Inbetween: Chapter Twenty Six

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Once he started talking to Willow, Asa found it easy to keep going. He was able to tell her things that he, for the most part, kept to himself these days. Everyone that needed to know had known about his past for a long time now and new acquaintances had no business hearing about it.

Willow turned out to be the exception to that rule. Yuri’s attachment to her meant she needed to be brought up to speed. Yuri probably should have done it himself, but for one reason or another, he did not. Now he was so uneasy that he needed a distraction. He gave Willow a reasonable base of knowledge about their past and suggested that she ask Yuri for more. Asa just hoped that he did the right thing. If Yuri would reminisce on the adventures he had growing up, he might worry a bit less about his current problems.

His ability to make conversation with Willow hit a low point after he did his best to tell her the story of his and Yuri’s childhood. She was silent. He dared not speak lest he reveal parts of the story that were not his to tell. He might not understand why, but he had to assume Yuri had his reasons for not sharing any of this with Willow in the time they had known each other.

Yuri had been closed off even from him since his return home. He avoided painful topics altogether. Most of his conversation stuck to safe subjects like teaching Willow how to survive in the desert.

Asa understood why. He was hurt and shocked by the life he came back to. The tragedy hit Yuri harder than any of them and he had the least time to grieve. He needed time to process what had happened and the timetable for him moving past this point of barely being able to function was skewed by his absence. He knew Yuri just needed some time and patience.

He also knew how to work his way past Yuri’s defenses. If he spoke to him quietly in the right tone and for long enough, Yuri would start to open up to him. In those moments he knew just how much turmoil still existed in his mind. Asa waited and listened when he could get through. There was a lot he could not understand, but he knew listening and letting him work through it all would help.

Yuri needed to process everything, but Asa needed Yuri back to himself. There was so much that needed to be managed. They needed a real plan and while Asa felt sure he could come up with something on his own, he did not have nearly as intimate of an understanding of what would really be going on in the innermost chambers of the palace now. They needed someone who knew how things should be there so they could figure out what was going wrong and how they might make it safe for Yuri to return home.

The whole matter made Asa’s head swim. His first priority was keeping Yuri safe. If that meant living out the rest of their lives in the desert and disappearing from society, he was willing to do it, as long as he knew Yuri would live. He also knew that would not satisfy Yuri. He would worry. He would not bear to see the people of Detreya suffer in any way and he would always be thinking whether he could do better by them.

As soon as they started their trip back to Detreya, Asa found himself starting to worry about Yuri being alone out there. His knowledge and survival abilities were not cause for concern, but he was not entirely sure Yuri could be trusted not to do something reckless if he was left alone for too long right now.

Thinking about how long they had been gone filled Asa with apprehension. Their trip had been planned carefully to ensure they were not walking through the desert at the hottest part of the day. They waited in the city to avoid the worst of it. Willow observed everything with a fascination that clearly marked her as a foreigner. Asa was on the lookout for subtle signs of oppression or rebellion. The intelligence he gathered was insubstantial at best, but it would be something to tell Yuri.

Returning to their desert hideout after many hours away, he had an unshakable feeling something was wrong. Of course, his mind immediately leaped to Yuri. With his state of mind currently so out of sorts, it was the most logical conclusion in Asa’s opinion. Now he found himself wishing they had hurried back even if it put them at greater risk of exposure in the heat.

Yuri should not have been left alone. As soon as he started to feel apprehensive, he found himself resenting that Willow came along with him. No matter how decent of a companion she had proven herself to be, he now wished she had stayed behind just so there would be someone there to make sure Yuri did not do something foolish.

Feeling that it would be impossible to explain to Willow, without a word, he put all of his mental energy into getting them back to the caves as quickly as possible. He hoped they could get back before Yuri did anything he should not do.

He frowned, his jaw clenched and he picked up his pace. The air felt as though it were filled with static like before a storm, although there was not a storm cloud in the sky. Dread filled him. He tried to hang on to the last glimmer of hope that his instincts were misfiring due to his own apprehension and anxiety.

Every new thought seemed to conjure up another disaster and spurred him to move even faster. The more he allowed himself to think about it, the greater his sense of foreboding became.

He almost forgot that Willow was with him until she grabbed his arm, setting off a static shock that tingled from his fingertips up to his elbow. He stopped and turned to face her. The bewildered look on her face as she gasped to catch her breath sent a pang of guilt straight through all the worry Asa felt.

“What’s the rush?” she asked between gulps of air.

“I have a feeling something is wrong,” he explained as briefly as possible.

“Yeah,” Willow agreed with a sigh. “I’ve been having that feeling a lot lately.”

“What about right now?” he asked.

