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MATURE RPG


May, 2010... Fantasy became reality. Worlds overlay for the briefest moment. Outworlders became stranded on earth as more than half the human populace vanished. Our World, our universe, was transformed.

Fiction is now reality. Humans and those now bound to this world will either learn to coexist, or battle for supremecy.

JUNE 13, 2019 - Family emergency  took a bad turn so had to stay away but now things are finally calming down. Hope to get going again shortly. Thanks for understanding. ~ZEPH

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Ryan Harker’s Manhattan Apartment

 

Harker’s Manhattan apartment is one of several safe houses he has throughout the New York area.  The apartment is nestled in a middle-class apartment building in central Manhattan, but inside it’s had some obvious renovations.  The apartment is a humble one bedroom, one bathroom with a sophisticated interior.  Security for the apartment was hardened as part spaces improvement.  Outside the door looks no different than those of its neighbors, inside is another story.

 

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(View of Harker’s apartment from the front door.)

 

          The front doorway is located on the near, right corner of the property.  As you enter the apartment, an open floor plan connects the kitchen, dining, and living rooms.  To the right is a vacant wall, and to the left is the kitchen.  Past the kitchen, a short hallway leads to a bathroom on the right-hand side.

 

Bathroom%202_zpseq7d6hgg.jpg

(Elegant bathroom, past the kitchen, down on the hall, on the right-hand side.)

 

          A modern, Asian infused theme decorates the apartment’s interior.  Wood and stone tie elegantly together, while mirrors and hidden compartments maximize an otherwise modest space.  The apartment is kept clean, far too clean to be used daily.  Suggesting the owner rarely occupies the space, or he enlists professional assistance to maintain the property.

 

The door in middle of the living room leads back to the master bedroom.  A wall of mirrors conceals a lengthy wall closet, as it leads to an elevated king size bed and private desk.

 

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(Master bedroom from the living room entrance.)

 

Bedroom_zpsuikkzbqh.jpg

(Master Bedroom, in reality the bed is a large King and the room is a few feet deeper.  Photo is for thematic reference only.)

 

          Throughout the apartment there are compartments concealed within the wood, stone and mirrors.  Some, like those in the kitchen, are meant to be seen and accessed by all.  Others are truly hidden and require Harker’s biometrics to gain access.  Front door and the far windows have all been reinforced to withstand assault, and invisible wards protect the space from magic.  A well-made safehouse for the modern covert agent.

 

(OOC: This post is to set the scene for the thread.  Actual plot post to continue the story will come next.)

Edited by Ryan Harker
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January 4, 2022

After Midnight

Manhattan, Harker’s Apartment

 

(Continued from “Chasing Ghosts")

 

***Reference to Chasing Ghosts***

 

          “They’re not after me,” Rorye whispered as she leaned in close to him.  When her hand slid up the inside of his thigh, Ryan tensed lightly.  Not from pain.  The touch was welcome, just unexpected.  Her fingertips sent a tingling bolt of energy from his leg up to his stomach, where fluttered for a moment.  When she reached across to his other thigh, he started to sit up in protest.  A commanding glare met his eyes and he leaned back in his seat once more. 

 

They didn’t have time to waste.  His wounds could be tended to once they were safe.  The Soldier was undoubtedly annoyed, but he took the moment to admire the woman before him.  She was unlike anyone he had ever met, and the longer he spent near her, the more she amazed him.

 

“You’re not a magus are you,” Rorye asked aloud.  Though the question was more statement than inquiry.  She had assessed his condition and determined a magus wouldn’t have been as harmed given the task performed.  Ryan hated it. 

 

He was ashamed she could see he was nearing his limits, and that she had compared him to a magus and found him lacking.  The blast of magical energy had taken quite a toll on him.  Ryan preferred to maintain the illusion of being invincible.  To be seen by colleagues, friends and enemies alike, as unstoppable, unkillable, and simply undefeatable.  Of course, it would sound silly if said aloud, but he played the part well.  Though the deck was always stacked against him, he never wanted people to doubt him… especially not her.

 

“I never said I was,” the mage hunter answered with a playful smirk.

 

“You’re stuck between two worlds like me.  All the responsibility and none of the cool prizes.”  Rorye continued, though it still seemed like she was half talking to herself.

 

Ryan didn’t answer at first, except for a slight grimace when she pulled the bandage tight.  She wasn’t like him, and for that he was glad.  However, she did live in a world adjacent to his own.  Their spheres of existence overlapped enough they could understand each other.  She wasn’t afraid of him or his capacity for violence, and he wasn’t afraid the mysterious entity lurking within her.  Finally, Ryan replied, “I guess so.”

 

*** Present Time ***

 

When they arrived at his building, Harker parked his Challenger in a private garage.  He escorted Rorye through the main lobby and upstairs to his apartment.  They did their best to cover their bloodied clothes along the way, but they caught awkward glances more than once before arriving at his front door.

 

“Make yourself at home,” Ryan said as he pushed the door open.  Once they had both crossed the threshold, he turned and closed the door behind them.

 

“The bathroom is down the hall to the right,” he pointed beyond the kitchen as he spoke.  Ryan expected she would want to bathe before anything else.  A sympathy he shared.  Gingerly he removed his jacket, before hanging it on one of several hooks mounted to the wall behind the door.

 

The agent wasn’t used to hosting company at his place, but efforted to be a gentleman.  Without asking, he lifted Rorye’s bag and set it on the kitchen table.  Then he smoothly removed her coat and secured it on another of the rungs by the door.  “I will bring you some fresh clothes in a minute, there should be towels in there already.”

 

Harker placed his pistols on the table.  After the remainder of his tactical gear was discarded in a pile on the floor, he walked to the kitchen sink.  Rolling up his sleeves he began washing the blood and debris from his hands.  As he watched the rose-colored water spiral down the drain, he wondered if he still had that bottle of “Jim Beam Devil’s Cut” in the cabinet.

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He wasn’t happy with her, or something she’d said. It felt like something else perhaps. Sensitivity to expressions, moods and movements was a developed skill that was more of a burden when situations were stressful. She had a hunch she’d offended him, replaying what she said to him in her mind as the darkness slowly gave way to civilization with familiar lights in the skyline. The key was still moving through her fingers, a smooth distraction.

 

“Somebody told me once that we’re the strong ones,” voice was quiet, even the soft tone seemed loud to her ears against the silence. She didn’t divulge who had uttered the words of wisdom to her.

 

Her ear nestled on the headrest, dark eyes watching him before he pulled into the garage.

 

“…the brave ones. We know the right hook’s gonna hurt, but we jump into the fight anyway. No tricks, no magic, just the skin of our teeth and the guts to take the hit.”

 

Sigh soft, the key was slid back into her pocket, rolling the split lip through her teeth as she took in the silence of the garage a moment. Her ears were still ringing. She slid off her coat, the wince at the corners of her eyes betraying stiffness and bruising was starting to set in. Retrieving her harness, she slid it on without buckling it, coat pulled back on. Door opened, one foot out to rest on the floor a moment before gathering the energy to get out.

 

She avoided eye contact with anyone on the way up, jacket closed, hands in her pockets, following close to escape as much as attention as possible.

 

“Make yourself at home”

 

The door closed them off from the discord of the last few hours. The silence, heavy… but welcome. It felt calm, under control, even safe.

 

Nod light, eyes traveled briefly over her immediate surroundings, glancing back at him. It was beautiful, but it was cold. Perfect. Sterile. Everything was exact and orderly. He may have lived there, but he didn’t really. She missed her own home at that moment, where everything melded together seamlessly. Soft lines, mornings of diffused sunlight that made time stop, the world worth forgetting, blurring the harshness of reality. She could wander barefoot with a cup of coffee, wrapped in a down comforter and collapse into a cushion covered couch for a nap…

 

No, she was uncomfortable because his tastes were different. She was uncomfortable because she was out of her element, her neighborhood. It was disorienting. A giant city to exist in and she spent most of her time in a square mile of adventures. This was his existence, and it was unlike hers. It felt strange, only because she felt so far away from home. She was far away from home. She was in someone else’s home, and she couldn’t remember the last time that had happened.

 

“The bathroom is down the hall to the right”

 

His leg, the priority was his leg… but he probably wanted to stitch that up on his own. She would need to get out of the way for that. A wince came again and she let him take the bag; that damn bag they had both risked their fucking lives for, now sitting on a kitchen table. It looked so innocuous, an afterthought now. It was far from innocent, and it was sitting feet from them. Jacket brought the same reaction, a seethe from her nose this time. The night was catching up. She was afraid of impending sleep; her body would feel like it had been hit by a truck when she woke up.

 

“I will bring you some fresh clothes in a minute, there should be towels in there already.”

 

Harness slid off, she placed it next to his pistols. Buckles released the karambit sheaths at her waist and those were removed too, gate a little slower than it should have been.

 

“I’d offer to help with the stitches, but I have a feeling you’ve done it before,” smile was small, but there, casting a glance to the devil blues before she made her way elsewhere. Jean shirt was slid off before she made it to the bathroom, crushed into a ball and tossed into the trash as soon as she entered the pristine room. The old favorite was beyond saving. Black cami seemed clean, but the blood smears on her skin made the blue dotwork tattooing down the back of her neck and shoulders look almost purple. She was a mess, they were both a mess.

 

Light clicked on. Jesus… the same gorgeous décor.  

 

Closing the door slightly, the boots came off first, set quietly in the corner. She lost several inches without them on, bare toes wiggling gently as she pulled her hair from the braid. Finger combing the long waves first, she bundled it up high out of the way and wrapped it with the hair tie into a loose bun. Faucet was turned on, water pooled into her hands and she drew it over her face. Gods, it was like nectar, sweeping away the grime in rivulets off the tip of her nose. Another, then another, washing away the make-up and the blood. A spatter of light freckles peered out from clean skin, cheek no longer angry with a threat of bruising. Red and swollen, but not bruised. Her lip though, was a lost cause. Split above her canine on her left side. It would heal. She touched the tooth with her fingertip, standing on her tiptoes to peer at it closely in the mirror to make sure it wasn’t chipped from the damn brick wall.

 

Wash cloth was saturated with hot water and squeezed, folded and placed on the back of her neck. She leaned on the sink counter with both hands, letting the warmth seep into her neck a moment, stretching her shoulders and squeezing her eyes together to feel droplets of water trickle from clean lashes. Her throat hurt, for good reason.

 

Straightening and stretching, she wiped down her arms. Clothes were bloody, but at least they were dry. She couldn’t get into the shower until she had something to change into and she wasn’t going to rush him taking care of his leg. Reaching for a towel to dry her face, she peered out from the bathroom toward the light of the kitchen, then the darkness in the other direction. Silent footsteps left the bathroom toward the dark, the twinkle beyond semi-translucent curtains catching her curiosity. Walking past the bed to the window, fingers pulled the curtain a sliver to the side, drying the droplets from the back of her neck as she peered out over the city. Her city.

 

It was incredible. From the street, her streets, everything was gritty, focused and real. From here, it was like the city never ended, wrapped in the twinkle of a million tiny lights that went on forever. The purple rip in the sky above was mirrored below by a velvet sea of white stars that seemed to wink at her and slowed the towel that dried her temples. She’d lived in the city all her life and had rarely, if ever, seen it from this vantage point. The black market dealer rarely left the comfort zone of her neighborhood.

 

Unsure of how long she stood there marveling at what some wouldn’t glance twice at, silent footsteps found their way back to the bathroom, closing the door. Dried blood was starting to flake off her black cami. Shit. She couldn’t wait any longer or they would be cleaning blood from everything. Turning on the faucets to the shower and waiting for the water to warm, the key was slipped from her pocket and clinked softly on the counter. She peeled off the bloody cami and jeans, putting them into a tight Army roll to minimize the mess and place on the edge of sink next to the key. Stepping in under the heated streams, the world started to wash away, if only for a moment before she would have to open that bag and share the secrets of her trade.

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“I’d offer to help with the stitches, but I have a feeling you’ve done it before.”

 

          “I’ll manage,” Ryan answered with a reassuring smile.  Truth was he knew how to apply stiches, but he still wasn’t proficient at the process.  Despite his countless injuries, it was rare a laceration couldn’t be remedied by superglue or a staple gun; and when those methods weren’t enough, he usually wasn’t in any position to apply the stiches himself anyway.  “Go and get cleaned up, I’ll pour us a drink once you’re out.”

 

Once Rorye was out of sight, the Soldier cupped the water to his face and ran his fingers through his hair.  He repeated the process several times, before turning off the faucet.  Hands were braced against the sink, and Harker allowed his head to hang for a moment.  Having washed his face and hands, the rest of his body somehow felt dirtier.  Looking for an excuse to postpone tending to his leg and with his guest occupying the only bathroom, he decided a whore’s bath was in order.

 

Ryan calmly unbuttoned his black shirt, before sliding it off and setting it aside.  Dimmed lighting revealed a lean and muscled frame.  His physique was not that of a professional body builder, but it had clearly been earned through years of dedicated training.  Each movement of his body traced a series of chiseled grooves along his lightly tanned skin.  Every exhale deepened the lightly sculpted cuts along his lower abdomen. 

 

Perhaps even more distinct than his muscled body, were the tattoos scrolling over his entire torso.  Auburn runes weaved across his chest, back and shoulders in a series of interconnected designs.  Dark brown ink almost embossed from the surface of his skin, like the many scars that also marred the warrior’s flesh. 

 

Harker wiped himself down with a wet dishtowel in the kitchen.  Water in the bathroom had stopped, and he could here the soft touch of Rorye’s feet as she explored his humble home.  He had nothing to hide and he wanted her to be comfortable, but he hoped she didn’t pry too much.  Despite his growing affection toward her, there were some conversations he wasn’t ready to have just yet.

 

When he heard the shower in the bathroom, Ryan decided it was time to gather the clothes he had promised.  After ensuring the thermostat was set to a toasty warmth, he walked to his bedroom.  Mirrored walls opened to reveal a closet and drawers.  He paused to consider an outfit for his company.  He didn’t exactly have woman’s clothing on hand.  Woman liked wearing men’s boxers as shorts, right? 

