Claw Marks and Other Scars

When Aidan and Lynn become mentor and apprentice, they both head into the partnership with expectations. No one has ever wanted more of Aidan than what he can do in his field, study of magical creatures, and he is certain it will be no different with Lynn. Lynn has turned keeping secrets into an art form, and she is sure Aidan will not try to test the walls that she's built around herself. Both carry around their pasts like uninvited guests who never took the hint to leave and cause trouble wherever they go. Now, with a new threat hoping to collapse both their lives, it has become time to conquer old demons and fight for the future, lest their pasts and someone's want for revenge swallow them whole.

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1. Chapter One (P1)

    Lynn was sure her stomach was still on the train, racing onward to its next destination while she stood at the station with legs made of lead. A left-behind stomach would explain the nearly insuperable urge within in her to follow the tracks onward to any place that wasn’t here, even if it wasn’t home. But she didn’t move—not back to where she had come from, nor toward her destination. She just stood there, her legs feeling too heavy to move yet at the same time so fragile that she might topple over at any moment. She already felt nauseous and like her head was splitting open in two, but she knew the day was only going to get worse.

    Five minutes or five hours later, the muscles in her legs remembered how to work. She imagined that how walking felt in this moment was similar to how it felt when she was first learning: unstable, but determined. Forcing herself to walk in a way that seemed mildly confident allowed her to breathe easier, but not by much. Lynn’s heart was still in her throat, and she was still a ways from her destination.

    Tuesday afternoons, it seemed, were not popular days for arrival to or departure from the town she had come to. The train station was practically empty. Perhaps it had something to do with the actual placement of it. There was a particular lack of appeal to a station consisting of a large cement rectangle, a rusty sign, a clock, and a single wooden bench that looked as though it might break if you sat on it. Silently, she sent out the wish that the white-haired old man taking the risk on it wouldn’t fall through. Weeds sprouted out between cracks in the cement, some of them producing small purple flowers. The place looked as though it hadn’t been used in years, but it was the only train station in this town, or within miles, for that matter.

    Lynn tugged at her gray beanie, trying to cover her ears from the chill. It may have been mid-May, but it felt like early March. The trench coat, hat, and gloves only seemed to curb the bite in the air. She shouldn’t be focusing on that, though; there was the potential for much less personified biting in the near future. Although physical harm was far from what was making her dread starting her apprenticeship. That was why she was here, after all; after months of waiting for a spot to open up, the Bureau of Creature Containment had finally found her a new mentor so that she could continue her education. But the entire time Lynn had been waiting, she wasn’t sure if she was disappointed or relieved with each day that passed without her finding her next job. After her last apprenticeship, she was expecting the worst.

    Lynn suddenly shook her head with ferocity. No, she wasn’t going to think about that, or about him. He was a part of the past, and the past would stay in the past. Maybe she couldn’t outrun history, but she could certainly try. She’d been doing it for a long time, racing along a track built in circles against an opponent who didn’t tire like she did. But for now, she could hold out.

    She stopped, looking around. In her confliction and contemplation over the past and future, she had forgotten to think about the present, hadn’t even realized where she was walking. If the train station was old, the town was ancient. She had already known the place was small, but it seemed even smaller in person, rather ironic considering the size of the buildings. They had an old-fashioned grandeur to them, homes that were fancy at worst, borderline mansions at best, even if they all looked like they had been randomly arranged in the town. Some seemed squished together like a cozy family while others seemed unreasonably far from other buildings. Many had sprawling ornate windows and porches that stretched all the way around. They appeared rundown, but lawns were green and neatly kept. How peculiar.

    “Look, Ed. A new one.” Lynn’s boots came to a halt. Any anxiety that had eased during the walk was back and intensified. Lynn forced herself to glance to the side, immediately feelings her face grow warm as she spotted an older couple staring at her. She tried to tuck a runaway strand of chocolate brown hair behind her ear, but there wasn’t one, and she felt silly. She put her hand down, the fingers of both hands tightly gripping the strap of her messenger bag, the only piece of her luggage that she had brought on her person. The old woman had shiny gray hair falling around her shoulders and a stereotypical warm motherly smile, but she was dressed quite stylishly. Just as there was something oddly elegant about the buildings, a graceful aura surrounded the woman on her porch. Her husband, with his far more typical beer belly and overalls, contrasted her, although he also had a warm smile.

