“Yes, Mom, I know.” Miranda sighed and leaned back in the seat of her car. She tapped her finger impatiently on the steering wheel as she waited for the light to turn. “I’m aware that I’ll never be able to buy a house. Thanks.”
“I’m just worried for you. You need to make more money if you want to live comfortably.”
Miranda shifted the phone from her shoulder to her hand when the light turned, needing a better grip on it as she set the car in motion. The salty ocean air whipped a cool breeze through the open windows of her car as she moved, and she inhaled deeply to steel herself. “I know, mother.”
“You should interview for that position. You could do it.”
“I am going to interview for it, I just told you,” Miranda said. “Okay. I’m here. I have to go. I’ll call you later, okay?”
“Will you come over for dinner this week?”
“Yeah. Sure. That’s okay.” Miranda parked her car and kicked the door of her little sedan open to step out into bright Hawaiian sunshine.
“You will be fine, Mai Lei.”
“Thanks, mama,” Miranda responded. She disconnected the call and slid the phone into it’s home in her pocket. She spent a good five minutes gathering herself at the trunk of her car before she felt ready to face the tourists on the beach. Her mother always sent her into a spin and got her head right where she didn’t want it to be.
With a harsh breath, Miranda threw open her trunk and dragged out her wetsuit and two piece. Putting her mother’s words in the back of her mind, she headed down to the small shack on the beach where their operation ran. Her immediate supervisor was already there, suiting up, and he grinned at her.
“Hey,” she responded. She dropped her stuff on the floor of the shack and peeled her shirt off. “What’s on the agenda today?”
“Two kiddie classes and some rich folk from the Westin booked the after-lunch slot.” Approaching forty, Richard Tanson was in impeccable shape. Smooth skin rippled over toned muscle as he slid his wetsuit on and tugged the zip. His hair was just starting to salt and pepper at his temples, but the warm brush of the sun had coloured his skin enough that the effect was one of overwhelmingly welcoming ruggedness.
The ladies enjoyed his lessons.
“I’ll take the Westin if you take both kiddie classes,” Miranda said before Richard could get out another word.
“You sure?” Richard asked. He cocked an eyebrow. Miranda nodded. “Fine by me. I’ll see you at lunch, then.”
“Deal.” Miranda unhooked her bra as he stepped out of the shack, and quickly slithered into her two piece before grabbing her board. Beach patrol then, until time for the lesson came.
The local research centre had asked them to assist in a project regarding wave functions, and the only thing they had to do was afix a small device to the nose of their boards while they surfed. Nothing to it, and they got a nice little sum for sending the data back while they did what they already would have been doing.
She grabbed her board and stepped into the bright Hawaiian sunshine. The sand was warm under her feet, almost too hot as she walked towards the surf. Almost.
When she hit the water she flattened herself to her board and paddled out past the breakers. High tide was a bit aways, so she had time to warm up before she had to escort rich tourists into her ocean. She could see Richard on the beach, surrounded by kids half his height. He caught her eye and she waved at him. He ignored her, and she laughed.
The sun beat relentlessly upon her shoulders, but her hard-earned tan protected her from the worst of it, at least until the afternoon hours. She might have to put some sunscreen on at that point. She’d worry about that later though. She had waves to catch.
She totally wiped out on the first one, much to her irritation. When she surfaced from the clawing current, she gripped her board and pushed soaked strands out of her eyes. She let herself drift, trying to centre herself with the flow of the water. Her mother’s phone call had gotten to her more than she originally thought. She had to focus.
She rested her cheek on the board and listened to the sound of water rocking beneath it.
Several deep breaths later, she climbed back on the board and caught a good swell. The feeling of the board rolling under her, gliding along the smooth slick of water with her body guiding it was second to none, and she lost herself in the sensation.
The waves came easier after that, and she was starting to feel the gentle ache of exercise set into her limbs. She hopped up on the board and sat in the ocean, straddling her board for balance. Richard’s class was almost finished. The kids were wobbling about in the shallows, trying and failing to stand on mini-boards.
Something brushed against her ankle and she kicked out absently. Seaweed, or a stray fish of some sort, most likely. It slithered against her skin again and she shuddered involuntarily. She kicked out harder, pushing her board in the water. She glanced into the ocean, but couldn’t see anything in the swirl of dark water. A glance at the other surfers showed none of them noticed anything out of the ordinary. A persistent fish then?
Something cold and slick suddenly surrounded her ankle and yanked. Caught off guard, she flipped on her board and hung, gripping it, under the surface as her leg was jerked towards the depths. She gritted her teeth and kicked, but it felt like someone was gripping her ankle and pulling her hard. She couldn’t get her leg free, and she couldn’t pull herself back up onto her board.
Her fingers slipped, and her board popped out of her grasp, buoyed by the waves rolling over her head. She scrambled for it, but the thing on her ankle seized the chance, dragging her deeper into the ocean.
She hadn’t gotten a good breath in her surprise, and air dribbled out her nose as she reached for her ankle, to try and free herself from whatever had her. There was nothing around her ankle. Her fingers dug into her own skin, not a bit of seaweed, or an overzealous surfer. There was nothing there.
She opened her eyes, surprise exploding from her in a flurry of bubbles.
A figure glowed beneath her, shaped like a human. Miranda’s eyes widened. The figure raised its head and when Miranda saw half of its face missing, decomposed and gaping- She screamed.
Water flooded her windpipe and she choked, flailing desperately towards the surface. The thing on her ankle kept pulling her, the light from the surface growing dimmer the further she sank. Water burned her throat, sliding into her lungs and setting her entire chest on fire-
Someone’s arms went around her ribs and yanked hard. The icy grip on her ankle disappeared, and she lurched to the surface.
They broke into air, splashing and flailing, and Miranda’s arm slapped against her board. She grabbed it, fingers sinking into giving foam as she spit up the water she swallowed. The arms around her middle loosened, and she fumbled blindly for them, hauling a young man from the water to get his arms around her board, above the surface.
Miranda pushed wet hair out of her eyes and saw Richard paddling out to her. She heard the hum of a jet ski slicing through the water, and didn’t have the energy or the breath to respond. Richard reached her first, his fingers closing around her elbow with bruising force.
Her last thought was the kid who saved her was wearing a winter jacket and that was a bit odd.
She opened her eyes and found herself lying on her back staring up at a white ceiling.
She tipped her head and saw Richard sitting beside her gated bed. Hospital. She was in the hospital. She was in a hospital gown. Jesus.
“What happened?” Miranda asked. Her voice was incredibly hoarse. She winced, and Richard touched a hand to her forehead.
“It looked like you wiped out, but the ocean was smooth.” Richard leaned forward in his chair, elbows on his knees. “And I know you, Miranda. You wouldn’t wipe out in smooth waters.”
“Something grabbed me,” Miranda said. “It grabbed my ankle and dragged me under. And-” -it was dead.
“A jellyfish?” Richard asked, his rugged features twisting in confusion.
“No.” Miranda felt nauseous. “It looked human. But- There was nothing there, right?”
“Just the kid that pulled you up,” Richard said. “And he was no help. No memory of anything. Doesn’t remember his name, his address, his phone number… He had a few fake IDs on him, and none of the names match anything in any database anywhere. Damndest thing. He was in a full coat, boots and all. Like he just stepped out of Alaska. Do you know who he is?”
“I don’t.” Miranda shifted onto her back, staring at the ceiling. “I’ve never seen him before.”
