A/N: This is the first rewritten chapter. New chapters will go up as they're finished, just like the Tenebrism draft. They will always go up a few weeks earlier on my Patron, with bonus content.


I shifted against the hard metal edge of the open patio door, scanning the chilly colorless sky for any sign of winged armored aliens. I was definitely hoping to see black wings right now, not white ones. But Ahieel, the goddamn alien who'd been making my life a stressful dangerous nightmare, was...if not dead, then probably really fucking injured in a bad way. I'd done that, but part of me still couldn't wrap my brain around it. Just over two weeks ago I'd been such a normal, average, boring person. And now I could do magic, I'd actually fought in fucking fights, and I had alien friends—people who'd protected and looked out for me and that I genuinely liked and trusted, and one of them was turning out to be a little more than a friend.

Which was why I was standing here and worrying about them. Jesus, where were they? It'd been over an hour since Rysa and Keyd had left, and even though they hadn't been going to do anything dangerous, I'd forgot how to not be mildly anxious all the goddamn time. Two weeks of constant low-level panic about some blond guy showing up out of nowhere to trounce us to the curb had turned me into a parent. These two were soldiers, and could take care of themselves. They were probably fine.

But. We still didn't know where Ahieel was. After Rysa had told me and Keyd that there wasn't any sign of Ahieel at the graveyard, that he'd been alive enough to at least get himself out of there, the two of them had decided they'd spent enough time getting fucked around and it was time for them to get in contact with their own people. Which made sense; they'd been here for over two weeks and they were soldiers in an army. They had to report to someone or they'd probably be listed as MIA or AWOL, or whatever the equivalent was in their military.

And they were maybe going to bring back some of that military. To evaluate how much of a threat Earth might be facing. I'd agreed to help them out, however I could. Even just being a native of the planet would be useful, Rysa'd said, since they could use me as a good source of information—how things worked, what kind of resources we had (I'd bet even magical alien warriors wouldn't want to fight some of the weapons we had here on Earth), how not to do things if some kind of oenclar alliance with us was gonna be necessary to fight against the clarbach. Shit, the whole thing was so—

The front door clicked open and I startled, jerking back off the door frame to see Martin tumble into the apartment with a couple of grocery bags hanging off his arms, juggling his keys and a Starbucks cup and the mail somehow on top of all of that. The mail was actually in his mouth. I hadn't even heard him walking by beyond the fence—too focused on the sky to notice anything else. Martin didn't notice me either as he staggered over to the kitchen table and plopped everything all over it, losing one of the letters in a soft skid across the linoleum and crashing his keys into every possible thing he could.

"Hey," I said, when he'd got everything mostly under control, and Martin looked around like he was hearing fucking ghost voices or something. "Dude, over here."

Martin turned my way and his whole expression brightened up, like seeing me was totally unexpected.

"Man, hey!" he said, and actually came across the the room and gave me a big friendly clap on the shoulder. "You feeling better?"

"I—yeah," I said, before, "wait, what?" How the fuck did he know, and what did he know? I hadn't even seen the guy for a few days.

"Oh yeah, your girlfriend from Lithuania kinda got it across to me that you were pretty sick or something," Martin said, waving back towards my room, and again it took me a second to remember he thought I was dating Rysa. That was turning into a worse and worse cover story, especially since Keyd and I had been all over each other just an hour or two ago.

"Oh. Right." Rysa was pretty good about helping me explain away weird things about them being here; she'd obviously done it again. I appreciated it, even if I had no idea how she'd talked to Martin. She couldn't use frequency with him, the alien radio channel that let me understand her and Keyd, and vice versa. "One of those twenty-four-hour flu things I guess."

"Dude...you've been back in your room for like three days," Martin said, eyeing me like I'd gone a little stupid. "You do know it's Sunday, right?"

Wait. Holy fuck. The fight with Ahieel'd happened on Thursday. The fight where I'd thrown myself into a hit meant for Keyd and somehow managed not to die, and done some major damage to Ahieel too. But had I seriously been out for that fucking long? No wonder I stank and my jaw felt like itchy sandpaper and my mouth tasted like a fuzzy old sock. And Keyd'd still wanted to make out with me? Shit, this was already the strongest relationship I'd ever had and it wasn't even one.

Keyd had said he couldn't promise me anything. And I got that, I really did, especially after he'd explained how fucked up his society was about that kind of thing. His whole life had been a huge performance of denial and hiding. He was even too terrified to talk to Rysa about it, and she was basically a sister to him. It wasn't what I'd expected when I'd quit freaking out about the feelings on my side and just rolled with them, 'cause I'd figured people from a place where public nudity was cool wouldn't be so...close-minded.

So Keyd couldn't promise anything and I had no idea where it could even go—trying to have a relationship of any kind with a magical warrior alien sounded like an absolute joke. But even with all of that, I thought things seemed...mutual and weirdly positive. That we both wanted to try something. And Keyd seemed like he was worth a serious try.

And meanwhile, we still had a lot of other fucking things to worry about. Ahieel might be gone for now, but he might have come here with friends—a whole army of them, who might want to do bad shit to this planet. If I let myself think about it too much, I almost wanted to laugh—what the fuck was this, a sci-fi movie? An actual alien invasion? That kind of shit wasn't real. Except it was. Maybe. It could be.

"Dude, you haven't heard a thing I've been saying," Martin's voice said right into my ear, and I jumped, out of my thoughts and nearly out of my skin. "Are you doing okay, really?"

"No, sorry, shit. God, I'm still—" The half-healed cut at the back of my head gave me a nicely timed throb, and I almost touched it automatically. But I didn't need another thing—another lie—to explain to Martin. "I probably shouldn't've gotten out of fucking bed."

"Nope, probably not," Martin agreed. "You need me to carry you back? It's such a long way."

"Fuck off," I said, laughing and shoving at him. "Ass."

"Seriously, man, you don't look great. And you're fucking standing outside in the cold, are you bird-watching or something? Who even does that?" Martin sounded legitimately concerned, and I could get why. From an outsider view I'd been acting shady as hell for the last two weeks, plus I'd dragged two huge tattooed people who didn't speak English into our apartment and let them crash here. I couldn't even imagine what that seemed like to him. I was real lucky Martin was so easy-going and actually still cared if I was okay, and hadn't accused me of joining a foreign drug ring or something like that.

"Yeah, no, I don't know what I'm doing." I took one last look into the overcast sky, but there was still no sign of Keyd and Rysa. "I really don't know."

Martin gave me another hugely concerned look, but didn't say anything before I added, "yes, mom, I'm gonna go back to bed. Right now."

But I did appreciate that he cared. I'd been such a shitty roommate and friend recently, I probably didn't even deserve it.

As I headed back to my room, I heard Martin say from the kitchen, "man, who left an apple on the floor?"


I didn't go back to bed. I'd had enough of that—over two fucking days, apparently. I took a shower instead, standing in there until the hot water ran out. I almost didn't have enough energy to wash my hair, except that Keyd deserved someone decently clean to make out with, if we did that again. Or if they did bring other aliens back with them, I wanted to look like a presentable human being.

