“So how did your date go?” Brackston asked as Ivan no sooner walked through the door. Brackston chuckled as Ivan jumped a bit as soon as the question was voiced into the air.
Ivan turned to see that Brackston was standing behind the old concession counter, an incredibly bored expression melted into a look of almost joy at the sight of Ivan returning. Ivan figured it was because Brackston could tease him about the night’s events.
“Where’s Lula?” Ivan asked urgently, ignoring Brackston’s playful behavior.
Brackston quickly noticed that there was more of an edge to Ivan’s voice than usual, giving away that something was up. Brackston’s eyes quickly darted to the closed door of their sleeping chambers, an embarrassed look crossing his face. “Uh, Lula and Carter are kind of preoccupied… Studying,” Brackston coughed slightly, Ivan could have almost sworn that he heard Brackston mumble, “Studying each other,” - as if he really needed that thought running through his mind.
Ivan rolled his eyes slightly, raising his hands defeatedly as he started pacing the small entryway. Brackston noticed that whatever was on the man’s mind had to be pretty serious if it meant resorting to pacing.
“Is everything okay?” Brackston questioned, a frown forming on his face. “Please tell me that Whittaker didn’t try to hurt Elinor again...”
“Elinor is fine,” Ivan grumbled, squeezing his eyes shut as he raised his hand to pinch the bridge of his nose. Brackston was discontent with the tone of Ivan’s voice - it was pretty clear that something with Elinor wasn’t fine. Thankfully, Brackston didn’t have to wait long to find out what was bothering the man. “The defaced copy of ‘The Time Machine’ that Wells scribbled in? I’ve cracked one of the ciphers tonight,” Ivan revealed.
Brackston’s eyes widened as he watched Ivan lean against the wall across from him. “Well? What did it say? Did it have anything to do with Einstein?”
Ivan shook his head gravely, causing Brackston’s shoulders to slump defeated. That didn’t last long however, for Ivan was giving Brackston a serious glance. “When Elinor showed me the book this morning, there was a symbol that I had never seen before. When we were walking through the town tonight, I saw that same symbol on the top of the key in her logo on the bookstores window.”
Brackston narrowed his eyes, eyebrows knitting together. “What did the symbol look like?”
Instead of answering, Ivan pulled out his cell phone. After a few seconds, he pulled up the screen and handed the phone over to Brackston. Brackston could see that there was a little box with four arrows with three lines in the center. Ivan quickly noticed that Brackston’s eyes had lit up with recognition.
“Are you familiar with this symbol?” Ivan asked curiously, watching as Brackston zoomed in on the image.
“It was on a loose brick on the outside of the bookstore,” Brackston admitted, racking his brain for answers. “There had to have been something inside the brick at one point because it was hollow but it was empty by the time we got to it. I know that wasn’t my first time seeing the symbol, however.”
“So do you have any idea what it means?” Ivan asked, only to be disappointed by the sight of Brackston shaking his head no.
Brackston quickly noticed the dark look that was crossing Ivan’s face. Brackston almost felt guilty not having any answers, mainly because he knew that the more answers they had the more precautions they could take to protect Elinor. “Professor Altman might know,” Brackston said quickly, he used Ivan’s phone to send a copy of the image to himself. “I’ll send the symbol to him and see what I can find out.”
Ivan nodded slowly, tapping his thumb against his lips as his eyes grew distant. Brackston noticed that the room had grown eerily silent. He glanced up to see that Ivan was lost in thought, no doubt thinking about whatever it was he saw in that book.
“You said you cracked a cipher?” Brackston questioned, waking Ivan out of his thoughts.
Ivan simply nodded again as he turned his gaze to Brackston. “A rail fence cipher. There are quite a few throughout the book but there are very few that have that symbol beside it.”
“Well? What did it say?” Brackston questioned, his curiosity getting the better of him.
Ivan sighed, licking his lips as he recited the contents of the cipher aloud, “Books are like keys that unlock doors to other worlds.”
Brackston snorted, shaking his head. “Well that’s nice and ominous. What do you think it means?”
“I think it’s a warning,” Ivan admitted, his expression growing dark. “I think Wells might have known something and he’s hidden it inside some cipher in that book. I fear he might be warning whoever starts unlocking the ciphers that they might unlock a door to a world perhaps one that no one should unlock.”
