39. Monday, Again

Bracken sat at the empty counter, turned toward the windows to watch the sun rise over Homburg.

Jaz stood behind the espresso machine, fiddling with switches along its front. The refrigerators beneath the counters hummed, the espresso machine gurgled and swished as the boilers filled and heated.

“I told your sister to check back here in the morning if she didn’t find you. She should show up sometime soon,” Jaz said. “Want some cobbler, for the road?”

“No thanks. I’m going to get some real food later.” Bracken yawned and folded his arms across his backpack, which lay on the counter in front of him.

He and Jaz had stayed awake most of the night, looking at photos, talking, looking at more photos, eating pastries, and finally just sitting in the cafe in silence together. It felt like the hours before a long trip, a long separation.

“And there she is…” Jaz nodded toward the windows as Kajaani passed in front of them, heading toward the doors. “Not wasting any time, that one.”

Bracken sighed and slid off his stool. “Well…”

They looked at each other across the counter.

“See you later.”

“See you.” Bracken gathered his backpack and went to meet his sister at the doors.

“Turn the sign around on your way out,” Jaz called after him.

Bracken did so, while Kajaani scowled at him through the window, rubbing her black-and-red striped arms against a mild chill. Her unbrushed black hair flowed loosely to her shoulders, bristling in response to her mood.

Stepping outside felt strange. Cool air, heavy and green-smelling, brushed softly against his skin. Sunlight glowed along Main street, illuminating the brick buildings on either side of the road, all the way to the fields at the edge of town where Bracken had encountered the flash flood.

Yesterday, and a week ago.

Kajaani latched onto his arm with a vengeance. “Surprised to see me?”

Bracken shook his head. “Jaz told me you were in town.”

She glared, digging her fingers in. “Yeah, to find you! Where’s my camera?”

“Here.” Bracken unzipped his backpack and produced the camera. “It needs more film. I, uh, used it all.”

She took it, still glaring. “Why did you steal it, anyway? I would have lent it to you. And what were you even thinking, running off like that? Mom and dad are having fits—”

She broke off as Bracken suddenly hugged her.

“I’m sorry. I just…needed to know.”

“Know what?” Kajaani pulled back and looked into his face, her anger giving way to concern.

“What happened to Sadie.” He twisted to point behind him with his free arm. “She worked at The Defiant. The…ah, manager, Jaz. She told me all kinds of crazy stories about her.”

“She didn’t say anything about that to me.” Kajaani turned to the windows thoughtfully. “Where is Sadie now, then?”

Bracken swallowed. “She died. Right before my birthday. Jaz didn’t have any way to contact us. And when you came last…yesterday…she was so surprised that she didn’t say anything. Jaz isn’t very good at handling emotions.”

Kajaani lay a hand on his arm, this time gently. “What happened?”

“She…got sick. It was pretty sudden.”

Kajaani nodded. She looked slightly relieved, as he knew she would. He pretended not to notice. She may never learn the truth, but he knew it. That was what mattered.

“She left something for us, though.” He reached into his backpack for the picture book.

Kajaani put an arm around his shoulders, guiding him down the sidewalk. “You can show me on the train home.”

“Yeah, about that…”

***

Morphas masked in myriad shades of yellow filled The Defiant, circling tables and leaning against the counters. The sun cast down its own yellow hues, shifting from a bright neon morning to a smoldering golden evening. The shop grew quieter as customers went home for their evening meals.

Windows along the street shone with orange-yellow electric lights as Jaz cleared the final dishes from tables and loaded them in the dishwasher. She crossed the empty cafe to lock the doors, which had been propped open to let in the fresh air.

Bracken stood just outside them.

Jaz stopped at the threshold facing him and stared for a moment. She folded her arms. “No, Bracken. We’ve been through this. Go home, be good, don’t cause trouble. Come visit me occasionally.”

Bracken raised a hand. “Hear me out. I’ll only travel with you one day a week. That’s one day in seven by your time. The other days, I’ll work at the cafe and leave when you close. I’ll get a place to stay in Homburg the other days of the week.”

Jaz considered this, chewing the inside of her cheek. “You’ll still age too quickly—”

“It’s my life, Jaz. I’d rather spend it here than anywhere else.”

Jaz sighed and stepped aside. “Behave, or I’ll ban you for life.”

He walked into the cafe, grinning as he passed her.

