Where Some Ideas Are Stranger Than Others...
Alphabet Soup: Chapter Two
Omega's Folly was of course, very big, and since it did belong to the Adams family, Jed did hold title to the bigger half. Some days Jed was not entirely pleased with that fact, especially when it came time to clear dead wood and leaves off the roof before the snows started. The snow was a whole other animal. But most of the time Jed dearly loved the whole ridiculously rambling place, and could be found on some part of any of her given days off singing merrily alternately in Greek and Turkish while making some repair or simply wandering around to update her floor map.
Today she was completing a careful test of the soundness of the ground floor. Her great grandmother had had an old Solstice tradition that had ended before Jed had taken possession of the place, mainly due to the war. But now, having made certain the floor was all right, and checked and doublechecked the measurements, Jed was quite certain she could reinstate the practice. Beaming happily, she rolled up her sleeves and hurried out the front door. A loud, ominous, shrieking creak followed her departure. A shaft of light spread horizontally across the floor, and an old fashioned garage door slid opened.
Then Chris' car, the engine off, began to roll into the broad foyer, covered in flag stones similar to the foyer in Benny's half of the house, but still level. The car was soon completely inside, and grinning rather manically Jed hurried back and shut the garage door before leaping into the driver's seat. Scowling when a glance at the dashboard reminded her Chris' car was not a key starter, she jumped out and ran to the front, digging out the engine crank and getting started on cranking.
Some twenty minutes later the engine had coughed, weezed, and choked, all to no avail. Jed was just yanking out the handle with the vague idea of smacking the car with it when the engine started purring like a happy house cat. "Oh, excellent." Jed grinned and tossed the crank over the front of the car and into its back seat. "Now then, this should be good." She leaned on the car's nose, pressing herself upward a bit in order to read the fuel gauge. Letting herself down, she unwittingly gave the car a slight push backwards. This was a bad idea.
The push or the wheels turning, it wasn't clear which, threw the car into gear, and it began to move forward. "Wh – hey" Jed found herself backpedalling very fast, and actually tried to slow things down by planting her feet. How far this actually involved thought as opposed to stubbornness could be debated as the car simply knocked her over and rolled on its merry way.
Bouncing upright in an instant, Jed ran after the car, hoping desperately to catch it before it met the T-junction at the end of the Long Hall, which was named with the pun intended. Success seemed almost immediate when she caught hold of the boot handle, but the door came off unhelpfully in her hands, revealing Chris' collection of multicoloured tubing, tools, and several tins of poppycock.
Dumping her not-so-consolatory prize, Jed put her head down and ran harder, wishing rather ruefully such stunts could be saved for real emergencies outside of the house. Hurling herself forward she managed to get onto the back of the car, causing the perverse thing to swerve, nearly tossing her into a large rack of preserves. Jed sighed in relief when the shelf didn't fall over as Chris had a deep and abiding fondness for marmalade. Then she looked ahead, and uttered a horrified exclamation, diving forward she got hold of the emergency brake and pulled hard. The car stopped with a jerk, tossing Jed head over heels and onto the hood, with the brake handle still clutched in one hand.
"Ow." Well, this wasn't quite the Solstice tradition, but then, it wasn't Solstice yet, so that hardly counted. She sat up carefully, pondering whether to take a break and have a cup of tea, or consider moving the preserves rack.
Arion peered through the microscope at the slide of mysterious goop one of the border scouts had found besmearing the banks of a river that had once been great, but was now little more than knee deep at the best of times. The stuff didn't appear to be algae, and had a weird smell that made Arion think of artificially produced iodine. She changed focus and scratched at the back of her neck.
"Don't you think it might be a good idea to put a shirt on before you start messing around with laboratory equipment?" For her part Benny had slipped into a green t-shirt and a pair of loose fitting combat pants.
"Why? I put pants on." Arion replied, unwittingly producing almost exactly Jed's bewildered 'whatever could you possibly mean by that?' tone.
"Ari, pants and shirts are not equivalent. Trust me on this one." After a short search through Arion's curiously unorganized office, Benny had rousted out a terrible Hawaiian shirt, and she held the garment out now.
"Mmmm..." Arion waved an arm vaguely in Benny's direction, who obligingly threaded one sleeve onto the flailing arm and walked around to catch the other arm. Since Arion was actually sitting on a battered old stool that spun on a pivot, after a moment they were roughly face to face again. Roughly, because the stool's seat came to about a handsbredth higher than Benny's waist. Leaning forward, Arion threw her arms loosely around Benny's shoulders, and leaned her head against the shorter woman's with a sigh. "You're teaching me weird habits. I never used to have sex in the middle of the day." This drew a snort of laughter from her companion, who gave her a poke in the stomach.