 

After a short time, an old Army t-shirt and a pair of boxers were selected from his wardrobe.  The tan t-shirt had a design from his time with the Ranger battalion.  On its front, over the heart, was a ranger tab and beneath it was written “LEAD THE WAY.”  Printed on the back of the shirt was a skull wearing a helmet.  Airborne wings spread open behind it, and behind them was a pair of crossed rifles.  Above the skull were the words, “I FEAR NO EVIL,” and below the skull it finished, “FOR I AM THE BADDEST MOTHER FUCKER IN THE VALLEY.”

 

Harker brought the clothes to the bathroom and knocked lightly against the partially open door.  “I brought some clothes,” he said loud enough to be heard over the water.  After announcing himself, he leaned inside and placed the clothes on the counter by the sink.  Sneaking an innocent peek in the mirror as he did so, though he didn’t allow his eyes to linger.  Door was closed behind him and the Soldier returned to the kitchen.  It was time to stop procrastinating… almost.

 

Ryan opened a cabinet above the refrigerator, removed a bottle of bourbon, and two matching whiskey glasses.  The cups were placed on the kitchen table, and healthy serving of Jim Beam “Devil’s Cut” was poured into each of them.  Setting the bottle down, he took a long sip from one of the glasses.  Now, it was time to stop procrastinating.

 

The agent stripped away the remnants of his tattered attire and threw them in the trash.  A first aid kit was fetched from the cupboard below the sink and set out on the table along with everything else.  Harker changed into a fresh pair of boxers and a slim fitting white t-shirt, then seated himself in front of the medical kit.  The boxers were short enough, and loose enough, they didn’t much cover the wound.

 

Carefully, he cleaned the gaping laceration on the outside of his left leg.  Dabbing the bullet wound gently with a damp rag.  Next was the sucky part.  Another sip of bourbon savored as he steeled himself to disinfect the lesion.  Undiluted rubbing alcohol was doused directly on the sundered flesh.  Jaw tightened, fist clenched, and a silent grunt rasped through Ryan’s pursed lips.  Seconds passed.  A deep breath, another gulp of Jim Beam, and he was finally ready to attempt stitching the wound.

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“Go and get cleaned up, I’ll pour us a drink once you’re out.”

 

A drink. She was going to need more than a drink. A shared bottle. Her own bottle?

 

The moments spent merely trying to feel human again blurred together, the pull of the purple swirls and streaks in the sky as she peered outside a moment seemed stronger when she was exhausted. Someday she’d figure that one out. She was not prepared for what caught her attention as she returned to the bathroom. Holy mother of god. Pause was probably longer than it should have been, the scrolling across Harker’s skin nothing like she’d ever seen before. That was no damn pick an “I like crystals” tattoo off a page shit. Head cocked slightly, recognizing some of the symbols, wanting to get a closer look, appreciating the view, but moving back into the bathroom as he seemed to sense her moving around in his space. Ninja, she was not apparently.

 

Scars were an afterthought of reality that bled through the appreciative curiosity. Of course he had scars. He would have scars; the stark reminder of what he did for a living tightening a lump in her throat. This is why she had to break from ARMA. Nothing but pain came from ARMA.

 

Clothing secured on the counter, fingers wiggled under the water a moment before she stepped in and pulled the glass shower door closed. They always amused her, light smile perking where there was gut sadness just moments before. Why the fuck did people have bathroom doors if they were just going to have glass in the shower? Of course her Victorian loft bathroom didn’t even have a door… so touché. She lived alone, she didn’t need a damn door.

 

Forehead almost immediately leaned on the front wall, heated streams peppering the back of her neck and racing down her spine. Head turned to press her angry cheek against the cool tile, fingertip absently touching the fogged glass. The tracer droplet raced toward the floor tile, allowing a thin view into the bathroom. She wasn’t sure why it was so amusing to her. Playful almost, the light knock on the door fluttering her eyelashes back to the present.

  

“I brought some clothes”

 

She reached up and snapped the hair tie from her bun, face to the streams as they washed through the length of locks to unravel it to her mid-back.

 

“Somehow I don’t think you have my size,” comment was gently teasing, but appreciative. “Thanks… I think I might actually feel human again.” ..thanks ARMA? Ryan? John? Harker? Fuck.

 

She didn’t want to over indulge too long in the shower, other than some bruises she was relatively unscathed. He had stitches to attend to, and needed the shower more than she did. Water snapped off, she stepped out and unfolded a towel. Swiping it over her skin quickly, she pulled it around her torso and tucked it in place. Twisting her hair, she squeezed out the water several times and did the same into the towel. One more swipe of the towel across her skin dried it sufficiently enough to put on loaned clothes, quiet laugh amused as she slid the shirt over her head and pulled it down. Not surprised, but entertained just the same. Easy sigh was appreciative of soft, warm and dry clothes… and safety after an insane few hours. She would try to wash hers out after she checked on his progress. Thick locks were easy to finger-comb, pressed again into the towel to remove more moisture, the scent of the t-shirt nice. She’d always appreciated simple clean, the fresh smell of soap on skin.

 

Soft footsteps brought her into the kitchen just as he took another drink, first look at it bringing her brows down. She moved back to the bathroom and retrieved two wash cloths.

 

“My dad owned the local gym, boxers always seemed to need stitches. Hard to give yourself stitches at that angle, I can do it.”

 

She didn’t wait for permission, soaking one washcloth in alcohol, squeezing it out in the kitchen sink and laying it on his opposite knee in case she needed to set anything down. Hands were rubbed with alcohol, needle and thread readied. Small scissors coated with alcohol and put on the washcloth on his knee. She spent some time on the needle, pressing it between thumb and first two fingers to coax it to bend slightly. They worked better curved.

 

Kneeling smoothly to both knees, she glanced up at him, then to her task.

 

“I work quick,” she commented. “Tell me about the sigil tattoos.”

 

Yah… so she’d looked. Couldn’t hide that now, plus it gave him something to talk about.

 

She was definitely fast, having cut the thread to almost perfect length that she needed to reduce the need to pull and drag extra length through the skin. It would need follow up care, more than just an annoying graze. He’d gotten clipped pretty good.

 

“I recognized some of them,” she was intensely focused on her task. When pain started to kick in, muscles and nerves did weird things from adrenaline. There was a small window before involuntary movements would fuck up her stitching. Knotted. Scissors were snatched, clip soft and the washcloth was pressed over the wound.

 

Done.

 

Pressing it there for a moment to quell the angry throb, she replaced it with the dry one and put his hand on it.

 

She stood, cleaned up and put things back in the kit, tipping back a bit of her glass. A quiet moment was taken to look at his eyes again, lifting each lid open gently a bit with her thumb to study each pupil, taking another drink. She was going to need more than one fucking drink if she had to keep checking his eyes. They were distracting. He was distracting.

 

“Head feel okay?” she asked quietly. The concern was real. “You were out for a minute or two.”

 

He wasn’t breathing either, he didn’t need to know that.

 

She pulled out the chair opposite him, one heel up on the edge of the chair and both hands around her glass, an effortless comfort as she watched him a moment. Eyes moved to the bag.

 

“Drink enough yet to want to see what’s inside?”

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“My dad owned the local gym, boxers always seemed to need stitches. Hard to give yourself stitches at that angle, I can do it.”

 

          Ryan’s gaze shifted to Rorye as she entered the room.  The view left him speechless.  Thin dark hair was still damp from the water, and her skin still glistened slightly in the light.  There was something about a woman fresh out of the shower that appealed to him beyond reason.  She stood there barefoot, gorgeous, and oblivious to her own beauty.  Long olive legs made the boxers she wore look shorter than they were, and perhaps sexier than anything was how she wore his shirt.  His shirt.  Two sizes too big, it draped innocently over the woman in a way that was undeniably adorable.

 

          She had caught him unprepared, but Ryan managed to shake the momentary stun.  “Yeah, sure, thanks,” he muttered without argument.  When she knelt beside him, it revealed something else about her.  She was willing to set her pride aside for him.  The gesture meant more to him than she realized.

 

          “I work quick, tell me about the sigil tattoos.”  Her demand was phrased as a question.

 

          “I’ll show you mine, if you show me yours.”  Ryan quipped, grin spreading from ear to ear.  Oh yeah, he had seen hers as well.

 

          “They’re protective runes, designed to guard against certain types of magic,” he explained.  “Demonic possession, mind control, locator spells, etcetera, etcetera.”

 

          Harker paused for another taste of bourbon.  He wanted to tell her more, but he worried she might not understand.  This kind of magic didn’t come without a price. Taking a moment to refresh both their glasses he added, “basically, they make me invisible and incorruptible… at least by magical means.”  Playful smirk pursed his lips as his aqua blue eyes looked down to her.  He wasn’t sure if she pulled the thread tighter at the comment, or if his knee jerked of its own accord.  Regardless, gritted teeth and a brief wince couldn’t quell his surly smile. 

 

Not wanting to somber the mood, Ryan had refrained from telling her the entire story.  Truth was, the runes were more unique than he cared to admit.  It had taken three of ARMA’s most astute magus more than two days to apply the tattoo wards.  The magic used to brand them upon his flesh had since been banned by ARMA.  They had deemed it’s use on operatives as “cruel” and “inhumane.” 

 

He had no intention of telling Rorye any of that, at least not tonight.  For the moment they were safe and despite the circumstances, he was enjoying her company.

 

“I recognized some of them,” she commented without looking at him.  She was making short work of the stiches, already more than halfway finished.

 

“I’m sure you did,” he teased.  “Your turn. Tell me about the one on your back.”

 

Before long Rorye had finished the task of sewing the wound closed.  A job well done so far as Ryan could tell.  She rose smoothly to her feet.  After a drink from her glass, she closed the distance between.  She doted over him, examining his head and eyes for signs of a concussion.  A question was asked, but it took the agent a moment to register the words she had spoken.  Far too distracted by the proximity between her hips and his own.  Again, she seemed oblivious to the affect she had on him.  Sure, they had been physically close to one another several times throughout the evening, but this was different.

 

“Yeah I’m fine,” Ryan answered finally.  The statement wasn’t entirely true, but he had been through worse and he would live through this.

 

She sat down across from him and they exchanged glances for a moment.  Harker scanned her features, enjoying their delicate nature, but also taking note of the minor abrasions that marred them.  Specifically, the cut on her lip.  He had meant to do something about that earlier, but they hadn’t the time.  He had time now.

 

“Drink enough yet to want to see what’s inside?” Inquiry was made as she eyed the bag on the table.

 

“Almost,” Ryan answered.  “But let’s take a look at that lip first.”

 

A small tin canister was plucked from the first aid kit, not unlike the one he had removed from the trunk of the car earlier that night.  Inside was an ointment crafted by a witch he had encountered during his time in Eastern Europe.  The healing balm was translucent and smelled of herbs and wildflowers.  An incredibly effective medicinal substance, but exceedingly rare and almost impossible to acquire.  Were it not for the fortunate meeting that left the sorceress in his debt, he likely would never had known of its existence. 

 

          “This will tingle a bit, but only for a few seconds,” the Soldier said as he stood.  Stiches held without issue and his leg bared the weight with only mild complaint.  He walked around the table and stopped as close to Rorye as she had been to him.  A finger lifted her chin gingerly so that he could examine her lip more closely.  He dabbed a separate finger into the ointment before applying it carefully to her lip.  Seconds passed, and a moment later the cut had healed entirely.    

 

“There you are,” Ryan’s gaze flitted from her eyes, to her lips, and then back again.  “Perfect.”  He found himself resisting the temptation to kiss her.  Resistance lasted only an instant, as he couldn’t fathom any reason to deny the impulse.  Leaning forward he pressed his lips gently to hers.  The kiss was confident and deliberate.  When it reached its natural conclusion, Ryan didn’t pull away, nor did he offer any apology.  Instead, he touched his forehead to hers.  “Blue devils” searching her almond eyes for a reply.

 

There was still work to be done.  As far as Ryan was concerned it was nothing that couldn’t wait until the morning.  Moments like these had been rare in his lifetime.  He hadn’t felt a connection like this since before the first Resonance.  Every inch of him desired to take advantage of every inch of her, but he restrained himself.  He had made the first move… the next was hers.

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She knew it was there from the beginning, the moment she’d blown out the flame on the incense and the door bell sounded in her shop. Damn smartasses had always been her crux. When a personality bumped into hers that seemed to chime in sync, she could feel it... though over the years since the Resonance, she’d become an expert at ignoring it. Especially over the last year. Stress always brought it back into hard focus, and the need to distance herself from anything and anyone to do with ARMA. It also brought back the fact she was avoiding men in general, for good reason. They always seemed to get hurt.

 

They’d survived the impossible, and the fallout? It was scaring her to death and had been on her mind in the car all the way back. It was thick when she emerged from the shower with intentions to either drink herself to sleep or spend the entire night poring over the books she’d grabbed in the rush at Remy’s. Thick enough to make the light freckling on her cheeks a bit darker from a blush when she felt his attention on her as she managed to pull her shit together and take care of business. You did what was necessary to survive… when the surviving was done you were left with what to do about it. It. The grasp for humanity in the most impossible of situations. It mucked everything up. Blurred the lines. Cracked open levels of trust and emotional intimacy that made one vulnerable, but also ultimately made one human. That stress made people reach for the warmth of other souls because it was human nature. It buzzed in the apartment despite her attempts to calm herself, and it was made worse by the circle back of memories to the first chime of the shop.

 

It made her wonder who he really was.

 

After a moment of getting things ready, she realized she was holding her breath, the slow exhale outward almost imperceptible before asking about his tattoos. She just had to get herself together, get home when she was rested, and rethink all this before she did something incredibly stupid. Or, incredibly... yah.

 

“I’ll show you mine, if you show me yours.”

 

“Smartass,” the quip back was just as spirited, so easy. Prickle twinkled up the back of her spine to tickle the nape of her neck. Concentration was on her task, but her peripheral was watching the muscles of his arms move. Men were a work of art, truly; especially those that worked with their hands.

 

“They’re protective runes, designed to guard against certain types of magic, Demonic possession, mind control, locator spells, etcetera, etcetera.”

 

The business side of her mind was intrigued. That was absolutely fascinating, she’d heard of brands, scarification, but never the tattooing made to look like that. It would make sense, symbols could be drawn on anything really, but to make them permanent? She’d caught tales of people etching their bones too, but had never actually met anyone… and how the hell would you prove something like that even if they boasted about it? She’d seen carved skulls, finger bones and femurs were common too, but never anything ever done to the living.

