Libber exited her room holding the baby while Ray was folding the blankets he and Maya had used. "Oh, don't worry about that," she said. "You were almost executed. I can handle having crap on my floor."
The baby stared at Maya, who was holding Ling and Nya. "About that," Maya said, avoiding eye contact. "How much do you know?"
Libber shrugged. "You had twins, there was an execution scheduled, all the elemental masters were supposed to show up, but hell if I'm going to watch one of my oldest friends be killed."
"There were no orders to kill Ray and Maya," Krux pointed out. "Just the twins."
"Still!" Libber exclaimed. "I know what they say about twins, but honestly? I've never believed in that crap. If you want to keep your twins, Maya, then by God, I'll support you."
Maya smiled. "Thank you."
"So let's figure out what we're doing." Libber gestured for them to come into the kitchen, and they all sat down at the table. "Maya, Ray," she started, "you're going to be criminals, so it's probably best if you don't leave the house, at least not with your kids. Oh, wait… maybe you could try disguises?"
"It could work," Ray said, but Maya shook her head.
"It's too risky," she said. "It would only take one person to recognize us."
"Makes sense," Libber said. "I don't want you in more danger. So what's your story, Krux?"
Krux blinked and didn't respond right away. Ray looked at him with a frown. "That's right," he said. "We still don't know why you stopped the execution. How did you know you were a twin?"
"Whoa, what?" said Libber. Krux sighed.
"Well," he said, choosing his words carefully, "I wasn't going to disobey the emperor, at first. That version of events had you restraining me and announcing to the emperor that I was a twin, and I simply… rewound time to find a better outcome."
Libber stared at him with wide eyes. "You're a twin?" she exclaimed. "Is that why Equinox –"
"I'm told that's how my mother died, yes." Krux took a deep breath. "Ray's father was the only one who knew what happened to my brother," he said. "I'm trying to find him. As far as we know, he wasn't killed, but…"
Libber nodded. "Wow!" she said. "I can't say I'll be much help with that, but you're friends with Maya, so I'll do my best. Or, y'know, at least put some effort in. Is your brother also a Master of Time?"
"Possibly," Ray said. "We know Krux only received half his mother's powers, so his twin would have the other half. We're just… not sure what those powers are."
"Do you have any other leads?"
"My father sent the baby away, presumably with someone he trusted, but I'm not entirely sure who that would be." Ray furrowed his brow. "I know he was close to your father, Libber, but… I'm guessing we can rule that option out."
"Yeah," Libber said. "Though I wonder –"
The baby in her arms babbled and pulled at her hair. Libber yelped and nearly dropped him. Maya stood up to help, but Libber shook her head. "I'm fine!" she said. "I'm fine! Just – sit back down, Maya!"
Maya hesitated, but with the intensity with which Libber barked the last words, she did as she was told. Libber regained her hold on the baby and sighed. "God," she said. "I can't… never mind. Give me a moment, I'm putting Jay in my room."
She stood up and left, leaving Maya, Ray, and Krux sitting in an awkward silence.
"How long are we supposed to keep this up?" Krux said once Libber was out of earshot.
"Krux, be quiet," Maya snapped.
"No, I'm serious. She has a baby. She's not trying to hide it. We even know his name, now – Jay." Krux shook his head. "Are we just supposed to pretend he doesn't exist?"
"Krux has a point," Ray said. "We don't know if she's capable of taking care of him."
"She's plenty capable," Maya said. "You don't know her like I do."
"You haven't seen her in over a year, Maya. She may be capable, but if she didn't want the baby…"
Libber reentered the room without the baby, and they all fell silent.
Maya smiled at her. "Is everything alright?" she asked.
"Oh, yeah, it's fine." Libber sat back down. "Now that you mention it, Ray, my dad might know something. Maybe your dad didn't give him the baby, but they were friends, and my dad was like me; never believed in superstitious stuff. He would've been a good person to confide in."
"Where does your father live?" Krux asked, maybe a little too quickly. Libber laughed, and Krux felt his cheeks flush.
