Passing through Malibu during the busiest part of the morning meant that quite a lot of people stared at Kay; after all, even if they'd seen another Teind in their lifetimes, he was fairly sure none had ever watched one walk through town, unnaturally tall, magically armored, and easily carrying a large chest in front of himself. Kay could only hope that people would get their fill and stop bothering him at the Ranch.
And, though he wouldn’t have expected it, the staring was easier to take than it had been the day before. He wasn’t sure why; maybe it was his new project taking his mind off things.
Maybe it was knowing that at least one person would still talk to him like he was human.
Yes, he realized as he approached the Archives. Last night’s conversation was a steady presence in his mind that didn’t require his attention to be appreciated, like a banked fire giving off a gentle heat.
Once he’d made it to the small building, a pre-Fall house converted into a small library of sorts, he ducked through the front door. He negotiated the chest well enough, but hadn't expected the bell, which clanged off of his face guard. Neither the Library nor the Ranch had any of those.
“Welcome to the Archives,” came Rose’s voice from the back. “I’ll be with you in a moment.”
Kay put the chest carefully on the floor. The bookshelves lining every wall from floor to ceiling were the same as always, just like the battered table and chairs for people to use as they read, and the freestanding shelves using up more floor space. It was a place as familiar to him as his own room at the Ranch.
As he waited next to the table, he felt his slouch becoming more pronounced, his hands opening and closing with nerves. Rose was the closest thing he had to a friend, and she hadn’t seen him since Midsummer.
“Ok, sorry, I had to finish the line I was working on,” she said as she came down the hall. “How can I help…”
The question died on her lips as she took in Kay. He swallowed, and was glad she couldn’t see his expression.
Her own was rapidly transitioning from one emotion to another: shock, confusion, understanding, horror, sympathy. That was, Kay supposed, better than just horrified fascination.
Rose shook herself. “Kay! Hello. Sorry, I...wow. That’s all very…” she tried, and gestured to his body, “different.”
Rose winced. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to rub it in. What can I help you with today?”
Kay relaxed a little. Make that two people who still thought he merited conversation. "I brought books from the Library."
Rose perked up, then gasped when she saw the chest. "That looks like a lot! Is it a lot? Oh, that must have been amazing, I'd love to hear all about it!"
Smiling, Kay opened the chest. He'd packed carefully, stacking books by size to maximize the interior space, and there was hardly a cubic inch that wasn't occupied.
Rose was staring at the books, eyes huge. "Oh my god. This is more pre-Fall books than we've acquired in the last decade. This is incredible!" Her hands hovered over the titles, skimming from one to the next as she read them aloud to herself, only stopping when she'd run out of visible spines.
She stood staring at the books a moment longer, then whirled to face Kay.
He startled. There were tears in Rose's eyes.
"You've single-handedly expanded our collection by something like twenty percent," she said, voice thick. "This is— you are— what's going to happen is so wr—"
Alarmed, Kay opened his mouth to try to drown out Rose's words, but she caught herself before he had to. He darted a glance to the moff's watchful northern harrier talisman fixed over the door, but it was quiescent. Rose shook her head in chagrin.
After a few deep breaths, she looked up into his eyes again. Hers were still full of tears. "Most of Malibu won't know it, but we're losing an important archivist in you, I don't care if you never officially apprenticed." Her lip trembled. "You know, I've tried to follow your lead and stay professional but I think it's pretty clear that I failed at that."
Kay carefully laid a hand on her shoulder. "Thank you."
Rose took a few more deep breaths. After a moment, she nodded to herself and stepped back. "Did you want to read today?"
He nodded. “I was hoping to look at birth, adoption, school, apprenticeship, death and marriage records from the last thirty years or so.”
Rose smiled shakily. “I was just indexing last year's. Come on back.”
Mostly, people who weren’t the Archivist or her assistants weren’t invited into the Archives themselves, but Kay had been coming there since he was twelve and knew what was and was not alright to touch. On her part, Rose never asked why he wanted certain information, or questioned it if he went back to the same material within a short period, or ever said anything about what might look like strange or random combinations of topics. More and more often over the years, Kay wished they could have had real conversations, but they were always too well-watched for that.
