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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.

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January 17th

Rorye's apartment, Book of Kells

5:30am

 

 

 

She'd gotten out of practice, refining each lense to bring the burst of color in the fathomless darkness into focus. It was chilly in the turret room of her upstairs apartments, but the curved glass on the Victorian era window was perfect for the telescope to stare upward at the sky. Early morning, the night was still so deep in the west that she could get an incredible view of the deep violet rip, spatters of stars peeking through.

 

Sensation was always the same as she gazed at it, a deep drawing lust for the depth of color, the wordless whispering at the back of her neck like a lover's breath. It happened every time. It drew her to it, and wasn't sure for the life of her why.

 

Lips pursed to blow across the surface of her hot coffee to cool a bit while she fiddled with the telescope, unfolding her legs from the chair and touching down to the hardwood with bare toes that whispered back to her bedroom to change. Coffee cup clinked on her nightstand after a sip and she pulled off the silky emerald green cami and loose sleep pants that skimmed her calves, tossing them in the corner hamper, carrying the cup into her bathroom and the walk in tile shower.

 

Streams were as hot as she could tolerate. Bruising faded, the sickly pale yellow from impact points still ached, skin and muscle still hard. She tried to knead them out as much as possible during every shower with the heat. It would take a while, especially when the weather was so frigid. Hair was let loose, water slithering over it to ride down painted skin. Palms planted on the wall in front of her, leaning there while the hot water peppered her shoulders. She had to get moving, a significant task to do before Nina came in to open the doors.

 

Other than fixing one of the window panes in the tea house that the extreme cold had cracked.

 

Other than making sure Jesse had the right list of stock to exchange on the shelves.

 

It was the door nobody was allowed to use, past the basement shelter that had been set up after a fucking Were had almost burned down the block.

 

Face lifted to the waterfall, shutting it off and clearing her eyes. Huge white towel was wrapped around her torso and secured, another twisted into her hair. Toothbrush scrubbed white teeth diligently, examining the pale yellow on the side of her neck under her ear where the asshole had been strangling her. Almost gone.

 

Sigh long, rinsing her toothbrush, the soft quirked smile of her lip revealed the good things about that evening were still on her mind.

 

A certain troublemaker and the tattoos he bore.

 

It was because of that, the keys to the massive safe under her shop had been pulled out of another safe in her upstairs apartment over the shop. The things she hid there were that precious, and that dangerous. A terrifying threat to be met with terrifying force. Things she never should have had, but kept regardless for this very reason.

 

She had a feeling she, and he, would need them soon.

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Warm air swished across her shoulders, the upside-down drying of her hair more preventative than vanity. Frigid temps made hair freeze, not that she would be spending a lot of time outside. Repairing the window wouldn’t take that long; it was the vault below the shop that wasn’t heated enough to be comfortable. Steel was cold. Flipping it back up, the dark locks were warm against her shoulders and dry enough to brave the cold.

 

Searching for clothes, drawers slid in and out softly. Each piece was tossed on the white down comforter that she’d neglected to make this morning. She wasn’t in the mood to. Some days neat and tidy, other days the edges of her world needed to fray a bit. Satisfied with her collection of clothing, she sat on the edge of the bed and fell backward to stare at the ceiling. Fingertips twisted absently at the top edge of towel on her sternum, wanting to crawl back under the covers. Toes were cold as they hung grazing the floor, shoulders warm from her hair. It seemed so much more attractive to just take a day off. Eyes closed for just a moment.

 

Vacation from this mess; the evil that was billowing on the horizon that had everyone stumped. The twisted plans, the attacks. Things she couldn’t shake; the last worries she thought about at night and the first on her mind when she woke. Every time the door chimed either held faces she recognized or ones that could be the next gun in her face.

 

“Who am I talking to in there?”

 

The memory of the guy's voice was unshakable, needled into her brain. The sensation was eerie, like she’d stared into the sun too long and then ducked inside a dark room. Disorienting, fathomless. Lost. He’d been talking to her in that moment, but was looking for another. She had control of what he was digging for, always. Any time she wanted she could find the right person to rip this connection out like a root. Control was absolute. Still, there had been heaviness glaring back at him from the back of her skull, the sensation of someone standing just behind her shoulder. Silent. She could feel it while he was killing her. The anger was penetrating, drowning. It wasn’t fear or helplessness. It was absolute rage, churning wrath. Angry at her, not him. Furious at her for not fighting harder. Afraid of death. Final death. What was this thing she'd bound exactly then? This game was dangerous. She was trying to hold on to an oddity to figure it out when she probably should have evicted it a long time ago.

 

The arcane dealer had been the one to pull the trigger, the firestorm in her blood after she’d killed him wasn’t. It was ravenous. It was like before the binding, the days that blurred together. Waking up not knowing where she’d been or what she’d done. Fragmented memories of fires. Glass. Leather skidding across pavement. The pain of a broken wrist. Each snapshot spinning faster until her lids flickered and stomach muscles snapped her up to a sitting position, palm immediately pushing loose locks from her face. It was light out.

 

She’d fucking fallen asleep!

 

“Shit…”

 

She was pissed. Feet hit the floor and it was a flurry of towel and clothing. Jeans, white tank peeled down over her torso and a gray slouchy turtleneck sweater over it. She rolled up the wide cuffs slightly, the heavy cable knit sliding down her forearms as she braided her hair in a lazy plait. Key on a long silver chain dangled from her neck. It looked like jewelry. It was supposed to. Earrings were stuffed in her pants pocket to be put on later, checking her reflection before pulling on dark gray Tims and pulling the laces quickly to tie. Frayed jean cuffs were snapped down over them and she checked her reflection again, jumping down the stairs two at a time. She could vault down at the hairpin turn and usually did, today she didn't feel like it. She was dragging her feet for some reason.

 

From the landing she knew all she needed to before turning the corner that lead to the back of the tea house kitchen. It was open. Nina was already out front.

 

Fuck.

 

“Going downstairs,” she said quietly as she passed. “Be back in a bit.”

 

The older woman’s eyes watched her a moment. She knew what that meant. It meant they were in trouble. It meant with everything in the shop that Rorye had access to, she had to dredge up the past to dig their asses out of whatever hole the relic dealer had gotten them into.

 

The shop was quiet, still early. The tea house was open, but the shop proper didn’t open until later. Twinkle was immediate to her presence as she walked into the library room, lighting up the dim depths of counters on the other side of the shop. She knelt to quickly stoke the fire for the day.

 

“I know.”

 

It was matter of fact.

 

“Do me a favor, watch out for all of us. You don’t just have a monopoly on my safety you know.”

 

It brightened a moment when she closed the fire screen. She stopped to pull the emerald studs from her pocket and put them in, the simple jewelry the only “make-up” she had on. She looked polished, simplicity so much more elegant than those that tried too hard.

 

Silver chain glinted as she flipped the braid over her shoulder, standing next to the bookcase with the locked doors. Kneel was swift, a lever embedded in the edge of the bookcase that anchored it to the floor flipped up. The same was done at the top. The old Victorian bookcases could slide back and forth like chalkboards in a lecture hall; a lesser known secret in the shop. Two were slid to the side in succession, a door behind the second. Keypad code punched in, it beeped.

 

“All of us.”

 

The twinkling flame went out completely, her smirk light at the reaction.

 

“Jealous much? Well fuck you too.”

 

Door closed behind her as she descended the steps to darkness and the smell of oiled steel.

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Posted (edited)

The damn pull string always made her jump, one of these days she would put a switch down in the "dungeon". For now, it was the beaded metal chain with a string long enough for her to reach. She had to search for it when it was darker in the mornings, the tickle on her hand as she found it always with visions of a giant spider above her head.

 

A shadow loomed in the doorway behind her, the dealer turning sharply to peer back up the staircase as the light flicked on. It was Nina.

 

Why in the hell? 

 

She didn't descend, Rorye wouldn't have advised it to the older woman even if she wanted to. The original stairs were wicked steep and the railing high. Nobody came down there but her, so there was no reason to fix anything to make it more accessible. The freight elevator at the back of the kitchen was still stuck, another thing she had to work on; the only other way to get to the basement. The old delivery system to the vault below was part of the bigger plan to ramp up a shelter area after the Blood Moon disaster, she just couldn't find a part for the pulley mechanism. Victorian for one thing, and it wasn't like the world was manufacturing much of anything anymore.

 

"What's wrong?" Rorye's voice carried gently up from the sepia glow of the basement. She came up a few steps. There wasn't anyone in the shop yet, not open. Regulars in the tea house were involved in their own conversations, they would have never heard anything if she'd said something to her at the fireplace. Nina had nevertheless sought her out for a private conversation anyway.

 

*npc* "I know what's happening here."

 

Her hands slid into her jean pockets as she stood on the bottom step, looking toward the vault on the other side of the basement and then up to Nina.

 

*npc* "...and yet YOU seem never to see it."

 

Gaze fell on a step and focused there as she was "scolded". The woman, hell... all of them, were told only what they needed to know in order to function and stay safe. They were fine with it. They knew the procedure, so why was she being checked now? This went deeper than just "lock the shop when she had clients" worry.

