Medea didn’t know where she was.
She was still in her pajamas standing in the middle of a forest at night. Her heartbeat quickened and her breath was white mist around her face, the scent of pine and cold air filled her lungs, chilled her bones. The ground was wet, mud and rocks pressed against her bare feet and she had a sense that something was slithering between her toes.
Darkness surrounded her, coiling around her limbs until she could barely see her own hands.
There wasn’t even a hint of light from where she was standing, fear rose in jerks and twists as the daze of sleep left her brain. For a moment she thought she was still dreaming.
She could hear nothing but the sound of animals: an owl near by the ryhtmical chirp of crickets and the howling wind. She was trapped and helpless. That was a familiar feeling that she would never welcome or be content with. Bitterness coated her tongue, she wanted to scream and yell and hit and break things, but through experience she knew that would help with nothing. It would only make things worse.
Gritting her teeth, she gripped her left wrist and touched the thin metal bracelet that wrapped around it, a vivid reminder of her weakness and pressed the small, unobtrusive button built into it.
It made no sound, it gave no indication that the button did anything, but she knew that it had done its job. She had used it before. So many times that she didn’t dare count.
She tried to figure out her surroundings with her hands and found a fallen log on her right by way of tripping over it and falling down on her face, her feet in the air. She gave her irritation full rein because then she wouldn’t feel so scared.
“Great.” She wiped mud off her face and yelped when she tried to stand up, a sharp pain on her right ankle. “That’s just perfect.” She dropped down on the log, hugged her arms around herself, and waited.
Medea lifted her head when she heard the wet sound of a snort and a bark. Well, that didn’t take them long, she thought, I probably didn't walk too far from home. Not that she could tell by the way the sole of her feet were aching, she wiggled her toes and tried not to think of the many things that were crawling against her skin.
Flashes of light danced in the air and voices called out her name both for her benefit and scaring the local wildlife. Lee Loo was more than enough to track her down and sure enough a streak of white appeared in the darkness to lunge at her.
She gripped the dog who greeted her enthusiastically, relishing in the heat of her fur. “Hey, girl. Hey, Lee Loo. Good job finding me, girl.” She quickly clamped her mouth shut when she heard her voice break. She was humiliated enough, thank you very much.
“There you are.” A gruff voice came from her right and in the circle of light from the flashlight on her hand she saw Yukiko, a petite Japanese-American woman. She jumped off a low ledge and landed with the grace and balance of a woman half her age. Her sharp eyes quickly access the situation, flicking from her thin pajamas to Medea’s bare feet, to the mud on her face. “You okay?”
She squinted against the flashlight aimed at her vicinity. “Ankle’s busted.”
Yukiko snorted, the unlit cigarette hanging from her lips nearly fell to the ground but it managed to hang there either by magic or sheer force of will. “Of course it is. Let’s take a look at it.” She looked over her shoulder and Medea jerked when a boy melted out of the darkness and stood a couple of steps behind Yukiko. She cackled at the look on her face. “You startled her, gaki. Introduce yourself.”
The boy was tall, really tall, Medea amended when he took a step closer to them, he turned on a battery-operated lantern and set it down. A circle of light touched all three of them and it annoyed her how much that little light made her feel a little bit better. He knelt beside Yukiko and she could see his features more clearly. His hair was thick and dark but cut really short, almost military shot. His skin was pale as Yukiko’s and his eyes were the same shape as hers but while Yukiko’s were brown, his was black, almond-shaped and slanted slightly at the end. His nose was straight and his mouth curled softly.
Pretty, she thought. And obviously related to Yukiko.
Yukiko gently took her ankle and prodded it with her fingers. Her eyes were intent on her face as if she expected Medea to run.
The boy took off his jacket and passed it to her.
“Thanks.” She mumbled as she put it on, it was still warm from his body and she burrowed into it gratefully, it smelled of green things and smoke. Without itt, he looked slender, almost thin. It’s as if he grew tall so quickly his body didn’t have time to catch up. It was then that she realized what was bothering her about the boy, he looked too neat and too tidy. Sen wore scarred boots and layers of old clothes like he was wearing a tuxedo. It was in the way he stood, his shoulders back, his back straight, his chin up. That more than anything, assured her of his relation to Yukiko, Yukiko also had that perfect posture thing down to a science. She wondered whether he got it through genes or had learned it like Medea by way of Yukiko repeatedly smacking her on the back everytime she slouched.
