Inbetween: Chapter Sixteen

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When the grey, overcast sky grew even darker, Yuri expected more cold rain. The near-freezing precipitation had become a fixture of his time here. It kept him inside when he wished he could be out searching and made the weather feel even colder than it would otherwise. He turned around and started heading back to Willow’s apartment, hoping that he would make it back before the rain managed to get him completely soaked.

As he retraced his steps back to the apartment, he noticed it was not rain falling from the sky, but cold, white flakes that melted into water on his hands and jacket. He never experienced anything like this before. It seemed harmless enough, but he was unsure about it all and thought it would be best to head back to the apartment anyway to learn what he could about this new development.

Before he managed to do more than return to the block where Willow’s apartment was located, he ran into Willow — almost literally. The smile on her face as the first genuine expression of joy he saw from her in days. He wondered what had changed.

When she spotted him she picked up her pace and jogged the rest of the way to meet him. Her smile only seemed to grow.

“It’s snowing!” she exclaimed breathlessly.

He nodded. Snow. It made sense. He had heard of snow, but never experienced it himself in his desert home. The notion eluded him entirely until he heard the word come out of Willow’s mouth. He stopped in his tracks and just watched her for a moment.

The joy on her face while she spun around and looked up at the sky was the happiest Yuri ever saw her. He had to admit that it was hard to feel down with the snow falling all around and starting to blanket the ground. It looked quite pretty and made for an excellent distraction from the worries that plagued them both more and more.

“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” she asked as she jogged up to him.

He smiled. The cold brought a rosy glow to her cheeks. He found it hard to even remember how angry and frustrated she had looked lately. It all seemed to be behind them now, it might not stay behind them, but if she was willing to find happiness for a few moments he could postpone his own worries ever so briefly to enjoy what he could in terms of happiness with Willow.

For the moment he could forget about the change in the tone of their relationship that happened lately. Lately, his thoughts had been focused on how he could make things right again. He could tell that they could not continue the way they were for much longer. If he could not go home, he needed to find other arrangements in this world. If he managed to find a way home, he needed to figure out a way to say goodbye to Willow. Neither option made him feel particularly happy, so having an opportunity to pretend that none of this would ever happen was pleasant enough.

Willow’s happiness was infectious. He could not help smiling at her. He lacked answers to so many questions about this snow, but his ability to get answers from Willow about it was severely hampered by her boisterous mood.

She danced around and pulled Yuri along by the hand so he had no choice but to play along with her. He was not sure how long they danced and played, but Willow would not allow them to stop until she was out of breath.

“Are you ready to come inside?” she asked finally.

He shook his head. “I want to keep looking. There might be something out here today and I don’t want to miss it.”

She sighed. The good mood seemed to drain right out of her. “You’ve been walking all over town every day lately. You haven’t found anything yet so why would today be any different?”

“I just don’t want to give up hope.”

“Do you really think that you’re going to find a way back? We searched all over the area and now you’re checking every street in town on a daily basis. There just might not be a way to detect these portals at all.”

“I know. I just can’t stop trying. After everything I’ve put you through, I can’t fail now.”

“Yuri…” she trailed off for a moment before shaking her head and changing her tone. “You know what? I love walking in the snow so I’ll help you look.”

He was stunned for a moment. They pretty much avoided each other these days. He could barely stand the tension in the apartment when they were there together. If he had anywhere else to go he would surely be there already. If Willow told him to leave, he would have left and slept on the street without a second thought. He just could not bring himself to leave on his own. As long as she did not tell him to go, he held out hope that things might get better between them again before he left.

Having her willingly spend time with him again gave him hope. She had been upset and angry with him for a while now. He tried to do right by her and apologized, but he had a feeling that he did not have a full understanding of everything she was actually upset about. He did not seem to be able to guess what was bothering her and it was even more difficult for him to get her to talk about what was on her mind these days.

Anything that allowed them to spend time together right now had to be a good sign. Spending time together gave them a chance to talk again. He knew if they talked everything would become clearer for him. The prospect of having an opportunity to make things right again filled him with both excitement and apprehension. He knew he was probably over thinking this.

He wanted to do something. Usually, he was a man of action. All this thinking and reflecting seemed pointless to him. He had no way to explain the way Willow made him hesitate. He wanted nothing more than to make it right between them. What now seemed right to him pushed the boundaries of what he used to consider possible for himself. He was patient. He tried to think ahead. He knew that he could not rush into anything with Willow. Not only would she not allow it, he did not want to do anything hasty that might jeopardize the future of the friendship he still hoped they might somehow manage to have.

They were silent as they walked along the streets in the snow. All of the awkwardness in this situation seemed to be emanating from himself. Whatever this snow might mean to others, it brought a sort of peace to Willow. He could not feel the anger that had previously radiated from her.