Ivan noticed that his last comment brought a frown to Brackston’s face. Ivan had no doubt that Brackston was thinking the same thing he did when he uncovered the cipher.
“So why the hell are we letting Elinor keep this book?” Brackston questioned, a harshness to his voice. “I hate to say this but I might agree with Carter, we should probably steal-”
“We’ve been through this,” Ivan groaned irritably. “We can’t afford to break her trust. On top of the fact that Whittaker probably doesn’t even know about the book. As far as we’re concerned, all they care about is killing Elinor right now.”
Brackston swallowed hard, grimacing at the sternness of Ivan’s words. It wasn’t exactly something that either one of them wanted to hear but it was something that they needed to be reminded of.
Ivan’s face softened. He wouldn’t admit this outright but Brackston was starting to grow on him. Much like Brackston, Ivan wasn’t entirely fond of this situation either.
“We should get some rest,” Ivan admitted finally, tilting his head towards the other vacant theater room. “And when those two are done with their ‘studying’, we’re moving our damn cots into the other theater.”
Brackston laughed at Ivan’s comment, surprised at the remark but he couldn’t help but agree. Ivan merely chuckled, grateful that things were starting to feel normal between the two of them.
The next couple of days were a slow blur where nothing too out of the ordinary happened. Ivan met with Elinor almost every morning at the coffee house to the point that Carter was starting to poke fun at the situation. While it wasn’t as hardcore and vicious as other times, it was still just enough to annoy Ivan.
Brackston caught on to what was happening and offered to go with Ivan during one of the meetup times to get Carter off of Ivan’s back. The offer seemed all right at first but when the meeting actually happened, Brackston hogged all the time Elinor had by talking pop culture and movies before she had to leave to open the bookstore. Ivan decided he never wanted to bring Brackston to another coffee shop outing again.
Elinor found herself warming up to Ivan more as time went on. She was more willing to let him linger closer as they went through some of the strange cipher’s within Wells’s book. Unfortunately for them, Ivan had only managed to crack a couple more since he uncovered the warning. They pretty much confirmed Elinor’s theory of Wells going mad towards the end of his life, for there was nothing that could be made sense of in the latest ciphers.
Unlike their other coffee shop visits, this one was turning out to be a pretty frustrating morning. Elinor watched as Ivan tried to unravel one of the hardest ciphers they’ve come across this far - another rail fence cipher with that peculiar symbol beside it. His lips were pressed tightly together, his elbow rested on the coffee shop table as his hand curled into a fist rested against his forehead. She could tell that the cipher was starting to frustrate him.
“You know,” Elinor began quietly, clearing her throat as she watched Ivan. He seemed to be lost in the contents of the cipher but lifted his eyes from the page to meet hers. Ivan noticed in the woman’s eyes that there was something on her mind, something waiting to be voiced into the air. He almost feared what might have been on that bold but careful mind of hers.
She took his eyes gazing at her as an invitation to continue. She almost hated that she was interrupting such a serious process for a simple statement. “We never planned a night out with your friends.”
Ivan nearly forgot that she had been wanting to host a night out for them, to get to know the other people he traveled here with. She was pretty acquainted with Brackston, for he stopped into the bookstore every so often to see if there were anymore Star Wars books to pick through. Lula and Carter grew bored of living life inside the movie theater, so a night out for all of them seemed like a perfect idea.
Ivan leaned back in his chair, his arms crossing his chest. “What did you have in mind?”
He loved it when Elinor’s eyes lit up. There was something amusing about the way she got excited to show off her little town and the small businesses within it. He quickly became aware that she took a lot of pride in her little community. “What about the All-American restaurant?” she asked, a smile crossing her face. “I mean, they have something for everyone. I don’t think your friends will be disappointed.”
Ivan nodded, a smile playing at the corner of his lips. “I trust your judgement. If you say they’ll enjoy it, then I believe you,” he replied, before chuckling slightly. “Plus Brackston and Carter will eat anything. It’s Lula that tends to be choosier but give her a menu with salads or a traditional hamburger and you’re good to go.”
Elinor tried to hide the smile that was spreading across her face. She liked how he knew even the littlest things about his friends - things that most would deem unnimportant.
