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Isabell finished ringing up a customer, a teenage girl and her little brother, and watched them walk out the door. They were regulars and came in at least twice a month for movies, tending to rent the same handful over and over.
She'd been working at the rental store for six months now and still had yet to actually watch any of the movies she'd rented. She couldn't bring herself to do anything but gaze out of her apartment windows, stroke the pendant at her neck, and remember. So far, she'd rented ten movies and they all went ignored, though one she actually started to play, but got distracted and had stopped it.
The door dinged, alerting her to the next customer, and she looked at the clock to see that ten minutes had gone by.
‘Tuesdays are always slow but this is ridiculous,’ she thought as she turned her attention to the costumer.
At first, she couldn't see who the man was. He had shaggy, unkempt hair that hung to the tip of his nose, as he kept his eyes on the ground, and he had on a jacket whose collar covered his mouth and came up to his nose.
“Isabell,” a harshly gruff, yet familiar, voice came from where the man's mouth should be.
Her eyes grew wide and her fingers groped for her necklace. “Auden,” she breathed.
“Nice to see you, too,” he looked up to meet her shocked gaze. He tried a smirk but his brown eyes were sorrowful. “Good to see you all in one piece.”
“I'd like to say the same about you but...” she shrugged awkwardly and looked at the counter for a distraction.
“I know we didn't part on the best of terms,” he pulled down the collar, so his whole face was exposed, and she could see the stubble that darkened his chin. “But that's why I'm here.”
“You're trying for Forgiveness?” She was shocked again. The only way to earn that was to save the person's life until they granted you your request.
He was quiet for a moment, then replied, “Yes.”
“But that's impossible,” her knees suddenly felt like Jello so she leaned heavily on the countertop with both hands. “I left on good terms!”
“You know that’s a lie. You probably left on the worst terms possible but, even if it were true, you left,” he said sadly. “And that's never ‘good terms’.”
“Is she bringing Pups?” Isabell asked after a moment of trying to bring her heart rate under control.
“No, I don't think they consider you that much of a threat,” he was more relieved by that. “But she's probably bringing the best Retrievers.”
“I'm calling the police,” she gulped and reached for the store phone.
“Do you really think that'll help?” Auden asked, making no move to stop her.
She stopped, with the earpiece halfway to her head, and realized that he was right. She knew these people, how they thought, how they operated, she had been one of them. She placed the smooth plastic back into its cradle and rubbed her eyes.
“I tried so hard to stay hidden,” she tried not to sob.
“I know,” he placed his hand over the one she still had on the counter. “I'm so sorry.”
She stared at his hand, which completely covered hers, and marveled at how rough his palms had become. She met his gaze just in time to watch his eyes change into the predatory yellow and irises become the complete black of their kind.
She squeezed her necklace again and bit her lip. “Oh, Auden,” she whispered, her eyes filling with tears. “They got you, too. I hoped you would only be a Retriever…”
The front door dinged again but Isabell already knew who it was.
“Valika,” she said coldly as she pulled her hand from Auden's.
“Hello, darling,” the woman greeted. “Good to see you. You've no idea how much I've missed you!”
The woman was dressed all in black and her face was covered by a helmet and visor. The black, zip-up jacket was only the slightest shade off from the stark, tight pants. Isabell knew about the helmet but didn't know Valika had been promoted. Coverings over the mouth had breathing filters, the visor had a heads-up-display, and there was also a COM in the ear linked back to her boss and to her 'troops'.
Isabell had worn that exact outfit, once upon a time.
Valika removed the Helm, unleashing a waterfall of curly, black hair. She smiled at Isabell with full, pink lips and lively, bright green eyes.
“Get out," Isabell said, tersely, through gritted teeth. “Of my store.”
“Oh, your store?” Valika looked around. “Well, your name wasn't on the sign.”
That was true, since the sign read 'Mak's Mad Movies and Game Rentals', but it might as well have been Isabell's. Mak was usually gone, so she did all the work herself. She even did most of the accounting, ordering, unpacking... pretty much everything that went on, she did.
“Anyway, I'm only here for a moment,” Valika turned her gaze back on the other girl. “We will be parted again soon.”
A growl sounded from Auden, drawing Valika's attention to him for the first time.
“Don't worry,” she winked at him with a sly grin. “Haven’t forgotten our special delivery boy.”
“Your... what?” Isabell asked but Valika had already signaled the men inside.
There were nine of them and they were all dressed alike; dark, long-sleeved shirts, dark pants, black gloves, black hoods over their faces. Even the guns in their hands and the goggles over their eyes were black.
The men took strategic positions around the store, going for cover as they'd been trained while Valika turned her attention back to Isabell.
“By the way,” Valika began moving toward the ‘employee's only’ door to the stock rooms. “Thanks for leaving. Your job is far better than any I could have scored if you'd stayed.”
“Go to hell, Val,” Isabell spat, interrupting her sentence but not managing to wipe that smug smirk from her face.
“The way things are going, Issy,” Val smiled broadly. “You'll beat me there. Well, I have to run, but you boys be sure to play nice.”
