Melody of Hope

MELODY OF HOPE

Late at night, there’s a hint of music in the air. If I sit at the head of the stairs and listen carefully, I can hear it drifting like tiny dust motes made from song, and the tune is different depending on where I look. If I turn my head a tiny bit to the left, I can hear Aubrey’s gentle laughter tumbling down the hallway, or Jax’s whispers that are meant only for her. If I turn a bit to the right, I can hear baby Eli suckling in his sleep while his parents watch him and marvel at the tiny perfect human they created, and their certainty that they will somehow screw him up. I can often hear Hyrum offering his thanks for a day well lived, or his giggling over a new book or something he’s drawn with the colorful tooth-mark-pocked pencils that Jay has entrusted to him.

I listen for Hyrum often, because if I hear him sniffing or struggling to hold back tears, I know I need to go to him.

If I move to the other side of the stairs and cock my ear toward the floor above, I can hear soft feet gliding across the tile and gentle music wrapping around Will and Aisha. Sometimes they dance, often they simply sit in the quiet and talk, but this is when they can relax and just be. Their babies are tucked in and asleep, and their song is pure joy.

When I move back to the balcony-side of the staircase, I can hear King Eli snore softly, and chances are he’s asleep in a chair in the living room. Across the hall from him, Jay and Navi are quiet; she studies while he sketches, neither of them ever quite far from their work.

It’s from that spot near the stairs I decide where I need to be. On this night, with the music of home life broken by the sour notes of pain, I knew I couldn’t do anything for them myself, so I headed upstairs to get the person who could hear me, understand me, and interfere without being overbearing.

~

Will was still awake. He’d been in bed for an hour, choosing to stay there rather than move and risk waking Aisha, but she was as deeply asleep as she was going to get, so I didn’t worry about jostling the bed. I crawled up Will’s side of the mattress and patted his arm with my paw to get his attention.

He followed me into the living room. Before Aisha—and sometimes even after—I would have told him what I wanted while he was still in bed, but after having three kids and not getting nearly as much sleep as she wanted, Will had asked me to rouse him quietly when needed. Unless it was an emergency, whatever I wanted could wait until he was in the living room with the bedroom door closed. In an emergency, I was free to scream like someone had stepped on my tail.

My reports were generally centered around distressed toddlers. Rhys was a light sleeper, and he was often afraid of getting up in the dark. If he was too distressed to go to the bathroom but needed to, I got Will. If Charlie was awake and had peeled off his diaper to chuck across the room, I got Will. If Alex’s legs were through the crib slats, I got Will. I rarely got him because of my needs or boredom; I got him, sometimes woke him, because of his kids.

He never complained. The kids were half of why his heart kept beating.

This was no different.

Jay is on the balcony and he’s sad.

“Jay’s sad,” he repeated, sounding annoyed by the reason for my intrusion. “He’s a big boy, Wick. I think he can handle being a little sad.”

Not a little sad. It’s a big sad. I think he and Navi and breaking up.

That got his attention. Navi was Jay’s Aisha, the woman he would do anything for, the one for whom he would save his last breath. Before Jay asked her to marry him, Will and Aisha mused that if he didn’t propose, they would have to adopt her to make sure she didn’t get away. She had been proclaimed One of Us before she moved into Drew’s old apartment with Jay; she’d been trusted with the family’s secrets.

A range of emotions exploded on Will’s face: sorrow, regret, mourning, and then protective determination. He loved Navi, but Jay came first.

Biology was irrelevant; Jay was his son.

“Do you know what the issue is?” he asked me.

I do.

“And?”

It’s not mine to tell.

“Of course not.” He let out a tired sigh. “You could save me some time with him by giving me a hint.”

I could, but then I’d be telling, and I won’t.

Jay stood at the balcony railing, glass in hand. He didn’t turn when Will opened the door, but I saw his ear twitch and he knew someone was joining him but didn’t care enough to see who. Pain rooted him in place, and the effort to turn was too much. I jumped onto the chair behind him while Will leaned against the rail, looking down onto Union Square. The air around Jay was thick with the aroma of cheap cinnamon whiskey.

“Is that Navi? It’s a little late to be wandering around downtown.”

Jay didn’t look up. “Study group before they start their shift at five,” he said. “They’re working with a bio-printer today. Mass wants them to figure out why we can print every organ except the brain and reproductive system.”

“As an exercise?” Will asked. “He already knows why.”

So did Jay. “I guess. Navi knows. Or I assume she knows. We talked about it a long time ago, when she was asking me about my surgery and everything that led up to it. She said then it sucked that we couldn’t just order a dick off the Internet. Well, a functional one. Apparently, you can totally get one that, like, glues on.”

Jay had sparked her interest in gender medicine while they were dating, and he was why she headed straight for Mass after graduating with her nursing degree. There was nothing about the process that bothered her, and she harbored zero judgment about the people who came to him for help; she wanted to be an advocate for younger patients whose parents were hesitant to allow their children to transition.

She was good at what she did. Mass fostered her skills and suggested she could do more. He turned her focus to medical school, and a decision had been placed at her feet: study here, in this When, or leap forward and study in Mass’s birth-When, where her education would be more comprehensive and could put her skills on equal footing with his colleagues.

“All right. So she’s headed for work. Why are you still up?”

“Why are you?”

“I have life-long sleep issues. You, on the other hand, have been known to nod off with toddlers screaming not five feet from your head.”

“Yeah, well.” He gave a half shrug. “I’m awake. It is what it is.”

“You’re not a drinker,” Will said with a nod toward the glass Jay clutched. He sniffed and added, “Drew’s preferred poison?”