Jaz pushed the doors closed and locked them. She stood a moment, her eyes distant, staring at his retreating reflection in the glass. A slow, happy smile crept over her lips. She reached up and turned the sign to ‘closed.’

~~~~~

And we’ve reached the end of Traveler! Thanks for reading!

Traveler is the first book in a planned series of three. I’ll be writing book 2 over the next few months and plan to post it serially like this one. In the meantime, Traveler will be released in print and ebook formats sometime in February/March 2018. Those versions will include the character illustrations and some extra artwork as well. 😀 I’ll post an update here when it’s going live.

What did you think of Traveler? Let me know in the comments! I’m always happy to talk stories and writing. ^_^ 

Once again, thanks for reading! If you know someone who would enjoy a quirky read like this, feel free to share it with them. 

Cheers everyone!

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38. Delayed Departure

“…I’m going to help her escape.”

“Bracken,” Jaz began, shaking her head.

Bracken persisted. “Do you know how much this place is wearing her down? She can’t even remember what’s in her own basement or what she did last month. She has projects down there she probably doesn’t even remember starting. All just to keep herself sane, because she knows she might never leave. Sadie knew it, too. That’s why she stayed. It’s what friends do.”

“How many friends do you think Athamas and I have?” Corrine had pulled a napkin to her and was doodling on it with a pen she’d produced from somewhere. She paused to glance over at Bracken. “Everyone we interact with except for Jaz is dead or dying. Not much potential for relationships there.”

“Athamas, please. Don’t take him,” Jaz said quietly.

Athamas faced her, his expression mingled sternness and sympathy. “Even if I don’t today, he will still eventually die. Like Sadie. The one after him will die too, and the next. You are setting yourself up for an even more painful cycle.”

Jaz bowed her head and leaned her forehead against his chest. “I know he’ll have to go sometime. Just…don’t take him now.”

“You ask much of me.”

She raised her eyes, and a look passed between them, the same as when they’d last seen each other. Fondness. Hunger. Longing. She wanted death as much as Death wanted to claim her.

Corrine tapped the counter with her knuckles and held the napkin with her doodling up to Athmas.

He took it and frowned. “Et tu, Corrine?”

Corrine shrugged. “It’s not like we have a bunch of other people to talk with for any length of time.”

“…I will make a deal,” Athamas said slowly. “Jaz’s case can allow for some…exceptions. I will allow Bracken to live. With the understanding that if he begins to pose a threat to the expiration dates of others he will be terminated immediately, and this will be his fate.” He held up the napkin to Bracken. Corrine had sketched a scenario that, to Bracken, was the worst way imaginable to die. He stared at it, a chill streaking through his body.

“I know it’s a bit extreme, but this is what you ask for,” Athamas said.

Bracken had to swallow a dry spot growing in his throat. “I’ll be careful.”

“You agree to the terms?”

“I agree.”

Jaz sighed softly, the tension going out of her.

“Very well.” Athmas folded the napkin and put it in his pocket. He looked from Jaz to Corrine. “Are you ladies happy now?”

“Thank you,” Jaz said softly.

Corrine simply shrugged, but Bracken thought he saw a pleased quirk on her lips.

“Then we should go,” Athamas said. “There’s a death match tournament starting in Makamit.”

Jaz watched them leave, then looked at Bracken. But now it was he who couldn’t make eye contact.

He turned away from her and went downstairs. He knew who would be in his room, waiting, but he was still startled at the sight of Janus sitting on the cot.

“That was a lucky escape.” Janus crossed one leg over the other, resting his hands on his knee. “Death doesn’t make an exception for just anyone.”

Bracken stopped in the doorway, watching him. “Do you ever intervene for anyone, just because? Or does someone always have to make a deal with you first?”

“Whatever happens in these worlds has no bearing on what happens to me. To try and right every wrong would be madness.”

“It’s not your problem, you mean.” Bracken went to the cot and retrieved the picture book from atop his pillow, taking several steps back as soon as he had it.

Janus leaned forward and set his hands on either side of him on the mattress. “Think what good will come of us working together. You could be with your aunt again and help Jaz be freed from this place. You have nothing to lose and so much to gain.”

Bracken shook his head. “I can’t make a deal with you, Janus.”

Janus’ expression did not change, but something about him suddenly felt tense. “No?”

“I already made a deal with Athamas. I have to behave myself, which means I can’t do anything that would put another world in danger. Setting you free, for example.” Bracken raised his shoulders and hands in a ‘what can you do’ gesture.

Janus went very still. He resembled a statue more than a living person. But something…dark radiated from his eyes. Not a color, exactly, and not an emotion. Just a feeling. Black rage. “You’ll change your mind. After time. When you’re desperate enough. Even Jaz finally broke down, over you.”

Bracken pushed down a rising chill at those words and continued. “I’m going to find the doorway generator that Sadie was looking for. When I do, I’m setting Jaz free.”

Bracken turned his back, closing the door behind him as he walked out of the room. Even through the closed door, he could feel the Lumenatra’s eyes watching him.

Jaz was sitting on the bottom of the basement stairs, her hands covering her mouth almost prayerfully. Their eyes met, and he knew she had been listening to the conversation.

She lowered her hands slowly. Some light filtered down from the door above, making her blue hair glow faintly. “What made you change your mind?”

Bracken shrugged, rubbing his neck as he glanced away. “I guess I realized you’re right. Sadie was one of a kind. No one could replace her. And staying here with you was the best thing she could have done with her life. She believed that, and so do I.”

