” Ryan said, gazing at Lisa who sat on her usual perch as she threw berries at the aquatic lizards down in the water far below. She had taken a liking to that particular spot on the living mangrove catwalk for some inexplicable reason.
He picked at the bark of the branch that framed their big window as he looked out at her. There was no glass in the window. The cross-breeze flowing through their woven structure felt good. He glanced over at Tessa who sat with her arms crossed, clearly not happy, and sighed. “Really. She’s been like that ever since returning from…” He hesitated.
From the dead. Tessa knew what he refused to say. Their daughter had been consumed by a plant on Legracia when she had run away trying to avoid the threatened internment of all Terrans in the Cooperative. According to her controversial benefactor, she lost her skin, eyes and other soft tissues. The Sadari had rescued her and restored her with their remarkable technology. More than restored. Lisa was closer to Cooperative human than Terran now, with all their enhanced benefits.
Why the sworn enemy of the Cooperative had rescued her was still a mystery, but Tessa was beyond thankful to have her daughter back. She could tell that Lisa was still getting used to her new eyes, skin and ears, and her new senses of taste and smell. Tessa sighed. “She’s still adjusting. If she goes back…” She shook her head. “Ryan, you know how different things are there. And now, for her.”
“Still familiar enough, I think.” Ryan pursed his lips.
“She’s still suffering from PTSD Ryan. No one gets digested by a plant, and comes out okay.” She looked at the mug on the woven table. “I’ve been giving her the tea Enos’rel prescribed and it has helped a lot. No more nightmares.”
“She’s still not quite there, honey. I don’t think the tea alone is going to do it.” He watched as a colorful Selkie guy sat down next to her. “I feel bad for him. Ker’nal hasn’t been able to pull her out of her funk yet.”
“We have the entire Cooperative, Ryan. Thousands of planets. Why does it have to be Terra?” Tessa asked uncrossing her arms. “Ker’nal can escort her anywhere in the Cooperative. A tour.”
“She keeps talking about our old home.” Ryan fiddled with the bark of the window again. “I think she wants to be somewhere familiar, Tessa. I agree. Just to give herself a chance to regain her equilibrium,” Ryan surmised. “Everything is so different here.”
“She’s got real friends here. No bodyguards. No cartels hunting us. She can go out and live life. Why go back to that?” Tessa shuddered. “For once we have a little peace. Brandon is working for the biological engineering guild, you’re working for Sherry on Legracia, I’m working for Aradia and no one is shooting at us.”
Ryan nodded. “Lisa still hasn’t found her place yet.”
“She will. Please, just a little more time.”
“I am terrified she’ll run off again, Tessa. She’ll have a bad episode and just, what if she isn’t rescued next time?”
Tessa looked at Lisa. “Please don’t go there, Ryan. We have her back. Can’t that be good enough?”
“It’s not like she’ll be far away.” Ryan crossed his arms.
“Sure. Only like a hundred galaxies away. More even,” Tessa retorted.
“No, the gating platform is right there.” He nodded to a deck in the mangrove forest that served as a mini-Temple for that village, complete with Gatekeeper monitors. “She’s just a short walk away.”
“Ryan, I’m scared, too. There are some really bad guys there.”
“And there are a lot more good guys there. Especially with the military and Eyes Open involved.”
Tessa wrapped her arms around herself as she stared at Lisa, shivering a little. Ryan sighed. “It’s not your fault, Tessa.”
Tessa looked at him, chewing her lip. He could tell she was still recovering too.
“She’ll be working on the homestead, Tessa. She’ll be safe. Plus we have our own friendly neighborhood deviant too.” He grinned. To him, Steven was still that shy but extremely intelligent boy who had befriended their son and who even tolerated a short period of time when Lisa had a crush on him. That he had powers that were beyond comprehension, the ability to cool a molten planet so that the Faeries could reoccupy their home, or create gates across the universe, just boggled his mind when he thought about it. Steven still didn’t act as if he was powerful.
“I almost lost her twice, Ryan,” Tessa said, trembling a little when she remembered how traumatized she was. “I don’t want there to be a third time.”
“We could lose her again if we don’t give her a chance to heal,” Ryan said calmly. Tessa looked down and wiped her eyes. “Just for a little while. She loves it here now. I know it. But seeing something familiar, I think that will be key to bringing her around.”
