by shukyou (主教)
illustrated by Tamago
He showed up three months after the memorials had ended, which was three months of accepting fate after a little over a year of hope. But hope had been stupid from the beginning, because ships that got lost in the night didn’t have happy endings.
Time and facing facts hadn’t made the house any less empty, though, not with one-third of its inhabitants gone for good. Condolence cards had stopped coming. All the well-wishers’ cookware had been emptied, washed, and returned. Sympathy ribbons from fans had worn away from the fence, with no new ones tied there to replace them. And no one came anymore to visit.
But there he was on the doorstep, looking like he belonged there as much as he belonged anywhere, and he didn’t look like a man who belonged anywhere, not even in his own skin. He had a ragged sort of air about him, like he hadn’t slept in too long, or maybe like he’d forgotten what sleep was altogether. He wore grey army-issue clothes, grey boots, grey everything except for the bright red jacket that made him look large enough, even as the lean edge to his face belied that impression. One whole side of his face was marked with fresh branching scars, and when he looked at something, it was with one grey iris and one blank, milky sphere.
And he said a sentence Kai had never wanted to hear again: “I knew your father.”
Of course the odd man knew Kai’s father. Everyone knew Llyr Baines, even the nonhumans. Hell, especially the nonhumans, since Gaians who could play the Sphere were few and far between. There were maybe thirty in the leagues, out of the nearly two thousand players, and they were often as not tokens, benchwarmers, substitutes of last resort. Llyr had been a star.
Kai kicked a pebble down the street. “You’re lucky,” said Jinna. They hadn’t really been friends so much before “the Galena incident”, as the news services called it, but she seemed like the only person in the whole school who didn’t live and breathe Sphere-related news, and over the past year, that had been a blessed relief. “My moms won’t even let me go to the pools until I’m thirteen.”
“That’s dumb,” said Kai. “It’s not like it’ll hurt you just by getting in.”
Jinna shrugged. “They’re mostly worried about the Teljarians. Say when they’re in the water, they don’t usually watch where they’re going.”
Kai supposed Jinna’s mothers had a point. Jinna was already taller and broader than he was, but a full-grown Teljarian was easily triple her mass. All their reputation for being amazing, graceful swimmers had obviously only been earned by those of them who hadn’t been practicing their moves in normal-G space. “Yeah, they can be jerks. Last week one of them fell on me and I got trapped under. When I got up they were just laughing. Told me to breathe.” Kai hadn’t told his mother about that. He didn’t tell her much these days. He suspected she wasn’t usually listening.
“Have you tried?” asked Jinna.
Kai shook his head. It was sort of a lie: He’d tried, all right, one rare afternoon when the pool had been otherwise empty, but he’d wound up half-drowned for his troubles, glad that no one else had been around to see. “It’s stupid. You don’t need it to be good.” That was definitely a lie. Llyr had been an expert at forcing his human lungs to accept the watery mixture in the pools, and he had been a champion because of it. If you couldn’t breathe the fluid, you had to stay near the edge, near the air. That meant that so far as your team was concerned, you might as well not have been in the Sphere at all.
They turned the corner down the street where both Kai and Jinna lived, and Kai froze. There was that man again, standing on the walk by their house, talking to his mother. At first Kai wanted to run over and punch the man, just knock him down in the street, to make him stop bothering his mother. But he didn’t appear to be bothering her at all; in fact, his mother was smiling, and even laughing a little, which was something Kai didn’t see her do much these days. “Who’s that?” asked Jinna.
Kai shrugged and found another pebble to kick. The urban cleaners were good and efficient, but somehow there was always something to kick when you needed it. “One of the Galena people or something.”
“Like, a survivor?” Jinna’s face screwed into a confused frown. “I thought there weren’t any.”
“Just a couple,” said Kai. Yes, intrepid survivors who’d managed a year of shipwreck living on a hostile planet, found billions of miles off-course, well outside the official search area. His father hadn’t been one. “Mostly not Gaian.”
“Gosh,” said Jinna. When Kai said nothing else, though, she shrugged. “Hey, you want to come over after dinner and watch Alkibiades Silver with us? Amma says it’s a new one.”
He did, in fact; the previous cycle had ended on an awful cliffhanger. Over the past year, he’d only been able to watch it at Jinna’s, as his mother had wanted the feeds turned to nothing but news, because of stupid hope. But he was distracted now by the man talking to his mother, and by how he’d obviously only snuck in because Kai had been at school and not at home to slam the door in the man’s face like he had the first time. “Maybe,” said Kai. Jinna took the answer for what it was and waved him good-bye before crossing the street and heading to her own place.
Even though old settlement laws had been done away with years ago, their zone was still mostly Gaian, so the man didn’t look as out of place as he might have if he’d had dorsal spines or tripedal locomotion. Even so, there was still something just wrong about him. That his mother couldn’t see the wrongness made Kai uneasy. He stomped up just as his mother and the man both turned to him. “Hello, sweetheart. Did you have a good day at school?” she asked. Kai realized then that it he couldn’t remember the last time she’d greeted him outside, or been outside, or been anywhere when he got home except curled up in her bedroom with the lights off. He hadn’t liked that at all, but didn’t know how much better he liked this.
“It was okay,” said Kai, answering her but staring down the man. Why was his eye like that? Couldn’t he get it fixed? Razhsajnah, who was a year ahead of him, had burned out four of his eyes in a coronal flare, and he’d had bio-implants working less than a week later, so good that you couldn’t tell the difference. Why didn’t this man do something like that? What was wrong with him?
The man gave Kai a warm smile Kai didn’t like. It was like he was impervious to all Kai’s attempts to hate him. “I should be going,” he said, though there was no anger or resentment in the statement. If anything, he sounded like he thought this was somehow funny. Kai sneered at him just to show how un-funny it was, but was horrified when the man’s smile grew only kinder. “Thank you, Nalani, it was wonderful speaking with you.”
“Won’t you stay for supper?” asked his mother.
Before Kai could find a grenade to throw or a siren to set off or any other way disrupt the invitation, the man politely shook his head. “Perhaps another time.”
His mother smiled at the man in a way that turned Kai’s stomach. “Any time, please. You’re always welcome here.”
Kai wanted to shout no you’re not! at the man’s departing back, but it seemed like a bad idea, and anyway, his mother was looking at him. It felt like a long time since she’d done that, too, much less out here in the sunlight. “I don’t like him,” Kai said, not bothering to lower his volume. If the man heard, though, he gave no reaction that showed in the speed of his retreat.
Maybe he thought she’d yell at him, or somehow chide him for his rudeness. “Taran’s perfectly nice,” she said. “He has a lot of stories.”
“Okay.” Kai tugged his bag up tighter on his shoulder. He didn’t like the man, but he didn’t want that dislike to become rudeness to his mother. She’d had a hard time of things, as several grandmotherly well-wishers had put it; it wasn’t easy being a widow under any circumstances, much less so young, and under such public scrutiny besides! So he tried so hard to be good and do everything he needed to. He didn’t want to make it worse. His father was the one who always made it worse. Who had always made it worse. Not anymore.
His mother reached out and stroked her hand across his hair, flattening its dark, wild strands. “Would you like to go somewhere for dinner tonight?”
Kai’s eyes went wide. They’d used to eat out all the time, when it had been the three of them. The past year had been a lot of delivery and refabricated meals. But it was hard to go out when someone didn’t want to leave the house. Kai looked at her expectant face and realized she waiting on him. “Um, yeah!” he exclaimed.
She still looked tired, and more than a little like she’d been crying, but there was that hope again, and Kai realized that as much as he’d hated it when it had been wasted on his stupid father, he missed it when it was gone. “Go set your stuff down and we’ll go,” she promised, and Kai ran inside the house, the ground insubstantial as stardust beneath his feet, all earlier bad feelings already on their way to vanishing.
The first thing he remembered after everything went dark was a hand on the back of his neck, yanking him into the air.
What he remembered before everything went dark was numbness and tight panic in his chest. He fought to control it, though, kneeling there in the yard, his head submerged in a bucket of plain, regular water. He practiced at school, tried holding his breath for as long as he could during the boring parts of classes, trying not to be too obvious as he gasped in oxygen when he couldn’t hold his lungs still any longer. But that was weak, giving up like that. He knew he’d never get good until he had a chance to really push limits that wouldn’t give.
He hadn’t thought it would be a chance to drown. Well, no, he had, of course he had, it was stupid to stick your head into something you couldn’t breathe and assume everything would proceed as normal. But his body had been giving him signal after signal that it was time to pull out, he needed to pull out, and he kept pushing past. Just one more second, he told himself, and then after that second was over, just one more second, and so forth until he was out of time.
Reflex dragged air into his lungs, making him cough. Kai looked up and there was Taran, crouching beside him with a look of concern so fierce it showed even in his blank eye. “Are you all right?” asked Taran.
It was a stupid question — of course he was, of course he wasn’t — and Kai felt stupider still for nearly bursting into tears. He realized that his head was pillowed on Taran’s knee, probably getting those awful army-issue clothes all wet. Kai would move any minute now, just as soon as he could make his body stop gasping for breath. This was stupid and embarrassing. He wanted Nalani, but she’d gone back to work. “Don’t tell Mom,” Kai wheezed. She’d never go back to her job, probably never leave the house again, much less let him go a single minute unsupervised for the rest of his natural life.
Taran just gave him a soft smile and drew dark, soaked strands of hair back from where they’d gotten plastered to Kai’s forehead. “I wouldn’t dream of it,” he said. He had a voice that Kai had thought was low, only to realize that it wasn’t so much deep as rough. The way Kai rasped after half-drowning himself, that was how Taran spoke all the time. “This isn’t the most efficient way of teaching yourself. And I’m not saying that because … well.” He pointed to Kai’s poor state, point made.
Kai’s chest felt a little better now, and at least he could stop it from hitching every time it drew in a heaving breath. “What…?” Kai coughed a little, but it was all dry. He hadn’t inhaled any of the water, and though he should have been grateful for that, he was instead mad at his body for not having even the reflex for success.
“Lie flat,” Taran said, and Kai was in no position to argue. He stretched himself back on the grass and looked up at the low skyshield. He’d read about it in school, how this particular section of the dome blocked and reflected light and UV radiation to optimal Gaian conditions. That was why even though the settlement laws had been rescinded, Gaians who could choose where to live tended to choose here. Taran took both of Kai’s wrists, and Kai gave no protest as one of his hands was placed palm-down on his chest, and the other on his belly.
They stayed like that several full minutes in silence, until Kai finally decided he’d be the first to crack and ask just what the hell was happening. He took a breath to speak — and froze, realizing how the hand over his stomach had risen sharply with the intake of air, while his chest hadn’t moved at all. He let out the breath in a slow, controlled exhale, feeling his hand sink toward the ground. But maybe it had been a fluke, so he took a breath again. Up his lower hand went, and down again; his other hand didn’t budge.
Kai looked to Taran, who nodded back at him. “Now you’re getting it,” Taran said, his lips quirking in a quiet, patient smile.
His chest was where his lungs were. He hadn’t thought about bone, though, how his ribs held everything steady. He’d been looking for control from the wrong place. “Your body doesn’t have to think about breathing,” Taran said after a moment. “But you can, and that makes it interesting. You cannot, just by thinking about it, stop your heart or your digestion or your nerve impulses. But you can hold your breath. What does that mean?”
Oh man, was this a test? Kai hated tests. He knew lots of things, and he really was smart, his mom and all his teachers knew it. But when put on the spot, he tended to freeze. Much though it pained him to do so, Kai decided he had to admit his ignorance. “I, uh, don’t know?” He braced himself for Taran’s inevitable disappointment.
Taran’s expression stayed still, though, that same faint look Kai couldn’t quite identify. Was Taran laughing at him, even just on the inside? He didn’t think so, but he didn’t know. “I didn’t expect you to.” Taran nodded and touched Kai’s forehead again. It was a fatherly sort of gesture, Kai thought, which was an odd thing to think, because he didn’t think his father had ever done that at all. “Sometimes it’s good to have a question to keep in mind. Promise me you won’t do that again.”
Kai glanced over to the toppled bucket. The backyard grass would be dry again by the time his mother got home. “I promise,” he said, and he meant it.
Taran nodded, then did something Kai had never seen another grownup do, which was lie down beside him in the grass, his hands in the same places on his body that he’d left Kai’s on his own. Kai watched as one hand rose and fell while the other held its position steady. Taran’s face looked lined, and strands of grey threaded through his hair and sprinkled through his stubble like a light snowfall. Despite that all, he still looked young, not even as old as Kai’s father had before he’d disappeared.
