April 11, 2028
Les Crayères, France
“Why,” an apprehensive voice asked, “Why in the world would you shoot her?”
“She was not cooperating,” replied a second, bitter tone.
“That is no reason to shoot our only link!” the first man’s rebuke echoed loudly throughout the room. “Major Wilson, what you did was unnecessary and uncalled for. I would have you dishonorably discharged.”
“General Allen, I believe this… menace is conspiring with our enemy! Why would he keep a useless, skinny girl alive when he has killed those stronger than her without hesitation?” he paused for a moment, “General, I think you are prejudiced in her favor. You side with that monster just because of your history with her, and the captain.”
General Matthew Allen’s voice became dark and menacing, “Stand down, major.”
Wilson refused, “I want to know why the enemy would keep a creature like her alive? Why he did not dispose of her like the others.”
“Stand down…” Allen broke off.
Finally stirring from the bitter voices, Meryl whispered with her eyes still shut, “He had… his reasons.” She coughed hoarsely, “He said my death would count for nothing. That I was not worth killing. He said that I am more precious alive.”
A warm, gentle hand pressed against her forehead. She slowly opened her eyelids to see Ira’s frightened face look back at her. He smiled reassuringly even though fear was evident.
“Are you ready to tell us the truth, witch?” Wilson spat, ruining their tender moment.
Feeling that some of her strength had returned, Meryl sat up and looked directly at the general, ignoring the major’s question and furious glower.
Matthew had definitely changed over the years. Instead of the blond, buzz cut, strapping football captain she remembered, Matthew’s hair had lengthened past his ears and had darkened. Instead of the herculean stature, he looked weathered, as if the years of service had taken their toll.
“Matthew,” she smiled coolly, “it’s good to see you again. Twenty years, right?”
“Actually, it’s been eleven years since we last spoke. However, I am doing well, Meryl, and I am sorry about Major Wilson’s actions.” He glanced angrily at the shorter man next to him. “His reaction to your denial was needless.” The small smile on his lips faded, “But, I implore you we need to know any information you can give us about Erebus.”
“I can’t do that.” She glanced at the sheets that covered her. She realized that she had been cleansed of the grime and dried blood. She was no longer in her tattered, clothing, but a large white tee shirt. The scent was remarkably similar to one she recognized. “If you were to find out what I know, your opinion of me would change greatly.”
“But you cannot hope to protect him-”
She cut him off quickly but politely, “I am not protecting him, Matthew. I am protecting you and Raven’s men.”
After a long studied glance, Allen accepted her statement rather disappointedly. “Very well, I shall leave you and Raven to speak privately; follow me, Major.”
Ira had a sudden thought and turned to the general, “Matthew, can I have a quick word with you?”
“Certainly,” the general smiled rather forcibly.
The three men walked out of the room and shut the door behind them.
In a hushed tone, Ira asked, “Did you know that Meryl was Aether this whole time?”
Matthew sighed slowly and did not look at his friend. “Yes, I knew.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?” Ira’s pained look made everything harder than it should have been.
The general placed his strong hand on Ira’s shoulder. “If I had told you before your mission, you would not have believed me. You would have thought I was telling a terrible joke. I know you were there the day she… died, and I did not want that memory to cloud your mind. You’re my best friend Ira; I was trying to protect you so you could focus on the mission. When I found out who Aether was, that Meryl was alive, I didn’t believe it either. But it was true and giving you that information at the wrong moment could have compromised this whole situation.” Matthew revealed a genuine smile, “I’m sorry, I know that you’ve loved her since high school.”
“How did you know that?” Ira’s stunned response made his friend laugh heartily.
“Do you know how many times I saw you steal glances whenever you could? I know how you panicked every time she was out of your sight. And when she entered the room, I saw you flush and completely fall head over heels for her… as did many other boys.”
At a loss for words, Ira shrugged, “Well yeah, she has that charm. I remember the other boys asking her out almost every week.”
