I adjusted my grip on the strap of my duffle bag. I stood just outside the dock dressed in black jeans and a medium-blue lightweight sweater I borrowed from Quistis - god, I hated plain-clothes - and I could see Marshal talking to one of the mechanics. He wore khaki shorts and some demon-red T-shirt.
I glared, my eye narrowing as I muttered and plotted against Seifer and tried to ignore the twisting in my gut at the prospect of contact-- I pressed my lips together and stalked forward, my gaze remaining warily focused on Marshal's face. Dammit, Seifer...
Seifer had always pushed. Even when I had 'met' him on a phone call. He had called the wrong number and demanded I get someone who didn't even live there. Some friend of his. He wouldn't listen when I tried to explain, or else he just didn't get it. At eight years of age we'd both been damned idiots. I scoffed. Yeah. I thought dad loved me. He loved me alright. Loved me up real good.
I spat and tightened the grip on the duffel to prevent the cringe.
Marshal sent a quick glance my direction and then did a double-take, mouth stopped mid-word. He looked away and adjusted his feet, rubbing the back of his neck as he swore. I actually smirked. It was nice to know he looked forward to the trip and the company as little as I did.
I came to stand a safe distance from him. "MARSHAL."
He cleared his throat and sent me a brief glance and an even briefer smile. "Hey, Fujin. Tranz is ready." He motioned behind him to the transport with a jerk of his thumb and another quick glance toward me. "Let's get going."
I stepped past him without a word and entered the transport. Marshal outranked me, which meant he would be in charge. Dammit, Seifer.
I stowed my gear roughly against the bench and sat down next to it, crossing legs and arms as I glared at the blank viewer to my left. I heard the scuff of shoes on the stairs then ramp, Marshal's dialogue with the pilot, and then the clearing of Marshal's throat moments before he stepped inside. The door shut firmly behind him. Hearing that felt a lot like the sound of my dad fitting the keys into the lock--
I adjusted my crossed arms and pressed my lips together.
Marshal sat across from me and produced a folder. He handed it forward. "Here's your backstory."
I stared at it coldly before I even made a move. When I began reading through it... ...oh god... The transport shifted as it pulled out of the dock. I clenched my free hand into a fist to keep from bolting.
"I came up with this after a long dialogue with Sally once I read her report."
I closed the folder and just stared at it.
He cleared his throat again. "Based on reported interactions-- oh hell. Fujin, we can change the backstory. Seifer should have told me who he assigned as my partner. Punk probably thought it'd be funny seeing you beat the shit out of me."
I tossed the folder to the seat beside me, again adjusting my crossed arms as I stared at the blank viewscreen. "FINE."
"Why don't we change--"
I focused a hard stare on him. "FINE," I pressed.
Marshal leaned slightly forward, his silver eyes holding my cold stare as easily as Seifer would. The fact pissed me off. "Fujin, we can change it. It's not a big deal. You being, say, a sister just out of the hospital will hold just as much sway as us being" his ears pinked "newly engaged and looking for a place. Considering certain things, I think we better."
Change it. Why? Because putting on a show like that would drive me over the edge? I clenched my jaw. It was a damned weakness. And that pissed me off, too. Dammit, Seifer.
"NO." I had to do my job. That was all I had left. Everything else had gone to hell. I had to do my job.
Marshal slightly frowned. "Fujin, god, stop being such a hard-ass. There's no way in hell you're going to let me lay a hand on you, and how is that going to convince anyone that we're so damned 'in love'?"
He scoffed and sat back in his seat with crossed arms.
Then Marshal looked over at me again. He leaned forward as before, but this time he put his hand on my knee. I reacted without thinking, grabbing his wrist to twist his hand and arm into a very painful position. Marshal gasped and grimaced, but he met my startled/angry gaze head on. I released his wrist.
He rubbed his hand and wrist as he regarded me. "Yeah, Fujin. We are just so in love."
I continued to glare as I crossed my arms again. "DUTY." This was my job. I had to do it. I couldn't let my dad take that away. He'd taken everything else.
Marshal actually laughed. "You think acting in love with an ass like me is your duty? Hell no! Tracking down the punks plotting against Garden is what we're doing. And we can do that being brother/sister same as we can do it any other way."
But who would believe him to be my brother? And how big a difference was it to treat him like that or act like-- I clenched my jaw and extended my hand. "RING." I could do it. I could do anything that proved daddy wrong.
Marshal regarded me with a serious expression. "We can't be half-assed, Fujin," he said carefully, "and I can't promise I won't do something spontaneous if our butts are on the line."
