Bernard sat back in his chair precariously; his feet, resting on the tabletop, were the only things keeping him balanced, otherwise the legs would have edged one way or another and tossed him to the ground. He dozed while you finished packing your things.
“You better be wiping that down,” you scoffed, throwing a damp bathtowel at his chest. “Grow up.”
He peered at you through his blond bangs and raked his hair back. You thought, for a moment, that he might actually consider what you’d said, but the hope passed quickly; he tossed the towel over one of his feet and moved it back in small, jerking movements, staring up at you with his eyebrows raised.
“I should have let that Hollow get you,” you muttered.
“Oh,” he cried, putting his chair upright and clutching his hands to his heart. “You wound me.”
“If you haven’t forgotten, we need this inn. It’s the only one on the island and we can’t go stalking up a mountain in the middle of the night, mind,” your voice was growing steadily louder, but you took this pause to calm. You began again, in nearly a whisper, “I’m not putting my children’s lives in danger just because you got us kicked out of here and a Hollow followed us to the cairns.”
You tossed your final things into the tattered rucksack and threw the strings over your shoulder; you’d counted and recounted nearly a dozen times and were confident that you had everything. Bernard, on the other hand, had barely touched his side of the room. He was a tall, lean man with a fine, smooth look to him, as if his face and muscles had been delicately carved by hand. More often than not, he thought that his physical appearance was deserving of slack—he worked with charm and luck, never determination or sweat—and he often looked down on anyone who expend the effort to accomplish their goals.
“Your problem,” he said one night while they all discussed the war, “is that you try too hard.”
That moment had cemented your distaste for his attitude, but it didn’t stop you from working together whenever needed; to your chagrin, your Peculiarities went hand-in-hand.
“I’m going to the loo,” you said, “and when I come back, I expect you to be ready.”
“Anything you say.”
You two had somehow managed to catch the last ferry to the island the night before, despite having left the safe house an hour later than necessary (due to one of Bernard’s more arrogant tendencies: beauty sleep), and fallen back asleep almost immediately after procuring the room.
“Keep says that someone else has called in to reserve the rooms,” you said emerging from the toilet. “So surprised someone had the courtesy, I ‘spect. We need to be out before they come in. Oh, come on, throw your shit into a bag and let’s go.”
Bernard didn’t try to hide his amusement.
“Next time,” he mused, slamming his chair flat onto the floor, “we go up at night. Cut out the middle man.”
“Like you weren’t exhausted,” you nearly growled.
He made his way to the bed, swinging his hips slightly, like a cowboy in those American films, and grabbed his clothes pile all in one fist, which he thrust unceremoniously into a sort of army bag.
“Ready,” he said, zipping it shut.
You easily passed through the town without gathering much attention. Compared to more modern cities, like London, you two were absurdities, dressing like teenagers in war time: with jeans and cargo pants, ripped at the knees and in other strange places, tank tops that looked as if they’d been worn for several weeks without washing, caps, sunglasses, and weather bags thrown over a shoulder each. Cairnholm paid you very little mind, however, as you didn’t seem any more out of place than the other dirty farmers and old-fashioned tradesmen on the island…or more, you looked like their children, whose schooling brought them somewhat closer to modern trends.
Whatever the case, you passed quickly through the village and up toward the swamp, where you finally stopped to catch your breath.
“Don’t s’pose you brought any water, did you?” Bernard asked, squatting on a dry piece of land between marshes.
“We’re nearly there,” you panted with a slight smile. “Holy shit, it’s almost noon.”
You nodded towards the sun, which was peaking just above the tree tops behind you.
“It’s following us up, but we’ve beat it.”
You both knew why you were waiting there, and it wasn’t for a physical break; neither of you needed one. There were several minutes of silence, save the relatively loud panting from Bernard and your few, inconsistent yawns.
Hearing his cue, Bernard began crawling forward, then, remembering his form, stood and walked nonchalantly through the cairn behind him, looking around at the rock as if he were observing it for the first time. You, on the ground, leaning over your bag as if searching half-hearted through the pouches, were keeping your ears open for signs of movement—to look around was go give away that you were Peculiar. After you were certain that Bernard was through to the Loop, you counted sixty seconds, slung your rucksack onto one arm, and followed.
Alma stood inside the doorframe, looking all-too-much like a dream.
“(Y/N),” she mouthed, descending the steps to meet you at the cairn.
You were exhausted—from months of work, from war, from climbing—but, fuck, if you weren’t going to meet your fiancée halfway, at the very least, you didn’t deserve her. Before you know what was happening, you were sprinting.
“I love you,” you cried, throwing your arms around her shoulders.
Alma’s head rested against your shoulder, her arms digging in the fabric at your waist. You heard her sniff several times as her breathing became rapid.
“Shh, sweetheart, breathe,” you whispered in her ear, but this only succeeded in making her inconsolable. “I’m alright. I love you.”