“You’re welcome. I’m Sen, her grandson.” His voice was smooth and cool, the type of voice that didn’t need to be loud in order to be heard. It simply cut through other voices like an expertly wielded knife.
Medea winced as Yukiko rotated her ankle. “Medea. Her...client.”
His left brow ticked up. “Client?”
“More like my habitual damsel in distress.” Yukiko muttered.
Medea curled her lip at her. “Didn’t you quit smoking?”
“Why do you think it’s not lit?”
“Probably because we’re in a forest and you’re a ranger.”
The older woman ignored her and stood. “You’re right, your ankle’s busted. Better not put any weight on it.”
“Then I should what? Crawl?” She knew there was a disrespectful edge to her voice, but she was edgy, tired and scared. Not that that was a good enough excuse to be rude. She just hoped Yukiko would understand.
She did, because rather than chastise her like she would ordinarily do, Yukiko turned to her grandson. “You’re designated pack mule.”
“Of course I am.” Sen turned and presented his back to Medea. “Climb on.”
Medea gave him an incredulous look, he didn’t look like he could carry half her weight.
He grinned. “I’m stronger than I look. Come on, we should get you out of the cold.”
Well, since he put it that way. Medea curled her body against his back and was suitably impressed when he stood up in one smooth motion. He was stronger than he looked, she could feel his shoulder muscles tight and firm underneath her hands. His hands were large and warm on her thighs as he hitched her higher on his back, her hands circling his neck as she gasped in surprise. “Hold on tight.”
Medea pressed her legs tighter against his torso when he bent over, one of his hand gripping Yukiko’s bag and carrying it against his front. She spied Yukiko putting on a much bigger camping bag, Lee Loo sitting calmly beside her legs, peering into the dark with curiosity, his ears swiveling from side to side.
“You okay, oba-san?” With a teasing and almost mocking politeness to his words. Yukiko adjusted the straps on the bag and gave him a glare that he met with a grin. Yukiko turned off the lamp and switched on her flashlight.
Feeling extremely awkward, Medea sought conversation. “You guys were camping around here?” She was wondering why Yukiko found her so fast, the GPS tracker bracelet helped but still.
“Yeah.” Yukiko led the way for them, pushing away bushes and branches. “Thought I’d take my boy out here for some bonding time.”
Medea was surprised by the thickness of the woods around them, how muted the quality of light and sounds; she could hardly see the sky between the thick branches that jabbed at the sky like accusing fingers. Their town was surrounded by trees but only one section of the forest had trees this size and height.
“Are we in the Lihara Woods?” The forest park was almost an hour and a half from her house and was dense and confusing to even the locals, only the experienced went to camp or hike there. Yukiko was as experience as it went, she was one of the wildlife rangers for the town, her range of authority included most of the wild lands in the mountain where they lived. Yukiko knew this land like it was the palm of her hand, blindfolded. It was why Medea’s parents made Yukiko her emergency contact. If she was lost, Yukiko and Lee Loo would find her no problem. She had been doing that since she was lost the first time, she was 8 at the time and Yukiko was the first to find her then too, without the tracker, without Lee Loo. Yukiko had sharp instincts like the kitsune she often talked about. Medea would never forget the bone-melting relief when she saw Yukiko’s face the first time she found her for the rest of her life.
Which was probably why she felt the need to do polite chit-chat with the boy that was carrying her. It wouldn’t do to be rude to the relative of a person who occasionally saves your life. Besides, she was feeling awkward, like she was just another pack that he had to carry. “So, you’re visiting?”
He kept his eyes straight. “No, I’m moving in.”
Yukiko pushed back a bush, “You’re the same age and he’ll be going to the same school as you, probably will end up in some of your classes.” There was a smile in her voice when she said, “Be nice to him, Medea, he’s sensitive.”
Sen scoffed and Medea could smell the chocolate in his breath, and the soap and fire on his skin. She leaned back a little, uncomfortable with the intimacy. She also noticed that although he was carrying her and his grandmother’s bag, he wasn’t even breathing fast or slowing down his steady pace. Come to think of it, Yukiko wasn’t slowing down either. Medea knew from trips with Yukiko that a five minute walk on concrete wasn’t the same as a five minute walk in the woods, especially one as thick and wild as this place. Evidently, from the way Sen ducked and stepped over and avoided stone and wood and branches like he had bat sonar, he was at home in the woods as his grandmother.