 

“Basically, they make me invisible and incorruptible… at least by magical means.” 

 

Quirked brow glanced up at him then slid back to her work, a half smirk on her lips. Their banter was so easy.

 

“Drink your booze cowboy.”

 

 “Your turn. Tell me about the one on your back.”

 

“It’s just a tattoo,” she answered quietly. “Nothing magical or mystical. Parents were from Scotland, I enjoy Celtic knotwork. Specialty in my shop is the books that study the obscure magic associated with them. It hurt like hell, it’s beautiful and I love it…”

 

She finished up, checking his eyes.

 

“Though sometimes I wish I’d gotten it somewhere else, where I could actually see and enjoy it.”

 

His eyes still looked fine. It had been constantly on her mind since they’d gotten back. If he’d been hit hard enough to knock him out and stop breathing, she didn’t want any surprises.

 

“Yeah I’m fine”

 

Her demeanor wasn’t convinced, the quirk of her lips thoughtful as she sat across from him, unmoving for the first time in hours. The silence was insanely loud. She wanted to see what was in that damn box. Or drink. Or sleep. Maybe in that order.

 

Body language changed slightly when she realized he felt the need to take care of her; it was her turn to be unhappy about it.

 

“But let’s take a look at that lip first.”

 

“It’s fine… really,” she said. “Thought it needed a stitch but it’s stopped. It’s good.”

 

“This will tingle a bit, but only for a few seconds”

 

Insistence she was fine brought her brows down. Shit, she was doing the exact same song and dance that he had. Granted, she didn’t have stitches in her leg so it was really unnecessary. As he neared, she reluctantly sat up in the chair with an annoyed sigh and dropped her foot quietly to the floor, fingers intertwined between her knees when he lifted her chin and dabbed something odd on her lip. Nose crinkled a bit in apprehension. She had a big damn tattoo and she was afraid of the sting from whatever the hell this was. Lashes were low, focused on a point of reference over his head to avoid looking at him. Not this close. They fluttered slightly, lifting finally to look at him as she touched her healed lip.

 

Holy shit. She had to get her hands on this stuff.

 

“There you are”

 

He was really warm.

 

It was the last thought in her head before all hell broke loose from head to toe as he kissed her, a prickled wash of every nerve in her body reminding her it existed. This was a bad idea. Terrible idea, and it screamed through her thoughts.

 

Then, was silent.

 

Eyes opened when his forehead touched hers. Pupils had flushed wide, a pale fear there. Eyes closed again, head shaking softly with her forehead against his. He didn’t know they’d been this close before. How could he have? This time, he was conscious. She stood, arms around his shoulders and fingers sliding up the back of his neck to keep him from retreating.

 

“You stopped breathing…” it was finally confessed. “After the explosion, you weren’t breathing. I thought you died.”

 

Brow furled, pulling back to look at him. And if he had? Strike three for her? The ethos telling her she was cursed? Hands slid forward, both thumbs sliding over his cheeks as she searched for some kind of answer in his eyes that would make it fine. She was not oblivious to his attention, she was afraid of it. Survivor’s guilt. She had always been fearless, gutsy, somewhat impulsive. You only lived once. The events of late had made her second guess. Everything.

 

“I asked you not to.”

 

And he hadn't.

 

Just breathe.

 

His advance was reciprocated, the insanely self-confident, leap-now-and-think-later underground dealer extremely gentle in her kiss. Lingering touch of her lips had the ability to make time seem to pause, sultry eyes blinking slowly. Her healed lip still tingled, reaching to touch it with soft smile as her brow quirked.

 

“Go clean up, left you a few towels” she said quietly, the rum rich tones of her voice barely audible. “Who the hell knows what that explosion dropped on us. We’ll clean and look through all this other stuff in the morning.”

 

Eyes traveled over the pile of weapons and the messenger bag.

 

“We’ll kill the bottle when you’re out and I’ll drink your ass under the table…”

 

She nodded toward the bathroom and pushed him toward it.

 

“Go.”

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Rorye hadn’t pulled away from him, but once the moment passed, she began shaking her head “no.”  Slowly, Ryan pulled away. The universal gesture was easy enough to understand.  So, it surprised him when she stood and held him in place.  Arms draped over his shoulders, fingers slid up the back of his neck, and nails combed blissfully through his hair.  An electric chill seemed to tingle across the man’s scalp, and it was all Ryan could do not to shudder.

 

          “You stopped breathing,” she whispered.  She was so close to him.  Eyes so close to his, her lips so close his.  All he could think about was kissing them again.

 

          “You have that effect on me,” Harker smirked slyly, tip of his nose brushing hers gently.

 

          “After the explosion, you weren’t breathing. I thought you died.” He could hear the fear in her voice.  A moment was spared to reflect on the events that had transpired earlier that evening.  They had been far from Ryan’s mind, but he vaguely recalled the explosion.  It had knocked him out for a few seconds, but losing consciousness was far from death.  In the past, the operative had significantly closer brushes with death, and he would no doubt cross blades with the reaper again in the future.  Tonight, had just been par for the course.  Even if the explosion had killed him… and he could go back and do it over, given the circumstances at the time… he wouldn’t have done anything differently. 

 

          “I’m fine,” Ryan assured her softly.  “It’ll take a hell of a lot more than that to kill me.”

 

          Rorye’s hands slid down to cradle his face, “I asked you not to.”

 

          “I didn’t,” the reply was quick.  By now, his hands had found their way to her hips.  Where they rest, holding her close to him.  Ocean blue eyes met her gaze; confidence within them was resolute.

 

          When she kissed him, Harker almost felt as though his abilities had activated for yet another time that evening.  Almost.  Time stood still, the world faded away, and he wholly savored the reciprocated embrace.  The man was about two seconds from scooping Rorye off her feet and plummeting down the sensual rabbit hole, when she leaned away from him lightly.

 

          “Go clean up, I left you some towels.”  She touched a finger to her sultry lips in a way that made Ryan want to bite his own.  He eyed her with playful suspicion.  Wondering if she was teasing him intentionally, when she added, “Who the hell knows what that explosion dropped on us. We’ll clean and look through all this other stuff in the morning.”  

 

          “Yes, ma’am,” he replied in mocking agreement.  She reminded him; he hadn’t actually showered yet.  If he appreciated a freshly bathed woman, it made sense anyone else might share similar sentiments.

 

          “We’ll kill the bottle when you’re out and I’ll drink your ass under the table…” she challenged with a flirty smile.  A gentle shove took his eyes off her lips and got him started toward the bathroom, “Go.”

 

          “Challenge accepted,” Ryan said over his shoulder as he walked past the kitchen.  “Oh!  And help yourself to anything in the kitchen.  I’ll be out in a minute,” he hollered from the bathroom before closing the door.  Though, he intentionally left it slightly ajar.

 

          Once the door was closed, the Soldier’s smile slowly faded.  Not from any absence of joy, but from his muscles reminding him of their suffering.  He started the hot water, and almost immediately the mirrors began to fog.  A deep breath was taken as he steeled himself for the pain to come.  There was a brief struggle as he removed his shirt and discarded it.  Breath he had been holding was released, and a few seconds later he stepped into the shower.

 

          Water was as hot as Harker could possibly tolerate.  Its warmth soothed his knotted muscles, and the burning sensation against his skin distracted from the pain he felt everywhere else.  An arm was braced against the wall, forehead rest against.  For a short time, he just stood still.  The night, the kiss, and everything else replaying through his mind as the water flowed over him.  Lips pursed tightly as he neared his capacity to endure to the scorching heat, finally bringing him back to the present.

 

          Water was cut off and Ryan stepped out of the shower.  As he dried himself with a fresh towel, he noticed the several scrapes and bruises that marked his body.  Aside from the stitches on his leg, the most notable injury was the bruise over his heart.  Silver thread had stopped the bullet, but evidently not much of its kinetic force.  He would be fine.  Though, he was concerned what Rorye might think if she saw the injuries that accompanied his already vast gallery of scars.  The prospect of putting his shirt back on was not one he enjoyed.  Fortunately, his tattoos camouflaged the bruise and several of his other marks.  They would be difficult to see in the living room’s present lighting, absent close inspection or someone turning the lights back up. 

 

Ryan walked out of the bathroom wearing only his boxers and a towel around his neck.  Eyes scanned the room for his Scottish Valkyrie, “So how about that drink?”

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“You have that effect on me”

 

Eyes closed gently, soaking in the innocent brush on the tip of her nose, unsure why such a simple thing could completely disarm her ever-present fray. Being invincible and calm about it was draining. He’d managed to defuse even that. She refused to believe this was anything other than a fluke brought on by pressure, adrenaline, fear, risk… the need for something other than pain.

 

His claim of being hard to kill pulled a small, frustrated sigh from her. What if she’d not been there, implications of her thought process unwelcome at this exact moment. She couldn’t seem to shake the guilt no matter what she did.

 

“I didn’t”

 

No, he hadn’t.

 

This time. The other shoe would drop eventually; it was too good to be real.

 

The kiss felt real enough, eyes searching azure for a reason to stop this before it went further. She could find none, so of course she didn’t trust it, and of course she didn’t act more on it.

 

Suggestion he take his turn in the shower was twofold.  They didn’t know what exactly the explosion had dropped on them; it was responsible and logical. Plus, his leg needed the rest of him to be clean so it didn’t get worse. It would need more after care than just slapping a bandage on it. The arcane dealer also needed time, a moment to process why this had become so tranquil while moving faster than she could ever imagine. It felt selfish and full of betrayal, knowing in her logical mind it wasn’t; still feeling like shit about it nonetheless.

 

“Yes, ma’am”

 

Features smiled, the expression gentle as she laughed slightly. When had she last laughed so much in one evening? She couldn’t remember. He was… well, captivating.

 

“Challenge accepted, Oh!  And help yourself to anything in the kitchen.  I’ll be out in a minute,”

 

Smile was bright after him, waiting until the first lively splash of water on the shower floor signaled he was occupied before she sank back to the chair, forearms on her knees. Fingers intertwined together several times impatiently, the expression fading as she stared toward the partially open door. Fidgeting, looking over the piled items on the table. The bottle. Okay. Away from the temptation of the things on the table. Glasses were picked up along with the bottle, face scrunching to scold herself after she looked at the bedroom door. Living room it was. Everything clinked on the coffee table and she sat on the couch, the same fidgeting. Glasses poured. She wasn’t hungry. So… waiting. Eyes glanced once more toward the bathroom door.

 

Aw fuck it.

 

Footsteps were quick toward the bathroom door, reaching to push it open, retreating at the last moment to turn on the ball of her foot and walk away just as hastily. Arms crossed and stride took her to it again, palm emerging with intent to open it. Nope. Hand rifled through her damp hair instead. Pacing with light footfalls betrayed her indecision, muddled by too many tangled thoughts and wants to straighten out in the time she was given. Time. That fucking word again. Air was drawn into her lungs in a large sigh, forcing her feet to stop moving. She touched the door lightly, intent to push it open… and do what exactly? Fingers remained there even as the water turned off. Gaze focused on the sliver of light that crept out from under the door.

 

Stay afraid, but do it anyway.

 

She didn’t retreat at first, listening to the movement inside and then deciding to go retrieve a blanket. Fuck! The darkness of his bedroom was welcomed, cooling the heat on her cheeks. There had been a blanket on the foot of his bed; she would need it to sleep on the couch. Acquired and tossed on the couch, she returned to the bathroom to wait patiently outside, leaning on the wall with her shoulder. All that busy work, for nothing. Well, not for nothing. It helped her think.

 

Door opened, and he emerged. She was holding her breath, no shirt. Fucking hell.

 

 “So how about that drink?”

 

“Poured,” she said quietly from behind him. “Wait a minute.”

 

She wanted a chance to at least look at the arcane symbols before they were hidden away again, lifting the towel before sliding it off completely. Check of the stitches was the responsible thing to do, pressing the towel there a moment before turning her attention back to him. Glance asked quiet permission to touch the sigils, really not waiting as fingers explored them. They felt like braille. Hers did that sometimes after a hot shower or a lot of sun, but never like this. Both hands traced the skin as she tried to read what was there, fingers lingering on a scar.

 

Fear and guilt were skittering in her stomach, screeching her thoughts to a halt. Yet again. Dammit. Fuck this! She leaned up without warning, hands still on his chest, and kissed him anyway. Not just an innocent caress, unhurried and deep, intent unquestionable. Breath a bit too fast, soft smile was delivered through half lowered lids, lips brushing his again as her hands slid up and around his shoulders. The ball was in his court.

 

***Before Dawn***

 

A rhythmic pulse welcomed her back to consciousness; it had been there for some time as she’d hovered in the time between times, the place where dreams touched a vague reality to tangle into something surreal. Soft sigh finally stirred, fingers of her right hand flexing on cool and soft sheets, dark lashes opening slightly. Left hand was warm next to her face, cheek resting on skin that rose and fell methodically. Every time he exhaled, muscle on his stomach would softly flicker to life and relax again. Lips pressed softly into a smile, men were stunning, shifting her gaze upward to watch him a moment. A short lock of hair on his temple that had dried in a mussed position teased at her to tame it. She left it alone, it was perfect.

 

Mind was beginning to shake the heaviness of sleep.

 

She was not on the couch, the intended place for her to end up for the night left empty. Instead, his massive bed was occupied by a tangle of blankets and their sleeping, exhausted and battle bruised, but tranquil presence. Kneejerk reaction was to freak out as she realized what they’d done. Of all the stupid, irresponsible… she fought the urge to toss the covers off, grab her things and leave. Panic was quelled, eyes closing to take a calming breath. She’d made a decision and she was fine with it, the stillness settling again in her thoughts. She'd decided.

 

Eyes finally opened completely to silent darkness that held the glow of early morning, it was palpable. A growing luminosity from the sky still suppressed by the heaviness of night, it felt ethereal. She carefully untangled herself, hair smoothed over her shoulder, wrapping herself loosely in a sheet and padded toward the window to peer out. Snow flittered down from a cloudless sky, soft burn of pale gold on the horizon trying to lift the veil of darkness, lights of the city still twinkling.

 

It was a selfish moment, personal and quiet, letting the curtain fall back into place before sliding back into bed and retaking her position, stealing a quick kiss on sleeping lips before settling back in and closing her eyes. Just a few more minutes before the heaviness of the world was allowed to rest on her shoulders again. Maybe more than a few.

