The Kitten, the Witches and the Bad Wardrobe - Willow & Tara Forever

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 Post subject: Latency -- Novel with illustrations -- Rated R
PostPosted: Tue Sep 13, 2005 11:06 am 
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2. Floating Rose

Joined: Mon Apr 25, 2005 4:03 am
Posts: 35
Location: New Jersey
Chapter 18b

Simone sat, mingling with the darkness of the kitchen while fondling the polished silhouette of her nickel-plated pistol. The weapon's body warmed during two-hours of idle caress and rumination; silent time spent gazing at the window above the sink. The glow of dawn bled into the overcast, tingeing the buttermilk sky with hints of salmon and lavender. She ceased her stare at the world outside and placed her gun on the table. She collected the rest of the gadgets and papers, packed them back into the briefcase, and snapped its latches shut. She rose, stretching, deciding next to find her clothes and steal a shower before the others would wake to claim either of the home’s bathrooms.

She slinked to the laundry room at the end of the home's main hallway. Through dim light, she spotted a pair of tall wicker baskets on the washer. She peered into one and searched through neat stacks of earth-toned shirts and differing indigos of faded jeans, prodding through the casual fare to find her black fatigues at the bottom. She delved into the other basket and located her undergarments, completing the ensemble of total black. She decided to collect Vivian’s charcoal togs as well and headed toward the bathroom, pausing as she passed the door to the den. She pushed it open slowly, quietly, and crept inside.

She looked to the couch on the other side of the room. Vivian lay there, tucked beneath Simone’s overcoat, deep asleep-- Round face, a head of loose chocolate curls, creamed-coffee complexion. Simone snapped her eyes from the sight. She set their clothes onto the seat of a chair at the room's entrance and reached for the door. Before leaving, she glanced at the sleeping soldier and forced her eyes away again. She crept back into the hall and slipped into the bathroom.

Simone showered as she strove to live-- quiet, quick, and effective-- but slowed while rinsing, allowing a brief indulgence in the soothing fall of hot water against her shoulders and back. Though the austere existence of the previous day wracked her frame and muscles, her mind needed this secret comfort more than her body. The escape, the plane, the highway, that dinner with the Genius, the car, and now the soldier; she felt close to a breaking point, one that she was engineered not to have. She stopped the water.

While toweling dry, she took another lazy moment to revel in the comfort of cleanliness, standing, breathing in the invisible steam that curled up from the freshened skin of her chest and shoulders. The bathroom's mirror hazed from the moist air and Simone gazed through the fading film, regarding her reflection. The face staring back grew more familiar each day. This one, the third one, looked better than the second-- even, symmetrical, pleasing, no scars-- no hint of the procedure.

Heather had followed a magazine scrap to create it. Her knives and gauges achieved a result far exceeding the standard beauty of that nameless underarm deodorant model-- Noble and beautiful enough to charm anyone, yet generic and unremarkable enough to confound positive identity. A masterpiece.

Simone's eyes returned the flirty gleam of her fog-softened reflection. She smiled and turned to peer back at the mirror from over her shoulder, whispering, "Oh yeah... You’ve got the looks, honey." She untwisted and leaned closer, bracing her palms against the edge of the basin. "...No one can resist that face..." She closed her eyes and pressed her lips to the cool glass, kissing the handsome woman on the other side. "I love you too." She shook her head and recited again, raising her voice a little to achieve the inflection her ears craved, "I love you, Ma'am... Ma'am? I love you--"

A murmur beyond the room snapped Simone to alert. She yanked the towel from her body and wiped the smudge of her lips from the mirror with hasty swirls. A gentle rap of knuckles sounded against the door.

A timid voice asked, "Colonel? Ma'am?"

Simone wrapped the towel around herself and drew the door open. Her eyes met Vivian’s for a moment and darted away. "Yes?"

Vivian’s whisper rasped with recent slumber. "I um... I have to go, Ma'am."

"How did you know I was in here?"

"I heard your voice, Ma'am."

Simone fought to keep her expression consistent, struggling to withhold visible embarrassment. Before she could plan an escape, her voice acted. "You heard me? What I said?"

Vivian’s eyes flitted and wandered as she responded, "I couldn’t make out the words, Ma'am... I just thought I recognized your voice."

Simone held her breath and clamped her lips, preventing any further compromising outbursts. She nodded as she slid past Vivian and into the hallway. Keeping her head up and her eyes straight, she marched into the den and pushed the door to a gentle close behind her. She released the breath, silently cursing her foolishness. "That bitch is driving us crazy," she thought.