Tessa nodded. She hated it and railed against it, but Ryan was correct. Lisa needed her old home at least for a little while. “She’ll always be protected, right?”
Ryan nodded. “The best of the best are there. The Order is on the run and the Sadari really haven’t done anything.”
Tessa shrugged. “Don’t tell anyone, but I’m not worried about the Sadari. They saved her after all.”
“Yeah, I’ll be sure not to spread that around,” Ryan grinned. The Cooperative was almost fanatically venomous about anything Sadari.
“We’ll never see her.” Tessa looked longingly at her daughter.
“We can see her nearly as much as now.”
“Really? Just look out the window and…”
“Do you really consider that as seeing her?” Ryan crossed his arms, glancing out at their daughter and her Selkie companion. “She can come eat with us anytime. That’s about as much as we see her anyway.” He pursed his lips. “Maybe come spend the weekends here.”
“There are no weekends here, Ryan,” Tessa said quietly as she looked down.
“You know what I mean.”
Tessa sighed, shaking her head. Ryan put his arm around Tessa’s waist and pulled her close. “We can visit her often, too. Our jobs don’t take up that much of our time.”
Tessa nodded. “I haven’t been to Terra in months. It would be nice to see what has changed.”
Ryan smiled. He pulled her closer and gave her a lingering kiss. “Don’t get any funny ideas, though. I kinda like it here.”
Tessa laughed. “It’s like a whole planet of Hawaii. No, I’m not leaving Endard for anything.”
~ ~ ~
“Sir. You need to check in with me to get a badge. Do you have clearance from Aradia?”
Steven raised his eyebrows and looked around, dumbfounded. “This is my home. I grew up here.”
The officer did not look convinced. Steven shook his head and held up his furry hand. “This is recent.” He pointed to a photograph on the mantle. “That’s me.”
“Mmm hmm. And I assume she’s her?” The officer pointed to a picture of Sally and looked at Asherah who was peeking timidly from behind Steven.
“Of course not!” Steven tried not to laugh. His adoptive mother was Terran. No fur. No big eyes, or canines. He sighed and rooted around in his pocket. “Wallet. Asherah?”
Asherah shook her head. Steven sighed and closed his eyes. The wallet was in his old bedroom. He opened his hand and gated the wallet to it, then opened it to show the officer. “See?” Steven held it up next to his face.
“Oh, what was I thinking? Spitting image.” The officer crossed his arms. “You’ll need clearance from Aradia. Only that will get you a badge.”
Steven opened his mouth, then shut it. His home was full of hustle and bustle as members of the military went about their business turning it into an office. “Who did this? This is my home.” Steven looked around, crestfallen.
“Syagria’s your home,” Asherah said quietly.
Steven looked back at her then slumped. “I just didn’t expect, I mean.” Steven looked around the house. “I grew up here. Ate at that table. Argued with Mom and Dad over whether I could go to Brandon’s. It’s…” Steven shook his head and sighed. “Badge. Sure. Let’s go get a badge.”
Steven turned around and spied his favorite vampire-guy. A Keratian who had been his friend, antagonist, and trainer all wrapped up in one. “Lohet!”
“What are you doing here?” Lohet nodded to the officer, who walked back to sit on his desk, still waiting for that badge.
“He says we need a badge. I don’t need no stinking badge!” Steven pointed, trying not to grin.
The joke was lost on Lohet who shook his head. “Part of our agreement to be able to operate here on Terra is to maintain accountability for all our members.”
“This is my home!” Steven held his arms out. He glanced furtively at Asherah. “Was.”
“Was is accurate. Eyes Open has expanded from their mobile office and are now sharing the accommodations we have here. There was a vacancy here anyway.”
“We were only gone for four months. How long did it take? A week? I mean, even my bedroom? Was my bed still warm when you moved these people in? All my stuff is in there.”
“Stuff you were going to leave behind anyway,” Asherah said softly, looking down.
“Well, yeah. But, still. I have drawings of Lelana and Meruk in there. Of you. And even of this joker here.” Steven pointed at Lohet. Lohet looked at him coolly.