Jay nodded.

“Drunk?”

“Little bit, yeah,” Jay said, which made Will snort.

Tell him if he doesn’t start talking, I will.

Will did not tell him that. He focused on the Square, though by now Navi had to be past his sightline and it wasn’t likely that there was anyone else down there to snoop on. Even the pigeons were probably asleep somewhere, dreaming about all the ways they could torment me. There might have been an inebriated person or two, staggering home after being shown the door at Fuzzy’s or Kaluto’s, but I didn’t hear any drunken chatter or high-pitched laughter coming from the street.

They stood in silence for at least five minutes, staring at an empty Square. Jay sipped at his drink but didn’t offer Will any, and Will didn’t ask.

The night was pitted by quiet, the air filled with little more than the sighs of human breath and the drumbeat of hearts. Will could wait as long as Jay needed, and he could stand still, not moving, barely blinking, until Jay was ready to speak.

I’d seen him stand guard over the royal offspring for hours at a time during state dinners; he had the eerie ability to see everything around him when he didn’t appear to be looking. Waiting through Jay’s silence was physically easy, even if it was emotionally difficult.

He only twitched when Jay sucked in a deep breath.

“She doesn’t want kids,” Jay finally said.

“What?” That made Will move. “I thought you’d discussed that.”

“We did, early on. She knew I wanted at least one. She said she wanted one, but just one. But now?”

Will turned the outside heater on and gestured to the chair next to me. “What changed?”

Jay’s voice tangled around the words. Everything had changed; life had changed. Medical school was no longer a concept but a reality, and with it the decision about where to study. “And now she’s spent time with all the kids. She’d never really been around little kids before and doesn’t think she would be able to give a baby or a toddler the amount of time it deserves. She refuses to shortchange a child because of the things she wants to do, and she won’t consider doing anything else. And no, I didn’t ask her to change her mind about school. She needs to be a doctor.”

He’d pointed out that he could be the primary parent, a mostly stay-at-home dad, the way Will was. His work was fluid, and there was no reason he couldn’t cart a kid to his studio. He could find space at home to paint and draw, and if not, he would get a bigger studio to work from. He also wasn’t in a hurry; if she wanted to finish school first, he could wait that long.

“But then she pointed out that graduating was just the start of everything for her. She had a residence and a fellowship to get through, and at the end of the day she doubted she wanted to come home to a child who would need more attention than she could give. And I get it, it all sounds perfectly reasonable and her major concerns are for this kid we don’t even have, but…”

“But you want to be a father,” Will said.

“I can’t imagine my life without her, but damn. And before you say it, no, having little brothers and a little sister is not enough. It’s not the same.”

“I understand.” If anyone did, it was Will. He’d cared for Oz and Zed from their first weeks until they were old enough to not need a babysitter, but they weren’t his own, though it was all he thought he would ever have.

“God. The night before my surgery, after you left? I couldn’t sleep. Hell, Mom didn’t even suggest I try. She knew I wouldn’t.”

The night before his seventeenth birthday, after Will had gone home and the birthday cake Aubrey had made for him was properly destroyed—he’d sucked down half of it by the time Aisha reminded him he couldn’t eat anything else, and covered the few slices that were left, storing it on top of the refrigerator—he sat in the darkened living room, staring out the big picture window. While Aisha tossed and turned in her bed, he kept an eye on the park across the street, the playground bathed in soft light from a nearby lamp post. The night was still; there were low pockets of fog and no breeze. He’d glanced at the trees to be sure; they weren’t moving at all, the very tops hidden in the mist.

There was no one in his line of sight. No people, no cats or birds, no runaway dogs cutting through the park.

He’d never played on that playground. Aisha had moved him from Las Vegas to San Francisco when he was eleven years old, into the apartment that his father had purchased for them. He’d watched younger kids play but had never spent more than a few minutes on the playground, and when he had, it had been while he waited on a bench or the border wall, usually expecting his father or stepfather, and sometimes Zed.

He’d been tempted to use the swing set. It was a long, tall, six-seater, practically an invitation for a pre-teen to attempt to get the swing to go over the top. He was small and light but had legs strong enough to pump that hard. That night he stared at it and played with the idea that he could still go outside and give it a whirl, though he realized a full rotation would never happen.

Still, he could get higher than any of the little kids who frequented the park.

It might be fun. It was time to inject fun into his life. He deserved it.

He didn’t move from the sofa. Instead, he stared at the swings, wondering if he would ever use them, if after the surgery he would still feel too old to play, too afraid that somehow, if he let his guard down long enough to enjoy a few minutes of mindless fun, that someone would discover his secret.

He was not the only transgendered teenager in San Francisco, but he had only shared his truths with Zed, and Zed would never tell.

In the stillness of night, he caught a breath of movement. The middle swing jiggled; he thought a breeze had picked up, and he looked to the trees to see how much of one there was.

The trees were still.

The other swings were still.

The lone swing moved back and forth, in tiny increments, until it was swinging a foot in either direction. He felt a sharp surge of warmth spread throughout his belly and his breath caught in his throat, when the thought wove through his brain: I can have children. A kid of my own. When this is done, it will be real and I have that. If he had waited until his mid-twenties to have surgery in this When, as George wanted, he would look fully male but would be sterile. By letting Will take him to his birth When and having surgery there, he would be fully, genetically male, and would be fertile.

He’d always thought that if he had children, it would be with a surrogate or through use of an artificial womb. If he was lucky enough to find a woman who loved him enough to spend her life with him, they would never be able to procreate the way the rest of humanity did. He accepted that. He was fine with that.

