Expanding Rael's Part:
Xen's house was . . . not messy, but not immaculate. The home of a man who lived casually, alone.
Breakfast dishes washed, but not put away. A small screen on the little table in front of the windows was still faithfully showing the top news.
Rael stared down at it. "I feel like an intruder. I never really lived here."
Q looked around. "Yeah . . . not that you weren't welcome, but politics, security ratings . . . gossip."
"My job. I can't commute to Paris from here." And I wouldn't quit, not even when Ox was hired by the Internal Relations Directorate.
Not that that had anything to do with Xen. It was fun, for two and a half years, to live so close to Ryol and Arno. To show my sister the ropes, how things worked at Versalle and Government House. Spend time with the little brats, and Mom and Dad visiting all the time.
Rael looked around the cozy kitchen.
I guess I did the same thing, didn't I?
I knew I wasn't going to work, working for Ox when Izzo selected him to be his Presidental Director. But I clung to the job . . . because I was afraid of what I might do . . . live with an enemy agent . . . because I was already emotionally involved way past prudent security.
Because I wanted, but I was afraid of . . .
Quick footsteps behind them. They'd left front door open, and Lala peeked in, spotted them and slipped in.
"He'll be fine." Lala frowned at them. "Have either of you eaten since breakfast? Honestly!" She bustled around the kitchen, pulling food from cupboards . . . hot and cooked.
Rael blinked. Right. Dimensional bubbles. Ten thousand-to-one time dilation.
Lala plunked three plates down on the table. "Sit. Eat. Rael . . . I felt my parents die. They were a mile away and I was only twelve . . . but I know what it feels like. My biodad did not die this morning. So sit down and eat. You two are going to be busy, and I'm going to help you not have to worry about anything else."
Rael looked over her shoulder at movement in the corner of her eye.
Four more of Xen's kids. Xav and Levi, the boys, and their half sisters, Kessy and Styx, were all redheads. Roughly a year younger than Lala and the rest of the Oner bunch. And all nodding agreement. "We'll pick up the slack, so you two can concentrate on rescuing Dad." Levi looked determined.
Styx nodded. "We can take lighter class loads next semester if we need to. No big deal."
They were all four—and Lala too—taking all the basic college courses remotely, and arguing over which university to go to "finish up," as they put it.
Q glowered. "No."
They looked back, calm and unbothered. Oh Dear One. I know that look. They got it from Xen. They're going to do what they think will help, and we can protest all we want. They'll still do it.
Rael blinked back tears. All these wonderful young creatures. I've never even tried to be a part of their lives, and here they are including me in their circle of adults to be supported.
Lala patted her arm. "You'll stay here, of course. We'll keep everything running smoothly for all three houses."
"Three . . ."
"This one, Aunt Q's house next door, and Kids' House. Haven't you ever seen it? C'mon, I'll show you. Get you out of your funk . . ."
Rael opened her mouth to protest . . . and shut it as Lala pulled her over to a perfectly ordinary bit of wall and walked through it, pulling Rael through with her.
Into a huge room. Two walls of floor to ceiling windows looking south and west. The north wall had a kitchen, a . . . movie theater . . . a computer room with an amazing number of screens, and closed doors . . .
Xav waved at them. "Those are our bedrooms. We don't even have to share bathrooms. And at the end is the Little Kids' Lair. Destiny's all alone in there right now. Oak and Fox will be back soon, and Aunt Obsidian's Orphans visit a lot."
"And you're just a step away from Xen? I never knew that."
"Oh, we have a corridor to Q's house too, and one to the stable behind Disco." Styx grinned. "We let Dad have lots of privacy when you visit." Her grin wobbled a bit.
Kessy nodded. "It's so romantic . . . and it will be again."
*** visit 2
Three weeks later, Poohbah returned.
It was the same setup she’d heard described. Circle of copper. Throne with a short fat guy in a gold embroidered long jacket, loose pants, black with gold embroidery. Holding a fancy staff. Tesla coil, of course. Tall skinny guards with fancy spears. Completely different body forms, similar slightly Asian features. Tan complexions, mid-brown hair.
“You may approach.”
“Same Poohbah, same guards?” Rael kept her voice down, standing back with the non-Disco observers.
“Yes.” A breath of a reply from the Oner Embassy guard at her shoulder.
“No thank you.” Lon turned and walked away.
As planned, all the Disco people retreated. Q, at a casual saunter. She looked back over her shoulder. “Come back when you are ready to hold an actual conversation.”
Two meters off the copper, she turned and sat cross-legged.
Rael watched the spear-wielding honor guards step back onto the copper carpet. The whole thing disappeared with a blast of wind. A slow enough transit out that the air has time to flow in, there’s no vacuum or implosion.
She turned and watched Q, just sitting there, with a slow smile spreading across her face. “Same direction, and both the parents are out there, that direction. And I was ready this time. I have a good idea of the distance now; once I get close, their world will be obvious. I think I’m going to need to go in steps, build another maze—this time of necessity, although easy-to-collapse corridors in between might not be a bad idea.”
“And we are going to go with an armed and magical escort when we go, right?” Rael frowned down at her.
Q eyed her. “We?”
Rael jumped at a loud snort in her ear.
:: We. :: Pyrite laid his ears back and stared at Q.
Q shrugged. “Right. Well, I started with an Empty World as far that direction as I could manage. Now I'll build a chain of gates out that way.” She looked out at the bare plaza. “I wonder how soon he’s going to come back?”
Lon bit his lip. “Come back often. When he shows, we’ll try to keep him busy while Pyrite gets you out to the end of your chain of gates as fast as possible.”
Q nodded. “Thirty-five days apart. Not that we can extrapolate anything from just two points, but they don’t seem to be in any hurry to be any more open.”
Rael nodded. “I’ll see if our labs can come up with anything useful. How many gates are we talking about?”
“I’m not sure. It won’t be anything like the Helios diversion, where we were placing gates between two close and known worlds. I’ll have to reach out as far as I can and find an Empty World. Place a gate. Go through and look as far as I can reliably see that a world is empty . . . I doubt I’ll finish in a month, but if I’m at least part way, maybe I can pinpoint their world.” Q glanced at the empty plaza. “I put the first gate out of sight, by my house. I think I'll head out now, and talk to my parents.”
A snort from Pyrite as he trotted away. He was back in minutes, saddle, saddle bags, and bedroll strapped on. Q mounted and was taken away.
"Thirty-five days." Rael huffed out a breath. "Another month before they might come back. This is going to be excruciating."