Inbetween: Chapter Twenty One


Being in an actual place again felt good, but Willow felt less sure about her decision to come to this world than ever. Yuri was back in his element, but she felt like a fish out of water, and now she was, in fact, a fish in the desert. She knew she did not belong and from the looks she got as they walked along the street, she was sure that everyone else knew too.

Yuri was absorbed in taking the sights and sounds of his native land and did not seem to notice Willow’s apprehensions. She watched and waited, thinking that she would use an opportunity when it presented itself.

She expected Yuri to make some sort of grand announcement of his return. The way he talked about this place, she knew he was someone important and he would have been missed. Not only had no one seemed to have recognized him yet, but as far as Willow could tell, he was trying to avoid being seen.

It did not make much sense to her, but she found it difficult to spot an opportunity to ask him about it. She was not used to holding her tongue. Doing so felt unnatural, but she did not know how to break her silence now that she fell into it.

Just as she resolved the screw up her courage and start asking for some sort of explanation or at least some commentary on what she was seeing, something new would distract her. Walking through this place was like experiencing the world for the first time. Then she remembered this was a different world and this was her first taste of it.

They were walking down a relatively bustling city street. This place was full of people hurrying this way and that, going about their day. It seemed mundane, but something about this place set her on edge. Willow might not live in a city, but she had visited some before. Logically she knew that this city had much in common with the others she had visited, but her senses kept trying to tell her that something was just ever so slightly off about this place.

The sunlight was bright and the sky was blue, but the colors were too saturated. People were talking all around her, but their voices sounded ever so slightly distorted. Individually these things were almost nothing, but experiencing all of them at once threw her off balance. Adjusting to the new facts of this reality might take some time. She tried to take in as much as she could, hoping it would help her get acclimated a bit faster.

Following after Yuri made the experience all a bit more overwhelming. Instead of staying in one place and getting her bearings, she was walking down the street past an array of slightly off-kilter sights, sounds, and smells. It made her feel a bit unwell, but she supposed that it was the best way to get as much exposure to this new world as possible.

Finally, she found her words and grabbed Yuri’s arm to bring him to a stop. “Was it this overwhelming for you when you crossed over to my world?”

He looked stunned. “I thought it was because I fell. Are you okay? Is it bad?”

She shook her head and dismissed his concerns. “I’ll be okay. It’s just an adjustment.”

His brow furrowed. He did not believe her. She could not blame him for being incredulous. At the moment she did not believe herself. In time she was sure she would adapt and feel better, but right now that seemed a long way away.

“Let’s find somewhere for you to sit down,” he said with decisive authority.

He took her hand in his and led back into the crowd of people going about their morning routine. She had no idea where he intended to take her to sit down. Most of this street was filled with storefront shops without much in the way of customer seating. His grip on her hand seemed to project a false sense of confidence.

She realized he might be looking for a place to get out of the street for himself as much as for her. He hid it pretty well at first, but as she became less disoriented, and she knew she was improving by the minute, she was able to notice how much their journey had thrown Yuri off balance. Whether he was experiencing the same sort of symptoms as her and just not adapting as quickly or something else was bothering him, Willow felt more inclined to go along with his plan now that it was apparent to her that he was not just trying to cater to her needs.

Something was terribly wrong in this city. Yuri could not put his finger on it, but there was a chaotic undercurrent he never experienced while walking the streets before. At first, he thought it was just from the time he spent away, but the longer he was here, and the more people that passed him on the street, the more sure he became that something was wrong.

This change worried him, but he needed to take care of Willow before he investigated further. As of right now, she was the only ally he had within reach. With the odd undercurrent running through the city, he dared not assume he could find or rely on anyone else.

First, he needed to get Willow feeling better. He needed her to have her wits about her since he was feeling less than confident in his own judgment and perception at this point. He had faith that Willow with her unique talents would see to the heart of the problems even as the true nature of what he sensed to be wrong eluded him.

He already witnessed her performing some remarkable feats and that was in her world. In this world, she would be even more unique. No one like her existed in this place. He might not understand the full extent of her abilities, but he knew she was strong. Between the two of them, he was sure that they could figure out what was going on in this city and make it right.

His main worry was what could have happened while he was gone to make his city feel so different. Everyone seemed too busy to notice he was there. He might not be recognized by everyone in the city by his face alone, but so far not a single person seemed to realize who he was. He assumed there had to be a logical reason for this, but his mind kept taking him in outlandish directions.

Visually the city remained the same. This made it incredibly unlikely that they had somehow reappeared at a different time, even if time did pass differently in Willow’s world than it did here, and he had no way of knowing whether that was the case or not, the architecture of the city was unchanged so he did not think too much time had passed.

He needed to know what happened here during the weeks he was gone. Before he attempted to hunt for answers, he needed to know that he was thinking clearly and perceived these changes once he got his bearings.

A small surge of relief hit him when he spotted the outdoor seating of the small cafe he recalled passing on this street. His memory of this place still matched with reality and that had to count for something.

The cafe was closed. He knew there were plenty of simple, mundane reasons the cafe might be closed when there were plenty of potential customers out and about, but of course, he could feel his mind turning toward the worst possible scenarios.