 

*npc* "You keep track of everyone else, but who keeps track of you?"

 

"You?" she smiled.

 

*npc* "While you're out doing what? Getting taken advantage of? Again?"

 

That narrowed her eyes, the dealer was not amused.

 

*npc* "Did you ever stop to think about HOW you got to the be the queen of the hill?"

 

"Because you look after me," the playful humor was there, dry annoyance delivered instead.

 

*npc* "Because things conveniently have happened to put you there. People conveniently keep showing up to help themselves to your hard work. Why can't you see that?"

 

Oh hell no.

 

Expression focused on the wall, then glared up at her for a split second before it softened.

 

"Nobody is helping themselves to anything."

 

*npc* "Oh? We have been with you since the beginning, no matter what. We get nothing from being here except you. We care about you. Thick and thin. And yet, you keep bending over backwards for people that don't care about you. What would Michael have thought?"

 

Fucking christ. She stepped off the bottom step and disappeared toward the vault for a moment. Long breath oozed out, hands in her hips to calm the triggered anger. It was obvious she knew someone was upstairs with her. The woman was meticulous, and even a covert agent didn't slip past her unnoticed. The woman was amazing, but Rorye's patience had limits. 

 

She calmed herself, but didn't emerge where Nina could see her. That name drew the worst in her. Regret. Sorrow. Terror.

 

"There are new containers for the tea stock in my work room that were delivered yesterday. They go on the top shelf."

 

Her voice was calm, the "order" absolute. She didn't want to talk anymore.

 

*npc* "Just stop it. I won't be ignored. What about Michael? Are you forgetting about him? Michael was here because he wanted to be here until it was impossible. There were no strings attached. He had everything to lose. Everything, everyone that has come after is trying just to survive, and they don't care who they screw over to do it."

 

That wasn't even fucking true! She came back to the staircase, hands defiantly on her hips, looking up at the woman who'd been with her since the first day she opened her doors. She pointed at the woman.

 

"Michael was here because he used me to piss off his parents by playing house with the girl who was everything his family wasn't. He didn't give a shit about me, he just used me."

 

It came out more aggressive than she'd intended, accusatory. Hurt still by the revelation she discovered after his death. She wasn't educated enough, rich enough, connected enough. 'Beautiful', that's all his mother said she was. 'Just shut up and look beautiful', she'd said. Keeping her mouth shut was only one checkmark on the huge list of her failures for that family.

 

*npc* "Then you're smart enough to know better."

 

Nina's words were quiet.

 

*npc* "Or at least I thought you were."

 

Dark eyes stared at her, stomach dropping. She swallowed as the woman turned and walked back to the tea house. Box was kicked. Then another flipped, a compressed rage wreaking havoc for several seconds. Flat palms pounded on the door of the vault until the pain of an unyielding surface had blossomed enough agony to stop.

 

Heel scraped as she turned her back to the vault and slid to sit on the floor. She didn't cry. She never cried... what the fuck then was the scalding hot moisture she was wiping from her lashes?

 

Frustration. The thought of being inadequate, even after the world ended.

 

Head leaned back against the steel, feet drawing up to prop her forearms on her knees, one last wipe of a trickle from the tip of her nose with the back of her hand.

 

Her hands stung, vibrating from the abuse, reminding her of how hard she could hit. She'd been taught that, holding her own with men her age when she was in high school. Unafraid to take a hit with or without gloves.

 

Live hard, for it all ends.

 

Smile was soft, she could still hear her father's voice saying it, tangled with Nina's warning... and now her doubts.

Edited by Rorye Shannon-Kearney
Dialogue Color
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Ryan hauled himself wearily into the “Book of Kells” through one of its discrete passages.  Dark circles swelled beneath his eyes, contrasting greatly with their brilliant blue hue.  Shoulders sagged from exhaustion, his boots trudging slowly as walked through the back of the occults shop.  Knuckles on his hand were bruised and bloody, as he grasped the door handle leading into his small loft upstairs.

 

Another long night pursuing the criminal syndicate owned by the Order of the First Light.  Cages had been rattled, bones broken, and blood spilled.  Harker was sinking the ship around them.  Now, he need only wait for the rats to go to ground.  It would take a couple days, but they would lead him toward the upper echelons of the organization.  Finally, the agent might have a few days of rest since this all began.

 

Ryan had been about to open the door, when he heard banging from somewhere downstairs.  He had been a guest at Rorye’s place for almost two weeks, and by now he was familiar with the establishment’s usual sounds.  The sounds of disheveled boxes and pounding metal weren’t typical of the occults shop, not at any time of day.

 

The operative was a blurred shadow as he swept swiftly through the shop and into the library downstairs.  Nina, the stores shopkeeper, was exiting a door normally hidden behind a bookcase running the length of the wall.  The older woman’s eyes flitted to him, before glancing back into the darkness beyond the secret doorway.

 

Harker stood in the center of the room for a moment; gun in one hand, knife in the other.  Nina gave him a disapproving glare.  The agent’s eyes narrowed, unsure how to interpret the scenario presented.  A flash of movement, and he had pushed past the woman blocking his path.  An appalled gasp came from somewhere behind him as he descended into the basement below.

 

The mage hunter landed in crouch at the base of the stairs.  Black coat flaring outward for an instant before enveloping him once more.  Dim lighting silhouetted the hunter as he rose slowly to his feet, outlining the Sig in his hand and glinting off the enchanted steel he grasped in the other. 

 

A survey of the room discovered a chaotic mess.  Broken crates and accompanying store items littered the floor.  Eventually, his gaze found Rorye huddled against the large vault door.  Knees were curled tight to her chest, and hands were still wiping at tearful eyes.

 

Ryan’s stare softened and his poise relaxed.  Seeing Rorye in such a saddened state had immediately disarmed him.  Pistol was holstered, blade was sheathed.  Hardened warfighter melting into a concerned lover as he approached her slowly.  An inspection of her appearance showed no obvious injury.  Though, he suspected she had been the one responsible for vandalizing the basement.

 

The man lowered into a crouch before his companion.  Feet were directly in front of hers, knees paralleling her on either side.  They were intimately close, yet his body made no contact with hers.  Reaching out with a hand, he gently caressed her cheek.  “Hey gorgeous,” He whispered through a light smile.  “What’s wrong?”

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The heels of her hands kneaded her forehead, trying to relax the frustration there, body jumping slightly when feet hit the floor at the base of the stairs. Chest stung in fluttered panic for a mere second, hands almost seeking out her belt for karambits she had been wearing virtually around the clock for several weeks. Silhouette and weapons were his tell, relieved exhale as fingertips rubbed the last of the incensed moisture from her lashes.

 

Shit.

 

He wasn’t supposed to know this place existed yet.

 

Damn.

 

She made no effort to get up. Her argument, no… being scolded by Nina was an exchange she really wished he hadn’t heard either. Old wounds hadn’t healed with time and she didn’t want him to know; unaware he really hadn’t heard a word.

 

Palms drew over her face as he came over, gaze avoiding his as she surveyed the mess. It would take all of ten minutes to clean up; point was it had happened in the first place. Nina hit a nerve, putting all her doubts over the last several weeks to the forefront, exploiting that splinter of suspicion the mother figure knew Rorye was still struggling with. All the worry, the bottled fear, the stress of the façade to make everything business as usual had cracked her open for a moment away from the eyes that depended on her. Her stoicism on the home front made everyone she worked with feel safe, comfortable. It couldn’t be dropped. She was the rock. When the shop closed, lights turned off, and everyone left she could be alone with her frustration. When she was alone was when she was allowed to break down occasionally. She just hadn’t expected an audience to the aftermath this time.

 

His presence filling the space around her was welcomed, resisting the urge to reach out and hold him there. She could smell blood, which could have been his or someone else’s. He could be wounded. What she needed, wanted or was dealing with was not top priority at the moment.

 

“Hey gorgeous”

 

She forced a smile to push away what was left of her frustration, relaxing to genuine happiness to see him. She shrugged off the argument and finally looked away from the disheveled boxes up at his blue devils. He was so damn tired.

 

“Hey soldier…” it was almost inaudible. She’d tried to use his name as little as possible given the circumstances, and well, John just felt weird. This one had stuck as a casual term of endearment. Ryan, was an intimate word in her eyes. It was a privilege to know, so she saved it for only the most quiet of times. “Heard that huh? Nina means well, she just doesn’t know you.”

 

“What’s wrong?”

 

Wait, what?

 

Shit.

 

“Just, tension and the lack of a good available punching bag. It’s fine, I’ll talk to her. You’re exhausted,” and she needed to get him out of the basement. She wasn’t trying to hide it; she just didn’t want him down there yet.

 

No. She was definitely trying to hide it.

 

“Head upstairs, I’ll be up in a minute and bring you something from the coffee shop,” she took his hand, holding it to her cheek a moment before she pushed herself up. Dusting herself off, hands slid into her back pockets, not moving from between him and the vault door. “I’ll clean this up later.”

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“Just, tension and the lack of a good available punching bag. It’s fine, I’ll talk to her. You’re exhausted,” She was trying to avoid the subject by shifting the focus to him.

