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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2. Chapter One (P2)

    In the morning, it became clear that the simplicity of the first meeting was too good to be true. Her interactions with other people were never that easy. At breakfast, the two sat uncomfortably at the round plastic table in the center of tiny kitchen. Or at least Lynn did. The wall opposite Lynn’s seat had a counter stretching all the way across, a row of cabinets installed above, and while Lynn examined the peeling floral wallpaper and counter as cluttered as Aidan’s desk, Aidan couldn’t stand, much less sit, still. He kept pacing, standing in one spot with resolve for a few seconds, then grow fidgety and switching position again. He had barely spoken to her, and she was having trouble thinking of anything to say to him, either.

    So she just sat there, nursing a cup of coffee, too nauseous to consider eating solid food. That was just as well, as Aidan had been so badly stumbling over culinary offers that she wanted to make it as simple for him as possible. Coffee she could do herself, even if the coffeemaker was one of half a dozen devices atop the counter amongst unrelated food items and books that had nothing to do with cooking. It was rapidly becoming apparent that Aidan was not an organized person, not that she really minded. She didn’t have his level of disorganization, but nor was she a neat freak. In fact, perhaps the only thing that had been keeping her from such disarray in her now former apartment was her general lack of belongings. She had brought the two large bags, but there was little inside outside of clothes, toiletries, and books for both education and recreation. She hadn’t even unpacked anything outside of a single book and the clothes she had changed into this morning. Although, in recollection of the number of boxes in Aidan’s front room, maybe they were at about the same unpacking point.

    “So...How’d you get into this?” Lynn hadn’t meant to sound so unsure, as if there was something to fear in asking such a simple question, but her voice made her seem like she was questioning herself more than him.

    He stopped, stared at her, like he was just remembering she was there. “This?” His eyes had grown large. Not as large as his need for a haircut, but large. He still had the bags under his eyes. If last night was any indication of his normal sleep schedule, she suspected they were more like a permanent fixture on his face than the result of the occasional restless night.

    “Uh, yeah. This? Like your job? Raising and caring for beasts?” Lynn swirled the remaining coffee around the mug.

    “I never liked that word,” Aidan said suddenly, as if the thought had occurred out of nowhere. Then, seeing her confusion, he added, “Beasts, I mean. It has such a negative connotation. When one hears the word beast, they think of a gigantic dragon destroying a village, and that’s completely unfair. Most if not all creatures are completely harmless if properly cared for. Besides, dragons are nothing like the public likes to tell stories of. Hugo will never reach nearly that size!” As he talked, he became increasingly impassioned, adding in hand gestures. Abruptly, he stopped, dropping his hands, going silent and sitting across from her like he hadn’t just gone on a minor tangent. It had been small, but it was easily the most fervor she had seen from him so far. In fact, he didn’t initially seem like the type at all. But now he was retreating back into a metaphorical shell and, if she was being honest with herself, which she wasn’t always, she was more than a little disappointed.

    “Who’s Hugo?”

    Aidan glanced up a her from where his gaze had settled on the table, as if surprised that she was still talking to him. “My dragon, of course. Well, one of them. There’s two. I’ve been hoping they’d mate, but they don’t seem to be getting along too well, so I’m not expecting it anymore.”

    Lynn raised an eyebrow. “Not getting along? I just kind of assumed they’d mate with who was available.”

    “Well that’s utterly ridiculous. Would you just go ahead and procreate with whoever was available just because you wanted a child?” He stopped. Paused. Turned slightly pink. “Pretend I didn’t ask that.” Without warning, he stood, slamming his palms against the table. “I think it’s time you meet the creatures.” Similar to the way he had followed up greeting her at the door when she first arrived, he spun on his heel, heading off without another word, leaving Lynn scrambling to keep up.

 

    Lynn counted fifteen spiders on the climb down into the tunnels. Even for someone who wasn’t an arachnophobe, with the close quarters around the ladder, it was a squeamish situation, and she was glad to feel her feet hitting wooden floorboards. She only found it slightly questionable that she was more uncomfortable around something that wouldn’t be difficult to squish than creatures that could tear her face off. As a best case scenario.

    The room was the size of a small bedroom. Down here, the tabletops were not made of boxes. Instead, actual desks wrapped around three of the four walls. Atop the desks were piles of books, many of which were on how to care for creatures, how to breed them, how to extract poison, and other things of that nature. Most of them looked old and worn, as if he had had them for a long time and had gotten much use out of them. However, others looked handmade, papers sewn together along one edge between pieces of hide. Had he made those himself? Without thinking, Lynn ran her fingers along the cover of one of them. She could feel him watching her, but it didn’t bother her. Beside the book she was touching was a test tube holder, every slot filled. Liquids and solids alike were in the test tubes in a variety of consistencies and colors, each neatly labeled, not with words, but with symbols. There were more test tube racks on other tables, plus small wooden boxes that she assumed contained more samples. The walls above the desks were covered with bulletin boards and tacked up sheets of paper covered in drawings, diagrams, notes, and legends for the labeling symbols.