"He's in this same town, actually," Libber said. "After splitting with Cliff, I moved here to be closer to him. We could visit him today."
Maya and Ray glanced at each other, and Libber caught the motion. "Don't worry, you two," she said. "You're safest staying here with your kids. Krux and I will go by ourselves."
"I'm just as much of a criminal as they are," Krux said. "How will I evade recognition?"
Libber shrugged. "It's only been a night. News doesn't travel that fast. I think you'll be fine, but if you're worried, you can try a disguise."
Krux grimaced. "It's better than nothing," he said. "When do we leave?"
"Not just yet, there's something I need to ask." She turned back to Maya and Ray. "How long were you planning on staying?"
Maya opened her mouth and hesitated. "I don't know," she said. "I… I don't know where else we could go, not when Ling and Nya look so much alike…"
Libber smiled. "Maya, you can stay as long as you need, alright? It just might be awkward, at first. Everyone else in the village thinks I live alone, so I'll have to make up a story to tell them. Really, Maya, you're always welcome here."
Maya nodded. "Thank you," she said softly. "Thank you so much."
"Don't worry about it, really." Libber stood up. "Krux, let's get ready. I can tell you're antsy, and I don't need an excuse to visit my dad. Maya, can you help with the disguise?"
Maya tied back Krux's hair while Libber carefully applied makeup on him. It felt strange on his face, but Krux supposed he could get used to it. When the disguise was done, he looked in the mirror and examined his reflection. He looked… different. Hopefully it would be different enough to fool anyone who would otherwise recognize him.
"Alright," Libber said. "Give me one minute."
She disappeared into her room and returned shortly with Jay. The baby was dressed in a tiny shirt, and it occurred to Krux he had never before seen the baby wearing anything other than a diaper. He glanced at Maya, who was staring at him with narrowed eyes, as if reminding him of her warning: "Say nothing about the baby."
"I'm all set!" Libber said brightly. "Maya, Ray, you two hold down the fort until we get back. Shouldn't be too long. Don't answer the door for anyone."
They stepped outside. Libber locked the door behind her. "Have you met my dad before?" she asked Krux. "He lived in the palace for a long time. You might have seen him when you were a kid."
"I doubt it," Krux said. "I barely remember seeing you, let alone the previous Master of Lightning."
"Yeah, they hardly ever call us together. I don't think I have a room in the palace. I mean, I have one, but I don't use it." Libber shrugged. "For all I know, they use it for storage."
Krux nodded. "I already live close to the palace," he said. "It wasn't too complicated to bring some of my things there. Awfully convenient, too."
"Huh. Where do you live, normally?"
"In the capital, a few miles out from the palace. I inherited my father's house when he passed."
Libber laughed. "Better than my crappy house, right? Too bad you can't go back."
The baby Jay reached for Krux. Libber adjusted her hold on him, positioning him on her other side. Krux made his decision.
"When Ray and I arrived," he began, "Maya told us not to mention your baby."
Libber stiffened. "Good call," she said, her voice devoid of the cheeriness she had spoken with moments before. "And?"
Krux struggled for words. "I'm… uncomfortable with the idea that we're supposed to ignore this baby, no matter the circumstances," he said. "I don't want to cause you distress, but –"
"I get it," Libber interrupted. "You're worried about me, or Jay, or both, but honestly? I'm taking care of him fine. I'm taking care of myself, too. I just need to pretend for a while, alright?"
Libber groaned. "That I'm still a normal woman. That my life is free. That I don't have this – this parasite sucking away my elemental powers. Just give me that, and mind your own damn business."
None of that sounded healthy, for Libber or the baby. But with the bitterness she spoke the last words, Krux nodded and decided not to antagonize her further. "Alright. I apologize."
Jay squirmed in Libber's arms. She sighed. "I'm sorry, too. I didn't ask Maya to tell you that, but… I didn't argue with it, either. You don't have to pretend Jay doesn't exist, just don't bring him up unless you absolutely have to. Like, he's about to stick his hand in the fireplace or something."
