One For The Road
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Of all the pleasures that had abandoned her over the years, Dr. Wythers still had whiskey. The USSR killed her country, and her parents. A round from the rifle that killed her husband was still in her leg, inextricably bound up in scar tissue. The cane didn’t much help with that anymore. Her eldest boy was dead, her youngest might as well be, and her middle son probably still called her “Bookburner”. A lifetime ago she’d danced under a yellow sky with black stars, and would have danced again a thousand times had she not beheld the god-shaped hole. She’d flourished in Three Portlands, and lost her heart. She’d trod the path through the woods where names have power, and lost her innocence.

But whiskey? Whiskey didn’t care. Whiskey still loved her. Couldn’t kill whiskey. She took another swig from the flask and opened the door to the bar. The man next to the door said something to her in Korean and motioned for her to give him something.

“Do I look underage to you, musclehead?” Dr. Wythers tried to push past him, but the man put out his arm and repeated the same phrase. She sighed and continued speaking English. “I’m turning sixty-seven this year. Isn’t the drinking age in this country sixteen or something? Do I look like a stupid teen trying to sneak in for shots?” The bouncer didn’t speak, but flexed his fingers again. “Fine.”

Dr. Wythers fished around in her coat for a moment before digging out her passport. Forty-odd years ago she could have just batted her eyelashes a few times and skipped this part. She flipped to the page with her picture on it. The bouncer looked at it, then at her, then back at her photo. The woman pictured on her passport had the same narrow brown eyes, but that was the only similarity. She didn’t need glasses, her hair hadn’t started greying yet, and her face was clear of those old people spots she hated so much.

“Satisfied?” Dr. Wythers pocketed her passport as the guard waved her into the bar. She began to mutter under her breath. “Jesus, I thought South Korea was supposed to be the less oppressive one.”

The bar was dead, but then again it was nearing 8:00 on a Tuesday night. Dr. Wythers saw an assortment of barflies, but one in particular stood out. A chubby man, who the doctor eyeballed at around two-fifty, was arguing with a girl half his size wearing a newsboy cap and a stoic scowl. He pointed a reddened finger at her and shouted something in Korean. The girl responded by grabbing a fistful of his hair, slamming his face on the bar, and twisting his arm into the small of his back. He cried out in pain and she let go of him, shouting in angry Korean as the drunkard stumbled towards the exit. The two women locked eyes, and Dr. Wythers could tell she was trying not to panic.

“Hello, Claire,” the woman said in English as the patron stumbled out the door.

“Hello, Hoya.” Dr. Wythers hobbled over to the bar, the flared iron tip of her cane thumping rhythmically against the wooden floor. She eased herself onto the barstool, grimacing at the pain in her leg, and hung the cane on the edge of the bar. The young Korean woman continued to eye her suspiciously, rubbing a bar rag across the rim of an already clean glass.

“Relax, I’m not going to call a Strike Team,” Dr. Wythers continued. “Or High Command, or anyone else. They don’t even know I’m here. In fact, as far as they know I’m in my office reading an exceptionally dry academic paper on how to redirect Ways for improved security.”

“Your thaumaturgy must be coming along.”

“It’s probably closer to science, actually. Some project one of our moles got his hands on that lets you literally be in two places at once. My attention span is cut in half, however, so you’ll have to forgive me if I appear distracted.”

“You are the last person to tell me I have to forgive you,” Hoya retorted. “I guess I’m not that surprised to see you just waltz back in here. You were always pretty ballsy. So what do you want? I don’t have any teleporting chairs left but I’m sure I can find something for you to set on fire.”

“Eighty years protecting mankind from things that go bump in the night, and all people remember about us is that fucking chair,” Dr. Wythers lamented. She took another swig from her flask. “Think you could make me something?”

“Whiskey sour, on the rocks?”

“That is my drink of choice.”

