Kate's not surprised to run into another time traveler in Vagan's bar. There are dozens of planets with the technology. She's not surprised, either, that he doesn't recognize a fellow traveler at first. Her people were the first to move through the Stream, so she's more sensitive to the traces of the Time Stream that linger on its travelers. Vagan used to travel for her planet's Ministry of Timelines and his place is a popular place for those who know enough to know it exists.
What is surprising, though, is the familiarity that shoots through her when she watches him. She feels like she should know him, but she's never met him before. She would remember him if she had. She always remembers the handsome ones.
"Praxelli Delta," she says, straddling the stool next to the square-jawed, dark-haired man. If she squints she can see the tiny gills on the sides of his neck. His people crawled out of the water four centuries earlier and the gills are mostly for show. She'd stood on the beach with her father the day the Praxellis first walked on land. It had been her first driving lesson and she'd nearly crashed their ship. She has a soft spot for Praxellis. Perhaps that's why she feels drawn to him.
He chokes a little on his drink, a neon green concoction that smells like gasoline and papaya. She thumps his back twice. He coughs and the choking stops. Blue eyes, the same stormy blue of the oceans of Praxelli Delta, narrow in suspicion.
"How do you know that?"
She could point out his gills, but they're a sore subject with most Praxellis and she doesn't want to offend the only interesting person in the bar. "Your shirt. Praxelli cotton dyed with Frega berries. Early Amand period." She chews on her bottom lips and resists the urge to sniff his shirt to smell his detergent. She's been told that the sniffing is rude. "Upper Hagga Peninsula."
"Yes." His laughter is nervous, tinged with awe and worry. Something odd lingers, though. She can't put her finger on it. He doesn't give her a chance. "You're very good."
She blushes, an odd sensation fluttering in her stomach. "Thank you." She signals the bartender, a young, green-skinned woman whose name she can never remember, and orders two of the neon green drinks.
"Are you from here?" he asks, swallowing the last of his cocktail.
She grins. No one is actually from Croax. Not that anyone admits, at least. She can't blame him for getting it wrong, though. Her people don't travel like they used to and they don't associate with other travelers. They travel out of necessity and duty. Never out of pleasure.
She's always been a rebel.
"Guess again." She holds out her hand so that the pale gold of her skin, a hue reminiscent of raw Stream energy, shimmers in the overhead light. She's glad her ponytail's come loose so that it hides the slight point on the tops of her ears. The ears are a dead giveaway.
"Ship, planet, or colony?"
"Planet. Prime planet."
He nods, sips his new drink and considers. "Olla Prime."
It's close. Only a galaxy away. She takes pity on him. Not enough to tell him where she's from, that would inevitably change the tone of their conversation, but enough so they can move on. "Near there. Good guess. Heading out or heading home?"
Asking the question gives nothing away. He is nearly a millennia out of time and a light year from Praxelli Delta. Either he's heading on a trip or has just finished one. She doesn't have to tell him that she can see, taste, the Stream on him.
"Heading home. I was on Jacarda Beta. 443rd Century."
It's a good time. Nothing especially momentous happens that century, but it's a beautiful planet. "Not the 444th?" There are assassinations and the start of a two century civil war in the 444th Century. That's when most people choose to visit Jacarda Beta.
"I'm not a ghoul."
They talk about where they've been. His name is Braxil and he's not one of those travelers she hates: the ones who only go to the big events and skip the rest of history. He doesn't take the canned tours or try to insert himself in events. He's an observer of cultures. A historian-slash-anthropologist. She can appreciate that.
She tells him her traveling name. There is no power to it. The threads of time won't unravel if he tells it to the wrong person at the wrong moment. He calls her Kate, rolls it around on his tongue, and smiles as if she's given him a gift. Wisdom lurks in his warm gaze, but he blinks and its gone before she can mention it.
Hours later, Vagan kicks them out of the bar. She lets Braxil walk her to her ship, surreptitiously activates the filter that will keep him from seeing the Ministry seal on the side of the gray hulk. She can't help but stare at his lips, wondering what he'd taste like, when he says goodbye.