I fought back the dread and the terror and just stared at him. Go to hell, daddy. "RING."
Marshal chuckled as he dug into the side pocket of his khaki's and pulled out a small platinum band with a bluish-white gem. "Damned if I knew a girl would be demanding a ring from me." He held the ring in one hand and gestured with the other for me to give him mine. "Don't have much luck with the ladies. Sally says it's because I work too much. Dincht says it's my face."
I regarded his hand with a dark and cold glare, one side of my face twitching with the intensity of the throb in my scarred eye. 'This's the only loving up you'll get, you little cu--' I twitched, and the rage boiled my brain as I reached my hand out and placed it in his. The touch of his skin on mine made my insides crawl, but I fought it back. Almost desperate.
"I don't know. I like my face. Nothing scary like Raijin." Marshal laughed and slipped the ring onto my finger. I felt his occasional glances before he let it go. I balled the hand into a fist and tucked it tightly under my crossed arm as I looked away. Revenge would be sweet.
"Alright then. Backstory. Right." Marshal cleared his throat. "I think it'll need a little tweaking to explain some things. For example, if you'll notice in your history you used to work at a bookshop in Deling owned by your parents. We met at a book-club held at the shop and started dating thereafter. I think we better change it a bit to explain your eye. Why don't you let me take a look at it."
I looked over at him sharply. Marshal didn't lean back. He only motioned to my patch.
"Your eye. I need to see what will fit best as a backstory."
Explain my eye. How could anyone explain that? How could anyone believe what it stood for? Hell. Rage. A twisted relationship that I had to try and survive.
I tightened my balled fists and slowly uncrossed my arms. My entire head throbbed as I reached up to remove the patch.
"Okay," he said, almost matter-of-fact as he gave a slight nod. "That's not so bad to explain. Here. Give me the patch. You won't need it."
I blinked and asked "What" as the terror and rage halted and took a step back.
"Your patch, your patch." He took it from my hand and stuffed it into his shorts' side pocket.
I twitched and just stared at him.
Marshal looked up again. "Scarring's not that bad. The white of your eye's pretty cool, especially with the silver hair. Don't sweat it."
I stared at him-- I glared.
He raised his hands in defense. "What? The patch won't jive with your 'shy, bookworm' persona. Just comb your hair down in front of the eye a little more. Here." He motioned to my head. "I'm gonna fix your hair."
I pressed my lips together, and I could feel my body go rigid as his fingers carefully brushed my hair into my face just enough to cover my eye. I fought back a shiver.
"There. See? Plays on that whole 'shy' thing. My sis always wore... her..." He cleared his throat and sat back. "So, yeah, it'll work great. I'll give you your patch back later. Right now we'll leave it here on the transport."
Marshal turned and dug into a pack separate from his duffel. "I brought some cliff notes for your favorite genre of books - Oh. Your parents sold the bookshop and went on a cruise around the world in a yacht they bought with the money. The details are in your backstory." He straightened and presented the books. "Read up on these, especially the real-life stories of the author's. You're in to that."
I roughly took the books and started skimming through the first one. Historical dramatizations. Not one of my favorite things.
"I'm a freelance photographer," he offered up an expensive camera, "and we've been living at my apartment together for about 4 months, since your parents went on their little jaunt around the world. You're writing a novel or two and have a few stories published through Timber Maniacs. We're planning to buy the house on the proceeds from your novel's advance royalty check and the money we've saved this far. We've been saving since we started dating seriously 8 months ago."
Marshal retrieved a small photo-album from his pack. I focused on it with a sinking feeling. "We're going to stop at select places en-route and take pictures of us together wearing different outfits and in different supposed climates. I hope you brought a swimsuit, because for our 6 month anniversary I took you to that snazzy beach over by Dincht's orphanage. That's our first stop."
I set down the stack of books and stood, turning to exit the transport's cabin without a word. Once on deck I leaned heavily over the side and closed my eyes, breathing in deep to push back the nausea.
It didn't work.
We stopped at Fisherman's Horizon for pictures pertinent to the backstory as I found and purchased a swimsuit. On our way to Edea's orphanage, I changed into a different outfit while Marshal waited on deck.
Now, Marshal came to stand beside me just outside the transport on Edea's beach. I glared and adjusted my crossed arms. It wasn't his fault. I was a hard-ass that couldn't back down. All my life I'd backed down, and when I had enrolled at Garden I promised to never do it again. Even if it would have been the better thing to do--
Marshal took a picture. I focused my glare on him. He lifted the camera. "Great first-date picutre," he said, matter-of-fact.