“Maybe you can get more out of him than we can. The nurses won’t stop hounding me. When I heard he couldn’t remember anything and had no money, I told the staff that I’d take care of him until they could figure his identity.” Richard ran a hand through his hair. It was still damp. Miranda couldn’t have been here long. “As if I know anything more than they do.”
“Did anyone call my mom?” Miranda asked.
“She was in a meeting, and she’ll be on her way as soon as she gets out,” Richard said. “They want to keep you overnight for observation. Secondary drowning.”
Miranda groaned, sinking into the pillows. Richard patted her shoulder with a tight smile.
“Take it easy, kiddo,” Richard said. “You scared me out there today.”
“I was scared,” Miranda admitted. She closed her eyes and shuddered. “That thing wouldn’t let me go-”
“You’re all right, Miranda.” Richard gripped her shoulder tightly. “You’re okay. And you’ll be back in the water before you know it.”
“Mai Lei!” Her mother burst into the room, hair frizzed with anxiety and a briefcase clutched in her hands. Richard stood and moved aside to let her Mama approach the bed and gather Miranda up in a fierce hug. She murmured soothing Mandarin into Miranda’s ear, and Miranda gripped her mother tightly, tucking her face into the smell of home. Her mother pulled back and gripped her shoulders. “What happened?”
“Something pulled me under,” Miranda said. She hesitated, sliding her gaze to Richard who was watching her intently. Miranda switched briefly to Mandarin. “It… It looked like a water ghost.”
Her mother frowned, her lips pursing delicately. “Those stories aren’t real, Mai Lei.”
“I know, but- I saw it-” Miranda said. “It was dead and it had my ankle. There’s nothing else that could have been in the water.”
“Are you sure it wasn’t seaweed?” Her mother tucked a strand of wet hair behind her ear. “Things look different when you’re frightened.”
“It wasn’t. I don’t know.” Miranda shook her head. “I don’t know what it was. But it shouldn’t have been there.”
“Okay. It’s okay. Just get some rest.” Her mother smoothed her hands over Miranda’s hair, shushing her. She stood and set her briefcase on the ground. “Thank you, Mr Tanson, for watching until I arrived.”
“It wasn’t anything,” Richard said. He shoved his hands into his pockets. “I’m just as worried as you are. The kid that saved her has amnesia. I’m going to go sit with him for a bit”
Richard took his leave, and Miranda’s mother settled in the chair by her bedside. She pulled out her laptop and started to work from her chair.
“You don’t have to wait here,” Miranda said. “They said I’m fine. They just want to keep me for observation.”
“I’ll wait here until you fall asleep,” her mother said. “You need to recover somewhere you won’t be bothered. And I can get some work done.”
True to her word, when Miranda woke in the middle of the night, her mother was gone. The short stab of pain at the abandonment was quickly squashed when a shadow fell across her doorway. She sat up in the hospital bed and saw the man that had rescued her.
“Hello?” she asked. She was afraid to raise her voice and break the serenity of the hospital’s night hours.
His head inclined towards her, and she narrowed her eyes. He looked pale and thin in the overlarge hospital gown, and he gripped the doorway as if it was helping his balance. He took a small step forward, uncertain in that barest motion, and Miranda caught his eyes. They didn’t track.
Blind? He was blind.
“Are you lost?” Miranda asked.
“I-I think so,” he said. His voice rolled with an accent Miranda had never heard before, and wasn’t sure she could begin to place. But he was speaking English. With the sheer amount of tourists on the island, it was always a toss up if someone understood English. “You’re… From earlier.”
“Yes. You saved me,” Miranda said. “Thank you. So much. I can’t begin to thank you. You can come in, if you want.”
She threw the sheets off and pressed bare feet to the cold linoleum floor to meet him. She carefully ran her fingers down his arm and twisted their hands together. Unsure how to handle him, she led him to the chair by her bed and pressed his hand to it. He grasped the chair, and after a few fumbles, sat awkwardly. Miranda sat on the mattress opposite him.
“I’m Miranda,” she said to break the silence. Her voice sounded obscenely loud.
“I’m Jordan,” he said without hesitation. Miranda cocked her head.
“They said you couldn’t remember who you were.”
“I remember,” he said. His lips twisted unhappily. “I just can’t tell them.”
“Does it have to do with why you came out of the ocean in full Siberian get-up?” Miranda asked. “It’s the middle of summer in Hawaii. Anything heavier than a t-shirt attracts attention.”
“It was… colder where I came from,” Jordan said. His dark brown hair stuck up in all directions, dried and held in place by the salt water. His voice held a rasp that Miranda couldn’t be sure was from the near-drowning or natural cadence.
“And where is that?” Miranda asked. She tucked her feet under the sheets. The hospital was cool at night.
“Very far away,” Jordan said. “A universe away.”
“What, Russia? How did you get here?” Miranda asked. “Were you on a boat? You couldn’t have… You didn’t swim out there, did you?”
Jordan shook his head, and the thin moonlight seeping through slats in the window shades caught a burn scar across the bridge of his nose. Miranda stared at it, transfixed. “It’s a very long story. But I-” He cut off and clenched his hands into fists on his lap. “I have no one here.”
“You don’t have family to contact? Do you have money?” Miranda asked. She gripped the sheets in fists.
“I have nothing. Absolutely nothing,” Jordan said. He tugged a hand through his wild hair. “My family is dead, and I could not bring anything with me.”
“I can’t…” Miranda hesitated. “I want to offer to take you in until you can get yourself situated, but if you don’t tell me where you’re from I can’t help you. You could be a fugitive, and I don’t need that to come down on my head.”
“Nobody on this planet knows who I am,” Jordan said. “You do not have to fear your authorities coming for me.”
Miranda frowned. “Are you an alien?”
“I am very human,” Jordan said. “I swear to you that I mean you no harm.”
“That’s fine, but I don’t know you. I don’t know how good your word is,” Miranda pointed out. She stared at him, his pallor, the slight flush of fever in his cheeks. He sat tense in his seat, barely moving save the brief rise and fall of his chest as he breathed. He certainly was not here on vacation. The high set of his shoulders revealed the anxiety in the rest of his posture. He was frightened.
Miranda took a breath. “I have a small apartment a little ways inland. You can come with me when we’re discharged. Until you get your bearings.”
“Thank you,” Jordan said. “I do not want to impose-”
“You did save my life,” Miranda said. “That counts for something. And I do want to help you.”
“I understand the difficulty in taking in strangers,” Jordan said. His voice was low, the husky quality something inherent, Miranda realised. “I swear I will not harm you.”
“Good. Because I’m pretty certain my mother would destroy you if you did,” Miranda said. She reclined in the bed, glad that her hair was finally dry. It was stiff with salt, but she could live with that until tomorrow. Or today… Whichever.
She wasn’t sure if she said anything else, because the next thing she knew she was waking up, on her side, facing her occupied visitor’s chair. Jordan slumped in it, arms folded over his chest in sleep. His chin tucked into his chest, and he was completely silent.
“Hey.” Miranda reached for him, touching his arm gently. He stiffened and came awake without a sound. Miranda tucked her hand back against her pillow and frowned at him. “You slept there all night?”
“You are the only person I know here,” Jordan said, helplessly. “Everyone else is dead.”
Miranda quieted, and stared at him. He didn’t quite meet her eyes, but it was a close thing. “Were you born blind?” Miranda asked.
Jordan opened his mouth and closed it, biting his lower lip. “I was,” he conceded. “I’ve never been able to see as others do. I have other means of perception, though.”
A nurse entered the room and paused when she saw both of them. “Ah, here you are. You can’t just leave your room without telling anyone, Mr Smith.”
