Despite having traveled by air, it took Neb the totality of her four day travel allotment to get back to her apartment. Traffic led to missed flights that collided with delays until she was sure she’d accidentally angered some god. Still, she reasoned as the taxi brought her closer to home, surely she’d make it to her apartment before Flag.
In truth her apprehension had nothing to do with its appearance, but what she’d left visible. Everything of value to your average thief was safely stored, but the one entering wasn’t just anyone.
Neb smiled at the irony of her nervousness. She’d often wondered what the silver-haired man would think of the bits and pieces she’d made of his work, but that was when he was a distant ghost. Now he was very real, and she couldn’t remember exactly what she’d left in his line of sight.
* * *
To the various members of VILE, San Francisco was famous for being ACME's home town. To others it was famous for a bridge, theater, and fog - the latter of which Flag had to deal with for nearly two hours because of an accident on interstate 80 in the early morning hours. This did not help his mood when he finally arrived at the building the card had directed him to.
He should have recognized the address as having belonged to the apartment building that Carmen appropriated long before they met. It had been offered as a place for him to stay while they plotted out the tower heist (the first time) and he turned it down in favor of staying someplace where he could see ACME headquarters unhindered. Of course now even the distance of the VILE building didn't matter. It too stood in the shadow of Accolade.
Flag stashed the car in a parking garage down the street and made his way to the apartment of the new age healer, book in hand. The sooner he exchanged this thing for his journal, the better.
He hated San Francisco.
* * *
Neb loved San Francisco, if only for the sublime satisfaction she got from living in ACME’s shadow. After a wasted lifetime of hiding from them on every level, it felt freeing (and perpetually entertaining) to wander around their common areas. While technically they were still a danger to her, that knowledge was tempered by memories of those she fought beside in wasteland at the edge of the world.
The woman smiled slightly as ACME’s tower came into view, then continued constructing a mental task list of everything she needed to do before Flag’s arrival. There was a decent amount to stash, but she’d only need about twenty minutes to-
“Oh for f*ck’s sake…” She muttered as the taxi pulled up to its destination.
The silver-haired man was already waiting outside.
Neb grabbed her bag and hastily paid the driver, tipping well as usual as per her custom. Then she exited the car and walked briskly to the door of the building, flashing him a quick smile as she passed him.
“Stuff happened,” she said preemptively as she pressed her thumb to a biometric reader. The door beeped as it unlocked, and she opened it wide for him to reveal several flights of stairs.
“I’m on the top floor, so you can use the little elevator installed over there if you want to.”
From her curt greeting and general air of frustration, he assumed that she wanted the stairs to herself. "Okay. See you at the top."
The elevator was slow, installed for her less-abled patients, and she skipped stairs as she bounded to the top to gain just a few precious seconds before he got to her door. Another thumb scan and two key turns got her in, and she immediately scanned the living room for anything that could incriminate her in his eyes. The seemingly nonsensical scrolls and notes on the walls that she’d put up for ambiance would be legible to him, and after she’d given him up for dead they’d become more heartfelt.
Down the hall she heard the bell of the tiny elevator and the sound of heavy boots on old wood. Her time almost up, Neb snatched two scrolls from the wall and a pile of papers from the floor and hastily tossed them into her bedroom as Flag appeared in the door frame.
“Welcome to my abode,” she said cordially, hoping her initial panic was not as obvious as it felt.
It totally was. In her haste to do whatever it was before he arrived, she had knocked her wig off and the gray mess underneath it was in total disarray. The apartment didn't fair much better and Flag assumed that the girl's frenzy up the stairs was due to this until he saw a sketch of his former visage on the wall with the letters WWFD underneath.
"I see I left an impression." He grumbled as he stepped through the door and into the living room office. As predicted, he noticed the scroll-like posters of his native handwriting, one of which contained the weird oath that she had tattooed on her arm. Another was an attempt at poetry that didn't translate at all. These didn't concern him as the his journal pages that hung between them. He hoped they weren't original.
Neb continued to stash what she could as he looked around, for the less Flag knew, the better off one generally was. But there was still the matter of retrieving his journal, and that would be a difficult trick to hide.
For now the man was attempting to make sense of a scroll on her wall. He wouldn’t be able read it easily. The poem was drafted after she’d decoded his alphabet, but before she learned the language itself, making it a mix of smaller, easier Sivoan words and phonetically spelt English.
Seeing him beside it now gave her pause, and as she stilled to catch her breath, she reread it over his shoulder:
They will ask me, no doubt,
why I stood so close,
Despite what I knew, first hand.
You are fire,
Quick and searing,
Wild and uncaring,
And for this I should keep you away,
That fire lit the path ahead,
Thawed my muscles so they may move.
Tempered the metal of my will,
And distilled what I needed to consume.
It is from your blaze I rose anew,
And for this I risked destruction,
More for me to gain than lose,
In the bounty of your fire
She crossed the room in thought. The less Flag knew, the better; but exposure to his element had ultimately been to her benefit, and now she wondered just how much further he could take her.