Down the hall were several smaller rooms, each of which was likewise lined with shelves and equipped with places to sit. One room had not books, but hundreds of little cardboard boxes, inside each a roll of film with miniaturized pre-Fall records. In the middle of the room was a strange device, a box with a glass window that was dark until someone sat on the stationary bike attached to it and began pedaling. If you pedaled fast enough, you could build up enough electrical charge to light the screen. It was the most exhausting reading experience Kay knew of, but he’d learned so many fascinating things that way.
They passed that room and went into the one farthest back. It housed the records the Fae cared the most about, and so each shelf was a fireproof, low-humidity cabinet under lock and key. Rose opened the doors to the ones Kay had asked for and pointed out the shelves and volumes Kay would want. “I'll be sorting the new books, but don't hesitate to interrupt if you need something." Then she returned to the chest in the front room.
Kay looked over the shelf. He'd learned a long time ago that consuming large swaths of information both dissuaded Fae interest in his research — 'pre-Fall road construction methods' got yawns while 'which lesser-used roads out of the area are likely to still be passable' would have immediately raised suspicions — and sometimes gave him insight that specific searches would not. Thus his need for thirty years' and hundreds of people's worth of records when what he really wanted was a few details about one specific person.
He spent most of the morning reading birth records, skimming the names of all the most recent babies, being reminded of people he already knew. It was the second time he'd gone through them, though it had been long enough that he didn't remember much beyond the fact that there weren't any records for October 31, 2103. Or any other October 31, for that matter.
It was just past ten when he passed the earliest possible year Cassian could have been born and still hadn't found his record. Just to be safe, though, Kay kept reading through another decade.
As noon approached, he reflected that before he would have gone back to the Ranch for lunch, or just eaten whatever portable food he’d brought with him (outside, of course; Rose did not abide crumbs in the books). As it was, he just reshelved the last birth book and sat down with the adoption book.
There were many fewer adoptions than births, so it went much faster. In only twenty minutes he found Cassian’s record:
Child: Cassian Jerón Andor Estrada
Birth date: November 30, 2104
Birth parent(s): Jerón Andor Ortega (deceased, 2110); Felicia Estrada Garces de Andor (deceased, 2110)
Other family: unknown
Place of birth: East ‘Angeles
Adoption date: March 2, 2114
Adoptive parent(s): Davits Draven
After he’d finished the adoption book, he read apprenticeship records. Cassian had been officially apprenticed at age fifteen to Draven, who turned out to be the head of University security, and gained yeoman status two years ago. Draven had several other apprentices, though none of them shared his name, nor had he adopted any of them. Kay presumed they all had parents of their own.
Then marriage records. Draven had been married six years before adopting Cassian, but had been the only one on the adoption record, so he was either divorced or a widower. Cassian, like most nineteen-year-olds, was unmarried.
After that there was still time before the Archives closed, so Kay reviewed death records (where he found Draven's wife) and school records. Cassian had attended the town secondary school between ages ten and fifteen, and had excellent grades, nine counts of rules infractions for fighting during his thirteenth year, and seemingly no involvement beyond the academic.
Walking home with the sun low in the sky, Kay reflected. Cassian was from East ‘Angeles, an area nominally under Moff Tarkin’s control but functionally run by what the Fae called gangs and the locals called co-ops. There had been no data on where Cassian had been living the four years between his parents’ deaths and his adoption, but given that he hadn’t been enrolled in the Malibu primary school, he suspected it was East ‘Angles or somewhere between the two. Who had taken care of him? The chances of a small child surviving alone were low under the best of circumstances, and East ‘Angeles was certainly not that. Kay could imagine rougher origins, but not by much.
Kay climbed to the final ridge above Malibu, and returned to his favorite outcropping, right at the bend in the road. Cassian had been coming from the north, and returned to the University afterwards. Kay had thought of various possibilities for his errand and his cageyness, and discarded most of them.
Someone with no living blood family, for example, wouldn’t have been sneaking away from his place of indenture to visit a sick grandmother. Nor did an unmarried man have a reason to keep his sexual liaisons clandestine. Cassian could have been visiting friends, Kay supposed; there were a few homes scattered through the hills to the north. Or perhaps he was seeking some kind of spiritual guidance at the Temple? But in both cases, the dark of night seemed like an odd time to do those things.