She jumped into her clothes and ran her fingers through her still-wet hair, shaping the short black bob into order. Once finished preparing her body for the certainty of another long day, she left the den and dropped into a chair in the still-empty kitchen. She sat, waiting for the stir of the other nine to seep around the corners as the glow outside the window grew into the pallor of early morning.

Within minutes, Barry shuffled in wearing an old T-shirt and boxer shorts, his attention fixed on tapping the buttons of his M-lync’s input cluster. He paused and looked up from his communicator to flash a smile. "Sleep well, Colonel?"

Simone smirked. "I caught a few minutes here and there."

"Good. Is your sister up yet?"

"Which one?"

"Claire the Genius."

Simone shrugged. "Beats me. Probably still snuggled up with her little... friend."

Barry grunted, "Yeah... They're an interesting duo alright." He reached down and pulled a chair from under the table. As he lowered to sit, he asked, "So, how'd I do? Did I pack everything you’ll need?"

"Yeah. Thanks. That was good thinking."

"Every now and then, I like to give the impression that I know what the hell I'm doing-- It's the mark of a good manager, I'm told."

Simone responded with a polite chuckle.

Barry set his M-lync on the table. He bowed his head and clasped his hands, lacing his fingers. His thumbs spread as he started, "Listen, Simone..." He leaned closer and lowered his voice, "I know you have some kind of problem with Vivian..."

She concealed her amusement, locking an ironic laugh behind a smirk.

Barry continued, "Look, I really don't care what it is. Just, maybe, take it easy on her. Okay?"

Simone lifted an eyebrow. "She gives good head?"

He scowled. "No!"

"She doesn't give good head..."

Barry's face tightened with frustration. He shook his head and grumbled, "I wouldn't know... She's twenty years younger than me for god's sake."

"Alright then... Why the whole 'don't hurt her' speech then? What do you care?"

"About fifteen years ago, I was stuck in Cincinnati. So much snow piled up in four hours that they had to close the airport. While creeping along in a shuttle bus from the terminal to a hotel, I became acquainted with a young flight attendant. After downing a few overpriced drinks together in the hotel bar, we headed up to my room and got even better acquainted. The next morning, I hopped on the first flight back to DC. That was it. Never heard from her again... Until last year."

Simone shifted her lips into a crooked grin. "I think you’ve been duped. She’s older than fifteen, Daddy."

"Last year, that same stewardess reached out to me. Her daughter was in trouble. She’d spent her seventeenth birthday in a juvenile prison. Mother Teixeira exhausted all options. She remembered me bragging about how I was connected. She was desperate for someone to help. She figured that I could pull some strings and get her daughter into the service despite the long juvenile record. She hoped that the Army could make Vivian to shape-up."

Simone rolled her eyes. "Very touching. I'm tearing already."

"The father ran off when she was still in diapers. The mother spent more hours at altitude than at home. Her daughter got mixed up in all sorts of trouble-- Arrested five times since she turned ten, joined gangs, expelled from school before she could graduate--"

"So, you want me to give her a break? For being a naughty little bitch?"

"I was hoping you'd see it differently," he leaned closer and continued, "Vivian was a troubled girl. She transformed from that to an absolute model soldier after only four weeks of drill. That's how she got to be the first pick for your job after you betrayed me."

"I didn't betray you."

"You used my name and forged my print."

She raised a finger. "Used, you said it yourself. I used you, I didn't betray you."

"Either way..." he waved his hands in dismissal before continuing, "She belongs to you now. I wanted to make sure that you understand who she is... And what she needs."

Simone's eyes darted from Barry's to the table's top. She swallowed and then looked back, asking, "She is mine, isn't she?"

"Take good care of her. She's a good girl. She's trying to be, at least. Keep her on a short leash. Make sure she stays that course."

"Does she know you nailed her mother?"

Barry shook his head. "She has no idea-- I’m just her Director. Please keep it that way."

"You’ll have to earn that."

Barry sighed, "How?"

"Make me a promise."

He reclined and folded his arms. "I’m listening..."

Simone felt her mouth twist as she considered the best phrasing. "When you’re around her... When you talk to her... Could you... Could you..."

"Yes?"

Simone looked away and tossed a dismissive wave. "Never mind."

"No, really... What were you going to say Colonel?"