    Not wanting to be rude, she gave a small wave. She even tried to force a smile, but she was fairly certain it came across as more awkward than welcoming. But despite grace like the old woman not being something that extended itself to Lynn, the woman chuckled, nudged her husband again, and said “Poor thing, looks so nervous.”

    Lynn bit her lip. She had hoped her nervousness wouldn’t be so obvious, but it always seemed to be stamped on her forehead. The woman waved her over, and Lynn’s leg condition from the train station returned to her, although this time she managed to make herself walk more easily than she had before.

    “I’m Agnus,” the woman introduced, “and this is Edmund, Eddie, or Ed. Depends how quickly you’re trying to get his attention.” Agnus grinned, and although Edmund rolled his eyes, he looked far from genuinely annoyed. He squeezed Lynn’s shoulder. “Welcome to town, sunny. It’s nice to see a new face. You visiting a friend? I didn’t think anyone in this God-forsaken place had any friends except for other people in this God-forsaken place.”

    Agnus lightly swatted her husband, but he gave her a raspy laugh.

    “Uh, well, no.” The simplicity of the answer didn’t stop her from having difficulty getting it out. Although Lynn had managed to not recoil at Edmund’s touch, she let out a breath when he took his hand away. “No, I’m, uh...I…”

    “Oh, oh!” Agnus lit up. “Of course, how silly of me. You know us old people, can’t remember what we had for breakfast. I told you someone would be arriving, didn’t I, Ed? She’s here for that Medeski boy, you know, Richard Medeski’s boy? Didn’t I tell you they’d make him get someone after his little incident? Didn’t I say that?”

    Lynn shifted back and forth between feet. “Yeah. He’s my new mentor.”

    “Oh, I knew it! Even the fools up in the government know when someone shouldn’t be allowed to work with dangerous beasts on their own.”

    “They’re really not dangerous if-”

    “There was always something off about that boy.” Agnus’s countenance grew to one of someone who had just eaten something sour. Lynn was getting the impression that Agnus and her new mentor did not get along. She already knew what Agnus was telling her—that there had been an incident, that they were making him work with someone—but she didn’t know the details yet. Suddenly she was even less thrilled about today. If he couldn’t get along with someone who was as seemingly sweet as Agnus, then what kind of person could he be?

    “Well, I should really be going. He’ll be expecting me.” Another short wave as she turned to go, not bothering to slow the natural quickness that came to her step as she retreated.

    “Wait, dear! I didn’t catch a name!”

    “Lynn.” The answer was tossed back over her shoulder as she scurried away to the unknown.

    It took several minutes for Lynn’s heart rate to go back down. A small part of her began chastising her. Really? An innocent old couple and you still couldn’t calm down enough to even manage proper small talk? She rubbed the bridge of her nose, disappointed with herself. Why was she always like this? No matter who it was, it was always the same. Her elders, people her own age, even children. They still invoked the most frustrating panicking sensation. She hated how she lost control, how her body rebelled against the conversation and she had to work to get words out. Even with her best friends she sometimes still had trouble saying what she wanted to.

    Her hand went to open her bag and slip inside, retrieving her wallet. As she walked, Lynn withdrew a photo from inside, one of two. There were four people in the picture, herself and her three close friends, her only friends, on their graduation day. One girl was tall and a bit chubby, much like Lynn herself. Fairly light complexion, hair dyed bright blue. She had her arms wrapped around the torso of the floppy-haired Hispanic in front of her, her chin on his shoulder. Sarah and Benjamin. She was taller than him, and they teased him about it, but he didn’t really mind. Sarah’s smile was big and bright, while Benjamin’s was more shy. Lynn had been shocked when the two started dating. She had never imagined someone so perky and someone so reserved would complement each other as well as those two did. Lynn, with black hair pulled back and dark coppery skin, had her arms around the waists of both Sarah and the girl on her other side, Mei. Long black hair, dark brown eyes. She transferred to Lynn’s high school sophomore year. Right off the bat, some of the guys in her class thought they could get away with harassing her, actually thinking all Asian girls were just like the submissive stereotype. Mei had dumped her soup on one of their heads, and the cafeteria monitor, who saw the whole thing, pretended not to have see. They never bothered her again, and she was almost immediately inducted into their group. While she and and Benjamin were the ones who always wanted to stay in on Friday nights, Mei and Sarah always made plans and managed to drag them along. It’s been ten years since Sarah, Benjamin, and Lynn  had become friends, seven since Mei joined them, five since the photo was taken, and they’d never been closer than they were now, even if they had all gone different roads after high school.