She considered the question for a moment and adjusted the straps of her pack on her shoulders before answering. “Everything feels a little wrong these days. Now that you mention it, there’s something in the air tonight like the world is waiting for something big to happen.”

“Are you able to narrow it down to anything in particular?” Asa asked. He knew there was no reason to hope for such a thing, but Yuri told him about the strange magic Willow used. He did not understand it from the description he had heard so he kept a spark of hope in his heart.

Willow shook her head. “I’m not that perceptive. Everything is still strange to me here.”

“I see.” Asa felt slightly defeated. Hope slipped out of his reach and his anxiety for Yuri surged forward again. This time he remembered to consider Willow and tried not to continue their return trip at a pace that was beyond her abilities.

Once they continued their trek back to the caves, they lapsed back into a comfortable silence. Asa was pleased to realize their ease with each other had increased since they started on this journey many hours ago. It was a small consolation that did nothing to relieve the apprehensions he continued to feel.

By the time they drew close to the caves, the sky was blue-black and full of bright, twinkling stars. With many hours without the sun brutally beating down on the parched sands, the area was growing quite cool once again.

After some guidance on his part and assistance from Willow herself today on purchases that he thought were better made by her personally. Now she possessed a wardrobe suited to the environment and in keeping with the fashion of their people. Now, at least, it was not apparent at first glance that she did not belong.

Yuri had appropriate attire again as well. Getting his clothing in order had been a much less daunting task for Asa. Even without Yuri around to offer feedback, Asa felt confident that he was familiar enough with his size and taste to select attire he would find agreeable. Certainly, it was much less of a trial than trying to do the same for Willow.

Getting so close to the caves again caused Asa to focus his attention on trying to see if anything appeared out of place. He wanted to make sure they were not walking into an ambush, but he also strained his eyes looking for evidence that Yuri might have tried to leave the safety and cover of their hide out while he and Willow were away.

Nothing appeared to be out of place, which should have relieved his anxiety. Instead, he continued to frantically scan for a cause for the foreboding he felt for nearly the entire return trip.

The anxious feeling in the pit of his stomach urged him to approach the caves with extreme caution. Many things could go wrong yet, and while Willow was improving in endurance, she was not yet quiet or careful in her progress across the terrain. Taking a less direct route would be safer overall.

He led Willow on a circuitous route up to the entrance to the caves. The ground here was rocky and loose, which slowed them down significantly. Asa tried his best to move silently and at a pace Willow could match. Even with his efforts to move at a snail’s pace, there was still the sound of a large quantity of small rocks clattering together.

He turned to urge her to take care with her steps when the clattering stopped entirely. He looked at her and then followed her gaze up into the sky.

“Is that normal?” she asked with a hushed awe to her voice.

A massive ship drifted across the sky toward Detreya. Propelled by a combination of magic and the breeze, it made slow progress across the sky, leaving plenty of time for the enormous size of the vessel to impart the dire threat of its presence.

Such ships were rare. The magic needed for flight was rarely concentrated enough to fly anything of great size and to fly a large vessel over a great distance such as this desert was even more unusual. Anyone using such a ship did so as an impactful display of wealth and power. Its effect was immediate, even on those who did not understand the scarcity of the magics behind it such as Willow.

“That is not normal at all,” he confessed.

“Do you think they’re looking for Yuri?”

“No. That ship wouldn’t be much use in a manhunt. It’s headed for the city.”

“Is it dangerous?”

“Definitely, but I don’t think it is here to attack.”

“We should hurry back,” Willow said with a shiver in her voice. “Yuri should know about this… he needs to know about this, doesn’t he?”

Asa nodded in agreement. Yuri needed to know—if he had not noticed himself already. Either was, he felt the matter would be better handled if they were both there for him. This changed everything.

His concerns for propriety and his own personal boundaries were long gone. He needed to conduct them both safely and quickly back to the cave. After a split second hesitation over the sort of familiarity he expressed in doing so, he reached out and took Willow’s hand in his to better enable him to guide her over the rougher patches of ground.

For her part, she gladly accepted his assistance. Together they made much better time than they would have if he allowed her to pick her way across the terrain on her own. She grew more sure-footed as they went so they were covering quite a bit of ground before they reached the end of the loose rocks.

The packed earth before the cave allowed them to rush forward at a run. His worries about spies or an ambush lying in wait were long gone. Now all his thoughts were given to the airship and what it would mean for them and all the people they left behind in Detreya.

They continued to hurry, hand in hand, until they reached Yuri. He looked up at them with a puzzled expression, obviously unaware of what had just passed over outside. Only then did Asa become aware enough again to release Willow’s hand.

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