I arched an eyebrow.
Marshal lifted his hands, still holding the camera. "Swear. No blackmail." He offered forward the camera and brought up a preview of the picture. "See? And believe me, I've had a few dates that didn't look so great."
All I saw was my profile against the sky. I looked away.
"What?" Marshal examined the digital shot. "You don't like it?"
Scars and bled color. What was to like.
"Sure, I haven't taken photography, but I thought I took a pretty good shot." He smirked and raised his gaze to me. "Everyone's a critic."
I stepped forward onto the beach. 'Ugly freak. Get out of my face!' 'Why don't you do something about that freaky silver hair? You look like a hag!'
'The white of your eye's cool, especially with your silver hair--'
"Okay. I figure we can get around three 'vacations' shot here."
I looked to my right. Marshal easily held my pace.
He motioned up near the orphanage building. "Grass and trees there." He pointed down the coast. "Boulders and caves there; Sally told me about some great inter-connecting corridors. Natural." Marshal stopped and motioned along both sides of the coast. "And the beach here." He put his fists on his hips. "We'll do the shots here last."
Six month anniversary... I clenched my jaw and headed toward the cliff steps. Marshal retrieved the blanket and picnic props from the transport pilot before stepping after me.
Walks on the beach.
Dinners by candlelight...
Never done. Now putting on a show to fool a possible saboteur. How could I convince anyone? I hadn't been allowed to show emotion for almost ten years. I hadn't been touched in five.
Marshal caught up to me midway up the cliff stairs. "Alright. Here's the plan: we'll play on the 'shy' thing in the pictures. I'll do all the stupid things like make faces and jump off buildings and stuff. You keep with the somber and silent."
I sent him a sidelong glance, which he met.
"This is what I figure: you were in a car accident." Marshal motioned toward me. "That will explain your eye."
"You were on your way home from the bookstore after closing - New Year's Eve, almost eleven - and got clipped and rolled by a drunk driver who ran a signal near the arch there in Deling. It's a high-risk area. Most believable."
I gave a nod. Marshal was good; detail-oriented. Damn quick with solid explanations and stories. I had to reluctantly admit him to be as good as Seifer.
"Due to the accident and the eye injury, you kept to yourself and never got out much. Stayed with your folks and helped them with the bookstore. Two years later..."
Marshal motioned for me to walk with him toward the grass and trees behind the orphanage. Careful not to touch, and careful not to invade my space. I regarded him with a sidelong evaluation and a slightly narrowed gaze.
"Two years later, my character enters the scene," he continued. "Just out of a bad relationship - she was caught cheating with my best friend - I decided to get out and meet new people in a completely different circle. 'Ex' was a model." Marshal snapped and pointed at me. "Hey. That'll work good. She flaunted, you didn't. Her beauty was skin deep, yours went further... Yeah." He absently nodded. "Good stuff. It'll make it believable." Marshal laughed. "Although why a silver-haired fox spends time with an ass like me will make them all suspicious-- What?"
I had stopped and fully faced him at the unexpected "FOX?" I queried.
Marshal's ears pinked, and he looked away as he rubbed at the back of his neck. Something I noticed he did when uncomfortable.
"Oh. Uh... just a... um... Never mind." He waved it away and stepped forward again. "Forget it."
I gauged his retreat with slowly crossed arms. I had been called a lot of things, but never A fox. A fox? My eyebrow twitched.
Marshal started spreading the blanket and then set up the prop picnic. I stepped forward. When I heard him mutter "Dammit, Marshal," my eyebrow twitched higher.
Marshal set everything up and stood, retrieving the camera and making an absent gesture toward the blanket as he began adjusting the settings. "Go ahead and sit down. I'll get a couple shots of just you - act camera shy - and then I'll flub one of me trying to get in to the picture before the timer's up. You'll have to try and look shocked or something when that happens. Okay. All set."
Marshal lifted his gaze from the camera, smiling. His smile vanished when he looked at an empty blanket, save the picnic props. Marshal glanced to his left. I still stood off to one side, arms crossed as I stared at the blanket and all it entailed.
"What's the problem?" he asked simply.
Problem? I had to play the part of a loved and happy woman and he could ask that?
I forced my feet forward, squashing the terror as I cautiously knelt on the plush flannel blanket. My fingers recoiled from the softness, and I just stared at the blues and burgundys of the plaid pattern.
"Fujin? You okay?"
Was I? Nobody ever asked-- I clenched my jaw and looked up. "FINE."