    It’s been awhile since they’d all met up. Months. That was Sarah and Benjamin’s fault, though; they were busy planning their wedding. She and Mei had been meeting up, though, catching up over coffee here and there. While Lynn had been doing her apprenticeship with Maxwell Harding, Mei had been taking the publishing world by storm. The girl had persistence. Nearly a hundred rejection letters before one of acceptance, and after her first book came out, all those companies who had turned her down were scrambling to be the one publishing her next novel. Sarah was ever the struggling artist, and Benjamin was still working his way through school, but everyone was getting by.

    Lynn put the picture back, replacing her wallet. She might have to team up with Mei to kidnap the other two. She didn’t want the first time she’d seen them in over half a year to be at their wedding in a couple of months. But that wasn’t what should be on her mind right now, although it was a nice distraction. Even if the houses in this town were organized as if sprinkled like grains of salt from the sky, they seemed sparser on this side. She’d noticed awhile back that there seemed to be many people pulling aside their drapes to watch her. In retrospect, Agnus and Edmund were immensely friendly. She was getting the firm impression that people did not come here often. She couldn’t help wondering if the town’s residents always had such a suspicious demeanor toward strangers or if they, like Agnus, knew why she had come, and disliked her immediately as a result. She didn’t take kindly to such quick judgments, but they were common nonetheless. It just begged the question, though, of what her new mentor had done or was like that no one seemed to like him much.

    She pulled a scrap of paper from her pants pocket. Aidan Medeski was written first with the address below it. She had it memorized, but that didn’t stop her from reading it again, glancing back and forth at houses, glancing at numbers. She hadn’t actually seen a road sign. Unsurprising, really. It seemed that there were only two roads, overlapping to make a plus sign. The town was tiny. When Lynn thought of small towns, she envisioned close-knit families, kids playing in front yards, weekend barbeques, and a cafe where the waitresses knew everyone by name and their regular order by heart. That was far from the feeling she got in this town, though. Agnus and Edmund had been the only ones to greet her. Otherwise it was just prying eyes. Up ahead, she could see a mother bringing her young son inside, looking nervous. What did they think Lynn was going to do, attack them? Even if she had the desire, which she didn’t, she certainly didn’t have the nerve.

    As she continued along the sidewalk, covered in weed-filled cracks like the train station, she was predictably running out of houses, and she still hadn’t found the place. Her heart clenched in paranoia. Maybe the Bureau was just messing with her. Maybe they didn’t have a mentor for her at all, and she had sent her luggage to and was looking for a location that didn’t exist. Maybe this was their revenge for how things had ended with Maxwell. She knew the Bureau blamed her. They were hardly discreet about it. But were they really petty enough to send her on a wild goose chase after months of nothing? It was said that revenge was best served cold, but this would just be spiteful.

    Despite the nagging notion of foul play, she kept walking. Occasionally she’d spot a particularly interesting house and develop a small hope it was the one, but it never was. For such a small town, it was surprisingly long and draining work to walk all down the first street, then walk halfway back down it to get to the cross-section, then start walking again down the perpendicular road. Perhaps it was just because she had spent half the day on a train, or because she wasn’t entirely convinced that her target location was even real. Maybe her dread was sucking the life out of her. Regardless of the reason for her impatience, she just wanted to find the place already.

    So, of course, it ended up being the very last building she checked. In a town of homes that most likely started out looking picturesque, her destination appeared very...out of place. It was rather miniscule in comparison. And even though every house in town looked like it could use some replacement boards and a fresh coat of paint, this one looked unstable. She guessed that it had been built first, and the others had sprung up around it, making it the oldest. Still, she couldn’t guess why anyone would want to live there. It was two stories, tall and skinny, and although it wasn’t visibly dramatic enough to prove, Lynn had a feeling that it was leaning. But this was her new home for as long as she was mentoring under Mr. Medeski, so she might as well grow accustomed to it. It was still better than what she’d had at points in the past.

    Lynn’s hand reached out hesitantly. There was a knocker, rusted iron designed to look like a snake curled into a circle. Her fingertips grazed it, the metal cool to the touch, but she quickly pulled them back. She found her hand going back and forth between her body and the knocker. She knew she should just go ahead and do it. He was expecting her. Her bags had likely already arrived. This was her official residence now. Yet her hand kept going back and forth, cold sweat on the back of her neck beneath her hair. She might have stood there all day if the door hadn’t opened for her.

