Gabby realized her mistake too late. She stared at the little girl Rayen had risked her life to protect from a croggle. “Can’t I just, like, hand you stuff when you need it, Jaxxson?”
He paused from what appeared to be him checking the child’s pulse. Her skin had turned too bright a pink to be healthy. Jaxxson said, “I need to get her blood pressure calmed down. She’s having a reaction to the Sphere. You said you wanted to help.”
But she hadn’t thought that would entail putting her hands on the child. And Gabby had also thought she’d have a chance to search for a way out of the village if she tagged along with Jaxxson.
Not going to happen from inside this dome thing surrounding all three of them.
Jaxxson had walked her through a canopied area where two girls who looked about twelve were making aqua-blue orbs appear and disappear for a group of very young children who ooohhed and awwwed. They were inside a woven pavilion type of enclosure. Sort of like a tent only in ratty shape and held together with vines and patched with leaves, but since the leaves were all different colors it had a kaleidoscope look to it. Different but cool.
Jaxxson had walked over to a luminous white bubble that hovered on one side of the kiddie area. The bubble looked about the size of a small bedroom. He’d placed his hands on the outside of the dome and murmured words until the opal glow shimmered in front of him and a section opened up that allowed him to enter without bending over.
He had told Gabby to follow him.
She hadn’t seen much choice.
The wall returned to its original form as soon as she’d stepped inside and thankfully found the floor to be flat. She’d tentatively pressed a finger against the dome wall. Her finger sank into the strange surface then stopped as if hitting a solid material.
That had curtailed any hope of her wandering around and snooping for exit points in the village.
“Gabby?” Jaxxson drew her attention back to the child who was lying on a pillowy cloud-type of bed that hovered about three feet off the floor.
She backed up a step. “You know why I don’t want to put my hands on her.”
The little girl raised a timid, silver-eyed gaze to Gabby. Her tiny bottom lip quivered.
Turning her guilt-ridden anxiety on Jaxxson, Gabby snapped, “Just great. Look what you made me do.”
“Nobody’s making you do anything. Refusing to offer comfort is your choice.”
Now she sounded like an ogre. She inhaled a breath and flexed her fingers, determined to keep the unspoken truce intact between her and Jaxxson, who stared up at her from where he knelt beside the girl. One of his hands had moved from the child’s wrist to above her elbow.
Gabby stepped back to the bed and squatted down beside Jaxxson. She’d never been able to walk away from a kid in need, not after spending her life being ignored by everyone around her.
“If you can tell me how to shield thoughts from my mind...I’ll try,” she implored Jaxxson with a soft voice to keep from upsetting the little girl.
Maybe a child’s thoughts wouldn’t be as abrasive as an adult’s. Thoughts that could be so negative or hateful they had sent Gabby to her knees in the past, leaving her emotionally shredded.
Jaxxson answered her in an equally calming voice without looking at her. “Your body is still healing from the vine infection, but the weave I placed on your wrist will also prevent anyone’s thoughts you don’t want to hear from impacting you. Unless the other person is so powerful a telepath that they could force their thoughts on you. I doubt Be’tallia is such a threat.”
Gabby exhaled a breath, still trying to accept everything in this place. The twinkle in his eyes made it easy for her to joke. “Oh. So I’m wearing the equivalent of a Batman wristwatch for telepaths, huh?”
He chuckled and said, “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“Never mind. But why didn’t you tell me about this wristband sooner?” Gabby crabbed at him.
“Because you must learn to trust touch, even when you lack external protection. Place your hand on Be’tallia’s forehead to soothe her.” He returned to treating the child, moving his palms to cover the girl’s abdomen while smiling at her.
Gabby lifted her hand and slowly extended it, fingers trembling.
Be’tallia’s gaze jumped from Jaxxson to Gabby, watching with huge silver-gray eyes, several shades darker than the party dress she wore.
Breathing hard, Gabby finally lowered her hand to the child’s forehead and braced herself.
No thoughts came crashing into her mind.
Jaxxson hadn’t lied. Call her paranoid, but she’d been tricked in the past and hadn’t liked it one bit.