“Stubborn enough to drown yourself on dry land,” said Taran, as though to no one in particular. “Reminds me of someone else I used to know.”
Kai didn’t ask him to elaborate on that, because it was stupid. He couldn’t have meant Kai’s father. Kai was nothing like him. Nothing at all.
“Are you going to marry my mother?”
Taran sputtered and choked mid-inhale on his pipe, though Kai didn’t think it was because of guilt. But Taran had been coming over more and more often for dinner for the past several months, and sometimes he even was still there after Kai had to go and get ready for bed, and if something was going to change like that in his house, Kai wanted to know.
“No,” said Taran, however, as though he’d never even considered the possibility. “No, that’s very unlikely.” He tapped out the ashes onto the ground, and they both watched as the environmental fireflies swarmed in to clean up the waste.
“Oh.” Kai kicked his legs. He was getting taller all the time, but his feet still didn’t touch the ground when he sat on the patio bench. “Why not?”
Taran looked into the bowl of his pipe, where the red coals glowed at the embers. Kai had only ever read about things like that in books, old stories about pre-spaceflight Gaian cultures. He had asked if Taran had been born there, or maybe just on one of the inner colonies, but Taran had never quite answered the question. “Your mother is a wonderful woman,” he said at last, holding the pipe’s long stem between his fingers. “Someday she may choose to remarry, and if she does, I hope you’ll be happy for her.”
“Well, yeah,” said Kai. The idea of his mother being married to someone other than his stupid jerk (and dead, don’t forget dead) father was a great thought. She’d loved Llyr and he’d left them both for whole months at a time, touring with his team. When he was back, he signed autographs and greeted fans and talked to other people sometimes like Kai and his mother weren’t even there.
With a smile, Taran stuck the pipe back into the corner of his mouth and puffed sweet-smelling smoke into the air. “Do you miss him?”
There was no question who the him in that question was. “No. He was stupid. And awful.” Kai kicked his feet hard enough that he hurt his heels against the back of the bench. “And on drugs,” he added, thinking maybe that would ruin the weird high opinion Taran seemed to have of his father.
At that, however, Taran showed no surprise. “I saw the withdrawal,” he said. A small group of merchant ships broke atmosphere just above them, dazzling bursts of burn in the night sky. “It wasn’t pretty.”
“Good.” Kai folded his arms across his chest. It was great to think of his father suffering like that. Maybe that would have wiped the smug smile off his face, the one all the fans seemed to swoon over. He loved those fans more than he’d ever loved his wife and son. He’d taken Kai to the pools and spent the whole time chatting with other people instead of watching Kai swim. If he’d actually been as good as people seemed to think he was, surely he would’ve been able to teach his son something, anything about breathing underwater.
Never mind that it was ‘not medically indicated’ for Gaians, especially those who hadn’t reached their full adult lung capacity, or that junior leagues would ban you if they caught you doing it. If Llyr had really cared, Kai would already know.
Taran just shook his head, still smiling. “You were all he ever talked about, especially during the worst of it. You and your mother.”
Kai hopped up and walked over to the other side of the yard. He didn’t want to hear this. Instead, he jumped up and grabbed the lowest bar of the wild, complicated set his father had had built back there. It was for agility training. Llyr had been able to swing around them, from pole to pole, bar to bar, as easily as another person might just walk down the street. Kai wasn’t anywhere near tall enough for that yet, but he could do some easier things. He held himself upright on a horizontal bar with his hands, then concentrated on lifting his legs straight out on either side of him. With enough effort and patience, he could get his ankles above the line of the bar, and then he could hook them there and swing back. At least, a person could do that. Llyr could have done that. Kai was still working on it.
Grey wisps of smoke rose from the bell of the pipe, and Taran exhaled larger mouthfuls of the same into the air. Kai could smell it; it was kind of gross but also nice at the same time, like the smell of the fishcakes Jinna’s Gaian mother made. “I’m trying out for a league next season,” Kai said.
Brief surprise wrinkled Taran’s eyebrows. “Does your mother know?”
“She said it’d be okay.” She had said that, anyway, many years ago, that maybe Kai could see about joining one of the junior teams when he turned thirteen. He would be there in another month. The fact that they hadn’t talked about it since long before his father’s disappearance was something Kai hoped would continue unnoticed. He grabbed the bar and let his body fall forward until he was suspended upside-down, toes pointed into the air. His long bangs fell into his eyes until he could no longer see his house, or Taran, or anything at all.
He knew it was a mistake even before he did it, but his lungs were on fire with want, so before he could get to the fifth ring, he popped his head out of the Sphere. Gasping, he drew great breaths in and out of his lungs as quickly as he could, ejecting the accumulated carbon dioxide and replacing it with breathable air in preparation for another dive.
He never made it. One of the other squad’s guards, a ruddy Balther, swam up under him; with a great kick of their powerful legs, they booted him right out of the Sphere.
Kai was sent sprawling into the gravity-less gap that surrounded the Sphere, arms flailing. That guard shot him a toothy grin from the mouth on their upper abdomen before zipping away. Kai shot a rude gesture in return, but it was somewhat lost by how the toss had sent him into a slow, balletic spin, and by the time he managed his fingers into the right position, he wasn’t even facing the game anymore.
Jeers and hoots came from the spectators. Deliberate ejections were cause for penalty, and he saw all the players’ various breathing sites break the surface as the ref system pointed out the guard’s transgression. But they were comic, too, and those who came to the Sphere to watch loved to laugh as players were sent sprawling through the wide air buffer that surrounded the fluid. The stupid guard had even done it just right, just barely bumping him so that he would have to ride the whole, slow, sickening spin to the edge before he could get enough momentum to rejoin the game.
There was no way to look dignified during a post-ejection travel to the arena boundary, either, so Kai made the best of it by tucking his legs, ready to spring off the wall as soon as he hit it. He could see his team take two ring positions and heard the sound that started the clock again. Great, now his looking stupid was probably going to be what won his team the game. That’d be one hell of a bitter victory.
Little droplets of fluid sheared off his body and orbited around him, tiny spheres obeying the same laws of the universe the big Sphere did. He brought his knees up to his chest, trying to be like them, in the absence of gravity holding only to himself.
As the platforms rose after the game and the players clung to them, ready to be transported to more solid atmosphere, Kai caught a flash of red in the stands. Barely anyone was there to see — they weren’t even the junior leagues, after all, they were the sub-junior leagues, where they only got sorted into teams minutes before the match began. Colors chosen at random indicated who belonged to which side, so supporters had no way of dressing to show team spirit. It could have been anyone.
As he left the changing area, he saw Jinna waiting, and he went up and let her hug him around his shoulders and kiss him on his cheek. They had started dating a few weeks previous, and Kai didn’t want to admit that he had no idea what being a boyfriend entailed, except that he got flashes sometimes of how Jinna didn’t know what being a girlfriend was like either. There was a comfort in shared ignorance. “You looked pretty good out there,” she said.
Kai scoffed and kicked at the floor. “I looked stupid. Fucking stupid,” he added. Cursing made him feel more adult, or at least less like a kid.
Jinna patted his arm. “It happens. It’s okay.”
The guard who had been the cause of Kai’s humiliation came out past them, looking sheepish. “Sorry, friend,” said the Balther, extending one clawed hand in an awkward reconciliatory gesture. “Just got caught up in the game.”
It was tempting to be a jerk about it, and Kai was about to snap out some nasty comment when he thought back to the of after the Alhab III qualifiers and how for days afterward, all the Sphere newsfeeds had broadcast again and again the clip of Llyr Baines shouting down an opponent who’d fouled on him and ruined Llyr’s point streak. Playing the game was already almost too close for comfort; he wouldn’t give into any more urges to be like his father. “It’s all right,” he said, placing his hand atop the offered one and pressing their palms together. “No hard feelings, friend.”
“Thanks, friend,” said the guard, who joined the rest of the exiting athletes on their slow march out of the stadium. Kai took Jinna’s hand and followed them, taking some comfort in how she smiled at him. He’d done the right thing.
A small crowd meant a short exodus, though, which meant that by the time Kai and Jinna made their way back out to the regular-G staging area, the only people still milling about were the few parents and caretakers still waiting on their charges. Kai searched all the faces, but few were familiar and none were Gaian. “Looking for someone?” asked Jinna.
Kai shook his head, then reconsidered the lie. “I thought I saw … I don’t know, I just saw somebody in the stands who looked like Taran.”
“It was Taran,” Jinna confirmed, with no hint of surprise. “I see him at pretty much all your games.”
Kai didn’t know what to say, so much so that his first instinct was to accuse Jinna of being mistaken. But that was unlikely; over the past year (and so strange it was to think of it as more than two now without his father), Taran had become a familiar face in their neighborhood. He was polite and never said much about himself. True to his word, he hadn’t married Nalani, nor even made any attempts to court her, so far as Kai could tell. And now he apparently had an interest in sub-amateur youth sporting events. Weird.
But he was nowhere to be seen, not even lurking in the far corners of the room. “Have you gotten any more of an idea about what his deal is?” asked Jinna, and not unkindly. She liked Taran fine enough herself, but spoke about him as if she regarded him as something of a mystery, a nut made all the more interesting for its resistance to being cracked. He was unfailing in his politeness toward her, as he was toward everyone else. But the only people he seemed inclined to say more than a few words to were Nalani and Kai.
“Nope,” said Kai. “Have you tried searching him?”
Jinna gave her head a definitive shake. “Nothing but what you could find on anybody. But I don’t have the access you do.”
She had a point. It wasn’t as though Kai didn’t think it was interesting that a wreck survivor had come to live in their general area, checking in on the family of someone he’d known. He just hadn’t felt like looking into it, partly in hope that maybe if he ignored it, it would all go away. If he closed his eyes and held his breath and stuck his head underwater, maybe they’d all start living the life they had before everything had gone wrong. His mom wouldn’t be sad, and Taran wouldn’t feel obligated to hang around, and Llyr Baines wouldn’t be there at all.
Even so, it was several more nights before he sat down and logged into the database set up for families of those lost (presumed and actually) in the Galena crash. The system took him straight to his father’s page, and he closed out of it without reading it, and especially without looking at the image of his father’s stupid, smug face. Instead, he went into the menu and looked at the list of survivors. Of the nine, only Taran was Gaian — and only Taran was out from under close medical supervision, Kai noticed with a frown. The other eight were located in various hospital wards and long-term care units, with addresses given so that others could send condolence gifts and perhaps even visit.
Then there was Taran Seraiah Garrod, one of the few passengers that day who’d had nothing to do with Sphere business. He was a well-educated chemical engineer who’d held down a good, profitable job before the accident. And somewhere, on a colony moon Kai had never even heard of, he apparently had several extended family groups.
Kai leaned back and frowned at the terminal. What was he here, and not with them? How did that make him any better than Llyr?
When Jinna asked him the next morning what he’d found, he gave her the basic, boring details. He didn’t bring up Taran’s distant relations, though. That seemed … wrong, somehow. If he had reasons to be here instead of there, then they were his and not for prying eyes. But it didn’t mean Kai stopped thinking about that fact, pushing it around the way a tongue prodded a sore tooth.
The first thing he saw as the doors to the trauma ward parted was Taran, and he didn’t even pause, just ran straight toward him and buried his face in Taran’s chest. A startled second later, Taran’s strong arms were around Kai’s shoulders, holding him in a safe, protective embrace. Despite a recent growth spurt, the top of Kai’s head still didn’t quite crest Taran’s shoulder, and when Kai hid his tear-streaked cheeks against the fabric of Taran’s shirt, he could hear the steady drumbeat of Taran’s heart.
The transit ride from the practice pool had been a nightmare of panic and worry, as Kai had kept clinging to the only bits that had cut through the fog of his coach’s words: cardiac, emergency, hospital, mother. He hadn’t even had a chance to change out of his uniform; his hair was still wet; he’d couldn’t even remember putting on his shoes. He wasn’t crying, though. Even as he melted against Taran’s chest and balled huge handfuls of that red jacket into his fists, his eyes were dry.
“It’s going to be all right,” said Taran, and his voice was distant thunder in Kai’s ears, a soft rumble that could have been miles away. “I have you.”
Kai’s mind couldn’t stop. Had she said she wasn’t feeling well just the other day? And then she’d gone out to work in the garden all by herself, even though the weather had been so warm? Was this somehow his fault for not noticing?
No, was her doctors’ emphatic response to that last question, without his even asking it. They showed him pictures of her heart, rendered in front of him and magnified. Bodies were just like that, they said; despite all the knowledge and technology out there, sometimes something just went wrong. Sometimes it was a big thing, and sometimes it was a little thing, and sometimes it was a little thing that had a big consequence, they explained as they pointed to the place in her nervous system that had failed, stopping her heart.