"That's oddly specific."
"Sure is! It's why I keep him in my room, most of the time." Libber smiled. "Babies are so stupid. It's a miracle any of us manage to survive to adulthood."
Krux nodded. "Thank you. I understand this is hard for you."
"Yeah, yeah. I guess it's a good thing you brought it up before we met my dad, 'cause he loves Jay. WOuldn't stand for it if you tried to ignore him."
Libber's father lived in a large house, and one of his assistants opened the door for Libber and Krux when they arrived. "Oh!" she said, beaming at them. "Libber, you didn't say you were visiting! Donny will be so happy you've come – who is this?"
Libber looked at Krux, and Krux realized they hadn't come up with a fake name. Thinking fast, he forced a smile and held out his hand. "Sander Saunders," he said. "It's nice to meet you, miss…?"
"Gloria," the woman said, returning the handshake. "Are you Libber's friend?"
"Yes," Libber said. "He's in the neighborhood for a few days. I hope it's not a problem that I've brought him over."
"Of course not, don't worry about it. Your father will be glad to have the company."
She moved aside to let them in and closed the door behind them. "Give me one moment," she said. "I'll let him know you're here."
Once Gloria was out of earshot, Libber leaned in close to Krux. "'Sander Saunders?' Really?"
Krux's cheeks grew hot. "Oh, shut up. It's not like 'Libber' is any better."
"Oh, funny. You better not say that in front of my dad."
Gloria returned shortly. "Donny's in the bedroom," she said. "Come with me."
"My dad doesn't really walk anymore," Libber said to Krux as they followed Gloria deeper into the house. "Just so you know. He was already pretty old when he had me, so…"
She trailed off. "He's still got some years left in him," Gloria said with a kind smile. "He's very healthy for his age. You don't have to worry too much about him, Libber."
"Yeah," Libber said. "I just, y'know, wonder how much is too mich."
The bedroom was just up the stairs. When they entered the room, the old man sitting up in bed smiled at him. At first glance, Krux almost thought he was a woman, but Libber would have said something if they were visiting her mother.
"Oh, Libber!" her father said, squinting at her through thick glasses. He had wavy hair much like Libber's own, though cut much shorter and gone white with age. "My darling daughter, did you bring Jay?"
Libber didn't flinch. "Yeah, of course," she said. "I mean, where would I put him? Babies need constant attention, y'know?"
Donny patted the blanket in front of him, and Libber placed Jay on his lap. Jay immediately reached for Donny, who laughed and gently grasped the baby's tiny hands in his own. "Who's your friend?" he asked, nodding at Krux. "Did you find someone better than Cliff?"
"No," Krux said much too fast.
Libber snorted. "'Better than Cliff' is a pretty low bar, but no, we're not dating. Gloria, could you leave us alone for a bit?"
"Of course," Gloria said, and she left the room. Donny raised an eyebrow.
"What's this about, Libber?" he asked, making sure Jay didn't crawl off the bed.
Libber sat down on the edge of the bed and gestured for Krux to sit down in a nearby chair. "Is it alright if I tell him?" she asked. "I mean, if you want to find out…"
Krux nodded and turned to Donny. "My name is Krux, the Master of Time," he said. "I… recently found out I have a twin brother."
"Ah," said Donny. "So you're here about Acronix."
Krux opened his mouth, but no words came out. The name echoed in his head; Acronix. He was here about Acronix. Who else could it be? The name even sounded right – Equinox, Krux, Acronix.
Libber spoke while Krux couldn't. "So you do know something!" she said. "Equinox's husband brought the twin to Ray's dad, and I know you two were close."
Donny nodded, his face falling into a frown. "I had hoped I wouldn't have to tell this story to you, Libber," he said. It's been a long time since I had to face that part of my life."
"What're you talking about?"
Krux took a few deep breaths while Donny picked up Jay, cradling him in his arms.
"It started before you were born, Libber," he said. "The previous emperor was putting pressure on me to have a child and pass down my powers, but… you know my condition made it difficult. I've told you that much before."