 

          “I’m fine,” Ryan countered quickly.  The statement was mostly true, but so was her observation.  “Talk to her about what?”

 

            The ARMA operative was well aware Nina disliked his presence at the shop.  Given their line of work, it made sense she would be apprehensive about the sudden appearance of a dangerous stranger.  Especially considering said stranger was reclusive, rarely spoke to her, and skulked in and out of the establishment at all hours of the night.  Harker had been distant from Rorye’s staff to protect them.  He knew she cared for them, and the less they knew, the safer they would be.

 

“She doesn’t like me, does she?”  he asked with broad grin.  Eyes still beholden to the woman before him.

 

“Head upstairs, I’ll be up in a minute and bring you something from the coffee shop. I’ll clean this up later,” Rorye said dismissively, before bracing herself against the steel at her back and rising to her feet.

 

In their short time together, Ryan had figured out neither of them were complainers.  They had gotten into a rhythm though, based on mutual trust.  If asked, they would both insist they were okay.  However, if their partner felt there was something that needed to be addressed, they would tactfully pry until it the truth was revealed.  Ironically, trust was at the foundation of their relationship.  Despite all the secrets, omissions, and even lies, they trusted one another to be honest when it mattered.

 

“Uh-uh.” Ryan said with a short wag of his finger.  “I’m not letting you off the hook that easy.”  Hands were placed lightly on her hips. “Rorye, I know it takes a whole lot more than just ‘tension’ to make you this upset,” his head titled sideways a bit, blue eyes still staring into her almond hues.  “So, why don’t you tell me what’s going on?”

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“I’m fine. Talk to her about what?”

 

Eyes narrowed a bit, expression still amiable. Answer was quick to dismiss her concern and jump into the issue with Nina. That’s not how this worked. Her employees were her problem, unless they’d been outwardly rude to him. Up to this point she was going to leave it alone, things had been fine. Clearly, now she would have to address it.

 

“You are not fine,” she picked up his hand and turned the bloody knuckles toward her. “Hard day at the office?”

 

 “She doesn’t like me, does she?”

 

Damn it.

 

“What makes you think that?” she shook her head slightly, smile light on her lips. She pulled herself to her feet as she tried to get him to forget the whole thing and head upstairs. He really did need to get some sleep. Fatigue nicked focus. The last thing they both needed was him not focused when he went out on his ‘adventures’.

 

“Uh-uh.”

 

She laughed; it was rare. Rorye had a rather dark and mischievous sense of humor, the soft laughter of pure amusement was melodic in comparison

 

“I’m not letting you off the hook that easy.”

 

“Scold me again and you’re going to lose your finger,” she teased, hands pulled from her pockets to rest on his shoulders a moment before her hands slid up to his cheeks to draw her thumbs gently over the circles under his eyes. “It can wait. You. Food. Shower. Rest. In that order.”

 

“Rorye, I know it takes a whole lot more than just ‘tension’ to make you this upset. So, why don’t you tell me what’s going on?”

 

“What’s making me upset is that you’re this tired,” voice was low. “…and that you’re not getting that hand wrapped. I need to pin you down today and take your stitches out too, though I think I could do that while you were sleeping and you’d never notice.”

 

So much more was twisted with the Nina issue, looking back to the concerned blue eyes that seemed to be able to tug anything from her. It was a sadness that only Nina knew about, the mother-figure had a right to be critical of anyone Rorye spent time with.

 

Fingers slid to linger on the back of his neck, forehead against his as she simply played with the shorn hair at the nape of his neck. She loved that feeling, always felt like velvet, especially after a fresh haircut. She rolled through the right words with her eyes closed, a slow breath before drawing back to survey the room. Nothing in the room had changed in ten years, except her.

 

“Nina trusts me to run this business the way it needs to be run. She is immensely protective of me though in my personal life, you being here put her on point. Then I opened the door to the basement this morning and she lost it.”

 

Her tone of voice was different, anger, fear, sorrow, all twisted into very business-like delivery. There was more, and she wasn’t going to go into it further. Maybe in time. Hands were on his at her hips for a moment, then let go as she turned and started to spin the dial.

 

“This is the heart of everything. I was going to wait until things had settled to show you, and it took time to find someone to reset the lock.”

 

A series of clicks sprung in rapid succession and she turned the door lever with some strength and pulled. The gorgeous Victorian door was a work of art as it opened slowly with oiled immense mass. Room inside was small, no more than ten foot square. A polished antique round table was in the center with two equally ornate chairs. The sides of the room were filled with safety deposit boxes from floor to ceiling, locks all in an open position. He was free to look in them as he pleased. On the far wall opposite the main door was another; much smaller with a doorknob. A smaller combination lock released the door and a key lock unlocked the doorknob.

 

She slid Remy’s key from her pocket and placed it on the table.

 

“It’s not engaged yet, when it is I’ll hang it on a hook next to the door like Remy had it,” she said quietly. “Some of these are filled with items I don’t put on the floor. Past that door are items I don’t release, ever. Combination is eleven, fourteen, ten. It opens both doors.”

 

Hands slid into her pockets, letting him take everything in. The room was obviously ‘battle bruised’, several of the lower safety deposit boxes buckled and gouged. Some were missing entirely. She’d repaired the table and chairs a long time ago.

 

“Remy was my fall-out plan. I was his. I need someone to take his place. I don’t entirely trust these things would be safer with Pharos, or ARMA, so they’re here until I can figure out what to do with them. You’re the only other besides Nina that knows they’re here. Which is why she was angry. I explained to her Remy was gone, but she still thinks you’re using me to get to this.”

 

Gaze lingered on the back door before turning to him.

 

“There’s a code for the door behind the bookcase up the stairs too. I’ll give you that when the key is set.”

 

Several steps took her out of the vault, but she didn’t motion him to leave. She was claustrophobic, and that room had been the cause. That was why she didn’t like cars; vehicles were claustrophobic. At least the subway was open with windows when she needed to get somewhere. Bad things happened in that vault and the door beyond at the end of the world. Things that echoed beyond loss.

 

“Can you do this for me?” request was soft.

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“Hard day at the office?” She asked as she examined his knuckles.

 

          “It was for somebody,” Ryan quipped with a smirk.  The Soldier hadn’t taken any pleasure in the task, but it had needed to be done.  He wanted to keep the conversation moving, “She doesn’t like me, does she?”

 

          “What makes you think that?” she smiled with a soft shake of her head.

 

          “Call it a hunch,” came his jovial reply.

 

          “What’s making me upset is that you’re this tired …and that you’re not getting that hand wrapped. I need to pin you down today and take your stitches out too, though I think I could do that while you were sleeping and you’d never notice.”

 

          “Well, I definitely like the sound of you pinning me down,” Ryan pulled her slightly closer, allowing his hips to brush against hers.  Mischievous grin on full display, “But, I won’t be able to enjoy that, or anything else until I know what’s going on with you.”

 

          Rorye leaned into his embrace, forehead touching his, hands sliding up to hang lightly around his neck.  He was exhausted, but he loved it nonetheless.  Her leaning on him, hanging on him… needing him.  The sense purpose was rewarding. 

 

Ryan was a protector to his core.  Unfortunately, when constantly enthralled in grim conflict, it was easy to become disassociated from those he was fighting to protect.  At times, the “world” seemed a distant ideal, rather than innocent people deserving of his service.  Somedays, this made it difficult to remember what exactly he was fighting for to begin with.  It was soothing to have something to ground him.  Recently, Rorye had given him that, and he was thankful.

 

“Nina trusts me to run this business the way it needs to be run. She is immensely protective of me though in my personal life, you being here put her on point. Then I opened the door to the basement this morning and she lost it,” emotions behind the words were powerful, but cryptic.  Decision was made not to pry any further on the subject.  She had shared as much as she could for now.

 

The agent listened quietly to Rorye’s presentation of her chamber of secrets.  He followed her into the vault, and she gave him brief tour of the small depository.  As an ARMA operative regularly dealing with the supernatural, Harker supposed he should have been immensely intrigued.  Instead, he found himself largely disinterested in the basement’s contents.  He was at the “Book of Kells” to combat the Order of the Light, and for Rorye.  Importance of the treasures was known, but personally, none of this mattered to him.

 

After a moment, Rorye exited the vault.  She had moved impatiently, as if she couldn’t stand to be in there any longer.  Ryan followed after her, not bothering to examine anything for longer than a quick gander.  He had heard the explanation of her current predicament.  Though it still surprised him when she asked the question.

 

“Can you do this for me?”  The request was soft, almost fearful of his reply.  Ryan didn’t want the responsibility anymore than she wanted to burden him with it.  He imagined this is how she must have felt when he asked her to “place the mission first.”  This was her most coveted secret.  The trust required to share such a secret wasn’t lost on him.

 

          Ryan approached Rorye from behind, arms wrapping snuggly around her middle.  Chin was allowed to rest on her shoulder. Lips pecked lightly at her cheek before he said, “Yes, for you, I will.”

 

          “Now, I’m going to go upstairs and take a quick shower,” somber tone transitioning to cheerful tenor.  “Then, I think you mentioning something about pinning me down?  I think I’ll take you up on that offer.  You, sex, food, rest… in that order.”

