Capture

Table of Contents

1 Short One Player

Vic chafed their arms through their sweatshirt, curling in on themself to preserve heat as warmth seeped out of their feet, through their hiking boots, and into the half-frozen ground of Sulfur Springs State Park.

A cold mist wreathed Julian's Capture team as they huddled together on a dirt path in a little knot. Vic had arrived with Elias fifteen minutes ago. He stood next to Vic in a black wool peacoat that looked like it would cost more than Vic's life savings and hiking pants. In front of them, Julian rubbed the corner of his eye with one hand and exhaled. He was nervous, but trying not to show it to the team.

Kaliah fidgeted on Vic's other side, gazing into the mist hanging over Sulfur Springs. She was antsy, pacing around, then suddenly reappearing near Vic. It was irritating Vic; Kaliah was a time dilator, and her rapid movement was abrasive to Vic, a strong time contractor.

"She should have been here by now," Kaliah complained for the eighth or ninth time.

"I really think something's wrong," Julian said. "Nasira wouldn't just skip a game like this."

Here we go again, Vic thought. The team had already had this exact conversation two or three times.

"We're so close to making finals," Elias complained. "She'd better show."

Julian shook his head. His lips were compressed into a thin line. A few meters away, Professor Kung, their faculty sponsor, held her cell phone up to her ear. Vic could hear the tinny ring, over and over again. Nobody was picking up.

Beshind Kung, at a couple of damp picnic benches, several Capture officials and refs sat around their clipboards, waiting for the game to start. It was 6:45 in the morning, and their official start time had been 15 minutes ago. Vic resettled their internal-frame backpack against their shins.

"Can we compete without her?" Elias asked.

Julian shook his head. "Nope."

"You're a passable time dilator, and we have Kaliah," Elias pointed out. "With myself and Vic, we have enough people for two pairs of one contractor and one dilator."

Julian shook his head again, shoving his fists into his jacket in frustration. "No, we could play without her in a practical sense, but four people is under the regulation size for a team. Even if we won, it wouldn't be valid… it would count as a forfeiture."

He didn't have to remind the team that a forfeiture during the pre-season would mean the team would not be allowed to continue to finals in the spring.

Suddenly Kung straightened up. "Hello. Is this Nasira?"

The entire team went quiet. "Uh huh… okay… I'm sorry to hear that," Kung was saying. "Alright. Is there anything we can do to help? No… okay… I'll pass that along. Thank you. Alright, you take care, and I'm sorry to bother you. Alright. Bye."

She hung up and paused for a moment. Finally she said, "Nasira's in the hospital."

"What?" Julian burst out. "What happened?"

"An accident with a horse," Kung said. "She stopped by the stables yesterday evening and spooked the horse in the stall neighboring hers. She was kicked hard and shattered her femur. Apparently, she's been in the hospital all night. Her parents didn't realize there was a game today. That was her mom I just spoke to."

"Shit," Julian said.

"Will we still be able to compete?" Elias asked.

"Elias," Kaliah snapped, "Have some tact."

"We're under regulation," Julian said. "We need five players to be allowed to compete."

"It's considered a safety violation to compete with four," one of the officials cut in. "Sorry."

"Should we go visit Nasira?" Julian asked.

"Her mom said she's on heavy painkillers and shouldn't have visitors. She said she'd want the team to play, if we can find a way."

"I don't see what we can do," Julian said. "It was hard enough finding five players to begin with. Not just anyone can step in as a time dilator." There was no question of a civilian, someone who could neither contract nor dilate time, joining the team. A civilian would be dangerously disoriented by the spacetime folds, and they weren't allowed to play, anyway.

The team had done well enough during the pre-season that if they were to win three of the four remaining games, they would be going to national championships to represent Gladeloch for the first time in years. They had been playing well this year; the post-season had seemed so close at hand. Being disqualified now over a simple accident would devastate Julian.

"Let me make a few calls," Kung said. She sat down at the picnic bench with the other officials. "What are the regulations in this situation? Can we play with a substitute?"

"All Capture players have to be approved by two members of the Capture committee," one of the officials said. "So you'll have to get ahold of some representatives before the game can start--if you can find another player. And if the game doesn't start by 7:30, you'll have to forfeit; we can't wait more than an hour to start the timer."

"I'll ask around… Maybe there's some way we can work it out."

Vic glanced at Elias, wondering if he could convince his parents to pull a few strings, but he said nothing. He looked paler and more drawn than usual this morning, and Vic was wary of antagonizing him. The late October morning air brought color high into his cheeks. With his black, wavy hair, red lips, and pale, perfect skin, he looked like a troubled Byronic aristocrat. A very taciturn, unhelpful Byronic aristocrat.

Meanwhile, Julian was on the phone as well. "Uh huh… I just wanted to call and let you know we're all thinking of her. Can you put her on the line? … Yep, I understand. That's alright, I'll just speak to her anyway if you don't mind… yes, thanks." There was a slight pause. "Hey, Nasira… yep, the whole team's here. We miss you. Okay, sounds like you're on the good drugs." He glanced at Kaliah in amusement. "Yes, she's here too. …Yes, she is very beautiful…"

"Oh, what the hell," Kaliah said.

"Her mom wasn't kidding about the good drugs," Vic said, giving Kaliah a rakish grin. Kaliah, ever the stoic, didn't respond.

"That's alright. No, don't apologize. We'll figure something out. We'll come visit you as soon as we can. Alright, get some rest… No, I said rest… don't even think about it. Okay, see you soon." He hung up. "She sounds like she's in pretty rough shape."

"I'm not surprised," Kaliah said. "That's gotta hurt."

There was a moment of tense silence. Then Kung snapped her phone shut. "Okay. There's another time dilator on campus–"

"What?!" Kaliah said. "I've never heard of one."

"Yes… I'll explain in a moment. But first, Elias, you need to call your parents. Have them get two members of the Capture committee on the phone and approve a fifth player for the team. This shouldn't be too difficult, because he's played Capture before for a different team. We just need their sign-off. I have the phone numbers of the committee members, but your parents would know better than I how to get two of them on the line at this hour, and time is of the essence."

Elias glanced at Julian, who was giving him major please? puppy-dog eyes. He sighed and scrubbed his hands over his eyes. Vic winced at the long silence he left; he wasn't on good terms with his parents at the best of times, and he had been so taciturn this morning, they were beginning to suspect that this was not the best of times. But eventually he said "I… yeah, fine." He and Professor Kung stepped away to make the call.

When he finished and came back to the group, he looked exhausted. "Everything alright?" Vic asked.

He sighed and shook his head, closing his eyes in exasperation like whatever was bothering him was far too complex for Vic to understand. It irritated Vic; Elias's issues with his parents were terrible, but they weren't exactly rocket science. "They'll be in town next weekend, and calling in a favor before eight in the morning isn't going to put them in the best mood."

Vic winced. "Sorry. Are you still going to be able to play?" Elias couldn't contract time reliably when he was upset.

He shrugged and said, "Sure," tonelessly.

They had a long day ahead.

"Alright!" Kung said brightly, returning to the team. Vic saw that the officials were getting up and gathering their things. Vic's heart missed a beat and they thought for an instant that the officials were packing up to go home, that the game was forfeit and their season was lost, but instead Kung said "I got the time dilator approved to play as a substitute! He's on his way. But you're not gonna like it."

"What do you mean?" Julian asked.

"His name is Áillen–"

"Allen?"

"No, Áillen. He's a time dilator, and a freshman–"

"A freshman?" Kaliah asked skeptically. Vic, a sophomore, was the current youngest member of the team.

"Yes. You know, freshmen can play Capture," Kung said, rolling her eyes. "He'll be heading over here and will arrive around 7:15, so we'd better be ready. Let's get all our stuff onto the golf carts…"

"Wait," Julian said. "Why did you say we're not going to like it? Just because he's young?"

"Well, no," Kung admitted. "It's because he's had previous Capture experience, but… he's no longer a member of the team for whom he was competing."

"Who did he compete with?"

"Tahlequah."

"Seriously?!" Julian exclaimed. "But they're the best team in the league."

"He was removed from the team for poor sportsmanship."

"He what?"

"I don't have any details," Kung said, holding up her hands. "All I've heard is that he had some kind of altercation with another player. He was asked to leave the team and put on disciplinary probation at the school, and a few weeks ago, he ended up transferring from Tahlequah to Gladeloch. He's been a model citizen since he arrived here."

"A fight with another player?" Kaliah repeated. "The last thing we need is another combative hothead on the team."

"Hey!" Elias and Vic said simultaneously.

"I'm just saying."

Julian worried his lower lip. "We'll just have to give him a fair chance. We can't judge him for what's happened in his past. Maybe he's turned over a new leaf." That shut the rest of the team up. It wasn't like any of them had a spotless past, either.

Vic contracted time while they waited for Áillen to show up in the park, standing and letting their mind wander. They gazed towards a tiny rivulet flowing through the clearing as the pace of the birdsong picked up. The sun crept, scintillating, up the horizon, and the conversations of their team members blurred into a hum.

The processes of nature in the park blended together in a macrocosmic, clockwork-like rhythm. Vic pushed a little further, speeding up the rhythm until time sang around them, drifting out of the timestream. Swallows zipped back and forth, almost too fast to see, and clouds roiled and scudded across the sky–

"Vic."

Elias's voice, his hand on Vic's shoulder, brought them back. They fell back into the timestream, the great beat of the world vanishing like the last dregs of a dream. "He's here," Elias said. "We're starting as soon as Julian does introductions."

Vic shook off their disorientation. An old van had pulled up near the picnic table. The coach of the football team, a gruff woman who was friends with Professor Kung, was driving it.

The back door of the van swung open and the boy who must have been Áillen unfolded himself from the back seat.

He stood with the ungainly carefulness of someone used to being a few inches shorter than they now found themself. A braid of bright red hair hung down his back, swinging pendulously as he straightened and dragged a worn backpack out of the backseat. He closed the door of the van and it began to pull away.

He took a few steps towards Julian, gravitating towards him immediately as the leader of the team before he was even introduced. Áillen narrowed his eyes at him, looking him up and down unsubtly. He looked young and angry in a brittle way, like someone who was about to start a fight he expected to lose. He was shockingly white, like Elias, but unlike Elias, who was the only person Vic knew whose complexion could reasonably be described as "porcelain", Áillen was thickly freckled over the bridge of his nose and on the backs of his bare forearms. He wore a black T-shirt over black jeans, which didn't hide his pallor any, and black boots that Vic was pretty sure weren't hiking boots. The sunrise shone through a halo of frizzy hair that had escaped from its braid, and lit it up like a corona of fire around his head.

As he came closer, Vic could see that at the very least, he moved with the jerky, stop-motion quality of a strong time dilator. He had the slightly glazed-over look of a talented Capture player, like he'd come unstuck from time.

Julian shook hands with Áillen–he actually had to pick up Áillen's hand and shake it, because when he put his hand out, Áillen didn't move to take it–and asked him how he pronounced his name. Áillen's voice was quiet and rough. Julian looked deeply into Áillen's eyes, seeming to measure him, but only for a moment before he stepped back. "Alright, guys, line up. Vic, get over to the left and we'll go in order."

Vic stood on the far left, then Elias, then Julian, then Kaliah. "From the strongest time contractor to the strongest time dilator," Julian explained, "this is Vic Walker, Elias Stevenson, I am Julian Salcedo, and this is Kaliah Azuka." Each greeted Áillen. "And our fifth player, Nasira Assaf, was our strongest time dilator."

"I'm a time dilator," Áillen said. "And a technician."

"We don't have technicians on this team," Elias snapped. Vic looked at him in surprise.

"We could use a technician if we get to Nationals," Julian said.

Elias mumbled something about mangling the field, and Vic touched his wrist briefly. He glared off into the distance, but quieted down.

"Welcome to the team," Julian said finally. He smiled sheepishly. "I'm sure you'll do just fine."

Áillen nodded skeptically. He crossed his arms over his chest, highlighting forearms roped with tendons and blue veins running beneath his freckles. Vic couldn't blame him for being suspicious. Gladeloch's team wasn't untalented, but they looked the most ragtag out of any team in the league. Vic was short, nut-brown, and androgynous, Julian was a stunning Latino who could model with his square jaw and light brown eyes; Elias was a lanky and elegant porcelain doll; Kaliah a black woman with close-cropped hair who had several inches on Áillen.

Before Áillen could comment, Julian said, "Alright, team. We're getting a late start, but we can beat South Millinocket if we stay focused. Let's move out."

2 Game Start

Áillen resettled his pack on his back as the Gladeloch Capture team arranged themselves on the two golf carts that would take them to the starting point for the game. He was outfitted in an array of random gear–boots that could be walked in, but not hiking boots; a mix of camping supplies in his backpack that he'd thrown in haphazardly.

After he'd been kicked off of Tahlequah's Capture team, he hadn't expected to play again. The American Collegiate Capture Conference wasn't known for being forgiving; in a sport where occasional deaths were commonplace at the professional level, the oversight committee wasn't keen on allowing players accused of misconduct back onto a Capture team. He suspected someone on this team had pulled strings to get them to approve him as a substitute for the missing member of this team. He didn't know which one it had been, and that made him uncomfortable.

Elias and Vic, the two time contractors, seated themselves side-by-side in the backwards-facing rear seat of one of the golf carts, and Kaliah and Julian went to the other. Their packs were piled into the front seats of the carts. At Áillen's lost look, Julian motioned him into the front seat of his cart, alongside the packs. He crammed his own pack down at his feet as one of the Capture officials got behind the wheel.

One of the women who had been milling around with the rest of the Capture officials went around to each member of the team. She introduced herself to Áillen as Anastasia, holding out her hand. "I am the reporter for Gladeloch's team."

She issued him a bodycam, marked with an N in white ink. She clipped it to his collar, tugging it to make sure it was on firmly. Áillen hated being recorded, but the bodycams were required for all players for two reasons. One was that Capture teams were unmonitored in the field–it was too hard to find referees who could navigate through spacetime folds comfortably, so instead, teams were monitored by video and the footage reviewed by refs after the fact.

The other was reporting. Capture games were broadcast just like college basketball or football, but for the same reason, videographers couldn't be sent into the field to follow the team. Even remote camera drones tended to fail because of the weird electromagnetic fields generated by the spacetime folds. Instead, high-quality bodycams provided footage that was later stitched together into a narrative approved by the coach of the Capture team in question.

Áillen hated watching his own Capture games on TV. Reporters always misinterpreted what they saw through their cameras.

The golf carts pulled away and they drove a short distance into the park, rumbling over a pitted dirt track. Áillen braced himself on the frame of the golf cart. It was dawning on him, as the haze of sleep left him, that he'd agreed to spend the next two or three days in close quarters with this group of complete strangers. He knew nothing about Gladeloch's Capture team except that they weren't very good, and had rarely even made it to the national collegiate quarter-finals in the twenty years of the team's existence.

They eventually stopped in a quiet section of coniferous forest. The game was starting late; the sunlight, losing its morning glow, was mostly lost in the tops of the trees. The mossy forest floor was cool and dark. Somewhere a creek babbled over rocks, but Áillen couldn't see it.

Vic and Elias walked over to Julian, Áillen, and Kaliah as all three got off the cart. Áillen strapped on his pack as the others unloaded their equipment.

The Capture officials gathered the team together, preparing to start the clock. Áillen's heart was pounding. Excitement built in his stomach. The fresh breeze awakened his senses; it smelled of dry pine and water.

Áillen had never played Capture at Sulfur Springs when he had been playing for Tahlequah, but he'd heard tell that it was one of the most exciting landscapes for Capture because of its varied terrain. Within Sulfur Springs State Park there was everything from dormant volcanos that rose to craggy and bald heights down to estuary marshes full of sucking mud. Two enormous forests, one primarily deciduous and one coniferous, blanketed most of the park. Sulfur Springs was a Capture field where a fold could rocket you from stuck in feet of sulfurous slime in the marsh, to halfway up a mountain, whipped by wind and surrounded by bent alpine foliage, in a blink.

"Who will carry the compass?" one of the Capture officials asked as Anastasia prepared to launch a lightweight camera drone for footage of the park.

Vic held out their hand for it. The Capture official took out a golden compass. She pressed in the pin on top of the compass to activate it, then placed it in Vic's hand. It was tiny, just a little bigger than a dollar coin. The logo of the American Collegiate Capture Conference was engraved onto the lid of the compass–a simple image showing pine trees in front of overlapping hills, with a swirling design in the sky representing the Aurora Borealis.

As soon as Vic was holding the started compass, one of the officials started the clock. "Go."

Áillen stepped forward on instinct, facing away from the team. As his second step landed, he focused in on the impact of his foot with the ground and used it to trigger time dilation.

Time ground to a halt.

His unusual proficiency at time dilation was the only thing that had saved him from being kicked off his former Capture team even earlier. He opened a pocket into the universe that he could crawl into for what felt like hours. An instant of safety could billow out into an eternity of rest.

The forest crystallized around him. Everything froze until the formerly supple trees and lively wildlife were like a detailed scene in a snowglobe. The air thickened. The trembling of the needles on the pines in the light morning breeze stilled until they stood out from their branches motionless, like needles of ice. Insects glistened where they had stilled in midflight. He could barely see Julian and Vic standing like wax figures in his peripheral vision.

While he dilated time, he couldn't move; he could only investigate the scene with sluggish saccades of his eyes. He had dilated time while he stood at an angle looking out into the clearing, so he could search the woods for the entrance fold onto the Capture field and see through it to report to the team where it connected to.

In normal time, spacetime folds looked like mirrors, echoing parts of the scene around them, which made them almost invisible in a forest or featureless field. But when he dilated time, he could see straight through folds.

He searched the scene meticulously and locked onto the incongruous image of a hillside standing between two trees. There. Then further back in the woods, he recognized two long, straight folds meeting at a corner. The Capture field was tiled; the whole park would be divided into quadrilaterals by spacetime folds. From each square of the field, the team would be unable to see the rest of the park without dilating time. The folds would effectively scramble the topology of the park, shifting a square of hillside next to a square of shoreline, a square of mountaintop next to a square of marsh.

He released the time dilation and dropped back into the chaos of the timestream. "There," he said, pointing. "The entrance fold is behind that tree. We're at the intersection of two folds–" he pointed "–there, and there. The field is tiled."

Kaliah stared at him appraisingly from next to the cart. She was tugging the chest strap of her backpack tight. "Okay, wow. That was fast."

He heard Elias, the tall, pale one, say something under his breath about him. He bristled, but ignored him.

Julian hummed to himself. He picked up his bag and walked over to Áillen. "Show us where to go."


Áillen was right about the entrance fold. Elias wasn't entirely sure how he'd even seen it from where he'd been standing, because it was almost entirely concealed behind a tree. Áillen led Vic through by the hand, stepping through the mirror with them and disappearing. He held out his hand to Elias next, but Elias left him hanging, grabbing Kaliah's hand instead. She rolled her eyes, but pulled him towards the fold.

She vanished into the fold in front of Elias, and he fought off his instincts, which were telling him he was about to slam his head directly into a tree trunk, and stepped through, forcing himself to move smoothly through the fold in spacetime. As many times as he had stepped through a fold in his life, he could never quite get used to the sight of it.

They stepped out at the top of a rounded, grassy hill, gilded with sunlight. The Gold River cut a valley beside them. The thread of white, turbulent water was framed by steep stone cliffs. From the riverbed, a murmur of white noise echoed up to the team. Beyond the hill, the landscape fell away into waist-high scrub, late wildflowers, and short trees.

He kept his eyes on the team as they emerged through the entrance fold into the cell of the tiled field; it was hard for him to look directly at the spacetime folds. They hurt his eyes and his gaze always seemed to slide away if he tried to stare at them.

Vic was looking down at the river in the canyon; upon seeing that Elias had arrived, they withdrew the compass from their pocket and flipped the lid up. A glass housing encased a filigree of interlocking gears, tiny pistons, and springs. Clock-like hands bristled from a central axle, pointing in every direction. On the tips of the hands were alchemical symbols. Elias saw Mercury, Saturn, and, halfway behind a gear, the symbol for the element zinc. All of it was packed into about two square inches of clockface. A very slow tick emitted from the compass, but none of the clockwork appeared to be moving.

"Who's reading first?" he asked, trying to pretend he wasn't far too exhausted and strung out to get anything out of the compass.

Vic glanced up at him, their eyes narrowed. After a beat of silence, they said, "I'll do the initial read."

Elias always felt like Vic was staring right through him when they gave him that judgmental look.

He just nodded, his shoulders unknotting a little bit. Get it together, he reprimanded himself. He was useless to the team if he was too nervous to contract time and read the compass.

Vic knelt at the edge of the canyon–it made Elias a bit nervous; he didn't like to see Vic on the edge of a cliff–and held the compass out in front of them. They gazed at it with their eyes half-closed, sinking into the meditative state that allowed them to contract time. Elias dug the notepad out of the side-pocket of his pack and had it ready with a pen to record the information Vic extracted from the compass.

Behind him, Julian was explaining their team's usual Capture strategy to Áillen. Because Gladeloch's team was tiny, their strategy was simple, and they didn't have a lot of options for creative splits of the team. "Vic and Elias will take about five minutes to do the initial read of the compass here. They'll make a guess about the general area of the next flag based on what they see. Then we'll start hiking, pausing to continue reading the compass for more specific information on the location of the flag. We usually try to hit the flags in the order specified by the compass."

Áillen nodded. "I could scout ahead," he offered.

"Better not to split up too soon," Julian said, smiling at him. His smile–beaming, slightly crooked–had ensnared more people than Elias could count. Julian, despite the fact that Elias found him naïve, had a charm that was bizarrely alluring to others. That was half the reason he was the captain of their Capture team–unlike the rest of them, he had the ability to convince the type of skittish, hard-hearted person that was good at Capture–people like Áillen–to actually commit to joining the team.

"I don't like waiting," Áillen said, but he set his pack down. He paced with a time dilator's rapid, twitchy energy as they waited for Vic to finish reading the compass. Kaliah fidgeted with her pack, humming.

Vic stirred after two or three minutes and took the notepad from Elias. They pinned the compass to the notepad with their thumb and sketched out the details of the compass's imperceptibly slow motion in a shorthand Vic and Elias had developed together, indicating the direction, speed, and type of movement of each hand of the compass.

"How many ticks was that?" Elias asked. All compasses ran on cycles, but the cycle length varied from compass to compass.

"Two and a half."

"Slow."

"Yeah. We're going to be doing a lot of guesswork." The slower the compass hands moved, the less the time contractors could detect its movement while contracting time.

"Show me what you saw."

They conferenced over the notebook. "Zinc clockwise at single speed," Elias read, "Mercury counterclockwise on a short hand at… what does this say?"

"Two-thirds speed, I think."

"Okay, and Saturn in a square wave…"

"So, south-east of here, near the southern border of the park?"

Elias took the compass itself and looked at it. "What's this?" He pointed. "In the third layer of hands."

"I can't tell what the symbol is. It just barely appeared from behind that spring as I was finishing up."

"If it's the sol niger, everything could be flipped left-to-right."

"I know," Vic said, annoyed. "but we might as well start walking while we wait to find out.

Áillen, behind them, was practically vibrating. He stood near Kaliah, who eyed him with unconcealed distrust. Julian stood as Elias and Vic rejoined the group on the narrow trail. Elias sketched a map of the park and pointed to the general area for which they were heading.

3 The Game

Five miles of difficult hiking later, Julian was willing to admit that letting Áillen and Kaliah cooperate on leading the team through the folds had been a mistake. They had started to butt heads from the time they'd set out; it was almost eleven and they'd been going at it nonstop for hours.

They had hiked through the southern marsh and retrieved the first flag in only four folds and two hours. Everyone was gray to the knee with sulfurous dried mud, but at least the ribbon was tucked into the side of Elias's backpack. They had been looking for the second flag since then, and Julian was beginning to wonder if they'd find it before the end of the day.

Vic had studied the compass–Elias hadn't helped with the time contraction, so far–and they claimed it indicated that the second flag was somewhere near the summit of Cedar Mountain, the mountain near the center of the park. Áillen and Kaliah had proceeded to argue continually over which folds would take them into the mountain foothills the fastest. Eventually they'd managed to get the rest of the team there, whereupon Vic had called a halt to contract time and read the compass again to get a more specific heading on the flag. Stopping hadn't calmed Kaliah and Áillen down in the least. They stood by the northeast border of this cell of the Capture field. Julian couldn't hear what they were saying, but he could see Kaliah waving around the notebook she carried where she sketched maps of the cells on the Capture field and the folds that connected them.

Kaliah and Nasira, like Vic and Elias, used special shorthand and symbology to track the topology of each game of Capture and built up a map that would help them find the most efficient route from cell to cell through the unpredictable folds. According to Kaliah, the maps were based in graph theory. Julian couldn't easily read them–they involved a lot of labels in tiny lettering and criss-crossing arrows that went all over the map.

Kaliah and Áillen were dilating time to look through one of the folds on the edge of this cell, arguing over what part of the park was on the other side. Kaliah had trained herself to dilate time when she clapped loudly, and Julian could hear her doing it over and over again. She was switching off with Áillen, but Áillen's method of triggering time contraction was much subtler, and Julian couldn't see him doing it at this distance. It was amazing how little he had to do to fall into time dilation. It seemed to be effortless for him, similar to how Vic could fall into time contraction anywhere, anytime, slipping smoothly into the meditation.

Watching him, Julian wondered if he was an even stronger time dilator than Vic was a time contractor.

A cool breeze tugged at wisps of Áillen's curly red hair that had escaped from his braid as he crossed his arms, facing Kaliah. "That's a boulder. It's the same kind of lichen-covered boulder that's all over this hill. This fold leads deeper into the foothills, or maybe up the mountain.

Clap.

"Up the mountain? Are you serious? There's a stream behind the boulder. It's a valley."

"That's not a stream. It's a trail. Look again."

Clap.

"It's definitely a stream, and there's no water at the top of a foothill."

"It's not."

Clap.

"Áillen, I can see it flowing."

"At best it's a dried up streambed."

"Guys!" Julian yelled. "Can you please keep it civil?"

They both whipped around, Kaliah looking guilty at being caught antagonizing the new kid, and Áillen sending his braid flying, glaring at Julian as though he'd just taken Kaliah's side.

"We can just step through and find out as soon as Vic is done," Julian placated.

Áillen started, "If you'd just let me–"

"Again, no, you're not going through alone."

"But I–"

Julian stood up in a sort of fatherly empty threat– don't make me come over there. That was enough to silence Áillen, finally. He looked away petulantly.

Kaliah came over to Julian, leaving Áillen to angrily down water over by the fold. She settled on a rock next to him. Sweat ran down the side of her face. "Any chance we can leave him in the foothills and come back for him after we find the exit?"

Julian just laughed at her.


Vic narrowed the location of the second flag down to three of Cedar Mountain's five false summits that ringed the real summit like a sadistic crown of difficult hiking. But finding the flag's location in theory, using the compass, was a different story from charting a path through the spacetime folds that would take them to its location and completing the hike. Áillen navigated with surprising competence, but continued to show no signs of getting along with any of the other members of the team as he lead them on a grueling hike towards the flag. Kaliah disagreed with many of his decisions and before long she was so angry with him that the two weren't speaking.

Áillen still readily took direction from Julian, but he became obviously irritated as they summited two of the three peaks and there was no sign of the flag. As they worked their way towards the third summit he sniped at Elias to keep up with the group. Elias clearly didn't have his head in the game, and Julian couldn't blame Áillen for picking up on it and trying to get his attention; Elias was wandering along at the back of the group, sometimes falling five or ten meters behind.

Because of the folds in spacetime, their hike towards the third peak took them all over the park. Áillen studied and augmented Kaliah's map as they jumped from the Gold River, to the marsh, then back to the foothills of Cedar Mountain, before returning to the subalpine peaks. They hopped all over the side of the mountain as Áillen swore he was leading them on the fastest possible path to the flag. Scenery flashed by Julian like a stop-motion film: crusts of high-altitude, dried-up snow; trees bent in half by high winds near the peaks; foothills thick with grass and foliage. Áillen guided them confidently uphill, refusing to change his route when Elias complained that Áillen had to be screwing with them by engineering a hike up the steepest and most difficult terrain of Cedar Mountain.

Then, suddenly, they emerged from a fold in view of the third false summit. Vic's eyes widened. "It's there–it's up at the top." An orange ribbon was wedged in a cairn, unfurling in a stiff wind.

Julian's 20-pound pack was a rock on his shoulders. One of his socks was chafing, and the back of his shirt was wet with sweat that turned icy cold every time the wind wormed between his backpack and his back. But he still volunteered to climb the last, steep hundred meters to retrieve the flag.

Vic smiled wearily as Julian half-fell back down to where the team waited and handed them the ribbon. The sun dipped behind Mount Cedar to the southwest, long strands of golden light threading through the evergreens and lighting halos around the heads of the team members. Vic's hand brushed his as they took the flag.

Standing behind Vic, Elias silently placed a hand on Vic's shoulder. Not realizing that Julian was watching him, he smiled fondly at Vic for just a moment before he resumed his usual expressionlessness.

Further down the mountainside, Kaliah and Áillen stood in each others' general vicinity, pointedly not looking at each other. Áillen glanced back towards a fold that reflected the summit back at them, likely dilating time to look through it at the sunset. He turned back towards Julian and noticed that he had retrieved the flag. "What's the time?" he called up.

"Almost 18:30. We're about eleven hours in, and we have two flags. That's good time. We'll lose the light soon, though."

"Vic, where's the next flag?" Áillen asked.

Vic sagged a little at his request, but reached for the compass again. Before they could open it, Julian jogged down the last few meters of the path and rejoined the rest of the group. "No, we've worked hard today, and we're losing the light within the next thirty minutes. We'll pitch camp and continue tomorrow."

Áillen frowned. "The sun has barely set."

"We're slated to stop in a half hour. We won't accomplish anything in that amount of time anyway. We can continue in the morning." The team was not allowed to hike at night. According to the rules of collegiate Capture, night hikes were too risky to allow in the untamed and convoluted terrain of a Capture field. There were night and morning cutoffs controlling how late a team could continue hiking and when they could start again the following day. They were nearing the day's cutoff, so it would be better to find a campsite and prepare for the following day's work than to continue searching for the third flag.

Áillen didn't seem happy with that decision, but he stopped arguing. "Kaliah, why don't you lead us back down to a temperate climate so we can find a good place to pitch camp?" Julian asked.

Kaliah brightened at the mention of pitching camp. She clapped to dilate time, then led the group downhill. "The southern fold of this cell leads to a flat part of the deciduous forest on the other side of the park. Looks like a good place to stop."

Áillen glanced that way and stepped forward. Julian could tell he was dilating time, checking her work, but he didn't say anything to contradict Kaliah, which was a first. They walked through to the deciduous cell. This time, Julian didn't let Áillen lead him through–he snapped his fingers to trigger time dilation and stepped through without stumbling. Áillen followed after him.


Julian knew vaguely where they were. The deciduous forest on the eastern half of the park blanketed a glacier-cut valley. They were on one of the sides of the valley. There was a gentle slope to the ground, but there were enough flat spots that they would be able to find somewhere to settle down for the night. Old-growth forest stood stiff and stately, the leaves beginning to turn. In a nearby clearing, short, wiry grasses grew between sparse underbrush. Tiny white flowers ringed the enormous bases of old oaks and yews.

Kaliah roped Elias into helping set up the group's two tents. Vic dropped their pack and fell back to lay in the grass. They closed their eyes. Dappled orange sunlight brushed across their strong jaw, picking out copper glints in their coarse black hair. Their gray t-shirt, emblazoned with Gladeloch's name and date of founding, clung to their body with sweat.

Julian got food out of his pack absentmindedly as he watched Elias hammer stakes into the ground. Elias had persistently frowned all day, but now he looked too exhausted to be upset. Julian guessed that was an improvement.

Áillen stood at Julian's elbow, looking over his shoulder. "What's that?"

Julian handed him the packet to read. "Dehydrated korma." He dug their tiny alcohol stove out of the bottom of his pack and brushed some of the dry leaves aside to set it up.

"How does a team this small afford fancy dehydrated food like that?"

"Elias's parents help sponsor us. They give us a pretty generous equipment allowance." Tahlequah's team both had far more players–twelve, the maximum allowed to play on a single Capture team during a season, although they couldn't all play every game–and more publicity and popularity than Gladeloch. Áillen was probably used to his team running on money from their fans.

As Julian boiled water to reconstitute the curry, Elias and Kaliah finished with the second tent and each went to their packs to get out their sleeping bags. Áillen froze. "Wait, are there only two tents?"

"How many did you expect?"

"I–I–when I played with Tahlequah, we each had our own."

"Seriously? Tahlequah sends everyone with their own tent?"

"Yeah… the team captain carried bivy sacks for each player… I just thought somebody had one for Nasira, and I would borrow it." He was bristling, his shoulders drawing up and forward, as though preparing for a fight.

"Well, we prefer to share. Usually Vic, Elias, and I would share that one," he said, gesturing to the slightly larger tent, "And Nasira and Kaliah would share the other. Which do you think you'd prefer?"

Áillen blanched. "No."

Julian paused. The finality of Áillen's voice was underscored by a tremor. His pupils were wide.

He's not confused or being a diva. He's terrified.

"Okay," Julian said slowly. He looked back towards the tents. "I don't know if all four of us can fit in the bigger one–"

"No!" Áillen said. "Don't ask the others to move."

"But you have to sleep."

"I'll sleep outside."

"I'm… not sure you want to do that," Julian said gently. "It's going to get pretty cold tonight, and–"

"I've slept outside before."

"Alright, alright." Julian could see no choice but to agree. "I don't think it's supposed to rain."

Áillen just grunted in response. None of the tension left his spine and shoulders. Before Julian could say anything else to him, he pulled away from him and went over to his pack, ending the conversation.


Vic almost fell asleep sitting up while they were waiting for Julian to heat food over their alcohol stove. They were completely drained by being forced to read the compass all day, since Elias wasn't in the mental state to do it; contracting time was exhausting and disorienting. They barely managed to stay awake long enough for Julian to serve them reconstituted tofu and rice. The scent of food revived them, though, and they ate ravenously as soon as they were served. Áillen took his food and stood a few feet back from the loose circle of Capture players, keeping to himself. Vic got the feeling Áillen didn't like any of them that much, beyond tolerating Julian. It was becoming less and less surprising to Vic that he had managed to get himself kicked off of Tahlequah's team.

Elias sat on Vic's other side. He came closer to Vic as they ate, and once they'd finished and set down the bowl from their mess kit, they took the hint and took one of his hands. His fingers were cold; they rubbed life back into them absentmindedly. "Are you alright?" they asked him in a low voice. However exhausted Vic was, Elias's state was more important.

Elias just nodded, but his shoulders were curled in, and he looked almost as tired as Vic felt. Vic squeezed his fingers, and he squeezed back, and that had to be enough reassurance for them, because Elias wasn't going to talk any more about what was bothering him.

Vic leaned back against the trunk of a tree. They hoped that Elias would be up to contracting time tomorrow, but they didn't want to push him; if Vic asked him to contract time before he was ready, they would end up dealing with the psychological fallout when the Capture game ended and Elias fell apart. They said nothing to him. The night was cold now and as dark as a deep lake. The loud hum of crickets surrounding them lulled Vic half to sleep. They drifted in and out of a light time contraction, quietly observing the barely-perceptible turning of the stars.


Elias let Julian half-carry Vic into the tent and push them into their sleeping bag fully clothed, since they were too exhausted to wake up enough to change. Shaking the dried marsh mud out of the camping equipment when the game was over would certainly be fun. Elias stripped assiduously and put on a t-shirt over his boxers before getting into his own sleeping bag.

He lay on his back and stared at the ceiling of the tent as Vic's breathing leveled off into a deep rhythm as regular as the slow clockwork of the compass. He knew his refusal to read the compass today was what had exhausted them so much they'd fallen asleep beside the fire at 19:00. Tomorrow he'd step up and take his turn with it, and make it up to them.

He shifted one of his legs a little. He couldn't sleep. This was the curse of sleeping alone in a private house, on a memory-foam queen mattress: when he was camping, he could feel every twig and pebble underneath him and hear every tiny forest creature that ambled past, while the others, used to sleeping on rock-hard mattresses in shared dorms with irritating roommates, dropped off to sleep immediately. He tried to lie still and count his breaths.

He drifted in and out of a light doze. He found himself contracting time almost involuntarily, relaxing his grip on the timestream for the first time since the game had started.

He must have eventually drifted off, because he snapped awake again hours later. Crickets sang deafeningly outside and an intermittent wind sent the trees creaking and groaning against each other.

He got up carefully, put on his shoes, and went outside to pee. In a twilight half-consciousness he took a few steps away from the tent. About three meters away, on the other side of the ashes of their campfire, he almost screamed as he nearly tripped over the low, indistinct shape of a human body on the ground.

It took him half a second of uncontrolled panic before he recognized Áillen. He was wedged into a hollow at the base of a tree, wrapped in his sleeping bag and a hoodie. His eyes were open, reflecting thin moonlight as he stared silently up at Elias.

Elias missed half a step, recovered before it could turn into a stumble, and kept walking, pointedly ignoring Áillen. He wouldn't give him the satisfaction of reacting. He went a few meters further into the trees and peed, trying not to wonder whether or not Áillen was still watching him, and headed back to the tent.

Inside, Vic was stirring in their sleeping bag. They sat up silently and scrubbed their eyes. They began to pat down their clothing, searching for the compass. They found it and took it out of their pocket, but Elias smoothly slipped it out of their hand. He held out his hand to Vic for the notepad.

Vic passed it over, thanking Elias in a whisper, and laid their head back down on the pillow. Elias took the compass, the notebook, and a lantern back outside. He turned away from Áillen and went to a clear spot near Kaliah's tent. He sat cross-legged, opened the compass, and balanced it on one knee. He opened the hood on the lantern a crack and stared into the glittering workings of the compass. The time dilation was slow to start, but he kept his eyes fixed on the face of the compass as the gears began to shift, then crawl forward.

4 Endgame

Julian woke the whole team at 4:45 in the morning. The team was only allowed to leave their campsite and begin hiking again once it was light enough for them to navigate safely; the Capture officials had deemed that it would be bright enough here by 5:45, so Julian would wake the entire team and get them alert enough to start moving the moment the clock rolled over to that minute.

Elias complained, but he soon managed to chivvy everyone out of the tents and set Elias and Kaliah to dismantling them. Áillen had slept curled up in his hollow of ground at the edge of camp all night, and surprisingly, he was still asleep when Julian went to wake him. He was curled over onto his side, his face smushed against a root. His mouth was open, his eyes were shut, and his hands were curled into the collar of his hoodie. Julian gently shook him awake. He came alert immediately and sat up, clear-eyed. That was a good trait in a Capture player.

Áillen packed up his belongings. He refused to eat with the rest of the team; instead, he finished tucking his sleeping back into its stuff-sack, came close enough to the other players to make himself a peanut butter sandwich, and retreated back to his pile of belongings to eat.

His hair had half fallen out of its braid overnight, and he rectified that when he finished eating. He untied the black band around the tail of the braid, then combed and shook out his thick, wavy hair. He re-braided it behind his own head, with his back arched and his chest pushed out so he could reach the nape of his neck. Julian watched him contemplatively as he finished his own breakfast. He was frustrated that Áillen didn't seem to have any interest in getting along with the rest of the team.

He jumped when Kaliah brushed his elbow. He hadn't seen her approach. She grinned at him and glanced between him and Áillen. "You certainly seem to have taken an interest in his development… as a Capture player," Kaliah said innocently.

"I'm just–"

"Staring at him contort to reach the end of that braid with your mouth hanging open?"

"Kaliah!" Julian hissed. "That's highly inappropriate. I would never–I wouldn't–I mean, he's a member of the team!"

"Does that somehow mean you can't be interested in him?"

"I'm not!"

"Oh, sure," Kaliah murmurred. At least she was keeping her voice down; Áillen hadn't looked over, although Elias was clearly eavesdropping with focus.

"Nobody here is looking at Áillen in any kind of, of, of way," Julian insisted.

"Right. You keep telling yourself that." She pinched Julian's side, making him yelp and slap at her. But with the reflexes of a skilled time dilator, she had skipped halfway across the campsite by the time Julian had even reached for her.


The second day of the game was bliss for Julian–a long, hard day of hiking in good weather. Using a map of the park and Kaliah's increasingly complex diagram of the folds on the Capture field, they found the third and fourth flags and covered about eighteen miles of ground by the midafternoon. They were all covered in mud; Julian's good canvas hiking pants had a new rip at the cuff, and he'd been viciously bitten by a horsefly on the side of the neck.

In a particularly large cell of the Capture field, Áillen spotted the fourth flag halfway down the side of the deep valley cradling the river that bisected Sulfur Springs, the Gold River. The view down into the valley was stunning; the green river waters foamed over smooth rocks, sending up a muffled hum. The valley was velvety with dark green grass that clung tenaciously to a springlike atmosphere, though it was late fall. The flag was tied to a tree jutting out of the valley wall, leaning far out over the river and grasping towards the water with bare branches; it fluttered from a branch over a significant drop into the water.

Áillen picked his way down the steep side of the valley, clutching at grass and earth and getting even more thoroughly smeared with mud, as Vic and Elias conferred over the compass. They sat close to each other and moved in slow motion, adding to a paper diagram of the hands of the compass and occasionally dropping back into the timestream to argue about what the motions of the compass hands meant.

Áillen leaned out over the trunk of the tree and gingerly grabbed ahold of the fourth flag, jerking it off the branch. He knotted it to one strap of his backpack and clambered back up to where the rest of the team waited. As he crested the lip of the valley, Julian caught his hand and bodily lifted him the rest of the way up. He clapped his hand to Áillen's back as he got his footing again. "Good work." Áillen didn't respond.

"Where to next?" Julian asked Vic and Elias, putting a hand on Vic's shoulder to pull them back into the timestream. Vic shook Elias gently until he started to come out of the meditation as well.

"We were just debating that," Vic said, stretching their arms overhead as Elias tilted their notebook towards Julian. They had a few preliminary diagrams of the compass in the corner of the page, little more than a circle with a few lines at angles drawn inside, each topped with a small alchemical symbol. The diagram they were working on now covered almost the entire page; it even had details called out in small rectangles. It showed three layers of the compass's gearing with cutaways for important details. Clock-like hands bristled in the diagram like spines off a porcupine. The page was thick with symbols and named elements of the compass. Arrows showed direction, speed, and type of motion of different parts of the compass; approximate gear ratios were noted in the margins. It made Julian's head spin. Elias pinned the compass to the page with his thumb. In the normal timestream, the hands appeared to be completely still.

"We're here," Vic said, using Kaliah's map and the National Geographic map simultaneously to show their location within the shuffled cell field as well as the actual park. "Now, if you look at the mercury hand of the compass, you can see that three hours ago, it was moving clockwise, but it just switched and began to move counterclockwise, and while its movement was smooth before, it's ticking now. Neptune just appeared between these two gears, which means–"

"Vic… get to the point," Julian suggested gently.

"Right. Sorry. Okay, either the next flag will be here–" Vic indicated a section of a long ridge that lead to the summit of Cedar Mountain, near the northern edge of the park. "Or here." Vic pointed at the rocky beach constituting the southern border of the park.

"Alright, we'll split up," Julian said.

"Finally," Áillen muttered. He had been complaining all day that the team was less efficient when gathered together and had repeatedly suggested that Julian send Áillen ahead alone as some sort of a scout. Julian had refused, knowing that the communication difficulties caused by splitting up the team weren't worth it until the very end of the game, when each team could be given a clear, unambiguous objective and rules.

"Áillen can stand in for Nasira directly–no need to reshuffle the teams. Kaliah, you take Vic. Elias and Áillen are with me."

They all got to their feet, stretching and warming up for the final stretch of the game.


Áillen led Elias and Julian through the folds at a fast clip. He led the way, Julian following him and Elias in the back. He took them back down the side of the valley, then helped them both through the fold. Julian let Áillen take his elbow and lead him through, even though Elias knew perfectly well that Julian could step through on his own if he wanted to.

Elias couldn't see straight when he got too close to the mirrorlike fold and actually needed the help to keep his balance as he went through. He let Áillen hold his arm–he mostly grabbed the fabric of Elias's peacoat, without contacting his actual body much–and stepped through with him into the next cell.

Áillen was carrying a simplified, partial copy of Kaliah's map, which would help lead them to where Vic and Elias had predicted the last flag might be. Kaliah had also let him keep the National Geographic map of the entire park, since Kaliah and the rest of the team had it more or less memorized. But Áillen didn't consult either one when they fell through to the other side of the fold. Elias could tell when he dilated time, although he triggered it very subtly. He dropped back into the timestream after only a second and confidently headed northwest.

Elias had no idea where in the park they had landed. They were in a deciduous forest, but that was all he knew. Vic had kept the compass, so Elias was now deadweight for this half of the team. He focused on hiking fast enough to keep up and ignoring the blisters he felt forming on his heels.

Áillen led on silently. He made Elias nervous for reasons he couldn't quite put a finger on. He seemed more relaxed than he had the previous day; he walked with a looseness in his limbs that spoke to comfort in the woods. He was slender and flexible like a reed. His shoulders were relaxed and he carried his pack like it was featherlight. Elias's own back and shoulders ached.

Whenever Áillen turned his head to glance back at Julian and Elias, his copper braid swung out to the side. Julian followed the tail with his eyes. Elias wondered if he realized he was staring. He scowled at both of them.

They crossed through another fold. On the other side, Julian called a short break for water. He put his hand on Áillen's upper back briefly as he drank without enthusiasm. Julian was always handing out those almost-parental touches, quiet gestures that said good job, thank you, I knew you could. Elias hated them–Julian had given up on clapping him on the shoulder long ago–but he couldn't deny that the other members of the team responded to them more strongly than they would any verbal command or rebuke. Áillen fought off a smile as Julian let his hand drop.

Julian turned his attention to Elias. "You doing okay? Tired at all?"

"I'm fine."

Julian frowned briefly but didn't push. Elias saw Áillen in his peripheral vision, staring into the sparse, old forest. He was dilating time, looking for the folds. "Can you even see the other folds from here?" Elias asked.

"No."

"It feels like the cells are bigger here than they were on the other side of the park." Elias couldn't make out the mirrored surfaces through the trees, even though the forest wasn't very dense. The canopy was so thick here that only a few ferns and some leggy brush could survive in the damp shade at the bases of trees so broad that the stump of one could be used as a dinner table. The tops of the trees were so far away that Elias, who wasn't wearing his contacts, perceived them mostly as streaks and stars of light.

"They are," Áillen said. "This one's about three miles on a side."

Julian cocked his head. "You don't have a map out. How do you know where we are?"

"I guess I sort of memorized them," Áillen said simply. He had only looked at the cell map for about three minutes when he'd copied over some of the cells from Kaliah's diagram.

"How?" Julian asked, stupefied. But Áillen was barely listening; he just shrugged, distracted by a bluejay shooting through the trees right in front of them. It wheeled mid-air and disappeared into the fold they'd just come through.


Two cells later, Elias was considering debasing himself by begging Julian for a halt again. Hot sweat ran down his back, then soaked the waistband of his hiking pants, where it turned to ice. The fabric was supposed to wick away moisture, but either it wasn't working, or Elias was sweating so much that he was overwhelming its ability to diffuse his fluids. Two days of Capture were nearing the limit where Elias would stop ironically whining and start earnestly whining.

He let time drift around him as they hiked, which was a bit dangerous. Someone lost in time contraction could hike themselves to exhaustion, even death, not feeling the pains and demands of their body, which tended to slip away from someone who was deep in meditation.

He eventually snapped back into the timestream when they heard the crack of a flare going off elsewhere in the park. Vic and Kaliah had found the exit fold and sent up the flare before stepping through to lead the rest of the team out and end the game. Julian immediately looked up and snapped to dilate time, and Áillen followed his lead, pointing like a hound at the sky and searching for the flare through the kaleidoscopic reflections of the folds all around them.

All Elias could see was a generalized red light, suffusing the bark of the trees, turning them all mahogany and blending with the orange evening glow. When he looked at the sky, he saw clouds reflected through the folds infinitely, distorting in the distance into an unnerving gray haze.

"Found it!" Áillen said finally, facing almost due west, and took off at a fast pace.

They wove in and out of the perimeters of three different cells over the course of half an hour. Elias was growing nauseated from all the navigation of the folds, even though Áillen was helping him through them and making sure he was righted and not disoriented after stepping through. They jumped all over half the park in an unbelievably convoluted path, and somehow ended up in the far south of the park. A grassy field, studded with exposed rock, let out onto the rocky expanse of the beach. Waves whispered on the lonely shore. Vic and Kaliah were gone, already through the exit fold, which stood about two hundred meters away, a square of mirror hung upright in the rocks of the beach, facing them.

Áillen broke into a run towards the mirror. He was a powerful sprinter and though Julian took off after him a split second later, Áillen pulled ahead quickly. Elias followed at a more moderate pace, panting heavily as he tried to keep up. He was dizzy and his feet hurt; he trailed behind them, figuring an extra minute or two tacked onto their score would make no difference.

Áillen yelled in dismay, "The fold is drifting!"

Julian swore. "Are you sure?" Even Elias perked up and paid attention. It was rare for a fold to drift during a Capture game. Professional, licensed technicians created the folds used in the field, and they rarely made unstable folds. If one side of the fold wasn't anchored properly, the field could become unnavigable or mangled, or a fold could change such that when someone stepped through, they would fall off a cliff or into a river.

Áillen redoubled his speed and almost immediately tripped and went down hard on the rocks.

He jumped back up quickly, before Julian could get to him, but stopped for a second, looking slightly dazed. Julian caught up to him and grabbed him by the elbow, dragging him towards the exit fold. They exchanged a few words that Elias couldn't hear over the pounding of his pulse.

Whatever Áillen said must have satisfied Julian that the fold was still safe, because Áillen helped Julian through the fold a moment later. He reappeared back through the fold just as Elias reached it. His jaw was split in a bad gash and blood ran freely down his neck, soaking the collar of his shirt. Elias was running too hard to stop and recoil; Áillen caught his elbow and slung him through the fold none too gently before following him through.