But it had started again, they pointed out. Between the time Taran had found her and the time the emergency responders had gotten there, her heart had begun to beat again on its own, just as mysteriously as it had quit. She would still need a great deal of care and rehabilitation, but she was expected to make a full recovery. They were sure to mention, sometimes more than once, how lucky it had been that Taran had arrived when he did. “Friend Garrod’s quick response likely saved her life,” her head doctor said, giving a bow that Kai knew was meant to be comforting.
“Tell me how my father died,” Kai said later, standing ankle-deep in the water feature that formed the center of the medical complex. It was several stories high, a glistening tower down which cascades of water tumbled, collected in sparkling pools, and spilled over the edge again. He wanted to stand beneath the highest part of the falls, letting the roar deafen him, letting the weight of water push him under.
Hands in his pockets, Taran looked impassive, a maddening spot of calm while the rest of Kai’s life was going to hell. His scars had faded in their intensity in the time Kai had known him, but that unchanged blank eye still remained to stare Kai down. “You don’t want to hear that story now.”
“Why the fuck not?” snapped Kai, narrowing his eyes in his fiercest glare.
He might as well have been trying the expression on stone, for all the rise it got from Taran. “Because I don’t want to tell it now,” he said, his voice deep and even.
Of course he didn’t. Taran was such an asshole, always butting in with stories when he wasn’t wanted, then shutting his stupid mouth the one time he might actually have had useful information. Kai kicked at the water, sure he wasn’t supposed to be in here. But he wanted someone to just try and stop him. Come get him, tell him no. Just give him an excuse. He felt like a star crushing in on itself, unable to bear the weight of its own gravity, about to collapse and explode at once. All it would take was that one last push.
It came in the form of Taran, the man who by all accounts had just saved his mother from her own failing heart. “You should go home and get some rest,” he said to Kai, beckoning him back in to shore.
The explosion seared Kai from the inside out. He wanted to hurt someone, anyone, himself, Taran, anything, anything to stop feeling so helpless. “Don’t tell me what to do,” Kai spat. “You’re not my father.”
It was a cold sort of victory that in that moment, Kai saw Taran’s expression shift. Had he managed to score a blow? Good. Let it hurt. “I know,” said Taran. “I don’t intend to be.”
“You’re not family!” Kai was shouting now, now caring who heard. “Why were you with my mom? Why are you here? Why the fuck are you even here? We don’t want you here! We were just fine without you!”
Taran set his jaw and, Kai would remember later, moved his feet wider, taking a steady stance. But at the time Kai was too filled with bitterness and helpless rage to notice; he stormed toward Taran, every footfall a dramatic splash. “We don’t need you!” screamed Kai, his words burning his throat as though he were breathing fire. “Leave us alone! We don’t need you! We don’t need you!” And to make his point just that much clearer, Kai raised his right hand in an angry fist and let it fly with all his might toward the damaged side of Taran’s face.
It never connected. Taran brushed his hand across his face with the casual effort one might use to swat a fly, but there was nothing casual about the force with which it smacked against Kai’s arm, deflecting the blow. Made furious by the initial failure, Kai reared back with his left hand, hoping that would give him some element of surprise. Taran looked even less impressed as the arc of his other hand brushed away first Kai’s fist, then the rest of Kai’s body with it.
With a feral hiss he’d never heard from his own mouth before, Kai lunged for Taran’s throat with both hands extended. But by the time he reached his target, Taran was no longer there; he had turned his body away, smooth as a stream might change its course to avoid a rock tossed in its path. With a sweep of his leg Kai felt more than saw, he collided with the backs of Kai’s knees, setting Kai off balance. Taran then extended a hand as though to help Kai catch himself — but there was no aid there, not as Taran tapped him once in the center of his chest and sent Kai sprawling into the shallow water.
The back of his head hit the water feature’s soft, marshy bottom, and Kai shut his eyes, feeling at last hot tears start first to sting, then to stream down from the corners of his eyes. His chest heaved and hitched in short, panicky breaths. He was hyperventilating, and he knew he should stop, but he couldn’t. It was as out of his control as his mother’s heart, as his father’s disappearance, as the lives of people he’d never meet on planets he’d never heard of. It was too much, and more than that, he wasn’t enough. He never would be.
A shadow passed over his vision, and he didn’t have to look up to know who it was. What he didn’t expect next, though, was to feel water splash against him as a heavy hand pressed flat against his chest, palm flat and covering the same place that had knocked him down. “Breathe,” said Taran, with no hint of anger or hurt or even disappointment in his voice. “You’ve got to breathe.”
“I can’t,” managed Kai in the space between two shallow gasps. His shoulders hitched with every sharp inhale; he could feel the water lap up against his sides, the breaking of waves on the smallest ocean.
“You can,” said Taran with the unquestionable authority that might have spoken the Universe itself into being. “Your body knows how. Stop fighting it. Let it do what it knows how to do.”
Kai tried, he did, he truly did, but Taran was wrong; it was beyond his control. Everything was beyond his control. They lived in a world where things just happened, where spaceships just crashed and people’s hearts just stopped, and there was no reason for it, not for any of it, but everyone walked around all day like this was normal, this was fine. No, it was stupid and awful and pointless bullshit, and then you died. He was too small. It was too much.
“Picture a drop of water,” said Taran’s voice, soothing as a cold compress placed on a wound. Even in Kai’s fevered state, he could at least do that: one drop, small, spherical as it floated through the gravity-less air surrounding the Sphere. “One drop, suspended, perfect. Think about it, its shape, its size, the way it would feel on your skin. One drop, clear and cold. How does it know where it begins and ends?”
Near hysterical now with panic and exhaustion, Kai still felt the urge to laugh. It was a stupid question! It knew where it was because it was itself, and anything outside itself was different. And it didn’t even know anything, because it was just water. Even the Sphere was just one really big drop of water; it held itself in place because it was water, and everything outside it wasn’t. A drop that separated from it floated through the air in the direction in which it was sent, because an object in motion would stay in motion, but eventually it would rejoin the Sphere itself.
And when it did, it wouldn’t have to know where it began and ended anymore, because it would be the same as everything around it again. It could let go of that separateness; it could let the idea that it ever had been something different disappear.
Kai opened his eyes. Taran’s hand was still flat on his chest, applying slow, even pressure, but now he was breathing easy again. The lights around the water feature had started to come on; how long had the two of them been there, lying in that pool as the day slipped away around them? “What did you do?” asked Kai, his voice strange even to his own ears.
Taran shook his head. He placed a hand behind Kai’s shoulders and helped him sit upright. Taran’s own pants were wet; he must have stayed kneeling next to Kai the whole time. “Helped you focus. You did the rest.”
Now that the fight was out of him, Kai felt sodden both inside and out. Had he really taken a swing at Taran? More than one? That didn’t feel like him; that felt like a story told by someone else, or maybe a dream he’d once had. “I’m … I’m sorry,” Kai mumbled, staring down at his hands. He wanted to cry again now, and maybe punch himself in the face a few times. That seemed like a reasonable solution.
But instead, Taran slipped his hands under Kai’s arms and helped him to his feet. “Apology accepted,” Taran said with a nod. “And I’m sorry I knocked you down.”
Kai swallowed, feeling his face turn crimson. “I guess I sort of deserved that.”
“Maybe not deserved it. But it was all I could think of at the time.” Taran placed his hand on the small of Kai’s back as he led Kai out of the water, and Kai felt like melting into that touch, just wrapping himself against Taran’s body the way he had when he’d first come to the hospital. He compromised with his desires by leaning against Taran’s side, his head bumping against Taran’s shoulder. Even though his chest and diaphragm were still sore, he took a deep breath and let it out slowly, letting it dissolve into the air around him the same way that imaginary drop did when it rejoined the Sphere. And just like that, the breath after that was easier, and the one after that easier still.
That was when Taran moved in with Kai and Nalani. The first night, Kai didn’t even know he’d stayed until that next morning, when he came downstairs to find Taran asleep on the couch, his knees tucked almost all the way to his chest. He looked so weird and vulnerable like that that Kai had stared, even though he knew it wasn’t polite. Taran had taken off his shoes and socks, and Kai could see his bare pink feet pressed up against the cushions. It was weird to think of Taran as a person who had toes, or ankles, or any other soft parts beneath the heavy, shapeless clothes he usually wore. Taran was usually so covered up, from throat to wrists to ankles, that seeing even just his feet was kind of like seeing him naked.
Kai cleared his throat and went to the kitchen to make breakfast, definitely not lingering on that ridiculous, wild thought any longer.
The next day, after they visited Nalani in the hospital together, Kai outright asked Taran to stay. They had a guest room, a place that maybe would one day have been used by a sister or brother for Kai. It was small, Kai apologized as he put clean sheets on the bed, but it was at least more comfortable than the couch. Taran gave him a grateful smile and said he was used to far less. Kai didn’t know where to begin asking what he meant by that.
When she came home two weeks later, Nalani was the one who encouraged Taran to keep up residence in the guest room; she even offered to take it herself and give him the larger master bedroom, but of course neither Taran nor Kai would hear of such a thing.
Kai didn’t ask where Taran had lived before, nor did he give voice to his curiosity about why Taran never seemed to go back there, or why he barely seemed to have enough possessions to fill a single drawer, much less an entire room. Taran didn’t seem to go to work either; he was at the house when Kai left for the day and there again when Kai got back. He helped Nalani around the house as she recovered, then kept up the same tasks once she was back on her feet and back at work. And he never missed one of Kai’s games.
True to his word, though, he wasn’t Kai’s father, and the space he carved out in their weird three-person household was nothing like the one Llyr had left. He was more like a weird uncle, Kai explained to Jinna once, as they strolled hand in hand through the central Gaian-style park, on one of their infrequent dates. A weird uncle, or maybe some distant older cousin, someone who knew just enough about your family to not know everything.
He was always awake and about by the time Kai got up, though, until one morning a feverish dream woke Kai while it was still dark out. He couldn’t remember specifics of the dream, but he was unsettled enough by it that he knew he couldn’t go back to sleep. So he crept downstairs instead, thinking that he might go out to the bars and do a few agility routines. He’d gotten to the point where he could almost make his way across every pole in the structure without touching the same one twice. It was maybe a stupid, easy goal, but he was proud anyway.
Instead he saw Taran out there, sitting in the middle of the grass, his legs crossed beneath him. Even in the dim artificial light, Kai could see that Taran was not only barefoot, but shirtless as well, dressed only in dark pants. He had his back to the house, and for a moment Kai thought some odd shadow was falling on him, perhaps a tree branch in front of a neighboring light. The shadow seemed to start the base of Taran’s neck and creep out in dark, spidery lines down his left arm and broad back.
Then a gust of wind hit the trees and the shadow on Taran’s back didn’t move at all, and Kai saw that it was not a shadow but his skin. Taran had never spoken about what had damaged his face, so Kai had just stopped asking, but the branching red lines that had faded on Taran’s cheek had the same patterns Kai saw here. What made those kinds of marks? And why couldn’t they be fixed?
That was what Kai didn’t get. Injury happened, but then you fixed it. Things broke, and you fixed them. Maybe you couldn’t make something look exactly the way it had before, but you made an effort. And if it was just Taran’s skin that was messed up, Kai didn’t think it would take much to fix that at all. Eyes were harder, probably, but not impossible. There wasn’t any reason to stay broken, not when you could look as normal as anyone else.
“If you’re up early, come on.” Without even turning around — or, indeed, giving any indication prior to that that he’d noticed Kai — Taran patted the ground next to him.
Kai did as told, walking over and sitting. It was weird on so many levels to see Taran like this. For starters, he wasn’t just scarred; he was strong, Kai could see, with the kind of lean muscle that disappeared under the heavy clothes he always wore. The times he’d replayed their fight in his head (not even a fight, more like a one-sided ass-kicking), Kai had chalked up Taran’s easy win to little more than clever use of Kai’s own inertia. But looking at Taran’s bare torso, Kai could see that he’d been taken down with the kind of power that made effort look effortless.
Feeling awkward, Kai placed one hand on each knee. “What, um.” He cleared his throat, bringing his voice back up from sleep. “What are we doing?”
“Meditating,” answered Taran. His eyes were still shut, his spine straight.
“How does that happen?” asked Kai. He squared his shoulders and tried to move into the same position Taran was holding, but while Taran made it look good, Kai just felt stupid and stiff. He puffed out his chest to see if that would help. It didn’t.
“Usually in silence,” Taran replied, though Kai could see a patient smile curling the edge of his mouth. “It’s good for focus. For concentration. Think about your breathing.”