Reminiscing about their high school years, both Matthew and Ira were soon smiling as if they had returned to the old days.
“Keep her safe, Ira.” Matthew gestured before he walked away. William limped behind him, and Ira returned to the small room.
Meryl Grigori’s blue glance studied his every move; her long black hair was draped over her slender shoulders and down her back. She was well named, Watchful Blackbird.
“What was that about?” she asked lightly.
“Just had to confirm something.”
Ira did not reply he only resumed his seat next to her bed.
After a long, awkward silence, Meryl could no longer hide her smile as she murmured, “Pervert.”
“What did I do?” he asked, taken aback by her sudden accusation.
“This shirt reeks of you.” She felt like a child, playfully accusing her friend of stealing her pencil.
“Yes,” Ira stuttered, “because you had to wear something other than your torn coverings. Besides, Charlie changed you; he tended to your wounds. He’s the doctor, I’m not.” With nothing else to say, he gently pushed her into the pillow. “Lay down, you’ve used up all your strength.”
She complied, taking slow, steady breaths.
“What happened? Before, I mean.”
“Well when you used my knife to get the bullet out, you lost a lot of blood.” He bit his lip, the gruesome image still freshly tainted his mind, “Charlie had to operate on you in the room. Besides the bullet wound and the bits of bandage in your veins, you had shards of concrete and paint in your hand. Once the debris was removed, Charlie washed out the blood and cleaned your wounds and dressed you,” he paused as something caught his throat.
“Is that jealousy I hear? I see your school boy envy has not abated” Meryl smiled broadly.
“No… shut up.” Ira grinned childishly, “After that… matter, Charlie and I brought you here so you could sleep.”
“Where is here?” She looked around the strange surroundings.
“This is part of the underground; it was built during the first year of the war, when the battle raged on in Europe. But after it moved to Moscow and the United States, this area was abandoned.”
Ira sighed. He felt his emotions and memory flood his mind and compromise his thoughts.
This did not go unnoticed.
“What?” Meryl tilted her head, slowly losing focus.
Ira grasped her hand in both of his and leaned against the bed. He took his time answering.
“We should have seen this coming. I should have been there to protect you. But, of all the people in the entire world, I never expected you to be our asset.”
“Ira, what could you have done? My family was killed. Afterwards, I was killed and brought back to life only to live as a hermit.” She tried to reassure him, which failed miserably. “Ira, after my second year in the tower, I lost any and all hope of living or feeling freedom again, until you showed up with a company of good men. You brought that light back and now, I want to help end this war.”
“Why did he revive you? What are you to him?”
“He wanted me to watch as he burnt the world. He wanted me to suffer for surviving.”
To take their minds off the horrid subject, Ira asked, “By the way, how did you get my knife?”
“Finders keepers.” She grinned broadly. It was the same grin that irked Ira when she knew something he that did not.
Moments passed in silence until the man quietly broke it. “Get some sleep, Meryl, I suspect Matthew will want to question you more when your strength has returned.”
As he stood up to leave, a tug held him back. Her warm fingers wrapped around his wrist and sent a jolt of excitement down his spine. “Stay with me?”
Surprised at her sudden change, Ira paused. His heart pounded against his chest, urging him on, and he listened. Slowly, he bent near her, held her warm cheek, and kissed her tenderly. Meryl responded by holding his muscular shoulders.
Regretfully, they broke apart and Ira sat back down, their fingers entwined. “I’ll stay.”
“Does this mean you forgive me, Raven?” she leaned back against the raised pillow.
Ira chuckled, “For now, dear Blackbird.”
The warm grip soothed and relaxed her. She smiled until fatigue claimed her body and mind. The room and Ira became a blur. Her senses failed, and everything went black.
Ira watched her fall into an unconscious, calmed state.
“Luckily the general is here to control the major,” he whispered to himself, and the empty room.
Her fingers instinctively closed around Ira’s palm. Her heartbeat paced steadily.
Glad that she was safe for the moment, he laid his head on her gurney and fell into a deep sleep.