Perhaps Kay was jumping to conclusions, but not having loved ones to worry about would make it much less risky to move against the Fae. And while there were other reasons for Cassian to have lied about his night activities, asking Kay if he was going to run didn't seem to have any other explanation.
No. Cassian was most likely up to something. And if he was, Kay wanted in.
Over the next two days, he became increasingly frustrated as he made and discarded plan after terrible plan to communicate with Cassian in a way that didn't endanger him. Eventually, sometime in the middle of the third night after their first meeting, Kay went out onto the ridge again to try to clear his head.
The moon was good, he supposed. Pretty, still felt nice on the armor, and he had another two cycles left to enjoy. He wondered if Cassian was using the light to sneak around again, or if he was doing something else. Sleeping, maybe, like a sensible person.
He had yet to see Cassian close up in daylight, he realized. A fleeting glimpse from a dozen yards away one afternoon at the University; moonlight three days ago; firelight at Elle's Teind. He wondered what Cassian looked like in the sun, if it would soften the sharp lines of his jaw and cheekbones, or lessen the depth of his eyes.
On Kay’s next blink, Malibu disappeared, replaced by a large, dilapidated room. Kay started, turned in a circle, looked down at himself. Everything about himself seemed normal, but the space around him...there was something off about it, though nothing he could discern from first glance.
Was it a vision? An incredibly vivid hallucination? A Fae illusion to confuse or torment him? He had no idea, and no idea how to tell the difference.
For want of answers, he examined the space more closely. The room had a peaked ceiling, a low stage at one end, a wall almost entirely occupied by windows looking onto a dark room beyond, and dozens of tables with attached benches. Everything, from the windows to the stage to the tables to the floor, was covered in dust, broken, or both.
On the wall opposite the stage was a faded mural depicting a stylized coyote winking at the viewer and a banner with the words, “Go Chavez Coyotes!”
Through dirty windows, he saw it was still night. It was all very strange, but he was at least starting to doubt it was Fae meddling. He couldn't think of how an illusion of a Fallen school would figure into their agenda.
He started walking, wondering if his body was still, like in a dream, or if he was about to trip over something and go tumbling down the hills. Dying of a broken neck would be quicker and less painful than fire, though, so no worries there.
The school was dark, and silent but for Kay’s footsteps. They weren’t as loud as they probably should have been, given the armor and the school’s hard floors.
Kay wandered out of the dining hall. He followed the corridor past doors hanging on their hinges, some leading to offices, others to classrooms.
There was a piece of brightly-colored fabric hanging in a doorway. Curious, Kay pulled it aside, surprised at how light it was.
The room on the other side had a kitchenette, an ancient sofa, a few tables and chairs. But unlike the other rooms, this one looked like it had seen recent use: one table had been pushed into the corner, a blanket draped over it, and through a gap in the cloth Kay could see a pile of cushions and blankets. On top of another table were a soccer ball, the first plastic container Kay had seen outside of a picture, a toy car, and a neat stack of children's books. There were more toys on the floor, and the walls had shaky drawings on them from hip height down.
It seemed fairly clear that a child lived there. Kay wondered if it was a vision of a real place or some kind of metaphor.
Moving on, Kay continued down the corridor. He turned another corner, which put him, impossibly, back at the start of the first corridor. That made the whole thing seem like a dream, though Kay was fairly sure he was still awake.
He heard the murmur of voices in the next room. He followed the sound, and opened a door. The cafeteria again, except now it was daylight and there was a gathering of people on the stage, most of them sitting around a table. None of them noticed Kay, so he came closer.
"...not good enough," a gruff, stone-faced man was saying. "It will be another seven years before we get another chance like this. Do you want to wait that long?"
Kay was close enough to see who was at the table: Stoneface, a woman in white, a ghost, and Cassian.
Hope sparked in Kay's chest. If he was very lucky, it might be Cassian’s dream.
"I'd rather wait seven years than see everyone executed," Cassian was saying. "The message could be anything. We shouldn't proceed until we know what's in it."
"Has anyone tried taking Bodhi to the curandera?" said the ghost. She was a middle-aged woman dressed in pre-Fall clothes, a badge clipped to her suit jacket proclaiming her as school staff. "Someone with mind-healing magic."