Jaz smiled slowly. She stood and, putting her hands on his shoulders, leaned in and kissed his cheek.

He pulled back and rubbed at the spot. “C’mon, Jaz. Your boyfriends will get mad at me.”

“Boyfriends?” She stepped back, making a face.

“Sean and Athamas.”

“Athamas is not my boyfriend.” Jaz turned and started back upstairs.

Bracken followed her. “He totally is…”

——-

Hey y’all! Sorry for the late post, I was sick the past few days and didn’t even know what day it was until this morning. ^^; Hope this makes up for it! 

37. Timeline Trouble

Strangely, a cupping didn’t include actually drinking coffee but soaking grounds in cups of hot water and slurping the brew from a spoon. This seemed to be the elitist way to experience coffee. They discussed tasting notes and flavor profiles, leaning over a paper with color-coordinated adjectives arranged in concentric circles, using words like ‘acidity’ and ‘mouth-feel’ and ‘tannins.’ They agreed that one coffee had a wonderful pecan aroma but lacked body, and criticized the grassiness of another. Bracken watched them, quietly sipping his water, until the glass was empty and his attention had dwindled to nothing. He flipped through the pages of the coffee manual, looking for notes written by Sadie. The page titled ‘Ninjas’ was suddenly relevant. It had several entries. One, in Sadie’s neat handwriting, was contemplative:

When I asked her about it, Jaz couldn’t say whether the zealous ninjas respawned or not, but there are an awful lot of them, and always new ones coming into the shop. They might be reincarnations of their past selves, or clones, or who knows what, but when a ninja dies, they are lost to her. None ever recognize her, or have any prior memories of her. The rate at which she makes friends here and loses them is far greater than all the other worlds combined.

Dictators and tyrants spawn as fast as the ninjas. Ninjas are trained from birth to assassinate the dictators, as dictators are raised from birth to oppress cities and eventually be assassinated. Despicable as the order of things here might be to Jaz, she knows interference is pointless if not impossible. Regardless, it bothers her deeply.

Bracken looked up and stared at the windows, imagining what it had been like for Sadie, spending a quiet Sunday with Jaz and the ninjas. Perhaps she had written this very passage at the counter where Bracken sat, sipping coffee, listening to the technical coffeespeak, perhaps joining in.

He could almost see Sadie behind the counter, working the register while Jaz made drinks. Explaining the difference between roast flavors. Talking Jaz down from attacking customers. Eating pastries in the morning, ordering from a different restaurant every night.

He could almost hear her voice.

Almost.

Janus cleared his throat, bringing Bracken’s attention back to the shop. Jaz was loading cups into the dishwasher. The ninjas had all gone.

“Bracken…”

Bracken shook himself and blinked. He stared at Janus, then over to Jaz. “I’ll think about it.”

“Don’t take too much time deciding. I have all the time in eternity, but you do not.”

Bracken opened his mouth to respond, but the sound of another voice stopped him. A female voice, belonging to a lovely creature with a short skirt and striped stockings who appeared to be a Morpha.

Corrine.

She was talking quietly to Athamas, who strode coolly beside her, his long coat feathering slightly along its edges.

Bracken blinked several times, rubbed his eyes and blinked again. He turned to Janus. “Did they just walk in through that window?”

But Janus had disappeared.

Bracken blinked again and looked to Jaz. She froze for a moment, watching them approach the counter. She glanced at Bracken, a flash of anxiety crossing her face. Then she breathed in sharply and said to Athamas, “When you see Weisan tell him ‘I told you so.'”

“I already have. He said he’ll get them next time,” Athamas replied.

Corrine scoffed, hopping onto a stool. “Yeah, right. You know how many the ninjas lost this month? Thirteen. Dictators lost four. Ninjas need better drafting next month.”

“She’s not the one to tell, Corrine,” said Athamas, glancing at Bracken as he sat. He quickly stood again, looking sharply at Jaz. “Jaz. What did you do?”

Jaz was suddenly occupied looking through the pastry case for blueberry cobbler.

Athamas turned stiffly to Bracken. “What are you doing here? Keep in mind it is within my discretion to terminate threatening anomalies ahead of schedule.”

It was Bracken’s turn to stare. On his last visit, Athamas had been focused on sending Fatson to some purgatory. But now all that focus was on Bracken. His mind went numb. He tried to say something, but he could only think of the hole in his chest, of blacking out and then waking up soaked in his own blood.

“It was an accident…” Jaz defended weakly.

Athamas produced a worn black notebook from inside his coat and flipped through it with intense concentration. Then he sighed deeply. “Now the date is going to be off.”

Corrine scoffed. “No, the date just looks off. It will look right in the base timeline in his world. It was the same with Sadie. When she traveled in here her date jumped all over the place, but it always went back to normal when this place stopped in her world. If you did this electronically you could program some equation for this, you realize.”

“I don’t need equations. The book is right. He’s wrong.” Athamas jabbed the notebook toward Bracken’s chest with a scowl. “What did you do?”

Jaz hopped over the counter, sliding across to drop down on the other side by Athamas. “It…there was an accident, and he got hurt…”

Athamas wasn’t listening. He studied the notebook again, one dark eye twitching, then shoved the book at Corrine. “Find an equation for this.”

Corrine stretched onto her tiptoes to look at the pages, and raised an eyebrow. “Shoot, kid…”

“What’s it say?” Bracken leaned across the counter to see the book.

Athamas pulled it from his view. “Tomorrow. In the base timeline, you would have succumbed tomorrow.”

Bracken stuttered. “T-tomorrow? B-but I…”

Jaz had gone quite still. “Athamas.”

Athamas stared hard at the page. Then he turned to study Bracken. “The timeline changed from the base timeline when he entered here, and now it has changed again. What was to happen will no longer happen at the proper time.” He thrust a long finger at Bracken. “You made an agreement with one of them. I recognize their work.”

