CHAPTER EIGHTY: NEAR ESCAPE
“What are you doing?” Khoth asked Jace’s dangling legs.
Jace had climbed halfway up one of the garden walls. The Pilot turned his head to look back down at Khoth with one of those irrepressible grins on his lips that Khoth had learned to love–and fear–a little bit.
“I’m trying to find us a way out of here,” Jace explained.
They both had on their soft suits, which were solid black. Jace’s boots were polished to a mirror-like shine and his suit had a high collar that flared around his throat. He looked beautiful in Khoth’s opinion.
“I believe you may cause your outfit to become dirty if you continue this activity,” Khoth pointed out.
“Ooooh, and you look sexy, too! I do love you in anything that clings. But, then again I love you in everything, and perhaps best, in nothing at all.” Jace gave him another grin that was slightly lascivious.
Khoth blued–a little bit–and said, “As I do you, Izail. Now why are you climbing the wall to get out of this location when we have a perfectly serviceable door?”
He gestured back towards the interior of their quarters.
“Because there are people outside that door. And once we go out that door, Khoth, we’ll be inundated with yet more people,” Jace said as he turned back to the wall that was covered with an igea vine.
The igea was a hardy plant that was rumored to have covered nearly all of Haseon when the Thaf’ell first discovered the planet eons ago. It had to be hacked away and burned in order for them to have access to the planet’s buildings and other structures. Now it was mostly tamed. It’s silver vines and golden leaves were kept to cover walls in gardens or to soften some of the more harsh architecture of the planet. Jace was using it as a means of gaining purchase on the sheer garden wall that stretched up nearly five times Jace’s height.
“And we do not want… people?” Khoth clarified, tilting his head to the side.
Jace had been quite the host before and after they had mated. His mother had stayed two sub-cycles before she left just a short time ago to settle into her quarters and then to meet with General Intoshkin. Jace’s father would not be arriving on the planet until after sunset. They had all agreed to meet for a meal to tell Jack about their bond and to celebrate it. Khoth was to invite his own father, too, and his mother as well… if he wished to. He was still considering this. Considering it very hard. It wasn’t that he was ashamed of being mated. Quite the contrary! Nor was it the Thaf’ell’s need for privacy as his parents were part of his family unit.
Well, my father is.
His own reticence came from wanting to maintain that easy smile on Jace’s lips. His mate was sensitive to other’s feelings. And it was clear as day to Khoth that Jace found their bond the most wonderful thing. To have others be less than kind about it would cause Jace pain and stress. His mate had dealt with plenty of both. He simply wanted Jace to continue to be happy. But now it appeared Jace, too, did not want any other people around them at this time. Maybe he recognized the same issues that Khoth did.
“No, we do not want people! What we want is for the two of us to escape and for you to show me around Ylore,” Jace explained as he carefully placed another foot on a vine, testing its strength to hold his weight. “Take me to all your favorite spots.”
“Ah, I see. You wish for us to be alone and for me to show you places that mean something to me?” Khoth lifted an eyebrow.
“That’s right. It’s almost like you’re reading my mind.” Jace chuckled low in his throat.
“You are not actually communicating to me–”
“I’m teasing, Khoth.”
“I thought if I told you the plan before I knew a way out of here that wouldn’t attract too much attention that you’d shoot it down. Duty. Responsibility. I’m still recovering. On and on,” Jace explained and climbed up further.
The igea’s vines were getting rather thin and he wasn’t halfway up the wall. Khoth resisted the urge to hold up his arms to catch him when Jace, inevitably, fell. Jace must know that the vines were too slender for his weight. Surely, the Osiris was telling him this, but Jace seemed quite intent on this climbing business.
“I am not sure what ‘on and on’ would entail, but I do agree that duty and responsibility would indicate that we should not be escaping from our rooms,” Khoth replied dryly.
“Awww, man, I knew you were going to say that–”
“No, I am certain you misunderstand me,” Khoth answered with a smile.
The igea gave way. Jace’s left foot was scrabbling against the wall as the vine snapped beneath it. Then the vine under the right foot gave out as well. Jace’s hands sought purchase against the smooth stone wall, but he was not to succeed. Khoth moved in to catch him. But it was unnecessary. Jace flipped in mid-air and landed lightly on his feet on the ground. He appeared completely unhurt. He glared at the wall though.
