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“So what, you think you want to know me?”
He nodded. And his sincerity shone off of him like a halo and I was once again struck by how someone this good could have ever come my way.
I mean seriously, how did a man like Axel Teschke even end up in the same vicinity as a war mongrel mutt like me? And why would he have ever linked his life to mine? My path was guaranteed to be FUBAR.
“You’ll never know me.” I’d tried to explain to him. I’d tried. I really had.
Fuck. I hated dreaming of Axel. Almost as much as I hated dreaming of…I shrugged that thought away as quickly as it tried to rise. No way in hell was I going down that path. No fucking way in hell. I rolled my legs free from the thin blanket and pushed up to my feet. It wasn’t hard to find the floor, after all I was sleeping on it.
It might be time to consider some decorating. You know. Like a bed. Disgruntled, I shot a look around the clock tower and took note of which of the crew were still there. It looked like the elf had slipped off for one of his other pursuits. Pretty sure he was jonesing. He had the jittery desperation of an addict all about him. And the other guy, the homeless vet, Donegar, he was missing as well. Which was probably all well and good as his PTSD nightmares were disturbing to the sleep and all. Speaking of homeless, the street kid was sleeping, one arm thrown around his skateboard. From nearby the dwarf snorted through a snore that would have kept me awake if I were sensitive to such things but I’d slept through war zones, Tupperware parties, and infants being sleep trained.
The thought threatened the dark space in my mind again and I pulled myself back with a hard shake and a stride to the clocktower window. A glance out revealed the urban sprawl of the surrounding neighborhood.
What was I doing here? I had an apartment. A life. I had a community and a job. Hell, I had a hobby and was even thinking about dating again.
And I fit in just fine there.
Just as fine as I fit in here.
And wasn’t that the problem?
Memories assailed her…
“Do you understand?” His eyes, the same golden green as her own, glinted in the passing headlights.
“Of course, Papi.”
He tsked in annoyance.
“I mean, yes Otasan, I understand.”
When the door opened, I obediently stayed put until father was properly greeted as befitted his rank. I did not blink when he turned abruptly and left with the men who awaited at the pier. Instead, I began to sing along with the Japanese song on my playlist. The knowsoft that my father had implanted had given me the language basics but it felt rusty and awkward on my tongue. Even at 8 years old I knew that this would not meet my father’s standards. By the end of my first week here I would speak as a native. But to do this, I had to practice, and I had to hear it in something other than digital programming.
When the woman bent to look inside the car she seemed surprised by my music choice and in English beckoned me forward. She seemed unnerved by my sweet and obedient demeanor. A wonder that did not pass over the next 3 months of our living arrangement. Later, she would tell her future husband how attached we had become, how she thought of me often. In return, I could tell you her favorite perfume, how many times she sneezed when we passed a cat, and how she cried at old trideo love stories. But not because I missed her, but because I had learned to commit such details to memory. They were useful. Like music notes on a sheet. By playing upon them I could create certain songs, and by playing multiple notes together from multiple people I could create entire symphonies.
She was a blip on the radar however. By far not one of the shortest deployments of my father’s but not one of the more lengthy ones either. Indeed, by the time I was in double digits I spoke multiple languages and had lived in more countries than most people even knew existed anymore. And many that ceased to exist after we were there. I knew how to adapt to every station, could change the way I looked, the way I spoke, the way I even breathed based on what was needed to blend in.
One week I would eat at a dinner table so long that I could not make out the faces of the people on the other end, and the next week I could be squatting in mud mixed with pig shit, thankful for the broth I was eagerly spooning into my hungry mouth.
Wherever they sent my father… there I was. Me and his crew. Men and women I came to know as family. Men and women who one by one quit being there. Their reasons vast and different but more often than not it was death that drew them away.
I watched people dance. I watched people bleed.
They became my trideos. My favorite things to watch. My favorite stories.
In the process, I became aware that I had a knack. A talent if you will, for becoming whatever it was that a person needed. I learned that with a subtle manipulation here, a tweak there, a statement made offhandedly, or even a long lingering look, I could move people in any direction I fathomed.
Eager to put that skill to use I took up theater. My father had no inkling how to handle a daughter who engaged in stagecraft. He eyed my hobby like one would a particularly blurry photograph. But it kept me busy and safe, so by the time I was 12 I researched theater troupes, classes, and schools in every place we stopped. I set up tutors and lessons. I took long distance courses on make-up and visual arts, cosmetology and costume design.
And all around me the world burned.
It finally came to my attention around the age of 14 that the places my father and I stopped at were not safe. They were war zones, or contentious areas bent on the precipice of explosion. And that these explosions seemed to occur with alarming frequency with our proximity. I’d never questioned why some of the only regular figures in my life were my martial arts trainer, Akshay Payakaroon, and the Colonel. If we were ever stationary for more than 2 days Akshay would arrive and my training would resume its daily frequency. I also never realized that it was abnormal that I slept with an Ares Predator that I hated for its awkward heaviness in my grip. Nor, did I question my favorite pastime of all. Sniping. I loved the mathematics of setting up the perfect angle, registering the wind, adjusting the calculations just a hair here or there before squeezing the trigger with the knowledge that the thing I was examining from such long distance was going to explode in a satisfying climax. The Colonel oversaw those ventures with a pleased as punch smile whenever I succeeded.
These were simple norms for me.
