The first time he saw her, he was filthy. His clothes were rags hanging off his malnourished body. He stunk of the garbage-strewn sewer he'd been sleeping in. His knees and hands were skinned, still trickling blood down his skinny legs and onto the floor.
She was holding court in the middle of what looked to be a common room, seated on the couch with other girls and boys gathered around her as she related a story. Her face was animated, hands flying around. One of the other boys on the seat next to her said something and her laughter pealed out into the room. Tate couldn't look away. After dark streets and alleys, she was like a golden light. Shining out and illuminating everything else in colour, where before it had been grey-scale. Beautiful and clean and pure. Everything he'd never had.
Tate despised her.
A hard shove jerked his gaze away, back to the tall man in black who'd dragged him in. By the pissed off look on his face, it wasn't the first time he'd said something. Tate tried to focus on the man's face, but there was a dull roaring in his ears and his eyes kept sliding sideways.
"This is the dorm, where you'll be living for the next half-decade or so until you past your final test. If you pass. You hear me?" Tate just stared at him, and the man stared back, until he turned and yelled, "Allirah!" loud enough to make Tate flinch back.
The girl from before appeared, standing tall with arms behind her back. She couldn't've been older than him, eyes still wide with childish innocence and face round. Her eyes rested on him for a moment, before snapping to the man, and that moment was enough to pause Tate's breathing. Had he ever seen a colour so warm? He didn't even know they could be like that, inviting, rather than cold and distant.
"Get this kid settled in. He's in your classes."
Her honey brown eyes shifted to Tate and she smiled. It lit up her whole face, just like before, and that feeling surged through him again. Hate.
"Sure thing, sir," she chirped. "Has he been through admin?"
"All of that's done. Just make sure he doesn't get into shit. And," the man paused here, wrinkling his nose, "clean him up. He smells like he slept in a puddle of piss."
As Tate watched the man go, he imprinted his face into his mind. When he looked back at the girl, she still had that smile on her face.
She stuck out her hand.
"What's your name? Mine's Alli Farcryer."
She said the name with pride, her chest puffing out and chin poking up, like it was meant to mean something. The name rang no bells for Tate.
He glanced down at her hand, then looked away.
"Oh-kay," she said, voice slightly unsure now. She wasn't used to someone acting like this, Tate saw. "Well, I'll show you to your room, yeah? Let me help you with that."
She grabbed the tattered bag at his side, but he wrenched it out of her fingers.
"Don't bother," he said. His voice was hoarse, dead. The only thing he'd said so far was his name to the man who'd found him; he'd ignored the rest of their questions. No one really cared, as long as he'd cooperated with them. And he wasn't one to say no to free food and a bed.
Before the girl could form any words, her eyes wide and mouth stuck open, he turned and walked out of the room.
"Did you see him?"
The words jolted him awake, and his limbs were frozen as his mind tried to orientate itself. He was crushed into the small space between a shelf of books and the wall, the space only big enough to fit a small pre-teen boy such as himself. On rare occasions, he would sneak into the public library until the security guard found him and threw him out, but this was nothing like it—
He remembered. He remembered running, sprinting through the streets, knowing that if he didn't get away he would finally be dead, footsteps pounding behind him and heavy breathing almost in his ear, grasping fingers, then that strange rushing in his ears and a dull thump.
He'd gone to somewhere else entirely. Vanished, were the gritty back alleys of London's shadier areas. Instead, he was surrounded by soaring trees, green leaves brighter than anything he'd ever seen covering the sky, trunks wider than five of him rising up around him. He'd lain there, shocked, breath panting and air thinning, and suddenly the tall man had been there—
And he'd been brought here. To warm food he could barely eat, a warm bed he couldn't stand, and a warm tour guide he could barely look at.
It always took him a while to get his bearings when he woke up. He'd been here a few days and had only used his bed that first night. It was too open in that room, the bed too soft. He'd found a few corners to tuck himself into out of sight, but this one had been his favourite.
Had been, past tense, because the two girls were still gossiping in their high-pitched voices on the other side of his hiding place.
"It looks like he was brought in from the sewer. He stunk."
"Ayla was at admin when they brought him in – apparently they actually did find him living in a sewer! He's homeless. No parents, no siblings, no home, no nothing."
"I can't believe they're letting him in here! Even cleaned up, you can't get rid of that stench."
"And no ones even seen him. He doesn't go to classes or anything! Plus, he completely fobbed Allirah Farcryer off."
At the other girl's gasp, Tate finally stood up and stalked out, rest ruined. The girls saw him, but he didn't stay for their reaction.
The girl – Allirah – found him in the corner of the cleaner's room hours later.
"You're missing classes, you know," she said. Her hair was up today, the dark strands pulled back so her honey eyes were even more obvious.
Tate refused to look at her again.
"I'm your partner."
He didn't say anything.
"Not the talkative type, huh? Lucky I bought a book."
And she sat beside him and read her book.
From then on, he couldn't escape her. She found him no matter where he hid, saying a few words before sitting beside him and reading her book, a different one each time. Slowly, he grew used to it, and found he could ignore her. The same couldn't be said for the mess hall, where she'd wend her way through the tables until she found him tucked into a corner, picking at his food, and sit opposite him. Of course, all her adoring followers soon crowded around them too. They talked over his head like he wasn't there and he liked that, though Allirah typically tried to include him.