Even so, he could not find the right words to speak to her. He tried a few times, but nothing he came up with seemed to be adequate. He dared not risk repeating conversations that caused problems for him in the past. He needed to approach this from a new angle if he wanted a different outcome than before.

Just walking with her again was nice enough. He could enjoy this, even if it meant nothing more would come of it. The snow brought a hush to the town. At the moment it felt as though they were the only people left in the world.

That isolated feeling made it all the more apparent when the atmosphere became electrically charged in an instant. He knew what he felt even if he had no way of knowing what it really meant.

Willow missed a step and nearly stumbled.

“That’s…” she began before trailing off.

The confused, panicked look on her face did nothing to bring Yuri peace of mind. Something big had happened. As with all big events, it was only felt through a subtle, but pervasive change in the fabric of the world. He dared not hope that this might be what he had been looking for all along. He told himself not to hope, but he still felt his heart rate pick up in anticipation of the possibility.

“Do you think we should check it out?”

“I think that would be a very good idea,” Willow agreed before lacing her fingers with his and pulling him along after her.

They started out as a brisk walk, but Willow continued to increase her pace the further they went. The way Willow was acting made it harder and harder for Yuri to keep the seed of hope that this might be his way home at bay.

It seemed impossible. He told himself it was too easy. They had searched so hard and for so long to no avail. This could not be the solution.

For him, it was a general feeling coming at him from all directions now. He could not tell if they were actually getting closer to the source or not. Willow seemed confident. Her grip on his hand and the speed with which she moved told him that she knew which way to go. He might not be able to feel it, but she did and he felt like he should trust what she knew.

They paused ever so briefly. Willow looked to her left and her right before turning right and continuing. Her grip on Yuri’s hand did not lessen and he continued to gladly follow her lead.

The further they went the more distinctly Yuri began to feel something else. Either he was the only one feeling it, or Willow was too focused on where they were going for it to give her pause. The feeling raised the hairs on the back of his neck. As much as he wanted to press on, he felt as though he needed to stop and turn to face what was following them before it managed to catch up and leave them unguarded.

“Willow, wait,” he pleaded.

She reluctantly stopped and turned to face him.

“We’re being followed,” he explained in a hushed whisper.

A flurry of indecipherable emotions passed over her face. She looked back over her shoulder in the direction they had been walking. When she looked back at Yuri he could clearly see that she wanted to keep going.

Part of him wanted to keep looking too. As much as he tried to suppress it, he could not deny that he hoped that this would be his way home. Now it seemed too risky. With someone following them, it almost seemed as though they were being herded in the direction of this mysterious energy. This felt like a trap and he wanted to get away before the springs had a chance to snap.

He shook his head. “Willow, we can’t.”

He squeezed her hand before pulling her off in another direction. They could not go back the way they came. That would lead them right into whoever was now following them. They could not continue to follow the path Willow had been taken because they were obviously being pushed into going in that direction. As much as he believed it might be a way for him to get home again, he could not risk putting Willow in danger while trying to get home. They needed to go to a place of safety, somewhere they could hide until the danger either passed or they came up with a plan.

“Yuri,” she whispered as he pulled her along, “where are we going? I think that was a way for you to get home back there.”

“It’s not safe,” he explained. “We need to go to your apartment, prepare to defend ourselves and figure out exactly who is following us.”

“Yuri, this is your chance to go home. I’ve never felt a magic forcefield this strong before. There might not be a chance this good again.”

“Going there now would be a mistake,” he insisted. He knew the words to be true, but that did not make them hurt any less. Mistake or not, Willow was right. This might be his best chance to get home and he was avoiding it because he did not dare to risk walking into a trap.

She sighed and picked up the pace. “It’s closing again anyway. We wouldn’t get there in time now.”

Yuri took her word for it. He could feel something, but he was not nearly as sensitive to this sort of magic. No one he ever met seemed to be as attuned to this sort of magic as Willow. If she said the pathway back to his world was closing again he believed her. Soon enough he felt the magic fade away too.

He was stuck here in this world once again. He had hope now. Another pathway had presented itself. He could hope that there would be another one soon. Now he knew it was possible so he held onto that knowledge. Once this new problem was dealt with, he could continue his search with renewed confidence.

In the meantime, he needed to survive this new threat and he needed to make sure Willow survived as well. After everything she had done for him in this world, he needed to be sure she was going to be okay before he left for good.

The malevolent presence following them was undeterred by their change in course. It continued to follow them, never getting too close, but always staying on their tail. They made it back to the apartment without the threat showing itself. Yuri could still feel that they were being watched, and he made sure that Willow did not drop her guard either.

Even if she did not sense the danger, she still respected his judgment enough to listen to him. Just getting into the apartment would not be enough. They needed to make fortifications if they were going to survive whatever was following them.

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