A Welcome Distraction
rating: +17+x

Chapter II.VI

A knock came at the door to my office, which took me out of a kind of trance I enter whenever I'm doing sheets upon sheets of paperwork. In the daze between that and the now, enough time passed for a second knock to come knocking. "Fae? Sis? It's me, Anders."

I cleared my throat. "Come in."

"I can't, it's locked."

I stood up, a little annoyed at having been interrupted, to march towards the door, unlock it, and pull it open.

Anders met my gaze with a slight bit of a wince I couldn't find the source of. "Hey Fae."

"Hey. Come in?"

Anders shrugged. "If you sat back down at your desk I'd feel like I was talking to the executive director. I wanted to talk to you as a sibling and a friend."

I nodded, slowly. "Alright."

He flashed a small smile, but his eyes stayed that same type of half-closed he had entered with. "Thanks," he started. "I think you've been acting different, lately."

I blinked, more slowly than I might have normally. I looked him up and down, taking in his stance. He was favoring one foot, his weight unevenly distributed between his legs, making his torso be at a slight angle. He looked like he'd be more comfortable leaning against the doorframe, but he abstained. He looked like he'd be more comfortable with his hands in his pockets, but he abstained. It was just the smallest hint of discomfort he was willing to give. Otherwise he was putting on a face for me.

I breathed deeply in and out, and returned eye contact.

"What do you mean?"

"Mmm," he hummed, "I mean that, I think, in the last couple months, you've been… very distant? It's been difficult. To be close to you."

I nodded. "I don't think our relationship has changed."

"No, it hasn't," he said. There was that wince again. "I suppose I'm speaking on someone's behalf."

It was time for me to flash that small, sad smile. "Robin," I clarified.

"Not only."

My heart shrunk a mite at that. "Hmm," was all I let on.

"I have a gentler, slower version prepared. That's always been more my style, but, I think one place we differ is that you're always very appreciative of getting straight to the point?"

I nodded. He sighed.

"Robin feels very hurt. He's not willing to put it that way, because he's still blaming you for… something, I'm not even sure he knows what. But, it seems you've made it clear that you're not going to take the initiative for building that bridge, even though I think you're the only person who could do it. So, I'm planting a seed in your head. I'm asking you to reach out to him, at some point. I think you two should talk."

There weren't many things in my office that made noise. Without my usual typing, or the shuffling of papers, or the opening and closing of drawers, or the rolling wheels of my chair, or the ceramic clink of a mug meeting a coaster on my desk, the only real noises were a slight electric hum and my heart beating in my ears. I gave Anders a long stare.

He was one of the few people who met my gaze. Him and Alex were were among the only ones that took my silences for what they were: thinking. I disliked the pressure of needing to come up with an immediate response to everything, so I was very grateful I had people in my life who understood the immensely underrated utility of long conversational pauses.

"Alright," I said. "I don't think I have an immediate response. Could you let me think about it?"

He breathed in through his teeth. "Yes."

I smiled at him.

"But," he quickly followed up, "last time I asked you to talk to Robin, I don't think you ever did."

There was a last time? "I'm wary of trying to start a conversation with someone who has been as passive and directly aggressive to me as Robin. I don't know how to talk to someone who can't approach me with a cool head."

Anders nodded. "Do you think you have a cool head?"

The seconds passing by were tangible. The space between Anders and I, the air between our faces, felt emptier than it had before, and so I couldn't make myself keep eye contact. I broke it first, looking off at some wall beyond his right ear, my hands finding each other and mingling their fingers.

"Would you like to be alone?"

"I would," I responded. "It might be a late night for me. Dinner doesn't have to wait on me."

"Oh, that's another thing. You might not want to come home tonight. Mom is…" He searched for the words. "Unsympathetic."

I nodded. "Thank you for the heads up."

"Thank you for listening." Anders liked to answer thankyous with thankyous.

He gave me a smile, and opened his arms for a hug. We embraced, not tightly but comfortably, and he was smiling when we detached. "Love you," he said.

"Love you too." Do you think he's right? I almost asked it. It wanted to come out of my mouth. I wanted to know whose side he was on, but that would have been unfair to him. Anders was like that. I honestly doubted very much that there was anything I could reasonably do to alienate him. His advice and support was one of those constants in life I took for granted, like food, water, and sleep (even if the latter had been fickle since I could remember).

And it occurred to me that it was support I really wanted right now. A type of support a brother couldn't give quite so well.