So I took some time to shave, too. I was surprised Keyd hadn't mentioned anything about all my stubble rubbing all over him when we'd been kissing—it really seemed like he didn't grow a beard at all. And I didn't know if that was an alien thing or just a him thing. If he thought it was weird, he sure hadn't acted like it.

I continued to not go back to bed by walking back out into the kitchen to get a water bottle and maybe a granola bar or something. I'd microwaved myself some lunch after Keyd and Rysa had left but it hadn't stuck in my stomach. It was growling and complaining at me again.

While I was out there riffling through cabinets for snacks, the front door suddenly banged open. Keyd practically stormed into the apartment, the door nearly rattling off its hinges as he slammed it behind him. And when a six-and-a-half foot soldier in armor slams a door, he doesn't fuck around. People down the street probably heard the sound, and I swear all the windows shook.

"Shit!" I dropped the box of granola bars I'd been pawing through, and packets scattered all over the linoleum. "Jesus, what the hell—"

Keyd didn't seem to hear or see me; just marched through the living room and back towards my room.

"Whoa," I said, following after him and catching up to him in the hallway near Martin's closed door. "Whoa, dude, what's up?"

For s second Keyd looked at me like he'd never seen me before in his life, and stared down at where I'd gotten a grip on the black armor plate of his upper arm. Then he sighed, long and soft, and all the tension sagged out of him. "I'm sorry. We—argued," he said. He didn't sound angry at all, just tired. "Rysa and I, about...it doesn't matter. She went back, alone."


Keyd breathed out again, leaned back against the wall. He looked a little grey and washed out, sweaty clumps of hair dropping into his eyes. "It took several tries, but we found where the majority of our forces are camped. I...do not know how to explain to them why we were gone. We were not following any orders, and we don't know how long we were under Ahieel's stasis spell. We don't know how long we've truly been away. It could be months."

"What's hard to explain?" I said, tilting myself back against the opposite wall. The bass vibrations from Martin's music shuddered through my shoulders. "You just...tell them that. It makes sense, it's not like you meant to do it."

"We were not supposed to be in your world," Keyd said, shaking his head. "Rysa and I were cut off and surrounded, and opened a rift here as a last resort. It's not...a particularly approved of action in battle to do such a thing, even one as desperate as that one was."

"But it's not like you meant to run away or anything. You didn't abandon the army on purpose. Ahieel was after you specifically. You did what you had to do."

"Admitting we couldn't handle a single soldier is not a respectable reason either," Keyd said dryly. "Neither explanation is a good one."

"And that's what you and Rysa had a fight about?"

Keyd looked a little sheepish about it. "It is."

I had a feeling that wasn't the whole reason he was still here right now. He'd always been the one who'd put up arguments against contacting their army, right from the start, even on the first day I'd met them. There was some reason he wasn't eager to go back, and not being able to give a good explanation for being gone really did seem like a flimsy excuse. Rysa'd probably seen through that too. She'd probably called him out on it.

Well, I wasn't gonna fucking push it either. It actually wasn't my business, not yet. Sure Keyd and were trying this...thing together, and we were friends, but there was so much about him and Rysa and their real lives away from here that I didn't know. Of course I wanted to, but they'd already kept me in the dark about some things before, and at this point I just had to wait for them to trust me and let me in.

"Anything about Ahieel? I mean...what happened to him," I said instead.

Keyd shook his head. "That's...not our priority any longer. It should not have been from the start. If there was even a chance clarbach forces are considering your world..." He wasn't really meeting my eyes. "But Ahieel is not something that many others know about, nor how driven he is to get to Rysa. I only wanted to do what is best for her, to protect her. You can understand that."

It wasn't a question, but there was something pleading in his voice. Almost like he was apologizing, or asking me to forgive this decision they'd made to try and deal with Ahieel on their own.

I reached out, touched a plate of armor on his forearm. It was totally casual, but I still saw him almost shift away from me, like a reflex. "Yeah, I get it. There's not a lot I wouldn't do for my sister, or any of my family." I'd never had to make military decisions related to that, but that protective instinct was there and always had been. One of my earliest memories was seeing Ashley for the first time in the hospital, right after she'd been born. She'd been all weird and red and ugly and when I'd reached out to poke at her, she'd grabbed my finger in her tiny hand. I couldn't even remember not being a brother.

"You have a sister?" Keyd asked.

God, there was really so much we didn't know about each other. "Two of them. Two brothers, too."

"Oh." Keyd glanced around the apartment, blinking. "Rysa did tell me the other boy who lives here is not your family, and that you lived apart from them. I didn't think it would be so many, though."

I had to laugh— so many was a pretty usual response to the five of us. "Yeah, we're a big bunch."

"I will admit that you don't seem as though you have siblings."

"Oh, really?"

"You seem...independent," Keyd said, obviously taking a second to pick the right word. It probably didn't even translate perfectly anyway.

"Well, I am the oldest," I said, smiling at him. It was so much easier to be relaxed around him now, and let myself be more...I don't know, open with him. Even just to smile at him without wondering if he thought I was some kind of creepy weirdo. Hell, it was nice.

"Ah," Keyd said, like everything made perfect sense now. "That I can see."

I wondered what exactly about me that made oldest kid fit for him, but didn't ask. "And you...don't have any. Other than Rysa, basically. Yeah?"

"That's right," Keyd said quietly. I got a heavy hint of I don't want to talk about it in his voice. I'd been trying to distract him from whatever argument he'd had with Rysa, and definitely didn't want to get into anybad territory. Keyd seemed like he probably had a lot of those, and I had no idea what they'd be or how upset they'd make him, because I just didn't know him well enough. But now I was kinda lost as to what to say.

You wanna make out for a while? wasn't real appropriate, but it crossed my mind. Rysa wasn't here, but now Martin was, and…I was pretty sure we weren't at that point yet. And Keyd still looked pretty drained and worn out, and the muffled thumping of heavy metal was still coming through Martin's wall behind me. None of that was real sexy.

"Hey, come on, let's go talk over there," I said, waving at the living room. Didn't really want to do this right outside Martin's door, even if his music was way damn loud and anything Keyd said would sound like alien babble to him.

Keyd followed me and we settled down on the couches, different ones this time so we were sort of facing each other. He leaned heavily back into the cushions and propped one foot on his knee, dragging a hand down through his hair and over his face. Then he just left it there, eyes closed under his fingers.

"Are you okay, seriously?" I asked. He'd looked fine when he and Rysa'd left; now he seemed like he'd been through the wringer.

"Opening rifts is...tiring," Keyd said, opening his eyes and peeking at me. "It takes a great deal of energy, and we opened multiple ones before we found our army. But I'm all right."

"Yeah, that's what you always say." I eyed him hard. "It's not true a lot of the time."

Keyd sent me a look right back. "You sound like Rysa," he said, and I kicked at his foot and knocked his ankle off his knee.

