Before I had even opened my eyes, I had a knife to my attackers throat and a knee to his chest. I wasn’t a self-defense master or anything, but I knew a few moves. It had been a release of sorts, me and my knives. I used to make Cade practice this exact maneuver with me hundreds of times, just so I could be prepared. Personally, I thought it was fun.
Julian, apparently, did not agree. The shock of my knife had successfully startled him, as it would a true attacker, giving me leeway to shove my taller, heavier opponent onto the opposing bus seat and land gracefully on top of him, blade to his throat. I was not inherently graceful, but enough practice can improve a lot.
“I surrender! Goodness, I surrender! Please don’t kill me!” I blinked the drowsiness from my eyes and focused on him. I was still very tired. But I pushed off him, stifling a yawn, to see that my antics had acquired a small crowd. Tari looked vindictive, a devilish smile on her face.
“Do it again.” She urged, almost giddy.
I nodded at her. “I can teach you, if you want.”
“If you’re going to teach the psycho how to fight, get a different practice dummy. I’m out.” Julian hopped gingerly to his feet, cursing and mumbling under his breath. “You’re crazy. All of you. What was that for?”
I shrugged, unremorseful. “You could have been trying to hurt me. It’s happened before.”
“You have actually fended off an attacker who was trying to kill you in your sleep with a knife?”
“You haven’t?” I wondered, for the first time, what his background was. I knew Tari was Cade’s daughter, and I’d automatically (and accurately, I was fairly sure) tagged Aaron as a rich Council-born. But the other two? I couldn’t be sure. Orphans?
“I thought you couldn’t put weight on that ankle.” Speak of the devil. Thought of the devil? Aaron’s brows were narrowed and his eyes fixed on my ankle. I followed his gaze and the suppressed pain came rushing back. I’d forgotten about my injuries in the initial rush of adrenaline that came with the habitual self-defense, but when I’d felt the pain, I’d been curious if I could still defend myself with my dud ankle and stitches. Turns out, if I pushed through the mind-numbing pain, it wasn’t that hard. But blazes, it hurt once the adrenaline faded.
“Yeah... You got any pain meds?”
“Look, I wasn’t looking for a fight. I just needed your face.” Julian said. I gave him an off look, still confused, and he continued. “For the facial recognition thing? We need the next set of directions, and the stupid phone won’t give us them without your face. We managed to get a couple of checkpoints using your sleeping face, but you were really out of it then. Seriously, when is the last time you actually slept?”
I tactfully dodged the question. “Aren’t you a hacker or something? Why don’t you just override it?”
“First, that’s not really how it works. At all. Second, and I feel like I’m shouting into a void here, I’m neither techy nor a hacker. I have a minimal knowledge of technology and somehow got roped into this whole-”
“Whatever.” Tari cut him off and snatched the phone, only to wave it dismissively before my face until it vibrated. I noticed, for the first time, that we were parked and, though the rain had dissipated, the sky outside was significantly darker than it had looked when we’d left. How long had I been asleep?
“What time is it?”
“Time to get a watch.” Julian quipped, snickering.
“Has anyone ever told you how very unhelpful you can be sometimes?”
Tari chimed in. “I tell him. Repeatedly and often.” She handed me the phone, with an analog clock face pulled up on the screen. I hadn’t even known it could do that. The animation of the clock ticked off the seconds in real time as I focused tired eyes on the hour hand.
“Are you kidding me? Is it really ten at night already?”
“Probably.” Julian groaned, settling back into his seat. “I’m taking a nap.” His eyes were already shut, but he slit one lid to peer up at me. “I would appreciate it if you would refrain from killing me in my sleep. I, unfortunately, do not have a knife.”
Like he could fight me off even if he did. His sense of humor was a little bizarre, but he really was kind of funny, in an eccentric way.
I hobbled to the front of the bus. Propped up in the front of the bus, where I’d left them yesterday, were my crutches. I retrieved them and navigated the treacherous steps off the bus and into the cool night air. There was a distinct chill in the air that spoke of colder nights to come. I realized, suddenly, I wasn’t sure what day of the year it was. But a quick web search proved that I had been right about the season, at the least.
Today was the twelfth day of november, 196 YAF, exactly twenty-two years and one day after I nearly died. That meant that the day I’d come out of that other place had been exactly on the twenty-two year mark. Was it a coincidence?
Of course it was. What else could it be?
I sighed and for a moment thought my breath might catch and freeze in the air. It didn’t, it was too warm for that still, but I hugged my arms around my thin shirt and shivered. How could it feel like a different world, but still like nothing had changed?
I wasn’t unconscious, in that other place. But at the same time, I wasn’t quite alive. It was like the place between sleep and waking, and I knew, in the terrible way one knows that soon the alarm will ring, that the years were passing. I was conscious of the time, agonizingly, but I couldn’t quite bring myself to move. I was there, at the memorial, but I could never be sure how I got there. I hadn’t worried much about it. It was torture without pain, a constant headache that wasn’t quite real but would never go away. It was an agonizing limbo, a stretched place between life and death, where I couldn’t bring myself let go but would never choose to hold on.