Yukiko tried to make Medea as natural in the wild as she was but she could only managed decent. At the very least, if Yukiko hadn’t found her so fast, she could make a fire and knew which plant she could eat and which to avoid. She could know which way to go to find water or to orient herself by the stars or what to do when a wild animal approach her. The knowledge had helped her in more than one occasion.
Medea was surprised that she had walked so deep into the forest but didn’t question it. She had stopped asking questions on why or how she did the things she did when she was sleepwalking. Or why she had nights where she woke herself up screaming. Or why she always felt that something bad was going to happen to her.
“I can do that.” Medea took the wet wipes from Sen’s hand and cleaned her feet. She saw the little smile on his lips as he moved away and tried not to wonder about it. She was sitting on the backseat of Yukiko’s all-terrain jeep with her feet hanging out on the side. Wiping her feet as best as she could she winced when she scrubbed against a scrape or a puncture. In the warm overhead light, she could see cuts and nicks all along her hands, under her nails were black with dirt. She saw Sen eyeing her from where he was putting away their camping gear, saw where he was looking; the long ugly scars on both her wrists. They were old scars, nearly faded but they still looked obvious in a certain light, she smoothed the sleeves of the borrowed jacket over her arms. She didn’t mean to look at him but when their eyes met, she didn’t look away. She could see him clearer now, his face was as pretty as she thought but she could see the strong line of his jaw, and the brooding depth of his eyes. The eyes that were looking at her matter-of-factly without any surprise, pity, awkwardness or judgment. She dragged her eyes away, pulled her feet into the car and settled herself deeply into the backseat. Lee Loo jumped inside and settled beside her, its head on her lap.
Yukiko passed the keys to Sen who looked surprised but didn’t question her decision. Like her grandmother he had a careless grace that people would have mistakenly recognized as indolence but wasn’t. It was pure confidence, an ease that came from the complete knowledge of oneself and what you are capable of.
When you constantly doubt yourself, you quickly notice that in others.
“How are you, Medea. Still good?” Yukiko passed her a warm cup of chocolate from a thermos, the heat felt wonderful between her chilled hands.
“I’m fine.” She could feel Sen’s eyes on her, a prickle on the back of her neck. She sipped her chocolate and petted Lee Loo's fur. “What time is it?”
“Almost 3 in the morning.” Yukiko answered before in a deceptively casual voice asked, “How long did it take for you to press the button?”
“It didn’t take long at all.” She curled her toes into the thick socks Yukiko had put on her feet. It was her own socks, Yukiko had taken to have a bag full of Medea’s things in her car for occasions just like this.
“And by that you mean when you couldn’t figure out where you were.”
Medea merely slurped her drink. Hm, chocolate. Good. She hoped that it would take the bitter taste of defeat and weariness and anger out of her mouth. “Do my parents know?”
“If they did, do you think I would be the only one out here to get you?”
“Well, you were already here, so...”
“No, they don’t.” Yukiko twisted in her seat and sent me a look. “And no, I am not going to keep this a secret from your parents.”
“They don’t need to know—“
“That their 16 year old girl was sleepwalking in the middle of night to God knows where? Medea, if I had these GPS tracker bracelets when I had my girls, believe me, they’d all be using them.”
“I would like to see you try putting that on mom...” Sen muttered from his seat.
“It’ll just make them worry—“
“Of course they would worry, they’re your parents, that’s what they do.“
“It’s not like they can do anything about it.” She was yelling. She didn’t need to do that. There was no use doing that, no use in getting angry or scared. There was no use in fighting anymore. It took a while for Medea to surface from her pity party to notice the awkwardness in the car. She thought she was use to people feeling discomforted around her. Apparently not.
She met Sen’s dark eyes in the rear view mirror. “What?”
She didn’t mean to snap at him, but decided to end all ties to him here. Once they were in school...well, they weren’t going to be friends anyway.
His eyes flicked to the road before returning back to meet hers. “Does your foot hurt?”
“No. Why?” She pressed her hand against Lee Loo's body when the dog snuggled closer.
Something flickered in his eyes but she couldn’t tell what it was, they hadn’t known each other for that long. He took something from his pocket and handed it to her. It was a white handkerchief, it gleamed brightly in the dark and folded into a sharp square. What kind of 16 year old boy carried a handkerchief nowadays?
“Why are you giving me that?”