 

           Another kiss on the cheek and he started toward the staircase.  When the agent emerged at the top of the stairs, he noticed Nina was still lingering in the library.  No doubt, she had been eavesdropping on the couple’s conversation.  Harker strode calmly toward the door without addressing her at all.  He had meant to leave the room, but he found himself halted in the doorway.

 

          “I know you think I’m a bad guy,” he spoke without looking in the storekeeper’s direction.  “But there are some really bad people coming for her…” voice was only loud enough to be heard by the older woman, “I am here to protect her, and I will do whatever it takes to keep her safe.”

 

          Ryan started to leave again, but hesitated once more, “You might not want me in her life, but there aren’t exactly a bunch of heroes lining up to take this fight.  So right now, I’m all she’s got.”  The same was true for him.  He couldn’t even count on ARMA to support him in their current endeavor.  Rorye was the only person he had in his corner.  This wasn’t something he felt particularly like sharing, so he concluded by simply saying, “Just take it easy on her.”

 

          The darkly clad agent left the room without another word.  A shower and some fresh clothes were in order.  He was determined to spend a little “alone” time with Rorye before she became occupied by the shop’s business.  Cleansing himself of the dirt, blood, and grime, would be the first step toward accomplishing that goal.

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“It was for somebody,”

 

Soft smile led to a playful quirk of her brow. With as tired as he was, she was amazed his humor was still intact, smile a little less amused when he was apparently sharp enough to keep pressing the Nina issue. Nina was a force, she may not have had the power to make decisions in the shop as a whole, but she could make it uncomfortable for anyone she felt disrupted the clockwork. Rorye tolerated it because she was almost always right. There was a relationship between them that ran deeper than just being protective of the shop owner’s home. Every person, no matter how much of a fighter, hits their wall. The diminutive woman had put Rorye back on her feet to keep fighting after the unthinkable happened. She was a rock.

 

“Call it a hunch”

 

“Of course. Be careful, she bites,” humor lingered in her words as she again steered him toward self-care. The fight to wrestle him into his apartment and to rest was a push and pull in full swing.

 

“Well, I definitely like the sound of you pinning me down, But, I won’t be able to enjoy that, or anything else until I know what’s going on with you.”

 

“If you can’t enjoy that, then apparently I need to up my game,” or game at all. She’d given him his space as promised, falling back into the regular routine of the business. Items were funneling to her as expected, skittish clients coming in on the down low as she worked with and reassured them. She’d seen the agent mostly in passing, silent communication carrying electricity that was difficult to put aside for the sake of so much as they kept to their respective studios on the second floor. It’s not that she didn’t want to; her promise of putting the mission first was taken to heart. People died when you got distracted.

 

The quiet moment was rare of late, fingers lingering to caress the back of his neck for not nearly as long as she wanted to.

 

Nina issue. Right.

 

No more stalling, straight into the business of the day. She didn’t want to ask this of him. There was no doubt he would do what was necessary. It would be poetic justice that this building would be destroyed after it almost destroyed her. Fitting. Her discomfort with the vault hadn’t waned; she would have been worried if it didn’t.

 

His reaction was not expected, embrace from behind welcomed during a minute of severity. Rigid at first, her stance relaxed, hands sliding over his arms as they held her. Distracted, this is what they couldn’t afford, right? Soft sigh as his chin leaned on her shoulder turned her face to him, nuzzle almost becoming something more. Almost.

 

“Yes, for you, I will.”

 

She turned completely around, seriousness set on her features.

 

“You can’t hesitate,” words were quiet. It more than hinted at the items that were kept there. “No matter what,” she added.

 

He needed rest; this was why she had intended to wait before putting this on his shoulders. The nudge toward his apartment seemed to finally be heeded.

   

“Now, I’m going to go upstairs and take a quick shower”

 

Expression echoed his switch to a lighter mood, though a decidedly melancholy look lingered on her features.

 

“Then, I think you mentioning something about pinning me down?  I think I’ll take you up on that offer.  You, sex, food, rest… in that order.”

 

Laugh was light, eyes finally brightening from the burden of business.

 

“You’ll be asleep by the time I bring you up something to eat,” she paused. “Let me rephrase that… you should be asleep by the time I bring up some things. I’ll get your stitches when you wake up.”

 

Kiss on her cheek was leaned into, refusing for a moment to let go so he could leave. Nina’s planted doubt had kept her from moving forward from that first night, she wasn’t sure if it bothered him. A lot of terrifying things were said in that short period of time in his bathroom. Maybe it was best for both until this mess blew over. It didn’t feel like the best decision though, because she didn’t want it to be. All the more reason to leave him to his work for now. Distractions got people killed… she had to keep telling herself that.

 

She watched him move upward, and then set to work at least righting everything in some semblance of order in the basement. It was a mess, but a quick one to at least tidy and get on with her day. Vault was closed with a heavy push, levers spun to lock up her secrets and head upstairs.

 

The manager of the shop had only intended to speak with Rorye again, absolutely hearing the depth of the conversation below. The older woman had waited, and would have been polite and not said a word to him… arms crossed as he stopped. Tucking a lock of bobbed silver hair behind her ear, she was already readied.

 

“I know you think I’m a bad guy, But there are some really bad people coming for her… I am here to protect her, and I will do whatever it takes to keep her safe.”

 

*npc* “There have always been bad people coming for her. It’s my job to make sure they’re not masquerading as a friend.”

 

“You might not want me in her life, but there aren’t exactly a bunch of heroes lining up to take this fight.  So right now, I’m all she’s got.”

 

*npc* “For right now... Right now doesn't sound like you'll be here long. Does she know that... John?”

 

She was clearly not buying him or his concern, deadpan delivery caustic.

 

“Just take it easy on her.”

 

Scowl answered.

 

It was several moments before Rorye came up, sliding the moving shelves back into place and locking down the floor and ceiling anchors for safety so they didn’t shift when patrons were using the books. There were no looks exchanged between her and her manager as she left the library to trot up the steps into the tea shop kitchen, Nina following.

 

“Don’t,” Rorye said simply to keep the woman from talking to her.

 

Nina opened her mouth to speak, silenced by the dark eyes that flicked to her as she was pulling together something to take upstairs.

 

“I can’t explain everything Nina, and sometimes the less you know the safer you are. I love you, you know that, but you have to trust me.”

 

She nodded, conceding for the time being as Rorye picked up the polished wooden tea tray and made her way to her own apartment stairs at the back of the kitchen. Gloom from the overcast morning outside still managed to make the eclectic shades of white warm as she stepped onto the top landing and walked quietly to the far end; balancing the tray on one hand and keying open the kitchen door to the back apartment. Shower was still running. Setting the tray on his kitchen table, maybe she could actually manage to get his stitches out. She’d acquired more supplies, on her kitchen counter with the intent to bring them to him. Closing the door behind her, the walk across the landing to her own slowed. Someone was knocking on her rear patio entrance, it was a business entrance, and not one used often in the winter because it was well… winter.

 

Predictably, the clients that had intended to return to check in about the magus blood never came by again. Others stopped by at their regular times as normal. This was not a regular time. Pausing in the hall, she peered around the corner into her kitchen, fingers reaching to the small of her back to wrap around a weapon. Soft knocking continued, more insistent. Crossing the kitchen, she shifted the curtain aside slightly on the patio door to peer out.

 

What the hell?

 

She unlocked it smoothly, opening to a wall of cold air as a very intent, tall and bulky man slipped in the door with more agility than he should have had.

 

“What the hell are you doing here Chris?”

 

*npc* “You’re closed still, I thought I’d check here. Couldn’t wait.”

 

He was gruff, pushing mid-forties with silver in his temples. The man was always days from being clean shaven, wide-ranging choice of clothing because he never stayed in any place long enough to care. He was a hunter in her world, courier, runner, the Indian Jones of her pipeline, and a bit of a dick. They always seemed to be.

 

"That's because it's not time to open yet."

 

*npc* “What the fuck is going on? I can’t find anyone.”

 

The man helped himself to the cold coffee in her coffee pot, either taking the liberty or because he had been there before. Obviously both.

 

*npc* “Came to see if Remy’s was a hole in the ground like I’d heard, and sure enough. You have some explaining to do because he was my biggest buyer. Where the fuck is everyone, I can’t unload anything.”

 

She crossed her arms and leaned on the counter. This was not going to end well.

 

“That’s why you need a phone, we’ve had this conversation. Just... sit. Shut up and listen,” voice was low, annoyed.

 

*npc* “Phones don't work in the middle of nowhere. I don't have time to sit, I need to unload this for safe keeping.”

 

Worn rucksack dropped on the floor with a clunk. She winced. Shit.

 

"Just, sit and be quiet a moment."

 

*npc* "Why?" he sat at her kitchen table with his cold mug of coffee. "You usually don't want me to stay."

 

This was shaping up to be a disaster.

 

“Because you’re not supposed to be here right now. You're going to have a gun pointed at your head in less than a minute... if you don’t already."

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“You can’t hesitate, no matter what.”  Rorye whispered.

 

          “I know,” was Ryan’s solemn reply before swiftly changing the subject.

 

***

 

          “You’ll be asleep by the time I bring you up something to eat,” she teased.