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“Poured,” Ryan heard the words over his shoulder.  Seemingly unsurprised, he calmly turned to face her.  Azure hues beholding every inch of her body.  He made no attempt to conceal his mischievous stare.  She was beautiful.  “Wait a minute,” she said, closing the gap between.

 

Rorye removed his towel and tossed it aside without a second thought.  Her eyes scanned his chest before glancing back up at him.  He gave a permissive nod, but said nothing as she explored his body.  When her fingers began to trace his scars, he felt slightly self-conscious.  Of course, he was proud of most of them.  Each had been earned through righteous battle, and he had lived to tell the tale.  On the other hand, scars often weren’t as clean and sexy as portrayed on television.  Especially not the newer ones.  Those blemishes were typically still red and angry, despite having been healed for several months.  Ryan had scars both new and old.

 

When she leaned in and kissed him, all insecurity melted away.  Her hands glided across his chest and smoothly over his shoulders.  A sheepish smile came to her lips and eyes batted lightly as she gazed up at him.  She was breathing quickly, as if she had been holding her breath.  Ryan’s heart had skipped a beat, but now pounded rapidly against his chest.  Fucking game on.

 

Ryan acted on desires he had previously denied himself.  Strong hands gripped her firmly at the waist and pulled her close.  Lips were pressed to hers gently at first, but then more forcefully as the passion between them mounted.  She leaned into his embrace with equal measure, and the evening’s direction became abundantly clear.

 

Ryan’s hands slid down the back of her thighs and he lifted her from the ground in an effortless motion.  Wrapping her legs around his middle, he pinned her to the wall across the hall from the bathroom.  He hadn’t slammed her against its surface, but he hadn’t been gentle either.

 

Rorye’s heel clipped his leg just above his stitches, and he hissed at the unexpected pain.  Concern flashed across her features, but before she could muster any words, he silenced her with another zealous kiss.  Yes, his stitches seared angrily at the abuse.  And yes, the muscles along his back protested at their exertion.  He didn’t care.  The pain brought them both closer to satisfaction… which meant it only added to his pleasure. 

 

Ryan pried her from the wall and made his way toward the bedroom.  The couple pinballed down the hallway, stopping several times along the way.  Her fingers combing through his hair and clawing recklessly at his back.  While his lips nibbled ravenously at her neck, searching for all the little places that might make her squeal.  Their breathing was heavy, both were panting before they had even crossed room’s threshold.  Ryan kicked the door shut behind them and wasted no time getting Rorye into his bed.

 

------ The Next Morning ------

 

Ryan remembered laying down with Rorye in his arms, and nothing else until he woke the next morning.  Dreams had been peaceful, if he’d had any at all.  A refreshing change from the scenes that typically haunted him at night.  Despite the rigorous tasks of the previous day, he woke feeling rested. 

 

The scent of fresh coffee teased at his nose, stirring him from his sleep.  Arms stretched wide across the bed.  Back arched slightly and the mornings growl escaped him with a heavy sigh.  Eyes blinked away the darkness, then looked around the room.  Realization he hadn’t gone to bed alone finally settled.  The soft patter of a woman’s footsteps could be heard somewhere down the hall.

 

Ryan slid another of his pistols back into its rightful place beneath his pillow.  Not surprisingly, it had found its way into his hand whilst he slept.  Sitting up slowly, the agent swung his legs over the side of the bed.  Opening the top drawer of his nightstand, he reached inside and grasped several half-empty prescription bottles.  Ibuprofen, muscle relaxers, and anti-biotics were swallowed without any chaser; part of a regularly practiced ritual.

 

 Bottles were thrown carelessly back into the drawer.  Harker had been ready to slam the drawer shut, when his eyes caught a glimpse of familiar faces staring back at him.  Hand lowered into the drawer for a second time, this time withdrawing a simple black picture frame.  Pained smile tugged at his lips as he gazed fondly at the old photograph.  Rational thought told him enough time had passed.  Told him it was okay to move on.  Still, he couldn’t help feeling somewhat guilty for the moment of happiness Rorye had brought him the night before.  Picture was placed carefully back into the drawer, and he closed the compartment.

 

After a moment of searching, Ryan found his boxers and slid them on.  Pulling a shirt over his head, he walked to his closet mirror and gave himself a quick once over.  No crusted drool, no unsightly boogers, or anything of the like were found.  He ran a hand quickly through his hair and then proceeded into the living room. 

 

A glance at his watch told him it was already almost 1000 hours.  A late start to the day, but the rest had been well deserved.  When he found Rorye, he looked to her with warm smile, “Good morning, gorgeous.”

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There was something in the dark, breathing across her skin with a gentle breeze. Tired eyes opened enough to lazily blink, the blur of lashes making the world dull at the edges. In the city, dark was never dark, and night still flickered with enough light to see when one’s eyes adjusted. The room filtered in gray hues, corners clearly visible, walls, ceiling, curtains and shadows. Beyond the window, dawn soon.

 

Her hand was cold.

 

Sliding it from Ryan’s chest and pulling her other beneath her, she pushed herself up quietly, waterfall of mahogany waves whispering against the blankets in a cascade. Leaning there on one arm, blanket was held against her chest, watching the room in silence. She could hear herself breathe, the blanket rustling with the rise and fall, the quiet almost… alive.

 

Something had been moving in the room. Sliding off the foot of the bed silently, she retrieved her shirt and pulled it over her head, opening the bedroom door to peer out into the apartment. A step out, and the air was the same. Bathroom light had burned all night, kitchen on, glasses on the coffee table still anticipating being consumed. Front door locked.

 

The bag on the table, was that it?

 

Shit.

 

Maybe?

 

Her feet were cold, the air over the floor muffled and cool. Fingers were freezing, clasping them together to her lips to attempt to blow a quiet breath and warm them up, looking at the ring on her hand.

 

The ring.

 

She rubbed it absently, warming it up. It’d never done that before.

 

His wards. Was it reacting to his wards?

 

Wanting so much to test her theory, she really didn’t think it was a good idea. That was something he needed to be awake for. The key was an alternative. It was still in the bathroom.

 

The coin. The key. A conversation that had brought so much to light over a year ago. The magus at Remy’s. Someone knew something she didn’t. Seeing Cass’ face when she touched the odd coin wasn’t a fluke. It was connected somehow. Her hand had spent probably hours near Harker’s warded tattoos, and something had stirred. Irritated perhaps, attracted? Curious?

 

It was where she left it, innocuous without the incantation to set it as a catastrophic lock. She knew where to find the words, one of the books on the table had all sorts of fun in it. She’d gotten this thing for Remy, one of her first prized finds in the black market world. Now it was a big fucking experiment, picking it up. She hesitated. This wasn’t a good idea. Of course, she had the run on risky ideas in the last twenty four hours, what was one more? Key in her palm, she closed her hand around it. Heel of her free hand came instantly to her forehead, the sound chimed in her ears like a bell as the two pieces of metal came in contact. Flash seared through the front of her skull, hand slapping over her mouth to keep from crying out... don’t let go of it. Eyes crushed shut, sensation dizzying as colors moved faster in her mind’s eye. The flash again, it was the explosion, followed by too much stimuli to hold on for much longer. Faces. Voices, releasing it the moment she saw her own face. Not now, not yesterday but years ago.

 

Explosive breath released, she held it at eye level, quick footsteps taking it to the kitchen table and putting it there. Hand was shaken out, the sensation like she’d smashed her fingers.

 

Now she knew.

 

The conversation she’d had over a year ago that they thought yielded nothing, had brought shit down on her doorstep. She could see who held the item. No, not her. HER.

 

She needed to think, she could think when she worked, pawing through her coat pocket to pull out her cell phone. Nose crinkled, grime on her fingers from the leather. Damn it. Scrolling through the names and numbers as she washed off her hand, she set to work. Mass cleaning was nothing new to her, she worked quickly in the morning. It was her job after all.

 

But, she was also half dressed.

 

Phone in hand, thumb beeped the intended call off, extremely quiet as she retrieved her boxers from the darkness of the bedroom.

 

“Ryan…?” she said softly.

 

What she really wanted to do was slide back under the covers and wake him up her own way… when there was no response, lip was chewed a moment, no effort to suppress the burn on her cheeks from mischievous thoughts.  She HAD to make a lot of sensitive calls, after what had happened last night there was no way around it. She would have to use the time she had while he was asleep. Yes, he was ARMA. Yes, she should be sharing this information. No, she wasn’t going to. The workings of things that ran under the surface of the known had a huge fucking hole blown into it the night before. If she didn’t rebuild the “roads”, the flow of items would be disrupted, and she would lose track of the directions items were moving. If the market flow collapsed, it was chaos. Chaos made it easy for those that wanted things they weren’t supposed to have to get them. They trusted her. They didn't know him. Maybe with time, but now wasn't it.

 

She was about to become the major hub because it was necessary.

 

Short work was made of the basics as the phone pressed to her ear with her shoulder. Hell, she could put out an entire stock of books while making calls. Clothes rinsed out, towels corralled. He had to have something around for laundry; no way he did what he did without having a way to clean things up. The mirrors had made her suspicious; she was a master at places to store things. There had to be some kind of something behind some of them but she wasn’t going to go about prying at them. Coffee. Blanket folded on the couch. Glasses and bottle picked up and on the counter. Food started. Leather and weapons cleaned and hung up. She even attempted to untangle his gear the best she could. People could be very particular about their weapons, so she left them laid out on the coffee table to clean and reset as he saw fit. She had been pulling her hair back the entire time, rarely wearing it down. There had been a hair tie around somewhere, lost somewhere in the bathroom, spending a few moments retracing her steps without success. Oh well. Nina had been called; there was no suspicion of anything. It wasn’t unusual for the arcane dealer to be out at a moment’s notice. The other calls weren’t so positive, in full business mode. All that was left was to finish food.

 

“Runners are early.”

 

Piece of bacon was popped between her teeth as she made short work of everything on the stovetop. She owned a café of sorts after all…

 

“Didn’t you hear what I just said? It’s early because a stop is missing. Remy’s is off the map.”

 

Expression darkened as she listened to the other caller.

 

“Yah, he’s gone, I understand that Chris. I’m taking that risk.”

 

Brows again furled, she shifted the phone to her other ear, pouring coffee.

 

“No, I’m taking point. Why? Because they fucking tortured him. You check in with me every week. Yes, that’s what I’ve told everyone. You get something you think is hot, you call me. If you can get it to me safely I will hold it for you. Do NOT accept or take anything from new clients that you haven’t vetted with me. Why? Did you hear what I just told you? Remy, is gone. His place… it’s gone.”

 

She left the stove for a moment, opening the fridge and disappearing behind the door to search for something.

 

“He gave me up. Yah, I know… I didn’t believe it either. These guys are no joke, that’s why you need to check in with me. Okay. Bye. Chris... be careful.”

 

“Good morning, gorgeous.”

 

She froze a moment, peering up over the refrigerator door, brushing a lock of hair from her eyes. He'd startled her but, Jesus Christ, just looking at him did things to her… blush was immediate as she closed the door, cutting the call with a beep and tossing the phone on the counter.

 

“Running a business is never a vacation,” she smiled, the excuse true but vague. “Coffee? It’s on the house.”

 

She’d caught the throwback to the night before when he’d walked into her shop.

 

“I let you sleep, you needed it.”

 

She’d gone back to finishing breakfast at the stove-top, tucking a lock behind her ear. The tips of her ears were burning too. God damn it.

 

“I didn’t know what you liked, so I made a little of everything.”

Edited by Rorye Shannon-Kearney
Typo and clarification
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Ryan had overheard most of Rorye’s phone conversation.  He had not intended to eavesdrop, but when he heard whispered words, surveillance habits took over almost instinctively.  He wasn’t sure what kind of relationship would exist between them moving forward, but he was certain he didn’t want it to include lies, deception, and counter surveillance.  As soon as he be consciously aware of his intelligence gathering, he pushed himself into the living room and made his presence known.

 

          “Running a business is never a vacation,” Rorye answered.  The statement was undeniably vague, but not a mistruth.  “Coffee, it’s on the house?”

 

          “Why thank you,” Ryan replied with a chuckle.  He had caught her throwback to the previous night as well.  Funnier now that it was his coffee she offered.  “You’re so generous.”

 

          “I let you sleep, you needed it.”  She said turning back to the stove.  She was making breakfast; that earned her an extra point.

 

          “After last night, I definitely needed it.”  He replied with mischievous grin, allowing the double meaning to linger in ambiguity.  Hands rest on his hips as the scanned the apartment.  Several items were still out of place, but it was significantly cleaner than they had left it the night before.  Another point.  “Looks like you’ve been busy this morning.”

 

          Harker’s professional side wanted to move straight into business.  Assess the items recovered from the hideout, inquire about the business calls, and develop a plan of action.  However, this side of him was handedly overpowered by the human side of him.  The part of the ARMA agent that made him “Ryan” beneath everything else.

 

          Rorye was a sight to behold, as she stood nonchalantly in the kitchen.  Ryan ogled her without any attempt to veil his scrutiny.  Casually, he walked up behind her.  Muscled arms slid around her slender frame, and his chest pressed gently against her back.  Nose brushed the back of her neck as he breathed in her scent.  God, how he loved that smell.  Lips rose to the back of her ear, tickling her gently as he whispered, “Do you have any idea how sexy you look right now?”

 

“I didn’t know what you liked, so I made a little of everything.”  She said, he could feel her smile, even without seeing her face.

 

“Oh, you know exactly what I like.”  Ryan said with a playful nibble at her earlobe.  He was pouring the sensual cheese on thick, but clearly enjoying every flirtatious second.  He plucked the morsel of bacon she’d been munching, then reached over her shoulder to grab the coffee cup she’d been drinking from.  There were two coffee cups on the counter, but he intentionally avoided the fresh cup sitting right beside hers.

 

Harker walked to the kitchen table and took a seat.  Satisfied grin as he gazed back at Rorye.  Bacon bit was tossed into his mouth and washed down with a warm gulp of coffee.  “Breakfast smells amazing,” he said honestly.  A mental picture of her was taken in that moment; one he would recall fondly for years to come. 

 

Ryan would have enjoyed nothing more, than to take the day and explore the growing connection him and Rorye.  Unfortunately, the couple faced grave danger and powerful enemies.  Addressing these issues could only be avoided for so long.  Begrudgingly, he began to shift the conversation. 