"Good thing too, you were running pretty short of weird habits for an Adams."
"You think? It's funny you should say so, because several members of the family have asked me rather hesitantly if perhaps I was adopted. They have a hard time relating to me, I'm so atrociously normal!" She ran a gentle fingertip down the side of Benny's face, tracing her lover's smile. "Chris fits right in, though. You know, I honestly don't know how we ever hit it off before."
"To be perfectly honest, I couldn't fathom it either. Neither of you strike me as people inclined to have a long term sex only fling, and, not meaning to be insulting or anything – but there's no chemistry, Arion."
"Yes – no – I mean..." Arion grimaced. "I'm not sure what I mean. Benny, Chris and I have both changed so much from when we were together. It was nice, but, nothing like us. Nothing like her and Jed."
For several long moments, Benny held her peace, considering. "Chris is jolly well English, but you've never been to England – and how weird is that, may I ask? You lived what, five years in Scotland? Jed told me she and Chris came here as a couple from England. Seems to me you would have to have met Chris in Germany or Holland. "
"Damn, you weren't kidding about your memory for detail." Arion chuckled ruefully. She slipped off the stool and tugging on Benny's hand, got her to sit down with her on the grumpy couch gracing one wall. "Chris is certainly jolly well English, but she is also just as jolly well German. She has dual citizenship thanks to her – dad, I think. Learnt both English and German as a kid. We met when she was an undergraduate at university in Mannheim."
"What were you?" Benny asked curiously.
"So am I. I finished school in Scotland, couldn't quite sort out what to do with myself, and went travelling. Being a bit lacking in the money department, I travelled mostly rough and slept in a nasty little pup tent, usually with my feet sticking out. The second time I met Chris, I was enrolled at Mannheim myself." Arion's eyes dropped to the floor, and she rubbed unconsciously at the puckered skin on the angle of her jaw. "Before war, and jail, and accidents. Back when I was still a party animal." The last sentence was delivered in English, with 'party animal' enunciated for silly effect.
"A party animal."
"Mmmhmm, with red polka dots and green stripes. You should have seen me!"
"Merhaba!" Chris shouted merrily at the other occupants of the bus. The other occupants of the bus stared at her doubtfully. "Merhaba?" Chris repeated, sounding a little disappointed at their reaction. "Should I speak in English? How could 'hello' go over so badly?" she asked the bus driver uncertainly. "Or Arabic, maybe?"
"No, just – keep going. They'll relax." the driver counselled, pulling the handle to close the doors. The bus was an ancient municipal one, long ago turned to other purposes, although the ticket box remained in place.
Chris nodded and turned back to the erstwhile passengers. Said passengers were a variety of Turkish women, who had decided to pull up stakes and head for the Nation. She wondered if their rather glacial reception had to do with anything she was wearing. Looking herself over, Chris found nothing amiss. Ankles and forearms covered up perforce in the now almost painfully brutal sunlight thanks to the further deterioration of the ozone layer.
In any case, Chris jammed her hat on the back of her head, cheerfully informed everyone that she had a bit of a strong accent in Turkish, and she didn't mind repeating things if necessary. Then she went into what Benny had nicknamed the 'just enough information to prevent panic' speech. The bus driver got the vehicle moving as she got into the flow of things, maneuvering comfortably in the insane traffic. Impressively, Chris never lost her footing as the driver dove in and out of lanes, hurried through lights that might have been better stopped for, marginally avoided pedestrians, and generally enjoyed himself.
At the precise midpoint of her speech, Chris was interrupted by the ticket box abruptly beginning to belch flames. "Oh for pity's sake, cut that out!" Pulling off her hat Chris began to beat at the flames.
"Ahh-eee!" the driver shrieked at her, as the flames proceeded to begin to eat Chris' hat. It was hard to read from his expression whether he was alarmed, entertained, or vexed at the distraction from guiding the bus between two large trucks and cutting off a tell-tale secret service vehicle.
"Oh dear, that wasn't what I had in mind. Hang on a minute..."
"No, no hanging, no waving, no nothing!" the driver cried out, struggling to swerve through traffic and get Chris away from the fare box. So he wasn't entertained, then.
"Ah! Here's the stuff!" Retrieving a tube from one voluminous pocket, Chris removed the cap and proceeded to squeeze its contents through the place the tickets were stuffed into. The flames promptly went out, and an odd, hot toothpaste sort of smell began to emanate from the ticket box. Of course, the hot toothpaste smell wasn't odd, the smell of whatever the toothpaste had just put out was.
"What have you done?!" wailed the driver. "My bus, it's going to reek!"
"Mm, maybe a little." Chris beamed. "A bucket of water will clear this right up. And besides, this was baking soda toothpaste, the best thing to put out unexpected fires!"
"Why did you insist on putting it out?"
