I awoke with sunlight streaming across my face and worn cotton sheets wrapped around me. Sitting up, I pulled the sheets back and inspected my leg. It was throbbing a bit, but the pain was dulled. My lower leg was firmly wrapped in gauze, and my pants—folded at the foot of the bed—had been cleaned of the bloodstains. Further inspection revealed that they had even been patched of the bullet hole.
I rolled out of bed and tested my weight on the wounded leg. It made a mildly painful protest, but it was nothing I couldn't handle. I pulled my jeans on, then my shoes, and limped to the bedroom door. I seemed to be in a house. It had wooden floors, and quaint furniture. There was a rug at the foot of the bed and in the hallway outside the bedroom. Following the hallway to the stairs, I descended and followed my nose to the kitchen.
A pretty woman, old enough to be my mother but with no gray hair to her brunette mane, had her back to me. She was standing at an oven; that meant she was responsible for the amazing smell in the house. Everything felt very surreal.
A hand dropped on my shoulder, and I had to quell several violent reflexes as I turned around to see Ailbhe smiling at me.
"You're awake," he said. "How's your leg?"
The woman in the kitchen turned around, smiling sweetly at me. "Leg's fine. A little sore, but manageable." And to the more pressing matters, "Where am I?"
"You are in my home."
"Which is where?"
"This world is called Gaeya. It is where I'm from."
"I've never been here."
"I had never been to your world before the night we met."
"And she…?" I trailed off, hoping I didn't sound rude.
Ailbhe crossed the kitchen and put an arm around her. "This is Cora. She's my wife."
She smiled. "It's nice to meet you, Caleb. I'm glad you're feeling better. I've made breakfast, if you're hungry."
I panicked. "Breakfast?! How long have I—?"
"It's morning here, Caleb, but only a few hours have passed. Your school day is not yet over in your world."
"Oh, thank God," I breathed, falling against the door frame. "Then yes, I would love something to eat, if you don't mind." I realized too late that I had no idea what these people ate, and I might have just agreed to eat something that would make people in my world gag.
It turned out not to be so bad. She had made some sort of round, buttered flatbread, and the meat she put in it tasted like a mixture between pepperoni and beef. All in all, it wasn't bad, and she gave me water—the universal beverage—to drink. I had yet to find a world where water wasn't the most valuable resource.
We ate at the table, so conversation was easy enough.
"I didn't expect them to come at me like that," I admitted to Ailbhe, who simply stared, waiting for me to continue. "You probably didn't see the significance of the uniforms they had on. Consider it like the law enforcers of this world. They pretended like they were from my world so they could get close to me—at home and at school."
"You expected they would all come at you in dark cloaks and wielding broadswords?" He was resisting the urge to smile, and it made me feel stupid.
I glared half-heartedly. "Something like that."
"I can see that, and feel it in every throb of my leg. Was the bullet lodged inside my leg, by the way?"
Ailbhe shook his head. "It went all the way through. It managed to miss your bone, though, so all I needed to do was stitch up the wounds and give you something for the pain and to ward off infection."
"I appreciate it. Really."
Cora was glancing between us as we talked, and I couldn't help asking, "Can you do what we do? Go to different worlds?"
Cora smiled sheepishly and shook her head. "No. I almost couldn't believe it when Ailbhe finally told me what he could do."
"I had to show her," Ailbhe added. "I carried her to a few different worlds, let her experience them, and she finally understood."
"You have a gift," she said. "Ailbhe tells me you fought in the Koldjur war without even realizing that the other Travelers were there. That was very brave of you; you seem so young."
"Seventeen," I admitted. "And it wasn't really a big deal. Those people needed help; I had a summer vacation with nothing to do."
"Still," she said. "I doubt most children your age wouldn't offer to fight in a war that didn't directly concern them."
I looked down at my food. "It was really no big deal."
"Are you ready to fight in this war?" Ailbhe asked after a beat of silence.
I frowned. "I don't know."
"They won't stop coming for you."
"Because I fought against them once?"
"Because you're an independent, and they don't like uncontrollable variables."
I didn't know what to say to that. Instead of respond, I stood and said, "I should get back. My friends are probably wondering where I am."
Ailbhe stood and nodded. "Think about what I've said."
"I will." How could I not?
I appeared just outside the gym and glanced in through the door's window. There was a class playing dodgeball in there, and someone had moved my bag to the bleachers. I opened the door and stepped inside, ignoring the coach and the students throwing the colored balls at each other as hard as they could. I tried not to limp—and therefore draw unwanted attention to my new injury—and left with my bag as quickly as I could manage.
The bell rang to signal the end of the day, which was great timing, and I breathed a sigh of relief before turning toward the nearest exit. Maybe I could leave without seeing Alex and Cole. I couldn't possibly come up with a decent excuse for my earlier behavior, and to be honest my brain was a little fuzzy from blood loss.
I had no such luck. They were both leaned against my car, looking solemn and determined. As I drew near with a resigned sigh, Alex noted, "You're limping."
"Stubbed my toe," I replied.
Their expressions let me know what they thought of my cheap lie.
"You're not walking like it's your toe that hurts," Alex said.
"And how would you know?"
Before I could stop her, she lifted her foot and kicked my shin. It was really no more than a slight tap, but because I'd just been shot in that leg, it was all I could do to remain standing. I let my bag fall from my shoulder and leaned heavily against the hood of my car with both hands, breathing deeply. I had no idea what kind of pain medication Ailbhe had given me, but it was wearing off.
I took a deep, gasping breath and glared up at her. She had the grace to look apologetic.
"What happened?" Cole asked.
