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Cards on the Table

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So how the whole mess kicks off is Cayde's in a meeting with the rest of the Vanguard, okay, and they're consulting on the blueprints for the new Guardian dorms. Cayde puts in a good word on the topic of rec rooms, possibly with dart boards, but Zavala just makes that you're wasting valuable time, Cayde, face, and Ikora's been distracted all day, darting looks at her slate and over the railing to the sky and Traveler instead of giving that sly fraction of a smile like she does when he's being funny but she doesn't want to encourage him.

They're supposed to get a real nice boardroom or office set up for themselves at some point, but priority's on living quarters, especially for all the displaced civilians — so for now Cayde's taken over a spot in Holliday's brand spanking new hangar for his maps, and Vanguard meetings are held impromptu wherever they can scrape up enough floor for Zavala to pace. So they're on a balcony, just above the New Monarchy grain depot, with battered lilacs recovering in pots on every corner. It's a nice evening for it, Traveler all lit from the belly up by setting sun and City lights.

Anyway, teasing Zavala's not so fun without Ikora to bounce off, so Cayde cools it. He gets into a debate with him — security's one thing on the way in, fine, but if his Hunters can't get out in a hurry they'll all have bigger problems to deal with.

"If a hostile gets in we can't let them get back out through the doors into the City itself to, to wreak havoc on civilians," says Zavala, a big blue wall of frustration, and then Ikora's slate goes bloop.

She starts, and frowns down at it — and when's the last time Cayde saw that line between her eyebrows? Not since Osiris popped back up to topple her careful pile of coping mechanisms over — and then she says, "Excuse me," and disappears in a waft of void Light.

Zavala takes a step forward, open-mouthed, and then says into their private Vanguard radio channel, "Ikora! Is something wrong? What have you spotted?"

Cayde straightens up from his dashing lean (or, okay, slouch) to pick up the projector with the dorm plans on it from the table. He flickers a look over to Zavala, taps in his suggestions about the security, then shuts it down and pockets it.

Ikora comes in on the radio in a crackle of interference. "I've been feeling something all day in the borders of space, at the edges of my mind. It got worse two hours ago, and just now a proximity alert went off. I'm checking it out."

"And this wasn't something you felt the need to share with us before?" asks Zavala, exasperated.

"No," she says. There's a whine in the background that cuts off abruptly, like an engine shutting down. But that's no City-built engine, not with that vibration in its belly. Cayde focuses. "I — hm. Wait for me."

Before she hangs up, there's a click on the line, one Cayde would recognize anywhere. That's her holster unlatching.

"Hey," he says into the line, but there's no answer. He taps at it. "Zavala, aren't we supposed to not be able to mute these?"

"As I understand it, she enabled it after the time you decided an appropriate use of the channel was singing that children's song that repeats itself for an hour."

"Oh yeah. Good times," says Cayde absently, as he ticks through the public channels on his radio. Then the private ones he's part of. Then the private ones he really shouldn't have access to. Not much going on in the City tonight but the soccer tournament semifinals. A few groups of Guardians and civilians getting into just the right kind of trouble, not anything he needs to worry about. And a suspicious amount of nothing from the W-18 guardpost along the wall. That's been assigned to this Hunter kid, Aran, on evenings this rotation, and nobody's yet managed to get them to stop chattering into the radio for two minutes together.

Cayde's about to put in a personal call to Aran on the down-low, just to check up on them, when Ikora's voice comes over the big speakers posted around the area.

"Clear sector," she says, firm and clear and definitely alive, so hey, that's good. "Sector Tower North-5, clear sector, and close doors. You have one minute. Clear sector."

They're in North-5 right now. Cayde has just time enough to trade a glance with Zavala, and then Ikora's voice cuts out from the speakers and back onto their private channels. "Get down from there, you two. Go into that inexplicable gazebo of Hideo's, and if he protests, tell him it's Vanguard business and then to clear sector."

That's business in her voice for sure. Cayde flips a hand up like hey, Warlocks, whatcha gonna do, and hops over the railing. He lands light and soundless on the ground, just behind a small huddle of civilians grabbing their stuff and making for the big doors to Tower North proper. Nobody's ever happy about having to evacuate, but they don't complain. When Cayde ducks into the clubhouse Executor Hideo's frowning but packing up, shooting looks out into the sky like he's expecting another invasion force.

"Hey, thanks for being so prompt on the evac, we'll let you know when it's all good back here," Cayde says, breezily, 'cause the best way to get someone to do whatever you want is to act like they already did and you need their help with the next step along in the process.

"Of course, Vanguard, if it is a matter of security," Hideo says. "But you will not let anybody enter again before our guards? The Consensus is shaky enough, in these strange new days."

"Yeah, yeah, of course," says Cayde, and shoos him and his elaborately hatted attendants out the door. He surveys the area, visual, infrared. The only being left besides him and Zavala is a frame in the downstairs stock room, so that's okay. The doors behind him and to the south clang shut. He swings his arms back, loosening his shoulder joints, and heads back into the New Monarchy headquarters to wait for whatever Ikora found.

Can't be that bad if she's coming back here and not calling us out there, right, he asks himself, and nods as Zavala stalks in from the other door, looking nettled.

He raises his eyebrows at Zavala, who bursts out, "The Vanguard requires coordination to function."

Can't help but agree with that. It's Cayde's job to be the spoke in the wheels of efficiency, not Ikora's.

It's a long wait for Ikora, minutes ticking by, sky darkening behind them through the latticed windows. Zavala settles next to him in a stance like he's waiting out a shouting match in the Consensus. Cayde kicks at the rugs, straightening out a crook in the corner. You'd think Hideo'd get someone to tidy in here more often, the kind of money his faction throws around.

After five minutes, Cayde opens up a channel to Ikora. Before he even says anything, she snaps out, "Cayde, I said wait," and slaps it shut again.

So he reaches out with his Light instead. He's always got an awareness of where Ikora is, and Zavala, along with the thousands of smaller brightnesses that make up the Guardians in local space. He focuses in on Ikora, who is… roughly along Aran's guard route, yup, and there's a light he recognizes as Aran not too far off. There's a second light nearer Ikora, and that one he doesn't recognize. Cayde frowns.

He's about to poke Zavala and ask him to check and see if he recognizes it when Cayde feels that familiar little ripple through the web of Light that connects every Guardian to the Traveler, the one that means Ikora's about to blink somewhere. He settles back.

Two presences appear outside, a swirl of Light in the space that matches the little mechanical parts market in Cayde's mental map of the area. One is Ikora, and she's fine, a bright column of determination and wariness, and the other — he doesn't know. It feels weird, he'd say alien, but he can feel the Light on it. It's just — weird.

Zavala shifts at his side. And then, through the door—

It's a nightmare. It's a nightmare Cayde's had more than once, fears tangled up, what happened once could happen again even though it shouldn't, he can't, he saw the body, he saw the body both times—

He's heard the expression seeing red, but when Cayde's mad, when he's really, really mad, and scared as hell besides, he sees yellow. Bright burning solar yellow, cutting everything down in lines before him, and his golden gun's manifested in his hand before he can think—

Taniks the fucking Scarred ducks his Lightforsaken self through the door and Ikora and Zavala's cool presence in his mind are just gone, and his gun's in his hand, and he does what he's been burning to do for years stuck in this Tower without Andal—

He shoots. He can barely see straight, but his bullets fly true, and there isn't anyone in this solar system that can take three shots of Cayde's golden gun at close range without going up in a pillar of flame.

Taniks burns fierce and quick and collapses to ash in front of his eyes. Cayde stumbles forward, ears roaring, electrical pulse going sparrow-quick and trapped in his throat, thoughts going nowhere fast. He clutches at the golden gun a moment more before it dissipates.

Zavala steps up behind him and Cayde goes for his Ace, and he doesn't know if it's to jump in front of him or to warn him off. Ikora comes in through the door frowning, and Cayde just thinks, how, how, how

"I thought that might happen. I'm sorry, Cayde," she says, and comes forward, over the ashes, and how, and she comes up next to him and Zavala and puts a hand on his shooting arm and how and then there's a rustle of Light, a weird one, tilted on its axis but not sick like Hive corruption, and—

A slow pulse of white, and Taniks is back. Cayde reels, he can't think, he reaches for his golden gun and can't find it, the connection burnt out, he's got to leave it time to rebuild but Taniks is here and Ikora's strength won't let him attack another way, this is a nightmare, or a Vex simulation designed to torture him, and it's working—

And Andal's butcher takes a step inside and says, "Please stop killing me. I am Taniks, the Illuminated, and I need your help."

Ikora won't let him go till he promises to behave himself, then of course Cayde lunges for Taniks anyway. How dare he — how dare whoever's in charge of this nightmare — and then Zavala bubbles him, midair.

There's no way to get out of one of these till Zavala's good and ready, and Cayde knows it. Ikora steps between him and Taniks — panicked fury thunders through him, she's next and she doesn't know it — and she says, "Cayde. Breathe."

Her purple Light snaps out again and then she's beside him in the bubble, crouching next to him — when did he drop to his knees? — and putting a hand on his shoulder.

"This isn't the Taniks who killed Andal Brask," she says. "This Taniks came out of a portal from somewhere else, another reality with another Traveler."

She says it in Eliksni, so Taniks can understand. Cayde doesn't share her polite streak.

"What, you want me to believe once that overachieving Guardian and the SIVA were through with him the Traveler scraped up what was left?"

Taniks shifts, tall enough he's got to bend his head to not bang it against the beams. Cayde goes for his Ace again, uselessly, even though Taniks has all four arms up and empty. Like that means anything.

"I don't know your Andal," he growls. Cayde is going to open his throat. "And if the Traveler is what you call whatever you've done to your Great Machine, I don't think much of it. We have kept ours in good repair."

"Another reality altogether," Ikora says, stressing each syllable. "Where he comes from, the Traveler never left the Eliksni homeworld at all. It gave them Ghosts and Guardians to fight the Darkness there. This Taniks never met Andal, because in his reality Andal is just one more human on a planet they've never heard of in a solar system they don't even have a name for."

"And you believe that?" Cayde asks.

"I do," says Zavala, abrupt, unhappy. His frown is carved in granite. "Touch his Light, Cayde."

He doesn't — he's allowed a moment of pure childishness every once in a while, okay, he doesn't wanna. He wants his fireteam to help him put bullets into Taniks till he stops getting up. But he swallows that sour mouthful and reaches out with his Light. There's Ikora and Zavala, beacons around him, and in front of him is that new presence, Light all askew, hard to grasp. Cayde reaches out and yanks, and instead of pulling that Light into alignment with his, he falls into alignment with it. He falls down the strings connecting it to the Traveler, and even though the Traveler is right there in the City behind him he keeps falling, up and out and a long way away, till the web opens up around him again and the Traveler he sees isn't the Traveler. It's not cracked open like a peeled egg. It doesn't have a piece missing from its lower edge, or scars from Ghaul's cage. It's not whole like it was when humanity first met it on Mars — it's blistered, pockmarked like Earth's poor little moon. But they're not familiar scars, and it's hanging in a strange sky, pink and grey, above a softly shimmering landscape.

It is the Traveler, but it's not, and Cayde pulls out of the connection wheezing.

Taniks looks uncomfortable, like he just got up close and personal with Cayde's Traveler. The real Traveler.

Good. Cayde hopes it hurt.

Cayde gets up to stand on the curving inner surface of the bubble. He resettles his hood (Andal's hood) with a quick jerk of his chin. "Alright. So?"

Next to him, Ikora rises, controlled as ever. "We're going to figure this out. Who opened that portal and why, so we can shut it down. Cayde, I know you like hearing this: we need you."

Taniks shifts in front of them, crossing his arms. Cayde's jaw hurts. "I came through to see if there's a way to close that hole up from this side. I'm not sure who opened it, but we've been getting reports of strange mechanical beings lately. Two-armed. Bronze ones, with glass bellies. I suspect them."

Zavala breathes in deep, his nostrils flaring. He's looking stonier every moment. "The Vex."

"You've heard of them?"

"We've had some trouble with them before," Ikora says. Her Eliksni's good but a little stiff; she never got around to taking up Cayde on his offer to teach her some of the slang. She looks around the room. "Zavala, I think you can let us out now."

He does. Even lowers the bubble to ground level beforehand, real gentlemanlike. Cayde flexes his hand on his holster, counts the bullets he's got on him, counts every knife and grenade tucked away in every pocket of his armour.

Zavala moves up next to them, flanking Cayde. His Eliksni's not as good as Cayde or Ikora's, but when he talks slow to make up for it, it just gives him more of an air of authority.

"Let's confer in the Speaker's quarters," he says. "Loath as I am to disturb them… I can't think of anywhere better for now. We don't want to cause a mass panic."

Ikora clarifies for Taniks, "Eliksni aren't a common sight in the City. The Speaker's quarters are close enough to get to in one blink, and we'll have some privacy there."

She doesn't say and they lock from the outside, so we can keep you in there. Cayde's lip would curl if he had one. He'd say something cutting if he could get his vision to stop guttering at the edges.

"And what is the City's relationship with the Eliksni in this reality?" Taniks asks. "Doesn't sound like it's positive."

"We'll discuss that as well." Ikora offers him her arm. Taniks takes it, upper hand the length of her entire forearm, and there's no way this isn't a trap. Light bubbles and burns in the back of Cayde's throat, watching him.

"Reopen the sector and follow us once we're gone," Ikora tells them, looking back over her shoulder again. She and Taniks disappear. The presence of her Light doesn't waver in Cayde's mind. She's fine. He still wants to tell her to burn the Tower around her to escape.

Zavala sighs. "I admit, I cannot be happy about this. Whoever this version of Taniks is, we have no assurance we can trust him."

"You're telling me," Cayde says. Then he shakes himself out of it and turns to slap Zavala on the shoulder in a hearty, friendly, healthy way. "You reopen this sector for us, huh, big guy? Don't let Hideo get on your case too bad, you know tax season's comin' up and that always stresses him out. I'm gonna go ahead and, uh, give 'em my assistance."

"Cayde," Zavala says.

Cayde backsteps real quick to the railing and hops over the edge of the wall. There's a ledge that wraps around pretty far, then he can swing down into a lower window and get into the hangar without having to pass the Speaker's rooms, no problem.

"Cayde!" Zavala barks, this time into their radio channel.

Cayde turns on his cloaking device.

Amanda's at her workstation, elbow-deep in a sparrow's cloaca as usual. Cayde switches off his cloak and breezes in.