 

          “No, I won’t,” he countered, voice betraying a playful grin.

 

          “Let me rephrase that… you should be asleep by the time I bring up some things. I’ll get your stitches when you wake up.”

 

 “I’ll wait you,” was the last thing Ryan said, before giving her a kiss on the cheek and proceeding upstairs.

 

***

 

          *npc* “For right now... Right now doesn't sound like you'll be here long. Does she know that... John?”

 

A glare caught Nina from the corner of the mage hunter’s eye.  “Right now,” meant hopefully, someday, Rorye would have more in her life than the likes of him.  “Right now,” meant he understood the risk associated with the fight ahead, and the significant chance he wouldn’t survive the conflict’s conclusion.  “Right now,” acknowledged the possibility his involvement with Rorye might be temporary.  However, it didn’t mean he wanted it to be.

 

          Jaw clenched a moment, then relaxed.  Ryan said his peace and walked away without engaging the shopkeeper any further.

 

***

 

          Harker had undressed quickly, leaving his clothes in organized piles around the small studio apartment.  Bathroom mirrors had fogged almost instantly.  The showers scalding hot water had burned his skin, but also soothed aching knots of muscle and tendon.  Blood rinsed from his hands far more easily than it had stained them.  A heavy sigh escaping the man as he braced himself against the wall beneath the showerhead.

 

Fingers poked and rubbed the canal of his left ear.  The ringing was louder than usual this morning.  Flaring tinnitus, a side effect caused by any number of grievances; loud noises, explosions, illness, changes in altitude, to name a few.  The cause this morning had been a forceful blow taken to the side of the head last night.

 

Water was shut off and Ryan stepped out of the shower.  Mouth opened wide in an only half feigned yawn as he attempted to pop his ear drums.  Often a could yawn could subside an acute episode of the incessant tone.  This time it worked, and Ryan’s hearing resumed its normal function.  This was just in time to hear a distant knocking sound resonating from somewhere near the back of the shop.

 

          Curiosity peaked, the mage hunter dried himself quickly and made his way out of the bathroom.  Beyond his bedroom a door could be heard closing softly.  A deep, masculine voice spoke impatiently, followed by hushed whispers the hunter presumed belonged to Rorye.  The exact words could not be discerned, but Harker sensed his girl had been surprised by an unexpected guest.  Especially considering the occults shop didn’t open for another hour.

 

          A clean pair of boxers had been pulled on hastily, then Sig Sauer was removed silently from its holster.  Soundless footsteps brought the agent to the door of his room.  There he paused a moment, weapon at the ready while he listened to the voices on the other side.  Something in the next room crashed against the wood floor with a hefty “clunk.”  Reason enough to investigate further.

 

          Ryan pushed noiselessly into the adjacent walkway and then to the doorway of Rorye’s room.  A large man was seated at her kitchen table, coffee mug in hand.  Graying hair, unshaven stubble, ragged clothes, everything about the stranger indicated he could handle himself.  Rorye leaned casually against the counter in the kitchen, but Ryan could see the anxiety in her posture.

 

          “Because you’re not supposed to be here right now. You're going to have a gun pointed at your head in less than a minute...”

 

          Harker made his presence known with the metallic “click” of his pistol’s hammer cocking back.  Given the circumstances, he wouldn’t ordinarily have pointed his weapon at the unknown man.  If Rorye was going to make a threat however, he had no qualms with backing her play.  If she wanted a gun to the stranger’s head, he could oblige.

 

          The Soldier stood in doorway wearing only his underwear.  Hair was damp from the shower and moisture still glistened in places on his skin.  Tattoos and scars were on full display, though perhaps the most obvious was the newer mark on his left leg.  The healing wound was stitched and ugly, still holding a bright red coloration. 

 

          “If you don’t already,” Rorye finished awkwardly as both she and the stranger turned their heads toward Ryan.

 

          Ryan’s stare narrowed on the new arrival.  Weariness showed in the depth of the wrinkles at the edges of his eyes.  Yet, eyes themselves were sharp with lethality.  Brilliant blue hues glared intensely at the man, catching Rorye in their peripherals.  Despite the operative’s lengthy night, it was obvious he was prepared to kill.  Perhaps the only thing he appeared too tired to do… was put up with bullshit.

 

          “Stay in the chair, keep your hands on the table, and we’ll be just fine,” Harker stated calmly.  Weapon rest nonchalantly at the agent’s hip, but muzzle remained aimed at the stranger’s head.  After waiting a moment for the man’s compliance, he then looked to Rorye.  “I wasn’t aware we were expecting company, who’s this?”

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Chris was already reaching toward his belt as she warned him to be quiet, a trained instinct. The guy wasn’t stupid. He was more formidable than most gave him credit for. Going out into the “wild” always made people capable of surviving the worst. Problem was, he wasn’t in his element, and he got too comfortable with that fact all the time. He set foot on concrete in a place with electricity and he became an annoying ass. Chris’ hand had wandered to his own weapon at his belt. She looked at the dusty relic hunter’s hand and shook her head as she told him to shut up one last time.

 

The metallic “click” behind her sparked a jump in her heartbeat… and not in a bad way.

 

“I wouldn’t,” she said quietly to her longtime supplier, looking at his hand, then casting a glance over her shoulder. She wasn’t disappointed, an odd sensation washing over her. Safety... among other more private thoughts. Eyes softened, concerned. He didn’t need this shit right now. She’d not seen him in action, but being between the two made the room electric. A shiver glittered down her spine, tickling over her skin. She hoped she wouldn’t see in for the first time in her kitchen.

 

“Stay in the chair, keep your hands on the table, and we’ll be just fine”

 

Chris looked to her for verification.

 

“I told you so, you big dumb ox,” she wasn’t pleased as she chastised the supplier quietly.

 

His hand moved back to his coffee, other on the table as instructed. Clearly he was cautious, but not afraid.

 

“You think after Remy’s the rest of us wouldn’t be careful?”

 

Us. She was starting to paint a picture of and for him. Thus far, Ryan had not been exposed to big players. Runners, errand boys, delivery personnel. Never an actual supplier. She was the heart, but this guy was the blood.

 

“I wasn’t aware we were expecting company, who’s this?”

 

*npc* “Yah, same fucking question to you,” Chris gulped down the rest of the coffee and clunked the cup on the tabletop, eyes flicking to Rorye. His fingers from both hands drummed on the table, brow cocked at her.

 

“Look, I get we’re all on edge right now, we’re all off our schedules,” she turned and started making coffee, treating it like the most natural thing in the world. Ryan had to be seen as what she said he was, she was creating the buy-in. “Chris, how do we know you weren’t responsible for the shit at Remy’s? Maybe he should put a bullet in your ass. Did you sell Remy out?”

 

*npc* “Whoah, wait! I didn’t do shit,” his hands went up finally, palms where they could see them. “Who is this?”

 

“I called him in from the west coast after a few of my shipments went missing and things started going south. He’s done some good work for me out there. He’s staying in the other apartment until I can get things stabilized and your big dumb mouth almost got yourself shot,” it was almost elegant the way she could weave things together. She was absolutely a businesswoman, and a dangerously calculated one at that. “John is good people. He’s here to help us, bridge the gaps where our missing links are.”

 

That was a huge risk, it would pay off. Being a hub had it's distinct advantages. She’d just placed him directly into the pipeline. If she could sell to Chris he was legit, he was in. It was also a point of no return. He would be forever in-the-know in her world and if anyone knew he was actively ARMA, everything she’d built would be destroyed. Her trust in him was now absolute, she hoped he knew that.

 

*npc* “Can he handle it?”

 

She glared at Chris, “did you seriously just ask me that?”

 

Chris glared at him for a moment.

 

*npc* “I hate him.”

 

“That’s great, you hate everyone. John, this is Chris,” she picked up the supplier’s dusty bag, opening a closet near the door he’d come in and putting it in. Another pack was taken out and set at his feet. “Chris is the guy you’ve heard about. He’s the best.”

 

She was moving business as usual, but the glance she sent in the agent’s direction held a myriad of information. ‘Please play along… listen for the right questions to ask.’ ‘This is an incredible opportunity in disguise to gather information…. and I’m sorry.’ Clients were sometimes something she couldn’t control, and he needed rest. He deserved it.

 

“Chris has seen things I can only imagine having in my shop. Been places I’ve always wanted to go.”

 

Chris crossed his arms arrogantly and leaned back in the chair.

 

*npc* “And yet you still turn me down for a drink every time I come here.”

 

“That’s because you’re still an asshole,” she poured him another cup of coffee and set it on the table, her foot stepping on the rung under his chair to force all four legs back on the floor. “And you think you own the place.”

 

She poured one for Ryan even though he had a tray on his own kitchen table, and took it over to him, her back to her colleague as he clunked the rucksack on the table she’d just given him and started to go through it. Payment, and some other things.

 

“I got this if you want to go,” she said quietly for only Ryan’s ears. All she wanted to do at that moment was just call it a day, slide under covers and not come out for a week. She just might. Dark eyes found his, fingers lingering on his chest a moment as she offered him the coffee, “or you could join us? Ask some questions. He won’t be here long and I don’t know when he’ll be back.”