As he walked down the hallway, I closed the door, turned around, and pulled my phone from my pocket.




Alex was waiting for me at the front doors, and as I was walking up, he opened his arms. We kissed, and then hugged.

"Thanks for meeting me," I said.

"Sounded important."

I nodded, the act doubling as a kind of nuzzle into his neck.

We stood there for a moment longer, slightly swaying in the open air. His warmth was familiar and comforting. It felt especially nice as a contrast to the slightly chilly night.

"Do you want to go inside?" He suggested.

"Sure," I said.

We walked through the doors. In a town as small as Boring, it was a wonder that the cafe could afford to stay open so late. Whenever Alex and I came at that hour — which wasn't often — it seemed like we were the only people there. It made me wonder if the cafe owner stayed up just for us. In a town as small as Boring, it wasn't such a crazy idea.

We sat at our usual spot, on the stools at the counter. I didn't want the caffeine this late, so I simply ordered some of their discount day-old cookies instead. Alex seemed a little braver, and ordered a chai as usual. I just knew of myself that if I drank any caffeine past three, sleep would be utterly impossible. Some volatile reaction with my insomnia.

"So what's going on?" He asked once we had our "meal."

I gave him a look. "Don't you usually let me explain at my own pace?"

He shrunk back a little. "Sorry, I —"

"No need to apologize, I just noticed." He nodded. I sighed, and continued. "Robin quit."

He remained silent, but his eyebrows rose a fraction.

I offered no more information. I took a bite of my cookie, and looked off into space for a moment, just chewing and feeling it, nearly missing the staleness it had acquired. I let the moment hang. I let the statement speak for itself. I made eye contact with Alex, and then I gave him a single nod.

"Why?" He asked as soon as I'd given permission.

"I'm not sure."

Another pause.

"How are you taking it?"

"It's stressful. I never expected to have any… drama, between myself and anyone I was living with. Knowing that going home means chance encounters with Robin is unfortunate."

"Hmm," is all Alex said. He took a sip of his chai, and joined me in staring out at the rest of the empty cafe, the jet black windows enclosing each side except the kitchen. "Hmm," he repeated. "Would you mind if I asked some leading questions?"

"Yes."

He turned to look at me. "Alright," he said, before looking down into his drink. He graciously gave me space to think, which I took full advantage of. And think I did. I thought about what must have awaited me at my next Alice encounter. Would she chew me out? What kind of tension could I expect if she didn't? What were her own opinions? Why was she taking Robin's side?

I took a moment simply to hate that there were "sides" between myself and Robin. How'd it come to this? We were never as close as I was with Anders, no, but Robin and I had never had any major chafing.

That's not true.

"Do you have anything else to offer?"

My mind wrapped back around the present. "Pardon?" I took a second to parse what he'd said, but responded: "No, I don't want to talk about it."

"Hmm," he said back.

"I was honestly hoping to hear about your life. Mine's been boring paperwork and this, so. How have you been? What is Alex up to?"

He took a moment, staring off into the pitch black windows, sipping at his chai and thinking. "Well," he started, "I don't know if I'm up for talking about me."

That caught my attention. I turned to him, and he didn't meet my eye. Something happen? I nearly asked, before remembering to allow him the same space he allows me. Instead, I returned my eyes to the windows.

"It seems like your life is always paperwork," Alex said.

I felt a sting as a needle began to poke at the soft exterior of my heart. I blinked several times, and looked down at my hands in my lap. "Well, I'm sorry, but, it is. Life has been mostly work since I graduated high school. It's just who I am."

"Mmm," he responded, but this time it felt more rote. Hollow. Methodical and usual instead of sincere. "I don't think I am emotionally available right now to comfort you. I think I might make it worse."

The needle's pressure piqued with every beat of my heart, but it was light. It had yet to pierce. Just a poignant, steady stinging. "Okay," I said. "That's fair. Sorry to have burdened you."

"No apology necessary," he said back, but yet again I failed to sense any warmth.

He stood, and looked to me. I stood, and looked back. He opened his arms. We hugged.

"Well, thank you for meeting me. It means a lot."

"It means a lot that you trust me with your feelings, sorry I can't handle it right now."

"It's okay. Take care of what you can first."

He nodded, and pulled away first. "See you," he said.

He started to walk away, and as he opened the door: "Love you," I said.

"Yeah." He seemed to immediately realize the strangeness of that reply, and so shook his head slightly, looked back, and said: "Love you too."