“How about you all meet me at the bookstore tonight around 7pm? We can walk to the restaurant together.”
Ivan wasn’t for sure how an evening out with the others would go over. He wasn’t all that worried about Brackston and Lula, more concerned about how Carter would behave. Carter was still leery about Elinor - while he now believed that her life was in danger, he still wasn’t keen on the young woman. Maybe a night out getting to know the woman would be good for Carter.
Ivan met her eyes once again, nodding his head finally. “We’ll meet you tonight around 7pm.”
It was just as Ivan had suspected. Lula and Brackston were on board but Carter was skeptical about the idea of a night out with Elinor. It took Brackston bribing Carter with smack talk about beating him at darts that finally sold the soldier.
When the team arrived, Elinor was sitting outside of the bookstore, resting against the ledge that stuck out a few inches from the store’s giant window. She was engrossed in whatever book she was reading currently, which was no surprise to Ivan. She pretty much read every free chance that she had available.
The sounds of their footsteps approaching brought her out of whatever world she found herself lost in, a bright smile crossing her face at the sight of them walking up. She bounced up from her resting spot and bounded over to the team.
“Hey guys!” she exclaimed brightly. She took each one of them in but her eyes stopped and lingered on Ivan as she spoke again, “The restaurant is just a couple buildings over. We will want to get a seat soon because they start to get busier around this time.”
Ivan opened his mouth to respond but for some reason Ivan couldn’t find the ability to speak. Something about being around the rest of the team members and Elinor at the same time made him nervous. He couldn’t place why.
Brackston noticed that Ivan was unusually quiet. Brackston figured that Carter being here made Ivan uncomfortable with the idea of talking to Elinor at the risk of being mocked in front of her. Instead of letting them all sit in awkward silence, Brackston made his way to Elinor’s side and casually placed his arm around her shoulders. “I don’t know about you all but I could go for a chili dog right about now,” Brackston admitted, waving his hand with a flourish to the sidewalk before them. “Lead the way, bookstore lady.”
Elinor giggled slightly at Brackston’s behavior as she walked off with him at her side. Carter followed after the two without hesitation, his hands stuffed into his pockets begrudgingly as he trailed behind.
This left Lula and Ivan standing behind at the bookstore, where Lula stared at Ivan’s quiet, scowling expression quizzically. “Are you okay?” Lula asked softly, her expression concerned.
If he were to be honest, Ivan would admit that he was upset at how the last couple of moments went down. For whatever reason, he froze up in front of Elinor, which probably just gave Carter more ammo to be able to ridicule him for later. Even worse, Brackston swooped in and placed his arm around her and she accepted the gesture without tensing up or growing uncomfortable. Ivan still had to be careful if he so much as leaned her direction, let alone if he touched her.
“I’m fine,” Ivan lied through gritted teeth. If he felt like sharing the truth at this moment, he would have told Lula that he was nervous about tonight but he wasn’t in the mood for one of Lula’s lectures. He wasn’t necessarily upset with anyone but himself at this moment and he couldn’t handle admitting that to her.
Lula glared at him skeptically but decided to take his word. She gave him a small smile as she walked off to catch up with the others.
“This is going to be a long night,” Ivan thought to himself, sighing as he walked after the others.
Once they were inside the restaurant, they were all greeted by the mouthwatering scent of food and the sight of an old school sports bar. Ivan knew instantly why Elinor suggested this place, there were old photos that lined the brick walls of the buildings. Upon further inspection he realized that they were photos of past Circleville football and basketball teams.
Ivan was so busy taking in the atmosphere of the place and sulking in his own silent woes that he wasn’t aware that he was being talked to at that moment. A gentle hand touching his arm caused him to jump, turning his head he realized it was Elinor who was trying to get his attention as she stared at him expectantly. She was no longer standing with Brackston.
“Are you okay?” she asked softly, her eyebrows knitted together in concern. She noticed his startled expression but wasn’t aware that the expression was due to the fact that he was in shock that she was still holding onto his arm.
Ivan smiled weakly, hesitantly nodding. “I’m fine,” he admitted, unsure if he should pat her hand reassuringly or if he should just keep distant. He didn’t want to scare her off with the possibility that he was being too forward. “Just admiring the place you chose.”