“An impression? You could say that.” Neb reopened her bedroom door. It was dark, the blinds pulled shut against peeping eyes, and consisted little more than a mattress on the floor with some medical monitors beside it, a dresser covered in wigged heads, and a pile of clothes and papers that she was now pushing into the closet.
Then she pulled the bedroom carpet away, revealing a flat metal ring four feet in diameter with a bundle of wires and cables running from it. The woman flipped a few switches on a console nearby and watched with growing excitement as the ring hummed to life, the soft glow emanating from it casting the room in a dull red.
Thin red lines of light reached towards her as she stepped within the ring. There she knelt amongst them and opened a sterilized hypodermic needle pack.
“Let me just get your journal then,” she said as she pricked her finger. Her blood touched the knot of light growing at her feet, and in a flash she was gone.
She reappeared in a large, concrete room filled with machinery and clearly labeled drawers. Everything she couldn’t afford to lose she stored here, an underground vault with only one way of entry; the teleportation ring that only worked for her. Getting here had been the warp’s original purpose, but she’d since expanded its network to include a handful of far-flung locations.
Neb half tripped off the pad with a groan. Traveling this way was hard on the body, but it was worth it.
Finding Flag’s journal was easy. After she’d scanned and reproduced it, she’d kept it safe in a heavy, hand-carved box upon a podium. It was her most precious possession; the root of her work, and until now, the only proof she had that the silver-haired man had ever existed.
She lifted it from the box with reverence, then reactivated the ring with her still bleeding finger and she reappeared her room again. There she took a few steps forward, then fell face first onto the conveniently placed mattress nearby.
“Just a minute,” came her muffled voice.
Had the morning not wore on him the way it did, he could have laughed at the girl. He was no stranger to the effects she felt, but had she used her brain, she wouldn't have to suffer them at all.
"All of these teleportation options out there, and you imitate mine." He walked over and dropped the codex on her. "You chose poorly."
“Yours was the only one available,” Neb said groggily as she rolled over on her back. “The other ones were busted up by someone.” She raised her eyebrows at him for added emphasis, then sat up and picked up the codex. “Whatever. There might even be something I can use in here to...”
She trailed off. It was the first time she’d actually gotten to see it up close, and for what it should have been, it was far too thin.
“Are you. F*cking. Kidding me?” The woman asked slowly as she carefully turned the pages. “It’s just the goddamned index!” She fell back on the mattress with an agonized groan. “It says there’s three other books in here, so where the hell are-?” The colour drained from her face. “He has them. He has the others. F*cking. Bran.”
She put her hands over her eyes in thought. Bran’s mansion was said to be a literal gauntlet and she didn’t even know where in the place he’d store what she wanted. If she could send in a drone or a tracking..…
Neb held up the index. “Hey, how much would it cost me to get you to fix this?”
"A decent amount." He glanced at the book in her hands. Over the past few days he had had ample opportunity to inspect the damage done to it, and frankly, he was offended by it. "You'll have to cover supplies as well."
“I got supplies in here, and I can wire you the money now. Can you start today?”
He shifted his weight from one foot to another and crossed his arms. "No."
Neb sighed heavily as she got up, then edged her way past him so she could study her book in better light. “Hear me out. If we fix this ourselves and plant a tracker in it it, it will lead us right through his maze of a house to the rest of the set. But for that to work, it has to be fixed, wired and delivered to Bran before Leo realizes it’s gone. If I have to try to fix myself, I will.
She turned back and handed him the index. “But it deserves better than that.”
Flag had taken her trek through the rooms as an opportunity to retrieve his journal from the mattress. Contrary to her request, he had tuned her out with the intention of leaving now that the exchange was finally complete, but snapped back to attention when she threatened to attempt repairs herself.
Before he could scold her for such a thought, she handed the codex back to him and he had to try and replay what she said in his mind, succeeding only with the electronic side of the plan. "Do you have such a tracker?"
“I have a few, but Joe probably has something better, maybe even a collapsible drone. I ran into him in Vegas and he’s ready for some action. I just have to give the word. You in?”
She met his eyes. “Or do you have something else to do today?”
"Yeah. Coffee." He pushed past her, shoving the codex back into her arms as he did so. He was almost out of the apartment when the weight of the burning bridge between him and Leonard fell on his shoulders, causing him to stop.
Stupid as the girl’s plan was, he could use it to ensure further collaborations with the book repairman by finishing this job for him - a potentially welcome notion considering the horrifyingly goopy mess that was lined up ahead of it.
"Fine, but let me check out a spare suite first. This," He waved his hand around to indicate the atmosphere of her apartment, "is overbearing. I can't work here."
And with that, he left.
Neb exhaled slowly, then flopped on the couch. The place wasn’t usually in such a disarray, but before the failed book heist she’d been holed up in there for several months, bent over her work. That her de facto mentor didn’t seem interested in any of it stung, but that was Flag. Dreadfully practical.
At least she’d managed to keep him in her loop without having to go back on her word. Having his help against Bran would help immeasurably, and for a brief moment she’d considered tossing his journal back in the vault to get him to do so, but that wasn’t how she rolled. Besides, he wasn’t the only one she wanted on this job.
The woman pulled out her phone and placed a call to Vegas.
TO BE CONTINUED!
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