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          *npc* “Yah, same fucking question to you,” the stranger snapped.

 

          “Quiet you, the adults are talking,” Ryan said with distinct condescension.

 

          “Look, I get we’re all on edge right now, we’re all off our schedules,” Rorye spoke nonchalantly as she started a fresh pot of coffee.  Her tone was casual, as if having a man at gunpoint in her kitchen was an everyday activity. “Chris, how do we know you weren’t responsible for the shit at Remy’s? Maybe he should put a bullet in your ass. Did you sell Remy out?”

         

          Ryan cocked an eyebrow at the man, arm extending to level his handgun’s sights on the stranger’s head.  The Soldier’s expression was stoic, absent any indication he might hesitate in taking the man’s life.

 

          *npc* “Whoah, wait! I didn’t do shit,” the man threw his hands up submissively.  “Who is this?”

 

          Harker’s weapon remained pointed at the man’s head throughout Rorye’s introduction.  The agent was surprised at the amount of authentic information she was offering her colleague.  She really wanted this newcomer to believe her story.  Details added credibility to the lie, but also increased the risk of uncovering the deception.

 

          *npc* “Can he handle it?”

 

          Rorye gave the brigand a disapproving glare, “did you seriously just ask me that?”

 

          “A funny question coming from someone who already found himself at the wrong end of my gun,” Ryan quipped, though his features remained apathetic.

 

          *npc* “I hate him,” the stranger admitted while staring the agent in the eyes.

 

“That’s great, you hate everyone. John, this is Chris,” Rorye swapped the man’s bag for another while conducting introductions.  The exchange had been somewhat discrete, but it hadn’t gone unnoticed. “Chris is the guy you’ve heard about. He’s the best.”

 

          “I certainly hope not,” Ryan responded quickly.  Hammer on his Sig Sauer was de-cocked slowly, and finally the weapon was lowered.

 

          Rorye gave him an apologetic look, then a slight eyeroll begged him to participate in her ruse.  She poured both men a cup of coffee.  Once Chris had been served, she approached Harker with a mug in hand.  “I got this if you want to go,” she whispered.  She placed a hand on his chest, almond eyes gazing into his, “or you could join us? Ask some questions. He won’t be here long and I don’t know when he’ll be back.”

 

          Ryan was surprised she willingly displayed the intimacy of their relationship in front of her colleague.  Soft spoken words, closeness, gentle touch, the signs of affection were subtle.  Subtle cues, however, never went unnoticed amongst people from realms of subversion and subterfuge.  If this ‘Chris’ guy was as good as she said, then he would have noticed.  Which meant, she wanted him to know.  Interesting.

 

          “Let me go put some clothes on,” Ryan replied quietly.  Eyes found hers, softening for the first time since he had entered the room.  “It’s a bit chilly in here,” he smirked.  His stare flicked down for a moment, looking to the goosebumps that had blossomed on his skin beneath her fingertips.  “I’ll be right back.”

 

          The agent gave a glance of warning to Chris, then turned and exited the room.  About a minute later he returned, wearing a form fitting white T-shirt, blue jeans, and a pair of worn hiking boots.  Helping himself to the coffee Rorye had poured him earlier, he took a seat at the table across from Chris.  Their hostess would likely have noticed the pistol grip budding from the waistband at his lower back.  Though he was careful in ensuring the weapon couldn’t be seen by their unexpected guest.

 

          Harker took a long, deliberate sip from his coffee, then placed the cup down on the table.  An intense stare crossed the table toward the larger man.  Leaning forward slightly he said, “Chris, you asked who I am, so I will tell you.  Rorye has enlisted my service because I am the best at what I do.  I am not a tomb raider, an explorer, or a dealer.  No, I am the man they call to clean up messes.  I am the man that hurts people… the man that kills people… I am the man you never want to meet… and I assure you I am not someone you want to lie to.”

 

          Ryan’s eyes remained locked with those of the relic hunter as he continued.  “I am telling you this because we are going to ask you some questions, and I want you to understand there will be consequences if I feel you are being dishonest in your answers.  Answer truthfully, and you will leave with your normal fee plus a little extra.  Do we have an understanding?”

 

          Regardless of Rorye’s relationship with the man, Ryan wanted him to comprehend the severity of his involvement.  For now, he would play the heavy hand.  Rorye could always calm things down if she wished.  The present tactic set the stage for him to be the bad guy, and for her to Chris’s prevailing ally.  He wasn’t sure if Rorye had expected the strategy, but he trusted she find a way to use it to her advantage.

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“Quiet you, the adults are talking"

 

She almost laughed out loud. Bully for him. Digging in his heels with Chris worked, plus it was nice to watch the relic trader get his ass verbally handed to him for once from someone else besides her. So many times she wanted to point a gun at the man’s head… living vicariously was going to have to be enough for now through the introductions. Unfazed by his weapon, she continued, unsure if Ryan realized yet how often she had to deal with them as part of her job. She’d had a knife drawn on her more than once in her own shop, guns flashed. It went with the territory. Contacts, clients, everyone in this business tended to be twitchy, and talking them out of threatening her happened more often than not. Chris had done it at one time. He didn’t do it again when she was finished with him.

 

“I certainly hope not”

 

“He is,” she said quietly. Chris really was the best. “Arrogant, but good. Might be getting old though.”

 

Chris shot her a glare. She ignored it as she made sure everyone had a dose of caffeine for the morning.

 

“Let me go put some clothes on. It’s a bit chilly in here”

 

“Mhm,” comment was quiet, slight smile in a teasing expression as she drew her fingertips over his goosebumps discretely in a feather light caress; leaving him to it and returning to her kitchen.

 

“I’ll be right back.”

 

Chris didn’t wait a moment.

 

*npc* “Really?” he shot at her under his breath.

 

Hip leaned on the counter, both hands on her coffee mug. She shrugged ever so nonchalantly and enjoyed her coffee, watching him continue to go through the bag. He always unabashedly pawed through it every time. Didn’t trust anyone to ever give him what he’d asked for. It was why he was still alive in a lot of cases.

 

*npc* “Remy is also gone for five minutes and you’re already casting the net over his territory too?”

 

“Damn right,” the conversation was quiet. Not intended to be a secret, just reciprocating his voice level.

 

*npc* “And you’ve what, sweet talked this poor dumb schmuck into helping you?”

 

Her hackles bristled, poker face not giving him an inch. She wanted to punch him. In the face. Hard.

 

“He’s here to help this blow over,” she commented quietly.

 

*npc* “Living in the apartment my ass,” the bag clunked to the floor and he crossed his arms, drinking his coffee and glaring out over her living room.

 

“None of your business,” she murmured.

 

*npc* “Everything is my business, maybe I’ll deal with him instead of coming all the way into this stinking city.”

 

Exactly.

 

*npc* “So I’m bringing it to you now? That’s not a good idea. I shouldn’t be coming into town that much.”

 

“I know,” she agreed. They needed a new hub outside of town where everyone could pass through. “I thought about the crossroads, but would need to reestablish ties.”

 

He nodded slightly, “that’s an option.”

 

“Alexandria went down and we know what happened. We lost the south end for almost year to the jackass scrap market on the coast. I think Crossroads is our best bet.”

 

*npc* “You want this guy to help you. You playing him?”

 

Brow was thoughtful, avoiding the question. “Maybe you can talk to some people and feel them out, the next time you come through we’ll go up there and I’ll say my apologies and we can get them working with us again.”

 

He nodded slowly, eyes flicking up as Ryan came back.

 

Her focus was on her “tenant” as he sat at the table. Before, the stress of watching him work was always tight; the ‘what ifs’ of every situation had her on high alert. Now, she just liked watching him work. Vigilance in the situation was absolutely revered, but she’d come to trust his methods. He was also enjoyable to watch.

 

“Chris, you asked who I am, so I will tell you.  Rorye has enlisted my service because I am the best at what I do.  I am not a tomb raider, an explorer, or a dealer.  No, I am the man they call to clean up messes.  I am the man that hurts people… the man that kills people… I am the man you never want to meet… and I assure you I am not someone you want to lie to.”

 

Chris’ eyes flicked to her.

 

“I am telling you this because we are going to ask you some questions, and I want you to understand there will be consequences if I feel you are being dishonest in your answers.  Answer truthfully, and you will leave with your normal fee plus a little extra.  Do we have an understanding?”

 

The older man cocked a brow at the agent, then glared at her. She knew he could give a piss about Ryan, the guy had been shot so many times she’d stopped listening to his wild ass stories. The fact she had Ryan here was getting under his skin. The old bat was used to charming his way around her; he was not used to hitting a wall. She was calling his hand and staking her claim as the last man standing.

 

*npc* “Is he for real?”

 

She nodded once.

 

*npc* “Well shit… “

 

He crossed his arms and leaned back in the chair.

 

“If you want to keep selling, you’re going to answer his questions. You think it’s safer to operate a storefront than what you do. It isn’t. I can’t skip town and hide when people get pissed at me. You can get up and leave but if you want a place to keep selling, you gotta help me stabilize this Remy mess Chris. Answer his questions. It’s a fair offer.”

