I woke in a vacuum of space. I floated in it. There was something holding my jaws open, and something else holding my eyes closed. My hands were heavy and fingers thick. I lifted them in an eternity of effort… Closed them over the thing in my mouth and dragged it, gagging, out. Sirens screamed… somewhere. I heard them as if through water. Their shrieks formed a rhythm in the background of an experience almost embryonic. I found the things on my eyes and dragged them free, blinked against the sting of light and fluid.
I was in liquid. My lungs realised it first, as they tried to draw breath. I was drowning. I struck out, finding edges that gave beneath my hands like fabric, so I tore at it. The fabric dissolved, and I fell to the cold floor, a fish out of water.
People rushed at me, with beeping devices and hurried voices. Someone pressed something that stung against my throat.
“No,” I fought against it. I turned the energy inwards and disabled the nanites that sought to sedate and subdue. “No.”
Water-logged, my flesh was wrinkled, my clothing and hair heavy with it. I pushed back at the people who thronged around me, sent them skidding to the edges of the room, my shield held tight. I stood on legs that didn’t want to obey me. My hair hung wet, long and free around me. White. White as a white one. White as bone.
Was it my hair?
My grasping hands confirmed that it was attached to me.
The people were back, machinery in their hands buzzing and beeping at me, held at bay by my shield. The white gossamer gown I wore hid nothing, I realised upon standing, as it adhered to my skin.
“Thorn.” He was there, on the edges of the sense I had of him. “Go away. Where is Thorn?”
He was in the next space, separated by a partial wall, suspended in a cocoon of liquid, attached like the bud of a bloom to the wall by wires. His silver hair was floating, his fingers lax, arms hanging free in the fluid. There was a step up. I took it and stood over him, indecisive.
I touched the membrane of the liquid cocooning him, and it gave inwards. I reached into the fluid, unbalanced, and fell into it. And came up against him, the warmth and strength of man, bone and sinew, the core of being that was him.
I felt the shudder of recognition pass through him, saw his eyes try to open, pulling against the ties that sought to close them.
We reached for each other through the viscous fluid, drew each other in, and clung.
The liquid shattered like glass, splattered on the floor around us. He reached up and pulled at the thing in his mouth. I helped him drag it free, held him against me as he gagged, and dragged free the ties that tried to hold his eyes closed.
We fell against each other, boneless…
The world around us seethed. Voices rose and fell, machinery beeped, someone came close with something that squealed, I batted it and him away, and shielded Thorn and I from their intrusion.
“Hospital,” Thorn managed, coughing. “We’re in a hospital, Briar.”
“Drowning,” I told him, scooping the gelatinous substance off me, off him. “They’re drowning us.”
“Healing fluid,” he sat, wrapped his arms around me and drew me back to the floor with him. “Calm.”
I let him draw me against him, onto the cold porcelain-like floor. My shield held them at bay.
“Something has changed,” I said to him.
“You’re on the home planet,” his eyes closed. “I imagine the power feels different here.”
“It feels good, Thorn,” I told him. “There is a different depth to the power here.”
“I wondered how the first world would feel to you,” he laid back on the stone floor, eyes closed.
“Are you alright, my one?”
He opened an eye, and grinned. “I could probably do with another cycle or two, I haven’t slept well in weeks,” he admitted, “but, as you’re up… You should probably,” he nodded to the anxious grey ones on the outside of the shield, “let them in.”
“First world,” I queried.
“Nexus,” he reminded me, closing his eye. “We have obligations.”
I swore in two languages, and he laughed.
There was a joy, a carefreeness to his laugh, that brought a smile to my lips. Nothing could be that bad, whilst he felt that joy. I released the shield as the grey ones thronged us, beeping machines in hands, I leaned against him, finding comfort in his familiar form. “So… now what?”
“Where to begin,” he pulled me over and kissed me. The taste of him was metallic.
“At the end, makes sense to me.”
“Well,” he drew it out, sighed. “I think we need showers…”
“Waste disposals,” I pulled a face.
“Yes,” he laughed.
“My hair is white.” I fingered it.
“Yes,” he sat up, sat us both up in doing so. “It was this way, when you came back…”
The grey ones were asking questions. Was there any discomfort? He answered some of them, in his own language. “No, no pain, we’re fine. Really.”
I protested as they tried to draw us away from each other.