But Will changed everything.

He saw the swing move and felt the presence of a child not yet born, a child who waited for him, who wanted to be his.

“It hit me hard. This meant I could have children of my own, and I wept. I mean, I didn’t just cry, Will. I wept. The floodgates opened. Tiny but brave Jay, crying his eyes out over a kid that didn’t exist. But I felt that kid waiting, and I wanted him even then. I still feel him. I don’t just want to be a father. I need to be.”

Will understood. “I grieved through many nights, crying over children I would never have. But then life changed, and now I have four.”

“What if Mom had said she didn’t want another one? That I was all she needed. Would you have been okay with that? Could you have lived with it?”

He’s not asking about you, not really.

“Our circumstances were different than yours,” Will said. “When we married, we weren’t sure if we wanted one together or not, though she did tell me she was open to the idea. Still, I went into this marriage wanting only her. I’d had nearly twenty-five years to miss her, and a life with her was all that I longed for and felt like having that would be more than enough.”

That was Jay’s problem; he wanted Navi to be enough. His gut screamed that she should be enough, but his heart was yelling right along with it. She’d known he wanted kids. She’d told him she did, too. He dove deeper into the relationship believing they would one day have a child together, and to take that away felt unfair. “And yet life without her?”

Will had no idea what to tell him and said so. “But I am always willing to listen, even if only to have someone to vent to.”

“And if I decide that this is a deal breaker?”

Will nodded. “I will always be on your side.”

“I was going to call you Dad,” Jay said, softly. “Whatever happened to that?”

“The name belongs to your father,” Will said. “And I understand.”

Jay got up, then bent over to give Will a kiss. “I love you like a dad, you know.”

“I know. You are my son, Jay. The love I have for you is no different than what I feel for your brothers and sister.”

“Fuck all that you can’t tell me what to do.” Jay opened the door and stepped inside, hesitated, but then let it close behind him.

Now do you get why I didn’t tell you?

“I get it, Wick. Now tell me how to unbreak his heart.”

You can’t. Because either way, if he stays with her or lets her go, it’s gonna be in a lot of little pieces, and he might not ever find them all.

~

There was nothing Will could do. He wanted to do something, chase after Navi and lecture some common sense into her, beg or bribe her, but he recognized that he was tired and the issue was not constructed from common sense. It was—aside from being a sounding board for Jay—none of his business. He checked on his three small children and then settled onto the sofa with a book, and I headed downstairs.

I couldn’t help Will read until he was sleepy, but I could keep Jay company.

His apartment smelled vaguely of acrylic and oil paint, though his art studio was now a down the street roughly a block away. He’d had one upstairs for a few years, but that was now the toddler’s playroom. After I wiggled through the cat flap, I looked around; there was a new painting hanging on the wall over the sofa. There was almost always a new painting hanging on one of his walls. He let the work settle with him for a few weeks before submitting things to galleries, and they sold well.

I recognized this painting. I’d seen it hanging in a museum, nearly two hundred years in the future, in a room dedicated to the artwork of James Okuda, Junior. It was filled with brightly colored rain drops dancing above the happily curious face of a young man whose reddened eyes glistened with tears. The man vaguely resembled teenaged Zed, his green eyes and deep black hair, the mixture of curiosity and overwhelming joy that often tugged at the corners of his mouth in an unbridled grin. There was also deep sorrow and pain, and as I stood looking at it I wondered if Jay had a sense of impending doom, if he knew that Zed’s soul might one day be so battered and bruised that his family would fear he would lose himself to it.

Jay was on the sofa, staring at a late-night news broadcast, not really seeing or hearing anything about the ongoing efforts to rebuild Chicago. I listened for a moment; it had taken years to clear rubble from a war that went on only for a few months, but Prime Minister Shazia Van Hoff—Drew’s mother—was certain that the majority of the work was behind them, and tourists were welcome and encouraged to visit to see the new city for themselves.

It sounded like politispeak, though I knew she was sincere. She’d worked hard, and what she offered the world was a shiny and new city to play in, all while making sure the rest of Midlam prospered as well.

You should visit Chicago, dude. Someone needs to paint their new skyline.

“I’m all right, Wick. If Will sent you to check on me, tell him I’m fine.”

No, I’m just here because I’m nosy.

He sucked in a deep breath and leaned forward so that he could see me. His arms rested on his legs, hands dangling between his knees, and when he exhaled, I felt his breath brush across my fur, the whiskey fumes stinging my eyes and nose.

“You enjoy getting into shit, don’t you?” It was a question and not an accusation.

Sometimes. What did you have in mind?

“I need to talk to someone who isn’t necessarily on my side. And there are sides to this, Wick. I can see both. But everyone here will be on my side and Navi will suffer the fallout and feel pressure. That’s not exactly fair.”

Sophia might not be. She’s still not happy about being pregnant again.

“There’s only one person I can think of who might understand how I feel. And I need you to take me to him.”

I waited.

“I feel bad for even asking you to do this, but I have no idea how to find him and I suspect you do.”

He’s not in this When, is he?

“Jesus, this would be easier if you and I could speak. Look, I want you to take me through the portal down on the Square.”

You have a transponder. You can go without me.

“I know when I can find him, just not…how. I want to find myself in, like, thirty years or so. I need to speak to him, I just need—”

Will had lifted his unofficial and unenforceable ban on going forward. He’d taken Jax and Aubrey to meet themselves. He took Oz and Drew to do the same. He spent days with his parents in the future, and they’d become the kids’ grandparents as much as their actual grandparents were. I sometimes went through the small portal in Oz’s closet to visit Lux, Jo’s cat.