Elias rocketed out the other side of the exit fold on his momentum and hit the ground hard with his shoulder, rolling to a stop in the dirt. He was looking up at the picnic table that had marked the beginning of their game. Kaliah's voice came from above him. "You're bleeding everywhere!" Presumably she was referring to Áillen. "We leave you guys alone for two hours–"

"Áillen, are you alright? Sit down. What happened?" Professor Kung was hurrying over as Capture officials calculated their average time to the exit fold, collected their flags, and inspected the damage to Áillen's face.

"I'm fine," Áillen said. Vic appeared above Elias and took his hand, helping him up onto the picnic bench, from where he watched Áillen fend off the officials. "I think I just need to sit down." He sat heavily in the grass, his eyes half-closed. He looked so pale that Elias worried he would pass out, but color began to return to his face slowly.

"He needs a doctor," Julian said. "This is my fault." He leaned over Áillen, holding his shoulders still so he could get a good look at his face. blood dripped sideways along his jaw and coated his neck. He was cradling one of his wrists awkwardly, and Elias realized it wasn't only his face that was hurt. He must have sprained or fractured his wrist on the rocky beach where he'd fallen.

"I'm really fine," Áillen said, unimpressed. "It doesn't hurt that bad."

"Do you want me to take him to the hospital?" Kung asked.

"No, I'm staying with him."

"We can take my car," Professor Kung amended. "Áillen, is there someone I should call to meet us there? Family or friends?"

Áillen paused, and there was a serendipitous silence in the Capture officials' conversation so everyone could hear it when he said, "No."

Something about the finality and hardness in his voice made Elias's heart drop even though he didn't want to care about this freshman weirdo. He recognized Áillen's tone. He wasn't saying "No, my friends are busy" or "No, my family is hours away." He was saying "No, I don't have anyone."

"Jesus," Elias said under his breath.

"Can you walk the last half a mile to the car?"

"Yeah, of course," Áillen said, annoyed.

"Then let's get going. We don't want to be at the ER during the late evening when they're busy. Elias, Vic, Kaliah, are you three all okay? Elias, I saw you take a hard fall through the exit fold."

"Sorry," Áillen muttered.

"No, I'm barely even bruised."

"Okay. Good work today. Your total time was fantastic. We'll debrief later. Don't forget about dinner with South Millinocket this Thursday evening." She followed Julian and Áillen away. Julian had his arm around Áillen's shoulders, steadying him.

Vic braced their hands on the edge of the picnic table and arched their back as they yawned. "Where are you going after this?" Elias asked.

"Home, straight to bed," Vic said.

"I don't know how you can possibly sleep in those dorms. The walls are like paper."

"Not everybody has a whole house to themselves like you do," Vic sniped. They pulled at the ends of their braids.

"Come stay at my place. You'll actually get some sleep."

"Yeah, alright," Vic said. They almost always stayed with Elias after a game, but both of them felt the need to go through the whole ritual of asking and accepting each time. The two headed for the park exit together, trailed by Kaliah.

5 Elias's House

They stopped by campus to drop Kaliah off at her dorm near the quad, then veered north-east and drove out on the long, lonely road to Elias's house. The sun had abruptly set, and it was only a little after 19:00, but they were already losing the light.

Elias's house stood at the end of an isolated road that snaked east into the hills away from the college town. Backed by a curtain of dense, young forest, it was a custom-architected single-family home, falling well short of a mansion, but still large compared to many of the townhouses and freestanding homes in town. Elias didn't own it, but he may as well have. It was the property of his parents, technically, but they never visited. It was just a financial holding to them, and Elias happened to be living there.

It had a brick façade and two white columns framing a white front door, the only features of the house clearly visible in the waning light. He unlocked the front door and took Vic inside, setting down his pack next to the staircase leading from the foyer up to the bedrooms on the second floor. Then he sat down heavily on the tiles, already feeling a bruise developing on one of his hips, and untied his hiking boots. He peeled off his socks and stretched his legs out.

He and Vic showered in separate bathrooms, Elias in his en-suite and Vic in the unused master bath where Elias kept a few toiletries for them. More sulfurous marsh mud than Elias would have thought possible came out of his leg hair and made his pristine bathroom smell like the bottom of a Venetian canal. The housecleaner, unfortunately, had just come the previous day, and wouldn't be back to scrub marsh residue out of the tub for another week.

He met Vic at the top of the stairs, where they waited in a pair of Elias's sweatpants, cuffed since they were so long on them, and a singlet they had found somewhere. They were flushed from the shower. Their hair fell to mid-back in damp waves and curls, released from its usual two braids. Seeing Vic with their hair undone made something inside Elias clench. He tried not to get lost in the vision of them dressed like this, pliant after hard work and a hot shower.

Elias fed Vic reheated Chinese food they'd ordered a few days ago, and watched Vic as they ate together. It made him feel warm inside to see Vic enjoying something he had provided. They watched cartoons together on the couch after dinner, tucked under the same throw, but not touching each other. Elias felt Vic's body heat from inches away, warming both of them. He moved his icy fingers closer to Vic's side.

"What was bothering you yesterday?" Vic asked.

Elias shrugged.

"Your parents?" Vic guessed.

"They'll be in town Monday for some Board of Trustees thing." Elias struggled to keep the waver out of his voice.

Vic frowned. "Are you worried about–"

Elias shook his head. "They're not going to talk to me." They never did. He knew they would be in town because of a post on his mother's social media, not because they'd let him know. They were still grieving his brother's death. Elias knew that. They were ignoring him because their better son had passed away. Someday maybe they'd overcome that and speak to him again, or maybe not. Elias wasn't holding his breath.

"Is there anything I can do to help?"

"No. Can we just enjoy the evening? I don't want to get into all that stuff right now."

"Okay… fine," Vic said. Elias suspected they were only giving in because they were exhausted. They were beginning to sink into the back of the couch and their eyes were closing.

"I think it's bedtime."

"Yeah," Vic acquiesced, and pliantly let Elias lead them upstairs.

There were three guest bedrooms in the house, but Elias led Vic to his own bed, guiding them under the covers without turning the lights on. Vic curled up on their side, and Elias pushed an extra pillow into their arms. They curled around it. Their eyes were already closed.

He left his room and went downstairs before he could get too sleepy watching Vic. He went to the kitchen, then opened the door to his basement. He glanced around, making sure he was completely alone, then entered and closed the door behind him, only switching the lights on once he was inside.

The basement had two halves, a finished side with a rarely-used pool table, and an unfinished side that was used for storage, where pantry items and packaged snacks stood on long metal racks like the storeroom of a grocery store. Elias went to the unfinished side. He had shifted the racks months ago to create a series of switchbacks, like a queue for movie tickets marked off with stanchions, that made it a huge hassle to get to the back of the room.

At the back of the room was a door-sized fold.

Elias was no time dilator, but that didn't mean he couldn't get himself through a fold if he really wanted to. He walked through with his eyes closed, but failed to accurately estimate the angle of the ground on the other side of the fold. This fold was unstable and drifted in various directions on both sides, constantly. Its exact outlet was always unpredictable, so Elias had to check on it constantly. He hadn't anchored it well on either side. It was illegal–unregulated spacetime folding was a crime, due to the risk of mangling spacetime–and dangerous because it was so unstable. He knew it was only a matter of time before he hurt himself walking through the fold into a wall, or the fold drifted enough to become noticeable and get him arrested. But he wasn't ready to close the fold, either.

He crashed through his fold and smacked to the ground on his stomach. He caught himself just before bashing his skull on the concrete floor. He didn't even turn on the light in the storage unit on the other side. All he did was re-anchor the fold so it wouldn't drift away as he slept, and run his fingers along the edges of news articles worn so soft they were like velvet to the touch. He didn't need to turn the lights on to picture them; he had memorized these articles by now.

When he had satisfied himself that the storage unit was still in order, he stepped back through the fold, more carefully this time. He landed on his knees and took a few deep breaths as his stomach settled and his head stopped spinning. Then he went back through the labyrinth of shelves, then upstairs to his room. Vic was still asleep.

He took one of the folded blanekts from the foot of his bed and collapsed on the couch at the other end of his bedroom beneath the window, falling asleep almost immediately.


Áillen sat shivering in the passenger seat of Professor Kung's car, next to Julian, who was driving. He gripped his knee with his good hand, willing it to stop trembling. The sight of so much blood dripping out of his face and soaking his shirt was making hiim feel sick to his stomach. Streetlights zipped by as Julian sped west through town towards Gladeloch's teaching hospital, the only one in town.

Kung sat in the back seat, diagonal from Julian. Áillen didn't know her at all; he'd seen her on campus but had never spoken to her or had her as a professor. He would rather have been alone in the car with Julian; at least he had gotten acquainted with him during the 36-hour game.

His face didn't really hurt that badly, despite all the blood. It barely stung where the skin of his jaw had split. His wrist, though, was throbbing, and his fingers felt stiff and swollen. He glanced down at his hand in his lap. The skin over his knuckles was tight and shiny. He grimaced, looking away.

"You doing okay?" Julian asked. "Need anything?" He was driving at exactly ten miles over the speed limit. Earlier, Kung had laid a hand on his shoulder and told him to relax. Áillen found this very funny. It amused him in a slap-happy way that Julian seemed to think it was his fault that Áillen had gotten hurt. In fact, because of Julian, Áillen had just had the most fun he'd had in months, and another opportunity to play Capture. He had thought he'd played his last game when he'd been kicked off of Tahlequah's competitive team and had jumped at the chance to play one more time. Julian could punch him directly in the face now and Áillen would probably thank him.

"No," he said for the fourth or fifth time, "I'm fine."

A few minutes later, he shifted in his seat, leaning forward slightly over his knees. He was starting to feel lightheaded again; his throbbing wrist was getting to him. He took a deep breath in and let it out, but it didn't help. His vision was starting to fuzz and the tips of his fingers were going numb. "Hey, um… I'm not feeling so good," he mumbled.

"What? Oh, shit," Julian said.

"Pull over!" Kung told him, and he quickly parked at the curb in the dark residential part of town. "Take deep breaths," Kung said, "You're doing fine." Áillen couldn't get enough oxygen to respond.

Julian got out of the car, jogged around to Áillen's door, and opened it. Cold night air, smelling of cigarette smoke, flooded in and his vision cleared a little. "Water," Áillen said, groping forward vaguely with his unhurt hand. Julian disappeared again, then came back from his own water bottle.

Áillen took it and awkwardly tried to open it with his good hand by clamping it between his knees. That finally drew Julian's attention to his wrist. "Áillen! This is so swollen. What happened? Why didn't you say anything? Look at this," he said to Kung.

"You didn't ask," he croaked. Julian unscrewed the top of the bottle and handed it back to him. He downed the contents in a few long pulls.


He barely held back panic when they reached the ER; Áillen didn't like hospitals or doctors. Julian helped him fill out paperwork in the waiting room, and he was taken to a room in short order, then, between long intervals of waiting, was x-rayed, and finally had his face butterfly bandaged and was issued a splint for his wrist. It wasn't fractured, just badly sprained, and would be healed in a few weeks. He apologized to Julian for making him come all the way to the hospital for that.

Julian seemed amused. "What did you think I was going to do? Take you back to my dorm and fix your face with superglue?"

That seemed like it would have been a better option to Áillen.

They got back in Julian's car with Professor Kung. "Áillen, where do you live?"

"Tower dorm," Áillen said. Julian dropped him off there after making sure he had everything he needed–painkillers, anti-inflammatories, antibiotics for his face. Just before Áillen got out of the car, Julian laid a hand on his upper back protectively. It made Áillen's stomach flip, not in a bad way. He could feel the heat of Julian's palm through his shirt. "Hey. Thanks for helping us out today. You really got us out of a tight spot. And I'm sorry this is how we celebrated."

"That's okay," Áillen said uncomfortably. "I'll just… I'll see you around." He gingerly took his pack with his good arm and got out of the car into the cold, kicking the door closed behind him. Kung leaned forward to say something to Julian as they pulled away. As the headlights of the car receded, he pulled himself away and headed up the long walkway to Tower dorm.

Tower was framed by hills overgrown with scrub. A low breeze murmurred in the eaves of the building. It was Sunday evening and all was quiet; someone's blue fairie lights shone through a window.

He dragged himself back to his room. His heavy pack wore on his shoulders and his wrist still throbbed; the painkillers he'd been given at the hospital hadn't kicked in yet, and the adrenaline from the game was finally fading. He pushed through the dark and empty lobby of the dorm and climbed the spiral staircase to his room.

He lived in one of the two oddly-shaped penthouse dorms of Tower. It was semicircular, encompassing half of Tower's footprint; the reason it was so large was that it was tucked under the conical roof, and the ceiling was only a few feet from the floor around the perimeter of the dorm. His furniture was crammed into the small area in the middle of the dorm where the ceiling was high enough to allow him to actually stand up straight. He went to his bed, marooned in the middle of his room, dropped his pack, and sat on the edge of the mattress.

He put his face in his good hand, still holding the other to his chest. He felt bone-tired, like a sliver of stone worn away by a river to almost nothing. It had been a mistake for him to accept the invitation to play one last game of Capture. It was a stinging reminder of what he was missing, how alone he was outside of the game. The freedom of the park and the companionship of the close-knit team were teasing tastes of what Áillen had lost when he'd been kicked off of Tahlequah's Capture team.

He stripped his clothes away and laid on his back in his bed, almost shivering with the cold but too tired to get under the blankets.

6 Debrief

Nasira was transferred to a larger, more reputable hospital a town over for surgery on her shattered femur. Professor Kung reported that the surgery went well and Nasira was recovering as quickly as could be expected, but none of them really knew what a fast recovery would entail yet. Kung suggested that they hold the post-game debrief, normally held in the Capture lounge in the athletics center, be held in Nasira's hospital room instead, so they could all see her face-to-face and talk to her about the future of the team.

Elias drove them to the hospital and parked on the street a few blocks away, and they piled out. Vic had slept like a baby in Elias's bed last night, and they were in a good mood as the four of them walked to the hospital together, passing occasional foot traffic.

Two blocks away from the hospital, someone wolf whistled at Vic and called them a slut.

The man who had whistled was looking Vic right in the eye as he continued to make another crude comment about their appearance. Vic lunged forward and it was only Julian's fast reflexes that prevented a brawl from breaking out immediately. Julian hauled Vic back as they snarled. "It's not worth it. Vic, come on. I know, but you can't fight him. Come with me. It's alright. I know. I know." Julian's iron grip on Vic's wrists barely kept them under control. The man was still laughing at Vic and Vic was seeing red. They twisted against Julian's hold, but Julian had enough size on them that they couldn't get away before the man disappeared around a corner with his friend.

"Fuck!" Vic yelled furiously. "You should have let me at him."

"Come here. You're hyperventilating."

"Fuck!" Vic said again, more of a sob this time.

"All you would have accomplished by attacking him would be getting arrested for assault. Besides, Nasira wants to see you. You can get arrested another time. I'll back you up and we can both get arrested together."

"Thanks," Vic mumbled. They tipped their head into Julian's shoulder for a moment. They were flooded with adrenaline, their heart thrashing. Few things set them off as badly as being mistaken for a woman or man. A casual denial of Vic's culture and identity would linger with them all day. They knew Julian was right to stop them from doing something they would regret, but it still hurt. They squeezed their eyes shut as Julian held them for a moment.

"Vic, you're making us late," Elias said, shattering the delicate silence.

"Shut up," Vic snapped.

"I'm just saying, we were supposed to be there two minutes ago."

"Asshole!" Vic pulled out of Julian's hold and indicated with a few choppy gestures that the group should continue on. They trailed behind at a distance of a few paces, glaring at Elias's back.

They reached the hospital and headed upstairs to Nasira's room. Julian peered in through the narrow window, then opened the door slowly so he wouldn't disturb Nasira if she was asleep. But she was awake and sitting up. Professor Kung was already stationed in a chair at her bedside, reading. She put the book down on the windowsill when she saw the team.

Vic gave Nasira a quick hug, then hung back as the rest of the team greeted her. Vic was happy to see Nasira but still reeling with anger over being catcalled and Elias's insensitivity. They couldn't participate in the group's excitement over being reunited. Kaliah was already recounting the peculiarities of Áillen's behavior to Nasira. Vic smiled, but it was thin. Áillen's exaggerated standoffishness had been funny, but also struck Vic as sad.

"Are you in much pain?" Julian asked her.

"Just uncomfortable," she said. "There are three screws in the bone now, and you should see the stitches–the scar will be crazy. But I'm on good drugs."

He smiled. "Are we going to get to see funny video from the anesthetic?"

"No, I swore my parents to secrecy!"

"Smart," Julian said. He held Nasira's hand, careful of her IV port. He enclosed her hand with his other. "Hey, we're having something at Elias's house later. When are you going to be discharged from the hospital?"

"Not that early."

"Sorry. Should I video-chat you in? We can set you up on the coffee table…"

Nasira laughed. "No, no. I'll be asleep by eight. You guys have fun."

Professor Kung called the debrief to order. "As I said when you came through the exit fold, your time for this game was very good. You made it through the whole course in just under thirty-five hours. Based on the metrics–five flags and a total minimum walking distance of twenty-five miles–par is about thirty-six hours."

"We were that close to par?" Elias asked in dismay. "We only had an hour of leeway?"

"Yes, but in this case, par is probably an underestimate of how much time is really needed, because of the mountainous terrain and the marsh."

"Still," Elias said. Vic wanted to slap him. Couldn't he just be happy that they'd beat par, for once?

"South Millinocket competes later next week. Don't forget, we're meeting their team for dinner on Thursday, at the usual place. Wear nice clothing. That means you, Vic." Vic pushed their hands deeper into their hoodie pocket and looked away. "Now, let's look at the footage."

She got out an iPad and showed a few clips from the game, Anastasia's footage that she had provided to the team for review. For Nasira's benefit, she showed some clips with Áillen in them and commented on his strengths (his strong time contraction ability) and weaknesses (teamwork). She pointed out places where the players could have worked together more tightly and things they'd missed about the environment that should have been relevant.

The highlight reel from this footage would be shown on local news, but Kung gave them the lowlight reel. Vic always hated seeing their body and face on video. They white-knuckled it through Kung's performance review.

"Let's talk about the rest of the season," Nasira suggested when Kung put the videos away.

Kung put her hand on Nasira's shoulder. "We don't have to talk about that until you're recovered. Our next game isn't for a few weeks, anyway."

"No, I want to talk about it now. I've already talked to the doctors about my recovery, and they say I'm going to be in PT for at least a few months."

"It might not be that bad," Kung said gently. "You never know how these things will go until you get started. You're very strong and determined, and they might not realize–"

"I know that," Nasira said, annoyed. Vic smiled a little at how she domineered the room even on strong painkillers, stuck in a hospital bed. "But the doctors told me I shouldn't continue with sports–any sports–for the rest of the semester. I've already informed the equestrian team that I won't be competing with them, either. I might as well face the facts–I'm not doing anything faster than a walk for the rest of the semester, at least, and the chances I'll be hiking in the spring are low."

"I understand," Kung said. "You'll always be welcome back on the team if you change your mind. We will have to backfill your position for now, but if you wanted to rejoin after we find a substitute for you, we can certainly bump the team up to six players. Having only five puts us in a precarious situation whenever anything like this happens. It's too bad there are so few students who can contract or dilate time. We were incredibly lucky to be able to find Áillen on incredibly short notice and not to have to forfeit the season entirely because we didn't have the regulation number of players."

"This is so disappointing," Kaliah said. She laid her head on Nasira's bed from her chair by her bedside. "We're going to miss you so much."

"I'll be back next year," Nasira promised.

Julian nodded. "And for now, you'll always be welcome in the Capture lounge, and you can still come to all our social gatherings."

"Of course," Kung said. "If that's your decision, then we need to talk about finding a fifth player in the meantime."

"What's there to talk about? We already have," Julian said.

There was a brief silence. Then Nasira put up her hands. "Wait! Hold up. You can't seriously be suggesting replacing me with Áillen? Him? Did we just see the same video or what? He was nothing but uncooperative and cantankerous that entire game."

"Yeah, I am suggesting that," Julian said. "I'm not saying he's not a little unrefined–"

"Did he seriously sleep all night with his head on a rock like that? Just right out in the open, with all the bugs?!"

"I'm not convinced he was actually asleep, but yes," Elias said dryly.

"He didn't want to spend all night in close quarters with a bunch of strangers he just met," Julian protested.

"Oh, so we're a bunch of strangers now!" Elias said.

"To him we are! Anyway, yes, he lacks certain… nuances, I'm not arguing that point. But you saw him in the video. I mean, he may be the strongest time dilator I've ever seen… no offense, Kaliah and Nasira."

"I'm taking some," Kaliah said.

"With a little more training, and once he learns to trust and compromise with the rest of the team, he could be a powerful player. None of you can deny that."

"You're not wrong," Elias said, "But I don't like him."

"What's your issue with him? He didn't do anything to you."

"He's absolutely insufferable!"

"Maybe this will be a learning opportunity for the team, to adapt to the play and social style of a player who's really different from the rest of you," Kung put in.

"Not that different," Julian commented. Vic knew that was true. Áillen may have been a bit of a wild animal during the game, but everyone else on the team had been equally nervous and angry for their first few weeks as well.

"It's not his style that's the problem," Elias protested. "I mean, let's not forget that he was literally kicked off of his last team for poor sportsmanship. That's not a stylistic difference."

"He deserves a second chance," Julian said. "We don't know the story of how he was kicked off Tahlequah's team. Poor sportsmanship is a catchall reason for removing someone from a team. It could mean anything."

"Since when are you so invested in him? We played one game with him and suddenly you're big-brothering him."

"Oh, I think I know why," Kaliah said with a wicked smile. "You're–"

"I'm not big-brothering him. That's not even a verb. I'm invested in him since I met the best time dilator I've ever seen and found out he's a random who's not even on a Capture team right now, and used to play for a Tahlequah, the most dominant team in the entire conference!"

"Yes, that's exactly what I'm saying," Elias said, raising his voice. "He's not on a team because the biggest name in the Western Capture conference kicked him off!"

"Yeah, and they're missing out! Look, it's not like we have any other prospects, right, Professor Kung?"

"That's right," she admitted. "I can ask the coaches of the other team if they know of any other options, but I would have heard about it if there was anyone with more than a modicum of ability."

"If Áillen can be developed, he'll be dominant on the field. When was the last time we made par in Sulfur Springs? When we win home games, it's usually because the other team runs way over time. This time, we were actually under par by an hour. If you look over the footage, you'll understand that Áillen's confident, instant guidance through the cells is what sped us up so dramatically. What Áillen brings to the table is too good to pass up."

"If you can get him on the team, I'm happy to work with him," Kung said.

"I want to talk to him, but I'll only recruit him if the rest of the team agrees that it's a good idea," Julian said. "I've made it clear why I want him on the team, but a Capture team needs to be close-knit and to trust each other. If you guys think he will be a liability, we can find someone else, although we run the risk of forfeiting our chance to go to Nationals in the spring if we can't recruit someone in time. If you don't trust him, speak up now or speak to me in private and we will discuss alternatives."

"I hate to admit it," Kaliah said after contemplating for a moment, "But he's really that good of a time dilator. He pretty much blasted the rest of us out of the water this weekend. If you can get him on the team, I'll do my best to work with him."

"I trust your judgment," Nasira said.

"Same goes for me. You're the captain," Elias said.

"Vic? You've been quiet."

Everyone in the room turned to look at Vic, who was leaning against the wall near the door. "Yeah, of course. It's fine by me," they said quickly.

"Okay. I'll track him down and talk to him."

"I need some air," Elias muttered and suddenly walked out of the room, closing the door behind him.


Elias went down the hall and got a paper cup of water from a water cooler in the waiting room. He downed it, but he couldn't shake off his intense unease.

Why did it have to be Áillen? Áillen was undeniably beautiful, and not only that, but he was a talented time dilator and, Elias could already tell, nearly as obsessed with Capture as Julian was. Elias was losing Julian's attention to Áillen, and deep down, he wondered if Julian was right to switch his focus to Áillen. He and Julian had been friends for a long time, but perhaps Elias simply couldn't keep up with Julian's level of talent and passion anymore.

He was beginning to suspect that he needed the Capture team far more than they needed him, and that scared and depressed him. He already knew he couldn't compete with Áillen, so why even bother to try?

He would have to steel himself and tough it out. Causing problems with Áillen would be pointless; it would just force the team to choose between the two of them. And although Elias and Julian had been friends for much longer, he already suspected that for Julian, it wouldn't be an easy choice.


Kaliah walked home with Vic after their visit, while Julian and Elias continued east towards Elias's house. As soon as they were out of Elias's earshot, Kaliah said, "You shouldn't put up with his bullshit. I don't understand you."

"Easy for you to say," Vic snapped. "Elias is trying really hard."

"Vic, I respect and love you as a person, but come on. I know Elias was different before the accident, but how long are you going to keep letting him walk all over you while you wait for him to go back to how he was before?"

"I haven't given up on Elias and I'm not going to," Vic said stridently.

"Nobody said anything about giving up on him. I'm not even saying you shouldn't be his friend. But it's painful watching you hold that candle for him while he acts like he barely even knows you exist."

"He knows I exist," Vic muttered.

7 Recruiting Áillen

Áillen didn't hear the rapping at his door at first. A deafening late fall downpour was raging outside. It had been drizzling all afternoon, but twenty minutes ago, the rain had suddenly picked up. It blew down in sheets, lashing the hills outside Áillen's windows.

All of the lights in his room were turned off. He sat under the low part of the ceiling, right next to the window, where the rain-choked light cast a watery gray square onto the floor. His O-chem book lay open in the light, but he hadn't looked at it in quite a while–he wasn't sure exactly how long. He'd been sitting in front of his window and dilating time, his mind racing as rain fell from the sky as gently and ponderously as seeds blown from a dandelion. He could watch individual raindrops wobble, split, and merge in midair before splattering against the window glass. Rain streamed from the perforated gutter and off the eaves of the roof in glassy ropes.

A resonant peal of thunder was dragged out into a consuming basso-profundo solo. It started as a low murmur, an indistinct stone-on-stone rumble. Then it grew and grew, the sound pulsing, twisting, echoing, and redoubling itself. It crescendoed until at its peak the explosive cracks of sound were almost unbearable. It felt like each wave of thunder would tear Áillen apart, or shatter his dorm to pieces, rattling the windows until they smashed into a million shards, rippling through the floor tiles–then it would die down, little by little receding, leaving a special peace in its wake–

There was another sound, though, breaking through the dying thunder, higher pitched, regular, and coming from behind Áillen. He couldn't quite tease it out of the thunder. Reluctantly he let go of the time dilation, letting the rain come faster and faster. He tensed up, his heart pounding as the storm grew hectic and rushed, until the pace seemed frenetic and made him sweat and finally he dropped back into the timestream.

Not for the first time, he wondered how time contractors could withstand a world even faster than this one, even for just a few minutes at a time. He could barely understand why most time dilators ever let time pass at all. He scared himself sometimes by wondering what would happen if he picked a peaceful moment like this and blew it wide open. How long could he spend curled into a single minute or second? It thrilled him to wonder if he could make an hour last a month, a year, a decade. He could spend a lifetime here, in front of the window, more than enough time to think all the thoughts swirling around in his head and finally exorcise them. Then he could rejoin the timestream, enlightened, without even missing a single class.

He jumped when the knock came at his door again. So he hadn't imagined it. He held his splinted wrist across his chest with his good hand as he crossed the room to open the door. He hadn't taken anything for it since Julian had given him painkillers the previous day, and it felt tight against the brace. His school-issued furniture stood in judgmental congress in a semicircle around him as he cautiously opened the door.

Julian stood outside, in the rarely-cleaned hallway that divided the tiny top floor of Tower Dorm in half. "Hey," he said. He stood directly under a rectangular fluorescent light. It cast sharp shadows off his cheekbones and the other finely-carved featres of his face. It spotlighted his dark eyelashes. It made Áillen feel things. "Can I come in for a minute?"

"Why? Do I have something of yours?" Áillen asked suspiciously.

"No. Actually, I wanted to talk to you about the Capture team."

Áillen lingered in the doorway, standing in the gap between the door and doorframe to block Julian's view into the room. He tried to think of a way to push forward and talk to Julian in the hall instead of letting him inside. But Julian was already pressing forward. Flustered, he stepped aside, and Julian walked into the dark. The door swung shut behind him, and for a moment, they both paused in the dark room. Julian was audibly dripping water. It streamed off his bangs in droplets. He had stepped into the soft square of light from the window, which lit gleaming trails of water over his face. He looked around curiously.

Áillen braced himself for some sort of criticism. Tower dorm had a reputation–all the rooms in Tower were singles, and within his first few weeks at Gladeloch Áillen had realized that students said everyone who lived in Tower was antisocial, or had something wrong with them and had been kicked out by their roommate. Áillen lived here because he'd enrolled at Gladeloch partway through the semester, but it didn't matter; the stereotype stuck to him easily because of the aura of unfriendliness he knew he unintentionally projected. However, Julian didn't make any comments.

Áillen asked, "Did I do something wrong?"

"Of course not. In fact, it's the opposite," Julian said earnestly. He stayed near the doorway, apparently wary of straying too far into the room. Áillen didn't really blame him. "Actually, the whole team just went to visit Nasira yesterday. That's our team member who couldn't make it on Saturday. She was kicked by a horse and shattered her femur."

"Ow," Áillen said.

"I know, poor thing. Well, on Saturday, we all found out she wouldn't be playing in the game literally less than an hour before the game started. We didn't have time to discuss long-term plans for her replacement or anything like that. That was why you were contacted on such short notice for just that one game."

"Mmhmm."

"It turns out she's not going to be able to play at all for a while–probably no serious Capture for her until next fall."

"Oh, that's too bad."

"Yeah. We're all really disappointed. The thing is, that means we're short a player for this entire year."

"Right." Where is he going with this?

"So I was wondering if you would like to join the team on a more permanent basis. "

Áillen has a brief jolt of electrifying hope. He couldn't possibly be serious. Join the team? Áillen hadn't even let himself contemplate how badly he wanted that. He'd been painfully lonely ever since he'd been forced to transfer out of Tahlequah University and leave their Capture team, but he had been certain that there was no chance he'd be lucky enough to be allowed to join a Capture team twice.

…No. He couldn't possibly be serious. This was some sort of trick.

Yes, it was definitely a trick. The wind died in his sails. Julian's smile was unrealistically bright; nobody smiled like that at Áillen. Áillen would be a dead weight for their team. I'm a good time dilator, but I'm not a good person. People like Julian don't put up with people like me.

As quickly as it had come, his hope evaporated and was replaced by anger. How dare he come in here and tease me like this? His blood pressure spiked as Julian waited for his response, his smile slowly dimming as he realized Áillen wasn't going to walk into his trap by accepting.

"No," Áillen said. "Get out of here."

"Wh–are you sure?" Julian had the gall to act surprised. "I mean, I know the team can be a little rough around the edges–hell, Elias annoys the crap out of all of us–but I know they'll–"

"I already said no. Get out of my room."

"But…" Julian looked downcast, like a kicked puppy. Áillen had never expected to think of someone who was six feet tall as a kicked puppy, but Julian managed it.

Áillen steeled himself. He's manipulating me, he told himself, trying to convince himself. He's lying. Nobody wants you. He opened the door and gestured towards the hallway, the yellow light cutting from the hall cutting into his dim chamber.

Julian went to the doorway. He wasn't quite sulking, but it was a close thing. "Wait," he said, before Áillen could shut the door. There was a standard-issue whiteboard and dry-erase marker on the outside of Áillen's door, which he had never used. The only thing on it was his room number, 702. Julian added a phone number beneath it, followed by his full name, Julian Salcedo. He tapped it with the back of the marker when he was finished. "If you change your mind. Or if you need anything."

Áillen shut the door on him. His heart was beating like he'd just sprinted a mile. He held one palm against the door, as if he expected Julian to try to open it again, but of course, he didn't.

After a minute, he opened the door again and swiped out Julian's number with one jerk of his fist.


The Capture afterparty was at Elias's house. His parents had visited town on Monday and he'd endured a frosty dinner with them. It had been as uncomfortable as he had expected. His father had guilted him relentlessly for the call before the Capture game the previous week. You know your mother and I are very busy, Julian. Things have been hard for us. We already do so much for you and the Capture team; we don't need you calling and stressing your mother out at early hours, asking us to go petition the committee… and so on and so forth. Elias had tuned it out after a while, after the steady stream of disappointment and muted anger had saturated him with a crushing sort of numb feeling, but it had still hurt.

But it was over now, which meant he was in a better mood and could stop being horrible to Vic. And that meant he needed Vic to come over to his house so he could show them that they were still friends. It also meant that he was ready to get down to some serious weeknight relief drinking. So it was a good time to have a party at his house. There was no question about who would host–the rest of the team all lived in on-campus dorms and Elias wouldn't be caught dead at any of their places.

It was midafternoon, just after three, but everyone's class schedules were light this year, so the entire team–except Nasira, who was still in the hospital–was already at his place. He'd herded them all into the living room in the back of the house. It had enormous plate-glass windows looking through the sun porch into the uninhabited hills north of Gladeloch. Directly north of his house, a tributary of the Gold River called the North Fork spilled over a jumble of worn rocks into a tiny, clear pool, then veered northeast towards the East Falls that gave his neighborhood its name. The leafless winter trees presiding over the pool were like slim gray poles thrust into the ground.

The living room was cozy, styled as a sort of den. He couldn't picture his parents ever lounging around in this room, not that they ever visited this property. The interior designer had done a good job at making it feel far too casual and relaxed for them. It was dominated by an enormous, deep-brown sectional sofa arranged around a stone hearth. The floor was layered in mismatched area rugs in dark, autumnal colors.

A coffee table in front of the sectional sofa held a pitcher of spiked vegan eggnog Elias had found at the specialty grocer that morning, while he'd been skipping The Philosophy Of Death, a class in which he already had 108% because the professor liked him. Vic had come over early and commandeered the kitchen to make a pot of homemade spiced wine, now sitting on the coffee table on top of a potholder.

Elias took another drink of eggnog out of the sherry goblet he was holding and set it back down on the table as he rolled it around his mouth. It bordered on too rich, but Elias had never turned anything down on those grounds.

Vic had started a fire in the hearth, and now an architectural stack of logs glowed steadily, pouring heat into the room. Or maybe Elias was just flushed from the eggnog. Vic now sat next to him on the sectional, and, as they had gotten tipsier, had pushed into Elias's space until they were tucked into his armpit. He was probably sweaty and wasn't sure why that was Vic's real estate of choice, but he wasn't complaining. They had their socked feet tucked up on the sofa beside them, and held a mug of mulled wine with both hands. The cinnamon scent was intoxicating, and Elias kept breathing it in, then realizing it looked like he was smelling Vic's hair and pulling back. Kaliah was definitely snickering at him from her armchair closer to the hearth, but Elias was just drunk enough not to bother to do anything about it.

Luckily, everyone was too busy making fun of Julian, for once, to make Elias the butt of too many jokes.

Julian was not quite hammered, but he was pretty drunk for just after three on a Tuesday. He had a glass of eggnog that he had re-spiked from a bottle of whiskey from the pantry, which was also now sitting on the coffee table. The whiskey was a Suntory that Elias thought was probably pretty expensive. The chances of his parents ever taking stock of the liquor cabinet here were so low that he didn't bother to tell his friends to stay out of it. Anyway, his parents wouldn't deign to speak to him over less than a few thousand dollars worth of property damage.

Julian swirled his eggnog in one hand. He was getting dangerously close to pouring it all over the other half of the sectional as he repeated himself for about the eighth time. He was slumped down on the couch, the arm not holding the eggnog flopped over the arm of the couch in a gesture of abject misery. "I just don't get it. I tried to be nice to him. I didn't realize it was gonna bother him so much. I've fucked it all up," Julian said. "It's all over because I fucked it up. I have no chance with him now."

"It's not over," Vic said. They were actually shaking with restrained hysteria.

Julian hadn't yet noticed Kaliah holding up her phone and pointing it in his direction. "What do you think you did wrong?" she prompted him. She, of course, was stone cold sober, because that was the state that made it easiest for her to mercilessly roast all of her other friends for their poor life choices. Elias honestly couldn't blame her. Everyone in this room was a mess. Except Vic. He cupped Vic's shoulder in one hand, holding them close. He was too warm but wouldn't push Vic away.

"I don't know!" Julian exclaimed. "I came on too strong, I guess." He slumped a little deeper in the couch cushions and stared into the fire with a comically pensive expression, resting his chin on his free hand. Elias giggled a little. Kaliah was cackling.

"He couldn't handle the patented Salcedo charm?"

"Mmhmm, yeah, the charm… maybe that's it." He groaned, palming his face. "I messed it up. I gotta apologize. Maybe I should go find him. I have to see him… tell him I'm sorry, we got off on the wrong foot…"

"No, I don't think that's a good idea," Vic contributed through laughter.

"But he probably thinks I'm an asshole!"

"I'm sure he doesn't, Julian. Nobody thinks you're an asshole."

"Are you sure?" He blinked at Vic with damp eyes. Oh, for the love of god, Elias thought. If they weren't careful, they were going to provoke Julian into crying, and Elias just wasn't sure if he could handle that level of sloppiness in his own home. I host them all here, and this is how they repay me!

"Yeah, we're all sure, you big baby," Vic said, taking another sip of wine.

Elias went back to the eggnog. It occurred to him as he drank and listened to the chatter that, while Julian's lamentations were hilarious now, within the week, Elias was going to end up tracking Áillen down. He would drop some hints in conversation until Julian told him where Áillen could be found. Then he'd have to show up wherever Áillen was supposed to be, and have some kind of unimaginable conversation with him, and get him on the team, possibly through bribery.

He would have to. Julian may be pathetic, but he was also Elias's best friend. Julian, and the rest of the team, were all Elias had.


As it turned out, though, Elias didn't need to do any sleuthing to track Áillen down. He ran into him the following Friday at Gold River Roasts, the coffeeshop in Littlebrook closest to the East Falls neighborhood where Elias lived. He went there at least once a week to pick up whole beans.

He stopped by before he had to meet the rest of the Capture team to have dinner with the team from South Millinocket, who were arriving to play at the Sulfur Springs field this weekend. Midway through ordering at the counter, Áillen stepped out through the swinging door from the back room with the coffee roaster into the coffeeshop itself.

He met Elias's eyes and what followed was about five full seconds of the most uncomfortable eye contact Elias had ever experienced. Seeing Áillen in the standard-issue yellow River Roasts apron was short circuiting Elias's brain, for some reason. When he'd met Áillen in last weekend's Capture game, his long, red braid and all-black outfit had seemed badass, in a dorky, Celtic-rock way. But Áillen's black t-shirt and black jeans looked completely different with the addition of the apron, and now he looked weirdly domestic, except for the gash on his jaw that was still held shut with a butterfly bandage and the splint on his wrist.

"Do you… know each other?" the cashier said, well after the sustained eye contact became truly uncomfortable.

"No," Elias said.

"Nope," Áillen said, and turned right back around and disappeared into the back of the shop. Elias paid for his beans. As he was entering his tip into the touchscreen display, he heard the back door of the shop bang open and then bang closed.

He took his beans under his arm and exited the shop via the front door, then circled around to the back. Here there were a few outdoor tables on a patio of multicolored pavers, abandoned now in the cold weather.

Áillen leaned against the brick back wall of the building, one knee cocked and his foot braced against the wall, looking as though he was on a smoke break although with no cigarette. He was wearing the kind of sneakers that could be charitably described as "practical" and fiddling with the splint on his wrist, which was starting to gray around the edges. Elias was beginning to suspect that Áillen was poor–possibly even poorer than Kaliah, whose parents were only "helping" her with her tuition instead of paying the whole thing. (He was still stinging from the verbal lashing she'd given him when he'd asked if she needed any more help with it. Apparently, most of the difference was covered by a substantial amount of merit aid that she had accumulated for being an extremely talented mathematician. How was Elias supposed to have known that?)

Áillen stood up straight when he saw Elias. "What do you want? Did Julian send you here?"

"Julian doesn't boss me around outside of games," Elias scoffed. "I didn't realize you worked here."

"You've seen me here dozens of times," Áillen said dryly.

"Oh. I haven't taken note."

"Yeah, I guess you haven't."

Elias was pretty sure this conversation was not going well. "Anyway, listen, I did come here to tell you something."

"What?"

"I'm gonna need you to join this Capture team."

"That's not funny. That's what Julian said too." Áillen scowled at him. "What do you want?"

"…For you to join this Capture team," Elias repeated. "It's pretty cold out here, and we can't go inside and talk since we already both told your coworker that we don't know each other. So can we make this quick, please? I just want you to agree to come to practice on Saturday."

"Stop making fun of me," Áillen said.

"Oh, I'm not," Elias said, finally starting to understand the situation. "I'm really not. I mean, Julian hasn't shut up about you for five minutes since last week. He really very much does actually want to recruit you for the team."

"Stop it," Áillen repeated. He wasn't even looking at Elias now, instead staring straight ahead at the chain-link fence dividing the coffeeshop from the adjacent property. Elias could hear in Áillen's voice how much Áillen wanted to believe him. Oh, this was sad. This was very sad and pathetic. Elias had thought that Áillen had an arrogant streak, and was too good to sleep with the rest of the Capture team and so on during the game. But in fact, Áillen though that he was inadequate, not good enough to join the team. And that was absolutely fucking hilarious, because their team was a hot mess. The fact that they had not already been eliminated from being eligible for Nationals was basically pure luck.

"I have video," Elias said.

Áillen turned back towards Elias, just a fraction. He was trying very hard not to look interested. Elias pulled up the video Kaliah had taken on Tuesday and handed Áillen his phone.

Elias wished he had his phone back so he could film the several distinct and incredible facial expressions Áillen went through as he watched the video of Julian gushing about Áillen. Disbelief, confusion, elation–it was like the reverse of the five stages of grief. He stared at the final frame of Julian, very drunk, slumped so low in his chair he was an inch away from sliding onto the floor, with a discarded eggnog glass rolling off one of the area rugs beside him, for quite some time before looking back up at Elias. He wasn't exactly grinning, but the corner of his lip was twitching and one of his eyebrows was almost at his hairline. "This isn't staged?"

"No."

Still, Áillen hesitated. "What if I can't stay on the team?"

"What do you mean?"

"What if something goes wrong and I have to leave? Or get kicked off? Or you find someone who's a better time dilator than me?"

"I assume you realize it's incredibly unlikely that we'll find a better time dilator than you at a school this small, but even if it did happen, it doesn't matter. We really only need you until Nasira recovers. It's just a sports team, not a marriage."

"Okay, I'm in."

Elias inwardly relaxed. "We're practicing on campus this weekend, since South Millinocket's team will be here in Sulfur Springs for the game. Do you know where the Capture Lounge is?"

"No."

"It's in the small gym north of the Turing library, on the statue side. I'll pick you up and drive you there tomorrow morning. Where do you live?"

"Tower dorm."

"Seriously?"

Áillen spread his hands as if to say, Do I look like someone who doesn't live in Tower dorm?

"Okay, that's fair… I'll come get you Saturday morning at seven. Be outside. I'm not going in there. And don't be late."

"The rumors about the haunting and suicides are total bullshit," Áillen said.

"Whatever," Elias said, already walking away. He loved Julian too much not to bring him the thing he wanted the most–Áillen. But that didn't make it hurt any less to recruit his own replacement in Julian's life.


Surprisingly, Elias found Áillen at 7:00 more palatable than Áillen during normal human hours; he appeared to be a night owl, and burst out of Tower dorm for Elias to pick him up and drive him to Capture practice with his hair frizzing out of a braid and mismatched socks.

Áillen came into the gym where the Capture team practiced on Elias's wake. The effect on Julian was excellent. Julian, Vic, and Kaliah were warming up on the treadmills on the back wall of the gym, facing away from the entrance. Julian turned towards Elias and Áillen when he heard the doors open, and proceeded to come very close to falling off the treadmill. He stopped jogging in surprise, and the belt whisked him to within inches of what would have been a hilarious pratfall before he hopped up onto the sides of the deck and stopped the belt.

"Áillen! I didn't expect you to come!" Julian sputtered.

"You mean he didn't know about this?" Áillen asked.

"I wanted it to be a surprise," Elias said to both of them.

"I assumed he had sent you to get me."

"Julian doesn't tell me what to do."

Professor Kung had come over to Áillen and gave his hand a businesslike shake. "Glad to have you on the team. Welcome."

"Okay!" Julian said. "You two, up on the treadmills. Elias, you're late. Don't let it happen again."

8 Practice

Julian ran the team through a variety of exercises so he could see the full range of Áillen's abilities. He found that Áillen was the fastest member of the team, even faster than Elias, who was almost a full head taller than him. Nobody was too offended by this because normally Nasira was faster than all of them, anyway.

His strength was more average. And he could dilate time, but not contract. Julian's ability to both dilate and contract time was rare; he was not surprised that Áillen couldn't do it, since he was such a strong time dilator.

At the end of practice, Áillen came out of another time dilation, letting out a breath. He barely looked tired. "Okay, now what?"

Julian shook his head. He was surprised by Áillen's aptitude for time dilation, even after seeing him play with the team. Thank goodness Elias had managed to get him to practice. "We're finished for today. We're going back to Elias's house together. We'll get pizza and hang out. How about you come along? We usually hang out there, so you should see the place."

"Sure."

Julian led Áillen back to the Capture lounge. "You should know, about Elias…"

"I don't think he likes me very much," Áillen interrupted bluntly.

"He wouldn't have brought you here if he didn't like you. Actually, what I was going to say is that he can be… sensitive… about his space."

"Sensitive?"

"Yeah. He can get territorial with visitors. So don't be surprised if he seems a little standoffish today. Just stay in the common areas of his house and don't wander off. I'm vouching for you on this team, so you don't have to listen to him if he's rude. Tell me if he says anything that bothers you, and I'll talk to him."

"Wait, what do you mean, territorial?"

"Oh, I don't know… usually he's fine, he just doesn't like feeling like people are prying in his private life." Áillen looked nervous, so Julian squeezed his shoulder. He blushed just from that small touch, which made Julian a little embarrassed. Was Áillen not used to being touched? "Once he gets to know you better, he'll relax. Just keep in mind that he's the one who recruited you. However he acts, he wants you on the team."


Vic trailed after the group as Áillen got a tour of the downstairs of Elias's house. They were still reeling from the announcement that Áillen was actually going to join their team. Their team had had the same makeup for a year and a half now–a shockingly long period of stability, for a Capture team–and swapping Áillen in for Nasira would change things dramatically. At least they wouldn't have problems with Áillen misgendering them; he had used the right pronouns consistently during Saturday's game.

Julian and Elias led Áillen around the ground floor. Áillen gaped like a kid in the dinosaur bones exhibit of the best natural history museum of all time at almost everything in the house: the columns out front, the record player in the living room, the white marble countertops in the kitchen.

"You live here alone?" he asked for the eighth time as the group wandered back towards the living room, with the hearth and TV.

"Yeah," Elias said.

"His parents own this property and are lending it to Elias," Julian explained, also not for the first time.

Vic sat down next to Elias on the couch in the living room as the group started to settle in. Elias was going to order pizza, and Vic wanted to be close enough to make sure he got the topings they wanted. Áillen didn't sit down right away, though. He circled the perimeter of the room, looking at Elias's belongings. He barely touched anything; he was probably afraid, as Vic had been when they had first been in Elias's house, of accidentally ruining such random items as the tiny marble model of Michelangelo's David on top of the mahogany bookcase, or the hunting trophy of a 10-point buck mounted on the wall. He occasionally asked Julian what a particular item was, but otherwise seemed content to ignore the others as he scrutinized Elias's things.

Elias was tense next to Vic, and kept glancing up from the pizza delivery app to check where Áillen was. Vic couldn't blame him for being nervous at having a stranger in his house; these days, Elias consisted mostly of 200 weird hang-ups held together with tape and prayer. It was exhausting to watch.

Amazingly, they made it about ten entire minutes before Áillen picked up a framed photograph from a side-table.

Vic stopped breathing. They could only see the frame from this angle, but they knew the photo well. It showed Elias next to his late older brother, a man who was a bit stockier than Elias and not as finely built. In the picture, Elias was younger by a few years; his cheeks hadn't yet slimmed out and given him the glass-cutting cheekbones he had now. His brother looked as square and hale as he always did, vibrantly smiling towards the photographer while Elias gazed off to the side.

It was one of a few relics of Benjamin's existence still in the house. After Benjamin's death, Elias had struggled with what to do with Benjamin's belongings and items depicting him. He had never lived in this house, but there were signs of him all over the place–newspaper articles celebrating wins by his rugby team with his picture in them, trinkets he'd brought back to the country from trips abroad that had by osmosis ended up in Elias's possession, and so on. Some of these objects had disappeared in the weeks following Benjamin's death, but others had not.

Elias was extremely sensitive about the ones that were still in the house. He couldn't look straight at them without losing it. They existed in a sort of limbo where everyone was supposed to act lke they didn't exist, but actually removing them from the house would be a catastrophe.

And of course nobody had thought to warn Áillen about the ghost picture in the living room. Vic was pretty sure everyone else in the room had completely forgotten they were ignoring it.

Áillen picked it up in both hands and examined it, glancing at Elias to compare. Vic's mind raced as they tried to come up with a tactical maneuver that would allow them to get the photo out of Áillen's hands before he attracted Elias's attention, without Elias noticing. They started to get up, about to announce that they were going to the restroom and whisper to Áillen to put the photo down on their way. But Áillen chose that moment to start asking, "Hey, who's–"

Elias turned and saw him holding the photo.

To Áillen's credit, his instincts and reflexes were incredible. Elias's face drained of color completely until he was beyond white and into the territory of gray. Áillen looked up, saw his face, and with the unbelievable speed of a time dilator, bolted as Elias fluidly vaulted over the back of the couch. The entire couch rocked onto two legs as Elias violently launched himself towards where Áillen had been a second ago. Áillen had dropped the photo, and in its frame it tumbled towards the hardwood.

