I did not have long. Ash would have notified Thorn by now. They would be tracking me. Whatever Thorn had been doing, he would set aside, and he would come.
I had to get off the road, it would be too easy to find me there. I ran between two buildings, and straight into a man.
“Well, hello,” he held me by the shoulders, and grinned when I cried out in pain. There were other men, four others – a fifth was held between them, beaten and bloody.
I saw a flash of that red room, and with it the dust that had drifted...
I pulled back, but he held me fast, and my still tender joints protested. “You’re hurting me. Let me go,” I pleaded with him. “You have to let me go.”
“Darling, I don’t have to do anything.”
“I don’t have time for this,” I tugged against him futilely.
“Why in such a hurry?” he pulled me a little closer. “We could spend some time together, you and I… and my friends over there.”
“Let go of me, or I will kill you,” the words were out of my mouth before I realised what I had said, and I stared at him in horror. I could kill him. I could kill them all, I thought. It was... terrifying... partially because in that moment, I wanted to. My heart raced, and I could remember the taste of my blood in my mouth...
His brown eyes widened in surprise, and for a moment there was belief, before he laughed, dismissing it. “Do you hear that, my friends?” he said over his shoulder, incredulous. “If I don’t let her go, she will kill me!”
I whimpered, surrendering, and pulled the life from the five of them but... I did not break the silken silver threads. They turned ashen, and fell, gasping and flopping on the floor like fish out of water. The man they had been beating looked at me, his eyes wild.
“Run,” I told him, aghast at what I had done. He did not hesitate.
I released the life, let it flow back into them. Bile rose, and I leaned against the wall, dizzy. But then that sense of Thorn heightened. He was coming. My heart kicked up a beat in tempo with his. Panic overwhelmed me, and I turned and ran.
I was still healing, still sore and weak. My energy flagged quickly, and running was painful. There was a place… a place ahead. It was almost lost in weed, but I knew the moment I saw it. It was not dissimilar to how we interred our dead at my village. This was a cemetery. There were buildings here, made of stone, which went down into the earth. I ran down one, and grew the weeds up to cover it, to block it, and hide the entrance.
I did not know how precise the tracking was, but I was sure the effort to reach me would be considerable.
The little room was dark. In the centre, a stone coffin, like the one in my mind. I sat my back against it, panting, sore and weary. I had no water, no food, and nothing to fend off the cold. The heat generated by my run leeched off into the stone all around me.
I buried my face into my knees and wept until I slept.
It was night when I woke, and I was freezing. My breath hung on the air around me. I was still in my hidden space. He had not succeeded in finding me. I needed water, food, and warmer clothing. My fingers were normal colour, but the cold had made them numb again.
I turned the weeds guarding me to ash and crept out into the night. I found water dripping from a tap against one of the buildings. It was bitingly cold against my hands, against the inside of my mouth, but I needed it. I splashed my face, trying to shake myself free of sleep.
My head ached and there was a fist around my heart. “Skies,” I tried to breathe, my lungs did not want to help me. I was dizzy again, dots passing before my eyes. I wondered if I would faint here, and if I would be mistaken as a corpse by those who lived around this weed strewn garden...
The power was astounding, however, a layering of old and new… vintages of death. It pulled at and called to me, and I caught it up, spun it like a web between my fingers, drank it in like water… Ghosts and ghouls, shades and shadows… I wrapped it around me, seeking comfort in it, let it seep in and soothe the fear within me... It was wine, a drug, an addiction. It helped to steady my breathing, and the dizziness passed.
As the panic subsided, a new fear arose. He was there. Many of them were, the camouflage fading across their shoulders, the black of their dragon-scale armour sinking into the night. They stood between the gravestones, in the thigh high weeds. I froze, and on instinct, sent the raw energy into the plants, so that they burst forth, growing around their legs, entangling them, bone bare branches reaching out to hold them.
He lowered his helmet and stood, silver hair catching the moonlight. I felt that tug, and I pulled back against it although it cut, deep and hard. We stood across from each other, the distance that of a house, a lifetime, and an untold truth between us… and I met his gaze, his eyes so pale a blue as to be colourless catching the moonlight.
“Briar,” he said, and my breath caught, my heart tumbled. “Briar, stop this.”
I turned and ran.