If Jay wanted to go talk to himself and needed me to accomplish that, I didn’t see a reason not to.

“I just have a gut feeling you can help me connect there,” he went on. “But I won’t force you. If you’re willing, jump in my lap. If not…no hard feelings. I swear. I’d—”

I jumped onto his lap before he could finish the thought.

I don’t know how I’ll communicate there unless old Hyrum is around but having me with you might be proof you are who you say you are. And you need that since you don’t look like how the other you probably did at your age. They know me. And I don’t exist there anymore, so it’s not like they would confuse me with myself.

He threw on a sweatshirt and tucked me to his side. On the way out he nodded at the desk guard but didn’t say anything to her, and once we were at the Square’s steps, he picked up his pace, eager to get through.

“You’re in control here,” he said to me. “You pick the date and time. I have no idea what day to shoot for, but I figure you’ll know when and where we can find someone.”

I had an inkling. Old Drew and Zed had fallen into a pattern not unlike Will and Jax; they often met at the bakery in the morning, though for them it was a quiet time away from work and kids and not a spot to start a morning run. Will and I ran into them there frequently on our way to see his parents, and they were almost always alone.

I timed it so that we arrived on a day soon after the last one I knew of that Will had been there. It was just before Drew’s sixtieth birthday, a late October morning absent of fog, when it was cold but the day’s warmth was a certain promise that inched through the city. Zed would be there, grabbing coffee before heading to Alcatraz or Blackshear Academy. Drew would be there drinking hot chocolate before heading to Ozoo.

As soon as we were through the portal, I wiggled to get out of Jay’s grasp. They were right where I expected them, at a table not far from the bakery door, and they needed to see me before they saw Jay so that there would be no question about his identity. I landed gently and scrambled across the cool concrete and then leaped onto the table before they’d even realized I was nearby.

It took a few seconds for them to fully recognize me. Usually, I snuck in through the bedroom portal and went straight to Lux. Any other time, I was with Will. Drew realized who I was first, but I interrupted his surprised greeting.

Look. At the portal. This is Jay.

You know Jay. He used to be Jimmy.

Look.

They finally looked to where my nose pointed, and Jay approached, almost shyly.

Zed got to his feet. “Holy shit, you’re going to catch so much crap from the Emperor for this,” he said, laughing. “Damn, you got big.”

“You recognize me?”

“You’re a hell of a lot taller than yourself and not nearly as skinny as I remember, but yeah.” He sniffed. “Damn, how much have you been drinking? And for breakfast?”

“It was night when I left home, and I’m quickly sobering up.” Jay sat in the chair Zed pointed to. “The Emperor will get over it. Are you and I still friends? That sounded like you haven’t seen him in a while.”

“He’s still my bro and we see each other damn near every day,” Zed said. He looked at Drew and added, “This one goes by Jay. Less confusing for us, I imagine.”

“You anointed me with the name. You didn’t for him?”

“Tried to. We went through a few. Triple-J. Jimbo. Jimmers. Even Jay. It just didn’t stick. His stepfather was such an asshole about it.”

Jay snorted. “I suppose George still calls him Jaime?”

Zed nodded. “Slips up now and then. But he prefers Jimmy and was damned insistent about it.” He took a moment and then added, “They’re cool with each other, if that helps. He was a dick about it for a long time, but when it came down to it, he paid for everything.”

“Yeah, he was a total dick with me and damned near died because of it. In my When, anyway. Supposedly I’ll still get the funds as a trust when I turn twenty-five. But…I don’t really care.”

“You’ll care when you see how much,” Zed chuckled.

Drew scrunched his nose. “You’re not twenty-five yet? Yeah, no, you don’t look twenty-five. Hm.”

“Neither do you, and yet the last time I saw you, like, yesterday, you were. Did I really wait until then for all the surgeries? How much suckage did that entail?”

Jimmy had waited until his twenty-fifth year to get the most significant of his surgical procedures. With George standing in his way until his eighteenth, and then having the money dangled in front of him, he opted to wait for no reason other than it lifted the financial burden from his mother and father.

“He began hormone therapy the day he turned eighteen but was willing to wait for the rest to make their lives easier,” Zed explained. “And his wife was willing to wait. He knows you were able to get rolling sooner and he’s genuinely happy for you. Happier still for your mom. His has been alone far too long.”

“That he knows of,” Drew chortled.

“His wife,” Jay said dully.

Zed reached across the table for Jay’s left hand and tugged at his ring finger. “Ah. All right. Where are you in life? Still in school? Dating? Engaged? Or did you embrace another direction? Gay? Swinger? Celibate? Or—”

“Stop,” Jay said, chuckling. “But I’m glad you’re still willing to give me shit.”

“Always.”

“But…that is why I’m here. Where I am in life. I feel like I need to talk to myself about a major decision I have to make.”

“That’ll certainly annoy the Emperor,” Drew mused. He turned to Zed and said, “This means we’re required to help. I do enjoy annoying him.”

Jay wasn’t sure how to take that. “Don’t like him?”

“Oh, hell, I love the bastard,” Drew said. “We picked up right where we left off, before he died. Although it breaks my brain a bit, seeing him so much younger than I am.”

“Well,” Jay mused. “You are kind of old. Like, you could be my father. Except he’s not that old, either.”

“Eh, bite me. You want help or not?”

Jay didn’t answer but looked at Zed. “Hell, for that matter, same goes for you. What are you now, like, seventy?”

