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The Eye of the Beholder
#1
A thousand pinprick stars littered the black sky, like the world had been swallowed by the heavens. It wasn’t the first time he’d peered curiously into the between place Nimeda had showed him, and it was not the first time he had watched this one’s dreams in particular. But it was the first time he had passed the filmy threshold into them.

She sat amidst the darkness, gaze upturned to watch the constellations. Little else focused beyond formless shadow in the landscape around; just her and her nightly vigil. Auburn hair tangled against her shoulders, her palms cupped peaceful in her lap. A line pierced between her brow. She did not look down.

Sören’s gaze cast a wary net despite how little there was to see. His fingers flexed, testing his control. He was not sure of the consequences that might bite from such a breach, and Nimeda had certainly been her customary vague about the details. But desperation forced an impatient hand.

“You never used to be so hard to find.”

Her eyes swivelled and fixed, a frown pinching her lips to join the furrow of her brow. Confusion reigned for a moment before it crystallised to something vaguely annoyed. “What are you doing here?” Her accent lilted musical to foreign ears, belying the snap. She glanced into the hazy darkness as though seeking devils, but only found him.

“You haven’t been answering my calls,” he accused. His lips thinned to the displeasure of that, but truthfully it was the fountaining frustration within pushing him more than any perceived slight. His hands slunk in his pockets, gaze blinking away. Headaches plagued him frequently, burning every cognizant thought from his brain. Nimeda’s recent probing irked him too, stirring old vices to the forefront like so much irritating dust. He needed something concrete. Something tangible.

“You realise how rude this could be considered. If I had news for you, Sören, you would know.” Her thin shoulders titled into a shrug, but there was consideration in her gaze now. Too late he perceived the fly caught in the snarl of another’s web. When she stood it was to an unimpressive height, closing the distance unafraid. Starlight caught her pale skin almost to translucency. Chin angled up, she searched his gaze like she might find answers within. She would be disappointed. “What is the point of all this digging? What is the point of living forever if it’s in a ruined world?”

Sören’s jaw tightened, but he offered no answer. Truthfully he had none she had not heard a hundred times before, and of those she would accept nothing without a tiresome amount of debate. Her arms parted, unswayed by his silence. “I am the splinter of a splinter. I can’t watch all the corners of the world on my own. It would be easier if I were not alone.”

She was small, even in her dreams, and fragile as a bird cupped in a palm. The disparity had fooled him once. He stared down. Glared really. “A pointless task.”

“Because of what the soothsayer saw in the bones?”

“All things end,” he snapped. Such tired and bone-wearying philosophising was not why he had risked entry into her dream, and neither did he wish to crack the lids from secrets he had let her peer within once. She did not even deny it, and yet it was determination in her expression, not fear. Such fanciful commitment to a higher purpose. It grit his teeth in his skull, fanning the barest smoke from the fire of a temper rarely roused. He squared his shoulders. “What is the point of making a better world if I will not be here to see it.”

“I despair that you cannot answer that for yourself, Sören. If I had but a fraction of your gift, I would not be so wasteful with it.”

He came to in a flea-ridden, pay by the hour motel room; the closest thing that had been to hand for his purposes, and a far cry from the luxury of his usual haunt. He groaned and pinched the bridge of his nose, squeezing out the last vestiges of irritation. Failure was no balm to his foul mood, and a warning twinge flared as his eye adjusted to the light. Haart had promised aid, but doubt plagued the offer. Paragon had it uses, as did Ephraim, but the man had too smooth a smile to trust. He should have been able to rely on Morven’s services anyway -- the problem being he had not seen the damn girl since before the ball. A distinction he had not much noticed until he needed her, despite the fact she was supposedly living in his apartment.

She’d been a doctor at the Guardian before her temper got her suspended over some kid, thus fuelling his dire present circumstances. Room vacated, he dropped a handful of notes on the reception desk before he left. Outside’s sun burned more than it should, forcing a hand to shade across his forehead, and a scowl to darken his expression. If she had friends, Sören did not know of them, and her sister lived in the northern reaches of Scotland practically a world away. Duty tied tight chains to the people she cared for here; it was unlikely she fled home. So he searched all the likely places she might have found distraction.