"Hey, Holliday, I'm gonna pick up some stuff for the party, thanks," he says as he strides on by.

Amanda looks up and frowns. Cayde pulls a few bottles from the crate under her console station and goes up on his tippy-toes to snag one of the packages from the shelves.

"What party? Cayde, where are you going?"

"I don't have time to explain what I don't have time to emotionally process," Cayde explains, and scurries away before she can disentangle herself from her machines.

There are lots of good sitting spots if you go up high on the wall, but if you don't want to be seen, go low. Cayde's had to train the tendency to jump out of danger right into the enemy's line of sight out of too many baby Guardians in his day.

He swings his way down under the safety netting surrounding the hangar, holding on with one hand while he juggles his bottles with the other. A couple dozen feet down and around, and there's a little drone docking bay, just the right size for an exo who wants a little privacy.

He has to kick a drone out of it. It hovers in the air in front of him, whining. "Go deliver something," Cayde says. "Be a useful member of society. Get!"

It gets.

And finally Cayde can settle back and get down to the business of getting really, seriously drunk. Liquor doesn't do much for him, but some enterprising exos back in the early days figured that with metal jaws and no risk of poisoning they could eat, well, anything, and took a bite out of just about everything till they hit on some things that could get an exo a pretty close relative of drunk.

Hell, maybe Cayde was one of those enterprising exos. Seems like his kind of thing.

He uncaps one of the bottles and takes a swig. Amanda's upped the hydrazine on her latest batch. Tastes a little sour.

A finger into the bottle and Cayde starts to feel it. It's way more dense with energy than the usual organic matter or slow-release gel fuel he processes, and it overwhelms his system, overclocking his hardware. Makes it hard to think. Gives him that blurry, warm feeling he remembers from when alcohol could still affect him.

He unwraps a package and pulls out a brick of graphite — exo salesmen down in the City manufacture 'em nowadays with all kinds of colour and flavour, because the plain stuff don't taste like much. But Amanda's not going to gunk up her machines with piña colada flavouring, and Cayde's stashes are all way too far away. He drops it into the bottle and watches it fizz.

Graphite's a decent mechanical lubricant. It'll loosen up his joints some. His jaw still hurts from clenching; he could use the relaxation.

He leans back against the side of the drone's cubbyhole and tips his head back to stare at the wall.

Zavala's voice is still coming in through his radio. He lowers the volume.

It's easier to ignore his fireteam the more he drinks, so he keeps going. Amanda calls at one point and he ignores that too, clutching a bottle that's, okay, labeled for sparrows and not exos and that means you, Cayde, and why did Amanda have to get those stickers printed up in bulk? It was very rude of her, he thinks mournfully, and takes another drink.

He keeps a mental eye on the web of Light marking his fireteam's presence. They haven't moved or flickered with distress or anything, so they're probably fine. Even with that sideways presence next to them. Taniks. Not Taniks Taniks though. Not Andal's killer Taniks.

Cayde could explain to you, preferably when he's sober, all about how exos can't cry. It's the fluids, and the ducts, and all the squishy parts he ain't got, he could say. The Bray corporation did good work in its heyday, but not that good.

He'd prefer not to explain, in any mental state, the way they did work good enough for emotions to seize your chest, to lump up painfully in the throat that doesn't share all the functions of the old-fashioned fleshly kind, to make his eyes flare too bright and blur his vision. He'd just rather not.

He pulls his hood further down over his head.

After a little bit of this, his Ghost pops on out of her own little pocket of space and settles in his free hand lying open on the drone's bedroom floor. She doesn't say anything, just sits there, eye steady on him, her shell cool against his overheated palm. His hen, his Queen of Hearts, his Black Maria.

He falls asleep like that, folded up to fit in a drone's bedroom, bottle dangling from his grasp. When he wakes up it's tipped over, too empty to spill. The first thing he does, after a period of groaning and wincing against the morning light, is set it upright again and cap it.

Then he leans over to press his head into his knees. He stays like that till his stomach settles down, and scrubs his face with his hands. Takes a breath. Reaches for the Light, and feels Ikora and Zavala beat steady, steady, safe.

The drone comes back at that point to beep outrage at him, and Cayde's so startled he nearly takes a tumble off the wall and down a couple dozen storeys.

He tries to wave it off. "Go away. I can't deal with you right now."

It beeps again, louder, drilling into his skull. His head's going to pop off like it's on a ball joint and they're going to have to reconstruct him from the pieces. Cayde-7 doesn't have nearly the same ring to it.

It keeps beeping, pitch and volume rising. Cayde gives up and stuffs the bottles of Amanda's experimental SRL fuel back into his pocket and clambers out to start the climb back up to the main hangar.

The drone scoots past him as soon as there's enough room and settles down to recharge with a happy coo.

He's got a tricky moment navigating the underside of the safety nets, and another when he peeks his head over the edge and sees a pair of boots, one tapping with impatience.

He ducks his head back down again.

"Y'gonna come up and face the music or hide down there harassing my bots all day, Cayde?" That's Amanda's voice. He's screwed.

"I was making friends with a distant cousin, Holliday," he calls back up. "Didn't you spot the, uh, family resemblance?"

A sigh. A rustle. "I program my drones with some manner of self-preservation. I don't see as how getting cratered on sparrow fuel's any kind of cousin to that. You know SRL's comin' back up — Ren's gonna kill you for wrecking his tests if the rest of the Vanguard don't."

Cayde makes a miserable noise, but hoists himself up. He's getting tired of hanging under the netting. He rolls over and gets to his feet.

Amanda's looking like she just got in, hair damp at the ends, travel mug jammed into a pocket (she can't abide uncovered mugs in her hangar; too easy to tip 'em over or drop a rag into 'em by accident), gloves still dangling from her toolbelt.

Her mouth twists when she sees him. "Have a good night?"

"You know it," says Cayde. He pulls the bottles out of his pocket to toss to her, one by one, the empty and the two he didn't get to. "This batch burns out nasty; it could use more liquid oxygen if you can get it to suspend any more. I'm doing you'n'Ren a favour here reviewing your mixes, see?"

"Sure you are," she says. "Funny how your favours usually work out."

But she still leads him over to her workstation, plunks him down on a stool, and passes him some coffee. Caffeine doesn't do much for exos either, but the warmth is nice, and the taste scours the last of the sparrow fuel from his mouth.

She prods him for why he holed himself up to drink himself sick in the least convenient spot in the Tower, from which he gathers the news about Taniks — fucking Taniks — hasn't leaked yet.

"Sometimes a man's gotta do what a man's gotta do," he tells her, and then Zavala shows up and he spills coffee all down his front. So much for leakproof.

"Cayde," Zavala says. "You haven't been answering your radio."

Cayde winces and turns the volume on his radio back up. "Time to face the music, Blue? Don't much feel like dancing, I'll admit."

Zavala sighs. He never looks happy — or, well, he hasn't looked happy since their last Dawning party — but he usually doesn't look so actively unhappy. He beckons Cayde up and gives Amanda a polite good morning.

Cayde heaves himself up and hands the rest of the coffee back. "Don't spend all that caffeine in one place," he says, and pats her absently on the shoulder on his way out with Zavala.

Zavala doesn't lead him to Ikora, but to a little sheltered overhang on the outside of the Wall cramped with buckets. Why do they need so many buckets? How much mopping can the frames possibly do?

Zavala settles his elbows down on the railing and gazes out at the Traveler and the City below. They're turning a couple of the Cabal drop-pod craters into reflecting pools, memorials to the Red War. Their muddy brown is slowly turning to water-blue and marble-white as the crews gets to 'em.

Cayde comes up next to him at the railing.

"I do find myself uneasy with the idea of allying ourselves with a Fallen. Any Fallen, and especially that one in particular," Zavala says, voice a confiding rumble. "We have only his word that he wants to stitch up that rip the Vex tore in reality and not widen it enough for an invasion fleet. I can't ever forget Six Fronts. Any trust mislaid in him will come back to bite our people."

Cayde slouches against the railing. "You're telling me."

Zavala rubs his forehead. "However," he says. "However. We cannot leave the Vex to whatever their plans are. And we may need his knowledge of his reality to close the tear. And we need you, Cayde; you're our expert on the Fallen, and you have, ah. Our most intimate acquaintance with Vex technology."

"So you want to know if I can put aside the fact that this guy is a teacup of Light away from being the guy who killed Andal for long enough to get the job done."

A new crease develops in Zavala's temple."It's not something I am glad to have to ask of you. We — Ikora and I — we both mourn Andal. Not like you do, of course, but…" his voice lowers. "I would happily tear every limb from this Taniks' body in revenge, if we didn't need him. But we do."

Cayde forces his shoulders down, drops the tension out of them by will alone.

"Well hey," he says, brightly. "Maybe I'll get to watch the Vex kill him for us a couple times."

Zavala laughs. "That's the spirit." He gazes out at the Traveler, pieces of its shell looping figure-eights around it, and knocks his fist against the railing once, twice. Straightens up.

"Ikora wanted to take a look at that Vex rip in person. She's heading there with this new Taniks now. Will you come?"

"Yeah, alright. No rest for the wicked or the Vanguard, I guess."

When they get to W-18 Ikora's pacing, one arm crossed under her chest, chin resting in her hand. Taniks is leaning up against the wall, and whoever's on guard isn't anywhere to be found.

Ikora's greeting is reserved as ever, but Cayde catches her eyes landing on him more often than they normally would. He flips her an all clear in handsign, and she taps the fingers braced across her cheekbone in acknowledgment.

Taniks gives them both a "Good morning." The words he uses in Eliksni are all ones Cayde knows, but his accent's a funny mix of high Devils and low Kings and something that might be Judgment. Or maybe his accent is where the others split off from. Speaker's mask, this is all kinds of screwed up.

It's easier to see the differences in this Taniks now, morning light burning away some of the fog from Cayde's head. This Taniks is shorter, whatever that means when he's being compared to someone who was twice Cayde's early-exo-standard height of six feet precisely. His armour's a deeper red. No rips in his cloak, though the edges look threadbare, like it's seen hard use. Not as many mechanical augments, or maybe they're just better hidden. One of his secondaries might be synthetic.

"Morning. So where's that big hole the Vex went and tore in our sweet little dimension?" Cayde claps his hands together.

"A few thousand kilometres up, actually," Ikora says. "Taniks left a buoy by it, so we'll have no trouble finding it. I've parked my ship close by, near where Taniks' is in cloak. We'll take it up."

She takes the lead, guiding them through the patchy trees at the City's edge. Cayde falls to the back of the group to keep an eye on Taniks, but then Taniks drops back to walk next to him. He's not as tall as Taniks was — the Taniks of this reality — the Taniks who killed Andal — Traveler, that's going to get confusing. This Taniks isn't as tall as — Taniks prime, but he's still somewhere in the range of three feet taller than Zavala, and that's with his hunched Fallen-standard posture. The Vanguard probably look like three ducklings being shepherded along home.

Taniks says, "You do get that I'm not the same as the person who killed your Andal, right?"

Cayde would love to stop him from ever being able to say Andal's name again. "Yeah," he says, eventually. "Figured that one out."

Zavala slows down to let Cayde and Taniks pass him. He signs to Cayde, got your six. Cayde signs thanks, flat against the side of his leg, where Taniks won't be able to see it.

Taniks tries again. "Your theurge—" he indicates Ikora "—told me part of it. That the Great Machine left my homeworld, and we couldn't take it back. We became smaller in the struggle, and my counterpart didn't fight for Kell or cause."

"That about covers it. You feelin' the mercenary urge?" Cayde shuts his mouth before Ikora or Zavala can tell him off for trying to get a rise out of Taniks.

Taniks shrugs with his lower arms. "Can't say the thought of the challenge isn't appealing. But I get enough challenge taking on everyone who comes for the Great Machine in my own reality."

Cayde scowls.

"So what is the situation between your people and ours in this reality, anyway? I didn't get too many details last night." He pitches that question forward to Ikora, sounding hesitant, almost. Wary about being surrounded by so many hostiles? Good.

Ikora says over her shoulder, "Cayde is our local expert on the Eliksni. You'd do best to ask him — or there's that young Hunter of yours who got all that hands-on experience lately, Cayde?"

Cayde really does not want to give Taniks any information. But no way he's throwing one of his own under the bus, and damn Ikora for being so calmly ruthless about this whole thing.

Ikora flashes into his mind, courtesy of her Ghost transmitting to his. I know, Cayde, she says, mental voice softer than she ever lets herself be out loud, but we need this. The job comes first.

Yeah, yeah, he says to her, and out loud, "Guess I might be. Yeah, it's been bad. Neither of us go in much for sharing, at least when it comes to that big cue ball in the sky. But we've landed in a bit of a stalemate lately — it's almost had a chance to get boring 'round here."

"Boring, with those scars all over your city and your Machine?"

"Yup. Pretty quiet, for us," says Cayde, and then they're out into the clearing where Ikora's needlenosed Arcadia-class is parked. It's hugging the edge of the trees, and there's a wide swath of grass flattened for no visible reason by it.

"Would you uncloak your ship so we don't walk into it and scratch your paint," Ikora asks — well, commands — Taniks.

He does. It fades into view, smaller than a skiff, sized maybe for a crew of five, as long as not all of them are pushing ten feet like Taniks is. That same mix of bulbous and pointy the Fallen seem to go in for, like a hedgehog fighting its way out of a balloon. Brown and red and gold, not trying for stealth. Cayde's eye automatically ticks over the engines, cannon emplacements, the name on its belly: Machine-Yal Tanek. Adds up the fighting ability of the ship in one column, the kind of economy that could build it in the other. The yal isn't banged together from spare parts; it has the look of something intentionally designed and built in a real shipyard. Cayde's never seen anything like it.

"He's a sweet ship, isn't he," Taniks says. Cayde jerks his head, uneasy, and keeps walking. Taniks re-cloaks his own ship once they're aboard Ikora's.

They have to adjust one of the seats back for Taniks. He sits in it like a jumble of coathangers, all knees and elbows. Ikora takes them up easy as anything, not even pushing the speed like she normally does. Cayde'd think she's not worried about Taniks behind her, if he didn't have an angle on the way she's clenching the joysticks tight, motes of void sparking themselves into being between her fingers before being choked off by her control.

Ikora'd been friends with Andal too.

They make it up to five thousand k, where Taniks' little buoy sits and beeps over its locked channel at — absolutely nothing at all. Something pulls at Cayde's Light, but he can't spot anything, not on any of his eyes' sensor modes.

"Is the rift itself cloaked?" Zavala asks.