 

Hands stayed crossed over his broad chest, glare at her again quick before going back to Ryan.

 

*npc* “If my girl trusts you, then I'll hear you out. What do you want to know?”

 

Her smile was genuine, taking another drink of her coffee. Thumb lingered on her lower lip as she watched the show, looking forward to seeing chips fall into place with information Ryan needed and could use; more anxious to get the older colleague out of her house. She apparently had heat to turn up because the place was a bit cold, and things to do on top of that.

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*npc* “If my girl trusts you, then I'll hear you out. What do you want to know?”

 

Ryan’s eyes never left the man, “From what I understand, now that Remy is out of the picture, Rorye is the primary contact for selling expensive and exotic occults goods.”  Chris nodded in silent agreement with the statement, so Ryan continued. “If someone wanted to sell something in the region, but didn’t want to come to Rorye, where would they go?”

 

          *npc* “We were actually just talkin about that.  Best bet is probably the ‘crossroads’ down south.”

 

          “Who runs the crossroads?”  Harker asked, leaning back in his chair slightly.

 

          The man cast a glance toward Rorye, *npc* “She can probably tell you better than I can.  You want to fill him in?”

 

          The agent’s hands fell to his lap as he leaned back in his chair.  Fingers sliding casually closer to the weapon at the small of his back, before sparing a look in Rorye’s direction.  Both men waited for her reply.  Once the shop owner had said her peace, Harker returned his attention to the man sitting across from him.

 

          “Do you recognize any of these men?” The operative asked, holding out his phone so Chris could see the images on the screen.  

 

*npc* “Na, never seen any of those guys before.”

 

“What about these men?”  Ryan asked, after opening a different folder in his phone.

 

*npc* “Nope, never seen them before either.”  The relic hunter gave Rorye a puzzled look, “Why is he showing me pictures of a bunch of dead guys?”

 

“Focus,” Harker said firmly, demanding the man’s attention.  “What about this man?”  A picture of Thomas Hanes, the businessman who had approached Rorye’s shop in search of magus blood was shown.

 

*npc* “No.”

 

“This man?” Image displayed was of the “Avenue” nightclub owner, Daniel Aguiar.

 

*npc* “No.”

 

“What about this man?”  Ryan asked again.  Frustration flicked at the edge of his words.  The man’s lack of useful information was beginning to wear his patience.  This time a picture had been shown of Steven Ramirez, Arch Magus of the Order of the First Light’s New York Division.

 

Chris seemed to sense the agent’s growing disappointment. *npc* “No. Look, I only do face to face interactions with people I trust.  Like Rorye, big players, known quantities ya know?  I don’t get into the street level stuff; I have guys for that.  I don’t know any of these people.”

 

          “Fine,” Harker growled.  Phone was shoved back into his pant pocket.  “Have you heard anything about requests for magus blood?  Or anything similar?”

 

          *npc* “Magus blood ain’t really my thing, I deal mostly with artifacts and such,” Chris replied.  Seeing the expression on Ryan’s face, the man quickly added, “I’ve heard rumors about some new guys on the market though.  Serious players with deep pockets.”

 

          The mage hunter cocked an intrigued eyebrow, “go on.”

 

          *npc* “I don’t know much about these guys.  They are pretty secretive.  They hire a lot of local mobsters for deals, and hi-end mercenaries for muscle.  Nobody knows who runs them, but they have been looking for relics that can supposedly be activated by magus blood.”

 

          “You know anything specific about what they’re asking for?”  Ryan pressed him further.  Finally, he was on the verge of obtaining useful information.

 

            Chris leaned back in his chair, crossing his arms once more. *npc* “I didn’t want anything to do with that shit… but the money was good.  I heard a guy in Europe found it though.  The contract came off the market, but I hear the drop point is a port somewhere in New York.”

 

          “Where in New York?” The Cloak operative inquired, attempting squeeze the last drops of intelligence from the man.

 

          *npc* “Hell, I don’t know. Your guess is as good as mine,” came Chris’ matter-of-fact reply.

 

          Pistol was drawn smoothly from behind Harker’s back.  The Sig Sauer model P226, chambered in 9mm with a matte black finish, was an intimidating weapon to have aimed in your direction.  The agent placed the handgun on the table in front of him, but held his grasp on the pistol’s grip.  Thumb cocked the weapon’s hammer back.  When Harker spoke next, his tone conveyed a deathly seriousness.  “Think harder.”

 

          *npc* “Shit man, calm down!  That’s all I know!”  Chris eyes darted from the gun to Rorye, “Common Rorye, tell him.”

 

          Ryan kept his eyes fixed on the relic hunter, but out of the corner of his mouth asked, “What do you think, you believe him?”

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Calm. She was a business owner. Deals could be made and broken with just a shift of the eyes and she was excellent at playing a part; manipulating a situation for information was a hard earned skill. If she really stopped and thought about it long enough, she might have considered throwing in with ARMA in their covert division. People were too dear to her though; the human contact portion of it anyway. It just seemed like it would be... lonely, to watch and weather that much stress and suffering with nobody to even share it with. The position had to be heavier than the world at times.

 

Gaze shifted to Ryan as he spoke, amber glint to her irises. Something was bothering her. Two weeks ago a thought had crossed her mind; an idea she'd dismissed in the flurry of leaving the shop. It was the first night he'd come in, the one that seemed to have completely blown up in both their faces as they crossed paths with no intention of helping each other initially. She'd been so certain of her hunch at that time.

 

The discussion of the crossroads sparked the memory. Attention wandered to the window on the door and the light beyond it, trying to untangle it.

 

"Who runs the crossroads?”

 

*npc* “She can probably tell you better than I can.  You want to fill him in?”

 

Lashes fluttered a second, they were talking to her. Relaxed inhale preceded her words, passing it off as thinking a moment before she spoke. Her thoughts had fallen down a rabbit hole briefly, still itching at something she couldn't quite put her finger on. Chris suddenly showing up was odd too.

 

"Hard question to answer," lips pursed, wanting to continue her silent mind crunching. It was going to bother her. "Technically a woman named Tamari, but her grandsons are the problem. You deal with her, and she leaves it to them to take care of it. They do whatever the hell they want and then relay it was successful. It's tricky. I have no issues with her and the grandsons will still allow me in."

 

Pause was a bit long, finishing the last of her coffee and rinsing the cup to place it in the sink. Chris was unusually quiet.

 

"It's the grandsons I don't get along with," hands slid into the back pockets of her jeans. She didn't elaborate why. "They can't be trusted. Period. Quickie deals, fine... anything heavier than that... don't trust them."

 

*npc* "You're going to have to go talk to them, with Remy gone you have to smooth it over. You know that right?"

 

She nodded grimly, conceding the conversation back to them.

 

“Do you recognize any of these men?”

 

Lashes narrowed, moving next to Chris so she could see the pictures.

 

*npc* “Why is he showing me pictures of a bunch of dead guys?”

 

"Just to annoy you," she quipped under her breath to shut him up. There were faces she knew, blink shifting her gaze back to her "tenant" the moment the man asking to deal in blood from several weeks prior popped onto the screen. More than just the man who'd come by with his goons were familiar.

 

Shit.

 

Items were clicking into place that she wasn't ready to divulge yet. She couldn't until she could see it for herself. Why hadn't he shown them to her before now? After her own blow up with Nina this morning, she was not in the mood for information to be withheld from her. Of course, until she could follow this lead she wasn't going to say a word to him if she could avoid it. The conclusion to her suspicion would be unthinkable.

 

She recused herself to the coffee pot and put a refresher on both their cups. She didn't need to see any more. The good hostess was just about all shaken out of her. Fingers rubbed her forehead a moment

 

*npc* “No. Look, I only do face to face interactions with people I trust.  Like Rorye, big players, known quantities ya know?  I don’t get into the street level stuff; I have guys for that.  I don’t know any of these people.”

 

He was telling the truth as far as she knew, leaning her shoulder in the doorway. Their back and forth was beginning to peel away her hunches and suspicions.

 

Gaze had wandered back to the window, pins and needles over her arms and settling deep in her chest at his mention of the harbor. Eyes closed, chin dipping toward her chest. That scent on the pup that had come in with the trio from several weeks back was still fresh in her memory, she should have listened to her gut. Harker knew where the trio were going because of a fun party trick. She swore she knew because of the scent the younger thug in training was saturated with. She'd passed it off as a simple association and never thought about it again. Now? She knew exactly where along the harbor this place was located. They'd come from there before coming to her, then proceeded to the club afterward. She would bet her life that was the location Chris was talking about.

 

Eyes snapped up as the pistol was drawn.
 
“Think harder.”

 

*npc* “Shit man, calm down!  That’s all I know! Common Rorye, tell him.”

 

The man's eyes stared into her own, and only anger glared back. He'd known about the problem long before the hit at Remy's, and in that moment he realized she'd put the pieces together. He knew and said nothing to save his own skin. He knew they were gunning for Remy. He knew they were gunning for her. Asshole had caught wind early and dodged the bullet only to come back from the wild when he heard she was still alive. He could have warned them!

 

“What do you think, you believe him?”

