Flag was standing by the door, watching the rain in silence. When "Neb" came out he fell in step with her and walked to the car.
"I forgot I drove you here."
The woman joined him in the car, then she gently put her hand on the wheel.
He glanced over at her, but otherwise said nothing.
“What you were trying to do that night? I thought you meant to go home, but time unwound instead.”
"Yeah. That's what I wanted to happen." He put the car into reverse and eased it out of the parking spot. "Had to go back for that."
She paused to process this. Either he had not gone back far enough, or if he had, he’d been spat forward again. “You didn’t go for the diamond this time around. You aren’t going to try again?”
A small laugh escaped him. "I acquired the diamond. After the auction, same as I did before."
“But you weren’t there-” She started, then sighed. It didn’t matter. “Then why didn’t you look for me?”
He frowned at that, not totally sure why she would expect him to seek her out, but then he remembered the inscribing ritual and the part she had played in it. "I decided not to try again."
“You aren’t?” She asked, stunned. He’d dragged himself (and a few people) through hell to get back to his wife. It didn’t make sense that he’d just give up now. “But your-” Survival instinct kicked in “-home, you don’t want to go back?”
"'Home' would be my wife and the ritual revealed that she might have arrived here, but in a different manner than I did... but I'm not sure." He pressed his lips together till they formed a thin line. "Verifying this has been difficult."
Neb watched his face carefully. “What did you see?”
He kept his eyes on the road. "Enough."
In his voice she felt the black, acrid plumes of pain she’d witnessed in him during the inscription ritual. She nodded her comprehension, then gazed out to the endless rows of corn flowing by them in silence.
“The diamond, do you still have it?” She asked eventually.
"No." Flag shook his head. "I broke it down and made it into a pair of earrings and a necklace... I gave them to Carmen."
She didn’t know what to say this, nor how to react to the mysterious twinge of jealousy she felt in some shadowy corner of her heart. ‘That was our diamond. We made that. We could have made something else with it it, and you gave it to someone who helped shoot you? Wait...but Carmen....’
Her head swam with emotion and alcohol.
“That was very kind of you,” she managed. That he could still feel kindness was a good sign at least. “You seem like you’re doing okay this time around.”
"You too." He replied as he exited the highway and turned down the street that would bring them into Burrows again.
“Thank you,” she said as she looked at her hands. A faint smile came to her lips. “You gave me back my life. If I hadn’t met you, I would have gone on wasting it, and because of you I’ve been able to do much of it over. I know it wasn’t your intent, but thank you.”
As the car rolled down the street for Leonard's book repair, Flag noted that the shop's owner hadn't left yet. He would probably stay in the shop for days to make sure that nothing happened to it. It had been been a long time since it had a break-in and it had never had a break-in as intense as the one earlier.
The Sivoan smiled a little, but not even he was sure if it was the conversation or the idea of Leo trying to sleep at his desk while manning a shotgun that cause it.
He slowed the car to a stop once he past the shop, but hadn't made it quite to the driveway of his BnB. "Did you have a vehicle?"
Out of the corner of her eye she saw his touch of a smile and hers deepened. Then his question registered and her face fell. She leaned her head back and closed her eyes in mock despair.
“Motorcycle in a corn field.”
A wet cornfield. A wet, muddy, dark cornfield. She could track its location with her phone, but it would still be wet, and muddy, and she would have to wait with it at least a few hours before she felt sober enough to drive it.
That was the problem with mixed drinks. You forgot how much alcohol was in them until it was too late.
“You don’t think I could just sleep in your car, do you? I’m willing to pay you for it.”
For some reason he had envisioned her with one of those cars that looked like a roller skate, or a toy. Something beat up but somehow still able to manage distances.
He rolled his eyes and pressed on the gas enough to finish his drive. "There's a couch in my room. You can use that."
For the second time that night, the woman was overcome with joy. There was always the risk her bike could be harvested the next morning, but at the moment she just couldn’t bring herself to care
“Christ, thank you so much.” she said as she half slid out of the car. She looked up at the BnB. Flag had never ‘lived’ anywhere in the time she’d known him, and was immediately intrigued by what a place he ‘lived’ in would look like. “How long you been here?”
Her question followed him out of the car and he had to lean back in to grab his satchel. He used the opportunity to answer. "Three weeks. Leaving tomorrow. "
“What? But why?” She asked as she followed him in. “This is such a great gig.”
He leveled his gaze at her over the car. "My business with Leonard ended prematurely."
“Blah. That wasn’t your fault. He should give you a raise for defending the place.”
Flag smirked at the sentiment, but shook his head. "He'll get over it and I'll be back. Our work is too intertwined."
