Dorian was at practice. Rey was with Mayzie and Ashlynn. Their new home was organized, for the most part, and just needed a few touches here and there to make it a real home. Everyone was accounted for and everything was in its place. Almost a month later after moving into this new place and things felt settled.
It was the strangest sensation, and one Soren hadn’t felt in a long time.
He was free for the afternoon for the first time in forever.
Did he want to sleep? Relax? Put together packs and prep for the week? Honestly, Soren wanted nothing more than to go on a quick borrowing mission. They had everything they needed, but it didn’t stop Soren from wanting to get out of there and keep his skills sharp.
His mind was made up.
Soren retrieved his pack, hook, line, hip lamp, and a few other odds and ends before heading toward the door leading to the rafters and passages. Soren had almost forgotten how quiet he could be on his own, cloth shoes barely making a sound beneath him as he leapt from nail to nail in the ceiling joists.
He decided to go somewhere new when he reached a place where the wall ascended into darkness. Thankfully, there was already a line so he didn’t need to use any grappling gear. The Borrower pulled with all his might on the line before beginning his climb.
Without a squirming toddler on his back, Soren made quick work climbing the line and pulled himself up onto the slightly dusty wooden ledge. He surveyed his surroundings.
There were some buttons, a wooden spool of thread, and a stack of batteries perfect for hip or back lamps. There was laughing further down the hallway on his right, so Soren decided to go left toward the opposite end of the apartment complex from where Ashlynn’s apartment was.
Much like the other hallways, there were Christmas lights or lines to direct the path forward. He made a few lefts and crossed a precarious beam until he made it to the other side. Silence engulfed his senses as well as the smell of aging wood. There was a strange catharsis in being alone on a borrowing trip.
As much as Soren cared for his siblings and for his daughter, taking a moment to be alone to decompress, doing what he was good at, was gratifying. He closed his eyes and turned off his hip lamp to enjoy the momentary solitude.
It let him think for half a moment about everything that happened recently. His life had been turned upside down and backwards, and certain thoughts were creeping back into his mind. Thoughts and feelings from what felt like a different life were coming back. Why? Why now?
For whatever reason, he started thinking about his parents. They talked about finding a place like this with a Borrower community, but they obviously never had the chance to see more than a few families. He thought about Lucy and that precious fragment of time he had with her. This past year had been so hard, but Soren felt numb to it all. Losing people was a harsh reminder of the kind of life Borrowers lived.
His thoughts drifted to Mayzie and her upcoming birthday, and the numbness began to go away. Seeing the life in her eyes was worth any and every risk in the world. Soren couldn’t imagine life without her or Dorian or Rey. His thoughts soon took him to Ashlynn, and emotions turned his insides every which way.
What was that feeling when he saw her for the first time in so long? Why did it feel conflicted? He was overjoyed to see her. He missed her, more than he expected. Even now, seeing how Ashlynn interacted with Mayzie made the numbness vanish completely.
It took a minute, but Soren eventually pulled himself from the still air around him to continue on his way to a piece of wood that looked like it could be pried away easily. Soren slipped his fingers in between the wood and pulled carefully. For a moment, his heart leapt into his throat when there was the sound of partial splintering from the wood followed by a slight crack.
He held his breath and listened intensely. Nothing. There were no sounds. Soren pulled a little harder until he could peer into the room. There was only one problem - the room was completely and utterly dark. He let his eyes adjust. There were no windows and the only fragments of light was a thin line at about the same height as Soren and another thin line down below.
Pantry! It wasn’t very big, but Soren recognized the overall shape and some of the cleaning devices that Ashlynn used on the ground floor and all of the canned goods on the shelves. The shelves were made of wire, leaving plenty of room for a Borrower’s legs to accidentally slip through.
Soren initially didn’t think he needed anything from this room until he saw some spare twist ties and chip clamps in a small glass container several shelves down. Could he make it all the way down three shelves with the threat of the door suddenly opening looming over him.
Soren slipped down onto the wire shelf, securing his footing, before kneeling and securing a line in the corner against the wall. Line attached, he inched forward until he was right at the edge of the wire. He listened hard for several seconds and heard no one in the apartment.
Maximum stealth engaged, Soren turned and lowered himself on his secured line down to the correct shelf before balancing on the edge of the wire next to the glass container. There were thankfully a few already worn out which Soren decided to borrow, slipping them into his bag with ease.
He started climbing up the line when he heard a rapid tapping which sounded like footsteps, but they weren’t human. Soren barely had a chance to look up toward the top shelf before he saw a blur of motion running across the bars on the top shelf.
Without a secure line, whoever it was ran up to the ledge, turned, and carefully stepped off the ledge to catch themselves on the next shelf down. They did this from shelf to shelf, passing Soren by one shelf, and landed on what looked like a hard plastic cereal container.
Soren, jaw slack, watched this new Borrower run on the top of the hard plastic box, pull the easy access lid on the top, and lean over the edge of the container to fish out what looked like fruit loops. After retrieving three or four pieces, the Borrower snapped the lid back into place and ran back to the edge. In a breathless moment, they jumped and caught themselves on the bottom rung before spinning around like some kind of movie acrobat and lifting themselves up so both legs were stradling the metal bars.
It was only now that this person, who Soren could now see was a woman, spotted Soren and smiled up at him.
Soren, embarrassed he was staring, turned away and began climbing up the line quietly. His stealth was immediately countered by the sound of rapid, clattering shoes against the bars. Did he dare look? Yes.