"No," Taniks says; "It's only visible from one angle — missed it on my way out at first and thought the thing closed behind me. Rotate the ship around the buoy, we'll get to it."

Ikora frowns out the viewscreen and nudges the joystick. They drift around, following the buoy like the arm of a compass following its point. Nothing, and more nothing, till for a half-second there's a flare through the viewscreen in a hair-thin line, bleeding white. Then it's gone again.

"You got some dead pixels, Ikora?"

"No," she says, frowning, and Taniks says, "Keep going."

They do — and a quarter-turn later there it is, appearing out of absolutely nothing, a huge frazzle-edged circle pulsing around the edges, shimmering sickly waves of green and purple over the white in the centre. There's no metal rim like Cayde's seen in Vex gates, but something about that pulse just feels Vex-y to him.

None of them say anything for a few seconds. Then, Ikora says, "It's almost perfectly two-dimensional. I wonder what that means."

"Maybe its creators didn't have enough power to cut through more dimensions than that," Zavala offers.

"If that's how it works" —Taniks' voice sounds worried now, too— "that could be their next step. Opening it up further."

Ikora taps at her console, bringing up a series of transparent screens to hover above the viewer. The screens fills up with numbers. "It's— hm. The rift is radiating some kind of energy."

Cayde looks from the gate to Ikora. "It's leaking?"

Zavala makes a grumbling noise, which translated out comes to That is a threat I can't punch, and I am very worried about it.

"Did it look like that on your end?" Ikora asks Taniks.


"Wait, and you came through it? On purpose?" Cayde can't believe this.

"Yeah," says Taniks, again. "I found the damn thing, so I figured it was my job. Bosses agreed."

A Taniks — any Taniks, of any reality — doing something that risky with no obvious reward? It smells fishier than Titan in the summertime.

"Should we toss something on through, see what happens?" Cayde hazards.

"Absolutely not," Ikora says, firm.

And Taniks adds, "I'd prefer it if you didn't accidentally blow it up and get me stuck in this reality for the rest of my life, thanks."

Ikora taps at the console. "I can make some educated guesses about this," she says eventually, "but we really do need an expert."

"Do you have one in mind?" Zavala asks.

The corner of Ikora's mouth ticks up. "We need someone who's spent years studying Vex esoterica. Who could identify a power source and way to shut down a hole in reality. Who do you think?"

Zavala frowns. "Asher Mir."

"His bibliography is impressive," Ikora says mildly. "I'll take us back down and then Cayde and Taniks can take any data we've got to him."

"Hey, whoa," Cayde says, but Ikora's asking Taniks if his buoy's got any surveillance capabilities.

"Definitely. Fairly basic, but it'll spot anything else physical that moves into this dimension. I can monitor the footage from my own ship; I'll forward it to you."

Ikora inclines her head. She takes them down, going fast this time, hitting atmosphere and then a cloudbank soon after, grey smears against the viewscreen when they burst out again into daylight.

"Do you need me to uncloak my ship so you can park?" Taniks asks, secondary hands firmly on the edge of his seat, primary hands twitching towards his safety harness.

"Oh, no need," she says, and takes them fast and smooth down onto the grass with a little last-second sideways nudge to get them under tree cover. Cayde bets she didn't snap a single branch.

Taniks' mandibles flex with queasiness. "You fly like some yalik jockeys I know," he says.

Ikora's an absolute terror. Cayde'd die for her. Come to think of it, he has a couple times.

They all trundle on out, and Taniks uncloaks his ship.

"If you take Taniks' ship, there won't be any worry of it being stumbled over in City territory," Zavala says reluctantly. "Can it be cloaked from the Eliksni of this reality?"

"Of course. I'll just set it to cloak at a different frequency if we get spotted — I can do that now."

Zavala, who walks everywhere in a manner Cayde's heard Executor Hideo call stately, hands clasped behind his back, signs Did you know they could do that? at Cayde with those discreet, stately hands. Cayde moves up as if to look at Taniks' ship and signs back, hidden by Andal's cloak, They can't. Not our Fallen.

A ramp folds on out of the ship, and Taniks makes his way in. Cayde watches that dark entrance with a hand on his holster.

"You're the best choice to go," Ikora says to Cayde, quiet.

"I've presented Ikora my objections already," says Zavala, "but she's not wrong. You have the best knowledge to run this operation."

"Aw, you always got my back, Blue." Cayde pats Zavala on the shoulder. Big shoulder, lots of room for it. Then he sighs, lets his backlights go worried green for just a second. There's no fooling his fireteam.

"Yeah," he says, softer this time. "I'm not happy about it. But I'm a big boy. I'll go with him, get it done. Be back in time for the soccer finals. I got some glimmer on the Ashmoths, I gotta be here to collect."

Ikora nods. "If we're wrong — I'll send Chalco to you. She's near enough to Io."

Cayde brightens up. Chalco Yong's one of Ikora's Hidden, and a damn fine Hunter. "Well, hey! There's something to look forward to. A little killing the bad guy, a little reunion with an old pal."

He picks up a heatsign from Taniks' ship, and if what he knows about Eliksni biology holds true for his fun new reality, that means Taniks is getting close to being in earshot. Cayde gives the signal for quiet.

Zavala nods, and settles his stance. Ikora's hands flex, then she tucks them behind her back, this time only giving a single fitful pop of void.

Taniks emerges to hand over a slate, a little banged up but clean-lined, nothing like the scraped-together stuff Cayde's used to seeing Fallen handling.

"This is hooked up to the buoy. You'll be able to see its archives and monitor it from this," he says.

Zavala accepts it. It doesn't take too long to sort themselves out after that; a copy of Ikora's data to the data solid Cayde's still got in his pocket from yesterday — somehow it didn't fall out when he was dangling horizontal from the safety netting this morning. A chart of the solar system ditto.

Cayde's Ghost transmats in some supplies for him, one of the go-boxes of ammo and some gel rations he keeps stashed throughout the City. "Thanks, Calamity Jane," he says, and pops it up onto his shoulder, an easy eighty pounds or so.

Then it's time for, well, the belly of the beast. Before he goes up the ramp again, Taniks turns to the Vanguard.

"I'm grateful for your help," he says. "And for mostly not shooting on sight. If we pull this off you'll have the thanks of my world."

"Of course," Ikora says. And Zavala says, "Go with the Light. Both of you."

The lights come on inside as they go, and the ramp seals behind them. Locking Cayde in with Taniks. Cayde's not above cliche. Locking Taniks in with him, he tells himself firmly, and it helps.

Taniks shows him around. There's just one main room aside from the cockpit, a combination cargo bay/engineering room/bunk, crates strapped down and a couple hammocks hung neat and closed against the wall. The cockpit's got two seats, pilot and co-, and a bench folded out of the way. Assessing it, Cayde would say practical, but not too worried about fuel costs, but for the trophies lining every wall.

There are helmets, gauntlets, a scattering of cloaks breaking up all the metal. Some bones — a skull of something that sure looks a lot like a smallish ahamkara, and there's about fifteen questions right there. A couple elongated mechanical limbs, maybe prosthetics, maybe from some other robot species they got in Taniks' reality. A fan of iridescent feathers. And a tank, perfectly circular, hanging from the ceiling like a light, of Vex milk.

"My trophies," says Taniks from behind him, proud. "Oh, that's from one of those new machines that showed up. Should we take it to the Vanguard?"

It takes Cayde a long five seconds to wrench himself away from the wall of trophies. "Asher'll know what to do with it," he manages, but he asks his Ghost to send over a snapshot and note anyway. "Where do I dump this?"

"Over on that crate there, with the red top." Taniks indicates it and turns to a cupboard above Cayde's head, but by the time he turns back with a handful of straps Cayde's already tied it down with a few clip-ended cords from his pockets. He pulls on one to check the tension, and dusts off his hands.

"We good to go?" he asks.

They are. Cayde's used to hacking Fallen tech, but even with Taniks keying him in for access, getting his ship to accept the map takes a few minutes. His dame could sort it out quicker, but he's flat-out not letting her materialize in here.

"This is not how Eliksni in this reality program their ships," Cayde grumbles, and Taniks gives an interested huh. When he works it out and their route pops up on a holo, Cayde slaps the console in triumph.

"All right, let's go see a man about a dog," he says, and straps in. The harness adjusts to his height, but it was really not made for someone with just two arms.

Taniks straps on his own and they make their way up and out of Earth atmo in silence. Cayde's thinking maybe this'll work, he'll be able to ignore his urge to put a few useless bullets in Taniks' head as long as they don't have to talk, when Taniks flips on over to whatever his equivalent of an NLS drive is.

The viewscreen goes blurry, light sliding by outside. Taniks takes his hands from the controls and turns to Cayde.

"So," he says. "What's the real story with this other version of me? The one who killed your Andal."

Cayde clenches his teeth against nothing. "Can't take a hint, can you?"

"I can't go on a hunt with someone as likely to shoot me as the target," Taniks says, a growl in his voice. "I'm playing nice, but I'm not naive."

It's an hour out to Io at least. Cayde glares straight ahead. "He went merc. Hired himself out to the Wolves. Dunno if you've got 'em in your universe, but here they're bad news. Andal was the last Hunter Vanguard before me, and he took it on himself to take T— to take this Taniks down. Never came back. Inherited his cloak, inherited his job, sent a team to get Taniks for good."

"Did they?"


"Hm." It's a low noise, right out of Taniks' throat. He pauses for a moment. "Did Andal take backup?"


Taniks shifts in his seat. "Sorry for your dead friend or whatever, but honestly, sounds like he had it coming."

Cayde clamps down on his instinct, which is to let the roar of the sun's endless burning fill his mind and hands and shoot till he's alone on this twice-alien ship. The harness smokes in his grip, and detaches his hand from it, his mind from the Light, finger by finger.

Taniks doesn't say anything for a minute. Just keeps his eyes on the screen. Then he says, not changing from his plain declarative tone, "Sounds like this other Taniks also had it coming, though. If he showed up in my world I'd try to kill him too."

"Oh, great," Cayde snaps. "Finally something we can bond over!"

A beat, and then Taniks roars with laughter. He slaps at his knee with the sound of metal clanking against metal.

A thought writes itself horribly into Cayde's mind: ah, fuck. He is different.

They swoop down in cloak close enough for Cayde to transmat out to Asher, holed up for now in a little cliffside cave with a great view of the Pyramidion. Great, if what you're into is brooding endlessly over your mistakes.

"Hey, Mir-my-buddy," Cayde says, and watches Asher jump half a foot. Alright, maybe he shouldn't have transmatted in behind him. "Need you for a Vanguard consult. You got a minute?"

Asher turns around. "Cayde-6. I should have expected you to come interrupting my very important research. What is it you want now?"

"An expert opinion on a Vex tear in the fabric reality itself," Cayde says, voice bland. "But, uh, if you're busy…"

Asher pauses. "A hypothetical tear?"

"Oh, it's real real. Got my expert witness waiting upstairs and everything. Can you seal this fun little treehouse up? It's real need-to-know too, y'know."

He can, with a curtain of Light against the cave's entrance, wavering and blocking their view out. Cayde flicks a pebble at it and it doesn't so much bounce off as dissolve on impact. That's sure one way of putting up a do-not-disturb sign.

"You might want to brace yourself," Cayde tells Asher, then opens the radio connection up to Taniks in his ship. "Alright, come on in. Park up top if you're feeling frisky."

There's a shimmer of energy and then Taniks is in front of them with a slate and that Vex ball.

Asher's jump is even higher this time. He fumbles for his fusion rifle, and Cayde thinks about letting that whole ballgame play out, but then Taniks might kill him and if it turns out Asher's infected Ghost can't res him Ikora's going to pull him apart and see how exo guts do for garters.

So he holds out his arm. "Hold up: this Taniks is on our side, he fell out of the hole from some backwards reality where the Eliksni are the good guys."

"An alternate reality with Fallen Guardians? That's absurd." Asher stops and squints. "Who in the name of the Light is Taniks?"

"Who — you don't know?"

"Clearly not," Asher says impatiently. "And I doubt it's relevant to this mystery. What have you got there, Tunic?"

Cayde translates this last for Taniks' benefit. Taniks looks back and forth between Cayde and Asher. "Is he always like this?"

"Pretty much," Cayde allows. Asher stalks up and pulls the ball of Vex juice from Taniks' grip, who lets him, bemused. Asher taps on the glass.

"What is this? Radiolaria from this alter-reality? Why have you collected it in such an impossible jug?"

"It was a trophy, I didn't know I'd need to decant it," Taniks says, through Cayde's translation. Asher pulls out a vial from a pocket at his waist and his Ghost transmats a portion from the ball into it, its white glow briefly redoubled. Asher's Ghost, with its unblinking red eye always turning back to Asher's metal arm, gives Cayde the absolute willies. He reaches for the presence of his own Ghost, snug in her private fold of spacetime. Alright there, Molly Hogan? he asks, and she sends him back a sleepy affirmative.

Cayde keeps translating. It's not easy: Asher demands information, then interrupts every answer halfway through to guess at the rest of it.

He's got to stop thinking about what he expects Taniks to do, because he keeps getting it wrong. Taniks endures a few rounds of interruptions before snarling, "If you're going to help, then listen. Every minute you waste stroking your ego the Vex could be using to tear a worse hole in your world."

Asher doesn't ever calm down, as far as Cayde's aware, but he does lower the frequency of the interruptions. Taniks hands him the slate, loaded with all the same information Ikora's got, and Asher quiets down to a low mutter as he studies it and the vial of Vex milk. He pulls out another one, well-sealed, from a pocket, to compare to the new one. Occasionally his mutters rise into demands, either for Cayde to interpret something or for Taniks to provide another piece of context.

Cayde leans back against the rough cave wall, watching the shine of radiolaria play over yellow sandstone. Taniks settles next to him, a careful foot between them.

"So how d'you know Eliksni so well, anyway?" he asks. Making conversation. "Doesn't seem like a common skill with your people."

Cayde scratches at his horn. "I got out a lot before my" —he has to clear his throat, just some graphite still stuck in it, nothing to do with having any kind of feelings— "promotion. Eliksni were part of my beat. Just picked it up."

"So, a spy," says Taniks.

"Eh, a little of column A, a little of column B…"

"There was no B," Taniks points out.

"Sure there was."

Asher calls Ikora at that point, and makes her repeat the whole thing over again. But she can do it in academic, which is a language Cayde makes a point of not speaking.

He settles the two vials upright in a stand, sets the slate down on his little folding desk, and turns to Cayde and Taniks.