"Whyever wouldn't I?"
"You would not have to do it in the first place if you did not start it burning!" the driver removed his hands from the steering wheel to wave them both for emphasis.
"Now honestly, I must object to that characterization." Puffing out her chest in irritation, Chris glared at him. And thought fast. Incidents like this were so blessed awkward, and Chris found them all but impossible to avoid when she got nervous, as she was now. Dammit, she was certain that "merhaba" was the proper word for hello in Turkish. "You and I both know it is humanly impossible to start a fire without in some way touching whatever is set alight." Which it was, leaving out cheats like devices set off remotely.
In his heart of hearts, the driver was more than a bit afraid that one day the damn fare box was going to blow up. Even he knew about Chris' penchant for explosions within close proximity to her person, and had a growing suspicion that this was not your run of the mill chemist. His mother had told him stories.
"Wouldn't it be better to keep your hands on the wheel?" Chris asked politely. On one hand she wasn't excessively worried about the onrushing intersection, on the other it was a good deal easier to steer while actually touching the steering wheel, especially in a standard. The driver hurriedly slapped his hands on the wheel and slammed on the brakes as the light ahead was red. Unable to catch her balance this time, Chris staggered sideways and fell into the big front window in a pose reminiscent of a cartoon character, right down to the rather squished face look. "It was just a question, you know." she managed to utter.
After that things seemed to go relatively smoothly in that the driver escaped the worst of the traffic and began careering down a mostly empty highway. Chris was still finding her audience quite hostile, and was at a loss as to how to save the situation. "Err, if you really don't want to go to the Nation, you don't have to, or if you'd like to just visit, that's fine too."
"Why did they send you to us?" the distinctly unfriendly question was from an older woman, and a bit startlingly, she had spoken in English. "Why didn't they send us a real Amazon, instead of a wannabe foreigner?"
Chris hadn't run into this in a long time, and never in regards to herself. Jed tended to experience problems due to the stubborn tensions between Turkey and Greece and her rather obvious affiliations to her birth country. Her stubborn accent and tendency to slip into Greek when she was excited or nervous made her a bit unsuited for groups like this one. Usually Chris was fine, and able to handle things with somewhat violently happy aplomb. But this time, being questioned one more time was too much. Especially in view of the letter she had gotten in the mail this morning.
"Stop the bus." she told the driver.
"Stop the bloody bus!" Chris had abruptly shifted to parade-ground volume.
"All right, all right!" The bus coasted to a stop. "What are you going to do?" The driver asked uncomfortably. This one was so volatile, he was never quite sure how to handle her.
"Another three kilometres up the road is a security check post. You can pick up a new interpreter-guide type there." With that, Chris grabbed her daypack, switched her tinted glasses for a much darker pair that actually fit right into her eye sockets, and having gestured for the driver to open the doors, got off the bus. Cinching up her belt, she started what would be, she estimated a brisk eight hour march home. Waste of a day really, but there was nothing to be done about it now.
"Wait!" the driver shrieked. He had amazing lungs. "Where are you going?"
"What am I supposed to tell these people?"
"What do I care? Go on." Chris frowned, calculating how long she would have to walk along the highway.
"But this isn't like you." pleaded the driver, who had disentangled himself from the bus and was now running after her.
"Oh yes, of course. Well you know, I do get tired. I do get tired of being told what a wannabe I am after holding my own here for the better part of twelve years. After sacrificing lung capacity and the ability to enjoy a nice spring day in order to protect the Nation. After – nevermind." She lengthened her strides.
"A real Amazon is a woman born to this land! Hasn't your kind stolen enough from the rest of us?" that woman again.
"Now, please, please calm down!" pleaded the driver.
Chris had paused, considering if there was any point to answering. "When I tried to go back to Germany, new laws had been passed, and they told me there are no homosexuals in Germany, therefore I was clearly not a German. Then they told me in England that they would give me an extended visa so they could make use of me during the war, but really, I wasn't English because I was born in Germany. Oh, and every now and again I say 'ain't,' linguistic disqualification, you know, according to a former roommate of mine who left England when she was five." She turned to glance back at the bus. Most of the women had gotten out, and were stretching their legs or trying to listen to the argument. "When you're all through classifying me out of existence, I don't suppose you'll let me know."
No one tried to stop her this time, and Chris was soon out of sight.
"Three kilometres." the driver muttered. "All back onto the bus, if you please."
"Why, where are we going?" the unfriendly woman was persistent.
"To pick up a new translator and switch vehicles."
The driver pulled off his grubby cap and wiped off his face with a hankerchief. "I will go no further than the security point."
"No need to go that far if you don't want to, old fellow." By now a large hay cart had arrived, a burly, sandy-haired Amazon perched on the buckboard. "We Amazons have arrangements for just this sort of situation. Climb on, ladies, your days of motorized travel are now over."