"Yeah," Libber said, glancing at Krux before turning back to her father. "So what happened?"
"Kun – Ray's father – knew of my condition, and he supported me during this time, but once Ray was born, he spent most of his time with his own family. One day, he came to me in the dead of night, and asked if I could take in a baby."
"My twin," Krux said. "Acronix."
Donny nodded. "Kun told me everything. How the Master of Time had died in childbirth. How her husband asked him to dispose of the younger twin. He almost did it, too."
Libber gasped. Donny shook his head, rocking Jay. "Oh, Kun believed in the power of twins to bring evil," he said. "He didn't want to kill an infant, but he would have done his duty, had Chares not told him the boy's name."
Krux's hands were sweaty. He only noticed when he tightened his grip on the chair's armrests. "Did my mother…"
"Equinox's final act was to name both of her children," Donny said. "She wanted you and your twin to live. Knowing that, Chares couldn't bring himself to kill Acronix himself – and once he admitted this to Kun, neither could he."
Never had Krux's father told him his mother's final actions. All he would say was that she died in childbirth. A terrible tragedy, Krux knew. As a child, Krux wondered if his mother would love him, or if she resented him in the Departed Realm for killing her – and here he was, years after his father's death, discovering that his mother had named him with her dying breath.
Krux and Acronix.
"I'm gonna take a wild guess and say you didn't keep the baby," Libber said.
Donny chuckled. "No. Kun knew of my struggled to comply with the emperor's mandate. He thought that since he was the child of an elemental master, Acronix might have been susceptible to receiving my powers. It's happened before – elemental masters passing their powers down to a child of no relation to them, but in this case, I was already pregnant with you, Libber."
Krux blinked. "Your wife was expecting," he said, trying to make sense of Donny's statement.
"Ah, no," Donny said. "You haven't met someone like me before, have you?"
"Someone like…?" Krux searched for a different explanation and came up with nothing.
Jay was almost asleep, his head resting against Donny's chest. "You see, when I was a baby, everyone told me I was female, and I didn't have the ability to tell them otherwise. I was much older when I realized I was a man. I'm transgender, have you heard of that before?"
"Yes," Krux lied.
Donny shrugged. "Good enough. So I'm a man who can get pregnant – could, anyhow. I'm far too old for it now. I was reluctant to do it, but the emperor was pressuring me… and in the end, a couple months of agony was worth it to have my daughter."
Libber sighed. "I know, Dad," she said. "So you were pregnant, and you didn't take the baby. What did Ray's dad do then?"
"He said he was going to find a family for Acronix, but we didn't talk much after that." A pained look crossed Donny's face. "Something changed. Kun thought differently of me for complying with the mandate. I lost many friends then, Libber."
She reached out and put a hand on his shoulder. "It's okay, Dad," she said. "We only need to know what happened to Acronix. You don't need to tell us more."
"I'm afraid I don't know anything else. I'm sorry if it's not much."
"This is…" Krux stopped, tried again. "This is more than enough," he said. "I know his name now. Acronix. My brother's name is Acronix."
"Might not still be," Libber said. "I mean, the family who got him might've changed it."
"It's more than I had before," he said. "Thank you, Donny."
"Thank you for visiting." Donny smiled. "I wish you the best of luck in finding your twin."
Libber let Gloria know she could come back in, and the visit ended soon after that."
"Was your mother also transgender?" Krux asked Libber on the walk home. "I… have to assume so, given that one can't become pregnant without, ah…"
Libber chuckled. "I had two dads," she said. "My pa died a few years ago, though. Broke my dad's heart." She looked down at Jay, who was whining and pawing at her chest. "Mine, too."
"Oh. I'm sorry to hear that."
"It was a long time ago. Everyone dies." Libber looked away. "I just hope my dad hangs in there for as long as he can, y'know? 'Do not go gentle into that good night,' that sort of crap."
Krux frowned. "Not a poetry fan?"
"Eh. Most of it's garbage."
She didn't elaborate, and they spent the rest of the walk in silence.