Arlie asked Jaice’s mistress, “Can I see him?”
As if she was magnanimous, the woman responded with a languid series of taps. The dome enlarged, giving the woman room to glide away. The three remaining attendants repositioned themselves to block Arlie.
So she does have fears. Not that Arlie would ever get the Taser past those attendants.
Arlie stepped through the dome perimeter, sucking in a breath as her vision briefly sparkled crimson and orange. Then she was abruptly free of the snow that had piled against her hat and collar and along the side of her jacket. It fell hard against the sides of the dome, sliding downward to collect at the edges. Arlie brushed her face clean and ran to Jaice.
She even knelt beside him, knees pressing into the spongy dome lining, and his hand instantly shot out to grab her wrist, manacles clinking. “Run,” he said under his breath, gritting out the words. “Run!”
She had not thought to see him this afraid.
“We’ll run together,” she told him, daring a glare at the woman.
“Arlie…” he said, breathing it out on a groan. “Run now.”
He didn’t have to say it. He meant for her to leave him this way. To open a doorway home and bolt through it, leaving him to take the punishment—and then never knowing if he’d survived.
“No,” she told him, as under her breath as she could. “It’s not right. None of this is right.”
He lifted his head, and once more his expression had gone unreadable. Light reflected from snow to fill the dome, lighting his eyes into gold. “I cannot run for you.”
But. He didn’t say it, but she heard it anyway. But I can make you want to.
Dread froze her as he released her wrist, standing in a slow parody of his normal grace. Blood spattered the dome floor, rippling down from inside his sleeve. “Heartsong,” he said, as if that single word held everything he could want to say.
Arlie understood his intentions too late. She lunged for him, catching nothing but the touch of his robe as he charged the woman, full of such wild strength that he bowled right through the attendants—and then, as the woman stumbled back with her beautiful robes swirling and her nails tapping panic, he ran headlong into a wall just as invisible as the dome.
“Stop it!” Arlie cried as he surged up again, flinging himself forward—this time grasping the long manacle chain and swinging it as a weapon even as the attendants piled on—grim and reluctant in expression, inexorable in action.
“Stop it!” Arlie screamed, on her knees over another world’s snow, surrounded by another world’s magics.
Jaice exploded from the pile of men atop him, battering at the invisible wall with heavy chain and all his strength.
Not to kill her. But to die in the trying.
Freeing Arlie to run.
If she was gone, he would stop. If she was gone, she could still come back. She lunged to her feet, running across the spongy floor to freedom—the only way to make him stop—
And ran headlong into another barrier, bouncing back startled but unharmed; her flute went flying. Jaice cried out behind her, a harsh, deep sound from deep in his chest. Arlie whirled around and found him twisting in agony at the woman’s feet.
The woman lifted her head, her eyes a little wider than she probably realized, her voice a faintly breathless. “Unexpected,” she said. “But entertaining nonetheless. Would you like me to offer to free him? We both know I won’t. To finish him? That would be freedom of a sort, would it not? To let him live? Which would he value more, do you think?”
“To watch you die,” Arlie said, hand closing over the Taser in her pocket before releasing it. In this place, with this woman…it wouldn’t be the answer. She couldn’t reach them all at once.
The woman laughed as she released Jaice from her torture, leaving him panting over the glistening beauty of the snow. She nodded at one of the attendants, who fished into the bag at his side and withdrew another set of manacles—smaller, finer, and built very much like handcuffs. “Come,” she said. “Take up what is now yours—for you are now mine.”
They worked between worlds. Would they not work here?
Arlie pushed against the barrier, humming under her breath. Not the gentle, ringing notes of her arroyo, but strong notes, stronger words to come, an edge to her inner voice. Words of freedom and leave-taking, famously voiced by the kings of Southern rock. …As free as a bird, now…
Her fingers sank through the barrier.
The faintest tapping sounded behind her, and a jolt of pain ran through her body.
“Your choice.” The woman’s irritation had grown. “You wanted to be with him, and so you will be. If and when you earn it.”
Wrong. Arlie intended to take it.
She marched back to snatched the lightweight manacles from the startled attendant, crouching beside Jaice as if she had every right to. His eyes were open and bleary and full of regret.
“Forgive me.” He struggled for words through emotion. “I meant to spare you this.”
Arlie took Jaice’s face between her hands and felt more than saw him flinch—knew that even now, her touch allowed him to feel the full depth of what had been done to him. “You listen up,” she told him, low and fierce and no-nonsense. “Doorways that open can close.”