"What?!" a different woman spoke up this time, her expression appalled. "It will take us days to get to Themiskyra!"
"It will indeed, and we'll be camping rough." the Amazon boomed happily. "You'll get to see all sorts of Amazons on the way." A meaningful note in her voice now. "If you can't accept Amazons who are from other countries, you may have to reconsider your plans." She made a hurrying motion, then got down to help the driver move luggage. "How many of you brought food?" A very few hands waved. "Ooh, I get to hunt!"
Having moved the last piece of luggage, the Amazon paused to speak to the bus driver. "Which way did she go?"
"Straight up the road, said she was going home. She was upset." the busdriver turned his cap in his hands unhappily. His own mother was an Amazon, that was how he got this job. It was also how he now remembered her warning about vexing the Others, which meant that now he was very worried, because he now realized that was the only thing Chris could possibly be.
"Hmmph. Not much to be done there now. When she hears us coming she'll get out of sight."
"Where is she?" Jed burst out in a fit of uncharacteristic bad temper. Benny and Arion winced. For two days if not four of the work week, she, Arion, Jed, and Chris ate lunch together at one piebald table in the lunch hall. The meal was almost over, and there had been no sign of Chris. No phone call, no word from the immigration office as there should have been when she crossed the border with the newest arrivals. Nothing. By rights Chris should have been eating lunch with them. The sky was clouding over, and from the heavy, sullen look to the clouds, backlit by periodic flashes of lightning, a heavy storm was on its way. End result, Jed was on the verge of beside herself with worry. Her lunch sat untouched. Suddenly she got to her feet.
"I'm going to find her." Brushing herself off, Jed promptly began calculating how much gas she would need for the trip.
"What?!" Arion and Benny managed to blurt in unision.
"Jed, wouldn't it make more sense to call in to the guard and have them send a vehicle out for her?" Motioning to the steadily more sullen sky, Arion added, "Look at the sky! And anyway, they'll be able to start out closer to where she was last seen than you."
"Which is as may be, but they aren't as motivated as I am, are they?" With that, Jed swept out of the lunch hall and up to her office where she dug a round, broad brimmed, Italian looking hat out of a pile of energy bar wrappers. A quick search in the cubby hole under her desk yielded an ancient three quarter length leather jacket Jed usually wrapped her feet in when she worked late. Shaking it out, pausing to wince at the sent of anti-athlete's foot powder, she slipped it on and tied it up. Satisfied with her gear, she headed for the hearse.
Benny and Arion were already there, half-heartedly arguing.
"Look, we can't let her go, she's not thinking straight!"
"Benny, Jed is an Adams, her genetics render straight thinking impossible." The scowl she got in answer made Arion wince.
"All the more reason to prevent her from putting herself in danger! What the hell was Chris thinking, anyway?"
"Probably that the walk would do her good! I know her well enough to peg what is probably a response to getting pissed off about something. Maybe we can get Jed to take some more gear or something..."
"More gear? How would that help?"
"Since I don't think we're going to be able to stop her, our next best bet is to make sure she'll be properly equipped if the storm catches her still on the road."
"Now you're in favour of this crazy jaunt?"
"No, I am giving way to the inevitable! Benny, any Adams is possessed of – or maybe possessed by, I guess, three major qualities: they're indestructible, undissuadable, and just plain nuts!" Well, that hadn't come out with quite the flare Arion wanted, but she'd rework it later.
"Okay, you're an Adams, would you do something this nuts?"
"Yes! Er, well..." the answer left them both staring at each other with their mouths open.
"Excuse me please, ladies." Jed slipped past them and clambered into the hearse. "My plan is to come back by the old mill road, which should get us back to the house by quarter past dinner or so." She left her friends staring at each other, and sighed a little. Jed had heard quite a bit more of the exchange than Arion or Benny realized. Fascinating – and confusing – as Arion and Benny's multi-levelled conversations tended to be, Jed had bigger things on her mind.
Frowning as the first rain drops spattered across the windscreen, Jed was soon on the rough road that was connected to the Turko-Amazon highway via a rickety looking bridge. Said bridge was going to be demolished just after sundown, which Jed knew because she had encrypted the messages giving the border guard the orders to do it. The Nation had been slowly shutting down the known means of entry to its borders for the past two weeks, not least because of the massive Blue army troop build up currently in progress in southern Iraq and the former state of Kuwait. There were ominous rumours that the Blue forces had at last found a single leader, a real demagogue. And said demagogue was calling for a crusade.
