Fire and Reverie

Flag

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((Couldn't sleep. Brain did this.))

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Evenings in Stone Harbor were cool and damp, which wasn’t terribly different from the rest of the time. The close proximity to the ocean ensured that a fair level of humidity hung in the air, while the breeze kept it from suffocating. If he were to say anything about the climate, he’d say it was pleasant.

This evening in particular offered a dream-like quality that only the late summer could provide and as the setting sun cast everything in a golden light, Flag found himself pacing toward a fire that some of the locals set up on the beach. He slowed as he neared the small group, pausing until he made eye contact with an overweight man in board shorts, who was drinking beer. The unspoken request to join wasn’t ignored and the big man waved him over with a smile. “Care to join us, stranger?”

Flag nodded and placed his satchel next to him in the sand as he sat. He muttered a small “thanks.” as he gazed into the flames. His mind was still hazy from waking up, but he was aware enough to express some gratitude when he was offered a bottle.

“Vacationing?” Asked a sunburnt man to the larger man’s left.

Flag shook his head and twisted the cap off the bottle, which he held in his hands contemplatively. “Just got out of the hospital.”

The eyes of both men went wide as they shared a look of concern between them before the second one inquired “what happened?”

He took a swig from his drink then, giving himself a moment to answer casually. “Boating incident. Nothing to talk about really.” A partial truth. It was indeed an incident that took place on waterfaring vessels, but it would cover at least 16 long scrolls if he had decided to write it out. Wanting to divert the subject away from him, Flag flipped the question back at them.

“Staycationing more like. Got the week off work and decided to get out of the house for a bit.” Said the second man before pointing to the first. “Gerald here is between jobs.” The first man held up his beer at this, grinning, before bringing the bottle back to his lips.

The sleepy atmosphere settled in around them and the five people around the fire found themselves content in soaking it in. On occasion Flag glanced through the flames to the couple holding hands across from him. They kept to themselves, staying mostly quiet save for a few flirtatious whispers exchanged between them.

He remembered what that was like - being able to tune out everyone but his beloved. He cast his gaze back down to the flames and remembered his wife, the fire dancer that she was, and found himself a little more thankful for the inebriating drink he was gifted.

She was at the heart of everything after all. The reason for his interactions, his research, the insane stunts he pulled - they were all for her. Considering everything, it was either crazy or-

“This is a bad dream.” Flag muttered to himself as he finished the beer and placed the bottle in the sand.

The more that he thought about it, the more that it made sense. First of all, he was on Earth. A place that he had only ever learned about through third-hand information from an easily excitable friend, who in turn, had gotten his information from an alien whose knowledge was derived from historical archives. If he was honest with himself, he would have to admit that he had been fascinated by the idea of a world not his own, but to this extent?

To say that he had never recovered from the loss of his wife would be an understatement. Her absence made him miserable in every sense of the word and he didn’t bother to hide it as he took his grief out on everyone and everything. It didn’t matter if he hurt people. A life without her wasn’t one worth living.

So when this agony continued after he should have ended, it shouldn’t have been a surprise… but it was.

Waking to this reality was not the afterlife that he expected and the strange explanation that he had given himself - in the form of a handwritten letter - was enough of a boon that he just rolled with it.

Flag blinked and glanced down at his satchel, noting that while he was lost with his thoughts, the others had left. He reached into the bag and pulled out a set of beat up envelopes containing the notes that he and his doyenne had written to themselves as strange contingency for a very particular set of events. He opened his and smirked at his native handwriting - which he rarely wrote in now.

A time spell went awry, so this won’t make sense in the immediate, but trust her.
Protect her.

Stick

It was such a simple letter, but the signature was what made him adhere to it so rigidly. While “Flag” was the given name that he could pull from his earliest memories, “Stick” was what the first of his many owners had called him. Likely because he was little more than skin and bones at that age. It was a nickname that nobody knew, so it solidified that this was indeed a missive from himself.

He never read what Carmen had written.

Flag pulled the envelope containing her note out from behind his and stared at it long and hard before tossing the whole mess of papers into the fire.

Panic blossomed in his chest as the flames devoured the letters in an instant, but he forced himself to breathe deeply as he remembered that the time for such crutches had passed. He almost laughed aloud at his own absurdity before reaching into the satchel again to withdraw his journal and a pen.