Marshal smirked and briefly lifted the camera. "This won't believe you. You've got to relax or the camera will pick it up... Hmm... Tell you what, let's try something." He motioned to me and then the blanket. "Lay on your stomach."
I regarded him warily before doing so.
"Okay. Now bend your knees and cross your ankles... Good. Now just fiddle with the-- Bingo. Don't look at the camera-- Perfect." The camera clicked. "Now why don't you just--"
I slightly looked up to get the instruction. He smiled and took a picture with an excited "Got it!" I arched an eyebrow.
Marshal previewed the pictures and gave a shake of his head. I could have told him the pictures wouldn't--
"You ever think of modeling?"
I blinked and looked him full in the face. I glared.
He laughed and raised his hands. "Okay, okay. Sorry I asked. I thought you'd take it as a compliment." He handed the camera toward me. "Your turn, and be kind."
I sat up and just looked at the camera. Kind. What did I know of that? I moved my gaze away. Survival. That was all I knew.
"Oh. Right. The outtake. Okee Dokee." Marshal brought out a tripod and set the camera on it. Then he adjusted the settings. "Now, I'm setting a short timer so it'll catch my trip on the edge of the blanket. I'm not going to tell you what I'm planning, Fujin, so don't kill me. I need a somewhat shocked expression for the camera." He looked up and met my gaze, smiling wide. "I'll be the only one humiliated. Promise."
'I won't do it again, baby. I promise--' I looked away.
Marshal pushed a button on the camera and then hurried around to perform whatever antics he had planned. Before he reached the edge of the blanket, however, he caught his toe on the tripod leg. Marshal gave a strangled shout as he floundered head-first toward me and the picnic. I dodged and he flailed straight into the ambrosia salad. The camera was heard to click twice as it toppled onto its side and grinned at us.
Marshal roared with laughter as he rolled onto his back and wiped the cream and topping from his face and eyes. I smirked and handed him a spoon. He took it and laughed harder. I didn't fault me my smirk, either. Marshal had both looked and sounded ridiculous. To his 'credit', the camera likely caught it all.
I stood and retrieved the camera. As suspected, it had a picture of Marshal falling head-first into dessert highlighted by an expression of muted surprise on my face. Picture number two, taken after the camera had fallen on its side, had caught a glowing shot of Marshal's butt as well as a slight smirk from me.
I looked up. Marshal had sat up and begun cleaning himself off with a fistful of napkins. "PERFECT."
"Thank you. I try." He motioned toward me while continuing to wipe down. "Why don't you take a couple shots of me cleaning off."
I moved to sit cross-legged on the blanket, lifting the camera for a shot just as Marshal sent a sidelong glance. He grinned, as camera-hogs tend to do, and I took that picture as well. Then I set the camera aside and started packing up the picnic.
"Hey, hey. Not so fast," Marshal protested. He took the plate of sandwiches from me.
"Explain what? This's a picnic. We eat the food."
Marshal regarded me while he stuffed the soiled napkins into a sack packed along for refuse. I held his gaze and deliberately crossed my arms.
"Aren't you hungry?" he asked.
I looked at my watch.
"Don't give me that. We've got plenty of time. Here." He offered a small bowl of mixed fruit. "Have some. It's great stuff. Besides that, it's your new persona's favorite."
I took the bowl, accepting the fork with a frown. My idea of an investigation didn't involve picnics and laughter to woo the suspicious ones into a slip. I preferred dark rooms and one-word questions that cut to the chase. Maybe some 'persuasion' now and again.
I skewered a piece of melon and scoffed before eating it. Seifer... ASS! If I'm your friend, why can't you leave me alone? Who gives a damn if it's been five years or fifty! I don't! And my father sure as hell hadn't. Bastard.
I smirked as I skewered another fruit. Not so tough when you know I can kick your ass, huh daddy? Not so free with the love when you know I might have had better than you'll ever be!
I glowered and roughly set aside the bowl, bringing my hands up to rub the remembered gropes from my skin. No. Those memories would burn a lot longer. I couldn't even stand Seifer to touch me. How would a man... How could... I pushed the nausea away and rubbed harder, but it never worked. The pain always lurked to remind--
I flinched and looked sharply to my left at the soft question. Marshal's expression held... I moved my gaze away.
Marshal regarded me a moment. "You don't expect me to believe you, right?"
I could care less. I crossed my arms.
"Is it going to effect the mission?"
I clenched my jaw. "NO." I can handle it. I always have.
I glared at him. "WHAT."