He said nothing.
He managed to go on like this for two weeks before the tall man who'd brought him in confronted him.
"You haven't been going to class."
Tate stared at his feet. The shoes were uncomfortable and stiff, but the leather was slowly wearing in. They were more expensive than anything he'd ever owned before, and they gleamed in the overhead lights.
"Look at me when I'm speaking to you, boy."
Tate looked up, body unconsciously following the command before his mind caught up. He scowled when he realised, but the tall man only smiled.
"Do you understand why you're here, boy? You're here because you're one of the very few people in the world with enough magic in their veins to create a portal to the Other. We can teach you how to do this, or you can keep skipping classes until it comes to the headmaster's attention and you're thrown back into the gutter you came from. Are we clear?"
Tate shuffled his feet, fists clenching and unclenching. He remembered the strange world he'd been in, where everything was brighter and the air more pure, before he'd been captured and taken here.
"Give me a new partner."
The man arched an eyebrow.
"I don't think you're in any position to be making demands, kid. Besides, Allirah requested to have you as a partner. And she's the darling of the Academy – no one's gonna deny her anything."
Tate imagined what it was like to live like that, to have whatever you wanted at the tip of your fingers. To never be hungry, or cold, or miserable.
"So you're going to go to classes, boy, or I'll see you thrown out on your ass. Are we clear?"
Tate stared at him for a moment.
The man's smile widened, brimming with self-satisfaction.
"Good. Get your timetable off Allirah."
And then he was gone, and Tate ran to his hiding hole in the library.
When Allirah came to sit beside him, he snapped. "Why are you doing this?"
She blinked at him, slowly, mouth parted in shock until her mind caught up.
"We're partners. That's what partners do: stick by one another."
"You saying you chose me so you'd have a good reason to skip class?"
She frowned, and the expression looked unfamiliar on her face.
"No. I actually like class."
"Then why'd you chose me as a partner, huh? Darling of the Academy," he sneered.
"I like you," she said simply, looking unaffected by his seething anger. "I know you don't like me, but you're way better than anyone else out there. You're interesting."
Whatever answer he'd been expecting, it hadn't been this. He stared at her for only a moment longer, then wiggled backwards and brought his bony knees up to his chest.
"Wake me in time for class," he muttered.
Allirah had an infectious way about her. Like a cold, he didn't realise she had burrowed beneath his skin until one day he woke up sick. And by sick, he meant coming to the realisation that he no longer despised the girl everyone else seemed to worship.
He went to class that morning. And the day after that. And the day after that until days became weeks and weeks became months and time marched on. He learnt everything from mathematics to sparring to chess, and Allirah was always there when he needed help. He never asked for it, but she somehow always knew. She noticed when his reading was severely lacking, and forced him to practise until he was seeing letters in his sleep. She excelled at everything, naturally, and he only beat her at one thing: portals. He soaked up the knowledge spouted by their teacher like a drought-stricken land finally receiving a downpour. He could create portals with just a thought, whereas Allirah had to create it bit by bit.
"How do you do it?" she asked one day, frown lines prominent on her face as she sweated in the sun. Her hard-built portal zapped out of existence as the teacher shouted, "Again!"
"You've got to want it enough," he said. It was easy enough for him, conjuring that special mix of emotions that allowed him to reach out and tear the fabric of the universe so the Other was revealed. All he had to do was remember that soul-searing, bone-jarring need. That desperate need to get the hell out and away, that laser-like focus where his whole world narrowed down until he could only think about escape.
It wasn't how the teacher explained it. He'd spouted phrases like 'sending your thoughts' and 'bending the world to your will' and 'breathing in the sunlight', and Tate only had to remember how he'd felt the first time he'd unwittingly made a portal to get the hang of it.
"I do want it," she huffed. "I want it so badly I'd give my left arm. Maybe then I'll get out of this stupid heat. I hate summer."
If the rest of the students hadn't hated him beforehand, they hated him now. Legacies like Allirah were the ones who were at the top of pyramid, beautiful and strong, their parents all powerful Guardians. Tate was an orphan. A street rat.
The whispered words were insidious, crawling into his mind and cinching sharp claws into his mind until a dark haze shrouded him and he found himself crouched in his spot in the library again.
But Allirah brought him out. Every time, Allirah was there with her warm eyes and wide smile and joyous laugh.
When they were thirteen, a group of boys had held Tate down and beat him until his eyes were swollen shut and his body covered in bruises. No broken bones, though – the teachers only cared once something was broken. Tate had learnt that the hard way. Allirah had taken one look at him and disappeared for the day.
When Tate had seen the boys again, a week later, their eyes were downcast, limbs in casts, one on crutches, bruises faded to that ugly yellow-brown.
Allirah had smirked. Tate didn't say anything.
When they were fifteen, they were allowed their first visit into the Other. It was all very controlled, teachers and fully-fledged Guardians surrounding them. The theory of it was quite boring: sit there and do nothing. Wait until you felt the sickness. Time your resistance.
But in practise, it was anything but dull.
To Tate, it was breathtaking. He'd only had the vague memories of his first time and the countless hours of classes to prepare him, but none of that was enough. The Other was more alive than his world. Everything in it was more: from the vibrant colour of everything, to the unpolluted sweetness of the air, to the utter connection with nature. It was simply more.