He unlocked the door of a room that appeared to exist solely for the purpose of being rented out. It had a small bathroom, a mini fridge, and a microwave. There was a bed along the back wall and a couch immediately to the left of the door. There was no door into the rest of the house and very little evidence that Flag had been staying there.
"I think there are blankets in the cabinet there." He pointed to a wooden box that doubled as a table next to the couch.
Neb pulled a blanket from its compartment. It wasn’t the most luxurious thing, but it was warm and fairly soft, and that was good enough. “And you’re saying that even though he fired you for stopping me from stealing the book, I can go in tomorrow and he’ll photocopy it for me?”
He looked up from unbuckling his boots. "What? You think he saw what you look like?"
“I’m kinda tiny. You don’t think he’ll get suspicious if a tiny person shows up asking for a book the night after you body-slammed one in front of him?”
He shrugged and removed a shoe. "You can wait if you want, but he'll blow a hole in ya if you try sneaking in again. If you go tomorrow, he'll be too focused on preventing any potential smoke damage to really read into it."
The other boot came off. "Don't mention me and don't ask to touch the book and you'll be fine."
Neb had watched him take off his boots a million times in another life, and the familiarity of it made her feel more at home here in this spartan room than anywhere else she’d been in a long time.
She went to take off her coat again, paused, then shrugged her shoulders and let it go, along with the rest of her wet clothes, and laid them out over the edge of the couch. That left her in the tank and boxers the man had seen her in just as many times, but if he looked at her now, he’d find a few things had changed.
Over the years she’d gained many more scars, a bit of metal, and about a dozen tattoos. The scars were a mix of things; accidents, surgery, self-experimentation. Around her neck was a torq made of semi-flexible, experimental alloy that terminated at each end with a small, flat disk that lay flush beneath her collar bones, held in place by magnets through the skin, and tattoos sprinkled throughout that ran the gambit of light-hearted to deeply meaningful, most being the latter.
Flag generally didn't have an opinion of tattoos. The ones now exposed on her arms, however caught his attention. There was a weird bit of prose, repeated three times on her arm, in different languages - two of which he understood.
Despite how you are or what you
might become, I am your ally.
If you don’t get home, come to me.
While he didn't fully understand the relevance of the words, he found himself amused to find that the girl had adhered to her source for the words as tightly as she did. The subtle nuances in the shape of the letters were definitely reminiscent of his handwriting. "I see you found my journal."
The humor that should have been in his voice had run out as he observed the triangle and circle combination that served as the base for many of his rituals. He had noticed this first and distracted himself with the wording above it, but he was back at it. "I hope you understand that most of it's garbage."
Neb sat on the couch, subtly pleased that he’d noticed any of it. She looked at her arms pleasantly. “I wouldn’t say that. I understand that much of what you have in there doesn’t carry over to this world, but that doesn’t mean it’s completely without merit.”
She looked up at him and pointed to her oath. “Did I translate this correctly? I deciphered the alphabet myself, but I needed help with the linguistics.”
"It's like a child's phrasing, but workable." He pulled his shirt over his head and stood with his back to her, debating if he should just go to bed, or take a shower first. It was the last night he'd get to use either, but he was tired, had a guest, and couldn't sleep as he liked. The bed won.
Neb smiled brightly to hear she had succeeded from the only person who could ever truly tell, but it disappeared the moment Flag exposed his back.
Oh god, Flag…
It was covered, almost blanketed in scars; the brutal testament of his former life as a slave.
She’d seen glimpses of them before, but his long hair had always hidden their true extent. Now they were plain to see. She stood up reached out her hand without thinking, aching to take them away.
“The scars on your back, let me fix them.” She stated, awkward but bold as her heart raced in her chest. “I’ve wanted to for a long time. I’m powerful now. Please, let me try.”
An exasperated sigh emanated from his corner of the room. "If I wanted them fixed, I'd have had them fixed when I had my surgeries."
“I, I’m sorry, I don’t understand.
"Why did you get tattoos?"
“I wanted to reclaim my body, make it how I want it to be." She said defiantly, then hesitated before quietly adding; "Not how they made it.”
"Well, my scars are the direct results of decisions that I made." He paused folding his shirt to put emphasis on his self reference. Once he was sure that she understood that he was talking about nobody other than himself, he set his shirt on the bed and clicked off the light. "It doesn't matter how I got them. They're mine."
Neb sat down, still at a loss. Even if he had done something that prompted his captors to beat him, the beatings themselves were not his choice. His slavery was not his choice. She sighed inwardly but said nothing further. If he was at peace with his scars, that was all that mattered. “Good night, Flag.”