And found nothing, despite all careful diligence.

Another possibility simmered, but it was not one he was particularly keen to consider. Giving up was not much in his nature, but neither was pointless action. He paused in the alley he had cut through, parsing through his next move while the humming burn in his eyesocket fought for the entirety of his attention.

The ache twisted quite suddenly to a stab. Sören’s hand flung out for the support of a wall, staggering a few paces blind before his palm scraped a bright burn, failing. He found himself braced against the ground instead. The vision in his good eye blurred double, spiking nausea in his stomach. The pain caught his breath short and hard as he pressed his forehead to the concrete.

[[@Nina]]
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#2
When Nina finally went outside for a cigarette, she was surprised at the filthy state of their incoming volunteers. Their scrubs and —worse— their hands were soiled. She couldn’t promise most of them weren’t ill themselves in addition to not being clean.

She herself was in her thirties and wore a borrowed raincoat over her white medical overalls. A stern expression gave her heart-shaped face a hard edge. She paused at the edge of the triage station, frowning, cupping her hands to shield her eyes from the sunlight. She sat down by the side of a trackway where long grass bushed out from the broken fence.

During this lull her surgical assistant emerged into the sunlight about sixty seconds after her, complaining to her about their painful lack of supplies. She smoked her cigarette, which her assistant shared briefly, though it made him cough. She was afraid she was teaching him bad habits.

“How many are they going to kill by transmitting infection?” she asked, thumbing at the new help.

“Let’s just make sure all the serious cases come to us,” he said.

“Wait!” her qualified assistant paused as he prepared to dash off to work again. Nina handed him a small paper packet. “Sterilizing tablets. Do your best to use them sparingly,” she instructed. “It’s the only box we got."

She got to her feet, and wandered a little way down the track toward an alley way. As she walked, she turned the morning's incident over in her mind.

She’d spent time with the injured and looking in on the critical cases. Her new patient had survived the night though he’d required a second surgery in the small hours to staunch the internal bleeding. Nina was so fatigued by then she seemed almost asleep on her feet and she’d been in a dazed rage in the morning, weary with the pointless losses she’d witnessed throughout the night. She’d just snapped...

She knew she should have kept quiet about them, but secrecy wasn’t her way, and this situation was nothing like that simple. It’s been tough all around. They were running short of essential supplies, but the bean-counters wouldn’t get some more shipped in. It wasn’t worth confronting these miserable, desperate wretches at the main branch.

She felt her anger returning. You can’t save everybody. That was one of the first things they drummed into you at the Guardian. But this greed-induced corruption.... this bureaucracy fed on useless red tape like a glutton, even though it was bloated and full… and she felt nothing but keen loss and frustration when they’d been fighting to survive without fresh medical goods. But it was pointless for her to bring a formal charge to the board. She knew the hospital board would take her seriously. But she also knew that the hospital was bound by the rules. The system couldn’t help her.

No, she decided, there was no point. That was not Nina's way. Experience had shown her that morale was better served by encouragement and trust than by an unpredictable temper and scorn. She’d had a good example in the form of her mentor, whose philosophy of morale had been based on trust and tolerance. There had been times when a firm hand had been called for, more than a few more when action had worked better than words.

But she prided herself on her fairness, and knew that she was able to count on her coworkers and volunteers as friends because of it. At the triage station, she’d acted just like a typical Surgeon due to being given stark, regular reminders of her dwindling supplies. There was no point to put the blame on frustration or fatigue. These feelings implied weakness, and Nina could never be weak.

She realized it was more a matter of futility. She’d come into this position with reservations, and each step of the way had confirmed her fears. It was the manner of the administration that was senseless. The dismissive contempt at which the higher-ups viewed those who couldn’t pay, the poor and sick. It made Nina angry to see this, angrier still to have been caught up by the futility, and it had worked on her so insidiously!