He pursued, tearing at the weeds that bound him. I ran between the buildings, felt something grip my sleeve, and recognising the thorny plant, paused and waited just beyond it. He thought he had me, as his outline fell, black shadow, across the other end of the passage. I let him draw close enough our eyes met, and then I drove the life sharply down, growth up, threading weed across the walkway between us. Briar-rose, thorns sharply pointed his way.
I heard him yell his frustration into the night.
It should have felt better, it should have felt good, to win. But all I felt was an ache of regret, anger, grief... and fear.
I ran, across the road and into an empty building. I could tell it was empty, there was no life there. That sense of him retreated. He was leaving, retreating. And I was alone again, in the cold. What should have been a celebrated win, wasn’t. It was hollow, grief-like in my chest.
I went up, into the building, and opened a random door. It was not warmer here, but I could go no further this night. I curled back into the cold… and wept for him. I pictured my stone box, and shoved the fear, the panic in there. I slammed the stone lid closed.
I woke with dawn and contemplated what to do. With the distance of night, the panic had eased somewhat.
“Fine,” I whispered. “It’s fine, Briar. Are you so hurt and angry that you never wanted to see Thorn again? No.” Being apart from him was an ache, it was as if I had left part of me with him. “No. But nor can you just accept that you are a possession, an acquisition... property… no.” It made me ill to think it.
My head ached. I rested it against my knees.
There was an element of me that was simply frightened. What if my ability to have children was what bound Thorn, above all else? They were here for children, and they had made clear to me that I was there for the purpose of having them. What if what I felt for Thorn, was one sided? What if his investment in me, was because of my power?
I could not hide from him forever and did not want to, but I was afraid... Had I been mistaken in my trust of Thorn? If I stopped running... would there be an explanation for what Ash had said... or... I groaned, burying my face in my hands. There had to be an explanation, I told myself. I had to trust in Thorn again...The alternative was just too horrible to contemplate.
I had to be brave, I decided, and stood, dusting myself down. I was filthy, hungry, and exhausted. I took a blue pill from my pocket and was grateful for that much. I hesitated at the door, leaning my head against the frame and shed some final tears before willing myself down and out onto the street.
He was there, again, across the road from my building. The anonymous face-shield turned my way, knowing where I was. He took a step, and paused, as if unsure.
I spread the weeds his way, made them curl up the building behind him, and bloom there, startling him with the white, fragrant flowers. He plucked one, and walked forward, turning it between his fingers. He dropped his helmet, so I could see his face. His eyes were shadowed, sleepless.
“Briar,” he crossed the road.
I did not run.
He stopped, as far from me as he was tall. Being careful, I thought, not to startle me into flight, as if we were back in the bush around my farm, at the beginning of our relationship. “Briar, let me talk.” There was a bruise on his cheek and his lip had been split, both healing, but fresh. I wondered how that had come to be. He wore his helmet on his missions. His knuckles also showed split skin and bruising.
“Well,” I said. “Talk.”
He sighed out a breath. “If, back at the other outpost, I had been free to ask you, what would you prefer - to be able to leave with me when I returned for you, but to have to sacrifice some eggs, or to never be free to leave with me, what would you have chosen? I made the choice for you, but I made the choice I was confident you would make yourself.”
Damn it, I thought. I knew what he said was true. If I had been asked, if I was asked now, to make the choice, I would make it. “And the waiting list? Waiting to purchase my eggs?”
“It is not a transaction, as such,” he said, frowning with a glint of anger that was not directed at me. “It is a service. It has always been around since the technology was first invented. They did it here, on your planet too, we have found the facilities where it was done. There are always those who willingly donate their eggs, their semen, to those who need them.”
“Donate,” I spat at him. “Willingly. I don’t remember being asked.”
“It’s that, more than anything, isn’t it? That I haven’t asked?” he scrutinized me with his colourless eyes. “When were we to have this discussion, Briar? When has there been time? We have been together so briefly. We cannot have covered all the subjects there are to cover between us. My brother should not have spoken, he should not have used you in the petty argument between us.”
“This is a somewhat important topic of conversation that you should have made a priority to have with me,” I growled at him.
“You are right,” he nodded, shrugged. “I knew there would be… upset. I did not want that for our first day together, so I waited. And then, you were injured, and I did not want to distress you more. The timing wasn’t right.”
“Ash found the time.”