He didn’t have to say Lumenatra; everyone in the room knew the implication, even Bracken.

“I’m…supposed to die tomorrow?” Bracken began to feel lightheaded. He steadied himself with a hand on the counter.

“Not anymore. Since you are now a free-roaming anomaly you can be terminated immediately,” said Athamas.

What? Bracken’s steadying hand clamped down on the counter edge while he scanned the room, bracing for a dark, birdlike shadow to appear and slice him with its beak.

“Athamas, no.” Jaz stepped in front of Athamas, forcing him to meet her eyes. “It wasn’t him. I made the agreement on his behalf.”

Bracken stared at her.

So did Athamas. “How could you do such a thing? You are here because of a previous agreement you made!”

“I couldn’t let him die! He’s Sadie’s nephew.”

“Sadie never caused me such trouble. When he reenters his home world, he can cause things to happen that wouldn’t have, had he died at the proper time!” His tone went from stern to angry, its deep resonance filling the room.

Jaz flinched, but stood her ground. “He’s not going to cause anything to happen. He’s going to go home.”

“He was supposed to die tomorrow, Jaz. What if he goes home and the next day he shoots someone who’s supposed to die in 40 years?”

“He’s not going to shoot anyone!”

Corrine lounged against the counter, resting on both elbows. “The Lumenatra jack with probabilities all the time, Athamas. Just look at this shop. That book will never be a hundred percent accurate because of them. You have to let some of this slide.”

Bracken’s head was spinning, trying to grasp the nature of the conversation. Of what Jaz had done on his behalf. “So was I supposed to die yesterday, or tomorrow?”

“You won’t die tomorrow, that’s the point,” Corrine said.

Athamas straightened. “If an anomaly is deemed a big enough threat I—”

Jaz stepped closer, laying a hand on his arm. “Please, Athamas. Don’t.”

Athamas looked down at her. “Why does it concern you so much?”

Jaz flinched again. “He’s…my friend.”

Bracken swallowed, his chest suddenly tight as his mind flashed back to last night, of refusing to admit the same to himself. “Look. Why don’t I just stay with Jaz in The Defiant? Then I can’t go out and shoot someone, and mess up the balance or whatever.”

Athamas stiffened. “Because there’s nothing forcing you to stay here. Sadie went with me willingly when her time came, but you are nothing like her. Do you know how many people die every second? How many I am talking to this very instant? Tell me why you, out of all of them, should be an exception?”

Bracken opened his mouth to answer, and suddenly couldn’t. Because Athamas was right. He was nothing like Sadie. Even knowing what hell Jaz endured in this prison disguised as a cafe, knowing she had gone out of her way to protect him, even saved his life knowing he would probably abandon her for a promise of finding some version of his aunt—which in itself was shameful enough—he was at that moment still considering doing exactly that.

Which made him even more ashamed.

“Because,” he finally managed to say, “I’m going to help her escape.”

36. Coffee Ninjas

It was a beautiful story. Bracken read it when he finally woke up, curled on his side on the cot. He turned the pages slowly, savoring each illustration and word. He remembered the story from when Sadie used to tell it, but she had expanded on it since then, merging it with the story about the blue-haired princess. Now that Bracken knew the story behind the story, as it were, he could see why she had merged them into one.

He was thirsty, his throat dry and lips tight, but he continued to read. In the end, the bird traded her wings, her ordinary, non-magical wings, for a key that would free herself and the princess from the box. Bracken had to brush his hand across his eyes every few moments to clear away the tears blurring his vision as he read. The illustrations moved scratchily over the last page: The princess distraught because the bird could no longer fly, and the bird overjoyed to finally be able to free the princess:

‘Don’t worry,’ the bird told the princess. ‘When we’re free I’ll just ride on your shoulder.’

Bracken had to push the book aside then. His tears were falling too fast, and he didn’t want to ruin the pages. He curled over his knees, shoulders shaking with emotion. This was why she’d left, and why she’d stayed away. Not for flightiness, not to escape a family that should have treated her better, but for loyalty. She’d gone to help a friend.

After a while, Bracken leaned back against the wall, gasping softly for air and rubbing his arm across his damp face. He pulled the book back onto his lap, and began reading again from the beginning. He read and re-read the story, turning the pages back and forth to admire the moving artwork. He only stopped when his thirst grew too strong to ignore. His limbs were stiff and cramping by now, his body demanding hydration.

He finally ventured upstairs, parched and sluggish, not bothering to texturize, but at least composed enough for conversation.

Vivid afternoon sunlight oozed into the shop, adding a glow to everything it touched. The chairs and tables were returned to their normal places, and Jaz had cleaned the floor. The spare suitcases were also gone, no doubt stored in the basement until they could be returned to their owners in a week. Outside, the brick landing pad and the city of Vasencea had been replaced by a wide paved street lined with low, white houses with red tile roofs. The roofs peaked sharply in the middle and curled up at the eaves, like tall red hats. Short trees with delicate, whiplike branches stood in front of the houses. A soft breeze occasionally rippled the bright yellow leaves.

Jaz looked up from wiping a counter as he sidled onto the nearest stool. She looked tired, her eyes and mouth tight with hidden worry. “I was just about to check on you,” she said, coming over. “How are you feeling?”

“Sore,” Bracken replied. “It’s too bad I don’t reset like you.”

Jaz picked up a teapot. “Want some? Tea is good for healing.”

Bracken shook his head. “Just a gallon or so of water, please.”

Jaz poured him a glass of water, which needed refilling twice before he slowed down to sip on a fourth.

