Her whole party nodded respectfully and began to withdraw, turning to leave the village. Trotter smiled at a group of children that had inched toward them during their long exchange, as though they might be dangerous. When he grinned their way, they scattered, laughing. That was about Trotter's speed-- amusing children. Anastasia knew the thought was uncharitable, but she didn't like thinking she couldn't rely on him, and that was certainly the impression she'd gotten.
Professor Kyichu had kept his shoulders squared and his chin high with determined hope for most of the time since Kora had vanished. Now, the light in his eyes had gone. An air of defeat hung about him.
Anastasia wanted to scream. She turned to stare at the man with the long, tied-off white beard. He gave her a curious look.
She wanted to shout at him, to demand that they be allowed to search the village. If that had been blood on the shirt of the man she'd seen, he might very well be their saboteur. Human or not. Sometimes, there was a fine line, and there were creatures that existed right on that line. The blood would be from the bullet wound she'd put in his shoulder last night.
It made sense that Nakchu village had a saboteur in its midst. The elder himself had cautioned them against disturbing the spirits. Maybe the villagers all wanted to drive the archaeology expedition away.
And yet, what were her options? She could draw her gun and forcibly search the entire village. Tenzin had his rifle. But chances were good that some of these farmers and yak-herders had rifles, too, and if not, they'd have knives. Anastasia had no doubt the villagers would defend themselves as necessary.
If Kora was still alive, the clock was ticking. She hated to leave the village, just on the chance that the girl might be there, but there was only one alternative to drawing her gun. She calculated how long it would have taken word to get back to the States, to the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense, how long to prepare a team, how long to travel to Lhasa, and then up into the mountains.
Hellboy would come. She couldn't let herself think otherwise.
If there were answers to be found in this village, he would find them, and damn the consequences. That had been one of the reasons she had fallen in love with him, so long ago.
"We'll be coming back," she told the elder, who only smiled and nodded, not understanding a word.
She turned and stormed after her companions. When she came abreast of Tenzin, she fell into step with him, her eyes on Professor Kyichu.
"We're coming back," she told the guide.
Tenzin nodded. "I did not doubt."
Hellboy watched the land whip by beneath the helicopter and felt boredom scraping against the base of his skull like grinding teeth. The prickle of surreal excitement brought about by the idea of seeing Anastasia was still there, but numbed now with the lull of constant travel. He'd journeyed home from Chile, been back in Connecticut for only a handful of hours, then gotten on a plane headed for Tibet. It felt like he'd been in constant motion for a week.
The constant travel was only part of the problem, though. The real boredom, now, came from the sameness of the terrain. There were only so many herds of sheep and yak and deer that he could see before they stopped being a pleasant distraction and just became a part of the monotony of green and brown grass, mountains, and valleys. It was beautiful, certainly. Breathtaking. But now he just wanted to stop. Stop moving. Stop flying. Stop thinking.
They were at the top of the world. The air was so thin that at times it took an exceptionally skilled pilot to keep the helicopter aloft, but he had faith in Redfield. Hellboy sat in front, next to the pilot. Sarah, Meaney, and Neil were in the middle of the big chopper, and Professor Bruttenholm and Abe were in the far back, wrapped in blankets and sleeping like babies.
Hellboy couldn't sleep. He stared out at the night and the dark hills and tried to keep from screaming in frustration at being cooped up for so long. And just when he thought he couldn't take it another second, Redfield reached up to scratch his beard and cleared his throat.
"There's the lake," the chopper pilot said.
Redfield took the helicopter across the water low enough that the force of the air rushing down from the rotors churned the surface. Hellboy scanned the shore ahead of them, where gentle hills rose up into slopes that might have been confused for mountains if not for the snowcapped peaks in the distance.
Five years since he had seen Anastasia. He tried to figure how old she'd be now, but time didn't mean as much to him as it did to other people, and it took him a moment to work it out. Forty-one, he figured. Maybe forty-two.