He glanced over his left shoulder to see this woman launching herself from bar to bar, partially running up the wall to make it to the next beam, before repeating the process until she was at the same second shelf as him. From there, she bounded from narrow metal beam to narrow metal beam over until she was right next to him.
“Hey, how’s it going? Haven’t seen you before,” she said, somewhat breathless after sprinting up the shelves and running over to him. Soren, gripping his line, balanced on the second shelf so they could stand face to face. She was not quite half an inch shorter than he was and had blonde hair that came just past her shoulders, but the tips of her hair were a dark, forest green. Her bright, dark brown eyes were slightly skeptical and obviously good at reading people, but screamed friendliness at the same time. Her features were sharp, but her smile was warm.
Soren had to take a second and shake himself back to the present before registering what it was she said.
“Um… sorry… it’s going… Um… not to be rude, but shouldn’t we get back into the walls?” asked Soren. The woman shrugged and readjusted the fruit loops on her forearms.
“I suppose we could. These humans are gone for the day though, so I’m personally not in a huge rush. Are you one of those nervous types? Or just being cautious since you’re new here?” she asked, now pausing to take a bite from one of the fruit loops on her arm.
“You’re very direct,” said Soren, still trying to wrap his head around the conversation he was having with this woman. After he finished bristling, he elected to defend himself slightly. “And I would consider myself reasonably cautious; which, by the way, you don’t have a security line. Here.” Soren, with the extra rope, fashioned a quick handhold and held it out to the stranger. She stepped back and waved it away.
“I’m fine. Anyway, lines slow me down. Speaking of which, I have some other errands to run, so if you’ll excuse me,” she said. With that, she looked up and jumped up, grabbing the bars with her hands and snaking her legs through the bars and pulling herself up. Just as she started hoisting herself up over the bar, however, the ankle she placed her weight on slipped out of the bar.
The sugar from the cereal had slightly melted on her hands, making them slick. She was sliding off of the bar - fast. She started slipping and was airborne for a split second. Soren could see her eyes going wide - and there was no line to keep her from falling to the floor far below.
Acting on pure instinct, Soren lunged forward and caught her, arms locking in place under her arms as the edges of his feet were barely on the lip of the shelf, a security line keeping them both from plummeting to the ground. Her arms were instantly around his neck, unfortunately getting fruit loop crumbs on the back of his head.
When he was sure he had the both of them, he let go of her with one arm while keeping his other arm firmly around her and lifted them back onto the safety of the ledge. Soren relinquished his grip, but the girl kept her arms firmly locked for several seconds before slowly pulling away, her dark brown eyes bright with gratitude.
“You were saying?” asked Soren. The woman’s lips turned up in a partial grin.
“Smart aleck,” she muttered as she stepped away, more careful this time. “I guess I should be grateful.”
“That’s certainly one response you could give me,” replied Soren while taking deep breaths to calm his rapid heartbeat.
“Yeah yeah, sure thing. Thanks for saving me and all that. Now, do you mind if I use your leg to get up there? I don’t want to slip with all of the sugar on these things again,” she said. Soren, not wanting another jumpscare, knelt and let her use his knee as a leg up. Soren wasn’t far behind, climbing up the ledge and balancing on the wire frame until they both crossed over the threshold of the trim and secured it back.
Soren turned around and suddenly had a fruit loop thrust into his arms.
“Thanks for keeping tabs on me,” said the woman. “I didn’t catch your name newcomer. I’m assuming you have one?” Soren wasn’t sure how he felt about all of these nicknames, but wasn’t about to try and correct this stranger.
“It’s Soren,” he replied. “Don’t suppose you’re going to give me yours?”
“I’d say you’ve probably earned it,” sighed the woman as she held out her hand for him to shake. “Bayleaf Kettleburn, but you can call me Bay. Short, sweet, and to the point. Nice to meet you Soren. Is it just Soren? No last name? Well, it’s one of those things people do around here. Make sure you come up with a good one.”
Soren hadn’t thought about giving himself a last name. He knew Ashlynn had one and the Rafters had one, but he thought that was because they’ve been here since the beginning. Did he need to make one up?
“At any rate, a piece of cereal hardly seems like a big enough thank you for keeping me from falling. How about you and I get something to eat after I finish my errands? My treat?” asked Bay. Soren, blown out of the water, hesitated just for a moment before nodding. “Great! See you in the main area by the elevator shaft in, say, an hour?”
“Um… actually… if you want some help borrowing, I’d… um… be happy to help. We’re set up pretty well and I don’t have anything specific I’m looking for,” said Soren. Bay grinned, the smile extending up into her dark brown eyes.
“Only if you think you can keep up,” she teased. With that, she took off running without another word. Soren ran after, invigorated by Bay’s energy. There was also something about her - something charismatic - that seemed familiar. Was it too familiar? Was it too soon?
A twisted feeling returned in his insides. It was excitement, but it was also guilt. What was going on? This was just one Borrower helping out another, right?
All through the rest of the day as Soren helped Bay, he couldn’t help but enjoy himself. Borrowing was something he excelled at, and having someone who could match him in pace was even more invigorating. When they traded some of their borrowings for a meal, Soren found himself smiling genuinely in Bay’s presence.
The moment they parted ways, however, Soren once again felt that crushing guilt blending with his excitement.
What were these feelings? What was going on? He didn’t do anything wrong, did he? Yes, he enjoyed his time, but was there something else that was making him feel this way?
One thing was for certain - he involuntarily offered to go borrowing again with Bay and said he had a good time with her.
What was happening to him? Why was this bothering him so much?