 

“So, after we eat, I’m thinking we should sit down and inventory the items collected from the warehouse.”  Another sip of coffee before he continued, “After we see what we’ve got, I will go and check on your shop.  I can grab you some clothes from your place, while you research Remy’s artifacts and warn your contacts.  When I get back, we can come up with a game plan.  What do you think?”

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It felt odd, yet comfortable. The ease of banter, tangled with the elephant in the room- on the table and the night before.

 

“Why thank you. You’re so generous.”

 

He seemed amused at the coffee quip. Last night at the shop felt like forever ago. The weariness was still in her bones, but her mind was clear enough to function. She kept her pace at the stove, there were other things to do than make breakfast. It was creating a great distraction at the moment to keep from talking about the obvious, or watching him as he surveyed what she’d been up to. He was so fucking distracting, eyes glancing at him briefly as she commented about letting him sleep.

 

“After last night, I definitely needed it.”

 

Oh fucking hell. Lip was chewed to avoid attracting attention to the obvious smirk that was on her features.

 

“Looks like you’ve been busy this morning.”

 

“Couldn’t sleep, working helps me think.”

 

Couldn’t sleep was an understatement. Not allowed to sleep by her quirks, or woken from sleep would have been far more accurate. That had to be addressed this morning too, though she wasn’t quite sure how to do it yet. The coin. She needed to see if he had the coin on him or in the car.

 

He was watching her. Sure, she was watched all the time. This was inherently different and made her incredibly self-conscious; there wasn't a professional facade to hide behind. The depth she had let him into her personal life in less than twenty four hours was substantial. A quick glance was cast in his direction right before he approached; long breath pulled in and let out when arms slid around her. Hands stopped what they were doing, that moment of standing still when the world was in chaos. Shoulders shivered slightly.

 

“Do you have any idea how sexy you look right now?”

 

“I was going to ask you the same thing,” the playful comment back was probably unexpected, maybe not. The nibble at her earlobe was met with an under her breath quip. “You do that again and I really hope your counters are as strong as they look.”

 

She almost swatted him, almost, when he stole her coffee. Bacon was forgivable, coffee… not so much.

 

“You don’t play fair, noted,” she smirked, watching him sit. She missed it. This. It had been a long time.

 

 “Breakfast smells amazing.”

 

“It’s almost like… I do this for a living,” it was her turn to be a smart ass. “But you have to be awful special to get sole attention from the boss…”

 

She slid the bag to the side on the table, then plated up everything, stealing her coffee back for a moment to finish it on her way to the kitchen to get the second round. A little bit of everything made a great spread. Coffee pot refreshed “his” coffee and she set it back on the table in front of him.

 

“Go ahead, I just need to finish up,” she never left anything unattended in the kitchen and actually cleaned up the worst before ever sitting down to eat. Habit, good teaching by her father- he was the best cook she’d ever known.

 

“So, after we eat, I’m thinking we should sit down and inventory the items collected from the warehouse.” 

 

Cooking utensils were rinsed off in the sink, listening quietly as she wiped the counters. Business. She didn’t want to deal with business after she’d been dealing with it all morning. It had to be done though.

 

“After we see what we’ve got, I will go and check on your shop.  I can grab you some clothes from your place, while you research Remy’s artifacts and warn your contacts.  When I get back, we can come up with a game plan.  What do you think?”

 

“I’m going back to my shop,” was the only thing she said for a moment while she tidied up.

 

She stopped finally, crossing her arms and leaning one hip on the counter. Was he expecting her to stay here? To hide? She knew what the dangers were. She’d lived them, over and over. What she did was dangerous, and she knew it.

 

“I don’t run.”

 

The expression on her features was serious, and fearless, pausing only long enough to make sure he truly heard her.

 

“My contacts have been called, they’ve been given the plan. The shop is fine, I called them already.”

 

She was deciding how much to divulge, sitting across from him with her cup of coffee and leaning back in the chair. One foot folded under her thigh, fingertip tracing the rim of the mug as she thought.

 

“There is too much in that shop for me to not be there,” it was disclosing a lot. Remy’s was in plain sight if you could get into it. Hers, wasn’t. Her entire shop was a front for what she had hidden everywhere. She watched him a moment. “I won’t have them do to my people what they did to Remy. I’m not leaving them. If I run, it’s not business as usual. There is an order to things, a flow built on trust. A major player drops off the map and clients get nervous, try to purge their stock to stay off the radar. It becomes a buyer’s market- to anyone. Whatever you hoped you could keep them from getting their hands on, will be out in the open to get taken.”

 

A drink of coffee, and a slice of bacon, then the bombshell.

 

“I’ve told them to send it to me to hold. Nobody is taking on or selling to any new clients until I tell them. Anything they’re questionable about, they’re sending to me. It’s all funneling to my shop now.”

 

Fingers tapped on the table softly, reaching to pull the blanket of mahogany waves on her shoulders to one side. There was no fear in her voice, or her expression. She knew what she had to do, she was pretty sure he was probably not going to like it.

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“You do that again and I really hope your counters are as strong as they look.”

 

God damn.  Ryan hadn’t expected her to fire back, but he had half a mind to push the envelope.  Another time, perhaps.

 

---

 

“It’s almost like… I do this for a living, but you have to be awful special to get sole attention from the boss…”  She was enjoying herself, good.  Ryan could feel their banter was different now, but in a good way.  When they had first met, there was a dangerous edge to her words.  Now, she was just as witty, but her tone was softer and more amiable.  Good.

 

“I guess that makes me awfully special,” he replied smartly.  Allowing himself to be distracted by the food long enough for her to reclaim her mug. 

 

“Go ahead, I just need to finish up,” she offered.  Fresh coffee was placed beside his breakfast plate.  Bacon, eggs, toast, the works.  It was a perfect little breakfast. 

 

“Thank you,” Ryan said quietly.  The comment was made almost impulsively, but it lacked any of his typical humor.  His appreciation for her effort was sincere.  Taking the coffee from the table, he leaned back in his chair and sipped from it deliberately.

 

The eating habits he had learned in the military were atrocious.  “Shove it down and taste it later,” had been a common philosophy back then, regardless of the quality of the food.  If he started eating while she was still working in the kitchen, there would be nothing left on his plate by the time she was finished.  If they were going to enjoy breakfast together, he would wait for her to join him at the table.  Hopefully, she wouldn’t notice when he tried to eat intentionally slow.

 

“I’m going back to my shop,” she said without looking at him.  Rorye already knew he wasn’t going to agree with the idea.  Probably because she already knew it was a bad idea.

 

“That’s a bad idea,” Ryan said aloud, matching the emptiness of her tone.  An argument was brewing, and he wasn’t going to be the one to start it.  Another taste from his coffee cup.  Neither spoke for a moment.

 

“I don’t run,” she said finally.  Arms were crossed defiantly over her chest as she turned to face him.  Either she was genuinely unafraid, or she was putting on an impressive show.  In either instance, she was acting foolish.

 

“No one is asking you to run,” Harker started, but was cut off before he could finish.  Evidently, she had more to say.

 

“My contacts have been called, they’ve been given the plan. The shop is fine, I called them already.”  Rorye sat down across the table from him, still refusing to look him in the eyes.  She was being naïve.

 

“Your shop isn’t fine, it’s just not under siege at the moment.”  Ryan’s words became more pointed as they approached their prospective “lines in the sand.”  Azure hues stared intently at her, even as she refused to return his gaze.  “They’re watching your shop, they’re watching your people, and they are waiting for you. If you go back now, you will be putting everyone in danger.”

 

“There is too much in that shop for me to not be there,” her almond eyes looked to him.  Then she continued, “I won’t have them do to my people what they did to Remy. I’m not leaving them. If I run, it’s not business as usual. There is an order to things, a flow built on trust. A major player drops off the map and clients get nervous, try to purge their stock to stay off the radar. It becomes a buyer’s market- to anyone. Whatever you hoped you could keep them from getting their hands on, will be out in the open to get taken.” 

 

“The only thing I am trying to keep them from getting their hands on is you,” Ryan replied quickly.  Not unusually, his words carried more than one meaning.  “If they get to you, they will take everything you have.  They will torture you until you break,” there was genuine concern in his eyes.  “And then you will give them everything, just like they did to Remy.”

 

There was a pause as Rorye sipped from her coffee.  Silence thick with the tension of unspoken words.  Then she said, “I’ve told them to send it to me to hold. Nobody is taking on or selling to any new clients until I tell them. Anything they’re questionable about, they’re sending to me. It’s all funneling to my shop now.”

 

          “Are you fucking kidding me?”  Harker’s expression was one of disbelief, head shaking slightly.  Frustration made even more apparent by the fact he hadn’t touched his food.  Hand rubbed his chin thoughtfully, then he set it down on the table.  “You’ve got a sniper trying to put a bullet in you, and instead of taking cover, you’ve just painted a bullseye on your ass, and now you want to step out into a known killzone?”

 

          Ryan leaned away from the table, hands sliding from thighs to just below his hips.  He sighed, shaking his head again lightly.  “Give me time,” he said softer than before.  “I will take the fight to them.  I will tear through their organization so hard and so fast; they will be forced to go on the defensive.”

 

He leaned forward, resting his arms on the tabletop.  Eyes were pleading, “I just need you to stay off the grid for a couple days.  Manage your business from my place, a hotel, a trusted friends place, anywhere but actually at the damn shop.”

 

Ryan wanted to reach out and take her hand, but he didn’t.  She hadn’t offered it, and he wasn’t sure how she felt about his reply.  He hadn’t yelled.  Still, his tongue had lashed out more than a few unsavory curses.  His eyes met hers, “I told you before, I am the best at what I do.  Give me a chance to do it... Please.”

 

The warrior had wanted to enjoy breakfast with the beautiful woman sitting across from him.  Now, it looked as though that ship may have sailed.

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“I guess that makes me awfully special.”

 

“I’ll let you know…” smile was soft, the comment even more so as everything that she’d easily taken out to create the food in front of him was just as skillfully put away.

 

“Thank you.”

 

She paused at the sink, her graceful perpetual motion still for a minute, gaze cast over her shoulder.

 

“You’re welcome,” response was just as sincere.

 

An unruly lock tucked behind her ear and she went back to clearing the counters, readying for the calm before the storm as he laid out his thoughts for a plan. Heaviness descended in her chest before he’d finished, knowing this was coming. She was not going to get shut in and let someone else fight her battles; she had to make him understand why.

 

“That’s a bad idea.”

 

The air in the room seemed suspended, an illusion of serenity filled with the weight of dissension.

 

“Of course it’s a bad idea,” she agreed, returning to her tasks.

 

She knew it was a bad idea. There weren’t many options. No options to be exact. She had to keep reminding herself he was an outsider; he didn’t know how her world worked under the surface. You couldn’t just walk away. They could smell fear, a wounded animal, and the repercussions of that were as horrible as facing an enemy head on. She would not hide, and she would not run. If she did, dead would be the least of her troubles for her and everyone else. Business had to continue as normal or else they would know she’d been involved in the destruction of Remy’s.

 

“No one is asking you to run. Your shop isn’t fine, it’s just not under siege at the moment.” 

 

“My shop is always under siege,” the comment was definitive, but calm. “We are always being watched. Every moment of every day is a risk. What I do is dangerous, and everyone that works for me knows it. They can leave at any time and they choose to stay.”

 

Her tone was matter-of-fact as she sat, hands on the mug to warm her fingers. He didn't know Jesse had almost been killed by a vampire, he didn't know about the fire... any of it. The face off at the table seemed to have begun, and it was more than just the issue at hand. She had to decide how much she wanted to tell, how deep to allow him into her domain. If he didn’t understand, he would make decisions based on the knowledge he had. She’d chided him the night before for doing it to her. He was a hammer, and her business required a finesse she wasn’t sure yet that he possessed.

 

Fingertips reached to whisper across her forehead a moment as he spoke, circling her temple to slide down her neck. A budding headache was beginning, marks were sore and had started their bruising.

 

“The only thing I am trying to keep them from getting their hands on is you. If they get to you, they will take everything you have.  They will torture you until you break.”

 

Nod was affirmative, she knew that. It was the tone of his voice that brought her eyes to him, he was worried. Why did that surprise her? Nobody ever worried about her, they leaned on her. His terse reaction to what she’d set in motion and told her network to do did not surprise her however. Muscles flicked in her cheek slightly as if the words were physical, she let him have his anger; it was a fair response. She knew it sounded asinine to someone who didn’t know her play.

 

“You’ve got a sniper trying to put a bullet in you, and instead of taking cover, you’ve just painted a bullseye on your ass, and now you want to step out into a known killzone?”

 

She was the one that sold the bullets. As far as they knew she had nothing to do with Remy’s. They would come at her the same as they did last night, with the appearance of a deal. Eyes blinked softly up at him as he continued.

 

They couldn’t be on the defensive; all her clients, suppliers, contacts… everyone would hole up and disappear. Whoever this group was that continued to scoop up artifacts and anything else they could get their hands on would use the isolation to pick the little ones off one by one. There were two sides of the coin to this fight. She knew her side, he knew his. She had to convince him to let her do what she did best.

 

Calm watched him make his case for a moment, finger again absently tracing the rim of her coffee cup to avoid eye contact. It wasn’t that she didn’t want to, she could hear the inflection in his voice and it was persuasive. His eyes would seal the deal, he had to hear her side too.

 

“I just need you to stay off the grid for a couple days.  Manage your business from my place, a hotel, a trusted friends place, anywhere but actually at the damn shop.”

 

That wasn’t possible.

 

“I told you before, I am the best at what I do.  Give me a chance to do it... Please.”

 

A look of worry had fallen over her features, contemplation. Eyes closed a moment, and then looked up at him.

 

“Just, hear me out,” the soft timbre of her voice betrayed she’d taken in every word he’d said.

 

She drew in a breath; did she really want to do this? If she let him tap into her knowledge, there was no turning back. ARMA would know everything.

 

“I’m not a lone compound thirty miles past where the world ends. I live in a thriving community. When they come, they won’t come with bullets. They’ll try to buy the bullets from me, they suspect everything is going to come to me now. They will leave my outliers alone long enough to put their contingency plans in motion from the fire alarm I just pulled. They could try and pick them off, but it will draw attention and they are small players. It’s easier and more effective if they let me keep receiving it so they can get it all in one shot. That will take time.”