Now, outside, around her, the city went by. There was a greater good, a sense of purpose, even here. From now on, she'd have to go easier on their frightened and worried helpers. From the list, she realized they were trained to administer only the most basic first aid. They weren’t doctors. They were a different matter. Unqualified; unalloyed; just there to do the basics until the doctors came. The volunteers did all right… and all these actions, all their tiny contributions did their part to build a CCD culture that would endure until the world ended. That’s what Nina had believed anyway. She felt it was her responsibility to watch over them all...

She halted and saw a lone figure stagger toward her. In slow motion, Nina saw the way pain made him frown, then grimace, then twist his features into an expression she’d thought no human face could make while it was alive. She watched with horrid fascination as he went down.

Nina Siwak hadn’t thought twice about helping the man. She ran over, tossed her cigarette butt into the mud. “Hey!” she called out, approaching him. “Hey, you alright?”

Nina shooed two curious onlookers around them back to their work and went down to Soren’s side. She felt hugely exposed in that alley. She tried to get him some space to relax as she went on her hands and knees, her arms wrapped protectively over Soren’s head. The man convulsed with pain, his head nodded onto the ground, his bleeding hand cradled in the other. She heard him gasping, trying to let his lungs fill.

She breathed slowly, searching her pack deftly feeling tools and supplies by touch the way she’d taped them just so. A painkiller. That might help. She reckoned by now he wasn’t about to retch into her lap. It was hard to tell... but, she was sure he'd regard her with mistrust if she drugged him without checking first.

Her firm hands grabbed him and pulled him up. “You hurt?”
Nina
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#3
A voice pierced misery he’d rather have left unwitnessed, and unwanted hands smoothed over his head as someone joined him in the dirt of the alley floor. Sören’s fist squeezed on instinct, fingers scraping raw against the concrete, but calling the runes only sharpened the agony and flung it into the reckless winds of a hurricane. He let go quickly. 

No words answered the foolish samaritan who thought to cradle his head. His reserves pulled inwards, muscles corded tight, as though this was a physical battle he could win with just enough focus. Pain was an old and familiar mistress. The carving ache of his stomach when he’d first learned to starve himself across the boundaries of the dreaming world; the rip and chew of the power’s maw before he had learned the secrets of control.

But pain without purpose left him as frustratingly vulnerable as any mere mortal. His teeth grit.

Must she watch?

Hands hauled him up. Whatever compensation his good eye fought to win, it left his world a blurry smear. She was a haze of dark hair, stamped with wirey red letters that scrolled too fast to capture, even if he could focus. He didn’t need to try hard to imagine the expression of concern engendered by her words, though. “Redundant question,” he accused. The words growled a reflection of pain. “Nonetheless, your assistance is unnecessary.”
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#4
She realized this last comment had been made about her. Nina smiled a little. And where had she heard that accent before? She didn’t know what it was. She wondered if it was Nordic.

“That’s not necessary?” Nina echoed. She put her pack down and mopped her brow. The brisk run had reinvigorated her, but she was beginning to agree with Soren. This had been a bad idea. She didn’t really want to get drawn into this. But he deserved civility. Hostile though he was, he was still in horrible pain, so she could at least humor him for a minute or two. “Ah, let me rest with you a while,” said Nina.

This cool, bracing air through the empty calm of the alley was like a balm. She realized she was sweating, and took off her raincoat, flopping it over her left shoulder. The man was trim, compact, good looking, and had taken to cultivating a close cropped goatee that made him look a little sinister in Nina’s opinion. Pain had hunched him, but stood erect he would have towered over Nina.

He was speaking as if he didn’t especially care. Or, Nina thought, as if he already knew… He turned his head towards her. It was the fluid neck swivel of a human who had been habituated to helmet display target sensors. For a scant second, she wondered if he was aiming at her, but then she caught herself. Stupid. His senses were sharp, and attuned to the darkness. He’d simply noted the direction of Nina’s voice.

...