"Good. 'cause you seem to listen to what she says." Most of the time.

Keyd looked startled, either that I'd kicked him or what I'd said, and then almost smiled.

"And you're really okay with not being with her right now," I said, and Keyd pulled one of his little faces, the ones that just tightened all his features and strained cords out in his neck.

"I know I should be with her. But I—" Keyd did that twisting-a-doorknob move with his hand. I really needed to ask what that meant. "I would rather not go there yet. Rysa has less pressure to explain herself than I do; she won't face as much scrutiny as I will."

"But you guys did the exact same thing, you both decided to stay here—"

"It's not because of that. I'm just...in a higher position than she is," Keyd said. "So I must answer for both of us, no matter which one of us makes the decisions between us."

"Oh." Weird. I'd expected them to be the same rank or position or whatever. Not that I had any idea how their alien army worked. Keyd definitely didn't act like he was in charge of her; more like the other way around. But they hadn't really been acting as soldiers here, not in any military way.

"Will you help me with something?" Keyd asked suddenly, and I just about leapt at the fact that he'd actually asked for help.

"Sure, man. Whaddya need?"

He shifted his shoulders around, making the plates of armor clink against each other. "I can't get out of this by myself."

Well, that was a little underwhelming. But sure, I'd help him with that. I'd watched him and Rysa put on and take off their armor before, and it was definitely a team job.

"So you're really not going anywhere today."

Keyd lifted a shoulder. "If I do, it won't be in armor."

"Right, 'kay, fair enough." I climbed off the couch. Keyd started to, but he was still looking a little tired and so I stuck my hand down to him, helped heave him to his feet. I held onto his hand for a little longer than I needed to, and then let it drop.

"So, tell me how to...do this," I said, gesturing at all of the weirdly delicate-looking black armor. I'd almost said undress you, but didn't think that'd go over too well yet.

Keyd walked me through it, what needed to be taken off in what order and what to unbuckle or untie or loosen to do it. Vibrations thrummed up my fingers from every single part of the armor, and I swore the feel of it was stronger than before. The longer I held onto any piece of it, the more energy buzzed deep down through my skin and traced up through my veins. It was fucking weird, and just one of a half dozen new weird things I'd been noticing since the last fight with Ahieel.

Some of the armor Keyd could handle himself, especially when I'd got him out from the bulkier pieces, and it only took a couple minutes before all of it was in a neat-ish pile on the floor in front of the couch.

"There. You're good," I said, and Keyd unexpectedly turned right around under my hands. It brought us close, and my hands dropped to his hips without me thinking about it. But that was kinda bad because Keyd was, you know, a little jumpy about all of this. For understandable reasons. I didn't know all the rules yet, the okay's and the don't's, and I'd started off way too aggressive with him already. Dialing it down had been my plan, taking this slow and easy. Not just for him, but for me, too.

So I said, "sorry," and started to let go of him.

But Keyd caught one of my hands, kept it there on his hip. "It's all right."

"Yeah?" I said, and tried not to grin like an idiot at him. Now that his armor was off, the feel of his own energy was strong around him again, familiar and weirdly comforting. "What else is all right?"

"I...don't know," Keyd said, sounding completely honest. Earlier, before Rysa had come back and interrupted us, Keyd had been touching me, and I'd been letting him explore and get comfortable with that without doing too much back. But maybe he could handle a little push.

"If you wanna kiss me, I'm real okay with that," I told him, and pink washed up Keyd's neck to his cheeks and he blinked a few times.

"All right," he said quietly, and curled a hand around the back of my neck. For a few seconds he just kept it there, warm and heavy and still, and I managed to stay real patient until he tugged me closer and ducked his head down.

A nice kiss. Obviously not one that was gonna heat up and get crazy, but really good all the same. Keyd was careful, gentle, still obviously testing all this out, figuring out what to do with me. I wondered if he'd kissed many people before. If those people had cared about him. What kind of relationships he'd had, if any. Unlike stupid unaware me, Keyd had always known he liked men, but just couldn't do anything about it. If he'd ever been with anyone, I'd have to guess it was a woman.

But right now, this was between just us. Keyd's hand didn't leave my neck, fingers pressing and rubbing into the muscle, and he still hadn't figured out how to tilt his head so our noses didn't mash together. Since he had me in a pretty good grip, I got my hands on his face and turned him slightly, and his lips parted against mine as I did and I felt him take in a soft breath. His other hand tightened, twisted in my shirt. But everything stayed calm and unrushed, not even any tongue happening, just slow quiet breathing against each other, Keyd's warmth soaking into me and my hands lost in his hair.

God, this was so fucking nice. I could do it forever, slow and relaxed and easy like this. Kissing Keyd in any way was something to seriously like. I had no complaints, not about anything.

"Hey, man, you're totally not resting and they jacked up our internet bill agai—yo, whoa, never mind," I heard a voice from somewhere behind me. I wrenched myself out of Keyd's grip and turned to see Martin already backing away down the hallway, a folded piece of paper dangling from his hand. His eyes jumped back and forth between Keyd and me, and even though I wasn't looking at him I could feel Keyd shrinking away and closing himself off, throwing up all his guarded walls.

"Um," I said to Martin, with no idea what to say. "I. This...uh. Jesus."

"Dude, I thought the other one was your...date," Martin said, sounding puzzled and...not much else. Was that really what he wanted to know, out of every possible fucking question?

"Uh, no, that was...never true," I muttered. Behind me, I could sense Keyd moving back from me, or maybe away from Martin—either way, he was quietly freaking out and I couldn't do anything about it.

Martin just kept looking between the two of us, and looked like he was slowly coming to some kind of conclusion about things I'd told him and what he'd just seen.

"Dude, did you think you couldn't tell me?" Martin said, and sounded...almost frustrated or even mad. "It's not something I'd ever have a problem with, you know that, right? You didn't have to pretend you had a girlfriend."

Did he think I'd been secretly dating Keyd this whole time? Well, that was...I guess I could pretend that was what'd been happening. "Not—it's...I don't know," I said. "I just—this is kinda new for me. I didn't really know what to do."

"Okay, okay. I get it." Martin eased off a little, sounded less wound up. "I just hoped you don't think I'm that kind of an asshole. Like I'd freak out on you or something like that. I'd never fucking do that, dude."

"I—thanks," I said, kinda lost for words. Whatever I'd expected out of Martin, it hadn't been this. He almost seemed angry that I hadn't talked to him about this, or that I'd assumed he'd have a problem with any part of it. And I'd thought about talking to him, but just...never had. There'd been other shit going down that I'd had to deal with first.

Martin turned to Keyd, and I kind of braced myself for this going badly. Or at least real, real awkwardly. They couldn't talk to each other, and Keyd'd only understood my half of the conversation. But Martin was smiling at him in a big friendly way and Keyd actually looked less panicked than I would've thought. But he was real good at hiding that kind of thing.

