1993, October 09, continued again
Trusting Trill to look after Michael, Alex went back upstairs. He paused for a moment to check, but his family—minus Tizzy, who was currently at her father’s house—remained peacefully asleep. Always tricky in houses that had only curtains for walls, trying not to disturb everyone else in the middle of the night. As it was, Brad remained deeply shy about sex, despite all assurances that Skyreach lacked specifically sexual taboos and recognized only consent and courtesy.
Of course, he had to make sure Brad was okay before they could get any farther on that one.
He sat down on the edge of the bed again, straightened the blankets and tucked them more closely around Brad. “I’ll make it okay, love,” he whispered, running a hand over sweat-damp brown hair. “I promise. No matter what I have to do.”
Brad flinched with a small whimper from Alex’s hand on his forehead—given that fever, it probably felt either very hot or very cold. Contact was necessary, though.
All right. A quick check of essential systems gave him reassuring results: heart-rate was rather fast as a resting rate but no worse than during exertion, blood was flowing cleanly through all major vessels, his lungs were providing a comfortable oxygen level, insulin/glucose levels were out of balance but not critical, enough oxygen and nutrients were reaching his brain. Nothing that suggested immediate life-threatening danger.
No foreign presence in his bloodstream, so none of the Hills-mutated viruses or bacteria or the bizarre crosses between them that sometimes turned up. No elevated white cells to counter an infection he wasn’t seeing directly, maybe lurking in a single location. Whatever this was, it was unlikely to be caused by something restricted to a single system anyway, it was too widespread. Adrenalin and endorphins and cortisol and other stress-response chemicals were all extremely high; that wasn’t much of a surprise, but they did muddy the waters and make it a lot harder to see what else was going on in his blood.
Metabolic rate was distinctly elevated, including the normal breakdown-buildup of muscle—and of bone as well. That was rather worrying. Energy for that had to come from somewhere. Digestive tract…
Okay, that’s seriously weird, I’ve never seen that before. And there’s no way this is a food reaction, scratch that idea.
Brad’s digestive and urinary tracts, rather than trying to dispose of anything, were both reabsorbing and reprocessing the waste currently in his body, and drawing considerably more out of them.
Crap, there’s where the energy is coming from: his body’s using fat reserves right now, but Skydancer knows what it’ll do when it runs out. He has more of that than a WindDancer does, but it’s not infinite, especially at this rate, and he needs to keep some! Need to wake him up and get some kind of food into him now!
Travel bars for the camping trip. Perfect. Lots of highly concentrated good stuff.
He left the bed to retrieve his pack from the chest, rummaged in it for the leather bag, part of it stiffened and part of it supple, that he’d stashed there. The bars inside, half an inch thick, an inch wide, and four or five inches long, were Skyreach’s answer to pemmican: meat, both muscle and organ, dried thoroughly and ground into powder, mixed with similarly dried and ground berries and fruit, all blended with rendered fat and a bit of honey. He knew from personal experience, it was quite possible to survive on it for an extended period if necessary.
It was also a bit of an acquired taste, and he was unsure how readily Brad would take to it. On the other hand, Brad seemed to have adapted fast enough to ClanChipmunk’s foraged diet, and had no problems Alex knew of with Skyreach’s mostly unique food sources. Right now, it would actually be more effective than fresh food
Brad mumbled something incoherent.
“C’mon, love, I need you to wake up and eat.”
That sound had a distinctly negative tone, and Brad curled into a tighter ball, with a small moan.
“Please, love. I know you feel awful. I need you to trust me. I’m going to take care of you, I promise. Everything’s going to be okay. But right now, you really need something in your stomach.”
Brad groaned, but reluctantly uncoiled enough that Alex could help him sit up, keeping the blankets wrapped tightly around him.
“Eat,” Alex said firmly, handing him one of the bars. “Chew it enough to soften it so you don’t choke.”
Brad bit obediently into the bar, balked when he had to work at severing a bite of the gummy stuff, but Alex prompted him, and with a sigh he did so. He made a face, blinked at the bar in puzzlement as he chewed.