Nina stepped back slightly as if she had been target-acquired. With the man’s head turned, she could see the faded, pink line of a scar that ran over one of his eyes, seaming that brown gaze like a plow through corn, down to the sculptural pane of his cheek. She sighed inwardly. She’d almost been taken in by his talk. But now everything, even his peculiarly carefully aimed looks, took on another meaning.

He’d lost an eye in some long ago action. She found herself admiring his replacement. Exquisite work. But nothing so calculating or strange as she projected. Sagging in visible relief, she settled herself against the stiff back of the walls.

“I know,” she said with a dismissive wave of her hand. “It must be very distressing. There are so many obvious things I'll say now. You’re… what, thirty? You… uh... fell. And you’re hurt.” She shook her head, amused. "Look, I can’t help you. Not really, in the grand scheme of things. You’re going to have to help yourself. But I can bandage your hand, if you like. Would it really ruin everything if you stop bleeding?”
Nina
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#5
He was trying to capture something useful in the scrawling malfunction (at least that was what he assumed was flashing a red distraction across his blurred vision), but she failed to take the hint -- despite that for a moment the shadow of her form scrambled encouragingly back. By now Sören had pushed up to his knees. His breaths began to temper a prison around the pain, and he found a little more solace when he closed both eyes entirely. The control soothed him even if the vulnerability did not.

“Do you require a gold star? I presume you have two working eyes,” he said into the prism of his present darkness. No smile lifted his lips despite her attempt at banter. “Try telling me something I don’t know, and then perhaps I’ll be impressed.”

He gave her no reason to stick around, but she did so anyway. If she really cared for the thorn of his company, she was welcome to it. Since he could not presently walk away. Instead he offered out his hand palm up, accepting her offer. It burned presented to the air, a nuisance he had not even wholly registered before now. The brand on his skin hid somewhere beneath the blood, but she had no way of knowing how unprotected it left him to hold all those fingers straight. A few bands of worn leather circled his wrist, and a tattoo exposed itself on the inside of his forearm now that he held the arm out. 

“You stink like ash,” he observed blandly. “Can I have a smoke?”
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#6
“Yeah, well… okay,” she said, nonplussed, not sure if she should be flattered. It was such a surprise, Nina blinked in confusion.

She realized that she didn’t like the look on Soren’s face, and it wasn’t for the reasons she had expected. He sure was tall, with a slender face and disturbing eyes. The man with the slender face had leaned close to Nina, and she shrank back because she didn’t like to feel his breath on her face, or he was able to smell her smokes, and that bothered her immensely, of course. She could taste the sour saliva in her mouth.

In truth, she was startled at the way Soren acted. He was being cooperative. She didn’t expect him to give her permission to help; let alone bum a smoke.

But here he was—showing her his arm.

She nodded, and reached for his hand, deftly rolling his sleeve up, looking over the enigmatic runes of his tattoos. A look of puzzlement crossed her face when she rinsed off the blood off his hand and revealed the knotted scar tissue underneath, as though it were branded.

She didn’t comment.

She breathed a sort of sigh, and then taped a small swab dressing around his hand. The blood stained hers, of course. Her hands were badged with his blood. She would have to wash them diligently. She wanted, more than anything else, for there to be her tray of instruments to use, a pair of surgical gloves she could pull on...

Fixing his hand was a start, but it didn’t seem to achieve much. Nina didn’t know what she expected to happen. A “thank you”, perhaps. A smile.

Such a thing didn’t seem very likely.

Not after he wished her away. Soren himself had been brutally matter-of-fact about it from the outset. She knew nothing of Soren’s background or past career, but the same was clearly not true in reverse. Soren had casually reeled off a load of crap that was true about her, like Nina being redundant; her sharp use of both eyes; her smoke scent. And he’d spoken with what seemed genuine disdain.