“Where are we now?”

“Kysoto,” she answered.

Bracken couldn’t remember reading anything about a Kysoto. Probably because he had stopped reading the binders once he found Vasencea, where Sadie’s alternate lived. The coffee manual sat near the register; Bracken stretched an arm across the workspace to grab it.

Jaz began to say more, but stopped as Janus appeared on a stool beside Bracken.

“So, you were unable to find any information about Sadie’s whereabouts in Vasencea,” said Janus, watching Bracken retract his arm with the notebook in tow.

Jaz made a small, irritated noise in her throat and went away to arrange spoons and shot glasses on the espresso counter.

“It’s too bad I didn’t.” Bracken flipped through the coffee manual, searching for information on Kysoto. “Especially since Jaz says I have to go home tomorrow.”

“Even though Jaz doesn’t wish you to remain, I still could use you.” Janus’s smile seemed out of place beneath his inhuman eyes. “You can still be united with your aunt. Even though she will be slightly different from the Sadie you knew, in time you will not notice. New memories will overtake the old.”

Bracken thumbed the edge of the manual, fanning the worn pages. He waited for Jaz to yell at Janus, but she kept her back to them.

“You should hurry and decide,” Janus prompted. “You don’t have much time left.”

“Until what? Monday?” Bracken looked over as the doors opened and stiffened. Costello walked toward them, clothed in loose black clothes, holding a black scarf in one hand.

Bracken gripped the edge of the counter. “Jaz, you said this wasn’t—” He stopped.

Jaz was smiling.

“Hello, Kumosan,” she said to Costello.

“Good morning, Jaz-san.” Costello-Kumosan bowed prayerfully, pressing the scarf between his palms. He climbed onto the stool in front of the empty row of cups. Bracken gaped. The voice was Costello’s, as well as the face and body. His eyes had the same piercing confidence, his jaw just as solid and manly, but there was no bluster or bullying, no shouting or shooting of air bullets.

“What are we tasting today, Jaz-san?” Asked the new, improved Costello.

“I have three coffees. Two with spice notes and one—if I did it right—with notes of toasted marshmallow. You all get to help me pick a holiday roast to feature.”

“With great pleasure,” said Costello-Kumosan. He noticed Bracken staring at him and nodded pleasantly. “Greetings. Are you here for the cupping ceremony?”

Bracken said, “No…yes. Kind of.”

Janus leaned in and said softly, “Not to worry. He is simply an alternate version of the Costello you encountered yesterday.”

“So…there are two of them.”

“Many more than two,” Janus corrected.

Bracken continued to stare. “What is he wearing?”

“Work clothes. He’s an assassin.”

“Is he going to shoot me again?”

“No. He doesn’t know you, or anything his alternate does. The only thing they have in common is they look the same. Also, he only kills dictators.”

“Does Kysoto have surplus of dictators?”

“They are always popping up, here and there. I think they’re simply spawned in tanks and shipped off to take over cities. Eventually they get assassinated by the ninjas, and replaced, and so on.”

“Sounds like a racket,” said Bracken.

Janus shrugged and sipped his coffee. “Whoever organizes the coups and assassinations profits enormously from it, I’m sure.”

“Who’s behind it all?”

“It hardly matters,” Janus said dismissively.

“Yeah, but it’s interesting…”

Two more men dressed in the same black outfits entered. They greeted Jaz respectfully and settled at the counter with Kumosan.

Jaz returned their greetings and turned to Bracken. “They’re here to taste coffee. We do it every Sunday.”

She smiled as she said this, not her short smile but a long one, the same one she had given Sean when he complemented her roasting methods.

“Wow, Jaz. Coffee appreciation really is the way to your heart,” observed Bracken.

“I’m just happy someone else appreciates it,” she said pointedly, turning back to address Kumosan. “Where is Weisan? He’s usually the first one in.”

“Weisan has gone on his final mission,” said Kurosan reverently.

“Oh.” Jaz turned back to the tea counter, somewhat deflated.

Bracken leaned in to Janus to ask softly, “What does that mean?”

“He died attempting to assassinate the latest dictator.”

Jaz gripped the edge of the counter with both hands, staring down at her knuckles.

“He was ready to give his life for his people since the day he was born,” recited Kumosan.

Jaz blinked hard several times before turning and opening the dishwasher. “I’ll miss him.”

“Do not worry, Jaz-san. He will respawn until he completes his mission. It is the ninja way.” Kumosan nodded.

“Whenever one of you respawns I never see him again. It’s the same to me as if you died.”

Bracken felt a twinge of sympathy for her. He wouldn’t have believed it before last night, but now he knew that Jaz actually did care what happened to the people in the worlds outside of her shop, in her own way.

“Have hope,” Kumosan was saying. “We will assassinate the despot who oppresses your city. It is our destiny.”

“It’s not my city.” Jaz shut the dishwasher harder than necessary. Then she changed her tone and said brightly, “Let’s begin, shall we?”

35. The Last Present

Bracken woke in darkness on his back, wet, and alone. He sat up and winced, putting a hand to his chest. It ached dully, like a deep bruise. He started to call out for Jaz, but coughed instead.

Footsteps pounded up the stairs and someone burst through the basement door. Bracken heard heavy thumpings and chairs skidding across the floor, then he was being hugged tightly by Jaz.

He winced, letting his arms hang at his sides. His chin rested on her shoulder. “…did I die?”

“Almost. You healed when the shop reset.” Jaz released him and sat back against a tall suitcase, half-closing her eyes. A bit of silver light from a full moon shone through the windows, so pale and colorless Bracken couldn’t tell if Jaz’s skin was unusually white or just painted with moonlight.

He wondered vaguely about the suitcase. Suitcases, he realized as his eyes began to adjust to the semi-darkness, and an array of luggage around the room became somewhat visible. “What happened?”

“You don’t remember?” Jaz moved her eyes toward him. “You challenged Costello to a duel and he shot you.”