Kaliah had been moving towards Áillen already–she must have also seen what was happening–and snatched the photograph in its frame out of the air before it could shatter on the ground. She got out of the way just as Elias thumped to the floor. The two legs of the couch smacked back down as Elias grabbed the picture away from Kaliah and then abruptly stopped moving. He just stood there, staring at it with the unnatural stillness and blank face of someone who was nowhere near the timestream.

Kaliah was already beside him. "It's okay, Elias. Áillen went outside. He won't touch anything of yours. Definitely not after what you just did."

"You're not helping," Vic snapped. Elias couldn't hear Kaliah, anyway, so it didn't matter. Vic got around to him and put their hands on Elias's elbow. He didn't move or startle; he felt like a wax statue under their hands. They pushed his hands down, physically forcing him to set the photo back down on the shelving unit. They eased the photo out of Elias's hands, coaxing him to unclench his shaking grip on the frame. The frame rested face-down on the shelf. "Kaliah, put that back while I take him upstairs." Kaliah nodded. The only thing that would upset Elias more than this episode would be if the photo wasn't exactly where he wanted it when he next saw it.

Vic manhandled Elias towards the door to the living room. He moved at a fluid, yet extremely sluggish pace, like an automaton that was almost out of battery. He sped up a little as they reached the doorway, and Vic could tell that he was coming back into the timestream. The whole episode had only lasted a few minutes.

To Vic's great disappointment, though, as he regained lucidity, he pushed Vic aside and headed up the stairs towards his room, alone. "Wait, Elias!" they called, jogging after him, but he just shook his head and shut his door in Vic's face.

Vic swore, pressing both fists into their eyes until the darkness sparkled. Before they could barge into his room and demand to know if he was okay, Kaliah's hands landed on their shoulders. "Come on. Let's give him some space." She steered Vic towards Elias's kitchen and put water on for tea while Vic stared out the window, wishing Elias would just come back.


"Áillen! Áillen. Áillen. Hang on. Oh my god," Julian panted, running up to Áillen. His instinct was to grab him, but he knew that would only make Áillen's skittishness worse. When Elias had lunged for him, Áillen had sprinted out the front door, grabbing his backpack and all his belongings on the way, faster than Julian would have thought possible. He'd never taken his shoes off and he'd been halfway down the driveway before Julian had even been able to get out the door after him, grabbing his sneakers on the way. "You're really fast."

Áillen shrugged. He had stopped, which was good, because Julian could only sprint so far. He caught his breath. "Hey. Sorry about Elias. I did warn you."

Áillen shook his head. "I'm sorry."

"No. It's not your fault. Elias has some issues. You were just in the wrong place at the wrong time. I told you he was territorial."

"But the picture was just out in public."

Julian shook his head. "We're all so used to tiptoing around him that I forgot you wouldn't know what topics and items to avoid. You know, the Capture team can be pretty insular. The five of us have been the whole team for a year and a half. And I guess we've gotten pretty comfortable with how weird everyone is.

Áillen didn't respond. He was half facing Julian, half facing the road back to campus. Julian was distracted suddenly by how beautiful he looked. The sun was setting behind him; red light shone through the halo of orange hair that had escaped from his braid. Áillen looked at the ground. Behind him, Littlebrook was shrouded in haze. The ghostly buildings looked as small as toys tucked into the Gold River's valley. After an excruciating pause, Áillen asked, "Should I just walk home?"

"Why?"

"You don't want me on the team. Not after this."

"No, no. It's not like that at all. Remember what I told you?"

"Not really."

"Whatever Elias says or does, he does want you on the team. He wouldn't have come to recruit you if he didn't think you would be good for us. He might never admit it, but he wouldn't have gone through all that effort for anyone. He did it for you."

"No, he did it for you."

"He wouldn't have done it on my behalf if he didn't know I was right about you."

"Right about what?"

"Áillen, you're going to do incredible things. We'd be lucky to keep you on the team. We need you–not just because Nasira can't play this semester. Your talent shouldn't be wasted over a simple misunderstanding."

Áillen glared at Julian. "I'll offend him again."

"If Elias can't get along with you, that's his problem," Julian said. "Look, I'm Elias's friend, but I'm also your team captain until you quit. My job is to advocate for you and defend you, and I won't let Elias make problems with you over nothing. He's probably embarrassed about it already. He'll be over it by the time you see him next."

Áillen didn't seem convinced, but he was facing and looking at Julian now, which Julian counted as a small win. "I'll walk you home," he offered. "I don't really want to go back inside anyway. Vic will handle Elias. I'll call them and let them know where we're going."


The following day, the team gathered in the Capture lounge to hang out as they awaited South Millinocket's results. They wouldn't hear the other team's time until the late afternoon, but everyone brought their work to the lounge anyway; it was traditional for them to spend the day together while the other team was playing.

The Capture lounge was institutional, but comfortable, with a few old, graying couches, a long table with some wooden chairs, and a small TV where they could watch footage of past games. Vic had a programming project open on a small laptop, Elias was reading something on his phone, Julian was reviewing Calculus 2 for a tutoring job, and Kaliah had a dense Abstract Algebra tome propped open in her lap. Áillen had brought a mound of chemistry homework and was leaning over it at the long table, across from Elias. Vic found his concentration amusing. He didn't know yet that the work they brought to the lounge was mostly for show. The wait to hear the results almost always devolved into arguments about past Capture games after the first hour or so.

Just after Áillen started in on his work, Elias put his phone down on the table. He sighed and set his chin on his hand with all the drama of a brooding 17th-century aristocrat.

Áillen, of course, didn't look up. Elias was forced to kick him under the table. Áillen startled and glanced up at Elias with his eyes narrowed.

"Hey… sorry about last night," Elias said.

"Did Julian put you up to this?" Áillen asked instantly.

"Okay, what is it with you and suspecting people of putting other people up to things all the time? Some of us have been known to do things of our own free will. And for the record, no, he didn't. I just feel bad that we got off on the wrong foot. You shouldn't snoop in other peoples' things."

"Fine," Áillen said, and went back to his work. Vic could tell that Elias was disappointed by his non-reaction, but Áillen seemed to untense a little. We have to initiate him into the team officially, Vic thought. He won't relax until he feels like he's permanently a part of the group. And maybe not even then–the kind of person who usually played Capture was not the kind of person who integrated easily into a team.

The team members circled in and out of the lounge all morning and into the early afternoon, working, arguing, and worrying that they'd get word early that South Millinocket had finished their game. On the small TV, they were playing a historical Capture game–live footage couldn't be broadcast because of the interference from the folds. This was a famous game between Crackston and Redcedar, played on Crackston's local field.

Vic had seen the game before; it was from last year's postseason and had been one of the most exciting games of the season. Crackston had played first, and one of their players had broken their ankle during the game. Impressively, they splinted it in the field and all players finished to avoid being disqualified from the postseason for requiring rescue. But the team had finished nearly nine hours after par, and because Redcedar was a higher-seeded team, they had not been expected to win the game. The Capture announcers had lamented that the injured player's dramatic sacrifice and struggle to win the game would be for nothing, since Crackston would almost certainly lose after such a dramatic delay, and a loss in that game would have made it impossible for them to make it to the postseason.

Then Redcedar had gotten lost in a labyrinth of folds in a featureless field for over ten hours. They had almost had to call for an aerial rescue, which would have disqualified them from competing in the rest of the postseason. Even so, their players trickled back through the exit fold in three separate groups twelve hours after par. The game, miraculously, went to Crackston.

Vic had followed both games when they'd happened, because last year, Gladeloch hadn't made it to Nationals, so there wasn't much excitement on the home front during the postseason.

Professor Kung stopped by a few hours later and glanced at the game on the TV. They were watching Crackston play, and were at a point in the game about an hour before the player would break their ankle. "Oh, I hate this," she said. "You'd need three hands to count all the safety violations."

Vic wasted time until the time started to approach Gladeloch's finishing time on the course. When Millinocket finished the course, Julian and Kung would both get a call. If they got the call before 16:28, Millinocket would have won. If after, Gladeloch would win. Professor Kung showed up around 16:00 to see the results of the game.

Julian got more and more antsy as the time approached. He set his phone on the table and stared it down with comical intensity. He paced the room, but kept circling back to the table, checking that his phone wasn't muted, scrolling through his voicemails. Áillen picked up on his antsiness and gave up on even the pretense of doing homework, watching Julian nervously.

16:22.

16:24.

16:27.

16:27 and thirty seconds.

Everyone gathered around Julian, staring at the minutes on his phone screen.

16:28.

The room exploded into relieved yelling, mostly from Julian and Kaliah. Vic shouted too. Áillen looked like a dog with his ears pinned back, but he still yelled halfheartedly, trying to join in.

They had really pulled the win out of nowhere when Áillen had shown up. The fact that their team had been able to work together with him well enough to even come close to par on their first game together was remarkable.

"You know what this means? Two more games and we're going to Nationals," Professor Kung pointed out.

Julian whooped. "We're gonna make it. This is Gladeloch's year."

9 Crown Peak

Áillen kicked his feet off the edge of the roof of the library. Below him, the nightlife of Gladeloch's tiny campus, such as it was, threaded between academic buildings. He heard snatches of voices, the clink of glass on glass. It was barely 20:00, but the days were growing shorter and the nights colder, pushing evening earlier and earlier. Farther out, lights winked to life in the windows of Littlebrook. The hills north of the North Fork were crystal clear in the far distance, beyond the town.

Áillen dilated time just a fraction, not quite stepping out of the timestream but slowing down the moment. He tugged time backwards and felt the electric zap through his body as his metabolism kicked up to process the outside world at a faster pace.

He couldn't stop himself from glancing sidelong at Julian. He seemed completely at ease up here. Áillen hadn't known it was possible to get to the roof of the library. Apparently Vic knew one of the reference librarians and could get a favor out of her occasionally, and Julian had asked them to ask her to leave the access door unlocked for him and Áillen.

It was part of Julian's relentless campaign to integrate Áillen into the team. It baffled Áillen; he'd assumed that Julian wanted him on the team as a sort of pawn, mostly useful for his time dilation skills. When he had been on Tahlequah's team, nobody had attempted to show him the view from the roof of the library, or even asked him to eat lunch with other members of the team. Nobody had taken an interest in him, and when finally one of the older players had noticed him, he'd wished he hadn't.

Normally he would have had no problem brushing Julian off and avoiding forming these kinds of connections and obligations with other members of the team. It scared him to let any of the other team members get too close; any sort of camaraderie seemed like more trouble than it was worth and best avoided. The problem was that he actually sort of liked Julian.

It was pathetic, really, for him to even imagine he stood a chance at a friendship with him. Julian was extremely attractive: muscular, with light brown skin and breathtaking golden eyes. He was stylish; Áillen knew he was even though Áillen had no sense of style himself. Julian wore jewel tones; when he wasn't sloshing through mud during a Capture game, he had more than one jacket and matched them to his shoes. Meanwhile, Áillen lived in a style that a high school classmate had once derisively termed "farmer goth", which consisted mostly of black Dickies T-shirts and thrifted skinny jeans.

The skin deep differences went all the way down, too. Áillen knew he was tarnished through and through. Tahlequah had taken everything from him. Julian just hadn't noticed yet.

He released the time dilation and stepped back into the timestream. Julian stared out at Littlebrook placidly, keeping his thoughts to himself. A frigid wind, harbinger of a cold winter, played with his hair. He shifted closer to Áillen and put his hand on Áillen's shoulder. Áillen's leather jacket was thrifted just like his jeans. It cut the wind, but he wasn't warm. After a minute, he could feel the heat of Julian's hand seep through it. He allowed Julian to touch him, although his stomach clenched in anxiety each time Julian came closer. Áillen hadn't liked to be touched, recently.

"Have you gotten used to the weather here?" Áillen asked. His lips felt numb from the wind when he talked.

"You mean since I grew up south of here?"

"Yeah." Julian had mentioned that detail on one of his other outings with Áillen, a study session at the library. Áillen had never studied with someone else before. He had spent a third of the session actually studying, a third trying to look like this was completely normal to him and he did it all the time, and the last third engaging in what was quickly becoming his favorite hobby: staring surreptitiously at Julian.

"I'm not used to it at all," Julian laughed. "It's frigid. Winter lasts so long. I can never believe it when the postseason starts up in January and it's even colder than it was at the end of the preseason. The post-season can be punishing in the cold," Julian said. "We'll have to make sure you have good equipment before then. I'll take you shopping before our next game."

"You don't need to do that. I have money."

"Sure, but there's no reason to spend your own. The team has a budget to cover expenses like this. I can get the card from Professor Kung. We'll pick up anything you don't have already. Long underwear, a good wool hat, that kind of thing."

Áillen leaned back. Julian's hand still rested on his shoulder, and it followed him as he put the heels of his hands behind him and let his head fall back just a little so he could see the town and stars at the same time. "Okay. If you're offering."

"Sure." He shifted another few inches closer to Áillen. Áillen glanced at Julian's thigh in trepidation. It was getting dangerously close to his own, and while Áillen didn't hate Julian's closeness, he was terrified that their lower bodies might touch. Their legs didn't touch, but Julian slid his hand from Áillen's shoulder to the middle of his upper back, then hooked his thumb into Áillen's collar. A wave of uncomfortable arousal rushed through Áillen as Julian's thumbnail slid an inch across the bare nape of his neck.

Unable to stand it anymore, Áillen blurted out, "You know you don't have to do this for me. I know I'm not…"

"Not what?"

Áillen fumbled, mortified. Someday soon, this false summer of happiness would be an episode in Áillen's memory. Julian would realize Tahlequah had broken Áillen. He had nothing left to give to Gladeloch. "I'm not normal. I'm… I'm fucked up."

"It's fine. I don't care." Áillen opened his mouth to defend his position, but Julian talked over him. "It's really fine, Áillen. Trust me, you're not forcing me into anything. Anyway, pretty much everyone on the team is damaged in one way or another. Capture's best-kept secret, right?"

"What do you mean?"

"You know… happy, normal people don't learn to step out of the timestream." Julian thumbed once across the back of Áillen's neck absentmindedly, which almost made Áillen completely lose the train of the conversation. Then he removed his hand.

"It's not like that." Áillen had learned to dilate time long before he'd been ruined. "Anyway, nobody talked about that at Tahlequah."

"What in the world is up with Tahlequah's Capture team? It's like they have no Capture culture, only time contractors and time dilators."

Áillen couldn't answer. He just shrugged, willing Julian to talk about anything else.

"They're not really known for their teamwork or strategy, but they still win the national championship about half the time. Gladeloch has never won a single game against them. It's too bad you left their team."

Icy sweat slid in rivers down Áillen's back. Julian was right. Whatever had happened to him on Tahlequah's team, he should have been loyal to them. He should have realized what an opportunity and an honour it was to play for the best team in the league. Everyone on the team had said so, shaking their heads in disappointment, after he'd been kicked off.

"I'm sure you've noticed the trend, anyway," Julian continued. "People who are well-adjusted have no need for time dilation or contraction. Contraction can save a person from fully experiencing something traumatizing. Dilation gives time dilators an incredibly high degree of control over their environment, and could help someone survive a fight they wouldn't otherwise win. It's often people in bad situations who spontaneously develop those skills–people who are unhappy."

"I'm not unhappy," Áillen said quickly.

"I didn't say you were."

"But the rest of the Gladeloch team…"

"Pretty much all of us have something we want to escape." Julian's voice went dark suddenly. He was staring at the stars now, and it was hard to read his expression. He stopped talking for a moment and Áillen was afraid he was going to cry. Before he could put his foot in his mouth somehow, Julian continued, "Anyway, stop worrying about whether or not you fit in with the team. It's a waste of your time. We're not letting go of you that easily." Then he reached out as though to ruffle Áillen's hair. He had it tied back in its usual braid, so Julian wasn't able to do anything more than loosing a few stray locks.

He was smiling, so Áillen forced a laugh. He was falling more and more in either infatuation or lust with Julian by the second, and it seemed like Julian saw Áillen as a little brother. Great. This is great. I'll just paddle myself farther up shit creek now, Áillen thought, and leaned into Julian's hand.


"So you lunged at him," Elias's therapist said.

"Over the back of the couch."

"Hm." He hated himself. "Did you make contact with him?"

"No. He's fast as hell. You should have seen him." Elias sighed. He covered half his face with his hand. His fingers were trembling. "He's a time dilator, so his reflexes are insane. He bolted before I could reach him."

"Then what happened?"

"I stopped. And I contracted time, and lost a few minutes."

"So you were standing behind the sectional. Who was with you at that point?"

"Only Vic and Kaliah. At least, I think so. I don't remember it that well." He took a shaking breath. "Julian had to go after Áillen and talk him out of quitting the team. I did that. I mean, I almost caused him to quit. He's our best time dilator. He's a better team member than me. He's… passionate. Young. He has a lot of potential. Julian likes him. We can't lose him. I can't be the cause of that.""

"But he did stay on the team?"

"Yeah. Julian's great with people. I guess he went and convinced him it was some kind of freak accident."

"What happened after you stepped out of the timestream?"

"I was standing halfway up the stairs. Vic was there, standing behind me. Kaliah was still in the living room."

"Did you talk to Vic about what happened?"

"No. I couldn't."

"Do you want to talk about it now?"

Elias said nothing.

"Something about having Áillen in your home, looking at the picture, scared you. Do you want to talk about Áillen, Elias? Or about the picture? This is a safe place for you to confront those feelings."

He said nothing. His fingernails stung where they dug into his palm. Time pulled at its seams, tugging forward against Elias's will. He fought the instinct to fall out of the timestream.

"Elias, stay with me. We're here in the office together. Tell me, did it scare you having Áillen in your house with Julian?"

He left the timestream.

Time lurched forward. His therapist's voice went high-pitched and tinny. It felt like only a few seconds of abject horror passed, the terror of losing maybe minutes, maybe hours, without any control. He struggled to come back to the present, to re-enter the timestream.

Time ground to a halt again. One second he was in the blurred world of time contraction, a world of patterns, order, like a stone in a rushing river. The next he was soaked in sweat, and his heart was pounding. His therapist knelt on the floor in front of him, squeezing his knee and saying his name. "Elias. Elias, you're okay."

"Sorry," he gasped. "I'm sorry."

"It's okay. Take your time."

But he couldn't, because–he glanced at his watch–his session was up. "Shit. I'm sorry. I have to go."

"We can go longer," his therapist said hopefully. "We should discuss what just happened, and how it made you feel–"

"No, I have to go," he insisted. His therapist always made offers like that, which Elias couldn't accept.

He collected his things in a rush and paid the receptionist. He was sweating like he'd just run a 5k. In the stairwell on his way out of the building, he started feeling the signs that he was going to fall out of the timestream again. His ears buzzed and tension built in his chest and head. He stopped on a landing, leaning against the wall. He felt detached from his body, like he was floating vaguely around the place where his consciousness normally resided. Time jerked again. In the empty stairwell, it was harder to tell how much time he had lost. Two people blurred past him before he could move again. He checked his watch. Ten minutes. Ten minutes gone forever.

His car was out front of the building, but he knew he couldn't drive like this without risking flooring it off the road if he involuntarily contracted time. He stopped in the lobby of the hospital and scrubbed his face with his hands.

He took slow breaths. The squeeze of panic was starting to loosen, but he still didn't want to drive home. He called Vic, leaning aginst the wall in the lobby, near the door. They picked up on the second ring. "Hello?"

"I need you to come get me."

"Where are you? What happened?"

"Hospital, nothing," he said. "My car's here."

"I'll walk there and drive you back. Be there in ten." Vic hung up.

The wait was excruciating. Nurses in scrubs and normal, professional people who were at the hospital for the kind of normal appointments that non-fucked-up people had kept walking past him. He knew his eyes must be red-rimmed and damp. He focused on keeping a tight grip on the timestream. He slipped twice more before Vic showed up, but both times only for a minute or two. A light rain started up and the sidewalk flushed dark as it deepened.

Finally, he saw Vic near the door. He strode out to meet them, not wanting them to actually enter the hospital. "Hey," they said, as Elias walked past them and towards the car, too focused on holding himself together to stop to say hello. He held the keys out and Vic took them as they walked through the rain.

He climbed into the passenger seat. He was going to mess up the leather seats with rainwater. Vic climbed in a moment later and started the engine. He trusted Vic's driving. He leaned back in the seat, relaxing but not relaxing too much, still wary of his tenuous grip on time.

"Hey," Vic said again, "You want to talk about it?"

"Not really."

"Was it therapy again?"

"Yeah," he sighed, "yeah, it was. Again."

They were on the long two-lane road between the hospital at the west end of Littlebrook and Elias's neighborhood. Vic was driving slowly, so they could glance over at Elias as they said, "It's gonna get better."

"When?" he snapped. Anger strained his voice. He swallowed hard. His eyes stung, but he was tightly in control again, and wouldn't be able to cry even if he wanted to.

They were quiet for a few minutes. Elias regretted snapping at Vic. "Out of everything in that room, why did he have to ask about that fucking photo? Why not the deer trophy?" he said as a sort of peace offering.

"He probably wanted to get to know you better," Vic pointed out very reasonably. "So little in your home is personal. Most of your belongings are curiosities and things your parents put there. To a stranger like Áillen, it probably seems natural to focus on things like family photos."

Vic was right, but what was he supposed to do? Move them? He had tried that once. He'd moved a carved wooden statue of an elephant inside another elephant–a gift his mother had given Benjamin after a trip abroad–from a coffee table to the basement. He had lost almost an entire day to the ensuing panic attack and time chaos, and swore never to try again.


Elias went to the basement while Vic entered the living room and turned on the TV hooked up to the gaming console. They booted up the racing game they both preferred. Elias returned a few minutes later with two wine glasses made of real crystal and a bottle of something expensive-looking.

"You really want me to break one of these?" Vic asked when Elias handed them a glass. It was weighty and angular in their hand.

Elias poured as Vic held the glass steady. "You won't," he said.

Vic set their controller down next to Elias's and sniffed at the wine, ignoring Elias's judgmental look at their barbaric wine-sniffing technique. They took a sip. It was a red, and tasted like warm butter and roses. They took another, longer sip. "Are you sure this is what you want to play drunk driving with?"

"Yeah. Why do you ask?"

"Why do I ask," Vic said rhetorically.

Drunk driving was a drinking game. The premise was that Vic and Elias would face off at Forza, and had to finish a half-glass of wine as they raced. They also had to drink whenever they finished second on a lap. The addition of crystal wineglasses to keep track of and try not to break dampened the fun for Vic for about thirty seconds before they forgot all about them. They won most of the races handily, and it was fun until about an hour had passed and Vic realized that they'd only had two glasses of wine, but the bottle was pretty much gone.

They paused the game, setting down their controller. Elias tilted towards Vic on the couch. "Vic," he said, and Vic was pretty sure he didn't actually want anything other than to hear the sound of his own voice.

"Why don't I get you some water?"

Elias pouted. "Why don't you just stay here?"

Elias never asked Vic to stay so blatantly. Vic, stunned, couldn't say no to him. "Are you sure?" Vic's voice sounded weirdly far away.

"Yeah, sure. Jus'… c'mere."

He leaned towards Vic. He was drunk; Vic knew because he had lost the fluid, graceful motion of a time contractor and instead was moving towards them in a sort of barely-controlled fall. "Alright, okay," they said, catching him as he sprawled over them.

Vic maneuvered both of them until they were laying across the couch with Elias's head on Vic's chest, the rest of him between Vic's legs. He was heavy, far heavier than he looked like he should be. Elias was slender, but he was still six feet tall, and, although he was no Julian or Kaliah, muscular. And bony. Elias rarely cuddled, but whenever he did, Vic was shocked at how many angles a human being could have. At least eight different bones were jabbing them in various soft spots. They tried not to make any pained noises.

Elias didn't protest when Vic started to stroke his hair, but he didn't make any sign that he had noticed, either. After a few minutes, Vic realized that he had fallen asleep. He was drooling a wet patch onto their shirt.

Vic flopped back against the armrest of the couch. Their leg was starting to go numb, but Vic dared not move and disturb the peace. Elias was calm now and in no danger, safely at home and not so drunk he'd hate himself in the morning. But in the morning he'd wake up and he wouldn't talk about this night with Vic. Nothing had really changed.


Before their next game, Professor Kung announced that she'd negotiated with everyone's professors to get them a day off for a distance hike, partly to improve their stamina, partly to practice navigation in a realistic setting. Julian loved distance hiking; most of the team regarded the occasional brutal trek through Sulfur Springs as a surprise holiday. He slept over with Elias the night before, then drove Elias, who was still mostly asleep, in Elias's car down to the northern entrance of the park. They arrived at 6:30, when it was still only barely light enough outside to veil the stars.

They rolled through the un-manned entrance gates. Julian and Elias beat the rest of the team there, but they showed up a few minutes later on foot. Vic's roommate had probably given them a ride and dropped them off near the park entrance, leaving them to walk the last quarter mile. Julian got his daypack from the car and woke Elias, who had started to doze off leaning against the passenger-side window.

He took a deep breath as he adjusted his pack. The morning was cold and sweet. The only sounds breaking the quiet were dry fall leaves rustling underfoot, a few birdcalls, and the sawing of crickets. The autumnal smell of rot was light in the air.


The peace didn't last. One thing that Julian was learning about Áillen as he became more comfortable with the team was that he had a voluble side that emerged at unexpected moments. Kaliah and Vic looked on in amusement as Áillen filled the first two or three miles of the hike with questions for Julian and, to Julian's surprise, Elias. Elias seemed to be off in his own world, as he often was, but he tuned back in intermittently to answer Áillen's questions.

"Julian told me you grew up in a big city. What was that like?"

"Near a big city. It was much more entertaining than Littlebrook, I'll say that much."

"Why do you wear low boots like that? Aren't boots with high tops better for hiking?"

"These are comfortable, and they look good as hell."

"Do you have any pets at home?"

"Áillen, you've been to my house. Did you see any pets?"

"No, but I thought maybe there was a cat I didn't see."

"There isn't."

"Did you ever think about getting one?"

Vic cast a sidelong glance at Julian as if to say, Does he ever shut up? Julian shrugged. Elias was getting annoyed, but Julian thought it was amusing. Vic looked away from Áillen and rubbed the spot between their eyebrows that meant they were getting a headache from looking at Áillen's twitchy movements. Julian understood the feeling; Áillen's time dilation ability gave him supernaturally fast reflexes, and it made him weird to watch.

Áillen cooled down and conversation slowed as the morning wore on. They were tackling a series of peak summits in the mountainous central region of the park, and would summit the long-dormant volcano in the center of the park in the late afternoon before descending to reach Gladeloch before dark. Littlebrook was a small town, but it had a constant pulse of activity like any other human settlement. Sulfur Springs was large enough to give the team a respite from that. Between bursts of chatter, all was silent except for the wind, insects, and far-off cries of birds. They didn't see another human soul as they began the ascent up to the first peak of the series. As they ascended, the temperature dropped. Feathers of frost clung tenaciously to the damp bark of trees on their shadowed sides, and decorated the dry autumnal grasses hemming the trail. Yarrow, asters, and larkspur dried on their stalks. A marmot disappeared over a rock ridge as the trees began to thin.

The hike through the foothills to the base of the first summit, Hawks' Redoubt, was a stroll, but the ascent quickly became challenging. It was cold, and they had to stop for the team to put on extra layers. The sun was warm, but the wind was cutting.

With quiet words of encouragement, Julian guided them up Hawks' Redoubt. Vic and Kaliah taught Áillen the names of plants and quizzed him on everything from their heading and pace to the names of the small, hardy birds that lived above the treeline.

They stopped for water at the top of Hawks' Redoubt, a knob of rock protruding under the central summit of the range, the unimaginatively named Crown Peak. Crown Peak loomed over them on the other side of a deep col, with several false summits in between. Its jagged and imposing face consisted of barely-weathered black volcanic rock.

Áillen stared up at it, then stretched luxuriously with his eyes pinned to the peak, arching his back and reaching overhead. Julian swallowed. "How are you feeling?"

Áillen looked at him with wide eyes. "Alive."

"Good pace," Julian said. His throat was a little dry. "Are you tired? Anything hurt?"

"No. Will we have to do this ascent during home games?"

"No, no. The Capture committee never includes Crown Peak in fields here, not at the college level. Games in Sulfur Springs are usually kept to the foothills and a few of the lower peaks that the committee has decided are suitable. A few professional-league games have included Crown Peak. But it's a bit obvious in terms of flag placement, and people regularly die trying to climb it, so it's rare."

Áillen nodded. Julian left him still staring up at the peak as he circulated to check on the rest of the team. As he approached Kaliah, sitting on a rock a few meters away and eating a protein bar, she glanced between him and Áillen, raising her eyebrows. "Weren't you just telling me something the other day about how you definitely don't have eyes on him?"

"I don't!" Julian said, lowering his voice to a stage whisper. "Nothing about my relationship is inappropriate and I'm affronted that you would imply–"

"One, I'm not implying anything. Two, who said anything about inappropriate? You're both consenting adults."

"He's so young. I mean, look at him," Julian said. He could actually feel the hole he was digging for himself getting deeper as he made an ill-considered gesture towards Áillen's… everything.

Kaliah smirked at him.

"Okay, so a man has eyes!" Julian said.

"I'm not even sure if it's worth teasing you about this when it means I have to endure more of this train wreck."

"It's not a train wreck, because no trains are going anywhere. All trains are safely ensconced in their respective stations."

"I don't know why you're being so uptight about the age difference. It's only three years–"

"You mean three whole years! I don't have to take this from you. I'm your team captain, and as captain I order you–"

"Maybe as your friend, I order you to grow a pair–"

"That's sexist."

"I'm just saying, it's sad and pathetic watching you pine, and I'm going to lose respect for you as your coach if you don't do anything about it."

"There are so many things wrong with that statement, one being that Professor Kung is technically your coach."

"Whatever."

Vic was nearby, perched beside the sparsely-marked trail. They were huddled into their thick parka, sipping water, and looked cold but happy to be outside. They peered up at Julian. "What's the time?"

He checked. "A little after 13:00. We're on track; there are about eight miles to go, two uphill and six downhill." Vic nodded. Elias had wandered off to pee, and the sharp wind covered Julian's voice, so he asked, "How's Elias holding up."

Vic shrugged, their smile falling. "I don't know."

"Yeah, he's been too quiet today."

"He's not having a great week."

Julian squeezed Vic's shoulder. "He'll be okay. He's stronger than he thinks."

"He won't talk to me about it, whatever's going through his head. I don't know what he's thinking."

"Hey, I'm serious. He's going to be fine. He's Elias."

Vic gave him a skeptical look, but said a little thickly, "Yeah, I know."

Elias appeared out of the underbrush, zipping up his fly. "Talking about me?" he teased.

"Of course not," Vic blurted out.

"We would never," Julian added in a tone of mock affront.

"Oh, fuck you," Elias said affectionately, and swatted Vic across the shoulder.


When they dragged themselves up the last steep rock face to the bald summit of Crown Peak two hours later, Vic's palms were scraped raw and there was a new rent in their hiking pants from a huge thorn that luckily had only grazed their skin. The day had gone almost unnaturally clear, and the air was like glass straight to the horizon. Littlebrook was a gray crust in its valley.

Vic was the second to the summit. Normally the group's strongest hiker, they were surprised to find Áillen surging ahead of them. His electric jumpiness translated to sustained speed on the mountain. Vic had more of a bullheaded steady pace, and the ability to lightly contract time to make the hiking pass faster.

They stepped fully back into the timestream as they came up next to Áillen. He squinted out into the frigid air. The underbellies of clouds hung over them. Áillen was silent as he took in the view. Vic hadn't had much time to get to know Áillen; they had been too preoccupied with Elias lately, and had only thought of Áillen in terms of Elias's unexplained tension with him. It occurred to them for the first time that they may have been giving Áillen short shrift.

Before Vic could find a way to break the silence, Elias, Kaliah, and Julian came up together behind them, and Vic's attention was once again drawn away by Elias. His hair streamed in the wind; he refused to tie it back for hikes.

He was climbing behind Julian and Kaliah, and for a second, before he saw Áillen and Vic standing in eyesight of him, his face as he lifted himself over the last ledge before the summit was scarily blank. His dark eyes were utterly empty. Tendons and muscles stood out on his forearms, highlighting the weight he'd been slowly, but steadily, losing since Benjamin's death. Vic's heart clenched and their blood ran cold for a moment as they saw the void on Elias's face. A second later, he looked up and saw Vic and smiled. Only the suddenness of the expression belied the fact that it was completely forced.

Tears came to Vic's eyes at the deep sense of wrong that washed over them, even as Julian grinned at Elias and offered to photograph him against the sky. They couldn't understand what about Elias was giving them such a deep sense of terrible wrongness. They stared and stared at him, but nothing came to mind before Áillen nudged them with a question and broke their concentration.

10 Emerald Copse

Their next game was an away game at Emerald Copse on the east coast. It was too far away to make the trip by car. On Friday afternoon, Professor Kung took the team out of class and they all piled into a van to drive to the airport.

Traveling with the team was always a challenge. Julian helped Professor Kung keep everyone in line as they went through security. Both Vic and Elias kept getting distracted and having to be herded back in line; Julian kept an eye on both of them while simultaneously answering Áillen's dozens of questions about the luggage scanners and the full-body X-ray machine.

"Have you never flown before?" Julian asked finally after his sixth question about what would happen if his duffel bag was flagged. Julian nudged Áillen forward and he stepped into the scanner. He hadn't.

"He's a weird kid," Elias said while Áillen held his arms up for the machine.

"Not everyone grew up taking vacations to Europe. It's not that weird never to have flown."

"That's not what I meant," Elias said. Julian wanted to defend Áillen, but it was difficult not to agree.

It took an hour to get the entire group to the gate. When they arrived, Kung moved several rows away and put on headphones, leaving Julian in charge of the group. By that point, Julian could not blame her for wanting to get away from the team. Vic and Kaliah had been debating some deeply nerdy statistical topic in increasingly heated tones for the past twenty minutes, Áillen had already asked if he could get coffee with the team's charge card three times, and Elias looked as though he'd rather tear each of his eyebrow hairs out of his face individually than be seen in public with the other team members for another five minutes.

Elias collapsed into one of the chairs by their gate with a deep sigh, setting his pack on the ground. He leaned back and his eyes went half-lidded. Julian could see him slipping into time contraction already and he nudged him out of it. He never allowed his team members to use time contraction and dilation to escape reality under his watch. "Elias, you don't need to do that."

"Oh, like you wouldn't do it if you could."

"Our flight's in only thirty minutes. Stay with us until then, and you can leave the timestream on the plane if you want."

"You don't need me here for the next thirty minutes. Leave me alone." He settled back again, pulling out his phone, and with his gaze pointedly aimed down at the screen, Julian couldn't tell if he was contracting time or not.

He eventually decided that the most damage control he was going to manage in this situation was taking Áillen elsewhere so he couldn't aggravate Elias. He told Vic to watch Elias–Kaliah was, as usual, the only member of the team who was reliably capable of taking care of herself–and walked Áillen across the hall to the grimy, overpriced airport coffee shop. Giving Áillen a bunch of caffeine and sugar honestly couldn't make this situation any worse.

An hour later, when Áillen was throwing up his latté as the plane lifted off through the rough turbulance of an unseasonably early snow shower, Julian wanted to shank his past self for that particular decision. At least he'd had the foresight to seat Áillen far away from Elias and Kaliah, because the only thing that could possibly make this situation worse would be–

Elias walked by them on the way to the bathroom in the back of the plane, impeccably balanced despite the turbulence. "Oh, dear lord, is he puking?"

"Can you please leave us alone?" Julian growled.

"Okay, okay, going."

Julian rubbed Áillen's back in slow circles and cursed every god he could think of for making him too responsible to let Áillen tough it out for himself.

They arrived at Emerald Copse in the evening, from the time difference plus the several-hour flight. Kung rented a car and drove them all to the hotel near Crackston College, the school they were playing against. Crackston had won the coin flip to play the field first, so they had already completed the Capture course the prior weekend, but Gladeloch's team wasn't allowed to know their final time, to keep the game fair.

They had a dinner scheduled with Crackston's team that evening. Julian and Áillen were rooming together, so they both went up to the fifth floor to leave their luggage in their hotel room. "Hey, are you feeling okay to come to the dinner?" Julian asked Áillen.

"Yeah, I'm fine," Áillen said, flushing with embarrassment. "It was just airsickness."

Julian put a hand on his forehead. "You don't feel warm…"

"I'm really fine now," Áillen said, pushing his hand away.

"I just want you to be at your best for the game tomorrow. We need you in good shape."

"Is this going to be a hard game?"

"Have you played in Emerald Copse before?"

"No," Áillen said, "not while I was playing for Talehquah. They usually didn't take me to their away games."

"They didn't take you?"

"Yeah, their team's so large that the newer players are benchwarmers. We would only play every other home game."

Julian raised his eyebrows. "Wow. What a waste." He shook his head. "Emerald Copse is beautiful, and the terrain is much less challenging than Sulfur Springs. Sulfur Springs is one of the more rugged parks to play in, particularly the foothills of Crown Peak and the peak itself, although the officials never make a team climb Crown Peak during a game. However, although the hiking is much easier, the woods in Emerald Copse are incredibly thick, and there are few good vantage points to get a feel for the field as a whole. Geolocation is very difficult there, and the flags are often hard to find–it's one ribbon wrapped around one branch of a tree with many branches, in a forest of millions of trees that all look the same.

"Also, Crackston's team is quite good, and larger than ours–they usually play with the maximum allowed eight players, even though they take a time penalty for their last two players. They have a lot more flexibility with how to split the team in the endgame, and they can cover a lot of ground while searching for the flags. However, none of their players are exceptionally good time dilators or contractors–they're mostly more middle of the road."

"Do we stand a chance?"

"Hey," Julian said, drawing Áillen's attention away from brushing his hair, "Never say that. There's always a chance."

Áillen rolled his eyes. "You're right out of a dramatic movie sometimes."


When Vic walked into the restaurant for dinner with Crackston's team at the front of the group of Gladeloch students, they almost turned right back around again and walked out. They turned around halfway and then walked directly into Julian's chest as Kaliah squared her shoulders and continued forward towards Crackston's table. Julian stopped, gave Vic an unimpressed look, and steered them back around to face Crackston again. "Come on, they're no better than us just because there's fifteen of them and five of us."

"Why did I have to go to a tiny liberal arts school?" Vic groaned. "I could have gone to an enormous state school; I could have been on a twenty-person team."

"It's good practice to face adversity and–"

"Oh, shut it," Vic said. The whispered conversation stopped when they were within earshot of Crackston's table. Crackston's team absolutely dominated the table. It was ten seats long, and they took up one entire side plus half of the other. Their coach was seated at the head of the table, now standing to shake hands with Professor Kung.

Crackston's team were all in collared shirts and crisp, business-casual clothing. Vic was still wearing the same zip-up black hoodie they'd worn on the plane, because they had forgotten to change clothes before dinner. They unzipped it partway, found a heather-gray t-shirt underneath that they'd gotten for free at a programming conference, and zipped it right back up again. Beside them, Áillen glanced down at his jeans, which had a gaping hole at the knee. He sat down and scooted his chair in, hiding the hole under the white tablecloth.

To their credit, Crackston's team was perfectly courteous to Gladeloch, extending every possible politeness. They took turns asking questions of different team members and managed to engage everyone except Áillen in conversation. They got Elias to crack a smile and Vic was drawn into exchanges about their coursework and cultural background.

The fact that they were such excellent and gracious conversationalists almost made it worse that the Gladeloch team were the farthest thing possible from put together. Áillen seemed especially ill at ease in the upscale restaurant. Elias reached over Julian to correct Áillen on which fork to use on two separate occasions, both times to whispered protests by Áillen that he knew what he was doing and didn't need the help.

Vic knew that in all likelihood, the Crackston team was as much of a mess as Gladeloch's. That was the nature of Capture. Likely everyone on the other team had been through some sort of mandatory Cotillion course. That was the kind of thing Crackston might mandate; Crackston was an old southern college with a long history, and these were exactly the sort of well-bred students Vic would expect from the school.

The one nice thing about the dinner was that some of the Crackston students were closer to Áillen's age. Vic sometimes felt bad that there was such an age gap between Áillen and the rest of the Capture team. Vic, a sophomore, was the closest in age to him, and they were nearly two years apart because Áillen was young for his grade and Vic was old.

The dinner took a turn for the better when the food arrived. It turned out that the fancy decor and atmosphere in the restaurant concealed the fact that their specialty was dressed-up Southern comfort food. When an enormous plate piled with collard greens, biscuits, fried tofu, and gravy arrived in front of Vic, they decided to unconditionally pardon the Crackston students for being far more sophisticated than Gladeloch and showing them up.

Back at the hotel, Vic stripped off their clothes and fell into bed next to Elias. They were exhausted, but their heart pounded. We have to win tomorrow, they thought. Last season, Vic had played for fun, never getting too attached to the outcome of a single game. But this season was different. This season Gladeloch actually had a chance.


"Guys, huddle up," Julian said. "Come here, come here. Elias. Elias! Thank you. Alright." He stood in front of the team near the entrance fold to the Emerald Copse field. This early in the morning, fog so dense it could be cut with a butterknife enfolded Emerald Copse. Julian had played in this park in years past and the fog was one of the things he most disliked about it. The titular emerald foliage had long since succumbed to fall, but unlike at Sulfur Springs, where the deciduous trees were skeletons, the trees here were still clothed in fading yellows and browns. Through the soupy fog, they melted together into a warm blur.

The weather conditions could have been better, but they could have been a lot worse. Halloween was three days away. Sulfur Springs had had its first hard frost two weeks ago, but Emerald Copse had a much more temperate climate, and the weather was unusually warm for this time of year. It was barely chilly now, in the mid-50s, but it was supposed to get into the upper 60s by midday, after the fog evaporated. It was hard to imagine that happening, because right now it seemed like a permanent wall between them and the sun.

They stood on the side of a steep hill, next to the main road that snaked through Emerald Copse from north to south. More tourism-oriented than Sulfur Springs, Emerald Copse had a paved road system with overlooks and trailheads. It also had a gas station and several well-developed campgrounds. The Capture game would take them into the uninhabited forest, away from those landmarks.

"This is our third-to-last game of the pre-season," Julian announced. "We have to make it count. If we win two games of the next three, we're going to Nationals. But our next two games are against Stilwell Hills and Tahlequah. Stilwell Hills usually performs much better than Crackston. Mustang Run is a famously challenging Capture field. And I don't need to tell you Tahlequah is the largest Capture team in the country and known as a magnet for Capture talent. Let's just say our lives will be much easier if we can win this game and not have to worry about beating both of them."

"So this is our only chance to make it to the postseason," Áillen summarized.

"No. We are an excellent team, and we have a chance against Stilwell Hills and Tahlequah this year. But I'd rather face Tahlequah in a few weeks having beat both Crackston and Stilwell Hills, knowing that we're going to play in Nationals whether we win or not."

"We'll do our best," Kaliah said.

"I know you will."

"Then why bother with the pep talk?" Kaliah asked, rolling her eyes, which was such a typically Kaliah comment that Julian just laughed and didn't dignify it with a response.

"Players," one of the officials said, "Who's going to hold the compass?"

They were holding it out. Elias reached out his hand, and the official laid it in his palm. It was larger in diameter than the one they had been issued for their previous game; the compasses varied with the fields they represented. "We're ready to start the timer when you begin," the official said.

The team clambered over the low stone wall separating the road from the forest and waded into the underbrush. Wet leaf litter cushioned their footsteps. Áillen came out in front with Kaliah and they walked up to the mirrorlike fold standing between two saplings. Áillen turned and gestured to Julian, who stepped up to the fold to be led through. Áillen took his elbow and asked, "Ready?"

"Whenever you are."

They stepped in.


Áillen, who had never been to Emerald Copse before, was shocked and dismayed to find that in this state, the mosquitos and black flies were still alive and well even this late in the year. During the entire first day of the game, he was distracted by slapping them away from every inch of his exposed skin constantly; nobody had wasted pack weight on bug spray, and in fact, nobody appeared to be getting bit except for him.

Besides that, the first day of the game went well. Instead of a cell-board like their home game had been, the field at Emerald Copse was a vast expanse of acres upon acres of featureless wilderness with door-like folds hidden all around. Áillen had to find the folds and memorize the complex links between different parts of the park. It was more challenging and exciting than figuring out the cell-board in Sulfur Springs.

He worked well with Kaliah, now that he had a better understanding of her process and her mapping shorthand. He could easily collaborate with her, dividing up the land so they could search for folds separately and meet up again to combine their finds.

There must have been dozens, if not hundreds, of folds in the forest–the field was fiendishly complex. And Julian hadn't been joking about the challenge of the landscape itself. It wasn't exactly featureless; it was laced with a network of clear streams that pooled in deep stone basins of turquoise water. They passed wet meadows in treefall gaps, slender waterfalls, and the bare rock of exposed hillsides. Once, they even saw an abandoned cabin that looked like it may have moldered on its foundation for hundreds of years. Áillen shivered at it.

However, the landmarks only appeared through the thick forest when they were within meters of them, and disappeared back into the stands of black trees just as quickly. At first, the field was also drowning in opaque fog, but even when it burned off, the forest walled them in.

They struggled through the thick underbrush of the dreamlike forest. The creatures here were different from those in Sulfur Springs. White-tailed deer with racks of impressive antlers condensed out of the wet air like shades, staring at the team with their liquid eyes. Áillen thought they seemed ominous, although nobody else on the team agreed ("Áillen," Kaliah said with deep disdain, "Only you could turn Bambi into a bad omen"). Gray squirrels scolded them from the canopy. Even the smell of the forest was foreign. It smelled of rot and fungi, not like the dry fall scent of pine and wildflowers that dominated Sulfur Springs at this time of year.

As Julian had warned them, the forest was interminable. They were as hemmed-in on the top of a ridge as they were in the depths of a valley. By the early afternoon, Áillen felt as though they were trapped in a tiny circle of trees and had been walking in place all day. He'd dilated time searching for hidden folds so many times that it felt like he'd been awake for a week. His eyes were starting to blur from squinting through the trees.

They found one flag around midday, and another in the late afternoon, before they started to lose the light and Julian called a halt. Áillen was worried their pace was too slow, but Julian said he expected that this game could take three days, given the geography and biome of Emerald Copse.

Kaliah chose a campsite for the first night. They finally came across a break in the monotony: a large, clear pond with steep shores, such that if they walked uphill a hundred meters, they reached a dry, flat spot where they could pitch the tents.

Julian directed the team to gather kindling and deadwood and they started a small fire, Julian having deemed the ground wet enough to prevent any danger. Elias and Vic sat down near it, leaning into each other. Áillen watched them curiously. They had a strange relationship; Vic followed Elias around like he'd hung the moon, even though Elias seemed to ignore them most of the time. However, when Vic nosed into Elias's shoulder, Elias put an arm around their back.

Kaliah somehow still had plenty of energy despite hiking at a fast pace almost all day. She paced around the campfire until Julian and Áillen had gotten the tents set up, then gestured towards the pond. "Well? Shall we?"

Áillen didn't catch her meaning, but Elias seemed to. "Ah, we have a new team member to introduce."

"Introduce to what?" Áillen asked.

"Oh, I had almost forgotten about that," Julian said.

"You're such a liar," Kaliah laughed. "Is everyone up for it?"

"Up for what?"

"Sure, while the night's still warm," Vic replied, rousing and, inexplicably, pulling off their sweatshirt.

"Áillen, this is how we normally introduce new people to the Capture team. It's a ritual, just a little symbolism of being open to each other and–"

"Oh, sure, use all your fancy words. It's hazing," Kaliah joked. Áillen looked between Julian and Kaliah uncertainly, not sure who to believe.

"It's not hazing," Julian said.

"Everyone has to do it," Vic said.

"No, only people who are comfortable with it do it."

"What is it?"

"We're just going skinny-dipping, that's all," Julian said. "We all get in the water together–"

"What, you mean, like, naked?" Áillen interrupted. His whole face felt hot, then cold. The comfortable structure of the Capture game fell away from under his feet as the team relaxed and loosened up in their downtime. He heard the voice of one of the upperclassmen on Tahlequah's team. "Strip." His feet felt locked into place and his mind was rapidly whirling away.

"Yeah, that's… usually how that works."

"Are you shy?" Kaliah teased. He flushed hot again with anger.

"If you don't want to, you don't h–"

"I'm doing it." He clenched one fist hard, digging his fingernails into his palm. The pain grounded him. His whole chest was constricted with fear and uncertainty. But through the haze of fear and exhaustion, he knew he wasn't shy. And he wasn't going to lose. This team wouldn't scare him off with their rituals. He wouldn't let them hurt him. He wouldn't let them force him out. He'd lost one Capture team; he'd throw himself into whatever Julian demanded to keep this one.

What followed was an uncomfortable game of strip chicken. It was dusk, getting dark, but it was by no means pitch black yet, and the fire cast enough light that when he stripped, everyone would be able to see Áillen naked just fine, especially since he was as white as a sheet. The team might be lying to him to trick him into stripping while they all kept their clothes on, as a prank. Or they might have worse intentions. He liked Julian and wanted to trust him. But when it came down to it, he wasn't sure there was anyone he trusted completely not to take advantage of a situation like this.

Images from Tahlequah flashed through his mine. He heard the upperclassman from Tahlequah–Lex–instructing him on what to do after he took his clothes off. "Spread your legs. Do it. Don't you want to stay on the team? It's a bonding exercise. Come on, it feels good. Don't be a prude."

He bit his tongue hard, accidentally, and jerked back to the present, only realizing when sound cut back in that he had slipped out of the timestream. He unclamped his teeth from his tongue. He felt dizzy, disoriented, but he didn't want to back down. If he backed down, it meant Lex had hurt him–damaged him. And he could never admit to that.