With a disgusted sigh, Kai flopped back in the grass, spreading his arms out to his sides. Above him, the dome of the sky was starting to conceal the stars again; dawn would happen soon. “That’s all I think about.” He lifted his legs from where he’d crossed them before and let them flop out straight. “And I still can’t do it.”
Taran didn’t ask do what? Instead, he glanced back over his shoulder at Kai’s prone form. “You don’t have to.”
“Of course I have to! Unless you have four lungs or gills, you have to!” Remembering the early hour, Kai lowered his voice; he didn’t want to wake his mom. “You can’t — you’ll never get the gates deep in the Sphere. You’ll only ever get the ones near the surface, and they’re worth less.”
“I have seen it played,” Taran noted, that little smile audible in his voice.
“Then you know!” With a great sigh, Kai lifted all four of his limbs and let them flop back hard to the ground. Maybe it was childish, but he was still technically a child, wasn’t he? He had three years before he reached the minimum Gaian age for eligibility in the professional leagues, after all. Three more years with the juniors, hoping someone would see him. And if what they saw was a Gaian kid coming up for air every minute or so, they wouldn’t take a second look.
Taran sat quietly for a moment, long enough to make Kai think he’d been insulting and start formulating an apology. But when Taran spoke again, there was no rancor in his voice: “May I ask a question?”
“Shoot,” said Kai.
“Why is this so important to you?”
Instead of answering, Kai fixed Taran with a glare. “You want me to say it’s because of my father, don’t you?”
“I want you to say the truth,” Taran answered evenly. “If I already had an answer in mind, I wouldn’t have asked.”
Even though Kai supposed that was fair enough, he didn’t want to talk about how the truth might have been closer to Taran’s assumption than Kai wanted to admit. So he put the ball back in Taran’s court: “Why are you here and not with your family?”
Though Taran’s pose was one of great poise and control, Kai could still see the muscles of his back shift as he squared his shoulders against Kai’s inquiry. “That’s two questions: why I’m here, and why I’m not with my family. Which one do you mean?”
Kai shrugged. “Both?”
In the growing light, Taran’s scarring became even more pronounced — inky and dark, almost like tattoos. Kai wanted to touch them, to run his hands over the skin and see if it felt any different, but the thought made his stomach twist into knots for reasons he didn’t want to think about either. “The man I was before did not survive the accident,” Taran said after a moment, sounding even more distant than he usually did. “That fact … disturbs the ones who knew me before.”
“What, like amnesia?”
Taran nodded. “Something like that. Only unlike typical amnesia, irreversible.”
“Wow,” said Kai. He tried to imagine his dad’s returning a complete stranger, and it chilled him. He didn’t want to think that it was better that Llyr hadn’t come back at all, but … maybe it was. “So you just didn’t go home?”
“It wasn’t home.” Taran placed his hands palms-out in front of his chest, interlinking his fingers, then lifted his arms high above his head. The lines on his skin seemed to come alive as his muscles moved beneath them, shifting in a way that made Kai think for some reason of lightning. “We reached a mutual agreement. I would be dead to them, legally and emotionally, so they could mourn me properly.”
Kai sat up again, not sure of what to say to that. “Why didn’t you say something before?”
“You never asked.” That smirk again lifted the half of Taran’s mouth that Kai could see.
“So that’s all I had to do?” Kai frowned. “Ask?”
Taran nodded as he let his arms drop to his sides, then stood and extended Kai a hand, helping him hop to his feet. “Come on,” Taran said, bracing his feet in a fighting stance and beckoning Kai with both hands. “Come at me.”
So Kai didn’t ask again why Taran was there, or if he missed his home, or what it had been like to lose his whole past, or why he still wore his scars. Instead Kai lunged forward in a clumsy punch, which Taran deflected. Kai hauled back and struck again, this time paying more attention to Taran than to his own body. He did it twice more, letting his attack be turned away both times, then copied Taran’s pose and invited a reciprocal blow. He wasn’t nearly so good at it as Taran, and he was miles off from making it look effortless, but Kai felt he just might be getting the hang of this.
The next morning, Kai’s alarm woke him before dawn, and he crawled out of bed again, put on his workout clothes, and went down to join Taran as he meditated. At first he felt stupid — thinking about his own breathing just served to make him self-conscious about everything — but as the days and then weeks went on, he began to realize that the more he could focus on that, the less he felt the weight of everything else in his life.
Jinna was the first to comment. “Are you getting more sleep?” she asked him one day as they walked to the Sphere together.
“Less, actually,” Kai answered. They held hands as they traveled, out of habit now far more than because of any romantic notion; they weren’t exactly dating but they weren’t not dating, and Kai suspected they were both just too busy and distracted at the moment to either further the relationship or call it off. At any rate, he was happy with it and she seemed so, and that was good enough.
“Because you seem looser. And you’re playing better out there.” Though Kai knew she spent at least two-thirds of the time with her nose in some xenobiology text, Jinna still came to many of his practices and all of his games.
Kai shrugged as though he hadn’t noticed any improvement, even though he had. Not good enough, to be sure, but better. “Taran’s been teaching me some things.”
“I didn’t know he played.”
“He doesn’t. Other things. Movement, breathing. Hey, what does it mean when–” Struggling for words, Kai brushed his free hand over his own shoulder and back, fingers splayed. “Scars that look like a tree. Not exactly like a tree, but like branches.”
“Like fractals?” asked Jinna, and Kai nodded. “That sounds like what it looks like when you get hit with electricity. A lot of electricity. All your capillaries burst. Well, in species with capillaries, anyway. They go away after a couple days.”
That couldn’t be it, then; the lines on Taran’s face had receded in the four years or so since he’d first appeared, but they were still visible even at a distance. And the ones on his back didn’t look to be changing at all. “You ever talk to him?” Kai asked.
“What, Taran? Sometimes, yeah. When I see him in the stands when I get there, I go sit near him so he doesn’t have to sit alone.” Jinna stepped inside the orbital elevator and gave it the Sphere access code, sending them up to the practice area. Bigger arenas could afford gravity-manipulating technology, but nobody was going to spend that kind of money on junior games. “He doesn’t say much, but he’s a really good listener. And he knows a lot about isosentience theory.” When Kai shook his head, confused, she explained, “The idea that mind and body are so separate, a whole species will someday evolve to a point where they can exist in some free energy medium, so they don’t need bodies.”
“Don’t need bodies?” asked Kai as the elevator doors opened to the team level. “How would they play?”
Jinna rolled her eyes and kissed him on the cheek. “You may have to think about something other than the Sphere someday, you know.”
“Not if I can help it.” Kai blew her a kiss as he stepped out and let the elevator take her alone to the stands.
As he got changed, though, Kai felt a little knot in his stomach, almost like someone had dropped a stone in there, a stone in the shape of the idea of Jinna and Taran talking to one another. He didn’t like that idea, and he couldn’t say why. It was stupid, of course, because of course they were great people, and he loved them both a lot, and it should have been great to hear about them getting along. Instead, he felt weirdly cheated, like … well, like Jinna had found some secret of his, and now it wasn’t a secret anymore. Now it was just ordinary.
He showed up for me, Kai finally formed as a complete complaint. He’s my–
No. He wasn’t. Whatever Taran was, it wasn’t something that belonged to Kai. He was just a guy who’d lost his memory in a tragic accident, going back to keep an eye on his dead friend’s family. Like everything else in Kai’s life, it was actually about Llyr. Why couldn’t he just stay dead?
Kai fouled out on another player in the first play and had to spend half the game on the sidelines, stewing. He didn’t look to the stands to see if anyone was watching him. He stared at his hands and didn’t think of much at all.
The scouts that came to the championship game were very impressed by Kai’s potential, they said, very impressed indeed. They descended upon him afterwards, talking all about the five gates he’d checked in the ninth play, all without coming up for air. They wanted stills of him smiling and holding his MVP trophy. They all said it was a shame that he would have to wait another full year before he turned seventeen by Gaian reckoning and became eligible for professional consideration.
And even though he had always done his best to downplay or even outright hide the connection, they all wanted to talk about how Kai Kana’ina was the son of Llyr Baines.
“Do you think your father would be proud of you?” asked one of them.
“Um,” said Kai, because he hadn’t anticipated this question. No, he thought his father would be more focused on talking about the two gates he’d missed in the fourth, or how he’d fumbled what should have been an easy pass right after the tip-off. Llyr had always only ever seen the mistakes. Kai cleared his throat and forced a nod. “I’m sure he would.”
“Have the Blue Stars tried to recruit you?” asked another.
Though Llyr’s old team had been all but wiped out by the crash, they’d re-formed the year previous. Kai hadn’t gotten a single interested visit from their association, though. He suspected the management knew how to weigh star power versus trouble, and didn’t want to take the chance that the apple didn’t fall far from the tree. “No one’s tried yet,” answered Kai, glossing over several small pieces of team merchandise he’d been sent as various ‘friendly gestures’.
“Llyr always said he began acclimating his lungs when he was only twelve,” said a third. “Have you started?”
Kai held his facial expression steady and tried not to fly too close to the mine hiding in that question. “My father liked to exaggerate,” said Kai, though if anything, he’d always thought Llyr’s claim might have covered his having been even younger when he’d made his lungs accept the Sphere fluid as air. “As for me, not only would that be illegal for me at this level of play, but you’ve all seen that I don’t need it. This trophy should show that.”
No one in earshot seemed the least bit convinced. “At this level,” the first recruiter pointed out. “Professional play is a very different game.”
Kai smiled his way through all the talk and interviews, and he even made a few appointments to visit the team centers in the system. He didn’t point out that it wasn’t as though he didn’t know what the inside of a professional arena looked like. There were probably fewer he hadn’t seen, even if most of those had been before he’d turned ten. Llyr had been sure to make the whole tour with Kai on his shoulders, pointing out everything. Those kind of visits were hard to forget.
When at last they all let him go, Kai retreated to the locker room, the last team member to get changed. His trophy looked great and all he wanted to do was throw it against the far wall and scream. He’d scored the points. He’d won the game. So why was everyone still talking about a dead man?
Even worse, a dead man he’d never be. Kai tugged at his uniform, peeling it off with frustrated force. All he wanted to do was play for himself. He hadn’t traded on that connection to get his foot in the door; he’d gotten there himself, on his own skill. He could just as easily have played as Kai Baines, letting everyone know from the get-go whose legacy he stood to inherit. If he succeeded, everyone would talk about how Llyr could have done it better. If he failed, he was failing them both.
It wasn’t his fault that he took after his small, lean mother instead of his broad, muscular father, that he couldn’t play the same position or develop the same skills, that he apparently lacked whatever it was Llyr had had that had one day made him stick his head in a pool and fill his lungs with fluid without dying. Compared to every other Gaian player he’d ever met, he was better than good, he was great. He was a force to be reckoned with. And it would never be good enough. He drew back his fist and slammed it so hard into his locker door that he nearly offset it from its hinges. He pulled back and did it again. It hurt and it would bruise, but so what? Llyr had played with bruises. Llyr had done everything right.
Kai heard a soft throat-clearing sound and looked up to see Taran there, his hands tucked in the pockets of his jacket. All the fight fled from him in a great sigh, and Kai slumped back on the bench, shoulders up almost to his ears. “Sorry,” he muttered, not even bothering to ask how Taran had managed his way in there.
“I can teach you,” Taran said, his voice soft but crystal-clear in the empty room.
Kai’s head snapped up, eyes wide. “What?”
“To breathe the fluid. I can teach you.” Taran’s tone was as casual as when he made sandwiches and offered Kai one. If anything, he looked a little sad, and certainly not like a man who was offering Kai the skill that would make all his dreams come true.
Kai, however, had no problems being excited. “You can?” he asked, his aching hand forgotten. There were plenty of written tutorials out there purporting to teach the necessary control, but Kai had read them all and found them all to be variations on the same bullshit. There was only one way to learn, Llyr had always said, and that was by doing.
“Not overnight,” Taran said. “It will take time and you will need patience. And discipline.”
“Anything,” said Kai. He stood, bare to his waist in his stripped-down uniform, his still-damp hair giving him a chill in the recirculated air.
Taran pointed to the locker, which had retained its shape, but now stood askew. “Then that is the last object or person you strike in anger.”
A hot spike of renewed anger flared up in Kai, but he took a deep breath and let his temper go with it. He forced his hands to unclench, to hang loose at his sides. “I promise,” he said.
“Good,” said Taran. He gave a quiet, even nod and turned to go.
“Wait,” called Kai, and Taran stopped. “Why now?”
Though he couldn’t see Taran’s face from where they stood, something about the hitch of Taran’s shoulders gave Kai the impression that he was smiling. “Why now and not before, or why now and not later?”