 

She finished her coffee.

 

“After that, yes… then they’ll probably try to kill me.”

 

Foot slid to the floor, setting her coffee cup down as she leaned forward.

 

“Last night I said I needed full disclosure from you so I would know what information to give you. I can’t return that favor with just conversation… you have to learn it, see faces and what they buy. How they talk. Who they are. I can't do that from off-site.”

 

There was no turning back from this; she would be inseparable from ARMA.

 

Drawing in another breath, she pushed herself up from the table and took her cup with her. She needed whisky in it, but settled for more black. Cup clinked on the table in her spot as she kept moving to stand behind him, fingers over his shoulders to caress her thumbs just under his ears.

 

“I need to show you how it works, how it all works. Stay with me, above the shop, as long as you need to. I have rooms… separate entrances. Come and go as you please without anyone seeing you…" she paused, every betrayal warning bell screaming in her head that letting him in was a bad idea. There was no going back.  "I’m going to show you everything.”

 

Including her fallout plan. Remy was hers, he was gone. She needed someone that was strong enough to pull the trigger if it came to it.

 

She leaned down to slide her arms around him from behind, temple against his, hands clasped on his chest.

 

“I’m trusting my life on your word that you’re the best at what you do,” words were quiet in his ear. Her plan was sound and would take an immense amount of guts on both their part to pull off. She understood the gravity of the situation and it was evident in her voice, but she was also afraid... and doing a great job of hiding it. “Please say yes… or at least think about it for a bit because I’m starving and so are you.”

Edited by Rorye Shannon-Kearney
Clarification and typo
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“Just hear me out,” she pleaded. 

 

Ryan didn’t want to listen, but for her, he did.  The course of action she offered still placed her at immense risk.  Reward for such risk might have seemed selfish to some, but he could tell her motives were well intentioned.  The burden she was taking on was far greater than she owed anyone. 

 

Arms folded over his chest in silent protest as listened to Rorye’s proposal.

 

She did have a point.  The “threat” they faced would most likely blame him for the assault at Remy’s hideout, not her.  Harker had intentionally presented himself as an adversary to buy her time.  Though, they were still gambling these people hadn’t seen through the deception.  If she continued business as usual, she might have some time before they came to collect.  Which meant he might have time to go on the offensive.

 

“After that, yes… they will probably try to kill me,” she said leaning forward.

 

“I won’t let that happen…” Ryan’s voice was low, but the words carried immense weight.  He had spoken impulsively.  The tone portraying his affection for Rorye more than he had intended.  They had only really known one another for a day.  Still, his inflection held a promise.  The Soldier looked away from her, almost embarrassed by the vow.

 

“Last night I said I needed full disclosure from you so I would know what information to give you. I can’t return that favor with just conversation… you have to learn it, see faces and what they buy. How they talk. Who they are. I can't do that from off-site.”  

 

She walked around the table to stand behind him.  Soft hands were placed on his shoulders first, then slid slowly toward the back of his neck.  Despite the medication he had taken earlier, Ryan’s muscles were still tense and knotted.  Her touch felt amazing as she massaged him gently.  He could sense she was using the contact to lower his guard.  An effective manipulation… one he willingly allowed.

 

“I need to show you how it works, how it all works. Stay with me, above the shop, as long as you need to. I have rooms… separate entrances. Come and go as you please without anyone seeing you… I’m going to show you everything.”

 

Ryan remained still for a moment.  He didn’t breathe, speak, or move, as he contemplated her offer.  As a covert operative he could appreciate the gesture.  Rorye intended to show him the internal workings of her operation.  A coveted secret, one that would leave her totally vulnerable to him.  He had made a similar gesture by bringing her to his safehouse the night prior, but not nearly to the extent she proposed now.

 

She leaned in close, arms wrapping around his chest, her temple brushing lightly against his.  Then she whispered behind his ear, “I’m trusting my life on your word that you’re the best at what you do.” Tremble in her voice was steady, but somehow Ryan could sense the fear veiled within her words.  She was a strong woman; of that he had no doubt.  Thus far, she had proven she wasn’t easily shaken.  He couldn’t help but wonder, was she afraid of this unknown enemy, or was she was afraid to rely on him?

 

Rorye’s words fell upon Harker’s shoulders like a heavy weight.  He didn’t like her plan.  The hunter’s every instinct cautioned him against the course of action.  The strategy left her exposed and directly in the enemy’s line of fire.  Ryan worried not for himself, but that he wouldn’t be able to keep her safe and pursue their enemy at the same time.  If they remained on the defensive, it would be only a matter of time before they were felled.  Furthermore, he feared this “unseen threat” was more dangerous than Rorye realized.

 

However, if she was correct in assuming the enemy hadn’t connected her to the attack on Remy’s bunker, then it made sense they would wait to raid her coffers.  Harker would have an opportunity to strike first and force them onto the defensive.  An entity of this scale would not be placed on the backfoot easily; it would take a hellish attack to shift their focus from Rorye to self-preservation. 

 

Harker knew he could mount such an assault.  The offensive would require him to be cunning, violent, and relentless.  He would seize every advantage, ambush them at every turn, and exhaust every lead.  Of course, the untiring advance posed a double-edged sword.  The enemy wouldn’t have time to react, but he wouldn’t have time to plan thoroughly either.  Chances of making a mistake would increase, as would his vulnerability to counterattack.

 

If only he could call in reinforcements from ARMA.  Alas, he could not.  The moment he involved ARMA the Order would be informed of the operation.  Considering the Order was likely the faction behind the “unseen threat,” alerting them would result only in disaster.  Harker’s investigation would be exposed, the Order would cover their trail, and Rorye’s life would be forfeit.

 

“Please say yes… or at least think about it for a bit because I’m starving and so are you.” Rorye cooed softly behind his ear.  Ryan still hated her plan, but he knew she wouldn’t be dissuaded from following it through.  He knew the risks involved.  Risks he would gladly accept, for her, and for a chance to take down the Order.  Still she needed to know the truth, there was no cavalry coming.  They were on their own.

 

Harker took Rorye by the hand and guided her around the chair to face him.  A gentle, but firm pull brought her into his lap.  He kissed the hand he held and then looked her in the eyes.  “Fine,” he conceded with a reluctant sigh.  “But there will be conditions, and I will most definitely need more convincing.”  A slight nudge of his hips and sultry smirk indicated to the kind of “convincing” he was referring.

 

“There is something I have to tell you first…”  There was a pause as he considered his words, not sure exactly how she would react to the information presented.  Simultaneously, he contemplated how much information to divulge.  “You already know I am an ARMA agent, and you have probably guessed I am part of the Cloak Division… but what you don’t know, is that I hold a position within the Division that allows me substantial autonomy in conducting my own investigations.”

 

For now, he would leave out how he attained the position during the ARMA – OFL war, and what duties the positioned originally entailed.  “For some time, I have been following the ‘unknown threat’ targeting magus within the major factions.  Based on the information I’ve collected; I have a strong suspicion the Order of the First Light is responsible for this powerful new faction.”

 

Absent-mindedly, he caressed her hand as he spoke.  His thumb rubbing gently over her knuckles.  “I don’t think it’s an idea spread throughout the organization, but an isolated cell within their highest levels of leadership.  Their goal isn’t entirely known, but I wager they are trying to pit the major factions against each other.  Weaponizing magus blood in order to build an army capable of challenging those maintaining peace.”

 

Ryan still held her hand, but his gaze had shifted.  As if staring distantly at something across the room.  Attention returned to her as he continued, “Of course, this investigation is a top priority within ARMA.  The only problem is that the majority of ARMA has fully embraced peace with the Order.  They are sharing information in a joint effort to stop the new threat.  However, several of my leads dried up as soon as the information was shared with the Order.  So, I have been conducting my own…”  head swayed side to side as he considered his phrasing, “somewhat unsanctioned investigation into the threat.  Focusing primarily on the Order.”

 

A heavy sighed escaped the agent as he leaned back in his chair.  Relieved in finally being able to share his secret, but also stressed stating his situation aloud.  Blue eyes flicked to Rorye’s, “So if I am right, and I call in ARMA to help us.  They will inform the Order of most the pertinent details before I can prove enough to keep them quiet.  Once the Order discovers the investigation and pieces together the key players… They will cover their tracks, and neither of us will survive the night.”

 

“Before I can inform ARMA of my findings, I literally have to have my entire case to present.  If I take it directly to the top, they will hear me out and take action accordingly.”  Ryan considered adding some bourbon to his coffee as he eyed the cup on the table.  He could use a drink.  “I say all this to say, if we go into this fight.  There isn’t any cavalry coming.  It’s just you and me.  At least until I can come up with enough proof to convince ARMA the Order is behind the attacks.”

 

Ryan kissed her hand once more, looking up at her as he said, “If you really plan to show me your world, then I thought you should know a little more about mine.”

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As soon as his arms folded, she thought she’d lost him. He was listening, but he was also thinking to himself. A lot. She could see it as she told him they were probably going to try and kill her.

 

“I won’t let that happen…”

 

Lower lip was rolled through her teeth, chewing gently at what was once the split. She didn’t know what to say. His tone had been, different.

 

Rorye stopped speaking for a moment, the deprivation of any response from him except the one comment was disorienting; his normal calculated wit eerily quiet. When people were upset in this way, she’d learned they needed silence in return. No arguing, no pushing, no judgement, no demands. Silence and human contact… so she did what she knew. Temple pressed against his after she’d finished saying her peace. She wanted to believe she could trust him, the nagging feeling this still may be a play was gnawing at her. It wouldn’t be the first time, it wouldn’t be the last. If his concern was feigned, he was the best player she’d ever seen.

 

Please say something…

 

It felt like hours before he even responded. His reaction to bring her around brought a slight tense to her muscles at first. She wasn’t used to gentle response when she held her ground. The man that pointed at her in frustration the day before was what she was used to volleying back against. This almost felt, staged… most men didn’t know how to respond to her other than to buck back with aggression or disrespect. She could handle both. This quiet contemplation was strange to her. Eyes narrowed slightly as she sat, fingers tightening in his absently as he brought them to his lips. It didn’t feel like a play, but her brain screamed that it was.

 

“Fine, but there will be conditions, and I will most definitely need more convincing.” 

 

“Smartass,” she smirked back at him. There he was.

 

“There is something I have to tell you first…”

 

Lashes snapped low, a muscle twitching in her neck. There was that other dropping shoe she’d been waiting for. Cloak, she’d pegged that pretty quickly. The autonomy word, she didn’t like. Not that she would ever go to ARMA anymore for help, now it was certain she never could. Hell, she didn’t even know if he was ever supposed to be at her shop. Shit. Was he? Was he a fucking rogue?

 

It also didn’t surprise her in the slightest that the Order might be behind the entire clusterfuck. They were always dicks when they came into the shop. Except Trystan. He’d been a gentleman. There was always something under the surface with them though. Every. Damn. Time.

 

The motion of his thumb on her knuckles brought her thought process back into focus.

 

“Their goal isn’t entirely known, but I wager they are trying to pit the major factions against each other.  Weaponizing magus blood in order to build an army capable of challenging those maintaining peace.”

 

“Who am I talking to in there?”

 

The memory of the magus’ voice slithered up from the base of her skull into the forefront at his words; weaponizing magus blood. That was a one and done way to go, they had to find a way to make it last. They were trying to find a spark, searching far and wide for something that could do it. Did they know about her spark? There were only three people that knew. One was dead, the other was a dragon and it was unlikely anyone made a dragon disclose anything they didn’t want to, and one other. He needed to be paid a visit to see who he’d spilled his guts to. If only the magus at Remy’s knew about her, it was dead with him. Somehow she knew that wasn’t the case.

 

It was her turn to be silent, breathing had almost slowed to nothing, listening and worrying at the same time. His eyes had wandered toward a far spot, but she found them again when they returned. It didn’t surprise her in the slightest that he was fighting his own fight. In any case, lungs finally found the coordination to let out a breath when he leaned back.

 

She was in trouble, and not the way he thought.

 

“So if I am right, and I call in ARMA to help us.  They will inform the Order of most the pertinent details before I can prove enough to keep them quiet.  Once the Order discovers the investigation and pieces together the key players… They will cover their tracks, and neither of us will survive the night.”

 

She would survive. They weren’t going to kill her; they were going to do something much worse. They could also torture him to get her to do it if they knew they were together in this. She wasn't going to let that happen.

 

“I say all this to say, if we go into this fight.  There isn’t any cavalry coming.  It’s just you and me.  At least until I can come up with enough proof to convince ARMA the Order is behind the attacks.”

 

Fingers tightened on his as he brought them up to his lips again. She smiled softly despite the immense weight on both their shoulders.

 

“If you really plan to show me your world, then I thought you should know a little more about mine.”

 

His cards were on the table. There was no doubt everything wasn’t for her to see yet, but the outline was there. Hers, she’d offered but hadn’t yet disclosed. It was an incredible amount to tell her in such a short time when she’d essentially told him nothing other than she would tell him something. She had enough information at that moment to turn him over to the Order and end the ‘war’ and his life.

 

This was not a joke.

 

“You’re my cavalry,” expression was serious. Smooth sigh was drawn in and let out, reaching with her free hand to tame the small lock of hair on his temple that had caught her attention before dawn. “And I’m yours. It’s going take some time to explain it all, but you just have to trust me.”

 

Easy smile brightened her features. It was all still soaking in.

 

“We’ll win this. There is no other option. So it’s a deal then, good thing I just finished renovating the guest apartment.”

 

The dealer was always working on something, next was the glass windows in the tea and coffee shop. She got up quietly to move to her side of the table, fingers lingering in his until she was too far away. She snagged the two glasses of whisky that had never been tended to the night before and set them on the table. They both needed it. Picking up her plate, she pulled out the chair next to him with her toe and sat down, turning it toward him. Tucking her foot under her thigh, her other swung gently as she picked up her fork.

 

“It’s five o’clock somewhere,” she nodded toward the glasses.

 

It was calm for a few moments as she focused on her plate, leaning back in her chair. Her stomach hurt, an empty stomach being fed did that sometimes.

 

“Remy may have been an asshole, but he was a friend in his own way. I had nobody else but my shop life and him. Lost my husband, my family, lost Ali. Now Remy’s gone. It’s my shop crew and me, and you. I’m done losing.”