To anything this incredible, there had to be downside, of course. If he stayed in the Other long enough, it would eventually kill him. The textbooks outlined it in detail: first, he would get dizzy, spots dancing in his eyes. He would find it hard to breath. He would grow hot as the magic of the Other overpowered his diluted magic and found him to be an imposter in their world, his blood heating and scalding. He would pass out. His skin would bubble. His insides would melt. The textbook had spared no gory detail, even attaching a picture of a melted human body that Tate couldn't get out of his head for days.
Each student had to measure their resistance, staying in the Other as long as they could before the magic attacking them won and began to shut down their bodies.
Allirah lasted three hours and forty-six minutes.
Tate lasted four hours and fifty-two minutes.
When they were sixteen, Alli told him she'd kissed Aster Greatwall. Another ridiculous name for another Legacy. All the Legacies had names straight out of a fifty-year-old fantasy novel, as if names like John Smith or Ben or Tate were too normal for them.
Aster was for the boys what Alli was for the girls: the pinnacle of everything the Academy taught. Another darling. Another student who was too good at everything he touched, and so damn nice that Tate had found he could only pretend to hate him.
Pretend, that is, until Alli had come up to him, biting her lip and wringing her hands, and leaned in to say lowly, "Aster Greatwall kissed me!"
And that pretend hate had solidified into something dark and malicious and snarling, resting at the bottom of his stomach like a seething monster under the bed. There was a strange light in Alli's very familiar warm eyes, something that melted them and something he couldn't describe. Now that he was looking closer, he could see her lips were slightly swollen – or was that just from her biting?
Tate didn't want to know.
The golden boy and the golden girl. How sickeningly perfect. A more beautiful pairing hadn't been seen since Romeo and Juliet, though at least these two weren't star-crossed.
"Congratulations," he said flatly. "Do you have the Other histories I asked for?'
Allirah stared at him for a moment, fidgeting paused for a moment. She blinked and fumbled at her bag, pulling out the heavy book and handing it to him.
"That's all you're going to say about it?"
Tate opened the book and pretended to flick through the pages so he didn't have to see her beseeching eyes or swollen lips.
"Want some advice? Make sure he wears a condom so you don't get pregnant and kicked out." He looked up and smirked at her blank face. "Thanks for this," he said, slamming the book closed and turning.
He found himself spurning the comfort of the library and heading to the sparring arena, where he beat up a punching bag and imagined it was Aster Greatwall's face.
When they were seventeen, they both nearly got kicked out of the Academy altogether.
Tate had a bit of a problem. He liked to steal. He liked the adrenaline building in his veins, the rush, the hyper-awareness, the triumph of a successful hit. Like reading was Allirah's calming hobby, stealing was his.
The Academy let them have some freedom once they'd reached fifteen: two hours every Wednesday afternoon to explore the rest of the city. Tate had always managed to duck out before Allirah could tag along, but he'd grown complacent.
"So where do you go when you disappear into London?"
Tate jumped, whirling to find Allirah standing next to him.
"What are you doing here?"
She arched her eyebrows, saying, "Following you, of course. I'm curious."
"Shouldn't you be off doing . . . whatever it is you normally do? Studying or buying dresses or nail polish or whatever?
"Tate," Allirah said, in that tone of voice that pulled at his heartstrings. Tate was a lot of things – reticent, a loner, a bit of an asshole, churlish – but he could never resist that tone.
"Have you ever stolen something before?" he finally said.
Her eyes widened and she exclaimed, "I knew you were doing something fun!"
Tate always had itching hands – it was a leftover from the days he never had enough of anything. Now the Academy handed out money like they had a never-ending flow of it – which, honestly, they probably did. So when he stole, it was always something small, and he always left a few notes behind to cover it and then some.
The first thing Allirah stole was a pen from a newsagent. The look on her face was priceless – eyes wide, face pale and rigid, body tense.
She was a terrible thief.
But she brandished the pen with such a wide smile, he could only say, "Good work – you're a natural."
And she beamed at him and the lie was worth it.
He stole a freshly-baked loaf of bread next, leaving ten quid behind. They walked through the streets of London munching on it, Tate carefully leading them away from the darker areas he used to frequent.
Unfortunately, Alli was not an idiot and knew him better than he knew himself.
"Do you remember anything pre-Academy?"
It was the first time she'd asked this.
"Of course I do. It was only six years ago."
But six years was a long time. None of the other rats he used to run with would recognise him now, completely different from the dirty urchin with skin stretch tight over his skeleton.
"And?" she prompted.
"I remember being cold. Being hungry. Being beaten for stealing what I needed to survive, until I was good enough not to get caught." His eyes caught sight of an alley, the walls so close together that no light penetrated. Garbage littered the edges, and the ragged form of an old man slumped at the entrance, tin can held out in front of him to uncaring commuters. "I remember being alone," he said, the words drifting out of him quietly.
He froze when he realised what he said, eyes wide. He glanced at Allirah – maybe she hadn't heard? – but of course she had. She opened her mouth and Tate darted across the street, slipping a bundle of notes into the man's tin. He preferred to give food, but they'd almost finished the loaf of bread between them.
"Do you remember your parents?" Allirah asked when she'd caught up to him.
"No," he said curtly. He jerked his head at a new age hippie shop, the heady scent of incense making his nose curl. "Try something from there."