Shaking herself, Jed slowed down and began looking more carefully. By her calculations, Chris should be relatively close to the border. She was quite a good marcher even with some of her lung capacity gone thanks to her injuries from the previous war. The nastiest part of any journey on foot was trying to get to Omega's Folly. There were ways to get to it without falling down cliffs or sinking into mires, but these ways were poorly known outside of the branch of the Adams family that had patiently maintained those paths for decades, if not centuries. If Chris made it across the bridge before the charges were set off, then Jed knew she would be able to get literally within sight of the house. But with the treacherous Perfumed Mere stretching out before her. Jed hadn't had a chance to tell Chris anything about the Perfumed Mere.
Lightning streaked across the sky, and there was practically no lag between it and a resounding peal of thunder. "Damn lightning should put on a raincoat instead of flashing like that. I don't need to see anything naughty." Jed muttered. The wind had picked up, and now she had driven far beyond where she had hoped Chris would be, to the rickety bridge. The yellow wires from the charges were clearly visible, and had been run from various points on the bridge, across roughly a half metre of ground, then carefully hooked along various bushes and trees.
Pulling up to the bridge, Jed looked around for the Amazons on the demolition detail, but it was impossible to see much beyond the yellow beams of the hearse's headlights. Glancing at her watches, Jed winced. She would have just under an hour to retrieve her partner and get back across the bridge. Trouble was, with the lightning, it was quite possible for the charges to be set off by the ambient conditions before the demolition Amazons did anything. The wind was picking up fiercely, sending the trees into flourishes of bowing that would have terrified most people in Jed's dubious position.
Adding insult to injury, the large raindrops were abruptly replaced by marble sized hail, the shooter-sized kind. Soon the hearse was peppered with dents, and Jed was forced to keep glancing nervously at the spreading cracks in the windscreen, which tended to have a fair sized fracture about a handswidth from the bottom just because of the stress from opening and closing the car doors. Small consolation lay in the fact that when it came to it, the end of the windscreen wasn't the hail. Instead a tree unhelpfully dropped a branch as it sprang upright in the whirling wind. The branch bounced off the nose of the car leaving a substantial dent behind it and straight into the windscreen with all the added momentum of the fact that Jed was driving dangerously fast.
Jed managed to hit the brakes and stop the car even as the branch bashed through the windshield, causing the safety glass to break up into myriad squarish pieces and drop downwards as it was meant to. Jed had just enough time to be fascinated by the little viginette before the branch continued its follow through and smacked her solidly across the face, knocking her senseless. She slumped unconscious over the steering wheel, unwittingly pinning one of her hands against the horn, which proceeded to blare like a siren.
Around a corner and just about a kilometre further down the road, Chris scowled from her barely sheltered spot in an old, algae-ridden culvert. The lip of a big pipe shielded her from the projectiles the ill-mannered storm was pelting things with reasonably well. The lightning was still making Chris nervous. And then an odd, out of place noise made her sit bolt upright. It had sounded almost exactly the way a car did when you slammed on the brakes. That was odd.
Chris fiddled around with the various things in her pockets, making a vague mental note to get her toothpaste tube refilled. The storm was creating a thoroughly unholy racket, she reflected. Wailing and screaming away, on top of the thunder, and the smashing hailstones and everything else. Funny, the wailing sounded almost – artificial. Common sense said Chris should stay where she was. So she decided to forgo her turn with the common sense once more today, and heaving her pack onto her back, vaulted out of the culvert and into the storm. If she kept low and ran hard, she might live to tell about how foolish she had been. Just to be on the safe side, Chris crossed her fingers anyway.
"Would you like two lumps, or ten?" a man dressed in mustard yellow held up a rubber mallet, poised to smack Jed solidly on the head with it.
"Are you quite sure no lumps isn't an option? Honestly, I don't need any sugar in my tea."
"No, no, everyone must have lumps. Two or ten." the man smiled, revealing a very badly maintained set of teeth.
"Eeew!" Jed blurted.
"That will be ten lumps then." the man declared, quite maliciously, Jed felt.
"Are you quite certain you should enjoy serving tea this much?" Jed couldn't believe herself. Her concern was with the individual about to knock her about the head and teeth with a mallet, not bloody tea! The nasty fellow swung the mallet, which obliged by becoming a shocking deluge of icy water.
Jed jerked into consciousness with a yell, and stared around herself in confusion. The storm, ever obliging, had begun shedding even more water, and a gust of wind had given Jed her very own faceful of it. "Ow." rubbing at her jaw, Jed cut the engine and groaned. "I hate installing windshields!" she thought to herself in disgust. Maneuvering herself out of the hearse with an effort, then plying a flashlight beam over the damage, she satisfied herself the damage was minimal to the car at least. Glancing up the road, Jed idly played the beam ahead a few metres, not really expecting to see anything.