She took the handkerchief because he kept holding it out to her and she wanted him to use both hands on the steering wheel. He kept his eyes on the road and it was only when Medea gave up on getting an answer from him that he did.
Immediately she felt the hot wetness of tears on her cheeks. She didn’t fight it, she was so tired of fighting for every scrap of strength, for sanity. Her face crumpled, her hard-earned perfect posture curled forward as she pressed her face to the tidy square of his handkerchief, soaking it through with her tears of fear and bitterness, the salt in her tears stinging the cuts and open wounds on her hands.
They rang the bell until Lincoln, Medea’s father, opened the door wearing a T shirt and pajama bottoms, his blond hair was rumpled and his face wrinkled with sleep. Behind his glasses his blue eyes immediately went to Medea before letting out a sigh of relief, his hands gripped his daughter’s shoulders, pulling her into a hug. “Oh, thank God. Are you all right? Are you hurt?”
Cybill, her mother nearly knocked her husband over in order to hold her daughter. Her long dark blonde hair curled wildly against her shoulders, her gray eyes blurred with exhaustion. She tripped over her long thick flannel robe and bumped against Medea who in return bumped against Sen. He held her elbows and straightened her, Sen saw a strange look on her face as she leaned away from him.
“She’s fine.” Yukiko assured them before her parents accidentally shoved them all off the porch. “Twisted her ankle some but she has all her toes. She could probably do with a hot shower though.”
Her mother pulled them inside, Sen holding Medea steady as she limped into the foyer. “We didn’t realize she was gone until we got your message, Yuki.” Dark circles vivid under her eyes, Cybill’s lips trembled with worry. Underneath his hands, Sen could feel Medea’s muscles tightened. She didn’t like to distress her parents but from the way Medea looked at her socked feet, she was taking this personally. Too personally. Guilt roiled off her body, thick and poisonous.
His eyes flicked to his grandmother who flapped her hands at Medea’s parents. “Don’t fuss, now. Put some hot drinks in her, get her inside a hot shower and she’ll be fine. She won’t be if we keep standing here. Link, you should check her ankle since you’re a doctor and all, and Cybill, how about some of your famous hot chocolate? And marshmallows. That’s a proper welcome to the neighborhood for my grandson.”
Sen wasn’t surprised when both adults followed Yukiko’s orders like meek lambs, no one dared to oppose his grandmother when she started gesturing with her hands, that path leads to pain and humiliation. You could tell they were anxious about their daughter but seemed to trust Yukiko’s assessment of their daughter’s condition. Even Medea seemed more relaxed now that Yukiko had distracted her parents, she followed them to the kitchen, shrugging his hand away and hobbling stubbornly, her face set in a pleasant mask.
“Grandson?” Lincoln hovered near his daughter when she lowered herself to a stool at the kitchen island. Cybill had immediately busied herself on the stove, it was a big kitchen, a cook’s kitchen, you could tell by the lived-in feel of the room, the efficient way that everything was put into place. Sen watched as Cybill grated chocolate and sorted out spices and mugs and flit about the room, she looked comfortable here, the lines on her face seemed to soften as she concentrated on the task at hand. He caught Medea watching her mother from the corner of her eye, her shoulders lowered from her defensive hunch as she watch her mother’s weariness slowly easing away.
Sen smiled to Lincoln and held out a hand. “Sen Kimura. Nice to meet you, Mr...”
“Lincoln Draven. Nice to meet you, Sen. Any family of Yukiko is ours.”
Lincoln grasped his hands in a strong grip, Sen could feel the callusses on his fingertips. This was a man who was used to working with his hands. Sen wondered whether he did carpentry since the kitchen island and the stools seemed handmade.
“Nice to meet you, Mr. Draven.” He sat when Lincoln gestured to the kitchen stools and chose a seat near one edge of the island where he could watch Medea and her parents. Her blond, golden-skinned, light-color eyed parents. Medea with her pale freckled skin, her dark hair and eyes and small stature couldn’t be more different than her athletic, robust-looking parents if she had painted herself blue and spoke another language.
“So, you’re moving in with your grandmother?” Cybill asked. “What school are you going to?”
“Oba-san tells me it’s the same school that Medea goes to.”
Cybill beamed at him. “Really? That’ll be nice for you to already have a friend in a new school. Are you the same age? Maybe you’ll be in some of her Medea’s classes.”
“Yeah, having a familiar face would be great.” Sen ignored the grimace that flickered over Medea’s face.