"If you... If I can..." Marshal released a quick breath as he looked away. "Never mind. Forget it." He started packing up the picnic this time. "Come on. Let's get cracking. We need to have these pictures done, so we can head over to Deling and get shots of us in the city."
Deling. I hated the city. Nothing good had ever happened there.
"Oh." Marshal sent a sidelong glance my direction as I stood and moved off the blanket. "I came up with... uh... an... idea of... um..." He rubbed at his neck with a muttered. "Dammit, Marshal," before looking me full in the face with a determined expression. "Between now and our arrival in Winhill tomorrow afternoon - we're staying in Deling City tonight - I'll be touching you on random occasions."
My expression went blank as my stomach knotted.
"A touch on the arm or shoulder or back. Nothing major. Just so you can get familiar with the idea and restrain the cringe or violent retaliation." Marshal grimaced. "Damn. That sounds... Look, Fujin, I get that you don't want anyone invading your space. I'm fine with that. That's why I'm pissed at Seifer for putting you up for this. Just bear with me and I'll back off when I can. Swear."
I glared, and Marshal's blink of surprise barely registered. "STOP."
But how could I put it into one word? I pressed my lips together.
Marshal regarded me with a slightly tilted head. Then he put down the picnic basket and crossed his arms. "Stop...?" he urged.
Stop treating me like a fragile little toy! The words practically rumbled within. I balled my hands into fists, fighting against the words for fear more would come-- Fear. Fear! Dammit!
My eye sparked as I brought a fist up to pound once on my chest. "NOT WEAK."
Marshal's eyes widened briefly. Then he frowned. "Hell no you're not weak, Fujin. I know that." He rested his hands on his hips. "I'm just trying to give both of us a chance to get used to the idea. I do the same thing every time I go under cover." He spat. "You said before you didn't want to be touched, so I wanted to give you a chance to transition past that. Who said anything about anybody being weak? You're the toughest lady on Security, and I'm just respecting your boundaries!"
Then Marshal grabbed up the picnic basket in one hand, the blanket in his other, and strode back toward the cliff stairs. I regarded him with a slightly narrowed gaze. Respect. I hadn't heard that word very often. I lowered my gaze and picked up the camera and tripod. All these years I had fought for respect and position. Now, when it was offered, I slapped it down while accusing the person of saying I was weak. I pressed my lips together and stepped forward.
'You're the toughest lady on Security.'
Apparently I was the only one who didn't know it.
I arrived at the foot of the cliff stairs to find Marshal changing out of his red T-shirt into a long-sleeved one of blue, all the while mumbling under his breath. I didn't say a word. I boarded the transport after leaving the camera and tripod on the beach. Then I changed into a pair of regular blue jeans and a long-sleeved denim shirt with a white tank-tee beneath. I changed from my sneakers into my hikers and then exited onto the beach.
Marshal sat in a beach lounge chair while turning the camera over in his hands. He now wore loose jeans and leather hikers as well as the long-sleeved cotton tee and a denim jacket. He looked somewhat normal... civilian even. I probably did, too. Except for the eye... I raised a hand to the scarring and lightly touched it with my fingertips. I had come to hate it. Daddy's last gift. A permanent reminder.
'the white of your eye's cool--'
I pushed it aside, lowering my hand from my face as Marshal looked up. He stood and met me half way. Then he handed me a flashlight and motioned ahead to the caves. I stepped forward, and he fell in beside me. After a moment or two of walking he took a picture of our steps. I glanced over at him to notice a slight almost lopsided smirk. He didn't look over at me. He didn't explain. What he did do was take a picture of the set of steps behind us. Then he gave a brief nod and looped the camera strap around his neck. He tucked his hands into his pockets.
I continued to regard his profile.
"Alright," he said suddenly, very businesslike. "From now on we call each other by our assumed names. That means no more Goddess of Wind for you and no geekdom for me. Just Ana and Bla-- what?"
I had grabbed him by the arm and jerked him to face me. "...what..." I hissed.
"Ana and Blake," he repeated slowly. "You're Ana - your mom called you that - short for Ahndra--"
I released his arm and stepped back. I felt as if I'd been slapped. Marshal watched the reaction with an odd expression. Ahndra... I slightly shook my head as I stepped back again. I stumbled on a ridge of sand, but Marshal grabbed my flailing hands before I went down. I pulled my hands free with another slight shake of my head. I rubbed the touch away on my jeans. No... I swallowed back the nausea. Ahndra. Ana. What my mom had called me... before she had died. Leaving me with... him.
"What's the deal with the name?" Marshal asked carefully.