“It’s fine, Briar,” he reassured me. “Waste disposal, showers…”
The two processes were not private. I had a suspicion they collected my waste to examine it and scowled at them. They seemed chagrined. The rooms were similar enough to what I was accustomed, but shinier, smoother, brighter and cleaner. The shower was a blissful joy, with spray from all directions, the water scented and containing something like soap. It had been a long time since I had been thoroughly clean, and I lingered there.
They dressed me in layers of red and purple, my hair was combed and dried, and something clipped it back at each brow. They led me down halls, the floors, walls and ceilings impossibly smooth and perfect in manufacture, in neutral grey tones, with hidden doors that slid back into the walls, and windows that overlooked…
I pressed my hands against the glass and gawked.
It was unbelievable how high we were, so high I could not see the ground and the clouds drifted below me, and how many other buildings surrounded us, stretching out impossibly far through a sea of black sky and grey cloud. It was raining, but the rain fell below.
I understood why they viewed our villages, towns and cities so disdainfully. Was their entire world, all three of them, like this? So much light that even though it was night, there were no stars to be seen in the sky. Light garishly in every colour imaginable and some I had never before seen.
There were two moons in the sky, and many blinking devices, like larger whiskers.
“Come,” the woman who had been supervising me smiled kindly and gestured for me to continue down the hall. “Your room is this way.”
The room was not large, and very plain. Walls, floors and ceiling the same as the hallway beyond and a serviceable bed that seemed to hover in the air and had only one cover upon it.
Thorn was looking out the window as we entered, his hair loose over his shoulders and back, and his face, reflected in the glass, pensive. He wasn’t himself, and the colours he wore irritated. I was used to black, had never known him in anything else, except the brief time whilst he was a prisoner of Nexus and wore borrowed homespun. Here, he wore rich red and green, embroidered with gold and layered. But the two colours jarred, one designed to sink into the wilderness, the other the sheen of blood. I wondered what message they sent, dressing him in such.
I would have preferred him in black, or brown, or blue or grey. It was garish, the green and red.
He turned from the glass and stepped forward as I entered the room, his hand capturing my cheek. “You look so different,” he said to me. “With your hair white.”
“Like one of you,” I suggested.
“A smaller one,” he mocked, mildly. “I can’t imagine what caused this.” We let that lie, in the space between us. We both knew in theory.
“Willow and Amity?” And Eris, but I did not dare speak it.
“They are safe. You saved them all.”
“I can’t claim that,” I denied it. “I did what there was to be done, what I was asked to do.”
“What did you do?” he drew closer and lowered his voice to barely more than a murmur, his hands on my arms. “I have seen the footage. No one is sure what you did, exactly.”
“I took it in,” I breathed it, felt it, could still feel its fractured lights within me. “I took it all inside, all the power from the explosions.”
He shuddered and his eyes lowered. “They will ask,” he said quietly.
“And I will pretend,” I met his gaze, “that I don’t know.”
He nodded absently before refocusing on our conversation. “They won’t believe you,” he cautioned me.
“Yes,” I was beginning to understand a little of the confinements my mate experienced. “I understand that.”
“Briar,” his eyes met mine.
“Thorn,” I breathed.
Heat rose, impossible to resist. He leaned over me, his lips grazing mine and my pulse soared. I seized him, dragging his mouth back to mine, took and ravished him, until he was breathless against me.
“Briar,” he said, fighting for space, against his nature and against me.
“It’s complicated,” I realised, the harshness of it a blow. I was on the first world so that they could collect my eggs at my next ovulation, and we could not risk falling pregnant before they did so.
“We are on the first world,” he reminded me, as gently as he could.
I closed my eyes. “Is Nexus here?” It would be worse to have him here as he would be proprietary about the process.
“No,” he sighed it against my cheek. “He is on your planet, supervising the recapture of the city. But his people here are charged with…”
“Yes,” I understood, sharply and with clarity. “What do they need?”
“Two weeks,” he said, “Maybe less.”
I sighed out a breath, braced myself. “Fine. What do we need to do?”
“For now,” he nodded to the bed. “Rest.”
“I don’t remember coming here,” I realised I didn’t remember much of anything after the explosion.
“No, you were in stasis,” he stepped back, sat on the end of the bed and pulled his shoes off. They were soft red boots that clung to his calves and flopped when freed. Impractical, I thought, too soft to protect the feet. But then, here, on this world, what was there to protect the feet from? “They brought you to the outpost unconscious. We could not wake you. The medics didn’t know what to do except fill you with nanites and see if you’d come around on your own.