 

Plate was put back on the table, fingers playing with the ring on her hand. The ‘training’ started now.

 

“Other than collecting as many power items as they can to tip the scales in their favor, I think they’re probably looking for something to extend the life of the blood they take. Something that will hold it like a battery to use in their rituals,” she said, looking up at him. “I have something like that and they don’t know. Problem is,” she tapped her forehead with two fingers, “it’s up here.”

 

Jaw set, thumb sliding the ring to the last knuckle of her finger without taking it off. She pushed it back down, turning it on her finger before holding it up for him to see.

 

“You have your runes, I have this,” hand came back to her lap and she picked up her plate again. “The same ritual arcane magic they’re screwing around with banished something into a book. Ritual magic pulled it out, and because the spell book was destroyed it’s attached to me. This suppresses it, gives me a direct phone line to it when I need it. Engages my blades, allows me to see who’s touched a magical item. Seems particularly affected by your tattoos, pissed off even.”

 

She chewed slowly, swallow light. It was an “it”, giving it a name gave it presence. It was just a spark of magic with residual memories, or so she told herself. She pushed her food around on her plate with her fork, pupils that were a bit too dark finding his as she looked up at him.

 

“They’re not going to kill me. They’re going to use me to find relics. They’re going to poke at me until they can figure out why something ritual lasted this long in a non-mage… in a spell book of all things. It’s a spark they’re looking for.”

 

It hung in the air for a moment.

 

“So no, we don’t need a cavalry. If shit goes sideways I have a bargaining chip that will save both of us and buy us time because they would still have to crack it. It would be a last resort, and by that point it would be all or nothing anyway...” voice had become incredibly soft. "We'll win this."

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Ryan gaped in awe at his Scottish Valkyrie.  She was handling the situation extremely well.  Smiling even, as she commented about them being reinforcements for one another.  “That’s because she already knew, and she’s playing you for information,” whispered a pessimistic demon from somewhere in his mind.  Ryan pushed the thought away as soon as it had formed.  The cynical line of thinking made little sense.  He had gone to her shop, he had trailed the gangsters seeking magus blood, he had suggested they go to Remy’s hideout, he had brought her to his safehouse.  Besides, as illogical as it might have been, his gut told him he could trust her.

 

            “We’ll win this. There is no other option. So it’s a deal then, good thing I just finished renovating the guest apartment,” she said, getting up from his lap and trotting away.

 

          Ryan grinned, “Just one day together and you’re already asking me to move in.”  He chuckled lightly as he picked up his fork, “I suppose tomorrow I’ll have to propose.”

 

          A couple seconds later, Rorye returned with last night’s bourbon glasses in hand.  “It’s five o’clock somewhere,” she quipped, placing them on the table and then taking a seat beside him.

 

          The man bowed his head in silent agreement.  Mouth was busy chewing, but that didn’t stop him from adding some of the liquor to his morning coffee.

 

          A short time passed in quiet.  Obviously, they were both digesting more than breakfast.  Finally, Rorye broke the silence, “Remy may have been an asshole, but he was a friend in his own way. I had nobody else but my shop life and him. Lost my husband, my family, lost Ali. Now Remy’s gone. It’s my shop crew and me, and you. I’m done losing.”

 

          Discussion about losing family and friends had caught the veteran off-guard.  Thoughts flashed to the picture frame he had held in his hand earlier that morning.  There was still so much he hadn’t told her.  Somehow, it was easier to share life-threatening secrets of the present, than it was to share the pain of the past.  Those memories, those beautiful and torturous remembrances, were his and his alone.  At least for now.

 

          “Take your plate?” Ryan offered without really acknowledging her statement.  Though it was evident he had spoken without looking at her dish.  Already his plate was bare, except for a few crumbs and his used utensils.  Her plate however, still held most of her uneaten breakfast.  Mind had been distracted and he had eaten his food far too quickly.  He grinned awkwardly, “Just kidding, take your time.”

 

          The Soldier enjoyed a gulp of his coffee and then made his way to the sink with his dishes.  He listened as Rorye presented her theory about the Order attempting to gather artifacts capable of wielding magus mana on command.  It made sense.  Once his plate was rinsed, he rejoined her at the table.  Special attention was taken when she mentioned possessing the very conduit the Order might be seeking.

 

          “You have your runes, I have this,” she flashed the same ring he’d seen the night before.  He listened intently as she continued, “… Seems particularly affected by your tattoos, pissed off even.”

 

          “Hmm…”  Ryan rubbed the scruff of his chin thoughtfully.  “My wards were specifically designed to prevent possession from a foreign energy like yours.  Maybe that’s why it reacts to them,” the suggestion came with a flippant roll of the of the wrist.  “We’ll have to experiment a bit.”

 

          “They’re not going to kill me,” Her voice was somber.  “They’re going to use me to find relics. They’re going to poke at me until they can figure out why something ritual lasted this long in a non-mage… in a spell book of all things. It’s a spark they’re looking for.”

 

Though not usually an optimist, Harker found a silver lining in her theory.  Assuming it was correct, if she was ever captured, there would be an opportunity to mount a rescue mission.  It seemed poor taste to mention, so he kept the thought to himself.

 

“So no, we don’t need a cavalry. If shit goes sideways I have a bargaining chip that will save both of us and buy us time because they would still have to crack it. It would be a last resort, and by that point it would be all or nothing anyway...”  She paused for a moment, looking him in the eyes.  He could sense her doubt even as finished with, “We'll win this."

 

Ryan nodded in agreement, then placed a hand on her knee.  “Listen Rorye,” there was a calm seriousness to his words.  “You’re the only person maintaining some semblance of morality within New York’s arcane black market.  By keeping working relationships with ARMA, the Pharos, and by just using good judgement within your network, you are literally making the world a safer place.”

 

The ARMA agent wasn’t attempting to flatter her, he was speaking plainly.  “You play an important role in our world, and the magical conduit you represent, is also something we can’t let fall into these people’s hands.” 

 

He pointed a finger at himself, “Now me.  I am just one Soldier.  A relic from wars ended years ago. If I disappear tomorrow, there will be no void to fill. I will not be missed, and if another war comes, another Soldier will step up to take my place.”

 

Harker’s brow furrowed.  He hadn’t meant to sound solemn, but he needed her to hear what he was saying. “If things do go sideways,” past experience told him they inevitably would, “and you’re captured.  You bargain, and you lie, and you give them just enough breadcrumbs to stay alive. I promise I will come for you.”  He stared hard into her eyes, “But if it comes down to me and you.  You don’t bargain, you don’t put any of that at risk…  You just let me go.”

 

“I said there would be conditions,” he added, hinting back to the fact he had already agreed to her plan. “And this one isn’t up for debate.”

 

After a second, Ryan rose to his feet and smiled.  “Now that we’ve settled that, what do you say we take a look at the goodies we got from Remy’s last night?”

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“Just one day together and you’re already asking me to move in. I suppose tomorrow I’ll have to propose"

 

“You’ll have your own space and you’ll need to stay in it with your dusty self,” she quipped back with a smirk as she retrieved things in the kitchen. “You wander into my loft with your gear and steal my toothbrush we’re gonna have words. I hear Vegas is a shithole now anyway,” she added, tone laced with playful sarcasm as she returned.

 

Maybe she was just thinking slowly, maybe he was just fast, or she was losing time… attention snapped to him when he offered to take her plate. She hadn’t eaten nearly as much as she should and she considered giving it up before he spoke.

 

“Just kidding, take your time.”

 

Nod was slight as she continued walking him through a few need-to-knows.

 

“My wards were specifically designed to prevent possession from a foreign energy like yours.  Maybe that’s why it reacts to them. We’ll have to experiment a bit.”

 

Lips quirked; now she was just pushing around food. Years ago, she was eager to talk about the extra “ability” that she tapped into. It was exhilarating and seductive at first. Over time she’d developed a healthy and respectful fear of it, considering at one point to try and separate herself from the thing. Realizing only later that to find someone to do it, she would have to relinquish control and it was safer for everyone if she remained under the radar. Experimenting was not to be taken lightly.

 

Attention went from the hand on her knee to him as he spoke. Making the world a safer place? That was not her mission, not at first anyway. After seeing all the dumb shit people were getting themselves into, she had become more discerning who she sold the fun toys to just to make sure they were alive enough to come back.

 

“You play an important role in our world, and the magical conduit you represent, is also something we can’t let fall into these people’s hands.” 

 

She didn’t like where this was going, plate was placed on the table. It was her turn to cross her arms over her chest.

 

“Now me.  I am just one Soldier.  A relic from wars ended years ago. If I disappear tomorrow, there will be no void to fill. I will not be missed, and if another war comes, another Soldier will step up to take my place.”

 

Lips pursed, gaze shifting to her jacket hanging on the wall. Jaw set, she wasn’t going to listen to any more. He was talking complete bullshit.

 

“If things do go sideways, and you’re captured.  You bargain, and you lie, and you give them just enough breadcrumbs to stay alive. I promise I will come for you. But if it comes down to me and you.  You don’t bargain, you don’t put any of that at risk…  You just let me go.”

 

Let him go? As in leave him to die? Give him up to save her own skin? Eyes flicked back to him, expression on her features openly angry. It was there on display for the first time; in the darkened pupils that seemed to engulf the amber of her eyes lingered power. Weight. Anger. The fire that the mage that tried to kill her had seen.

 

“I said there would be conditions, And this one isn’t up for debate.”

 

She said nothing as he stood. Bastard.

 

"Now that we’ve settled that, what do you say we take a look at the goodies we got from Remy’s last night?"

 

His last sentence barely reached her ears, disregarding it before the temper licked into her words. Her voice didn’t even rise... level, quiet and controlled.

 

“Then there is no deal. I will not agree to anything that forfeits anyone’s life for mine,” voice held power, the smoky gentleness toned to a commanding presence as she stood. “I have never, and will never leave anyone behind.”

 

Hands at her sides in an unwavering and spirited posture, she delivered her words tersely

 

“You have no idea what I’ve faced. I’m not this naïve delicate flower that will let someone sacrifice themselves when I can stop it.”

 

She had seen and done the unthinkable to protect those around her. She would do it again without second thought. Eyes narrowed for a sheer second at him, then released. Expression unreadable, silent footsteps took her to her coat to grab it and her other things. Long strides began to make their way to his bathroom, stopping at the table to deliver more words with lethal resolve.

 

“You think I would waste my time with someone that didn’t matter? If you weren’t important, I wouldn’t be here. I would have told you to go fuck yourself last night at the shop,” fingers tightened on her jacket, the groan of the leather creaking. “If you are so comfortable with your death, then why do you fight so hard?”

 

It was a question, delivered as a statement not intended to be answered.

 

“Our dying world doesn’t need any more martyrs, it needs people that can lead. It needs you.”

 

She let it hang in silence, and with that she was in the bathroom.

 

Fuck. FUCK. She was done here.

 

Her clothes were still damp. It didn’t matter; all she had to do was get to the subway drop. As far as she could tell from where the skyline was, there were no transfers. She could call Nina to get her, but she would never hear the end of it. Jesse was in classes all day until four. Lisa. She could call Lisa. Walk to the subway drop and meet her there. Tee shirt was pulled off and folded on the sink, damp cami replacing it as she pawed through her coat to pull out her cell, finding her hair tie. Things were dropped on the floor as she bundled up her cascade of mahogany into a loose bun and began to set her sheaths on the sink counter, grabbing her damp jeans. These were gonna suck...

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Ryan had expected Rorye to argue, but he hadn’t expected what came next.  The woman stood to her full height; chin raised with brazen opposition.  Arms were locked rigidly at her sides and fists were clenched so tightly her knuckles glowed white.  Her auburn eyes burned with a rage so passionate, he thought she might physically strike him.

 

It was in that moment, that Ryan knew he had fucked up.

 

“Then there is no deal. I will not agree to anything that forfeits anyone’s life for mine. I have never, and will never leave anyone behind.”  He had expected her to yell.  Instead, her words sharp and definitive.  Their message was one the Soldier could appreciate, as “I will never leave a fallen comrade” was literally part of the warrior ethos.

 

“You have no idea what I’ve faced. I’m not this naïve delicate flower that will let someone sacrifice themselves when I can stop it.”  Her tongue lashed at him, cutting deep enough he would have probably preferred she’d just punched him instead.  Two for two, Ryan didn’t know her past in its entirety.  However, he did know people.  His trade demanded the skill, and he had frequently staked his life on judgements made of others.  Regardless of the guilt Rorye felt for past transgressions, he knew she was a good person.  Through and through.

 

          Harker’s arms had crossed over his chest, head dipped low as she chastised him.  When she walked away and began snatching up her belongings, he remained frozen in place.  Silent.  Deliberating how best to respond to the situation.  He didn’t want her to leave, not like this.  Angry footfalls paced rapidly across his apartments wood flooring as she started for the bathroom.

 

          “Rorye,” her name was muttered softly, eyes trailing after the heated woman.  She pivoted on the ball of her foot and turned suddenly to face him. 

 

          “You think I would waste my time with someone that didn’t matter? If you weren’t important, I wouldn’t be here. I would have told you to go fuck yourself last night at the shop,” iron hot words lashed out at him again.  Ryan’s lips pursed tightly, as if grimacing from an expected pain.  Expression similar to one someone might make when getting a shot at the doctor’s office.

 

          “Rorye,” he repeated her name again, but made no attempt to shout over her.  The agent was beginning to realize there was more at play than merely his own damaged psyche.

 

          “If you are so comfortable with your death, then why do you fight so hard?”  The question was posed as a statement, but it still caught the warrior by surprise.

 

At some point every Soldier acknowledges their own mortality.  They convince themselves they are fighting for a cause more valuable than their own lives.  God, country, family, freedom.  Of course, they take immense pride in being part of a select few capable of effecting change within such a cause.  As such an instrument, Ryan valued his life immensely.  He believed Soldiers won wars not by dying for their cause, but for making the other son of a bitch die for his.  However, he also believed if a Soldier must die for a cause, then they should take solace in knowing it was in contribution to something greater than themselves.