The woman then curled up on the couch, and as she listened to the rain on the roof her mind drifted back to the Antheon Codex. If Flag hadn’t been there tonight she’d have it by now, but then she wouldn’t have him. That was a fair enough trade.
A moment passed.
Dammit, I need that f*cking thing!
No matter. She’d go to the store tomorrow and ask the man to take pictures of...which pages? How would she know what she needed without touching it? The book was large and the ink was faint. She needed scans, good ones, and lots of them. She needed the whole book, and she needed time.
The woman eyed her clothes on the couch. The alarm was still offline, and at least now she knew there was someone inside ahead of time. But that someone had a gun, her taser was missing, her goggles were broken, and she had left her book box in the store.
She looked at her right hand and sighed. I guess I’ll have to be extra awesome then…
“Flag, do you know where in the store the Antheon codex is, and how long it will take for it to be repaired?”
"Is it the red one?"
She deadpanned in the dark. How am I supposed to know if it's the red one? "Dark red, yeah. It has scratch marks on the cover, and one bent corner.”
"The scratches can be fixed in almost no time, but the bent corner means the leather hardened and will need to be treated specially... it'll take quite a bit of time." He stopped his speculation and took a deep breath before continuing to speak. "There's also a horrible mess lined up ahead of it."
Neb looked at the ceiling guilty. “Sorry about that…” she said, although secretly relieved to hear she had bought more time. “Will the books be okay? Those mini stuns are pretty mini.”
"That, I don't know... What do you need the codex for?"
The woman arched her brows, surprised that he cared to know. “It has plans for a machine I need to build,” she replied vaguely.
"Has it been built before?"
She sat up on the couch. “I don’t know for sure. The way it’s been referenced it sounds like a theoretical device,” she said, then paused to tap the torc around her neck, “But theoretical hasn’t been an issue for me so far.”
Of the many things she’d created using Flag’s journal, the torc was her greatest achievement so far. After years of painful trial and error, she’d finally managed to replicate the override Flag had performed on her during the amulet ritual, but even though it granted her formidable power, there was a catch.
She could heal everyone but herself, and that was going to be a problem real soon.
As if on cue, the phone in her laid-out pants began to vibrate. She checked her watch and sighed.
“Have I ever told you my original name?” She asked as she dug out a small envelope that contained her thyroid pills.
"I do not believe so."
“Seryy Pripyat; after how I look and where they found me after Chernobyl melted down. Judging by my hair, I got a pretty good dose, and if you factor in what else they did, I’ll be lucky to live into my sixties.” The woman raised her right arm. “That’s not nearly enough time.”
A dull blue glow awoke beneath the right side of the torc. From there it traveled slowly upward along set paths beneath her skin until it reached her fingertips.
“I’ve achieved so much in these nine years,” she said as she watched it climb. “If I had more time, who knows where I could take this?”
The the light faded away and the woman got up to get water.
“I’ve been trying to create of a passive cellular re-generator to slow my decay,” she continued from the bathroom, “but even if I that does work, it’ll do nothing against cancer.”
She swallowed her pills, then returned to the main room. “If I could actually actively heal myself like I do to others, though, I’d be practically immortal,” she said with a cracked a half smile, “but for me, that’s like trying to see my face without a mirror. I need to build a mirror.”
She pointed out the window in the direction of the book store. “And the Antheon will show me how.”
He couldn't help but laugh at the irony the girl presented. In his lifetime, he had only ever met two regenerative healers and they were the polar opposites in terms of their abilities. One could only heal herself (and was in fact immortal because of it) and the other was here, in his room, complaining about not being able to do what the other could.
The brat had the better deal, but he suspected that she would never be convinced of that. Had she indicated at all that she could heal herself, she would have been cut open and experimented on far more relentlessly than she had been. He knew. It's what he did to the immortal.
The fact that a potentially willing subject, with access to a journal containing ALL of his notes, waltzed back into his life was frustrating. On the one hand, he wanted to forget everything from his previous lives and settle into a routine that allowed him to quietly watch over the one he loved, but on the other hand...
"If I get the book for you, will you let me sleep?"
Whether it was loneliness, the need to bond with someone who shared the rarer, oh so consuming aspects of her life, or just flat out stupidity, the woman wasn’t sure, but as she watched the man consider her words, she found herself regretting having shared so much. Then he offered to get the book for her, and she was even less sure how to proceed.
Neb inhaled, then let it go with a faint smile. I either drank too much or too little tonight.
“I would have let you sleep anyway, but if you got the book for me, I’d be happy to pay you for your trouble.”
TO BE CONTINUED!
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