But here she was, touching another person who actually smiled at her.
Gabby started laughing, not a loud sound but a private little hot-dang one.
Jaxxson gave her a way-to-go glance then returned to whatever he was doing to heal the little girl.
Giddy with having accomplished something she’d been denied for so many years, Gabby used her other hand to hold the child’s miniature fingers. “You have pretty hands and long fingers. Bet you could play a piano.”
Be’tallia’s gaze moved from Gabby to Jaxxson who seemed intent on something then chuckled. His beautiful brown eyes twinkled at the child who nodded, lips curling into a half-smile.
Gabby felt like an outsider. Again. But were those two really communicating telepathically? “Did you just talk to her mind-to-mind?”
“Yes. Why?” He seemed perplexed by her tone.
Refusing to sound like the terminally uninformed, she just said, “Isn’t that rude to do with me sitting here?”
“No. It’s no different than if you were to ask for a word in private with me.”
How could she argue with that? “Wouldn’t it be nicer for the three of us to talk?”
Jaxxson kept working some sort of magic with his long-fingered hands, moving them up to the child’s neck as he spoke. “Be’tallia isn’t ready to talk. Her throat’s still raw from screaming when they kidnapped her. Speak to her with your mind if you want to communicate with her. It will help her relax around you.”
Oh. Dang. Gabby flushed with embarrassment over not realizing the little girl might be in worse shape than just having a skin reaction. Poor thing had been ripped from everything she knew.
But talk to her mind to mind? Be serious. “I don’t know...I, uh, that wouldn’t be a good idea.”
Her temper lived just below the surface on most days and the only thing stopping Gabby from yelling at Jaxxson right now was that she didn’t want to upset Be’tallia. But her words came through clenched teeth. “Because I don’t know how to communicate that way and I’m not messing around with anyone else’s mind.”
“You can’t harm Be’tallia’s mind. She’s the second born of the ruling family over the House of Developers. She’s been trained since birth, how to both use and protect her mind. You could choose no better person with whom to test your skills the first time.”
Could she do that? Gabby swallowed hard at the idea of actually trying to use her mental ability instead of avoiding it. Then she remembered the weave on her wrist. “What about the bracelet you put on me?”
“It’ll only reinforce what you want. You did not want to hear Be’tallia’s thoughts so the bracelet helped you avoid that. If you choose to communicate then the bracelet will also help.”
Could she control mental contact and actually speak to Be’tallia with her mind?
Was she really going to give this a try? Maybe. “You said it was wrong to enter another person’s mind so how do I talk to her without forcing myself into her mind?”
Jaxxson nodded, as if she’d earned points with him. “Give me a moment to explain to her.”
While he was silent, Gabby watched the interplay between him and the child. Be’tallia concentrated as she listened to something he told her telepathically then her eyes widened as if surprised. She finally nodded with a serious expression Gabby wouldn’t have expected on the face of a five-year old.
Jaxxson explained, “I had to tell her that you’d never been trained to speak with your mind.”
“That jolted her?”
“Yes, but not in a bad way. It’s as much a part of our culture as learning how to levitate.”
Of course he’d say that. Why had I been expecting him to say that telepathy was as much of his culture as something like learning to ride a bicycle? Did they even have bicycles? “Are you sure I can’t hurt Be’tallia?”
“Okay, then tell me how to do this.”
“I’ll first have her reach out to you so that you can feel her tap on your mind. When you do, allow yourself to relax and stop worrying about hearing someone else’s thoughts. You’ll hear her.”
Gabby took a deep breath and relaxed her hands then nodded at Be’tallia. In the next moment she felt a light bump, bump, bump in her mind, just as if Be’tallia had used one of her tiny fingers to tap against Gabby’s forehead. Heart thumping wildly, Gabby slowly released her fear and opened her mind. She heard, Hello. Who are you?
Goosebumps raced up Gabby’s arm at the sensation of hearing Be’tallia’s sweet voice really inside her mind. Tears pooled in her eyes. She’d never experienced anything so wonderful.
Gabby replied, Hello to you, too. I’m Gabby. Thanks for letting me try this with you.
