Oh come on! She thought bitterly. ‘That hand?’
He had grabbed her wrist through her coat, and no matter how she tried to shift his grip, she could not make contact with his skin.
“I just wanted to see a book. I was even going to bring it back once I scanned it.”
"That's the worst lie I've ever heard."
It really was. Even though it wasn't a service Leonard offered, the old man had copied his fair share of things. Once he had scanned a bunch of images from an eighteenth century Kama Sutra book and sold them on coasters at the local art fair. If she really just wanted to look at a book and photograph some pages, she probably could have asked.
"You're overdressed for something that mundane." He tugged up on her pinned arm hard enough to make it pull uncomfortably on it's socket. "One more time. Who are you?"
She grit her teeth in pain. If he wanted a name, fine.
“Neb. My name is Neb. And I’m not lying. Once the book leaves here it’s going to a private collection and I’ll never get my hands on it. I just need if for a few nights to scan. Then that jerkass can have it.”
The stupidity of the situation slowly washed over him and he loosed another native curse under his breath. He let go of her arm and backed away, stating "you could have asked."
The woman sprung around the moment he released her, then stared at the man incredulously through the darkness.
“What? Are you serious? You guys would just let me read an ancient text that a rich guy spent millions on to win, and is probably giving you a million more for you to fix?”
He shrugged. "With this business, the value is in actually possessing the original book. Chances are the words have already been re-published."
Flag glanced at the door and sighed. "Too late tonight. Come back tomorrow, dressed casually, and ask him. I won't be here."
The man had only turned his face towards the light of the door for a moment, but long enough for the many hints throughout the night to lock into place. Her face softened as her heart sped up.
“Please… let me see your eyes.” She asked quietly.
He looked back at her before he fully processed her words. "What?"
After nine years without a sign, she had given up ever seeing him again. It had taken everything she had to bury him so she could to move on, yet still she saw him in places she shouldn’t. Then, all of a sudden, here he was.
The silver-haired man.
Tears stung the corners of her eyes.
“Flag?” Neb asked in a broken whisper.
His suspicions about her being an ACME agent went right out the window with the sincere familiarity in which she said his name. His real name. No. This was someone he should know, but he still had trouble placing her. As he ran through a mental index of the people he had dealt with over the past several years, he realized that this might be someone he technically never met.
"Yeeesss...." He volunteered cautiously.
A brilliant smile flashed across her face.
"You’re alive!” She cried, and in a burst of reckless abandon she threw her arms around him, squeezing him fully into her reality. “You’re alive, you’re alive, you’re alive.” She repeated into his chest.
Then she stepped back abruptly. He wasn’t supposed to still be here.
The wind picked up, stealing the sweat from her face. The woman looked him over in the dark as best she could. Something was wrong.
“Your hair, your ears." She murmured softly. Judging by the pants he wore, his tail was gone as well, and her face grew tight with concern. What happened to you?
Neb exhaled slowly, then took another step back and smoothed out her jacket. “I’m sorry I- it’s just been so long.”
The girl had backed away before he could push her off of him, almost as if she had expected the rude gesture. This made him level his gaze at her and set his jaw in thought. Words aside, she definitely knew him.
It wasn't that he didn't recognize her either. He was just surprised that she was as aware of him as she was. Over the last several years, he had met only one other person that could recall a different timeline and he was certain that her remembrance was of his direct influence.
He shrugged "I'm not sure how long you mean as it technically never happened."
Neb laughed as she put her glove back on. “So you do know who I am? Good. I was worried I’d have to continue carrying these extra nine years by myself.”
She took her cap off, letting her wild grey dance in the breeze. It was smooth and soft as hair should be, not the rough mess it was before. “Although I suspect Carmen also remembers something, but I never felt comfortable bringing it up. You know how she is.”
He shrugged. Flag had spoken early-on with Carmen about the direction of future events, but aside from making sure certain things happened, they didn't discuss much about what she knew of previous timelines.
Being at the center of events each time, he remembered a jumble of everything, from every repetition of this handful of years - including a tiny little shared memory from the last time around that changed everything for him. He often wanted to ask Carmen about it, but never did. "Yeah. I know how she is."
“Hmmm…” Neb hummed near imperceptibly. He hadn’t denied it, nor made even the slightest indication that the idea surprised him. “And Chase, does he remember?”