“Ha. You’re so funny. I can still take you, you know. Well, if you hadn’t gotten so much bigger than I am. And the muscles. But if you were still Jimmy? I could totally take you.”

“So could Aubrey,” Drew snorted. “Do you really want to see him? The Emperor might not be wrong about creating expectations about your life. The only reason he brought your Oz and Drew here to see us was for their benefit in understanding what happened politically when we ended the monarchy. They still know very little about our personal lives. Nothing about our children or what Oz did once she became a private citizen.”

“I need to know what kind of heartbreak I’m headed for,” Jay said. “Because as far as I can see, that’s all there is ahead of me.”

“Navi,” Zed murmured.

“Then I’m not wrong. He knew her, he loved her, and left her?”

Sucking in a deep breath, Zed sat back in his chair and considered it. “Do you really want to know? Fundamentally, do you need to know?”

Jay explained his dilemma. They listened carefully, especially to the things he wasn’t saying. Jay waxed poetically about their love and how excited he had been to start a life together, knowing that she loved the man he was and had no issue with the gender he’d been assigned at birth. She wanted to help others like him, so much so that she was willingly to live centuries away from her own life to make it happen.

“So yeah,” he said as he wound down. “I need to know.”

“I’m not sure how much to tell you,” Zed said.

Drew gave a slight shrug. “They’re not trotting along the same path, Zed. Just tell him.”

“The Emperor—”

“—can suck his own dick if it upsets him. And I’m sure he’s bendy enough he could do it.”

“Gross,” Jay muttered.

“Well, I’m not wrong, am I?”

“Do you want to contemplate what freaky things your dad can do?” Jay asked.

“Huh. I forgot. He’s your stepfather.”

“Note he didn’t apologize,” Zed said. “But about Navi.”

Jay waited.

With a deep sigh, Zed went on. “They met in college, before Jimmy had surgery but after he’d begun hormone therapy. He was honest and it didn’t matter to her. They dated a while, married before his surgery, and they spent a few fairly incredible years getting to know each other all over again. I’d honestly never seen him so happy.”

“But?”

“But. Right around the third anniversary of his surgery, Jimmy realized he wanted to start a family. He didn’t care how—any option was one he was willing to consider. She slammed the brakes, hard. The idea of a baby had once appealed to her, but the reality? She was working long shifts and didn’t want to sandwich kids into a brutal schedule.”

The Navi of this When had also gone into gender medicine, specializing in research to improve surgical technique. She trained under Brian Massimo, Jimmy’s surgeon, and was just as dedicated to her career as her mentor, if not more so.

“Kids were that important to him?” Jay asked. “Enough to end a marriage over?”

“Not at first. But he grew to resent it, and she felt it. But the worst of it was his hurt over how easily she extricated herself from their marriage. She told him she understood she had two choices, either ease up on her career and have a child or stay the course and lose him. She walked away. She made a surgically precise incision that amputated their relationship from her life, and once she walked out the door, that was it. They never spoke again.”

“Never?” Jay’s voice cracked as he spoke. “As in never?

Navi sent friends for her belongings and a lawyer in her stead to sign the final divorce papers. Zed believed she considered that to be a kindness to Jimmy, and her absence would make it easier. “But it damn near killed him.”

“There’s a bright side,” Drew said. “He remarried a couple years later. He’s happy.”

“Kids?” Jay asked.

“Not yet,” Zed answered. “But his wife still says it’s not off the table. His itch for a family was soothed over by her sister’s large family and all her nieces and nephews.”

“There are what,” Drew mused, “twelve?”

“Something like that,” Zed said. “Lots of tiny people running around. They spent most days off with her family, watching the youngest of the tribe. He loved it. But now that they’re older, that itch is begging to be scratched, and she’s definitely not opposed.”

“The idea of old people having babies would gross me out if my mom hadn’t had Rhys and the twins,” Jay said. “You guys are up there, aren’t you?”

“I have grandchildren,” Zed said with a laugh. “My kids are…prolific.”

“Their mom?” Jay ventured.

Don’t tell him. Just don’t.

Carefully, Zed said, “There hasn’t been a day gone by that I haven’t loved their mother. I wouldn’t trade a single moment of our life together.”

I stepped across the table to rub my head against Zed’s arm, purring when he began tickling my chin. Jay watched, and the realization hit him. In a small, sad voice, he said, “Don’t tell me anything else. I won’t repeat this.”

Zed leaned forward. “Your Emperor knows my life, Jay. Trust him. He’s not afraid to change the future and he won’t let your Zed shatter.”

“Because he knows it can’t be changed for us,” Drew said. “But, no worries. He won’t let the worst happen. Your timeline will diverge. Hell, it already has. The fucker’s alive.”

That made Jay laugh. “And here I assumed having been King would have cured you from picking up my bad habits. Zed’s mother is always on my ass about my language.”

“If anything, that made it worse. I have no idea how Oz stuck with it as long as she did. It was a bad enough job during the war, but after? Dealing with the people in charge of the world brought out Jimmy-level language I’d never thought I was capable of.”

“And my mother still yells at him for it,” Zed said. “Wait. You knew she’s still alive, right?”

He knew. “Visiting your parents is a highlight for mine. I don’t get many details, but it’s clear that they love your mom and dad here as much as they do at home.”

Zed’s attention diverted. “Still want to meet yourself?”

Jay shrugged. “I’m not sure I need to anymore. I—”

“Too late.” He pointed behind Jay. “Here you come.”