“Travel food. Extremely concentrated. You can eat less and get what you need.” He stroked Brad’s hair reassuringly. “I know, not what you’re used to. But try to get it down, okay?”
Brad leaned against him, still chewing, and finally swallowed. He eyed the bar with clear misgivings, but sighed again and took another bite.
That kind of trust and obedience is so…
Stop that. Getting a bit ahead of yourself, there, aren’t you?
He checked, while Brad was still eating, watched his digestive tract start processing it rapidly, watched the rush of energy and materials hit his system.
“Need more,” Brad said. “Really hungry.”
Alex fished another bar out of the bag and gave it to him, losing track of what he was monitoring while he did. He’d just never gotten the trick the older ko’valha had of being able to do both at the same time, though Sheryn assured him that he would eventually, if not this time then in his next walk or the one after.
“How are you feeling otherwise, love?”
He had to wait while Brad finished that bite. “Ache bad all over. Cold. Very tired.”
“Thirsty? Need the bathroom?”
“No. Hungry, though.” The zeal with which he tore off another bite underscored that: so zealous he actually dropped the bar, though Alex caught it and gave it back. “Hills flu?”
“Maybe. I’ll figure out exactly what it is and fix it. I’m not going to let anything happen to you.”
Alex switched his attention back to what was happening within Brad’s body.
That the new supply of resources had sidetracked attempts to cannibalize itself was extremely reassuring.
That the resources were allowing whatever process was underway to accelerate was less so.
Okay, stop thinking like Brad’s lover, stop thinking like a Healer-gifted musician, and think like a ko’valhai. Even if you have a lot less experience and perspective to use than most. They started somewhere too.
What process, exactly, is underway? Start somewhere and check absolutely everything that you can check without exhausting yourself.
“More?” Brad said hopefully.
Alex dragged the bag closer, set it on Brad’s other side so he could reach it for himself. Brad fumbled for one, promptly dropped it and snatched for it. Alex helped him find it on the blankets, in the dim light, and folded the soft part of the bag further back to make it easier to get at the bars inside.
A huge amount of resources is going into that muscle rebuild. No wonder he’s aching so much, that must feel like massive overexertion of every muscle in his body. Every muscle? Well, all the voluntary ones, anyway, no sign of anything going on with involuntary ones like his heart. Still, that’s a massive effort. Now, why is his body doing that?
Not just muscle. Bone is rebuilding too. Don’t forget that, it’s bound to be relevant.
What else is going on? Any other changes? His digestive tract is pulling a pretty remarkable amount out of those bars and not leaving much waste. Most of which is going directly to that rebuild.
Which isn’t just a straight rebuild as-is.
Muscle tissue is actually changing. More compact, and holy crap it has a lot of attachments to bone, and I bet not all of that high food and oxygen usage is strictly because of being mid-change. And how the hell does his blood have that kind of oxygen saturation anyway? Hemoglobin just can’t carry that!
Except that whatever’s going on in his red cells, that isn’t exactly hemoglobin at this point, it’s changing too.
And holy crap, his lungs are larger. Ten percent, maybe? And not necessarily going to stop there. That is one immensely sensitive network of capillaries, but I bet horribly reactive to airborne irritants.
This isn’t a reaction to something external. This is a deep-level physiological change.
At the moment, he was extremely grateful that Brad’s empathy didn’t work here.
“Love, I’m going to go see if I can find you something fresh to eat and something to drink that’ll make you ache less, okay?” He pressed a kiss to Brad’s forehead, tightened the arm around him.
“Mmkay.” Brad let Alex help him get settled leaning against the head of the bed, with the bag of travel bars in easy reach.
“I’ll be right back. Don’t eat so fast you choke.”
“I’ll be careful.”
Trill, lying on her back with Michael cuddled against her with his head on her shoulder, looked up immediately.
“Sheryn,” Alex said flatly, keeping his voice low. “Now. I don’t think he’s in immediate danger but I’m guessing at this point and I really don’t want to screw things up.”
Trill nodded. She didn’t need to ask Michael to move: he’d roused as soon as he’d heard Alex’s voice. Naked already, she shifted to furform and darted to the nearest curtain, nosed it out of the way and was gone. On four feet and at a run, it would take her very little time to reach Sheryn. A bit longer for Sheryn to get here, but ko’valha were very good at going from asleep to alert and responding quickly.