That triggered a memory. Bracken flinched and felt his chest again. “With…air.”

“Yeah.” Jaz narrowed her stare into a glare. “What were you thinking? That was absolutely the stupidest thing you’ve done yet.”

“I didn’t know he’d try to kill me—”

“He wasn’t trying to. It was a basic strike, about as forceful as a hard punch to humans.”

Bracken shook his head. “That was more than just a punch.”

“Yeah, because you’re not a human. I keep telling you, stay out of trouble, but you just had to go and—”

Bracken sat up on his knees. “You never said stay out of trouble.”

Jaz thumped her forehead with the heels of both hands. “It was implied! You’ve seen what can happen here—I died for fates’ sake! Twice, almost.” She thrust her hands toward him. “What in hells is wrong with you?”

“I just wanted to find Sadie. You wouldn’t help, so…”

“You can’t find Sadie! She’s gone, okay? She’s dead.”

The bruised, aching place in Bracken’s chest tightened. “But I can find her. Davin could have found her alternate,” he muttered, suddenly struggling to speak past the ache.

Jaz surged forward on her knees, splashing through a puddle of thin liquid on the floor, stirring up a pungent smell. She latched onto his shoulders. “Stop it, Bracken! You can’t bring her back by latching onto someone who looks like her! Sadie is gone. And I’m sorry. I’m really sorry. But she’s gone.”

Bracken couldn’t listen. He couldn’t speak, either. The tight ache moved up into his throat.

“And it’s my fault,” Jaz continued softly, tears gathering in her eyes. “I should have sent her away. I just…couldn’t.”

She turned her head away, like she always did when conversation got too personal, but he felt trembling emotion in her fingertips like electricity.

Seeing her this way loosed something in his throat, and he could speak again.

“She stayed because she didn’t want to be with us. My family—we chased her away. My dad especially. He hated that she traveled. He would argue with her every time she visited, tell her she was a liar and a fake unless she settled down with us. Finally, she just stopped coming back. That’s why I needed to find her. If I could just explain—they meant well, they just didn’t understand she was different—maybe she’d forgive us. Or just take me with her.”

Jaz shook her head. She rubbed a hand across her wet cheeks and stood suddenly. “Wait here a second.” She hurried into the basement.

Bracken shivered. His back was wet. He lifted a hand from the floor, found it was wet, and looked down to see he was sitting in a pool of…something.

The lights above the workspace came on, glowing a gentle orange-yellow. Janus appeared behind the counter, moving about. The running faucet went silent; the dishwasher door closed. Janus glanced at Bracken and smiled, as if nothing were out of the ordinary. “Evening. Or morning, rather.”

Bracken looked back down at the floor. Now he could see that he was sitting in blood. He stood quickly, reeled and caught himself on the edge of the nearest counter.

Jaz came back upstairs clutching a wide, thin, hardback book to her chest. She glanced at Janus as she came around the counters and her eyes narrowed, but for once she didn’t yell at him to go away. She caught Bracken’s arm and helped him onto a stool. He sat stiffly, holding his arms away from his body.

Jaz laid the book on the counter in front of him. On the cover was painted a pair of brown, feathered wings.

“This is a book,” Jaz said, after Bracken stared at the cover for a long moment.

“I know what a book is,” Bracken replied, feeling sticky and gross. He wondered if it was possible to bathe in a coffee shop.

“It’s Sadie’s. She wrote it.”

“She did?” Bracken leaned forward and touched the cover, running his fingertips along the edge of the book and then over the wings. Then he snapped his fingers away as the wings faded, sinking down into the white background. Black and gold letters faded in, one line appearing at a time, as if they were being drawn by an invisible pen: The Brown Bird and the Trickster King. The wings faded back in on either side of the words, fluttering slowly. Bracken exclaimed and picked up the book with both hands. He ran his fingers over the animated wings, but felt only the flat, smooth surface of the cover.

“Open it,” Jaz prompted.

Bracken set the book down on the counter and opened it, turning the first page over. It was slightly glossy, cream-colored, and blank. Jaz reached over and drew her fingertip across the paper.

A watery, painted image of a brown bird surfaced and moved across the page, wings pumping in flight. It traveled across the left-side page, dipping into the crevice made by the book’s spine and onto the right-side page, where a spread of tall, white-tipped mountains rose to block the bird’s path. Black script appeared along the bottom of the page:

Once, there was a brown bird who loved to travel. She decided to leave home and fly to a new land she had never seen, beyond the great Snowy Mountains…’

Bracken looked up at Jaz. “I know this story. She used to tell it to us when she visited.”

Jaz smiled. “I know. She had this book made in Vasencea. Davin—”

“Was helping her, yeah.” Bracken turned to the next page, which was also blank until he brushed a fingertip across it. More illustrations surfaced: The brown bird attempting to fly over an icy summit and failing, returning to the green earth in lament. “How does it do that?”

“It’s self-animating paper. They make it in Vasencea with alchemy. It works like oil on water, except rather than floating on top, the color pigments stay beneath the fibers of the paper until touch activates them.” Jaz watched the moving bird fluttering, straining against a wind too strong for it. “It was a gift for you.”

Bracken forgot about being bruised and sticky with his own blood. He stared at Jaz, forgetting even to breathe.

She met his eyes, for once not turning away. “This was the last thing she wanted to do before she died. She wanted to go see you, Bracken. She just…ran out of time. And I should have sent it to you. I kept telling myself I would, but I…I was afraid you’d figure out the truth and come here and end up wasting your life here too.” She made a sound in her throat that was half sob, half laughter. “But you came anyway.”