And their previous conversation was closed, just like that. Allirah knew not to push it. She looked at the shop, and the expression on her face was a mix of terror and excitement.
"From there? Really?" she asked, voice hushed.
"They don't have cameras. Not that it'd matter anyway, since we're not in any kind of files the police have." She stood still, staring at the shop until Tate snapped, "Well go on. You wanted to follow me."
She looked at him and bit her lip, then nodded decisively.
"Just remember what I told you," he called out as she walked into the shop.
He leant against a pole and watched her out of the corner of his eye. She browsed through the shop, um-ing and ah-ing at stuff until the cashier was busy with a customer. Then her hand darted out and she snagged one of the scarves, bundling it up under her shirt and walking out with her head down. As soon as the door shut behind her, she grinned brilliantly at Tate, brandishing the scarf. It was a monstrosity, all oranges and reds and sparkles and golden markings, but Tate thought anything that wasn't black was a monstrosity.
Tate couldn't stop the helpless smile spreading across his face, until the door to the hippie shop slamming open caught his eye.
"Hey!" the cashier yelled. "You didn't pay for that! Get back here!"
Allirah jumped and spun around, the damning evidence clutched in her hands. Even worse, two policemen rounded the corner a few shops down. The woman stalked towards Allirah and Allirah, who could best men twice her size in the sparring arena, was frozen to the ground.
Tate swore and darted forward, snatching Allirah's arm and pulling her after him as he ran.
"Stop!" the cashier yelled after them. "Someone stop them! Thieves!"
As they rounded a corner, Tate glanced behind him and saw the policemen giving chase. He swore, this time at greater length.
"Ohfuck ohfuck ohfuck ohfuck," Allirah chanted, in time with the pounding of their feet. "Ohfuckohfuckohfuckohfuck."
Tate pulled Allirah along, darting around startled pedestrians and lunging into winding alleys. They couldn't seem to shake them, and they were catching up: dumb tourists and angry workers more likely to get out of the way of two men in uniform than two teenagers.
Tate had a few options up his sleeve, but he was in a daring mood.
"I have an idea!" he said, glancing at Allirah. Her face was pale, two spots of red high on her cheeks, but she nodded.
He searched the street for a good anchor, and found the perfect place.
"See that phone booth up there, the bright red one?"
Allirah nodded again, her breath puffing in and out.
"You're going to climb up that fence next to it and drop down."
Allirah looked at the space between the brick house and the fence – at this angle, they could only see that the ground was at least one storey below.
"Are you insane?" Allirah exclaimed. "I knew you were different, but I didn't think you were batshit insane!"
"Don't be ridiculous. I'll open a portal and we'll jump safely into the Other."
If any person saw him open a hole in the fabric of the universe and jump through it, his fate would be worse than expulsion. But the drop was shielded from everyone's eyes, and the ground would suit as a proper anchor to open the portal up against. He couldn't just create one from thin air – they needed something solid.
"You've lost your mind! That's against all the rules!"
And suddenly, the phone booth was in front of them and Tate pushed Allirah towards it. She grabbed onto the fence, hauling herself up easily and muttering the whole while. Tate slashed his arm and Allirah, to her credit, didn't hesitate, dropping from the other side. She fell for a second then disappeared into the portal. Tate followed soon after, his gangly legs easily lifting him clear of the spikes on top. The policemen were almost upon him when he jumped off the other side. Air rushed in his ears, the brick walls on either side of him a blur, then he was through the portal and rolling across the ground. Vertigo rushed through him as he spun, his mind struggling to reorient itself.
He stopped with his face in the grass and paused there for a moment, letting the sweet smell of the dirt and leaves beneath him and the soft cooing of birds fill his ears.
That's right – Alli was with him.
"Holy fucking shit! This is against so many rules!"
Tate sighed and rolled onto his back, smiling up at the brilliant green leaves that stretched across his entire eyesight.
"So you've said."
"That was . . . bloody hell . . . that was incredible!"
Tate glanced to the side. Alli was standing up, spinning slowly in a circle, a gorgeous smile on her face and for the millionth time, Tate could see that golden inner light shining from her and lighting up everything it touched.
She was always beautiful, but when she was happy, she made the rest of the world breathtaking too.
She was the only colour in his black and white world.
"We are going to be in so much shit!" she said, but the smile remained firmly on her face. "Is this what you do every time you do this?"
Tate pushed himself up, rolling his shoulders.
"Not quite," he said with a small smile, "I don't normally do that last part."
"Holy wow," she said, her breath finally evening. "This is . . . actually pretty dangerous."
"That's why I brought this," he said, reaching under his shirt for the sheath at his back. He flicked the catch and the short sword slid out. It was bright silver, reflecting a mirror image of the greenery around them – every student at the Academy had one like it, but Tate was the only one who'd had a special sheath commissioned that would fit under his normal civilian clothing. He liked to be prepared for any eventuality.
"Of course you did," Alli said, rolling her eyes. "But won't they know?"
Tate shrugged. "They haven't noticed before, but normally I open portals in a busier area. We better go quick."
When their teacher had explained portals to them, Tate had been too busy with drawing a tribal pattern on his arm with permanent marker to care overly much. Allirah had had to explain it to him later. The fabric of their universe to the Other didn't lie flat against each other. Instead, it was like a crumpled sheet – walking a metre on Earth could mean walking a kilometre in the Other. They didn't always match up. And the uneven pooling of magic meant some places were easier to create portals than others, making them more 'busy'.