“What’s going on?” Michael asked.
“I’m not saying anything when I don’t know for sure,” Alex hedged. “Telling you the wrong thing isn’t going to help.” And even the truth is going to make you resent me even more than you already do. “I need to go make Brad some pain-killer tea and something to eat.”
He was grateful neither Michael nor Leatha followed him to the kitchen, and made no effort to understand the low-voiced conversation behind him. He put the kettle on, rummaged on the shelves for the local equivalent of aspirin, something that should help dull the aching somewhat without interfering.
Please, he whispered silently, knowing he’d be heard anyway. Not again. Don’t let Brad pay because I screwed up again. He wanted to come here, I told him he’d be safe, but I was wrong. Please don’t let it happen again. Anything, any price, absolutely anything, but don’t let him suffer because I misjudged again…
Between one heartbeat and the next, he was no longer alone in the kitchen; strong arms wrapped around him, holding him close against a WindDancer body dressed all in soft white. Huge wings of white feathers dancing with silver and gold light folded around them, isolating them from the rest of the world.
“Hush, chosen.” No one else could have heard that beloved voice, he knew it was entirely in his own mind. “This is less of a crisis than it seems. You have everything you need to deal with this. Brad can be much stronger than you or he have yet seen.”
He shouldn’t have to be strong, not just to visit my family. Why do you keep me around, anyway? I never get anything important right.
“The things that matter the most, you always get right. The rest, you’ll learn, just like the others. Not even my first chosen got everything right all the time. And neither do I. It’s only and ever a matter of how much information is available to base decisions on. You’re on the right path, asking for help and minimizing the strain on his body. Now that it has begun, there is nothing I could do to halt it, for any price. He will not lose anything that matters to him. Beyond that, support and love will go a very long way. But he and his brother are both going to be looking to you for some idea how to react to something entirely outside their experience.”
And if I act like it’s catastrophic, they’ll take it that way. If I can stay calm and practical… well, at least Brad will probably go by that. Michael’s going to hate me no matter what I do at this point.
“I think an empath would not love someone so much who was inclined to hate. It was not the expectation that Michael would hate you that made Brad stay silent about your relationship so long, it was worry about Michael’s emotional state. I think it is more likely old pain and fear. You understand those. Old wounds and fear cause more hostile behaviour than anything else, in my experience. From what you know, I think Michael has had love and support from few people in his life, unlike you. That would make it very easy to fear a threat to or loss of one of those few.” The embrace loosened, enough for his beloved Firstborn to tilt his chin up gently with one hand and give him a brief kiss. “Do your best, Alex. That’s all I ever ask. I’m never farther from you than the nearest Portal to Gaia.”
Bright wings folded back, and he was alone.
Alex took a deep breath, then another. All right, if the best thing he could do for Brad right now was admit that he was out of his depth but stay steady for him to lean on, burying his own leftover issues that were from another life and could never have any resolution, then that was what he’d do. He’d done harder things.
He found a couple of flatbread rounds left from supper. The flour wasn’t from any sort of grain, but from something closer to lentils, rich in protein and amino acids, and this particular batch had been made with finely-chopped dried vegetables, one leafy and one a root, mixed into it. He piled one with strips of cold leftover venison and hastily-chopped fresh vegetables, laid the other over it, and cut the whole thing into quarters—flatbread wraps had a tendency to lose all the filling out the bottom if you weren’t paying attention, and he figured this would be easier for Brad to deal with.
What he should have done was graduate from high school as his mother had asked and then built his life primarily around Skyreach. Found an empty house to share with Trill, devoted his time to his responsibilities here, instead of trying to straddle both worlds. Then Brad would be safe, would never have had to wait for the return of a lover who kept too many secrets.
Or, quite likely, Brad or Michael or both would be dead or living with such profound psychic scarring that they’d wish they were. He had, at least, prevented that.
And having met Brad, could he have kept from falling in love with him? No, not from that first night in the moonlight.