She felt her cheeks heating, defying her will to conceal emotion. "It’s nothing. Forget about it... And don’t worry, I won’t tell her about your little search of her mommy’s cavities... She’s already struggling not to vomit."

Barry grinned. "As always, you’re a genuine lady through and through."

# # #

Aki sat next to Claire in the coziness between the back wall and kitchen table, still nibbling at the remnants of the small breakfast she prepared for them. While munching on the last corner of toast, she caught Claire's sly smile in the corner of her vision. She returned the grin, contributing to their simple, wordless conversation, recalling the giggles, steam, and slippery touches of their shower a half-hour ago. She knew it was the reason for the unusual cheer in Claire's quite demeanor. The sudden presence of others dissolved the room's seclusion and the Genius turned away and sipped her coffee, a lingering grin visible high in her cheeks.

Aki looked to the new presence and tensed. Simone had entered with a uniformed girl stepping close behind.

The Spy stopped at the far counter and reached to a bowl of fruit, taking an apple from the assortment. As the other started to follow suit Simone lashed-out, grabbed the girl's hair and yanked backward, twisting the soldier's face toward the ceiling in an instant.

The soldier's jaw loosened; she gasped, her hand retreating from the vicinity of the mixed fruit. While holding the brutal grip on the girl's hair, Simone chided, "I didn't give you permission to eat."

Aki tried to rise, compelled to intervene, but found her left thigh pressed to the seat by a solid grip. She looked to Claire, her eyes questioning. The Genius frowned and shook her head, whispering, "Let it be."

Aki whispered back, "But--"

Claire shook her head again. "Not our business, Aki-san."

Aki turned her attention back to the others, hoping to find an opportunity to stop the cruel spectacle. Simone guided the soldier to the table and released her grip. She issued a soft order, "Sit." The girl obeyed, drawing the chair opposite Claire. Simone headed back to the counter. The soldier sat, head hanging, staring at the surface of the table.

With the tension now somewhat lessened, Aki leaned forward to whisper, "Hi. I'm Aki Nashumara... Um, are you alright?"

The girl did not look up or reply.

"That's Vivian," Claire whispered, completing the introduction.

"It's nice to meet you, Vivian," Aki said.

The soldier's eyes flitted up to contact Aki's before drooping back to stare at the table. Simone returned and seated herself in the empty chair opposite Aki. She snapped a bite from her apple and finished chewing before saying, "Aki, this is Vivian. She's here because she thinks she can help us."

"We met already," Aki replied, forcing a smile. She watched Simone continue her meal next to Vivian's empty place setting and then turned to address the stoic soldier. "Um, Vivian?"

Simone answered, "What is it, honey?"

Aki began to understand the rules. She turned to the Spy and used her most courteous tone. "I'd be happy to make some breakfast for Vivian... If she'd like some."

Simone shook her head. "No food for her. She's sick. We don't want her yacking all over the plane." She leaned back and bit-off another mouthful from the apple.

Aki turned back to Vivian. "Upset tummy?"

The soldier looked to Simone. The Spy nodded, her mouth still busy chewing. Vivian turned to Aki and replied, "Yes, Ms. Nashumara."

Aki observed the pair for a few more moments, trying to gage their moods. Simone finished the apple and tossed bare core onto Claire's empty plate. Aki nudged into the pause, volunteering, "My mom used to make me a special drink when I had an upset stomach..."

Vivian nodded, looking again to the table's top.

"What was it?" Claire asked.

Aki turned her eyes up, digging through her memory for the recipe. "I think it was one part black tea, one part green tea... about a teaspoon of cinnamon and a big pinch of ginger."

"Sounds kinda good," Claire said.

Simone nodded. "Some ancient Japanese herbal remedy?"

Aki shrugged. "Maybe... My mom got it from Family Triangle magazine."

Vivian chuckled for a second and stifled herself. Simone winked to the girl. "You can laugh, soldier. You're at-ease."

Aki asked Vivian, "Would you like me to make you some? It always helped me feel better."

Vivian paused and eventually nodded. "Yes, please, Ms. Nashumara."

"Sarah's probably got everything I'll need." She turned to Claire and asked, "Some of it might be up high though... Will you reach for me?"

"I'd be happy to give you a hand," Simone interjected, rising from her chair.

The sly one's volunteerism caught Aki off-guard. She wanted to protest, but decided not to jeopardize the civility that calmed the room's previously tense atmosphere. "Thanks." She stood and walked to the other side of the room and started to open cupboards, searching for the needed ingredients.