She makes a split-second decision. Either she can let him walk away and pray they bump into each other along the way, or she can make certain it happens again. She's never been one to leave things to chance. She reaches for the timepiece on his wrist and fiddles with the dials. It's a fancy unit. It can lock on to a specific date no matter how often a person slips in and out of the Stream. Her great-great-great-great-great-great grandfather patented the design.
"Thirty cycles from today. Meet me here."
Stunned, he nods. She darts forward and kisses his cheek before disappearing inside her ship. Through the camera, she watches him cup his cheek and grin. Butterflies swell in her stomach as she sets her own wrist unit.
It's tempting to slip inside the Stream and simply pop back in the bar thirty cycles later without a second passing. That's rather boring, though. Besides, there's the sunset on Urali she's been meaning to see.
Thirty cycles later, he's waiting for her in the parking lot of Vagan's bar. His hair is a bit longer and there's a fine layer of scruff on his strong jaw. He's still wearing Praxelli clothes, though. She makes a mental note to teach him about blending in.
"How long?" she asks after they place their drink orders.
She grins. That's the beauty of time travel. "Same," she lies. It was more like five but there's no need to seem overeager.
She takes him to the sunset on Urali. Not in her ship, but with her words. She tells him how it felt with her legs dangling off the great cliffs and the breeze in her hair and no one around for two planets. Urali was best experienced before the first colonization attempt. The twinkle in his eyes is a clear indication that Urali is on his list of future destinations.
He tells her about his trip to Loka during the period after the Great Sickness. Trained as a medic, he'd helped in one of the hospitals. She wants to chide him for intervening, but caring for survivors isn't a major crime. Besides, she's bound wounds once or twice during a war, and she is many things but she's not a hypocrite.
"Are you from Hfran?" he asks when they've caught each other up on their travels.
She laughs and shakes her head. It becomes a routine. Every thirty cycles they meet at Vagan's, talk about their trips, and he asks where she's from. He never guesses correctly, and she never gives him a straight answer. If he's frustrated by it, it doesn't show. He seems to make more of a game out of it than anything else.
"Did you know," he starts, nudging her arm with his shoulder. It is their seventh meeting and they've migrated from the bar to a private booth in a corner of the bar. "Did you know there is a fairytale on Llona that reminds me of you?"
She freezes with her drink halfway to her mouth. She hasn't been to Llona since she was young and stupid and interfering. She covers her surprise quickly and gulps her drink. "They sure love their fairytales, don't they? Have you heard the one about the people with two hearts – one made of crystal and one made of granite? It's supposed to be a metaphor about hearts breaking and growing cold."
"No, this one was about a girl who swallowed a sun."
That's just ridiculous. No one can actually swallow a sun. Besides, what she'd done hadn't been all that impressive. She'd simply fired a blast from her… not the point. "What about the story about the giant with four legs and three arms who carved out the Valley of Stars? That's my favorite, though it's never told the same. Some people say that he had five eyes and some say he was blind."
"I thought he was supposed to have had five legs and two arms."
"No, no it was definitely four legs. See, each of the valleys between the Remi Mountains is supposed to be a footprint."
They debate the myth for the rest of the evening. He doesn't bring up the other fairytale again. She feels a pang of guilt over manipulating him. She likes him, likes him more than anyone she's ever met before, but she can't forget who she is. Can't forget decades of lessons and responsibility.
"You should go to Fleur," she says as they walk hand-in-hand to her ship. "Time it for the Killa blossom harvest. You won't regret it."
It isn't until she's navigating her ship through the Stream that she realizes her mistake. The harvest is one of her favorite events. She hadn't given him a specific year, so there's a very good chance he will run into a future or past version of herself. She crosses her fingers and prays it's a future version. There are past versions she doesn't want anyone to meet.