Cybill seemed to brighten even more as she put a mug of hot chocolate in front of him, letting her husband passed the others. “And it’ll be great to know Yuki’s boy will be there with Medea.”
Medea jerked in her seat, he didn't know whether that was because her father was checking out her ankle or because of her mother’s suggestion. “He has better things to do than babysit me, mom.”
“Honey.” Cybill admonished her in that tone of voice that mom’s do, you know, the kind that makes you feel horrible and guilty for being such an ungrateful child. Especially after the many, many months she had carried you inside her womb and the many, many hours of pain when she had to—you know the deal. “It’s not like I’m asking him to shadow your steps, I’m just suggesting that you’ll keep an eye out on each other. He’s Yuki’s grandson, he’s practically family.”
“You just met him five minutes ago.” Medea said in the aggrieved tone of teenagers everywhere when dealing with parent logic.
Sen hid a smile behind his mug, and Yukiko wasn’t wrong about the quality of Cybill’s hot chocolate. “This is really delicious, Mrs. Draven.’
Medea could tell from the smile on her mother’s face that she was thinking of adopting him. “I’ll make a thermos for you to drink at home.”
“That’ll be great thanks.”
Yukiko gulped on her hot chocolate then patted Sen on the back. “Okay, we’ve bothered you long enough, it’s time for us to go. Medea needs her rest.”
Cybill screwed the lid on a medium-sized thermos and handed it to Sen with a smile. “Here you go, honey, I’ve also packed you some banana chocolate chip brownies I baked this afternoon.”
Sen gave her a grin. It was hard to battle Cybill’s eager to please demeanor. Besides, brownies. “Thanks again, Mrs. Draven.”
Yukiko snorted. “Now you’ve done it, as soon as he taste your brownies, you’ll never get rid of him.”
Cybill poked Yukiko with a manicured finger. “Don’t pretend like you’re not going to rip open that container and stuff your face, Yuki. You have the worse case of sweet tooth that I’ve ever seen.”
Yukiko took the container with a grin. “Sen is worse.”
Cybill blinked before laughing, because that was saying something. “Then he’s welcome to my kitchen and my shop.”
“My wife has the best pastry shop in town, you should come by and show him around, Yuki.” Lincoln said, his hand curved on his daughter’s shoulders, as if wanting—needing—to make sure that she was safe. Sen could only imagine what they had felt when they’ve seen their daughter’s empty bed, not knowing where she’d gone or whether she was safe. And this wasn’t a one time deal, he could tell from their reactions that this was just one horrible night of many.
“I will, was planning to. I have a need for your chocolate chip coconut cookies, Cybill, I’ve been wanting them for a couple of days now.”
Cybill nodded. “I’ll be sending a couple dozen to the office then.”
Yukiko smiled. “Mighty kind of you. Come on, gaki, we’ll show ourselves out.”
“Thanks, Mr. Draven, Mrs. Draven.” He looked at Medea who sat silently, sipping on her chocolate. Her eyes slid toward him, something like shame and embarassment made her look away.
“Thanks for helping out.” She said quietly. Maybe it was her crying session at the car or maybe because of her parents’ presence, gone was the girl with the expressive face and the sarcastic remarks. In her wake was a self-possessed, quiet girl who watched everything with an apprehensive gaze. The second she stepped into the house, it was like she set her personality on mute.
Her forehead wrinkled as if she saw something in his face that she didn’t like before gathering herself together. “Oh, right, your coat.” She made a move to take it off but he lifted a hand to stop her.
“That’s all right, I’ll get it tomorrow.” He glanced at his watch. “Or later today. If that’s all right?”
Medea turned thoughtful eyes at him, as if she couldn’t quite sort him out before nodding slowly. “I guess.”
Sen looked at her parents. “I’ll drop by later, if that’s okay?”
Both Cybill and Lincoln nodded, a pleased smile on their faces. Medea watched as Sen wrapped her parents around his little finger. There was something easy about Sen, something so steady and rock-solid that her parents seemed to relax with him the more they converse. He had a way of standing in place and making that space his and woe to those who wanted for him to move. But it made her even more wary of him. Out of habit, she suspected everything that came easily.
“Well, we better get going.” Yukiko stood after checking Medea’s ankle a second time. “Better wrap that ankle later, Link.”
“I think I can manage that.” He said dryly.