"Well. It appears we are dealing with a genuine alternate reality. A split timeline, possibly. The radiolaria from Tunic's trophy do not emit the same mind patterns as the radiolaria from our current reality. The energy emitted by the wormhole to that alter-reality shares characteristics with other Vex transporter fields, and its signature shows similarities to records we have from both the Vault of Glass and the Black Garden's entrance. Along with the Pyramidion."

"That sounds bad," Cayde says. "Dumb question, but could it relate to a simulation? Something like the Infinite Forest?"

"You're right," Asher snaps. "That was a dumb question. The Vex cannot simulate Light, not in this reality or another. The presence of your friend here alone negates the very possibility. Let me see your Ghost."

The last is aimed towards Taniks, whose answer to Cayde's summary of that is an "Uh, no?" that requires no translation.

"I won't touch it. I want to take a spectrum of its Light."

Taniks develops the inward look of someone talking mentally. His Ghost emerges in a cautious flutter of Light, and Cayde gets a good look at them for the first time. Round, no corners on its shell. Almost like a pocket-sized servitor, painted all red and gold.

They flare their shell out to shine a beam for Asher, who passes it through a set of crystals to splash a rainbow against a clean page of his notebook. He mutters, ticking off measurements.

Taniks' Ghost's shell is all made of layered curved pieces, like someone cut slices out of a series of progressively bigger spheres and nestled a Ghost core into the middle of them. Same standard Ghost core Cayde's used to, though with a different design on their eye. Their shell rotates around their core slowly, looking something like an orrery. Taniks keeps a hand on the big gun at his waist, half his eight eyes on Asher, the other half on Asher's Ghost.

Asher flips the notebook shut abruptly. "A true alternate reality. I have a few hypotheses on the Vex's motive and methods, and none of them are pleasant. To confirm, you will enter the Pyramidion and fetch me back a conflux's root structure. Any conflux will do, as long as it comes from within the Pyramidion."

"Are we your errand boys now?" Cayde asks. Taniks beckons to his Ghost, who demateralizes with a flutter.

"I already have a reasonably competent assistant, so I suppose that may be your title, yes. I will stay here and continue to research the problem."

Cayde snorts. "And you need it specifically from the Pyramidion?"

"How many times must I repeat the same information?" Asher snaps. "There are many Pyramidions layered in the same physical space. Any knowledge the Vex have, as long as it is not too highly encrypted, will be present there. I should be able to use it to figure out the purpose of the trans-reality tear, and the location of its power source. Now go! Get me that root!"

The curtain of Light blocking the cave's entrance shuts off, revealing the sky outside again, the Pyramidion's capstone far in the distance. It's night here, and the aurora falls in broad green ribbons across the sky. The magnetic field makes Cayde's teeth hurt.

Before Asher can sink too deep back into his research fugue, Cayde asks, "Mir. How many Guardians we got hanging around the Pyramidion tonight?"

Asher frowns. "Why on Earth would that be relevant to your errand?"

Cayde hooks a thumb back at Taniks. "Trying to keep our guest's presence on the down-low."

"That's pointless," declares Asher, who has apparently never bothered to retain any information about any Vanguard other than Ikora in any of his lives. "But here: I will indulge you."

He turns on his radio. "All Guardians in the Pyramidion area. You will leave immediately. I have a terrible headache, and I cannot endure your carousing tonight." He looks at Cayde. "There. Subterfuge. Are you content?"

It's the best he'll get from this guy. "Yeah, alright."

They head out into the night, him and Taniks. Cayde's about to call on his Ghost for a transmat in of his sparrow, till he remembers they came in on Taniks' ship.

"The Pyramidion's that big — well — pyramid thing," he says, gesturing off. "Entrance around that corner. It's a bit far for a transmat, so we'll have to hike."

Taniks stares off at it. "Will there be fighting inside?"

"Yeah, probably," Cayde says. "Need some more gear?"

"As long as I'm going back in anyway," he says, frustratingly vague. "I'll be right back out."

He ducks into his ship, still in cloak on the clifftop. He disappears from sight as he goes up the ramp, his cape giving one last visible flutter of red before it winks out. Either universe, the Eliksni do good work on their cloaks: Cayde can't spot the ship or Taniks in any of the spectra he has access to.

It's only a minute before Taniks comes back out again, a pair of long knives strapped to his hip and a massive rifle across his back, guiding a pike out. Or, well, like everything else about him, it's not really a pike, not like Cayde's used to. It keeps throwing him off, the way he looks different, moves different, has different gear. This pike's sleek, smoothed out to a teardrop shape, hovering in neutral.

"Room for two on this beast," Taniks says. "If you want to save some hiking time."

"Planning to ramp it off the cliff?" There's no clear way down.

Taniks surveys the area. "I can make that, easy."

It's dragged out of him, he can't help himself: "That a bet?"

Taniks grins, eyes narrowing under his helmet. "It is now."

He gets on the pike and Cayde — Cayde didn't think this through. He has to get on behind him, hang on to Taniks' armour. The pike's got a low profile and Cayde has to lean himself forward, press his shoulder to the wall of Taniks' back in front of him.

Taniks guns it. They build up speed skimming across the clifftop, and when they hit the edge Taniks pulls the controls sideways, sending the pike into a drift. They skid through empty air to land on a lower shelf of mesa, an impact that would have put a solid dent into a sparrow's undercarriage, but the shock absorbers keep them from feeling more than a jostle — the bottom doesn't even scrape the rock, the antigrav's that smooth. Taniks sends them off this cliff too, taking them on a long skidding course around and down on a narrow path, across a small gap for another cliff. Cayde tightens his grip unconsciously, and as they approach the edge of the last cliff — a good hundred feet up from the ground — Taniks brings a secondary hand back to get a solid hold on Cayde's knee to keep him planted in his seat.

Taniks leans back for the last skimming fall, pulling the pike's nose up. They soar, the wind tearing at them, yanking Cayde's hood off. They've got a lot of momentum built up, and they go far. When they touch down it's in an ammonite pool and the back end of the pike dips into the water, boiling it with the heat of its engine. They rocket out of it, a comet's tail of water and steam following them, and Taniks takes them downslope to a dirt track as they slow, roaring satisfaction. His chest rumbles like a sparrow, pressed tight to Cayde's cheek.

Once they're stopped, Taniks straightens up and twists to look down at Cayde, knee hitched up onto the seat so he can face him. His triumphant roar turns into words: "We did it! I won!"

Cayde pulls himself away from Taniks' armour. Taniks gives a start and pulls his hand away from his knee. Cayde can feel it on his face: he's beaming, eyes lit bright with adrenaline.

"Damn," he says. "What I'd give for a sparrow that could handle those jumps that well."

Amanda's gonna kill him if she finds out he got to ride something this sweet without her. So'll Marcus.

He'll just have to not tell them.

Taniks rumbles again with pride. "And my prize?"

Cayde chokes.

"Driving us to the Pyramidion," he says, after an extremely dignified cough. "You didn't settle the terms of the bet beforehand. There's a lesson for you."

Taniks considers that. "I won't make that mistake again."

He leans back forward on the pike and kicks them off again towards the Pyramidion, at a pace only slow by comparison.

Cayde doesn't hold on so tight this time. He thinks, staring sideways out at the gnarled trees, just beginning to bud again. He doesn't trust this Taniks, keeps getting halfway to flinching or pulling out his gun when he sees his out of the corner of an eye, but, ah, damn.

He likes him.

And he hates that.

Cayde stops them before they hit the Pyramidion's entrance. No other Guardians around, no Cabal on a night op; good. A few Vex goblins crouch, on guard, in front of the massive bronze door, red eyes scanning the area. A pair of harpies flank the entrance, dormant for now, their purple jellyfish arms drifting with the breeze.

"Have you fought these kinds of Vex before?" Cayde asks Taniks.

Taniks peers down. "Similar," he says. "Any tips?"

"Any Vex with a visible tank, go for that. Any one without, go for the eyes. The big guys — uh, the ones as tall as you — they teleport in short hops, and they'll use that to rush you. Dodge, but don't let yourself get spooked."

Taniks absorbs the information.

"Oh, and the milk stings, so try not to step in it with your bare little footsies," Cayde adds, and hops off the side of the ledge.

He hears "Milk? Footsies?" from above, but he's gone, softening the fall by landing on a goblin, knife shattering its juice box. The others turn towards him, red lights winking on in their guns. The harpies wake up, spinning their triple wings open. Cayde gets the nearest goblin with his knife, a pair further off with his trusty Ace, a double tap each in the bellies. Then Taniks is dropping to the ground next to him, landing soundless for all his weight, and Cayde gets to watch him fight. He's a whirlwind, tearing through the remaining goblins and the pair of harpies like so much paper.

Then a minotaur appears, stepping out of some invisible door — Cayde tosses a grenade off at the ground to foul its feet. Taniks wades right into that solar flare, winds up, and in one shot punches a hole straight through its juice box.

The minotaur topples slowly back. Cayde whistles.

Taniks shakes the radiolaria off his arm. "It does sting," he says, sounding surprised.

"Uh, yeah," Cayde says. The door's open, just a few degrees, but that's enough for him to wiggle on through. It takes a lot more wiggling for Taniks.

Cayde's never been inside the Pyramidion before, but he's read the reports. Every fireteam on record has seen different things inside, rooms shifting, rearranging themselves and their contents. There's a scholar in the Gensym order who's trying to map out the changes, but last Cayde heard she hasn't gotten too far. Seems like one of those things that could take a Guardian a lifetime.

Luckily for their goals, all they need is a conflux, and the Vex litter those around like potted plants in the Tower. If they go deep enough they'll stumble over one somewhere.

Cayde moves on down, Taniks pacing him. Cayde's getting used to him in his periphery.

Two rooms requiring some fancy shooting and one hallway running with broad channels of Vex milk later, Taniks asks, "So, that angry blue man with the mechanical arm — are those kinds of enhancements common with you in this world?"

"Asher? Nah." Cayde shoots out a harpy's eye, watches it tumble down a stairwell that looks depressingly infinite. "Kind of a grim story, really. He came down here researching the Vex, the whole thing went south, and he woke up with a robot arm and an infected Ghost."

Taniks hisses. "No wonder he's like that."

"I have it on the highest possible authority he's always been like that," Cayde assures Taniks. "Messed up, though — knowing if you don't stop them the Vex are just going to eat your Light. Hell of a motivating force for your research."

"Is that what they're doing?" Taniks asks, tone sharp. "Is that their goal?"

Cayde shrugs, uneasy. They hop together through the next gate, set into the floor. When they land, he says, "Thing is, we can fight 'em, but even Ikora hasn't managed to fully understand 'em. They want power, we think. Any power they can get. That means Light sometimes, and we do our damndest to keep 'em from it."

"I can't let those things just stay in my world," Taniks says, mostly to himself. "We have to shut down that portal. Scour them from my reality."

"I'm with you there," Cayde says. There's a trio of hobgoblins aiming down at them from above, and he gets two of them before the third puts its shield up. Cayde reloads while he waits for its charge to run out. Kinda convenient how that works out sometimes. The hob straightens up just long enough for Cayde to put it down for good.

Hobs down, they can pass freely through the next doorway. It leads to a long downward-sloping hall littered with perfectly cube-shaped rocks. A gate at the end of it, one of the big ones, pulsing white in the middle. Just the one goblin, and who can understand any of the Vex's staffing decisions — Taniks shoots once, and it can't move out of the way fast enough. Its belly shatters and it falls forward.

"Clear," says Taniks.

The gate takes them out into one of those impossible spaces, so wide open the edges fuzz with haze. Massive pillars stretch up into something approximating infinity, intersecting with wide bars of flooring — the same kinds of pillars, tilted at all kinds of angles, with Vex standing guard on a patch of the more horizontal ones. Cayde tips his head to the side. It doesn't make the scene make any more sense.

But there's a small column of white against the grey stone and copper of the architecture, right in the centre of the Vex — light stuttering vertical, throwing off bars to either side. A minotaur kneels in front of it.

Cayde checks his ammo, his hold on the Light. The skew in Taniks' Light doesn't itch at him as much as it did back in the City. Must be he's getting used to it.

The Vex below haven't seen them yet. Taniks surveys them and the room. "Do these robots always build such weird shit?"

"Yeah, can't get 'em to go for a decent two-bedroom bungalow for love or money," Cayde says absently, looking over the pillars to plot a route down to the conflux. He waves at a column making a ramp over the room, leading to a perfect drop down to the conflux. "I go right, you go up?"

Taniks grunts agreement and goes. Cayde drops down to the next level. He ghosts along, keeping his boots from making a sound, his cloak from rasping along rough stone. He gets close enough to be able to pop a half-dozen goblins right in the tanks; that'll clear enough of a space for him to break out into the open and tear all these sorry robots a new one. Cayde peers up to see Taniks in place, red cloak barely visible through the gloom, hanging on with the claws of three hands. When he sees Cayde, he holds up his free hand. Folds down his fingers: first. Second. When he gets to his thumb, Cayde pops out of cover on a diagonal, Ace barking loud at the Vex. After he gets the last goblin he rolls on instinct, feels the singe of a blast pass over him, and stands up again to see Taniks manhandling (ha, bughandling) the minotaur like he's Shaxx playing at being a bouncer when someone gets belligerent on karaoke nights — the minotaur's got mass on him, but they're basically the same height, and Taniks pitches it right over his hip and over the edge of the pillar. It falls into the darkness, firing wildly as it goes. Cayde doesn't hear it land.

They clear out the rest of the Vex guards easy-flippin'-peasy. They make a good team, Cayde thinks, and then, wait, fuck, no — but the thought's already there in his head. He tosses his gun up to catch it by the barrel to clock a hob in the eye. The instant it shatters, its belly does too, courtesy of a shot from Taniks so sweet and clean the Vex doesn't even splash him with its radiolaria on its way down.

He doesn't want to think it, but it's true. Cayde buries his grimace in reloading, and hops on down to where Taniks is by the conflux. He's barely shorter than it is.

"So that's a conflux?" Taniks asks.

"Sure is."

Taniks flicks a nail against it. It makes a sizzling noise.

"Where are its roots? In the floor?"

Cayde scratches at his horn. Every conflux he's ever seen just grows out of the air, an inch or two above whatever ground it's on, and this one's no exception. "Um. Ha ha. Good question!" He feels for his Ghost's presence. "Think you can transmat something you've never seen before out of solid rock, Pallas? —Oh, whoa hey, careful—"

She materializes plain as day in front of them, and Cayde scoops her into his hands quick as he can. She gives a wiggle against the bars of his fingers.