Only to be dumbfounded when she recognized Chris' daypack, hanging by one strap from a chunk of limestone uncovered long ago by the weather. Taking a few moments to get her jaw into some vague semblance of working order, Jed frowned a little. Her teeth didn't feel quite right. Walking forward slowly, she scanned the area with her flashlight again. "Thbthpthbtht." Stopping short, Jed brought a horrified hand to her mouth. Apparently she had been unconscious and cold rather longer than she realized, her jaw was swollen and very stiff. This would never do. Chris simply would not answer to 'Thbthpthbtht' even if it was Jed's best rendition of her name at the moment.
"Is that you then, Jed?"
Astonished, for a moment Jed was too poleaxed to move. Well who would have thought it! The meaning gets out somehow. This was a rather horrifying thought for a physicist who spent quite a bit of time working on codes and cyphers.
"I quite hope it is, you know. The cold and precipitation isn't such a problem, it's the lack of company." Chris continued on, chattering as if it were a pleasant spring day and they were lolling about beside the little creek hidden in the jungle serving as the back yard of Omega's Folly.
"Yeth, izth, acshully." Jed managed with an effort.
"Good grief, Jed, are you drunk?"
"No, no – got hid, in da moud." By now, Jed had found her partner, covered in mud and bits of moss and branches, clinging determinedly to what was basically a cliff face.
"So I see, you have a lovely bruise. Are your teeth meeting all right?" Ruefully, Jed shook her head. "Oh dear. Well, this has been a day."
"Why here?" thickly, Jed was making an effort not to move her jaw much as she gave her partner a hand up.
"Oh, well, just a bit of a jaunt. Had a bit of a set to with the newest arrivals and so headed off for a bit of a hike..." A flat stare met this assertion. Chris coughed and rocked back and forth a bit on the balls of her feet. "Took a bit of a wrong turn, nothing serious. Then seeing as the highway was right overhead it hardly seemed worth it to go all the way 'round, so..." She didn't get to finish, because Jed chucked the flashlight into a puddle and threw both arms around her. "Now then, you're shaking all over, let's, let's go home, shall we?"
"You, got mad, got lost..."
"And got rescued too, good thing that." Chris warbled breezily with a sniff, scrubbing hurriedly at her eyes with one baggy grey sleeve. "The rain does get in the eyes, doesn't it?"
They made their way back to the hearse without incident, and Chris insisted on taking the wheel after removing the large tree branch. Thankfully the bridge was still there when they got to it, but Chris didn't get straight onto the road home. Instead, she navigated the car up a small sideroad, finding a battered old barn she and Jed had often snuck away to evenings when they were both on border guard duty in general but off duty for that day. There was only so much privacy in the guard barracks, even for couples.
Opening the crooked old doors and bringing the hearse inside, it didn't take long before they had a merry little fire going, making the storm seem much less threatening. Chris dug around in the hearse for a few minutes while Jed wriggled out of her leather jacket in preparation for trying to dry off by the fire. After a long series of rattles, thumps, and intermittent curses, a triumphant cry heralded Chris' reappearance with what looked at first glance like nothing so much as an old mason jar. She was holding it upside down, and some kind of cap was visible on the bottom.
Shuffling up to the fire, a comical sight now that she had removed her own big, ill-fitting jacket revealing her slender build and Chaplinesque trousers. Getting a good grip on the jar – Jed wondered groggily if perhaps it was trying to get away – Chris proceeded to shake it with all her might. After an eye popping, face flushing, breath removing effort, the jar at last lit up, first in a shaky, flickery sort of way, and then with a startling, bright light.
"There we are, it's my own invention! No heat, no electricity lighting." Chris beamed, hanging the jar via a small sling not far from where Jed was sitting. "Let me have a look at your jaw?" Sighing a little, Jed shuffled forward and allowed Chris to peer at the offended body part. "Grimmace at me? No, no, not an incredulous frown dearest, a grimmace. You know, show me your teeth." To her genuine surprise, Jed managed a great big smile for her instead.
For a few moments Chris forgot her purpose. They were stuck in a decrepit barn in the middle of a heinous storm basically because she had overreacted to a stupid comment. By rights, a grimmace of pain and irritation was logical and just her desserts. To top off the irrationality quotient for the day, Chris felt herself colour up like a schoolgirl.
"Well, don't you know how to turn a girl's head, hmmm?" she carefully examined the alignment of her lover's teeth. "I think you got lucky," Getting Jed to open her mouth, Chris fished out a little pocket flashlight and peered inside. "No bruising. Any pain in your ears? No? All the better, all the better! Good job I had my first aid training touched up last week." She peered as unobtrusively as she could at Jed's eyes, trying to gauge how bad her lover's concussion probably was, wincing at the angry bruising running from Jed's left eyebrow, across her nose and blooming in an angry burst on the right side of her jaw.