Sen nodded to her two parents, his eyes switching from her parents’ face to hers. It wasn’t hard to figure out what he was thinking. She had seen that look on other people’s faces for as long as she lived. She squashed the ball of resentment that squirmed inside her belly. Some days, she wished that she looked just a little bit like her parents. Some days she was angry that her parents didn’t look a bit like her. Some days she questioned why her parents chose her to be their daughter.
Medea didn’t like the way Sen was looking at her, as if he knew what she was thinking. “Mom, can you help me to the bathroom?”
Cybill immediately changed course to her side. “Of course, honey.”
Medea waved half-heartedly to Yukiko and Sen, turning her back to them immediately. She saw her father gave Yukiko the look, he wanted to know where she was found, how she had behaved. When her mother would be glad to just have her back to them whole, her father had to understand. It was one of the reasons why her condition was more of a strain to her father than to her mother. Night terrors and sleepwalking was still something that couldn’t be understood by medical science, though the physical and mental affects on a person was real enough. As was the toll it took on the family.
In the car, Sen glanced at his grandmother. “So, Medea?”
“Night terrors, sleepwalking, sleep deprivation and depression, all the works and the baggage that comes with it.”
“So, she sleepwalked all the way from her house to the Lihara forest?”
Yukiko shrugged. “She’d gone further on other occasions.”
He turned on the sign and turned left. “The scars on her wrists...”
“Yes. And a couple more from her nightly strolls.”
Her voice was grim. “Worst.”
“Her parents, she doesn’t look a bit like them.”
He casted his thoughts to Medea and her parents, it wouldn’t have been easy to look so different from the rest of her family, to see the questioning looks she’d get whenever they were together. It wouldn’t have been easy to look like you didn’t belong. As Japanese-American, Sen knew what it felt to look different, knew how it felt to be singled out. Not American enough for the Americans, not Japanese enough for the Japanese, but at least he wasn't the only one in his family that dealt with the same problem.
But regardless of how they looked, Sen could tell they were a real family, he’d seen the worry in their eyes, the relief when her father met them at the door. The shaking in her mother’s hand as she enveloped Medea in a careful hug. Blood didn't make a family, love did. Even with the way Medea had stiffened up, faced with her parents’ worry, he could tell she loved them.
“So, she’s the one you talked about. The one you want us to watch over.”
Yukiko glanced at him. “So, you’ll help her?”
“I’ll ask what the others think first.”
Yukiko sighed. “Do you have to?”
“We are a team, oba-san. I may be team leader, but that doesn’t mean I get to make all the decisions.”
“Your team consists of an adrenalin junkie and a self-absorbed girl who can think of nothing but flirt with anything that moves.” She grumped. “You know my offer is still open.”
A spurt of annoyance made him frown. “I don’t need another team, oba-san. I’m fine with my own.”
“If you say so.”
“I’ll get to say ‘I told you so’ later.”
Sen smiled. “That’s fine. You’re my grandmother, it’s your duty.”
Soon as they got home, he took off his damp clothes and went into the shower. The irritation he felt persisted and he turned on the hot water in full blast. While it’s true that his grandmother was at home in the wild—she could and had survived in a jungle with nothing but a canteen of water and a knife—but for her home, only the best of modern appliances, including the plumbing. Sen sighed as hot water cascaded down his tense body, he and his team had headed out three days ago and he still felt the ache of the wound on his right shoulder. It was closed now and only a long pink scar was left as a reminder of the danger that had to be dealt with.
An adrenalin junkie and a narcissist, he couldn’t say that she was wrong, but they were more than that. And their record stated that. They were one of the best and he was proud of it, they were proud of it and helping Medea would add to that record. The prejudice they had to deal with shouldn’t bother him, it had been two years since he and his team proved the doubters that they were wrong. That his team worked and worked well. They set the record, they were the best, and they were the youngest recruits ever in history. But his grandmother’s offer still stung and her questions and sly jabs made him wonder. His grandmother was—and still is—the best in their line of work. If she had doubts, there must be something wrong, but he couldn’t see it. And that ticked him off. He was team leader, he was supposed to see everything.
But she came to him for help with Medea.
He was there when Yukiko heard the steady beep on her phone, the way she had dropped everything and started packing. The tension in her face as she led him, her eyes focused on her phone screen. She cared deeply for Medea, and she had come to him for help. That meant something.