“First Contact happened a month after you entered the Maelstrom.” Lohet pursed his lips thoughtfully. “No one knew if you would be able to exit the Maelstrom, and the mission…”
“Always about the mission.” Steven crossed his arms glumly.
“You two should still be in processing.” Lohet pulled up a holographic computer screen that hung in the air in front of his face.
Steven moved it with his hand so he could see Lohet better. “You might call it processing, but it feels like interrogation.”
“The two of you entered and exited the Maelstrom. That makes you even more of a curiosity than before.” Lohet moved the screen back and opened another. “You were expected this morning.”
“Did you know they’ve assigned me a chaperone? A babysitter?” Steven held his arms out. “It’s like they don’t trust me or something. Or her! They exiled her, and now she needs a babysitter to make sure she behaves?”
Lohet sighed. “Steven, that is only temporary. We had to make certain agreements…”
“Yeah, with the majority of the Cooperative that still think I’m a monster,” Steven interrupted while crossing his arms. He glanced at Asherah. “So yeah, Syagria is supposed to be our new home. But it sure doesn’t feel like it anymore. And now…” He looked around the house. “I could just cry. This is pathetic.”
Lohet crossed his arms, looking at Steven impassively. Steven sulked. “I just want to be somewhere where no one is thinking I’m going to pop my lid or something.”
Asherah yanked on his shirt sleeve timidly. “Syagria doesn’t.”
Steven looked at his life-mate. He was now as furry as she was. Had the same large eyes. Same canines that he still kept biting his tongue with. While he had always been an Elf, he now looked it. He should feel perfectly at home on her world.
“Our world,” Asherah corrected. “Our home.”
Steven nodded. “Maybe, but it will take some time. They don’t trust me any more than G.I. Joe over there.”
“At least they’re not shooting at you anymore.” Asherah cocked her head as she played with the fur on Steven’s cheek.
Steven laughed, then covered his mouth to hide his teeth. He was still not used to people seeing his canines, much less seeing them himself. “Yeah. At least they’re not shooting at me. Everything’s just peachy now.” He looked at the door. “Mom! Can you tell these dorks that I’m really Steven?”
Sally looked around Steven at the officer then at him. “Where’s your badge?”
“Really?” Steven squinted at her.
Sally shrugged. “You’re not done back home anyway.”
“This is home!” Steven held his arms out, exasperated.
Something tweaked his senses and Steven looked at the door and saw a slight, colorful figure standing there quietly with her hands clasped over her chest. His heart jumped at the sight of her. Asherah saw her too, and she screamed as she jumped over the couch and ran to her, stopping just short of grabbing her up.
Moringa looked at Asherah while avoiding her eyes, trembling and still clearly shocked that Asherah was truly back from the dead. She reached out hesitantly and touched Asherah’s arm. Asherah sobered a little, trying to catch Moringa’s eyes. Moringa looked over at Steven and licked her lips. She was crying silently and refused to meet Asherah’s eyes. Losing her nerve, Moringa turned and ran away, leaving Asherah standing there in stunned silence.
Steven felt Asherah’s confused anguish and walked over to his life-mate to put his arm around her waist. He watched as Moringa disappeared through the gate. “It would appear that Moringa took it pretty hard.”
Asherah looked at him with moist eyes. “She wouldn’t even look at me.”
Sally shook her head and walked up next to her, putting her arm around her waist too. She looked across her at Steven, then at Asherah. “She would have followed you in and dragged you out if she could have. You know that. She is your very best friend. From what I’ve seen, she’s your soulmate. Your sister. You may need to give her time to come to grips with your death again, now that you’re back.” Sally brushed Asherah’s bangs out of her eyes.
“But, she was right here. She touched me.” Asherah put her hand on her arm where Moringa had touched. She started crying. “I felt her pain.”
Steven sighed. He had felt it through Asherah. He looked at Sally, feeling hopeless. Sally squeezed Asherah’s shoulder. “She spent a lot of time taking care of you and suffering with you, Asherah.”
Asherah looked down. “But I thought I was doomed. I thought I was hurting everyone. Surely she knew that.”
“I know she hoped for the best. She hoped for what I was trying to accomplish. I’m sorry, but you kinda took that hope away,” Steven said gently.
“Oh, Steven. What have I done?” Asherah wrung her hands as she sobbed. “I’ve hurt everyone.”