"I doubt he has the capacity to remember much." Flag muttered before shrugging.
“If Carmen can, shouldn’t he?”
Flag shrugged and flittered his hand; dismissing his bad joke about the director's intelligence. Any joke you had to explain was a bad one. "Don't worry about it."
He shifted his satchel to the other shoulder and turned towards the street. He did not extend an invitation for her to come with him, but he didn't wave her off either and that was close enough.
Neb watched him turn to leave, then glanced in the direction of her stowed bike and groaned inwardly. Her body damage would heal faster than most, but she’d just been effectively slammed into a concrete floor. The vibration of a motorcycle was not something she wanted to endure right now, and in all honesty… she wasn’t ready to let him go.
“Hey, want to get a drink?” The woman called after him. “Anywhere in walking distance?”
He hadn't really made any plans for the evening, but he had settled on the idea of reading in his rented room until he fell asleep. The attack hadn't let him pick a book for this. "We can do that, but there's nowhere that close. I'll drive."
She followed him to a black sedan parked in the lot across the way. “I assume you have a place you like?”
"Not really. It's just the only place open."
* * *
Burrows was little more than a stretched out suburban neighborhood. It had a post office, a fire station, and a few random privately owned businesses. It lacked in everything else and if anyone wanted to do anything outside of their own residence, they had to leave town.
The next nearest municipality was Logansport, which was considerably larger, but still small compared to what they both were used to.
Out in the rural Midwest there were few streetlights and fewer cars this time of night, making it a dark, meditative ride.
Neb smiled gently as the first few drops of rain tapped the windshield. She often let the ghost of the silver haired man drift into a seat beside her when she traveled alone. Now he was truly here.
In the short 15 minute jaunt, the sky finally opened up. "Might want to leave your electronics in the car." Flag said as he parked.
“Not much to leave that isn’t already busted,” the woman said ruefully as she tossed her goggles on the floor of the backseat. The only other substantial piece of equipment she had had with her was the taser, which was probably wedged under a bookcase somewhere after it shot out of her hand when she hit the floor.
The Bungalow Tavern was like any other little bar; dimly lit with wood paneling and beer signs throughout. There was almost no one else there, but she still chose a table in the back. Flag, as usual, didn’t care.
“I’m getting food too. You want something? I’m paying.” She said as she offered him the laminated table menu.
Even though it had been hours since he had last eaten, he didn't find anything on the menu particularly appealing. After a while, he settled on a bread-heavy appetizer and grabbed the taps menu from the box at the end of the counter. Aside from placing his order, he didn't say anything.
Neb studied her fellow from beneath her damp hair, calculating her next words. Getting a meaningful conversation out of Flag was as difficult as cutting a diamond. One had to strike just right to keep going, and one wrong one would ruin it. There was no easy way to start. The man didn't tolerate small talk.
She’d start with what she wanted to know most.
“Where have you been all this time?”
Flag regarded her as his cider beer was placed in front of him. It had arrived before his food and that somehow annoyed him, but as he hadn't specified that he wanted to ingest both together, he let that subject be in favor of pondering her question.
It was hard to explain. Many of the events of the past timeline had happened again and he was a major factor in making sure they happened. This meant that he had to re-live some of those events himself, but because he knew what was going to happen he was able to set himself up better for them.
"Many of the same places... but perhaps somewhat to the left."
She lowered a brow slightly, unfamiliar with the phrase. “To the left as in…?”
He took a sip of his beer and narrowed his eyes at her. He was intentionally being vague but was starting to find her inability to read beyond the face value of words a problem.
"I'm saying that if you were really looking for me, and have the memories you claim, you should have been able to find me. I was there."
Neb took a sip from her cocktail. It wasn’t the most impressive drink in the house, but she’d gotten hooked on them from her time on the Island, and had no intention of hiding it.
“I’m not bothering you with questions for fun, so at the risk of looking stupid, I want to be sure of your answers.” She said calmly as she stirred her drink. “As for claiming memory, that’s tricky. It’s come back gradually, and it’s only been the past few years that I’ve been fairly certain of what happened.”
She paused to nod her thanks as the waitress put their food down in front of them.
“But by that point, no agent had heard of anyone with your...unique description, and I didn’t push it because I sounded crazy. So while I knew for you’d existed here once, I didn’t know if you still did.”