"If you'll let me get a look at the rock I might," she says, defiant. Cayde shoots a glance over at Taniks.

Who scowls but backs off. He folds all four of his arms, and doesn't say anything.

Cayde lets his Ghost out, and she meanders on over to the conflux, letting her scanning beam play over it and the floor around it.

She throws up a projection, a tiny version of the conflux glowing orange, a woven tangle at its base under floor level swirling together into a knot. The geometry of it hurts to look at.

"We're lucky," she says. "Its root structure is physically present. That wasn't a given! And I think I can get it all, if Asher Mir doesn't mind me taking some of the rock with it for a safety margin. Do you think he'll mind?"

She spins worriedly.

"He won't mind a tick," Cayde assures her, and Taniks gives him a look.

"What?" Cayde adds. He spreads out his hands, the picture of innocence. "He's a man of science. I'm sure a little necessary inconvenience won't trouble him at all."

"Oh, that's such a relief!" his Ghost chirps. "Also, you're going to have to carry it, and you can't drop it, okay? I'm pretty sure it'll jump right out and root itself back into the Pyramidion's superstructure if you do."

"It's, uh. It's twelve feet tall, sweetheart," Cayde points out.

"Oh, you'll be fine," she says, with confidence that might be encouraging in any other circumstance. And she cuts off the projection to throw out her beam again, measuring for the transmat.

When she transmats it up and out of the platform, it materializes into Cayde's arms in a sphere the size of a soccer ball, heavy and cold even through his gloves.

The conflux itself starts shrinking almost immediately from the top down, till it's only standing a couple feet up from the top of the ball.

"That's convenient," Cayde says. It really does look like a potted plant now.

His Ghost does a thoughtful loop in the air. "I think it was so tall before because it was holding up all the architecture in this room."

"Wh—" Cayde doesn't get further than that before the floor under him drops, one side jerking down two feet. He stumbles, catching himself, and Taniks does too, whirling around to check on the other pillars. One's dropped far enough out of true that the Vex bodies on it are all sliding downhill towards the emptiness under them. A harpy's corpse has gone and got itself wedged between two angles of rock, and it swings out, tails hanging like streamers.

"Time to go," Taniks growls, and pulls himself up to the pillar behind them. Cayde takes it at a jump, trying not to let the magic Vex bowling ball in his arms touch the ground. His Ghost rotates anxiously once and pops back out of visible space. Good.

It's a tricky journey back up, both of them manipulating Light to give themselves footholds against the uncertain ground of the platforms. Cayde almost topples forward once and Taniks yanks him back by the cloak, steadying him before letting go. Two pillars up from that and a solid piece of rock tumbles down from above, on a direct course for the back of Taniks' head. Cayde frees one hand from the conflux and sends out a raw blast of solar Light to knock it aside — it turns to bright lava and then ash as it goes, leaving a black stain on the platform under them.

"Thanks," Taniks says in passing, and focused on the next jump, Cayde just grunts out, "Yeah."

They make it back up to the gate at the room's entrance, thank the Light, though the gate's beginning to list to one side. Cayde firms his grip on the conflux and ducks on through, ready for anything on the other side.

Where there isn't anything at all, or at least nothing new — floor and ceiling steady, broken glass and Vex milk still puddled on the stone floor. Taniks comes ducking through the gate behind him, casting a massive shadow down the hall.

"Should I be carrying that?" he asks. He doesn't ask do you trust me to carry it.

"If you try you'll lose the arm the first time you try getting through a beam tunnel. I'm more maneuverable — I need you on backup. Can't shoot too well like this."

Taniks nods, serious. Accepting the reasoning. Huh.

It's harder getting out of the Pyramidion than it was getting in. Maybe it's just this version of it, but it felt like it was guiding them down somewhere, and it now feels like it doesn't want them getting back out. Like it wants them trapped in here with the same thing that took Asher's arm.

Cayde's attention is split between climbing, keeping the conflux root upright, and dealing with the Vex that get in his way. He gives up on keeping Taniks in his line of sight at all times. It's not as much of a wrench as it should be.

He fumbles a jump and overcompensates his grip on the root. The conflux itself hits his shoulder and vibrates painfully along his bones, and he has to stop and crouch and breathe through it till it passes. Taniks turns back from where he's just taken down a couple of Vex, but Cayde waves him off as best he can right now, which means waggling the two fingers he feels comfortable lifting off the root ball now.

Taniks squints at him, but turns back around at the sound of more copper feet against stone.

They make it out eventually, and the morning light through the fraction of open door is nothing but a relief. Taniks squeezes his way out first, and Cayde passes him the root ball carefully through — it's like a kid's game, almost: the floor and the walls and the doors and also the rest of the architecture is lava.

Cayde steps out and takes a deep breath of non-Vex-filtered air. Exos don't need to breathe, not really, but it still feels pretty good. He shakes out his arms.

He reaches out to take the conflux root back. "We good to go?"

Taniks breaks off from peering up at Jupiter, filling up the sky above them. "Yeah. Sure you don't want me to carry this thing now?"

"Yeah, yeah, you're a big buff bug guy, but I can handle it. Gimme."

They hop on up to road level, and Cayde's Ghost helpfully sticks a dot in his HUD for where Asher's holed up. The cliffs sure look different in the daytime.

Taniks looks down at him. "If you're still going to be carrying that machine," he says, and stops.

Cayde gives him a go on gesture, and Taniks makes a face and summons his pike.

"You're gonna have to sit up front," he says.

"Oh my paws and whiskers," Cayde says, light. "I'll actually see something other than your enormous cape blowing in my face this time. It's a rough life — I'll manage somehow."

Taniks grimaces. But Cayde gets on, and Taniks behind him this time. Taniks reaches right over him, not even straining to get to the controls. He looms like this, eclipsing the sun. Cayde braces the conflux against the edge of the seat, trying to keep it from rolling right off. It doesn't leave him any limbs free to brace himself, so Taniks does, secondary arms on his waist.

The pike shifts smoothly from off to neutral to first, giving more a purr than a rumble. They pass a few old stands of trees, a tumble of boulders, and one very confused Cabal scout in an interceptor before Taniks says, vibration from his voice traveling directly from his chest into Cayde's back where they're pressed together, "It's weird and fucked up, alright, I know, but this isn't going to work if you're going for your gun half the time when you see me and half the time pretending we grew up together."

The phrase he uses is, technically, pretending we got our secondary arms together, like they were close enough in adolescence to celebrate the milestone together. If Cayde's being technical about it. It's a very useful distraction, technicality.

Taniks is still going, voice low, intense. "I didn't kill your Andal, and we have a job to do, so get mad, fucking take a swing at me again, compartmentalize or something, whatever. We need to be able to work together. I don't know about you but I've never been on a hunt yet that got easier towards the end."

"Now is when you want to talk about this?"

"Would you rather air this out in front of the dimension-hopping robots who want to eat both our Great Machines? Or your buddy with the robot arm?"

The pike climbs a cliffside, winding around in on the track. The sun flares out bright as they come up, yellow, right in Cayde's eyes. He grimaces and adjusts his grip on the conflux.

"I am trying. Excuse me for needing a little time to get used to someone who shares a face with the guy who killed my partner."

"Try faster," Taniks growls, and cuts the engine, because they're here.

Asher hurries out to them before Cayde completely disentangles himself from the pike. His boot gets caught in between two pieces of vent and he has to kick it free — Taniks braces him by the shoulder, not saying a word.

The scolding over Cayde bringing the conflux wrapped up in a bowling ball isn't short or sweet, but Asher finally gets tired of it. He taps at a bronze disc on his desk till it opens into half a dozen petals surrounding a white glowing middle, and his Ghost transmats the conflux and its root neatly out of the stone ball and into the glow. It hovers there, its angles wildly uncomfortable to look at. Like Cayde needs to put on some sunglasses or it'll pull his pupils out his ears. Asher picks up a pair of phaseglass-tipped needles and starts prying the bundle of roots apart.

Taniks moves towards the door of the cave and Asher snaps out, "Stay there. I'll need you two for whatever context you two can scrape out of your thick skulls to give me."

So they settle themselves back up against the walls, Taniks and him, and wait. Not so close to each other this time. Asher mutters as he works, half note-taking (the resonance delta is bleepa bloop over blah blah blah) and half instructions to his Ghost (recalibrate the hhhhhhhhhhh and contraindicate the blhhhhhhhhhhh for the cool mega calculator machine).

They can't talk, not like this, so Cayde slouches there and stews, turtling deeper and deeper into Andal's cloak. This Taniks isn't the same, everything from his Light to the way he fights proves it. If Cayde's any good at reading people — and he's had plenty of practice with Fallen over the years — all this Taniks wants is to get the job done and go home. Which is exactly what Cayde wants too.

But he's still got that face, and that cloak, and a way of shifting his secondaries that's ground into Cayde's mind from the scraps of security footage and Ghost recordings they've got of this reality's Taniks. The footage he'd reviewed obsessively, looking for any kind of opening.

It would be easy to give up on the Taniks right next to him, just for his name, just for who he could've been give or take his Machine's benevolence and a successful empire or two. That would be easy. But it wouldn't be fair. And while Cayde's got no regard for fair he hasn't ever done easy in a single one of his lives.

This Taniks? This Taniks is fierce, and more than a little arrogant, but he knows what he's doing. He's been incredibly diplomatic for someone trying to get shit done while at the mercy of a whole new reality that's got to be a nightmare for him. And he's funny, sometimes, in that weird Fallen way.

Ah, Andal, you sorry son of a bitch. Cayde tugs at his hood.

His eyes blink back open when he hears Asher's voice.

"I have made some discoveries," he announces. "You will call Ikora Rey while I confirm a final calculation."

"Will we?" asks Taniks once Cayde translates this for him, voice dry as a Martian desert.

They will. She appears quick in the holo, meticulously put together as usual. Cayde's got no idea what time it is in the Tower right now; she could be on her way to a Consensus meeting or they could've just woken her up.

"I see you made it out of the Pyramidion in one piece," she murmurs, gaze resting on Cayde for just a moment.

"Piece of cake," he says, and lets his eyes answer hers. "Where's Zavala?"

"We have no need of that lumbering fool," says Asher, butting his way in between Cayde and the comm unit. "Ikora! I have scraped the conflux's roots and run it through my quantum untangling algorithms. I have uncovered the Root Mind responsible for that blasted hole in reality. It was built to open a passageway to a reality where the Light of the Traveler might be more readily consumed."

"That doesn't, uh, sound great for us," says Cayde.

"Indeed not! Our realities are connected, entangled just as this conflux is with the Pyramidion! If the Vex succeed in consuming the alter-Traveler's energies while the gate is open, ours will go with it!"

"Asher," Ikora says. "Calm down. The Vex will not succeed in eating our Light, nor anyone else's. Have you found out how to stop this Mind?"

"It is hiding in a pocket reality, tucked between ours and the alter-dimension this Tunic of yours fell out of. The Vex call it Kinesion, the Transposing Mind, and it is gatemaker and gatekeeper both. Eliminate it, and without it holding the gate open, the universe should snap back into alignment."

"So find the big guy and take him out," says Cayde, unfolding his arms to set on his hips. "Just another Tuesday at the office. How do we find this Kinesion's home away from home?"

"That is a question I am still working to answer. I should be able to provide a key to it by finding the midpoint of the harmonic resonances of the Vex from this reality and the other, but it will take time. And the rest of the radiolaria from your friend's trophy."

"Work fast, Asher," says Ikora, eyes solemn. "I've been monitoring the gate while Cayde and Taniks were inside the Pyramidion, and the rate of particle flow between the two realities is increasing. Not quickly, but that will come."

Asher grimaces. Cayde translates quietly for Taniks, who asks, "What's that mean?"

Great question. Cayde leans back into view of the pickup to put that to Ikora.

Asher opens his mouth and Ikora holds up a hand. "It means that reality really doesn't like having its multiple nature thrown in its face like the Vex are doing. It wants to resolve the problem any way it can, and if the gate stays open, it'll do that by merging our realities. Our realities are sliding together, and they're only picking up speed. Kindly forge your key and take out this Kinesion before it begins to affect more than neutrinos; I like Earth's axial tilt where it is."

Asher's face is pinched, lips thin. Cayde's probably not looking too happy himself at the moment, for that matter.

"Then you will stay on the comms and assist me with the calculations?" Asher says to Ikora. It's more of a request than anything else Cayde's heard from him yet.

"Yes, Asher," Ikora answers, patient enough for now. Her gaze turns back to Cayde and Taniks next to him. "You two, go rest up, restock your supplies. This may take some hours, and if we're sending you off to take down a Vex Mind on its home turf, you'll need to be as rested as possible."

Cayde blows out a breath and salutes, sloppy, two fingers to his temple. "Luck and Light to you, Ikora."

"Luck and Light," she echoes.

Cayde and Taniks head back out to the clifftop. Cayde squints against the sun after the gloom of Asher's cave. "So," he starts.

And stops.


Cayde pinches the bridge of his lack-of-a-nose. "So, you were right, we can't work together if I'm jumping at the shadows of someone you're not. So, I'm sorry. Alright?"

Taniks leans back. "I thought you were going to give me some kind of advice on fighting the Vex or on power napping. But I'll take that."

Cayde growls. Taniks' eyes curve up in a grin.

Telegraphing his movement like an instructor in an introductory hand-to-hand class, Taniks reaches over to clasp Cayde's shoulder and shake it lightly. Friendly-like.

"Come on," Taniks says. "Let's go sort out our gear."

He turns off the cloak on his ship long enough to let them inside. The sight of the thing is still jarring, Fallen tech that literally couldn't be made in this reality. Cayde wants to strip it for parts, see what the other universe's Eliksni have managed to invent.

Once they're in the main hold Cayde beelines for his crate. There's nothing too big in there, but if they're going up against a Mind he'd rather drape himself in grenades till he clanks when he walks than risk not having enough firepower.

Taniks, helmet off, rummages through a locker built into the wall and pulls out a cannon roughly the length and width of Cayde's legs put together. It still looks small in his arms.

Cayde leans back against his crate. "So how big do y'all get, over in your reality?"

Taniks settles the cannon against the floor and looks over. "Us? I'm at just about the limit, I guess, it's just not practical to get any bigger. Why?"

"Your, heh, evil twin? About this much taller than you." Cayde gestures a span of about two feet. "Above that… I've seen archons hit three feet more'n that, maybe."