He started to take his clothes off, but kept half an eye on the rest of the team as he did so. They really were undressing, and they seemed to have every intention of going in the water. Nobody was looking at him or coming towards him. He didn't relax, but his terror ebbed somewhat. He looked away from Kaliah and Vic, uncomfortable, and his eyes landed on Julian and Elias, stripping down casually next to each other. Julian had a hand on Elias's shoulder to brace himself as he took a sock off, already down to just his pants. He was laughing at a joke Áillen hadn't heard. He had a dusting of curly chest hair between his pecs. His eyes roamed up Julian's traps, triceps, biceps. His long fingers worked down the ankle of his sock. Okay, seriously, look away now…

Elias, beside him, was also no eyesore. Both of them were tall, statuesque, but the similarities ended there. Julian was medium brown, Elias was white, though not as pale as Áillen, without a single freckle marking him. Julian was muscular; Elias was lithe, almost skinny. And now he was definitely taking his pants off, pushing his underwear down with them.

Áillen tossed his shirt aside, then untied the hiking boots Julian had bought him and kicked them off. He took off his socks and stood with his toes curling in the damp grass and earth. He was already getting cold.

When he next glanced up, Julian was completely nude. Julian's figure distracted him as he unzipped his pants, making it impossible to worry about his own nakedness. His long lashes shadowed his eyes. His tapered torso led down to the architectural vee of his hips. Áillen almost didn't even notice that his own pants were on the ground.

Cool air brushed every plane of his body as he stood up straight, fully nude, still angling his eyes towards the ground; it felt like there was absolutely nowhere to look where he wouldn't encounter either a penis or a nipple. "Oh, my god, it's freezing," Vic said, dancing from foot to foot. "Let's get this over with!"

The whole group picked their way down to the pond's edge. Small sticks and rocks dug into the naked soles of Áillen's feet. Mosquitos whined over the symphony of late crickets. A broad stripe of moonlight, filtered through a light mist, streaked across the surface of the pond towards them.

He slowed as he reached the pebbles of the shore. He stepped carefully. Were there snakes that lived in ponds in this state, or venemous salamanders? Or did people fly-fish here and lose their hooks in the rocks? He could think of few worse things that could happen to him than taking a fishhook through the toe while naked. But the others didn't seem worried. They all lined up on the shore. Elias stood in the middle of the line, and Julian stood next to Áillen, shielding him slightly from the rest of the group. He seemed completely at ease, naked with his cock out, unlike Elias, who shivered and crossed his arms. Julian took Elias's hand and reached for Áillen's; Áillen let him take it.

Áillen had expected the group to rush into the water. But instead they began to wade in slowly, with measured paces. They spoke no more than a few words as they walked in. Áillen glanced around at the others, watching them disappear into the black water that swallowed his knees, his thighs, his crotch. They kept walking until Áillen was up to his armpits, which meant Julian, who was considerably taller, was submerged to his lats.

Then Julian ducked under the water, still holding Áillen's hand. Black water closed over his head. Ripples spread and then were gone. Áillen quickly closed his eyes and ducked under too.

Water engulfed him, rushing into his ears. Then silence. His own heartbeat filled his body as he hung suspended in the pond for several beats. The water was cold, but he was quickly going numb.

He didn't dilate time, but it still felt like he was underwater for an eternity before he stood up again, gasping and spitting. Julian was already standing, tilting his head back so water ran out of his hair and down the back of his neck. Áillen took a step towards shore, but Julian stopped him and gathered the group into a knot. "Now you've been baptized," he said dramatically as Áillen tried to focus on the ritual they were conducting. He brushed up against Julian's side unintentionally, then jerked back. Julian's skin was hot in the cold water, making Áillen shiver. "And now we all sing together."

"Sing?" Áillen repeated.

"Yeah. I know it's kind of cheesy, but…"

"We're going to stand together naked in a pond and sing?"

Before he could ask any further questions, Julian hummed a note, and, to Áillen's shock, the entire rest of the group began singing Amazing Grace.

Before they were through the first "grace", Kaliah split off into a heartrending descant and Áillen shocked himself by beginning to cry. Tears burned paths down his face and he struggled to control himself before he could quietly join the singing. They sang a second stanza and went onto the third before they drew to a stop.

"'Twas grace that brought me safe thus far, and grace will bring me home."

The last word hung heavily in the air. Áillen felt like he was in shock. Since everyone had gotten naked, he'd known somewhere deep inside that while he was vulnerable, someone on the team was going to try something. Otherwise, Gladeloch would be too good to be true. Something this good couldn't come free. It would be Lex all over again. It could have been any of them who would try to touch him, but he knew one of them would do it.

But nobody had. And now the little ceremony seemed to be drawing to a close. Áillen's terror had broken through into deep detachment; he walked through the water in a daze as Julian and the rest of the group disbanded. The moment of peace broke, and Áillen sloshed along behind them as they got out of the water. Someone had a dry dishtowel, and they huddled around the fire, passing it around the group and drying off. Julian made sure Áillen got it second, and he gave himself a cursory rubdown. He pulled his clothes back on, still damp enough to wet them, and felt some of the violent fear recede.

The others slowly filtered back into the two tents, engaging in the kind of evening chatter common to Capture as though nothing had happened–discussing the progress they'd made that day, trying to remember the names and talents of all the members of Crackston's team. Áillen lingered with Julian by the fire. Once the others were all inside the tents, Julian asked, "Are you going to sleep inside with us, this time?"

"Yeah. That's fine." Now that the team weren't complete strangers to him, he wasn't as apprehensive about the shared tents.

Then, without further warning, Julian pulled Áillen to his chest and hugged him.

Surprised, Áillen panicked for a moment about what he was supposed to do, before placing his arms around Julian's waist. There was something humorously erotic about the way his height placed Áillen's face squarely between Julian's pecs; he hadn't had time to turn his head, so the tip of his nose was smashed into Julian's sternum. At the same time, the feeling of Julian's muscular arms around him was so far from funny he couldn't even dream of laughing. He inhaled the smell of Julian's sweat and campfire smoke. This should be disgusting, he thought. But it wasn't. I should be afraid of him. But he wasn't.

"I'm happy you're here," Julian said in a quiet voice.

The moment passed as quickly as it had begun. Julian released him and went to get his sleeping bag out of his pack and toss both into the larger tent. Áillen counted and figured Elias and Julian were in the bigger tent and Vic and Kaliah were sharing the smaller one, so he would be the third person in the bigger tent.

He unzipped the door of the tent and entered. Elias was just a shape in his sleeping bag, and Julian was already settling down. "Goodnight, Áillen," he said as he closed his eyes.


Áillen didn't sleep through the night, but he lasted longer than he thought he would. He snapped awake while it was still dark out. He stared at the ceiling of the tent. There was nothing in particular that had woken him up. He lay there quietly for some time. The muted cacaphony of the forest at night made it difficult to get back to sleep. A variable breeze whistled in the trees; the pond lapped faintly at its shores; small creatures shuffled around in the leaf litter outside. Elias snored quietly, and he could even hear Julian breathing, too close to his ear. His strange enjoyment of Julian's earlier hug had worn off and now his proximity was scary again.

He tried to shift his sleeping bag away from Julian, but doing so would move him off the groundcloth and onto the margins of the tent, which were wet with groundwater.

He sat up and slid out of his sleeping bag. He unzipped the tent door as quietly as he could; the zipper noise was still deafening, but neither Julian nor Elias woke, though Julian shifted in his sleep. He slipped outside with as much grace as he could manage and closed the tent behind him, easing himself out from underneath the overhanging fly. He wasn't wearing any shoes and the muddy ground was frigid. He could smell the cold ashes of last night's campfire.

That brought memories of the previous night flooding back. The warmth of Julian's arms already felt like a distant memory, or even a dream. When had someone last held him in their arms? Would it ever happen again? Áillen's relationship with Julian terrified him because it seemed to consist of a string of lucky mistakes. Every kindness Julian paid him was an unlikely coincidence. Áillen was afraid he would begin to expect kindness and company. It was going to be devastating when his luck ran out and he was alone again.

Confused and scared by his feelings about the team in general and Julian specifically, Áillen vacillated between pushing Julian away, and frantically trying to enjoy his company as deeply and recklessly as possible before the connection evaporated.


Julian came across him an hour later, crouched in a dry spot under a tree with his chin propped on his hand, staring vaguely towards the pond.

Julian had woken to pee but had noticed on his way out of the tent that Áillen was gone. He had hoped that Áillen was also on a short bathroom break, but it was clear from his pose that he had been outside for a while; he had settled back against the tree, his lower back resting against the trunk. He turned to face Julian as Julian crawled out of the tent, but didn't say anything. His pale face was a mirror of the moon.

"You alright?" Julian asked.

"Yeah."

Áillen turned back towards the pond. Julian felt a hot thorn of frustration. Yeah? Did Áillen think that was sufficient explanation?

He knelt next to Áillen, his original purpose forgotten. Wetness from the muddy ground seeped through the knees of his pants immediately. He didn't touch Áillen. "You want to come back inside?"

"Maybe later."

"Why are you out here? Is something making you uncomfortable?"

Áillen just shrugged.

He didn't trust Julian, and Julian didn't blame him. Even though Julian had been playing with this Capture team for three years, trust was a choice he had to make every day. During his freshman year, he'd pretended to trust and like the other members of the Capture team. His values, not his emotions, had guided him until one day he realized he wasn't faking it anymore.

Áillen was still faking it, and Julian knew he might continue for quite some time.

"What are you doing?"

"Watching the bats."

Julian watched with him for a little while.

"Elias isn't going to bother you," Julian told him.

"Mm."

"You're not bothering us, either," Julian said. "You're part of the team. You belong inside with us, where it's warm."

Áillen shrugged and said nothing.

He managed to get him back into the tent thirty minutes before they were all supposed to be awake again. He lay in his sleeping bag for a few minutes, unable to fall back asleep. He was frustrated with Áillen's coquettishness, yet he knew Áillen wasn't being difficult on purpose.

He cleared his mind and made himself sleep.


Julian was right–it was a three-day game. Sunday morning found them on the trail of the fifth flag. A ribbon hung from Áillen's pack, two from Kaliah's, and one from Elias's. The compass was narrowing in on the fifth flag. They were cutting it close–Capture games at the collegiate level could only last for seventy-two hours before the game was automatically forfeit and the players collected from the field.

Julian split the team two ways. This time, he paired Áillen with Vic and went off with Elias and Kaliah. Áillen glanced back at Julian as he followed Vic north. Vic had kept the compass and now leaned over it as they walked, staring into its inner workings in a trance. The space inside the compass was folded with tiny, extremely precise folds put there by some of the world's most talented technicians; there was more clockwork inside the case than should have been physically possible. The face of the compass bristled with symbols and letters on clock hands, some moving almost imperceptibly, others appearing totally still. He had rarely been able to get a good look at the compass when he'd played Capture with Tahlequah; the time contractors on their team were snobbish about what they did and refused to let the time dilators participate in any way.

Vic snapped it shut and looked up. Their movements always seemed airy and languid to Áillen. The two of them were the most extreme time contractor and most extreme time dilator on the team; they butted heads a lot for that reason. Often when they were at Elias's house or Capture practice together, Vic would suddenly tell Áillen off for twitching or squirming when he didn't think he was moving at all. Despite the natural friction, Áillen didn't dislike Vic; they had what he would describe as a tentative acquaintanceship.

"We'll continue on this heading for about two miles, then re-evaluate if we don't see the flag," Vic announced. "Are there any folds that can get us there faster?"

Áillen paused and dilated time to consult his mental map of the terrain. The outer world froze in a snap as he stepped out of the timestream into the silent place where he could concentrate on the imagery of the field. He placed the dozens of door-like folds they'd seen over the past forty-eight hours onto the map, then mentally connected them with threads. But there were no more efficient routes through the folds to the destination Vic had described. He stepped back into the timestream, wincing at the cacaphonous noise of Vic's boots in the leaf litter and wind in the branches. "No, we should just beeline."

"Okay. Let's go." It still surprised Áillen how the members of the team trusted his judgment. Vic laid a hand on his shoulder as they passed him to lead the way, aiming him towards their path. Everyone on this team was weirdly free with touch. Áillen had thought it was Julian's bizarre quirk, but while Julian was even more forward than the others, everyone on the team was touchy to varying degrees. Even Elias had touched Áillen before during practice.

Áillen asked to see the compass as they walked, and Vic surprised him by handing it over with no objections. He'd asked the same during one of the Tahlequah home games he'd actually played in and been told he had no use for the compass and shouldn't waste their time inspecting it. He opened the face. He couldn't fathom how Vic could detect patterns of motion in the glacial clockwork. It irritated him that Julian could both contract and dilate time, could see both sides of the coin, while Áillen was such an extreme time dilator that he could barely even understand time contractors. "There's like fifty of these symbols. How did you memorize all this?"

"There are closer to two hundred in total. I made flashcards. That was ages ago… now I just know them. Anyway, why are you surprised? Don't you have an eidetic memory?"

"What's an eidetic memory?"

"Photographic."

"No, what made you think that?"

"I've watched how you work in the field," Vic said. "You make maps with Kaliah, and you've learned her shorthand, but you never actually look at the maps you draw. You must memorize the topology as you draw them, and then you don't need the map again–even thought you've never played in most of these fields before."

Áillen shrugged. "It's easy to remember that stuff. I mean, it's just maps."

"They're not just maps. The spacetime folds make them, like, advanced topics in graph theory. Kaliah tried to explain it to me once."

"I don't know anything about that. I'm not good at math." He handed the heavy compass back. "What factor do you contract by to see the compass moving?" Áillen referred to the ratio between perceived time and real time for someone who was out of the timestream. By counting seconds mentally while time was dilated or contracted, then comparing to a normal stopwatch, time dilators and contractors could get a sense of the ratio.

"Up to ten or fifteen while I'm walking, or twenty while standing still. It depends on whether the compass needs it or not. What about you?"

"It's hard to estimate." He wasn't good at focusing on counting seconds while time was dilated. He hesitated before adding, "I can get five hundred or so if I really want to."

Vic stopped dead. "Five hundred?"

"Keep walking."

"Sorry, but what? I thought the best time dilators only reached three hundred or four hundred. I mean, why can you even do that? Isn't everything above about a hundred pretty much useless?"

"It's not useless. It's cool."

"It's cool? Five hundred times because you think it's cool?"

"Yeah."

Vic rolled their eyes. "Wait 'til Julian finds out about this. He's never letting you quit the team."


"Hey Julian," Elias said suddenly, "You know I'm happy for you, right?"

"What?" Julian said, caught off-guard. "What's this about?"

"You know, I'm happy we have Áillen on the team. He really…" He swallowed. "He's good."

"Yeah, he's really talented. I never thought you were really holding a grudge against him. I know you just take a while to warm up to new people. And he's difficult."

He's not difficult. Elias thought. He'll be a better team member than I could ever be. Áillen had life, had potential, that Elias had given up on long ago.

"Right," he said out loud.

"Why are you getting so serious all of a sudden? Is something going on?"

Elias swallowed hard. It was on the tip of his tongue to say it. I'm happy you've finally been able to replace me, so I can fade away like I always should have after the accident.

He had been half-intending to tell all that to Julian. He inhaled, preparing to admit it–that he knew what Áillen's real role on the team was. But at the last possible moment he realized that it would be showing his hand too much. It would devastate Julian to know what Elias was thinking. Elias couldn't trust him not to take it the wrong way–not in the middle of a game. He had to ease Julian into the understanding of what he had done by accepting Áillen onto the team. He couldn't spring it on him and make Julian feel guilty.

"No," Elias said. Julian just hummed like he didn't believe Elias but didn't think it was important enough to press him about.

An hour later, Julian sighted Áillen and Vic's flare, far off in the distance. "There they are," he announced with satisfaction.

Kaliah groaned. "I have to get us all the way back there?"

Julian slapped her on the back. "You're very talented. I'm sure you'll figure something out."

They were twelve miles from the exit fold Vic had marked as the crow flew, but a few folds could get them there much faster. Kaliah studied the map of the field she'd made, dilated time, and calculated the best route through the field's tortured topology. A half hour later, she pointed to the exit fold. Fifty-eight hours after the start of the Capture game, Kaliah escorted Elias through the exit fold behind Julian, and the clock stopped.

They emerged through the fold into the same clearing where the game had started. Kaliah led the way up the embankment to the overlook with the low stone wall where they had started the game, beside Emerald Copse's main road. Vic sat on the wall, half awake and with half an energy bar in their mouth. The violet fifth flag was slung around their neck. A few meters away, Áillen stood beside the wall, resting one foot atop it.

He looked towards Elias and smiled when he saw him. He was smiling at Julian, but it still made Elias's chest constrict in a weird way. He felt possessive of Julian, but he had no right to him, no more so than Áillen himself did. He had to learn to swallow down the ache of having to share him–of knowing he was losing him.

Julian beelined towards Áillen as the Capture officials wrapped up the game, taking the compass back from Vic and signing off on their official averaged time. Elias heard Julian tell him, "Good work today."

"Vic found the flag and the exit fold," Áillen said.

"Yes. They also did a nice job, but so did you."

Áillen hummed noncommittally. He stood up straighter when Julian's hand shifted to his shoulder, and let Julian steer him back towards the rest of the group.

"Okay," one of the Capture officials, a blond woman, said, getting the team's attention. Julian perked up and faced her. "Here's the results. Gladeloch finished the course in an average of 58 hours, 16 minutes, and 17 seconds."

Elias held his breath. Julian stood on the balls of his feet.

"And Crackston's team finished in an average of 58 hours, 15 minutes, and 38 seconds. Congratulations, Gladeloch."

Julian grabbed Elias bodily and pulled him into a crushing hug. "Yes! One more win! One more win and we're going to Nationals. This team is incredible." He let go of Elias, who was pretty sure his spine had been realigned and wasn't yet sure if that was something he should be happy about. "You guys did such an amazing job!"

Elias felt strangely detached from the scene of excitement. He folded his arms, trying to transform the hollowness he felt inside into aloofness. All he could think was, Julian's eyes were on Áillen this entire time.

11 Benjamin

Vic stood on Elias's doorstep, pounding on the door with a fist. "Elias! If you don't open up, I'm gonna let myself in."

It had been a week since Gladeloch's win against Emerald Copse. Julian had let them rest for a single day after the game, but since then had been driving them hard in practice, saying he wanted them to be well-prepared to play Crackston, followed by Tahlequah, their last two games of the pre-season. Vic hadn't had a chance to hang out with Elias the whole week, they'd been kept so busy hiking and training together.

Elias had agreed to take them to breakfast Saturday morning, but he hadn't shown up at Vic's dorm at 9:30 when they'd agreed to meet. At 10:00, Vic had gotten their roommate to drop them off at Elias's house to go get him. But he wasn't answering the door.

Vic got out their phone and called him again, but he wasn't picking up either.

They felt exposed standing on his front step knocking and knocking. Elias's parents' property was in an upscale neighborhood, and the swanky nhouses around his culdesac had architectural features Vic could only guess the names of, like gables and porticos. Vic instinctively distrusted any neighborhood with such judgmental-looking houses. It was cold outside, and they were in a sweatshirt and jeans since they hadn't anticipated being stuck outside in the bracing chill for more than a minute or two.

Finally, feeling like a home invader, they picked out Elias's extra key where it hung beside their student badge and unlocked his door.

"Elias!" they yelled again from the front hall. A chill ran down their spine as they saw that the lights in the front room were on. They had assumed that Elias had overslept. If he was awake and had come downstairs to turn on the lights, why wasn't he answering the door? I'm overreacting, Vic thought, their head already spinning with images of him injured somehow, or stuck in a dissociative daze, tucked away contracting time somewhere in the house. No. He's silenced his phone accidentally. This isn't anything serious.

The kitchen was empty. Their footsteps were deafening in the empty house. Elias's presence made Vic forget how large and modern the house was, with its high ceilings, filled with steel and glass and little upholstery or carpet to muffle sound.

They circled the rest of the ground floor, feeling stupid running around Elias's house calling his name to no response. "Elias, I swear to god," Vic said to themself. "You really know how to leave a person hanging."


Julian spent Saturday morning on a walk with Áillen. He'd made a point to continue to spend time with him even as finals approached and Capture practice intensified in preparation for their games against Stilwell Hills and Tahlequah. Áillen had seemed nervous and ambivalent the first few times they had met outside of Capture practice, but Julian kept at it, working hard to conceal any frustration with the glacial speed at which Áillen opened up.

Áillen seemed more agitated than usual today, though. He was quiet and fidgety. They were walking along the riverside just north of Littlebrook. It had rained recently, and this muddy tributary of the Gold River was swollen nearly to its banks with turbulent water. They were close enough to civilization to hear the occasional car passing on the highway to their south, but far enough away that they couldn't see any sign of human life.

"Everything okay?" Julian asked him finally. They'd been walking in near-total silence, besides exchanging a few words on how Áillen's biochemistry courses were going.

Áillen hesitated. "Actually, I want to talk to you about something."


Vic was forced to go upstairs and check the bedrooms, which felt uncomfortably intimate. They knocked and called Elias's name at the door to his bedroom before letting themself in. Elias's room was a strangely boyish space, decorated in dark blue and muted red, with artistically rudimentary-looking pine furniture. Elias's bed looked slept in; his closet was open and empty. The other bedrooms were empty too.

They went back down to the kitchen. This left only one place to check–Elias's basement. Vic didn't relish the idea of going down there, but they opened the door anyway.

Halfway down the stairs, they saw that a light was on in the storeroom. "Elias! Are you in there?" Vic called, then added in a normal tone, "You're scaring the shit out of me."

The basement was warmer than the rest of the house, but Vic still felt cold. The finished side of the basement, which Elias didn't use, was dark, so they went directly into the storeroom. "Elias?" they called.

There was no answer.

They walked back through the rows of shelves, glancing over stockpiles of dry goods and cleaning supplies. Elias had arranged the shelves in a sadistic labyrinth, so to get to the back of the room, Vic had to weave between them in a series of switchbacks. They had never walked all the way back through the maze before–when Elias needed something from the basement, he always went to get it himself–and they found they had been lucky not to. The shelves were a tight fit so Vic had to almost sidle through them.

Vic was flooded with dread despite the relative innocence of the situation. Elias had forgotten about their meeting, and had accidentally left a light on in the basement. It probably meant nothing. Elias wasn't exactly known for being reliable.

There was a weird static in the air as Vic reached the last few ranks of shelves. They thought they were just imagining it until they rounded the corner of the last shelf in the back of the room and found themself face-to-face with a door-sized fold.

"What the actual fuck," Vic said aloud. They faced their reflection in the fold: a smallish, brown person in nondescript clothes with tired, dark eyes. They stared into the fold as if locking eyes with their own blurry, unfocusable face would grant them the ability to dilate time and see through to the other side.

This was illegal. Folding spacetime was dangerous. Technicians, who could create folds, were under strict regulations, and the fines and penalties for creating unregulated folds were severe. A poorly-placed, drifting, or degrading fold could drift down into a pond and begin to pour out water. It could open over the edge of a cliff, and a child could step through and die. It could degrade and cause unpredictable physical effects. Too many folds, closely spaced, could mangle spacetime, twisting up gravity and other forces and baffling the human inner ear. Mangling space was serious–a human could walk into a forest that had been mangled and never come out again, too disoriented to even walk in a straight line and escape.

"What are you playing at?" Vic whispered. If Elias wasn't anywhere else in the house, and the lights led down to the fold… Elias had probably stepped through.

Vic approached the fold cautiously. Since they weren't a time dilator, they couldn't see the flickering of the boundary well enough to land gracefully on the other side of the fold, or to avoid a trap or a drifting fold. If, indeed, this fold opened up over the edge of a cliff, Vic wouldn't be able to tell until it was too late.

They stepped closer until their toes brushed the mirrored surface. Up close, the blurring effect was more pronounced. Vic's eyes hurt when they looked into the fold. They held their breath, closed their eyes, and stepped forward.


"What is it?" Julian said, turning around.

Áillen looked at him wide-eyed. Whenever he looked Julian in the face, he looked younger than Julian expected. He still had puppy fat in his cheeks. "There's something you should know. About… Tahlequah."

Julian's heart pounded. "Yes?" He'd been waiting for Áillen to say something like this. He still hadn't explained why he'd left Tahlequah, the strongest Capture team in the country, and ended up at Gladeloch–what he'd done that was so serious it had resulted in his expulsion from the team.

"Don't be mad," Áillen said in a small voice, "but… you know how–"


Vic hit the ground hard when they fell through the fold. It was angled weirdly; the sudden shift in gravity threw them off-balance. They landed on their hands and knees on cold concrete, somewhere dimly lit.

They looked up.

They were in a tiny, windowless room, about ten feet on a side and square, industrial like a storage unit. The walls were made of corrugated metal, painted white, and underlit by a lamp with a bare bulb that sat on the unfinished concrete floor. It was unheated, and the full chill of fall seeped through Vic's clothing. Several large cardboard boxes stood with their tops open and curls of dried-up brown packing tape dangling off of them. An antiseptic smell permeated the room, like rubbing alcohol.

There were pictures taped up all over the walls–four-by-six glossies, larger prints, newspaper cutouts, and even printouts of highly-compressed JPEGs on computer paper.

They stood up gingerly and stepped to the wall. "What the fuck," they whispered. It was like something out of a nightmare. Every single photo was of Benjamin Stevenson, Elias's late brother.

Vic jerked one of the four-by-sixes off the putty that stuck it to the wall and held it up at an angle so they could see it in the poor light from the bare bulb. It was Benjamin at a rugby game, with black face paint smeared under his eyes, smiling at the camera.

Benjamin had been older than Elias and had played rugby at a larger school a few states away–Vic couldn't remember exactly where. Vic had met him once, the first semester they had played Capture. He'd come to town to visit the Friday before one of their preseason games that year.

The Stevensons, Elias's parents, had taken the entire Capture team out to dinner before the game, a tradition that had died with Benjamin. Vic had attended, though they were uncomfortable. What they remembered best about that evening was how they had hesitated outside the restaurant in a moment of nerves. What were they, a poor kid who had grown up on a reservation, doing going out to dinner with rich white people? How could they possibly impress these people? Elias had paused with them, holding the door open. Vic had asked him, "Are you sure they're going to like me?"

"Of course. What's not to like?"

Elias's smile had been like sunshine on Vic's face as they had entered the restaurant.

That day they had sat across from Benjamin. He shared superficial traits with Elias–the same thick, wavy dark hair, though rusted rather than full black like Elias's, and a strong, aristocratic bone structure. But the particulars of their appearances made them highly distinct. Benjamin could grow a beard; Elias could not. Benjamin was heavier-set than Elias, solid. The slow grace of Elias's time-contractor movements made him look weightless.

Vic's hand was shaking. They pushed the photo back onto the wall.

Something moved behind them and they screamed.

The scream reverberated in the tiny space. They clamped both hands over their mouth like they could shove the sound back in, shaking harder and whimpering involuntarily. They squeezed their eyes shut for a second, then opened them again, too scared to look and too scared not to.

They turned around and found Elias propped up against the wall.

Their guts turned to ice. They stepped around the fold in the center of the room and dropped to their bruised knees beside Elias. He lay in a heap, unmoving, unresponsive. His eyes were closed with a sliver of white showing. He was pale and Vic couldn't even tell if he was breathing. They pressed two shaking fingers hard into his neck until they felt his pulse and the weak warmth of his body heat.

Vic began to sob. Something wet was seeping into the knees of their jeans. Beside Elias, like it had just fallen from his hand, a handle of vodka was tipped over, spilling a thin puddle across the floor. Behind that were four orange bottles of prescription medication, open and empty.


Julian's phone rang, cutting Áillen off.

He let out the breath he had been holding. Of course. "I'm so sorry," he said, getting it out of his pocket.

Vic was calling. Vic never called. He hesitated, wanting to ignore it, but… "Let me just make sure it's not an emergency."

Vic never called.

He picked up the phone. Áillen was left standing there, looking small and lost. Julian felt like the world's biggest jerk. "Hey, it's Julian. Everything okay?"

He was silent for a minute as Vic answered. He felt the blood drain from his face.

12 The Hospital

Julian and Áillen were able to reach the hospital in fifteen minutes at a run. Julian burst through the doors panting and demanded directions to Elias's room. Áillen was right behind him, like a silent shade. Julian knew he'd be doing damage control with Áillen later, but right now, Elias was a five-alarm fire that couldn't wait.

He ran all the way to the back of the hospital, got in the elevator, burst out on the third floor, and finally reached Elias's room. His heart was kicking as he eased the door open.

Elias lay as still as a headstone in a bed that faced the door. His black hair was stark on the white hospital linens. A powder-blue hospital gown pooled around him. Elias would never have been caught dead wearing that color. He was pale as salt, paper pale, nearly translucent. The bags under his eyes were blue.

An IV ran from the back of his right hand to a bag on a stand; the same hand had an oxygen monitor clipped to one finger. He was also wired to an EKG; a bundle of wires ran up under the gown to a machine that beeped with Elias's heartbeat. It seemed slow to Julian, but he didn't know if it was normal or not. His own heart was racing and didn't provide a fair comparison.

Vic and Professor Kung sat on opposite sides of the bed. Kaliah had been unreachable, tied up at a choir event, and Nasira hadn't been able to come either. Vic sat in a chair so close to Elias's bedside that their knees almost touched his blanket. They were bent forward with their elbows on their knees and their chin and face resting on their steepled hands. Their hair was out of its customary braids and fell in waves over their shoulders and upper back. They didn't move or look up when Julian entered. The faraway look in their eyes betrayed that they were contracting time and probably only perceived Julian as an abstract blur.

He hurried to Elias's side, next to Professor Kung, and sat down, his knees watery. "How is he?"

"How much did Vic tell you?"

"Just that he's alive and going to be okay."

Áillen drifted towards Julian as Kung talked. He didn't seem to know where to stand; Julian motioned for him to sit down as well. "Luckily, the overdose was caught early, and they were able to treat him effectively in the ER with activated charcoal. The doctors are still trying to determine the extent of the damage to his liver and kidneys, but it seems like he will probably be okay, physically. Psychologically is a different story."

"He's been a ticking time bomb for the past two years," Julian said. He picked up Elias's hand gently. It was limp and cold. He stroked the long fingers with his thumb, careful of the oxygen saturation clip and the IV catheter. "I should have seen this coming. We could have helped him. Maybe it's a good thing that he'll be able to get some treatment."

"The doctors are recommending inpatient. If Elias is willing to sign the papers, they don't know how long his treatment will last. It could be weeks of inpatient, followed by intensive outpatient therapy. He may not be able to finish this semester at school."

"His parents won't like that."

"I know. I've already spoken to them, and they are very unhappy with the situation."

"Fuck them."

"They care about him," Kung said neutrally.

"They certainly don't show it. Are they even going to come visit him?"

"I don't think so. They were noncommittal on the phone. They've authorized me to make medical decisions for him in the meantime."

"Did you decline? That should be their job."

"I accepted. Nobody else is going to do it for him."

"Is he going to be unconscious for a long time?"

"The doctors said he's not in a coma. Nothing's wrong with his brain, besides strong sedation from what he took. It should wear off within a day or two."

Julian nodded and scooted his chair closer so he could rest his elbows on the edge of the bed. It was difficult to take his eyes off Elias, lying there like a corpse.

"He won't be able to play with us next Saturday," Áillen said suddenly. Julian almost laughed, remembering how Elias had said the same thing when Nasira had shattered her femur two months prior. He wanted to admonish Áillen for thinking about Capture while Elias was in this state, but he couldn't deny that the same thought had crossed his own mind. "I don't know how we'll find a substitute for him in time."

"I don't know if we will be able to," Kung said. "We got extremely lucky with Áillen. I'm not sure we will be that lucky again. Julian, it's up to you whether you want to cancel the game in advance. Elias won't be able to play by next week. He needs to process what happened, and that's not going to happen overnight. I'm not sure when he'll be ready to return to school or Capture, but I wouldn't expect anything for at least two weeks. It could take a long time. We all know he's struggled with this for years now."

"Yeah." Julian took a deep breath. "Did Vic tell you anything about why… why he did this? Was he trying to kill himself?"

Kung shook her head. "I don't know. Vic didn't say much about it, and what they did say was pretty confused. They said they found an unauthorized fold in Elias's basement–"

"What?"

"Yes… apparently Elias has ability as a technician, or at least that's what Vic thought."

"Elias, a technician? But I had no idea."

"Me neither. I haven't told the doctors that part, of course. I can't condone a technician illegally folding spacetime, but I also can't bring the police into this while Elias is still in crisis. My first priority is to protect him."

"Go on."

"Vic said they found him in a room full of pictures of Benjamin that had been folded into Elias's basement–the inside of a storage unit or something similar. They dragged Elias out far enough that the EMTs wouldn't see the fold, and called 911. I asked them if they knew what the pictures were for, or where exactly the room was, but they were hysterical and couldn't give details. This was when we were still in the ER and Elias had just been admitted for treatment, so of course they were beyond upset. I dropped the subject, and we haven't been able to discuss it since." Professor Kung gestured to Vic, who hadn't moved or shown any sign that they could understand their conversation.

Julian shook his head. "I won't bother them now. They've been through a lot today."

"They may have saved Julian's life," Kung said. "He was in a bad state when they found him."

Julian stayed at Elias's side for several hours, until the late afternoon. Vic moved eventually, unfolding themself from their chair and leaving the room without making eye contact with Julian or Professor Kung. They reappeared several minutes later. Julian went around to their side of the bed and asked if they were okay, but they just shook their head. He tried sitting next to Vic, but they scooted a few feet away petulantly. He tried not to show that he was hurt.

Áillen sat quietly near him and at one point put his hand on Julian's shoulder. He didn't say anything; he just left his hand there until Julian could feel his warmth through his jacket. He laid his own hand on top of Áillen's. "I think he'd be happy that you're here," Julian told him.

"Yeah?"

"Yeah."

Áillen didn't continue the conversation. He untensed a little, but nothing could break the thick atmosphere in the hospital room as Elias's machines beeped steadily, marking the time.

Vic outlasted Áillen and Julian at Elias's bedside, contracting the time down to what felt like about an hour. The sun slid at a steady rate across the linoleum tiles of the hospital room. Professor Kung shifted in her seat at what looked to Vic like a comically rapid speed.

They stepped back into the timestream when, in the evening, Elias blinked awake. They came alive as Elias looked around the room, disoriented.

Vic leaned forward and laid a hand on his. There were no gestures or words that felt appropriate to the seriousness of the situation, but they still couldn't resist feeling his pulse under his skin. "Elias," they said quietly. "I'm here."

He looked at them blearily and swore. Eventually he said, "I guess I lived."

The deep lack of enthusiasm in the statement chilled Vic, but they didn't show it. "Yeah. You're going to be okay. Don't worry."

"Good," he said.

Vic started to tear up as he closed his eyes again. "You really scared me."

"Mm," Elias said. "Do my parents know?"

"They've been notified," Professor Kung said.

"Are they coming?"

"No."

"Good." Elias relaxed back against the pillows, looking as though he would fall asleep again.

"Are we going to talk about this?" Vic asked bluntly.

"Vic… I'm so tired," Elias said, giving Vic a pitiful look.

Vic dropped the topic instantly. Elias didn't stay awake for much longer. He said nothing further to Vic. He didn't take their hand, nor did he draw away.

Professor Kung left shortly thereafter, making Vic promise to go home and get some sleep. Vic agreed, but they weren't even sure where home was right now. They slept at Elias's house half the time anyway. Both going there without him and going back to their own lonely dorm seemed unbearable. They lingered at the hospital instead of coming to a decision.

Kaliah showed up about a half an hour after Kung left. She let herself into the room and took in the scene from the doorway for a second, her face betraying nothing. "I have your homework," she said to Vic.

Vic, still contracting time lightly, struggled to return to the timestream as Kaliah leaned over them and placed a folder on the windowsill by Elias's bed. They were pretty much back in normal time by the time Kaliah pulled back and nodded to Elias. "How is he?"

Vic shook their head. They had no idea. A group of several specialists–everyone from a hepatologist to a social worker–had been in and out of Elias's room several times. But, seeing as Elias had been unconscious, they had spoken mainly to each other in jargon, and given short status updates to Professor Kung. Vic hadn't been able to focus on the status updates; they had been too out of it to understand what was said.

Their eyes were crusty and their shirt stuck to cold sweat that had dried on their back. Their hair was greasy and their face unwashed because they had been planning to shower in Elias's nice private bathroom when they had gone to meet him. They had ridden with Elias to the hospital in the ambulance and hadn't left since.

The fragile peace they and Elias had established after Benjamin's death was finally shattered.

Vic was suddenly furious with him. They shot up from their chair, almost knocking it backwards, and gathered up their jacket. Kaliah followed as Vic headed for the door of the hospital room. "Hey, where are you going? Are you heading home?"

"I'm taking a walk," Vic said.

"At this hour? Where to?"

"I don't know."

"Are you expecting me to follow you?"

"I don't care if you do or you don't!" Vic's voice broke. They exited the hospital, sniffling, and pretended it was from the cold. Kaliah was still following behind them, but Vic didn't look back as they rushed through the empty hospital parking lot, down the steep, fissured concrete stairs, and back onto one of the two major roads running east to west through Littlebrook.

They headed towards Elias's neighborhood. Dry, golden grasses stood stiff as sentries beside the road, in front of the gray skins of winter-bare trees. They turned south at the intersection between Littlebrook and Gladeloch, but slowed as they neared campus.

"Want me to walk you back to your dorm?" Kaliah offered. Vic twisted around, surprised to find that she was still there. She's a good friend, Vic thought distantly. I don't deserve her.

"No. You should go home," they said flatly. It came out harsher than they intended.

"Yeah, fat chance," Kaliah said, and followed Vic past campus, all the way south into Sulfur Springs park.

Evening fell as Vic continued south into the park. The ranger kiosks at the park entrance stood empty and dark because it was after hours. Vic dodged the arm that kept cars off the road this late. They knew the roads and paths in the north of the park, closest to campus, by heart and could easily navigate them in the deepening dusk. They followed the gravel road south for some distance, then turned off to the west.

Here the thick forest that cradled Gladeloch's campus petered out into transitional saplings, then a sprawling grassland. Dry hills glowed in the pink, post-sunset light. Grasses rustled against each other; dried-up flowerheads bobbed in a night breeze. During the summer, these fields were alive with the loud industry of insects, but now, they lay largely dormant, though never completely quiet; field mice and rabbits snaked through the brush.

Vic started along a familiar trail, little more than a deer track where the grasses had been trampled flat by the occasional passage of a hiker, and continued for another mile or so. Now it was fully dark. The evening's chill had turned to night's icy cold, and Vic's fingertips were starting to go numb. Stars pricked the still, black pond of the night sky, their light as cold as sleet.

Vic slowed as they began to climb the hill that was their destination. It was little more than a large mound where the grassland humped up to give a low view out across the rolling sea of prairie. They had only walked perhaps five miles, but their feet felt as leaden as they did after a twenty-mile day in Capture.

They stilled on the crest of the hill, staring blankly towards the stars and the waning crescent moon. Their body hung from the straight pole of their spine like a banner from a flagpole on a windless day.

Behind them, Kaliah's footsteps continued up to the top of the hill. Vic glanced back at her. They were shocked to realize that Kaliah had followed them all the way to this silent and contemplative place. They had expected to lose Kaliah at the park entrance when Kaliah realized where they were going.

Vic said nothing. Eventually Kaliah said, "Your relationship with him is so broken."

"I can't give up on him," Vic said. "I can't."

"I'm not asking you to give up on him. God, is that what you think I've been trying to tell you this entire time? I'm telling you you have to hold him to a higher standard. You can't let him lie and lie to you until something like this happens out of nowhere. It's disrespectful."

"'Something like this'? He's never done this before."

"No, that's bullshit. You know that's bullshit. What about all the times you've found him sitting somewhere in his house, contracting time, grinding hours and hours into dust, just waiting for someone to find him and break him out of it? What about that? Or what about back in your freshman year, when he promised you he was going to help you practice before our game against Tahlequah–"

"Shut up. That was years ago."

"–and he ditched, and you later found out he'd driven four hours in the middle of the night to the place where Benjamin died without telling anyone and then fell asleep in his car on the side of the road and forgot about you?"

"He didn't forget about me."

"Yeah, he did. He did forget about you, because he knows that no matter what he does, you're always going to come back. He knows he doesn't have to respect you because you're going to be there for him whether he does or not."

"Even if you're right, I can't tell him all that now. He needs me."

"He does need you, but not to be a fucking doormat for him. He needs you to stand up to him. He needs you to help him break out of this cycle where he doesn't take care of himself and refuses to let anyone help him, and then he breaks down and does something insane all on his own because we've all let him run off into the wilderness of his own bullshit."

"But I love him."

Kaliah crossed her arms. "Then show him you respect him and know he can do better than this."

"You don't know anything. You don't know anything about Elias and I." Vic walked a few steps away, but Kaliah followed and put her arms around Vic. She held Vic from behind, enfolding them in her warm embrace. She knew when to stop pushing, when it was time to set down responsibilities and comfort each other. She rested her head on Vic's shoulder and held Vic and kept them warm while they cried as the fall wildflowers kept their silent vigil.


For Julian, the next week passed in a fugue. He normally refused to escape his problems by leaving the timestream, but he found himself sympathizing with and even envious of Vic, who drifted off into time contraction at the slightest provocation. He spent his days in class, tore through his homework during the daylight hours, the rushed to the hospital for visiting hours each evening, walking because Elias wasn't there to give him a ride.

There he'd sit with Elias until visiting hours ended at 20:30. After that he went home, fell into his bed at a ridiculously early hour, and slept like the dead until morning.

Elias didn't seem to mind Julian's company at the hospital, but he also refused to talk about what had happened–he didn't say much at all. Kung gave more informative updates on Elias's status than Elias himself seemed to be willing to. Apparently, Elias was out of the woods physically, and was unlikely to suffer any permanent damage from his overdose. But the doctors were strongly advocating for him to enter inpatient therapy. Elias hadn't agreed to do so yet, and Kung was worried that the doctors would put him in a 24-hour or even longer-term involuntary hold if he didn't cave soon.

The day of their next Capture game was fast approaching. Julian's mood plummeted as it grew near and Kung continued to struggle to find a substitute for Elias. It had been a miracle that she had turned up Áillen when Nasira broke her leg; the chances of finding another time contractor, or anyone who could fill out the team to the requisite five players, were not high.

Julian wanted to pretend that he didn't care what happened with the Capture game. Obviously, Elias's health was more important. But he did care. He was bitterly disappointed that his hard work coaching the team and holding them together by the skin of his teeth was coming to nothing as their promising season fizzled out.

On the Friday before the game had been scheduled, when the team had originally planned to meet for the drive to Stilwell Hills, he was surprised to get a group text from Professor Kung to the team, requesting that they meet at the Capture lounge just after class ended. He figured she wanted to announce in person that the game was cancelled and their season was over until further notice. He gritted his teeth and headed over to the Capture lounge.

He badged into the gym north of Gladeloch and passed a few other students on his way to the lounge. Professor Kung was there, grading papers at the table they normally sat at while they waited on the results of a game. "So, I guess we're not competing in the…" Julian started, and then trailed off because he had just noticed Elias, sitting on the couch.

Elias looked towards Julian, his eyes a little wild, and didn't say anything.

"What in god's name are you doing here?" Julian blurted out.

"He checked himself out of the hospital against medical advice," Kung provided when it became clear that Elias wasn't going to respond. "The doctors weren't able to get a 24-hour hold."

"But you…"

"I want to play this game," Elias said, staring into Julian's eyes with a weird clarity Julian hadn't seen in him since his overdose.

"Elias…"

"Physically, he's fine," Kung said. "I can't prevent him from playing for medical reasons."

"He was in the hospital yesterday."

"Yes, an hour ago," Kung said. She was visibly uncomfortable with the situation.

"Remember when Vic cut their thumb open with a can opener and had to get sedated for stitches, and played against Millinocket three hours later?" Elias pointed out.

"Yes, I remember that. For one thing, that was completely different because it was a minor physical injury, and secondly, that was absolutely horrible! Do you have any idea how worried I was about them getting infected, or breaking a stitch, or–"

"They were fine though. It worked out."

"I'm going to be honest, you're not being terribly convincing right now. You just overdosed, you're not okay, and you haven't been okay since Benjamin's death." Elias flinched at his brother's name. "I get it. You have problems. I have plenty of my own. But I can't keep letting you brush yours under the rug whenever they're not convenient to you. I can't keep letting you pretend everything is okay! Because this is what happens when we pretend everything is okay! It works at first, and then everything falls apart."

"I'm not pretending," Elias said stubbornly, and Julian knew he was lying. "I can do this. I can play this game."

"Julian–" Professor Kung started.

"How come you're on his side?" Julian snapped at Kung. "Look at him. He's barely–"

"Elias?" Vic had walked into the lounge, stopped, and gone pale. "You were discharged?" they asked in disbelief.

Simultaneously, Elias said, "Sort of," and Julian said, "No!"

Vic crossed their arms tightly over their chest and narrowed their eyes at Elias. "What is this? You shouldn't be here."

"Well, since I am here, can we just play this stupid game?! I'm not going home, and I'm not checking myself back into the damn hospital, so we might as well get on the road."

"Tell him he can't," Julian demanded of Kung.

"He's an adult. Elias can make his own medical decisions, now that he's conscious. If his assessment is that he has recovered enough to play, and he's not in an involuntary hold, my role as your adviser is to support his decision."

Julian shook his head at her, betrayed.

"Look," Elias said, "I know I fucked up and made everyone worry the other day. I put this team in danger of losing our place at Nationals. I feel terrible and I want to fix it. I know you're gonna want to talk about what happened or whatever, and that's fine. I'll talk to you. Seriously. Later. After the game."

Elias's dark eyes bored into Julian's with cold intensity. "You promise?" Julian asked, hating himself for even entertaining the notion of taking Elias up on his offer.

"I promise."

Julian didn't know whether to trust him or not. In all likelihood, they would finish the Capture game, Julian would ask Elias to follow through on his promise, and Elias would brush him off, just like he always did when Benjamin was brought up.

But Julian wanted to trust Elias. He didn't want Vic, Áillen, and Kaliah's hard work this Capture season to be for nothing because Julian refused to let Elias add one more body to the team and bring them up to the regulation number of players.

"Okay," Julian sighed finally, "Fine. We play this one game, then we talk about what's going to happen going forward."

"Thank you," Elias said. Julian sort of wanted to punch him.

13 Mustang Run

The game was in Mustang Run against Stilwell Hills, a small school similar to Gladeloch but more focused on STEM than the liberal arts. The drive from Gladeloch was less than two hours. Kung sent the team back to their dorms to get their Capture equipment. Vic, in a state of shock, called their roommate to pick them up.

Back at their dorm, Vic circled around the cluttered room and quickly shoved clothing into their internal-frame pack. Stilwell Hills was a complex park, but not large. Julian, in his short brief to the players, had told them to expect a two-day game at maximum.

Vic stored most of their Capture equipment in their pack anyway, so in a few minutes they were ready and got a ride back to the Capture lounge.

They re-entered the lounge and sat down on one of the graying loveseats facing the broad back window looking out on the branch of the Gold River that ran north of Littlebrook. They folded their hands in their lap.

For years Vic had been pretending that Elias's taciturnity and stoicism had been transient flaws, part of Elias's reaction to Benjamin's death. Elias was sure to pull out of his grief soon; they'd have the glamorous, caring, human boy they'd come to know during Vic's freshman year back soon; they just had to be patient.

Elias's overdose had made Vic realize that that Elias was truly gone.

Vic had been in and out of Elias's hospital room all week, using time contraction to stay as long as they could until Julian would usher them out of the room to shower, eat, and sleep. Yet in all that time–and Elias had been conscious for plenty of it–Elias hadn't talked to them, hadn't explained what he had been trying to accomplish with the overdose or why he had made Vic go through finding him in that creepy basement room. He hadn't even talked to Vic about the fact that he was apparently a fold technician; he had made the basement fold himself under all of their noses.

Elias is a good person, Vic said to themself. He wouldn't hurt me on purpose. But it was difficult to believe it.

They closed their eyes, leaning back into the couch, intending to doze before they had to get in the van. But instead they began to relive finding Elias in the basement room in excruciating detail: the creepy feeling of searching Elias's house, the stink of alcohol, the–

Someone kicked their ankle and their eyes snapped open. Kaliah stood over them with her pack, looking nonplussed. Vic scooted over and Kaliah sat down next to them on the couch, resting their arm over the tops of the couch cushions behind Vic's shoulders. Kaliah didn't say anything–she was losing patience with Vic's constant willingness to forgive Elias. Vic didn't blame her; they couldn't help wondering if Kaliah might have a point.

When Elias showed up with his pack, still looking like hell even for him, Vic glanced back at him, then resolutely turned towards the window again. They watched his reflection in the window as he went to the long table with the folding chairs and set his pack down. Kaliah watched both of them tensely, but no words were exchanged.

As soon as the rest of the team had gathered, Professor Kung pulled the van up to the Capture lounge. Vic pushed to the front of the group, threw their gear in the back of the van, then squeezed into the back corner seat. Kaliah came and sat beside them. Julian sat in the row in front of them, and Áillen, Julian's little shadow, beside him. Elias took the front row alone. He leaned his head back against the window and kicked his feet up, closing his eyes like he hadn't a care in the world. But he was still drawn and pale. Vic turned back towards the window and kept their silence for the entirety of the drive.


Gladeloch were again second to play at Mustang Run, the field east of Stilwell Hills. It was another reminder of their low ranking in the pre-season games; higher-ranked teams had a higher probability of playing first.

Mustang Run was a gorgeous park, and Elias wished he was playing here under other circumstances. Contrary to what Vic thought, he did have an appreciation for the beauty of the great outdoors, et cetera, and even a bourgeois cretin like himself could see the appeal of the wild rock formations in Mustang Run.