 

These contemplations are rarely stagnant in a Soldier’s mind.  In the lulls between battles, they are frequently reassessed and revalued.  A mental process that repeats itself again and again.  Until the Soldier is no longer able, or no longer willing to serve.  In this way, when compared to the civilian populace, all Soldiers are damaged.  How else could you convince a man to travel half-way around the world, jump out of a plane, and then charge headlong into enemy gunfire?

 

This was a difficult concept to explain.  Especially, because it’s a concept most Soldiers barely understood themselves.  Ryan didn’t know how to put the idea into words.  So, he just stood there dumbly.

 

“Our dying world doesn’t need any more martyrs, it needs people that can lead. It needs you.” Rorye spat, before spinning on her heel and storming off toward the bathroom.

 

          Harker didn’t go after her immediately.  Part of him considered simply letting her be angry at him.  Perhaps, some distance between them would make easier for them to focus on the mission at hand.  Of course, hurt feelings could also have the opposite effect.

 

Suddenly, an epiphany struck the man like a two-by-four between the eyes.  How many times had she made him promise not to die in the last 24 hours?  She needed reassurance, not him telling her it was ok to let him die…  He felt like a fool.  Ryan had never really been an “emotionally sensitive” guy, but this one had been obvious. 

 

          Finally, Harker pried himself from where he stood in the kitchen and followed Rorye into the bathroom.

 

          “Rorye please!” he walked right into her.  Hands gripped her shoulders gently, pulling her away from wet clothes so he could see her eyes.  “Look, I’ve never done this before.”  The agent paused as he struggled to find the words, “I don’t know what this connection is between us, but I do know I haven’t felt anything like this since before this entire God damn world went to shit.”    

 

“Now, I promised you I wouldn’t die,” he risked sliding a hand to her cheek.  “And I have no intention of breaking that promise,” words were left to settle in the air.

 

“What I should have said, is this mission we are taking on, its real,” his voice lowered slightly.  “It’s bigger than either of us, and it literally effects this entire ‘dying world.’  Like it or not, the reality is keeping you alive and away from these people must be a mission objective.  I will keep my promise, but I need you to promise me if it comes down to me or the mission, I need you to trust me to keep my promise.  We have to place the mission first.”

 

“I promise I have no intention of being a martyr,” he stepped away from her.  An attempt to give her space to think.  “If you’re mad at me, I understand.  If you want to leave, I will take you home.”  Head lowered slightly and gaze fell to the floor, “but I hope you will stay…”  Ryan aqua blue eyes flitted back up to Rorye, “at least until we finish our coffee, and figure out what we got from Remy’s.”

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He’d tried to get her attention. Calmly.

 

In the back of her mind that fact was held there, but for the moment her obstinate stance and frustration spilled out. As she said her peace and prepared in the bathroom to leave, silence was echoed in the rest of the apartment. No raised voices. Nothing but quiet.

 

Damn it…

 

Unfortunately the morning had taken an unfavorable turn, and it was her fault. She knew what she had to do. She knew what had to be done. Whatever role he saw himself as; the end goal was still inevitable. He was right, and she couldn’t do this by herself. What if last night she hadn’t left it alone and gone by herself? It would have been a disaster. Bloody. Sure, she would have put up a fight down to her bloody knuckles. In the end they would have taken the binding from her, taken her, and anything else that was Remy’s. Her place, her people, would be forfeit.

 

He was right, and still she refused to do what she knew had to happen and stay until they had agreed on a plan for her to return home. Jeans in her hand, phone was picked up from her jacket on the floor to dial Lisa’s number with her thumb. She hesitated. She couldn’t push it.

 

“Rorye please!”

 

Holy hell!

 

So intent on her internal struggle, he’d startled her. Number had been dialed, thumb was on the button. All she needed to do was press it. His hands on her shoulders, she lowered the phone to her side, clicking it shut and dropping it to the floor onto her coat. Jeans followed.

 

“Look, I’ve never done this before.”

 

She was confused, his pause so heavy it was painful. Done what before exactly…? Brow cocked slightly at him.

 

“I don’t know what this connection is between us, but I do know I haven’t felt anything like this since before this entire God damn world went to shit.”    

 

Her expression wasn’t angry… it was unreadable. She couldn't believe what she was hearing.

 

“Now, I promised you I wouldn’t die”

 

Eyes watched his hand when he reached to touch her, but she didn’t pull back.

 

“And I have no intention of breaking that promise”

 

That was impossible to promise, she knew that. It was also impossible to promise someone you’d see them tomorrow or the day after. It was a way of acknowledging they understood they would be missed and would do everything in their power to return. He was determined to make his point about the fight ahead of them again, however gently, driving home the seriousness of the situation. The threat, was real. Fingers went up to her cheek to hold over his hand as her eyes shut, listening to him explain it once more. She didn’t want to hear it a second time, nevertheless she listened in silence.

 

She had to trust him.

 

“We have to place the mission first.”

 

Nod was slow, taking a long breath before opening her eyes to look at him. She was being selfish and stubborn, but understood and agreed.

 

“I promise I have no intention of being a martyr. If you’re mad at me, I understand.  If you want to leave, I will take you home, but I hope you will stay…at least until we finish our coffee, and figure out what we got from Remy’s.”

 

The space was appreciated as he moved back and her gaze fell to the cell on her coat... he’d put a crack in her view of things and her first instinct was impulsive, to leave and gain control. Her thoughts kept returning to what he’d said earlier.

 

“I don’t want to leave here... this... and that scares me,” she said finally, almost inaudible, leaving the seriousness of the mission settled and agreed upon for now and returning to his first words. Simple phrase held so many meanings, one of which was a cryptic response to his confession. This. This morning. This place in time they'd so easily slid into. She wanted this, and it was terrifying how fast it had happened. 

 

No matter what they wanted, he was right again, they still had work to do. The momentary respite they’d been given to even figure out that much had to be put on hold, for now.

 

“Ryan I’m not angry at you. Just, know that.”

 

Look up to him was tentative as she picked up her things to begin to set the morning back on track. Phone returned to her coat pocket, she laid it on the sink. Jeans on the towel hook, boots next to the sink. She picked up the folded tee shirt and pulled it back over her head, arms inside to work her magic and pull the damp cami out as her arms went through the sleeves. Getting dressed without getting undressed was a talent. It was hung up with her jeans.

 

She stood there a moment, the silent agreement of everything that had to happen settling in. Hands reached to take his loosely, leaning in to allow her cheek to linger against his as she just simply paused before leading him back out to the kitchen. Taking care of her plate and clearing the table, she put a refresher on both their coffees and slid the bag toward her chair on the same side as his as she sat.

 

Fingers tapped on the worn messenger bag a moment.

 

"He was a packrat... he had a lot, but very few heavy hitter pieces were kept. If he kept it in this box, it was dangerous."

 

She flipped up the front flap, sliding out the two spell books.

 

"These I gave him. The incantation that goes with the key relic is in this one," she slid it toward him. Chest was still heavy with the conversation just moments earlier, cheeks blushed at the implications. Business. It was time for business. "It can be reset anywhere."

 

It would be reset in her basement vault, and he would be instructed how set it off. A conversation for later.

 

She checked all the zipper pockets, nothing but scraps of paper with odd notes, they were set aside and kept. She'd try to decipher them later.

 

The wooden box was slid out. Polished, nondescript. A small latch snapped and she lifted the lid.

 

"Oh my god," was all she said at first. The silver cylinder was smooth, but engraved ornately and small enough to fit in her hand. Lifting it out with her fingertips, she avoided contact with her binding ring. Colored glass peeked out from cut-work in the silver, a small switch at the bottom that flicked open three razor sharp prongs. "I always thought stories of these were bullshit."

 

The prongs were pulled back in and she placed it on the table for him to look at, leaning back in her chair.

 

"That's a Lure. From the color of the glass, it's most likely a mana Lure. Epithet is on the side, worn off a bit, looks like Latin," lips pursed. "Engaged, from what I understand, that will draw mana toward it from a hundred foot radius and hold it. Turn it on, attach it to something, any magus in the area are essentially defenseless. I've never seen one before. Damn."

 

Glance to him was concerned, almost afraid to see what else was in the box, the next piece wrapped in an old bandana...

 

 

Edited by Rorye Shannon-Kearney
Typo and clarification
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Time felt as though it was standing still.  Ryan’s abilities hadn’t activated, but with as long as it took Rorye to answer him, they might as well have.  He wasn’t usually one to share his feelings.  Not that he was excelling at communicating them now.  Still, the only emotion he ever freely shared was anger, or some variation therein.  This made him feel uncomfortable… vulnerable.

 

“I don’t want to leave here... this... and that scares me,” she answered finally.

 

“I know,” Ryan agreed.  Subconsciously allowing the ambiguity in the reply.  Had he been acknowledging her fears, or admitting he felt the same way.  Even he wasn’t certain.

 

To his relief, she said, “Ryan I’m not angry at you. Just, know that.”   

 

Rorye unpacked her things and changed back into the dry clothes he had provided.  Then she guided him back into the kitchen.  Fresh coffee was poured, and the couple sat down to review the contents of Remy’s satchel.  Ryan was glad to have the morning back on track, but couldn’t quite shake the embarrassment of his confession. 

 

“Alright, so what prizes did we get?”  The Soldiers asked, attempting to drive through the awkwardness he felt.  Unsure if Rorye could sense his unease.

 

She unpacked the messenger bag one pocket at a time, laying everything out for Harker to review as well.  Enchanted key, notes, and other items were discussed without significantly peeking the agent’s interest.  When she unveiled the “lure” however, he became extremely engaged.

 

“Holy shit,” the operative gaped as he picked up the artifact to examine for himself.  If the relic was capable of syphoning mana within a large radius, it could be used as a powerful weapon against any of the major magus factions; including ARMA.  An item of this nature also fit perfectly within Harker’s occupation, skill set, and expertise.  Combined with the element of surprise, the “lure” could provide advantage enough for him to take down the Order’s entire New York chapter.  In any case, the magical object was too potent to leave in black market circulation.

 

Rorye gave him a concerned glance as he scrutinized the artifact.  She didn’t yet know his abilities, the details of his professional assignment, or his past… but if she did, she might understand his enthusiasm for the “lure.”  Ryan had become ARMA’s most elite mage hunter by utilizing temporary wards capable of neutralizing magic in a small radius.  The implications of a lasting and widespread magic dampener, given his skill set, meant he could reasonably engage even a platoon of magus in open combat.

 

The hunter placed the lure back in the case, then looked to the woman across from him.  Rorye gazed apprehensively into the leather satchel.  “What is it?” he asked, taking another quick sip from his coffee.

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 “I know”

 

The comment was still echoing in her head as she stared at the Lure, sensing a lingering discomfort as they pushed on with business. She watched him pick it up, something else on the edge of her instinct scratching at her attention. He hadn’t shown any interest in the key, the books, nothing so far except for the coin in the car the night prior. Her ring. This Lure. The pieces didn’t fit together, and she’d accepted there were aspects of the whole case that he wasn’t telling her. She didn’t expect him to. When it mattered, she was hoping he would.

 

As he placed it back down in the case, the unthinkable was ticking at her thoughts. Like a gawker at a car accident, the incredible urge to pick it up was real… just to, see. Faces she knew perhaps in their last moments had their hand on it. Cassandra had flashed in her consciousness when she touched the coin. Maybe touching this could shed light on…

 

It was already in her hand, the small decorative cylinder rolling through her fingers as scrutiny had settled on the bandana in the box. She was thinking.

 

“What is it?”

 

Reactive blink broke the thought process when he spoke, his voice pulling her back from the edge of a decision. The scent of coffee, feel of the floor under her foot. His voice. The taste of black coffee still on her lips. The blue in his eyes as she glanced at them. Grounding. She’d done it instinctively. She could do this, but what kind of suffering was she inflicting on herself? A way forward was fresh in her emotions, and she was dragging up the past. Not knowing, was painful.

 

Fingertips pulled one of the edges of the bandana back, a swizzle of silver chains tangled amongst themselves. Obviously Remy had been too lazy to untangle them, or just in a rush. Maybe he couldn’t and they were supposed to be like that. In any case, she had no idea what they were. Other corner was flipped back. They were just necklaces. A small clear organza bag was nestled underneath the dozen or so chains. Placing the Lure down finally, she slid the chains aside delicately and lifted the bag out, loosening the pull string and placing one of the contents on the table. It was a pearl slide with silver inlay in the bore hole. Weird. Silver necklaces and a bag of pearl slides that went on them was it. Seriously?

 

“I have no idea what these are,” she said quietly. “Never seen or heard of anything like this.”

 

Curiosity was getting the better of her, taking each out one at a time and placing them on the table. One was different. Pink. Rutilated. Other than that, nothing. All identical. Leaving them out for him to see, she picked up the one in a different hue, holding it up to the light. It was moving inside, like watching a time lapse of the sky at night, or water in a glass that had been spun with a spoon. Slowly rotating. She lifted another to the light, nothing. Opaque.

 

“Huh. No idea. These need to get to ARMA headquarters asap,” she said quietly, putting the slides back in the tiny bag. “Then home for me. I have pretty much everything in the apartment or available at the shop for you. Food, everything.”

 

She stood to repack the bag when he was finished looking at it. Hand picked up the Lure, closing her fingers around it as she placed it back in the box to close. The clink to her ring was minute, in her head it rang like a church bell, pictures flipping through her mind’s eye like a book whose pages were caught in a storm. Addictive and drowning, a magnet bent on pulling her attention below an inky surface. She let go and jerked her hand back, closing the box with her opposite fingers and blinking away the brightness that feathered on the edges of her vision. Shit.

 

Faces floated in her memory, but none she knew. Relieved.

 

“This is yours,” she pushed the box toward him. “I’m going to finish putting things away, we should go as soon as my clothes are dry.”

 

Impatient, but also still feeling the uneasiness from him. She could put it to rest, unsure if it would make it worse or better.

 

Books were slid back into the messenger bag, the little bits of notes and paper into the front zip flap for her to look at later when she had more of her resources to decipher some of Remy’s chicken scratch Latin. Retrieving the first aid materials from the night before, she knelt effortlessly to check his stitches.

 

“You’ll live, sorry about the… scrape last night. I was a little preoccupied,” she smiled, standing and tousling his hair before leaving a lingering kiss on his lips and setting off to finish cleaning up. Okay... she was trying to make it better? “Have to check it again later..."

 

Her last comment was under her breath, maybe he heard, maybe he didn't. In any case, she needed to get home.

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