“He wanted to see how I was,” Miranda said. “And I made him stay the night.”
“He should be getting his rest,” the nurse said. She shook her head and approached the bed. “How are you both feeling? Any pain in your chest? Difficulty breathing?”
“My head hurts, but that’s because I missed my coffee,” Miranda said. “I’m just tired and ready to take a shower.”
“Excellent. Mr Smith?” The nurse turned to Jordan.
“I feel fine,” he said curtly. The nurse nodded and scribbled something on her clipboard.
“The doctor will be in shortly, and he’ll have the release papers.” The nurse smoothed Miranda’s bedsheets and smiled. “It’s good to see you’re both feeling better.”
“Thanks,” Miranda said.
True to her word, the doctor came in with their release forms. Jordan claimed he was over twenty one, which meant he could sign himself out being of sound mind. He stood beside Miranda as she called Richard for a ride. When he pulled in to pick them up, he hesitated upon seeing Jordan.
“Where’s he staying?” Richard asked.
“He’s staying with me until he can find his own place,” Miranda said. She slid into the passenger seat of his car. Richard shook his head and opened the back seat for Jordan, helping him sit before shutting the door. Miranda leaned back against the headrest and closed her eyes. She desperately needed a shower.
“Are you sure that’s such a good idea?” Richard asked. He kept his voice low as they pulled out of the hospital lot.
“He can still hear you,” Miranda said. “And everyone he knows is dead. He saved my life, I have to help him somehow.”
“He doesn’t exist. And you’re taking him home,” Richard said. “Your mother is going to kill you.”
“If he doesn’t first,” Miranda said under her breath.
“Yeah, see, that, right there, is why you are acting like a crazy person,” Richard said. “Taking a complete stranger into your apartment.”
“There’s a reason I called you for a ride, and not my mother,” Miranda said. She stared determinedly out the window. “If you’re going to keep commenting on my choices, I’ll walk home.”
“I just want you safe,” Richard said. His grip tightened on the steering wheel, knuckles going white. “He doesn’t even know who he is. What makes you think this is a good idea?”
"It’s not a good idea. Obviously. If it were a good idea you wouldn’t be lecturing me.” Miranda slumped in the seat slightly, knees against the dash. “But he doesn’t have anything. Or anyone.”
“Call me if there’s any trouble,” Richard said. He pulled the car to a stop in front of Miranda’s apartment building. “I’ll come.”
“I know.” Miranda sighed and pushed her door open. She tugged open Jordan’s door and put a hand on his head to help him out of the car. “Thanks.”
“I mean it, Miranda,” Richard said, leaning out of the driver’s side window. “Call me.”
“I will,” she said.
He kept his eyes on her until she let Jordan into the building and shut the door behind her, and Miranda heard him pull away. Sighing, she started climbing the stairs to the second floor. Jordan took the stairs slowly behind her, hand gripping the railing. Miranda fiddled with her keys, waiting for him to catch up to her before opening the door to her flat and letting them both inside
Her windows were still open from the day before, the cool ocean breeze scenting the entire apartment with salt and sand. Miranda inhaled deeply and sighed the breath back out. It was good to be home, as tiny and run down as her home was.
“Are you hungry?” Miranda asked. “You probably want a shower. I can show you the bathroom, if you’d like.”
“A… shower?” Jordan’s face pinched in confusion.
“Yeah. You know, soap, suds, warm water?” Miranda watched him. “You’ve bathed before, haven’t you?”
“Bathed yes, but… showers are scarce where I come from,” Jordan said. He was casting his eyes around the apartment, as if taking it in. Or searching for something.
“That’s weird. Um, I can show you how it works,” Miranda said. She touched his elbow hesitantly, waiting for him to agree. He nodded, and she nudged him down the hall into her bath.
She took his hands and wrapped his fingers around the knobs. “The left is hot, the right is cold. You can adjust them until you reach a comfortable temperature. Um, I only have passionfruit body wash, I’m sorry. We can get you some more manly stuff later, after we get you cleaned up. Here. This is a washcloth for you.”
He held the cloth like it was going to bite him, utterly lost and confused by the idea of a shower in front of him. Miranda cleared her throat.
“I, um. I think my ex left some of his things here. I can let you wear them for now. We’ll shop… later… Are you okay?” She resisted the urge to touch him.
“Yes. Yes. I will be fine,” Jordan said in a thick voice. He gripped the washcloth tightly and nodded.
“I’ll leave you to it, then.” Miranda backed out of the bathroom and shut the door behind her. She shook her head and pressed a hand to her forehead. No showers? Where had this kid come from?
She dug into the closet in her room and managed to drag out a pair of jeans and a shirt that had belonged to her ex. Hopefully they would fit Jordan. He wasn’t extremely muscular, so the clothes should fit. The soft bang of water pipes let her know the shower had been turned on.
She approached the door and held a hand up to knock on it when she heard something that made her pause. She pressed her ear to the door and closed her eyes. Muffled gasps for breath were nearly masked by the splatter of water into the tub basin. It wasn’t panicked, though. It was-
He was crying.
Miranda covered her mouth with a hand and carefully backed away from the door to give him his peace. She left the clothes at the base, and retreated to the kitchen to make her precious coffee. She was on her second cup when Jordan stumbled into the kitchen, hair dripping onto the pale blue shoulders of her ex’s tee. She swallowed hard.
“Okay?” she asked.
“Thank you.” The words felt infused with more than just gratitude for a shower. Miranda wasn’t sure what Jordan’s story was, but it ran deeper than a runaway from Siberia.
“Y-You’re welcome. Do you want coffee? I made some extra,” Miranda asked. She took a cup and guided his hand to it. Both his hands closed around the mug and he gripped it as if it were his lifeline. Or to hide his shaking hands. “Will you be okay if I hop in the shower quickly?”
“Yes. Please, do not worry about me,” Jordan said. He took a sip of coffee, fingers white around the ceramic.
Miranda bolted. She wasn’t proud of it, but she hurried into the sanctuary of her bathroom before she could say something stupid and worsen the situation. Once the door was locked behind her, she leaned against it and exhaled heavily.
The towel Jordan had used was hung carefully beside hers. She almost disregarded it, but a flash of red caught her eye. She reached for the cloth and tugged at it, exposing a streak of bright red that could only be blood.
She dropped the towel edge and took a deep breath. Inside the basin of her tub, pinkish droplets clung to the bottom stubbornly. He was bleeding somewhere. Why? How?
After scrubbing out the bottom of the tub, Miranda hopped in and quickly rinsed down. She spared two minutes to shampoo her hair and get the salt clumps out, and then dried herself as quickly as she could. Out of the shower, she dried herself swiftly and dressed in a light shirt and work out pants.
She wasn’t sure what she was expecting when she entered the kitchen, but Jordan wasn’t on the floor. He wasn’t writhing in agony, or unconscious. In fact, he was quite calmly drinking his coffee, much more settled than when Miranda had thrown him in the shower.
“Are you hurt?” Miranda asked.
He clenched his jaw and turned his face towards her, again not quite meeting her eyes. “It is nothing of concern-”
“Your blood was all over my bathroom,” Miranda said, a bit too sharply. “Are you going to tell me who you are, or just keep bleeding everywhere?”
“I apologise,” Jordan said. He lowered the mug and held it around his middle. “I did sustain an injury about a week ago. I was unaware it was still bleeding.”
Only now, with her knowledge, did Miranda see how he slightly hunched around his right side. She stepped closer to him and carefully tugged his arm out of the way. Red spots seeped into the pale blue of his shirt, and Miranda tucked her fingers under the hem and pulled it up.