They stood at the southern rim of the enormous, bowl-shaped canyon that dominated the park. The canyon bristled with smooth, fingerlike rock protrusions called hoodoos. The striated red, orange, and cream-colored stone caught rays of the sunrise. As Gladeloch waited for the Capture officials to finish the last formalities before the game started, the stone began to glow with an inner fire, like porcelain held up to the light. Deep in the bottom of the canyon, tall pines cast green-black shadows beneath the hoodoos. The straight, full-grown trees were dwarfed by the massive rock formations.

"Okay… you're good to go," one of the officials said finally, passing some forms back to Professor Kung. Anastasia, the reporter, readied one of her drones to fly over the canyon while the team descended into it. Elias grimaced; he knew the reporter was poised vulture-like over his recent hospitalization. He probably looked like hell–he'd barely had time to shower and change clothes between his AMA discharge from the hospital and getting in the van to drive to Mustang Run. She was going to get pictures of him looking like this and plaster them all over the TV, where his parents would see and be disappointed in him, more disappointed than they already were over the hospitalization. Fuck.

One of the officials unsnapped a leather pouch and tipped out this field's compass. It was about two inches in diameter, with the Capture glyph, the pine trees and aurora borealis, engraved on the lid. She held out the compass for the team, and Elias reached for it, only for Vic to slap his wrist away.

The slap was louder than Vic must have anticipated. It stopped the conversation Julian, Áillen, and Kaliah were holding in its tracks. They all looked over at Elias and Vic. Vic didn't react. They took the compass from the official and sent Elias a frosty glance. He backed up a few steps. Anastasia had watched the whole exchange. Please don't let that be on camera.

"Alright, Vic," Professor Kung said, "That's enough."

"Sorry," Vic mumbled.

"Is everything okay?" one of the Capture officials asked, fluttering around the perimeter of the group. "Do you guys need anything?"

"No," Julian and Vic said simultaneously. Vic spoke a little more aggressively than was strictly polite. Julian added, "…Thank you for the kind offer."

Professor Kung said something quietly to the Capture staff about keeping the medical team close at hand that Elias pretended not to hear. He rubbed his eyes in exhaustion. They were off to a great start.

Unfortunately, the game didn't improve from there. The sun scudded across the sky, never getting much higher than a few handsbreadths above the horizon, as Elias trailed along behind Vic. It got bright but not particularly warm. Elias was sweating in the sun and shivering in the shadows. The first time they stopped so Vic could contract time and read the compass, Elias leaned in to try to get a look. He wanted to prove that he wasn't going to drag the team down, just because he'd lost control of himself in a spectacular way.

But when Elias leaned in, Vic planted the heel of their palm in the middle of his sternum and shoved him so hard he had to take two steps back to keep his balance.

"Are you serious?!" Julian asked in exasperation. They stood in a small opening between several hoodoos; Julian squatted in the shade of one of the columns, near the churned sand of a popular hiking route for tourists.

Vic muttered something under their breath, crossing their arms petulantly.

Julian sighed, running two fingers along the bridge of his nose. "Come on, guys, it's just one game. Let's get through this and then we can go back to Gladeloch, talk this through, and regroup."

Vic rolled their eyes, uncharacteristically immature.

They spent most of the morning in the basin of massive hoodoos. They had looked deceptively delicate at a distance, but up close were like redwoods, solid and large in diameter. Their shapes were alien and strange; in places they were linked by arches of liquid-looking stone. Red and white striations made them appear to be melting.

It was difficult to pay attention to the stunning landscape when the team was such a wreck, though. Vic not only did not speak to Elias through the entire morning, but barely even looked at him, and it didn't seem like anyone else on the team was any happier. Áillen kept following Julian so closely that he stepped on the heels of Julian's shoes. Julian was trying to herd him out of the way and encourage him to walk with Kaliah and help with navigation, but Áillen seemed too anxious about something to stop hounding Julian. Kaliah was glaring at Vic and once had pulled them aside into the shadow of a stone ridge to whisper at them urgently about something. Vic had simply shook their head repeatedly, staring at the ground, then walked away while Kaliah was still mid-rant. That was a risky move, because Kaliah hated to be interrupted or ignored, but she had simply thrown up her hands and returned to the group.

Elias thought he should probably feel guilty about the high tensions, but he didn't. He had gone through a lot of trouble demanding to be released from the hospital AMA to make this game happen so the rest of their season wouldn't be for nothing, and nobody seemed to have the slightest appreciation of his effort.


By the end of the first day of the game, Julian was beginning to suspect Gladeloch was going to lose. Stilwell Hills was a much higher-ranked team than Gladeloch with some dominant players. Stilwell Hills was also a larger team, with seven players, allowing them to split three ways and search a park much more efficiently than Gladeloch's five-person team and two-way splits. Although playing with more players on the field incurred a time penalty, a well-coordinated team was still usually better off with six or seven players than the minimum of five.

On some Capture fields, the difference in team size wasn't such a big problem. However, Gladeloch's tiny team was especially ill-suited for Mustang Run. Like the field at Emerald Copse, Mustang Run was scattered with small, door-like folds hidden behind rock outcroppings and pillars. But the folds in Mustang Run were much sparse than those in Emerald Copse, with only perhaps a dozen spread across the hundreds of acres of the park.

This made Kaliah and Áillen useless for most of the day. Instead, to win, they had to hike and sweep tens of acres of parklands with only vague directions from the compass. They had to search for folds as well as flags, as some areas of the park could only be accessed via folds: while the hoodoo field was the park's most striking feature, it also had high mesas with arid wastelands atop them that could only be accessed through folds. Small, dry tracts of evergreen forest between the mesas made the terrain even more difficult to navigate.

By the time they began to lose the light, Julian was soaked in rapidly cooling sweat. They'd traversed what felt like a dozen different diverse biomes in the past thirteen hours and had only found two folds. Elevation changes had taken them from weather that was almost hot to the frigid, windswept top of one of the mesas, where the whole group had wandered around shivering and searching for a flag that had turned out to be somewhere else entirely. At the end of the day, after more wrong turns, dead ends, and disappointments than Julian could count, they had still only found one flag.

They made camp in total dejection. Julian let Kaliah and Áillen set up the tents so they could feel useful, but this left Vic and Elias giving each other the cold shoulder without anything to distract them. It had been unbearable spending all day with them glaring hotly at each other behind each others' backs; Julian just wanted to shake them both.

But he knew that this situation called for patience. The team was in a delicate state right now, shaken by Elias's hospitalization. The last thing they needed to do was to emotionally process it in the middle of a Capture game.

"Can I talk to you?"

Áillen had come up behind Julian and stood at his elbow. Julian forced down a wave of annoyance at his neediness. He wasn't angry at Áillen; he was frustrated by this whole situation, by the way the world kept hurting his friends and dumping the damaged and broken pieces into his arms. Here, fix this.

"Yeah, hang on." He led Áillen away from the camp. They were in one of the pine copses; the campsite wasn't perfect, as they were a little too close to the volatile and eponymous Mustang Run for Julian's comfort, but at least it wasn't too cold. He pulled Áillen back towards the trees to give them some privacy. The forest was churchlike, open and airy with little brush between the straight, dark trunks. "What is it?"

Áillen crossed his arms, looking at Julian's feet. "I didn't get to tell you what I wanted to say the other day, before we got the call from Vic about Elias."

"Áillen…" Julian pinched the bridge of his nose, staving off a headache. "It sounded like it was something important."

"Yeah, and I–"

"If it's important, you should save it for after the game." Julian took Áillen's shoulder, trying to get him to look at his face, but Áillen stubbornly stared past him. One of his lips was bloodied where Áillen had anxiously chewed on it. "Look, I want to hear this. I care about what you have to say. But the entire team is a mess right now and I can't give you my full attention until this game is over and the team can start to patch things up. Can it wait another two days?"

"Yeah," Áillen said quietly. He sounded angry with Julian and Julian had to fight not to get angry in response.

"I'm sorry, but if it can wait, please just hold onto it for another day or two until we're out of Mustang Run. Then I promise we can talk."

"Okay… fine." Áillen shrugged off Julian's hand. "If that's what you want, then let me help you get us out of here. I'm a technician, so I can add folds to the field. On a field like this, where the folds are sparse, it's relatively safe. I can get us to the rest of the flags quickly and then we can leave this stupid park."

Julian hesitated. Since Gladeloch had not had a technician player while Julian had been on the team–most teams did not have any, as technician ability was even rarer than the ability to dilate and contract time–he had never had to consider the pros and cons of allowing someone from his team to fold on the field. The restrictions on adding new folds usually made it almost pointless anyway–on most fields where there were already many folds, technicians were only allowed to add one or two more during a game, and doing so was as likely to hinder the team's progress as it was to help.

However, because the folds in Mustang Run were so sparse, the team hadn't been given a restriction on folding. Technically, Áillen was allowed to crumple the space up until it was mangled. If they were lucky, a few judicious folds could bring them to the last four flags fast enough for them to finish the game and avoid being disqualified from the postseason for forfeiture.

"I'll think about it," Julian said.

"Fine."


Julian lay awake for twenty minutes after he crawled into his sleeping bag, staring at the ceiling of the tent and turning over the details of the day's gameplay in his mind unhappily. The tensions of the team around him were painful to watch; it felt like the delicate truce he'd forged among the four members of the original team, plus the new bonds he'd made with Áillen, were crumbling to dust. Only constant drills and tons of socializing had been able to get the headstrong and cantankerous group to work together effectively. Adding Áillen to the mix had been a feat of patience and bullheadedness. Now the team Julian had worked so hard on–his family–was falling apart.

Áillen fell asleep at his side, then began to twitch in his sleep. A few minutes later, he woke with a quiet gasp, rolled over, and sat up. He pulled his feet out of his sleeping bag and reached for the zipper on the tent door. It jingled quietly and Áillen stilled it with his hand as he started to work it open.

Julian said Áillen's name softly, and he stopped and looked back at him. It was so dark that Áillen was just a hypothesized shape amid a gray field.

"You want water or something?" Áillen whispered.

"No," Julian replied. "Come here."

"No. I can't."

"I know you can." He sat up and placed his hand on Áillen's trapezius muscle, keeping him in place. His hand half-slid under the collar of the battered fleece, partially unzipped, that Áillen wore to bed on cold nights. His skin was as hot as a sun-warmed stone, stretched like canvas over his tense muscles. He wondered how hard Áillen was gritting his teeth right now. "I'm cold," Julian said, pulling out the age-old trick he frequently used on Vic. If Julian saw that Vic was lonely and tried to keep them company, Vic would refuse and go to nurse their wounds in private. But if Julian told Vic that he was lonely, Vic would stay by his side.

"Liar," Áillen whispered, his back to Julian. He rolled his shoulder minutely as Julian began to massage him, pressing his fingers into the muscle in tiny, warm circles. "That hurts."

"Want me to stop?"

"No." His head dropped forward slightly. Julian thought Áillen probably needed this comfort so badly that even his pride wouldn't stop him from receiving it. Behind Julian, Elias sighed in his sleep. He was a deep sleeper and wouldn't wake up.

Julian scooted closer to Áillen, kneeling, and began to rub his upper arms. He was tense there too. His whole body felt like steel wire wrapped in leather. He was corded, firm everywhere except his face, where incongruous puppy fat softened his angular skull.

He pulled Áillen back to rest against his chest. "Come on," Áillen protested quietly, again. If Áillen struggled for real, Julian would let him go, but he knew Áillen's body language. He was making a token protest.

Julian unzipped his own sleeping bag and got back in. Áillen obediently slid back into his own, and Julian pulled him back against his chest as he laid back down. "Good boy." Áillen drowsed against his chest, his breathing already lengthening, evening out.


After breakfast, he gathered the Capture team as the sun was about to rise and signal the beginning of the second day of their game. The other players stood in a circle, fidgeting. Vic stood across from Elias and snuck glances at him; Elias looked almost too exhausted to be upright, and not in his usual swooning Victorian gentlemanly way. Áillen stood sullenly beside Julian, not looking up at him. Kaliah was the only person in the circle who actually appeared to be listening to Julian.

"Alright, team. This has been a challenging game so far, and I'm proud of all of you for doing your best to stay patient and win."

"We're not gonna win," Kaliah said flatly. Julian took back the nice thing he had just thought about her listening to him.

"We don't know that yet. However, at this rate, no, we probably won't, so I think we should try something new. Áillen is a technician. He can create a fold to try to get us to the second flag."

Vic and Kaliah both perked up at the suggestion. Áillen crossed his arms, but didn't protest. Elias had always objected to technicians creating folds during Capture games, perhaps covering for the fact that he himself was secretly a technician. It was risky, since a poorly-angled fold, or a fold too close to another fold, or any number of other minor misjudgments, could mangle the Capture field and locally ruin the fabric of spacetime, disorienting the players and fragmenting the space sometimes so badly it took weeks for trained technicians to correct it. However, Elias said nothing, apparently too tired to object.

Vic read the compass and showed Áillen where they wanted to go, then stepped back as Áillen created the fold. Their campsite wasn't close to any other folds, so Áillen simply took a few steps back and opened the fold where he stood.

Julian had rarely seen a technician create a fold before, and he still couldn't see it now. Watching Áillen create the fold felt like road hypnosis. He set his eyes on Áillen, then jerked back to consciousness a minute later, having zoned out, after the fold was already created. It was famously difficult for anyone to actually watch a fold being created, although some time dilators could do it. Even technicians found the process difficult to describe.

Unlike the pre-existing folds on the field, Áillen's fold wasn't perfectly rectangular; it was more of an irregular ellipse. It was at an angle to the ground, and Julian could feel that the spacetime itself on either side was angled, which would make the fold disorienting to step through. But the only thing Julian cared about was that the fold wasn't drifting fast enough to be dangerous. It should be safe to cross through. Julian dilated time and looked through it, and found that it let out in the part of the park with the hoodoos, which they'd long since left behind.

Julian let Áillen walk him through the fold. The transition felt like a sharp jerk, but he'd had worse. When he opened his eyes, he was standing in a cool pine copse, lumpen hoodoos towering over the pines that towered over him. Áillen released him, and he and Kaliah guided Vic and Elias through. Elias stumbled when he came out, but caught himself at the last second on one of the trees and didn't fall.

"You okay?" Julian asked.

"Peachy."

"Look," Vic said with surprise, pointing up. There, tangled in the branches of one of the pines right in front of them, was an orange silk ribbon: the second flag.

Julian exhaled, hiding his relief. He had begun to feel as though the team might be stuck in this park forever, doomed to wander between the hoodoos thirsty and searching hopelessly for flags until they crumbled into dust, blending with the pervasive red sand. Vic was already starting towards the tree. They swung up into its lower branches and tugged the flag free, then delivered it to Áillen. "This is yours."

"Thanks." Áillen looked almost as shocked as Julian felt at how easy that retrieval had been.

"Have you ever actually folded during a game before, Áillen?" Julian asked.

"No."

"Want to try it again?"

Áillen quirked an eyebrow. "Sure, when we're far enough away from this fold."

"Vic, you can lead the way towards the next flag. We'll hike a mile, then fold again. Áillen, how many times can you do it without becoming exhausted?"

"I don't know. I haven't been able to practice much. Maybe three?"

"Okay. If three folds aren't sufficient, we stop and continue with the compass."

After a mile of hiking, Áillen put in the next fold and he and Kaliah guided the rest of the group through. As soon as Áillen put in the fold, Julian felt space shift under him and he was gripped by an uneasy nausea, like the first stirrings of carsickness–his inner ear complaining about the way spacetime had been spliced together. He wasn't sure if the rest of the group recognized the feeling of space twisting around them. Kaliah glanced around in disorientation, and Julian thought she probably knew what was going on. He didn't want to hurt Áillen's feelings by pointing out the bad fold aloud–there was no point anyway, as the fold had already been made and it was too late to move or fix it. They would just have to push through the strange sensation of space bending in a way it shouldn't.

Unfortunately, this time the fold left them several miles from the third flag, and the brief optimism the first fold's success had engendered faded rapidly. They hiked towards the third flag in a stony silence. Julian was too exhausted to try to start a conversation.

He found himself starting to drift mentally, forgetting where he was going, walking along in a trance. He scratched his fingers along the stubble on his jaw, trying to ground himself. Kaliah walked with her head down, focusing on her feet. Elias drifted along in a dreamlike state. Áillen saw Julian taking stock of the team and frowning, and dropped back to walk next to him at the rear of the group. "What's wrong?"

Julian could feel the strain on spacetime from Áillen's last fold. They had edged dangerously close to mangling the Capture field and ruining the whole game. "Nothing," he said.

"My last fold was off-kilter," Áillen said. Julian could rarely get anything past him.

"A little."

"I'm sorry. I'm trying to help."

Julian shook his head. "Don't apologize. I asked you to do it."

The third flag was mounted atop one of the hoodoos. Kaliah leaned through a fold at the base of the hoodoo and plucked the flag from the spindly top. Julian hung onto her waist and helped pull her back once she'd grabbed the flag. Leaning through a fold instead of stepping through quickly was incredibly disorienting, and they had to stop for a break for Kaliah to lie on the ground and wait for the world to stop spinning. Vic played fitfully with the compass, opening and closing it, chewing their lip pensively. Julian could tell by their movements that they were stepping in and out of the timestream, contracting time in jerks.

Vic claimed the fourth flag was close by, so they hiked to it without creating another fold. Down among the hoodoos, it was cold in the shade but hot in the sun. It made Julian feel feverish. He kept drinking water, but then suddenly found he'd exhausted his supply. He returned his second empty bottle to his pack and wondered if he should say something to the group, but he already felt so fuzzy-headed and dizzy that he didn't want to bother to speak up. The very thought of it was tiring. The most important thing is to get out of here as quickly as possible.

He considered calling for an extraction. He was pretty sure this game wasn't supposed to have lasted for this long; chances were that Gladeloch's disastrous performance on the first day of the game had sealed their fate and they had already lost. He could shoot his red flare and have the whole team pulled off the field without hours. But Julian didn't want to be a quitter just because he was suffering. He wanted to finish the damn game.

After a grueling hike up the side of the bowl-shaped canyon through the hoodoos, Kaliah finally retrieved the second-to-last flag. Julian reached for his water as Kaliah tied the flag onto her pack, then remembered he was out. Áillen saw him do it and opened his mouth, and for a second he thought he was going to say something about it, but Áillen surprised him by instead wordlessly passing Julian his own water bottle. Julian took it; his palms were clammy, and closing his fingers around the bottle felt like operating a claw machine. He took a few swallows, wary of using up too much of Áillen's water, then passed it back, forcing himself to stop before downing the rest of the bottle.

His head was throbbing. He could feel the cold water heavy in his stomach; he was nauseated. He couldn't tell anymore what was the effects of Áillen's folds beginning to mangle the space, and what was the beginning of heatstroke. "Julian, maybe we should just go…" Áillen said.

Julian snapped back to consciousness just in time to respond, "No. I'm okay."

"You're very pale."

"Don't worry about me." He straightened up, but Áillen took him by the elbow and took him a few steps farther away from the group.

"Are you sick? Are you going to puke?"

"No, no," Julian insisted weakly, not at all sure whether or not he was lying.

"I don't think we're going to win this game," Áillen said frankly.

"Can you please just get us out of here?"

Áillen hesitated. "If the space gets mangled further…"

"We're almost done. Please."

Áillen ducked his head. He looked especially short crowded into Julian's space. "Fine," He said. He went over to Vic to get their next set of instructions from them. Julian focused on shaking off his exhaustion.

He watched blearily as Áillen had a short argument with Vic that he couldn't really hear. Áillen gestured towards Julian, then walked off down a corridor between two rows of hoodoos. Julian had no idea how close they were to any other folds, or what the risk of mangling the space was if Áillen opened a fold here. All he knew was that he needed the team out as soon as possible. It'll probably be fine.

Áillen reached out to fold space. A heartbeat later, Julian woke up on his back, lying in cool dirt under pine trees. He jerked upright. His head was pounding worse than before, and he had no idea where he was or how much time had passed. Áillen pushed Julian back down, leaning over him with his hands on Julian's chest. "Easy…" Julian flopped back into the dirt. Beside him, he saw Vic also sprawled in the dirt, but rousing. They dragged themself into a sitting position against a tree. Kaliah stood over Vic, and Elias was leaning against one of the pines a few meters away.

"What…?"

"That was a mistake," Áillen said flatly. "Everyone got through the fold."

"But the space is mangled," Julian finished.

"Locally, at least," Áillen said. The distortion effects weren't strong enough to debilitate them here, but if they went back through the fold they'd be rendered unable to function again until they managed to leave the area, or died trying.

"Let me up."

Áillen jerked back like he'd forgotten his hands were still resting on Julian's chest. Julian sat up gingerly. He still could feel that spacetime was twisted by the misaligned folds, but he could stand without falling. Áillen hovered nervously near him.

"This was my fault," Julian said to Áillen. "You didn't do anything wrong. Okay… we'll have to finish this on foot. Vic, are you alright?"

"Just nauseated," Vic said shortly. They were still seated.

"Where are we going from here?"

Vic glanced at the compass, then pointed in two different directions. "It could be two miles this way or one and a half miles this way. The group will have to split."

"Vic and Áillen, northeast. Kaliah, Elias, and I will go northwest." Vic stood and the team bunched up into the two groups Julian had indicated. "We'll see you two in a little while," Julian said, hoping it was true, and set off with Elias and Kaliah.


It seemed like splitting up was the one good idea Julian had had in the past week. Despite the nauseating and disorienting effects of the mangled field, Elias perked up a little once he was separated from Vic. Kaliah, though as stoic as she always was, also seemed more at ease in the smaller group. Julian forced them to walk slowly, pausing the whole group to gather themselves whenever the mangled space got to be too much and one of them became too dizzy to go on. Julian's head was still spinning, but if they moved carefully and slowly, they could hike in a straight line without becoming incapacitated by the disorientation. Kaliah shared her water with Julian, saving him from becoming even more dehydrated.

It's almost over. Just a little farther…


Áillen was nervous about the split. He felt responsible for the precarious situation of the team, since he was the one who had mangled the field, and while he wanted to trust Julian's judgment that it was better for them to attempt to finish the game instead of calling for an extraction, he was nervous. It wouldn't be the first time someone had gotten lost on a mangled field and died of exposure in a park before officials could straighten out spacetime enough to rescue them.

He'd never played on a mangled Capture field before and didn't know how to strategize. He didn't yet feel all that disoriented, so he pointed himself and Vic in the direction Vic indicated and started hiking. He didn't realize he was heading for a section of the park that was mangled worse until time started to slide off-kilter. He held Vic's shoulder to keep them together and tried to power through it until he blacked out for a few seconds and came to leaning up against a hoodoo and covered in cold sweat.

His heart was pounding in his ears like a drum and the whole Earth kept seeming to slew side to side as space and time jerked around them unpredictably. It felt like being delirious with fever. They hiked a little farther and again he blacked out and came to with his hand around one of the flares in the bottom of his backpack.

"Áillen," Vic said. He dropped the flare and looked up. He was pretty sure it wasn't the first time Vic had called his name. They looked weirdly off balance; their normally sharp dark eyes were clouded, and they braced themselves against a hoodoo with one hand. They looked nauseated; the mangled space was playing hell on both their inner ears. "Where are we going?"

That's right. He was supposed to be hiking. He dilated time and found that it helped him see through the effects of the mangling. He could look around without feeling like he was going to lose his balance and fall.

Based on the angle of the sun and his and Vic's footprints leading towards the stark shadow of the hoodoo, they'd been walking in a broad arc and had turned almost perpendicular to their original path. He slid back into the timestream and pointed. His hand moved sluggishly, as though through water. "That way."

He hiked with Vic in a daze for what felt like hours. When he suddenly snapped back to consciousness again, he had no idea where he and Vic were. They were surrounded by these identical hoodoos, which had taken on a malicious personality and seemed to glare down at them from the sky. "Fuck." He scrubbed his face with his hands. Vic stood glassy-eyed in the middle of the path, unmoving. He shook them by the shoulder. "Come on. We have to keep going." He pushed them back into motion, clenching his teeth.


Julian pulled the blue flag down from a lone pine standing in a clearing, circled by scarlet hoodoos. He climbed back down and stepped out of the tree as Kaliah dilated time and looked around. "There," she said momentarily, pointing. "That's the exit fold."

The mirrored doorway stood only a few hundred meters away. We're going to make it, Julian thought, dizzy with relief. He took Elias's hand and dragged him towards the exit fold, already getting the white flare to mark the exit out of his bag.


Áillen stood in the sun, staring into the sky. A bright blue afterimage streaked across his vision. He couldn't remember what had caused the afterimage, but he knew it was important. It was… it was…

That's Julian's flare. But what did it mean? The white flare… I have to…? He was so incapacitated by the mangled field he could barely even think straight.

Beside him, Vic collapsed back against a hoodoo. They clamped a hand over their mouth, heaved dizzily, and cursed. They opened their water bottle and turned it upside down. Condensation fogged the sides. A single drop of water snaked down to the lip and landed on their tongue.

14 Heading Home

As soon as Julian came through the exit fold, he beelined to Professor Kung and she gave him a gallon jug of water from the back of the van. He knew he was getting mild heatstroke, and he downed a quarter of it in an attempt to stave it off. While he was trying to pull himself together, Elias and Kaliah left the Capture field to get a ride back to the hotel. They were exhausted and dejected. Gladeloch must have lost the match already, although the Capture officials couldn't say anything until the entire team came through the exit fold. However, they still had to finish the game or they would be disqualified from competing at all in the post-season.

Julian gulped down water until his stomach suddenly started to cramp. Belatedly he realized that drinking half a gallon of water on an empty stomach while probably having heatstroke was not the brightest idea he'd ever had. He managed to stumble a few meters away from Kung and Anastasia, the reporter, before violently retching and throwing up all the water. He was pretty sure Anastasia had filmed it. Julian straightened up and wiped his mouth on the back of his hand. He shuddered from a mixture of residual nausea and the reminder that this disastrous game had been filmed and they were going to have to see it on TV for the next week.


It took two more hours for Áillen to dive through the exit fold. He landed hard on all fours before Julian could catch him, although Julian managed to spring forward and break Vic's fall before they could also hit the ground. He, Kung, the official, and Anastasia were the only ones left at the exit fold.

"Thank god you're alright," Julian said in a thin voice as he offered Áillen a hand up.

Áillen didn't take it, getting to his feet and brushing cascades of red dust off his pants. "We're fine," he said. He sounded shaken, yet calm.

Vic croaked, "We are never, ever trying that again."

"I know. I'm sorry. I'm so sorry," Julian said. "This is my fault."

Áillen straightened up with an effort. "What's the time?"

"It's almost six."

"Did we lose?"

Julian looked towards the Capture official. She wasn't even bothering to punch any numbers into her laptop, which wasn't a good sign. She looked up. "The other team finished in just over twenty-four hours," she said apologetically.

"Fuck," Julian said. He put his face in his hands. What an embarrassment. Professor Kung hadn't yelled at him yet, but he knew he was going to get it from her whenever she had a chance.

"Can we please go home?" Áillen said in a small voice.

Professor Kung took the remainder of the team back to the van. They picked up Kaliah and Elias at the hotel. They both piled blearily into the back of the van; Elias was asleep within minutes. Then they got back on the road to Gladeloch. Julian sat in the passenger seat next to Professor Kung. She said quietly, "At least this won't affect our standing, since we were ranked far lower than them anyway. You'll get another chance to show what we can do in our next game."

"That's not the point," Julian murmurred back. A few minutes later he added, a little sharply, "Don't you have anything to say to me about this disaster?"

"Are you trying to get me to yell at you? Julian, you know I won't. Don't revert to this behavior just because you're disappointed in yourself. It was one bad game. Everyone has a bad game now and then."

Julian leaned his forehead into the cool window of the car. After a while he closed his eyes.


Professor Kung dropped the team off at the Capture lounge, and Elias took Kaliah and Vic home in his own car. He dropped Kaliah off first, then asked Vic, "You're coming back to my place?"

Vic always went home with Elias after games. They were angry with him, but not angry enough to break tradition. "Yeah."

Vic watched Elias closely as they entered his house. His eyes flickered towards the door to the basement, where the illegal fold had been. Kung and Elias's parents had found a technician who would quietly close it while Elias had been in the hospital. The fold was gone, and Elias's direct access to the storage unit cut off, although as far as Vic knew the unit itself hadn't been touched.

It had now been over a week since Vic had found Elias overdosing in the storage unit, and Vic still hadn't gotten more than a few words of explanation and a nonspecific "I'm sorry" out of him about it. He hadn't even said Benjamin's name. It compounded Vic's sense of betrayal: not only had Elias not told Vic that anything was wrong before he'd OD'd, he hadn't even said anything to them afterwards. The longer Elias went without talking to Vic about it, the more hurt and frustrated they became.

Vic toed off their sneakers and left them by the front door. They were still shedding red dust from Mustang Run; it was embedded in their hair and jeans.

Elias took off his shoes and then padded into his kitchen in his socks. Vic followed him silently and watched him from the doorway, their arms crossed. Elias got a glass of water from the spigot built into the fridge. He looked blank-faced, like he was running on autopilot. He downed half of it and refilled the glass.

He headed back towards the doorway, where Vic stood, but before he could reach them, Vic planted their hands on their hips and widened their stance, blocking the doorway. Elias stopped right in front of Vic. "What?"

"Well?" Vic asked. They had to struggle to keep the mounting fury out of their voice. "Are we going to talk about this?"

Elias took a half-step back. "What's 'this'?"

"This," Vic said, spreading their arms. "Anything! Are we going to talk about anything? You OD'd a week ago and scared the shit out of me. Then you refused to tell anyone on the team what had happened–why you did it, or what you were thinking. Then I hear you've checked yourself out of the hospital AMA before getting any kind of psychological help. No, I didn't even hear that, I found that out when I walked in on you strategizing with Professor Kung in the Capture lounge. Now we've played a whole game together and I still don't understand what's going on. I don't know what you're thinking. I don't know what you're going to do next. I'm lost, Elias. Throw me a rope here. Help me."

Elias sighed deeply and said, "Look, I get that you're angry. But can we please not do this right now? I'm tired, and–"

"You're tired? You're tired? How do you think I feel?" Vic stepped forward, crowding him, raising their voice. "How many different ways can I say I care about you before you'll trust me with the bare minimum of information about what's going on with you? You have a right to privacy, but this isn't just about you anymore. Your depression is affecting the entire team. It's been two years, Elias! Two years since Benjamin died!"

"Don't you dare bring Benjamin into this!"

"How can I not? I found you half-dead surrounded by memorabilia of him. He's a part of this. Hell, he is this!" Tears streamed down Vic's face as they became angrier and angrier. "Before he died, you used to talk to me about anything and everything. You listened to me. You treated me like a human being; you saw me. Now everything's buried under layers of cynicism and bitterness, and I'm nothing but an acquaintance to you. All I want is to feel close to you again, Elias. All I want is for us to talk to each other, and you can't even give me that! I can't do this anymore. You've let your grief consume you. That's all you are. There's nothing for me here."

"That's not true," Elias whispered.

"Yeah, it is. I wish it wasn't. But it is." The fire in Vic's voice died and suddenly they felt young, incredibly young, like a child in the body and the terrifying world of an adult–a child waiting helplessly on Elias to give them what they needed.

"I'm going home," Vic said. Their voice sounded far away, and they were crying too hard to see where they were going. They knew Elias's house well enough to stumble to the front door and yank their shoes back on.

"Vic, wait." Elias laid a hand on Vic's shoulder. Vic violently threw him off with a sob that sounded inhuman. Elias watched as they burst outside and slammed the front door behind them. They strode towards the end of Elias's street, already dialing Kaliah's number to come get them.


When the van stopped at Julian's dorm, Julian hesitated before getting out of the car. He turned around in the front seat. "Áillen, there was something you wanted to tell me."

Áillen froze, remembering their conversation before the hospital. But he'd lost his nerve. He'd prepared himself to finally tell Julian about Tahlequah and Lex. He'd been braced. But that had been days ago, and now… He shook his head mutely.

"Hey," Julian said softly. "Are you okay?"

After all that? "No," Áillen said softly, the past several days settling on his shoulders like a ton of bricks.

"Come with me. I'll take care of you."

He didn't need to be told twice. He slid out of the van.

15 Snowstorm

The room was just what Áillen would have expected from Julian: clean, controlled, yet not sterile or impersonal. The twin bed wasn't quite made, but the covers were pulled up to make it look neat. A built-in closet on one wall stood open, showing a row of cardigans and solid t-shirts. A few posters for video games decorated the walls.

Above the bed, about twenty four-by-six photos were pinned to the wall. Áillen recognized members of the Capture team in them. One picture showed one of the false summits of Cedar Mountain in Sulfur Springs park, with the real peak looming behind it, taken from a high angle by a drone. He came closer and found dotlike humans climbing the side of the peak. He leaned across Julian's bed to see better as Julian went through his drawers, looking for something. It was one of Anastasia's photos from Áillen's first Capture game with this team. One of the dots on the mountainside was Áillen; he could see the red jacket Julian had bought him. He remembered Julian asking Anastasia about buying prints of her photography, but he had thought he was joking.

"Here," Julian said, breaking Áillen out of his thoughts. He handed him a stack of clothing. "You can wear these for tonight. Go to the bathroom and change. You can shower if you want. I left you an extra toothbrush on the sink."

Julian's ensuite had a sink and mirror in an alcove off the main bedroom, and the shower and bathroom were through a door in the alcove. Áillen turned on the shower to warm up, then came back out and brushed his teeth with Julian's toothpaste. It was a different kind of mint than the store-brand generic mint Áillen bought, spearmint or peppermint or something.

He spat and rinsed his mouth, then pulled the elastic off the tail of his braid. He unraveled it with his fingers, letting his hair form a wavy cloud around his face. He was hyperconscious of Julian in the other room, moving around, opening and closing drawers. Trying to ignore him, Áillen showered quickly, borrowing quite a lot of Julian's conditioner. It smelled like Julian, yet not–the sweet, floral smell was one facet of how Julian smelled, but it lacked the scent of Julian's sweat and the smell of the outdoors, pine and dirt, that clung to him even when he was inside. Áillen closed his eyes, wanting Julian's smell to mark him. You're not his, he reminded himself angrily as he worked the conditioner out of his hair.

He turned off the shower and wrung out his hair, then started to put on Julian's clothes. He'd left him an oversized T-shirt, a pair of boxers, and sweatpants. The T-shirt was thin and warm and clung to his damp body. The back soaked through as his hair continued to drip. The boxers fit okay, but the sweatpants flooded him and pooled around his ankles. He held them up skeptically with one hand. They had a drawstring, but they were way too long, and Áillen drew the line at cuffing sweatpants. He deliberated for a minute, then dropped them again. Julian slept in just his boxers during Capture games on warmer days, so this would probably be alright. He twisted up a section of the hem of the T-shirt and tucked it into the waistband of the boxers to keep it out of the way.

Finally he came out of the bathroom, feeling self-conscious in Julian's clothing. He felt very exposed standing in front of him with just his boxers on. He blushed when Julian, sitting on his bed playing with his phone, looked him up and down. He smoothed his hands down the fronts of his thighs nervously, which of course only drew attention to his legs and the fact that his crotch was concealed beneath a single layer of dark red plaid.

Julian gave him a dark-eyed look that Áillen couldn't interpret. He looked at Áillen's face, then his legs.

"Your sweats don't fit me," Áillen rasped. "I didn't want to step on the cuffs and fray them."

"Good thinking." Julian shook his head minutely, then tossed Áillen a throw blanket that was on the bed. "Here. You'll be cold."

Áillen wrapped the throw around his shoulders automatically, obeying Julian's order habitually. He stood in the center of the room, bare toes curling in Julian's deep area rug. "Are you going to sleep?"

"It's only nine. Are you tired?"

"No."

"Then let's watch something. Come over here." Julian patted the bed next to him. Again, without thinking, Áillen obeyed and sat down next to Julian. "This is Elias's work, obviously," Julian said, gesturing at the flatscreen.

"You mean he got you the TV?"

"Yeah. Before Benjamin died." It came to life, and Julian flipped to a nature documentary. Leaving Áillen perched on the edge of the mattress, Julian scooted back and stretched his legs out, propping his head on one hand. He looked at Áillen expectantly as a British man with a soothing voice began explaining the habits of the pika, a topic with which Áillen was quite familiar firsthand. "Why don't you lie down?" Julian said.

Áillen swung his legs up onto the bed tentatively. This felt dangerous. He was alone with Julian; nobody would hear if something happened, and Áillen always found himself unable to scream when he was in trouble anyway. He could hear Julian breathing behind him. It was impossible to focus on the soothing British man. Áillen just nodded and hummed whenever Julian made some comment about the cruel beauty of nature or whatever.

As tense as he was, at least he wasn't alone.

He exhaled and then tensed again as he felt Julian's hand on his waist. "What are you doing?" Áillen asked as Julian pulled him closer, closing the gap between them. He was wide awake now, staring sightlessly at a cloud of baby jellyfish on the TV. Áillen trusted Julian more than anyone else in his life, but that meant very little when he trusted nobody. Being held against Julian and having Julian at his back were very difficult. At least Julian didn't trap him; he didn't put any part of his body on top of Áillen except shifting his hand from Áillen's waist to his sternum once he was positioned how Julian wanted him. Julian's hand spanned most of Áillen's chest.

"Nothing," Julian replied. "Nothing's going to happen. We're just two friends comforting each other after a long day, right?" He began to stroke his thumb over Áillen's sternum, across the ridges of cartilege between that column and the rays of his ribs. "Relax. I've got you."

The motion of Julian's thumb was hypnotic. Áillen had half picked up his head, but he laid it down again. His limbs were going boneless. He wondered when Julian was going to ask him to move and sleep somewhere else and thought he should stay awake for that, but it was impossible to fight the drowsiness that came over him.


Elias knocked on Julian's door. "Hey, Julian," he called softly. "Are you awake?"

It was only about 7:15 in the morning. Elias had spent the previous night being sad and alone about Vic walking out on him. He had wanted a distraction, so he'd driven down to campus and was going to drag Julian out to breakfast.

Julian didn't answer, but his door was unlocked. Elias let himself in, calling Julian's name again. The sunrise illuminated his east-facing window, lighting his dorm furniture and the cozy, modest-yet-private space of his single dorm. Elias couldn't imagine what it would be like to live on campus; he'd lived on his parents' property the entire time he'd been at college and had never had a dorm. Sometimes he thought there was something romantic about dorm life, but those thoughts never lasted more than about two minutes. That was usually how long it took for someone to loudly start practicing tuneless bass guitar down the hall or walk back to their dorm wet and mostly naked from the communal showers that the underclassmen, who didn't have ensuite bathrooms, had to share.

Julian was still in bed, but he sat up groggily when Elias came in. "El…? What do you want? What time is it?"

"It's seven–" Elias started, and that was as far as he got before he realized there was another person in Julian's bed. "Wait, what?"

"What?" Julian echoed.

Long, light hair lay across Julian's pillow. A smaller form was curled up in front of Julian, pressed close to him in his twin bed. The sun was in his eyes, so Elias couldn't see them very well. From the long hair, Elias assumed it was a woman, which was baffling because Julian was gay.

Julian put his hand protectively on the shoulder of the other person. He didn't seem to have woken up enough to completely understand the situation in which he found himself, because he didn't look self-conscious at all about the proprietary gesture. Was Julian, Elias's best friend, involved with someone? Why hadn't Elias heard anything about this?

Then the smaller figure woke up and Elias saw who it was.

Unlike Julian, he didn't wake gracefully. Áillen bolted upright so fast both Elias and Julian flinched, almost headbutting Julian's nose. He was swimming in one of Julian's t-shirts, his hair completely unbound. It was painfully obvious what was happening here. Elias shouldn't have been surprised. Julian and Áillen's chemistry had been undeniable from day one. But he still found himself blindsided by shock and disappointment. As close as Elias and Julian were, it wasn't Elias Julian was holding in his bed at night. Elias wasn't even attracted to Julian, but he didn't need to be attracted to be jealous.

Áillen tore out of Julian's arms. For a second it looked like he was going to charge Elias to try to get out to the hallway, and Elias's amusement turned to alarm. Then he changed tacks and darted for Julian's bathroom. He slammed the door and the bolt slid into place.

"Did you two–" Elias started.

"No, we did not," said Julian, who was now completely alert and had already gotten to his feet. "Get out."

"Wait, but I–" Elias stammered. Was Julian completely done with him?

"Go wait for me in the lounge. I'll come get you in a minute." Julian said. He was getting his protective hackles up. It was weird to watch, because Julian had gotten protective on Elias's behalf a number of times when they'd been younger, especially in Elias's sophomore year, right after Benjamin's death. Julian had practically followed him around for a few weeks hissing at anyone who tried to bring up Benjamin.

"I'm going," Elias said, putting his hands up, trying to affect nonchalance, as though he didn't care at all that Áillen had completely replaced him in Julian's heart.

"If you say anything about this–especially to the team–I will end you."

Elias left for the lounge.

It took almost fifteen minutes for Julian to return, by which time Elias had had a chance to compose himself and resume pretending nothing was wrong. Julian was wearing the look Elias thought of as his "Why do I even put up with you people?" look. Elias had seen it before in a laundry list of scenarios, such as when Kaliah had asked during one of her first games on the Capture team if she could just finish the course herself and let everyone else catch up to her flare. Or when they'd been at a diner this fall to kick off the season and Vic had ordered bottomless pancakes. It was kind of funny, but mostly depressing. There had been a time when Elias could show up at Julian's door at any time of day unannounced and simply walk in. But Elias guessed they were past that.

"He okay?" Elias asked.

"He's fine, no thanks to you."

"I didn't even say anything! I walk into your room all the time. If you didn't want me in there you should have locked the door."

"Some people take a closed door as a similar signal."

"I knocked, but you didn't hear me."

"What did you even want?"

"To take you to breakfast," Elias said, dangling his car keys from one finger and trying not to show how badly he wanted to just give up and go back home. "You in?"

"Are you paying?"

"When do I not?"

"Touché. Yes, I'll let you make it up to me with food."

"That's not what I'm doing," Elias protested. Julian was smiling again, which was a relief. Elias wasn't sure what he would have done if Julian had really been disappointed, since he'd already tried killing himself to escape that and it hadn't worked.

They went to the low-end diner Julian liked that was just outside Littlebrook on a weirdly abandoned section of highway, next to a broken-down factory with busted-out windows. Elias often forgot how economically depressed Littlebrook was, since he usually kept to his neighborhood and the campus. Big Will's Chill and Grill was an unwelcome reminder that actually, they were in the rural west, and it sure was the wild west in some of these restaurants. "Hollandaise and French toast weren't meant to come this close to each other," he muttered, paging through the menu.

"Oh, shut up. You love it."

"No," Elias said, running a finger across the tabletop and immediately regretting it. He wiped the grease off on his napkin. "I really don't."

"Why are we here, anyway?"

"You demanded Big Will's," Elias said, arching an eyebrow. "Otherwise I would have taken us somewhere civilized."

"No, I mean, are you finally going to talk to me about all this?"

"About what?"

Julian put aside his menu and slid his diner coffee in front of him. He took a judgmental sip. "Where should I even start? For one thing, you're a technician and you never even told me? Me? Your best friend? Captain of your Capture team?"

Elias had known this interrogation was coming, but he hadn't expected Julian to launch into it with such enthusiasm. "Okay, for one thing, where did you even hear about that?"

"Vic."

"I didn't tell them."

"They said they 'extrapolated it from the available evidence.'"

"Look, I didn't tell you because I don't like making folds, and I'm not even very good at it. I only realized I could do it when I was already halfway through freshman year. I was still trying to figure out how to control and fix the folds better when Benjamin passed and I made the fold in the basement. Then I couldn't tell anyone because I was afraid someone would figure out about the basement fold."

"I could have helped you if you had just told me what was going on."

"I doubt that."

"I could have. Elias, I'd go to the ends of the earth to keep you safe. I would have helped you find someone who would quietly close the fold. We could have found somewhere else for you to keep your mementos of your brother."

"Professor Kung got it sorted. The fold is closed now. Nobody's going to find out about it."

"I know it worked out, but that's not the point. The point is that I could have helped you."

"Maybe I didn't want you to."

"I can see that you didn't, but I don't understand why. The stupid fold, your ability, that's not the point of all this. Elias, you almost died and you won't even talk about it."

"I didn't want all this to blow up any more than you did. I never meant for things to escalate this far."

"Then why didn't you tell anyone what was going on before you overdosed?" Julian asked. He wasn't raising his voice, but his stage whisper was still drawing stares from old long-haired farmers at the adjacent tables. Elias was suddenly glad they were out in the rural middle of nowhere and none of these people actually knew him. "What were you even trying to accomplish? You still haven't told me what you were thinking. I don't get it. Vic doesn't get it either."

"It was the week of the anniversary of Benjamin's death.

"Last year, you didn't do anything on the anniversary of Benjamin's death besides lie face-down in bed in the dark all day. You got through it last year. What was different this year?"

"Last year, you needed me," Elias burst out, more stridently than he had intended.

"What are you talking about?"

"Don't play dumb. When Benjamin died, everyone knew it should have been me. Benjamin was better than me in every way I could think of. He played a normal sport, rugby, instead of being a Capture freak. He was stronger than me, a little taller than me. He was more attractive, more muscular, friendlier, easier to understand, less dark, all of it. My parents all but told me they wished I had been in that car instead. After he died, you were the only person who wanted me around."

"Elias, that's not true."

"Yeah, it is. And then Áillen…"

"What? What does Áillen have to do with any of this?"

"You're in love with him. With him on the team, and in your life, what could you possibly need me for?"

"Elias, you know I don't feel that way," Julian said, looking like he'd been slapped. "You're my best friend."

"I hung on after he died because I knew it would hurt you if I died too. You'd get over it, but it would hurt."

"Elias…"

"But now you have Áillen, and he's–he has that glow, that light that draws people to him… yeah, I know he's guarded and kind of fucked up. That's not the point. It's easy to see past that–just below the surface, he's full of fucking love and sunshine. He's like a puppy that's been kicked once too often, he's–he's perfect for you. He's perfect for the team. You have five players who aren't me now, so what am I even doing here anymore? I'm worthless to you."

"It would kill me," Julian admitted. "If you died. No matter who else I meet… no matter how long it had been since we'd last seen each other… it would kill me. And that won't ever change."

Elias leaned over, bracing his forearms on the table and trying to avoid Julian's laserlike stare. He was stunned by Julian's words. It would kill him?

"You didn't realize that, did you? You selfish fucking asshole," Julian said, with no heat behind it. "Áillen could never replace you. You're my best friend. So you're stuck here. Fucking get used to it and stop trying to find a way out.

"How do you do it? You're not looking for a way out, are you. Every day you wake up with your whole past behind you." Julian had told Elias about his childhood other times. His father. The sunless basement. Days that blended into weeks with nothing to differentiate them. "And you bring all this energy to practice, and I just think–where does he get it? Why can't I have that?"

Julian hesitated. Elias could practically see him about to spout some platitude about the power of positive thinking, but to his surprise, Julian didn't. "Sometimes I don't know," he said. Elias hadn't expected that vulnerability from Julian. "Some mornings I get up and I just… don't know why I keep doing it. I get dressed, I wash my hair out of habit. I come to practice. Then… times like the last day at Emerald Copse, when we won the game, it's like… the team has become a family. A family I helped build. We hold each other up, we comfort each other when we cry. I don't want to give up on that. I don't want to give up on you. I live every day praying that I can make this day a little easier for you. For everyone on the team, but especially for you, Elias. You're irreplaceable to me. I would do anything for you. Sometimes that's what gets me up in the mornings."

"You're a better man than I am," Elias said. He intended to be flippant, but it came out pained.

"I don't know. Put it another way, I'm using you to keep me alive."

A long silence followed that, neither of the boys eating, neither moving. Eventually Julian added, "Maybe we can help keep each other alive from now on."

"I think I have to learn to do it for myself."

"Yeah. You do. But I can help you in some ways. Next time you feel like that, call me. If you want to do drugs and check out for a while, fine. I know better than anyone that if that's what you really want, there's nobody on Earth who could stop you. But call me and I'll make sure it doesn't put you in the hospital."

"I'm sorry for making you worry."

"It's okay. I always worry anyway." Julian smiled as he cut up French toast, next to an egg in a pool of Hollandaise. Elias had pancakes, a relatively safe choice that hopefully wouldn't involve any undercooked egg or dairy. He'd made that mistake at Big Will's already and wasn't about to repeat it. Julian, of course, had an iron stomach and couldn't understand Elias's complaints about the venue.

They dug into their food in a comfortable silence for some time before Elias blurted out, "Vic's not talking to me."

"What?!" Julian actually dropped his fork. "Since when?"

"I pissed them off last night. I don't know what I did."

"So that's why you're taking me out to eat."

"Kind of. They yelled at me about Benjamin. I've never seen them like that before."

"Like what? Did they go hysterical?"

"Yeah, you know what I mean?"

"I've seen Vic lose it before. Once. It was during our first Capture game with them."

Elias thought back to it. "What happened? I thought that game went well."

"Yeah, more or less. It was the original five from the beginning of this year on the team: you, me, Vic, Kaliah, and Nasira. Joseph had just graduated, so Vic was backfilling for him. It was the evening of the first day of the game. I think you had already gone to sleep. I was walking Vic through everything in my pack, because they were using their old Capture equipment from high school, and didn't know about some of the different regulations at the college level, like the rules about alcohol stoves. And I mentioned that we didn't have a satellite phone."

"And they freaked out?"

"No, not then, but that was my first mistake. You know what happened to Vic's parents, with the fire. I didn't know at the time, so I didn't realize that not being able to quickly call for help would be such a sensitive issue. They were like, 'You mean our only way out if something goes wrong is this flare?' I was like, yeah, but it's fine; the emergency team can respond pretty quickly. I mentioned the mules."

"The Mustang Run mules?"

"Yeah. That was my second mistake other than bringing this up in the middle of the game while we were already twelve miles deep in the woods. They were like, 'So if you send up the red flare, they send out a helicopter?' and I had to say no, not exactly; a helicopter can't land here, but they'll send a team of mules to pack us out."