Jay turned and watched a decades-older version of himself, a much shorter and slighter version, stroll across the Square. Jimmy stopped when he realized who he saw at the table, and he grinned. “It’s a little me!” he squealed. When Jay stood up, Jimmy hesitated again. “Well, now. Not so little. You are me, right?”

“The improved you,” Zed said. “Taller, heavier, and so much better looking.”

“Fuck off, Zealand,” Jimmy said as he grabbed a chair. He sat next to Jay, and the difference between them became apparent. Jay was over six feet tall, and his reluctant following of Will’s advice to keep active and work out was evident in his broad shoulders and tight biceps. Jimmy was thin and slight, the product of long days spent painting and drawing and little else. They looked more like father and son than the same person; Jimmy kept sneaking glances at Jay, making me wonder if he regretted waiting so long to become himself.

They made small talk—how’s mom, is dad still a slut, hey did you know mom met the Emperor right about here and sucked his tonsils out, oh yeah, and back home he told her about it and she was actually happy—until Jimmy leaned back in his chair, cocked his head a touch, and asked, “So, how’d your dick turn out?”

Zed howled. Jay inched his chair back and muttered, “What the fuck, dude?”

“Just curious. You had surgery so much earlier than I did. I’m wondering if it made a difference or not.”

“Your dick is normal,” Zed sighed, which seemed like it was the hundredth time they’d discussed it. “Stop.”

“You two compared?” Jay asked.

“He needed to know,” Zed said. “Only real difference is he’s circumcised and I’m not.”

“Oh.” Jay shifted uncomfortably. “I’m not.”

“Spill it then,” Jimmy said. “Massimo couldn’t create a functioning foreskin. I was damned lucky he was stellar at creating the glans. And he wasn’t half bad at coaxing inches and girth.”

“Aren’t you glad you came?” Drew asked Jay. “You have a dilemma, and they want to discuss your genitals.”

“Puberty, too,” Jimmy said. “The whole kit and kaboodle. I’ve always wondered how life would have been if I hadn’t waited until my mid-twenties to start everything. Are you done? I don’t think I had my last surgery until I was twenty-seven. That was a fucking long time to wait for good sex.”

“Long done,” Jay said. He turned to Drew and asked, “Your call. How much can I say about the difference having Will in my life made? Especially if it involves his When.”

“He knows when the Emperor was from,” Drew said. “He knows about the portals, and knows we use them now and then. Hell, he’s been through a couple of times. Tell him anything you want.”

Jay took a moment to consider. “I only had one surgery, on my seventeenth birthday. Mass is from Will’s When, and they took me forward to have it done there. It was one procedure, took like four days of floating in a tank with nanobot-riddled goo, and when I came out, it was all done. And now there isn’t a test in existence that would show I was ever anything but male.”

Jimmy twitched and turned his chair to face Jay. “Tell me about it. All of it.”

While Jay told Jimmy the tale of his transition, Drew quietly got up and fetched fresh coffee and hot chocolate, bringing the latter to both Jimmy and Jay—extra chocolate, no whipped cream—counting on them having the same tastes. While Jay explained about the nanobots and how surgery would function in almost two hundred years, Drew listened carefully, taking mental notes.

I knew it was one of the things he was working on, developing sub-micro nanobot technology specifically for medical use, but I couldn’t tell Jay to cut back on the details. I considered sitting upright and placing my paw over his mouth, but he’d already given Drew ideas, and for all I knew that was how Drew got them in the first place.

“I had a few miserable months of late puberty and went through growing-pain hell, but the surgery itself? Just the one thing. I was sedated through the whole thing and when I woke up, I had the body of a thirteen-year-old boy. By the end of summer, my body caught up with my age.”

“I’ll be damned,” Jimmy breathed. “I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t jealous.”

“And you could have avoided that whole thing with Blake,” Zed said, laughing. “Gone straight for the thing you really wanted.”

“Blake wasn’t a mistake,” Jimmy said. “He scratched an itch and was happy to oblige. If he hadn’t met Rob, who knows? It might have gone on longer.”

“Do I want to know?” Jay asked. “Who’s Blake?”

Blake, Jimmy explained, was a friend he’d met the summer before starting college. He was effervescent and, as he described himself, fabulous as fuck and gloriously gay. He took a liking to Jimmy and was one of the first—other than Zed—to whom Jimmy admitted the truth.

“No lie, I had a bit of a man crush on him. We got a little drunk one night, and I told him straight up I was curious as hell about sex and would kill to just play with a penis. If I couldn’t play with my own, I wanted to play with someone else’s. He was down for it. There wasn’t a damn straight thing about him, but his brain said I was male and fuck it, why not give a vagina a try for once?”

“Once,” Zed scoffed. “You two banged like bunnies for nearly a year.”

“Seriously?” Jay asked.

“Seriously,” Jimmy said. “No lie, the sex was great, but there was never a time when I thought, hey, I’ll keep the junk I was born with and stay with him. He was in it for the orgasms and because he liked me. I turned a blind eye to his other hookups, because I got it. He wasn’t getting anything from screwing me. I wanted a male body to play with, that was it. He was more interested after the surgery, but by then I was married. Hell, so was he.”

“Holy shit,” Jay uttered. “There was never a Blake in my life. I’m not sure I’d have gone that route.”

Jimmy had no regrets. “It made me fucking fantastic in bed,” he said, amused. “I know what it’s like from both sides of the mattress. My first wife appreciated it. The women who followed appreciated it. But I would trade that for having been able to go about it the way you did.”

“Your first wife,” Jay groaned.

“Jay has a conundrum,” Zed said. “And it has everything to do with Navi.” He explained why Jay was there, and how much he already knew.