“Oh, sorry Claire,” Hoya said. “All I’ve got is one hundred proof soju. I’d pour you some, but I’m afraid your frail old body would give out.” Wythers glanced at the patron to her left, sipping from a tumbler full of ice and an amber liquid that was probably Jack Daniels.

“Fine,” the doctor said, screwing the cap back on her flask. “I’ll say my piece and get out of your hair.”

“What did you come here for anyway?” Hoya asked. “You never said, and there’s no way you found yourself in Seoul by accident.”

“I came because I wanted to,” Wythers began, and then she stopped. She took a deep breath and pursed her lips before she finished her thought. “I wanted to apologize.”

Hoya raised a single eyebrow and put down the glass she was pretending to clean. Her face was largely unreadable but her scowl had softened to a frown.

“Don’t look at me like that,” Wythers snapped. “This is hard enough already without you judging me or looking for some memetic bullshit.”

“Just garden variety mistrust,” Hoya replied. “And out of all the people who deserve an apology from you, why come to me?”

“Most of the people I should apologize to are dead,” Dr. Wythers said with an uncharacteristic tinge of melancholy. “Either that or they’re no longer speaking to me. I haven’t seen or heard from Alexei since Peter’s death.” Claire Wythers had not spoken either of those names for a long time. There was a silence between the two women until the door of Hoya’s bar creaked open.

“I assumed you were going to apologize for jumping ship to the Bookburners.”

“I really fucking hate that name,” Wythers snapped. “You know just as well as I do that any of your bleeding heart, tree-hugging friends would burn a book if it was trying to eat them. But I’m not here to argue that. I’m getting up there in years, and there are plenty of things I've left unfinished.

“I always thought that if I acted decisively, if I really believed whole hog in what I was doing, if I didn’t question and overthink things like I used to back in my Hand days, I wouldn’t be lying on my deathbed looking back at a bunch of mistakes, but here we are.

“I’m an old woman full of regret, Hoya,” Wythers finished. “I don’t want your forgiveness, and I probably don’t deserve it, so you don’t need to do or say anything. I just want you to know how sorry I am; about getting Adam killed, about revising that stupid book, about the things I said to you when I left the Hand-”

“You called me a ‘thing’, Claire,” Hoya said. She slammed one hand down on either side of her former friend and colleague. “You compared me to my mother. We don’t become our parents! If we did, Alexei Wythers would be a condescending shithead with a continent-sized chip on his shoulder!”

“I know!” Dr. Wythers became aware that she was standing when the pain shot down her leg once more. All three of the people in the bar were staring at them, and the bouncer at the door rose from his stool. “Sit down, meathead. I’m not going to hurt her.”

“It’s okay, Jin,” Hoya assured him. “I’ve got this.” He leaned back onto his stool and Hoya pulled away from the bar. There was another silence as the number of patrons decreased to two.

“I’ve done and said a lot of things I’m not proud of,” Dr. Wythers said, keeping her eyes on the woodgrain of the bartop. “You were one of the first people to accept me into the Serpent’s Hand, and one of the last to let me push her away after the Foundation took Jack. You deserved to be treated better, and I’m sorry for that.” Hoya remained speechless. Dr. Wythers shifted her weight and slid off her barstool.

“Alexei is still alive,” Hoya told her. “Last I heard, he has a place in Three Portlands. Has a wife, and a kid, I think. You could go visit them.”

“I can’t,” Dr. Wythers said as she picked her cane up from the bar. “I’ve made my bed, and now I have to die in it. I won’t darken your doorstep again. I’ve said my piece, I’m finished. If you see Alexei, tell him his mother misses him.” The doctor turned her back on the bartender and took several laborious steps towards the door.

“Claire, wait.”

When she turned back, Hoya held one hand outstretched. There was a bottle of Johnny Walker in her other hand. Dr. Wythers fished in her coat pocket and pulled out her flask, and the foxgirl filled it to the brim.

“Here. One for the road.” Hoya screwed the cap back on the flask and handed it back. “See you soon.”

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