Kai shrugged. “Why … at all?”
“Call it the least I could do for an MVP,” Taran said after a moment’s pause, and as he strolled off back into the spectators’ section, Kai stood fixed in place, barely able to move. They could keep the victory, the scouts, even the trophy. He’d just gotten something even better.
Standing atop a high stone bluff, Kai was sure of exactly one thing in his life: that Taran was a giant, filthy liar.
“There’s no water here,” Kai pointed out. It seemed like stating the obvious, but he was starting to consider that maybe Taran just truly had not noticed.
Taran took a deep breath of the dry, windy air and smiled as he exhaled. “At this stage, it would be a distraction.”
Kai felt his jaw all but hit the rocks beneath his feet. “How could water distract me from learning to breathe underwater?”
“Come on,” said Taran. Kai thought about pointing out that Taran hadn’t answered the question, but instead just sighed and followed. They’d hiked all the way up here, so Kai had assumed there must be some sort of secret water source up here, a spring or rainwater-filled basin. But no, the top of the rock was just as bare as the unterraformed land beneath it.
They got to the edge and Kai peered over — then jerked back as a strong gust of sun-heated air blasted him in the face. That cliff had a hell of an updraft raking up its side. “Why are we here?” asked Kai — and then a sudden chilling thought hit. “Are we going to jump?”
“What? No.” Taran blinked with surprise, then stretched his hand out over the edge, letting it be blown upwards into a hover. “There are two problems to teaching your body to adapt to a new environment. The first is learning to adapt to that environment. The second is learning to think of your current environment as a new environment, so you can come back. If you breathe the fluid during a game, what happens when the game is over?”
Frowning, Kai chewed on his lower lip. “You, uh, leave the Sphere and go get changed?”
“And how do you leave the Sphere?”
“You hold on to one of the handles and let them tow you out while they drain the water?” Kai was confused; it wasn’t as though Taran hadn’t seen this done countless times before.
“What happens to your lungs when the fluid is gone?”
“They just–” Kai stopped mid-thought. What did happen? The feeds never showed that part of the post-match. He had memories of seeing his father taking great heaving breaths as the Sphere receded, but he’d always chalked that up to exhaustion and excitement; Kai himself was always gasping for air after a game, after all. That it was something more had honestly never occurred to him. “Don’t you just breathe it out?”
“There’s no ‘just’ about it.” Taran kicked a stone aside, then sat down at the edge of the cliff, close enough that Kai could see the wind blast against his short blond hair. Strands of silver had started to creep in and spread, almost invisible except in direct sun like this, where they caught the light like metal veins. “So today you are going to practice breathing air.”
“I can already breathe air. I’m really good at it. I can do it in my sleep.”
Taran rolled his eyes, but corners of his mouth turned up farther anyway. “Exactly the problem. You do it without thinking about it. So when you need to think about it, you can’t.” He patted the ground next to him.
Skeptical through and through, Kai sat anyway, crossing his legs beneath him like Taran did instead of kneeling first. “So we’re going to … just sit here and think about breathing?” The wind pushed Kai’s long bangs back from his forehead, reminding him he was well overdue for a haircut. Maybe this time he should get it all spiky and short, like Taran’s. It might make him look tough too.
“Unless that’s too difficult for you,” Taran answered with a sly smile. It was a taunt, it was an obvious taunt, and the worst part of all was, it worked anyway. Kai squared his shoulders and flared his nostrils, determined to prove that he could conquer something as easy as breathing. He was going to totally conquer breathing! He was going to kick breathing’s ass!
All of which led to a mindset that was probably why he felt Taran’s hands on his shoulders several minutes later. Kai jumped to realize that he’d been so focused that he hadn’t noticed Taran move; they’d been side by side earlier, but now Taran was behind him, just beyond the periphery of Kai’s vision. Kai started to ask what was going on, but felt all the words he had vanish as Taran reached around him, placing one hand in the center of Kai’s chest and the other on Kai’s belly just below his navel. The hand on Kai’s chest urged his spine straighter, pressing him back against Taran’s body. “From here,” Taran said, his voice a low growl in Kai’s ear; he pressed in with his lower hand, giving location to his ‘here’.
It was an easy enough instruction, except the proximity of Taran’s body to his had suddenly made all breathing impossible, correct or otherwise. They’d sparred and outright fought, and Kai could still remember how it had felt to throw his arms around Taran at the hospital and just bury himself in that strength. But beyond that, they didn’t touch, not really. It was so easy to chalk that up to Taran’s aloofness, his general distance from everything. But now he was here, putting his hands on Kai of his own free will, and it stopped Kai’s heart.
Just a demonstration, Kai told himself, willing his muscles to unlock. It didn’t mean anything except what it meant. There was no reason to be like this.
“From here,” Taran said again, and Kai did, filling his lungs with the dry air and pushing it out again. “How do you breathe out?”
Kai repeated the deep breath, paying attention this time. “You just … do.”
“How? What do you do?”
Kai took three more deep, slow breaths, searching for the answer to Taran’s question. “I push the air out. I close my chest. I push it out.”
He could feel Taran nod, the brushing of that spiky hair against his temple. “How do you breathe in?”
“I … pull the air in?”
“No.” Taran pressed hard against Kai’s chest, holding Kai’s body rigid between Taran’s palm and Taran himself. “You can’t grab air. How do you breathe in?”
Of course he couldn’t grab air, that was stupid, but Kai didn’t understand why his answer wasn’t correct. That was how your lungs worked, by pulling in air and pushing it out. But it wasn’t what Taran wanted to hear. “I don’t know,” he admitted.
“Breathe out,” Taran ordered, “all of it, out, as empty as you can, and hold it there.” Kai did, using all the muscles in his chest and belly to squeeze his lungs flat. He knew that it was impossible for a Gaian to drain their own lungs completely, but he pictured it anyway, two deflated balloons in his chest. When his torso was as tight as he’d ever felt it and he had no more to give, Kai nodded. “Now,” said Taran, his voice barely audible above the wind, “let go.”
As Kai did, he heard a great gasping sound — his own, it turned out, as he drew in a breath he hadn’t even meant to draw. His chest remained steady, but his belly pooched out against Taran’s hand as those muscles went slack. And now there was air in his lungs where none had been before, and not because he’d tried or pulled anything. All he’d had to do was stop resisting.
Of course: equilibrium, pressure, nature’s abhorring a vacuum, a gas expanding to fill its container. All the abstract concepts coming home to make sense.
“Again.” The word from Taran’s lips wasn’t a command this time so much as an invitation to repeat the experiment, to prove it wasn’t a fluke. So once more Kai did, keeping his shoulders back and spine straight, but concentrating on getting every molecule of air from his lungs. He wasn’t emptying anything; he was creating an emptiness inside himself, then preserving it by force. It was unsustainable. How did he breathe? He didn’t. He opened himself wide and let the laws of the universe fill him up again.
Kai didn’t even realize how light-headed he was getting until two dozen deep breaths or so later, he slumped back against Taran’s body, his forehead coming to rest against the long curve of Taran’s neck. Taran eased them both back until Kai was limp across his lap, still held in the circle of Taran’s arms. “Oh,” Kai murmured. He closed his eyes and felt the wind batter against them, imagining it spinning them both on some shared rotational trajectory, a moon, a planet, a galaxy. He giggled as he corrected his own observation: “O2.”
Taran snorted a laugh. “It has a way of doing that.” He took the hand he’d used to keep Kai’s chest still and stroked his hair back from his face. “I’m still waiting on an answer.”
Kai could blame it on the oxygen, and would do so often when he thought about it later. But at the time it made perfect sense. How did he breathe in? By letting go. He turned himself in Taran’s arms, just a slight shift of weight, and pulled Taran’s mouth to his in a deep kiss.
It was like completing a circuit, like standing uncovered in a lightning field. The hairs on the backs of Kai’s arms stood up as he opened his mouth and parted Taran’s lips with his tongue. Taran’s constant slight stubble scratched against Kai’s cheeks, but it was a good sensation, a grounding one, and he wanted more. He grabbed at Taran’s neck, slipping his hand into the gap between shirt and skin. His fingertips could feel the slightest change as they moved across the fractal patterns Kai knew hid beneath. So this was what it was like to touch what he’d spent hours staring at, wondering about. This was the answer.
He felt Taran move against him — but clumsily so, his always-confident hands gone awry. His mouth opened, but only to let Kai move them both. There was no resistance from Taran, but at the same time there was no easy acceptance. He leaned into the embrace, and even drew tighter his arm that still lay around Kai’s waist, but Kai felt none of the give-and-take of bodies he’d learned with Jinna. What he felt from every point he touched Taran was uncertainty, not about the fact of Kai, but about the fact of kissing at all.
It occurred to Kai that this was the first time he’d ever seen Taran with no idea what he was doing.
With a sheepish swallow, Kai withdrew from the kiss and prepared to let go, get up, and possibly go throw himself off the cliff as necessary. It was a stupid idea born of a stupid desire he hadn’t even been conscious of until he’d had their lips together and realized the yes of it all. But it hadn’t been yes, not truly. Not for both of them.
Taran, however, held him in place, tucking Kai close to his chest with a protective clutch that might have been made of iron, for how strong it felt around him. Kai let himself melt into the touch, going limp against Taran’s body again. He smelled clean, like soap and ozone, with just a hint of that pipe smoke. He felt safe.
“There are things about me you don’t know yet,” whispered Taran, stroking Kai’s hair like a parent might do to a child, like a man might do to his lover. To anyone else, from anyone else, the physical gesture might have been a sentiment too oblique to interpret, but Kai had kept himself hanging on Taran’s every word for so long now that he understood the meaning: not yes, not no, but wait.
At any prior point in his life, Kai knew, this would have made him furious, sent him off on some ragged internal tantrum about not wanting to be treated like a kid anymore. Instead, he closed his eyes and focused on the tidal pulse of Taran’s chest, then matched his own breathing to its slow rhythm. “I don’t care,” Kai promised, but he didn’t stop to examine Taran’s statement, nor did he push past it to prove his own. Together they held one another on the cliff high above the world, pushing out and letting go in time with one another. If this was waiting, he could wait.
It was a week before he got up the nerve to even think about it himself, and another two before he could manage to make sense of it aloud. “I kissed Taran,” he told Jinna.
She looked up from her reading with an expression that was hard to read upside-down. She wasn’t upside-down, of course; he was hanging from his knees on the bars, letting the blood rush to his head. Gravity was weird. Finally, the corners of her mouth moved into a frown that would have been a smile if he’d been facing the other way. “Did he notice?”
Kai snorted. He wanted to move, to get up, but he also wanted to look her in the eye while they talked about this, and somehow the distort made that easier. “Yeah,” he said. “I mean, kind of. I think he mostly thought it was weird.”
Jinna shut her screen and folded it around her wrist. “He is kind of old enough to be your dad,” she pointed out, with no judgment to her tone.
“Well, he’s not,” Kai snapped. He pulled himself back upright, but banged his elbow on the center pole and toppled off-balance. With a grunt and a thud, he landed on the grass below.
“Fine.” Grumbling, Kai got his legs over one of the lower bars and sat up. “Sorry. Didn’t mean to yell.”
“You didn’t,” said Jinna, though he knew she knew what he’d meant. He hadn’t raised his voice in anger in months, maybe a year, but he hadn’t yet learned to tame his tone, or to stop feeling the bursts of temper that blindsided him. She stood and walked over to the bars, then sat down in the grass beside him. “Can I say a thing and have you not yell for real?” she asked.
Kai chewed the inside of his mouth, but he nodded. It meant he’d try.
Jinna sighed and put her head on his shoulder. It was strange how different she felt from Taran, and even stranger than that was that the difference was strange at all. Of course they were different; he was a grown man and she was a teenaged girl, at the very least. But even Kai couldn’t pretend much longer that the obvious was all there was.
“I want you to be happy,” Jinna said at last, putting her hand in the middle of his chest, splaying her fingers so the tips came to rest over his heart. “And I think Taran’s great, you know I do. But for you, happy is complicated. And for him … everything is complicated.”
No, Kai couldn’t be mad at that, not when he knew it was the truth all over. “He’s been through a lot,” he said, recycling the same things he’d heard adults say about himself.
Jinna paused, then shook her head. “He hasn’t been through it. He’s still going through it. And so are you.”
Kai reached over and gave her bracelet a tap, making its display options light up. “Are you reading the chapter on psychology?”
“Maybe.” Jinna gave him a peck on his cheek, then smiled as Kai turned and pressed his mouth to hers. Touching her was warm and soft, while touching Taran was crisp, bright, electric. He didn’t want to draw comparisons, not like this, but he couldn’t make himself stop.