“Are you injured? That was a significant fall,” Khoth pointed, running his hands up and down his mate’s shoulders and arms. Really, he should check his feet, ankles and legs.
But when he bent down to check, Jace gently tugged him back up.
“Khoth, I’m fine,” Jace told him.
“Jace…” His forehead furrowed.
Not three sub-cycles ago, Jace could hardly walk. They had engaged in sexual intercourse and Jace had managed to eat some of the food, but Khoth still worried. How much could Dr. Isa’s medicine do? And Jace would push himself. She’d warned him not to. But this was Jace.
And that is his nature.
“No, really, I’m so much better.” Jace gave him a tender look and covered one of Khoth’s hands with his own. “Especially since we bonded, I feel pretty amazing actually.”
“As do I,” Khoth answered, feeling a little faint as he said it.
They had bonded and it was so perfect that it almost frightened him. Not that he thought it was wrong in any way, but he didn’t want anything to affect it. Not that anything could. Not even the responses of the Thaf’ell around them. Especially his parents and Typhon and who knew who else.
“Gehenna actually told me that some of my issues–the emotional storm and stuff–was because Altaeth do have mates and I wanted to mate with you. So now that we are together I think my body’s calmed down a little.” Jace’s smile grew. “It’s so crazy to say we’re mated, isn’t it? And yeah, I know it’s going to be a thing for some people. Even those we might not expect to have a problem with it may be concerned or more. But they’re wrong. This is how we’re supposed to be.”
Yes, this is meant.
“Thammah will be pleased that we are mated, I think,” Khoth said.
“Oh, yeah, she’ll definitely agree we need a party though!” Jace beamed.
Khoth stifled his urge to groan. “And I am certain Drs. Isa and Kerr, along with Matias will approve. Davies and Dr. Hayter will also not be perturbed. They were all aware of our feelings. Including Bob from engineering.”
“Good old Bob. I can’t wait to tell him. That’ll be as good as saying it over the intercom.” Jace’s smile suddenly dimmed. “But what about…” Jace bit his lower lip and looked up at him through huge eyes.
“Who? Who do you fear so much knowing?” Khoth’s hands tightened their grip on Jace’s shoulders. He would protect Jace from whoever it was that caused his beloved such concern!
Jace’s lower lip wobbled as he answered, “C-Chili. Your one, true love.”
Khoth slowly blinked then let out a snort before he said stiffly, “You are correct, Izail. Chili will not approve. We should call the whole thing off. My heart is hers after all.”
Jace burst into laughter. “You’re only half-joking. But you’re joking! And I love it!”
“Our bonding tattoo should look like a pig,” Khoth continued in that mock serious tone.
“Or just a squiggly tail! You’re getting so good at the jokes! But wait! Chili needs a mating bow!” Jace perked up at this. He was, undoubtedly, thinking of Chili wearing such a thing at their wedding.
“Indeed.” Khoth smiled down at him. “Now back to the matter at hand.”
“Our escape.” Jace nodded. His eyes though were still filled with the idea of a mating bow.
Both of them faced the wall. Studying it.
“I do not believe it can be climbed without equipment. A grappling hook or suction boots–”
“Suction boots? That sounds interesting, but no, I won’t be distracted. We don’t have those with us. Suction boots,” Jace repeated.
Khoth frowned. “But you must have known you could not climb the wall before you attempted it so why–”
Jace grimaced. “Okay, okay, the Osiris might have told me that wasn’t going to work, but still I had to try.”
“That is illogical.”
“Yeah, the Osiris said that, too. But I’m like my dad sometimes. I just have to try, you know?” Jace shrugged, not at all repentant about the fall. Jace stroked his chin. “Maybe if I have the AIs alter the structure of the wall or–”
“Or we could go out the door,” Khoth suggested.
“Uhm, no, Khoth, you’re missing the point here and–wait! Where are you going?” Jace called after him.
Khoth had turned and was striding purposefully towards the door to the bedroom. It whooshed open and the guards both turned towards him.
“The Pilot and I will require a canceaux to be made available on the roof landing pad,” Khoth told them. “We require no escort. You may go.”