"Where do they get the ether?" Taniks asks, sounding genuinely baffled. Then he shakes his head. "No, don't tell me, it's probably something horrible like stealing it from kids in their first instars. This world, I swear to the Machine's shadow."

He rolls his shoulders back, and goes for the next locker to produce a sharpening kit. He brings it over to set down on the crates next to Cayde, and asks, "Just curious about my... evil twin?"

"Yeah, guess so. You're not really much like him, y'know. Once you get past the, uh." Cayde gestures vaguely.

Taniks sits on the edge of a crate and pulls out a handful of knives from crevices in his armour, then twists around to pull a sword from a hook on the wall behind them. It's nothing like a shock sword, something like five feet of elegant, gold-chased metal. It doesn't look Fallen — its angles are almost Cabal, their elaborate south-continent designs. Do the Cabal exist in Taniks' reality? No reason they wouldn't, but damn, that's a weird thought.

Cayde shuts the lid of his crate and spreads a cloth from his pocket onto it. Might as well disassemble and clean his Ace while they're doing maintenance. It's a job he could do in his sleep — Banshee built her sweet. Never jams, never strips a screw, always aims true. So while his hands are cleaning and wiping and polishing he takes another look around.

The light bouncing off all the tapestries and cloaks and weapons on the walls makes it feel almost warm in here. Almost home-y.

Taniks glances up from scraping his sword along the whetstone, and flashes a look at Cayde. In a flat tone, he says, "Your cloak would make a good trophy for my wall."

Then he adds, "Joke."

Then he laughs, loud and hissing.

Fallen humour. The same in any reality, apparently.

Cayde says, "Your arms offend me. I'd see them lopped off and your body draining dry on my floor."

He waits a long beat before he tips his chin up to meet Taniks' eyes and says, "Joke."

Taniks roars with laughter. He hammers one hand down onto the crate next to him; Cayde's gun jumps on its cloth.

"There you are!" Taniks says. "I knew you'd make a good Eliksni."

"Heh," says Cayde. "You don't make a half-bad Hunter yourself."

"I don't do anything badly." Taniks sounds practically offended by the idea. Cayde snickers.

He feels warm, like there's a little sun just on the verge of rising in his chest, not burning, just… welcoming. He's been scared and angry since Ikora blinked back to them in the Tower, but if he lets go of that, there's still another kind of heat left over underneath. He's a Hunter, and that means he's not always so great at controlling his impulses. He lets himself do what he wants to do.

He slides his gaze on over to Taniks and up all ten feet of him. Lets Taniks see him looking.

"Anything?" he asks.

Taniks rumbles. He sets the whetstone down with a thump onto his work surface. "Yeah," he says. "I'd just about call it a point of pride."

"Oh yeah?" says Cayde.

All eight of Taniks' eyes blaze, looking steadily down at Cayde. "Yeah. Willing to bet on it?"

"Hah. Always. Stakes?"

Taniks flashes Cayde a grin you could call predatory, if you were feeling nice. "Let's figure those out as we go."

"Great way for the house to fleece you," says Cayde, "but hey. Risky. That's my kinda dare."

He spins his Ace around, slides it on into its holster. Reaches up for the highest part of Taniks he can get, a fabric swoop of his cloak, and pulls him down. He doesn't have any real leverage but Taniks crouches low anyway, and that puts him close enough to the same level.

His eyes glow nearly as bright as Cayde's, backlit with the ether in his system. His mandibles hang open in a grin, eager, anticipating.

Neither of them have lips by maybe the strictest definition, so Cayde leans up on his toes and goes in right for a bite to the corner of Taniks' mandible. He clutches tight at his handful of cloak.

Taniks' eyes slide half-closed. He wraps two hands around Cayde's waist — they meet in the middle. His other two hands, the secondaries, split their attention, one curling against the side of Cayde's face under his hood, one reaching for his ass. It nearly knocks him off it, too, with Cayde up on his toes like this. He yanks reflexively on Taniks' cloak to keep his balance, and Taniks makes a noise like eurk.

Then he goes down first onto one knee, then the other. "Try not to strangle me before we get started," he says, a laugh buried in the dry way he says it.

"Good idea, I'll wait till after," Cayde says, flip. He lets go and wraps an arm around Taniks' neck to reel him in — much better. One more step forward and just a little leaning up and now they're perfect, aligned just right.

Turns out like this they can kiss just fine. Taniks is cool against Cayde's hands but his breath is hot, and it makes a shiver go straight up his spine, dissipating somewhere around his shoulders. Taniks kneads again at Cayde's ass, which should be funny, considering it's mostly made of a titanium-ceramic alloy, but damn if it doesn't feel good.

Cayde slips a hand of his own through a gap in Taniks' armour, rubbing the side of a thumb hard against the base joint of a secondary. The noise Taniks makes at that is real nice, so Cayde does it again.

Taniks slips Cayde's hood down to trace a nail along one of the plates in Cayde's head.

"So intricate," he says, and runs a finger up Cayde's (beautiful, perfect, aesthetic peak of a) horn. Cayde twitches, but then Taniks wraps a massive hand around the back of his neck and pulls him back in for another kiss. It's just as good as the first, and Cayde sinks into it, tangling himself up in Taniks.

A couple minutes into that Cayde's dick decides to remind him of its existence, how nice it would be to grind up against Taniks' long thighs while he kneels there in front of him.

"I am not doing this fully dressed," he mutters to his dick, mostly into Taniks' neck.

Taniks gets back to his feet, a big red wall of bug again. Cayde takes a half-step back just to be able to look up at him properly, and his neck gets an instant crick in it. "There's an easy answer to that, you know," Taniks says.

He unwraps the top layer of his cloak, a mantle in cloth-of-gold worked through with designs in a deep orange-red, the inverse of the main piece of the cloak. That gets set aside neatly, and the rest of his cloak with it. It's a lot easier to see the shape of him with the cloak off, not obscuring his silhouette any more. He's broad for an Eliksni, who mostly in Cayde's experience generally go in for the stick insect look. Or does that go hand in hand with the whole not on the run from whatever kicked off the Whirlwind thing? Cayde shakes his head.

Cayde pulls off his gauntlets first, then goes for for his boots. He frowns down at his socks when he does, his blue toes sticking out of holes in the orange knit. Maybe he can con Zavala into knitting him a new pair again.

Next his belt and his holster with it, and after that Cayde can't really put off dealing with his own cloak. Every damn morning when he puts it on it reminds him of Andal, the way he'd smooth his hair back and settle the hood on over top. The oath Cayde took that he couldn't keep by himself.

What had Eva told him at the Festival of the Lost, two years back? Ask yourself what Andal would say. Eh — probably a really bad dick joke. Then he'd dare Cayde to see how far he could take this. Then something smart like he's not the person who killed me, like I'm not the person I was before my Ghost found me, like you're not the same person you were before you were a tin can. Then probably another dick joke.

Anyone who thinks a Vanguard has to be wise or dignified hasn't ever thought too hard about the Vanguard Dare.

Cayde undoes the five clasps keeping his cloak attached to his armour and lays it down across the row of crates, next to the careful pile of his weaponry.

By the time he pops his head out from his shirt — got the collar stuck on his poor beautiful horn again — Taniks is fully undressed, lounging, watching, dick already half out of that little armour pocket the Eliksni've got. Already massive, holy fuck. Now there's a mountain Cayde would like to climb. He does turn out to have a mechanical limb: his left lower arm gleams silver.

"How are you that much smaller out of your armour?" Taniks asks, while Cayde's stepping on out of his pants.

"My dick is of above average size, in addition to being a fetching colour," Cayde informs him. It's important information the people need to know. "Don't let the bad man tear you down," he adds to his dick. Don't want it to get all self-conscious.

Taniks laughs. "No, you," he says. "It's like you're all puffed up like a cranky bird when you're in your armour. I like you like this."

"We can't all take performance-enhancing drugs like you Eliksni," Cayde says, or at least he gets about halfway through it, because then Taniks scoops him entirely up. His secondary hands cup his ass, left colder than the right, Cayde's dick brushing briefly against Taniks' (and oh wow) before Taniks presses him up against the wall. One of the hangings is behind him, soft against his back. Thoughtful.

"There we go," Taniks says, with a self-satisfied rasp in his throat.

"You think you're cute," Cayde accuses, but reaches for him anyway.

"Oh, I don't. But I do know I'm handsome."

The hands under his ass do some very interesting things then, and — the convenience of the Eliksni revealed — Taniks has a whole pair of hands free to go for his neck and torso, running the blunt tips of his massive nails over the gaps between Cayde's armour plates, brushing over the black pseudosilicone lying under them till he shivers. Taniks tweaks at his hip joint, where the black is more visible thanks to Cayde holding his legs wide enough to wrap properly around his road blockade of a torso. The feeling makes him roll his hips forward in Taniks' grip. It's hard to stop moving after that, suspended between sensations, pressed between the wall and the firm plating of Taniks' chest.

Cayde goes for a handful of whatever he can get, running the side of a thumb firmly up and down the edge of an armour plate, pulling Taniks down by the back of the neck to get some more kissing in. He heats up from the insides out. It's absolutely nothing like being drunk.

Taniks holds him by the waist, right where he's warmest, and when he puts his hand there, his eight eyes slide nearly closed for a long moment. Taniks gives something like a purr, right into Cayde's mouth, and Cayde breaks the kiss just by laughing.

There's some kinda way to redirect that heat to his limbs, but ah, Cayde can't work it out right now — he just pulls the barest thread of solar Light to his palms and lets Taniks feel that.

There's no something like this time: Taniks definitely purrs. His eyes open back up not brighter this time, but the yellow somehow deeper, shading on orange.

"Keep going," he says, so Cayde does, teasing him along all his unarmoured skin where he'll feel it the most. Taniks moves one hand off Cayde's waist to, ooh, his dick, and his own hand's all warmed up from where it's been covering Cayde's vents.

His hand just envelops Cayde's dick, completely swallows it, warm and dry and completely perfect. Cayde's hands clutch at Taniks and his head falls back against the hanging, thump, completely without asking him. His heels dig into Taniks' back, trying to pull him in closer. It works and gets Taniks to squeeze his ass harder for a moment, which: perfect, amazing, thank you, and Cayde feels something nudge up against the back of his thigh. He lets his head roll over onto his shoulder to peer on down.

Taniks takes the opportunity to get his mouth on Cayde's neck. Also great, wonderful, but extremely distracting, so it takes Cayde a little longer than it should to say, "Hey, that's your dick."

Taniks maybe says something but it's all muffled by his mouthful of exo. "I can't reach it like this," Cayde adds and wiggles to demonstrate. "Not that I'm not loving the, uh, the booster chair maneuver."

Taniks pulls his mouth off Cayde to ask, "Got any suggestions?" His voice is rough and low, and vibrates right into Cayde where they're pressed together.

"I'm more an ideas guy than an execution guy." Cayde wiggles again. Ooh, those hands know what they're doing. "But also I would love to touch some dick at some point?"

Taniks huffs at him. "Tiny and bossy," he says, but he does pull his head up.

He steps back from the wall towards his bunk and pulls the mattress out. He climbs right up to sit in the middle, still holding Cayde, and lies back so he's half propped up by the wall and Cayde's straddling him.


"Well, if you want me to keep on complainin', I'm happy to oblige," says Cayde, but finally Taniks' dick is right there in front of him and he can get his hands on it just like he's been wanting to.

He lets himself grip tighter than he would with a human or Awoken partner, and between that and the solar Light still heating up his palms Taniks' eyes go to pleased slits right away. That there, that's just about the most satisfying sight Cayde could think of right now.

Taniks sets a secondary hand on Cayde's thigh to tease between the long metal plates there and pulls him in closer by the shoulder with a primary. Cayde goes willingly, and Taniks shifts that hand over to his jaw. His thumbnail traces around the gap between Cayde's cheekbone and jaw, where the light shines out, and dips his thumb into Cayde's mouth.

Cayde shudders hard. Taniks pauses. "Bad?"

"Definitely not that," Cayde says, his own voice gone rough, and shivers again to feel Taniks' hand on him as he speaks.

Taniks takes that as the invitation it is and slides his thumb back on in just a little. Cayde slumps forward and Taniks rubs his thumb over Cayde's lips before it returns to its starting position, the rest of his hand still cupping Cayde's jaw. Taniks explores delicately, thumb just grazing against Cayde's tongue before backing off again. Cayde's oral backlights spill yellow against Taniks' skin.

Cayde's hot all over, burning on up from the inside out, and he can't help but shift restlessly on Taniks' lap. He firms his grip on Taniks' dick.

Taniks breathes out with a hiss and brings up a hand to wrap around Cayde's hands and dick both, pressing them together. His fingers are cool and rough against the smooth warmth of Cayde's own titanium palms. The feeling makes Cayde clutch convulsively at Taniks, leaning further in. Taniks gives a pleased growl and strengthens his own grip, jerking off himself and Cayde. It's not too long after that that Taniks is coming, eyes bright and narrow, the hand on Cayde's face gripping strong enough to scratch lines in his jaw's finish. And, well, that sends him over too.

Cayde flops over forward to lie on Taniks' chest, feeling it rise and fall as Taniks pants. He catches his breath too, and lets that extra heat start whirring its way out from the fans on his sides. There's plenty of warmth caught between them, though, and Taniks is making an almost subsonic rumble of satisfaction. It's like lying down on top of a very, very big and very, very pointy cat.

Taniks drapes an arm over Cayde's back. "I don't know what the stakes were," he says, "but I think I won."

Cayde reaches up sleepily to pat whatever he can reach of Taniks, which turns out to be the plate over where his pecs would be. "Me too," he tells him.

He doesn't move his hand. Taniks' drifts down closer to Cayde's ass.

Taniks drags a sheet over them and they fall asleep there, just like that.

Cayde's kicked out of his usual dreams (fields, death, Crypt, death, Andal, more death, blah, blah) by a sharp buzzing noise. He ignores it with his usual determination, but after a few minutes of it Taniks sits up under him and Cayde topples over, first off Taniks onto the mattress and then to the floor.

"Ow," he says to the ceiling.

Taniks' head appears over the edge of the bed, mid-yawn, mandibles and jaw so wide it's like looking straight down a shark's mouth.

"Is someone calling?"

"Guess so." Cayde pats at his face to wake himself up, then levers himself to his feet to go get his communicator. He fits it to his ear and answers, audio only. He's still bare-ass nude, no need to give anyone a free show.

Asher's voice comes shrieking out at him, halfway through a sentence by the time the connection's finished setting itself up. "—ve you been, we have completed the key! We are only waiting on you now! Why are you not appearing on the scan? Have you left the system, you pair of useless flibbertigibbets—"

Cayde knuckles at his eye. "Morning, Asher."