Furthermore, the candid honesty of his responses struck Nina. For the first time, she felt something other than her sense of duty towards Soren.  To be part of the Guardian was to be part of a complex system of obedience, loyalty and service. More often than not, the hospital forced doctors into obligations and decisions they’d otherwise not choose to make. She’d seen that happen. She didn’t care who shouted her down, Nina had butted up against the system all her career. Was she now seeing that mirrored in another? Or was Soren just dangerously persuasive?

The latter notion seemed likely. He certainly exuded a sort of authority. And he seemed to have rudeness in spades. To say the right thing at the right time for the right effect. Was he just playing with Nina?

Nina thought about it. She was scheduled for another shift at six that evening. She wasn’t looking forward to it. It felt like running away. She tried to decide on the best course of action.

Nina rubbed the bridge of her nose with her fingers. Then she said, “the thing is, I’m not sure you can smoke right now. It’s serious anti-breathing stuff."

She looked up at Soren and appraised him frankly. “If you don’t mind my saying so, you’re very pale, sir. Should you even be on your feet?"
Nina
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#7
She mumbled something that sounded like a yes, but did not offer the cigarette. Ironically her silence was now the annoyance, banishing him to the nothingness world of closed eyes like a forgotten outcast. A sharp sigh left his lungs, as close to complaint as he came. Smoking was neither a habit nor an addiction for him, just a tool. Monotonous action to strengthen the void he fed all that pain into, to help block out extraneous interruption. Though given he had expected her to continue blathering and she hadn’t, he supposed it was not necessary after all.

The pinch and burn of her ministrations barely registered a flinch on his face, though he was braced for ineptitude. For her to even be carrying such supplies made suggestions of her person, of course, but given present surroundings it did not mean she had any skill. The estates that peeled off from the Guardian were hardly salubrious, its denizens racked by gang warfare, drugs, and poverty. He couldn’t even see if the bandages she used were clean. But though her fingertips were rough as sandpaper, her touch was confident enough that he tuned away from the work. When he judged her done, he retracted his hand, flexing the fingers carefully.

If she expected thanks she would not receive it.

Instead Sören finally tried opening his eyes, squinting, and pushed himself slowly to his feet. He was glad to find he could stand, though used the support of the wall to protect his balance. The scroll of red began to recede, as did the vice of pain. They were numbers, not letters. Back and shoulders braced against the wall, he scavenged through his pockets with his good hand in search of a pen. He pulled off the lid with his teeth and scribbled the ink onto the nearest available canvas, which happened to be the arm she had already pulled back the sleeve on. 786474. The numbers danced alongside the runes already marking his skin. 

They meant nothing.

“It was for distraction, in case you turned out to be a shit nurse.” He yanked the lid from his mouth and fumbled to replace the pen in a pocket, frowning. Everything was still haloed almost double, but the effects were fading. He looked at her properly for the first time then; small as expected, but little else to fit the assumption of timidity. She was lean rather than soft. The eyes in her skull pierced.

“It’s doubtful one tiny cancer-stick is going to kill me.” His expression was a flat projection of how much he thought of her attempted protection. There was a scathing certainty to the way he said it, flinching a muscle in his cheek. Nimeda’s singsong voice echoed mockery of his dreams, but sometimes he still felt the vibration of the soothsayer’s bones as they tipped from her pale palm. The iron set of his fate as each one landed.

A jacket was slung over one shoulder, but it was the hint of tattoo he found himself staring at. A habit of self preservation. A grim line pinched his brow for a consideration he’d rather not have to deal with. He wasn’t adverse to grabbing her arm and inspecting himself, but the symbol could be small and hidden, and she was heavily decorated. He’d need to be able to rely on his sight to do it. And he’d need to be able to squeeze his fist, should he discover evidence of a snake.

“It is preferable to the filth of the ground, and since you cannot take a hint, I’m sure you’ll be there to haul me back up if I fall.” He pressed the heel of his hand against the offending eye socket and stifled a groan.
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#8
Time was slipping away. With every passing minute, her plan to convince him became harder, the opposition from him greater, more resolved. He turned to her. She could feel the heat of his gaze on her.