And so Tate led them through the forest, away from where the phone booth was on Earth. He didn't particularly want to explain to the police why he not only had a sword, but also appeared from thin air.
They were chatting idly when Urich Hall stepped out onto the path, dressed in the worn leathers of the Guardians, huge sword hilt poking up from his shoulder. Now that Tate had gone through his final growth spurt, he was just as tall as Hall now, though the man still intimidated the shit out of him.
"What a nice fucking surprise," Hall said, crossing his arms so his biceps, as big as Tate's head, bulged out. "Two of my students wandering the Other with no escort, no instruction, and nothing more than a stick for protection. And what a surprise that it was you, Tate, dragging Allirah into it."
"I made him take me," Alli said, stepped forward and in front of Tate. "It was all my idea."
"That's a load of bullshit," Tate scoffed, shouldering past her. "She couldn't make me do anything."
It was a giant lie, and by the look on Hall's face, he damn well knew it.
"I honestly don't give a shit," Hall said. "I'm just excited for the look on the Headmaster's face when I drag you two sorry excuses for kids in front of him."
And that was how they almost got expelled. It was a close call, but Tate knew they couldn't afford to throw out the daughter of two of the most famous Guardians around. The toilet scrubbing duty and midnight watches of the next two months, however, made him nearly wish for expulsion.
And finally, when they were eighteen and Alli was scowling at him as the nurse fixed up his broken nose after yet another intense sparring round with Aster Greatwall, Tate realised he was in love with her.
"Form up! Get some resemblance of order, you worthless shits," Hall yelled, pacing to and fro and fixing unlucky students with his scowling gaze.
Tate stood in line, next to Alli, and could barely stop himself from shaking from a potent mix of excitement and fear. This was it. The final test.
Seven years of schooling had led to this day. Not everyone would pass this day, and would have to wait for the next class to be ready – which could be weeks, months, or an entire year.
And Tate had to pass. There was no way Alli was failing, and Tate had heard many stories of one partner passing and leaving the other behind.
Which wasn't an option. Since being picked off the streets, Tate had crafted his whole world around Allirah and this partnership. He'd done everything he could to keep them together up to this point, but he just had to keep going a little while longer.
It was dark now. Only a few hours until sunrise. As it always did, the night made him uneasy. With the absence of the sun came the absence of magic. All the other students felt it too, shifting with uneasiness, hands tight on weapons. The most powerful Guardians could draw magic from the moon, but Tate wasn't there just yet. Their leathers creaked as they moved – they couldn't wear their own clothes, since anything made of new technology eventually disintegrated in the Other.
Just like their bodies.
And there was the rub – London's time was perfectly synched with the Other's, meaning that once the Headmaster dumped them over there, there was no getting back until the sun rose. Hours in the Other as their bodies broke down, surviving in the wilds they'd only ever read about or seen in very controlled environments. At least the Academy dumped them in a place far away from any towns or cities, so there'd be little chance of bumping into any of the inhabitants who were more likely to stick a sword through them than help.
"We'll be fine," Alli said, leaning over to squeeze his hand tightly for a moment. Tate breathed out, taking his nerves with it. Alli's hand on his, palms rough with calluses the same as his, straightened his spine and stopped the thousand thoughts chasing each other in his head.
The Headmaster opened the first portal and just like that, with no ceremony whatsoever, the first pair stepped through.
It didn't take long to get to Allirah and Tate.
"Good luck," the Headmaster murmured, and then he was slashing his hand and the portal was there. Allirah threw one reckless grin at him, before jumping through and disappeared in a flash. Tate swore and jumped after her. In between one breath and the next, he was rolling across the ground. He sprung to his feet and held still. Everything was still, except for Alli next to him.
It was strange being in the Other at night. Everything was dull, muted compared to the day, but whatever the moonlight touched glowed a dull silver.
"Let's go find a place to wait this out, then," Alli said, and Tate nodded. He followed her through the forest, both of their footsteps near silent on the forest floor. The darkness set him on edge, but he found himself relaxing even further. This was where he felt most alive, more connected to himself than ever – with Alli in the vibrancy of the Other.
He almost bumped into her when she stopped and knelt down. Tate leaned over next to her and saw her picking at tiny, gold-hued sunberries. She offered a handful to Tate.
"Your favourite," she whispered, and Tate couldn't do anything but smile helplessly back.
They'd gone over this so many times back in the Academy that actually doing it felt almost an anti-climax. They found a tree bigger than the rest and set up camp, using its roots to create a shelter. They both sat with legs sprawled out in front of them, opposite each other leaning against the enormous roots.
"How are you feeling?" Tate asked softly.
"I'm just peachy, thank you," Alli said. "It's only been an hour and you don't last that much longer than me."
"An hour and a half is a long time."
She waved her hand dismissively, saying, "Not long at all."
It was quiet, after that, and Tate leaned his head back against the root to see what he could of the sky. A cool breeze had picked up, and between the rustling leaves he could make out some stars.
"Aster Greatwall took me out to dinner the other night," Allirah said.
It had been three days ago, actually.
"I know," Tate said softly, not moving.
The worst thing about this was that Aster wasn't actually too bad of a guy. He was smart and wickedly good with a blade, and had talent by the boatload. And he genuinely cared for Alli – Tate could see that plainly, when he wasn't trying to put his fist through the other man's handsome face.