The tents of the expedition's camp were ghosts on the shore of the lake. Lights burned against the moonlit stone face of the hillside, marking out the boundaries of the archaeological dig. Gray figures milled about the camp, drawn out by the sound of the helicopter. Hellboy wasn't sure of the local time, but he figured it had to be going on 11:00 P.M. A lot of people weren't sleeping. Not that he blamed them. If there were monsters lurking around their camp, sleep wouldn't come easy.
As Redfield circled in search of a likely landing spot, Hellboy couldn't help searching the upturned faces in the moonlight below. He caught a glimpse of a figure that might have been Anastasia, hair pulled back into a ponytail, then the copter swung around, and he couldn't see the expedition members anymore. The pilot set the craft down a hundred yards or so from the camp on a broad, flat stretch of lakeshore, and only when Redfield killed the engines and the noise of the rotors chopping air began to subside did Hellbody realize how grateful he'd be for the quiet. The hum and whine of aircraft engines had been his near-constant companion for three days.
In the back, Neil and Sarah were up immediately, sliding a door open. Neil jumped down and stretched, muscles popping. Tough as nails, but he looked like death warmed over with his twenty-four-o'clock shadow and dark circles under his eyes. Hellboy wondered how Stasia would look after five years.
He blinked. "Oh, crap," he whispered. Maybe she'd be wondering how he looked, and if he looked anything like Neil after this trip, the answer wasn't a happy one.
With a sigh, he ran his left hand over his stubbly chin, then the leathery pate of his head. The stumps of his horns probably could use filing--he hadn't done it in forever--but he wasn't some giggling schoolgirl preening before a date. Still, he ran his tongue over his teeth and cupped his hand in front of his mouth, trying to smell his own breath. He reached back and tightened the knot of hair at the base of his skull.
"Moron," he whispered to himself.
Beside him, Redfield had just removed his comm. unit.
Hellboy shook his head. "Not you, pal."
He popped his door and climbed down from the helicopter. The brick wall, Meaney, was still up in the chopper, handing gear and travel bags out to Sarah and Neil, who piled them on the ground a few feet away.
"There he is," Neil said by way of greeting, as though Hellboy'd just shown up for a meeting. "What's the plan, boss? Where do you want us to set up camp?"
A group of perhaps a dozen people from the archaeologists' camp were making their way along the shore toward the helicopter. Hellboy felt his attention pulled toward those gray figures, but he turned to Neil.
"The professor's got command of this op. You know that."
Neil smiled, his face almost indigo in the darkness of night. "'Course. But Professor Bruttenholm's still kippin' in the back."
Lithe, tiny Sarah did not smile, just stared at him expectantly, even as she caught a duffel that Meaney chucked to her from within the helicopter. Hellboy looked at her, then back at Neil.
"You want me to give orders? Fine. Wake Professor Bruttenholm. That's an order. After that, it's up to him. I'm a grunt on this op, no different from you."
"Whatever you say, mate."
Hellboy left them to it. The archaeologists arrived, along with a little weasel of a guy in a dark suit who could only be some kind of government representative. In Tibet, that meant Chinese government. No way was Beijing going to allow representatives of the government of the United Kingdom to spend any time in Tibet, digging up ancient civilizations, without some kind of monitoring. They wouldn't want anyone stealing or destroying historical artifacts, of course, but that was just part of it. What they would really want to avoid would be any official interaction between British and local government.
To his credit, though, the Chinese government monitor hung back, acknowledging that this was Stasia's expedition, her team.
"Hellboy," she said as she walked up, the others making way for her. Several people went to help the BPRD operatives unload, and a couple were helping Redfield tie the chopper down in case of wind. Hellboy barely noticed them, now.
"Stasia. It's great to see you."
"And you. Thank you for coming."
He raised his hands. "How could I stay away? You always bring me to the most interesting places."
"By interesting you mean 'remote.'"
Introductions were made. A couple of the names stood out to Hellboy from the report he'd read on the dig, the temple of the Dragon King, the supposedly inhuman saboteurs, and the missing girl. The first was Frank Danovich, an American site engineer from Seattle, Washington. His job was to make sure that none of the dig construction or excavation came down on their heads. He was also one of the first to see the creature plaguing the expedition. The other names he recognized from the report were Dr. Mark Conrad and Professor Han Kyichu.
