“What’s that?” Bryson asked.
“My dad. He was crying, eyes all red and puffy. Not once did he say one little thing about me wandering off and getting lost. Not once. I’m sure he figured I’d learned my lesson well enough. Looks like you weren’t the only stupid kid in history, Bryson.”
Sarah wiped at her face, and Michael thought maybe—just maybe—he’d brought a tear to her eye.
“That’s really sweet,” she said. “I can’t believe you’ve never told us that before.”
Michael shrugged even though they probably couldn’t see him well enough to notice. “It’s just…I don’t know. I’ve got lots of memories like that. I mean, what’s real and what’s not? I guess I just have to decide that it happened. I miss…”
His voice croaked, and he felt like a weight was pushing down on his chest. He lay back down on the cot and rolled over, facing away from Sarah. She rubbed his shoulder, then leaned over and kissed him on the cheek. Miraculously, Bryson didn’t say a word. Sarah waited a minute or two, running her hand along his back, then got up and returned to her own cot.
“Good night,” she said from across the room.
“Sleep tight,” Bryson replied.
“Night,” Michael managed to say.
“I love you guys,” Sarah said a moment later, and the night finally took them.
THE HISTORY LESSON
The next morning when Michael got up and wandered out of Helga’s office, activity bustled throughout the barracks. The Tangent Alliance was hard at work packing up boxes and hauling them out to the cars.
Michael rubbed his still sleep-blurry eyes and looked around at all the movement.
“What’s going on?” he asked Bryson, who was leaning against the wall, sipping a cup of something hot and steamy.
“Helga says some of us are leaving,” his friend answered. “And some will stay here—use the Coffins to meet up when we need to.”
“Which one are we doing?”
“We’re going with Helga. You, me, Walter, and a couple others.” Bryson tipped his cup toward Walter, who was speaking to the woman named Amy. “I guess they want to try and meet with someone from the VNS.”
“What? No,” Michael said, wide-awake in an instant. “They’re the last people we want to talk to right now. We can’t trust them.”
“Yeah, well, I won’t argue with you there. Though Helga said we’d stay away from Agent Weber. Anyway, she said once you woke up, we’d Sink into the Sleep and she’d try to catch us up on what we’ve missed. She wants to head out around noon.”
Michael didn’t like it. He’d do what Helga wanted—except for agreeing to see Weber or visit the VNS.
“And get this,” Bryson continued. “Sarah’s parents are refusing to let her go. They said their adventuring days are over. Sarah’s been fighting with them all morning. I think they took it outside.”
Helga came through the front door before Michael could respond. Her eyes lit up when she spotted them, and she came over.
“Morning, sunshine,” she said, without a hint of teasing. “I hope you got some good rest. Why don’t you eat breakfast and then I want to show you some things in the Sleep. Bring you up to speed before we make any final decisions on our next move.”
“I’m not hungry,” Michael said. “Let’s do it now.”
Helga nodded. “Fine by me. Grab Sarah. Her parents already know most of it. And I’m sure she could use a break from them.” Her eyes said it all. They must’ve been having a tussle for the ages outside.
“I’ll find her,” Michael said. “Get the Coffins ready.”
Sarah was alone, with no sign of her parents, leaning against a tree behind the barracks when Michael found her, and she’d obviously been crying. She deflated a little when she saw him approaching—almost as if she was ashamed to be caught in such a state.
“Hey,” he said, flashing her an understanding smile. “Are you being a rotten child again? Didn’t anyone ever teach you to honor and obey your parents at all times?”
“You know I love them, Michael.” She sounded tired. “But it’s hard to deal with this stuff with them around. I’m still their little girl, and there’s no way they can just sit back and let me do what I need to.”
“It’s like they don’t want you to run off and get killed or something,” Michael said.
“Hey, whose side are you on?”
“Sorry.” He stepped closer and gave her a hug. “We’ll figure it out, okay? Maybe we can talk them into coming with us. Helga needs us for whatever she has planned, and we definitely could use all the help we can get to find our way back to the Hallowed Ravine. And there’s no way I’m doing it without you.”
She sighed. “It was easier when we were in the Sleep, or—” She stopped herself, and Michael knew exactly what she’d been about to say. It had been easier when her parents were kidnapped, being held against their will, and unable to stop her from doing anything.
“Come on,” he said. “First things first. Let’s go see what Helga wants to show us, and then we’ll try again. I’m not leaving without you.”
She pulled him into a fierce hug and kissed him on the cheek. Her lips were as moist as her tears.
“This all confuses me so much,” she whispered. “Your life as a Tangent, your life in this body, all the weird crap that’s going on. I honestly don’t know what you are, but I know who you are. And I love you, Michael. I really do. Roll your eyes all you want, but whatever you are”—she grabbed both sides of his face and shook him gently—“I’m in love with him.”
Michael’s feelings swam a million miles above the ground, leaving him completely speechless. He just nodded and kissed her, kissed her all the way, with everything he had, something he’d never done before. His heart swelled and the world spun.
She pulled back and looked at him, fresh tears brightening her eyes, but this time she looked happy.
“I’m not letting you leave without me,” she said. “Come on, let’s go inside before my mom catches us and has a hissy fit.”
A half hour later, still buzzing from that kiss, Michael Sank into the Sleep with his friends, Helga as their guide. When he opened his eyes, the four of them stood on a flat plane of crystal-clear glass that stretched as far as he could see in every direction. The sky above was a crisp midnight-blue, and it felt to Michael as if they were right below the highest reaches of the atmosphere. Beneath their feet, geometric shapes of white light spun and shrank and grew, bouncing off each other against a dark background. Michael stared, mesmerized—it was like standing inside an enormous kaleidoscope.
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