I still would’ve most likely remained oblivious if I hadn’t done the most common thing 16 year olds do and gone and fallen “in love” with a soldier assigned to the Taiwanese base we were staying at. He made my stomach drop out and my heart speed up. We passed looks, and then smiles, and then notes. He took me on my first date and I spent entirely too long agonizing over what to wear and how to act, and whether or not my smile looked natural and if I should play coy or innocent.
When the call came for us to depart as it always did, I was convinced that he was “the one” with all the earnestness of youth. As we loaded up on the helicopter I pleaded with my father to let me stay behind and his gold green eyes showed a wariness that I couldn’t understand as he explained that, “There would be nothing to stay behind for.”
I thought he meant that our love wasn’t real. Or that he didn’t approve of my One True Love. Or that he was simply being fatherly. I plotted how to get back to Taipei as I pouted and sulked in the chopper. I was still giving my father the silent treatment that morning when over the trideo it was announced that what would become known as the Nationalist Civil War had broken out. Zhejiang, where the base was located, had been hit by a particularly nasty dirty bomb, there were no known survivors.
Our gold-green eyes met across the breakfast table. And held for a long terrible moment. I’m not sure what would have happened had either of us spoke. I’ll never know.
We had to deploy immediately. Something about a mole. At the time I hadn’t caught on that we weren’t talking about the fucking rodents. Fuck, I’d been an oblivious little brat. That was the first time my father left me somewhere. But, the Pueblo Corporation operating out of Mexico decided to take issue with my father’s presence in the argument surrounding the Soyoko tribe’s claim on tribal lands.
And boy did that explode in his face. Like the nasty dirty bomb that took out that entire area. His decision to leave me in Mexico with “people he trusted” became yet another turning point in our relationship. After all, how could I hate the man who moved heaven and hell and even bits of purgatory to get me back from my kidnappers?
So I got a renewed relationship with my father out of the deal, oh and Orthoskin. Because he couldn’t have me taking bullets like that again. And I learned that one doesn’t fuck with Shamans. Not that it was my choice to do so in the first place.
But choice is relative. After all, Authentic choices are hard to come by in this world.
Another restless night in the clocktower. The flash of lightning was impressive and it lit the darkness behind my lids, stirring me from sleep. Quite honestly, I was thankful for the intrusion because once again I was dreaming of Axel:
“The pope has decreed that even they have souls.”
“No way. Trolls?!” I couldn’t resist the wrinkling of my nose but kept my voice to a whisper as the infant between us stirred sleepily.
“Yes, even the trolls. Orcs, Dwarves, Elves…” He paused, his big hand running over the soft down of our son’s head, “I’m not sure about the Dragons though, that seems…almost sacrilegious doesn’t it?”
He knew I didn’t know the answer. He was the one with the theology background. A life devoted to the Lord’s good word. Like any dutiful wife, I conceded the point, mostly because I found the entire discussion so far removed from us. After all, where was I going to encounter a troll in our church community?
Axel’s knuckle had trailed too close to AJ’s mouth and with the hungry gurgle he turned toward it, his little face scrunching up.
I sighed. Sleep would wait.
And it looked like sleep again would elude me as the realization that the storm I was hearing was somehow inside the room with me. Prying my eyes open, leaving the memories of feeding my son behind with a razor sharp pain of longing, I stared into the darkness with confusion.
Another flash of lightning illuminated the room and I froze as the figure of a man was revealed inside the window. A hand shot beneath my pillow instinctively searching for the Ares Predator that I no longer slept with. I had traded it in when I took up co-sleeping with an infant and while my background demanded that I stay armed, I had switched it out for a Fichetta that I left in the concealed holster out of a newly learned and no longer useful habit.
My heart raced as I braced for a bullet, there was nothing to take cover behind and instead I changed my positioning. From defense to attack, my body coiled tight as I prepared to take him out. The chances of me doing so before he popped me were dismal but maybe I could carry him out the window with me and give the rest of the team a chance to—
Another lightning flash revealed Donegar’s face attached to my “attacker” simultaneously as I registered that he was headed out the window and not in…and that he didn’t seem to be aware that he was going.
My body was already strung taut like a bow and with a split second decision I launched forth on a spring, crouching low and spinning so that my lower right shin cracked the back of his knee and my upper left leg, split upward and scissored around his chest to catch him in the chest and knock his momentum backwards inside the clocktower.
He came awake with a grunt and a roll even as I flipped up into a low crouch, ready to defend myself against his anger. Yet, there didn’t appear to be a retaliation, just befuddled confusion. Rain slapped my back as I asked, “Och, are ye tryin to go for a dive there Donegar?”
“They almost had me.”
“Who?! Who almost had you??” I was glad I was crouched and not a large target, spinning about again to survey the neighboring landscape. I saw no signs of trespassers. Lightning helpfully illuminated the area for me again.
“No…no one. Nevermind.”
It was then that I registered the emotion in his words. The confusion lacing his words, the lethargic movements as he found a chair and fell back into it with a wariness that spoke of years of exhaustion. Years of weight. And I recognized it for what it was. A soldier’s burden.
“Y’know, ye could get help for that.” I said softly as I stepped back inside and pulled the clock face shut.
“I don’t remember what I’d need help for.”
Huh… now there was a problem I sometimes wouldn’t mind having. To not remember.
Of course, later I would really wish for that gift as the Johnson revealed our intended location: The Containment Zone.