“My brother is a - ” he swore in his own language. “We are siblings, brothers, we argue, have always argued. Stupid things. He went too far this time and created an embarrassing situation for us both. But, in his defence, I believe him that he did not anticipate you wanting to leave the compound. I think he imagined we’d yell at each other, and my life would be difficult for a few days. He let me know, immediately, and we came to retrieve you, but,” he smiled, amused, “you are not so easily retrieved, are you?”
“Not out here,” I agreed. “Not now.” Not after... what had happened, I thought. I was now a killer, a murderer... a monster...
“Briar,” he pleaded, holding the flower out. “Come back to the compound with me. It’s not safe out here and you are still recovering.”
“You’re afraid,” he closed his eyes, a frown creasing between his brows. “Of course, she is,” he reasoned with himself. “After everything...”
“It’s not… fear,” I felt shame for his discomfort, as if I had betrayed him somehow. “I just… have so little control over anything. To think that pieces of me were being… traded by you,” I swallowed back the bile, “by you, of all people… and not having control over that as well...”
He nodded, shadows in his eyes. “And now? You still hesitate.”
I sighed and made the mental leap of faith. “I belong with you,” I stepped forward, and took the flower from his fingertips. “I don’t belong to you.”
“Noted,” he stroked his fingers through my hair, tucking it behind my ear. When I did not pull away, he lowered his forehead down to mine, his special caress. “I am sorry, Briar. My brother was wrong in what he did, but I was at fault for not having made the time to discuss it with you.”
“What happened to your face?” I asked him.
He sighed with a small smile and rubbed his cheek. “My brother and I had a discussion about his part in your upset.”
“I hope he looks worse than you.”
“I broke his nose.”
“Good. Thorn,” I sighed. “This is not over. I am not a commodity, a possession… I don’t like thinking there is a waiting list of people, negotiating with you for my eggs. I don’t like the idea that Nexus has an… entitlement to them.”
“Briar,” he put his arms around me and drew me against him, lowered his head so he spoke into my hair. “It’s a complicated situation. We are here, for people like you, to have children with people like you. This… mission has cost our worlds more resources than you can imagine, hundreds of thousands of our people are waiting for their chance to come here, giving up everything that our home worlds have to offer, giving up our families, for that chance.
“Our laws are still catching up to the situation. At the moment, you don’t have a legal identity. But, more than that, there is no enforcement out here. There is no legal system, no penal system, no enforcement agency. This is the first time ever that the government systems of all three home worlds have co-existed on the same planet. That in itself creates legal entanglements that currently have the priority of our home worlds’ legal systems.
“Our worlds are invested in co-operation. No one is willing to take up arms against the denizens of another home world. Everyone wants to claim a part of this world – the two positions sometimes create situations, such as what occurred at the other outpost, with you. I had primary claim – I found you, and you had performed a binding on me. I had records to prove it. But you were on his territory and from an area he had claimed. Once he realised what he had, he wasn’t going to let you go easily. We both knew, I would not have the reinforcement and support of my home world to take you by force. But he wanted something from me, so was open to negotiation.
“Preserving eggs and semen is a relatively non-invasive process and is common amongst my people. It offers guarantees to the family in the event of death or misadventure. But it is not something you have to think of, for a considerable length of time. He cannot collect if you are with child, or if you are nursing.
“By the time the opportunity arises, I hope that the laws will have caught up to the situation, and then perhaps, he will not be able to claim, at all.”
“So, your solution is to get me pregnant and delay and hope?” I pulled back to look at him.
“Pretty much,” his lips quirked with amusement. “I am working very hard on the pregnancy part, as you may have noticed.”
I huffed out a breath. “Well, no one can accuse you of not putting the effort in,” I agreed. “But what if I don’t want to get pregnant?”
“Don’t you?” he replied, raising his eyebrows.
“I don’t know,” I was confused. “I haven’t really given it much thought. It’s not something I thought… life would hold for me. A husband and children.”
“Perhaps you should think on it.” He gave a signal, and someone shimmered into visibility across the road. I started and his grip on me tightened. “I know you can tell where I am,” he said to me soothingly, “and would keep running if I stayed, but I could not leave you injured and unguarded. I had hoped that without me, you would not be able to tell one of us from the people who live in these buildings.”
“It worked,” I grumbled.
“I did not sleep, at all, last night, however,” he offered, with a smile, “if that makes you feel better.”