It always amazed him that the leather-bound book found its way back to him. It had been left behind, stolen, annotated, stolen again, and lost in time, but whenever he found himself waking to Carmen’s presence, it was always right back there with him. Considering the recursive nature of his life here, it was equally baffling that it retained its battle scars. As such, he started making more detailed notes about the events he shared with it. These were so intricate and weird that he had to make an index for them, which he flipped to now.

The index was organized chronologically, starting with his first “reset,” which had been at the hands of his daughter. Of all of them, including the one that he was about to write, this was the outlier. Not only had it started this bizarre adventure, but it was the one that was different in every detail - save one.

He unconsciously brought his hand to the spot on his chest where a small circular scar resided under his shirt. It was accompanied by two other identical healed wounds, but this was the one that had severed his connection with the timeline that he was in - twice. The first time had been when his progeny tore through him with spikes made of what only could be described as pure darkness. The second time was when he was shot through the heart by Chase Devineaux.

Flag brought his hand back down to pick up the pen, but stopped as the markings on the page blurred together. He was supposed to have stayed in the bed at VILE’s hidden medical facility and the exertion from his venture out was starting to manifest in the form of a migraine - or, at least, that’s what he was trying to tell himself. It was easier to follow along with the notion that the universe was weird and not the truth that was starting to creep into his consciousness.

He wiped at his eyes and took in the list before him. There was the time that he was impaled on pure darkness, the time shot in those exact same spots, the time where he vomited up that void, a nuclear explosion, the time his own breath was pulled from his chest and when the darkness crushed him like an insect. Those last two weren’t documented and might have happened at the same time… or they might not have happened at all.

Flag rubbed at his temples, then ran a hand along the back of his neck, until he felt across a metal protrusion there. That was proof enough that, at the very least, he and a few of his cohorts had been abducted in China. The underwater temple afterward felt like a fever dream, but if it was, then it was a dream shared by people that couldn’t have possibly been drugged the same way his fellow captives may have been. This meant that either it all really happened, or he was still asleep.

For being unconscious, he was in a lot of pain. According to his attendant, he had been in a coma for months, and while he had received neuromuscular electrical stimulation, his muscles were still sore from the extreme lack of use. There was also the fact that he didn’t want this timeline to be nothing more than a dream.

He flipped all the way to one of the first pages in his journal - the one that contained the only drawing of his wife he had ever done, the only portrait of her that he ever had. As her ghost stared out at him from the page, Carmen’s voice cut in.

"The look on your face was wrenching,"

All of this time, Flag had been looking for a way to return home, to get back to his beloved. Time and time again, his focused efforts failed in what he expected, but each time he awoke to Carmen’s face - instilling a strange suspicion that she confirmed with those words, that night in Abu Dhabi. It was everything he wanted...

And yet, he also found himself wishing that it was all a hallucination as he recalled floating on tiny cerulean wings, caught in a whirlwind of crimson despair. That in itself had been oddly pleasant, for he was nothing more than an observer amongst observers, mindlessly witnessing the happenings in two realms. He saw ancient hallways and a black desert. He drifted through distorted memories and fantasies. He experienced the still air that held the lost souls of Devalaya while watching a far off battle that faded as he was pushed back toward his original vessel.

He saw the kiss.

It didn’t mean anything to his moth brain. It probably shouldn’t have meant anything now, but it still hurt. It hurt because it confirmed the bigger picture. The one that made the question of if the temple was real or not irrelevant, for it meant that nothing of Earth was real. It never had been.

The allegorical parallels between his life and this fiction were haunting. In this parable, his beloved ended up in the arms of the one he feared most; the mystic with the king. Ta’Nia and Julian. Carmen and Chase. He even found his daughter represented through the presence of the runt that tailed them both.

This was his personal hell, and he had fully earned it.

Glancing down, Flag saw that he had opened to the page where he was going to write an entry about Harbin onward. He even had the pen pressed to the page, where it bled into a small black pool, soaking through the pages. Another callback to the nightmare he lived. He stared at the spot until the pen fell from his hand. Then he ever so gently closed the book and allowed it to be devoured by the flames.
 
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