She was out the door quickly and then all was quiet... for the space of a heartbeat. It turned chaotic quickly. Isabell barely saw Auden Turn; she blinked and he wasn't human anymore. At the same time, the men emerged from their places, guns already firing, and Isabell heard the bullets whiz by as she ducked behind the counter.
Auden's growls and men’s screams soon reached her ears. She jumped and gave a small yelp as one of the soldiers crashed into the shelves behind the counter and was closely followed by Auden, who was already covered in blood. Wolf jaws sank into the soldier's throat and further movement was stopped.
She let out a sigh and then Auden's attention was drawn to her. The animal that stared at her had no trace of the man she had talked to only moments before. The wolf growled, revealing sharp fangs that dripped ruby drops. She pushed herself, slowly, further from him and he followed her movements with primal eyes.
“Auden,” she started, hesitantly. “It's me. You recognize me, right?”
He growled and started towards her. The hair along his back was bristling and his ears were almost flat against his head.
“Don't give in to that side,” Isabell encouraged, her back hitting the wall. “You've been through the training. Fight it.”
Two of the soldiers came around the open end of the counter so Auden's attention was drawn to them and Isabell took the opportunity to scramble over the countertop. The other soldiers, the ones still living anyway, confronted her. She dodged to the left and ran into the rows of shelves.
Last week, she'd rearranged the gray, wire shelves, so she wasn't exactly surprised when she got lost. She ran into a dead end in the horror section. Spinning on her heel, she found herself cornered by the men, leaving her no time to ponder the irony.
Casting around for a way out, she began to climb the shelves. She scrambled upwards quickly, to keep herself from being an easy target. Nonetheless, one of the movies next to her foot flung off the shelf with a jagged hole through the plastic. She tried to go faster but her foot slipped on a laminated sign and she only held on by the tips of her fingers. She was glad the shelves were heavy duty and didn't fall on her.
Isabell closed her eyes, fully expecting to feel the burn of dozens of bullets punching their way through her body. When nothing happened for a moment, she looked over to find Auden battling four of the men at once. She scrambled to the tops of the shelf and sat, hunched, three feet from the ceiling. She gathered as many movie cases she could reach into her arms.
Flinging them at the soldiers closest to her, she knew it would only distract them, at best. Without her old strength, distraction was all she could really do.
Her mind went back to her pendant as she finished throwing the cases. Her hand went to the gold chain and charm but her mind was captured back from those dark memories by the sight of Auden, now halfway between forms, pick up the sword from a dead man's belt. He sliced off the head of the last man and then started in her direction.
She started to venture down the other side of the shelves when she slipped and fell. She landed on her back and it knocked the wind out of her but she still saw Auden leap to the top of the racks of movies. He jumped again with the sword poised to skewer her when he landed.
Her mouth opened to scream as her head rocked to the side to try to avoid the sword's path. At the same time, on pure instinct, her hand went to her throat and ripped off the carefully constructed necklace. A feeling she had not felt for a long time washed over her and was followed closely by pain and darkness.
“What happened?” Isabell tried to ask but it came out as a mumble around whatever was in her mouth.
“Hush, don't try to talk,” Auden quieted her softly.
They were moving, quickly. She was being held by him, from what she could tell, and was wrapped in something warm. She opened her eyes and the image that greeted her was that of a sword hilt and about a third of a blade. Her eyes grew wide and she began to panic and thrash in Auden's arms.
“What have you done to me?” She tried to shout but it only came out as a mumble. She continued anyway. “Get this thing out of my godd***ed mouth or I'll kill you! I'll kill you, bury you, and then dance on your grave!”
He laid her down on the ground and grasped the hilt with one hand and held her head up with the other. She opened her mouth wider and felt her skin splitting against the sword edges. Auden drew in a deep breath and then yanked the sword out quickly. Isabell gasped loudly and then commenced to whimper quietly, but didn't scream.
“Where are we?” She managed to get out before she hunched over and began to retch into the gutter. It was all blood that came up but there was a lot.
“A few minutes from your store,” Auden replied as he helpfully reached over and pulled back her wavy, light blonde hair. He pulled a cloth from the pocket of his jacket and pressed it to the wound on the back of her neck, when she'd finished coughing fitfully. Luckily, the sword had missed the spine and came out to the left of it.
“You have to let it go,” Auden murmured and tapped her fisted hand gently. “You'll never heal with it.”
Isabell stared at her fist intently, knowing he was right but not wanting to let go of the pendant that had kept her from becoming a monster. The little glimmer of gold had kept her sane, functioning, and if she let it go she wasn't sure she could go back again. She coughed again and more blood fell into the puddle in front of her.
She turned her fingers towards the sky and felt Auden's rough skin settle on her hand. She relaxed her grip and he took the warm metal sanity from her. A tension released in her body and, already, she felt her wounds begin to stitch themselves. It was slow, and she was still bleeding, but it was better.
“Here,” Auden picked up his jacket, which he'd used to carry her. “Put this on.”
She did and buttoned it all the way up so that it covered nearly half of her face. She had been wearing a white shirt but now it might as well have been red. She looked around and saw nothing but deserted road.
“There's a convenience store just down the street,” Auden informed and helped her up. “You can clean yourself up and we can get bandages.”