I lightly tapped my chest as I continued to stare at the ground, not trusting my voice or my control on the lurching of my stomach.
"You're... Your name's..."
I slightly nodded as I raised a hand to rub at my scarred eye. It throbbed.
Marshal swore under his breath. Then he released a deep breath. "Sorry," he said finally. "Everything has already been set up. I can't change it."
I could feel him watching. Studying. Gauging. It unnerved me--
"Tell 'em to screw off."
I lowered my hand and met his gaze. "What?"
"The memories. It's a nice name, and now we've got a better use for it then whatever asshole screwed with it last time."
I reluctantly smirked. Hear that, daddy? He hasn't even met you and he's calling you an ass.
Marshal ducked his head down slightly, still holding my gaze as he reached out and gripped my upper arm. I twitched and pulled back. "Alright?"
I curtly nodded.
We stepped again toward the caves. "I've got a question for you - please don't hit me too hard."
I sent him a sidelong glance. "ASK."
"Correction. Make that two questions. The first'll get me a dirty look at least, so I'll ask the second. Can you lower your volume a little? Maybe add another word or two? I mean, I could add that you're slightly deaf, to your backstory I mean, but geez. I don't think you want them yelling at you."
I smirked again. "NO."
"No you don't want them yelling at you, or no you don't want to lower your volume? You see how frustrating it is to get one word hacked out of a sentence? And I'm a detail-anal'd person. I need a bit more than one word."
"You'll try? Or I should try to get over it? See how important that pronoun is?"
I clasped my hands tighter behind my back as I fought back an actual smile. My use of one word sentences had always been a form of control. Mind games, almost. My dad had only ever given me 'Yes' or 'No' questions. The world outside had been a lot different.
But a mission was a mission.
I took in a deep breath and said, "I will try." Marshal stopped. I twitched - I don't know why - and turned to face him. "WHA--" I took in another breath and tried again. "What?"
He pointed at me. "You have a--" His mouth clicked shut as he stuffed his hands into his pockets. His ears pinked. "Nothing."
Curiosity and intrigue arched an eyebrow.
Marshal cleared his throat. "The first question has to do with the 'touch' thing."
I looked away.
"Yeah. I know. But I'm curious - or something. Is it all kinds of touch? Or just one?"
My eyebrow arched again as I met his gaze. "EXPLAIN."
Marshal rubbed at his neck. "Explain," he mumbled absently. "Um... well..." He shrugged. "I'll have to give an example, Ana-- You okay? You went a little green."
I slightly nodded and fought back the memories and the nausea. Then I grabbed at my revulsion and presented my arm, sleeve pushed up. His question had made me curious. Daddy had never touched me softly or gently. It had always been rough and bruising. Did I react differently to one than the other?
Marshal rubbed his palms on his jeans before reaching out to hold my forearm in a normal grip. I twitched and had to pull my arm free and rub the crawling away. Marshal absently nodded. Curiosity grabbed me again and made me produce my arm a second time. The second hold felt as if it were barely there. There was a sudden whole-body shiver, but once that vanished there was only a slight, continued prickle. I arched an eyebrow.
Marshal removed his hand and gestured. "Rub it away. One more."
I rubbed the touch away, intrigue holding me by the throat, and then produced my arm a third time. When Marshal reached out this time, it felt like only air touched my skin. There was no shiver. No invasion. Nothing but a slight warmth.
"Okay. Now rub that away and close your eyes."
I rubbed the touch away while gauging Marshal's expression. There wasn't one as he focused on my arm. I closed my eyes and produced my arm yet again.
The touch came to my shoulder.
I twitched and grabbed the wrist and hand before I could even think. My eyes snapped open as I released my hold.
Marshal smiled and rubbed his wrist. "It's okay. I knew it was coming." He lowered his eyes to his wrist and the hand that rubbed it. "If you don't know where or when the touch is coming, self-preservation kicks in. As long as you can control the touch or can see it coming, it's not so bad. You have time to get ready for it. Except for hard or heavy touch. Bad memories come with that, so you can't take it. Light and normal were okay."
I blinked. Normal?
Marshal glanced my way and then nodded. "I know. You thought that first was 'normal', but it wasn't. Touch two was."
I looked down.
Marshal cleared his throat, drawing my gaze. "Come on. Let's go. I don't know about you, but I really want to see these caves."
But I didn't move. I kept staring at my hand and arm, wondering why all these years I had thought... Then again, why wouldn't I? I hadn't allowed anyone close enough to change my twisted views on normal contact. I knew they were wrong, and that life wasn't like that. School in Deling City had shown me what 'normal' was. The couples. The friends. Arm in arm. Kissing. Hugging. Innocent touches that brought smiles instead of....