“Ara?” It was Aaron, beckoning at me from some trees a few meters away. We were parked in a small asphalt parking that was built, and abandoned, for reasons unknown. It was overgrown, but it occurred to me that twenty-two years ago, it might not have even existed. It might have been fresh and new, or it could have been already abandoned. I’d never know.
I was still wearing a boot on my right foot and my left was wrapped securely in white bandages. As I swung on my crutches across the small patch of grass towards Aaron’s copse, moisture from the rain sprayed delicately off the blades. I could still hear the highway, distantly, but I couldn’t see it here.
“Have you been driving since we left?” He had to be exhausted. We’d left just past noon, and now it was night already, though we had several good hours left until dawn.
He shrugged. “It gave me time to think.” I didn’t press him. We all had things we needed to think about, and I called to mind the phone call I’d overheard. Why had he really come?
“How you could think with those two buffoons arguing all the time is beyond me.”
“Yeah, what is their deal?” He laughed, and I felt the mood lighten considerably. We stood in a silence that didn’t deserve to be that comfortable for a few more long seconds. Finally, I spoke softly words I hoped I wouldn’t come to regret.
“You take a nap when we get back on the road. I’ll drive.”
He blinked, surprised. “I thought I was the only one with a license.”
I knew how to drive just fine, I’d passed all the tests, but I’d never gotten a license. Even if I had, it would be long expired by now. What he didn’t know couldn’t hurt him, right?
I pushed past him and boarded the bus again with difficulty, stopping to readjust my crutches when I reached the top of the steps. My armpits were sore and aching from the crutches, I had a pounding headache, my stitches were tight and uncomfortable, and I had a horrible pain in my neck from how I’d slept last night. Plus, I was hungry.
But I sank into the driver’s seat nonetheless.
And was taken back by the complexity of the controls. This was no car. I almost called Aaron back to drive, but if he could figure it out, so could I. It wasn’t like he’d actually learned to drive a bus, right?
The controls weren’t too unfamiliar, and I recognized pretty much everything from my education on cars. I let out a breath I hadn’t realized I’d been holding and sank into the seat, closing my eyes. What was I doing? Was I completely sure I could do this? If I wasn’t, I was risking the lives of everyone on this bus.
With a sigh, I got out of the driver’s seat. On my way to the back of the bus, I passed Aaron, out cold. I smiled slightly. At least I had been right to make him stop driving, even if I couldn’t safely drive us myself. He was exhausted. Maybe, when he woke up, he could teach me to drive the bus.
I grabbed my new knives from their new hiding place, on the bottom of a seat, and got off the bus. I passed where I’d met Aaron, delving deeper into the little patch of wilderness until I was out of sight of the bus. I leaned my crutches against a tree and balanced on my right foot, careful not to get my bandages wet on the damp fall foliage that blanketed the ground.
There, cocooned in the tranquil trees, the sound of furious cars on asphalt a distant buzz, I practiced my aim first on the bark of a wide-trunked oak, then moved to progressively thinner trees.
Throw. Throw. Hop to the tree. Retrieve the knives. Hop back. Throw. Throw.
Most of my errors came from adjusting to the weight and shape of these new knives; I was rusty, but not as rusty as I’d feared. It was a strange sensation, my mind knowing years had passed since I’d last thrown a knife, but my body feeling the familiar movements like I’d practiced last week. Which, in an odd way, I had.
Which raised a question I couldn’t fathom an answer to- what had been in that syringe? What could Elliot possibly have conjured up that could send me to the odd hell where my body didn’t age and my mind worked slowly, like I’d been drugged? Was magic real?
“You’re pretty good at that, huh?” I paused, knife poised to throw. “Can you teach me?”
I lowered the knife, turning to face Tari. “I thought you hated me.”
“What?” She had the nerve to look surprised. “I don’t hate you. Why would you think that?”
“Well, being a blazing jerk to me for absolutely no reason might’ve given that impression.” There was a bitterness in my voice I didn’t try to hold back.
Tari waved me off, dismissive. “Please. I treat everyone like that.” She gave me a condescending look. “In this world, kind people are the exception, Ara, not the rule. Guilty until proven innocent, I say.”
I frowned. Why was this girl so jaded? I never would have fathomed it, looking at the cheap jewelry and bright lipstick. But they accented a face that could switch so fast from harsh to bubbly, like two sides of a knife.
“Right. Well, I can try to teach you, if you promise not to be too insufferable. Can you manage that?”
She said nothing, and I shrugged and let my knife fly. I’d been aiming at a small, thin, willowy tree that swayed ever so slightly in the wind, but I wasn’t concentrating enough, and the knife missed the trunk by a millimeter. I flushed, embarrassed. I’d been practicing for years, but I still messed up sometimes.
I turned to see that Tari was gaping, wide-eyed. Confused, I whirled back around to see that my knife was wedged firmly in the bark of a farther tree, and had neatly pinned a bright red leaf with it. It looked like I’d purposefully hit the leaf right out of the air.
I wasn’t quite that good, but Tari didn’t need to know that. She gathered herself quickly, hiding her awe beneath a mask of determination. “If you teach me, I promise I’ll try.”