And then he was gone. Beyond the pitch black windows, into the long interminable night. The only noises left in the cafe were the buzz of the lights and some faint clanks and swishes of dishwashing happening in the back room of the store. I put a hand over my heart, trying to find that splinter and pull it out, but it wasn't happening. No matter how much I pinched folds in my dress, I could never grab hold of it. So I stopped trying, and just breathed.

A deep breath in, a nice and even push out. I repeated this process several times. In, out. In, and then out.

I checked my watch. That didn't kill nearly as much time as I had hoped, and I recovered nearly nothing. In fact, I had added more. I struggled to comprehend the situation. Alex was meant to be my safe space. Not that I was in danger otherwise, but that I could let my guard down around him. I thought he'd felt the same, but maybe I was wrong. I was being faced with contradictory information.

One time, I thought to myself. Not yet a pattern.

I mentally noted it in a little file. A file I promptly slid back into the drawer from whence it came — a drawer from a filing cabinet labelled Alex Molina. Once closed, it made a nice metallic echo that resonated through the rest of me, easing my mind and muscles. Easing my heart, lifting the needle. Easing my breathing. Easing my alert.

It was put away. Manageable. Bookmarked, pinned. Something for another time.

But when I nodded to myself, there was some faint impression. There was a little noise that broke the silence. Some tink I had yet to place. It echoed. It resonated. Muscles couldn't loosen as much as I wished they would. My heartrate hadn't dropped as much as it might have. My fingers still toyed with the fabric on my chest, and my breathing couldn't become that natural, automatic rhythm. The sirens had stopped but a red light was still blinking. The needle was gone but the spot was still sore.

Tink, tink, tink.

I hated it. A paperclip, somewhere in the maze of files.

What's wrong with me?

I walked through the front doors, and out into the long interminable night. I have somewhere to be, I thought to myself. It was comforting. It was easy. I have somewhere to be. I had somewhere to be. I fondled keys in my pocket, and located my car in the darkness by memory alone. I got into the driver's seat, and lit the ignition.

If I leave now, I'll arrive early, I reassured myself. Reassured? No, that was the right word. It was reassuring. I put the truck in drive and adjusted my purpose.

"It seems like your life is all paperwork." I tried to shake the words out of my head.

"It is," I said out loud to myself. "It is."




It was roughly a fifteen minute drive to Gavin's Pond, nearer to Sandy than to Boring. It was right off of Southeast Marsh Road, and it was a tiny little thing. Maybe a bit bigger than a puddle. But, I discovered as I was waiting, it was perfect for skipping rocks across.

Plink, plink, plink, ploosh.

Rocks, sent across the pond, got anywhere between one and four skips, but at that point they were risking touching the other side. I was trying to have one make it all the way across to pass the time, when I heard footsteps coming up behind me.

I turned, and saw, for the third time in my life, that towering woman.

The woman with whom I had shared a letter correspondence, and who had been keeping me always on the tail end of her mystery.

Holly.

She wasn't dressed so different from when I'd first seen her. A long, old, simple purple dress, with yellow silk gloves. The only thing she was missing this time was the mourning veil, which was now replaced with a wide sunhat — completely unnecessary at this time of night.

I could only see her because I had put a small electric lantern on the rocky shore next to me. As she approached, before even saying hello, she leaned down — and oh how far did she have to lean — to pick up the thing, and turn it off.

I stood from my crouched, rock-skipping position, and looked into her black outline against the off-color black trees, only able to make out a tall shape, the wide hat, and the starlight catching in her eyes. Her perfectly circular eyes.

"Hello, Faeowynn," she said in a rumbling, matriarchal tone. I remembered at once the feeling of comfortable helplessness that had so overtaken me in our first meeting, and tried this time to resist the sensation. It wasn't of no use, but I was fighting a losing battle.

"Hi," I fumbled.

"Are we up to hugs yet?"

Why wouldn't we be? "No," I betrayed my conscience, "we've barely met, remember?"

She nodded, I think. "Of course. I have much to tell you, if you'd care to join me, but we can't here. There are always people watching, you know."

I nodded in return. "Right," I said, effortlessly being pulled along in her wagon. I had thought I would enter this conversation with more resolve, but I was once again that kid learning how the world worked. My sense of boundaries was all but shattered by the sheets of fur and down falling slowly from her words, and making my shoulders feel heavy and my head feel cloudy.

