April 18, 2028
Safe House, London, England
“Are you okay?” Charlie shook Meryl’s shoulder and she snapped out of her trance.
“What?” she asked in surprise, looking at the men who looked back. “Oh yes. Sorry, blacked out, I think. What are we talking about?”
“The plan.” Ira observed her suspiciously, but she just stared back at him with innocent, unblinking eyes. “Okay, now that Meryl has decided to join us. We are leaving tonight and stationing here in the bed-chambers.”
As he spoke, he used a pen to mark the map Meryl had created from memory.
“Have you ever been to the Palace?” Meryl asked sardonically.
All five teammates said, “No,” in unison.
“Okay, then you would not know that the Salon de La Guerre et Salon de la Paix exist on opposite ends of La Grande Galerie.” She stood next to Ira, took the pen out of his hand and pointed to the two rooms on either end of the Hall of Mirrors.
“What?” the men asked, all equally confused.
She looked at them, sighed, and shook her head, “The Hall of Mirrors lies between the Salon of War and the Salon of Peace; speaking of which, the Treaty of Versailles was signed there.”
“Thanks for the history lesson,” Alec retorted sarcastically as he crossed his arms.
Meryl ignored his comment and continued explaining, “The Salon is another name for a meeting room. If the United States and Russian presidents wish to sign a treaty calling for the termination of war, what better place than the reflecting hall and the Salon of Peace?”
“That helps,” Ira stated, taking back his pen. His fingers barely brushed against her warm skin. “Okay, Chris and Garth, you both will drop us off in the courtyard and stay with the aircraft, out of sight. The rest of us will stow away in the queen’s bedroom, near the… Peace Room. Once we successfully secure both presidents, you will extract us from the courtyard and fly all of us to safety, back to the United States.”
Noble and Oak nodded. Ira added, “With any luck, Kai will be dead.”
Unbeknownst to the others, Meryl gulped guiltily as Ira finished. “Let's get ready and head out.”
With uneasiness, they filed out of the conference room, the same room where days earlier, Matthew had debriefed the men as they planned their rescue of Meryl.
Not knowing what lay ahead, the team strode into the armory and packed only useful items. There was the unmistakable feeling that this new mission would be a one-way trip.
“Raven, I need to talk to you.” Meryl broke the silence after a hesitant pause.
“What is it Meryl?” Ira reacted without looking at her as he loaded a full magazine into an empty assault rifle.
She faltered. Her voice seemed to fail her as she did not know where to start. When she said nothing, he looked up into her eyes.
As if memorizing his square jaw, the slightly thin lips, the straight nose, and stern almond eyes. Meryl knew she could easily get lost in those reflective green spheres and never turn away. “I, um...”
The others looked at her now, ill-befitting the snappish, uncouth, and sadistic Meryl they knew. The woman in front of them looked almost… human.
Then, her character returned, “I was wondering if you know where I can find better clothing,” she decided quickly. She would ask for forgiveness later. “These tattered rags have lost their wear. I figured it would be better and safer to wear something more… protective, especially with what is to come.”
As Ira’s gaze darkened. He tried to find any hint of a lie. He then indicated, “Down the hall, and to the left, there is a laundry room. You can probably salvage something there.”
She smiled a bleak, artificial smile then left the room rapidly.
“She is up to something...” Alec declared as soon as the door automatically clicked shut.
Shaking his head, Raven alleged, “Meryl is always up to something. Ever since I first met her, she constantly had some meticulously planned trick up her sleeve.” He added, “She is an excellent liar. She grew up learning mind tricks, and she is intelligent. I think her I.Q. was off the chart, or somewhere close, as I recall…”
“Let’s just hope she doesn’t get herself killed,” Charlie interrupted his jabbering captain as he packed ammunition in his cargo pants pockets, and emergency medical supplies on his belt.
Speechless, mouth hanging open, Raven could only hope nothing wicked would befall her, or his team for that matter. After a diffident sigh, he addressed the still-preparing men. “I'll be back.”
He walked out, not waiting for a reply, and found the laundry room door closed. He heard the dryer running and suspected what she was doing.
Without knocking, he turned the knob, opened the door, and stopped dead in his tracks.
Before him, in the middle of the warm room, stood Meryl. Slender and fair skinned, she was only wearing her white, lacy undergarments. She glanced at him without flushing and smirked as she folded the tattered clothing on a metal table near her, “You know, it’s more polite if you knock first.”
“I'm sorry!” He finally unfroze himself and started to back out, but stopped again. He could not avert his gaze from her beautiful figure. However, something more caught his eyes.
There were long, faint scars trailing on her flat stomach, her slender legs and on her flexing arms. “Where did those come from?” he sputtered uncertainly, fearing the worst.
Unperturbed, she glanced down at her scars and shrugged nonchalantly, “Just old wounds.”
“They weren’t there when I saw you in that bikini at that graduation par-” He caught himself, but she only jested.
“That was eons ago, how do you still remember that?”