She ate one of her curly fries, then offered him one. “Are you even with our group?”
"Yes. I still contract with VILE if that's what you're getting at." Flag wondering momentarily if she wanted him to brandish a VILE membership pin, or something equally absurd. He then rolled his eyes and took another sip of his beer.
The woman winced as he said the name out loud. It probably didn’t make a difference with only three other people, but she didn’t want to risk it.
For a while she didn’t say anything, allowing him to finish his beer before she spoke again. “Flag… If it’s not too sensitive a subject, what happened to your ears? ”
"Surgery. Several years back." He said between bites. "To blend in."
Neb exhaled in relief. It had been his choice.
Then she tugged at her collar. The heat from the alcohol was making the padded leather unbearable, but she hesitated to remove it. The tank top she wore underneath hid most of her surgery and tattoos, but it didn’t hide everything.
Like he’ll notice. Neb thought with an inward laugh and pulled it off, but quickly draped it back over her shoulders all the same.
Then she gazed at his empty bottle. It took him a while to get drunk, and she wasn’t sure one bottle would be enough for the questions she really wanted to ask.
“Still hate contacts, though, huh?” She tossed at him instead.
Flag merely eyed her as he munched on his food. He knew that was a filler question and he wasn't going to justify it with a response.
It took her another five minutes of absent eating before she felt ready.
“What happened on the island?” She asked, her eyes meeting his. “I heard gunshots, and then the tape runs out.”
Flag was silent for a long while as he remembered the events that lead up to him being shot and a cynical smiled played at the corners of his mouth. His weird bio-cybernetic time ritual hadn't gone the way he had planned, but it worked anyway... well, mostly.
Explaining what happened had proved to be impossible without being able to show the elaborate transformations done to the pacific island itself (things that have never happened). The mercenary group in Russia had gotten close with their volcanic bunker, but they hadn't known that and now it was gone too.
He broke eye contact and regarded the rest of his food with disinterest. "Nothing happened after that."
It was an odd statement, but true. Nine or so years prior to that, anyone receptive enough would have had a crippling sense of deja-vu. Not Flag though, he was bleeding out on the floor at Carmen's feet for the fourth time he could remember.
The woman kept her eyes on him.
“Who shot who?” She asked quietly.
"Why does that matter?"
“Because I want to know.”
In the weird hindsight of past non-events, he found himself defensive of her questions. Initially he thought this was because of the mild embarrassment he felt at having been slain by the director, but as he thought about it, he realized it was a word that she used.
She had "heard" the gun shots. She was on the island - Yes, she even said as much. He narrowed his eyes on her as the full realization of unspoken events dawned on him. "You were why she was there..."
The bar around her cooled instantly.
At first she held her gaze, but it slowly drifted to her empty glass as she sought the memory of the Last Day.
In truth, Chase had been why Carmen was there, not her. While she had been the one to voice concern, the thief hadn’t shared it until the ACME director was mentioned. It had bothered her that Carmen had appeared more worried about Chase than Flag, and she wasn't sure how much it would bother him too.
“Carmen does what she wants.” She said wearily. “I was worried about you after you nearly killed us both with the amulet ritual, but I was in no position to say anything, so I told the only person I thought you’d listen to. She left me at the plane. I don't know what happened to you after that.”
It was funny how something that (never)happened so long ago could hurt like a fresh wound with new information. It took a lot of willpower to stop himself from reaching across the table to strangle the messenger. She was right. Carmen did what she wanted.
"The director shot me." He muttered as he stood up. "She... helped."
He left the table then and went outside.
Neb felt the blood leave her face. She what...?
That didn’t make sense. Flag was Carmen's comrade. Chase never carried a gun. Even if Flag had brought it on himself (and she was somewhat sure he had), it pained her deeply to hear he’d been hurt.
She bit her lip as she looked at the door Flag had left through, unsure how to proceed. She had been with him long enough to recognize when he was holding back the urge to kill someone. It was dangerous to follow, but she didn’t want to leave him out there alone.
“Everything okay here?” the waiter asked from above.
The woman smiled uneasily. “Yeah, fine. Can I pay the bill up front? I have to leave.”
TO BE CONTINUED!
You need to be logged in to comment