"Then, would you follow me? We're going somewhere different."

Sure. "Wait," I managed to fight through the feeling, "explain."

"It's a magical space that doesn't quite exist anywhere. It is completely private. Your Supervisors haven't yet found a way in."

That sounds perfect. "You promise to bring me back?" It was a stumble towards a well-worded concern, but missed the mark. Was she ever going to say no? How could I be sure she wasn't lying?

"Of course, you can return whenever you like."

Alright, take me there. "Alright, take me," I said, giving in to the sensation of naivety. Don't talk to strangers echoed in my head like the chittering laughter of Coyote.

She smiled, I think. "Good. Fair warning that it will make more questions than answers, at first. I swear to you we'll get there in time."

She reaches out and takes my hand. I don't even flinch at the sudden gesture. She leads me towards a nearby tree, black under the new moon, and knocks.

One, two, one, one.

I hear creaking, and a dim light comes from a source I can not place.

She lightly pulls at my hand, and my feet follow before I tell them to.

By some process I can't quite describe, even after all this time since then, we were somewhere… different.

"Welcome to the Wanderer's Library," Holly said.

We were standing on a balcony, and we overlooked an unimaginably vast labyrinth of bookshelves. Except, "overlook" wasn't quite right, as there were clearly spiraling staircases that rose above the sea of wood and led to yet higher floors. The majority of the view was darkness, but there were lights of all kinds — electric, archaic, and unseen — that illuminated various microbiomes of knowledge. There were open-ceilinged reading rooms, large touchscreen displays, collections of scrolls, stone obelisks, and of course, hundreds of hallways, arranged not in a grid, but in some more illegible assortment of curves, spirals, ascents, descents, bridges, underpasses — some stacked on each other into cylindrical towers of books, and on the opposite end, I saw pits deeper than I could see the bottom of. The architecture here was like no building I had ever seen, and to accompany it, any hint of the outdoors was nonexistent — I couldn't see solid walls on which a window would even sit.

The first thing I did when I could take my eyes off of the sight before me was to turn around, and see a single tree in a patch of grass, surrounded by books which, on their spines, described all different facets of arboreal knowledge. By the overwhelming mentioning of one type, I surmised that this tree must be a white oak, though its leaves looked to be pages instead, and its trunk looked more sculpted than grown.

Holly took my side at the balcony, and looked to me. In this light, her eyes were fully visible. Those fishlike things that never seemed to blink, yet always were so watery she looked like she might cry at any moment.

"You've never been to such a place, have you?" she asked.

But instead of processing the question, I noticed a difference. Instead of kneading into her lap, it felt… normal. At least in comparison. My shoulders felt lighter. My high cognition came back. I just realized that I had been taken to a mysterious place I didn't know how to leave by a woman I had only barely met.

I stepped back.

She seemed to understand some of it immediately: "I'm sorry about my voice."

"Sorry?" There was an edge to my voice I didn't intend but decided not to correct either.

"It's not something I am practiced at controlling. At least, not in more mundane places. I don't want to overwhelm you with terms, but where magic is thin, it's difficult to redirect my aura. My home, and here, provide easier outlets for me to disperse it. Boring is magical, yes, but the magic is nothing in comparison to the Wanderer's Library. It's another reason I wanted to meet here."

"Alright," I didn't move my position. I ignored my questions about where we were for the moment, to get to something more important: "You've been dodgy. Who are you. How do you know Tim?"

She chuckled, a deep hmm, hmm, hmm. "Straight to the point. That's not so much like your dad. He was always one for meandering conversation." She sighed. "I'm Holly Light. Specifically, Dr. Holly Light Wondertainment, CEO of the Dr. Wondertainment company. Do you know us?"

The name sounded familiar, and I placed it after a couple seconds' thought. "You're mentioned in the Boring Agreement. No, more than that. You created Walter, the musical ape. I read up on that once I became executive director."

She nodded, but closed her eyes solemnly. "Yes. The creation of Walter was a terrible mistake, we didn't mean to make such a tortured animal. The Wondertainment company doesn't deal with anything… soul-related, anymore. Sentience is strictly off-limits for our toys now."

"Well, that's somewhat relieving, though I'm not satisfied yet."

"Of course not," she cut off my line of inquiry. "You may remember that the result of those meetings was to forbid Wilson's Wildlife Solutions —"

"The Shelter," I lightly corrected her.

"Right, the Shelter, from maintaining relations with other, quote, 'Groups of Interest.'"