It didn't mean he could accept it, though.
"It was nice," she said. Tate held so still he stopped breathing. "He asked me out again some time." Tate kept his eyes locked on to the leaves, but he wasn't seeing them anymore. "I said—"
"Jesus, what is your problem, Allirah?" Tate snapped, finally meeting her eyes. "I don't want to know this shit. Go fuck him for all I care, but don't give me a bloody blow-by-blow description of it."
"Why not?" Allirah challenged, her eyes alight. "Why can't I tell my best friend the details of someone who could soon be my boyfriend?"
He stood up, limbs suddenly twitchy and antsy. "I'm going for a piss and then I'll take first watch. Get some sleep."
"Oh yes, run away from the questions you don't want to answer. Like that's worked so well for you in the past."
"What the hell do you want me to say?" he hissed, spinning around to stare down at her. "You're trying to make me say something – why don't you just spit it out?"
Allirah pushed up so they were eye to eye.
"I want you to look deep into yourself and recognise your own goddamn feelings, Tate," Allirah said, "instead of burying them down and hiding them with the other huge amounts of shit you refuse to talk about."
Tate opened his mouth, ready to spit words he knew he'd regret, when he heard it. Not so much heard it, as felt it. The stillness of the woods. The complete and utter silence, that heralded a deadly predator lurking nearby.
Allirah frowned at him. Tate held out a hand until he heard it – a faint rustling to his left. He lunged forward, grabbing Allirah's arm and hauling her with him. They weaved around trees, feet swift on the ground and uncaring of the noise this time. A warbling howl came from to their left, taken up by throats behind them and to the right.
They were ringed in, and by a pack of hellwolves out of all the predators out here. Hellwolves were notorious for picking up a scent and relentlessly hunting as a group until they took their prey down. All these facts and more flitted through Tate's head, and they all led to one inevitable conclusion:
There was no way to shake them on foot. Maybe if there were more of them, they'd be able to stand their ground, but no other students were likely to come to their rescue, even if they were around.
Tate saw an opening in the trees ahead and raced forward, realising what awaited them.
"Don't stop!" Tate yelled at Allirah. She nodded, her breathing barely heavy and jaw set tightly. He still had a tight hold on her arm, but he wasn't letting go any time soon. That warbling howl started up again, this time much closer, almost at their heels. They burst out of the trees. Tate didn't get time admire the vista spread before them, lit by the moon's glow. They careened forward, sprinting faster and faster, until the edge of the cliff was on them and there was no more ground beneath their feet.
They hurtled through the air. The howls of the hellwolves were muffled now by the roaring wind. Tate made his body into a pin, but the impact with the icy water still knocked all the breath from his lungs. He arrowed through the sea, limbs flailing.
He'd lost Alli.
He opened his eyes and squinted around. It was all dark. He clawed through the water, lungs burning, up and up and up and up—
His head broke into sweet, sweet air, and he was gasping it in, choking and coughing when a wave smashed into his face. He bobbed around, spinning frantically until he saw an arm waving at him.
"-ate! Tate! Over here!"
His hearing cleared up and the sounds assaulted him all at once: the water splashing his ears, Alli's voice, the waves pounding the rocky cliffs. He swam over to her, hugging her closely to him.
He pulled back at her small gasp in his ear.
"What's the matter? Are you okay? Are you hurt?"
"I'm fine, you mother hen," Allirah said, giving a small smile despite her chattering teeth. "I just did something to my shoulder, is all. We can take a look at it when we get to shore."
"Can you swim?"
Allirah splashed water at him with the hand that wasn't hanging useless at her side.
"Of course I can. I'll beat you back, even."
As much as Tate wanted to protest, there was not much he could do for her stuck in the ocean.
He looked up at the cliff, and gave a shiver that had nothing to do with the icy water. The forms of several hulking wolves were outlined against the night sky, pacing back and forth on the cliff's edge.
He scanned the rest of the coastline. The current was dragging them towards the rocks, and there'd be no way they could swim against it to the beach. On the cliffs, there was no sign of any waterline. He glanced around and saw it – a spot where the waves were white and foaming.
"C'mon," Tate said, "we can't get back to the shore right now but we can wait until high tide passes on that sandbar over there, then walk in."
Alli looked at him, and in her wide dark eyes were all the questions Tate didn't want to think about, let alone answer. How long would the tide take to go out? Did they even have that time? Would the hellwolves still be tracking them then?
But she nodded all the same, and began swimming with one arm towards the sandbar. Tate stayed next to her, worried about her unmoving arm, but knowing better than to say anything.
When they hit the sandbar, it proved to be their first stroke of luck for the night – there was a space, a few metres in area, that was above the water level. Alli flopped onto her back, panting and shivering, and Tate crawled up next to her.
"Let me look at your arm," he said, and for once Alli didn't argue. He hovered over her awkwardly for a moment before she huffed and sat up, undoing the ties on her leathers and taking it off her good arm, then gingerly rolling it off her bad shoulder. She sat there in nothing but her pants and a breastband, and Tate kept his eyes firmly away from the near see-through bit of fabric.
"Can you put your hand on your other shoulder?" Tate asked softly, comparing both of her shoulders. Alli shook her head, but Tate already knew she wouldn't be able to – her right shoulder was a completely different shape. It was dislocated. Tate told her so, then said, "Do you want me to put it back in?"