    Lynn turned back to Aidan, eyes bright. She was impressed, even if it wasn’t orderly. “Striking collection you’ve got going on down here, even if it is chaotic.”

    “I like to think of it as organized chaos.” Aidan smiled.

    She returned the gesture, but turned away again. The ladder had come down in a corner of the clear wall, the only wall with a door. She reached for the doorknob, only to look back at him. With his nod, she entered.

    The hallway went down far enough that Lynn couldn’t see the other end. But on each side, more hallways branched off every so often. She expected labels, some indicator of what creatures could be found in the room at the end of each hall, but there were no such signs.

    “How do you find anything down here?” She tried to throw out her arms to her sides as if in exasperation and found them grazing the walls.

    Behind her, Aidan chuckled. “I’ve been living here for years. I can find everything by memory. I’ve known the meaning behind my sample marking system since I created it. The legend is there for your benefit, not mine. I would have illustrated a map for you so that you can find your way, but in light of recent events, that won’t be necessary. I hope you haven’t bothered unpacking much if at all. You’ll have wasted your time if you did.”

    “What are you talking about?”

    He stared at her for a bit. “You ask a lot of questions.” He didn’t answer, instead disappearing into the first hall. After a minute’s hesitation, she obliged to the unspoken request to follow him.

    It didn’t take much to see where there were pipes and basements. Every so often, the tunnel they were walking along would curve at seemingly random spots, and once it took a sharp turn, presumably as to not continue into where someone kept their Christmas decorations for eleven months out of the year. Unless the neighbors lighted their house with Christmas lights all year like Aidan did, but Lynn imagined that was a habit particular to Aidan. Lanterns hung from the ceiling at consistent intervals to light the way, and despite the series of interconnecting paths, Aidan turned or didn’t turn without a moment’s hesitation. He wasn’t lying when he said he had these tunnels committed to memory.

    “Who dug these?” Lynn patted the wall of the tunnel as if for emphasis.

    “I did, of course. It isn’t as if most companies would be eager to take on the risk of trespassing charges.”

    She was glad he wasn’t looking at her. He might have taken it the wrong way to see her shock. Upon initial look, his physique didn’t seem like that of someone capable of such an extensive amount of digging. He was incredibly skinny. She was almost embarrassed over him being thinner than her, but the thought fell away as he turned back to her, his palm flat against a wooden door, the doorway embedded in the dirt.

    “Ready to meet Hugo and Martha?” Aidan’s grin reached his eyes, lighting them up. His look of excitement was calming in a way. She smiled, although it didn’t entirely wash away the rock forming and settling in her gut. Yet, even her small positive response seemed to brighten his expression even more, and he pushed the door open.

    In a split second, the idea that a single person had dug every room and hallway he kept his creatures in became much more astonishing, or perhaps more far-fetched. The climb down had covered a considerable vertical distance, but how far they had descended became much more apparent in this moment. As lengthy as the climb had felt, she hadn’t imagined a room this size fitting beneath the surface. It appear to be the height of a building somewhere between two and three stories, and just as wide and long as one. Perhaps Aidan hadn’t hired anyone, but he had to have had something helping him. For him not to would just be insane. But even if he had dug so little as the tunnels, which, based on the one they had taken to get just to this first room, were quite ample, she could assume his lab coat covered more muscle than his wiry-looking figure let on. The thought was quickly pushed down.

    In the corners of the room, wooden columns as thick as tree trunks rose into the air, connecting to a wooden panel that expanded across the entire ceiling. Two more colums were evenly placed throughout the center of the room to help support it. Each column had a platform the size of the average bathroom jutting off halfway up. On the far left from where they stood between two of the corner columns, the dirt wall of the room gradually sloped into a natural-looking cave tucked into the corner, the size and shape of a large tent. Even from the distance Lynn stood at, a tail like a scaly whip extended from the cave’s mouth could be seen. Above their heads, a similar tail hung over the edge of one of the platform, this one a mossy green instead of a copper brown. Right now, both tails were still, or only mildly swishing as if in sleep, but an image conjured itself in Lynn’s head of how long the rest of the tail was, and the body it eventually connected to.

    She noticed that Aidan was staring at her and only then realized he must have said something. He seemed to get it, though, and repeated his words without her having to ask. “Did Maxwell have dragons?”