"You said black tea, right?" Simone asked. Aki felt the Spy's body touching her back. Black-cloaked arms angled up at each side of her head, reaching into a high cabinet, trapping her within the Simone's intimidating, beyond-friendly stance. She tensed. She would have ducked and run if not for Claire's assuring presence mere meters away.

She cleared her throat. "Um, I'm going to need more room to--" Simone's body squeezed Aki's stomach against the counter's edge, cutting the sentence short. Aki whispered, pleading, "Please don't..."

Simone's pressure did not yield. She could hear Claire's voice behind her, engaged in conversation with one of the men, obviously too preoccupied to notice Simone's bullying. Aki's mind raced, wondering whether to call-out for help. Simone's force caused no real pain, just subdued terror.

"Found it." Simone said. Her body leaned away at once, ceasing its forceful contact with Aki's. "Green tea too?"

Aki's fingers remained in tense curls. She could not bring herself to answer.

"I'm sorry, Aki... Was I crushing you? I needed to lean in for a second... Tea's on the top shelf."

"Oh," Aki managed to reply.

Next to her left ear, she felt a sudden closeness followed by a whisper, "Did she tell you? Last night?"

Aki asked slowly, "Tell me what?"

"She loves you-- A lot."

She nodded. The discomfort she felt at the Spy's nearness lessened at the declaration and its emphasis. "Did you see any ginger up there?"

"No. Maybe it's over here..." Simone shuffled to the side and swung open the door to another cabinet. Her hand disappeared into the cupboard and after a few glass-bottle clinks it reappeared holding a whole ginger root. "I guess you'll need a grater..."

Aki looked over, watching the Spy go through a sequence of drawers; opening, inspecting, and closing each. She kept her tone even as she said, "Simone... Don't take me the wrong way, but I think we need to, you know... Reach a understanding."

"What do you mean, honey?" Simone asked, rummaging through a drawer stuffed with clanking gadgets. She produced a flat grater and then set it and the root onto the counter in front of Aki.

Aki reached for the items. "You hate me. I don't want you to hate me."

"I never hated you, honey-- We just had a rough start. I needed to be rough so that no one would get suspicious."

"What about when you tried to kill me?"

"I never did any such thing." She added, "I actually had the opportunity at least three times... You'll notice that I never took any of them."

Aki's chest tightened at Simone's threatening admission. She closed her eyes.

"I never would have and never will, cutie-pie. That's all I'm trying to say."

Aki opened her eyes at the touch of Simone's fingers to the back of her hand. She looked straight ahead, keeping her voice even as she asked, "Why should I believe you?"

"You don't have to." Simone's fingers slipped away to rest on the counter space alongside Aki's hand. "You'll probably want to grate that ginger over a plate, no?"

"Um, yes. Thanks."

Simone slid a small plate in front of Aki. "If she loves you, then I love you too. Okay?"

"I don't see that as a guarantee."

"You don't think Claire loves you?"

"She told me she does. I believe her."

"You don't think I love you too?"

"Why should you? Don't you want Claire all to yourself?"

"That's preposterous, honey," Simone chuckled. She reached for one of the tea containers and pried its lid open. "That was all just a smokescreen-- To keep the other's confused. You really think I'm that sick?"

Aki sighed, "I guess not. I'm sorry."

"It's okay." Simone pushed a heavy pinch of leaves into a tea ball and screwed halves of the sphere together. "Look, we have a lot in common. We should be friends, close friends. We're going to be sisters-in-law, you know."

Aki's face grew hot. Through a tight, involuntary smile, she replied, "I don't know about that..."

Simone snapped, "Listen, Aki-- You need allies. I'm offering to be yours."

Aki turned, half-facing face Simone. She squared her eyes and whispered, "What do you mean?"

Simone shook her head. "I won't say anything more. You decide for yourself. My offer's on the table."

"Friendship or alliance?"

"Both. Take one or the other if you must, but please accept at least one."

"And if I don't take either?"

Simone clamped her eyes and leaned forward, pressing her palms to the counter. "Dammit, why is this so fucking difficult?"

"Are you confusing me on purpose?"

Simone remained motionless, her body balanced in a forward cant, her head hanging.

Aki started to feel sorry for Simone's obvious distress. "Are you okay? I mean, are you having a crazy spell? Claire gets those too..."