Martin planted a hand on the back of the couch and leaned over it, stretching one hand out to Keyd. "Hey man, I'm Martin. We never really met for real."

Keyd couldn't understand him, but he wasn't a fucking idiot—he could guess what Martin was saying. Plus he could recognize Martin's name.

"Keydestas," he said quietly, and lifted his hand towards Martin's, obviously not sure what to do with it.

"Wow, really?" Martin said, and just fist-bumped him before leaning back to his side of the couch. "Sorry, man, I'm never gonna remember that. I'm not even that good with really easy names."

"Keyd," I said. "Keyd's fine."

Keyd actually shot me a look at that, then seemed to sort of sigh and get over it. Was there something wrong with telling Martin that? I mean, I didn't want to talk for Keyd, but he literally couldn't do it for himself.

"Keyd, Keyd, I can totally handle that," Martin said. "Well, nice to meet you, dude." Then he waved the folded paper at me, accordioning it up and down. "Internet bill's about ten bucks more, suddenly, for whatever the hell reason. Fuckin' Time Warner."

"S'fine," I said. "Just lemme know what I owe you." Another thing Martin did so he didn't have to clean the apartment ever—he took care of all the bills and I just paid him half later.

"Sure thing," Martin said, and then went back into his room without saying another word about anything at all.

I spun right around to Keyd. He looked like he'd just run through a hail of bullets and managed to dodge them all. "He...did not mind." His voice was heavy, soft, and in pure disbelief. He seemed like he really needed to sit down, and maybe breathe into a paper bag.

"Seriously, I'm almost as surprised as you." Not that I thought Martin would've had a total freak out or anything, but he'd been almost unbelievably cool about it. And it was probably the best thing that could've happened for Keyd. To really see that some people didn't care, and weren't gonna treat him any different. I probably oughta thank Martin.

Keyd rubbed at the bridge of his nose, letting out a long breath. "It's not that I didn't believe you, what you said before," he said. "Only...it was difficult for me to even imagine. I don't know what he said, but...he did not look at me as if he saw something wrong."

Yeah, I was definitely gonna fucking thank Martin. And I didn't have the heart to tell Keyd that some people might react a little more than Martin had, so instead I just said, "because there isn't anything wrong."

Keyd's smile was small and unsure, but worth it to see.


Despite Keyd's first experience with being accidentally outed turning out as positive as possible, we kinda decided to calm it down on any making out and heavy petting after that. Hadn't been a great idea in the first place, and if somebody else showed up unexpectedly—somebody like Rysa—it wouldn't go over as well. I still didn't like sneaking around Rysa with this, but I was gonna follow Keyd's lead on it and just hope, eventually, he'd realize he could trust her. Because that went way beyond just this thing with him and me—it was something huge between them he'd kept a secret. It had to be miserable, especially if he was gonna decide to face down the rest of his life doing that same thing. Having no one to talk to.

But for now we were keeping our hands and mouths to ourselves. We were really just hanging out on the couches together, talking. For a while Keyd couldn't seem to say anything except how stunned he was by Martin, but I couldn't blame him. I had no idea how bad it actually was to be gay where he was from, but by the way Keyd acted it seemed bad; to a point that I couldn't actually imagine and he wouldn't even talk about. As far as I knew him, he didn't really exaggerate much or get dramatic about things that didn't need to be. On the outside, at least. But every conversation or situation I'd seen him in about this clearly shook him deep down to a place where he couldn't hide it. It fucking scared him, and I was gonna be careful about that. I was gonna be careful with him. He'd do the same for me, that I was damn sure about.

I'd used to see Keyd as this intimidating, unfriendly, borderline asshole who barely talked and tried to order me around like a soldier. Looking at him now, I couldn't even see any of that in him or understand how I'd ever seen it at all. I had no idea what he'd thought about me at the start, but I had some less than flattering ideas. I hadn't been that nice to him either. The fact that we were sitting here, comfortable and casual with each other, genuinely friends and taking our tiny baby steps towards even more, was so damn weird and unpredictable but still seemed right. Watching Keyd absently brush hair away from his face or shift his shoulders against the couch or curiously touching the TV remote that was on the cushion next to him, I just had this sense that this guy was meant to be here. There was nothing weird about it anymore. I was even getting used to the constant hum of his energy I could feel from him all of the time now. It was just another part of him, like his smell or his voice.

Also, I'd never used to think he was hot. How'd I ever fucking missed that?

He and Rysa both had those really striking, sharp, unusual features that definitely weren't the kind of thing I saw on the street every day. Definitely a different kind of attractive than I was used to, but it was flattering as hell that even one of them was interested in me. And it seemed equally unbelievable they weren't actually related. Maybe whatever country they came from on their planet had a more unique look than the mush of several-generation American faces that I'd grown up around and went to school with. Neither Keyd or Rysa were real dark skinned or anything; darker than me, but that wasn't saying much with my super white European heritage.

Speaking of where they'd come from. Right now I was trying to get Keyd to explain what these rift things were and how they worked, like the one Rysa'd apparently gone off through. Even though I'd known for a long time they weren't alien aliens, like beaming-down-from-outer-space kind of aliens, I'd never really known how they had gotten here. When Keyd had said he and Rysa had been opening rifts to figure out where their army was at, that was the first time I'd ever heard that word from them. I think. Honestly, at the start of all this, I hadn't been paying the best attention to everything. I'd never expected to be this involved, or to actually care. Now I needed all the fucking basics I'd skipped over or hadn't listened to close enough.

"They're openings that we create, that allow us to travel through them," Keyd said as an explanation, and then...that was it. Like that was an entire answer that summed everything up.

"Okay, but...where do they go to?"

"Other places," Keyd said, really helpfully. He was definitely not the person to ask about this kind of stuff. At least he wasn't afraid to talk to me now, but he still wasn't great with handing out words. Before now I'd always been asking Rysa about things, and she was much better at it.

"Yeah, okay, got that part. But where are these places? Like, where did Rysa go in comparison to here? What's a rift like, is it...it's like a Stargate or something?" That was the first thing that popped into my head.

"Stargate," Keyd said blankly. Yeah, okay, that hadn't been the best example; obviously he had no idea what that was.

"Like, uh, lets you go a really far distance in no time at all. You're in one place, step through, and bam—you're somewhere else way across the universe or galaxy or whatever."

"I suppose...similar to that. But it's not a distance, it's—I don't know how to explain."

Keyd did at least seem frustrated that he couldn't answer, and not that he was trying to avoid it. "The Presence goes through many places, and we can use it to...search out paths, and draw the space between worlds together and pass through it."

I felt like they'd mentioned this Presence thing before, but never really explained that either. But I also hadn't cared or asked. So what Keyd was saying to me now made no damn sense, but it probably did if you understood all this complicated stuff about the entities better than I did.

"Right, so...is it going to other dimensions? Like an alternate universe? Or just, other planets in some other solar system?" Because any of that sounded incredibly insane and incredibly cool. If these guys could just jump around to other planets whenever they wanted...and that's what it really sounded like, even if it tired them out to do it. "Or are any of the words I'm saying translating at all?"