His spike-y stare had caused the skin to prickle and her heart to go frantic, but she gazed back at him gently, her wet, red hands by her sides, dripping on her white overalls. What did he see? she laughed a little, odd laugh, and shook her head. She wasn’t altogether convinced she’d passed his test.

Nina went back to her corner and sat with her back against the wall, intending to steady her nerves by resting there. Only now did she realize how much she wanted a smoke, and there was a stale taste in her mouth. She was tired and upset from the morning’s endeavors, especially from the incident which had plunged her back into a world of helplessness that she hadn’t thought about in years. She’d never expected those unpleasant memories to come and find her.

The man who didn't want to be here looked at her with his disturbing eyes, and though the verbal abuse had not eased off, the first hit of insight hit. She wasn’t a “shit nurse”, but if that’s how he wanted to see her, that was fine. She didn’t actually feel a need to dispel his notions.

Nina didn’t mind the rudeness, though. She understood his reluctance to open up, but she also knew she had to stay, anyway. By now, she was used to Soren's venomous replies which were filled with bitterness, anger, frustrations at this time—that was understandable when you’re trapped in pain and self-loathing, and she’d helped lonely people who grieved for loss of their healthy bodies. It took a real effort of will for her to keep from commenting on the runes and numbers on his arm, curiously, admiringly. But she wanted to show nothing but utmost respect—to put her patient at ease; wanted to draw him out; helped him know that he’d in good hands.

And it was important for him to be the one who asked for help—because she had seen, how Soren watched her. She came without invitation, and Soren meant something to Nina— he was herself before she’d been saved by friends. She wondered what she’d have been like without meeting Bas and the gopniks, if her sister Rena had never existed; what it was like to lead a life alone, detached from their community? How she’d make choices and follow paths if they hadn’t chosen to love her? Even so—

A strong gust of wind lifted her hair from her smiling face, and blew up a pile of dried leaves so that they scurried and drifted across them. At this time, the man had withdrawn against the alley’s walls so that he did not have to linger too close to her… And she could see from his twisted answer her enthusiasm wouldn’t produce any results. Then what else could she do?

The strange thing was, it wasn’t the first time she’d seen this unpleasantness. She’d seen it hundreds of times, and only now did she recognize it for what it was; a shock, yet horribly familiar. His jaw muscles were clenched, his spine and the small of his back were damp; his pain reminded her she was needed, just as it reminded her who she was; who she was forced to be.

She’d never thought about it much; never felt much need to reflect on it; but she knew her memories of that time more than ten years ago were always there when she least needed them. Nina couldn’t be sure, but … she gets it, you know? She got the same thing in the slums growing up, and she remembered what particular patch of hell it was. How many times had she pushed somebody away because she didn’t want them to see her weakness? Or snapped at a stranger so they left her to her self-pity and suffering? And like the Nina back then, this person was suffering, she just didn’t have any of the details from him yet. The feeling’s familiar, that’s all.

Soren fished around for a pen, then he made marks on his arm. Her eyes rounded out of curiosity at his painstakingly transcribed numbers but she kept quiet. She had no wish to make him jump or disturb his work.

And he was most certainly at work. He’d scratched a series of numbers onto the accompanying symbols with his arm as canvas.

She would, she resolved, when Soren allowed, examine them carefully, and perhaps even learn from them. They were fascinating. They could contain wisdoms about hunting and gods. Or was this just a speck of false knowledge that had got jumbled up in his head?

In any case while his twisted answers disturbed Nina—it did not put her off. She would have tried more persuasion, but she paused and then started suddenly. He bent over, though little sound came out. Was he groaning? Cursing?

Striding like a headstrong child, she went over to him immediately. Nina bent down and laced her arms around him, and rested the side of her head against his chest, assessing his rate of heartbeat. It was the only kind that concerned her. The bad kind.

“… Your eye… how did you lose it?” she asked. “What kind of replacement is this?"