"Yesth." wincing, Jed shook her head in mild disgust at her newly acquired lisp. She looked around, impressed by how weatherproof the old barn was, although old and uncared for. A barn was an incongruous thing in this part of the world. This particular barn had been built by a family of women trying to work off a sense of homesickness for a country they could never return to. They had no cows, no horses, and no hay fields. Yet somehow, the familiarity of it, its sore thumb attributes aside, had been very comforting. "Thisth closthe to romantick." Holding up two fingers a wee distance apart.
"Oh, I don't know – strikes me as quite romantic, actually." eyes twinkling, Chris produced a smile different in caliber and wattage from her more usual manic grin. "Quite romantic indeed."
The storm had left an impressive mess in its wake. Quite a few trees looked alarmed and defoliated, and the piles of hailstones looked like strange snow. Rivulets of water were running down the road too, a sign of flash flooding higher in the mountains. Crossing her fingers, Chris hoped fervently no impromptu creeks had made it to the house this time. One such creek produced by a previous storm was the ultimate source of the frost heave pulling apart the groundfloor on Benny's side of the house. Glancing at the back seat, she smiled a little.
Stretched out as much as the space allowed, Jed was laying on her back, carefully wedged in with the spare blankets and a couple of sleeping bags. Chris had refolded her dried out jacket as a pillow, with the end result that Jed was sleeping peacefully in spite of her sore head.
Having pulled up in front of the house, Chris paused to consider how to get Jed up and inside. Waking up with a jump some time later with her head propped against the steering wheel suggested a different plan. Parking the hearse in the garage and adding a good heavy tarp over the former windshield, Chris unhooked the catches that held up the front seats and flattened them out, creating a small, but quite workable bed after she had moved Jed's legs. The unusual set up happened to be one of Jed's inventions.
A few more blankets and impromptu pillows later, a brief pause to kick off her boots, and at last Chris cuddled up to her partner and allowed herself to fall asleep.
"You two are probably the weirdest couple I know." voice muffled by the closed passenger side window, Arion waited patiently until her friends were awake enough to sort out who was there and where there was.
"Oh, hello there old thing!" Chris' tow-headed form popped out of the open sun roof like a surreal jack-in-the-box.
"Old thing." Arion repeated flatly. "Anyway, found you in here this morning, figured you'd like tea and some breakfast. Pancakes, sausages..."
"What kind of sausages?" this was Jed's sleep and rain ragged voice, now impressively lisp free.
"Pork and – a bunch of the really nice venison sausages we bartered for last month. Does it matter?"
"Yes." Rolling down the passenger side window, Jed sniffed at the tray. "Did you cook the two kinds of sausage separately?"
"Of course, the pork sausage cooks much faster. Jed, what happened to your face?" Surrendering the tray as she spoke, Arion found herself getting more and more curious about just what had happened last night. Here was Jed, looking like she'd gotten in a fight with a mallet-handed prizefighter, and Chris looking so filthy and full of rock dust she must have tried to climb a cliff with nothing but a toothpick and a smile.
"Not much." Testing her ability to chew with bit of pancake and finding all was well provided she didn't chew too hard, Jed set to work on a plate of food and a cup of tea while her partner carefully rearranged hers before starting. Jed shuddered as Chris carefully arranged pork sausages in between two pancakes, then slathered the lot with syrup. "Disgusting, no kisses until you've brushed your teeth." A beaming smile answered her.
"Ah, that reminds me, must get the toothpaste tubes refilled." Tapping the tip of her knife on the edge of her plate. What else had she forgotten? "And thank you very much, breakfast in the garage is far better than waiting until we got upstairs." Followed up by a kiss cheerfully applied to one of Arion's cheeks.
It took a moment or two for Arion to stop blushing and fidgeting enough to ask if her compatriots needed more hot water for tea – having checked the levels in the tea pot they said no – then after making certain enough pancakes and sausages were present, the gangly woman made her slightly jerky way back into the house.
"Are ah – all, all the toothpaste tubes empty? I thought you had a full one at your office for purposes I probably don't want to hear about at the moment." stretching back out across the seats, Jed sighed blissfully.
"Quite close I think. Benny's never been to the filling station, we can make a little jaunt out of it. Good job we saved this little adventure for a Friday night, don't you think?" Using a last bit of sausage to pick up the few dribbles of syrup left on her plate, Chris paused, glancing a bit uncertainly at her partner. She wasn't sure what to make of Jed, who didn't seem to be angry or anything, about last night. Not entirely a surprise, Jed had one of those slowburning tempers. All the more reason to double-check, as Chris wasn't terribly fond of temper-related explosions.