She sucked in a breath through her teeth. He had two massive gashes carved into his side, from pectoral to floating rib, red, angry, and seeping sluggishly. “They let you leave like this?” Miranda asked, suddenly dizzy.
“They did not have a choice,” Jordan said. “I do not possess… What was it? Insurance? To provide adequate care.”
“You need to…” Miranda swallowed hard on her stomach trying to explode. “You need to go lie down. On the couch. I’ll get- Get my first aid kit.”
“It is fine,” Jordan said. “I have had worse. I will not die from these.”
“Go lie down,” Miranda said. She struggled to keep her voice level. “Or I will behead you myself.”
Jordan stilled at her words, but did not protest further. He set the coffee mug on the counter and carefully felt his way into her living room. Miranda didn’t have the patience or mindset to help him find the couch. She dragged her first aid kit from under the sink and followed him out of the kitchen.
He sat gingerly on the edge of the sofa, and Miranda spread out a towel over the cushions. “On your side,” she said.
Jordan managed to get himself horizontal, and Miranda tucked a pillow under his head. He gripped it and buried his face in the soft fluff as she peeled the shirt back from his wounds.
She had seen blood before. She had worked with bloody noses from wipe outs, skinned knees, elbows, shoulder blades… But this… This was not an accidental injury. The edges of the wounds were smooth, as if from a blade. And the inflamed skin around the lacerations hinted that this had gone on for days without being treated.
“T-They treated the infection,” Jordan said through a hitching breath. “For the fever-”
“Yeah, that’s great. Antibiotics are standard when you get water in your lungs. Prevents pneumonia.” Miranda tore open an alcohol wipe and gritted her teeth before touching it to Jordan’s wound. “It would have been nice if they had stitched these. Or wrapped them at least. Jesus. How did you get this? Don’t lie to me, Jordan.”
“I cannot tell you the truth,” Jordan said. He muffled a gasp in the pillow. “You would not believe me anyway.”
“Are ninjas going to come after you? Am I in danger because you’re here?” Miranda asked. Sure, her voice rose. She may have been close to hysterics. But there was a young man bleeding on her couch and she wasn’t equipped to deal with this.
“No one will find you,” Jordan said. “There is… No way for them to follow me. And if they did, I would leave before anyone knew of our acquaintance.”
Miranda pressed hard at drying blood with the pads, trying to ignore the way Jordan’s body jerked in pain. The cuts were healing poorly, even she could see that. They had been deep at one point, but time had sealed the worst of it. She couldn’t say anything else, just wipe down the blood as best she could and try not to vomit all over her floor.
When the wounds were as dry as she could manage, she started taping gauze down to pale skin on top of a liberal helping of antibiotic ointment. Practically the entire tube. Hopefully it wasn’t expired.
“Sit up and hold your shirt up,” Miranda instructed.
Jordan obeyed wordlessly, and he held still as Miranda wrapped his entire torso to hold the gauze in place. She taped the bandage down when she was finished, and scrubbed her hands with a wipe as she sat back on her heels. “You’re finished. Don’t do anything to pull your skin. You won’t help it heal.”
“Why did you do that?” Jordan asked. His eyes fixed on a point in space just above Miranda’s head.
“You… tended my wounds,” Jordan said. “You are not familiar with me, but you cared for me.”
“It’s what people do,” Miranda said. “You saved my life. The least I can do is keep you from bleeding all over my sofa.”
“I am sorry-” Jordan started.
“Hey.” Miranda silenced him with a hand on his knee. “It was a joke, okay? I don’t like seeing anyone in pain. Unless they’ve pissed me off. And you definitely haven’t done that yet. I’m worried about you. About what you’re not telling me, and how you got that. But I think you’ll tell me. When you’re ready.”
“Are you always this patient with strangers?” Jordan asked. For the first time, his lips lifted in a small smile. Miranda decided she liked it.
“No. Just ones who aren’t trying to take over my waves,” she said. She squeezed his knee. “Are you hungry?”
Jordan was about to answer when someone knocked on Miranda’s door. She scowled and got to her feet. Jordan stood behind her, but did not follow her into the hall to open the door.
Miranda cracked the door. “Help you?”
A man stood on the other side of the threshold, dark with silver hair. He wore sunglasses (inside), and his suit was almost too neatly pressed. “Evening, ma’am. My name is Aaron Frei and-”
“I’m an atheist,” Miranda said. “Sorry.”
She started to close the door but he stuck his foot in the jamb, and she glared at him. “I understand you were seen leaving the hospital with a John Doe? Can you tell me anything about him?”
“Don’t know anyone by that name, sorry,” Miranda said. She suppressed a shudder threatening to roll down her spine, and tried to close the door again.
“An amnesiac,” Frei clarified, preventing her from shutting him out. “We have reason to believe he’s-”
Glass breaking caught both their attention, and Miranda turned in time to see a leg disappearing out the window. “Holy shit, he jumped.”
She ran to the window and hung over the sill, catching sight of Jordan as he landed, very poorly, on hard concrete and took off towards the city centre. Miranda turned to find Frei at her shoulder, eyes on Jordan.
“What the hell do you want with him?” Miranda asked. She shoved him away from the window. Frei staggered, but made no move to defend himself. “He’s hurt no one!”
“Ma’am, I don’t think you understand the gravity of the situation,” Frei said. He held up a hand. “Since he is no longer on the premises, I will take my leave-”
Miranda had never hit a person in her life. She wondered if it showed, if that’s why she was able to deliver a solid, agonisingly on-target kick to his groin that dropped him. He choked, the air punched out of him. Miranda scrambled for something else- her hands closed around a textbook- and she hit him hard over the head.
It was enough to knock him out, and she stood over him, panting harshly. She had just assaulted someone. Someone who probably worked for the FBI or CIA or something. She was definitely going to jail.
But she also had harboured a man that refused to tell her where he was from, had saved her from drowning dressed in a full parka and winter boots, and had just escaped by smashing half of her window across her living room floor. She was done with today.
The dude was heavier than he looked. Miranda dragged him away from the front door into the only room with no windows- the bathroom- and with great amount of effort got him seated on the toilet. She dragged her fingers through her hair in frustration. She needed something to secure him with.
A quick rummage through her room yielded the bungee cords she used to lash her board to her car. She twisted the cords around Frei’s wrists and lashed him to the toilet. She removed his sunglasses. They were of no use anyway. She had cracked them when she smacked him over the head.
Shaking, she pulled the jacket of his suit back and stuck her hand into the pockets. She found a wallet of sorts, and quite a few gadgets that she had never seen before. She laid all the items out on the sink and leaned against the door to wait.
She wasn’t waiting long. He stirred and blinked. He shook his head and lifted his gaze. “There is more to this universe than ye can imagine,” he said.
Miranda stepped back and slammed against the door. His entire tone and accent had changed. Even his posture was different. His shoulders were more rounded, more relaxed. He wasn’t looking at her like an obstacle. He was looking at her like… an ally.
“Who are you?” Miranda asked. “And what do you want with Jordan?”
“My name is Clara Larsdaughter and you don’t understand how much danger ye and Jordan are in.” Frei stared at her evenly. “And since ye rendered my handler unconscious, I am forced to speak with ye.”
“I-I don’t-” Miranda slammed a hand against the door. “What the hell is going on here? What are you? Are you Clara or Frei?”