He poured boiling water into the cup with the tea mixture, stirred it around until it looked right, then poured the mixture through a fine wire strainer into a second cup and rinsed the first clean. A large spoonful of honey should help hide the less-than-pleasant taste.
With plate and cup, he went back through the living room.
Michael, sitting up now, opened his eyes. “I can’t see anything else,” he said. “Almost but not quite.”
The edge to his voice made Alex want to growl, but he forced his voice to stay calm. Old pain, and he’s worried about Brad. “Be careful. If you keep trying, even if you don’t get any results, you’re going to use a lot of energy. Eat something, okay? Sheryn will be here soon, and he knows a lot more than I do.” It would be unforgivably rude to tell anyone that only Dalisyn, of those currently around, had been ko’valhai longer than Sheryn. Skyreach wasn’t supposed to care, was supposed to consider all ko’valha essentially equal—though, as one of the youngest, Alex was acutely aware of how useless that was under extraordinary conditions, which weren’t so unusual in the Hills.
Michael nodded curtly.
Alex went back upstairs.
Brad, not surprisingly, hadn’t moved, but even at a glance, the bag of travel bars was considerably lighter than it had been.
“Something a bit fresher and tastier for you, love. You can start on the sandwiches while the tea cools a bit, but you’ll probably want to keep a bit of sandwich for after it. Even sweetened, it doesn’t taste that great, I’m afraid.”
“Worth it, if I hurt less.”
Alex arranged himself so that Brad could lean against him again, and settled the plate securely on his lap.
Brad fumbled the sandwiches so often that Alex decided it was wiser, when they got as far as the tea, to keep one hand almost touching the cup just in case—and it turned out to be a good idea.
Muscles rebuilding, probably messing with nerve connections and signals. That will be temporary, almost certainly.
“Alex?” Liore’s voice, softly. “What’s going on?”
“Everything’s okay, go back to bed.”
Liore stepped through the curtain wall, wrapped in a loose onuri-wool robe against the chill, and paused to take in the scene. “I’m not five years old. Stop acting like I am.”
Alex sighed. “Brad’s not feeling well. I don’t have answers. Trill’s gone to get Sheryn. Michael and Leatha are downstairs. There is no reason to believe that this is a life-threatening situation, just an odd one. I was hoping not to wake anyone else up.”
“Brad’s all right?”
“Just hungry,” Brad said for himself. “Tea’s helping some. Not as cold. Just really hungry.”
Liore gave Alex a questioning look.
“I think, under the circumstances, he gets as much food as he wants,” Alex said.
“You can’t be here and in the kitchen both. I’ll check on Ama and Keris, and then go see what I can find.”
Alex surrendered. Who said help had to come from ko’valha? She was already awake and not likely to fall back asleep readily. “Thanks, Lio.”
Brad groped for the bag of travel bars again.
Alex let him eat, since dropping that couldn’t do any harm, and checked again.
Same process he’d already seen, drawing what it needed from the food and even from the tea, using everything else as fuel with rather mind-boggling efficiency. Muscle and bone, primarily. His lungs were a little larger yet. Blood chemistry shifting to support the rest.
What kind of changeling genes? Now there was the scary part of the thought. There were a lot of different kinds of changelings, some of them believed extinct, some lingering in the Deep Hills, a minority like mhaurri and WindDancers thriving and expanding. The wizards had terrorized the Dyaura for a very long time, after all, and for some reason, once the energy hit on a stable and viable form, it repeated it over and over. Most of them were vaguely humanoid, but very few could pass outright on Earth without clothes, cosmetics, cheat rings, or some combination.
Brad finished that bar and snuggled against Alex, eyes closing, drifting off into, not exactly sleep, but a drowsy half-consciousness at least.
Skydancer had said Brad wouldn’t lose what mattered to him. There was no race that would make Alex break up with him, and he figured it was no more likely Michael would leave. Elisabeth would be upset for Brad’s sake, but she would never abandon him. Race certainly wouldn’t matter to Hawk or to Trill, and probably not to either tantarra. Which left… what? Only music. It wasn’t something that would interfere with being able to stand on a stage and sing?
Did cheat rings work to deceive video cameras? he wondered. It wasn’t something he’d ever thought to ask, since neither he nor Trill needed one.