Elinor smiled, seemingly content that Ivan was all right. She tilted her head to the booth that Lula and Carter were already seated at, as Brackston dragged a chair from another table to sit at the end. “Would you like to sit with me?”
There really weren’t any other options for seating. It was either sit in the booth next to Elinor or be booted to the end where Brackston sat.
Elinor removed her hand from his arm and grabbed his hand, surprising him even more with her forwardness. “Come on,” she begged, pulling him from the spot he was glued to. “I promise, I don’t bite.”
Ivan chuckled lightly at her comment, allowing himself to relax as they approached the table.
Everyone’s eyes shot up from their menus at the sight of Elinor holding onto Ivan’s hand as she tugged the reluctant man along. Ivan noticed that Lula’s eyebrows were raised slightly, Carter was smirking, and Brackston was staring at the two in surprise. Ivan made the decision to let go of her hand, ignoring them all by scooting into the booth.
Lula noticed that Ivan was trying his best to keep from bumping Elinor as the woman slid into the booth next to him, which proved to be difficult considering Ivan’s height and build. She would have focused on that scenario more in amusement if it wasn’t for Elinor glancing over at her.
“So Lula, Ivan tells me that you and Carter have been together for a little while. How long have you guys been together?” Elinor asked her curiously.
The question earned a playful smirk from Carter, as he looked at Lula. Lula gave him a dark glare, knowing what the look meant. He would have said something ridiculous about knowing her throughout all time if she would have let him.
“A little while now,” Lula cleared her throat nervously. She had to keep herself from rolling her eyes as Carter placed an arm around her shoulders. “We’ve only recently started taking it more serious.”
Carter nodded in agreement, keeping his attention on Lula. “Your little town has some great date night spots.”
Elinor looked at Carter excitedly, unaware of what he had just done. Complimenting her community, Brackston and Ivan discovered, often lead to some long conversations. “There are so many great date spots in town… Where have you visited so far?” Elinor asked as she propped her chin into her hands.
Carter took his gaze off of Lula for a second as he thought over the places they’ve snuck out to since their arrival. Outside of their walk around the little town after their visit to the historical society and the trip to the ice cream shop, there weren’t a lot of date nights out. “Well, we’ve been to Wittich’s… Which was pretty cool.” Carter narrowed his eyes. “If I’m going to be honest, Lula and I have just been enjoying ourselves by spending the trip in our room.”
Elinor’s eyes widened slightly, her face flushing red at Carter’s comment. Lula’s head shot up as she glared at Carter gravely. Brackston choked on the water he had just taken a sip out of as Ivan, however? He could hardly give a shit as his face broke out into a huge smirk that everyone could see.
Carter quickly realized how his words had sounded and straightened himself up, pulling his arm from around Lula as he glared around at the different reactions with frustration. “Whoa, hold up. That came out wrong… What I meant-”
Elinor raised her hands quickly, hushing Carter before he could continue further. “It’s none of my business how you spend your time. I’m just glad you’re enjoying Circleville.”
Carter heard the distinct sound of a snort from Brackston’s direction. It was pretty obvious that Brackston was trying his best to hold back a fit of laughter.
“Carter,” Lula started softly, before Carter could go off on anyone. She placed a gentle hand to his shoulder as she nudged his knee gently with hers. “Let’s go order a drink from the bar.”
Carter almost turned down the offer but in turning to meet her gaze, he noticed the gentle way her eyes warned him that now wasn’t the time nor the place. Swallowing hard, Carter met her offer with a simple nod.
Once the two were off in the very back section of the restaurant where the bar was kept, Brackston broke into a fit of laughter that almost caused him to fall out of his chair.
Elinor looked between the hysterically laughing Brackston and Ivan, her face red and her expression concerned. “Did I just create trouble in paradise?” Elinor softly asked Ivan, leaning closer to him as she nodded in the direction of the bar.
He knew that she was leaning closer to be heard over the bustling noise of the restaurant but the action still caught him a bit off guard. It gave him perfect access to explore her face. He found himself lost in the complexity of her gentle eyes, his mouth hanging slightly as he tried to form a response. She seemed just as lost as he was, for she never so much as raised an eyebrow or opened her mouth to bring him back to reality. If it wasn’t for the sound of someone clearing their throat, Ivan was worried he would have done something foolish at that moment.