His cheeks flushed as he turned away, “I still... think about it from time to time. That was when I was about to ask you to go out with me…”
She chuckled again, remembering the festivity. It was over a hundred degrees that day. Meryl and Ira’s class had gone to the community center to celebrate the end of their senior year in high school. As the joyous occasion progressed, someone had spiked the drinks and Ira, who had over indulged a little, kissed Meryl suddenly and was about to ask her out, when Matthew had accidentally knocked him and her into the pool.
Brought back to the present day, Meryl still wondered how Ira had even remembered that night. Either way, she walked over to him, took his hand in hers and grasped lightly as she spoke quietly, “Do you find these scars repulsive? Does it pain you to look at me?”
“No!” He looked back, his jade eyes stared into her bright blue irises. “Of course not. It shows what you’ve been through and how I failed to save you...” He subconsciously squeezed her hand.
“But you have saved me now.”
“Not necessarily,” he murmured dolefully.
She leaned forward and kissed his cheek tenderly. “You have, more than you realize.”
She was about to step away when he wrapped his arms around her waist and neck and held her close. He buried himself in her long, dark hair and confessed as he heard his own heartbeat pulse methodically. “I missed you so much. There was so much I wanted to tell you, so much I wanted to share with you. When I pulled you from the rubble, I thought I’d never see you again, I thought that was the last time I’d be able to hold you, to kiss you.”
She returned the warm, comforting embrace, pressing her cheek against his, “I am here now, Ira. I am not a ghost or an entity. And no matter where we are, separated or together, I’ll always be around.”
As his grip around her tightened, Ira muttered his plea, “Meryl, when we get to the palace, please stay close to my side.”
She took her time answering. The weight of her resolve bore down on he., “I'll stay as close to you as I can, but I cannot promise that.”
“I want a promise.” He pulled back to stare at her, stern determination veiled his gaze.
“Ira…” Meryl’s eyes shimmered with guilt as she stated truthfully and looked away. It was easier not looking at him. “I don't know the outcome of this mission. If we get separated, then we get separated. Fate cannot change that.”
He held her chin up. “At least try?”
Her lip curled softly. “Fine.”
They stood there in the middle of the room, silent as the grave. Shivering with the future to come, Ira, unaware that he stroked her arm with his thumbs, bent down and kissed her deeply and passionately, as if this were the last kiss.
Responding to his embrace, she opened herself to him unconditionally.
They were lost in each other’s grasp. Unlike their first kiss, this tender and soothing relief filled them.
It was hard to let go. Ira had her and he did not want to lose her again. He had forgiven her, yet had trouble forgiving himself.
The door flung open with a bang against the wall.
Alarmed by the sudden noise, Ira and Meryl broke apart to see Alec, Charlie, Garth, and Chris standing in the doorframe with shocked, white faces, as if Medusa had turned them to stone.
In a teasing, huffy voice that was very different to her gentle tone towards Ira, Meryl placed her hands on her hips, well aware that she was still half-nude. “Has boot camp beat bedside manners out of the lot of you?”
Ira groaned and hid his face in his hands, mostly to hide his red-hot cheeks. “Out!”
He pointed at his men. They would not, or could not move. Struggling with himself, Ira walked over to them and forcibly pushed them and himself out of the room, and away from the near naked woman.
The door slammed shut.
Meryl’s stiffened form relaxed as she laughed to herself and made her way to the large sink by the wall.
Grinning softly, the woman started cleaning the bullet wound.
What normally would have taken nearly three weeks to heal, had now only taken less than a week. Meryl was surprised that she could remove the stitches without reopening the injury. Just as she pulled the last stitch, she abruptly caught sight of herself in the stained, grimy mirror that hung above the basin.
The smile faded to a scowl as her gaze fell upon each scar. Each abrasion brought back the memory of the blade flashing above her, striking her, causing her to scream in pain.
She knew Ira would be appalled if he found out how deep the wounds ran. Remembering her gory history reminded her of why she had to keep these secrets.
A spark of silver caught her eye.
Scissors lay next to her tattered shirt, lonely and tempting. Slowly, she reached for them. Again, she looked into the painfully truthful mirror, studying her dark glare, and the bright blue eyes that matched her cousin’s.
Taking a deep breath, she pulled her waist length hair into a long ponytail and cut the mane in one long snip. Long, uneven, and graceful strands of jet black hair fell to the floor as she let go. The remainder hung just below her shoulders. While her head felt lighter, Meryl realized that this was the first time she had cut her hair in eight years.
The dryer’s timer triggered and made her jump out of her melancholy. She pulled out the spare clothes. Even though the military garb had shrunk, it was still heavy and big on her, but she did not mind. It would all be over soon.
She pulled on black clothing underneath—it was just her size— then the large outfit, finally her boots. She cut long strips out of her tattered clothing and bound the excessively large sleeves and pant legs with the cuttings.
She was about to leave the room when she glared, one last time, into the tainted mirror. The face of Kai stared back at her. Even though the mirror showed a kinder, less frightening feature, it was still the face she had envisioned for six long years.
“It ends tomorrow,” she vowed as she realized she still had the scissors in her hand.
Weighing them slightly, Meryl threw the deadly shears as hard as she could towards the revealing mirror.
It shattered on impact, shards of the reflective glass tore away and fell to the sink or to the floor. All that was left was a distorted, splintered doppelgänger with one hard blue gaze as the only discernable image.