Braxil misses their next meeting. She sits in their booth and drinks her weight in Venusian rum. Vagan's pitying looks do little for the anger and worry swirling in her stomach like a hurricane. After closing time, she sleeps in her ship in the parking lot just in case. He doesn't show.
She checks her memory for an altered timeline but there's nothing. She doesn't recall running into Braxil in the past. That doesn't mean he didn't see her – she had been fairly unobservant for a number of years – but nothing stands out.
Worry trumps common sense. He's touched her ship so his signature is already in her database. It only takes a few keystrokes to lock on to the location of the signature that most closely matches the one in her database. It is a misuse of resources, but she dares one of the elders to come after her. They wouldn't risk her father's wrath. Or, given how her reputation has grown, hers.
He is on Edda Prime. It's a planet known for its bars, whorehouses, and boxing clubs. Not the sort of place she ever expected Braxil the healer to frequent. There is a moment of worry at how easy it was to locate his signature, but she brushes it off. Her ship is one of the best, after all.
She finds him in one of the seedier boxing clubs getting his face pounded in by a two-headed behemoth in a loincloth. She watches for only a second. He is a bloody mess, but he's still standing. The rules of the fight were that if you're standing you're fair game. She ignores the hands grasping for her and lightly leaps over the barrier separating spectators from participants.
"Hello, there," she says to the behemoth, voice mild but eyes flat. "I'm afraid that I'm going to have to ask you to stop beating my friend into a pulp."
"He signed the waiver," the behemoth grinds out, blood-spattered fists rising.
"Yeah, well he's from Praxelli. They're thick like that." She grins, an ugly grin that is all teeth and menace, and balls her fists. "If you're keen on finishing this brawl, I'll be happy to oblige."
"You? Little girls don't fight."
Booming laughter makes the ground shake. The crowd boos and hisses. She rolls her shoulders. It must look odd, a slim, blonde woman in a short skirt and delicate blouse squaring off against a man the size of a boulder. She's not worried about losing. She's not brawny but she's smart.
"Excuse me, I couldn't help but notice that your eyes are a striking shade of vermilion. Are you from Yvalta?"
Befuddled, the behemoth drops his fists and nods. She laughs. "Perfect." Two sharp jabs later the behemoth is curled in a tight ball in the center of the boxing ring crying like a hungry newborn. She'd learned ages earlier that she didn't have to be the biggest thing on the battlefield as long as she knew her opponent's weakness.
She slings one of Braxil's arms across her shoulders and staggers out of the boxing club. Anyone who tries to stop them takes one look at the fierce expression on her face and backs away. There is a med bay on her ship but it's not set up to care for anyone but her people. Nothing there would help Braxil.
She tries to ask him where his ship is, but he's too far gone to answer. She finds it behind a whorehouse. The keys are in the pocket of his blood-stained, ripped pants. Her cheeks are bright red by the time she retrieves them.
His ship is smaller but neat. The bottle of liquor near the console is cause for concern, but she'll bring it up once he's not bleeding all over her favorite blouse. Her feet take her to a door with a red cross painted on the dark metal. The med bay is as orderly as she expects from a medic. She helps him onto a cot with a thin mattress and stuffs a pillow under his head.
"I'm not much of a healer. You're going to have to help me."
His words are slurred, but he gives easy-to-understand directions. She cleans and bandages his scrapes and rubs salve into his bruises. He doesn't mention pain medication, but she knows he has to be hurting. She finds a bottle she recognizes as a sedative, fills a syringe, and shoots the pale liquid into his veins. His eyes flash with betrayal before they slip shut. She sits with him for an hour, his cold, limp hand clutched between hers.
While he sleeps, she cleans up the med bay and leaves. She takes every drop of liquor in the ship. Something tells her that she doesn't want to be in the ship when he wakes. She doesn't want to know what drove a man like Braxil to booze and brawling.
She skips ahead to their next meeting at Vagan's bar. He is already in their booth. There are no traces of his wounds. His expression is carefully neutral, though, and she knows the storm hasn't passed.
"You weren't there when I woke."