Your parents have gifts?
Be’tallia’s smooth forehead creased. You talk to friends? Yes?
The child really couldn’t fathom that Gabby wasn’t communicating with others this way already. She shook her head. Nope. Never met anyone who could do this until now.
Be’tallia screwed up her face in that funny frown that kids had when they thought an adult was trying to joke with them.
Gabby couldn’t stop grinning. She’d never been so happy as in this moment. Do you talk to your friends this way?
Yes. Be’tallia looked away, sad. But not here. I call out, but no one answers. I miss them...and my mother.
Gabby felt moisture pool in her eyes. Be’tallia sounded so lost.
Having spent the majority of her life feeling lost herself, Gabby wished she could fix this for the little girl.
And Gabby yearned for the world Be’tallia lived in...until she realized this child hadn’t lived in a perfect world. Certainly not a safe world.
Be’tallia’s gray gaze lifted to peer at the top of Gabby’s head. So many hair spools.
Out of knee jerk reaction, Gabby lifted her hands to her hair where she’d fixed her ponytails as well as she could and retied the ribbons. She grinned. I know it looks pretty funky, huh?
Strange, Gabby explained.
Not strange. Beautiful. Be’tallia’s awe brushed across Gabby’s mind like a gentle breeze. The child had a cherub’s face and innocent mind filled with tranquility.
Gabby wiped a watery eye and said, Thank you. I’ve never been called beautiful.
Jaxxson looked over at her for a brief moment, a small frown creasing his brow, but he said nothing.
Be’tallia’s eyes crinkled with humor. Do they not see you?
From the mouths of babes, as the old saying went. People are different where I come from. None are special like you.
Be’tallia’s mouth spread wide in happiness.
Gabby had no way to thank this wonderful child who’d allowed a perfect stranger to speak to her telepathically. If she could do this with a child maybe she really could train herself to the point of touching others.
And have a normal life.
Wait a minute. Gabby wasn’t touching Be’tallia.
Sometime while she’d been fixated on talking with Be’tallia, Gabby had moved her hands to her lap where she now yanked them up in front of her face. Then she looked at Be’tallia and sent her a thought. I’m not touching you.
The little girl shook her head.
How can we still be talking without touching?
Babies touch. Big girls don’t have to, Be’tallia explained, her telepathic voice sounding wry.
Then Be’tallia added, You made my head better.
Did this child mean what Gabby thought she meant? Turning to Jaxxson, she said out loud, “Be’tallia said I helped her head to feel better.”
“I’m not a healer.”
How could she answer that? “I don’t...can’t...never have...”
Jackson patted Be’tallia’s cheek, making her giggle. He told her, “Your skin is no longer red. You’ll be fine and you will be safe with us.” Then he sat back on his knees and crossed his arms, facing Gabby. “You work very hard at proving you can’t do something. Perhaps you should try figuring out what you can do.”
She didn’t react to his not-so-gentle verbal smack. Even though she’d heard that often from instructors, psychologists and her father...you don’t try hard enough.
Jaxxson hadn’t meant that as a criticism so much as an observation. But he was certifiable if he thought she could heal anybody. She could accept the telepathy part only because she’d struggled her whole life with hearing other people’s thoughts. And even now she had a hard time believing she’d just spoken to someone mind-to-mind.
But a healer?
If she’d been a healer she could have saved her mother from being a destructive alcoholic. Or healed her own wrists. “I think Be’tallia was confused because you were working on her the whole time we were talking.”
“Perhaps.” He shrugged. “Now for the next stage of healing.”
“Why? Isn’t she better?”
“She’ll be fine. In fact, her throat is healed.”
Gabby glanced over at Be’tallia who had the sly I’m-hiding-a-secret-from-you look. “So now you can talk?”
“Yes.” Be’tallia’s grin exposed a gap in her teeth.
Nice to see that children in other worlds still grew up with some of the same issues like losing their front teeth.
Returning to Jaxxson, Gabby opened her hands. “I’m confused. What’s this next step?”
Holding her gaze with his steady, dark-eyed one, she felt a stronger thump on her mind this time and realized Jaxxson wanted to speak to her silently.