Keyd laughed softly. "Perhaps not exactly as you mean them. There is a limitation to frequency, after all."

"But could you even explain it if we could speak the same language?" I said, and Keyd opened his mouth, hesitated, then closed it again.

"Perhaps not," he admitted.

I stopped fighting a smile. "So you don't really know how these rifts work."

Keyd pulled one of his little faces. "Specifically...no. We know what we can do with our abilities, not always how or why. We don't completely understand the way that the Presence, or the entities, work. We're connected to them, and they can communicate to us, but it isn't the same kind of communication you and I can have—asking questions and giving answers. They...guide us, into being able to do these things. But they can't explain to us what precisely is being done, not in language."

"That's really fucking weird. All of this kinda is. You know that, right?" I said, partly joking but kind of not. It was weird.

Keyd lifted a shoulder. "I suppose. Perhaps if I had never heard of such a thing, it would seem strange to me as well. But it's simply how things are for us."

So, I was still gonna think of this rift thing like a Stargate, because that's what it sounded like. Like they were little wormholes leading to somewhere else in the universe, just ones that the oenclar could just...rip open whenever they felt like it instead of needing some kind of physical portal. It didn't even matter if that was true or not; it just gave me a way to think about it that I could understand.

"So why'd it take so much effort to find your army, anyway?" I asked, slinging an arm along the back of the couch and throwing a foot up on the coffee table. "There's no main base or anything you could just go to?"

"Our active military forces are very mobile," Keyd said. "They move as they need to, which is sometimes frequently. There is no single place they return to, as there is no place we have that we can call a home. So tracking them down, especially after time has passed...there are many places to look."

God, Rysa'd mentioned that forever ago. I'd asked what their planet was like and she'd told me it was gone, or as good as. I hadn't meant to bring that up, and there'd definitely been a different tone in Keyd's voice when he'd said that they didn't have a real home. Heavier and sad.

"Hey, man, sorry. I didn't mean—Rysa told me about...you know. Some of that stuff," I said. Keyd tapped his pinky against the side of his leg and didn't say anything. "Shit. I'm sorry."

"It's all right," Keyd said, and took in a small careful breath. "I don't know how much she told you, but it was some time ago that it happened."

Yeah, didn't really seem like it was long enough.

"Gonna guess it was clarbach related," I said. Hell, I'd already upset him, so one more question couldn't hurt.

Keyd nodded.

"What is their problem with you? Like, how the hell did this all start? And fuck, Ahieel—I know you're not gonna tell me about him without Rysa here, but are they all like that?" Halfway out of their goddamn minds?

"That's...complicated," Keyd said. He leaned forward suddenly, elbows on his knees, a little closer to my space. Especially with my leg up on the table; his knuckles were almost brushing my jeans. "You're very interested in all of this, suddenly."

"Well, yeah.I mean, you guys said the clarbach army could be showing up here. That kind of makes it personal, you know? And I told you I'd help, which means I gotta know things. And who knows what's gonna be important, so...I might as well learn whatever I can."

Keyd didn't say anything for a couple seconds. He just studied me, those blue eyes of his clear and considering. "You would make a good soldier," he said, suddenly and real seriously.

"Man, you are so wrong." I didn't mean to laugh in his face, but I basically did. Just my dad's stories about boot camp sounded like the fucking worst for someone kind of lazy and unmotivated like me; being dicked with and slapped around by drill instructors, getting jabbed with about five or six medical shots all at one time, about being taken to a tent and then surprise tear-gassed. But my dad was real proud of every damn moment of his army experience, and I was pretty sure he wanted at least one of his three sons to do him proud and enlist. Sure as hell wouldn't be me or my youngest brother Adam. My football jock brother Aaron could probably handle all the physical shit, but he was way too sensitive to handle being emotionally abused all day. Not that he'd ever admit it. My sister Ashley could probably handle the army better than the three of us put together.

"You don't think so?" Keyd said, and I shook my head, still grinning at him. He shifted even closer, until his knee was bumping into the side of my leg. All his seriousness was aimed at me in a single earnest and intense look. "You're adaptable, and you think and learn quickly. Especially for a man who is untrained, you have handled battle bravely. You never ran from it, even when you thought yourself incapable and powerless. You've endangered yourself for both myself and Rysa, risked more than many others would."

"...oh." I said. Shit, was that really what Keyd thought about me? I kinda had wondered what the guy even saw in me, but I hadn't been willing to ask yet. But I think I'd just heard some of the answer, right there. It sounded like he was talking about a different person. "Well. Okay."

"I don't think you believe me," Keyd said, and to my fucking surprise, actually put his hand on my leg. It wasn't like a real intimate thing, but it was still the last thing I'd expected. Like always, his touch radiated heat right through my clothes and down into my skin. "Rysa would tell you the same. Do you think we would have asked for your continued help if we didn't see you as capable?"

"You also don't know anybody else here," I pointed out, and Keyd nearly rolled his eyes.

"All right," he said, and took his hand off me and started to lean back.

"Hey, no—" I reached for him, mostly wanting that contact back. "Look, I believe you, it's just...it's kind of new that anyone thinks I'm gonna be useful or decent at something. Other than babysitting a houseful of siblings. You know? And coming from someone like you…"

"You haven't seen me perform very admirably," Keyd said, but he let me take his hand.

"Dude, you just came out of some weird magic hypersleep or something," I said, playing our fingers together and waiting to see if it was cool, if he'd panic. He didn't. "You should get a little slack."

"It doesn't work like that." Keyd watched me mess with his fingers like it was something completely fascinating. "A spell like that doesn't affect our abilities or well-being or stamina. It simply stops everything, except for time."

"What the hell is that spell even used for? Like why would Ahieel know how to do something like that? What's it good for?"

"Most often, to keep prisoners taken on the battlefield when there is no place to take them for a while. Using it means they do not need to be monitored, or fed, or take up other resources or time. We use it as well."

"Fuck. That's—" Well, I guess it wasn't cruel, but it was weird. Every time I forgot Keyd came from an alien culture, something like this would slap me right in the face. And he said it like it was the most normal thing in the world. I didn't really want to know what happened to prisoners once they got off the battlefield and out from that spell. It probably couldn't be good, on either side.

"Is that what Ahieel's plan was? Take you back somewhere as prisoners?" I asked. Seemed fucking unlikely, and Keyd shook his head slowly. Our hands kind of drifted apart, and I sat back on the couch, twisting my fingers together in my lap.

"I doubt that," he said. "I think it was merely meant as a temporary solution after he got the upper hand and managed to subdue us. I assume he meant to return and...deal with us individually, but was delayed from that by orders from his own superiors. If the clarbach have been here, scouting your world, then he has likely been very busy. But he would have felt the collapse of his spells when you undid them, and...that's why he returned and began tracking us down."