"Well, more that if an animal has significant ties to another group, that we would hand them over."

Holly smiled and sighed. "Walk with me?"

I narrowed my eyes. "Is this where we'll leave from?"

"You can leave from anywhere, as long as you have a Library Card. Part of my mission here is to get you one. Then we can meet much more easily and more regularly."

I weighed my options. Briefly. And then nodded.

She reached to take my hand, and this time I refused. She took it in stride, and walked past me, towards a descending set of stairs which I followed her down.

"It had a clause," she continued, "that the Shelter could not maintain relations. People don't remember that, because it didn't seem to interfere with anything. The worst it did was make a tense situation between the Shelter and a local artist. I'm not sure if you remember that."

"I do. That artist, I think his name was…"

"Francesco, Francesco Saul."

I remained surprised at her depth of knowledge. "Right. He's the only magical human I've met. Otherwise it's all been animals."

She turned around and gave me a look.

"Right," I corrected, "he was the only magical human." I was slightly relieved that her look had obtusely confirmed her humanity. I had my doubts.

She returned forward, in time to take a right off of the stairs and into a crack between the shelves I would have missed without her. "Other than that, the clause was quiet. Only, behind the scenes, Tim was having to work around it. To keep in contact with me."

I wasn't sure I believed her, but I let her keep talking.

"After Walter, I had contacted him, revealing that we had intentionally given Walter to the Shelter because we thought they could take good care of him. We were at first wary of revealing the intentionality of the action because your Supervisors have… rarely taken kindly to the Wondertainment brand. We are forced to do most of our business in the shadows, which is a terrible irony, because we're trying to be a light, much like I imagine you are."

I noted and filed her imagination, but neglected to respond at that moment.

"It was unfortunately only after the clause had been written that I thought to reach out, originally to attempt to create a funnel for… I don't like to admit it, but… we'll say, more Walters."

She stopped at a cross intersection, put a hand to her mouth in contemplation, and then turned left.

"More Walters?"

"Yes," she said with a tinge of mourning. "I haven't always been Dr. Wondertainment, and my predecessor was… a troubled man." She paused. "I reached out to Tim only to find our correspondence was forbidden, and our friendship followed much the same path as my epistolary conversations with you."

She turned around and flashed a warm smile. I returned no such gesture.

She continued walking. "It had to be kept private, mostly. Only as a form of security, you see. I'm honestly unsure if he told anyone, but I would be surprised if Alice didn't know. When he passed, I thought I would spread my connections. However, the more people I contact, the more risk there is. I made brief interactions with Anders and Robin, and then, of course, wanted to maintain a connection to the executive director."

"So it's a power play?"

Holly turned around. "Please believe me that I mean no offense when I say this, but is the Shelter important enough to play like that?"

With no offense taken, I silently conceded the point.

"I only mean that if I was to maintain contact with just one of you, I thought that…" She trailed off, looked back, and smiled. "Well, we're about here. Just another turn or two, and we'll be in an atrium."

"Atrium?"

"It's a meeting place for the people who frequent around here. It's where we can get you a Library Card."

"How many people frequent here?"

"Some people live here."

I raised eyebrows. "Why?"

"Well… it's a refuge." Before I could ask further, she picked up the pace, her long legs hidden by her dress carrying her across the ground like mist floating across a coast. I upgraded my walk to a trot to keep up with her.

Voices — though low — rose up around, muffled as they were by the thick walls of tomes. Holly disappeared behind a corner, and as I came around, the claustrophobic halls of bookshelves opened up into a room that was really just a large circular balcony around a wide hole in the floor, where a ladder extended further up than I could see through the darkness and further down than I cared to look. There were tables and chairs littered with candles and lamps, where an assortment of people sat and read. Some looked up at our entrance, while others were too engrossed.

They were clean. Well-dressed, of all different shapes and sizes, some with skin tones I didn't think appropriate for normal human beings, but generally… normal enough. Unlike the alien architecture we had been walking through, these felt like people I could meet in the wild.

Which was somehow stranger than the alternative.

I had so many questions, but I followed up my earlier query: "Refuge from what?"

Holly turned to look at me, her face more visible than it had been so far in the light of the lamps. It seemed like her eyes, like an owl's, couldn't move in their sockets, so to look down and avoid my gaze, she had to incline her chin.

"I'm afraid you may not like hearing this, but… the Foundation." She tilted her head up. "The Supervisors make refugees."




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