Embracing her, Steven pulled Asherah to him as she continued wringing her hands, looking off into the distance, but not seeing anything. Steven shook his head. “We’ll work it out, Asherah.”
“But you did everything you could to help me. You tried to convince me and I didn’t believe you,” Asherah said, wiping her eyes. “We’re life-mates and I didn’t believe you.”
Steven nodded. “The situation was pretty extreme, Asherah. And I’m here for you. For us. Always.”
Asherah chewed her cheek, resisting as Steven attempted to remove her guilt through their bond but knowing it was wrong of her to do so. She had yelled at Steven for not letting her help him through their bond. She continuously reminded him that they were truly one. But she was so ashamed. How could she share that with him? Let him shoulder that burden?
“Because that’s what we do,” Steven answered her thoughts. “That’s who we are. Life-mates.” He lifted her chin and looked into her eyes. “We share our burdens with each other and we take each other’s burdens. No matter what.”
Asherah looked down again but Steven stubbornly pulled her chin back up and she met his gaze. “No matter what,” he said firmly.
Steven turned around, startled. “Bob?”
“A word.” Bob pointed towards Sarah’s old room.
“Um.” Steven glanced at Lohet. “I don’t have a badge yet.”
Bob just gave him a withering stare.
~ ~ ~
Angela looked over Ted’rel’s shoulder as he manipulated the computer interface hanging around them. He bumped her, grinning. “That one?”
“No. It’s Andrew Lee. I know that’s how they spelled it.”
“Andy Lee is pretty close.” Ted’rel kept searching through the hospital database.
“I’m pretty sure they spelled it Andrew.” She sat back, wondering why it was so hard for an advanced alien civilization to find one simple name in a barely secured hospital database.
Ted’rel shook his head. “There. But…”
Angela squinted. “It’s just a reference. Where is the entry?”
“It is like it was deleted.” Ted’rel said, looking for more references. “But, here, nothing is truly deleted.”
“It’s been over a year.” Angela scowled, frustrated at being so close and yet experiencing more futility.
“Well, we are an advanced alien civilization. I’m sure we’ll figure it out.” Ted’rel looked sideways at Angela.
Only then did she realize she had her hand on his shoulder. She blushed madly, shaking her head. “Sure you don’t want me to hold your hand?”
“You can hold my hand anytime,” Ted’rel flirted as he went about recreating the database journal. “There. It points to a file.” He furrowed his furry eyebrows. “Using a binary system is very crude.”
“You’re crude,” Angela grunted.
“Only for you,” Ted’rel said as he pulled up another interface. “Oh, that was easy. The database kept its own journal log.” He raised an eyebrow. “Now, how to parse the file.”
Angela squinted. “That’s a postscript file. No, there. That’s a pdf.” She sat back. “Can you run software on those systems?”
“Can I run software, listen to you.” Ted’rel opened another data block and suddenly what looked like a version of the server interface popped up on it. Angela pointed. “Parse the file with that.”
“Hmm. Let’s see.” Ted’rel thought for a moment. Then he deftly manipulated the program so it opened the file. Quite abruptly they were looking at a report. “You guys are too easy.”
“You’re using methods your Watchers have developed.”
“Yeah. But I opened that file without any help.” Ted’rel pointed, proud.
“Yep. Click on File, Open. Big accomplishment,” Angela snarked sarcastically as she squinted.
“I’m going to please you. You just wait.” Ted’rel crossed his arms, trying to glare at her. It came off as a funny face and Angela giggled. She returned her attention to the display.
“That wasn’t what they told me.” Angela scowled as she read.
Ted’rel stared at the document. “Even with the Teacher giving me your language, that is still hard to read.”
“Takes practice,” Angela mumbled. “But half of it is, they autopsied him. Why would they autopsy him?”
Angela covered her mouth as she read the descriptions. “Oh, Daddy. What happened to you?”
Ted’rel followed her gaze. “His heart was ruptured?”
Angela sat back and wiped her eyes. “That wasn’t a heart attack. They told me it was a heart attack.”
“Oh, Angela. I feel so bad for you.” Ted’rel put his arm around her. She leaned on him as she stared at the report. “What does this mean?”
“It means I need to return to Terra. His brother needs to know.” She covered her face as she remembered that horrible day.