He couldn’t stop thinking of Taran, either. Every time he caught himself thinking about his breath, he remembered the hands on his chest, the way he knew he could have traced out those bright red patterns even in total darkness. It wasn’t a case of relief, like feeling knotty lines of scar tissue, but they didn’t blend in the way tattoos settled under Gaian skin. There was something else to them that Kai could detect even if he couldn’t name what it was. And it wasn’t his imagination, and he didn’t tell Jinna about it because he was afraid she would suggest it was.
He didn’t try to kiss Taran again. He did kiss Jinna more, though, and it wasn’t too many days after that until the two of them wound up naked and twined with one another, figuring out together how everything was supposed to work. They weren’t in love — they both agreed on that, to apparent mutual relief — but they were best friends, and by Kai’s estimation that was better.
Stupid love had never done anything good for anyone anyway.
“You’re fighting it,” said Taran.
“I am not,” Kai said, or wanted to say. What got in the way of his rebuttal, though, was how he was pitched over the side of the pool, snorting hyperoxygenated water out of his sinuses.
Taran placed a steadying hand in the middle of Kai’s back, and Kai shrugged it away before it even registered as anything other than unwanted touch. His skin was too sensitive; he didn’t want contact. He supposed getting a lungful of what his body thought was normal water was enough to set all his senses on edge. This was such bullshit. He was starting to believe that it wasn’t even possible, that this was some great conspiracy, a huge practical joke played on anyone who thought Gaian lungs could do such a thing. Smoke and mirrors. A great big lie. And Llyr had been the biggest liar of them all.
With a final wheeze and an unlovely spit into the grate, Kai felt his lungs clear. “Could my father really do this?” he asked. It sounded like heresy to hear it, almost as though he were doubting sunlight or gravity.
Taran nodded, without judgment on the content of the question. “Oh yes,” he said, letting his hands float on the surface of the waist-deep water.
“Because I don’t think he could.” Kai folded his arms across his bare chest. “Did you ever see him do it?”
For a moment, Taran said nothing, to the point where Kai was sure the ‘no’ was so obvious it went without saying. But at last he nodded, though there was grief behind his expression Kai couldn’t quite place, something sadder than his usual quiet sorrow. “It isn’t easy. Or healthy. And over time, it will do damage.”
“Yeah, yeah,” said Kai. He’d read the texts. There were all sorts of reasons that was contraindicated except under strict medical supervision.
“Your father was an addict.” Taran stepped closer. “Do you know why?”
It seemed the world was full of stupid questions today. “Because he took drugs,” Kai said, as though it should be obvious to anyone with half a brain.
Taran shook his head. “There’s more to it than that. There’s not a species out there that hasn’t identified some substance with psychoactive effects. Most who use them recreationally are fine. Some become dependent, compulsive, desperate. Why?”
That wasn’t something Kai had thought about before. He’d been so young when it had all happened, even before Llyr’s disappearance, when he’d caught his father with the injections, lolling on the bed with his eyes rolled back so far all Kai could see was white. All the explanations he’d ever gotten had been so simple a child could understand them, because that was what he’d been at the time. All the conclusions he’d come to had been much the same. “Brain chemistry?” answered Kai, approaching the issue like he thought Jinna might. “Personality, maybe?”
“Some of both,” Taran agreed. “And then there are more practical needs.”
Everything Llyr had been had been about the spotlight, the crowds, the attention. “Was that how–” Unable to finish his sentence, Kai waved his hands in the general direction of the water.
Taran nodded. “He was an angry man,” he said. The otherwise empty pool room was filled with the hum of the machines that filtered and refreshed the water, and Taran’s voice was so low that heavy whirr almost drowned him out. “He was afraid. His fear made him furious. Did he ever speak to you of his father?”
Kai shook his head, sinking down until the water covered him over his shoulders. All he knew of his paternal grandparents was that they’d died well before Llyr met Nalani. He had never asked. He didn’t like this, any of this. He didn’t want to hear it. He didn’t want to have this conversation right now, or at all. He had to know what came next.
“Maybe that’s best.” Palm down, Taran brushed his hand over the surface of the water, making ripples that soon enough broke against the side of Kai’s cheek. “The drugs did not make it physiologically possible for his lungs to breathe fluid. They made him able to stop the reflex to fight that comes from moving from one environment to the next. When he didn’t have them any longer, he had to learn to stop fighting on his own.”
Well, that certainly put all the ‘mind over matter!’ motivational bullshit in perspective. “I don’t–” Kai cleared his throat. “What are you saying?”
“Nothing you want to hear,” said Taran, a distant smile curling at his lips. “Only that it is possible. But to do it, you have to learn to stop fighting. Your body has defenses against dying. They’re quite reasonable. You have to be stronger than they are, more certain that dying would be all right. And then you won’t.”
With a frustrated grunt, Kai slipped beneath the water — just holding his breath, at least for now. With his eyes closed, his entire world became the dim pink of the pool lights behind his eyelids and the growl of the machines in such an enclosed space. The Sphere itself didn’t sound like this; it was too big, and it was exposed on all sides to the air. This was more like a prison cell, and he was trapped in it as surely as the air was trapped in his lungs. Just like he was trapped inside the reality of being his father’s son. There was no transition from one to the other; it was all only inescapable.
He pushed himself upward and surfaced, gasping for breath. Taran was still standing there, so quiet he might have been a dream. Some deep-space transport ships had fluid generators to create stable environments in case of medical emergencies. The survey of the dwarf planet where the Galena had crashed after its collision with a rogue electrical storm showed air barely sufficient for most species’ respiration. Taran remembered nothing from before the crash. He spoke of Llyr’s having gone through withdrawal, and then beyond. All these facts had existed in Kai’s mind for years, but disconnected, as unrelated to one another as they might be to a math problem or a dinner order.
“Were you with him when he died?” asked Kai, bracing for the answer either way.
Taran pressed his thin lips together until they all but disappeared. “As near as I could be.”
“Did you try to save him?”
“There was nothing to be done.” Taran shook his head.
“Did he drown?”
“He had been drowning for a long time,” Taran said with a sudden sharpness to his tone, one that made Kai’s stomach turn cold. “From long before when I met him. Like you, right here. You could survive by giving in, but your instincts tell you to fight. So you fight. You exhaust yourself, and your exhaustion takes you. And then it doesn’t matter what you can breathe.”
Tears burned at the corners of Kai’s eyes, and he was willing to blame them on the angry snap to Taran’s voice rather than any other emotions he might be feeling. “Did you … hate him?”
Taran’s tight frown softened as his eyes widened in obvious surprise. And then he did something Kai could not have expected — he laughed, a bright sound that bounced off the hard tile surfaces. “No,” Taran said at last. “At times I thought I did. Other times, I wished I could. It would have made his loss easier, wouldn’t it?”
Together, they got out of the pool after not too much more practice, where Taran simply had Kai focus on his breathing and did not ask him to submerge again. Kai tried to put Taran’s question out of his mind, which was of course why he found himself lying awake in the dark that night, staring at the ceiling, unable to think about anything else. Of course hate made things easier. Kai knew that for a fact. That was why, even after all this time, he didn’t miss his father at all.
Still, the matter of Llyr Baines had always been a thin, treacherous strip of territory between desperate curiosity and blissful ignorance, and tonight he seemed to have fallen too far to the former shore. He got up and pulled on shorts, then padded out of his room and down the hall. He passed his mother’s bedroom and smiled as he heard her heavy snoring, then kept on moving down the hall.
Taran’s door was shut but not locked, and Kai slid it open without knocking, half-hoping he’d find a sleeping shape beneath the covers, dreaming in a darkened room. Instead, he saw Taran sitting upright in the center of his bed, legs crossed beneath him; a lit candle burned in the center of his cupped palms, casting its light on what little it could reach. In its dim glow, Kai could see the sharp shadowed relief of every line on Taran’s face.
“Were you in love with him?” Kai asked, voice barely a whisper.
Taran did not answer, but he didn’t need to; Kai knew from the way Taran’s jaw set that the only thing he’d gotten wrong about the question was the past-tenseness of it. Taran opened his eyes, but because he sat in profile to Kai, all Kai could see was the light of the candle reflected in the sightless white orb. It was the center of the strike, Kai could see that now. Whatever had happened to him, it had started there and blown out through the rest of him, down his cheek and through the back of his neck, over his shoulder blade and down his arm. Yet there was no exit mark. Whatever had struck him hadn’t used his body as a conduit. Did that mean it hadn’t left him at all?
Kai felt sick to his stomach. He stepped back and let the door swish shut between them. Taran made no move to stop him. Kai left the house and went to the backyard, where Taran had put up a punching bag for practice; he lay into the bag until his hands were bloody and the sandy stuffing was beginning to slip loose at the seams. Nalani found him curled up beside it when the sun rose, asleep on the grass, dreaming of nothing.
Of course it had been the Blue Stars. Other teams had called and courted, but there had never been any doubt in Kai’s mind, not really, that when his father’s old team came to him with an offer, he’d drop everything else and say yes on the spot. The Halvian manager sealed the deal with a squirt of musk, then offered its prodigious nose for Kai to use in an approximation of a handshake, out of respect for Kai’s less developed glands.
They didn’t mind that he couldn’t breathe yet, the manager told him. Didn’t matter. He was good on the rim and he could spot the outer goals while keeping in range of the air. Very good, the manager repeated, acknowledging that this was a bottom-string position while reminding Kai that few players spent their rookie seasons anywhere other than that. And if Kai knew he was being offered this position as something of a novelty, so what? Novelty still got feet in doors.
Nalani was thrilled, of course, though Kai could see the worry creep into her expression when she thought he wasn’t looking. He did his best to reassure her that he would take care of himself and follow all the rules and come straight home whenever he got a break. What he tried not to do was let her know he knew that what he was promising was never to become his father.
Jinna reacted with equal glee, to the point where she actually begged a night off her hospital rotation so her whole family could throw him a congratulatory celebration. They all laughed and ate and talked, and afterwards the two of them tangled together in her bed, grinning the whole time. So much of their relationship had gone unspoken, guided by a quiet, shared understanding, so neither of them had to say aloud that this was the end for them, at least for now and probably for good. They had always known one another well enough to know now that this was all right.
And Taran … was Taran. He smiled and shook Kai’s hand at the news, and he seemed honestly excited for Kai. He might have seemed quieter otherwise, but that also might just have been Kai’s imagination. Taran had been unreadable for the whole span of their acquaintance, and Kai didn’t see that changing now just because Kai had a job.
The three of them gathered at the shuttle pad a day later to wish Kai off, Nalani with a kiss on his cheek, Jinna with a kiss on his lips, and Taran with another polite handshake. Kai felt a crazy impulse to just throw himself into Taran’s arms there, to complete what he’d started before atop the high bluff. But no, he knew better, especially now that he knew that Taran had felt that way, but never for him. They’d never revisited the line of questioning, but Kai hadn’t needed to. He was determined not to pretend to be his father in any aspect of his life, and this was as good a place to start as any.
As the shuttle rose toward the outer atmosphere, he saw first the long stretch of chrome construction, then the vast empty land beyond it, out to the dry bluffs. He would not see any of it again for another two years.
“What are you doing?” asked Speck.
Kai kept his hands folded across his belly. “Breathing.”
Speck’s inner eyelids flickered, which Kai had learned meant skepticism. He had never met one of her kind before — hell, he didn’t wholly know what species she was, but he’d met her so long ago that he felt he couldn’t ask now, it’d be too awkward. “In the wrong place,” she said, nodding toward the pool beside him.
“Yeah, well.” With a sigh, Kai stretched his arms above his head. “It’s just an exercise I learned from my, um–” No one asked about Kai’s family life, because no one had any questions about whose son he was. Thus, Kai had never found reason to develop a good, quick explanation of what exactly Taran had been to him.
“I have a few ums myself,” said Speck, easing herself into the water. Her scales iridesced beneath its surface, and Kai stared because he knew she didn’t mind. “More of a teacher um or a lover um?”
Kai chewed at his lower lip. “…Kinda both?”
Speck made the hissing noise that was her laughter. Kai was glad she’d explained that to him on his first day of team training, when she’d been appointed his team mentor, because all his instincts told him that if something was making a noise like that, he wanted to be somewhere else. Being with the Blue Stars had meant learning a lot of new things, including the skill of making learning new things look effortless.
From beneath the surface of the pool, one of their teammates, a blubbery Nabarri named Drogan, emerged; he coughed twice, expelling the last of the fluid from his lungs, then took in a great gasp of air. Nabarri, like Gaians, did not take easily to breathing underwater, and as such, Kai had always admired Drogan for developing the skill that had thus far eluded Kai. “Oh, glorious day,” bellowed Drogan from out his cavernous chest. “Refreshed and everything in balance! How are we all otherwise?”