“It should, but it doesn’t.” I let him thread his fingers through mine and lead me across the road. There was a vehicle there too, I realised, as the door opened. I accepted Thorn’s help up and sat meekly on the bench seat. He sat, and put an arm around me, as if worried I would change my mind and bolt.
The other silver one joined us, releasing her helmet. It was not someone I knew, though I recognized her from the team that Thorn went out with on his manoeuvre warfare trips. “Thank you,” Thorn said to her, in their language, as she sat next to him.
“It’s fine,” she smiled cheerfully. “She didn’t do much after. Found a hole to hide in and cried herself to sleep. Pretty boring night, all up.” I kept my eyes on my shoes, although I felt my cheeks heat. How close had she been? In the same room? I had not sensed her, but I had been so weary and upset, once he was gone, I hadn’t looked.
“My brother could have picked his time better,” he sighed. “I suspect, if she wasn’t already traumatised, she would have stopped to think... She was already so fragile however, and there is only so much a person can take before they break. I could hate him for adding to her trauma, but... it’s abnormal behaviour for him.”
“Jealousy,” she supplied.
“I don’t know what to do about that,” he admitted wearily. “I can barely understand it.”
“It’s his problem, not yours. The leader will reprimand him, he’ll sulk for a few days, and then pull his head in. We’re all in a high-pressured environment, under a lot of tension. Behaviours escalate as a result. Here we are. Try to get some sleep. I’ll see you tomorrow,” she opened the door, and stepped out into the compound.
He nodded. “Come,” he said to me in my language. “You can shower, whilst I get us food.”
“I can understand you,” I said, reaching a decision. “When Nexus tagged me, he added a translator.”
He stared at me for a long moment, surprised, and then laughed. “Of course, he did, and told you to keep it secret, no doubt,” he shook his head wryly. “Have you been enjoying yourself, eavesdropping?”
“It has been insightful,” I shot him a look. “You’re going to be wondering, now, thinking back over everything you may or may not have said in my presence when you thought I could not understand you. Enjoy that. I’ll see you back in the room,” I turned on my heel towards the accommodation.
“Briar,” he caught my arm, pulled me back towards him and kissed me, hard and with thoroughness. “I love you,” he said and then strode away, leaving me breathless and flustered behind.
Of course, he had to have the last word, I thought, snidely, but I could not help but smile. I kept my head down as I stalked towards the room. I didn’t want to meet the gazes of those I passed. I did not know what I would see in them: sympathy or amusement.
Our room was untouched. The bed had not been slept in - it was as I had made it. There was a comfort to that. He had not slept, worried for me. I wondered how he had spent his night. Besides breaking Ash’s nose…
My fingers were much better, I thought as I undressed. The bruises on my jaw were yellow shadows, almost gone. The ache in my shoulders and arms persisted, but it was much less. I could turn my head now and see the cuts on my back. The rectangle was smaller than it had felt to be and had healed into raised red scarring. I pulled a face.
I used the waste disposal whilst the shower water warmed and used one of the blue pills to clean my mouth. I was becoming spoiled, I thought, by these niceties. I stepped into the water, and stood, eyes closed as it beat down upon me, trying to calm and repress the darkness that tried to edge its way out of that stone box... I used the soap to wash my hair and body, scrubbing until my scalp tingled and my skin was red with it. I was not sure what I sought to wash away, or whether it was possible to do so, but I felt... unclean.
“Much longer, and you’ll turn into a fish,” he entered the room, swiftly peeling his clothing off.
“Well, then maybe you shouldn’t join me,” I retorted. I felt guilty, as if he had caught me doing something I shouldn’t. “I’m not sure there’s even room in here.”
“There’s room,” he slid under the water, his skin gliding against mine. I shivered, need spearing quickly. Water darkened the silver of his hair. I pushed it off his face. “Your wounds are much improved,” he commented, inspecting me.
“Yours aren’t,” I touched his split lip.
He tested it with his tongue. “It’s sealed,” he shrugged, carelessly, smiled. “My brother’s nose will take longer.”
“You must take me to see, tomorrow. I feel that I have earnt some enjoyment in his suffering.”
“If you like,” he turned the water off and wrapped me in a drying cloth, his eyes intense and a wicked smile twisting his lips. My pulse stuttered. “We should have a sleep,” he said, drying himself swiftly.