He felt the light touch of Sheryn’s mind against his, an empathic greeting, and sent back relief and welcome; Sheryn’s reply was all calm reassurance.
A moment later, Sheryn stepped through the curtain into the room.
“I woke up because I sensed something wrong with Brad,” Alex said in Hillin. “Michael’s Sight seems to have reacted at about the same time, given when they got here. I’m not sensing anything life-threatening, but I’m quite sure this is outside my experience. I’m almost entirely certain that he has changeling genes and they’re waking up in full force.”
“Hm. Specifics?” Sheryn perched on the chest.
Alex gave him the full list of everything he’d observed so far, which was actually easier in Hillin than it would have been in English since the ko’valha had inevitably developed their own jargon.
Sheryn nodded slowly, expression thoughtful. “And considering how much exposure he has had to the Hills as well, I think it’s very likely that you’re correct, and that food was the best thing you could possibly have done. Bone rebuilding as well? Replacing itself on a cellular level?”
“I didn’t look quite that deep. I didn’t want to wear myself out with no one else here in case of something going wrong.”
Sheryn moved over to kneel on the floor next to the bed and laid a hand over Brad’s on top of the blankets. Brad twitched, but Alex stroked his hair soothingly and he relaxed again.
Silence for a long moment, while Sheryn tracked changes.
“Well done, kiaru, you were right.”
“Oh, l’ya’rae, messing my lover’s life up is brilliantly well done. I mean, what are the odds?”
“Low, in general. For this particular race, even lower, since they have always been uncommon.”
“You can tell what?”
“Most of the changes are distinctive, but the one thing that is diagnostic beyond doubt is those bones. Take a closer look. Cellular level.”
Alex would have preferred a direct answer, but wasn’t going to get one until he obeyed.
“Htana va gaetha… bones can do that?”
“Under only a single set of circumstances that I’m aware of. That is not calcium, it’s primarily organic aluminum-silicon. Calcium would break under the strain of those muscles without becoming very dense and thick, and that would make it impossible to get in the air.”
“Flight adaptations? But what has aluminum-silicon bones?”
“Dracona. I only know anything about them from songs.” What he did know was in agreement with what Skydancer said: life might get interesting and hold some surprises, but it wouldn’t keep Brad from doing what he wanted to do.
“I think we haven’t had any on Skyreach for a long time. It’s a shame, Skyreach suits them well. The original draconan were not human victims of the wizards or of the War, they were the mutated offspring of those dragons caught in the energy field while they helped the Firstborn and faerie and dulhanei to contain it here. Thus, the unique physiology. And the rapid metabolism, although not typically as high as currently. That would explain Skydancer suggesting I bring the leftovers from my kitchen. It would be a good idea to locate as much silvergrass as possible, not the young shoots we normally eat, the mature blades. Bloodflower roots, as well. Aluminum and silicon are not readily available from a typical Skyreach diet, and he needs them.”
It was an odd combination. Mature silvergrass was tough and bitter, though the young shoots were tender and tasty; bloodflower’s flowers and seeds were distilled to make the most commonly used antiseptic and astringent, but the roots were normally useless.
“I’m sure we could talk Trill into another run, but no one’s going to have either on hand. I wonder if she can recognize either, wild.”
In the living room, they found Michael sitting very still, legs crossed and eyes closed; even superficial mental contact revealed intense focus and determination.
Sheryn sighed, shook his head, and beckoned to Trill to come to the kitchen with them. Liore, efficiently dicing vegetables into a large pot, listened quietly to the discussion.
“I’ve been helping you with gathering forever,” Liore pointed out finally. “I know what bloodflower looks like.”
“And I’ve eaten enough silvergrass to be able to identify the scent,” Trill said. “I take it we’re raiding gardens and not going looking for wild patches?”
Sheryn nodded without hesitation. “This counts as medical necessity.”
“How much can you carry?”
“Seriously? Can I ask why?”
“Brad’s got changeling genes,” Alex said with a sigh. “He needs what’s in it.”