"It is well past local noon, unless you truly have fled your responsibilities and Io both!"

"Hey, hey. Find a horse and hold it, okay? We just woke up when you called. We're still on Io — we're right upstairs, Taniks probably put his ship back in cloak while we slept."

He turns to Taniks to ask in Eliksni, and he confirms it. He also comes over to palm Cayde's ass while he does, but hey. That's just a bonus.

"Then I am coming up immediately, and you will uncloak and let me in so that I may direct you in the usage of the key," Asher says, and hangs up over Cayde's protests.

"What now?" Taniks' lower arm is the perfect height to sling over Cayde's shoulder. He takes advantage of it.

Cayde grimaces. "Asher says he's got a key for us and he's coming up right now." He slips out from under Taniks' arm to hunt down his pants.

"He's not coming in here." Taniks turns to his own gear. "He can wait outside."

"No argument there from me."

They still get dressed quick though. Cayde watches out of the corner of his eye while Taniks fits his helmet on for his first puff of ether for the day and sees his eyes go a brighter yellow.

Taniks throws on his cloak and moves on out to the cockpit — huh, his cloak looks different this morning. Cayde looks around and sees his mantle, the gold one, kicked into a corner. He finishes his own dressing (puts on his cloak, thinks of Andal, puts on his boots), and goes to get the mantle. He folds it up. It doesn't do for any Hunter, even alien ones, to go into battle without their cloak arranged well; Cayde'll bring it on over to Taniks.

Asher's voice comes back over the radio, even squawkier this time. "Cayde-6! You will uncloak this beast of a ship and come down at once!"

Ikora's voice joins him. "He means he stubbed his toe on a cloaked ship because he's got the patience of a toddler. Good morning, Cayde."

Cayde brightens right up. Ikora!

"Ikora!" he says. "There's my favourite Warlock. Did you get any sleep?"

"We rested while Asher's algorithms were compiling. Did you?"

He can't help himself. "We did! Eventually. —Asher, I did tell you to hold at least one horse. We're on our way down now."

Asher grumbles.

"So where are we headed next?"

Ikora says, "The Valley of the Kings, on Mars; if it works, the key should resonate with the Black Garden's gate and open it into Kinesion's pocket dimension. From there it's up to you: point and shoot."

"If? I have simulated the results a thousand times. It will work!"

Cayde tucks Taniks' mantle absently into a side pouch while Ikora says, "Asher, the only predictable thing about the Vex is their unpredictability. You know this."

She sounds maybe just a little more clipped than usual, which could be frustration at prolonged contact with Cayde's least favourite Warlock, but Cayde knows her. That's worry for her fireteam.

"Hey, don't forget, I'm great at killing things," he reassures her. "Me and Taniks'll take it down, no problem."

Taniks comes back in then, and looks at Cayde curiously when he hears his name. "I'm telling Ikora how badass we are," he says in Eliksni.

Taniks nods, accepting this. He should; they are badass.

"Also, I think Asher is going to give himself a concussion on your ship if we don't go get him already," he adds, so they go down to the ramp.

Taniks doesn't lift the cloak when he opens the door, which means Cayde gets the experience of walking over what looks like thin air till the end of the ramp. Asher's looking in the wrong direction, glaring at a patch of cloaked ship that's probably a wing stabilizer.

Cayde clears his throat.

Asher jumps, spinning around. Huh, not as high as yesterday. "You!" he says, and stalks towards Cayde. "You irresponsible, lazy excuse for a Hunter! The longer you dilly-dally the longer the Vex have to consume our reality!"

Cayde has to fling an arm out at that point to stop Asher tripping over the invisible edge of the ramp. "Wouldn't do our reality any good if I was too tired to kill this new Mind," he says, mild. "Now where's that key of yours?"

In his cave office, apparently, so they all troop on back down. The place is a complete disaster, with scraps of paper, curls of copper wiring, and vials of Vex milk scattered across every vaguely horizontal surface, including the floor and a boulder in one corner. There's just a few clear inches on the desk, where… something is sitting.

"Is that the key? It looks like an orrery had a hell of a night with the tubing out of someone's bathtub still."

Asher huffs. "The physical appearance of the key hardly matters. What matters is its efficacy, and it will work."

Ikora doesn't say anything over the radio this time. Probably too busy rolling her eyes.

Cayde gets closer to the desk. The key's all curved shapes, round steel arms and wound copper wire with glowing tubing tangled all around it. It moves slowly, under its own power, and the afterimages the tubes leave in Cayde's eyes are unpleasantly vein-like.

"So do we just head over to Mars and wave this thing around till a gate opens?" Cayde asks, dubious.

"Essentially, yes," Ikora cuts in. "It needs to be in close physical proximity so it can force the gate's resonance to its own. It shouldn't need more than a minute or two to build up to harmony, but we'll stay on the line and troubleshoot if need be."

"Huh." Cayde scratches at his chin. "Well, Ikora, it's no On Circles, but I'm impressed."

"And now you must take it and go," Asher says. "Open the gate, stop the blasted Vex from tearing our reality asunder!"

Asher's left eye is twitching more than usual. Thinking about the Vex consuming things sure isn't his happy place, huh; Cayde won't give him any guff this time. Well, not too too much.

"So…" Cayde spins a finger in the air and then points it at the key. It has no visible base and every part of it is moving. "How do we carry this thing?"

Asher frowns down at it.

"Just put it in a bowl, Cayde," says Ikora. "You won't break it."

They put it in a hollowed-out minotaur shoulder piece.

It chimes as it turns, trying to flip itself around like a gyroscope. The burnished interior of the pauldron reflects the light from all the tubing, and Taniks says, "Huh. This'd make a good lamp."

He picks it up, tucking it against his torso like it's a mixing bowl.

Asher presses about fifty pages of documentation onto Cayde; when he had the time to write it all Cayde's got no idea, but he takes it. Asher also follows them back out of his cave office and up to the clifftop to the ship, trailing them with advice and suggestions. His Ghost follows him, and her flight through the air isn't the arcing soar Cayde's used to from every other Ghost he's ever met; she flies in straight lines, five exact feet above the ground. Her eye is a steady red light.

Cayde reaches for his own Ghost, reassured by her presence, the gently pulsing white of her Light.

Taniks uncloaks his ship for them to get on. It's weird as ever, seeing a Fallen ship built in a real shipyard, not banged together from whatever scraps someone could scavenge, but Cayde's getting used to it.

"Well," Asher says, finally running out of berating steam. "We will call you once again when you reach the Valley of the Kings."

"Yes," says Ikora. "Zavala will join me by the time you two get there; I'm sure he'll have some input on the tactical side."

Asher takes a breath and Cayde just heads whatever he's going to say off at the pass by saying, "Ha ha, alright, talk to you then, bye everybody, great chat," and pushing Taniks up the ramp.

It shuts behind them and Cayde stretches. "Thank the Traveler and all its itty-bitty robot kids, that's the hardest part of this whole thing done."

Taniks laughs.

They strap their makeshift bowlful of Vex key to the bench seat in the cockpit.

"You got any coordinates for this valley of yours?" Taniks asks. Cayde opens up the map on the main display, swipes to get to Mars and then to zoom in close enough to tap at the location tag.

"The Vex tried another eat the world and everything you love scheme a couple years back, used this same place for it," Cayde tells him. "It was a whole thing, had to get this kid to kill some gods for us and all. We've been keeping an eye on the area since just in case."

"Those Vex things sounds worse every time you say anything about them. I'm not going to let them get a foothold in my reality."

"That's the plan, I guess," says Cayde, and straps in.

They input the course to the nav system and take off, and as soon as they're out of Io's gravity well Taniks flips on his not-an-NLS-drive; the view outside is different than in a typical jumpship, stars elongated, streaking white across the screen.

Taniks keeps on fiddling with the controls, nudging a dial back and forth. The speakers spit static at him, and his eyes go bright with interest. He taps at a sub-display, and the static slowly starts resolving itself into Eliksni.

"Trying to find a radio station?" Cayde jokes.

Taniks says, "No, trying to find out a little more about my people in this reality." He grimaces. "I don't want to know — I'm going to be thinking about how the Great Machine just up and left for years — but any intel could be useful."

Cayde whistles a note in agreement. He slumps, kicking his boots up onto the dash, and listens along with Taniks.

"Think you got some House Winter foot soldier's private line," he volunteers, after Taniks gets through the encryption and static. "They're the only ones who talk like that — hear that twang in the vowels? And I dunno about your world, but I ain't never heard a vandal talk about their captain like that where the captain could hear."

"Ha." Taniks' mandibles flex in a grin as the vandal they're listening in on complains in terms that would make Zavala blush. "Guess some things are even more than universal."

He keeps on going through channels, and they listen to another vandal explaining to someone how to hotwire a Cabal interceptor (Cayde takes notes), a captain talking with her quartermaster on their ketch's supplies (Taniks takes notes), and then finally Taniks nudges the dial another quarter of a degree and what comes out of the speakers is a voice — singing.

Cayde tips his head sideways. Even when he was just a scout specializing in Fallen watches for Tallulah and Andal he didn't hear them singing too often. He'd stowed away on a ketch once and found a creche where the leaders were singing a kind of lullaby to their gaggle of baby Fallen, but that had been in the heart of the ship, and he'd had to scoot back out to hide in a cargo bay again pretty quick. This is different, the singer harmonizing with themself by adding that chest-deep Eliksni rumble to their voice.

They're singing a song about Chelchis, Stone Kell; Cayde knows as much about him as they've been able to scrape together, which is that he was beloved by his people, and then died crying out for his escaping Great Machine as the Darkness came to the Eliksni homeworld. The song this mystery bug is singing is a list of his deeds before then, but the chorus after every stanza is about how he died.

He killed this beast, he joined those peoples, he metaphorically grew so big his horns scraped the underside of the Machine, he died alone and in pain. Damn.

Cayde slides his eyes over to Taniks, and the sentence Kind of a bummer, huh, gets halfway out of his mouth before he sees Taniks' expression and shuts it with a painful clack.

Taniks' forehead is knitted, his shoulders are hunched, and he's digging a groove in his lower armrest with the way he's clutching at it.

"Uh," says Cayde.

"He died," says Taniks, looking blindly at the screen. "When the Machine left. Chelchis — died?"

"Did he... exist in your world too?"

Taniks' laugh this time is short, bitter. He slaps the radio pickup off. "Did? Does. Yes. He's — Cayde, he's our greatest champion. No one stands taller than him. His companion Machine's-spark raised him almost the first of all of us. And in your reality, the Machine left and he died?"

Well, what the hell can Cayde say to that? "Uh. Wow. I'm sorry."

Taniks rubs at his eyes. Muffled, he says, "You and your Vanguard aren't bad, but your world is the sickest joke I've ever heard. I can't wait to kill this Vex thing and get home and make sure the Machine stays exactly where it's supposed to be."

Cayde winces. "Yeah," he says. "Um. We'll get it done. I'm an old pro at Vex-killing, and you're a quick study. No bad timelines for anybody, no need to put your Machine in a cage."

Taniks lowers his hand from his face enough to look down at Cayde. "Did that happen here?"

Ah, good job, Hunter, Cayde tells himself. "Yeah, and it didn't end well for the people who tried. Look, our Traveler's stuck around for the last couple hundred years since it gave us our Ghosts. It decided to stick around for you, I think you're good."

"We'd better be." Taniks keeps frowning, and the conversation peters out. Taniks looks like he's talking to his own Ghost in his mind.

It's not too long after that till they hit Mars, taking the descent to surface level easy. Cayde loves those minutes of seeing a new planet swell in the display till it goes from something he could hold in his hand to a place he could spend a lifetime exploring. Loves Mars for all he never gets out here. There's just something about the way sunlight filters through the red dust hanging in the air, especially when the sun's low on the horizon like it is right now in the Valley of Kings. Sunset's coming in.

Taniks sets them down on a convenient ledge close to the gate, and pauses halfway through unsnapping his safety harness. "Guess this is it, huh?"

"Looks like it." The key is vibrating harder in its bowl, starting to give a constant, recognizable pitch. High C? Cayde hums, trying to match it.

They go suit up, blades, firearms, armour, any odds and/or ends that could be useful. Taniks switches out the hand on his mechanical arm for another one. Cayde can't see a single difference between them, but hey, it isn't his arm.

Cayde surveys his crate. Mostly odds in it, not so many ends. He wonders out loud, "If the gate is supposed to pop us and our stuff back all back to our realities when it goes, and I leave my stuff on your ship, will it go with you?"

Taniks narrows his eyes. "Want to try?"

There isn't anything in the crate Cayde cares too much about, except for, wait — he's still got a book he's reading in there. He digs it out, an old Reef novel in paperback by this author Chriqui, dog-eared at his place. He tucks it away in one of his bigger pockets and shuts the snap on it carefully.

"I love contributing to science," Cayde announces, and closes the crate again. "All yours."

They double back to the cockpit for the key and head out. Once they're on the ground, Taniks turns in a slow circle, taking in the view. The huge old metal hoop of the dead Vex gate sticks out of the sand not too far off.

Cayde calls Ikora. "Hey there, old buddy, old pal — we made it. Do we just walk towards the gate?"

"That should do it, yes. Can you give me a visual of the key?"

Cayde doesn't usually use his comm system for visual calls, so it takes some fumbling to find the setting, but he eventually does. Taniks holds their fun bronze salad bowl out in front of the pickup.

"Good," Ikora says, and how she can tell what good looks like on that thing Cayde's got no idea, but he's not about to try calling her bluff. "Keep going. The gate should start resonating with it soon."

It does — the hum builds up more the closer they get to it. By the time they're thirty feet away the sand at its base is shivering with it, the gate humming like a massive tuning fork. The key in its bowl flares bright, its light tracing sharp Vex patterns in the air. The same patterns fade into view within the loop of the gate, lines cut through reality to the light behind.

Zavala's voice comes in over the radio. "Taniks. Cayde. If Kinesion is anything like the other Minds we've faced, it will be enormous. Stay low, stay fast. Watch each other's backs. And be brave."

Ikora says, over the rising song of the gate, "Cayde, you already know what I mean to say."

"'Don't fuck it up'?" Cayde hazards, hiding a grin in the cowl of his cloak.

"Close enough. Taniks: thank you for all your assistance, and your forbearance with a reality so different from the one you're accustomed to."