She nodded and they headed off. They traveled in a perpetual state of awkward silence while a million questions buzzed in both of their brains but neither could get themselves to ask. The only noise was their feet scraping against the pavement and the other's breathing.
Finally, the bright, florescent lights were visible through the scattered clumps of trees. Isabell and Auden sped up their pace and were soon walking through the gas pumps. They finally let themselves relax minutely when they saw only one car at the pump and at least three cameras, placed to capture everything in the parking lot.
A figure emerged from behind one of the pumps just before they passed. It was a man, clean-shaven but slightly shaggy haired, with a dark coat on. The collar was pulled up, leaving his face visible, and his hands were buried in his pockets. His hair was blonde and was the only thing, paired with his pale skin, which kept him from being a walking shadow.
Auden and Isabell froze as the man stepped in front of them. His dark blue eyes were locked on Isabell, though, as he cocked his head to the side and studied her.
“Would you happen to be Isabell?” he asked lazily.
“Uh, no,” she answered as confidently as she could and hid more of her face in the collar of Auden’s jacket. “My name is Alexandra.”
The man only chuckled and flashed her a grin. For the quickest instant, his teeth were razor sharp and vicious, and his eyes were yellow wolf’s eyes. She took a step backwards and he was normal again.
He chuckled again and melted back into shadow.
“Who was that?” she asked as Auden took her arm and sped across the parking lot.
“You were gone when they promoted Jax to Hunter,” he informed quietly.
“There’s no ‘Hunter’ position,” she argued.
“Like I said,” he looked her in the eye with a sad expression. “You were gone.”
They entered the bright store and headed straight to the restrooms in the back.
“Where do you think you’re going?” Isabell asked when Auden moved to follow her into the ladies’ room.
“But I-” he began, looking startled.
“Ladies only,” she smirked and tapped the picture of the girl on the door. Then, she leaned in and whispered, more seriously, “Don’t worry. I’ll call if I need you.”
The bathroom was bare and shabby but cleaner than expected. One of the florescent lights flickered horribly but Isabell ignored it.
Taking off the coat, she revealed the grisly picture that was her head. Her mouth was caked with blood, as was her neck and the top half of her shirt. Most of her hair was streaked red and she was pale and gaunt from the lost fluid. Her throat throbbed as she cleaned herself up with damp paper towels then examined the back of her neck, which had already begun to scab over.
Even with her healing, it would scar.
“I need a-” she started as she peeked out the door. She was cut off as black material was held up in front of her face. “Oh… thanks,” she took the shirt and closed the door again.
The shirt fit well enough but the logo on it could have been better. As a matter of fact, she didn’t care for cowboys or Indians, no matter how much it related to the state she was currently in. She didn’t mind, though, as she put her ruined shirt into the trash with the used paper towels that were colored in various shades of pink.
She examined her wound again, craning her neck to try to see it clearly. Just as it got into view, the door swung silently open and she whipped her head around to see who it was. She winced as she felt the wound reopen at the sharp movement, then sighed as she realized it was Auden.
“What now?” she couldn’t help but sound irritated as she felt the warm trickle begin down her neck. “Jax come back to kill me?”
He gave a shy, half-smile and held out a box of bandages and some antiseptic cream. Isabell felt herself blush as she took them from his hands.
“Thanks,” she began to bandage her neck but still couldn’t see the back.
“It’s the least I can do,” Auden said as he gently lifted the bandages from her fingers.
He applied some of the cream softly, causing her to jump. She laughed it off as being cold and he continued silently. She marveled at how delicately he worked and how quickly. Before she knew it, he was done.
She touched the bandage silently, calmly, and then felt a wave of emotion sweep over her. She whirled around and slapped Auden's cheek with a loud, stinging blow. His face snapped to the side and he had a red handprint but, other than that, he had no reaction. His face was impassive.
“Why did you do this to me?” she tried not to shout but it came out that way anyway. “I just wanted to live a normal life! No Council, no Retrievers, no more prisoners… no more useless rules. I’d been doing great; a job, an apartment, a life…” she wiped away a tear and tried to fight her quivering lip. “I didn’t have Retrieves and Hunters to deal with. I didn’t have to worry about whether my home is being watched because I need to pack. I didn’t worry about swords through the mouth!”
She pushed him and then leaned against the counter, her energy lost. He stood quietly as she sobbed and the lights hummed and flickered spastically.
“We should go,” she sighed and straightened. “Before the reinforcements arrive.” She splashed water on her face and rubbed her bloodshot eyes. She put the extra bandages and cream into the coat’s pockets and returned it to its owner. Auden walked out first as Isabell continued cleaning. When the door had drifted closed, she looked at herself in the large mirror and felt her frustration roil just under the surface.
She curled her hands into fists against the cheap, plastic counter.
Five minutes later, she met Auden in the parking lot and slipped the bandages from the pocket she’d placed them in. She wrapped the knuckles of her right hand a few times and then returned the white cloth to him.
He said nothing about her hand. He knew what she’d done and completely understood. Though, the storeowner would be angry that the mirror in the women’s restroom was in shards.