“We could eat first…” I backed out of the bathroom whilst he stalked me. He caught my drying cloth and stole it away. I shrieked as he tackled me to the bed, his mouth finding mine even as I felt the mattress cushion my fall. This wasn’t the tender gentle meeting we had last shared, it challenged, took, with the edge of the tension of the night, the shadow of anger, hurt and frustration. It was the raw edge of passion, a claiming, and a binding.
I was still glutted with power from the death outside the walls. I saw the shock on his face as I fed it into him, a different charge to the golden glow we had previously shared, sharper, colder, and felt him recoil.
“Enough, Briar,” he gasped, and I let it slip away.
He pressed his lips to my cheek, working his way to my mouth and held my gaze with his, threaded my fingers with his and drew them up to either side of my head, and kissed me until I felt the power take it’s familiar golden form, and this time when I sent it to him, he moaned, and I felt the glow returned as he took the raw power and returned it to me, binding me. I felt the shock of it pass through me, as a sharper edge of pleasure, and felt the binding settle in me, the final link between us.
We were both silent for a time after, absorbing, thinking. He shifted and tucked me close to him. I thought he slept until he sighed. “That was not something I expected to ever be able to do. Bind you in return. The receiving of the power is not a pleasant experience, but the using of it makes up for it.”
“It calls me like velvet,” I confessed, “it makes me think it warm, but when I take it, it is - ”
“Cold,” he finished for me.
“Yes, and hard… but also, not, somehow. It’s hard to describe.”
“Hard but malleable, perhaps,” he was pensive.
“Perhaps. It changes, too, depending on the death… Fiery death burns. This power… it is layered, many deaths, old and new, different ways… It has a richness and depth to it that…” I shivered, remembering. “I will not give it to you again, if you do not wish it.”
He stroked a hand down my arm. “I want to bind you back and that is the only way it is possible,” he said quietly. “And I want to… understand.”
“Me too,” I sighed. “I want to understand.” Everything, I thought. I want to understand everything - my power, this complex and confusing man, and his people… “What is your birth name, Thorn?” I asked him.
“My birth name?” he repeated.
Something in his tone piqued my curiosity. I rolled to face him. “You’re blushing,” I said, delighted.
“I am not,” he denied it, but the corners of his lips curled. “Oh, fine,” he sighed it out, “I hate my birth name.”
“You hate your birth name,” I was enthralled. “And here I thought you hadn’t given it me because…”
“No,” he met my gaze, suddenly sombre. “I hadn’t avoided giving you my name because of any lack of commitment, Briar,” he said. “Names have power. They gain it because of those who use it. Thorn is my name, because it is the name you use, and holds power because you use it.”
I touched his cheek. “I understand,” I told him, “but I still want to know your birth name. It’s important to your people. I feel like I should know it.”
He sighed. “My parents had a theme,” he confessed, “they had three children, and named us according to that theme. I think I bore the brunt of it, being first, but my siblings would disagree… My birth name is Valiant.”
“Valiant,” I tried to resist, but couldn’t. “Valiant,” I grinned.
“Stop it, Briar,” he tried to repress his own laughter.
“Val,” I squinted at him. “I guess I could see that.”
“Briar,” he complained around his laughter.
“Well, it’s not worse than mine,” I told him. “Briar. Not the flower, but the thorns. At least your parents had something kind to say about you,” I began to giggle.
“Maybe your parents are Seers,” he replied, “and named you as a warning to me. This beauty doesn’t come without pain.”
“And now you have nothing kind to say, either,” I laughed at him. “At least you’re valiant enough to brave my thorns.”
“Briar,” he groaned, burying his face into my hair.
“Oh, no, you don’t get to complain,” I nudged him with my shoulder. “This is fuel for decades.”
“I regret very much giving you my birth name, right now.”
“Seems to be a common trend with your family: regret,” I realised what I said, as I said it, but it couldn’t be taken back.
His eyes sharpened. “What do you mean by that, Briar?”
“Oh, nothing,” I tried to shrug it away.
“What did my brother say?” He was not going to let it go.
I sighed. “He said he regretted that you found me first.”
He frowned slightly. “Hmm.”
“I am sure it was just because he was provoking our fight…”
He settled me back against him, using his arm to pin me in place. “It doesn’t matter, Briar,” he buried his face against my shoulder and breathed me in. “He can regret all he likes. I found you first.”