Sunday, 25 Nov 2035
Leo sighed quietly to himself as he leaned against the door frame. He had come down the hallway as loudly as he could, with heavy steps and the occasional cough, but here was Olivia, hunched over her laptop and dead to the world. He didn’t want to startle her, but after his conversation with Eybi…well he needed her help. Pitching his voice into a softer timbre, he knocked twice and called, “Hello Olivia. Do you have a moment?”
She heard him coming down the hall. It didn’t matter if he stomped harder or walked softer, there was a cadence to his step that she could mark as his. Survival trait, knowing who was who before you saw them … or they saw you.
Friendly: Leo, her head whispered and possible threat eliminated, she kept on typing. She’d neglected her journal dreadfully, even from before her trip into Sigil. So much had happened of late that she’d barely had the time to jot a note on paper, much less type it out on a keyboard.
As for her blogs…
… Thursday, 08 Nov 2035, Day 383, 1192 days After …
She despaired of ever getting them caught up. So much of her life lay in bits and bytes and pixels on a screen, out there in the world for anyone to see, that she wondered how Kristin could even dare call her a shut-in in need of exposure to the outside world. Didn’t the woman know just how routinely Olivia bared herself to the harshest judges of all? The court of public opinion hadn’t been gentle prior to the internet and over the decades since, it had become even more unforgiving.
Shut in, my ass… She’s never had a readership breathing down her neck for their daily dose of schadenfreude, of ripping open your wounds so they can heal in the sunlight and air of honest public acknowledgment.
A bit of a hate on tonight, don’t you think?
More than a bit. A lot, actually. Behind some of it was a reluctance to examine the possible truth behind Kristin’s pointed comments, much less Eybi’s idea that her internal perception of herself had a direct bearing of her transformation in the other plane, to say nothing about the form her magic took: Unintelligble words producing unpredictabale results.
It was galling, really, when so much of her sanity for the past several years relied on words, until she was everything through words, was anything because of words. Words she’d chosen with painstaking care paving the road to her recovery, forging her armor against misfortune and doubt.
… There in the midst of it so alive and alone/Words support like bone….
The lyrics of the song sang through her head, the soft chimes and percussive line tugging at her inner ear only to be scattered by a knock on the door. Olivia wilted, knowing it was futile to hold onto either the song in her head or the words in her fingertips. Leo wasn’t going away, no matter how hard she tried to ignore him. His query only confirmed it.
She closed her eyes and ruthlessly reset the gears in her head. They took a few seconds to realign.
“Hi, Leo.” Olivia opened her eyes and looked past the edge of her laptop screen. She had an unobstructed view of him in the doorway. Safe house this may be, but she didn’t forget the important things like never putting her back to a door unless she could still see it. She dredged up a smile for him. “Sorry. What can I do for you?”
“There’s no need to apologize,” Leo replied. “I know you value your privacy and your time to recharge. Normally I wouldn’t dream of intruding on you, but I need your help.” He smiled softly.
He had trouble gauging Olivia. She was a raw nerve wrapped around an iron core. To survive what she had survived, there must be great strength in her, but her reactions to aid or criticism seemed random at times. Harley and Kristen wore their emotions on their sleeves and he could usually read their minds in the creases of their smiles and the furrows of their brows. And Eybi….
It didn’t matter. He had decided somewhere along the way that this group was not a bunch of assets to be managed, but something altogether different.
“I need to chat with you for a moment about Eybi. I’m afraid that I’ve upset him. It was careless of me really. I suspect that someone in his family may be tied to the Dire Wolves. I assume you recall them—their men shot Kristen. Unfortunately this appears to be somewhat of a … touchy subject.”
Leo sighed again. “So I’m afraid that he now hates me in the way that teenagers do. That is not really a problem, I can bear that burden. What I cannot bear is him doing something foolish to get himself—or one of you—hurt. I am not asking you to spy on him for me, or report his movements, or anything invasive. Just…watch out for him, please? I fear that he believes himself invincible, and we both know that he is not.” Leo smiled another sad smile, “Everyone can be hurt.”
Olivia leaned back in her chair as far as she could go, her toes digging into the rug and pushing her further away, a subconscious reflex against something distasteful. She caught herself, froze, and did a quick mental check.
Wall at her back? Yes. Room to dive left or right? Yes. Getting past Leo? Not happening.
She wondered if he even realized that by lounging in the door, he’d cut off her only means of escape. He was not a small person. At over six feet and strikingly angular, with an aquiline expression and eyes that missed nothing, he cut an imposing figure. Legs trembling in protest, she nevertheless rolled her chair forward again, hoping she’d made it look as if she was merely adjusting her seat … but in her heart of hearts, she knew it must have looked childishly obvious he’d startled her.
Startled? Be honest, Liv. He scares you sometimes.
Unlike Eybi. Which she didn’t want to think too deeply as to why. But the “why” she wouldn’t examine was nudging her to alarm on his behalf and it made her speak without thinking first.
“Do you really think he’ll hurt himself?” Olivia quivered in her chair as her body couldn’t decide between rising to go look for the teen and staying put. Where is Eybi? Is he okay? Something must be wrong if Leo’s coming to me over this. She took a deep breath and held up a hand to stay Leo … and herself. “Hold on. Give me a minute.”