“I am both,” Frei said. he tilted his head. A sapphire earring glittered in the dim light of her bathroom. “When Aaron is unable, I assume control of his body. I think ye need to know what is taking place here.”
“You take control of his body?” Miranda asked. “What are you? Answer me.”
“We are officers of CRADLE, tasked with protecting the stability of the universes,” Frei said. Clara. Clara said.
“It stands for Cross Dimensional Law Enforcement,” Clara said. “The hydrogen bonds within water molecules provide a unique frequency that crosses dimensions. Aaron and I are from a universe that exists closely along the planes of your own. We crossed the border into your universe. Jordan, the boy that ran, is from still another universe. He’s here illegally, and he cannot stay. Ye must understand that.”
Miranda grabbed a fistful of her hair. “What!? The fuck!?”
Clara shifted, testing the restraints. “Will you release us, so we may explain further?”
“No I am not going to release you.” She didn’t shriek. She definitely didn’t shriek. She just raised her voice, is all.
“Ye care about Jordan, do ye not?” Clara asked. Thrown by the question, Miranda nodded dumbly. “He cannot stay here. He will grow ill and perish if there is another that shares his frequency. I can help ye find him. If ye release us.”
“I can’t trust you,” Miranda said. “You show up here, giving me false names, claiming to be from another universe!? How can you expect me to believe that?”
“Do ye see that pen?” Clara nodded at the items laid out on the sink. Miranda nodded and picked it up. “Depress the blue button.”
Miranda turned the pen over in her hand and fingered the button. She tapped it, and everything went dark.
Searing pain in her head forced her awake. Miranda groaned and shifted, only to find her hands were bound behind her back. Cursing, she rolled onto her side.
She had been placed on her bed, fully clothed, and otherwise unharmed. Her arm twinged, the one she had held the pen with, and she wondered what exactly that damn thing had been.
The fabric around her wrists slid, and it gave when she tugged on it. Working her hands back and forth, she sat up and swung her legs over the side of her bed. She waited, ear turned towards the hall. She couldn’t hear anything. It didn’t feel like anyone was still in the apartment.
She stood, wavered for a moment, and when she felt strong enough, went to her desk. She tugged open a drawer and blindly reached for the scissors she kept there. After a fair bit of wiggling, she was able to open the blades and start sawing at the bindings around her wrists.
“This always looks so much easier in the movies,” Miranda hissed to herself. The ropes or whatever scraped her wrists, and by the time she felt substantial give, she almost sobbed in relief.
When she pulled her wrists free, she held her hands in front of her, shaking. Her wrists were rubbed raw, angry and red. It looked like carpet burn, around the entire circle of her arm. She bit down hard on a groan and tossed her scissors back into the desk.
She made one stop at her first aid kit for gauze before snatching up her car keys and slamming out of her apartment. She flew down the stairs and out onto the street. Richard had dropped her car off from the beach, so it was waiting for her in the lot.
Jordan had run towards the city. Miranda could drive to the outskirts, park, and continue on foot. Someone was bound to notice a limping blind man followed closely by a very finely dressed silver-haired man/woman.
Miranda parked and ran towards the shopping district in the centre of town. She stood on Main Street and looked for anyone, anything that would give her a clue as to which why they went. Jordan had saved her. It was her turn to save him.
Pushing her hands through her hair she stared at the busy street, without a clue where to begin. They could be anywhere. The city was huge. Maybe talk to one of the cops… But that would warrant unwanted attention towards an amnesiac and possibly dangerous law enforcement officer.
She was about to pull out her phone and call Richard for help when someone darted across the street right in front of a freight truck. The truck wouldn’t be able to brake in time, and Miranda reacted before she even caught a flash of dark brown hair.
The blare of the horn sounded muffled, bleeding into white noise in her ears, as she threw herself at Jordan. She slammed into him hard, and they crashed to the pavement. The truck roared past them, so close that Miranda’s hair ruffled in the displaced air, but her breathing was louder than the horn, the rumble of tires on the street, and the screams of pedestrians who witnessed the close call.
Jordan’s hands dug painfully into her arms, certain to leave bruises with his strength, and he breathed in short, harsh gasps. Miranda was just barely aware of burning in her knee and elbows, of stranger’s hands patting her shoulder and arm, trying to see if she was okay. She shook them off and dragged Jordan to his feet.
Her vision cleared enough to scan the crowd around them, looking for dark skin and silver hair. She saw nothing, no one running at them in a pressed suit. She pulled Jordan with her through the crowd of worried witnesses. No one tried to stop her after a first hesitant reach that she shrugged off. Jordan staggered after her, struggling to breathe.
She had to get him somewhere quiet, somewhere alone, and private.
Miranda made a one eighty and practically ran towards the indie cafe she knew sat in one of the alleys off the main road. It had been her haven during her unemployment days, and she tugged Jordan into it now, shutting the door behind her.
“Mai Lei.” The owner, Chu-hua, glanced up at her. The cafe was quiet this time of day, mid-afternoon before the evening rush hour. “Are you all right? You’re bleeding!”
She rounded the bar and hovered over Miranda’s shoulders, unsure where to touch. Miranda bit back a helpless sob. Jordan still needed her. “There’s someone after us. Can we stay here for now?”
Chu-hua reached around her and threw the deadbolt on the door in answer. “Follow me.”
She led Miranda and Jordan into the back and up a small flight of stairs. The second floor was more a storage room than anything else, and Chu-hua sat them on top of a few boxes of coffee filters. She knelt in front of Miranda and tried to take her elbow, but Miranda brushed her aside.
“Jordan. Jordan, listen to me.” Miranda took his face in both hands, gravel digging into her skin. “You’re safe. I won’t let anything happen to you. I need you to breathe for me. It’s me, Miranda. No one is going to get you here. I’ll protect you.”
Jordan clenched his jaw, his fingers shaking around Miranda’s arms. He held on to her desperately. Miranda pried the fingers of one hand off her arm and touched it to her chest. “Breathe with me. Jordan.”
She inhaled deeply and held it, working through the techniques she knew to help breathing. Getting caught in the undertow had caused more than a few panic attacks she’d seen.
Jordan breathed with her, working to fill his lungs with her. He finally calmed, and when he was able to take in deep breaths, Miranda let his hand go. He instantly curled in on himself. “I am sorry,” he managed. “I- I did not want to bring this upon you-”
“Jordan, who is he?” Miranda asked. “Why is he after you?”
“He wishes to return me to my home,” Jordan said. A hand curled unconsciously around his middle, where the obscene gashes hid. He was probably in pain. Running with those wounds had not helped them heal. “I cannot return there.”
“Where are you from, Jordan?” Miranda asked softly. “Why are you so afraid to go back there?”
Jordan sucked in a huge breath, and pressed a hand to his eyes. “My people are at war,” he finally said. “There is no rest for them. Here, there is peace.”
Miranda rested her hand on Jordan’s knee. “We have options for asylum. Have you applied for political asylum?”
Jordan lowered his hand and stared at a spot in the wall over Miranda’s shoulder. “I do not exist in this world. I cannot apply for refuge.”
A shiver rolled down Miranda’s spine. His words echoed Frei’s. “What do you mean?”
“He is after me because I escaped my world through a tear in time and space,” Jordan said. “I do not belong here, and he will try to correct that in any way he can.”
Chu-hua touched a wet cloth to Miranda’s elbow and she nearly jumped four feet into the air, not expecting the touch. She took the cloth from Chu-hua and dabbed at her shredded elbow while she tried to process what Jordan had said.