“Three days,” he reached out and drew me against him, so I stood between his knees, and he rested his forehead against my chest. I stroked my fingers through his hair. “Three torturous days and nothing. They decided to use a stasis chamber and return us to the home worlds along with some other injured.”
“How long?” I wondered. “I have no concept of how much time.”
“It took our ship just over a week to travel between the worlds, and we have been here just under two weeks.”
“A long sleep,” I said, stunned. “What did they find wrong with me?”
“Nothing,” he looked up at me. “There was nothing wrong with you. They performed every examination and test available to them and found nothing. They put you in a nutrient bath, and you seemed to improve, your brain activity indicated you were close to waking. They decided to use the healing fluid on us both, yesterday, to help speed us along. In particularly you, as they want to start treating you soon.”
“The healing fluid…”
“It’s a high concentrate of… well, it… ah,” his eyes crinkled in the corners with humour. “It is an intensive healing process, requiring immersion for twelve to twenty-four hours, but it’s quick and effective.”
“Are you healed now? Completely?”
“Completely,” he pulled me down on the bed, so we lay nose to nose, our legs hanging off the edge. “As should you be.”
I looked within me with my ability and found nothing that stood out. “So, what do they think happened? Obviously, something happened, or I wouldn’t have been asleep for so long or...” I held a lock of white in front of my face.
“They believe you over-loaded and your body shut down in self-defence. It obviously affected your melanin.”
“I couldn’t hold the shield,” I was apologetic. “It was just too painful.”
“I’m sorry,” he linked his fingers with mine. “I argued with Willow against using you in that position, your ability is so untested. But the alliance wanted a demonstration of your power. It topped off their first mission unified. Politics.”
“I should have just performed at the meeting,” I said dryly.
“They would have asked it of you anyway,” he lifted my hand to his lips. “It’s what I - ”
A bell interrupted him. We sat up.
“Enter,” he said rising to his feet.
One of the medics entered. “We are ready for the procedure now,” he said.
“Procedure?” I asked Thorn.
“Birth control,” he said in an undertone as he sat to pull his boots back on. “Come,” he took my hand and drew me to my feet.
“Where is this place?” I asked as we followed the medic back out into the hall. “You said hospital?”
“Yes, your language has the same word.”
“Yes,” I was dubious, “maybe, I haven’t heard it’s use.”
“A place for healing and medical treatment,” he said.
“Maybe they have them in the city.”
The medic opened a door, and we went inside. It was a small room, with a rather obvious chair in it.
“I didn’t think this through,” I was affronted, eying up the chair.
“I am sorry, Briar, but it is either this or abstinence,” he was uncomfortable.
“Oh, skies,” I sighed it out.
After the procedure, we returned to the room in silence. I was a little taken aback by the process, and in dwelling on what other humiliating experiences might lay ahead in fulfilling our obligations to Nexus I did not notice his quietness.
In the room, he helped me untie my dress, and opened a hidden cupboard to hang it within. I slipped under the bed cover feeling a little shy and exposed after the procedure, a little betrayed by my body. He undressed, his back to me, placing his clothing with mine, and turned out the light before walking to the bed.
I felt the mattress depress as he joined me. In the darkness it was easier to reach out and touch, to slide skin to skin. His mouth found mine and his kisses were gentle, his hands framed my face, stroking back the loose strands of my hair. I drew my hands along his skin, enjoying the sensation of his naked flesh against mine.
He was gentle, tender, and slow. I held him tightly against me. When I had almost lost him, Jade’s mate had cautioned me to wait until the danger had passed to let the realisation of what I had almost lost in, and to use it to appreciate what I had. In the dark, his lips against my skin, his body against mine, I had that moment, and I clung to him, my cheeks wet with tears.
We lay in the dark and held each other.
“Did I hurt you?” he asked me quietly.
“No,” I realised he had mis-took my tears and stroked his skin in apology. “No, it’s nothing. You didn’t hurt me.”
He absorbed that in silence, thinking.
“I sometimes wonder…” he cleared his throat, the words stuck there. “I sometimes wonder if you regret meeting me.”
“What?” I was shocked out of my weepiness. “No, Thorn.”
“You have tolerated a lot, for me,” he said into my hair. “Continue to tolerate a lot for me. It would only be natural if you occasionally question it.”
“Skies, no,” I held him tightly, and laughed. “No, Thorn, no. You are the best thing… The absolutely best thing in my life. The one thing I face the day for. Without you, I think I would just... I can’t even imagine. Don’t think that. Don’t ever think that. Meeting you was the best day of my life. Everything else, is worth it, to have you.”