Simone shook her head. "I'm... Aki, I... I need your help. I'm just not very good at asking you for it."

"My help?"

"She's driving me crazy."

"Claire?"

"Vivian."

Aki raised a brow. "You two are--"

"No! And we never will be. She's not like you and me."

Aki's pity for Simone grew as she grew to understand the familiarity of the Spy's personal misery. "You wish she was, though."

Simone looked away for a moment and then returned her eyes to Aki's. "No. I don't know... I just don't know anymore."

Aki looked over to the table, finding Claire engaged in conversation with Barry Schon and Vivian glancing backward toward Simone's location. She turned back to the Spy and asked, "What can I do to help?"

"I don't know, honey. I really don't."

Aki offered, "I may have been there myself a few times. I think I understand what you're going through."

"Can I talk to you, then... When I need to, can we talk?"

Aki's mouth curved into a little smirk as she considered the needy proposition from the world's deadliest woman. "Sure. Like you said, we're going to be sisters-in-law someday anyway, right?"

"Thank you. I... Um, I... Thanks." Simone gave a small smile and stepped away, shuffling to the other end of the counter as Josh Berman labored into the space between them.

Aki finished the teas, added the spices, and headed to Vivian with the mixture.

# # #

Claire smiled, watching as Aki rose and walked over to the counter with Simone. She hoped the two could learn to get along, and this mutual gesture gave indication that both were willing to try. Barry entered the kitchen, adjusting the knot in his tie with one hand, his m-lync clutched in the other, engaged in conversation over the device. Claire listened, dividing her attention between Aki's activities and Schon's discussion.

Barry stayed silent for a moment and then said, "Of course... I understand. But that's--" He paused to listen for a few moments. "Understood, however, they could be at Berman's house. That's why we're going there now... It makes sense that they're together... Yes. Just... Just tell the buyer that we'll hand over the whole gang in seventy-two hours. They can wait a little longer, right?"

Claire looked to Vivian, hoping to read some reaction form the soldier's face, but found an expressionless stare into nothing. She looked back to Barry.

He continued, "If they're unwilling to wait, then they can find their supposed super-beings elsewhere, right? I mean, come on Dimitri, we're the ones who have them. We set the price, and we call the shots." Barry paused again and then relied, "Okay, fair enough. We will have them. I'll find the missing two. If you can stall the buyer for another couple of days, then we're golden. Alright." Barry clapped the cover of his communicator shut, ending the call. He turned toward the table and smiled to Claire. "Good morning, Ms. Galloway. Nice to see you again."

Claire returned the smile. "I heard that you're still looking for me."

Barry chuckled, "Yes, well, the truth can be too upsetting for certain parties to hear, as you well know."

"Thank you for letting us go. It's a very decent thing you've chosen to do."

Barry looked away for a second and then back to Claire. He scratched his head as he replied, "Please, Ms. Galloway... You should know better than to use the term 'decent' in conjunction with my name."

"I don't see any need to retract my comment."

Barry nodded toward the empty seat where Aki had been. "Mind if I sit here?"

"It's free for the moment."

Barry settled onto the chair and looked across to Simone and Vivian. "'Morning, Viv. Sleep well?"

"I think so, sir." She added, "The Colonel took care of me. I think my fever's gone."

"Glad to hear it. You're a born fighter, Lieutenant."

Vivian asked, "Was that Dimitri, sir? On the 'lync?"

Barry nodded.

"Who's Dimitri?" Claire asked.

Barry turned to Claire and answered, "He's the big boss. He chairs the Committee of Five."

"Who are th--"

Barry interrupted Claire's question. "They make the policies and wallow in the indignity of profit."

"So, they're tyrannical capitalists?"

Barry shook his head. "Worse. They're a collectivist oligarchy suffering through an incurable addiction to cash."

"Sounds like capitalists to me."

Barry shook his head. "They hate capitalism. They'd rather feed off the steady trough of public money than speculate in the free market. They're worse pigs than any capitalist is capable of becoming-- Capitalists will freely admit they're just in it for profit. These idiots delude themselves into thinking that they're saving the world."

Claire smirked. "Anti-capitalists? Sounds kind of un-American."

"Only two of them are from the U.S. The others are from Europe, Africa, and Asia."

"Where are they? I mean, like, are they all over... Even in China or Aztlan?"

"All the Committee members are from different places, but they conduct their business from New York City-- By no small coincidence-- at the former headquarters of the U.N."

"A secret world-government?"