    The second Lynn noticed the wooden door moving, her hand leaped back to her side, and she automatically took a step back. Her hands gripped the strap of her bag to stop their shaking. She had expected to find a figure emerging from greater light than what was left in the day, but the house was dark from within, and the person stepped out to meet her. Instinctively, she took two more steps back as she unintentionally began scrutinizing him.

    From the man’s pale complexion, she could guess he didn’t go outside much. This conclusion was further enforced by the fact that he looked as though he hadn’t gotten a haircut in a while, his hair messy and a chestnut color. He wasn’t much taller than her, but surprisingly lanky for a guy. A splattering of light brown freckles over his nose matched his eyes, which there were bags under.

    Even though Lynn felt like she was the one who should be nervous in this situation, he was the one who looked like he was sorry he had opened the door. He looked so uncomfortable that she almost pitied him, but that didn’t stop her from feeling small under his gaze as he examined her face.

    “Lynette Jackson?” His voice came softly, hesitantly. He reminded her of a timid cat that was ready to bolt at the first sign of danger.

    Lynn meant to speak, to say that she preferred “Lynn” over her full name, but the words got caught in her throat, so she just nodded. He didn’t seem to mind the lack of conversation. If anything, he looked relieved. He glanced around behind her, as if just becoming aware of the many faces in windows. Although those spying on the pair were behind Lynn’s back, she could practically hear drapes being yanked shut as the man she presumed to be Mr. Medeski took notice of them. The barely noticeable wince on his face confirmed it.

    “Come in, then.” And just like that, he turned around, what looked like a black lab coat swirling out behind him. After a moment, she forced her body to follow him and closed the door behind her.

    The second the door was sealed, the room was plunged into darkness. Boots scraped wooden floorboards, and a minute later, the room was lit up. It was the first room Lynn had ever seen to be lighted entirely from white Christmas lights strung across the ceiling, but it actually looked rather nice, even if out of the ordinary. Her head turned, examining the room. It wasn’t overly large, about the size of a small bedroom. In the corner, she spotted her two duffel bags of possessions sitting on their own. The rest of the room, on the other hand, was little aside from a large quantity of cardboard boxes, as if Mr. Medeski was moving out, or had never properly moved in in the first place. Most of them were scattered about individually and in stacks of no particular order, but against one wall, a dozen or so of them had been stacked to create a sort of makeshift desk, recognizable as such only because there was a great many papers and folders upon it. The walls, all unpainted dark wood that matched the floors, were bare of any artwork.

    As Lynn clued back into what was happening instead of looking over the area, she saw her new mentor hurriedly gathering the papers from his desk, straightening them into stacks. He mumbled apologies, explaining that he had forgotten that she was scheduled to arrive that day. She hadn’t even thought anything of the mess on his desk, which was good, because organizing the papers wasn’t doing much for the aesthetic.

  He seemed to give up on tidying and spun back around the face her. He was sort of jittery, didn’t seem to want to stand still. She could tell he was full of nervous energy but didn’t understand it. Shouldn’t she be the nervous one? She was in an unfamiliar town, moving into a new home, now the subordinate to someone she was just meeting. What did he have to be so nervous about?

    “Mr. Medeski,” she began, only to not complete her sentence when she noticed the funny look he was giving her. For the first time, some of his nervous energy faded, and he actually smiled.

    “Mr. Medeski? You can’t be serious.” The humor was subtle, but it was there. “You make me sound so old. Just use Aidan.”

    Although it should have been obvious from the start, his age seemed to only just be occurring to Lynn. Maxwell had been in his early fifties, at least a couple decades older than Mr. Medeski—Aidan—appeared. Aidan seemed only a few years her senior, which was actually incredibly odd. This was an apprenticeship, after all; she was supposed to be learning from someone with great skill and experience. Lynn had begun her training almost straight out of high school, and she was still, comparatively, especially compared to Maxwell, inexperienced. Despite any skill she had with the creatures she had worked with before and techniques she had been taught, she had still only been exposed to very little in comparison to all there was to know. Yet she was being taught by someone who was only a few years her senior. How could someone who hadn’t had all that much more time than her to train be at such a higher level than her that he was the mentor instead of the apprentice, trainer rather than trainee? There had to be a story there, and part of her was itching to know it.

    Lynn’s confusion must have shown on her face, because just then, the light tone about him was gone. Aidan cleared his throat and scratched the back of his neck.