Expectantly, she waited for him to pull her arms away.
Nina
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#9
Even as the pain began to ebb, the desire to gouge the offending eye from its socket lingered. He itched to run the numbers but suspected it was better to wait a while before testing the tech, not least for the quiet of privacy. Because of course she still drifted about in his peripheral, as if she were a moth batting repetitively against some hypnotic light. Though what she found so riveting he failed entirely to comprehend. The new silence suited though. He simply tuned her out.

At least until she invaded and attached herself like a limpet. Sören flinched in surprise, arms caught awkwardly aloft. Where was he supposed to put them, with this thing attached to his chest? His teeth grit, muscles corded tight as he for a moment contemplated retaliation -- or half expected the sharp pain of something stabbed through his guts. Nothing happened though. Just the press of soft feminine heat. “Tomtar på loftet*,” he muttered, low and irritated. If it sounded like an insult, it’s because it was.

It was not like he could not force her off, but he did not particularly want to touch her. The last time he had been caught with a girl in an alley way it had not exactly ended well for him, and the memory of that avoidable loss still burned. “You wouldn’t believe me if I told you. Get off me.”

[[*"Elves in the attic", ie, you're crazy]]
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#10
What had been puzzlement and suspicion had now turned. The man stiffened and growled, hulking his back like a fighting bull. Nina was brought up sharply by Soren’s fierce muttering in her ear. She had an ear for such things. She didn’t need to be told. Nina felt it (and without a doubt, it was an insult) quiver her diaphragm.

She knew she had been insulted, but she wasn’t quite sure how. She admired sounds he made, so alien in origin. Insults of being outsiders/foreigners were the first things she knew, just by hearing the tone of it, when her romani parents immigrated here; she liked to know exactly where she was in relation to other people. A foible, perhaps.

His voice was full of accent, of otherworld accent. In the extremity of the moment, it had become hard for Soren to maintain his civilized veneer. She stared into the man’s face. It was sloped and angular like a mountain cliff, but he looked at her with eyes rendered alive by pain. For a moment, Nina felt a brief connection to this person who was trying to hide his pain: another foreigner on the peripheries of Moscow society, judging by the language, his name was probably hard to say!

Just thirty-four, a nimble-fingered woman with a nimble mind, Nina took her job seriously, so seriously that it had already cost her a relationship and most of her circle of friends. Women were only just beginning to advance in the behemoth of the Guardian, and no female had ever held a post so ambitious as Nina Siwak, or Meera Alam—or Soren’s acquaintance who Nina doesn’t know!—without working twice as hard and twice as good as her male counterpart. It took tenacity and drive to overturn old, hidebound attitudes to gender and profession, and even now the rules had changed, and female advancement was won and recognized by all.

Nina knew she could simply ignore him, that was in her power. She could ignore anything she didn’t want to be bothered with.

But she’d not won her position in the world by ignoring people who needed her unsolicited help. She knew that some problems simply couldn’t be ignored, even if it seemed daft. Just because somebody didn’t or couldn’t pay for treatment didn’t mean it wasn’t still important to treat.

With a sour look that suggested she thought the man was being less than entirely helpful, Nina grasped his arm and steadied him. Her grip was like a bear trap, entirely encircling the man’s wrist.

Then she smiled, “Please, call me Nina. I’m a doctor. And I need to know what you know, if I’m going to help. I can make that assessment if I can help you. Or refer you to specialists. The best, you might say.”

When she spoke again, in that sun-lit narrow alley, it was to ask the other question that had been gnawing away at the edge of her thoughts.

“Hnn. I see. That’s all right.” Nina smiled again and nodded. “Well, you’re clearly a much more learned, cosmopolitan person than I am … and you bear the finest and most modern eye replacement that I’ve ever seen. Very excellent in quality bio-tech material, so I’m curious why it gives you pain. Ah, that is what’s hurting you, yes?”

Nina guided them down a space almost built into the corroding walls and perched next to him. She reached down and took out a cooper flask banded with leather straps from her pack. She unstoppered it and gave it to him, “before you talk can I trouble you to have a drink of water, first?”

Nina
Nina
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