The guards nodded and marched off down the hallway. One of them was already communicating the need for the canceaux. Jace popped his head out, mouth open in an “O” of surprise, as he watched the guards leave. He craned his neck up to see Khoth.
“How–But–They just left!” Jace cried.
“Yes,” Khoth answered and gestured for Jace to precede him out into the hallway.
Jace slowly did so, looking suspiciously about for… for something. He supposed Jace thought more guards were about to jump out and corner them. Though Jace, of all people, must know where everyone was in the building.
“I don’t understand,” Jace finally admitted as the door to their quarters shut and locked behind them.
“We are not prisoners here. We are honored guests. The guards were for your protection not to keep us inside,” Khoth explained as they started to walk down the hallway.
Jace was still looking uncertain. His forehead furrowed. He opened and shut his mouth, evidently thinking of and discarding various things he wanted to say, but then found them lacking in some way.
“But they’re following every one of the crew about. Yet not us? Or is it because you’re Thaf’ell so–”
“Again, those minders are for the crew’s protection, not to limit them in any way. There will be those who do not believe humans would understand the risk the Khul pose and might not report any contact with them,” Khoth explained.
“But the do know–”
“Yes, the Moturins are well aware of this. But we are not speaking of those in power believing this, necessarily. Though there will be some. Humans are, I’m afraid to remind you, not thought of well,” Khoth reminded Jace as they stepped into an elevator that would take them up to the roof.
Jace frowned. “Yeah, right, okay.”
“Even though they have seen them fight today for us and more… prejudices do not disappear overnight,” Khoth explained.
Jace’s head bobbed in agreement. “I agree with that. But I suppose I expected to be ambushed by Typhon or the Council or something.”
Khoth nodded. “Yes, I am certain that is true, but, recall that they think you are incapable of leaving your bed, let alone leaving the Compound.”
“Well, the guards will tell them! In fact, they did,” Jace had an impish look on his face.
“I expected this.” Khoth repressed a smile. “But running after the Pilot would not look dignified. And they would have to run full speed to catch us.” The doors to the elevator whooshed open. “After you, Izail.”
Jace laughed and grabbed his hand before pulling Khoth after him. “We’ve got to be quick, Khoth! They’re going to try and stop our fun!”
The two of them raced over to the canceaux. Jace immediately slid into the driver’s side and expertly began to adjust the controls.
“You don’t mind if I fly, do you?” Jace asked. “I know it’s your city, but I–”
“You want to fly on an alien world above an alien city.” Khoth nodded, hearing his mate’s thoughts as clearly as his own. And he felt the emotions behind them as well. Wonder and joy and a sort of shock that this was all happening.
Jace nodded. They lifted off just as the elevator doors opened and Typhon along with General Intoshkin practically tumbled from the elevator. Jace let out another delighted laugh and gave them a salute even as they started flying away from the Compound. Typhon lifted an eyebrow while the general waved his hat in the air as if Jace were really going to come back.
“Typhon is sending a communication,” Khoth remarked.
“Ignore it. I’m sending him a message. I should have just shut down the guards’ comms. Then he wouldn’t have known that quickly,” Jace said. “But we have to give them a chance.”
“And affecting their comms might not be seen as friendly,” Khoth remarked.
“Yeah, there’s that. But we got away! Next time though we will need to scale a wall or two,” Jace said. “They won’t be so careless again.”
“They will not,” Khoth agreed with a nod. “But we are very clever.”
“Yes, we are.” Jace laughed. “Okay, no tell me where we’re going.”
“We cannot truly leave this downtown area due to the quarantine.” Khoth gestured towards the line of paladin-class fighters that circled the downtown, keeping anyone that might leave inside. “But there is a place I find great peace in. It is there.”
He placed a location marker on the canceaux’s map so that Jace could easily find where he wanted to take his mate. Jace effortlessly turned the craft towards their destination. The sun was lower in the sky. It seemed like this day had lasted forever. But soon night would fall. The sunlight cast a golden light over the building, seeming to set some on fire. Sometimes Khoth felt that the city was meant to be seen this way, in the air, more than on the ground.
How little we know of the Altaeth. Jace is one of them, but still. They are a mystery. What they loved. What they lost. Where they went.