    “Yes,” she said simply, not meeting his gaze. “But they weren’t really the creatures he had me focus on most.”

    He looked at her a moment longer, the ghost of curiosity over his expression for a moment, then looked away. Lynn could tell she wasn’t making conversation easy for him. Most of what came out of her mouth was questions, and much of everything else was short statements and replies. She wasn’t giving him anything to work with and she knew it. Part of her felt guilty, and she opened her mouth, planning to give some sort of explanation. She wanted to try and justify it, her lack of trying to get to know him, or helping him out in getting to know her. But nothing came out, and she wasn’t sure if it was because she didn’t know what to say, or because what she wanted to say got caught in her throat. The latter happened a lot. It seemed that she always had the words, but never the resolve. Aidan, on the other hand, had the resolve, but not necessarily the words. Although if she kept making it so difficult for him to talk to her, he might not end up with either. She didn’t know if that would be a disappointment or a relief.

    “I’m sorry.” Lynn pushed the words out, shoving them together as if they were one. She had intended to elaborate, but once she spoke, her mouth automatically closed again, and her jaw felt impossible to move.

    “For?” Aidan’s voice hadn’t changed, as if there was nothing unusual about out of the blue apologies. When she didn’t answer, he looked over his shoulder. She couldn’t read his expression, not that that was all that much out of the ordinary. Oftentimes she was only good at reading that which was right on the surface.

    Lynn’s mouth opened and closed, then repeated. She shouldn’t have said anything. If Aidan had any guesses to her reason, he didn’t verbalize them. Instead, he patiently waited.

    “For...not saying much, I guess. Or for just not saying enough. Or not saying the right thing. Or-”

    He was smiling, and she wasn’t sure why that irritated her so much. It made her skin feel like it was going aflame, possibly from anger, possibly from embarrassment. “Why are you smiling?”

    Aidan’s smile became lopsided. In a way that appeared very ungainly, he shifted his weight from foot to foot. As if she hadn’t asked a question, he began speaking about something else entirely. “When I started high school,” he said, “I had a chemistry class. I can’t remember a thing that I learned, but I do remember the teacher. By the time I had reached that class, I had become borderline terrified of other people. People I didn’t really know too well, anyway. As you can imagine, people who you don’t know only become people you do know through interaction. So I couldn’t talk to anyone because I didn’t know them, and I didn’t know them because I couldn’t talk to them.” There was some bitterness in his smile from the cruel irony of it. “This aspect of me was, quite frankly, fairly obvious. Every time a teacher called on me, I imagine I looked something like a deer in headlights. Eventually my teachers stopped calling on me, but not my chemistry teacher. He did every single day despite the effect it had. Because of the effect it had. If the plot of my life was more like a movie, this would eventually allow me to learn to speak up. It didn’t. I just really hated the teacher.” Throughout his speaking, Aidan had regained some unsettledness of the morning. “My point is, pushing doesn’t help anything. Personality can not be forced to do a one-eighty. No matter what anyone says.” There was something new in his eyes, but he brushed it off before Lynn could ask, if she’d even ask. He only glanced back at her to look her in the eyes when he finished. “So...Don’t be sorry.”

    He ran his hand through his hair. He spoke calmly, yet looked out of his element, uncomfortable. Maybe this is what happened when one became seasoned in something he or she never liked.

    “So what happened?” she asked softly. “You seem decent now. I mean...decent sounds like an insulting way of wording it, but you’re getting through. You don’t look as nervous now as you did when you first answered the door.”

    Aidan let out a short laugh, but it was more awkward than anything else. “I still am. It just helps that you seem more uncomfortable than I do.”

    “It’s not personal.” He had told her not to be sorry, but her tone was still apologetic.

    His smile relaxed to a more genuine one. “I know.”

    Just like that, they fell into silence. Lynn expected it to be uncomfortable, but it was almost companionable. Almost. They were hardly friends. Even so, she felt calmer, less rigid.

    Aidan was the first to speak. “I hope you know that I intend on figuring you out.”

    Lynn raised an eyebrow at him. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

    “It means, I think there’s a lot you don’t talk about. Consequently, I want to know all of it.”

    She laughed, but it was borderline mocking. “Good luck with that.”

    “I’m serious.”

    “Maybe. But seriousness doesn’t erase naivete. Besides, there’s still you.”
    “What about me?”

    “There are things you’re burying, too.” She crossed her arms.

    “But there’s nothing of interest there.”

    “I don’t believe you.”

    They stared each other down.

    The mutual stubbornness had the potential to keep them there all day. It very well might have if the moment hadn’t been interrupted by a thunderous rumbling from above.

 

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