Defiantly, she marched out of the room without a backward glance.
“Why?” Raven interrogated the men back in the armory, “Why did you guys just waltz in there?”
Every time he turned his back, his friends caught each other, smiling mischievously, as if they had been kids caught while trying to steal from the cookie jar.
Pie strained to keep a straight face and said, “It was too quiet in there. We usually hear you both arguing and we got worried.”
The captain shook his head in disbelief. “Just because we do fight sometimes doesn’t mean we silently try to kill each other every moment.”
Cyan coughed and murmured so only his fellow convicts could hear, “You tried to kill her lips.”
They burst out laughing. The jovial expression relaxed everyone from the pain and suffering they had experienced in the last few days. Even Ira’s glare could not erase their cheerful mood.
“Captain,” Noble chided, wiping a tear, “it’s obvious you love her. You get flustered every time you hear her name.”
“What?” Ira forgot his anger at them, now he was confused by Garth’s statement.
“Every time we say Meryl or Blackbird, you blush. See?” they cracked up again as Ira ran to the closest reflection he could find.
His eyes widened and he hung his head, pushing against the mirror. They were right; the thought of Meryl brought back all those images from before the war and now of her in the laundry room…
“Damn that minx,” he breathed.
The guys laughed harder, unable to hold back their glee until they heard Meryl walk in on their buoyant mood. She was dressed in the most unflattering male uniform that was fashioned to fit her. Even her hair was pulled back into a loose ponytail.
She awkwardly smiled, as if she had walked in on something obscene. “Sounds like you boys are having fun.” She noticed Ira quickly turn away and guessed what was going on. “Pie, why do you tease Raven so?”
“It’s not just me, Blackbird.” He emphasized her name.
“Oak, Noble, and you Cyan,” she smirked, “I am surprised that Raven lets you tease him so much. I thought he was made of stronger stuff. Has the Raven finally turned tetchy?”
The men chortled louder. Even Meryl joined in. Ira tried his best to keep his glower but he too gave in and smiled. She playfully punched his arm and swung around to gather her weapons.
After the laughter died out, Ira now realized what was different about her.
“Meryl, why did you cut your hair?” he asked, studying her new look.
She blushed and pulled on a dark lock. Finally, she faced them, “My hair was too long. I prefer it like this; at least it won’t get in the way.”
They all scrutinized the woman in front of them, then Alec stated seriously, “You look like him. When we were assisting the general, I saw him; you don’t forget a face like that.”
There was no laughter now, no chuckling or smiles, only a sobered silence.
Gazing at him unblinkingly, she pulled out the band to let her hair down, and turned away. “When he stayed with my family, my hair was this short. People said we looked like twins. They actually mistook him for my brother. Of course, we spent a lot of time together.” As she spoke, her tone grew quiet.
Ira stared at her sadly. He could tell she was attempting to steady her quavering voice. “Guys, why don’t you go load up the aircraft. I need to talk to Meryl, alone.”
They left the room in silence, leaving their captain and his companion without question.
In the reserved stillness that followed, Ira whispered solemnly, “Meryl, if you don’t want to go, you don’t have to.”
“I do want to go. I want him to writhe in pain, as I have. I want him to die slowly and painfully.”
Even though he wanted her to, she would not look at him as the declaration poured from her lips. Not knowing what to say, Ira started to leave when slender arms wrapped around his waist. He turned. Meryl, like a lost and frightened child, hid her face in his chest. Returning her clasp, he could not tell if he was reassuring her or himself. Either way, the embrace soothed both of their troubled minds.
“We’ll succeed and we’ll make him pay for his cruelty. We will end this war.” He whispered the encouragement in her ear.
“I hope so.” Blackbird heaved a great sigh and let go.
“What’s bothering you?”
Glancing up, Meryl’s lip twitched as she explained what was troubling her. “When Matthew… When I was with him, he said he had no family waiting for him. That’s not true, is it?”
“Meryl...” Ira started.
“Ira,” she cut him off, her voice shaking. “I need to know. He had a wife, didn’t he?”
Leaning against the desk, Ira stared at the floor and nodded. “Rachel.”
“Jackson, and Elise.”
A loud crash compelled Ira to look up in shock. In a flash, Merle had turned away and punched her fist cleanly through the plaster. When she pulled back, her knuckles were bloodied and speckled with white dust that soaked in the open wound.
“Meryl, there’s nothing you could have done.” Ira tried to reason with her.
“We could have saved him. Charlie had the morphine, we had the bandages…” she slowly stretched out her nearly broken fingers. “He told us not to.”
“He didn’t want to suffer. He wanted to die with dignity.”
Those were the wrong words. Meryl stood back and confronted him with such anger that Ira was appalled to discover that she could even show such rise. “No one ‘dies with dignity’, Ira! There’s no such thing! You either die by welcoming the cold kiss, or you die a coward. There is no middle!”
“Is that what happened to your family?” Ira knew he was pushing the line, but he needed to know that she could trust him.
“Yes.” She responded quietly.
The two were silent, unmoving. They could not figure out what to do next, or what was due to come.