"Yes," Cassian said grimly. "He had a panic attack before we even arrived, and I don't blame him."
The ghost said something in Spanish, possibly an expression of disappointment.
"What about you?" Stoneface looked directly at Kay. "Got any ideas?"
Cassian glanced up. "Oh, good, you're here." He waved Kay towards a chair. "I think we're stuck on the question of the message for now. But Kay, you know the Fae better than any of us."
Curious that Cassian seemed to be expecting him, Kay approached the table and sat. "Was there something in particular you wanted to know?"
"Are they really vulnerable to cast iron, or is that a myth?" Stoneface leaned in. Something about his intensity reminded him of the man who’d grabbed Cassian at Elle’s Teind. "Do they have other weaknesses?"
The Fae, as far as Kay knew, had no way to spy on dreams. Still, it felt dangerous to say, "Iron hurts them more than most things, yes. Why? What are you planning?"
"The mission is to get me onto your Samhain security team,” Cassian spoke up, “and then when the king comes to the Circle for the Teind, I'll be close enough to take him out."
Kay reeled back. "You're trying to— this is ridiculous," he said, all the dozens of reasons why it was a terrible idea crowding his head. "You'll be killed before you leave a scratch!"
The ghost leaned in and put an insubstantial hand on Kay's arm. "That's why Cassian needs you."
"No, it's why you need a completely different plan!" Kay made a cutting gesture. "There will be Honor Guards between human security and the king. He'll have magical armor of his own, and probably that flaming sword of his, and let's not even start talking about all the magical wards and shields and counterspells! He isn't someone you can just stab or shoot with a mundane weapon, even an iron one!"
"What about explosives?" Cassian was far too calm. "It would be fast, strong, and we could use iron nails for shrapnel."
Kay surged upwards — and that was a lot of surging — to stand one step closer to Cassian, whole body shaking. "First off, other Fae have tried and failed to kill him, so what terrible malformed idea has possessed you into thinking you’ll succeed?"
"If he's defeated other Fae, he won't expect a human to try it," Cassian said. "And as far as I know, no one's tried a bomb."
Kay threw his arms in the air. “Arrows won’t penetrate his defenses. You’re willing to risk a slow, painful execution on the hope that a bomb would work?”
Cassian nodded. “Yes, though there’s a chance I’ll have to carry it to him, in which case it will be over for me fast."
Kay recoiled. "This really is suicide, then.”
“The hope is that it won’t be, but it’s an eventuality I’m willing to plan for.” A thread of frustration ran through Cassian’s words, though he was doing an excellent job of remaining the calm persuader. “We have a lot of backup plans, but even if it comes to that, it will be worth it.”
Kay was shaking his head. “I can’t believe— you don’t have to die!” Suddenly, he was shaking with anger. “You get a choice . And you’re choosing to throw your life away?!”
Cassian’s eyes widened, then softened. He put a hand lightly on Kay’s arm. “If we win, there won’t be any more Teinds. And if we’re very lucky, we can maybe even save you.”
“You can’t,” Kay snapped, and turned around. He started walking away, too furious to talk.
Of course, he still wasn't in a real place, so though the dining hall melted away around him into the ridge above Malibu, Cassian was still right by his side.
Kay refused to look at him, staring instead out at the sea.
“Kay,” Cassian said, voice finally starting to betray his stress. “You have every right to be angry. I’m not asking you to act like everything’s fine, because it’s not.” He moved around to stand in front of Kay. “Just, please, help me. You might be the difference between success and failure.”
Kay's mouth twisted. Given their height difference, he could have easily gone on looking at the ocean, but something in him wouldn’t let him ignore Cassian any longer.
When he looked down, he saw that there was less than a foot of air between them. Cassian's face was tipped up to look at Kay, expression just as serious as usual but simultaneously far more open. Kay could see desperation, hope, determination, regret.
"Would you even listen to me?" Kay's voice was sharp even to his own ears. "I'm not going to help if you're going to stick with bad ideas after I've warned you about them."
Cassian spread his hands. "There are going to be things neither of us can control, but aside from those, yes, I'll listen."
Kay pursed his lips. "And if I told you to scrap the plan entirely?"
