This is the conclusion to this story's first arc. It will likely make no sense without the context of the previous stories. Start here.
Arlene's last customer of the day is uncomfortably prickly as Arlene looks her over. She's healing up well: the only trace of the rod's presence is a scattering of flowers rising up from beneath her flesh, their lines sketched in blisters and bruises and knotted scars.
Florence refuses to meet her eyes when she finally steps back and peels off her gloves.
"... well, you seem to be healing up okay, unless you want me to clean the traces off?"
"No," Florence spits, "I don't. If I want them gone I'll do it myself."
The room's vibes are rancid.
"Ah, okay. ... do you mind if I ask what happened, uh, after?"
"I do mind! I mind very much indeed. You could have at least come back to check on me after fucking killing half of me, you know!"
"... I'm sorry that I didn't. It didn't seem safe; I wish I hadn't gone in at all."
"Yes, well, we all have fucking regrets, don't we."
"Yeah," Arlene says, trailing off into an uneasy silence as Florence stands and stretches. She desperately wishes that she still had a war-body, that Florence had called in advance, that she wasn't here at all—
Finally, just as Florence begins to leave, Arlene brings herself to ask the other question. "So, uh, why did you want me to look you over?"
"Because thanks to you I don't have the knowledge to do it myself, just a thousand forgotten instincts hammering at the edges of my mind!"
"Wait, do you mean—"
The door slams behind Florence with enough force to crack its little window and send shuddering tremors through the walls around it. Arlene rushes to the door, desperate for an answer, but Florence is somehow already a block away—
Arlene just stands there watching as the distant figure fades, not even bothering to turn a corner before she steps through a hole in the air.
She's not wearing a hat, hasn't bothered to don a mask or change her eyes, but she doesn't need to: Arlene can't mistake what she is.
The thought is terrifying; small-witches don't survive by making enemies, especially not things like—
Back in the shop she grabs her shitty replacement phone and calls a number she hoped to never need, a number written into her soul just as surely as anything she knows.
"Hi, uh, it's Arlene. 34th Arc, number, uh, W-347b ... yes! That's me. ... yes. Yes. Can you give me the lecture another time? I was, uh, wondering about getting a replacement for my old war-body ..."
It's not a long call, just longer than she'd like. She comes out of it with a time and an address and a rote reminder that even HER most wayward children are loved; and, of course, a sinking certainty that she's making a horrible mistake.
The past is best left dead and buried, but it's not like she has a choice.