She panicked for a moment as he waited patiently then slowly opened her mind. Trusting a child was very different than trusting someone who said he was her enemy. When she didn’t hear anything, she asked him, Can you hear me?
Yes. When we bring Be’tallia out of this protective dome, she will lose the soothing effect I infused in the bed beneath her. She’ll begin to remember that she’s been torn from her family. I’ve found one thing that seems to help ease the children through this difficult time.
You mean separation anxiety? Gabby asked.
We have other terms, but yes, that’s correct.
What do you do?
I’ll show you.
After telling Be’tallia that she was going to leave the dome and that she might feel different but to remember that she was safe, Jaxxson lifted her into his arms and stood. When Gabby popped up next to him, Jaxxson wrapped his fingers around her wrist before she could stop him.
He murmured a brief string of strange words.
In the next moment, all three of them stood outside the dome in the canopied area with the other children.
She withdrew her wrist from Jaxxson. “Why’d you do it differently this time?”
“Before, you’d have become upset if I’d touched you. You now know you’re not controlled by your gift, but that you’re in charge. You knew I wouldn’t force my mind on you and that you were safe with my touch. Another step in developing your gift.”
He was right about one thing.
She’d never trusted contact with another person since losing her mother, but she did believe that Jaxxson wouldn’t harm her.
She wasn’t sure she liked that knowledge, after all Tony was still stuck back in the prisoner hut. So until all of them were free, none of them were free. She might trust Jaxxson now, but could she trust him if that Zilya chick and Mathias wanted her dead?
Jaxxson carried Be’tallia to where a group of children huddled together on the ground giggling over something. When he asked them to make a space, the children parted, revealing a pile of odd little puffy animals that squirmed and crawled all over each other.
The critters reminded Gabby of furry four-legged troll dolls with large blue-green eyes, fat lips and a pug nose. Their ears sat up like a horse’s and short, thick, multi-colored hair sprouted out the tops of their heads. They had plush cinnamon-colored coats except for the same poofs of rainbow hair sticking out around their paws and at the ends of their long rat-like tails that dragged behind them.
“What are those?” Gabby asked, grinning at the funny creatures.
“Pupples.” Jaxxson sat Be’tallia down on a woven mat covering the ground and petted one of the little animals. “They’re the dugurat offspring.”
“They look too young to be weaned from their mothers.”
“They are. We rescue as many as we can and bring them in for the children. The dugurats breed constantly, but are easy prey. They’ll defend their young, even attacking viciously to protect their pupples when threatened, but are otherwise docile. They have a low percentage rate of survival, because a dugurat brain never grows much beyond the size it is at birth.”
“Never heard of a dugurat before.” Well, except for Etoi using that term to basically call Rayen an idiot.
“I hadn’t either prior to coming here, but we have V’ru of the Records House with us. He knows just about everything there is to know about all things.”
“V’ru? That’s a strange name.”
“He was named after an ancestor and is a rare MystiK who was gifted with the knowledge of all his ancestors upon his birth.”
“Shut the front door.”
“What?” Jaxxson stopped moving his hands. “What door?”
She lifted a hand, waving her fingers. “Sorry. It’s an expression from my time we say when we hear something phenomenal. If this V’ru came to life with all that knowledge, did he still have to study?”
“Oh, yes. His has been a life of continuous study, but that’s expected of a gifted one such as he, to whom current leaders turn for valued information.”
Poor guy. She thought her life sucked, but she definitely wouldn’t want his job. Gabby took in Be’tallia who’d sat quietly, now looking like a ragged princess doll that had been dragged through the dirt. Her face was starting to show the stress of her thoughts. A tear slipped from her eye.
Gabby squatted beside her. “Be’tallia?”
The child turned to her and whispered, “Yes.”
“These pupples are all alone, away from home. They need someone to hold them so they know they’re loved.”
Be’tallia glanced at the pupples, still not reaching for one.
Gabby looked up at Jaxxson who was watching Gabby with the strangest expression on his face. She started to ask what bothered him, but Be’tallia was her first concern. “You may need to take her back to the dome.”