"I'm taking a long view of things: specifically, you managed to pull a dumb stunt like that on the brink of a war, as opposed to in the middle of a raid or something. And anyroad, after the Delos incident, it seemed only fair not to make a – make a..." Jed opened one eye and caught Chris'. "Make a production of it?"
"Oooh, yes, quite right!" chortling happily, Chris tossed herself back onto the seat, unwittingly tossing plates and cutlery everywhere – Arion had sagely provided camping plates rather than official ceramic ones – and settled herself happily against Jed's side. "You'll be peppering your speech with 'jolly goods' and 'chop chops' yet!"
"Chris, those don't translate at all." smiling fondly, Jed began tracing patterns along one of her lover's arms.
"Would you like to see something?" Chris popped up like a manic rubber ball. Undeterred by Jed's bewildered expression, she added, "It's my own invention!" Then she cheerfully moved to straddle the supine and no longer just about groggy physicist. "You'll really like it." This in a sexy growl.
"Oh, well, if you insist. Perhaps I can help you work out any kinks there might be in it."
"Okay, wait, wait, wait. You're telling me we don't have gas filling stations here, but we have toothpaste tube filling stations?" Benny kept pinching herself. This was just too surreal. She couldn't possibly be awake.
"Yes. Whatever would we do with gas filling stations? Now, toothpaste filling stations are emphatically useful."
"Er, right. And where is the toothpaste filling station?"
"In town, of course! Haven't you ever wondered where the fuel in your car comes from?"
"No, because I don't have a car, Arion does, and I've never had to fill the gas tank." jamming her fedora down onto her ears, Benny began tying herself into place, wincing when she noticed a space on the dashboard where the papier mache had given way, revealing a pair of chewed looking gloves and a pocket spy glass.
"Yes, well. She doesn't have to fuel it up per se either. We have fuel fairies."
"Fuel fairies?" flat, level tone.
"Oh yes, they're just like tooth fairies – except they're human beings, and you leave the money under the seat instead of a tooth under your pillow, and they provide petrol rather than money, and there's a ban on throwing pixie dust now so they don't do that either." Chris began cranking the engine.
"No, pixie dust throwing?" some days Benny didn't know why she did it. Why did she encourage Chris and Jed when they got off on tangents like these? Well, admittedly it could have something to do with never knowing quite what they were going to say.
"Good heavens no! Can you imagine what it would do to the upholstery? Don't listen, old thing." she patted the car as the engine finally turned over.
"You're worried about the upholstery?" Benny muttered incredulously.
"What was that?" vaulting into the driver's seat and stomping on the gas, managing to jam a heel onto the brake before smacking into the house.
"Nothing." squeaked Benny. "You – you were telling me," her voice remained rather higher pitched than usual. "what pixie dust was."
"Air freshening powder. Thanks to the war there was no such thing as a nice smelling vehicle in the Nation for a few years." Spinning the steering wheel, Chris hauled the car onto the road and finally settled down a bit in view of the approaching hairpin turns. She had popped up in the later afternoon, having left Jed to soak in the blue-green marble bath tub gracing one corner of the second best bathroom, grinning from ear to ear, chortling continuously, dancing every other step, and so thoroughly silly mooded she almost forgot to put on her tinted spectacles. "It's worth staying up on an evening and watching for the fuel fairies at least once."
"I can imagine that." prying her fingers off of the dashboard, Benny took a deep breath. "Do they drive around a big fuel truck, or..."
"Of course not, those big things would wake everyone up. They have special reinforced bicycles with attached fuel cans. It's been quite awhile since I sat up to see them, so I don't know if they wear wings anymore."
"Okay, okay – but why have this extraordinary set up? And how do they know they need to go and fuel up your car?"
For a few minutes Chris didn't answer, opting to concentrate on the road, or so Benny hoped. "You worked on anti-aircraft detail, but never on aircraft detail, I take it?"
"Well, big fuel trucks are dreadfully blatant targets from the air, Benny. Best to avoid those during wars. On top of that, a variety of other countries were enforcing a fuel embargo on us, and the fuel fairies were our solution. They became most excellent smugglers."
"Damn." That was the other reason Benny went along with these odd tangents. Sometimes she seriously learned something. "So they – how would they hide the fuel tanks?"
"Pfft. That's not hard! You haven't seen enough of this part of the world my friend." Chris winked to take any potential sting out of the comment. "People carry all kinds of things on bicycles when that's the only vehicle they have. Bushels of wheat and vegetables, occasionally goats and sheep in a pinch, small goods they may be selling to tourists or at market. Easy to hide fuel tanks with things like that." The engine coughed and stopped. "Oy! Behave, you've just had a tune up and an oil change!" Chris slapped the dashboard. With a sullen groan the engine coughed back to life. "We send an email when we need the fuel fairies to come by, Benny. Or else telephone. But I hate the telephone, so I never do that."