    A few minutes passed in awkward silence. “So...Mr. Mede—Aidan.” She inwardly cringed at the error. “Where...Where do you have room for creatures in a house this small?” Her eyes widened. “S-sorry, I didn’t mean to insinuateI’m not complaining or

    “I was wondering if you’d ask.” Aidan offered a small smile of reassurance. “I’m not offended. I’m sure Maxwell had a much larger place specifically designed for looking after magical creatures.”

    The second he said Maxwell’s name, every muscle in her body tensed. Her eyes were huge again, heart hammering away in her chest. The Bureau told him about her last mentor? How much did they say? Did they tell him about why she left? Had he already made assumptions about her because of what happened? She wanted to sink into the floor, or grab her bags and bolt.

    Aidan, however, looked confused, but also concerned. “What did I say?”

    Lynn shifted back and forth between her feet. “What did they tell you about him?”

    He raised an eyebrow. “What would they need to tell me? He’d world-renowned in our occupational field. I studied care of magical creatures with a textbook he wrote. His life is an open book for the public.”

    “I meant...about my apprenticeship with him?”

    His expression became one of minor suspicion, although some worry still persisted along with it. “Not much. Just that it was about two years and that you left voluntarily. Why? Is there something else that they should have informed me of?”

    “No!” Lynn knew her rapid response would increase suspicion toward her, but she couldn’t stop herself.

    At least, raised suspicion should have been the reaction from him, but she saw something like pity in his eyes, and she wondered what he was seeing in hers. She looked away.

    “Anyway, to answer your question,” Aidan continued after a bit, as if nothing had happened. “I’m not on the salary others in our field are. I haven’t been given any substantial grants to expand. So, I had to improvise.”

    Lynn’s gaze drifted back to him, curiosity taking over. “What do you mean, improvise?”

    “Well…” He trailed off, but tilted his head to look at the floor. “I kind of, um. Well. I...I’m going to have to ask that you don’t...Tell anyone about this.”

    It was her turn to be suspicious. “What did you do?” Her voice came out more accusatory than she intended it to.

    “N-nothing bad!” He ran his hand through his hair, as if it wasn’t already messy enough, like he hadn’t combed it in days. “Just not particularly legal. Trespassing, technically.”

    “What’s that supposed to mean?”

    “Well, I may have, sort of...dug...dug rooms and tunnels to connect them all under the town. I evaded pipes and other residents’ basements, of course, so it’s a bit of a labyrinth down there. But, I mean, that’s other people’s property, so...not actually legal. But it was the only way I was going to provide homes for all of my creatures.” He looked almost bashful, like he was embarrassed by what he had done.

    She couldn’t help it; she laughed. “You made it sound so much worse.”

    Blush crept up Aidan’s neck to his face. “It’s breaking a law.”

    Lynn shrugged. “It’s not like it’s hurting anyone, or like anyone will find out. I doubt anyone else is going to go digging their own tunnels and notice.” She gave a small, amused smile.

    His blush deepened. “I think you’re taking this too lightly.”

    She shrugged once more. “Perhaps. But even if I did care more, I’d hardly be about to turn the only available person to train me over to the government. Besides, no one would do anything anyway.” She said it like it was an ordinary offhand comment, but her expression changed slightly.

    “You have no reason to believe that.”

    “Of course I do.”

    “And that is?”

    Lynn stiffened. Any trace of ease vanished. “And that is none of your business.”

    He frowned. “You’re the one who brought it up.”

    “So? My business is my business. Why don’t we talk about the BBC forcing you to take on an apprentice. What’s that about?”

    “That’s none of your concern.”

    “Oh, so now you want to respect privacy?”

    His blush and all of the unexpected effortlessness of the conversation was gone in a blink. They just stared at each other, eyes locked. Any former tension had been built out of discomfort, but this was different, and seemed to have escalated too quickly. Aidan was the first one to look away.

    “It’s already late. Perhaps you should move your things into your room. I can give you a tour in the morning.”

    Lynn nodded despite knowing he wasn’t looking at her.

    He helped her move her things into her room, but neither of them said anything to each other for the rest of the night. The bedroom was somewhat more furnished than the first room: bed, desk, chair, and trunk with nothing else. Unable to sleep in the new environment, she read from a textbook she brought. She stayed up longer than she knew she should, yet he still retired after she had put the book away, and suddenly it was no wonder he had bags under his eyes. Everything had seemed to be going smoothly—which was unusual for her with new people—until the slip-up. Maybe it was the unexpected relationship between his age and experience, or just his demeanor, but there was something intriguing about him. He was a puzzle she had every intention of figuring out.

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