“Well enough, thank you,” Speck answered as she gave him a polite bow. “Seems a little cold in here today.”
“That’s your blood,” quipped Drogan. “Stop complaining and you’ll adjust.”
Of all his teammates, Drogan was the one who made Kai the most homesick, though he would have never ventured trying to explain to Taran why a whiskered goaltender easily four times his mass reminded Kai so much of him. Most of the other Blue Stars thought Drogan’s go-with-the-flow attitude was hokey at best, but Kai felt he could wrap up in it like a warm blanket. If anything, the fact that it was good advice he’d yet to take only made it that much more familiar.
Speck sighed and went under the surface, then emerged in a great splash, her scales shimmering with water and light. Drogan smiled at her as she turned paler grey with the drop in her body temperature, then looked to Kai. “And you, young one? Unless I miss my guess, you’re seeming a little off-center today.”
Off-center was one way of putting it. Completely and totally out of control might have been better. Not that he’d indulged in the high, loud lifestyle of many professional Sphere athletes — Kai still turned down even the legal narcotics, and most of the time he was even too tired to masturbate, much less bed a fan or teammate — but he could never find enough time for the centering calm that had been a daily focus with Taran. No one else here started the day with meditation. Everyone put their every waking moment to training; no one just sat and breathed. Even Drogan seemed to come by it naturally, not need it as a discipline. “I’m fine,” said Kai. “Just got my mind on things.”
“You know,” said Speck, reaching her forelimbs high into a stretch, “I never met my sire. But I think it would be hard to go through life like you, thinking nobody could have told us apart.”
Drogan snorted. “Nobody can tell any Gaians apart,” he said.
Speck smacked him with her tail. “Don’t be racist,” she chided him, even though Kai had taken no offense; Drogan’s eyes could only pick up on wavelengths below the customary visible spectrum. “It’s not true, though. I played against your father, back when I was with the Parallax. He was good and you’re good. But at that point, he was as good then as he was ever going to get, while you can still get better.”
Kai sighed as he rolled over onto his stomach, letting his damp hair fall across his eyes. “I don’t think I can,” he grumped, indulging himself in feeling like a sulky four-year-old.
“Not with an attitude like that, you can’t!” said Drogan, who this time caught Speck’s tail before she could deliver another gentle blow. She chuckled as she yanked it back out of his grasp, and Kai smiled too, his pout broken. It felt good to be a part of this. They were a team. He had a place he belonged.
And for two years, he’d justified his lack of breathing practice by saying that he didn’t want to improve, because that might change his place. He had his spot and he was good at it. He’d trained and practiced with the rest of them, and they all knew what to expect. So what if he had to dart up to the surface every few minutes, gasping? Everyone accounted for that. Everyone understood.
Even more to the point, no one treated him like Llyr’s teammates had treated him. Kai hadn’t understood when he’d met them all those years ago, but now, replaying remembered interactions, things became clear. No one had liked Llyr. They had laughed and joked with him, of course, and he’d been the life of the party even when there’d been no party to enliven, but they hadn’t been his friends. They hadn’t joked with him like this. They had smiled and supported him on-camera and then kept their distance. They’d never come over to Kai’s house for dinner. They’d smiled at his jokes and stopped as soon as his back had turned. They’d accepted his arrogance as a necessary component of his skill, but at the same time they’d known he hadn’t been playing for him so much as for himself. They’d all adored him, but they hadn’t liked him.
No one, of course, except stupid Taran. Kai felt his emotional stormclouds roll right back in, and he kicked his foot hard against the stone floor. All that did was stub his toe.
Speck splashed some water in his direction. “I mean it. You’re still barely past your hatchling stage, aren’t you?”
Kai shrugged. “Something like that.”
“Well, then you’ve got plenty of time.” With a friendly, toothy grin, Speck gave him a little bow before disappearing beneath the surface. With a splash of her tail, she was off, down to the cavernous depths of the pools, to the place where the weight of water made Kai’s chest feel as though it was about to cave in. She’d taken him down there before, held his foot and dragged him under until he’d tapped her hand and signaled his need for release. He’d always thought he’d be brave enough one day to let her drag him down far enough that he couldn’t surface before his diaphragm muscles gave way and the vacuum in his lungs pulled in everything around it. He hadn’t been that brave yet.
Drogan smacked the water with his meaty forelimbs. “If you’d care to practice sometime, I would be glad to assist.”
“No. But thanks,” Kai added. “I wouldn’t want you to get your hopes up about someone who may just be unteachable.”
He tried to put the conversation out of his mind during that day’s scrimmage, but it returned to him every time he had to turn, lungs screaming, back to the air. Maybe Taran had just been humoring him, saying what he thought was needed to calm him down. Maybe Taran thought he had been someone else. Maybe he’d been disappointed with Kai’s consistent failures. Maybe Kai had never had any chance at all.
His mind was dogged with maybes right up to the point when he emerged from the post-game showers to the news that his mother was dying.
There was a drip in the piping. It was infrequent, and not even rhythmic. Kai tried to count the beats between it, and sometimes he got as far as thirty and sometimes stopped by eight. The quietest conversation would have drowned it out, but there was no conversation there. He was alone, floating flat on his back, looking up through the transparent roof at the night sky.
At least he’d gotten to see her before she’d passed. Jinna too, who’d made it back before he had. Sometimes things just broke and couldn’t be fixed. Nalani had been at peace with that, so much so that Kai wondered how long she’d known, if it’d been terminal from the diagnosis or if she’d waited until there was nothing Kai could do. He’d been sitting there by her bedside, and she’d been asleep, and then all of a sudden she hadn’t been anything at all.
The funeral had been a low-key event. No one had broadcast her name over any of the stations. Hordes of adoring fans hadn’t draped themselves on the sidewalk outside their house. Condolence cards hadn’t shown up from far-flung reaches of the galaxy. Everything Kai had known of death before that was spectacle. But Nalani had never been one for fuss. She’d married Llyr because she’d loved him, not because she’d expected he’d be her ticket to stardom, and to Kai’s knowledge she’d never capitalized on that fame. The only thing Kai had insisted on beyond her own quiet memorial plannings was that her ashes be scattered in deep space. He’d had the thought that maybe that way, somehow, she and his dad could meet up again, and then he’d cried hysterically for an hour until falling asleep.
He didn’t know how to feel about that. He didn’t know how to feel about anything. His team manager had told him to take all the time he needed, but he’d taken it mostly because he’d felt expected to. But what was he supposed to do with it? She’d taken care of everything. No one was around anymore. Even Jinna had gone back to her residency. He was running out of things to do.
Death was even weirder than gravity.
Of course, neither was significantly weirder than life, which was part of why he … no, he hadn’t avoided Taran, he wouldn’t say that, but neither had he let any room empty of everyone but the two of them. He didn’t know what to say. He hadn’t known for a long time.
During his time away with the Blue Stars, he’d done his best not to think of Taran, which of course meant that at any moment Kai wasn’t busy or deliberately clearing his mind, Taran was there in it. When they’d been together, it hadn’t been so much that Taran had made sense as that his proximity had somehow paved over a multitude of oddities. Up close, it was easy to shrug and dismiss them as just some of the many quirks that made Taran who he was. At a distance, Kai found himself chewing over things that before had slid right on by.
He wondered if Nalani had noticed. No, of course she had; she was smart about things like that. Had been smart about things like that. Wasn’t anything anymore.
When Kai heard the water splash at the edge of the pool, he didn’t even have to look. He somehow knew it in his bones, the awareness conducted through the fluid like electricity. “Hi,” Kai whispered, and in the silence it might as well have been a roar.
“Is it all right if I’m here?” Taran’s familiar, deep voice was thunder on the horizon, the hum of ships in deep space. Low and steady, enough that Kai didn’t hear it so much as feel it in the pit of his stomach.
“Yeah.” Kai shifted his feet beneath him and stood. The water at this end of the pool was waist-deep; a few steps to his left was the dropoff, though it was almost too dark to see. He raked his fingers back through his hair, plastering it back away from his face. Kai was still wearing the clothes he’d worn to the platform to see off the rocket carrying Nalani’s ashes. Taran was covered up too, in dark fabric that hid him throat to wrist to ankles. The muted pool lights reflected off the surface of the water and bounced back against his face, giving his scars a new and vibrant life.
Taran took another step in, until the water was up above his knees. “I thought I might find you here.”
“Kinda predictable, I guess.” Kai sighed as he lowered himself, bending his knees until only his head and the tops of his shoulders bobbed above the water. “I don’t know. I tried going home. It was too much work.” The actual act of it, of course, would have been easy. What exhausted Kai was even just thinking about what it would be like to be there without either of his parents. A big box for a small present; a coat several sizes too large. “Hey, um, you can stay there if you want. I know it’s mine now, but I won’t sell it. You don’t need to buy it or anything. You can just be there. It’s okay.”
A small smile lifted Taran’s lips, one that showed it hadn’t even been a worry that had crossed his mind. “Thank you,” he said. “A very kind offer.”
“But you’re saying no.”
“I’m not saying no,” said Taran, who wasn’t saying yes either.
“Makes sense you’d want to go.” As Kai spoke, the breath of his words rippled the water’s surface. “I mean, you weren’t even here for her, right? Or for me. And now we’re both gone, I guess….” He let the sentence trail into silence.
“Guess what?” asked Taran, his voice even.
Kai shrugged. “I guess you’ll have somewhere better to be. Maybe find another family.” Little droplets splashed into the water beside him, and he realized he was crying. He’d been doing that a lot these days. He really wanted it to stop. “I don’t know. I don’t know! I don’t … I just don’t. I’m too tired. I can’t even breathe. It hurts to breathe. So go. It’s okay. Go find somewhere better.”
“I’ve missed you,” Taran said.
“No you haven’t.” It was an awful thing to say, maybe, but it felt almost like a reflex, like the last kicks of a drowning man.
Taran nodded. “I’ve thought about you every day.”
With a groan, Kai lowered himself until his ears were underwater. The roar of the pumps filled his hearing. “Stop, just stop,” he moaned. “I don’t — it’s okay, it’s fine, whatever. I don’t care.”
“Kai,” said Taran, just loud enough to carry. Kai let himself pretend a few more seconds that he hadn’t heard his name, then gave up and stood again. His sodden clothing felt like lead draped over his shoulders. Maybe if he waded into the deep with this all on, he would drown.
After a minute’s silence, Kai looked Taran in the eye. “What?”
Taran stepped closer, the water swirling around him as he moved. “You’re tired.”
It was an obvious statement; he was exhausted, having slept maybe ten hours of the last hundred. But there was something strange to Taran’s tone, something more forceful than that. It wasn’t a remark so much as a willing into being. He was making it true by the act of naming it. “Yeah,” said Kai, his voice almost nothing more than a sigh.
“You’re tired,” Taran said again. “You’re stubborn. It’s part of your nature. But you’re tired. You’re at the end of your fight.”
“I’m not fighting,” answered Kai. It was hard to talk, though; his mouth felt slack, like his lips were numb. Even his eyelids were heavy. Tears trailed in steady streams down his cheeks mostly because he didn’t have the energy to stop them.
Taran nodded. “Breathe it out,” he said, and Kai was exhaling even before Taran could finish the whole instruction. “All of it, empty as you can, and hold it there.”
It was hard to hold; he was tired. He felt his abdominal muscles spasm and tremble as he tried to rid himself of air. Only a few seconds later, he shuddered and lost control, gasping in another breath. “Sorry,” he whispered.
“Shh,” said Taran, shaking his head. “Again.”
His chest felt made of stone, for all he had the power to squeeze it empty. A noisy breath rattled through his mouth almost before he realized he’d lost control again. Before Taran could say anything, Kai clenched his muscles as tight as they could go, picturing all the molecules of air slipping out through his lungs. It was gone, everything was gone. He wasn’t even empty inside; there was nothing inside him to be empty or full. He was a hollow that wasn’t even a place that could be hollow yet. The inside of his chest only was the idea of space.
Taran’s hands caught him as he pitched forward, one palm against his forehead with fingers reaching back toward his scalp, another against his chest, just over his heart. “Stop,” Taran said, and Kai somehow knew it wasn’t stop breathing but stop fighting. “Picture a drop of water. One drop, suspended, perfect. How does it know where it ends and begins?”
“Because it’s alone,” answered Kai with what little air he still had in him.
“But you’re not alone,” Taran promised. His hands were warm and steady against Kai’s skin. “There’s no need to hold on to yourself. There’s no difference between you and anything. So there’s no drop of water; there’s only the ocean. There’s no space; there’s only the distance between stars. There’s no breath; there’s only what comes to fill the hole you create.”