Two distinct people had said similar things. Different worlds? Universes? It wasn’t possible. She knew of string theory, and the idea of different universes, but to have someone sitting in front of her… Claiming to be from another universe? It was bullshit.
“I do not want to cause you more harm,” Jordan said. “I am sorry for the trouble I have caused you already.”
“You saved my life,” Miranda reminded him. “I want to help you. I don’t… believe any of this universe crap, but you’re in trouble and I want to help.”
Miranda spun, her knees screaming at the motion. Frei stood in the doorway, that blasted pen in his hands. His sunglasses were pushed up into his hair, and he had popped the first few buttons of his shirt.
“How did you get in here?” Ch-hua stood and stepped in front of Miranda. “We’re closed-”
“Sleep.” Frei pointed the pen at her and she crumpled to the ground.
“What did you do?” Miranda cried. She grabbed Chu-hua and rolled her onto her side. She was breathing easily.
“She’s just asleep. I remind you that I can do the same to you at a moment’s notice,” Frei said. He entered the room and Miranda stood, putting herself between Frei and Jordan.
“You can’t have him,” Miranda said. “He’s requested asylum. The United States has to protect him.”
“I’m sorry, ma’am, it doesn’t work like that,” Frei said. “His presence here is a threat to the stability of this plane. I must return him to his universe of origin.”
“You’re not taking him anywhere,” Miranda said. Her head spun. He had lost the weird accent, and sounded more southern than Olde English.
“I am authorised to use force if necessary,” Frei said. “You realise that if he stays here, he will be in danger as well.”
“How do you mean?” Miranda asked.
“The longer he stays here, the more susceptible he is to frequency sickness. If his counterpart exists in this universe, he’ll resonate until his organs shut down.” Frei said. “He’ll die.”
“I do not care,” Jordan said. His voice cracked. “I cannot go back. I would rather die here.”
“You don’t have a choice,” Frei said. “You’re threatening the stability of this universe by staying here. You don’t belong here.”
Miranda shoved Frei back when he stepped closer. Frei narrowed his eyes but said nothing, and made no move to attack her. “Have you seen what they did to him?” Miranda asked. “They hurt him. And left him to die with his infection. And you want to take him back there?”
“It isn’t my decision to make,” Frei said. He pressed his lips into a fine line. “It’s my job to preserve the balance in the multi-verse. He’s already disrupted your existence. Imagine if he were to spread his knowledge to the rest of this world.”
“I’m here because I want to be,” Miranda said. “He saved my life. I want to help him. And sending him back into a war zone is going to get him killed. He’s blind, for fuck’s sake. You’d be sending him to his death.”
Frei hesitated. He stared at her. “He saved your life? How?”
“Something grabbed me and pulled me into the ocean,” Miranda said. She shuddered and folded her arms over her chest. “I know they aren’t real, but it was like the stories of the shui gui. Ancient water spirits that dragged people into the depths to take over their bodies.”
Silence descended. Frei stared at them both, and after a moment tucked the pen into his jacket pocket. He pointed at Jordan. “Do not move. Anywhere you go, I will find you. You will remain with me at all times while in this plane.” He turned to Miranda. “Can you explain in more detail exactly what happened?”
“I was sitting on my board waiting for another wave,” Miranda said. “Something grabbed me by the ankle and pulled me off my board. But when I tried to untangle myself, there was nothing there. And I saw… It was dead. Half of its face was missing and-”
She cut herself off as her stomach lurched. She covered her mouth with her hand and dragged in a deep, calming breath. “I screamed, and started choking, and- Jordan grabbed me from behind. I was able to get back to my board. I think it disappeared. They got us out of the water.”
Frei paled. He cast his eyes to Jordan. “Do you realise what you’ve done?”
“I did nothing,” Jordan said instantly. “The portal was already open-”
“You’ve torn a hole in the multi-verse and now spirits are leaking into this world.” Frei took an angry step towards him and Miranda shoved him back again.
“Don’t,” she warned.
“He created a rift between his world and yours, and now restless spirits are going to wreak havoc on your universe,” Frei said.
“The portal was already open,” Jordan insisted. “Someone else created it. I only slipped through-”
“Do you really expect me to believe that? The surest way to create a rip in the multi-verse is to send a full-bodied human through without the proper equipment,” Frei said.
“Who are you?” Miranda cut in. The conversation was making her dizzy again.
“I’m Agent Aaron Frei, of the Cross Dimensional Law Enforcement Agency. I was sent here to recover him.” Frei jerked his head towards Jordan. “But if he’s caused a rip, I need to find it and seal it. You don’t want his ghosts entering this plane. His world is a mess.”
“Thank you,” Jordan said quietly.
“Okay,” Miranda said. “Let’s say that I believe this… multiple universe thing. Why are you able to be here and he not?”
“He came through without proper protection,” Frei said. “I am a highly trained trans-dimensional officer. We take precautions to prevent lasting damage to the universes we visit. And we’ve developed technologies to allow us to travel between dimensions without disturbing the space-time medium.”
“Who is Clara?” Miranda asked. “Are you Clara?”
“Clara is my partner.” Frei touched the earring in his left ear. “I understand you two met already.”
“Your… partner?” Miranda pinched the bridge of her nose. “Your partner that shares your body? How does that-”
“I don’t have to explain our methods to you,” Frei said. “And to be perfectly honest, I’d rather not. I need to contact my superiors. Is there a pool or a pond in the area?”
“We’re an island,” Miranda said. “There is water everywhere. What exactly do you need?”
“I need enough to submerge myself,” Frei said.
“If I help you, you can’t do anything to Jordan,” Miranda said. “He stays with me.”
“I don’t think you’re in a position to be issuing ultimatums,” Frei said.
“I will kick you again,” Miranda said. “Don’t think I won’t. You can’t just come in here acting like you own this place. You can’t push me around.”
“Fine.” Frei folded his arms over his chest. “Until further notice, he is in your care.”
“I’m also not an idiot,” Miranda said. “He is in my care until you leave.”
“Deal,” Frei said. “Now please show me to a body of water.”
“I think I like Clara better,” Miranda said. “And he knocked me unconscious.”
“She,” Frei corrected.
“This is too confusing.” Miranda threw up her hands. She turned to Jordan and took his hand in hers, drawing him to his feet. “You’re mine for now.”
He said nothing, pale in the cheeks and favouring his wounded side. Frei stepped forward and drew another pen thing from his jacket. Miranda snatched his wrist out of the air and glared at him. Frei stilled.
“I’m going to tend to his wounds. He’s bleeding and he sprained an ankle when he jumped from the window. This will ease his pain and help his body heal faster.” Frei held up the pen. “No buttons, see?”
Miranda scowled but had to give somewhere. She released Frei’s hand and he crouched. The pen let out a simple humming, and Frei touched it to Jordan’s ankle. Jordan’s hand tightened around hers, and he exhaled slowly. The humming continued as Frei stood and lifted Jordan’s shirt to reveal the bandages. When he touched the pen to Jordan’s side, Jordan closed his eyes and Miranda could almost see the tension bleeding from his muscles.
“I am not the enemy, here,” Frei said. He stepped back and pocketed the pen. “I do have compassion.”
“Whatever.” Miranda huffed and tightened her grip on Jordan’s hand. “Will Chu-hua be all right?”
“She’ll wake up thinking this entire meeting was a dream,” Frei said. He cast a last look at her. “She won’t be harmed.”
“Good. Because my threat to kick you still stands,” Miranda said.
“Understood.” Frei winced.
