The sounds of gunfire ricocheted outside. James really, really hoped that they'd pick up straightaway, like, before a legitimate hostage situation erupted?
She answered on his second attempt, which meant that someone had stepped away from the office. She'd long ago outgrown the secretarial duties for which she'd been recruited. And He liked her, and He didn't like anyone, practically. But her? On the short list apparently. She was a purist, was why. Nutters, the lot of them.
James wasn't keen on thinking about Him or about His inevitable displeasure, but he didn't have all that much time to ruminate as she told him to skip the pleasantries and get straight to the point.
"I need you to pass along a message," he said, eyes raking back and forth, back and forth, back and forth across the lobby. Worst came to worst he could always take advantage of the phone lines. That was an option. “I’m going to need you to tell the Man Downstairs that he got on the wrong train. He was meant to go to Finland proper but by the time I made it to him—’
“No, no,” Julia stopped him short, “It’s all working out according to plan. You did exactly what you were supposed to.”
A chill fell over him. It wasn’t just the frigid winds coming all the Baltic, either. It was like his insides went all icy. It was like lying on a rock when the sun went behind a cloud right as it started to set. Nope, didn’t like that.
“Well,” he looked around furtively again, only remembering at the last second to stop the swivel of his neck somewhere human and, therefore, inconspicuous, “well does that mean that the Other Side —’
“Has men on the ground?” Julia sounded far too excited for his liking. Surely it wouldn’t be kicking off now? Would it? They couldn’t have waited until later in the spring when things had started to thaw at least? “I wouldn’t put it past them. You’ll have a formidable adversary, but we’ve the utmost faith in you. Good luck, Acaster.”
“Right,” he’d said, and rung off.
He remembered the fires because the smell clung to them, days after they'd managed to commandeer a train, armed, of course, and James was hoping that when it dissipated Ed would look at him again, directly. Like he used to.
James opened his mouth like he wanted to speak, thought better of it, and stared out the window at the smoke coiling up in streams off in the distance. A wheat field set alight, probably. As if history wasn't eternally repeating itself.
It hadn’t been by the book, what he’d done to make this journey happen, and he wasn’t terribly proud of it, to tell the truth, but if they’d both been sent there, same time, same place, then the easiest way to ensure that nothing Big happened was to simply remove the variables. The variables who happened to be them. It had taken all spring, summer, and a bit of autumn to convince Ed to flee, and from what James could tell, he was none too pleased about the way things had turned out. Would you believe he wanted to stay put, convinced that it would all work out for the best? Historically, James thought, things typically worked out for the worse. Historically, you would think Ed would know that.
But then historically history just kept sodding happening, and for not the first time, in however many hundreds of years, James had considered that it might simply be easier to bow out of history. Why not let them end the thing, once and for all? Why not let it all crumble into dust, when the only viable alternative was to let history keep happening — the reek of death that they, humans, seemed drawn to every few decades like a dog to its own sick.
It was all getting to be too much.
James stayed put in their carriage and looked out the windows. Ed walked up and down the passageways, and looked in on the engine room, and it was only when they were nearing the big lake after an endless expanses of flat grasslands, arctic desert, he pine forest dense as a thicket, did James try his hand at an apology.
“It was going to happen irregardless of us being there or not—” he’d begun, only for Ed to peevishly snap, “That’s not a word, James!”
“What’s not?” he asked, genuinely curious, to which Ed had merely thrown up his hands in exasperation and said, cross as anything, “I’ve a headache, please. Just, I beg you. Stop.”
They abandoned the armoured train at what was passing for a border crossing these days and made their way overland, snaking back in to the big port city before it was totally iced in for the winter.
He'd purchased Ed a fur hat to wear on the journey, just as he'd purchased the fare on a slow boat bound for America. He'd carried Ed's luggage, into which he'd packed vine cuttings that were mysteriously still alive and which the customs agents had, mysteriously — all right, he'd really been playing fast and loose with the miracles these days, but who could blame him, when a mystery was basically the same thing as a miracle — overlooked, but none of that had got Ed any closer to talking to him.
"Not even a goodbye?" he'd asked, as Ed stalked off like a furry little mushroom and made his way into the queue for passengers. A hot prickle worked its way into his throat. The ungrateful bastard. He was no better than any of them on the other side, was he? They were all the same.
"Fine," James muttered, and blew on his hands to warm them, then shoved his cold hands deep into his coat pockets. He touched upon something that hadn't been there before. Beyond the crumpled bills of sale, the stacks of notes that were only worth using to start bonfires with and that didn't even make a passable bribe.
An envelope, with heavy paper inside.
James stopped where he stood, people swirling all round him — noises and luggage, shouts, horns, excitement, singing, argument — and read it.
Dear James —
This has been difficult for me. I think it must be the children. One would hope that they, at least, could be spared. It's difficult to square with a belief in human goodness, I suppose, although you might say that to hold such a belief is to be entirely misguided in the first place. On this we will have to agree to differ.
I have not been easy company these few months, and fear I will not be wholly myself for some time to come. Say, a few decades? You'll be able to locate me, I've no doubt.
And thank you. For everything.
Yours, with fondness,
James reread the words written there in Ed's fine, steady hand, folded the paper back up, tucked the envelope safely into an inside pocket, and though he couldn't catch sight of Ed on the deck, by now, he waved a goodbye to all the passengers.
A few decades? Piece of piss.
He'd find a way to fill the time.