Allirah sighed. They both knew the dangers of letting him do it, but at the moment, she couldn't afford to not have both arms.
She nodded, then turned her head away.
He grasped her arm and gently straightened it, pulling out on it. The nurses had done his for him multiple times, but he tried to go gentler than they ever had. He knew it hurt like a bitch. He slowly raised it above her head, keeping an angle into it, until it suddenly popped back in.
She screamed, then clamped her teeth tight on it and held it in. Her whole body quaked, and after a few moments she let out a harsh pant.
"Holy fuck," Allirah eventually said. "I really wish I had some painkillers right now."
"Not likely out here," Tate said. "But at least the cold helps, right?"
"Yeah, right," Alli said, rolling her eyes at him and laying back. "What are you doing?"
Tate stared at her. "Um, keeping watch?"
Alli snorted. "For what? Killer dolphins? Swimming hellwolves? You'll be more useful here keeping me warm."
Tate froze, mouth opening and closing dumbly.
"Today, Tate," she said. "Before I die of hypothermia would be nice."
Tate jolted into action, awkwardly lying down next to her on his back. She immediately rolled onto her good arm, placing her head on his chest and entwining a leg with his.
"You always did run warm," Allirah murmured, the vibrations from her voice travelling through his body. "Never thought this'd be how I'd find out, though."
"How did you expect to find out?" Tate asked hesitantly, weakly. His eyes were fixed on her dark wet hair splayed across his chest, inky in the moonlight.
"Well, you would admit that you've liked me for years, firstly," Allirah said, tone exactly the same as if she were discussing the weather. "And then I would reply in kind, and we'd make up for lost time. And I would discover just how warm you run."
"Really?" Tate said, voice strangled.
"Yes. I didn't think I'd be stranded on a beach, waiting for whatever comes first: the low tide, or my resistance running out."
Allirah struggled against him for a moment until she was sitting propped up.
"Jesus, are you serious, Tate?" she said, livid. "I spell it out for you and you still don't say anything? I know you don't say much, but this is just ridiculous."
"I . . . You . . . What am I supposed to say!"
"How about 'oh yes, Alli, I really like you too'?"
"I—I really like you too, Alli," Tate said, voice weak. The words could barely escape him, after being held inside for so long. He felt vulnerable, open, and he hated it at the same time it brought an intense wave of relief – Allirah was the only one here and he trusted her with his life, no matter what.
"Now you're just saying that to placate me!" Allirah cried.
"For chrissake!" Tate exploded. "I love you, Allirah! I love you, and I have for years and years! Is that better? Does that suit your expectations?"
A brilliant smile spread across her face, her lips turning slightly blue.
"Oh, Tate," she breathed, leaning down and fitting her lips over his. He froze, her lips cold and wet against his, until his brain fried and his body took over. His hands ran up her body to cradle her face and he moved his lips gently against hers. He'd snuck a few kisses with girls behind the equipment shed over the years, but this felt like the first kiss he'd ever had. Allirah lay awkwardly across his chest, favouring her shoulder, her nose bumping into his and teeth clinking, yet he'd never lived through a more perfect moment.
Allirah pulled away first and Tate kept his eyes closed a moment longer, savouring it. He cracked open his eyes and was faced with Allirah's smile, bathing him in that golden glow she exuded.
"This should feel weirder," he murmured. "I grew up with you; you should be like my sister."
"I never considered you my brother," Allirah said, "and I know you didn't look at me like a sister. You think you're a lot more subtle than you really are, Tate, and I know you inside and out."
Tate smiled slightly. "That's a bit of a worry."
She leaned in, kissing him softly again for a moment before drawing away and resting her head down again, curled around him.
"You don't have to worry about anything," Allirah said, her voice growing lazy with sleep. "Other than getting us off this island, of course."
Tate was freezing cold and aching, but he'd never felt more alive in his life.
Tate should've known. He shouldn't've let her sleep for so goddamn long. He'd closed his eyes for a moment, and in the next, the sun was peeking above the horizon. He'd shaken Allirah, but she hadn't moved.
She was completely limp. Unresponsive.
Tate was near mindless with panic, but a quick test had proved that she still breathed. He could feel the beginnings of the sickness at the edges of his awareness, and his resistance was much greater to Allirah's. Since she'd fallen unconscious, she probably had twenty minutes.
Dammit, if only he hadn't fallen asleep!
He stood up and called a portal, using the ground as an anchor. The magic from the sun swelled through him, building, but it wouldn't catch. The sand was too wet, not strong enough to anchor the portal.
"Shit," Tate muttered, followed by a longer string of expletives.
The tide had lowered quite a lot, thankfully. Their island had grown, with a trail leading off towards the cliffs, not the shore like he'd hoped. He looked at his options, but time wasn't going to pause until he'd made a decision.
"Screw it," he finally said.
They both had lengths of ropes at their waists, doubling as a belt, and he snatched both of them. He held them in his teeth as he hauled Allirah's limp body onto his back. His hands barely trembled as they tied her hands tightly around his neck, then looped the last bit of rope around their waists. He had to bend over to keep her perfectly balanced, but he didn't need to be on his feet for long.