Miranda led them both out of the cafe and back to her car. Once she had bundled them both into her small sedan, she sat with her hands on the wheel. Her apartment pool might be empty at this time of day but there was no guarantee. And she didn’t want to lead two strangers around her apartment complex.
She settled on a private cove she had stumbled across last year. It was quiet, and off to the side of the main beaches. Miranda had never seen anyone there in the entire time she visited. And the water was clear.
They traveled in silence, and the short, ten minute trip led to Miranda parking on soft sand where the road ended. She got out and helped Jordan out of her car. Frei followed them onto the beach.
She paused just long enough to slide her shoes off and help Jordan out of his. Frei kicked off his own shoes and trailed behind Miranda as she led them to the water. Frei paused at the edge of the gentle waves.
“I was hoping for something a little more contained,” he said.
“I can’t have you running around with my neighbours. People are going to start asking questions. The fewer people who know you’re here, the better.” Miranda waved at the ocean.
“I’m going to need one of you to hold me down,” Frei said. “Which is exactly what I was hoping to avoid, seeing how much I trust either of you.”
“I’ll do it,” Miranda said. She stepped into the water, the ocean swirling around her ankles. Welcoming her.
Frei stripped off his jacket, tie, and belt. And then, before Miranda’s eyes, he yanked his shirt over his head. She barely had time to avert her eyes when his fingers reached for the fly of his trousers.
Frei strode past her, splashing into the mild surf. He wore a form fitting lycra crop top, and skin-tight wetsuit pants. He was incredibly toned. He wasn’t hulked, precisely, but his muscles were lean and formed. It wasn’t awful to look at, and Miranda had to force her eyes away from his muscles shifting as he walked into deeper water.
He sat down in the water and placed something between his lips that hooked around both his ears. He looked at Miranda to make sure she was near him, and then relaxed back into the water. He lay against the sand and Miranda crouched over him, resting her hands on his shoulders. The barest touch to keep him completely submerged.
For a long while, the only sound Miranda could hear was the breakers in the distance. Waves lapped gently against the shoreline, but outcroppings kept the water calm and quiet inside the cove. Frei shifted, and reached for her wrists. She released him immediately, and he sat up. He yanked the contraption over his head and pushed soaked hair back. Silver ringlets curled around his ears as he stood and extended a hand to help Miranda to her feet. She took it and brushed wet sand off her knees.
She trudged after Frei and bumped into him when he stopped suddenly just outside the water’s edge. Miranda glanced up to see Jordan holding one of Frei’s pens at them. Frei lifted his hands, palms out.
“You’ll want to put that down,” Frei said calmly.
“I am not going back,” Jordan said. His voice shook, and Miranda could see him tremble from where she stood. His knuckles were white around the pen.
“You are not going back immediately,” Frei said. “I have new orders. I need to investigate the tear, and to do that I have to stay here. You are no longer my priority. You can put that down.”
“You cannot force me to return,” Jordan said. “And if you are here, you will keep trying.”
“Don’t use that, Jordan. You’ll put Miranda in danger. You don’t want that, do you?” Frei asked. He shifted slowly, keeping Miranda behind him. “You don’t know what that does.”
“Stop!” Jordan jerked the pen at Frei when he took a step. “Do not move closer.”
“Jordan, give me the codec,” Frei said. “That one is not safe-”
It happened in slow motion. Miranda’s eyes widened as Frei stepped forward again, to try and talk Jordan down. Jordan clicked something on the pen, and it fizzed. Frei’s arms went around her and his momentum dragged them to the ground.
She landed on her back hard, breath punched out of her when Frei fell on top of her.
“Jordan, stop!” Miranda cried. “Please wait!”
Frei pushed himself off her on shaking arms and yanked something out of his shoulder. It looked like a little pin, with a purple point opposite the sticker.
“Shit.” Frei hissed the word.
“What is that?” Miranda asked. Her heart thundered in her throat.
“A neurotoxin,” Frei said. Miranda sat up. The colour drained from Frei’s face. “It’ll-” He gasped. “It’ll wear off in a few hours but- W-We use it to disable armed and dangerous criminals-”
His arms shook violently where they bracketed Miranda’s hips. She grabbed his wrist. “What can I do?”
He didn’t get a chance to answer her. His eyes rolled up and he collapsed. Miranda just barely managed to keep his face out of the water. “Jordan! Jordan, help me.”
“I-I can’t-” Jordan dropped the codec in the sand and stared in horror at her. “I did not mean-”
“Shut up and get over here,” Miranda said. She shifted Frei in her hold, resting his head against her shoulder.
Jordan stumbled into the water and crouched next to her. She guided his hand to Frei’s arm and they looped him over their shoulders and lifted him out of the water.
“Steady,” Miranda encouraged. She walked them to her car and with Jordan’s help, piled Frei into the backseat of her sedan. She sat Jordan in the passenger seat and ran back to the beach to collect Frei’s things. She returned to the car and tossed his stuff into her trunk before sliding into the driver’s seat.
She very carefully did not break the speed limit getting back to her apartment. Jordan was frightfully quiet beside her, and nothing could mask the pained whimpers Frei let out as they moved. With Jordan’s help, she dragged Frei into her apartment. Luckily, nobody saw them. Nobody saw her escorting two strange men into her apartment.
She forced Jordan to help her get Frei onto her mattress. They dropped him down, soaking wet and covered in sand, and Jordan backed away from the bed.
Miranda and Jordan dropped Frei onto her bed, sand and salt water slipping on her coverlet. She ignored it- she had gotten worse on it before (hello shark week every month), and ran her fingers over Frei’s chest covering, trying to find a zip or something to remove it to help him breathe easier.
She found something approximating snaps and unlatched them. The chest piece came off after she wiggled it over his head, and she wasn’t about to go rooting around his fly for the zip to his wetsuit.
“He is in pain,” Jordan said.
“You did this,” Miranda said. “Help me make it better.”
Jordan set his jaw and nodded sharply. He fumbled for the edge of the bed and sat carefully on the mattress. “I am able to see auras. I can monitor him and ensure he does not worsen.”
Miranda tipped her head, staring at him. “Is that what you meant when you said you couldn’t see how normal people see?”
“That is correct,” Jordan admitted. “My vision is restricted to things that are normally invisible. I can see his pain, and I can see your worry. But I cannot see the colour of your hair.”
Miranda tugged a hand through her hair. The multiple universes thing was starting to look more and more viable the longer she was with these two. She wasn’t sure how she felt about that. She touched the back of her hand to Frei’s cheek. He was feverish.
“I’ll get a cool cloth,” she said. She pushed herself from the bed and trotted to her bathroom. She grabbed a washcloth and ran it under cool water. She caught sight of herself in the mirror and grimaced. Her cheeks had nearly lost all their colour. Her hair frizzed out, breaking free of her normally smooth ringlets. She looked like she hadn’t slept in days.
She felt like it too.
Sighing, she squeezed excess water from the cloth and returned to her bedroom. Jordan remained perched on the bed, sightless eyes roaming Frei’s body. Miranda crawled onto the other side of the bed and sat with her legs crossed. She carefully smoothed the cloth over Frei’s forehead and through his hair.
“I cannot go back,” Jordan said. He spoke in a hushed tone, but it was still loud in the silence.
“He’s not going to take you back,” Miranda said. She brushed a few strands of hair back from Frei’s forehead. “I won’t let him.”
“I was a prisoner.”
Miranda glanced up in surprise, and found Jordan not quite staring at her.
“My world is at war,” Jordan said. He gripped the cloth of his trousers. “My city was destroyed, and my family killed. I was the only one left, and I was taken prisoner. My world has been ravaged. It is nearly uninhabitable. The water is undrinkable. Nothing grows on the land. It is hell.”