Kai leaned in, letting Taran’s hands be the only thing that kept him from pitching face-first into the water. And then not even Taran’s hands could support his weight as he slumped forward, closing the gap between them. Taran did not give ground, but he relaxed his arms, drawing Kai into an embrace — or what would have been one, had Taran not at the last moment stepped back. The hand that had pressed against Kai’s forehead slid back, until it was no longer holding him up but guiding him down. Kai gave no resistance, and indeed felt no call to resist as the water swallowed him and Taran held him under.
The first gasp was awful. Unable to hold his chest closed any longer, Kai made himself a hollow, and into that hollow poured water that raked through sinuses and cavities evolved to handle air. It was shockingly heavy, having a chest full of fluid, to say nothing of how he felt his body temperature drop sharply, and every cell seemed to know something was wrong.
But wrong was not an option. Instinct drew him to the surface, but Taran’s head held him steady, and Kai became aware that he was trusting Taran to drown him. In an ordinary pool, he would have been welcoming his death, and who was to say that wasn’t what he he was doing now? So Kai pulled his lungs open wide and sucked in more fluid through his mouth. He took in all that he could, and when he pushed out again, out went the last few bubbles of holdout air. Once more, he let his chest relax, and now there was no more harsh rasp as one medium exchanged itself for another. The transition was done. He was safe; he was under.
He descended, sinking to the floor of the pool, outside the reach of Taran’s iron grasp. How strange it was, to be down there without the desperate need drawing him outward, upward, toward air. The sensation he associated most keenly with the Sphere — the tug of fear, the constant awareness of how soon his next breath would need to be — was gone. With six liters of hyperoxygenated water inside of him instead of six liters of air now, he did not rise.
So this was what was left when the fighting was done. It was almost like the times Kai had registered his hands were sore, only to look down and see they’d been balled into fists without his conscious knowledge or consent. The water didn’t care if didn’t know if he was more afraid of becoming his father or of not becoming him. It didn’t know the rooms in his house that would never be the same because his mother would never be in them again. It didn’t judge him for drawing Taran close or for pushing him away. It just rocked in and out of him, his tidal breath now an actual tide. It even warmed inside his chest until he couldn’t feel its presence any longer.
He turned over onto his back and looked up at the world from his quiet place in the deep, just one more raindrop returned to the ocean. Nothing different at all.
This time, when he grabbed Taran’s face, Taran kissed back.
Kai couldn’t explain why, or maybe he could. Maybe it didn’t make sense, and maybe he’d stopped caring that it didn’t. No, he knew the truth now, which was that he’d stopped caring that it did. He’d stopped struggling to keep the connections from connecting. He wrapped his arms around Taran’s neck, pulling himself up to his tiptoes so they could stand at the same height. He’d been much smaller when they’d first met. Things had been very different.
“I understand,” Kai said against Taran’s mouth. “I get it. I know. I mean, I’ve probably always known.”
Taran’s muscles tensed beneath Kai’s touch, though Kai’s arms were so firm around him that Taran couldn’t have gotten loose without a fight. Kai wasn’t going to make the mistake of letting go again. “Kai,” began Taran, a low, cautious sound.
Kai shook his head. “You’re the only Taran I’ve ever known. That’s what matters.”
The mistake had always been in thinking so many things mattered. They didn’t. They were as optional as anything, as negotiable as identity, as flexible as the surface of water. The only hard parts were the transitions.
“Was it difficult, learning to breathe?” Kai asked. He pushed a hand up beneath Taran’s shirt, feeling the way his skin rose and curved over muscles. Taran complied with the undressing, raising his hands over his head as Kai tugged off his shirt before placing his cheek flat against Taran’s chest. Kai’s ear could only detect a faint pulse, and between its slow beats came a steady trilling static Kai associated with one those words he’d only ever heard Jinna say: fibrillation.
“It was,” said Taran; Kai could feel his words as much as hear them. Taran ran his hands over Kai’s back and shoulders, up to touch his still-damp hair and then down again. “It was unnatural to me. It became habit again soon enough, as other parts remembered their functions. For what seemed like an eternity, though, it was a conscious, constant effort. Like carrying a great weight up a flight of stairs, only to get to the top and realize the next step is to carry it back down again.”
“I’m sorry,” said Kai, kissing the skin over that strange, fluttering heart.
A small chuckle told Kai that Taran was smiling again. “I may have evidenced little sympathy at times for your struggles, but I felt them keenly.”
Kai laughed in kind as he stood upright again. He took Taran’s face in his hands again for another kiss. Taran tasted like he smelled, like the dry smoke from his pipe, like ozone in high summer, like the bright blue crackle of deep-space jump engines. He was something else entirely, only clothed in human skin, the whole of which Kai might never understand. That was all right, though, because he understood enough to know where the difference between them ceased to matter.
They made their way the last few steps to Taran’s bed and fell against it together in an ungainly tangle. Kai started to apologize again, but that ever-present patient smile on Taran’s lips stopped him before the words could form. So he bent to kiss it again instead, sucking at Taran’s lower lip and feeling the way the bits of stubble just beneath Taran’s mouth prickled against the inside of his own lip. He felt no need to rush any of this. He had learned to wait, and they had time.
Kai’s lower body, however, had not developed the same skill of patience that his mind had recently been so proud of. As they shifted, one of Taran’s thighs nudged up against Kai’s growing erection, and Kai gasped, burying his face at once in the crook of Taran’s neck. When Taran pressed again, this time deliberately, Kai let out a low whine. It had been a while for him, after all, and self-control only went so far.
For reciprocity, Kai slipped a hand between them, trailing it down Taran’s chest, down below the waist of Taran’s trousers — and stopped when what he felt there was a curl of flaccid flesh that gave no hint of interest in what was going on everywhere else. Puzzled, Kai lifted his head and studied Taran’s face with a frown. Was he doing something wrong? Had he misread what he thought were clear-cut cues about the situation? Was this not what Taran wanted?
But what he found was a sheepish sort of blush coloring Taran’s face. Taran raised a hand and stroked Kai’s cheek with the backs of his knuckles. “I haven’t–” Taran swallowed, then cleared his throat. “I haven’t had a lot of practice using that. In fact, I’m … let’s say, not entirely sure it’s in working order?”
Kai tried as hard as he could to keep a straight face, he really did, as he totally understood what it was to have a body that wasn’t ready to rise to a particular challenge on cue, and in no way did he want to make light of that. But the adorably awkward apologetic tone of Taran’s admission defeated his best intentions. Kai laughed, but he hugged Taran as hard as he could while he did, hoping it wasn’t too mixed of a message. “Okay,” Kai said with a smile. “It’s okay, it really is … if you don’t mind that mine kind of works overtime sometimes.”
“I don’t mind,” said Taran, kissing Kai’s hair. “I don’t mind at all. In fact, maybe I should be asking you for lessons now.”
With another laugh, Kai folded his hands across Taran’s bare chest and propped his chin on them. “What, like penis lessons?”
Taran’s blush spread out even deeper. This close, Kai could see a spray of freckles across his nose and cheeks, barely darker than his pale skin. With the much more prominent damage around Taran’s body’s left eye, Kai had never noticed them before. But there were lots of lovely things about Taran’s face only visible from this close, his beautiful fractal scars included. Kai planned to spend a long time looking. “If you insist on calling them that,” said Taran after a moment’s consideration.
“Oh, I do.” Kai affected great seriousness for all of three seconds before he burst into giggles again. He expected Taran would just give up any minute now and shove him off the bed, but until that point, it would all be worth it, and even afterwards. “Take you up to high cliffs and strip you down, make you focus on in and out and in and–”
His monologue was interrupted by the sudden appearance of one of the bed’s pillows, wielded by Taran’s free hand and making every attempt to smother him. Kai laughed as he rolled onto his side, dragging Taran with him until they were facing one another. “You’re impossible,” Taran said, fighting a losing battle against smiling.
“It’s why you love me. Don’t even pretend otherwise.” Kai kissed Taran on the tip of his nose, then sighed as he pressed their foreheads together, holding them still, as though they might at any moment melt into one another. Another transition done, and this one even easier than expected. Now everything could be the same and different at once, just like breathing underwater.
Again, however, intellectual appreciation of the situation did nothing to calm the need in certain parts of Kai’s body, and as Taran shifted closer to him, Kai found himself gasping again. “Can I see?” asked Taran quietly.
It took Kai’s brain far too long to process the inquiry, mostly because all the blood had left it in a sharp rush. “Oh, uh, sure,” Kai finally said. He wiggled out of his pants, which wanted nothing more than to stick to the skin that had still been damp when he’d pulled them on, but whatever, he was stronger than pants. The pants had their revenge, though, because even though Kai managed to remove them, they made him do some ungainly contortions in the process. Kai was glad it probably wasn’t the most ridiculous Taran had ever seen him be.
But then it was done and Kai was naked, lying beside Taran just far enough away to give Taran a good look. A good look was indeed what Taran took then, his eyes searching Kai’s trim, athletic body. The scrutiny made Kai shiver, and he felt his cock begin to grow so hard that he couldn’t ignore it any longer. He reached his hand down and wrapped it around his shaft, sighing with relief as his flushed, sensitive skin made contact with his cool fingers. Well, if Taran was going to get lessons, what better way to start than with a demonstration?
Taran’s good eye was fixed on Kai as he ran his thumb over the head of his cock, smearing the precome there all over the head. He had never done this before with someone watching, and the thrill of it made his stomach flutter. His hand traveled up and down the stiffening length until he reached full hardness. “Like this,” said Kai, his breath heavy with arousal. Any bit of self-consciousness he might have felt was erased by the intensity of Taran’s gaze. These lessons were going to be interesting indeed.
“Can I … may I touch you?” asked Taran, his voice soft.
Kai meant to have some suave, confident answer, but the best he could manage was a whimper and nod of desperate affirmation: yes, yes, please.
Instead of going to replace Kai’s around his cock with his own, though, Taran reached for Kai’s chest. He placed his palm flat against the center of Kai’s body, just at the bottom of his rib cage. And that was where the lightning struck.
At first, Kai didn’t know what was happening. He felt euphoric, disconnected, in the same way he had when the great gulps of oxygen had gone to his brain. But he was still there, and his body was still aching for release, so he knew it wasn’t a case of some odd transcendence, a random (and frankly ill-timed) out-of-body experience. No, this was coming from the contact with Taran. He’d heard before of people describe touch as electric, but this was literally electric. Kai felt as though he’d pressed against a live wire, one that trembled through him, reaching out to all his points.
Yet this wasn’t a random, senseless shock. He could feel it searching him, crawling up his spine, spreading out to his fingertips, coalescing down near his cock. It was heavy and sharp and … and intelligent, Kai thought. Every nerve in his body jerked to respond to it, and it demanded and gave attention in equal measure. It filled him like the water until it became a part of him, until he stopped being able to feel where it was anymore. It simply was, as though nothing had ever been different.
It was Taran. There, in the current, that was who — what — who he really was, beneath everything he’d inhabited, beneath everything he’d taught himself to become.
Kai didn’t even realize he was coming until he was, in great hot spurts spilling from his cock and all over the top of Taran’s bed. He gasped and his body shook as he emptied himself, coming almost beyond the point of having nothing left to give. He opened his eyes and saw a look of surprise and wonder on Taran’s face, and he knew the connection went both ways. There was no difference between them, nor had there ever been. No one had to be alone.
When the connection withdrew, Kai collapsed into Taran’s arms again, seeking the far more mundane embrace of skin. Some distant part of him was aware that he was crying and he wasn’t able to name which of the million emotions he was feeling right then was causing that response, but that didn’t matter. He didn’t have to fight that anymore, either. Instead, he let the sobs give way to deep breaths, and the breaths carry him into sleep.
When he woke some time later, the sky outside the window had already become bright with daylight. The room itself was still half-dark, though, quiet and calm. He looked up from where he’d pillowed his head on Taran’s arm, and there wasn’t surprised to find that Taran was awake. Sleep, breathing, erections — there were so many things about bodies most people with them never had to bother learning. How odd, then, to start from scratch, and then to keep going for so many years after.
“They’ll fade,” said Taran, stroking Kai’s chest, and Kai looked down to see he had fractal scars of his own, little red lightning cracks radiating out from where Taran had made contact with him. “By next week, they’ll be gone.”
Kai smiled and twined his fingers with Taran’s. “Come back with me and I’ll give you a chance to make them again.”
Taran’s quiet, patient smile and the way he pressed his lips to Kai’s again were all the sense Kai needed the universe to make.