Elinor turned her head to where Brackston was sitting as Ivan’s eyes glanced over to Brackston with a hint of gratefulness and darkness. Brackston was smiling coyly but refused to make any sort of comment on what he just witnessed. Instead, he gestured his thumb back to the bar area where Lula and Carter were currently waiting on their drinks. “You didn’t mess up anything between them. Trust me, by the time we return to our place tonight… those two will be making out for a while.”
Ivan rolled his eyes, placing his head into his hand as he groaned. Elinor wasn’t for sure what to make of the situation, so she merely chuckled.
Despite the rocky start, the evening went on without a hitch. Elinor’s bragging about the food was quickly understood after everyone got the first bite. Maybe it had something to do with the couple of beers but Carter was having pleasant conversations with Elinor and even got along with Ivan for the night. The only one who surprisingly wasn’t engaging in conversation was Lula, who quietly watched everyone else have fun as she picked at her salad.
After downing his third drink, Carter set the glass down on the table a bit forcefully and shoved Brackston on the shoulder. “You promised a game of darts, Campbell.”
Brackston chuckled slightly, shaking his head. “Yeah, so I could beat your ass at something for once.”
Carter narrowed his eyes at Brackston before glancing over in Ivan’s direction. Ivan wasn’t a fan of the way Carter was staring at him at that moment. “Ivan, are you game?”
Brackston started laughing as soon as Carter asked the question. “You can’t be drunk after only three beers, Carter. You know that darts is a two player game.”
Carter shook his head, jabbing his finger to each one of them. “We take turns going against each other. The loser buys everyone’s dinner and drinks tonight.”
Ivan almost successfully argued his way out of this one but after a couple more minutes of persisting, Ivan eventually gave in. He gave Elinor an apologetic look as she gave him a reassuring smile. She watched in silence as Ivan walked after the other two towards the dartboard, almost forgetting that Lula was sitting there with her.
“I see the way you look at him,” Elinor jumped as soon as the words left Lula’s mouth, her eyes taking in the historian staring at her drink. It was the first time since the beginning of the dinner that Lula opened her mouth to speak directly to her.
Elinor looked confused by Lula’s statement, her head tilting slightly as she moved into the center of the booth to be eye-to-eye with Lula. “I’m sorry?”
Lula tilted her head back as if nodding in the direction of where Ivan went. “Ivan. I see the way you look at him. You feel something, don’t you?”
Lula noticed that Elinor’s face had flushed slightly as the woman averted her gaze to the old sports pictures on the wall above her. “It’s nothing to be ashamed of,” Lula admitted, a hint of empathy in her voice. “Ivan’s a great guy.”
Elinor nodded, letting Lula know that she was listening to her words. Elinor wasn’t for sure how to respond exactly but she figured she’d be better off to at least change the subject. “Ivan says you’re an even greater historian,” Elinor replied. “He says I remind him of you.”
Something about what she said caused a hint of coldness to cross Lula’s face. Elinor had seen that expression before. It was like a painful memory had crossed Lula’s mind, one that left her usually warm eyes both icy and distant. In fact, Elinor realized it was the same expression Lula had been wearing all night. Something was bothering the historian.
Lula could see that Elinor knew that she was bothered by her presence. Elinor was brilliant but not even the slightest bit aware of what made Lula uncomfortable at this moment. Over the course of the entire dinner, Lula noticed that Elinor was in many ways like her. Quirky, different, unusual, and gladly accepting of it. There was something more beyond the surface, though. The fact that Elinor had no clue just how in danger her life was - and the thought that her life could be snuffed out any second made Lula's stomach churn.
Elinor had sat in such an uncomfortable silence for the last couple of minutes that she thought maybe she should excuse herself to go watch the men play darts. Before she could even stand, Lula suddenly caught her attention again by throwing out some words.
“I think you need to be upfront with him,” Lula threw out, glancing at Elinor’s suddenly tense posture.
“I’m sorry?” Elinor tried again, her voice nearly failing. “What the hell was she getting at?” Elinor thought to herself, her heart pounding. She wasn’t sure what to make of the situation she was currently in.