"No." She crosses her legs, wished she'd worn pants rather than the fluttery, feminine skirt. She'd started dressing up for their dates, but now she regrets it. She should have dressed for a fight.
"I thought I had imagined it all, but I could smell your perfume. What happened?"
"You won. I helped you to your ship, cleaned you up. Friend stuff."
"Friend stuff," he repeats.
He inhales sharply. She fears he's going to make a big deal about it – demand to know what really happened at the club and why she left. To her surprise, he exhales and his shoulders slump. "Why were you there?"
"You missed our meeting." She shrugs with an indifference she doesn't feel. "I was worried."
This is new ground for them. They've carefully avoided talk about feelings and their relationship. She's admitting concern, opening herself up for ridicule and heartbreak.
His eyes soften. "I'm sorry. There were some things I needed to work through."
Her heart trips. She reaches out across the table and wriggles her fingers. The slide of his skin against hers sends a shiver down her spine. "Is there anything I can help with?"
"No. I just need time."
Her lips curve in a wry smile. "I'm good with time."
He doesn't let go of her hand until they're at her ship. The metal of her ship is cold against her back, but his lips are firm against hers. She sinks into his arms and buries her fingers in that impossibly thick, dark hair. Fire zips through her veins. It's like diving into the Stream without a ship or shields.
"Don't make me worry again," she murmurs against the salty skin of his neck. "I don't like it."
His chuckle rumbles under her ear. Long fingers stroke up and down her spine. Her knees wobble and for a moment the timelines scatter.
She doesn't invite him into her ship. It's tempting, and she thinks she loves him when he doesn't ask. There are secrets inside her vessel that cannot be seen by outsiders. Even outsiders she's utterly smitten with. She's a rebel, but she's not reckless. Her people have always been guardians. That sense of duty runs deep in the marrow.
The next visit, they sit side-by-side in the booth. His arm is around her waist and lips gravitate towards hers every few seconds. His kisses are heady like a drug.
"Have you been to the Erk fields on Iola?" she asks, head fogged from too many kisses and the scent of Braxil's skin.
"The flowers are a mild opiate. They're gorgeous, too. You can lay in the field and after the suns set the stars come out. You feel like they're so close you can touch them."
She can't. She's banned from Iola. Topple one ruthless dictator and then insult the new government and suddenly you're persona non grata. The denizens of Iola aren't known for their gratitude.
"Nah. I'd rather be here with you."
Once her head has cleared and she's back in the Stream, she realizes that he didn't ask where she was from. He hadn't asked the last visit, either. Vertigo slams into her like a train and bile burns the back of her throat. Oh.
She skips ahead to the next visit. She has to see what he knows. She trusts him not to run his mouth, but there are elders who would see him as a threat. She could take him home, but he'd be a prisoner. It would be a gilded cage and they'd be together for the rest of his life, but it would still be a prison.
"You know where I'm from," she says before they've ordered their drinks.
He nods once. He doesn't offer an explanation. She doesn't want one. She doesn't want to know how she gave it away or how he figured it out. It won't change the end result.
"You can't tell anyone. Ever. You can't say a word about knowing me."
"Kate," he says, amusement lingering in his tone, "all I know is that you are a traveler who likes sunsets and fried traligin strips."
She's grateful that he isn't running for the hills. Not everyone views her people as benevolent guardians. Some see them as monsters, as manipulators. The truth is somewhere in between.
She slips a bracelet from her wrist onto his wrist. The dark metal is flat but sturdy and disguises a wealth of technology. It will hide his signature with the press of a button, set up a filter so that he blends in wherever or whenever he happens to be, and protect his memories from alteration, even in the rare event of a time loop. It's the closest thing her people have to an engagement ring. He must understand the significance, though she's not sure how he could, because he carries her off to his ship. They spend the night in the parking lot.
Five visits later, she considers asking him to go with her to Gregan Minor for their Summer Festival. She's ready to screw the rules and abandon her duty. They could spend the rest of time hopping from one planet and time to the next. There is so much beauty she longs to show him. So much of the universe she wants to share.