“I don’t know if I can give you an honest answer,” Jimmy said. “I mean, yeah, my marriage ended horribly, but it was still one filled with love. And the reason she left? I suppose if she saw me now, she’d be mad as hell. I still haven’t had kids. She left me so that I could have one. I just wish she’d done it better.”

“She made a choice,” Jay said. “A valid choice. But I need to know how you felt. Like, if she’d told you sooner, before you married, would it have made a difference? Have you ever thought about it?”

“Kid, I thought about that a million times. I don’t know. Sometimes I think I would have married her anyway, but most of the time I resent that I didn’t know before we made the commitment. I resented her reasons. I would have given up everything to be a father, like, fuck the career, you know? If I could go back now and choose between my career and kids, I’d choose kids. And I’ve had an amazing career.”

“No details,” Drew warned.

“Pick your battles,” Jimmy said to Jay. “But…your heartache will be real, and she won’t change her mind. She also has a remarkable career ahead of her, and it was probably the right decision for her.”

“In my shoes, you’d end it now.”

“Knowing what I know, yeah, I’d end it. That doesn’t mean you have to. My Navi was an amazing woman, Jay. She was everything I could have hoped for and then some. I loved her as much as I think I was capable of and I don’t regret that part of it at all. If she’d wanted a baby but couldn’t have one, I’d have lived with it. If she couldn’t have stomached the idea of hiring a surrogate, I’d have lived with it. It was the absolute declaration that broke me. If she hadn’t left, I would have, eventually. That doesn’t mean you have to.”

It wasn’t the clear answer Jay had hoped for. He wanted to hear that they’d gotten their happily ever after, that she’d changed her mind along the way, or he had. He wanted to hear there were no regrets. He also wanted to pry about the turn Jimmy’s life took; he was married, but to whom? He had an amazing career, but how?

Drew nudged the conversation back to the Emperor, and that he needed to be there for Drew’s birthday. He’d been given an eighty-year-old bottle of scotch, and he wanted to share it with Jax and the Emperor, his brothers, and in memory of Carter, who in this When was long gone.

Jay humored them and promised he would make sure Will was there for his birthday. When he scooped me up to leave, he whispered that he was sorry, but he wasn’t quite ready to go home.

“Take me back further than home,” he said. “I want to be there on the day when Will breaks my mother’s heart. I won’t interfere. I just need to see it.”

I couldn’t fathom why, but as we stepped through, I thought about the day I waited in Will’s apartment, and how broken he was when he came home.

~

Union Square was littered with people. An art display at the center of the Square had drawn tourists, and they strolled between the displays, soaking in the bright spring day. The easels would have been great to hide behind, peeking around the edges to snoop while also checking out the drawings and paintings that normally would have captured his attention. Instead, Jay picked a spot on the edge of a cement planter not far from the one where King Jackson declared his mother irrevocably wed to the Emperor, and we waited.

They picked that spot to marry upon, to accept and embrace the King’s Royal Decree, because it was where he had run from her and they wanted to reclaim it.

There were enough people around that Jay didn’t look out of place, and if I tucked myself close to his leg, I wasn’t noticeable. Even if young Will looked over at us, I was just someone’s tiny cat, one that resembled his Wick. Jay would not be on his radar; he wasn’t someone Will would recognize as being from his future.

Aisha was there already. She was impossibly young, staring in the direction of Will’s apartment, nervous and filled with hope. She lifted onto her toes, looking for him over the heads of people passing by, and her breath hitched. Jay’s gaze was fixed on her, and I wanted to ask him what he was thinking, did he realize how young she was? Was she as beautiful as he expected?

I’d always thought she was beautiful, but I thought anyone willing to sneak bites of dead and delicious things to me was stunning.

I kept quiet, though, not wanting my voice to carry and for her attention to drift our way, even for a moment. I watched her as intently as Jay did and felt a pang of regret when her eyes lit up. She’d spotted Will down the street and was so happy to see him. I knew what was coming, and my stomach did a slow, burning churn.

Someone sat beside us; I noted the movement but didn’t look, not until he spoke.

“This was brutal.” Will kept his voice low. “Try not to react. She’s not your mother, after all.”

Jay turned his head sharply. “How?”

“Gut feeling. After Wick left, I couldn’t concentrate on the book I was reading. I had a suspicion and looked out the window in time to see you disappear into the portal.”

“But how did you find us? This wasn’t our first stop.”

“I stepped into the portal thinking in terms of Wick’s last known location. Had that not worked, I could have checked the portal logs. It’s not difficult to find someone, at least not where they entered and when they headed to.”

“So, no privacy in traveling.”

“When children have access, it’s a necessary invasion.”

“Why do children have access?” Jay asked.

The heir to the throne would always have a transponder. It was a safety window, and it gave them a way to escape if necessary. “Jax was given one when he was small, and Eli taught him to use it in an emergency. Oz was given one when she was an infant. I imagine baby Eli will get one soon.”

So why did we head for the safe house in Denver when Levi went after Drew?

“Because we knew it might be for months, and Zed would not have had an anchor if we’d hidden in another When.”

I looked up at Jay. He just didn’t think of it, not until later.

Young Will was headed up the stairs, looking every bit as hopeful as Aisha did. “I wanted a kiss for my birthday,” Will said, softly. “I had no idea I was about to hurt her, nor that I would be devastated. Right now, his heart is beating so hard he can feel it in his throat. His hands are twitching because he so badly wants to reach out and touch her.”