Before Lula could even respond, the men had made their way back to the table. Brackston was triumphantly grinning as Ivan followed shortly behind, smirking at the sight. Carter followed at a considerable distance, his hands stuffed into his pocket as he stared with a sour expression at Brackston.
Brackston was oblivious to the tension between the two women but it was the first thing Ivan picked up on. He frowned the moment he noticed Lula’s cold stare and Elinor’s confused, slightly dim gaze. Ivan carefully caught the attention of Elinor in a way that wouldn’t startle her, the simple act of his shoe tapping her shoe gently. She looked up to see that his eyes had darted to the door, his way of asking her if she wanted to go outside.
She didn’t even hesitate. While Carter paid the bill, Ivan stayed with Elinor outside. It was already dark enough for the street lamps to be on, the shadows from the lights were nowhere as obvious as the dark shadows that crossed Elinor’s face. He was worried about what Lula might have said.
“How long are you going to be in Circleville?” Elinor finally broke the silence with the question, her gaze locked anywhere else but on Ivan.
It was a good question, one that Ivan wasn’t quite sure how to answer. As long as they were still trying to discover what went wrong with the Einstein mission, as long as they were still cracking ciphers, and as long as Whittaker was still a threat to Elinor…
“We haven’t really decided,” Ivan finally answered, shrugging his shoulders.
Elinor nodded her head slowly, swallowing hard. She kept replaying Lula’s words over in her mind - about being upfront with him. About what, exactly? If it hadn’t been for the men interrupting the conversation, Elinor felt she might have more clarity at his moment.
Ivan noticed a difference in her demeanor. She seemed more stiff and tense than usual, her eyes lost. Something was gnawing at the woman’s mind and seeing her this upset about it made Ivan feel bothered. “Is something wrong?” he asked her finally.
The question seemed to only upset her more, for now she was gazing at her feet. Her hands were wringing together as she shivered slightly. Ivan was just a few seconds away from running her through the necessary steps to overcome a panic attack. The way she was reacting reminded him an awful lot of the night she was nearly shot by Whittaker.
Thankfully, the sight of her head lifting so that her eyes could meet him stopped him in his tracks. Unfortunately, her gaze was still dark and heavy as she opened her mouth to speak. “Can you promise me something?” she asked softly, her voice quivering.
He didn’t like the way that sounded. Why would he make a promise if he didn’t know what the details of this would entail? However, instead of saying anything to upset her further, he nodded his head slowly and prayed that whatever it was that she was going to ask of him wouldn’t be drastic.
Elinor smiled softly, blinking back whatever emotions were rising within her at that moment. Something about the way Lula was encouraging her to be upfront with Ivan made Elinor realize that Ivan wasn’t going to be here forever - that this wasn’t his home. Lula pressuring her made her realize that whatever the hell this was going on between her and Ivan wasn’t going to be a permanent thing. For whatever reason, the thought was upsetting to her.
Elinor cautiously made her way closer to Ivan, her unwavering eyes locked on his. Ivan wasn’t at all prepared for what left her lips. “Promise me, Ivan Hayes… Before you leave Circleville, whenever that may be, promise me that you’ll pay me one last visit so I can give you a proper goodbye.”
It finally hit him as to why she was so upset all of a sudden. Something about tonight made her realize that this was all temporary and that it would all be gone. Even more upsetting was the fact that she thought he would leave without seeing her again. There had to be an explanation for her request, maybe she had that situation happen before.
Ivan locked his gaze on hers, licking his lips nervously as he nodded finally. “I promise, El.”
Ivan quickly noticed that whatever emotions she had been battling with the last few moments had suddenly melted away the moment he agreed to her. He almost expected a smile to break the seriousness of the moment but was surprised when she closed the gap between them to give him a hug. He wasn’t entirely sure how he should have responded to the gentle embrace, he was terrified any sudden change or wrong movement would ruin the moment. Ivan carefully embraced her back, relieved that she didn’t shift uncomfortably from the gesture. As he rested his chin carefully on the top of her head, the one thing he tried so hard to avoid suddenly became painfully clear…
If anything were to ever happen to Elinor Elsner at this point, he would never be able to forgive himself.