Taniks slaps Cayde on the shoulder, hard enough to make him stagger, and grins. "Well, hey, I only got killed once so far, so it's going pretty good, I think. You've got a garbage world and I won't miss it, but I might miss you three."

Come to think of it, Cayde might miss Taniks.

Zavala makes a grumbly noise. All right, all right, they won't get too sappy.

The gate in front of them glows, a wall shot through with shining threads, sharp against the dimming evening. The key in Taniks' arms is so bright it could be a signal flare; Taniks' eyes are closed to bare slits.

"It's ready," says Ikora. Simple.

Cayde clears his throat. "Luck and Light to us all, and one way or another I'll see you on the other side."

He and Taniks walk through the gate.

It takes them through a tunnel of white light. Partway through, the radio cuts out with a burst of feedback.

Cayde's view resolves itself into Kinesion's gate world. It doesn't look like the Black Garden — it still looks almost like Mars, if the sand on Mars was a pink that shimmered faintly green and purple. Slabs of old stone flooring lie skewed and half-buried by the sand. The biggest one would do for a ballroom floor, and it's covered with a couple dozen Vex, goblins kneeling to the Mind in the middle of it.

Kinesion is… enormous, single-eyed. It takes Cayde a long moment to understand what he's seeing: this Mind is built like a hydra in that skeleton trilobite way, but unlike every hydra he's ever seen, Kinesion isn't floating within an antigrav shell. It's lying on the ground, supported by a massive pair of legs on every one of its segments.

Cayde ducks behind a convenient slab before any of the goblins can spot him or Taniks. "Oh, I hate looking at that," he mutters.

"We won't have to look at it once it's dead," Taniks says, cheerful again. He loosens his rifle in its holster, then pulls off his ether filter and crouches down to Cayde's height. "Hey, though. Cayde."

Busy checking his Ace one last time before everything goes predictably to hell, Cayde glances up. He's going to have a permanent crick in his neck at the rate they're going. "Yeah?"

Taniks clasps him by the back of the neck and reels him in for a kiss. His mouth is cold from the ether and there's a Vex Mind that wants to kill them and both their realities about a hundred feet off, but it's perfect.

Cayde does maybe a quarter-swoon as he leans into the kiss. So what? He's allowed a cliche Reef novel moment if he wants one.

Taniks pulls away slowly. "Thanks," he says, his voice rough. "For only killing me the once."

Cayde snickers and tries to find a way to rest his forehead on Taniks' shoulder without stabbing him with his horn. "All just part of the plan. Want to go murder a very big robot bug?"

"Hell yeah." Taniks reattaches his filter mask. "I go left, you go right, clear out the little ones first?"

Cayde nods. He knocks on Taniks' chestplate twice and ducks back out of cover, activating his cloak. He's got a whole bandolier of grenades he doesn't usually bother with — he scoots invisibly up close to the big slab of flooring before pulling the pins on a handful and rolling them to scatter among the goblins. Soon as he does, he runs to fling himself down behind another slab, a small one rising maybe two feet out of the sands.

The explosion tears half the goblins to pieces, and the silence of the desert with it. The remaining goblins get up and raise their weapons, the depths of the bores lighting up red. And the Mind behind them raises a shield around itself. Cayde curses to himself.

Then Taniks, from the other side, makes a series of hits on the rest of the goblins, gets five of them straight in the juice boxes one after another, spilling their radiolaria out onto the floor. Cayde gets the rest of them with his Ace and a knife for the last one till he can reload.

The Mind crouches there in the middle of its slab, malevolent. Cayde does not want to get up close to it till he knows how it moves, so he pulls the pin on another grenade and throws it to see what Kinesion will do.

Its shield doesn't go out, but it does flicker. There's a muffled thump and roar from where Taniks is, and a streak of fire shoots through the air to explode against the shield too. It crackles, nearly out — Taniks does it again, and now it does. The pop when the shield blows rattles hard through Cayde's ears.

Out of cover, the Mind gathers its legs under itself. Before it can move, Cayde summons his golden gun, throws caution to the Whirlwind, puts all his juice into one shot, and aims for that enormous eye.

It's a clean hit, and fire runs over the Mind's head and cracks the lens of its eye, but it doesn't kill it, or even slow it down much. It makes an awful noise, high and metallic, and runs right at Cayde. Correction: it skitters.

"I hate centipedes," Cayde moans, and makes a run for it. It swerves to follow him, and it's faster than he is, and Taniks roars at him over their comms: "Jump!"

So he does, high as he can — he clears the Mind's head, its highest point, but can't keep himself hanging in the air till it passes, so he lands on his back. The Mind shakes, whipping itself back and forth to throw Cayde off, and he clings on, grim, priming a pair of grenades to stuff between its plates.

He crouches to fling himself off the Mind and run for cover or backup, and feels the Mind begin to dive under him — where? to what? — he jumps and rolls and comes back up to see nothing where the Mind was but a swath of disturbed sand.

Then the ground under him makes a noise. A noise like two grenades blowing, muffled by a few cubic yards of sand.

Cayde runs for the stone slab flooring.

Taniks meets him there, cannon still smoking in his hands.

"Where'd it go?"

Taniks circles. "Just… down. Can we make it come back up?"

They don't need to. It does that all by itself, catapulting itself out of the sand to make a run over the platform at them and they have to jump together over it.

In the bare seconds they get on top of it, they both put as many bullets as they can into the crack Cayde's grenades made between two plates, trying to crack it in half. They don't quite manage it before they have to jump again, Cayde rolling ass over teakettle over the ground

It's grim, dirty work, taking something this big and powerful down, but it's exhilarating too; part of Cayde thrills in it, in the danger, the testing of his skill and his partner.

The next round they direct their efforts at Kinesion's eye — Cayde hammers at it with his Ace, Taniks with his oversized rifle. They stand at the edge of the ballroom floor, and leap to the side when it charges at them so it just lands it in the sand. Taniks delays to jam a charge on a spike into a hairline crack in its eye and ducks under — Cayde runs over to him when the floor's clear again to see one of his shoulders crushed and bleeding.

"Tail got me — give me some cover," Taniks gasps, so Cayde does, on the lookout while Taniks' Ghost undoes the damage, Light sparking over the joint.

Kinesion comes back before Taniks' Ghost finishes the job. Cayde swears when he sees it and half hauls Taniks through the jump over its back, staggering at his weight. Taniks gets in a few shots with his massive cannon, but with him bracing his gun and Cayde bracing him, there's nothing to stop them from toppling off when Kinesion shakes its back. Taniks yanks Cayde against him and takes the force of the fall with his good side.

Taniks hisses sharp under him, but his Light flares high and when it fades, he's healed. They pull each other up, and look for the Mind, rearing up high in front of them.

The spike-ended charge Taniks jammed into Kinesion's eye hasn't exploded — Cayde raises his Ace, waits for the moment — Kinesion a wall above them, ready to come crashing down — and fires. The gun's shout overlaps with the sound of the charge blowing and, under that, the noise of a window shattering. Kinesion falls, not aiming itself anywhere but collapsing on itself. It keens, high and mechanical, and Cayde sees why: they've shattered the glass covering its eye completely, the baleful red eye gone out.

They've blinded it.

It starts turning, a painful movement, not towards them but towards the sand.

"Shoot its front legs! Keep it from diving!" Cayde yells.

Taniks shifts his cannon around onto his back, hasty, and swings an empty arm around, Light shimmering around it to form a spiked shape at the end of a tether, glowing purple. It grows bigger and the tether longer with every revolution, till finally he lets it go to soar across the air to knock into Kinesion's front leg. It crumples under the blow like spinfoil, and Kinesion tilts, off-balance.

Huh, void, Cayde thinks in a babbling corner of his mind, and sinks as many bullets as he can into the joint on the Mind's other front leg. Taniks finishes it with a round from his cannon — unable to hold itself up, Kinesion's head crashes to the ground, smashing a crater into the floor under it. It drags itself away from them on its back pairs of legs, going much slower now. It tries raising another shield, but this one's already flickering before it's even fully up.

Cayde primes a grenade to take it out, but fumbles it when he hears a whine behind him and jukes out of the way of the minotaur that's appeared to take him out. He spikes the grenade at Kinesion just to get it out of the way before it explodes in his face and does the Vex's work for them, then ducks and rolls between the minotaur's legs. He starts shooting at it before he's even halfway upright, dancing back every time it flickers out of reality to hop closer to him. He gets a spiderweb of hairline cracks in its belly, thinks ah, what the hell, and pulls a trick from Taniks' playbook and just punches it, knife reversed in his grip so the pommel bursts through it.

It works, surprising both Cayde and the minotaur, he's sure. It topples over sideways and Cayde yanks his knife back real quick so he doesn't go with it.

He looks back over. There's a minotaur tangling with Taniks, but he looks like he's handling it, so Cayde checks back in on Kinesion. Still trying to worm backwards into the sand. Cayde runs a hand up his bandolier: one grenade left. He primes it, waits a second, and throws it underhand so it pops right against Kinesion's massive wedge of a forehead. Its shield blows; Kinesion thrashes.

Behind him, there's a sound of breaking glass, and then Taniks comes up to stand next to him, breathing heavy.

"Think a few more shots to the eye should do it," Cayde says. "Ready?"

Taniks claps Cayde on the back with a secondary arm, and lets it rest there. "Let's kill this thing and go home."

"I'm going to tell everyone you said something way more badass and heroic than that," Cayde lets him know. "It's for your own good."

He reaches for his golden gun — he's got enough for one decent shot, maybe. It appears hot in his hands, fire spilling off it fierce enough he'd singe his eyebrows if he had any. Taniks summons that spiked ball of his again, but not with the slingshot; it appears on the string of a longbow, huge enough Taniks draws it back with three arms.

Cayde pulls the trigger at the same time that Taniks lets go of the bowstring, and the bullet and projectile fly together, Light and Light, to crack Kinesion's head like an egg.

The paired explosions set off another — something flammable inside Kinesion going up. There's a horrible, deafening sound, metal groaning and squealing, and something high behind it: that high C of the gate like someone slapped Cayde with a tuning fork.

The ground shakes under him, and he goes to a knee. Taniks shouts something from beside him, but he can't make out what it is over everything else, and then all the noise cuts out and the world goes white.

It stays like that for a long time, long enough Cayde thinks did I go blind or are we just stuck in a white box forever while his ears ring, but then the white… implodes. Explodes inside-out. Like a hundred Vex minds said vbwloorp and were suddenly silenced.

After that, Cayde feels cold sand under his knees, and when his eyes readjust, he can see — he's back on Mars. Back in the Valley of Kings, facing the Vex gate. Night's fallen; how long did they spend in there? There's a minotaur's pauldron sticking up out of the sand, and Cayde staggers to his feet to check: empty.

He turns around, mouth opening to ask Taniks if that all really happened, and stops.

There isn't anybody on his right.

He does a three-sixty. Does it again in infrared. Nothing.

The wind blows. Their footsteps from earlier are already half filled in, the details half lost to the sand and half to the dark.

"So… it worked?" he says to himself. Voice creaky. He rubs a hand over his neck. "Ah, man. Just like the Fallen. Don't even stick around for drinks after."

Nothing answers him but the wind. Lights blink in a far-off Cabal camp, red, green, red.

He climbs slowly up to the ledge where they'd landed Taniks' ship. He walks all around the damn thing and doesn't give himself a concussion against anything — so it really is gone. His go-box isn't there either. Just stone and sand and burn marks from the ship thrusters.

Cayde picks a boulder and dusts it off. It's cold out, but he gives himself some time to just sit there and think and look up at all the familiar stars in unfamiliar constellations.

Just a little bit, till his ass goes numb, and he gets up to pace and call Ikora back.

First thing she says, before a hello or how-d'you-do, is "Cayde — well done. It worked."

He brightens up. "It did? It did. Of course. I never doubted us. Not even for a second. Teamwork, y'know. I hear it makes the dream work."

Ikora actually laughs at that. She must be exhausted. "The monitoring buoy disappeared, and the Warlock I sent to monitor the buoy reported that the hole in space closed up at the same moment. Did it go as planned?"

"Oh yeah. That Mind ended up being a house centipede the size of a house, which I wasn't too jazzed about, but we took it down. Did I mention the team? And the dream? We killed it, everything went white, I got spat out back here, Taniks is nowhere to be seen and neither's his ship. Or felt. I mean. It was cloaked. But it's gone-gone now."

Ikora lets him ramble, unusual for her, but Zavala comes on to interrupt him. "Cayde. Congratulations. Our reality, and that of another Guardian, is safe thanks to you."

"All part of the job description," Cayde says, and yawns. "Hey — uh, actually, now that I think about it, could I get a pickup? I got a lift here from Taniks and he's gone now, so, uh. Might be a little bit trapped here."

There's an embarrassed silence on the line.

"I ordered all Guardians on patrol on Mars off it when you went in just in case something went wrong," Zavala says. "I — hrm. I will come get you. Stay where you are, Cayde."

"I'll come along. I want a look at the remains of that gate," Ikora adds.

"We won't be more than an hour," Zavala assures him. "Or two. Definitely not more than that. Sit tight, Cayde."

Zavala signs off, hasty. Cayde has to laugh. He nudges his Ghost with his mind and she materializes in front of him.

"Looks like we rattled ol' Zav, huh, Pallas?"

"That's also part of your job description," she replies, serene, cheerful. Ah, Cayde's got the best Ghost.

"Hey, good thing I brought reading material," Cayde says, remembering the book in his pocket. What pocket was it? He checks his side pouches; nothing but loose ammo and a weighted die in the right, and in the left — oh. Whoops.

He draws out Taniks' mantle, its gold muted in the night's dark. Cayde has to stand up to shake it out. It's just about the right size for a human Hunter's cloak, but — he murmurs to himself, "Your cloak would make a good trophy for my wall."

And it would, too. That's what he'll do, when he gets home. Cayde sits back on his boulder (best boulder in town for sure) and wraps the mantle around his shoulders for the extra insulation. His Ghost, his little Black Maria, she swoops in to join him, resting in his lap. He lays a hand over her shell, and her eye blinks sweet and blue.

Cayde settles in to wait for his fireteam to get there. To take him to his city, under the shadow of the Traveler, where they've lived long enough to make a home. Traveler's beat up, Tower's beat up right now, that's okay. He's beat too.

He closes his eyes to take a deep breath. And he waits there, and rests, feeling the sun start to slowly nudge itself over the horizon. Light and warmth starting to crawl over the sand till it reaches him. And finally, a jumpship's engine comes to break the dawn's quiet. Cayde's eyes open, and he smiles.