He grasped at her meaning and failed to find it, but that was fine—Arlie herself wasn’t sure. Only that she meant to give him hope, that they would somehow close the doors on this woman, leaving her behind them. That she hadn’t begun to give up.
For Arlie had spent the first part of the year learning to hope, and the spring learning to love, and the summer learning to expect more and more of herself, by herself. She’d spent this year so far learning how to persist in all things, and to expect as much from herself as she’d seen in Jaice.
Arlie, who had barely even tasted life before this man came into it, wasn’t ready to let go yet.
“Enough, enough now!” The woman tapped out another stab of pain, and Arlie stiffened with it. She twisted to snap at the woman, but Jaice once more caught her wrist, fingers clamping down with none of his usual care.
When she turned back to him, she saw his eyes alight, his expression fervent. “Doorways that open, close,” he repeated, so low she had to bend to him. “Take her, Arlie. Take her with you!”
Take her? From here to home? How would that—?
The woman gave her no time to think about it, scoring Arlie with invisible claws, white-hot slashes that left a stinging trail across her cheek.
Arlie didn’t yet understand. But she trusted.
She snapped the manacle over her wrist, cold and unyielding against her skin, and sprang to her feet already humming for a doorway. Not to flee, not quite yet. But to shove right through the woman’s protective wall.
Arlie snagged the woman’s delicate wrist, slapping the second manacle around it. Already she shifted back to her song of freedom, singing it loud and clear and with all the defiance she could muster as she yanked, hauling for the forming doorway right there within the dome and already halfway through.
The woman reacted not with fear but with fury. “How dare—!” She lifted bright nails, seeking her stiff lapel.
Jaice surged up beside her. He had no grace, no strength—only determination. He caught her poised hand with the heavy chain of his manacles, wrapping the chain around her wrist once, twice—bone broke with a crunch as he set his heels against the woman’s forward motion, shouting, “Close it!”
Already Arlie’s foot slipped in the cold adobe sand of the arroyo, gravity tugging at her as Jaice held back, stretching the woman between them.
Arlie released her song, snapping her mouth closed on it—sucking the music back into herself. Not just closing, but slamming.
A scream filled the arroyo, echoing and rending and twisting into strands of disparate sound, and then Arlie popped free and tumbled down. She barely sprawled to a stop before she scrambled up again. “Jaice! Jaice!”
Her voice echoed and faded, and the night closed around her—a gibbous moon washing out the stars, the silence as brittle as the cold. She hugged herself, bracing against the solitude and the grief already pricking at her eyes.
The manacles clattered loosely. She raised her them to the moonlight, and then looked twice.
The other manacle was still locked.
And very, very empty.
She’d closed a door on the woman, all right. Closed it and left her between worlds.
And she’d left Jaice behind. Hurt and surrounded by the enemy.
She would find him.
She would free him.
And she could. This day of shift and change and crossing over had taught her that and more.
Being with Jaice had taught her that.
All the same, she had hummed barely a note when the doorway opened—she perceived the dead space, felt the merest breath of colder air and breathed the scent of snow. She braced herself, not knowing if the woman had somehow survived, if her attendants knew how to follow—
Jaice came through the door with little of his usual presence, a man battered and pushed to the limit. He carried her flute.
He had no manacles.
“Arlie,” he said, as if none of that had any import. Just the warmth of her name, the deep note of satisfaction in his ragged voice.
They met at the base of the slope, coming together with not quite enough care for Jaice’s injuries but not nearly enough enthusiasm for Arlie’s needs. She drew back just enough to kiss him—his mouth, his cheek, his brow in quick succession, and then back to his mouth again, this time for a more lasting embrace. One that made him laugh, that self-aware little sound, when they broke apart.
“What—” she started. And then, “Are you here? Are you here?” By which she meant to ask if he was free of his world, if he was staying.
He somehow understood. “For this moment,” he said. “I must return. You…” He hesitated. “You, too, if you will. She is gone, and we are free. I am free, in every way.” Free to feel. Free to be. “But we need to protect that freedom…and we need to learn how to be free people.”
“You want me there?” she asked, hardly daring for it.
“I want you,” he said. “I hope for here and there.” He kissed her, a gentle and reverent touch, lingering as if to pour out his being in gift. “And then, heartsong, wherever we are…you can sing us home together.”
(yep, the end)