And Medea...he recalled how she had looked inside the forest, the way she curled into herself in the cold, her face so pale that the dark circles under her eyes looked like bruises, the freckles across her nose jumped in relief. The short cap of her hair made her cheeks look rounder, her eyes bigger, young and pitiful. Her teeth was chattering and it hurt to look at the relief she felt when she saw Lee Loo, the way she dug her fingers against its hair as if making sure the dog was really there. That it wasn’t all in her head. Somehow, Sen had a feeling that she had to do that often, questioning what was real and what was not.
Medea, an unfortunate name for an unfortunate girl. He wondered how her parents could give her that name.
He could still feel the way she shuddered against his back every time a cold wind slapped at their faces, it was lucky he and his grandmother were already close by. She must have been terrified, although she looked more tired than petrified, as if she was so tired she had no energy left to feel fear.
Sen dragged a towel across his damp hair and peered at the clock on the wall, decided to get some shut eye before he had to wake up for morning training. He pulled on sweat pants and threw himself down on the bed and wondered whether Medea would get any sleep or would she spend the rest of the dark staring at the ceiling.
Medea stared at the ceiling like she always had. It wasn't only because her foot was aching, it was because...well, because. She was finally clean and although the warmth of the hot shower was still on her skin, she still felt cold inside.
A sharp ping came from her cellphone, she intended to ignore it but her body moved automatically. She squinted against the backlight and raised her eyebrows when she saw the email address that popped out on the screen.
She sat up, wincing when she knocked her bandaged foot against the edge of her bed frame. Again, she was grateful that her father was a doctor, she couldn’t even imagine how much her hospital bills would amount to if that wasn’t the case. As it was her hospital file could give someone a concussion if she ever needed to use it as weapon.
Grabbing her laptop she opened the email and clicked on the download button. She connected her iPod and updated her playlist.
Lying back down she inserted her earbuds and waited. A low somber note, sweet and sad drifted into her ears and she closed her eyes and breathed out a long breath, her stiff muscles uncoiling onto the surface of the bed, that sick ball inside her stomach loosening. She rode the sound of music, letting it drag her down into darkness with long spidery fingers.
Their town, high up in the mountains, rarely experience sunny days. The sun would come out but the air would carry a chill instead of warmth, nor would the sky be blue rather than a mournful grey.
Except for today.
So, Medea took that as a sign from the divine to drag a few folding hairs out into the back garden, whip up some tangy lemonade and chose a good book from her ever-growing to-be-read list.
She sighed as warmth seeped into her skin, chasing out the cold that had been biting into her bones since last night. Her parents were both gone so she could relax without their constant attention, without having to pretend that she wasn't tired, or worried or--
She shook the dark mood away and hiked up her shorts to her thighs and folded the hem of her tank top to show her stomach, exposing them to the sun, but was careful to lower her hat over her face. Her pale skin had a tendency to break out into freckles. Medea sipped on cool lemonade, opened the book to where she left it last and readied herself for the only type of adventure that she could ever enjoy.
Of course, having just one day where she could actually enjoy herself without being interrupted was too much to ask for because a voice wrenched her away from her book and made her spilled lemonade over her legs.
Sen winced as he walked closer; all long limbs and amiable smile. "Sorry about that."
A glare appeared on her face. "What are you doing here?"
"Same as what you're doing, enjoying the sun." Panting slightly, he lowered himself to pick up the glass and put it back on the table from where she knocked it over. He wore an old faded blue T shirt with the sleeves ripped off and shorts, his skin glistening with sweat. He had running shoes on his feet and ear buds around his neck; hard and fast guitar riffs reached Medea's ears.
"Can't you enjoy them somewhere else?"
It was either he was ignoring the scowl on her face or he thought looking as if she wished he fell down a cliff was her default resting face. "I was, but that's the thing with running, it takes you from point A to point B."
"Ha." Medea shook off the excess water from her legs, it wasn't until she caught him looking at her stomach and her thighs that she realized how much skin she was showing. Heat blossomed in her cheeks but she refused to fiddle with her clothes. It was her home and she could wear whatever she wanted.
She nearly bared her teeth at him when he took a seat on the edge of her folding chair, his weight making it creak. She did bare her teeth when he touched her bandage ankle, examining it as if he knew what he was doing.
"How does it feel?"
His fingers were cool where it graze her skin, making her really aware that she forgo shaving her legs this morning. His eyes were doing that annoying thing again--looking at her as if he was slowly cataloging things about her into his mental space--and she crossed her arms over her chest, while she didn't wear a bra, she did wear a tight enough tank top to keep everything in place, and she had a lot of everything to keep in place.