He forced those thoughts down and led Willow to a seat. The cafe did not need to be open for them to sit down and catch their breath. They both just needed some time to get acclimated and get their senses and thoughts in order.

He tried not to contemplate how long it had been since he last slept. It had been about as long for Willow as well. Both of them desperately needed to sleep, but until they had a plan, sleep would be a long way off.

Willow dropped down on a seat as soon as they reached the first table. He sat down in the chair opposite hers at the small table, but could not bring himself to let his guard down as far as she did. He scanned the street, remaining alert for signs of a reason for his uneasy feeling.

His attention was dragged back to Willow when she started pulling off layers of clothes in a frenzied manner. Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed some of the passersby on the street stopping to see what Willow was doing.

He tried to avoid staring at her in stunned silence, but Willow seemed to notice she had drawn attention anyway. She sighed and slumped back into the chair.

“What? It’s hot here.”

“Yeah. It is,” he agreed.

“Coming here in full winter gear probably wasn’t the best idea.”

“We weren’t exactly planning on coming here right when we did.”

She shrugged. “You were looking this whole time. We should have been better prepared. I just… didn’t think it would ever really happen.”

He laughed a short, barking laugh in response. It just slipped out of him as soon as she admitted it. In his current state of mind, he could not ignore the satisfaction of knowing that she had been the first one to take the plunge into the space between worlds. Getting her to believe in anything was such an uphill battle, he doubted that he could ever convince her of anything ever again.

For now, he allowed himself to bask in this small victory. He did not know if it really counted as belief if she was back to saying she did not think it would happen, but he knew for at least a few seconds she had faith in what she knew and acted on that faith. Now it was undeniable, of course, but convincing her of something so easily proven was never the problem.

Until just now, coming back to this place just made him grateful to be warm again. The last few weeks had started to shift his perception of hot and cold, but the transition from one mode of thinking to the other did not happen completely before he returned home. Coming back here put the old paradigm right back into place. Now he knew without question that he had been freezing the last few weeks. He finally felt warm again.

That sensation lasted at least a few seconds now that Willow made him think about the layers of clothing he was wearing. Being warm again felt nice. That much he knew for sure, but the amount of clothing he was now wearing made the pleasant warmth of the desert city too much to bear.

He hated to follow Willow’s lead after he derived so much amusement from her antics, but he did not know how much longer he would be able to tolerate the layers of cold weather clothing in this sort of heat. His pride yielded surprisingly quickly and he felt almost immediate relief when he was down a few layers of coats and sweaters.

The way Willow bit her lip told him that she was doing her best to hold back the urge to tell him “I told you so” and he appreciated the effort.

The longer he was back in the city the more his memories came back to him. It was not an instantaneous process, but rather a gradual one where memories almost seemed to sneak up on him unannounced. Once he discovered a returned memory he greeted it like an old friend, but until the pieces fell into place he felt as though he was crawling around in the dark.

It still bothered him that no one seemed to he was here. Thinking like that did make him feel a bit egotistical, but he was genuinely puzzled by the lack of recognition he had received. He tried not to take it personally, but it hurt to think that he might be so easily forgotten.

“Why don’t you sit here for a while?” he suggested. Willow looked like she was about to protest so he quickly spoke up again to alleviate her concerns. “I won’t go far. I just want to get an idea of what’s happened here while I was gone.”

She hesitated for a moment before nodding her assent. Yuri could sympathize with her feeling nervous. After his experiences in her world, he did not think he could be anything other than understanding.

He left the small seating area of the cafe and rejoined the hustle and bustle on the street. He made an effort to stay within Willow’s line of sight. It might not be much, but he could at least give her a bit of reassurance by not making her feel abandoned.

Being on his own made him feel a bit more free to ask questions. With Willow out of hearing range, he did not need to worry about alarming her with questions she had no context for.

He approached a street vendor who was just setting up for the day and did not have the distraction of customers splitting his attention just yet. The middle-aged man running the stand barely glanced up at Yuri as he stopped at the stand, but he seemed to be listening.

“I’ve been away for a while and something has definitely changed in the city. What’s going on?”

The vendor stopped his preparations and appraised Yuri for a second before answering. “You must have been pretty far out if you haven’t heard. High Lord Erramun is staying up at the palace with the Duchess and half the city wants to find an excuse to go up and see him. Lost their minds over nothing, if you ask me.”

“The Duchess?” Yuri’s stomach dropped upon hearing that word. Detreya had no Duchess. Durya was their Duke. Something was wrong here and he just barely managed to restrain himself from assuming the worst.

This time the vendor gave him a longer look. Yuri knew with his clothes from Willow’s world he looked more than a little strange. He just hoped it would not stop this man from explaining things to him.

“Yeah. Duchess Nyura welcomed him into the palace with open arms.”

Yuri felt ill. He excused himself as quickly as possible and returned to Willow’s side. He gathered up their jackets in his arms while he tried to regain enough composure to explain his thoughts to Willow.

“Something’s wrong here. We need to get to the palace and find out what’s going on.”

Willow did not ask any questions, but rose to her feet and prepared to follow after him.

He was glad to have their coats to hold. This way he was not even sure if his hands were shaking, although he had no doubt they were. Right now he just needed to go to the palace so he could prove the man he just spoke to had no idea what he was talking about. Once he saw Durya again he knew he would feel much better.

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