Fifty-Seven - Ira

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"Merci, Clare," the tattoo artist said, his stretched earlobes swinging as he brought over a handheld mirror. He'd been grinning the whole time he was working on my shoulder, which was now completely numb, and he was still grinning proudly as he tilted the mirror to show me my new tattoo. "See, beautiful, for you," he said with a heavy French accent.

An eagle formed by detailed dots stretched across my shoulder, one of its wings wrapping around the top of my right arm. The artist rubbed small beads of blood off it again as I held my breath. I smiled until my cheeks hurt. "It's perfect. Thank you so much."

"Turn around and show us, I- Clare?" I heard Linkin say behind me. I felt bad for making them all wait so long; I didn't expect that printing an animal on my shoulder would take hours of stabbing, crying, and cursing. At one point, Thierry went out and bought snacks for everyone. I wasn't allowed any.

"Sure." I stood up and turned my shoulder towards Linkin, Thierry, and Stuart, my bra strap still awkwardly dangling off the side of my body. "What's the verdict?"

"It looks amazing!" Linkin's voice was a few notes higher, detaching herself from Thierry's arm to have a closer look. "It really suits you. You look great, Clare." It was the first time she managed to remember my alias without first correcting herself.

"Worth watching you cry for two hours," Thierry added, scratching his beard. His comment made Stuart shift awkwardly back and forth in his sneakered feet.

"It looks beautiful," Stuart finally said with a warm smile. He looked like he had more to add, but retreated back into his quietude.

"Come on, Stewie," Linkin teased. "We could all hear what you were going to say, so might as well say it."

"And what's that?" I raised an eyebrow and laughed when Stuart looked embarrassed.

Prompted by a nudge in the arm from Thierry, Stuart opened his mouth. "It looks beautiful, just like you." He was quieter, but an adoring smile spread across his face.

I didn't get to squeeze in a thank-you to anyone before the room erupted in cheer.

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The drive back was all about Stuart, then I got dragged into Linkin's singing. I tuned out when she placed Stuart and me in a tree.

"Obnoxious," I told Stuart, who was hiding half his face behind his hand. I didn't blame him. There was definitely something growing between us, and we both knew that we made each other feel safe, but neither of us had been jumping into anything, let alone let it be obvious in public.

"Ira, are we there yet?" Stuart looked like he wanted to disappear into the seat.

"Admit it, Stewie, you are." Linkin turned around to punch him playfully in the arm.

"Shut up, Linkin."

My confidence soaring after the tattoo, I unbuckled my seatbelt and moved to the middle backseat, flipping Linkin the bird with a grin. Much to Stuart's shock, I wrapped an arm around him and leaned against his shoulder. After a few nerve-racking seconds of not knowing if I did the wrong thing, he rested his cheek against the top of my head.

Linkin made sounds that could have been because she saw a puppy. "By the way, I noticed you two were up way too early this morning."

Stuart tensed, and I squeezed his shoulder reassuringly. "I went for a swim and asked Stuart to time me," I told Linkin.

"Oh," she said, perhaps noticing the underlying dark turn of the conversation or running out of affectionately irritating things to say. Linkin pointed to my shoulder. "No swimming for at least two weeks until that heals, Ira."

"Yeah," I remembered Thierry translating that for the tattoo artist. "Okay." Stuart looked relieved.

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I looked away when Thierry turned on the lights on the dock to inspect my effort. I already knew. Two cans shot were off the makeshift brick stands in the distance. Two were left.

"Good, Eagle," Thierry grumbled and stifled a yawn. "You learn fast." He emptied the can in his hand and placed it onto an untopped stack of bricks, before moving the target slightly wider.

When he came back and ordered me to hold the gun back up, my right shoulder was aching. The world went dark again as Thierry switched off the lights. Taking a deep breath, I held it and made a mental note to only release it when I needed to speak. I aimed at one of the cans I'd missed, but changed my mind and lowered the gun and clicked the safety back on. "Hey."

"Yes?" The lights came back on without warning, and I squeezed my eyes shut with a grimace.

"Wanted to run an idea by you," I said, rubbing my temples, "about the island." Now Thierry was definitely listening. "We're not having much luck," I said slowly. "No offence. We need help."

"No shit," Thierry replied. "Wait, what are you saying?"

I sighed, for the first time regretting getting the tattoo today as opposed to another time. "When I heal up, we find Celestia and make her give us the answers. I'll be the bait."

Thierry looked at me the same way that Stuart did this morning after the lake. He didn't say anything, just squinted at me and twisted his lips. He crossed his arms and walked slowly to the targets that he'd set up for me and took them apart. We walked back to the house in contemplative silence.

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