He shook his head. “She must be given a chance to adjust. Keeping her in the dome will only delay what she must come to understand. I see you’re not pleased, but my powers can only heal the body, not the mind or the emotions.”
She supposed he was right. Gabby’s father had always provided the best in medical care for her mother, but no one had been able to heal her mother’s damaged psyche when rumors of her father’s affairs with younger women had surfaced.
Jaxxson reached over the children and lifted two pupples that made weird little grunts and growls, sounding like pig-puppy chatter. He placed one in Be’tallia’s lap where the pupple started licking the little girl’s fingers then pawing the front of her dress.
Gabby wanted to encourage Be’tallia, but she knew what it felt like to have everyone trying to make you “be better right now.” When the little girl picked up the pupple and held it against her cheek, Gabby stood and turned a thrilled smile on Jaxxson.
He then handed her the other pupple.
She’d been itching to hold one and didn’t hesitate to take the ball of fluff, running a finger over its salmon pink, aqua and butter yellow tufts of hair sprouting everywhere. Bringing the bundle of nipping, licking, squirming energy to her face, she laughed when it yipped at her.
She sensed a deep curiosity coming from Jaxxson.
Letting her gaze wander over to him, she found his eyes concentrating intently. As if he knew that she’d never held a pet because of her fear of touch. True, but another reason had been the constant moving from one city or country to another.
Pets were like children. Both deserved a stable home.
After a long moment, he said, “We can only heal others if we understand how to first heal ourselves.”
She started to explain, once more, that she wasn’t a healer, but just then Zilya came rushing up with a little boy in her arms. A toddler. She thrust the child at Jaxxson. “He’s stable for now, but he started reacting right away.”
For the first time, Jaxxson appeared worried. “How bad?”
“I had to resuscitate him twice on the way here.”
“Where’s Callan? I may need his help.”
“He should arrive soon, but I don’t know how drained he’ll be from healing another.”
Gabby tried not to feel hurt over having just been bumped as Jaxxson’s assistant, but she dismissed the petty reaction with a child’s welfare on the line. “Callan’s a healer, too?”
Jaxxson swung his attention to Gabby just long enough to answer her. “Many of us can heal minor wounds and cuts, but he is a G’ortian, whose powers are still developing and can manifest in many different ways. He has proven to be skilled in healing mortal wounds even though he’s not from the Healing House.”
Zilya told Jaxxson, “We captured a TecKnati scout Etoi is delivering to the Isolation Unit. Do what you can for the child. Callan may or may not have the strength to help you after tending to serious wounds.”
Gabby did the math and came up with who’d been injured. Sudden fear made her voice sharp. “Rayen! What happened to her?”
Zilya kept her voice even and calm. “She was struck by a croggle, but she’ll survive.”
That flew all over Gabby. “Why’d you let that happen?”
Glowering at her, Zilya explained, “She wouldn’t have been harmed if she’d not chosen to protect a TecKnati. You should be thankful Callan deigned to repair her after she saved our enemy.”
Oh, boy. That wasn’t going to win Rayen any points. Or any of them for that matter.
The toddler started jerking spasmodically. Jaxxson snapped into all business mode. “He’s stressing. We have to go.”
Gabby was right behind Jaxxson when he reached the dome, but she still held the pupple in her hand. She deposited the small critter into a dress pocket and announced, “I’ll help.”
His answer was to grab her arm, getting them inside the hut with lightning speed.
She’d just dropped down on one side of the cloud bed and had placed one hand on the new child’s head when she heard the little boy’s internal screams of fear and pain.
He was in a comatose state. His mind locked tightly with hers. She had to break away, but she couldn’t. Put up a wall. Not happening. What about her Batman vine watch? Why wasn’t that working?
She snatched her hands away and covered her ears, but the screaming wouldn’t stop. She fought against the chaos. Losing.
Jaxxson was saying something, shouting at her. But the words weren’t clear.
Her brain felt like it was exploding.
He swung away from the child and grabbed both of her arms, his voice shouting in her head. Stop it! You’re killing him!