“I love you so much,” she sobbed.
The children must have been somewhere far enough away that Alma felt so comforatble to cry; she never allowed them to see what she considered weakness, even when young Victor died. She was their strength. What would happen if she should fade?
“They’ve asked if they could go to the beach,” she said, as if in answer to your thoughts. “They’re in their rooms getting ready.”
“Shall we all go after lunch?” you asked.
She held onto you tighter. You took it as a yes.
“Well, then,” you muttered. “Lunch, then the beach, then gifts?”
The children had never been more excited to see you come home, and you spent almost no time in getting reacquainted with all of their new developments: very little happened in the Loop by way of the world outside, that is true, but what they did amongst themselves was ever evolving. Rather than swim, however, the children wanted to keep you as close as possible—Bernard quickly excused himself to the guest room, where he spent the remainder of the day in bed (no doubt, stretched across the mattress, four legs stretched in either direction), and, though you were so tired you could barely move, you picked up each of the smallest children, embraced the others, read stories and listened to stories and told them all about your adventures outisde of the Loop…You made it all the way until dinner, when Bernard was just arising, and Alma made you go up to your shared room to sleep.
You dreamed almost instantly, but part of you knew you were awake. You were waiting for Alma to return after putting the kids to bed so that you could give her the thing you’d carried all the way across England on foot.
“Today is a blur,” you muttered, startling Alma as she shut the door behind her.
“I remember nothing,” you giggled. “Well, almost nothing. I remember a very beautiful woman telling me she loves me, and someone pawing up my shirt—”
She sent you a very severe look, holding back her smile. You were laying on your side, above the sheets so that the pale moonlight fell across your back. Alma seemed to regard the scars there for a few moments before dropping her skirts and top to the floor.
“It’s stuck there, dove,” you sighed. “No getting rid of it.”
The corner of her lips twitched upward—she was fighting her joy at seeing you after six long months of not knowing if you were safe, and the nauseatingly painful knot that developed in her stomach every time she knew you were thinking about your scars.
“You’re beautiful,” she whispered, sliding into bed beside you. “Let me see it.”
You paused; she liked to do this now and again, when your voice cracked just the right way and your eyes betrayed the semblance of strength you’d forced…Slowly, you rolled onto your stomach.
Alma kissed your bare shoulder, allowing her lips to trace across your skin as she moved down your back. Her right hand ran over the curve of your ass—you sighed.
“Still trying to hide?” Alma teased. “You can moan; the children won’t hear you.”
“Habit,” you breathed. “I’ve missed you so…”
Her fingers traced the three long, rose-colored scars that ran across the small of your back, like inverted claw marks. A small patch of the skin there had lost most of its nerves; she had known you well enough to surmise that, in some places, you couldn’t feel her touch, but she wasn’t quite sure when she entered that territory. Rather than ask—you took most of her comments as pity, though that was far from the truth—she prefered just to treat the entire area with the same attention, kissing and rubbing the knots from the muscle beneath and resting her head in the dip of your back when you propped yourself on your elbows to read in bed. She had never been shy of your injury, but you still worried there would be a day when she wouldn’t touch you.
“Are you too tired?” she asked, returning to your shoulder.
“For you?” you laughed. “Never.”
“Good, because you’ve been gone far too long,” she nipped your shoulder, then, as you turned to face her, your nose. You must have scrunched it, too, because she smiled from ear to ear. “You’re so beautiful.”
You didn’t know what to say, other than a corny You’re more beautiful, which she never accepted anyway, so instead you reached onto the nightstand and grabbed a box of fake navy velvet, small enough to fit in the palm of your hand, and rolled onto your back.
Laying against the headboard, you held it out for her to take and whispered, “I bought those six months ago, before we left London. I’ve kept them in my pocket…they remind me of coming home.”
Alma sat up on her knees. The moon was so bright, you had no need to light either of the lamps that sat, one by the bookshelf, the other on her vanity; it cast a pale white-blue glow over your side of the bed, drowning you both in the strange watery hue. It illuminated her skin and highlighted her navy tresses, which she still had twisted up with a number of pins. Even the rose of her cheeks was tinted a timid violet.
“They’re blue topaz,” you said as she lifted a single earring from its box. “I didn’t have enough for a proper ring, but when I do—”
“They’re wonderful,” she breathed, placing the empty box back onto the nightstand. Her fingers worked delicately by her ears, twisting the backs of her old pair in the shadows, so that you could only see the arabesque of her pale digits and not their objective.
“I know nothing about gemstones, but they reminded me of your eyes. Next time, I promise, I’ll get you the ring you deserve, I just—”
She leaned forward and kissed you; your hands rested on her upper arms, drawing her closer.
“I don’t need one,” she whispered against your lips. “I need you. Here. Safe.”
“Ymbrynes are disappearing, Alma,” you said. Then, when you felt warm tears stream down your cheeks, “It’s almost over. I promise.”