Going by all the patchy information I knew, that seemed believable enough. Still. "Seems kinda...I dunno. Like a cowardly thing to do. Just lock you up in these unbreakable spells and leave you there, and not even give you a fair chance to fight back or anything."

A frown tugged at the corner of Keyd's mouth. "Ahieel is very...focused. He has his ideas, his beliefs about the way things should be, and achieving that in any way he can is what he will do. I don't believe he would see what he did to us as cowardly, but practical. After all, he is only one against two."

"Christ, you really know a lot about this guy."

Keyd lifted a shoulder. "After so many years, it's been unavoidable. And I've learned about him from Rysa as well."

I seriously wanted to know what the deal was with Rysa and Ahieel. Keyd was involved too, obviously, but everything seemed to boil down to something that'd happened between just the two of them. Ahieel didn't want her dead, that seemed to be what he wanted for Keyd, but he definitely wanted something from her. I'd heard him call her a traitor once. If that was even the right translation, since I couldn't imagine what kind of betrayal she could have done in Ahieel's view. But I already knew Keyd wouldn't talk about it unless Rysa was here, so asking was pointless.

"Ahieel didn't seem to have much of a problem dealing with two of you and being just one guy," I said instead. "I mean, no offense or anything, but he kind of did a number on you both a couple of times."

"And that is strange," Keyd said readily. Huh. I hadn't thought he'd agree. "Rysa and I have discussed that ourselves. While he does have a natural advantage over us in his fighting style, he seems more capable, much more experienced than the times we have encountered him before. We thought at first it was our own abilities being smothered, as this world is muted, but that was not the issue. Ahieel was simply...more powerful."

"There a reason for that you figured out?"

"We never came up with a satisfactory answer." Keyd didn't seem to like that much. It seemed real strange to me too, like out of nowhere Ahieel had shown up being way more powerful than usual? It explained why Rysa and Keyd had gotten their asses kicked constantly, though. Not that I'd ever thought they were shitty soldiers; they'd just obviously been outclassed, and they didn't even know why. And I didn't know enough about this stuff to throw in any guesses.

"I think—" I said, and concentrated a little harder with this new weird sense I had. "I think Rysa's coming back."

Keyd sent me an odd little look. "She is," he said. "You...can sense that?"

"Yeah, actually, I've been able to do that since that last fight with Ahieel. Like you guys don't even have to be doing anything, I just...kinda feel your energy when you get close enough. I can tell you apart, too."

By now Keyd's eyebrows had reeled way up towards his hairline. "You haven't mentioned this at all," he said.

"It took me a while to figure out what was happening, honestly," I said. Rysa's energy was getting stronger real quickly; she had to be seconds away by now. "It's not just that going on, either. But it's not hurting me or anything; pretty sure I'm okay."

Keyd looked like he was about to disagree, but before he could a flitter of shadows whisked past the blinds and there was a light thump on the patio. The sliding glass door rolled open and Rysa stepped through the blinds with a soft clatter of plastic. She just stood there, looking at the two of us on the couches, breathing hard enough to lift the armor on her shoulders up. She must've seriously booked it back here.

And Keyd didn't get up and go to her like he usually would have. He stayed on the couch, and they stared at each other from across the room.

"Keyd, ujareta hrapre hasn, atojyakal kahle," Rysa said quietly, and there was soft frustration in her voice. And something else, almost disbelief. If I had to guess what she'd said, it'd be you should have come with me.

"How angry was my father?" Keyd replied, like he hadn't caught her tone at all. But he also wasn't looking at her anymore; he was staring towards the patio doors instead. He also sounded like he didn't give a fuck what his dad might have thought.

Rysa shook her head. "Keyd…" she said, and came across the room to us, slowly, like she was in a daze. And that got a little crease going on between Keyd's eyebrows. He stood up, moved a step forward to meet her.

"It's been twelve years," she said, taking his hands and holding them tight in hers. There was something raw and dismayed in her face that I'd never seen before, and all the air just emptied out of me in a hard rush. I understood exactly what she meant.

"Holy shit," I breathed, looking back and forth between the two of them, not even sure what else to say. But Keyd didn't seem to get it.

"What has been twelve years?" he said.

"Us," Rysa replied in that same soft stunned voice. "We've been gone for twelve years."

Keyd let go of Rysa's hands and just stared at her. Then he sat back down on the couch, fisted his hands against his mouth for a couple seconds, and then stood up again. He walked to one edge of the patio doors, heel-turned, and strode back to the other side. He did that a couple times. Rysa and I just watched him pace back and forth, his expression a complete blank. Rysa seemed like she was shaking off some of her daze and snapping back into move-on-and-get-shit-done-mode, but she'd had more time to process this than Keyd had.

"Mirten fauj?" Keyd said suddenly, and great, there went my ability to understand half their fucking conversation. "Kahle surjat mrika?"

"Of course I'm sure," Rysa said. "Unless I was lied to, and what would be the point of that?"

Keyd took another curt lap back and forth in front of the windows, his hands gripped together behind his back. He didn't say anything more, and Rysa didn't either. The silence started to get real prickly and heavy and uncomfortable, and I had no idea what to do or what to say.

I could barely wrap my head around losing that much time, and it hadn't even happened to me. Twelve years? If their years were the same length as ours, I'd've been ten years old when Ahieel stuck them in that spell. They'd seriously been sitting up in that graveyard that fucking long, and had no idea time was passing? I remembered Keyd yanking a thick cover of ivy off of Rysa when she'd still looked like a statue, and that really couldhave taken years to grow.

"That stasis spell can last that long?" I said, almost to myself, but Rysa heard me.

"It can. But it shouldn't. It's not meant—" Rysa broke off, sighed, brushed a hand across her face. "Will you go back now?" she said, obviously talking to Keyd this time.

Keyd lurched to a stop mid-step, and whirled towards us.

"How do we explain twelve years?" he said. Now he sounded desperate and looked miserable. A week ago I don't think I would have caught any of that in his face, in his voice. And it was all still subtle, but so fucking obvious to me how upset he was. This was the kind of thing Rysa'd always been able to see, how she'd been able to read him so well when he'd seemed like an emotionless brick to me.

Rysa spread her hands out in front of her, palms up, almost a helpless gesture. "I tried. But you know they don't listen to me as much as you. And what I was going to tell them—well. It would not explain twelve years."

"Did you speak to my father?"

Rysa shook her head. "He was in council. But I'm sure he'll hear about it very soon. I told them you had not come back yet because of a holdup here. But you need to go speak to him, Keyd. You needed to when we thought it might have been months, at the most. And now…"

Keyd turned away again, raking his fingers through his hair and hunching in on himself.

"There is no explanation for this," he muttered. "None."

The explanation was pretty fucking obvious to me, but Keyd sure hadn't liked that idea when I'd suggested it earlier. But what hell was wrong with the truth? Sure, fine, they were an alien culture, but they could probably understand the concept of fucking up. Even Rysa'd obviously tried to tell their army something, even if they hadn't wanted to hear it from her. Was that just because Keyd was some kind of higher rank? Christ, there was so much I didn't understand here.