Bracken almost put an arm around her, but Janus was lurking at the counter nearby, watching. Plus, he had a vague feeling that if he gave in to his impulse to comfort her, he would have to forgive her, and if he forgave her they would really, actually become friends. Then any agreement with Janus would be out of the question since he was technically an enemy. And Janus was his last remaining hope of ever seeing Sadie again.

Bracken slid off his stool and closed the book, clutching it against his chest. His legs wobbled as he walked to the basement door, but he didn’t stop until he had escaped to his room, just as the tears he’d been holding back began streaming down his cheeks.

34. Fast Forward

“You get out!” Jaz grabbed the nearest thing at hand, a half-full jug of milk, and hurled it at Costello. “No fighting in my shop!”

He had been taken by surprise at Bracken’s sudden defeat, and ducked too late. The jug hit him in the chest, and he staggered back, nearly falling. He straightened only to dodge another milk jug—this one was full—and then a syrup bottle, which smashed against an overturned table. Next came a heavy portafilter, which shot past his head and cracked a window.

Costello stumbled backward, guarding his face with raised arms as Jaz continued to launch things at him. She went along the counter, toward the register and her shotgun beneath it. She threw all of the syrup bottles and moved on to milk-steaming pitchers. The pitchers pinged brightly, some hitting Costello and some sailing past, bouncing and skipping across the floor.

Clara strode into the line of fire, teeth clenched, hands balled in fists alongside her swishing skirt. Placing herself between Costello and Jaz, she made wide circular gestures with both hands. Sudden gusts of wind rose around her and sent the pitchers spinning off to either side. The wind swirled her skirts and tugged brown wisps of hair from her bun so they floated around her face like seaweed in water.

Jaz reached for another pitcher, but she had run out. She grabbed the shotgun and pumped it, but the chambers were empty. So she threw it instead. “Get out of my shop! Get out!

Clara continued making her circular gestures to maintain the gusts for a moment, in case Jaz found something else to throw.

Instead, Jaz’s attention turned to Bracken, and she vaulted over the counter, crunching shards of glass beneath her boots as she landed on the other side. She dashed over to Bracken as Clara lowered her hands and the wind died away.

Jaz slipped in the blood spreading from Bracken’s body as she neared him, crashing to her knees. Davin knelt beside him already, supporting him in a sitting position with one hand pressed against his back, staring intently at Bracken’s chest. A small hole had opened up there, leaking pale pink blood.

Jaz grabbed Bracken’s shoulders and looked into his face. “Bracken. Bracken!”

Bracken raised his head. His eyes were solid black behind his fluttering eyelids. He wheezed a sound but couldn’t draw breath back in. His body trembled. His clothes, which were really just his skin, began to lose shape and color. He raised shaking hands and clutched at her shoulders.

Davin pushed Jaz away and began making a pulling, twisting gesture in front of Bracken’s chest with one hand, as if drawing out an invisible string. His other hand pressed firmly against the middle of Bracken’s trembling back.

***

The rocklike pain in Bracken’s chest seemed to bulge, then stretch, and then it tunneled out of him toward Davin’s moving hand. Bracken spasmed as the thing left him—and suddenly he could breathe again. He gulped air. Jaz leaned in and pulled him against her, wrapping her arms around him while looking over his shoulder to Davin.

“It was trapped inside him,” Davin told her. “It’s all out now. We should get some bandages and stop the bleeding.”

“What was it?” Bracken asked hoarsely.

“Air,” answered Davin.

“Oh,” said Bracken, and passed out.

***

Moving him only made the bleeding worse so they left him on the floor. Jaz ran to the workspace and found a pile of bar towels to tuck under his head.

Davin nudged a suitcase under Bracken’s legs to elevate them. “I’ll go and find a medic.”

Jaz cradled Bracken’s head in both hands. He seemed smaller than usual, as if all his mass was draining out of him. Medicine wouldn’t help him, she was certain, nor Alchemy. Nothing in Davin’s world could. “Sure, yes. Go. Get them.”

He dashed out. Jaz waited until the doors closed behind him, then laid Bracken’s head carefully on the towels. She ran across the empty cafe—Clara and Costello had gone, at some point, along with everyone else—locked the doors, and raced back to Bracken. He looked worse than ever, his body too thin and flaccid as she pulled his head and shoulders into her lap.

Please, no. No. No. Please don’t go. Please don’t…

“Janus!” She cried, her voice rising to a scream. “Janus!!”

Janus appeared, sitting on a nearby suitcase. “That doesn’t look good.”

“Shut up! You have to help him.”

Janus crossed one knee over the other. “The wound is beyond healing, you realize. To save his life I would have to—”

“I know!”

“You know I can’t use such power on him. Not without his permission.”

“You have mine, now do it!”

Janus uncrossed his knees and leaned forward. A sharp expression came into his face. “If I do this for you, I’ll want something in return.”

“You always want something, don’t you? You can’t save a life just because it’s a life, can you?” Jaz cried, her voice breaking.

Janus shook his head. “It doesn’t affect me who dies or lives in these worlds. You want his life to continue, not me.”

“What, then?” She hissed, clenching her teeth against a sharp sob. “What do you want?”

“I want you to let me speak to him without interfering. Or trying to dissuade him from making an agreement of his own with me.”

“So his life only matters if it benefits you,” Jaz growled.

“Fortunately for you, yes.” Janus stood, shimmering with waves of iridescence traveling down his body into the floor. “Do we have an agreement, then?”

Jaz looked down at Bracken. “Yes. We have an agreement. Dammit.”

Janus nodded. He turned and looked up at the ceiling, a slight smile lifting the corners of his mouth. “Athamas isn’t going to like this…”

Iridescent ripples shot across the floor, up the walls, coating everything in the shop.