She closed her eyes and reset her gears again. Dire Wolves. Possible connection. Family, maybe. Dislikes the association. Has implants—freaky shit there but—Focus, dammit! Teen. Doesn’t diss me like an adult. Was actually nice to m—Leo’s asking me to …. Oh. Shit. Of course Leo would come to me and ask. Classic asset manipulation. Why wouldn’t he? I’m the one who has an in with the subject. Emotional ties. Even if they’re only one way. Are they one way? She paused, frowning with her eyes tight shut. Not entirely. I like all of them, even Leo, but … Face it, Liv. Eybi’s like the cool brother you’ve never had and you like him. All right. I need more data.
“Invincible?” Olivia opened her eyes and looked at him. “Or desperate? Sometimes they look the same on the outside.” She shook her head and flicked her hand in a dismissive gesture. “But getting back to the important part: yes, I’ll keep an eye on him because I actually consider him a friend. And what do you want me to keep a special eye out for? Cuz I know you’ve got something in mind. Because: Dire Wolves. Implants. Teen hormones and teen decision-making capacity. Not a particularly stable combination.” She huffed a breath, cast her eyes down, and said softly, “I know all about the not-stable.”
Leo watched Olivia squirm, stutter and race back and forth in place, like a highly talkative caged animal. He’d meant not to intrude and had trapped her instead. Another internal sigh. A subconscious slump of the shoulders, tilting of the head, the ghost of a smile. Hundreds of micro-adjustments meant to telegraph, I’m not a threat. Everything will be OK.
He eased out of the doorway as she spoke, going into the room just far enough to step aside and slide down the wall. Sitting on his hands he let her find her center, waiting patiently and quietly for her to find her train of thought and ride all the stations to the end. He let her last words hang in the air for just a few heartbeats before replying.
“Perhaps you are correct. He may be just that: desperate and alone. I think, in our own way, we are all desperate and alone. Maybe that’s why we found each other and formed this ragtag band. Although I cannot know his mind, I do know his actions. He has at times taken great risks. When we formed this group I promised to try and keep you all safe. Each of you has something precious to lose, including Eybi whether he realizes it or not.” Pain and great loss rippled across Leo’s carefully crafted facade as he continued, “I have nothing to lose. So please, all I ask is this: watch him for me because he will not let me protect him. He can be angry at me all he wants, but I cannot—will not—allow him to be harmed. Is that something you can do? I realize that it is a lot to ask.”
Olivia listened intently and watched Leo watching her. In so doing, she finally saw something she’d missed.
Liv, you oblivious idiot!
All the little things she’d noticed and shoved aside as paranoid misdirection, all the tiny winces and pauses that punctuated his actions, the words he’d left unsaid, made him real to her in a way he hadn’t been before. The topography of his internal landscape was hauntingly familiar. She bit her lip again, felt the sharp sweet pain and tasted copper, and moving very carefully as if not to frighten him into bolting, Olivia dared to join him on the floor. She sat next to him without touching yet close enough to feel the heat off him, and spoke softly to their feet.
“I’m sorry. Loss isn’t easy.” Her throat tightened and she paused to recover. “When loss is big enough, it takes too much of you with it and you can’t afford to lose any more. Because there’d be nothing of you left. So you hang on to what you’ve got. Tooth and toenail. Trenches and barbed wire. And you dynamite any bridge trying to cross. Because being afraid is easier than being open or being brave. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned,” Olivia added, shaking now but still choking the words out. “You replace what you’ve lost by what you give, not by what you hoard. So I’ll help you, Leo. And if you ever want to talk about … well, anything, really … build that bridge. I’ll meet it halfway with mine. Okay?”
He turned to look at her and flashed an easy grin. A false grin? He was never really sure anymore. “My dear Olivia, it is sweet of you to offer. I know that even making such an offer costs you. Do not worry about me. I have plenty of bridges left, it’s just the destination that leaves much to be desired. Helping all of you is enough for now.” Leo felt very tired suddenly, as weeks of running settled into his back and shoulders all at once. “Thank you too, for watching Eybi. It puts my mind at ease.” He closed his eyes and pushed his frame back against the wall.
“If you don’t mind,” he said after a moment, “I’m just going to sit here for a minute? I think you’ve managed to find the most comfortable bit of floor in this dump.”
Olivia listened to Leo, his voice warm and soft from fatigue and care. It reminded her of a drink she’d had once, rich with coffee and chocolate, hot, sweet, and bitter combined. His tone was a balm to her distress that she’d gone too far, even as his words spiked through the comfort to make her realize her friend wasn’t quite at ease as he claimed.
Friend? When did that happen? she asked herself, even though she already knew the answer: When he knocked on your door. But that only begged the question: How long had he been knocking before you finally heard him and let him in? Him, Eybi, Kristin, the others? And now that they’re inside, what are you going to do?
Sitting there and turning it over in her head, Olivia explored the shape of that dilemma, a prickly bundle of conflicting emotions that defied explanation and refused to be ignored. She thought about bridges and loss, of gaining through giving. But what would she gain by receiving? She could feel something vital hovering just out of reach like a palpable thing but what was it? Friendship? Acceptance? Sanity? All three?
Perhaps, but however much she wanted it, she suspected it would it hurt her in the end.
She could go back to her computers, her blog, her words, just slide back into the safety of absolute control. Or she could take a chance and trust something she couldn’t hold tight in her fist or make disappear by pressing a key. She’d opened a door and the world had walked in … but did she dare walk out?
Half in the light from the hallway, half in the shadow of a weary and hurting friend, something heavy and smothering inside her broke and fell away … and Olivia knew what she had to do. She leaned into Leo and gently threaded her arm through his.
“Sleep,” she said, finding his hand and lifting it free. Lacing her fingers in his, she built her bridge, listened to his breaths descending into the deep draws of sleep, and waited for him to cross.