He is waiting for her next to her usual parking spot. His eyes are dark and his expression is grim. His kisses are a shade too needy. "Brax?" she asks, worry settling in her stomach like a stone, "what's wrong?"
The communicator on her wrist unit beeps. "You should read that," he advises, voice rough with emotion.
Horror blossoms in her chest as she reads the message from her father. Her mouth is dry and her heart aches. It is her worst nightmare. Her planet's worst nightmare. Responsibility settles on her shoulders like a death shroud.
"Someone on Cronus IV set off a Travilian Time Loop. If it goes off, everyone for four systems will be stuck in a loop. There's no way of knowing how far back and forward in time it could reach." She licks her lips, lifts tear-glazed eyes to his. "I'm the closest. I have to try and diffuse it."
Braxil nods. He presses his lips to her forehead. She wants to tell him that there's a ninety-five percent chance she'll fail. She's crap at time loops. Failed the class twice before she convinced Maggie Revana to let her cheat off her tests. If the shockwave doesn't kill her, she and everyone in the blast radius will be stuck reliving the past until someone comes along to stop the loop. It's more likely, though, they'll be stuck reliving it for eternity. She can't speak through the lump in her throat.
Her legs are like lead as she turns back to her ship. She can't ask him to go with her. It's too dangerous, though she'd love to have his hand to hold while the world fell apart. She loves him so much it hurts.
"Ekatyalina," she says. It is the name her parents gave her. The one she's supposed to guard along with a thousand other secrets. Her name has the power to shatter worlds, to make the Stream bend. She gives it to him freely. It's the greatest gift she can ever give.
"I love you, Ekatyalina."
Tears streaming down her face, she blows a kiss and darts inside the ship before she can change her mind. Trying to stop the Travilian Time Loop is futile, but she has to try. She's not one to let a bomb explode without at least attempting to stop it.
She is too late, of course. The timer is counting down and she has a handful of wires and no idea what she's supposed to do. She cuts one. Nothing happens. Cutting another makes the timer speed up. Her palms are wet with sweat and her cheeks are stained with tears. She murmurs a quiet goodbye to Braxil as the world around her goes white.
In a parking lot on Croax, a tall, dark-haired man glances down at the bracelet on his wrist. He pulls out three more from his pocket and sighs. There are twelve other bracelets in his ship. He's tried to stop it. After the second loop, he'd told her about what was going to happen and clamped the bracelet around her wrist before she'd left. She'd explained, when he'd asked during the fourth loop, that being too close to the blast radius would short out the technology. He's tried finding a past version of her and having her send a warning to her people, but that person on the planet hadn't been his Kate. He's taken off his bracelet and hidden the others on a planet, but, as she'd explained later, some technology can be absorbed into the skin and he has too many bracelets.
No matter what he tries, everything loops back around to him in the bar with the woman he adores introducing herself. He thinks that this time he won't wait so long to kiss her and maybe he'll kidnap her and force her to go to those fields on Iola. With a sigh, he walks back to the bar. The world around him goes white.
Braxil sips his cocktail. It's vile but it's high octane, which is precisely why he drinks it. He glances up, heart heavy, when a gorgeous, golden-skin woman straddles the stool beside him. He knows what she's going to say before she says it.
He chokes on his drink to give himself time to recover from her nearness. There is so much he wants to say. He wants to pull her into his arms and kiss her until she can't breathe. Her hand slams against his back. Damn, she's strong. He forgets about those two hard thumps every time. His back and ribs ache.
"How do you know that?"
"Your shirt. Praxelli cotton dyed with Frega berries. Early Amand period."
He flirts. Plays a guessing game about where she's from. Tells her his name. He has to hide a knowing smile when she gives her name as Kate. He lets her set his unit and promises to meet her in thirty cycles. She kisses his cheek, but it's not enough. He stands and watches her ship leave. He fingers the bracelets in his pocket.
"I love you, Ekatyalina."