"Oh no."

"Right… I wasn't that worried about it, but I could tell I had freaked Vic out. At the time they were just spooked. They kept it together and laughed it off. Then, on the third day of the game, we had finally split. You went off with Kaliah and I was with Nasira and Vic. Nasira fell and broke a finger."

"I barely remember that."

"She barely broke it, but she screamed–I think she was really more surprised than hurt. Vic absolutely lost it. Nasira recovered right away. We were so close to the exit fold, she jumped right up and said we should finish. But Vic was so hysterical I almost couldn't get them to the fold."

"Wow."

"I'm honestly surprised you couldn't hear the commotion from wherever you and Kaliah were. It took us like ten minutes to drag Vic fifty meters to the exit fold. I thought they were going to quit the team and never come back."

"Of course they came back. They're stubborn."

"I know. I didn't know them that well back then. Anyway, I can't believe you ran them to the end of their rope."

"I can," Elias said, a little darkly.

"You have to apologize."

"I don't even know what I'm supposed to be apologizing for."

"I can give you some ideas," Julian said, rolling his eyes.

That was what Elias had wanted. Julian agreed to help him figure out how to talk to Vic later. When they were done with their food, and after Julian had devoured some kind of disgusting dessert involving a brownie, whipped cream, and ice cream even though it was still breakfast, Elias brought up another topic. "So, you and Áillen–"

"Oh, come on."

"I haven't even said anything yet."

"Yeah, but you're about to," Julian said. "You didn't see anything. I told you to keep it to yourself."

"He was in your bed. That wasn't nothing!"

Julian was blushing, and his mouth was twisting up at the side in an irrepressible smile. Unrestrainable joy wasn't an expression Julian wore all that often. Áillen could be good for him, Elias thought, and vice versa.

"You better be careful with him," Elias said.

Julian frowned. Elias knew Julian didn't understand why Elias felt protective of Áillen, despite also being jealous and angry over his entry into the team–which Elias himself had facilitated. Julian didn't see how alike the two of them were. Elias didn't know Áillen's life story, but he didn't have to. The fact that Áillen played Capture, combined with his demeanor, told Elias everything he needed to know: that Áillen had clawed his way to his position in life; that he'd been hurt; that life had been unfair to him.

So too for Elias. But where Elias had given up, drawn into a shell, and become passive and cynical, Áillen had become a fighter, a dervish made of whiplike muscle and hair and nails. Áillen had a passion that Elias could only remember having. Elias could see how that passion drew Julian to Áillen.

"I would never hurt him," Julian said. "I thought you resented him. I don't know why you're so worried about him too."

"I'm not worried. I don't worry."

"Of course you don't."

"It's not funny. He's a good kid. I just don't want him to get hurt if you–"

"I told you already, it's not what you think. I'm not going to take anything he doesn't want to give."

"He's young. He could make a mistake."

"Elias, do you trust me?"

"Yeah."

"Then listen. Everything is fine with him. We're not together. He didn't want to be alone last night after that disaster of a game, and frankly, neither did I. It was one time, and I doubt it's going to happen again."

That was comforting to hear, yet Elias couldn't help but hear the unspoken but how I wish it would that Julian didn't voice.


Vic kicked their legs over the edge of a rock outcropping over the Gold River. Kaliah stood behind them. Her face was turned towards the sun as she enjoyed the late afternoon light. They had hiked a few miles into the park to work off soreness from their last game of Capture. Neither of them had any afternoon classes on Tuesday, so they could go on short afternoon hikes to take advantage of a few hours of sunlight.

"I'm proud of you," Kaliah said. Her eyes were closed, and she looked beatific with her face upturned like a sunflower. It didn't matter that she was dressed in old yoga pants and a flannel she'd probably stolen from Julian because it was about a size and a half too big on her. Her strong figure and well-proportioned face still gave her the grace of a statue.

"For yelling at Elias?" Vic asked acerbically.

"For standing up for yourself."

Vic sighed and flipped a pebble off the edge of the outcropping. The pebble fell for a long moment, then disappeared soundlessly into the water. The river was high with late fall rain. The silty water was churned into crests of yellow foam. "It feels awful," Vic said.

"That doesn't mean it wasn't the right choice."

"You told me not to give up on Elias," Vic said. "And that's just what I've done."

"You can't give up on yourself, either," Kaliah said. "Sometimes you're the only person you can save."


Julian was almost delirious with relief when Elias announced that he was going to hold his usual post-finals party before their upcoming game against Tahlequah in Arc-en-Ciel state park. He had been worried that the cancellation of the party would ruin the team's morale, but also didn't want to push Elias to host it if he wasn't up to it. However, Elias seemed to be recovering well from his overdose. Julian was still suspicious, but he'd started to speak up more in Capture practice, and while he and Vic still weren't talking, they had quietly tolerated each other all week. Capture practice had been uncomfortable, but not unbearable.

Vic agreed to go to the party. Julian was pleased that they were both making an effort to get along. Nasira would come too. Julian was excited to have a chance to catch up with her, since she hadn't been able to attend any of their games.

They all gathered at Elias's house in the evening. December had just begun, and Elias's wealthy, retired neighbors all had extravagant displays of Christmas lights up. One of the houses next to Elias's had LED piping all around their roof, windows, and door that made the whole brown house look like a gingerbread cottage lined with frosting. His other neighbor had full-blown animatronics in the front yard. Elias himself had put up–or, more likely, hired someone to put up–white lights shaped like icicles around his gutters. There was even a pine wreath nailed to the front door.

Julian stamped the dirt off his hiking boots on the front step. His face was going numb from walking the two miles to Elias's house in a biting wind, living up to the stereotype that Capture players preferred to walk everywhere they could instead of driving.

He pushed through the door. Elias and the rest of the team were already in the living room, just through the foyer, and turned and greeted him with a general yell when he came inside. He smiled, taking off his boots. Tonight would be a reminder of what they all loved about Capture, even through all the stress and drama: the close-knit community within the team.

"It smells amazing in here. What is that?" he asked as Elias came to the door. Elias helped him out of his coat and hung it in the coat closet. That was the kind of weirdly formal gesture his parents had ingrained in him. Julian always found it funny when Elias absentmindedly did such things; it wasn't like him to play host but he seemed to do it without realizing it.

"It's mulled wine. Let me get you a mug."

"Very sophisticated. You know how to… mull?"

Elias rolled his eyes. "It's not hard." He poured Julian a mug of hot red wine. Julian put his face in it and inhaled.

As Elias filled his own mug and told Julian how his finals had gone (surprisingly well, considering), Áillen burst through the door without knocking. He jerked to a stop in the foyer, looking as though he was surprised to find himself in Elias's house again even though he had undoubtedly walked himself there. His hair was down, unbraided and dramatically windswept, and he didn't have gloves or a hat. His fingers were bright red from the cold. Julian had bought him gloves, so he had no idea why Áillen wasn't wearing them. "Áillen, come join us," he called from the kitchen.

Áillen looked up and smiled in relief. He took his boots off and came over. He was wearing the wool socks that Julian had bought him. He gave Áillen a short hug and fought the impulse to hold on for longer. "Get him a mug, Elias."

"What is this?" Áillen asked.

"Mulled wine. Do you like that, or would you prefer something else?"

"Hey, I'm serving him," Elias said. "That's my line."

"I don't know. I've never drank before."

"Seriously?" Elias said. Julian was too far away to surreptitiously kick him for embarrassing Áillen, so he settled on a glare over the top of Áillen's head.

Áillen just shrugged. Elias ladled out more wine into a peppermint-striped mug. Áillen took it and smelled it. "Is this gonna get me drunk?"

"It's just wine," Julian said. "You'll be alright. I'll make sure you don't do anything stupid."

"Alright." Áillen took the mug into the living room, Elias and Julian following him.

Kaliah, Vic, and Nasira were bunched up on one end of the massive sectional. Vic was laying across Kaliah and Nasira, turned sideways with their head in Nasira's lap and their feet across Kaliah's legs. "Hey guys," Vic said as the boys came in.

"Hey, Julian!" Nasira said cheerfully. "It's been a while!" She was already flushed, and several empty shot glasses populated a folding table near her arm of the couch. She was off her crutches, but still wore a heavy leg brace, which she had propped up on an ottoman.

"You never call me!" Julian teased her. He hugged her over the back of the couch. The angle was awkward, but she grabbed onto his forearms happily. "We miss having you on the team."

"I miss it too, although the break has been relaxing."

"You absolute traitor," Julian said. He looked up at the TV. "Oh, no. Are we seriously watching this?"

The Gladeloch Capture team–seen through someone's button cam; probably Vic's–was on the screen. Julian immediately recognized footage from their most recent game in Mustang Run. The scene jump-cut to a group shot from the morning of their second day, before Julian had split the group, filmed from a drone. Nobody in the frame was smiling.

"Professor Kung gave me the footage and said we could learn something from watching it," Vic said. They did not, however, appear to be paying any attention to the video.

"And what have you learned?"

Vic frowned. "We suck."

"Okay, first of all, we don't suck. That game sucked. Secondly, are you drunk already?"

"Have to be, to watch this," Vic said petulantly.

"They're not wrong," Nasira said. "It's pretty painful." Kaliah just nodded.

"We're turning this off," Julian announced. He winced as the recording of Vic sniped at Áillen onscreen. Áillen had perched on the other end of the sectional, an uncomfortable distance from the other three, and had shoved his feet between two of the couch cushions. He was looking at the TV with a troubled expression. "Let's find a holiday movie or something."

"You're right. It's just terrible. I can't possibly get drunk enough for this," Vic sighed. They reached behind their head at an impossible angle to set down their glass of white wine on the side-table by the arm of the couch. Julian wondered if Elias had served them or if they had helped themself.

At Nasira's direction, Julian found a TV channel where the Grinch, the old cartoon, was playing. Conversation moved on. Julian went back to the couch and sat down next to Áillen, who was staring at the TV with strangely rapt attention, perhaps dilating time. He glanced into Áillen's mug and found it empty. "You finished that quickly. Want more?"

"Oh… sure," he said seeming to break free from a reverie and handing the mug to Julian. Elias saw the exchange and took it so Julian didn't have to get up.

"Do you like this movie?" Julian asked.

"I've never seen it," Áillen said quietly, as though embarrassed. Julian frowned and didn't push.

Elias came back with a refill of Áillen's wine and a beer for Nasira, then finally sat down next to Julian. "I should have a butler," he said.

"You really shouldn't," Julian said.

Julian half-followed the Grinch as he listened to Nasira, Kaliah, and Vic catching up with each other. He was so lucky to have the whole Capture team in one place for the holidays. Elias was okay, at least for now, here where Julian could keep an eye on him; Áillen hadn't been permanently traumatized by getting caught in Julian's bed. Even Vic seemed okay, even though they weren't talking to Elias.

"Hey," Áillen said quietly, just to Julian, "When's Nasira joining the team again?"

"Not sure," Julian said, a little surprised at the shop talk. "It'll be at least a few more weeks before she's out of the brace. Then it's up to her and her physical therapist. Why do you ask?"

Áillen shrugged, looked like he was about to say something, then dropped it and turned back to the movie.

"Are you not getting along with her?"

"No. She's fine," Áillen said tersely.

It didn't take too long for Vic to get bored with the Grinch and propose another activity. They dug in one of the built-in cupboards on the back wall of the living room and found a box of Jenga blocks. They began to set up the tower on the coffee table between the couch and TV. "Áillen, come play with me," they demanded.

Áillen obediently slid off the couch and knelt by the coffee table. The position put him at Julian's feet. Julian stared at the back of Áillen's head as he settled so close to Julian that his back brushed Julian's shins. This doesn't mean anything, Julian thought a bit frantically as Áillen settled himself, leaning into Julian's legs. The coffee table is too close to the couch for him to fit without touching me.

Elias shot the two of them a sideways look and a little smirk. Julian ignored him.

He stopped watching the Grinch entirely and focused on Áillen's careful, slender fingers on the Jenga blocks while he and Vic played. Unfortunately for Vic, time dilation gave Áillen an overwhelming advantage. After the first few blocks were pulled and stacked, he started to show off, picking blocks out until the entire tower rested on two precarious crosses. Vic collapsed the tower within five minutes.

"Alright, move over and let me play him," Kaliah demanded. She took Vic's place.

Kaliah and Áillen went head-to-head with great intensity. This was the first time Nasira had seen Áillen silently and fluidly moving in and out of the timestream. Even though they were just playing a game, Áillen's skill was obvious in how exacting his movements were when he dilated time, and how he didn't even twitch as he dropped in and out of time.

"That's insane," Nasira said.

"Trust me, we all know," Vic said.

Julian and Elias went back into the kitchen again for drinks, and drinks turned into Julian raiding Elias's fridge as Elias leaned back against the kitchen counter and ribbed him about anything he could think of. By the time they wandered back into the living room, there was an architectural nightmare on the coffee table.

"What the fuck," Elias said. The Jenga tower had to be at least four feet tall.

"He's a really good time dilator," Nasira said, wide-eyed.

Áillen moved with the disturbingly fast reflexes and unnatural grace of a time dilator as he removed a block from the very base of the spindly tower. He slid it on top of the tower noiselessly. If Julian took one more step into the room, he was afraid the vibrations from his feet would knock it over.

As everyone watched Kaliah sweat over her next move, Julian minced behind the couch and wandered out to Elias's three-season porch, now equipped with storm windows for the winter, to be alone for a moment. He found he was still carrying a glass of white wine and took a long sip of it as he walked out. It smelled like peaches, presaging the coming spring.

But here, Julian realized, it was still winter: snow was coming down in great gouts, rapidly smothering Littlebrook, falling so fast it was as though someone had upended a huge sack of powdered sugar over the town. Julian could barely see anything beyond the porch. He pressed his face to the glass, cupping his free hand around his eyes to see better. The evergreen forest behind Elias's house glowed with an eerie light. Moonlight reflected off the mounting snow to illuminate the trees from beneath.

The snowflakes were tiny and dry. It was the kind of snow that could last and last. Snow already draped the limbs of the trees like frothy white shawls over the shoulders of old men. There was already at least an inch on the ground that had fallen over the past hour or two.

He called Elias from the living room out to the porch, and Elias showed up a minute or two later, silhouetted in the doorway. He ambled over towards Julian. He wasn't sober, but he wasn't drunk either. He came to stand at the window next to Julian. "Look," Julian said.

"Wow," Elias said after watching the snow fall for a few minutes. "Gonna have to shovel."

"Get your butler to do it."

"Ha, ha."

They stood in silence for another minute. Julian was that level of drunk where the world paradoxically seemed to sharpen and intensify rather than becoming vague and blurry. He was tuned into Elias's body language and thoughts so strongly that he could feel how Elias twisted back slightly to glance towards the living room when he heard Vic's voice carry out to the porch. Vic had been avoiding Elias all evening, but it was obvious that Elias was as attuned to Vic as he had ever been.

"Think we're going to be snowed in here tonight?" Julian asked. A hard wind gusted briefly and stirred up the flakes until they were nearly whited out, then slowly died back. The snow settled over the faint shadows of Elias's neighbors' lawn furniture.

"Oh, yeah," Elias said. "You better not try to walk home in this. I won't let you."

"How unfortunate. I'm stuck in here with you," Julian teased.

"I think you mean I'm stuck in here with you."

From behind them, there was an earsplitting crash as a tidal wave of Jenga blocks cascaded to the hardwood floor. Julian startled and turned around. Áillen stood in the middle of Elias's living room like a deer in headlights, holding the intact top quarter of their tower to his chest. He'd evidently caught part of it while the rest collapsed out from under him. Kaliah was flat on her back on the floor, laughing.

"It's painful to watch you moon over him," Elias said following Julian's gaze and fond smile to Áillen.

"You'll just have to get through it."

"So you finally admit it? You confess that you're mooning? Can I get this on the record? Say it right into the button cam."

"I'm not admitting to anything." Julian walked back towards Áillen as if he was magnetized to him, wondering exactly how drunk he had gotten. Áillen dumped the blocks he was holding all over Elias's coffee table. Most of them slid off the edge and fell to the floor with the others. One skittered under the TV stand. "Did you win?"

"No," Áillen said, pouting. He took Julian's hand and pressed one of the Jenga blocks he was still holding into it.

"What is this for?"

"Just hold onto it," Áillen said, patting Julian's fingers. He looked up at Julian with painful earnestness.

"They made it a drinking game," Vic explained from the sectional. "Kaliah decided they should both have to drink whenever one of them got a block out–"

"That's not a drinking game. That's the opposite of a drinking game. You're supposed to drink when you're losing."

"Kaliah disagrees." Vic nudged her with her foot. Kaliah grinned up at Julian from where she lay on her back on the floor. She took hold of one of Julian's ankles.

"I think you've had a bit much to drink," Julian said down to her.

"Fortunately," Kaliah said.

"This is a great party," Nasira, who appeared to be the most sober person in the room aside from perhaps Julian, contributed.

"Did you guys all walk here?"

"Yes," everyone chorused, except Nasira, who said, "A friend dropped me off."

"I think we're all going to be staying here tonight," Julian said.

"I'm not that drunk," Nasira said.

"That's not why. Look outside."

The team clambered back out to the porch. Áillen trailed after the group, staying equidistant between the rest of the team and Julian. Everyone exclaimed over the rapidly-mounting snow as Nasira checked the forecast. "We're supposed to get up to a foot tonight," she said.

"I think we're stuck here," Julian said. "We can help Elias dig his car out in the morning."

"When we're all hungover? No way," Nasira said.

"I wasn't going to let you help anyway."


Kaliah didn't last much longer before she started nodding off on the couch. Someone had put on another Christmas cartoon that nobody was really watching; Vic was half-listening to Elias attempting to introduce Áillen to fine wine.

"So what notes do you get from this?" Elias was asking Áillen. Elias was definitely drunk, although Julian had ensured he didn't get hammered, and was in full-on Victorian host mode. Vic wasn't sure exactly what a party host in the Victorian era would do, but they were pretty sure Elias would have fit right in.

"I don't know," Áillen said, expressionless. "Grapes?"

"You're hopeless. Look at this flavor wheel." Elias getting out the flavor wheel was always a good time to leave a room, and Kaliah needed to be brought upstairs, so Vic made their excuses and pulled Kaliah up off the couch. "Come on. Let's get you into bed."

"Everyone had a good time tonight," Kaliah said. Her voice was clear despite the fact that she was visibly drunk. Kaliah was weirdly immune to hangovers and held liquor well. Vic had a private theory that most time dilators didn't get hangovers, whereas most time contractors did. They and Elias certainly weren't immune, but Nasira and Kaliah always seemed to be fine. Julian, of course, never got drunk enough to be hungover.

They manhandled Kaliah to the stairs. "Yeah, everyone did."

"It's gonna be okay."

"Yep, everyone's alright."

"I mean you. You're gonna be fine."

"I'm fine right now," Vic said. Kaliah leaned into Vic pliantly as Vic took them to Elias's most-used guest room, the white, hotel-like one. They set Kaliah down on the starched twin bed in the middle of the room. Kaliah started working at her shoes, and Vic decided to save her the trouble and knelt down to untie them. Kaliah had a special shoelace knot that she claimed was far superior to a normal bow or double-knot, so this was more of an ordeal than it probably should have been.

"I mean you an' Elias," Kaliah continued. "You two will be okay."

Vic paused, thinking, she's drunk. But they couldn't help asking, "You think?"

"I know you will. You're smart. You'll figure it out."

Vic pulled off one of her shoes. "Not as smart as you."

"Well, you're wayyyyy smarter than Elias."

Vic rolled their eyes. "Thank you."

"No, I mean, I mean–" Kaliah sat up as Vic worked on her other shoe. "If you decide you don't want to have anything to do with him anymore, that will be fine. You'll find a way to stay on the team without being close to him. And if you decide you do want something to do with him–" Kaliah waggled her eyebrows, and Vic smacked her on the leg– "you can do that too. You're smart and you're kind. You can have whatever you want. You just have to decide what that is."

Vic rested their forehead on the knee of Kaliah's jeans. They inhaled and let out a damp, shaky breath as Kaliah's hand dropped to ruffle Vic's hair. "Thanks, Kaliah," Vic said, and pulled off her other shoe.


Julian knelt next to the couch and stared into Elias's slack face with one hand on his shoulder. "Yep… he's out," he said. "That's everyone, I guess. We should go to bed too. Vic, Kaliah, and Nasira have already taken all the guest rooms… I guess we could sleep in Elias's bed."

"Are you kidding? No." Áillen was curled up on the sectional, one couch cushion between his feet and Elias's head. He and Julian had been talking about everything and nothing as Elias had gradually tipped sideways on the couch, sprawling out until his light snoring had finally alerted Julian to the fact that he'd fallen asleep.

Áillen probably looked like he was nodding off too, but he wasn't really. He was just… resting his eyes. He was pretty sure he was somewhat intoxicated, but couldn't tell how much so. He felt very relaxed, like all the knots inside of him had come untied and now he was filled with a big coil of loose string. He had the unsettling thought that this was probably why people like him became alcoholics.

"Elias won't mind."

"I mind. I'll sleep here."

"You'll sleep here, alone in a room with Elias?" Julian clarified.

Áillen frowned. "I'll sleep out on the porch."

"No. It's not heated, and it's like ten degrees out. I'll get Elias to bed and we'll share the sofa."

It took a monumental effort to rouse Elias, and he only became conscious enough to resemble a half-animated Madame Tussaud's wax sculpture. Fortunately, Julian was big, and was able to manhandle Elias pretty effectively. Áillen was trying to help by holding into one of Elias's shoulders, but he kept getting distracted looking at Julian's muscles. He had all kinds of muscles. Just muscles everywhere. Julian gave him an exasperated look.

I'm a disappointment, he thought lightly. For some reason it didn't bother him that much, as long as he could be a disappointment in very close proximity to Julian.

"Sorry," he said to Julian.

"What for?"

He just shook his head. It was too complicated to explain. They were in Elias's room now, which Áillen had not seen before. Julian flicked on a lamp on Elias's bedside table. The room looked like a set out of one of those shows on TV about high school students. It was color-coordinated and the furniture was crafted to look rough, like something you'd find in a cabin, with exposed knots in the soft wood and smelling of resin, but clearly cost more money than Áillen had ever seen in his life.

It made him irrationally angry, and he dropped Elias's arm, since he wasn't really helping anyway, and waited for Julian outside the door instead. Julian got Elias a cup of water and aspirin and left them on his bedside table before he turned the light off again. He'll still be watching out for Elias long after he's forgotten about me entirely, Áillen thought with peaceful detachment.

Julian came back out. "Okay, come here." He led Áillen down the hall. Áillen's mood was turning bleaker by the second. Am I a sad drunk? he wondered. Then again, his situation was actually very sad. He had been reminded by Nasira's attendance at this party that his tenure on the Capture team was limited. Soon, Nasira's leg would heal enough that she would no longer need her brace. She seemed energetic and determined; he couldn't imagine that she would tarry for long after that before rejoining the Capture team in her full capacity. Then Áillen would be out of favor and he'd go back to lonely, cold nights in his too-big room in Tower dorm.

You knew from the start that this wasn't going to last, Áillen chastized himself. This is your fault for getting attached. This didn't make him feel any better.

Julian got some extra blankets and pillows from Elias's linen closet and gave half of them to Áillen before coming back downstairs with him. Seeing Julian effortlessly find Elias's linen closet, witnessing this evidence of the domestic ease between the two close friends, made Áillen's heart twist again. The fact was, Áillen wasn't meant to be part of something like this Capture team. He could never fit in among people who trusted and loved each other this implicitly. Since Lex, he'd lost his ability to trust others unquestioningly the way Julian did. He'd never stood a chance.

The fact that Julian had put up with him for this long was a testament to Julian's mulishness. Others on the team knew he didn't fit and surely wouldn't miss him when Nasira relegated him to the sidelines. Good, he thought. They shouldn't miss me. I'm nothing special. They're better off with Nasira. As much as he envied and resented her, he'd seen Nasira's bright, easy sociability and had heard her talk about four different hobbies and sports she pursued outside of Capture. She was well-adjusted and charming, voluble and lively–words that had never come within ten meters of a sentence about Áillen.

"I'm gonna miss you," Áillen said as Julian set down his blankets on the vacated sectional.

"What?"

"I'll miss you, when this is all over."

"When what's over?"

Áillen made a gesture. Everything. "Capture. Being on the team together."

Maybe Julian was a little drunk too, because he took Áillen's shoulder and pulled him in against his chest. Their height difference tucked the top of Áillen's head under Julian's sharp chin. He normally hated to feel small. So why do I like it so much when it's Julian that's bigger than me? "Hey. It's not gonna be like that," Julian said. "Don't worry about that. We can still see each other after I graduate next year. I'll still visit the team. It's a long way off, anyway."

"It's not gonna be that long. Once I'm off the team, you're not going to talk to me anymore. We'll lose touch. That's how this works."

"What do you mean, off the team? Are you planning to quit?" Julian smelled like the mulled wine spices. Áillen inhaled, hoping he was being surreptitious and knowing he probably wasn't.

"No. But you'll replace me."

"With who? You're the best time dilator at Gladeloch. Why would we replace you?"

"Nasira."

"Is that what this is about?"

"We already have five players. When she comes back, you won't need to put up with me anymore."

"Áillen, no. In case you haven't noticed, we only have five players. We're barely regulation size. The second one of you breaks a toe or something, we're done for. You're staying when Nasira comes back. We'll play with six," Julian said firmly. "You make our team stronger."

"So I'll be like a backup for her," Áillen sniped, determined to find the hole in Julian's reasoning. "Waiting on the sidelines for someone else to get hurt."

"Come on, Áillen, is that really what you think? You're smarter than this. We're all gonna play together. We're allowed eight in one game. I know Tahlequah routinely plays with eight. You must have seen them do it when you played for their team."

"You're gonna let me stay," Áillen said flatly, in disbelief.

"I'm not letting you do anything. I want you on the team, Áillen. We need you."

"You're serious?"

"Listen, let's just go to sleep. We'll talk about this in the morning."

Julian tugged Áillen towards him until they were both seated on the couch, Áillen between Julian's knees. Áillen's back rested against Julian's chest. He could feel Julian's breath and heartbeat. Julian always saw what Áillen needed and gave it to him–affection, touch, reassurance. He was rubbing Áillen's shoulders now, deeply, with his thumbs. Áillen's eyes went half-lidded and he melted back into Julian. "You need someone to hold onto you," Julian murmurred. "And I'm going to. I'm going to keep holding on until you tell me to stop."


It occurred to Áillen the following morning, when he again blinked awake to find himself cradled in Julian's arms, this time on Elias's couch, with Elias looking down at him, that if he didn't want Elias to make impertinent insinuations about their relationship, he should probably stop letting Julian spoon him while he slept.

The only problem with this plan was that he never planned to do it. Julian's backrubs were like a drug. Áillen could not believe how fast Julian could put him to sleep, considering that he'd never slept soundly in his life before. Julian would start in with his strong, firm fingers, saying something in a low voice, and suddenly Áillen was waking up to Elias's smug face.

He flopped off the couch gracelessly, taking half the blankets with him and miraculously not waking Julian. He assumed Elias, leaning in the doorway to the kitchen, was about to make a snide remark, and prepared to snap at him. But Elias just smiled.

He came towards Áillen, and Áillen flinched, but instead of touching him, Elias reached past him and brushed a lock of Julian's hair out of his eyes. Julian didn't wake up.

Elias turned and disappeared into the kitchen before Áillen could react.


Julian awoke some time later when Vic came downstairs. Áillen was gone, which didn't concern him much; it was surprising that he had slept next to him the night before in the first place. He stretched and rolled onto his back. Vic leaned over the back of the couch, looking down at him. "Morning," he said.

"Apparently," Vic said.

Julian sat up. White light blasted through the windows. The brightness off the snow outside was incredible. It had stopped snowing and the sky was a deep, wet blue. Elias's large backyard was under a prstine blanket of snow. Occasionally the wind kicked up and sent it swirling back into the air in great plumes.

"Is Elias in there?" Vic asked, nodding to the kitchen.

"Yes, I think I hear him."

Vic rolled their eyes. It occurred to Julian that Vic probably had not appreciated being stuck in Elias's house all night, since they were fighting. They seemed on edge.

"Come out to the porch and let's look at the snow," he said, pulling Vic along with him. They both went out onto the winterized porch, and Julian shut the glass doors behind them. Vic sat down a few feet away from Julian. They usually didn't like to be touched, which Julian found baffling. The light blazing off the snow here was even more intense. Early sunlight sparkled off facets of the drift. It made Julian want to lick it.

"Do you think you're going to make up with Elias?" Julian asked, point blank, after Vic had settled down.

Vic crossed their arms and stared out at the snow sullenly. "I don't have to if I don't want to," they said with uncharacteristic petulance.

"Of course not," Julian said. "I'm just asking."

"Is this about the game against Tahlequah?"

"No. It's about you. Of course I want the team to be unified for our game against Tahlequah; I want to win as much as anyone else on the team. It's my dream to go to Nationals. But in two years I'll have graduated from Gladeloch and Nationals will be a memory, while you'll still be my friend. You're the priority."

"You're closer to Elias than you are to me."

"I've known Elias for a long time, but what you want still matters."

"I don't know," Vic said, finally answering his question. They glanced back towards the kitchen again, reflexively, as though they were magnetized towards Elias.

It reminded Julian of an incident that had occurred during one of Vic's first times playing Capture for Gladeloch. Julian thought about it often when he considered why Vic had continued their frustrating relationship with Elias through so much hardship.

It had happened while they'd been pushing the boundaries on the ban on post-sunset hiking for collegiate Capture teams. They had been playing on a rocky, seaside field in Louineaux Falls park, walking along a narrow goat path on a rock ridge. To their left was an expanse of rocky, difficult-to-navigate hills stubbled with brown grass. To the right was a short, steep descent to a jagged cliff face.

Julian had been walking between Elias, behind him, and Vic, in front of him. Vic had taken out the compass to read it. They snapped open the lid and squinted at it, but the last dregs of sunlight didn't penetrate the inner workings and they said they couldn't get a clear read. Julian had thought, That means it's time to stop for today. They had pushed it long enough trying to pick up the third flag before sunset. But before he could call a stop, Vic, focused on the compass, had stepped on a loose rock that slid out from under their right foot.

They fell to one knee in a wildly unbalanced posture, already listing towards the edge of the cliff. Shocked, Julian reached out to steady Vic. But before he could get there, Elias had grabbed them.

Julian had never seen Elias move so fast before or since. He still wasn't sure how Elias had even seen what was happening from behind Julian.

For a heart-stopping moment, Elias and Vic both slid a little closer to the edge of the cliff. But then Elias dug his heels in and they managed to catch themselves. Elias dragged them both back up towards the ridge, and Julian and Kaliah belatedly grabbed their clothing and helped pull them up onto the path.

Vic stood trembling for several minutes, hardly daring to move except to cross to the safer side of the path, as Julian called an immediate halt. They retreated into the rocky hills and found relatively flat places to camp for the night. It was one of the worst campsites Julian had chosen in his tenure as captain, but nobody complained. Elias stood close beside Vic as they set up the tents. Julian tried not to listen to their conversation, but he had overheard snatches of it. Vic thanked Elias for saving their life.

I don't even know what happened, Elias had said. I was on top of the ridge, and then I was just with you. I didn't even think. Julian had glanced back at them, moved by Elias's stunned tone. Gladeloch was lucky to have such a well-matched pair of time contractors. Even after Benjamin's accident and death, with Elias a trace of what he had been back in those days, they were still a formidable team.

Back then, when Elias had saved Vic's life, his attentiveness to them had been shocking in part because it was so rare for him. Elias had been as lonely and needy then as he was now, but at the time, his neediness was self-centered. When he'd first joined the team, he'd blatantly used the Capture team for companionship, and had made it obvious that he considered the team members to be beneath him. The other team members had found Elias charming, but not likeable. Julian had sympathized with him, but found him difficult to get along with.

After Benjamin's death, Elias was still difficult. His refusal to confront his grief had affected and frustrated the entire team. At the same time, he'd become quieter, more contemplative, more sympathetic towards the other team members. His pretentiousness and holier-than-thou attitude, once sincere, had become a veneer over something much more tender and fragile.

His relationship with Vic had changed as well. Back then, Vic's crush on Elias had been adorable, but it had worried Julian on Vic's behalf. Although Julian was closer to Elias than he was to Vic and loved him like a brother, he had been concerned about Elias's ability to understand the depth of Vic's feelings for him as Vic's little crush had rapidly become a full-blown, devoted infatuation. Vic was loyal, sincere, and deep, and it was difficult to picture Elias matching that in a relationship.

It wasn't nearly as hard to picture now. Julian thought that with time, Elias could come to accept his feelings towards Vic and build a stable foundation for a healthy relationship with them.

"He's trying really hard," Julian eventually told Vic. "I think he really wants to change."

"I know," Vic said, "But I'm scared. I don't want to get hurt by him again. I've given him a lot, and don't get me wrong, it's been worth it, because I love him. I used to think I'd do anything for him, but… I don't want to wait forever for him to reciprocate."

"I don't blame you," Julian said. "I know you have to do what you think is right." He pulled Vic gently into his side. Vic allowed the hug, tense in Julian's arms. "Ultimately, I'm biased by my relationship with Elias. You shouldn't take my advice. I'll support whatever you decide. And don't worry about the team. We'll find a way forward, even if you want to have nothing to do with him."

"You're not going to let me split the team over my stupid interpersonal issues."

"Yes, I am," Julian said seriously. "If the alternative is you being uncomfortable the whole time we're playing, then sure. Of course I will."

16 Tahlequah

The next weekend was their last Capture game of the pre-season, and the game that would determine whether or not Gladeloch would go to Nationals. It would be played in Arc-en-Ciel national park against Tahlequah. Gladeloch hadn't played an away game against them since Elias's freshman year. He only vaguely remembered the park in snapshot-like impressions: blue haze, red rock, dry scrub, and geology that would stun the most jaded hydrologist.

The park was within driving distance of Gladeloch, but Professor Kung had arranged for them to take a short flight in a small plane instead of driving as a reward for making it to the end of the Capture preseason without being eliminated from the postseason. The tickets were probably funded by Elias's parents, but as usual, he hadn't heard anything about it until Kung had announced it to the team. When the team piled into the plane with their overnight duffel bags, they found it nearly empty–it was just them and a couple of businesspeople with laptops and Bluetooth headsets.

Vic and Kaliah were both noticeably edgy, nervous for their last game of the pre-season. Elias could feel it coming off Vic like a vibration. Julian, as usual, seemed to be converting his anxiety into excitement in some gland Elias apparently did not have. Áillen was drugged to the gills on Dramamine after spending half of the last flight he'd been on puking, which made it hard to determine whether or not he was nervous about returning to the school he'd been expelled from before enrolling in Gladeloch.

Drugged Áillen was right on the border between hilarious and disturbing. He was even clingier with Julian than usual, if that was even possible. In the past few weeks he'd become like Julian's second shadow. Now he attached himself to Julian's side like a large, exotic sloth. He sat in the seat on the plane next to Julian and he had both hands fisted in Julian's sweater. Áillen would never have done that in public if he hadn't been so out of it. The two of them were right in front of Elias, so he could see Áillen lean his head forward groggily into the seat in front of him and Julian help him put down his tray table so he could sleep curled over onto it.

Elias was seated next to Kaliah. Before the plane lifted off she had put in her earphones and was absorbed in something on her e-reader, ignoring Elias. That was fine by him. Vic was two rows in front of them, where Elias couldn't see them. He wondered how creepy it was that he wished they were seated in his sight.

Vic had come to Elias's house party last weekend and even stayed overnight when they'd all been catastrophically snowed in. Elias had half-expected them to insist on slogging home alone through the snow, so he had been pleased that they were willing to tolerate his company and his living space overnight. But since then, Vic still hadn't been speaking to Elias. Though he felt he should be frustrated, Elias found himself resigned. It's not like it's unreasonable for them to be giving me the cold shoulder.

As Elias had watched Vic from afar for the past two weeks, he'd come to some painful realizations about their relationship and how much he'd taken it for granted. They're exhausted by me. Elias had been too absorbed in his own problems to consider Vic's needs and desires. Their relationship hadn't been fair to them at all, especially since Vic had found Elias after he'd OD'd. He had never even properly acknowledged Vic for saving his life.

For the remainder of his life, whatever he felt, enjoyed, and accomplished would be in some way due to Vic's actions. He owned them a life debt.

After Elias's release from the hospital, he had been angry and frustrated with his team's response to his suicide attempt. It had taken him a few weeks to begin to see things from their perspective. Julian's frank talk with him had opened his eyes to the distress and fear he had caused them–and especially Vic, who had likely been traumatized by finding Elias unconscious in his basement. Of course Vic was angry; as much as Elias deserved sympathy and understanding for what he had gone through, so did they.

That was a common topic in his now-more-frequent sessions with his therapist: what he could do to comfort Vic and reassure them that Elias was okay. Comforting others had always been Julian's wheelhouse, and Elias found the mental image of him trying to do that for Vic laughable. Julian was brimming with empathy; his demeanor was a balm that soothed the wounds of the Capture team. Elias, on the other hand, was a dried-up, burnt-out husk of a human, and he wasn't confident at all that he was actually capable of making someone feel comforted. However, his therapist had suggested that the idea was worth exploring. Elias had to admit that he didn't have any better ideas of how to get back on track with Vic.

The problem was that Vic didn't want to talk to Elias about what had happened–or about anything else. The most Elias could do now was wait, and it was driving him a little bit insane.


Áillen woke near the end of the flight, lifting his head off his tray table and scrubbing at his face with his hands. He grunted in Julian's general direction, and all Julian could think was, This shouldn't be so endearing. Half his hair had escaped from his braid, and he looked like he could barely open his eyes. It was nice to see Áillen more relaxed, even if it was because he was basically sedated.

"The plane ride's almost over," Julian assured him. "We're supposed to be touching down in about five minutes."

"Mm. 'Kay," Áillen said. He pushed open the cover on the window, then squinted and drew back from the light. The ground was just coming back into view through a scrim of cloud. "How long was I out?"

"Two hours."

"It didn't feel that long."

"You were, uh… sleeping pretty hard," Julian said, trying to find a way to phrase the sentiment other than 'you appeared to be dead'.

"Yeah, I guess. What are we doing this evening?" He stretched, catlike, over his tray table, his spine arching like a strung bow before he flopped back into his seat. The level of physical expressiveness he could fit into an airplane seat was stunning.

"Dinner with Tahlequah's team. Are you nervous about seeing them?"

Áillen looked out the window as he considered the question. He rested one hand on the windowsill. A sliver of sunlight lay over the knuckles of his sturdy fingers. He had freckles everywhere, even on the backs of his finger joints. "Maybe," he said finally.

"It doesn't matter what Tahlequah thinks. We're here to play Capture, and you're with us. You're Gladeloch stock now. It's none of their business what your past is."

"Yeah," he said. It was strange to see him so sluggish when he was normally as sharp and twitchy as a rapier.

"Are you feeling up to dinner? You could skip."

"No, I'm not skipping it." He yawned again, so widely that Julian thought he saw his molars for a second. But he was already coming alert, his spine stiffening with determination. Julian wondered how affected he really was by the prospect of seeing Tahlequah's team again. It wasn't a topic he liked to discuss, and Julian still didn't know the full story of his expulsion from Tahlequah's team.

They had a few hours to settle in to the hotel before they had to meet with Tahlequah's team for dinner. Professor Kung helped them all check in and then let them loose. Julian spent some time washing up. He showered while Áillen brushed his teeth just outside the stall. The glass door to the shower was frosted, so Julian knew Áillen couldn't see much, but still, it felt intimate being naked and wet in the humid room right next to him, in the bright light. When they'd skinny-dipped together a few months ago, it had been in the dark.

He dried off and got out after Áillen finished, and put his phone to charge for a few minutes on the bedside table. Áillen came out of the bathroom where he'd been resecuring his braid and gave the room a once-over. This one had free coffee and bottled water set out on the counter by a large TV. Áillen cracked one of the water bottles open and downed half of it, then held it out to Julian. Julian took a few sips and handed it back to Áillen, who finished it.

"Hey," Julian said to Áillen, "While we're alone, I had a question."

"Yeah?"

"Why did you get kicked off Tahlequah's team?"

Áillen's face shuttered. In a half-dead monotone he said, "Isn't it almost time to go?"

"Yeah," Julian said, a little shaken by Áillen's flat and inept evasion of his question.


They met back up with the rest of the team in the hotel lobby to spend some time together in town before dinner. Like most big Capture schools, Tahlequah was located in a small town close to an enormous tract of state land, Arc-en-Ciel national park, a red, rocky, and barren region. The town, Little Red, was considerably larger than Gladeloch, with some modern multi-story apartment buildings and office complexes. It was also home to a sizeable military base.

Little Red was at a lower elevation than Gladeloch and it was still warm enough, even at this time of year, for the team to go out in jeans and fleeces. They wandered through the town, giving themselves an impromptu tour of an old church and window-shopping in independently-run clothing stores. Elias asked if they could stop at a bar for a few beers before dinner and Julian smacked him and refused.

Áillen couldn't stop glancing around himself and trying to hide in the center of the knot of players from Gladeloch. He saw Lex in every reflective window and disappearing around every corner. His stomach clenched continually and he was worried he might throw up the water he'd drank in the hotel room. It was all he could do to keep his shell intact and disguise the dizzying fear as simple nerves about the game.

Julian was watching Áillen closely in his protective way. Back at the hotel, they both changed into more formal clothing for the dinner. Julian had bought Áillen a dark blue collared shirt and a pair of chinos with the Capture team's charge card. Áillen couldn't bring himself to be offended; he knew he was unprepared to handle anything with a dress code beyond thrift-store flannels and ripped jeans. For once he was grateful for Julian's help without feeling prideful; he wanted to face Tahlequah's team in neat clothing, even though they probably wouldn't even acknowledge that they knew him.

Julian had paused in the middle of changing, unselfconsciously standing in front of the hotel window in just blue chinos and nothing else. He folded his arms, drawing attention to his broad back, lit by the glow of sun off the white hotel sheets.

It hurt Áillen just to think about him. The more time he spent with Julian, the more he was forced to admit that his attraction to him, despite its physicality and startling intensity, was more than a crush. The intensity of Áillen's feelings hadn't decreased in the slightest since he'd joined the Capture team. Laying eyes on Julian–clothed, naked, it didn't matter–felt like jumping into a cold lake on a sweltering summer day.

He dilated time half-consciously, bending the moment into a long snapshot that he preserved in his memory even as he again tried and failed to untangle the knot of emotions Julian's bare back evoked: affection, fear, arousal.

He let time slide forward again. Julian turned. "Are you still sure about coming to dinner?"

"Yeah. It's fine. Don't worry."

"I can't not worry." Julian slipped his white shirt on and began to button it. Áillen was torn between relief and disappointment. "I want our team to do well."

"In the game?"

"Yeah, but at dinner, too." Julian buttoned his second-to-top button and straightened up. He wore business casual like an adult. Áillen felt like he was wearing an older brother's hand-me-downs, presumptuous and out of place. He glanced down at his own chest only to find that he'd done his buttons wrong. Blushing, he turned away so Julian wouldn't see and started to redo them.

"Especially with Tahlequah," Julian continued, "because they win the national championship so often. I want them to see that Gladeloch is a team to take seriously even though we're small and haven't placed well in the past. And I don't want them to think they can say anything about you. From what you've said, Tahlequah didn't treat you, or your talents, with respect. They need to know that you're a Gladeloch player now and they can't say anything about you to us."

Áillen blushed even more deeply. Luckily he was already facing away. "It doesn't matter what happens at the dinner," he said finally, not believing it at all. "All that matters is winning the game."


Tahlequah had opted to separate Gladeloch from Professor Kung, their faculty sponsor, for the dinner. The Gladeloch students would go out to dinner with the students from Tahlequah while Professor Kung had separate reservations with Tahlequah's captain, a Russian woman named Askenova who Vic had never met, at a high-end restaurant. The teams had been sent to a slightly less-expensive steakhouse. Vic, a vegetarian, thumbed through the menu with distaste, eventually settling on a pasta dish and hoping the kitchen would be able to leave out the bacon.

As usual, Gladeloch was outnumbered by Tahlequah. They had a large, round table in a quiet back room of the restaurant. Nine members of Tahlequah's team ringed two-thirds of the table. Gladeloch's team sat one next to another on the remaining third. Julian had quickly and subtly arranged the group to put Vic on the left boundary between their team and Tahlequah and himself on the right boundary. This meant that Kaliah, Áillen, and Elias, all of whom could be abrasive to strangers, were insulated in the middle of Gladeloch's group, where they could talk amongst themselves without having to deal with Tahlequah's students. Vic resented being forced to play liaison between the two schools, but they acknowledged that making Áillen do it would be even worse.

The seating arrangements made Vic understand why visiting Capture teams were usually seated with their rivals at long rectangular tables, with the teams facing each other. In this arrangement, it was only really possible for Vic to speak to the two members of Tahlequah's team to their immediate left. On the other side of the table, Julian had to practically yell to introduce himself across the table to Tahlequah's captain.

A large blond man to Vic's left introduced himself as Lex as they seated themselves at the table. Vic sat down and introduced themself as well before realizing that Áillen was still standing to their right, half in and out of his chair, his braid swinging with momentum while the rest of him was frozen.

"Áillen..?" they said uncertainly and tugged his wrist down towards the table, trying to get him to sit. But he was staring at Lex with an intensity that frightened Vic. All the blood had left his face and Vic had a sudden rush of adrenaline as they became convinced for a second that for unknown reasons, Áillen was about to pass out.

"Make yourself comfortable," Tahlequah's captain said from across the table, glancing at Áillen. Vic didn't think Áillen saw the glance, but he dropped into his seat. The gracelessness of it shocked Vic anew; Áillen was too fast to seem graceful, normally, but just now he had moved like his body was made of lead. Maybe it was aftereffects of the motion-sickness drugs–but Áillen had seemed perfectly fine earlier that afternoon.

Before they could excuse themself to the bathroom with Áillen or try to get Julian's attention to tell him that something was wrong, Lex continued. "So, Vic, are there other members of your team back at Gladeloch to cheer you on from home?"

"No," Vic said bluntly, "This is all of us." Vic fidgeted with the seams on their pants under the table. Something was wrong; their thoughts were swirling as they tried to sort through the tensions at the table. Áillen was still almost motionless beside them, staring fixedly down at the tablecloth and taking slow breaths, too slow, measured. And Lex continued talking like nothing was wrong, leaving Vic no opening to try to steer them out of whatever situation they had blundered into.

They tried to recall anything Áillen had told them about Tahlequah, and came up blank, weirdly blank. Áillen had refused to say anything about the team, even when Julian had asked for details that might help them strategize for the upcoming game. That hadn't struck Vic as strange at the time–Áillen was reticent about all kinds of things–but now they were sure they'd been too hasty in dismissing Áillen's strangeness about the subject of Tahlequah as unimportant.

"Just five members? That's right, there was a little incident where you lost a team member earlier this year, wasn't there?" Lex said.

There was no way he didn't know about Nasira's accident. Her injury had been covered by several Capture reporters and Áillen's abrupt entry into Gladeloch's ranks had produced some buzz and tittilation in the Capture conference. Lex was asking about her just to exercise this condescending phrasing. "Yes, but we're regulation size for this game. It's not a problem."

"Tell me a little bit about your school. I don't know much about Gladeloch. Are the academics any good there?"

"Yes, they're fine," Vic said, bristling. They glanced to their right for support from Gladeloch's team, and caught Kaliah glaring daggers at Lex, having evidently taken the comment as an insult to Gladeloch. Vic couldn't really blame her for it. Luckily, she couldn't cut into the conversation without leaning over Áillen and Elias.

"I saw Sulfur Springs state park at our game against Gladeloch last year. It's charming. It's really quite adorable." This, Vic thought, could charitably be interpreted as a compliment. Vic wasn't feeling very charitable and thought it was more of a veiled insult. It wasn't even true–Gladeloch wasn't as rugged or challenging as Tahlequah's Arc-en-Ciel, but it was still one of the nicest parks for Capture, with plenty of acreage and highly varied terrain.

"I guess your team can't practice in the desert or on the top of mesas in your own park," the person seated next to Lex cut in.

Lex said, "I'm sure he finds ways to practice–"

"They," Elias corrected him over Áillen's bent head, loudly and firmly.

Conversation in Vic's vicinity ground to a halt. Out of the corner of their eye, Vic saw Julian glance over to see what was going on.

"They use 'they' pronouns," Elias said.

Vic gaped at Elias as the members of Tahlequah's Capture team frowned. Nobody had ever defended Vic's pronouns with such ironclad conviction before–least of all Elias.

"Right, as I was saying," Lex corrected himself, "I'm sure they find ways to practice on more challenging terrain at Gladeloch, despite the limitations of the park."

"Yeah," Vic said, with their eyes still mostly on Elias. They tore themself away and turned back to Tahlequah's team. "We get plenty of practice together."

By the time their food came, most of Tahlequah's team had turned to talking amongst themselves, ignoring the players from Gladeloch. It should have annoyed Vic, but they were more than happy to turn their attention to the food and ignore Tahlequah's players reciprocally. Their stomach squirmed when they thought about what Elias had just done for him. He's trying, they thought. But they would be stupid to trust him again after just one hint that he wanted to be different.

Áillen was kicking one foot under the table and occasionally hitting the table leg with it and rattling everyone's water glasses and dessert forks. Julian was trying to signal him to stop, but Kaliah and Elias were between Julian and Áillen and for once, he couldn't catch Áillen's attention.

Elias didn't talk much throughout dinner. The only other time he spoke was when Lex asked again about the makeup of their team. "With only five players in total, you must be very aware of the balance between time dilators and contractors."

"I guess," Vic said, sharing a glance with Elias. "Our makeup is pretty balanced. Elias and I are contractors, and Kaliah and Áillen are dilators."

"What about Julian?"

"He can do both, but usually he leads the team without participating in contraction or dilation much. He's our anchor."