Cassian crossed his arms over his chest. "If you have a better idea, I'm all ears, but you're not going to convince me to give up."
"I could try," Kay muttered, but suspected Cassian was right. The way he was staring stubbornly up at Kay suggested as much.
Kay was going to die. He’d known it for a third of his life, tried to escape it, accepted it, planned for it. There was nothing he could do to change that.
But Cassian could live. And, powers, if the two of them could somehow hurt the Fae, strike back at those motherfuckers keeping everyone quiet and afraid—
"Fine,” Kay said at last. The single word carried the weight of a vow. “I'll help you make a less ridiculously dangerous plan."
Cassian’s smile transformed his face. "Thank you,” he said, leaning forward. Before Kay knew what was happening, Cassian had wrapped his arms around Kay and rested his cheek against his chest plate, his body pressing the armor more firmly against Kay's.
Kay didn't move. He was relatively sure that hugging an ally on the second meeting was not something Cassian would do while waking.
He was also fairly sure he himself had thoughts on the matter, but something about Cassian touching him was making it impossible to be rational.
Impossible to do anything but carefully lay his hands on Cassian’s shoulders.
Like the rest of the armor, Kay’s gauntlets were made of a hard material (metal, ceramic or something entirely unnatural, Kay hadn’t been able to figure out) that were meant to be worn over thick garments to protect him against bruising and pinching. This under-armor, he’d discovered, could be removed for any length of time without triggering the armor pain. Given that turning pages and taking notes in heavy gloves was clumsy if not impossible, he’d done away with them and learned to move his hands in such a way as to not be hurt or irritated by the bare armor.
All of which meant that when he touched Cassian, there was only a shirt between them.
Cassian was warmer than Kay had expected, like he’d been running or sitting out in the sun; or maybe he just ran hot. And it was astonishing, really, how Kay could feel the softness of his skin and density of his muscles, the shape of his bones, all from just that simple touch.
Was that the dream’s doing? Or just not having touched anyone else in so long — when had it been? The last time he’d hugged Bea, almost eight months prior? Or maybe it was yet another effect of the armor.
Cassian hummed in approval when Kay returned the embrace. He shifted in Kay’s arms, snuggling closer, and murmured something against his chest.
All at once longing and affection expanded painfully in Kay’s chest. Even if he’d had words, he wouldn’t have been able to get them out. Instead, he pulled Cassian even closer.
Cassian squeezed Kay’s waist, pulled back, smiled up at him.
Though Cassian couldn’t see it, Kay smiled back.
Cassian disappeared, along with the sourceless light Kay hadn’t even noticed, and he stumbled forward at the change in balance. The ridge looked the same as always, and Malibu, and the sea.
What the hell had just happened? Cassian waking? Kay thought about that for a moment, what Cassian would look like just awoken, his hair in disarray, his expression soft.
No. What the hell had Kay been thinking? Sure, nobody knew of any way the Fae could intrude on people’s dreams, but he was sure they hadn’t revealed all of their tricks to humans, and what about the armor? If they could use that as a conduit, he’d just signed Cassian’s death warrant.
Kay let himself collapse into sitting, digging the gauntlets’ claws into the ground. Was there any way to be sure? More importantly, was there any way to send warning?
Cassian was Contracted. The Wild Hunt could track him. Unless maybe Kay could find the Fae’s vault of Contracted talismans and take or destroy Cassian’s, but if the Fae knew about it they’d just collect more. Kay would have to warn Cassian and destroy the talisman, and he was not very optimistic about the success of either task.
Just as he was spiraling down into despair, his hand closed around its fistful of dirt and he realized there was a plant in the mix. Looking down, he saw a primrose standing up between his fingers.
The primrose. Fae magic took gifts very seriously, he suddenly remembered. They created connections between the giver and the recipient. And a night flower, under the moonlight, dug up by Fae armor and touched by both Kay and Cassian—
His stomach was still sick with worry, but his heart and lungs slowed down to think that there was at least a good chance he hadn’t exposed Cassian to the enemy.
Kay thought of something he’d heard Rose say when she found mold in the crafts section and wasn't sure if she'd have to destroy almost a hundred books.
"We are in this universe," he whispered to himself, "and the universe is in us."