He followed the sand trail as long as it went then splash out into the water, moving into breaststroke when it got too deep. He kept Allirah's head above the water with his own. Her breath fluttered weakly in his ear, spurring him faster and faster. The current was with them this time, washing them towards the cliffs and jagged rocks. Allirah almost slipped to the side a few times, but he managed to catch her each time.
The first rock he smashed into was blunt, bruising his shoulder. The pain, amplified by the cold, made him gasp, but he kept going. The second scraped along his forearm, and the next tore a gash in his thigh, but he didn't let himself stop for a moment. He'd been swimming for at least ten minutes.
Alli wasn't going to last much longer.
He couldn't feel her breath in his ear anymore, but that could've been the pain taking over. He slid over another rock and he was hurtling at the cliff face. He slashed his hand and the jagged rock was a good enough anchor for a portal to open, a mere millisecond before he smashed through. He closed it straight after, tumbling across hard ground as water washed over them. He rolled until he was on his stomach, then pushed up with shaking limbs. His fingers fumbled at the rope, but the knots were too slick and tight, so he lifted her arms above his head and used his beltknife to saw through the other one. She slumped to the ground and he was there in an instant, cheek hovering over her mouth and fingers feeling for a pulse.
He felt a faint puff on his cold cheek a few seconds before her pulse jumped under his fingers, sluggish. As he felt it, it grew stronger.
"This isn't quite where you were meant to appear."
Tate's head flew up, seeing Hall standing right in front of him, feet planted and arms crossed. He blinked, and looked around.
He was in what had been the cooks' vegie garden, before their bodies had squished half the herbs and the flood of water had drowned the rest.
Now that he knew Allirah was fine, he sat back on his heels, exhausted. With the adrenaline pumping through him, plus the near-supernatural power of sheer panic, he hadn't realised how his own resistance was failing. He felt completely drained; could hardly keep his eyes focused on the big man before him.
"Trust me, if I had a choice we wouldn't be here," he said, shrugging.
"The magic almost got her, but she's recovering now. I had to put her shoulder back in too. I'm fine."
"Are you, now?" Hall said, eyebrows raised. "Acting macho and fearless belongs in the pub, not in the battlefield. Not acknowledging your own weakness leads not only to your failure, but the failure of yours around you."
"Wha . . . ?" Tate blinked blearily, then his mind caught up. He looked down and saw blood streaming from his thigh, the tear barely visible through the blood.
And then he past out.
Someone was stroking his cheek, the touch sending warm waves through his body and making him lean into it. He sighed.
"You're a stupid, stupid boy, you know that?"
He cracked open his eyes, and was met with her beautiful face. When their eyes met, she let out a radiant smile.
"Hello, stupid boy. How are you feeling this evening?"
"Fantastic," he said, voice hoarse.
"Don't lie to me, Tate no-last-name. You feel like shit and you look like it too."
He paused and gathered his thoughts. Her hand hadn't moved from his cheek and it felt beyond amazing.
"I may have felt better on other days," he finally admitted, and Allirah let out a surprised peal of laughter.
"Jeez, you're such a man! Hall already filled me in on how you tried to tell him you were fine, despite the huge gash in your leg. You had to get thirty-eight stitches for that, you know."
"I was a bit more worried about you," Tate said, searching her eyes then the rest of her he could see. She was in civilian clothes now, a plain white t-shirt and looking as normal as always. They were in the infirmary, as familiar to him as his own dorm room. "How are you doing?"
"Other than a bit of an ache in my shoulder, I'm completely healed up. I slept off the rest of my sickness. You, on the other hand—"
"Let's not talk about me," he said quickly. "Let's talk about . . ."
He trailed off, because there was one thing he wanted to talk about but what if his words ruined it? What if—
He shoved his overthinking mind away and said, voice hard, "Let's talk about what happened on that sandbar back there. Did you mean anything about what you said? Or was it the near-death situation that made you say it?" Her mouth snapped open, eyes angry, but he continued, "Because I meant everything I said and if you didn't, you need to tell me now."
"Of course I did you stupid, idiot boy. Do I seem like the type of person to make those kind of proclamations because I'm about to die?"
Tate was too busy focusing on her first sentence to worry about the last bit.
"You meant it? Really?"
She rolled her eyes, leaning down and pecking him on the lips.
"Yes, Tate, yes. I bloody meant it. I've only been waiting, oh, six years or so for you to own up to your own feelings."
"Oh," Tate breathed.
"That's right. Oh," Alli said. "Now, I'm not kissing you again until you brush your teeth. You can't put any wait on your leg right now, but there are crutches against the wall."
"Wait, where are you going?" he asked, scrambling up into a sitting position as she turned and made her way to the door.
"I'm going to go see Aster about that dinner he promised me," she said breezily.
"You what?" he growled.
She was already out in the corridor, but her laughter floated back to him, followed by, "You're too easy, Tate!"
He slumped back in the pillows, scowling. It didn't last for long. It faded, slowly, and turned into a small smile.
He didn't how the rest of his life would play out, or even if they'd passed the final test, but he now had Allirah, fully and completely.
And that made everything else seem okay.
A/N: This is my entry to A Drop of Romeo's Star-Cross'd competition, and I did the phone booth prompt (if you couldn't tell haha). Definitely go check out everyone else's too, they're pretty incredible!
This story is yet another one I tried to make short, yet ended up super long. I also developed this world sooo much more than what I actually used, oopsy.