Barry shook his head, "More efficient, less bleeding-heart, all action. They're ruthless. You see, they think they're smarter, know better-- Elitist assholes. That's why they operate above and beyond any recognizable form of democracy. They see themselves as a body of noble, benevolent dictators. They think the population can't be trusted with the task of self-government. In some ways, they're right, but not in-total. After all, a benevolent dictator is still a dictator."

"You think an uniformed and misled public could have any capability of making the right decisions?"

Barry raised a finger. "Why are they misinformed? Who's controlling their collective will with dogmatic falsehoods? It's an illusion. They've built a huge wall around their power. Lies are the stones, ignorance a mortar that grows stronger all the time, solidifying into apathy. It's bigger than you or me, Genius. It's a game that we'd best remain spectators to."

"I've found that just standing by and watching can be pretty dangerous."

"Yeah, it can get a little hairy, but the players still do all the real bleeding and sweating. Spectators can relax and enjoy the beer and hotdogs." Barry grinned.

"But they have to buy it-- Everything they enjoy... It isn't handed to them. And, if you take enough damage in the stands, why not throw-in and join the game?"

Another voice groaned into the debate, "Sounds like you've met your match, Barry. Don't give in, Claire. Press him on the details and his arguments always crumble."

Claire turned to watch Josh lope into the kitchen and toward the counter next to where Aki and Simone stood. After reaching to open a cupboard, he tensed and pressed a palm against his lower back.

Barry smirked. "I slept on the floor, and you're the one with back pain?"

Josh replied, his voice tight, "I think I pulled a muscle helping Sarah and nasty-puss get Cecilia into the tub... Not to mention all the times I had to get her in and out of that van yesterday." He straightened and took a few labored steps toward the table. Vivian stood, offering her chair, extending a steadying hand toward his shoulder. Josh eased himself onto the seat and nodded, visibly thanking the soldier.

Barry said, "I've got hyprocet, man. You want some?"

"No, thanks." Josh shook his head, shifting in the chair, wincing through the motion. "That stuff makes me sick."

Hyprocet-- Just hearing that word started a warm stir through the muscles of Claire's arms and legs. A prescription painkiller; her favorite. She remembered finishing a week's supply in one day the last time she had her hands curled around a bottle. Before she could think, she blurted, "I could use a few."

All heads turned to her after the sudden sentence. Barry and Simone wore similar expressions of curiosity, Aki and Vivian were blank, Josh looked away and sighed. The room's scrutiny multiplied Claire's discomfort. Her voice again acted on its own, fueled by greed for the pleasure-chemical. "My frostbite... It really hurts. A-A few doses of that would really help."

"I dunno..." Barry looked toward where Aki stood, holding her special-recipe tea. "Is it okay with the misses?"

Aki looked to Claire for a moment and then to Barry. She sighed, "She can have two... Just don't give her the bottle."

Claire felt a spark of anger at Aki's addition, but then sank into shame, realizing the prudent truth in her lover's warning. Aki knew her well enough not to trust her-- A notion that carried a mix warmth and hurt.

"Here," Barry said, digging into his blazer to retrieve a plastic bottle. He handed it to Aki as she approached the table. "You can play pharmacist for the Genius today."

Aki gave a wry grin as she clutched the pills. She nudged her way between Vivian and Josh to place a steaming mug in front of the soldier. "Drink the whole thing, but drink it slow."

Vivian nodded. "Thank you."

Barry said, "That HXX started making some funny noises on the way over here. If only there we had an experienced diesel mechanic around here to take a look at it."

Claire turned to see Schon flashing a grin in her direction. "What kind of noises?"

Barry shrugged. "Like a clackity-click-click whenever I let my foot off the gas to slow down. Would you mind checking it out before we go?"

Claire looked first to Aki, then back to Schon. "I guess... I don't have any tools though."

"Josh?" Barry asked.

"I've got a box of odd wrenches on a shelf in the garage. You're welcome to them."

"Whattaya say, Genius?" Barry asked, rising from his seat.

Claire nodded. "Alright. Let me listen to it first. Then we'll see if we need to get wrenches involved."

She followed Schon out the front door to the driveway. He walked to the passenger side of the truck, opened the door and climbed inside. She saw him beckoning to her through the window, so she popped the driver's door open and looked in, questioning.

"Hop in and start her up. You'll hear the problem once she's run for a few minutes."