The tension in the room was getting worse and more obvious, and it seemed like I shouldn't even be here. This whole situation was just so beyond me and what I knew, spreading into some alien culture somewhere else that I knew nothing about, and I couldn't even be helpful or supportive or anything at all. Just an awkward third wheel.

"Should I...just go, or something?" I asked Rysa under my breath, but Keyd obviously heard me.

"Alan—don't," he said, almost turning to look at me. "It's all right."

"I think I should go," I said anyway. Even if they could talk in another language in front of me if they wanted, it seemed like me just being here was making things weird. When I caught Rysa's eye, she gave me a little nod. Yeah, that's what I thought. "Look, I'll—I'll just be right outside. Okay?"

Rysa touched me lightly right at the side of my neck, like a little pat, which I think was some kind of approval or thanks. I had no problem with taking myself out of here, and I even went further than just going out onto the patio or something. I grabbed my keys and left the apartment and then the complex completely, heading across the parking lot and through the gate that led out to the front of the whole place.

The side street that ran next to the apartments and into the nice little neighborhood nearby was quiet, peaceful, pretty, and nobody was around. I sat down on the strip of grass between the street and sidewalk, leaned up against the base of a tree. A few dried fall leaves were scattered across the ground, catching on the grass as the breeze flicked them around. I wish I'd grabbed a sweatshirt, since the day was still overcast and chilly, but this was goddamn southern California and even in November we didn't have a real winter. I tilted my head back against the tree, let out a long breath, and just tried not to think for a while.

Twenty, maybe thirty, minutes went by. I'd seen a burly guy walk his two tiny fluffy dogs from one end of the street to the other, noticed the mail truck head into the complex and back out again, watched a woman herd two little girls on tricycles around in their driveway for a while. Normal people with normal lives. Was I ever gonna get that back, or did I even want that back?

Even if Earth was safe and Ahieel'd been the only clarbach here and there wasn't gonna be anything to worry about, picking up my life where I'd left off would mean spending the rest of it knowing aliens actually existed, but having no one to talk to about it. That there were other cultures on other planets—whether they were from another galaxy or dimension or however it actually worked. Oh yeah, and forgetting about the part where I basically had magic fucking powers. I didn't know if I could actually handle that, just dropping all of this and forgetting it, going back to regular things like college degrees, figuring out a career, paying taxes, and goddamn calculus classes.

One thing was for sure, I'd felt more awake and alive in these past two weeks than I ever had, and that wasn't just because I kept ending up in dangerous situations that kept me fueled with adrenaline. That definitely wasn't my favorite part. Sure, Keyd and Rysa were weird and unusual and intense, but they were also exciting and amazing people that I cared about, and I didn't want to let them go. I didn't want to let any of this go.

I didn't want it to be something I had to deal with soon. But there was clearly some serious shit they had to deal with after being gone for twelve years, and maybe they were just...gonna disappear from my life. Even thinking about that was making me miserable, and I hoisted myself to my feet, figuring I'd given them enough time to hash some things out by now. And I was getting cold—the sun had gotten a lot lower while I'd been out here and the wind was picking up.

As I was turning around to head back, something big and bright nearby snagged my attention. I turned, distracted, just to glance down the sidewalk, and every inch of my body locked up on me in sudden panic.

Because there was a guy walking slowly towards me. His face was tilted down, and his arms were lifted slightly from his sides, fingers spread out. He was so blond that his hair almost looked white. His clothes were all loose but closed up halfway down his wrists and ankles like pieces of fabric had been wrapped around them, and everything was colored beige and white with little shimmers of gold in places. And I could feel a bright, high pulse in the air around him.

Fuck. Fuck. That was a clarbach, and it wasn't Ahieel. So there really were more of them here, like Rysa and Keyd had been afraid of. This guy didn't look anything like a soldier—no armor, no weapons—but Ahieel hadn't looked like a soldier either when I'd first run into him. I wasn't gonna underestimate who or what this guy was, and I had to go get Rysa and Keyd right now.

Except, before I could even make myself take one fucking step, the guy lifted his head and looked right at me.

"Ah," he said, and then, louder and real slow like I was some kind of moron, "hello. Please, I would like to speak with you."

No way, no thanks. This was like Ahieel all over again, coming at me me all creepily polite and formal. And now the guy was headed at me, coming down the sidewalk at a pretty quick pace. He wasn't as tall as Keyd or Rysa, but he definitely had a good handful of inches on me and I was not into this, not at all. I wasn't gonna turn around and put my back to him, so I backed away a couple quick steps, balling my hands and drawing my arms up in some kind of primal reflex.

"No, wait," the man said, putting his hands out in front of him and steepling his fingertips together into sort of an upside-down teardrop shape, his pinkies pointing out down. "Please. I only need help. Help." He pushed his hands out towards me like an offering. "Help."

I understood him fine, but he was still doing that real simple slow talking that made me think he figured I couldn't. As if talking any slower would make me understand either way. His mouth didn't match with the words he said, so he was in frequency.

"I don't care what you need. Get the hell away from me," I said, taking another couple steps back from him and trying to angle myself towards the gate that'd get me back into the complex without looking at it. I had my keys gripped in my hand and couldn't remember getting them out of my pocket. "I'm serious, man, don't try anything."

That stopped the clarbach right in his tracks. "You...understand me," he said.

"Sure fucking do. And you understand me, so, I'm warning you. Get out of here."

"No, please, wait," the guy said, coming after me again. "Please, I only want—"

And then he caught me by the wrist, which was just the last goddamn straw. I'd warned him.

I yanked my arm away, trying to shake him off, but he had a good hard grip and managed to hang on. "Hey, back the fuck off!" But now that he was touching me, his energy was way more obvious—not as strong as Keyd or Rysa's was, but I could sense it flowing around inside him like a big bright pool, right there and easy to reach.

So I snatched a bunch of it out of him, fast and almost without thinking, a sharp bright burn that rushed up his arm and into mine.I didn't really know how to work with this kind of energy, I'd only dealt with the big chaotic formless masses of it from Ahieel, but it didn't feel that different. And I threw most of it right back out again, in sort of a condensed little burst of it right at the guy's chest. Just to get him off.

The clarbach stumbled back, his grip on me breaking and his eyes and mouth going wide in shock. He definitely hadn't expected me to attack him, and he didn't look like he was even used to getting attacked at all. He definitely didn't recover fast—he bent over his knees, panting and heaving so violently I thought he was gonna throw up. This would've been a great time to make my escape, but...there was something weird about this. He wasn't like Ahieel at all, and that was getting me nervous.

I stood my ground, but popped up a shield of my own around myself, just in case. In case this guy was a sneaky motherfucker and this was a fake-out move. I used the rest of the energy I'd sucked out of him for it, and while the feel of it was different than Rysa's or Keyd's, using it was pretty much the same. It worked the same way, responded to me the same. Just had a different flavor.