Nobody offered to shake hands. With the size and weight of his right fist, he could not blame them. When people did summon up the courage to offer their hand to him, he was never quite sure what to do, so he was glad to be spared that moment.
He nodded solemnly to Professor Kyichu before explaining to all of them--and the government man in particular, though without speaking directly to him--that Professor Bruttenholm was leading the investigation. After several more welcomes and grateful appreciations, they began to drift away, most back to their tasks but others to wait as a sleepy Professor Bruttenholm climbed out of the helicopter, wrapped up in conversation with Abe. The two of them kept gesturing toward the lake, and Hellboy had a feeling Abe would be going for a swim very soon.
"I worried you wouldn't arrive tonight," Anastasia said.
Hellboy frowned. "We came as fast as we could. Left six hours after the briefing."
"That's not what I meant," she said, a bit worriedly. "You got here quickly. I just...I'm glad we don't have to spend another night with this mysterious, troublesome business without you here. The BPRD, I mean."
"The BPRD, right."
"So, thank you."
"You keep saying that."
"Can't seem to stop."
"You look..." he glanced away, then down at the ground. "You know."
He lifted his gaze to find her wearing that lopsided, sweetly amused grin that had done him in from the moment they'd first met.
"It's been too long, love. But it's so strange. Every time I see you, it feels as though it's only been hours since the last time. Why is that?"
Hellboy had several ideas on that score, but none of them were things he would ever have spoken aloud, even back in those times when he and Stasia had talked about things like love and fate as though they had some secret knowledge that others didn't share. Couples were like that. They had the key to the universe, or so they thought. He'd never felt that way before or since, and looking back, he remembered it with awkward distance, like something slightly embarrassing that he'd overheard people talking about at the next table in a restaurant.
"Don't know. But, yeah. Weird, huh?"
Anastasia laughed. "Ever the soul of eloquence."
"You know me."
With anyone else, he might have muttered something sarcastic. But it was Stasia. She was allowed to bust his chops the way no one else in the world could. Well, no one but Abe and Liz, and sometimes, not even them.
The thought of Abe made him blink and glance around, but the amphibious man was talking quietly with Professor Bruttenholm, while Redfield and the three BPRD field operatives got situated with the gear and started to put up their tents. Hellboy saw his father look up from the conversation with Abe, and the old man narrowed his eyes. Hellboy caught the subtle concern and disapproval on the old man's face though no one else would have noticed any change.
Hellboy returned his gaze to Anastasia.
"You do look amazing," he said. "Haven't aged a day. Almost didn't recognize you without the damn Yankees hat, though."
"Back in my tent, actually," she said. "Well, not the same one. Dropped it into a volcano a couple of years back and had to replace it."
"You did not."
Stasia gave him a tiny shrug. "Really did."
They stood for a moment, just looking at each other. The last time they'd crossed paths, it hadn't been like this at all. Hellboy had harbored some resentment toward her--and toward himself--that they hadn't been able to make things work. The attention of the media and all the church groups and others who were so vocal about their disapproval of the relationship had been too much stress. Hellboy didn't like the constant reminders that to much of the world, he would always be a monster, no matter how many lives he saved. The United Nations had declared him an "honorary human" decades ago, but even that label made his skin crawl. What the heck was it supposed to mean, anyway?
He'd lied to her. She looked damned good, but she had gotten older. Even in the dark, he could see that her hair still had the luster it had always maintained, no matter the climate or how long she'd been toiling in ditches and tombs. Her eyes were still as bright, and she was fit as ever. But the crow's-feet had deepened around her eyes, and small lines had formed at the corners of her mouth. How to explain that these things made her more beautiful, that the life in her--the living--made her sexy as hell?
Not the things you said to your ex.
"You haven't changed at all, either," Anastasia said. "You look--"
"Like a donkey's ass? Cuz that's how I feel."