Claire hoisted herself onto the bench and pulled the door shut. She pushed the button for the engine's starter and cranked the motor into operation. The idle felt smooth; the motor settled into a mellow thrum. She turned to Barry and shrugged. "Sounds healthy to me."

Barry looked straight ahead, gazing through the windshield as he spoke, "It will... There's something else you need to hear." A moment passed before Barry added, "Do you trust me?"

"I guess."

"Then clear you mind. I mean it-- Don't think about what I'm saying, just listen. You have to keep your thoughts on the motor. Listen to the sounds it makes."

"What... I don't--"

"Please. Just listen to the motor. Don't think about what I'm about to say. Just absorb it, okay? Let the words enter your ears, but don't think about the subject I'm talking about."

Claire nodded. She listened to the rhythm of the engine and scanned the instruments on the dashboard.

"Cecilia is screwing with us," Barry started, "She's manipulating everyone. I've witnessed it before. Remember, keep your thoughts clear."

Claire struggled to flush her mind of Barry's words at once. She gazed at the temperature display on the dash, trying to recall whether its value had climbed since her first glance. She spoke, trying to further distance her thoughts from where they threatened to lean, "The engine's still kind of cold."

"That's right. You need to find a way to stop her. I don't think she knows what she's doing."

"But she can't... We all get sick when she talks to us."

"That's what she wants you to think. She can whisper just as well as she can shout, Claire. I've heard it. Now focus on the goddamn motor."

"If you think that's the problem, then I don't know if I can fix it. I don't even know where to begin."

"You're going to fix it, Genius. I know you'll find a way. I may be the only one who notices that tapping sound, but that doesn't mean the whole thing won't break down-- Soon."

"But what should I do? What um, tools can I use?"

"Have you ever tried putting an ear to the hood? Just listening? Maybe you'll find the solution by observation."

"This is stupid. She can hear everything we're think--"

"Sure, maybe it's a crank pin..." Barry blared, "Or maybe not... She's distracted right now. Osterholm and Sarah are giving her a bath. She's distracted... but not totally."

"How did you learn so much about the motor?"

"Some of my mechanics back at the Lake clued me in. They have all sorts of diagnostic tools for this particular brand. None of them understand much about it, but they made some interesting observations."

"I think I have an idea. I think I know what tools I need."

"Great. We're going to scram in about an hour. Once we get to Fairchild, you'll have a whole cross-country flight to work on the problem."

# # #

Aki rose from the sofa as she heard Claire and Schon come through the front door. She looked to Claire as they entered the living room. "What's wrong with the truck?"

"Nothing the Genius can't fix," Barry said, grinning. "I'm going to start cracking the whip, get everyone moving." He stepped away and into the kitchen.

Aki stepped closer to Claire to be snatched into a hug. She leaned into the embrace and smiled at the firm kiss to the top of her head.

"Do you still have that Hyprocet?"

Aki leaned away and nodded, releasing a sigh.

"Could I have a few? The skin on my hands and feet--"

"Okay already. You can have your pills, nushi."

"Are you pissed at me? Because I have frostbite?"

Aki shook her head. "No. I just... I don't like it when you get fucked-up. It kinda scares me." She wriggled her right hand into her jeans pocket and pulled the vial of pills free. "I guess I'm a little insulted... That you think you need this. Even with... Nevermind." She twisted the cap from the bottle and reached to take Claire's left hand in her right. She carefully shook three of the green tablets from the bottle's mouth onto the enflamed skin of Claire's upturned palm. "I'm giving you one extra." She brushed her thumb against the side of Claire's hand and added, "Because you're mine."

Claire leaned down and placed a kiss on Aki's forehead. "Thanks, cutie-chan." She took a step back and grinned. She patted her left thigh, asking, "You know what this is?"

Aki shook her head.

"It might not look like it now, and you probably can't read it, but as soon as we get in the truck, it'll be a lap with your name on it."

Aki felt a grin lifting the corners of her mouth. She reached for Claire's hand and held the pill bottle close to it once more. "Follow that with a kiss and you've charmed your way to number four."

Claire leaned down and pressed an avid kiss onto Aki's lips before lifting away. She shook her head. "Three's enough... You'd better get your stuff together. We're leaving soon I'm going to find something to wash these down with."

Aki's smile faded as she watched her love scurry past the kitchen's entrance and around the corner, into the hallway. Her heart sank at the visible confirmation that Claire had no intention of taking the pills with anything soft.

-- TBC in ch18c


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