When the clarbach finally managed to get himself upright again, he honestly looked like a puppy that I'd just kicked for no reason. And definitely not like he was gonna fight me back.

And then, he fucking apologized.

"I'm sorry," he said, still completely winded and shaken. Christ, I hadn't hit him that hard. Had I? I'd just wanted him to get away from me and I'd warned him first. "I didn't mean to...seem threatening. But how are you doing this?"

"What part?" I said, before I realized I wasn't meaning to have a conversation with the guy.

"You...took some of my energy, and are using it. You're aligned into frequency, and...you seemed to be trained. You are a native of this world?"

"Yeah," I said. "But I got some oenclar friends."

That got his fucking attention. I saw him almost reach out to grab at me again, but he held himself back. "They are nearby, aren't they? Please, I need to see them, to speak with them."

What? "No way," I told him on reflex. And as an afterthought, "and I don't even know who you're talking about."

The clarbach just looked at me. Almost like he was disappointed with me. But I knew this game, it was the same thing Ahieel had always done. I wasn't buying it yet, even if this guy wasn't a real soldier.

"They will want to see me. Tell them that Ociir needs to speak to them." He said it like awk-ear, and I had to guess that was his name.

Telling Keyd and Rysa that this guy was here was my plan, but I didn't want to do it on his terms. "No."

"I understand that you have no reason to trust me, especially if you are acquainted with oenclar. But you must—" he hesitated, drew in a breath, and started again, "my word won't mean much to you, but I do promise that I have no ill intent towards them."

"Seriously," I said, "I'm not this stupid." Well, not anymore, at least. Nobody was going to pull an Ahieel on me again.

Ociir spread his arms wide in front of him, palms up. "Since you can use spells, use one," he said. "You may trap me here; anything you want. Just please...tell them I'm here. That's all I ask."

Because of course I knew how to trap him there. About the only thing I could do was to throw a shield around him—well. Maybe that actually would work.

But I didn't have any energy. I'd stolen a little bit out of this guy Ociir but I'd used it all up right way, and anything I'd had before I'd shoved out of me into Ahieel during the fight—both kinds. It was all gone….except, as soon as I even thought about making a shield, a little hummy surge of something welled up in me, ready and waiting to be used. It was a mix of Keyd and Rysa's energy, I could tell that, and it all felt like random scraps, no complete spells, just a bunch of that excess energy the entities generated all the time. Shit, where'd that come from? But if I had it, I wasn't gonna take the time to think about why, I was gonna use it.

I had enough to throw a big messy bundle of it out towards this guy Ociir, trying to look like I knew what I was doing. I'd only ever put a shield around me, not around something or someone else. But a barrier of oen energy snapped up around him, closing off the feel of his energy entirely and caging him inside a dome of faintly shimmering air. I was impressed with myself for about two seconds, and then I thought about how I had no idea if this was really working or how long it would last, and I figured I should probably get Keyd and Rysa as fast as fucking possible.

I flat-out sprinted back to my apartment and burst through the door into the living room. Keyd and Rysa were still right there, standing in front of the patio blinds, still fucking talking to each other, fast and intent and in their own language. Keyd's back was to me, and neither of them noticed me crash into the room.

"Guys!" I said, but I was out of breath from a three hundred yard dash and the word didn't come out real strong. Jesus. I was so pathetically out of shape. "Guys, hey!"

Nope, neither of them heard me—or if they did, they were ignoring me. I took a couple deep breaths, steadied myself, and then;

"Hey, guys!"

That one came out like a bark, and it definitely got their attention. They quit talking, and turned to look at me with some actual exasperation in their faces. "There's a fucking clarbach outside."

That changed the mood. Both Keyd and Rysa snapped to attention, breaking apart from each other and rushing right towards me. Somehow Rysa got to me first, and caught me by the shoulders.

"What happened? Are you all right?" Rysa demanded, even though I obviously was, it was nice she cared that much.

"Yeah, yeah, I'm fine. It's not Ahieel, but you probably want to deal with him—I'm not sure if he's a soldier, but he seriously wants something and he knows you're here. I put him in a shield, but who knows if it's gonna hold." Or had even kept him there at all. "He said his name was Ociir, and—"

Rysa and Keyd's expressions changed the second I said the guy's name, going from fierce and determined to...something totally different. Surprise, definitely, but no anger or fear. Rysa mostly seemed disbelieving, and Keyd looked...well, it was some kind of look I'd never seen on him before and couldn't even guess at what it was.

"Ociir," Rysa's grip on my shoulders, which'd been pretty firm before, got so intense it was almost painful. I tried not to wince, but she was goddamn strong. "He really said that was his name?"

"Yes, yeah," I said, squirmed a little under her hands, and she let up on me a little. "Shit, you guys know this one too? Is he gonna be a serious prob—"

I didn't get to finish the sentence before Rysa just fucking bolted, letting go of me and sprinting for the front door. Keyd wasn't far behind her. I barely managed to dodge out of his way, reel around, and follow after them. Rysa seemed to know exactly where to go, and I chased them out to the front of the complex. The clarbach named Ociir was actually still standing out on the sidewalk, with my lame excuse for a shield still humming around him. Rysa staggered to a stop when she saw him, swayed on her feet like someone had physically shoved her back. Keyd stopped right behind her and put his hands on her shoulders, steadying her.

Ociir saw them right away, and he focused directly on Rysa.

"Rysa," he said, quietly. "You're ali—"

But Rysa was already moving again, running forward and dissolving the shield with a slice of her hand as she got close—I guess she could do that, some of its energy was hers after all. Then she just threw herself at the guy. For a second I thought she was just so furious that she'd forgotten she had magic energy and had just bare-handed attacked him. But then I realized that she was…hugging him. And he was hugging her back, his arms tight around shoulders and one hand buried in her hair, her face pressed into his shoulder and neck.

"Oh my god, what the fuck," I said. Keyd had moved up to my side, his arm bumping against my shoulder, and I turned to him for some kind of...reality check. "Keyd. Shit, man, explain something here."

Keyd was also looking at Rysa and Ociir, and he sure didn't seem to think the guy was a threat either. There was almost—almost—a little smile on his face. Just the tiniest lift at the corner of his mouth. How the fuck did that make any sense.

"Ociir," Keyd said then. "He's Rysa's brother."

Now you might notice that the rest of this story has been taken down. That's because it's getting rewritten the same way that Tenebrism was, but it will probably go back up at a much faster pace since I'm not replotting it as heavily. However, it's possible to be able to read the entirety of the original draft.There's a post on my Patreon explaining it and you can get to that post via my Fictionpress profile; you do need to essentially donate $1 to me, just once. I really don't want the drafts being read at all, so this is actually to discourage people from wanting to read it. However, if you want to read it enough to pay for it, then that's an exchange I can grudgingly live with. People thought I should have left the Tenebrism draft up while I was doing the rewrites for it, and this my compromise for Chiaroscuro.