But I was a freak. Silver-haired from the age of fifteen. Now with a white eye--
'The white of your eye's cool, especially with your silver hair.'
'You look like a hag!'
I glared and lowered my arm, rage boiling within as I balled my hands into fists. Screw off, daddy! I raised my eyes to Marshal's. "AHND--" Deep breath. "Ahndra." Bastard. You can't have the name anymore. It's mine!
Marshal slightly nodded. "Sure." He smirked. "Can I call you that once the mission's over? I like it better than 'Fujin', not that it's lame or anything."
I arched an eyebrow.
"Oookaaay. I won't. Come on." He reached out for my upper arm while motioning forward to the caves with the other. "We're burning daylight."
I tensed and clenched my jaw, and at the contact I didn't cringe or twitch. I balled my hands into fists to keep from striking out.
Marshal glanced down at me with another smirk. "Good job."
I sent him a hard look and a carefully chosen "Don't be an ass."
Marshal laughed. "Can't help it."
He laughed harder, which I didn't really understand. I looked away. 'I like it better than 'Fujin'...' 'It's been five damn years.' I lowered my gaze to the ground. 'Hell no you're not weak...' Maybe one day I would believe it.
A swimsuit... I stared down at it with a blank look. It was light blue. One piece. Simple enough, but it showed too much--
I clenched my jaw and began stripping. I didn't wear anything less than long sleeves and pants. Hadn't for a long time. Too hard to explain the bruises and scars. No one had ever believed me anyway. Now I would get the same looks and whispers from people who thought they knew me. How would I explain the scars?
I swore and stepped into the swimsuit. Putting it on made me feel... naked. Like I waited for a grope or a touch. The fabric against my skin made me nauseous, like a million hands-- I shoved it aside and stepped into a pair of black shorts. I knew the recoil and revulsion would be back. It was only a matter of time.
I grabbed my sunglasses and towel and stepped onto the beach. Marshal had stripped of his shirt and changed into a pair of black shorts with a wide yellow stripe around one leg. He was built a lot different than my dad. Somewhat naturally darkened skin. More athletic and less... massive-- I pushed away the imagery. It only brought memories of his weight crushing me-- I pushed it away harder, my stomach lurching.
Marshal tossed another pebble into the ocean before looking toward the transport. He smiled and lifted a hand to wave, but then his face went blank and his arm dropped to his side.
I looked away and continued forward, fighting back the shame and the rage and humiliation. When I finally stood across from him, I threw the towel onto one of the beach chairs and slipped into my sunglasses before meeting his gaze-- I blinked. He... smiled?
Speaking in a 'lower volume' had become easier since the 90 minute jaunt in the cave, especially when speaking loud there had hurt because of the reverb. But I still preferred the one-word phrases.
His ears pinked as he looked away. "Nothing."
"Blake," I pressed, and even with saying it all through the cave adventure, it still sounded odd.
He laughed. "Nothing. You just look good in blue."
I leaned slightly back, totally and completely floored. Then I lowered my focus to my bare arms. Scars. I touched one to make sure the pale gash was there. Yes. Scars. Doesn't he see them? I lifted my gaze, but he fiddled with the buttons on the camera.
I opened my mouth to comment when he lifted the camera and smiled wide.
"Say 'Green'." He took the picture - I barely had time to close my mouth - and then previewed it. "Damn." Marshal looked up. "I don't think this camera has taken one bad picture of you. Me? Different story."
I arched an eyebrow, something I did a lot when listening to Marshal.
His expression suddenly grew serious. "You ready?"
I pressed my lips together and slightly nodded. We had taken two or three pictures in the cave by way of 'rehearsal' that had consisted of Marshal's arm around my shoulders, or standing behind me with his hands on my arms, and one of us in the same position as the latter with my hands covering his. In retrospect, the smile had been easier than the bodily contact.
After each picture Marshal had immediately given me space. Going so far as to turn off his flashlight so I couldn't see him. Whether this had helped or not I didn't know, but... Now we had to do more of the same.
"Alright. Let's get this done." He motioned to the beach chair. "Why don't you have a seat while I fart and frolic and make an ass out of myself, you taking pictures of course."
I slightly nodded and turned to sit in the beach chair. When I looked up, Marshal was in the process of taking another picture.
I frowned and stuck out a hand. "Stop."