Then the shaking began: A violent, deep tremor hanging in the air like discordant base notes, flooding and pounding through every inch of the room.

Jaz curled over Bracken, hugging him to her. “It’ll be okay…just hold on a second longer. Just one more second…”

And then the shrieking began, like the sound of wheels on metal, and a slick, rushing sound like a record played at high speed.

The hands of the clock above the doors accelerated. The second hand spun too fast to be seen, while the hour hand advanced smoothly, passing the hours until they both stopped at midnight.

33. Pitcher This

Bracken turned on his heels and marched out. He pounded downstairs, into his room. He grabbed Sadie’s picture from among the others scattered over his bed, stared at it a moment, then pulled off his shirt and shed his pants. He set his jaw and marched back upstairs, changing shape on the way. Halfway up, his chest and hips were effeminately curved, his legs above the ankles joining into a long, elegant skirt. Three-quarters up his torso was a smart blue blazer with wide lapels and a Vasencea patch. At the top he paused to adjust the lapels of the jacket and pat the golden hair twisted into a smart bun at the base of his head.

He paused at the top of the stairs, resting a shaking hand on the door. He had never been so angry before. It was a shock how quickly his temper flared up since he had met Jaz. He didn’t even know he’d had one before this adventure. Possibly, lack of sleep and a constant diet of pastries over the past few days also something to do with it.

Bracken shooks his head and breathed deeply, forcing his hands to steady. Davin could help him find Sadie. Costello was getting in the way. And if Jaz had her way, this was the first and only chance Bracken would have to speak with Davin. He didn’t know exactly how he would enlist Davin’s help, but that didn’t matter as much as getting to Davin in the first place.

He emerged from the basement transformed into a tall, graceful female human. He crossed the room, weaving around customers and their luggage until he reached the table where Costello sat with Davin.

“There you are, dear,” Bracken said, bending his voice to a female tone and laying a hand on Costello’s shoulder. “I need to talk to you.”

Davin was just sliding a stack of papers across the table to Costello. He froze, staring up at Bracken.

Costello twisted around. “Clara! I didn’t know you were here.”

Davin tried to hide the papers beneath the table, but Bracken quickly leaned down and snatched them up. Costello stood just as quickly and grabbed Bracken’s slender, white wrist. “That’s just Davin’s homework. We’re not quite finished yet…”

Bracken gave Costello an imperious look and pulled free. He scanned the top sheet, frowning. It was filled with shaky writing, with a lot of diagrams and formulas. Bracken glimpsed a few words like ‘swiftness’ and ‘whirlwind vector’, but didn’t understand any of it. Fortunatley, he didn’t need to. “Are these test answers?”

Costello moved uneasily at Bracken’s side. “It’s not what it looks like—”

“It looks like you’re making this young man cheat for you,” Bracken said loudly, putting as much cold disdain as he could manage into his voice. It wasn’t very difficult. Clara’s way of speaking was a lot like Jaz’s, but with less profanity.

“No, it’s not like that—” Costello tried to lower his voice, and managed to get it to a near rumble. He put a thick arm around Bracken’s waist and walked him toward the doors, away from the watching eyes of customers—many of them fellow students. “I’m trying to help the kid but he’s so bad at alchemy…it’s a lot of work, but what am I supposed to do, send him away?”

Costello was beginning to sound a lot like Jaz, which made Bracken’s anger surge up again. He pulled sharply away. “Davin has more ability than you do! He has foresight—”

“Farsight—”

“—and he’s a good person, and he’s smart enough, and he doesn’t need your help! He worked his way here on his own, without any money or relatives—”

“Clara—”

“And he doesn’t need you, or Jaz or anyone else! He can find her without you, and you know what—you need him!

Costello had let go of Bracken’s arm by now, and was looking more confused than ever. “What are you talking about? Find who?”

“Costello, what’s going on?”

Bracken shut his mouth with a snap. Clara—real Clara—was behind him in the doorway. She came around to stand by Costello and gasped, putting a hand to her mouth as she saw Clara-Bracken.

Costello stared from one Clara to the other, open-mouthed. Then he recovered himself and grabbed Bracken’s arm again, this time clamping down hard and growling, “Who are you?”

Bracken smiled weakly, curtsied, and shrank the arm Costello was holding, slipping out of his grasp. Costello grabbed for him again, but Bracken dodged away, skipping back toward Davin’s table. “Everyone knows now what you’ve been doing! You can’t make Davin cheat for you anymore! If you want to get at him, go through me first!”

Bracken flounced to a stop in front of Davin’s table and grinned at him. Davin looked both awed and incredulous. Jaz had stopped working and was staring at Bracken, her expression a mixture of horror and disbelief.

Everyone in the cafe was still and staring. The room held a collective breath.

Then everyone was pushing back chairs, grabbing luggage, and hurrying for the doors. Davin stood too, but stayed at the table, facing Bracken. “Are you sure about this…?”

“About what?” Bracken turned to look back.

“The duel. The one you just challenged him to?”

At the same time, Jaz shouted from behind the counter: “He didn’t mean it—! Bracken get down!”

Costello swept his hands together, lacing his fingers into one fist, and punched them toward Bracken. He was standing too far away to touch Bracken, and for a moment Bracken thought it was only a gesture. The next instant, an invisible force punched Bracken’s stomach so hard he felt it go through him. He fell backward, then rolled onto his side, curling his knees to his chest. A dull pain settled and expanded in his middle, as if he had swallowed a large rock. A hot wetness trickled down his stomach. He couldn’t breathe. Faintly, he heard Jaz yelling, and hollow thumping, but all sounds and sights were made fuzzy by the pain and the sudden ringing in his ears.