Lex raised his eyebrows. "I'm surprised you have someone who isn't a specialist on a team of this size."

"Julian is invaluable to this team," Vic said stiffly. Julian, hearing his name, glanced over, and Vic shook their head at him minutely, urging him to focus on managing his own side of the table. Given how Vic's conversation with Lex was going, it was shocking that Áillen hadn't yet heard something offensive and blown up. Or Kaliah, for that matter.

"What about you and Elias?" Lex asked. "Who's the stronger time contractor?"

Vic frowned, but before they could say anything, Elias cut in. "Vic is."

Again, Elias's words were simple, but delivered with a clarity and calm Vic hadn't heard in Elias's voice in a long time, perhaps since Benjamin's death. They turned towards him. "You're–"

"It's true," Elias added. He looked at Vic, but didn't give any indication that what he had said was anything other than a defense he'd give any member of the Capture team. Vic again turned their attention back to Lex.

He cocked an eyebrow at the two of them. "So are you two a couple?"

"No. Nobody on our team is dating," Vic said.

"Really? That's rare for Capture."

"It's not that rare," Vic muttered, although it was. Capture was a notoriously incestuous sport. Still, the assumption irritated them; it was jarring to be mistaken for Elias's partner when they were barely on speaking terms.

"Not even Áillen? Nobody on the team wanted to take advantage of this little snack? I'm surprised," Lex said.

Vic felt all the blood in their body rushing to their face as they struggled to formulate a response to that shockingly inappropriate and Lex's bizarrely familiar address of Áillen. But before they could say anything, Áillen jerked upright, still moving in a strange, stiff way like he was injured. He was staring straight down at the white tablecloth, still, and both of his hands were fisted in the fabric, threatening to knock over water glasses and spill silverware off the edge of the table. "Áillen–" Vic started.

Water dripped onto the back of Áillen's hand and Vic realized with an icy shock that he was crying.

"Holy shit," Elias said under his breath, sounding as lost as Vic felt. Áillen was gone from the table–then from the restaurant–so fast that nobody had a chance to react. Tahlequahs' reactions ranged from blasé–Lex was already joking that he had only been complimenting their former team-member in a tone of voice that made Vic want to tear his arms off–to concerned, to confused.

What the fuck just happened?

Julian didn't bother to politely excuse himself. He went after Áillen, only barely pausing on his way towards the door to ensure he didn't tip his chair over with how fast he leapt up from the table.


By the time Julian was on the street, Áillen was elbowing his way between pedestrians at a run. Julian shoved after him, but Áillen was faster and smaller than he was, and didn't seem to hear Julian calling his name. "Excuse me! Sorry, I have to catch up with my friend–" Julian forced pedestrians aside. The evening crowds closed around him and his throat tightened with claustrophobia.

He lost Áillen quickly but didn't stop moving; he headed towards the hotel, burst into the lobby, sprinted to the stairs, took them two at a time. Finally he was outside of their room and he jammed his keycard into the slot.

The room was dark, quiet, and empty, and the bathroom door was closed. Julian went and knocked. "Áillen? It's me. Are you okay? Are you sick? What's going on? What happened?"

There was no response, no movement from inside, just a yawning silence and the vestiges of the sunset quietly fading in the window. "Áillen? If you don't answer, I'm going to come in."

After another minute he eased the bathroom door open. The lights inside were turned off, but Julian could see Áillen's sillhouette in the white bathtub. For a second, he thought he was looking at Áillen's corpse, but then he saw him breathe. Áillen didn't move otherwise. He lay on his side with his limbs flopped into the bottom of the tub, like he'd collapsed there and hadn't moved after he'd fallen. His eyes were open and staring at the featureless white wall of the tub.

"Áillen…" Julian whispered. He didn't understand what had just happened. He tentatively touched Áillen's hand, squeezing it gently. It was warm, and he could feel Áillen's pulse; it felt normal to him. He's okay, Julian reassured himself. We can come back from this as long as he's still breathing. But Áillen didn't respond in any way to Julian's touch, neither holding his hand, nor shaking him off or indicating in any way that he didn't want the contact. Julian recognized the signs of a deep time contraction, or more mundanely, thorough dissociation. Áillen was physically here, but mentally somewhere else. He'd come back to their room, holed up in a small, dark space where he felt safe, and then emotionally vacated the premises.

Julian let his hand fall back to the bottom of the tub and simply knelt there, staring at Áillen. He had no idea how to help him. All he knew was that when Áillen came back, Julian didn't want him to be alone. He didn't dilate or contract time, but tried to respect Áillen's experience by going through it with him, at Áillen's pace.

When Áillen blinked for the first time in fifteen minutes, it felt like a breakthrough. A few minutes later, he took a deeper breath, glanced at Julian, and turned facedown into the bottom of the bathtub. He lay still again, his breath echoing off the porcelain.

"Hey," Julian said softly. "What do you need from me?"

Áillen sucked in a breath, held it, sighed. Julian knew he'd heard him, but he didn't answer. Julian wasn't sure if he could even talk. But he was awake, he was alive, he was listening to Julian. Whatever seeing his former team had brought back for him, Áillen was strong. As long as he was still living and breathing, he would be okay.

Julian brought him a heavy throw from one of the beds in the hotel room and a pillow. He arranged the blanket over Áillen in the bathtub and gently lifted his head to slide the pillow under it. Áillen lay his head back down and closed his eyes. He pulled the blanket tighter around his shoulders. "When you're ready," Julian told him, "I want to understand what happened back there."

Áillen spoke, finally, in a croak. "When I joined your team, did they tell you anything about why I no longer play for Tahlequah?"

"No. Those records are private."

"I told the coach Lex was sexually assaulting me."

"Oh, god," Julian said, feeling like a hole had been punched through his chest.

"He started two weeks after I joined the team. In the locker room at first, after practice. Then at night–during games. It was supposed to be some sort of quid pro quo. He'd help me in practice, make me a real member of the team, if I helped him in other ways. I… said yes at first. And it was okay, for a while. But then things got too intense. I told him I wanted to stop, but by then, he wouldn't listen."

"Áillen–"

"I told the coach what was happening. She didn't believe me. But I wouldn't back down."

"Áillen, I–"

"It doesn't matter. It doesn't matter anymore," Áillen murmurred, his voice still dead flat. "I'm here now. I survived. I won."

"But you–"

"Stop talking," Áillen whispered into the pillow. "I don't want to talk about it anymore."

Julian bit down on the inside of his cheek and squeezed his eyes shut until he saw stars, forcing himself to breathe through his anger. This is nothing compared to what Áillen experienced.

His hand was resting on the side of the bathtub. Áillen took it and held it. He fell asleep like that, holding Julian's hand as the cold tile bit into Julian's knees and his feet slowly went numb.


Somehow, both of them made it back to the separate hotel beds before Julian's alarm went off at 5 in the morning. Áillen was already sitting up, sliding off the bed, going to wash his face in the bathroom.

"We can just go home," he offered as Áillen blinked himself awake, cold water dripping off his nose. "You don't have to play."

"He won't be on the field," Áillen pointed out.

"Are you okay? Can you play?"

"I will," Áillen said. His voice was hollow. "I have to."

"I don't need you to–"

"No. For me. I have to. He's not going to take Capture away from me. I know we're not gonna win, but I have to play."

There was nothing Julian could say to that. He texted the rest of the team members, except Áillen, before he and Áillen left their hotel room, explaining last night's events; all he said was that Áillen had had a panic attack and they'd gone home but play would continue as normal. Whatever normal is for us anymore.

The Capture team piled out of their rented van at the edge of a red canyon. Julian stepped out of the car into fine, dusty sand, the kind that would work its way into the mesh parts of his hiking boots and stain them red for weeks. It gave under his feet when he walked. Nobody on Gladeloch's team was used to slogging through sand for an entire Capture game.

Julian got his pack from the back of the van. Spindly, dry bushes near the rim of the canyon caught orange spiderwebs of light from the rising sun. As he shouldered his pack and began to adjust the straps, a slithery shadow of a tiny lizard disappeared among the bushes.

The terrain of Arc-en-Ciel was spectacular, even by Capture standards. They stood on perfectly flat land, but ahead of them, impossibly deep fissures cut the terrain, swallowing sunlight and plunging to unseen depths. There were few safe ways to the bottom of the chasms besides using folds. Playing Capture, Julian and the team would get to see corners of the park that they never would have been allowed to reach as civilians.

Anastasia stood on a patch of bare rock besides a sandy path that wound towards the edge of the canyon, next to a picnic table with a few drones on it. She handed out button cameras to the players and said hello to Julian. "You wouldn't believe the excitement this game is generating," she said.

"Really?" Julian asked. He had been so disturbed by Áillen's confession last night that he had completely forgotten to think about the game–their chances of winning and making it to Nationals, and what people were saying about Gladeloch's unusually high position in the rankings. "People think we have a chance?"

"They're rooting for the underdog."

The team gathered for a perfunctory introduction to the park from the Capture officials. They handed over this game's compass, and Elias took it. This seemed like another good omen. Elias only took the compass when he was in a relatively good place.

The officials reminded the team that certain biologically sensitive parts of the park were off-limits–they weren't allowed to touch any of the large fields of sand in the park, since those grew a delicate biological crust that prevented erosion and could be destroyed by a single footstep. However, much of the park was bare, sand-scoured rock that they could cross, and they were allowed on the park's complicated network of foot- and ATV trails.

Before the sun had completely pulled free of the canyons, Kaliah took Julian's hand and led him through the entrance fold.


Vic wasn't sure if Julian had the best poker face of all time, or if he was genuinely not worried about the outcome of their game against Tahlequah and whether or not they would make it to Nationals. Vic, on the other hand, was so anxious when the game started that they almost couldn't contract time. When Elias handed them the compass to get a second opinion on their heading about thirty minutes into the game, Vic held it out in front of them and stared at it, and absolutely nothing happened. They had to kneel down in the sand and take a few deep breaths before the rhythms around them began to accelerate and merge and time contracted.

Arc-en-Ciel quickly heated up in the sun, the cool of morning burning away. The morning's hiking alternated between stony, flat trails across the top of the mesas, and, on the other side of folds that jumped vertically down into the canyons, slogs through the sand in dry riverbeds that stayed pleasantly cool. Canyon walls and arches of unimaginable scale towered over them when they were in the canyons and dropped away from them with breathless steepness when they were on top of the mesas. The landscape was all warm red and beige, and as the morning sun slanted towards noon, red light and red dust suffused and permeated everything. Vic could taste iron and grit.

By the time the first morning of the game was almost gone, they still only had coy hints from the compass that they were on track to find the first flag. At this rate, this would be a long game. Still, Julian didn't seem bothered by their pace. He focused on the team, particularly on Áillen, who was focused and calm, working together with his teammates unobtrusively. That surprised Vic. They had wondered if Áillen would be emotional about playing Capture at the school whose team he'd been kicked off of, but Áillen didn't seem bothered.

The difficult terrain, all sand and rock, made the hiking unusually strenuous–perhaps Lex had had a point when he'd needled Vic and the team about being unable to practice playing Capture in a desert. Despite that, Vic found the park remarkably serene. Áillen commented that he thought it was eerie; Vic agreed, but it was a calm sort of eeriness born of the untouchably pristine landscape. Breezes danced through dry sagebrush and skeletal bushes, rattling dry leaves and kicking up plumes of red dust that dissipated into a deep sapphire sky. Tiny creatures slowly revealed themselves as denizens of the crust of life between the Earth and sky: dried-out lizards with colorful streaks across their delicate ribs, beetles that oared through the sand like determined scullers, once or twice a fat ground squirrel with its ticked, silken coat.

Julian forced the team to walk at a measured pace, since the weather was warm and the sun was oppressive whenever they emerged from the shadowy canyons through a fold back up to the mesa-tops. By lunch, Vic had fallen deep into a state of nonverbal serenity, the meditative state that came over them when they hiked sometimes. They got out the sandwiches they had brought along for their first meal, before they would switch over to freeze-dried food. As the rest of the group ate cross-legged on the rock beside the trail atop a mesa, Vic wandered off a short distance to the edge of one of the canyons to examine the riverbed below. They sat at the edge of the canyon and dangled their feet over.

They could sense Elias getting up to follow them. Vic tensed, straightening up. They looked down into the canyon to avoid looking at Elias. A single white-headed vulture spiralled over the streak of grey that marked the riverbed, almost on a level with Vic, patrolling the gorge for corpses. One of Anastasia's reporting drones hovered over the gorge a little ways off, watching Gladeloch's team from a distance.

Elias knelt down beside Vic, then swung his legs out over the edge too. Vic's gaze landed on the knees of Elias's high-tech black hiking pants. They were careworn, scraped raw and impregnated with red dust, indistinguishable from Vic's thrift-store canvas pants by now. That was the convergence of lifestyles in Capture. Many of the differences between them–even between Vic and Elias–evaporated after a few days of hard backpacking.

Elias reached for Vic's hand and Vic snatched it away, placing it atop their thigh. Elias pulled back. Vic expected him to say something sarcastic, but instead he said simply, "I'll go back over to sit with the others if you want to be alone."

Vic said after a moment, "I didn't say I want to be alone."

Their conversation came to a halt. Vic tapped one heel gently against the rock face. Their stomach swooped when they leaned a little too far out over the canyon, and they could feel how badly Elias wanted to pull them back from the edge. They leaned over a little further to spite him. The gorge was so deep that Vic could see the blue thickness of the atmosphere between them and the colorful dust braided together in streaks by the ghosts of currents in the dry riverbed.

"Julian talked to me–" Elias started.

"Oh, Julian put you up to this," Vic snapped.

"No. We talked. Look, I can tell you don't want to have this conversation. I'll go back and–"

"Wait," Vic said, grabbing his wrist. "I'm listening."

Elias sat back down. Vic hated themself a little for asking him to stay, then scowled, expecting Elias to make fun of them for being unable to send him off. But again, Elias did nothing of the sort. He settled down again, this time a little farther away from Vic. He looked wary of them, and Vic felt coldly satisfied with that.

"I've hurt you," Elias said softly, without any of his usual bravado.

"Yeah. You scared the shit out of me."

"I'm sorry." Elias winced, like it pained him to deliver a sincere apology, and Vic almost rolled their eyes, but unlike the last time they had talked, it seemed like Elias was genuinely trying to communicate something. "I should never have let it get that far."

"Yeah."

"I've been working on a plan with my therapist. I'm thinking of trying medication."

Vic had to forcibly stop themself from exclaiming at that. Vic had brought up the topic of medication with Elias once, shortly after Benjamin's death, when his troubles had started. They had seriously thought Elias was going to walk out of his own house on them, he was so furious at the suggestion. He had accused Vic of asking Elias to throw his grief over Benjamin away and hadn't been willing to listen to reason when Vic had said he could grieve without completely shutting down. Does this mean something has really changed for him?

"But that's not actually what I was apologizing for," Elias continued. "The problems between us started way before that. I've been unfair to you."

Vic squeezed their eyes shut for a second, afraid to believe that they were actually hearing this. They had long thought it was not possible that Elias would ever regain enough of his mental health to acknowledge how one-sided their relationship had been since Benjamin's death.

"I've taken advantage of your kindness," Elias continued. "We haven't had an equal friendship in a really long time. I just shut down after Benjamin died, and it made it impossible for me to have a normal relationship with anyone, including you. I didn't want to feel anything at all for a long time. I still don't. But my therapist told me that if I can't feel grief, I can't feel happiness or love either. You can't close yourself off to one emotion and leave the rest alone.

"It's not fair for you to shoulder the entire emotional weight of our relationship. I've made you do that. I can never take back how the past few years have gone."

There Elias stopped. It stunned Vic to hear him describe Vic's entire emotional struggle with such accuracy, then simply let his assessment of the situation sit. Elias was not the type to bare guilt and acknowledge it without trying to somehow fix it or shove it away. Vic cut a glance at him. He sat upright, with his hands resting palms-down on his knees. Red dust powdered his fringe and streaked his face and arms. He stared out across the canyon, gazing at the few tenacious bushes growing out of the cliff face opposite, clinging to the rock like gnarled old goats and dangling long ribbons of shadow down into the canyon.

Uncomfortable with the silence, Vic stood and put their hands on their hips. They wanted to walk away from Elias, but found themself unable to do it. As much as Vic had tried to harden their heart, they couldn't help being intrigued by Elias's words. Elias looked up at them, squinting into the sun. Standing over him, Vic was struck by his youthfulness. He was older than Vic, yet still a boy.

I want to forgive him so badly.

"You can't fix things that easily, with a single weel-crafted apology," Vic said stiffly, echoing what they had told Elias the last time he had tried to apologize. "You're right. Our relationship has been broken for a long time. Kaliah's tried to tell me, but I didn't want to listen. I kept thinking about how you were before Benjamin died: open, giving, generous. I knew you still had those qualities, even if they were changed or stifled by grief. There's something about you–your essence, or your soul–that I love," Vic said, choking up. "And I didn't want to lose that. But you've pushed me and pushed me–"

"I'm going to make it easier for you for now on," Elias promised. "Whether we're friends or not, however our relationship evolves. I want to face this. I won't put you through this any longer. I–"

Vic thumped to their knees on the rock and grabbed Elias. They fisted one hand roughly in the hair at the nape of his neck and grabbed his shirt with the other, twisting it tightly, needing to feel him in their hand. For a moment, Vic stared at Elias's face, lost. There were tears on his cheeks, red with dust. For a moment, Vic thought they were about to physically fight Elias.

The next moment, their mouths smashed into each other.

It was Vic's first kiss. It hurt, and it was full of teeth. They were both crying. Their knees ached where they'd hit the stone. They and Elias grappled each other to avoid falling into the canyon. Vic's heart was beating so fast and hard they couldn't hear anything but the rush of blood.

Then Elias, with a startled grunt, relaxed into the kiss. What had been hard and wet and painful suddenly became a bliss. Vic was enfolded in the softness of Elias's mouth. He went pliant in Vic's arms as they moved together, their mouths meeting over and over.

Time slowed to a crawl and Vic's eyes closed as the kiss deepened. Elias's mouth opened and, despite being inexperienced, Vic knew to slip their tongue between his lips. After struggling closer to Elias for years, suddenly they were mixing their breath and spit–it was unfathomable; Vic hardly dared to breathe for fear they would break the spell.

Their mouths parted. The stone was hurting Vic's knees, and their balance was awkward; they had to lean on each other to stay upright. But Vic didn't stand. They had never understood the desire to dilate time before–there had always seemed to be too much time in the world, yawning caverns of inescapable time stretching out every way they turned–but now they did. They wanted to crawl into this moment and never come out.

Elias pulled out of Vic's grip on his hair and Vic remembered to release their clenched fists. "I guess I forgive you," Vic said, stunned.


The rest of the team saw everything as it happened. Vic and Elias were silhouetted on the edge of the cliff. At first Julian tried to get the rest of the group to give them privacy, but it was a completely lost cause once they began fighting, and Julian couldn't blame the rest of his team for being concerned. So everyone was already staring at Elias and Vic as Vic suddenly dragged Elias forward and they started to kiss like their lives depended on it.

"Wow," Kaliah said, "And it only took them…" She checked an imaginary watch. "Two years, three months, seventeen days, six hours, and forty-seven minutes to finally get around to this."

Julian was too shocked to say anything but, "You don't know what minute it is." They weren't allowed to take any watches or clocks onto the Capture field except the compass itself.

"I don't, but the rest of that is accurate."


The game felt easier after that tension broke. Even Áillen, who was not normally in tune with the state of the team the way Julian was, could sense it.

He was stunned by the decisive, powerful way he'd seen Vic grab Elias and pull him to them, and the searing kiss that had ensued. He had never seen anything like it before. He was gripped by the image of Vic seizing what they had pined after helplessly the whole time Áillen had known them. He hiked in a daze, dilating time lightly to go into his mind and replay the scene over and over again. Vic and Elias, meanwhile, continued on as though nothing had happened, except that when they thought the rest of the team wasn't looking, they exchanged heated glances.

They finished the first day with two flags–one tied to Vic's pack, the other to Julian's. Dusk fell fast while they were crossing yet another scrubby mesa. Julian helped set up the tents and left Áillen to heat water for dinner. He kept an eye on the alcohol stove, although with so little vegetation there wasn't much danger of a fire. A washed-out glow of sunset lingered on the western horizon; as the rest of the team finished setting up the tents, it faded away. A lucent sliver of yellow light replaced it, and soon, an enormous orange moon glided up silently from the horizon.

The water boiled and he got Julian's attention; Julian called the rest of the team over to eat. Since there was no wood for a campfire, they huddled around a battery-powered lantern Elias had brought. Elias and Vic sat close to each other, barely bothering to keep up a pretense of platonic behavior even though Kaliah and Julian teased them whenever they so much as glanced at each other.

Áillen had never seen such a seismic shift in a relationship before. He had assumed that the rift between Vic and Elias would be permanent. It had not even occurred to him to hope that they would reconcile, even though their fight had been uncomfortable for the rest of the team. He would never have thought that Vic's obvious pining for Elias would be rewarded with the mending and deepening of Vic and Elias's relationship. But that was what had happened.

Áillen had secretly thought of himself and Vic as having a secret camaraderie due to the fact that they had both longed to be with people who were out of their reach. It had been comforting to think that he wasn't completely alone with his unresolvable feelings for Julian. But now Áillen was the only person on the team coping with such a tension. Maybe this is how it's meant to be, he thought. His loneliness was his alone again, just like it had always been.

Áillen was unbearably envious of Vic and Elias. He was so tangled up in it that he couldn't focus on the team's conversation during dinner. He shoveled curry into his mouth with the enthusiasm of someone who had just walked eighteen miles and tuned out his teammates.

As dinner wound down, he dropped all pretenses of listening to the conversation and lay back to look at the stars. It was a perfectly clear night, and they were deep into the park, far from any streetlights or other light pollution. Elias had switched off his lantern, leaving them in semidarkness lit only by the moon, which had pulled away from the horizon and turned a watery bluish-white. Áillen's eyes darted from star to star, watching how they disappeared when he looked directly at them, but rematerialized in his peripheral vision. The Milky Way behind them was like a droplet of white ink in dark water. It was a bright silver ribbon behind the stars.

It made Áillen feel like he was being erased. He could see no trace of the Earth when he stared at the sky, could not sense the planet under him in any way other than the pull of gravity and the feeling of sand getting into his hair. It was as though he was floating in a starry void, falling into the sky.

Julian's hand landed on Áillen's hairline, stroking stray hairs that had escaped his braid away from his face. Áillen inclined his head to bring Julian's sillhouette into view. "You okay, buddy?" Julian asked him.

Julian was nothing but a sillhouette, yet Áillen still knew he was beautiful. "Yeah," he said quietly. He could never have Julian the way he wanted him, but as long as he had him as a friend, Áillen would be okay.


Later that night, Áillen woke to Julian shaking his shoulder, calling his name in a stage whisper. He came awake with a start. He was soaked in sweat and shivering in his sleeping bag, as the night had become very cold.

He let out a low groan as he realized what had happened. His underwear was wet and he could feel himself still softening in his pants. He panted hard, but silently, trying to get his bearings.

"Are you alright? You were whimpering," Julian whispered. He sounded unselfconscious, like he thought Áillen had had a nightmare and wasn't aware of exactly what he had been whimpering about.

"Yeah," Áillen said shakily. mortified. He kept his neutral expression in place somehow and glanced at Julian. If Julian knew what had happened, he gave no sign of it. It was hard to read his facial expression in the dark, though.

If he wanted to be able to sleep for the rest of the night he was going to have to change his underwear. He motioned for Julian to hand him his pack and took a drink of water, then bit the bullet and fished out new underwear and headed for the zippered portal to the tent. Julian, of course, asked where he was going.

"I'm getting a change of clothes. I sweat through these ones." It wasn't exactly a lie.

He changed quickly once outside. The night was far more frigid outside the tent than inside. He stood in soft dust stubbled with hard twigs and pebbles. Just before he hurried back in, he glanced up at the night sky. The cold stain of the Milky Way lit the night, the moon a silver pinhead high in the sky.

He got back into his sleeping bag. Julian moved in close, tucking an arm around Áillen once he'd settled in. Áillen curled up, trying to fall back asleep and not dwell on the dream he'd been having of Julian.


The game broke and finished so quickly that it almost made Julian suspicious. Vic and Elias directed them from flag to flag, trading off with the compass. They didn't make any major misteps. By late afternoon of the second day of the game, Julian called for the team to split up. He kept Vic and Áillen with him and sent Elias and Kaliah off together. He knew they were close to winning, but made sure that both groups had enough camping equipment to get them through another night, if necessary.

About an hour later, when Julian was just starting to watch the horizon and mark the position of the sun to see when they had to stop moving and settle in for the night, Áillen shouted and pointed. Kaliah's white flare hung in the air, hazy with distance, outshining the evening star.

With unerring instinct, Áillen pulled the other two through a nearby fold that let them out onto the same mesa as the exit fold, just a few hundred meters away. Áillen oriented them towards it, then bolted across the rock at a dead run. Julian ran after him at a slightly slower pace, matching Vic. Áillen had disappeared through the fold by the time Julian reached it. Julian dilated time and led Vic through the fold.

He stepped out easily and steadied Vic. The Capture officials standing at the fold registered their time. Professor Kung and the rest of the team formed a tight knot near the last fold. Julian stood up straight and walked up to the group of officials and players as the timekeeping began. "We'll have to average your times," one of the officials told him. "It was a very close game." Another was collecting the flags from the players. Julian had one of them; he slipped his pack off his back and knelt to untie it from the strap. He handed the orange ribbon to Áillen, who passed it up to the official.

Julian stood at military attention as the other official re-checked the recorded times for all five players, then got out a calculator and started adding them up. He tried to look confident for his team, but he wasn't breathing. I should enjoy this moment, he realized suddenly. These were the last few seconds in which his team had neither won nor lost. Right now, he could appreciate the efforts of all four of his teammates, and enjoy the fact that they had finished the game quickly and efficiently, working together as a true team, without that pride being influenced by the outcome of the game.

Vic sidled closer to Elias, hooking their thumb into one of his belt loops and worrying it between their index finger and thumb. Áillen, beside Julian, shifted his weight to his other foot. He didn't show anxiety much–didn't show anything much except when he blushed–but Julian knew he was on edge. Julian reached out for him, but before he could squeeze his shoulder, the official looked up. "Thirty-five hours, fifty-five minutes, and sixteen seconds between the five of you."

"And how did Tahlequah do," Vic asked in a trembling voice.

"Thirty-five hours…" Julian bit his lip hard, almost hard enough to draw blood. We had a wonderful season, he reminded himself, a little desperately. Whatever happens now, I can be proud of what we've accomplished, despite adversity. Besides, I shouldn't be disappointed at the outcome. Gladeloch never goes to Nationals anyway.

"…fifty-six minutes–"

The count of seconds was drowned out by Kaliah shrieking and grabbing Vic. Vic was shouting too and hopping up and down. The Capture official tucked their calculator away with a smile. Julian stood stock still.

Fifty-six minutes? But that means…

Professor Kung was grinning at him.

We won?

"Congratulations, Julian," Kung said as Áillen, smiling, grabbed his arm. "You're the first Gladeloch captain to win against Tahlequah in seven years."

"Are–are you joking?" Julian asked.

"No, nobody's joking! Celebrate! Don't you want to make some noise?" She inclined her head at Kaliah, who had impressive lung capacity and was still screaming.

"Not really," Julian said breathlessly. He was grinning now, so widely it hurt his face.

"You did it," Áillen said. He squeezed Julian's forearm. "We did it."

Julian smiled wider. His heart filled with warmth to hear Áillen refer to the team as we. We are a team, Julian thought. We're not just five individuals, or four members of a team plus Áillen. This is Gladeloch's Capture team.

That was as much as he could think before Elias nosed in between him and Áillen to give Julian a hug, and then Vic wanted one, and he was buoyed back to their rented van on a wave of excited talk, still unable to believe that they had actually won the game. This means we're going to finals, he realized belatedly.

The year wasn't over yet.

17 Winter

Áillen felt as dazed as Julian looked after Gladeloch won the game. He stood as still as a statue for a few full seconds, the cheering of the other players roaring with the blood in his ears, staring in frank surprise at Julian as he tried to understand what had just happened. Vic grabbed him and spun him around, shaking him out of his daze.

Despite his apparently optimistic attitude, it was clear that Julian, too, had been bracing for a loss for Gladeloch. But they had won. And according to what Julian had said earlier, at Elias's party, not only had they won, but Áillen himself would be allowed to continue with the team; he was going to Nationals with them. Was it even possible that his dreams had come true like this? Nothing like this had ever happened to Áillen before, and he didn't know how to react.

He supposed the frantic pace of his heart was excitement. The Capture National Championship was a big deal, and would afford more opportunities to travel across the country, and to continue to enjoy the company of the other members of Gladeloch's team for a few more months, instead of for the handful of casual postseason games they would have had if they had lost this game.

Professor Kung took the Gladeloch team out for a late dinner at a 24-hour diner and encouraged the team to order what they wanted. Áillen was overwhelmed by the menu and by having the team charge card at his disposal, so Julian ordered for him. He got something called a "mess" that primarily consisted of a massive amount of potatoes and grease. He started in on it, watching out of the corner of his eye as Julian consumed a similarly huge quantity of fried food. Julian had let him sit on the outside of the bench of the booth the six of them had packed into, so he felt safe because he was able to get up and run at any time. But he also was right next to Julian, pressed up against him just to stay on the bench. He leaned into Julian's side as the meal finished. He was warm, his belly full, and he could smell the entrancing scent of Julian's sweat. He'd rarely felt this content in his entire life.

They had a special, flexible ticket for their flight back to Gladeloch, and during dinner, Kung called to move it so they could head to the airport after they ate and return earlier than they had planned; Arc-en-Ciel was not a small park and Professor Kung had budgeted them an entire additional day to finish the game. Besides his shock that their dysfunctional, tiny team had actually beat Tahlequah, the dominant team in the entire Western Capture conference if not the American Collegiate Capture Conference, Áillen was also surprised at how smoothly the game had gone. The field hadn't been mangled; nobody had fought on the field. They'd finished efficiently with no major problems. He said something to that effect and Kaliah replied, "What did you expect? That when things were going a little too well for us, God would reach down and put in a wall so we couldn't get where we were going?"

"Yeah, kinda," Áillen muttered.

"Dude," Elias said, "We're a shitty sports team, not cursed archaologists stealing artifacts from the tomb of the venerated King Vengeance the Great."

Áillen didn't know what that meant at all, so he let the conversation turn back to pop culture references he didn't understand.

Áillen took a Dramamine and slept through the flight back to Gladeloch. Within six hours, they were back at the airport closest to Littlebrook. Professor Kung herded them all into a school-issued van and drove them back to campus. From there, they piled into Elias's car and he dropped them each off at their individual dorms–except Vic, who would be staying with Elias after the game.

The group left Vic at Elias's house as Elias took the rest around to their dorms. Of the remaining three, Áillen was dropped off first at Tower. As he climbed out of the backseat, Julian stopped him and murmurred, "You can stay with me if you don't want to be alone."

Áillen shook his head, pulling away from Julian, a little angry that Julian thought he would be so fragile after encountering Lex that he couldn't spend a night alone. "No, it's fine. I'm just going to sleep." He pushed past Julian out of the SUV, grabbing his duffel bag from the floor. He slammed the passenger door behind him and stood on the sidewalk in the bracing wind as Elias pulled away. The car's engine split the deafening silence of the deserted hills around Tower. He shivered, holding his duffel bag close to his body as he headed inside.

It was warmer inside in the central heating, although his dorm was still drafty and the heat was turned down for the students' vacation. He stripped out of his stale clothing and left it in a pile on the ground. He hadn't had a chance to shower since their game and couldn't be bothered to do it now. He still felt drowsy and, ironically, slightly sick from the motion sickness drugs. He fell straight into bed, hating how badly he wished he could be in bed with Julian instead.

But he couldn't have taken Julian up on his offer. He knew he had gotten too attached to Julian. Nobody, not even Julian, could be trusted with Áillen's history with Lex. He couldn't rely on comfort from Julian, or anyone else, to protect him from his memories of the nightmare that had been his brief tenure on Tahlequah's Capture team. Julian would inevitably realize that Áillen was a coward. Gladeloch may have won their game against Tahlequah, but it was a hollow victory, because Áillen had already been forced out of Tahlequah's team by Lex. He had already lost.

And he had lost with Julian too, because as much as he had resisted it, he did trust Julian. He had made the mistake of needing him. He was no longer sure how he would go on when things ended with Julian. During the day, Áillen could suppress his feelings and pretend that what he felt for Julian was platonic. But during the night his mind betrayed him. He dreamed about loving Julian. The wet dream in the tent hadn't been the only time. There had been others, when he'd woken up with the smell of the way Julian's sweat overpowered the last traces of his deodorant late in a Capture game lingering in his nose, almost lifelike, as though Julian had just left the room.

He was starting to get hard just thinking about the way Julian smelled. He imagined himself pressing himself up against his side, nosing into Julian's armpit. He wanted to fill all his senses with Julian. He groaned, throwing an arm over his face, knowing that once he'd gotten this deep into a Julian-related daydream it was too late to stop himself from indulging in it completely. I have to cut myself off, he thought. I have to stop thinking about him, stop talking to him, stop spending all my time with him, or I'm going to get in too deep and it's going to kill me when he leaves. Julian was nothing but a beautiful daydream. He couldn't indulge in these crazy thoughts. His rabid wish to stay on the Capture team forever was bad enough.

He would stop tomorrow. He had to get off this emotional roller coaster. It was time he faced the truth: that he wasn't going to get a happy ending like Vic, and the sooner he faced up to that, the less he'd hurt in the long run.

Tomorrow, he thought, tomorrow I'm cutting myself off. As for tonight–he slid his hand under the waistband of his pants and reached down.


Julian's finals swamped him as soon as their last Capture game ended. Nearly the moment their flight back to Gladeloch touched down, he launched himself into a marathon of studying he'd been neglecting due to the Capture season. Professor Kung had called off practices through the end of winter break to allow the students to focus on finals. They could have picked up again during winter break, since none of them were leaving campus to visit relatives except Kaliah, but Julian thought Kung was smart to give them a break to recover from the hectic pace of the Capture pre-season. After what they had all been through, the team deserved a rest.

He barely had any time to speak with the rest of the team for the next week, even once pulling an uncharacteristic all-nighter. He ran into Elias a few times but otherwise kept to himself, finished overdue homework, ran through flashcards, and took practice tests. Studying kept his mind off the upcoming Capture postseason and the difficulties still ahead of the team. His hard work paid off, and he felt confident about each of his exams as they passed.

The weekend after his finals were over, he texted Áillen asking him if he wanted to meet up somewhere. He hadn't seen or heard from him for the entire week. He was probably holed up in Tower, either studying or doing the strange, obsessive things Áillen seemed to pursue when he was alone. (More than once, Julian had caught him dilating time and staring, enraptured, at such riveting phenomena as a small beetle wandering around the floor of his dorm.)

It didn't worry him at first when he didn't get a response. With finals behind him and Gladeloch going to Nationals, there was little that could bother him. Perhaps Áillen had a few late finals and was still studying.

It turned out very little could bother him other than Áillen not answering any of his communications. By Sunday, Elias had noticed that Julian was out of sorts and teased his complaint out of him over coffee in his living room before a hike in the hills behind Elias's house, through a few inches of new snow. When Julian finally said what he was worried about, Elias laughed at him. "It was his first finals week, and we just had a game. He's probably just sleeping for a week."

"Yeah. I know." But Áillen had always answered Julian's texts quickly before, and he wasn't one to sleep in. Julian flipped his phone's screen off and slid it back into his pocket.

"Do you miss him?" Elias singsonged.

"I really don't know why Vic puts up with you."

"Me neither," Elias said, turning serious suddenly, "But I really hope they keep doing it."

Julian tried to forget about his texts to Áillen as he and Elias hiked. It was a relief seeing Elias so engaged–not necessarily happy, not always, but lively, a little less cynical, more able to be serious when it was called for. He'd recovered some of his charm and life before he'd gotten together with Vic, but after they'd finally gotten together, his health had improved even further. They were both stabler together than apart. Julian was under no illusions that Elias's problems had been solved by his new relationship. But he was on new medication that seemed to be helping, and was going to therapy twice a week now. And Vic was fighting for him and pushing their way doggedly through Elias's walls.

They were mostly quiet as they slogged through powdery snow. Julian tried to put his mind to rest and enter the meditative state that made hours of hiking feel like nothing, but he couldn't entirely put Áillen from his mind. He rarely could these days.


November 9th, 13:55: Finals going okay?

Yesterday, 09:42: I'm at the natural grocer, need anything? Elias buying.

Today, 15:07: Hey, me and Elias are hanging at his place. We're thinking of watching a movie. Text me when you get this.

Not talking to Julian was more difficult than Áillen had thought it would be. He had expected cutting Julian off to be easy. He didn't get attached to people easily and liked the safety of knowing he could cut ties with anyone at any moment without being hurt. If someone betrayed him, or disbelieved him, or gave up on him, he could walk away easily, without regret or guilt.

But it did hurt to shut Julian out. He'd trusted Julian with the truth about how he'd been kicked off the Capture team. When Áillen had told him about that, he knew he'd gone too far. Julian knew too much about him, and had been privy to way too many of Áillen's secrets and emotions. It wasn't safe to remain friends with him. After all, wasn't that how Áillen had gotten into this mess in the first place? He'd trusted Lex, even liked him, before the abuse had started. If he'd been more detached and clearheaded, Lex may still have made advances, but Áillen wouldn't have been stupid enough to let the abuse continue for months before saying anything.

He shook himself, brushing the memories away, and dismissed the notification for Julian's latest text.

He lifted his head to his image in the bathroom mirror and began brushing out his hair to braid it. He was due for a shift at the coffeeshop soon. As finals ended, he'd signed up for a few more shifts than normal, filling the empty hours he normally occupied with schoolwork and Capture.

He looked at his face in the mirror. He'd filled out a little since he'd met Julian. The face in the mirror had a strong jaw, not so fine-boned and sharp as it had once been. When he reached back to braid his hair, his lats and triceps stood out, not in the ropy way of someone with no flesh to spare, but sleek, whiplike.

Julian had put those muscles there. He'd written himself onto Áillen's body. Áillen thought of him, and saw him, everywhere; he couldn't even escape him in the mirror.

It made ignoring him much more difficult. But it was important. He wasn't safe unless he could cut ties with Julian. Loving Julian scared him. It made him weak. It was intolerable; he couldn't allow it to continue.

He ground his teeth as he went to find his uniform apron.

Today, 16:15: Text me when you see this


Julian had thought he'd spend the days after his finals ended relaxing and watching movies or drinking with Elias and the rest of the team, but instead he came down with the flu the first weekend he had free. He slept, watched bad daytime TV, and read the same paragraph of his novel over and over in a feverish daze for half a week, camping out on Elias's house while Elias was uncharacteristically solicitous, bringing him glasses of water and cough drops. Half the Capture team had caught the same bug in the past week or so. Elias, of course, escaped it. He always seemed to, maybe because he spent less time on Gladeloch's campus than the rest of the team who lived in the dorms.

By the end of this week, winter break would start officially, and almost nobody would be left on campus. On Thursday morning, when Julian was beginning to recover, the dorms were already quiet, students leaving in droves as their courses ended. Professor Kung always made special arrangements for the Capture team, ensuring that they could still get into the cafeteria and other campus buildings over break.

He took a much-needed shower and dragged himself to the cafeteria for breakfast with Vic and Elias. Several more snowfalls had accumulated since they had all gotten snowed in at Elias's house. Smooth fields of snow blanketed the quad, ice-crusted hillocks of gray snow plowed off the road lined every street, and every sidewalk was a palimpsest of footprints.

Elias and Vic were already in the cafeteria, seated at a table with a basket of homefries between them and each with their own plate of food. Julian got a stack of pancakes and joined them at the table.

"I see you're feeling a little better," Vic said.

"Yeah, thanks." The two of their hands were clasped atop the table, he noticed.

"Where's Áillen?" Vic asked. "I haven't seen him lately."

Julian frowned, losing his good humor. "I don't know."

"You mean you still haven't heard from him?" Elias asked.

"No."

"And?"

"And what?"

"And are you going to do anything about that? Hasn't it been more than a week since he last answered your texts?"

"Yeah. But that's none of my business."

"None of your–dude, what are you talking about? This is Áillen."

"Yeah, so? If he doesn't want to talk to me, I'm not going to pretend it doesn't sting a little, but what are you suggesting, that I hunt him down and demand he tell me what's wrong?"

"You just described politely checking on a friend, so yes, that's exactly what I'm suggesting."

"Have you met Áillen? If I go after him, he'll just push me away harder."

"When has he ever pushed you away? I've found you sleeping all tangled up with him how many times now?!"

"Just twice!"

"Just twice, he says," Elias mocked him.

"Don't be dramatic." He had to pause the verbal sparring to blow his nose on a napkin.

"You're such a hypocrite," Elias said while he was occupied with that. "You're always telling other people to reach out and communicate with each other, but as soon as you have a personal investment in something, that all goes out the window!"

"Those are people with established friendships who have no reason not to talk to each other!"

"Now you're trying to say you don't have an established friendship with Áillen? Again, Julian, it's Áillen. He's been glued to you for the past three months. Even I'm concerned if he's incommunicado with you for this long."

"Then you text him."

"Maybe I will."

Julian glowered at Elias and stuffed another bite of pancake into his mouth.

It was then that Elias decided Julian needed a distraction. He was tied up in knots over this stupid Áillen situation. He needed to realize he was an absolute catch and that half the Capture team had fallen in love with him upon first meeting him. Elias had; it had been a short-lived crush. He was pretty sure Vic had. Kaliah hadn't, but Nasira had, though only for a few weeks. Julian had dated one of the older Capture players, their old team captain who had graduated and passed the mantle to Julian himself, for about six months, and at least one of the other graduates had been jealous. It was an actual laundry list, and it was absurd that Julian didn't realize that Áillen was on it.

Julian had to get his courage up and talk to Áillen, and he was never going to do that without some sort of outside influence. So Elias conspired to drag him out to the local dive bar in Littlebrook.

"I really don't see why this is necessary," Julian griped as Elias threw clothing at him from his own closet.

"You're lucky we're both tall." Elias held up a pair of emerald green snakeskin pants to Julian's hips.

"No," Julian said flatly.

"The snakeskin is fake. No animals were harmed in the–"

"Just no."

"Fine…" He handed him black skinny jeans, a soft black T-shirt with the nice drape of expensive cotton, and a black leather jacket. "What about this?"

"I guess."

"And I told you. We're going out for Nasira's birthday."

"But it's not even her birthday."

"It almost is."

"It's next month."

"We moved it up a month."

Julian rolled his eyes. He changed into the ensemble while Elias dug out an outfit for himself, choosing greys and muted reds, a V-neck with a lower cut than Julian would ever tolerate that would show off a sliver of Elias's hairless chest.

"How's this?" Julian asked.

Elias took off his own shirt and folded it, pulling the V-neck on. "You look great." Julian wasn't pretty the way Elias was, but beautiful, and sturdily built. His warm, even skin tone glowed under all the black. "Those jeans make your legs look amazing."

Julian glanced down at his legs as though he'd never before considered that they had a physical appearance. "Thanks, I guess."

"Ready to go? We're meeting the others at the bar."

"Yep." He transferred his keys from the jeans he'd taken off into the pair he was borrowing from Elias. "Let's go."

They were headed for Jerry's. Jerry's was a concession. Elias liked to think he wouldn't be caught dead at Jerry's, but in fact he patronized the establishment with embarrassing frequency because the rest of the Capture team liked it. This was mostly because Jerry's ran a regular 50-cent beer night. As much as Elias that insisted that he (really his parents) could cover regular-price beer night at any of the other, less seedy bars in Littlebrook, the rest of the team only let him do it once in a blue moon. So Jerry's on Tuesdays it was. The things Elias did for the team.

Julian's gloomy irritability seemed to lift a little as he met Vic, Kaliah, and Nasira at the door. He hugged them each and made the usual "haven't seen you in a while" overtures to Nasira.

The atmosphere in Jerry's was really something else. Nasira and Vic beelined for their favorite back-corner booth, which Elias hated because he swore that specific table was always mysteriously sticky. The tables at Jerry's were a combination of secondhand junk and "reclaimed wood", and this particular one was made out of an old door. It still had a doorknob. Elias looked forward to inevitably bashing his elbow against it at least once. The floor was unfinished wood that had been lacquered by decades of spilt beer. The bar had seen better days, probably around the era of World War I specifically.

Elias got them a first round and brought drinks to the table. Two shots of vodka for Kaliah, a light beer for Julian and Nasira, and a dark beer for Vic. He slid into the booth next to Vic and gently slipped his arm around their waist. They felt reassuringly solid under his hand.

It scared him a little how fast his walls were coming down with Vic. He'd denied and denied how much he thought and fretted about every member of the Capture team, and particularly Vic, until he'd admitted to his feelings for them. It was his attachment to Benjamin that had killed a part of him when Benjamin had died. Loving people was a liability that Elias had wanted to eschew completely. Everyone on the Capture team understood that. Love was a chink in their armor.

Elias hadn't realized how powerful those feelings would be once he let them loose. Whereas his love for Benjamin had made him want to die, his love for Vic now made him want to live.

Within the hour, Elias's brilliant plan to get Julian to stop moping was looking like a success. Julian tore through two beers as he caught up with Nasira. Elias was happy to let the conversation wash over him as he sipped a whiskey sour. He had to let go of Vic when they got into an argument with Nasira over some physics calculation having to do with angular momentum that Elias couldn't follow at all. Soon Vic was scribbling on a bar napkin with a pen they had produced out of nowhere as Julian valiantly attempted to follow the discussion. Nasira dilated time to perform long division and square root calculations in her head, showing off to the table, while Vic used the calculator on their phone. When they were done Elias got another round and they all toasted the birthday girl. Nasira's birthday hadn't been entirely an excuse.

"We can't wait to have you back on the team," Julian said after Kaliah had given a long and tipsy treatise on all of Nasira's excellent qualities. "It'll be great having everyone back together again."

"Yeah, I'm looking forward to it to," Nasira said. "By the way, it's too bad Áillen couldn't be here."

Julian's face fell. "Yeah, I know."

"Did he go home for the holidays?"

"He's just taking a break," Elias cut in, trying to make 'not a good topic' gestures at Nasira across the table without Julian, sitting next to her, picking up on it. Luckily Julian was just drunk enough not to take note. "He, uh, he'll be back to socializing soon, I'm sure," Elias added.

"Right!" Nasira said brightly. She glanced at Julian, amused.

After a few more drinks, Nasira and Julian fell to a game of darts, and that was when it became obvious that Julian was a little bit beyond tipsy. He kept grabbing Nasira's shoulder for balance and, as Elias watched from the pool table where he was playing against Kaliah, missed again, burying a dart in the pockmarked drywall to the left of the dartboard before it tilted downwards and fell out of the wall. "Damn!" Julian said and went to retrieve it. He wove his way back to Nasira. Nasira stepped forward and threw, dilating time to make her aim perfect. Her third dart landed in the bulls-eye next to her other two.

"How are you so good at this?" Julian asked.

"I really don't have to be that good to beat you, apparently." All three of Julian's darts were on the floor.

"I want to play another round."

"Whatever you say, big guy," Nasira said. She collected the darts from the ground and handed his back to him to play again.

Elias managed another few minutes of evenly-matched pool against Kaliah before Julian gave up on darts and wandered over to him. He came up behind Elias as Elias was attempting to make a shot, and Elias nearly jabbed him in the stomach with the cue. Elias straightened up, setting down the cue as Julian slid his arms around him from behind. "What do you think you're doing?"

"I don't know," Julian said into the back of his neck, mushing his nose into his hair. "I just like you."

"I appreciate that, but would it be possible for you to like me at a different, later time?"

"Oh come on, Elias, this is cute," Vic said, giggling. They went for their phone.

"If you photograph this, I'll take your phone and throw it in the North Branch."

Vic pouted and put their phone back in their pocket.

The bar was starting to clear out. Midnight had come and gone. The handful of remaining patrons who weren't from Gladeloch were starting to give Julian skeptical glances as he hung off Elias. Littlebrook was a small town, and Julian was not only effeminate but also brown. Elias tried to peel Julian's hands away from his waist. He succeeded, only for Julian to slip one of his hands under the hem of Elias's shirt instead. Elias gave up, lined up the cue, and took his shot with Julian still leaning into his back. Kaliah laughed at him when the cue ball when hilariously wide and bounced off two rails without hitting a thing. She took the ball to her side of the table.

"I miss him," Julian suddenly slurred into Elias's hair. He hiccupped.

"Oh dear lord," Elias muttered. Vic was going for their camera again, and Elias just pointed and glared. "There's already video of him drunkenly mooning over Áillen. He doesn't deserve to have two of those floating around."

"If he didn't deserve it, why does he keep getting drunk and mooning over him?"

"Touché."

"I'm always fucking it up with him," Julian said. "I tried so hard. But I did bad."

"I'm sure you did fine, Julian. Áillen's just a wreck. And you are also a wreck. And this whole situation is sort of like watching two junk cars crash into each other in incredibly slow motion, but not being able to do anything about it, and glass is going everywhere, and–"

"I've gotta talk to him."

"Yes!" Elias practically shouted. He patted Julian's forearm where it was wrapped around his chest. "Yes, exactly. You should talk to him."

"Okay," Julian said with a chagrined sigh. "I'll talk to him."

"Good. Now let's get a glass of water–"

"Right now. I need your car."

"What? No. How about in the morning? When you're a little less…"

"Blasted," Vic giggled.

"'M not blasted," Julian protested. He let go of Elias, leaning on the long rail of the table. "I just really wanna talk to him. 'M gonna call him."

"Oh, nope. No no no. No you aren't." Elias slid Julian's phone right out of his hand and put it in his own pocket before he could get farther than the lockscreen. "I'm not sure I've ever heard a worse idea. Hey. Where are you going? Bathroom's that way."