Click. "Perfect." He grinned and handed me the camera. "Hey. Don't give me that look. We need to have some not-so-happy pictures or we don't look genuine." He backed off toward the water, hands raised. "Swear."
I scoffed and then pointed at the ocean. "Go."
Marshal saluted. "But you still don't rank me." And then turned to high-tail it into the water. He sounded a strangled shout. "Damn! This's cold!"
I lifted the camera and took pictures of his less-than-graceful retreat from the water; his teeth chattered as he bounded forward with his arms around his chest, sopping wet black hair in his eyes.
Marshal stopped and stared at me, mouth gaping as his lips slowly turned blue. I took another picture. Then he smirked and put his fists on his hips. "I could throw you in, you know. Then you could tell me again how much of a wuss I am."
I lifted my gaze and lowered the camera as I regarded him with a slightly narrowed gaze.
"Don't think I'll do it?" he asked, and he took a single step forward.
I arched an eyebrow.
"Not impressed, huh?" Marshal stepped closer and then passed the chair to go behind. I adjusted my position to watch. "How about I show you?" Marshal lifted the beach chair - with me in it.
My eyebrow twitched higher. I didn't doubt that he would throw me in. I suppose I only wanted to see how. Point taken and proved. Quite impressive, too.
"Still not impressed? Alright." He headed toward the water, chair in hands.
I turned back around, not noticing the slight smile on my face as I quickly gathered the camera and adjusted the settings for a close shot. Then I held it out at arms length, feigned what I guessed was a frightened expression, and took the picture.
"Quick thinking, but having the camera is not going to save you. It's waterproof."
A fact I already knew. I tucked the camera into a pouch built into the side of the chair, sealed it shut, and then gripped the arms of the chair as Marshal stepped into the ocean. The water lapped at my toes. It was cold, but I had experienced worse.
Suddenly the chair stopped. The smirk vanished as I adjusted my position to look behind. My gaze met Marshal's silver one.
"Aw come on," he complained. "You're supposed to kick, squeal, or something."
"Because. That's the whole reason we do crap like this. The girl pleads, we show mercy, and then they think we're heroes."
I blinked at him. Then I scoffed, but it sounded more like a snigger. I couldn't help it. His explanation sounded utterly ridiculous.
Marshal frowned. "And now she's laughing at me. Great. Not only does she think I won't do this--"
He heaved the chair forward, launching me into the water while holding onto the chairframe. I used the momentum to adjust my entry. When I surfaced a moment later, Marshal had positioned himself in the chair, in the water, and crossed his arms.
I wiped the water from my face as I slowly stood in the waist-deep water. "See?"
Marshal scoffed. "No shriek. No squeal. And you even did a more graceful entry than me. Damn."
Then he uncrossed his arms and said "Gotcha!" as he snapped a picture.
I arched an eyebrow and forced a calm "Very mature."
He previewed the picture and released a quick breath. "Geez. You still look good. I think this camera is rigged."
My cheeks burned, so I turned away and stepped out of my now-wet shorts. I tossed them over my shoulder at him, hearing the splut as they landed on his head, and dove into the water.
'Damned ugly freak--' 'Geez. You still look good.' 'You just look good in blue.' '...silver-haired fox...' '...the white of your eye's cool...'
I pushed all the voices away as I dove deeper, trying to escape something I didn't understand. But escape had never been an option for me. Not since escaping my dad.
So I stroked for shore, trying to keep the thought of walking out strictly distant. When I made my way out, Marshal had re-setup the chairs and now read a book. It looked to be a 'who's-who' of photography.
I balled my hands into fists as I continued forward. Still feeling naked and... vulnerable. I nearly swore. But Marshal didn't look up. He continued to read and jot notes in the corners and margins. I reached my chair and took up the large pale blue towel to wrap it around me. Then Marshal looked up.
"Okay," he admitted with a smirk, "so I'm a wuss."
I returned his smirk but didn't look at him.
Marshal stood. "Well, I guess we're off to Deling City then."
This time I looked up. "Why?" We needed those... other photos.
Marshal gathered the chairs and folded them up. "We've got plenty of pictures from here. Considering your persona's shyness..." He glanced my direction. "We've got enough, Ahndra. Don't sweat it."
I stared after him as he lugged the chairs onto the transport. Then I wordlessly followed.
"In Deling we'll be staying the night at my supposed apartment," he continued. "We'll have dinner at a restaurant there and then leave tomorrow morning for Winhill on a privately chartered schooner." Marshal gestured to me. "I'll go on deck. You get changed."
And he went on deck as I continued to stare after him.
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