"You'll burn." He said, his dark eyes still on her.
"You're as pale as I am and I don't see you covering up."
A small smile quirked his lips. "I turn brown. You turn red."
She decided to give him a taste of his own medicine and eyed him back, comparing what she saw last night to what she was seeing under the sun. She figured he was right about the turning brown part, already his skin had a dark hue underneath the paleness, rather than black his eyes were a dark brown that shimmered in the change of light. His features were delicate rather than handsome, saved from being feminine by the strength of his jawline and the depth of his eyes. His hair was cut neat and short, slicked back away from his face to display the high cheekbones and emphasis the straight stare of his eyes. She was right about the breadth of his shoulders and the muscle underneath, his biceps weren't only define but carved. His arms looked solid and hard as if he worked with his arms not in the gym but through manual labor. There were little long white scars along his hands and forearms that she recognized for what they were, as well as the calluses she had felt on his fingertips. She had seen them on Yukiko. Apparently like grandmother, the grandson also trained in the art of Japanese longbow and sword. That explained the confidence, the steadiness she could sense from him, it was easy to be confident when you know you have control over your body and your emotions. That you know you can handle yourself in a fight.
To help with her mental state, Yukiko had tried to teach her Kyudo and Kendo. She was decent with the long bow but dismal with a sword. She lacked the focus and the patience to practice the basics, and she didn't like it. She often joined Yukiko for an hour of meditation after Yukiko's practice but that too, she wasn't particularly good at.
She was too restless, too impatient, her mind was too loud, Yukiko had once complained, irritated with her lack of progress.
Her disappointment had hurt.
"Seriously, what are you doing here?"
He gestured toward himself. “I was running, I passed by here, I thought I’d stopped by.”
“You were running from Yukiko's?" She tilted her head to see the top of the mountain where Yukiko lived. "From there?"
Sen grinned. "No, I was at a friend's house, he lived nearby."
Friends? He's been here a minute and he already has friends?, Medea thought. Some people have all the luck. Then she remembered something. "Oh, are you here for your coat?"
He pulled the collar of his shirt to wipe sweat of his face and gave her a short glimpse of hard abs. "Nah, that can wait. It's not like I need it right now."
She narrowed her eyes as a suspicion entered her head. "Did Yukiko asked you to check on me?"
"No." The grin on his face widened. "Really, she didn't."
"I don't believe you."
"She did ask me to look out for you but that's not why I'm here." He leaned closer his eyes looking straight at her. "I need a favor."
"No need to sound so surprise--"
"--after all I did carry you to safety last night--"
She rolled her eyes and pulled her tank top down, finally felt like she could do that without drawing attention to her discomfort. "Just tell me."
"I need you to show me where your mom's shop is."
Amusement made her want to smile but she pressed her lips together. "She got you with the brownies, did she?"
"I'm her slave." He told her, deadpan. "And Yukiko asked me to pick her up there."
"Ask your friend. Everyone know's my mom's place."
"He's currently not at home, and I'd ask for directions but this town is pretty much a maze."
That was true enough, Medea conceded, the number of people in this town might be small but the land was vast and the directions not too clear either. It was like the town was made confusing on purpose, one of the main attractions for the town folk was to befuddle as many tourist as possible and watch them circle back and forth. It was hilarious.
Medea squirmed under Sen's expectant gaze, the way he just sat there and stared at her without moving a muscle. It was irritating.
As if he could sense her surrender, he beamed at her. "So, I'll meet you here in an hour? I have to jog back and take a shower. I'll pick you up."
"Fine." She grumbled. Medea watched him jog away with a sullen look on her face, annoyed with how she couldn't figure out an excuse to refuse him.
He was punctual, she would give him that. He arrived at her house within an hour and not a second less or more, looking fresh in a green shirt and blue jeans. His hair was still damp from a shower and his skin glowed with health and exercise. She had also showered and dressed in a soft purple shirt and in account of her sprain leg a mini denim skirt but looking at him, she felt pale, tired and unhealthy-looking. Since she didn't bother with make up or fussing with her hair, she probably did look like how she felt.
She hobbled out of the door before he reached the porch and watched him decide whether to help her or to let her walk on her own. He decided to reach for the car and opened the door for her.
"Sorry about this." He said after she managed to climb up the car. "I didn't think about your leg."
Strangely, she suddenly felt better. "It's fine. Take this road."