The young Emperor was conflicted, something Jay empathized with. He was still conflicted about Navi, and while Aisha poured her heart out to the Emperor, he explained his visit with Jimmy, and how it didn’t bring anything into focus. He was just as confused and conflicted as he’d been, when what he needed was an answer.

“And this?” Will asked, not looking away from the young couple. “How will this help?”

“It was the end of something amazing. I hoped it would give me perspective.”

Will sucked in a small, tight breath when Aisha reached for the string on the Emperor’s hooded sweatshirt. That simple movement, touching without touching him, brought him back to reality, and the realization that what he wanted could never happen. If he didn’t break her heart, she would be stuck in a romantic limbo with him.

He snatched the string out of her hand. I thought Will would turn away, unable to witness this, but he continued to watch until the Emperor turned and ran. He didn’t look to see where the Emperor went; he knew that his younger self ripped the sweatshirt off and dropped it, and then ran until he physically could not.

He’d never seen the aftermath and couldn’t take his eyes off Aisha.

Tears streamed down her face and her breath came in great gulps, and slowly, hands pressed to her mouth, she sank to her knees.

“No,” he whispered to Jay, who twitched as if he wanted to go to her. “This had to happen.”

Her heart wasn’t just broken; it shattered. She went to her knees and sat back on her heels, gasping for air, her face wet with tears and snot, and when it seemed as if she might choke on her sorrow, a woman ran up from behind her, and crouched, slipping her arms around Aisha.

It wasn’t Aubrey.

I didn’t recognize her.

“Yolanda,” Will said, mostly to himself. “Her roommate.”

“Yolo?” Jay asked.

Will nodded. “The same.”

“She was in Vegas. I didn’t know she’d lived here, too. Hell, she’s talked about moving here because she misses mom.”

“For your mother’s sake, I would welcome that. But she hates me.”

“Well.” Jay chuckled. “This might be why.”

Yolanda hated him before this moment, though he was never clear why and she had never joined them for studying or picnics in the park. Jay, on the other hand, had warm memories of her. She’d been like an aunt to him when he was little, and she still sent him birthday cards. She might not like Will, but she loved Aisha.

“Did you know that she was the one who helped mom after you left?” Jay asked.

Again, Will nodded. “But seeing it? I thought it had been hard for me, but this…”

“Because you loved her. And this way she had a life.”

“The life she wanted.” Will finally turned away from her. She was on her feet, and Yolanda was guiding her away. “Part of what she confessed to me this day was an expectation of family. She was willing to wait for years if I needed her to, but one day she saw us together, with children. She looked forward to it. She couldn’t imagine life with a family. I knew that could never happen.”

What if you’d known you could learn to touch her and not hear inside her head?

“That might have made a huge difference, Wick. But that wasn’t a skill I learned until after my father’s work was completed. It’s a skill that young man might never learn—”

“He’s you,” Jay said. “He’s not the Emperor before you. He is you. He’ll live, Will. He’ll live and he’ll grow up and marry that girl and have three little weirdos with her. One braniac, one nudist, and one drama queen.”

“But first, she’ll have you.” Will leaned over and kissed Jay at his temple. “And that’s why it’s imperative that this plays out. I will not risk a world without you in it.”

Oh, ask Jay about Jimmy and his love life.

“Jimmy Okuda’s love life is none of my business.”

Jay chuckled. “Maybe not, but you’d be interested.”

Will picked me up and we headed for the portal on Market Street, where they could slip through it without being noticed. Jay told him about Jimmy and Blake, and what might have been had he not had Will to help him. Will was amused and reminded Jay there might be a Blake out there for him, still.

“I’m not sure I’d go that way,” Jay said. “But it seems like something Jimmy needed.”

We paused near the portal. “He wants children of his own?”

Jay nodded. “I get the feeling he does.”

“You could give that to him.”

“What, me and a turkey baster? No thanks. If there’s a kid out there I’m responsible for, I want it.”

“No,” Will said with a chuckle. “I meant he could meet Mass in my birth When and spend a day or two in the tank. I believe Mass would be amenable to the notion.”

“You’d change that.”

“I would.”

Check with old Drew first, make sure time really is a wad of spaghetti.

“Yeah, I don’t know what that means,” Jay said when Will repeated it, “but listen to the cat. If Drew thinks it’s worth changing the timeline, I’d be happy to take Jimmy there.”

“And the direction of your own life?” Will asked.

Jay didn’t know.

“Suggestion?”

Jay nodded.

“Take your time. Give Navi’s news a chance to settle a bit longer. But don’t marry her until you’re sure you can live with it.”

“I know. And I won’t try to talk her into it, either. I know better.” He sucked in a deep breath. “I can’t imagine life without kids, Will. And I don’t want to. I know what’s going to happen when she comes home.”

“You’re sure.”

Jay nodded.

“I am truly sorry, Jay.”

Jay glanced over to the spot Aisha had been. “Yeah, me too. And I’m sorry your heart got broken here. It wasn’t just Mom. But goddamn, I’m glad you found your way back to her.”

After making sure Jay was all right, Will lifted me onto his shoulder. “Head home. Wick and I have another stop to make.”

“To see Drew?”

“To see me. To help myself. I’ll be home later in the day.”

Jay slipped into the portal, vanishing like fog.

What are you up to?

“The same thing he was. The search for a sliver of hope. Only this time, I wish to dispense a bit of it.”

Before you talk to Drew.

“I’m not changing anything. Just…giving myself something to hold onto.”

Just have me home in time for snack o’clock.

I understand there’s shrimp to be had, and if I miss it, you’re totally taking me to the Ferry Building for more.

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