"Outside. Gonna go find him."

"You better go after him," Vic snickered.

"Me? Why is this my problem?"

"I have to stay here with Nasira," Vic said with a completely straight face. Nasira was currently hustling one of the townies at darts, and did not appear to need supervision.

"This still doesn't sound like my problem."

"You realize he's probably trying to get into your car right now?"

"Fuck. Shit. You're right." Elias kissed Vic quickly. "Come to my house at the end of the night, okay?" He hurried out the front door of the bar, leaving the warm murmur behind for the cold night. "Julian! Get away from my car!"


Ten minutes later, a rideshare was dropping Elias and Julian off outside of Tower. Elias had made Julian promise not to go inside, and Julian had sworn he wouldn't.

Julian slid out of the car in a none-too-graceful fashion and waited on the sidewalk for Elias, who came and joined him. He started for the door of the dorm as the car pulled away. The quiet that enveloped them after the car left was like cold water to the face after the pleasant buzz of the bar. Elias crossed his arms; he wasn't dressed for the weather. He was annoyed to be standing outside in the freezing cold with Julian while everyone else was still at the bar having fun. Elias hadn't even gotten to see Nasira finish fleecing that man.

Julian, predictably enough, forgot his promise immediately and started for the door. Elias grabbed him as fast as he could and pulled him back by his upper arm. "What?"

"We're not going inside, remember?" Elias said, with the patience of a saint.

"Right." Julian ran his tongue over his lower lip, staring at the top floor of Tower. All was dark. Tower was litle more than a gap in the glittering stars. Julian could be so creepy sometimes. He was overinvolved in the lives of his team members. It was a double-edged sword; on the one hand, he was attentive and caring and the scaffolding that held the team up. On the other, there was… this. Julian mooning up at the dark top floor of Tower in the middle of the night.

"You are so drunk," Elias muttered.

"Am not."

"Can we go home now? It's cold as hell out here."

"We could go inside and see if he's home."

"No, we really couldn't."

Julian pouted. "We don't have a car," he pointed out.

"I know. My car's still at Jerry's. I'll get it in the morning."

"Are we walking back?"

"I don't know, big boy, how's your walking?"

"Great." Julian wove towards Elias with a look of fierce concentration to demonstrate, and it was all Elias could do not to roll his eyes.

"Nope. We're getting a ride." He got out his phone again, probably calling back the same rideshare that had just left. He would tip the driver well. "I hope you're going to find this escapade funny in the morning."


He did not find it funny in the morning.

Julian woke up on Elias's couch–sometimes he wasn't sure why he even bothered paying for a dorm, since half the Capture team was effectively living out of Elias's house at any given time. Unfortunately, he remembered absolutely everything from the night before, in a quick series of mental images that flickered through his head like the world's most pathetic public service announcement about alcohol abuse.

"There he is!" said Vic, with way too much glee in their voice for this hour of the morning. Based on Julian's internal clock, it had to be the crack of dawn.

He opened one eye and muzzily checked the time on Elias's set-top box. It was past nine. "God… fuck."

"There's water on the end table," Vic said, crossing through the room and exiting towards the stairs. Julian made a blind grab for the water, sloshed half of it out onto the hardwood floor, swore again, and sat up to down the other half.

"Vic!" he yelled. He was more bleary than he was truly hungover, but only barely. Lately he had begun to notice signs that his ability to get sloshed and wake up tired but functional the next morning was on a short countdown to obsolescence. There was a dull ache in the back of his head, barely noticeable, that would evaporate within the hour, a little warning telling him Someday soon, you'll be thirty and you'll have to stop doing this stupid shit or face the consequences.

Vic poked their head back into the living room. "Yeah?"

"Where's Elias?"

"He left to find Áillen."

"Seriously?"

"Yeah. I think he felt sorry for you last night," Vic said, barely restraining laughter.


Elias, today, 08:32 where r u? need to talk to u

It surprised Elias when Áillen actually texted him back just a few minutes later, even though Julian hadn't heard from him for over a week.

Áillen 08:35 k

Elias 08:36 k what? what does that mean

But Áillen didn't text back again for the next half hour. Elias was heading in the direction of campus anyway to pick up lunch, so he figured he could stop by Tower dorm while he was there, track down Áillen, and have a talk with him. It wasn't exactly on his way, but at this point he'd do pretty much anything to get Julian to stop talking to him about how Áillen was ignoring him. Even when Julian wasn't talking about it, he was moping about it, which was even worse.

He pulled up outside of Tower Dorm. There were just a few sets of footprints in the crust of snow outside, few enough that they may all have belonged to Áillen. It was depressing to think about him living all alone on the top floor of the tower in the hills. Maybe it's a good thing that I'm coming to yell at him, Elias thought.

Spindly gray skeletons of shrubs stood sentinel on either side of the heavy front door. Elias pushed his way inside and shook windblown snow off his jacket and out of his hair, stamping his feet in the entryway to the ground floor common room. It was dark, closed down for winter break. He went to the central spiral staircase and started on his way up. Tower dorm was stone silent on the inside. Everyone but the Capture team and a handful of sports teams had gone home for winter break, leaving campus eerily quiet.

Elias had never actually been inside Tower before; it had a bad reputation for housing maladjusted students, and a tenacious rumor had been circulating since Elias was a freshman that a suicide had occurred here some time ago. Climbing the windowless, cramped internal staircase, Elias could see why the rumor had started.

He made it all the way up to Áillen's dorm on the 8th floor. He emerged from the stairway into a narrow hallway. It had two ceiling lights, but only one of them was turned on, and it flickered. If they don't want people to spread rumors about this dorm being haunted, maybe they could maintain it a little more carefully. One tiny window at the end of the hall faced east, and an improbable ray of direct sunlight sliced through it and landed on the floor in a neat rectangle, belying the dim vibe of the space.

He knocked on Áillen's door. A glow of light came from under the door, but it looked like natural light from a window rather than a sign that Áillen was actually inside. "Áillen? You in there?"

He couldn't hear anyone moving around, and quickly began to feel foolish standing outside Áillen's room. Hopefully his neighbor across the hall, "Regina" according to her plain printed nametag, was home for the holidays and not witnessing this. "Áillen?" Again, no response. He got out his cell phone and called him, but he didn't hear Áillen's phone ringing. But that didn't mean anything, because Áillen was the type to turn his ringer off and forget about it.

He tried the door, but it was locked. This simple task was quickly turning into a wild goose chase, which was typical. Nothing involving trying to straighten out Julian's bizarre love life could ever be easy. Elias went back to his car and drove to the coffeeshop where Áillen worked. He bought coffee beans, and as he checked out, tried to look for Áillen behind the counter. Try as he might, he didn't see any sign of him back in the kitchen. "Is Áillen going to be in today?" he asked the cashier.

"Hm? You're on the Capture team with him, right? No, he called out yesterday, and he's not here today either."

"He called out?"

"Yeah. I guess he's caught whatever's going around."

But he wasn't in his dorm, so where was he? The on-campus clinic? No, Elias recalled, that was closed for the holidays too–leftover students and faculty were redirected to the hospital in town. And that was way too far to walk if Áillen had caught the flu that everyone else on the team (except Elias, who refused to get sick) had already gotten. "Thanks," he said uneasily, going back to his car.

He drummed his fingers abstractedly on the steering wheel as he considered his options. He could give up now and let Julian talk to Áillen himself if he really wanted to, except that they already hadn't spoken in a week and a half and still neither of them had reached out to the other.

Also, he had to admit, he was a little worried on Áillen's behalf about his disappearance. It wasn't unlike Áillen to drop off the grid for a few days, but the fact that he'd called out of work sick was concerning. But Elias didn't have any other ideas as to where he could be unless he actually was at the hospital, and if he was, nobody would be able to get to him except Professor Kung, his emergency contact.

He started back towards his house in the SUV, but then, on a sudden hunch, changed lanes and continued straight past the turnoff for his neighborhood. He went left towards Littlebrook instead. Despite how close to Littlebrook he lived, Elias didn't spend much time in town. Littlebrook was an adorable town where charmingly-painted old single-family homes stood shoulder to shoulder, their porches so close that residents could pass beers across property lines. The leafless trees were wrapped with strands of lights, and wreaths, banners, and other holiday accoutrements flocked every street. He found the decorations a bit tacky.

He circled around the north edge of the town, then turned off towards Gladeloch's smaller gym complex. He parked there and got out of the car. His was the only car in the lot. It was silent except for the north fork of the Gold River running behind the gym, raucous with snowmelt.

He had a special key to the gym to get in over break, but he tried the handle on the front door first and found it to be unlocked. Finally, he thought. It was dark inside, but he didn't bother with the lights. He went straight to the Capture lounge at the back of the building.

The TV in the lounge was turned on and the door was open a crack. He stepped inside, closing the door behind him. He didn't see anybody actually in the lounge. He walked over to the couch in front of the TV and leaned on it. The volume on the TV was turned down almost to silent, but he could see Anastasia reporting on one of Gladeloch's Capture games. It was the bad one, the one against Stilwell Hills from a few weeks ago. In his entire time with Gladeloch, Elias had never seen them lose a game so badly before. Onscreen, Elias and Vic stood four feet apart and ate silently without looking at each other. It hurt to relive that disaster through the video, but it was difficult to look away.

He almost jumped out of his skin when there was a cough from right in front of him.

"Jesus!" he yelped, jerking back from the couch. There he is. Áillen lay on his side in front of the TV. He was engulfed in a gray hoodie, the ratty cuffs of the sleeves pressed to his face so that it hid him almost completely. The only reason Elias could tell it was Áillen was by the end of his copper braid, badly frayed, escaping from the hood. "Áillen. I've been looking for you."

There was no answer except that Áillen kept coughing more and more deeply until it hurt Elias's chest to listen to it. Beginning to understand that something was wrong, he came around to the front of the couch.

"Áillen. Wake up." Áillen stopped coughing, but didn't open his eyes. He sniffled and curled up more tightly. He looked cold; he didn't have any blankets and the central air in the gym was only turned up high enough to keep the pipes from freezing. It couldn't have been more than about 55 indoors.

Knowing Áillen, Elias was hesitant to try shaking him awake or touching him. That seemed like the kind of thing that might get him punched if Áillen woke up too fast. "Okay, hang on," he said quietly, half to Áillen and half to himself, and stood up. He dialed Julian's number.

"Elias, don't tell me you're trying to play matchmaker with–"

"Hey. I found Áillen."

"What do you mean, found?"

"He was camping out in the Capture lounge."

"What's going on? Why are you calling me?" Julian slid seamlessly from annoyed friend to concerned team captain. Elias could practically hear Julian putting his shoes on to come get him.

"He's asleep and I can't wake him up."

"What the hell? Is he okay?"

"I don't know. I think he's–" Áillen started coughing again, loudly enough to be audible through the phone. It sounded… wet. Elias moved a few steps away. "I think he has whatever everyone else had last week. The flu or whatever."

"What do you mean, he won't wake up?"

"I already tried calling his name. I'm not going to shake him. You know how he is."

"Yeah. Good call."

"Come down here and help me get him in the car. We'll take him back to my place–"

"We're kidnapping him?"

"It's not–Julian, just come here and when you see him you'll agree. He's pathetic. I'm… kinda worried. I don't know how to take care of people."

"But he's not talking to me. I'm sure he wouldn't want me to come picking him up while he's unconscious…" Julian fretted.

"Obviously he's not talking to you; I've heard all about that. But this is an exceptional situation. I'll send you a car." Elias hung up on Julian and called a rideshare for him.

Julian showed up a few minutes later. Elias heard him shaking snow from his boots and jeans in the lobby, then walking through to the Capture lounge. He beelined to Áillen and assessed the situation. "You weren't kidding."

"Would I lie to you?"

"Yes, you do it all the time," Julian muttered, more to himself than Elias. That stung a little, since Elias had been trying not to recently, but he knew the rest of the team wouldn't start trusting his word overnight, so he said nothing. Julian in particular had had plenty of time to acclimate to Elias's chronic insincerity and would probably take some time to notice that it had stopped.

Carefully, but with less trepidation than Elias had felt, Julian worked a hand up under Áillen's fists where they were clenched in front of his face, sliding his palm up to Áillen's forehead. "He's burning up," he said, frowning. "How long do you think he's been here?"

"It seems both depressing and pointless to speculate about that."

Julian stroked Áillen's bicep gently with his other hand. "Hey, Áillen. Time to get up, buddy."

Julian's tone was equal parts fond and sad. Elias had a feeling that "buddy" had been a near miss for another word starting with "b" and ending with "y". He was a little embarrassed to be witnessing this. Is this how the rest of the team feels when Vic and I hold hands?

As though he'd heard Elias's thoughts and decided to fuck with him, Áillen, still apparently unconscious, made a quiet noise that was almost a whimper and grabbed Julian's hand, pressing it to his own forehead.

"Oh my god," Julian said.

"Oh Jesus," Elias said.

"He's like a kitte–"

"If you finish that sentence, I will have to kill you."

"Okay, okay. Come on, bud. Wake up." Julian tugged his hand away from him. Áillen still didn't respond, which Elias found pretty offputting.

Julian finally had to resort to shaking him by the shoulder. Áillen made a high-pitched noise that caught in his throat with a raw-sounding scrape. Elias winced. "Is he okay?"

"Do I look like a doctor to you?"

"No, but I was kind of hoping you would pretend to have the situation under control. Don't you have siblings? You should know what to do in this situation."

"His fever feels really high to me. We could take him back to Tower…"

"Come on, don't be ridiculous. We'll take him back to my house. My car's outside."

"I guess… oh, there he is." Áillen had opened his eyes and seemed to be coming around to semiconsciousness. Elias wasn't sure this actually constituted an improvement. He was pale as death, yet unnaturally flushed across his cheeks. His eyes were bloodshot and he squinted against the glow from the TV. Elias quickly grabbed the remote and turned it off, banishing an image of Julian in Mustang Run looking like he was about to die.

"Hey. You ready to get out of here?" Julian was asking Áillen.

Áillen made a not very coherent noise that sounded kind of like "Mmwhat?"

"Do you know where we are?"

"Kinda," he croaked in a voice that was a stiff breeze away from giving up on life entirely.

"We're in the Capture lounge. Seems like you caught the flu that was going around." Áillen hummed noncommittally and closed his eyes. "Stay awake for a minute," Julian said, and Áillen opened his eyes again. That was the power of the mild, calm voice Julian used to boss people around. People obeyed him automatically, without even realizing it until it was too late, because he sounded so reasonable and confident. "If you can stand, we'll take you to Elias's car and get you somewhere more comfortable."

"I'm fine. It's not that big a deal," Áillen said, turning his face into the couch in abject misery. "Don' have to help me."

"Yeah, um, no," Julian said succinctly.

"'M not supposed to be talking to you," Áillen muttered.

Annoyance flashed across Julian's face, there and gone, followed by that kicked puppy look he wore so well. It was too bad Áillen couldn't see his puppy eyes, because that would have ended this ridiculous drama in an instant. "Okay, Elias can do the talking, then. I'm still going to come make sure you're okay. I don't know what I did wrong, but you're still on my team and I'm not going to leave you alone while you're sick."

Áillen didn't say anything. Elias thought he'd probably fallen asleep again.

They got him up off the couch and Julian bent down to pull Áillen's arm across his shoulders and help him to the door. Their height difference made it awkward for Julian to support him. They managed to stagger to the doorway together before Julian said, "Well, this is stupid," and scooped Áillen into a bridal carry. Áillen tucked himself in to Julian's chest.

They manhandled him into Elias's car with some difficulty, where he immediately curled up in the back seat and fell asleep again. He roused a little when Elias pulled into his driveway. "Elias's house? Why am I here? You should take me back to my dorm."

"No," Elias said. "Help Julian take you inside." Julian had opened the car door and waited there for Áillen to come out.

Áillen shot Julian a suspicious and inscrutable look. Julian was obviously struggling with this situation. "Look, I don't know what's going on with us, but can we deal with it when you're feeling better? Just let me help you right now." Julian reached out a hand to Áillen.

Sometimes it was painfully easy to see the helpless little boy Julian had once been–it was blatant now, in the nervous and tentative look on Julian's face as he reached out for Áillen, half-expecting to be rejected. Elias hadn't known Julian when he'd been undergoing the abuse from his father that had made him a time dilator and contractor, before his father had lost custody, but he still got glimpses of that time in Julian's life. Like the rest of the Capture team, the ten percent of Julian above the waterline was an adult college student, and the ninety percent below was a hurt child. It pained Elias whenever that side of Julian showed through. Julian was so good at faking confidence most of the time that it was easy to forget that he was as vulnerable to social viccissitudes as the rest of the team.

Elias was relieved when Áillen took his hand and got out of the car. He stood in the snow, looking coltish, mostly long legs and arms. His clothes hung off him a little, and Elias wondered if he'd managed to lose weight within the past week and a half, or if he was just dehydrated. Both alternatives offended him. What was the point to this stupid Capture team if they were going to let one of their team members revert to living like some sort of feral cat every time there was a break in the Capture season?

The three of them went inside and Julian pulled Áillen towards the stairs to a guest bedroom, but Áillen planted his feet in the foyer and shook his head. "Don't take me to a bedroom. I'm not staying here."

"You have to lie down. You're shaking."

"Put him on the couch," Elias said. "It'll be easier to keep an eye on him anyway."

It was a sign of how feverish Áillen was that he didn't protest them keeping an eye on him. He went willingly to the couch and lay down while Julian retrieved some of the wool blankets from Elias's porch and tucked him in. Elias put tea on, feeling a little out of place in his own home.

"Do you have a thermometer?" Julian asked.

"Upstairs, in the master bath. It's in the cabinet behind the mirror."

"Alright. Watch him for a second."

"I don't think he's going anywhere," Elias said as Julian went upstairs.


Áillen wasn't sure how exactly he had been planning to cope when he had gotten sick, but when he woke up on Elias's sectional without more than a hazy impression of how he had gotten there, he knew that this definitely had not been the plan.

He was alone in Elias's living room, and judging by the dark windows, it was the middle of the night. He'd been having a confusing dream about taking an exam for a class he'd completely forgotten he was taking. The quivery anxiety of the dream lingered; he felt as though someone, maybe Elias, was around a corner, waiting to punish him for being bad.

He shivered, drawing his knees tighter to his chest. His thoughts were hazy. He was convinced there was something from his dream that was real, but he couldn't figure out which parts were fictional and which were reality. He moaned and pressed the heel of his hand into his eye socket. His head hurt horribly and now that he thought about he he realized he was frigid. He pulled the blankets tighter around him, but it didn't help. He tried to get up to get water and clear his head, but found his limbs heavy and uncoordinated. He flopped one hand down to the couch cushions and managed to lever himself upright. He had an intense headrush from sitting up, so bad he saw stars. Panicking, he stood up. He flailed to catch himself but misjudged the distance back to the couch and grabbed at nothing.

He went to his knees hard with a percussive bang and ended up facedown on the floor. His head rang like a struck bell; he couldn't tell if he'd hit it or not. He had the nauseous feeling of malaise that came from almost passing out, but not quite.

Footsteps came quickly towards him. He couldn't do much except groan and close his eyes.

"Hey, are you okay? Did you faint?" He opened his eyes a crack. A dark-haired man leaned over him. His face was indistinct in the darkness. "Let's get you back up on the couch."

The man turned him over so he was lying on his back. Áillen became suddenly aware that he was sweaty and felt distinctly unwashed. He felt absolutely helpless. Before he could protest or struggle, the man efficiently scooped him up, lifting him under his shoulders and knees, and set him back on the couch. "I don't think you're bleeding anywhere…"

"I think I'm sick," Áillen said sluggishly. His voice sounded like a truck driving over gravel.

"Yeah, I'd say so," said the man with a trace of laughter in his voice. "Don't try to get up again. I don't think your fever is going to let you go anywhere until we get it down a little." A big hand felt his forehead.

"But I have to get up," he protested.

"What for?"

He tried to remember. "An exam."

"What exam?"

"I don't know. I forgot about a class…"

"What is he talking about?" Another figure came into the room, also tall, also dark-haired, difficult to distinguish from the first in the low light. Then a lamp clicked on. The light spiked into Áillen's eyes and he shut them tightly. None of this made sense. He wanted to cry but knew he couldn't in front of these people.

"I don't know. I think he's delirious."

"I'm not," Áillen said.

"Shh, it's okay. There's no exams left. Exam week is over."

"No. There is one." He grabbed at the man sitting next to the couch. "I have to get up."

"…It was cancelled. And you need to rest."

Áillen nodded. Cancelled made sense. It would be rescheduled later, and there would be time for him to study. What a relief. He started to ask if they knew when the make-up date would be but his breath caught in his throat and he broke into a painful coughing fit. He couldn't catch his breath and curled up over his knees, gasping. His throat and chest hurt like hell.

"Whoa, easy." The man rubbed his back and spread one hand across Áillen's chest. The way he held him made him feel small. He sucked in a wheezing breath but couldn't hold on to it. "It's okay. Just try to breathe through it."

His eyes teared up and his nose ran. He wiped his face on his sleeve as the fit quieted down. He felt dizzy again and slumped forward against the hands holding him. "Julian," he whispered suddenly as Julian helped him lay back down on the couch. Remembering his name made him feel better about being manhandled by him. Being held by a stranger was unnerving, but Julian could hold him any time.

"Yeah. It's just me. Close your eyes."

"I don't need to sleep."

"Just try for me." Julian was rubbing his sternum with his hand now. He swept his thumb across Áillen's chest in slow arcs. It mesmerized him. Áillen's eyes had slid shut. He blinked them open laboriously, but it was a lost cause. He couldn't fight it.

"I'll still be here when you wake up," Julian assured him. Áillen wasn't entirely sure that that was what he was afraid of. Wasn't he supposed to be avoiding Julian?

"Can't we get some fever reducers in him before he's asleep again?"

"He just threw them up last time. Let's let him rest unless it spikes any higher."

He listened to the conversation about him with half an ear as he drifted.

"Almost 103 is high enough."

"I know. Get a cool washcloth. Maybe we can bring it down that way."

Áillen swallowed painfully and sank deeper into the couch cushions, his mind adrift.


Áillen dozed for most of the afternoon, but it was anything but a peaceful sleep. He thrashed, threw off blankets and dragged them back on again, scattered couch cushions all over the living room, and at one point came very close to biting Julian. His fever hovered stubbornly around 103. Julian did his best to keep him cool and medicated, when he could convince him to swallow pills, with Elias's occasional assistance. It was a bit like trying to nurse a wild coyote back to health.

By sunset, Julian was exhausted. He went to take a breather in the kitchen, downing a glass of water and splashing cold water on his face. Elias was sitting on a barstool at the island, reading something on his laptop and having a cup of coffee. He looked remarkably unbothered by the chaos Áillen had made of his living room. "I can watch him for a bit if you want to take a break," Elias offered.

"No, that's okay." Julian made himself coffee with Elias's French press, then went back into the living room and sat next to the couch where he could keep a close eye on Áillen.

Áillen woke again after about fifteen more minutes of peace. Julian set his coffee down on the end-table they'd moved next to the sectional and watched Áillen stretch without opening his eyes, pressing his hands into the arm of the couch. His spine uncurled like a fern opening. At the peak of the stretch his eyes opened and he was looking right at Julian. His lashes were wet, unidentifiable gunk sticking them together, and Julian thought in an abstract way, I should find that disgusting, as the better part of his mind noticed for the thousandth time how long Áillen's blond eyelashes were.

Áillen looked at Julian, froze, and shot upright, his eyes widening as he seemed to realize for the first time that day where he was–and who he was with.

He's going to want me to leave, Julian realized. He's been avoiding me for weeks, and he still hasn't told me why. I can't stand this. I don't want to leave him alone when he's like this. …I think I'm in love with him.

It hit him like a stone dropping into his stomach. I'm in love with him.

This wasn't just a crush. This was Áillen. Somehow, so slowly Julian hadn't recognized it happening, Áillen had become Julian's center, his magnetic north, the point towards which Julian was constantly turning. The fact that he was so prickly, so slippery, making himself as difficult to hold onto as he possibly could, just intensified Julian's desire to show Áillen that Julian could give him space, could wait for him, could do whatever he needed.

"Julian?" Áillen said.

Julian snapped back to the present, where Áillen was still staring at him inquisitively. "I–I'm sorry. I'll leave you alone." He stood and fled upstairs.


Áillen got his feet on the floor and then just sat there, breathing through the rasp in his throat. The day after his first conditioning session in the gym with the Capture team, he'd been unimaginably sore. He'd never done any strength training before; Tahlequah had focused on high-intensity cardio and time-bending exercises, so he had been unprepared and overestimated how much he could do. The day after that first session, it had hurt to move, to stand, to point his feet, to reach overhead–he had barely been able to lift his hands above his shoulders. He'd spent the first week he'd known Julian trying to hide how much everything hurt.

His whole body was sore now, but not in a good and satisfying way. He must have caught the flu. He'd thought it was just a cold and promised himself he'd shake it off without any help. He didn't want Julian to have to bail him out again. He owed Julian for taking him into the Capture team, and he had balked at the idea of asking him, or any of his teammates, to pick up medicine for him or take him to a clinic. Yet here he was, in Elias's house, and if his disturbingly fuzzy memories were any indication, Julian had brought him here. His plan to detach from Julian had completely backfired. Julian could have hurt him any time in the past few days, while he was helpless. Áillen was an idiot for allowing this to happen to him.

And yet Julian hadn't hurt him, given the opportunity. Áillen didn't know what to do with that. Nor did he know why Julian had left so abruptly. Was he frustrated with Áillen?

He stood, but before he could get any further he started coughing so hard it bent him over his knees. When he stood up, wheezing, Elias was watching him from the doorway to the kitchen with a furrowed brow. Áillen quirked an eyebrow at him. He thought Elias would explain how Áillen had gotten here, why he was imposing in Elias's house. Instead, he just said, "Where's Julian?"

Áillen grabbed a glass of water from the end table and drank half of it in a long pull before replying. "He left when I woke up and went upstairs. I don't know why. He was in a rush."

Elias rolled his eyes and glanced over like he was thinking of following Julian, but then thought better of it. "I take it you're feeling a little better."

"I guess." He scrubbed the sleep out of one eye. "How long have I been here?"

"One night."

"I don't remember what happened."

"What's the last thing you do remember?"

"Being in my dorm room and thinking I was getting a fever. Then I…" He palmed his forehead; he was starting to get a headache. "I guess I went to the Capture lounge?"

"That's right. It took forever to find you. Why were you there and not, say, for example, at a clinic?"

"The on-campus nurse is closed for the holidays."

"I could have gotten you an appointment with my physician."

"You know I would never let you do that."

"Maybe you should have. All of you guys have way too much pride."

Áillen started coughing again. He sat back down. "I should go home," he wheezed when he was done.

"We'll see about that. You didn't answer my question."

Áillen blushed. He remembered thinking about the Capture team, and Julian–warm thoughts–as he'd been sliding into feverish deliriousness. He'd wanted to feel close to them, but he wasn't talking to Julian, so he'd gone to the Capture lounge to put on one of their CDs. He'd done that in a clearheaded state before, too–when he was tired or upset, he'd go to the Capture lounge, let himself in, watch a game, and slip back out again after putting everything back where he had found it. "I don't know."

Elias smirked, like he'd seen something on Áillen's face that had given it away. "Alright, if you say so."

"Can you give me a ride home?"

"Not right now. I have to speak with Julian, and Vic is coming over in a few minutes."

"You're trying to trick me into staying," Áillen said, narrowing his eyes.

"No, I'm not. I'm refusing to take you home. There's nothing tricky about it."

"Screw you."

"Yes, I'm very gracious for allowing you to stay in my warm, comfortable house while you recover from your ailment. You're welcome." He left Áillen on the couch and went upstairs to find Julian.

He found him in one of the guest bedrooms–the white one, the most sterile and impersonal of all of them. Elias hated it. He could admit that there were certain perks to the faucet of money his parents had turned on after they'd stopped talking to him pursuant to Benjamin's death, but he actually did have limits, and hotel rooms inside his own house were one of them.

Julian stood at the window that looked out over the backyard. He faced away from Elias, staring into the bare trees blankly. His shoulders were drawn up, the line of his tense traps like a steel wire under his flannel. "Hey," Elias said. Julian jerked around, startled. By his hair-trigger reaction, Elias could tell Julian had been dilating time. He rarely caught Julian stepping out of the timestream in everyday life; he saw it as a dangerous addiction and tried to keep dilation and contraction to within games only, and even then, he used them much less than the rest of the team.

Elias studied him quickly, taking in his guilty and pensive expression. "So, you and Áillen? You finally realized it?"

"Realized…"

"That it's not just a crush for you."

Julian's shoulders dropped. One corner of his mouth twisted up in a rueful smile. "How long have you known?"

"Practically since you first laid eyes on him," Elias said honestly. "You didn't love him then, but I knew you would."

"How?"

"I'm not sure. The way you looked at him, and how he looked back. Your personalities are like puzzle pieces. You complement each other. It wasn't that hard to put it together and figure out where things were going."

Julian swallowed. "I shouldn't be surprised that you knew. I bet the rest of the team suspects. God, what a mess."

"Everyone says Capture is incestuous. Why are you so conflicted about this? What's different between this and your little thing with Joseph?" Joseph, then the Capture team captain, had nurtured Julian in Julian's first year of Capture much like Julian now nurtured Áillen. He had seen Julian's talent and groomed him as his eventual replacement. It had been no surprise when the two had ended up together.

"That was different. He was older than me."

"It wasn't that different. The roles were reversed," Elias pointed out.

"I don't like this," Julian said.

"What are you so afraid of?"

"Hurting him," he said quietly.

"And yourself."

"Yeah," he admitted. "I'm scared of moving forward with him. He might not want what I do. He might see me as a friend. If he does, I can't ruin the trust we've built by having feelings for him. Not for some stupid romance."

"You don't have to tell him if you don't want to."

"I don't think I can keep hiding how I feel."

"I doubt it," Elias conceded. "You're a bad liar."

"I know."

"Áillen can be pretty oblivious, though."

Julian bit down hard on his thumb, leaning against the window frame. "That's true. It's a moot point, anyway. He doesn't even want me around right now."

"I'm pretty sure that's just a misunderstanding."

Julian whipped back around towards Elias, comically fast. "How do you know?"

"I didn't talk to him," Elias said, putting his hands up. "But he still looks at you like…" The words caught in his throat. Elias couldn't believe he was actually nudging Julian and Áillen together. He was scared too, scared to lose Julian, his oldest friend, to Áillen. But Elias loved Julian, and he wouldn't let his jealousy control him again. He would fight for whatever was best for Julian, and let the cards fall where they may. He cleared his throat. "He looks at you like you hung the sun."

Julian turned towards Elias completely and leaned his upper back against the window. Sunlight shone through his hair and limned his clothing and skin. He had a very Julian look of complete earnestness on his face. That was something Elias had never been able to understand about Julian: normally, as their Capture captain, he rotated through a set of masks and personas–leader, friend, therapist, nurse, even father figure. Yet at the crucial moments in life he could strip away those masks, and all the sarcasm, cynicism, and detachment the whole team used to white-knuckle it through life, and expose himself to the world in a completely raw and honest way.

This Julian, sunstreaked Julian, with his deep brown eyes and a set to his jaw that said I will never give up, this was what Elias knew Áillen had fallen in love with.

"He's young," Julian said.

"He is," Elias said, inclining his head. Áillen was even young for his grade. He and Julian were only two years apart in school, but there was almost three years of age difference between them. Áillen wouldn't turn 19 until the summer. Julian was already 21. "Do you think that matters? You're both adults and you get along like adults. The rest is just details."

"I'm his team captain. He's practically my student."

"So? Julian, it's not like you're taking advantage of him in the locker room." Julian winced at that. "You're talking about, like, going out with him, right? Not some sort of ethically dubious friends-with-benefits situation."

"Of course! But…" He raked a hand backwards through his hair, sending it frizzing in all directions. "The team is just barely stable right now. Sure, we made it to Nationals, but it still feels like we're hanging on by a thread. If Nasira rejoins next semester, the whole team dynamic is going to be thrown off again. We just got Áillen cooperating with all the team members, and then with Nasira added back in, we'll be right back to the drawing board while all the old territorial disputes flare up again. Áillen already feels threatened by her, and she might feel like he's taken over her old spot and resent him for it. If I show him favoritism, it could destabilize everything we've worked so hard for."

"I hate to break it to you, but everyone except Áillen already knows how you feel about him, and the only reason he hasn't realized it is that he's just as damaged as everyone else on the team, and he can't accept it without you explicitly telling him." Julian groaned and rocked his head back against the window miserably. "Anyway, this isn't about the team. It's about what you want."

"It's always about the team."

"No, you think it's always about the team. But it's not. You're an individual too, with your own desires and your own life–"

"I'm your captain. I have responsibilities."

"Julian. It's just a sport."

"It's not just a sport. Not to me, and not to the rest of the team either," he said flatly. "It's my family."

"Your family wants you to be happy."

"Mm."

"It's okay to want to take care of him. To protect him," Elias tried. He could see immediately that that phrasing had landed. Julian's eyes widened and flashed. "You're less subtle than you think. There's nothing wrong with what you want with him. Just think about it. Come back downstairs and talk to him. He's still not feeling well and he wants to see you."

"He didn't say that."

"No, he wouldn't, but I can tell."

"Whatever. Fine," Julian said. He let Elias lead him back downstairs.


His eyes met Áillen's while he was on the stairs. Áillen was curled up under one of Elias's blankets, still pale as a sheet but looking more lucid even from here.

It's okay to want to take care of him.

Could it really be that simple?

To protect him.

Could Julian have this, or would Áillen always be afraid of him? Did Áillen see a reflection of Lex in Julian, another mentor on another Capture team, steering Áillen into position to hurt him?

He paused on the stairs, Áillen staring at him over the back of the couch without moving, as Elias continued towards the kitchen. The tense moment was interrupted by a rap at the door, breaking Julian out of his reverie. Elias turned around and opened the door as Julian continued down to the first floor.

Vic stepped inside, pursued by a gust of dry snow. Snowflakes scudded across the slick marble floor in the entryway, shedding from their coat and boots. They started to peel off layers as Elias shut and locked the door behind them, then helped them with their coat and hung it in the closet. When they were down to their street clothes, they tugged Elias down for a kiss that quickly deepened.

Julian, standing between the entryway and living room, looked away to give them privacy, only to find Áillen watching them with a disgusted look. He laughed, and it was only a little forced–he wanted to pretend everything was okay with Áillen. The mature thing to do was to pretend that nothing was wrong for now, then find a quiet time to talk to Áillen later about his prolonged disappearance. "You don't like that?" Julian asked, tilting his head towards the besotted couple.

"I wanted to go home and leave Elias alone, but he wouldn't take me."

Elias…, Julian thought, exasperated. He was meddling, trying to orchestrate something between the two of them. "It's fine for you to stay here. Vic's planning to stay for the evening, and we'll probably both stay over tonight." Julian came over to the couch as Elias and Vic continued to kiss. He sat down a few feet from Áillen–much farther away than he would have before Áillen had disappeared for a week.

"What's the occasion?"

"Winter break? Everyone being done with finals? Who cares. I take any opportunity to spend time with the team."

Vic and Elias finally stopped kissing. "Hey," Elias said in the dopiest voice Julian had ever heard from him. Julian grimaced and this time Áillen laughed at him. A second later it set Áillen off coughing again. Julian winced. He always tried to make sure Áillen ate enough, but he was still thin, a hair thinner than Julian thought he should be, and watching his bony body shudder hurt sympathetically. When it didn't pass quickly, Julian moved closer to him. He was surprised when Áillen leaned in without prompting, resting his forehead against Julian's sternum. Julian rubbed his back with both hands, then moved one hand to stroke Áillen's tangled, sweaty hair. Elias and Vic passed them on their way to the kitchen, and Elias cocked an eyebrow at Julian and Áillen. Julian mouthed silently, "Fuck off," and Elias just smiled and followed Vic into the kitchen.

Áillen finally stopped coughing and caught his breath, sniffling, but didn't move his head from Julian's chest. He was boneless against Julian and Julian could feel feverish heat rolling off of him. "I think your temperature's going up again," he said, flustered by the sudden closeness. Áillen worked a hand around him to hold Julian's waist, and the tip of his thumb slid up under Julian's shirt. "How are you feeling?" Julian asked. It came out as a bit of a squeak.

"Tired. My throat hurts," he rasped.

"Lay down. I'll get you something for your throat." Julian pushed Áillen off of him and back down onto the couch cushions. He lay where he fell, not moving except to curl up more tightly.


Áillen slept away most of the afternoon. Julian occasionally checked on him, but he spent most of the time hanging out with Vic and Elias. In the evening, Elias wanted to make hot cocoa. Since Vic was the only one of the three of them who knew how, they and Julian put it together in a big pot while Elias critiqued them from the island. They made enough for Áillen as well, and Julian went to wake him up and invite him to join them in the kitchen. "It's just Vic and Elias and I. Kaliah and Nasira are elsewhere tonight."

"What are they doing?"

"They went north to visit a cabin Kaliah's family owns in the mountains. Kaliah goes skiing there on occasion, but I don't think Nasira will be up for that just yet."

Áillen insisted on walking to the kitchen himself. He was diaphanously pale and sufficiently unsteady that he had to catch himself on the doorframe as they crossed into the kitchen. He eased himself onto a barstool, and Julian sat down next to him as Vic distributed mugs. They passed Áillen two, and pointed at each in turn. "Cocoa, and some kind of high-end bone broth."

"It's not high end. It's just bone broth," Elias said.

"All bone broth is high end."

Vic and Elias chatted as Áillen sipped quietly at the broth. Fine snow sifted down outside. At a lull in the conversation, Elias commented that Áillen wouldn't be able to get home tonight and that he'd have to stay at Elias's house for another night. Áillen rolled his eyes, but didn't protest.

Night fell while they were at the table. Elias heated up leftover Chinese food he'd ordered the day before, and he and Julian divided it up between the four of them, assigning a bowl of rice to Áillen.

Elias and Vic both went up to Elias's room when it got late, leaving Julian and Áillen to fend for themselves. Julian led Áillen upstairs, into one of the nicer guest bedrooms. He got Áillen into bed, then made sure he had everything he needed on the bedside table: water, tissues, medication. Áillen had curled up on his side looking at his phone, but he set it down when Julian sat down on the edge of the mattress and looked up at him. The lights were off; Áillen's glassy eyes shone in the light from the hallway. "You've been avoiding me," Julian said finally.

"Yeah." Áillen didn't bother denying it.

"Why?"

Áillen wouldn't meet his gaze. "I don't know."

Julian sighed. He didn't want to put off this discussion, but he didn't want to force Áillen to explain himself while he was still sick, either. "It's okay," he said after another long pause. "You can tell me when you're ready."


Vic slid into bed beside Elias. The light was off and his room was dim and quiet. A half moon cast spindly shadows of bare trees over the walls. They settled in next to him, their legs entangling.

Elias lay on his side on what had become his half of the bed. Vic eased in close and buried their face in Elias's neck as he laid his head down. He drew Vic closer.

He wasn't the same man Vic had fallen in love with. But Vic had found they loved this man too. It was easy to fall asleep knowing he'd still be here when Vic awoke.


A one-room cabin was nestled into a deep, snow-laden gorge in the mountains north of the North Fork. Kaliah stood naked in front of the window, her bare back to Nasira. She didn't look cold; time dilators usually ran warm. "It's coming down like crazy," she said.

"You like it?" Nasira herself was not watching the heavy snowfall; her eyes wandered down to Kaliah's firm lower back.

"It's beautiful."

"Yeah," Nasira sighed. She laid back on the firm bed, pulling the colorful wool blanket back up to her hips. She stretched backwards, arching her back, wiggling a little to catch Kaliah's attention. "Come back to bed, baby."

"You want to go again? Aren't you still supposed to be recovering?"

"Heal me with your mouth."

"That's a terrible line." Kaliah came back over and slid under the blankets next to Nasira, climbing carefully over Nasira's splinted leg and shifting her good leg over so she could sit between her spread knees, the post she'd vacated just a few minutes ago. "Tell me what you want."

"I just did." Nasira grabbed Kaliah's hair and pushed her down. Kaliah went willingly.


Julian woke to someone in his bed.

Áillen was lucky he hadn't done this to anyone else on the team, because not all of them would have exercised as much restraint as Julian did. He woke panicking at the intrusion, but he was able to get ahold of himself before he did anything more than jerk upright with a startled breath. If Julian had been Vic he probably would have punched Áillen. "What–what are you doing here?" he whispered to him. It was still the middle of the night.

Áillen knelt on the mattress near Julian's feet, silhouetted by light coming through the half-open door. He leaned forward to plant a hand on the mattress, and he was visibly shaking. "What happened?" Julian asked when Áillen said nothing. "Are you not feeling well?"

Áillen crawled forward, up Julian's body, forcing Julian to lean back against the pillows until Áillen hovered over Julian, not touching him, but caging him in with his arms and legs. Julian fought to keep his breath steady as Áillen, still not speaking, crouched over him. "Okay, easy," Julian said. "Did you have a bad dream?"

"I wanted you," Áillen whispered.

The hair on Julian's arms stood up. "It's okay," he said carefully. "You can sleep here. Come over to this side of the bed."

"No. You don't understand," Áillen said. "I want you."

Julian inhaled sharply. He knew Áillen heard it and regretted it instantly, wondering how much he had given away. Áillen leaned down towards him and Julian, nearly panicking, snaked an arm up and stopped him by putting his palm on Áillen's forehead, physically holding his face away from him. His skin was as hot as a brand. "You're burning up again."

Áillen whined like an animal, and the sound tapered off into a growl. The noise went straight to the pit of Julian's stomach and a pulse of heat went through him.

"I told myself I'd quit. I'd leave you alone. I can't have you. I shouldn't even want this," Áillen rasped. "But I couldn't forget about it. When I got sick, you were the only person I wanted…" You only want him to mean wanted like that, Julian thought. Áillen sounded like he was possessed. It was the fever, lowering his inhibitions. Don't take advantage of h--

Áillen dropped his hips down onto Julian.

There was a blanket between them, but it wasn't nearly enough to save Julian from Áillen's pyretic body heat and the distinct hard line that slid over Julian's crotch. "Áillen!" he yelped in a stage whisper. "I–"

He cut off with a gasp as Áillen rocked into him, hard, and let out a low groan that went straight to Julian's cock.

"Áillen–" Julian gasped again, but this time it was only half admonishment. Áillen had dropped his face into the junction between Julian's neck and shoulder, and his breath brushed Julian's skin. He lifted his hips off Julian for a second, only to shove the blanket back and lie down on top of him again, this time with only Áillen's boxer briefs and Julian's thin flannel pants between them. "Oh my god–Áillen–"

"Do you want to stop?" Áillen murmurred. "You've seen all of me already. You took me to Elias's house while I was almost unconscious. And you didn't touch me. You didn't do anything I didn't want. I'm not afraid of you, Julian. You're not hurting me."

Julian scrambled to order his thoughts. The last thing he had expected was for Áillen to come on to him so hard and so suddenly. But he found that although the abruptness of this encounter had surprised him, he didn't really want to stop Áillen. He had wanted to know, for certain, what Áillen wanted–that Áillen trusted him and wouldn't feel betrayed by Julian's romantic feelings. And now the signals Áillen was giving were unmistakable. He was feverish, yes, but not delirious–and he was on top of Julian, controlling the pace at which they moved and how they touched.

Julian's resistance fell away. They were both breathing heavily, facing each other so that their exhalations intermingled between them, Áillen's breath rasping and Julian's rough. Time stretched, just a little bit, as Julian pushed up into Áillen over and over again. Then Áillen was shuddering, his movements growing frantic as he rutted into Julian. He panted and let out a whine into Julian's ear and Julian lost it. He ground into Áillen with a low groan, his hips twitching. A second later Áillen followed him over the edge.

Áillen rolled off him onto the other side of the bed, where Julian had originally suggested he lie down. Julian's heart pounded as aftershocks rippled through him. He couldn't believe how fast that had escalated. As lucidity returned to him, he opened his mouth to say something to Áillen. But Áillen was curled up on his side facing Julian with his eyes closed, breathing heavily through his mouth, asleep. Julian rested a palm on the crown of Áillen's head. I hope he doesn't regret this when he wakes up.

He went to the bathroom and cleaned himself up as much as he could, then came back to bed and laid down next to Áillen again. Áillen didn't even stir. We shouldn't have done that. But it had felt incredible.

He was exhausted. He put a hand over Áillen's shoulder and slipped back into sleep.


"Julian," Áillen whispered.

They lay together in the morning, Áillen's head resting on Julian's chest. He knew Julian was awake by the cadence of his breathing. Winter light illuminated the white guest room. It was late morning, but the light was still thin, filtered through thick clouds. It was snowing yet again. Fine snow fell in thick curtains over the windows, isolating the room into a private and cozy chamber. Áillen still felt blurry as his fever ebbed, but he was much more cleareheaded than he had been the previous night.

"Mm?"

"Are you scared?"

"Of what?"

"This." Us.

After a moment Julian said, "Yeah. Of course."

Áillen's heart pounded into Julian's chest. Julian probably could feel how much it terrified him to lie with another man, much less to talk to him about it. "How do other people stand it?"

"Being together?" Julian inhaled through his nose. He pulled Áillen closer, turning them until they were spooning, with Áillen tucked in the arc of Julian's body. "However they can, every way they can, as much as they can, for as long as they can." He nosed sleepily into Áillen's hair. "It's scary, but it's scarier to go through life alone."

Although he'd thrown his hat over this side of the fence last night, Áillen still was not sure which was scarier. But he had to admit that Julian pressing his soft lips into the base of his neck currently seemed like a fair trade-off for the fear. He stared at the white wall as Julian shifted against his back, kissing his neck and traps.

Áillen couldn't relax. "You're going to regret this," he whispered.

"What, this?" Julian kissed the back of Áillen's neck again.

"Me," Áillen clarified. "You're going to regret me."

"You didn't seem nearly as concerned about what I would or wouldn't regret last night." Julian slid a hand around to the front of Áillen's hip. Áillen suddenly became aware of his morning wood just a few inches away from Julian's hand. He licked his lips.

"Maybe I'm concerned now," he croaked.

"Let me worry about that," Julian said. "Don't write us off before we can even give this a try just because you don't think I can handle you. I'll decide for myself what I will and won't regret. Do you trust me?"

Áillen was silent.

"Do you trust me with this?" Julian clarified. "I wouldn't have let this go any further than friendship unless I thought we could both handle it. I could have stopped you last night. But I decided not to. The rest of the team thinks this can work for both of us. They've been telling me to get out of my own way. I guess I decided to put some of my trust in them. I don't want to hurt you, and I'm not going to push you into anything you're not ready for. We can go slowly and be careful. Whatever you want to share with me, that's what I want with you."

"I could hurt you," Áillen said. "I'm not sure I know how to do this anymore. How to be with someone."

"It might be hard. But life is suffering," Julian said, so easily it took Áillen's breath away. "If it's going to hurt anyway, I'd rather it hurt with you."

Áillen turned in Julian's arms. Their lips met.

Julian was right. It hurt. But his love burned brighter than the pain.

18 Postseason

The team stood poised at the edge of the sheer cliff in Green Mountains park. The layered echoes of a powerful river, swollen with a gush of snowmelt as the spring thaw swept through the northern states, filtered up from the bottom of the gorge. They stood among a profusion of vibrant wildflowers attended by heavy bumblebees, beetles of every size and description, and the first gnats of the warm season.

Áillen stood beside Julian, holding Julian's wrist with one hand and preparing to bring them both through the entrance fold at the edge of the cliff. Julian tried not to think too hard about stepping over the edge of the cliff and seemingly into the open air as he entered the fold.

Áillen's fingers flexed around his wrist. It was a controlled squeeze, but a tremor ran through it. His grip was a hair too tight to be comfortable, and Julian twisted his hand slightly to get him to loosen up a little. "Are you nervous?" Julian asked.

"I didn't really think our team would make it this far."

It was Gladeloch's second game of the Capture postseason. They had won their first last week, earning their advancement to the next round. Julian was secretly shocked, too. Not only had Gladeloch made it to Nationals, they had come to their first game a tight-knit, strong team, tempered in the forge of the events of the fall.

"Of course we made it," Julian said smoothly. "You guys are an amazing team."

"We're an amazing team," Áillen said. Julian freed his wrist from his grip to wrap an arm around his shoulder and pull him close.

"You two are disgusting," Nasira said from behind them. "Julian, get off him."

Áillen whipped around to stick his tongue out at her and give her the middle finger. Nasira and Áillen had had some friction at the beginning of the spring semester when Nasira had rejoined the team. Áillen had lashed out a few times, still nervous that Nasira was going to usurp his position on the team. But they'd gotten along like a house on fire as soon as Julian had been able to convince both of them to play nice. They were constantly mean to each other, and their conversations devolved into wrestling matches half the time, but they both seemed to enjoy it.

Nasira stretched out her healed leg, pointing and flexing her foot, a new nervous tic. "Are we gonna start soon?"

"Don't be so impatient," Vic chided her.

Professor Kung came over from the knot of Capture officials who had been comparing their notes and watches in preparation to start the game. "Everyone ready?"

Julian glanced over the team. Vic stood with Nasira and Elias with Kaliah, paired off so the time dilator in each pair could lead the contractor through the entrance fold. All stood calmly, composed, looking towards him and awaiting his word. His eyes rested on Vic for a moment longer, taking in their proud, upright posture and the steel in their eyes. He glanced at Elias too. He stood like a willow rod, tall and flexible, the wind teasing out long wisps of his dark hair. He was attentive, his eyes full of life. Nasira, Kaliah, and Áillen all stood at the ready, Áillen alone fidgeting slightly, running his thumb across the side of Julian's hand.

"We're ready," Julian said.

Kung gave a signal to the officials, and a bell sounded. Áillen tugged Julian forward, over the edge of the cliff and into the fold.

Author: Zeph Turner

Created: 2021-03-09 Tue 19:21

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