"So, you're speaking to me again?" I asked through clenched teeth, still bowed over.
Cole looked away.
"Don't push us away, Caleb," Alex pleaded. "We're your best friends. You know you can tell us anything. You run out of the cafeteria, we don't see you for the rest of the day after that, and then you show up limping like somebody freaking stabbed you."
Close, I thought. "I just…I fell, okay? And hit my leg on the stairs. It's no big deal." Again, they saw right through me.
"Then raise your pants leg and let us see," Cole suggested.
Alex stepped toward me. "I know you boys tend to think that because I'm a girl I'm not as strong as you." I started to protest, but she cut me off. "Even if that were true, you're wounded, and I could drop you right here in the parking lot in front of everyone and make you show us what happened."
And I could disappear before you managed to lay a hand on me, I thought. It must have shown in my expression, because her jaw tightened.
"Look, Caleb," Cole said, stepping between us, "we just want to know what's been going on with you." He looked away, as though having an inner battle with himself, and then returned his gaze to mine and said, "I'm not stupid, you know. I looked through the database after you left. Those cops that showed up today weren't there." He bit his lip. "They weren't really cops, were they?"
I closed my eyes. With effort, I bent over, picked up my bag, and straightened. My leg was throbbing in protest of every tiny movement, and I wanted nothing more than to sit down and take my weight off it. Pushing past them to the driver's side door, I unlocked it and turned back around to face them.
"You don't know what you're getting into," I said to them. "You're better off not knowing; trust me."
They gave me the cold shoulder the next day. I tried to roll my eyes and let the whole thing go, but their silence stung. Instead of dining in the cafeteria with them and endure the oppressive silence between us, I showed up on Ailbhe's doorstep, looking sheepish. It was early morning in Gaeya. There was still dew on the grass, but Ailbhe appeared at the doorstep dressed and sipping a mug of something (one could never be sure about other worlds' customs).
"Is something wrong?" He asked, overly concerned by my appearance.
He let me in and showed me to a well-worn couch in the living room. He took a rocking chair across from me, sat his mug down on the coffee table between us, and eyed me curiously, awaiting an explanation.
I winced. "My friends won't talk to me."
He smiled slowly. "I remember days when my friends and family would ask where I went for so many hours alone. I never felt that I could tell them about my gift."
"But you told Cora."
Ailbhe smiled. "Yes. It took many years before I felt comfortable enough to broach the subject with her."
"How'd she take it?"
Ailbhe smiled. "She laughed. Until I took her hand and carried her with me to another world"
"There are no rules against telling other people?"
Ailbhe frowned. "None in so many words. It's frowned upon. If too many people found out, of course, it could be dangerous for us. From what I understand, yours is a curious world. People would want to know how we are able to move from world to world. They might want to study the creatures from different worlds, or languages. And, as we would be their only means to get there…"
He trailed off, but I understood.
"We could get hurt. People might get desperate to go somewhere. They might go so far as to try and keep us from going to other places."
"So, don't tell anyone unless you're absolutely sure they won't turn on you," I deduced.
His scar crinkled as he smiled again. "Essentially."
"So, in theory, I could tell my friends what's going on." He didn't immediately reply; he didn't have to. The next thing my mind went to was: "But then they might be targeted by people who are trying to get to me."
"It is a risk you must consider," Ailbhe agreed.
"How long have you been fighting them?" I asked.
He glanced at the ceiling, as though it had the answers. "I didn't realize I could Travel until I was about your age. When I was twenty-two years of age, I fought in a civil war, and that put me on their radar. I have been fighting them ever since."
"And when did Cora come into the picture?"
"We were married at age sixteen," Cora said, emerging from upstairs with a soft smile on her face as she stared at her husband. She was wearing a white, ankle-length nightgown, and her tanned feet were bare.
"Wow," I breathed. "How do you keep her safe?"
"He doesn't have to," she said. "I was trained in combat."
"…What?" I asked, stunned. This petite, sweet-looking woman knew how to kick ass?
"Gaeya went through a devastating world war about fifteen years ago," Ailbhe explained. "We were both eighteen years old when we were called to fight."
"Both of you?"
"Our world doesn't discriminate against women in combat as yours does," said Cora with a fierce smile. With that expression on her face, it was easy to picture her in armor, maybe wielding a sword and bellowing a battle cry as she tore through the enemy's lines.
And then I blinked, and she was the sweet woman in a nightgown leaning against her husband's shoulder again.
"So, if my friends could take care of themselves, and not tell anyone my secret, I could tell them?"
"You could," Ailbhe said, offering his mug of whatever-it-is-they-drink-in-the-morning to his wife.
"Okay." I stood up. "Thank you—for listening. And for letting me hide during lunch period."
"Is that what you were doing?" Ailbhe asked, sounding surprised. "I thought you just missed me." He glanced sadly up at his wife, whose sympathetic expression was ruined by the humor in her eyes.
"Oh, so you know what humor is after all!" I exclaimed gleefully, rolled my eyes, and disappeared at the sound of their laughter.
I was still smiling when I appeared in the hallway, just as the bell rang.
I waited for Alex and Cole outside of the cafeteria; they both glanced at me and pointedly looked away.
"Look, I hate this," I said, following bull-headedly after them and forcing myself between them. "Come to my house after school. I'll explain everything then." My parents were working late, so there would be no chance they would overhear what they might consider the ramblings of a mad teenager.
"Everything," Alex repeated, coming to a stop in front of me. Cole stopped as well, looking between us.
"Everything," I agreed.
She and Cole met eyes, had a silent conversation, and then returned their gazes to me.
"Okay," Cole said. "After school."