“And also a great deal of food,” Sheryn said. “Because as long as he is eating, his body is not feeding on itself for the energy it needs. But there are some specific minerals that are absent from or present only in trace amounts in most food.”
“So we need to supplement them. Got it.”
“Dariel is, I think, the closest who has bloodflower. There’s a large amount of silvergrass growing wild near the trail to Dalisyn’s house from mine, and Nelys planted it this year as well.”
Trill nodded, accepting the bag and knife Liore handed her. “Right. First trip, then.”
“Birdsfoot tea,” Sheryn said, as the two women left.
“What do we need an antibiotic and antifungal for?” Alex headed for the shelf that amounted to a medicine cabinet anyway, even as he asked.
“We do not, but it does have some of the minerals Brad needs. Not in much quantity, but it’s a start.”
“There isn’t any.” Normally, where any ko’valhai lived, some things were always available, but restocking herbalism supplies hadn’t been high on his priority list lately.
“Hm. Irielle isn’t far, and she’ll have it.” Sheryn nodded towards the stove, where two substantial pots rested. “How warm they are isn’t going to matter. Take a bowl of one or the other and go back to Brad. I’ll be back soon.”
One pot held leftover stew from earlier that day—leftovers rarely lasted long around here; the other was a mixture of vegetables, meat, and a pearl-barley-like grain in sauce, which must have come from Sheryn’s house. Because the former was warmer and would be a bit more pleasant, he filled a bowl with as much as it could hold and went back past Michael, who hadn’t moved, upstairs.
Warily, he supported the bowl and stayed ready to catch the spoon.
Brad wolfed it down, with a little help, and cuddled against him drowsily again.
“Don’t need second opinion for the flu.”
“Who’s the Healer here, hm? You matter too much for me to take even the slightest chance with symptoms I don’t recognize. Sheryn’s been around a lot longer than I have. Of course, almost everyone’s been around longer than I have.” He pressed a kiss to Brad’s forehead. “I promise, love, on anything you want, you’re going to be okay. This is going to pass, and a lot more quickly if we can track down the right stuff for you to eat, although I can’t promise it’ll taste all that great.” He would never have considered bloodflower root edible at all, and mature silvergrass only at dire need.
“Too hungry to care.”
“Do you want more?”
Brad sighed. “Gonna gain a hundred pounds in a day.”
“Your body’s using it as fast as you’re replacing it. I’ll go get you another bowlful.”
“Michael’s gonna wear himself out. Is trying to see stuff.”
Alex extricated himself gently, picked up the bowl. “Do you really think he’s going to listen to me if I tell him to stop?”
“He’s worried about you, even though he already knows you’re not in danger.” And how in hell do I tell them both the truth? “I’ll be right back.”
Leatha, furform, still lay next to Michael, eyes mostly closed but Alex had no doubt she was more alert than she looked; Michael still hadn’t moved.
“As soon as he comes out of that,” Alex said quietly, “make him eat, even if he doesn’t want to.”
Leatha opened her eyes and gave him a slow blink, her ears flicking, which he figured was an acknowledgement.
Brad finished the second bowl and wanted to lie down, so Alex tucked him in carefully. Another check found more of the same, but Sheryn was right, the rebuilding of bone was faltering, probably unable to find anything to use—that it had as much as it did suggested that Brad’s body had been accumulating it, either lifelong or just since first coming to the Hills he wasn’t sure.
He perched on the chest, watching over his sleepy lover and lost in his own thoughts, hoping it wouldn’t take long for at least Sheryn to return.
Alex jolted back to alertness, shaking his head in an instinctive attempt to clear the lingering effects of that shriek. He very much doubted he’d ever heard one voice, unamplified, reach anything near that volume.
More to the point, what had made Brad wake in enough of a panic to scream like that?
“Alex!” That was Leatha, only partway up the stairs. “Possible problem.”
Oh, like we need another one? There was no way Kallir or Keris were still asleep, so he called back, “Coming!”
He did a brief check on Brad first, who was thrashing against the blankets though not really conscious; he found everything still safe but stress chemical levels had spiked and were continuing to climb.
Which probably was because of whatever he was picking up from Michael.
He bolted down the stairs, pausing only long enough to tell Keris, “In a minute.”