“There’s no infection here,” Jace said with a sigh as one of the paladin-class fighters, evidently alerted to their presence, flew parallel to them, letting them know not to pass out of the downtown. “He clearly doesn’t know I can set his ship down and all the others, does he?”
“Undoubtedly, no.” The urge to tell Jace not to do that passed before he parted his lips. Jace could do what he wanted. Perhaps he should shake up the people a little more. “But they are doing only what was asked of them. The Council is having the area quarantined until tomorrow at the earliest.”
“The cleaning bots have it handled. It’s done. I’m having them scour more areas, but we got it all,” Jace assured him.
“Yes, but the fear remains,” Khoth admitted.
Jace took one hand off the yoke and reached over to touch him. “I know. It was terrifying having them here. And what they did…” Jace pressed his lips together as if to hold the words in. “It’s obscene.”
“Yes.” He could say no more. He did not want to poison their moment alone together with thoughts of the Khul though. He pointed ahead of them towards the large tower that stuck out of the center of the city like the hilt of a rahir. “There is a landing pad you can set down on.”
Jace followed his finger and nodded. Soon they were climbing to the top of the tower and soaring over its side before Jace landed the canceaux neatly on the pad. No one was there or else the canceaux would have had to disgorge them and then be sent elsewhere. But there would be no one there this evening other than them. Jace unbuckled his harness while Khoth did the same. While Jace got out, Khoth grabbed some of the drinks that Jace had enjoyed on their ride to the Compound and then met him outside.
The landing pad was attached to the side of the tower. A set of stairs led them up to the top. Jace let out a breath as soon as they reached the top step and what he wanted Jace to see was spread out before him.
“It is what you would call a restaurant, but more intimate than that,” Khoth explained as he swept a hand over the large circular space before them.
It was fully open to the air. Low, rectangular tables with cushions on either side were placed at even intervals along nearly the entirety of the outside, except for the pie-shaped wedge of the stairs. Arlon grass, purple and fragrant, was planted everywhere except for a few white stone paths that allowed diners and servers to move to the tables. An invisible shield caused only gentle breezes to pass through rather than the roaring winds there would otherwise be at this height.
Jace slowly turned in a circle. His expression was full of wonder as he took in the entirety of Ylore. Every part of the city could be glimpsed from the tower and Jace’s eyes looked hungry to take it all in.
“It’s so beautiful,” Jace whispered.
Khoth linked their hands together. “I dreamed that I would bring my mate here to celebrate our joining. This is not quite how it should be, but–”
Jace turned and cupped his cheek. “Khoth, everything is perfect with you.”
They kissed. It was so gentle and deep. It was sweetness and light. Jace’s body melded against his own and Khoth felt stronger for holding his mate and hardly noticed the weight of him. He wrapped his arms around the slightly smaller form and held Jace close.
“We will come back when it is restored,” Khoth promised him.
“Hopefully, that will be tomorrow,” Jace teased.
But they both knew that it wouldn’t be. The people would still be afraid.
They broke apart and walked, hand in hand, over to a table. They sat down, side by side, instead of across from one another. Jace rested his back against Khoth’s front. Khoth opened the juices for them and they drank and watched the sun as it glided down towards the horizon.
“The Altaeth saw this same scene,” Jace said quietly.
“They did,” Khoth agreed. “And now, an Altaeth sees it again.”
Jace was quiet for a minute and then nodded. “Yeah, yeah, you’re right. An Altaeth is seeing it again with his mate no less.”
“What did you dream of doing with your mate?” Khoth asked after a companionable silence had fallen.
Jace sighed and snuggled back against him. “I wanted something just like what my parents had. They were able to go out and be full people on their own. But they always wanted to be with each other most of all. They seemingly understood one another without speaking. They were each other’s steadying anchor, but also breeze under one’s sails. But the truth is…”
“What? What is the truth, Izail?”
Khoth felt at that moment that Jace’s thoughts were a deep pit of despair, but then the sun hit the horizon and that darkness was burned away.
“I never thought I’d have this. What I have with you. Not in any dream. Not in a million years.” Jace let out a huff of laughter. “So I’m sort of figuring out how I got so lucky and how I really don’t want to mess it up.”
Khoth buried his face in Jace’s fragrant hair. “You could not. Never. I am with you always.”
The sun sank below Haseon’s horizon and night bloomed in wonder and glory before them.