“But you got out,” Miranda said softly. She reached over Frei and clasped Jordan’s hand. “You got out. You’re safe here.”
“I can’t go back.” His voice broke, and Miranda’s hand tightened over his.
“You won’t,” she promised. “I won’t let you go back there. Hey. I promise.”
So. Multiple universes.
Frei shifted between them, and Miranda watched his eyes flutter open. His brows furrowed in pain but he moved, his fingers finding Jordan’s shirt. He weakly grasped the fabric in a shaking hand. “ ‘m sorry,” he managed.
Jordan said nothing, watching Frei with a stone expression. Frei’s breath came harsh and unsteady, trembling between them. Miranda smoothed the cloth down his throat, and hushed him gently. “ ‘m so, so sorry-” Frei said. “-can help-”
“Hush,” Miranda said. She untangled Frei’s fingers from Jordan’s shirt. “You need to rest.”
His head lolled on her pillow, sweat-damp hair sticking to his cheeks. He shook hard, shivering enough to vibrate the entire mattress. Miranda stood. She stripped back the covers and swaddled Frei under them. Jordan stepped away from the bed, lost.
“Jordan, you can help yourself to anything in the apartment,” Miranda said. “Don’t leave. Please don’t leave. I’ll stay with him. We’ll get this sorted, I promise. But you have to stay with us.”
Jordan’s shoulders fell slightly. “I will,” he said. “I shall wait in the common area for you.”
“The couch is very comfortable,” Miranda said.
Jordan left, fumbling awkwardly for the door to the hall. He shut it gently behind him.
Miranda kicked off her shoes and slipped under the covers with Frei. He scratched his nails down his arms with a helpless noise, and Miranda grabbed his hands. “No. Stop. You’ll hurt yourself.”
“It’s burning,” Frei said. His hands twitched and he writhed against her. “It hurts. Shit.”
“I know. I know. Ride it out.” Miranda wrapped her arms around him, securing his arms against his own chest. He shook, and Miranda could feel his heart thundering in his chest as she gripped him. He couldn’t stop the hoarse whimpers that tore from his throat as his body continued to seize.
“I’m going to vomit. I need a pan.” He tugged at her arms, trying to loosen her.
She sat up quickly and flung the covers back. She grabbed her trashcan and rounded the bed in time for Frei’s hands to close over hers as he heaved into the can. Miranda swallowed down hard in her sympathetic reflex, and waited until he calmed. She carefully freed herself and took the can into the bathroom to dispose of.
When she returned, she found him collapsed into the pillows once more. Crawling across the mattress, she tucked herself under the covers again beside him. His bout had left him boneless, exhausted. He barely shook, and his breath rasped in and out. Miranda touched his arm gently, and he turned to her.
“ ‘m sorry,” he said.
“It’s okay,” Miranda said. “Just rest.”
“You shouldn’t-” He inhaled sharply against a wave of pain. “Why are you-”
“You don’t think I would just leave you there,” Miranda said. “I have a bit more compassion than that. And I can’t take you to the hospital, because you don’t exist. So here we are. In my bed. Covered in sand.”
“This is w-worse than the testing agents,” Frei said. His eyes slid closed and he gritted his teeth. “They d-dose us with it, to experience the p-pain-”
“Always worse when it’s unexpected,” Miranda said. She curled in closer, trying to help quiet his shaking. He went unexpectedly still for a brief moment, and Miranda lifted her head, anxiety flaring.
He opened his eyes and blinked, looking around. When he rested his eyes on her, Miranda felt a chill creep up her spine. “Clara?”
Frei nodded slowly, taking deep, calming breaths as the trembling picked up again. “Men are not built for such pain,” Clara said. “Their tolerance is frightfully low.”
“I-I don’t understand,” Miranda said. She frowned.
Clara pursed Frei’s lips. “Has ye ever seen a male birth a child? I have witnessed many good women fall to the battle of childbirth, while men worry only about the next meal. A woman is stronger. When pain is too much for him, I take over.”
Clara closed Frei’s eyes and inhaled deeply. When she exhaled, it was shaky. “He likes it not, however. I fear he will be displeased when he awakes.”
“He can deal with it,” Miranda said. “Can I help you? Do you need water?”
“I will require water later, but I doubt I will keep it down in this moment,” Clara said. “Please- In my experience I have found that shared pain is more tolerable.”
Clara turned Frei’s eyes to Miranda, and Miranda shifted closer. She tucked her body around Frei. Clara molded Frei into her embrace, until they were truly twisted together, Miranda’s face pressed to Frei’s shoulder. The trembling didn’t stop, but the involuntary seizing slowed.
“Tell me about your world,” Clara said, cutting through the quiet. “I do not believe we have passed through this plane previous.”
“I don’t know what to tell,” Miranda said. She kept her voice low, intimate between them.
“My world is very different than any I have seen,” Clara said. “Women control matters in every sense of the word. My mother was queen, and she trained me to rule in her place. I would have assumed the throne had I not been murdered.”
Miranda gripped her closer, letting the warmth of another body soothe her out of the strange discussion of parallel universes and murder. “I’m sorry. That must have been awful.”
“Not as horrible as seeing my only sister killed before me,” Clara said. She sank Frei’s teeth into the words, going taut in Miranda’s grasp. It was Miranda’s turn to shiver now, as she thought to her own sister, younger by three years. If anything ever happened to her, Miranda didn’t know what she would do. “It is why I agreed to allow Aaron to chaperone my spirit. I will never allow such feelings of rage to consume another as I have power to prevent it.”
“How did you and Aaron come to be together?” Miranda asked. “We don’t… We can’t do that here.”
“Some have the potential,” Clara said. “It may be a rarer talent here than in other universes. Time passes differently when in the spirit world. One moment I recall bleeding from my throat, and then I was wandering. It felt as if forever. And when Aaron found me, I had nearly succumbed to rage.”
“What happens to angry spirits?” Miranda asked.
“CRADLE banishes them,” Clara said. “We protect the living. Spirits exist in the space between worlds, not in the land of the living. Some spirits, though, as I, can be utilised. Aaron saw potential within me, and worked to join us as partners. The experience was… less than pleasant.”
“Quite. But we were bonded in ways you cannot fathom. It has served well in certain situations,” Clara said. She drew Aaron’s hand over Miranda’s arm. “Such as when a woman’s touch is needed. Do not send a man to perform a woman’s task.”
Miranda boggled, hearing a woman speaking out of Aaron’s body, and she hid her confusion by ducking her face into Aaron’s shoulder. Clara pulled her close, shaking, and they settled into the blankets.
“Aaron is a wonderful person,” Clara said. Her voice was muffled by a pillow. “Please do not misunderstand his duty for who he is. You would be the one suffering if he had not protected you.”
Miranda stilled, breath freezing in her throat at the revelation. Aaron had taken the poison for her, and she was the reason he was in so much pain. So much pain his partner had to take over.
"Calm yourself,” Clara said. She petted Miranda’s hair with Aaron’s hand. “It was his wish. He would not forgive himself if an innocent were pained.”
“I think this is backwards,” Miranda said. “You shouldn’t be comforting me.”
“Ye will watch me whilst I sleep, I wish ye to be comfortable,” Clara said. She closed Aaron’s eyes and fell still, wheezing breaths the only sound breaking the silence between them. Miranda pressed herself to Aaron, gripping him tightly in gratitude. She eventually drifted to sleep.