 

Rage. Pure rage. Idiot was already leaning back. She didn't even have to really try to move faster than the dealer could. Her toe smacked under the seat of his chair with a calculated grace, heel kicking the bottom rung as it tilted backward to slam his back onto the floor. He'd scrambled for his gun, a honest to goodness yelp as she stepped on his wrist and swiped it. His old cowboy fucking revolver. No brainer.

 

"You son of a bitch, you knew about this before they hit Remy's," there was no mercy in her words, pointing the thing at his face. "What were you going to do?" She half smiled, words incredulous in disbelief at his ruse, "wait until the dust settled and clean me out too? Rumors my ass!"

 

*npc* "Whoah! C'mon Rorye... it's not loaded!"

 

She stepped forward and stood over him directly, pointing it slightly past his left ear to the floor. Hammer clicked once as she pulled the trigger.

 

*npc* "Wait! Wait!" his hands went in front of his face.

 

Obviously still had a bullet or two in there somewhere. Sneaky asshole.

 

"Chris knew people were looking for magus blood," words were calm, directed at Ryan with a warmth only reserved for the most intimate of conversations. "Then he skipped town and waited to see who would come out on top."

 

*npc* "I'm not a dealer... I don't have the kind of firepower to take them on, that's why I brought the stuff to you!  C'mon Rorye..."

 

"That's what's in that bag?! Relics for magus blood?! Are they going to show up at my doorstep tomorrow asking to buy them? Did you tell them I had them? Get paid from me and a kickback from them?"

 

*npc* "No, I swear! I swear! When I knew that's what they were searching for, I scooped everything up I could. I brought them to you because I'm was counting on your discretion to keep them out of circulation... they don't know they're here!"

 

"I don't believe you," finger put tension on the trigger, aim on his eye socket.

 

There was no chance of missing at this distance.

 

*npc* "Jesus... Rorye!" he flinched.

 

"You could have warned us! He's dead because of you!"

 

*npc* "I told Remy, he said not to tell you! I didn't think they would get past him... Tamari was supposed to send help," he swallowed hard, voice finally quiet. Hands were still in front of his face. "C'mon, please...  that's why I'm here now. I don't know where the harbor drop off point is. When I find out, I'll get the information to you. I swear..."

 

Tamari. Of course help never came. Fucking grandsons made sure of that, the implications were horrifying.

 

She wanted to pull the trigger, over and over and over. A voice in her head said to. Anger said to. Frustration was demanding her to.

 

The terse seconds felt like hours.

 

She reached her hand out to pull him up.

 

He took it.

 

"Take your shit and go, I don't even want to look at you right now. Get out of my house, " she said quietly as he got to his feet, adrenaline still electric in the air. Anger was licking viciously around her. She opened the door, muscles in her neck flicking as the cold air hit her. "Go!"

 

*npc* "I'll make this right," he said hastily, grabbing his things as quickly as he could. "I will, I'll get you that meeting with Tamari..."

 

"Use what's in that bag to get better weapons, you're going to need them."

 

He nodded, casting a glance to Harker before bustling out the door. Her heartbeat was so loud in her ears the silence was deafening. Too much was swirling in her head. It felt like betrayal, but had he really or had he just been played by the twins? Anger tingled in her veins, mixed with faces she knew and would now have to either explain or dismiss when she cleared them herself. Clearing them herself would mean not disclosing them to Ryan. She couldn't, not yet...

 

She closed the door, looking at the chair, the gun, then Ryan. Chair was straightened, gun on the table, both hands on the edge of the table for a moment as she hung her head between her arms and controlled her breathing. Too close to losing control. Too many times in one morning.

 

"Should have fucking killed him," she straightened, a hue change at the edge of her irises saturating the darkness with something brighter. Closet opened, the ruck sack was tossed on the table. "Take it all to ARMA. I don't give a shit what else is in there."

 

Hands to her hips, fingers tapping, she removed herself from the room to pace her living room. Just a few minutes, she just needed a few or else she was going to tear the world apart.

 

 

 

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Posted (edited)

Rorye moved with supernatural speed, kicking out her colleague’s chair and sending him to the floor.  Harker’s reaction synched with hers, and he was on his feet with nearly the same quickness.  Weapon remained trained on Chris as the agent moved around the table opposite Rorye.

 

          The tomb raider was still stuck in his chair, back to the floor, wind apparently knocked from his lungs.  Foolishly, he reached for his waistband.  Ryan had been a half-second away from putting a bullet in his head, when Rorye saved the man’s life by pinning his hand beneath her boot.  Chris yelped as she ground his wrist and slid the weapon away from his grasp.  An old, poorly maintained .44 Magnum revolver.

 

          The abrupt transition from “good cop, bad cop” to “bad cop, worse cop” had been unexpected.  He had never seen Rorye so angry; not even the time he’d made her dance.  Now, it was his turn to watch her work.

 

---

          *npc* "I'm not a dealer... I don't have the kind of firepower to take them on, that's why I brought the stuff to you!  C'mon Rorye…"

 

          The words lingered for a moment in the ARMA agent’s mind.  Chris had sold Rorye out.  He had led this “unknown threat” straight to her doorstep, and then lacked the loyalty to even forewarn her of the coming danger.  A coward.  Infuriating Ryan more than anything, was the thought of what might have happened if he hadn’t walked into the “Book of Kells” that evening.  Chris said he didn’t have the “firepower to take them on,” but if Ryan hadn’t been there, Rorye wouldn’t have had the “firepower” either.

 

          “Piece of shit,” the covert agent muttered under his breath.

 

          Rorye radiated with a barely restrained rage.  The emotion was understandable.  Chris had gotten Remy killed, and nearly got her killed.  There was also a good chance he was on the take. She had good reason to murder the man right there in her kitchen.  Officially still a Law Enforcement Officer, Harker really hoped he wasn’t about to witness a legally “unjustified” homicide.

 

          "You could have warned us! He's dead because of you!”  Her hands were shaking, muzzle of the revolver only inches from her colleague’s face.

 

          “Rorye,” came Ryan’s apprehensive warning.  He hadn’t spoken loudly, but his tone was firm.

         

          Tense seconds passed while Chris pleaded for her to spare his life.  A sense of relief sweeping over the room when Rorye finally pulled the relic trader to his feet.  She threw him out unceremoniously, and then walked back to the kitchen table.  Chairs were rearranged, old magnum set aside, then she paused.  Hands braced against the tables surface, her breathing slow and deliberate.  Ryan could see the mana burning at the edges of her eyes, as the possessed woman struggled to maintain control.

 

          He wanted to reach out to her, calm her, be there for her… instead he remained quiet.  She needed time to process the ramifications of the information she had just learned.  Harker could appreciate the need to assess and reflect.  Still, she had been hurt, and the one responsible had been allowed to walk free.

 

          "Should have fucking killed him," Rorye swore through clenched teeth. 

 

          “He deserves to die,” Ryan agreed with a thoughtful nod, before setting his own weapon down on the counter.  His gaze was gentle, sage like, “but for your sake, I’m glad you didn’t kill him.”

 

The shop keeper walked to the closet and returned seconds later with Chris’ ragged pack.  She tossed the ruck onto table without concern for its contents, "Take it all to ARMA. I don't give a shit what else is in there."

 

The agent nodded again, “sure, no problem.”

 

          Without another word, Rorye turned her back and paced into the next room. 

 

Ryan’s eyes flicked from her, to the door, and back again.  The warrior was only vaguely aware of his emotions.  He wanted to ease Rorye’s pain but knew there was nothing he could do toward that end.  As a man of action, he longed to do something, anything to benefit the situation.  The mage hunter stood idly in the center of the room. Seconds passed in silent contemplation. 

 

          “Fuck it,” he thought to himself.  If he couldn’t make Rorye feel better, he could sure as hell make the guy who hurt her feel worse.  Backdoor to the apartment opened briefly, then slammed shut behind him.

 

Harker shuffled hastily down the shop’s rear fire escape, catching Chris just before he had reached the bottom.  The burly man turned to face him; eyes wide with surprise.  The Soldier said nothing.  He didn’t pause, nor did he slow his descent of the stairs.  Grasping the handrails on either side of the stairwell, he swung himself forward and struck the traitor hard in the chest with the bottom of his boot.

 

          Chris was launched off the remaining steps and sent crashing into the icy pavement below.  His body landed with a meaty thud.  *npc* “Ah, what the fuck!” the man moaned as he scrambled to his feet.

 

          Ryan strode purposely down the steps and then directly toward the much larger man.

 

          *npc* “I’ve had enough of your tough guy shi…”  The marauder was silenced by a solid, right cross.  Ryan’s knuckles impacted the nerve cluster just below the man’s nose, causing his head to snap back abruptly.

 

          *npc* “Fuck!”  Chris back peddled, bringing his hands to his face.  To his credit, he recovered quick.  Fists balled tightly as he assumed a modified boxing stance.  The man was unbothered by the blood flowing freely from his nose.  Clearly, he was an experienced brawler. 

 

          Harker hadn’t slowed his advance.  Chin lowered, eyes narrowed, and he continued to walk straight for Chris.

 

*npc* “Fuck you!” Chris barked, before stepping forward with powerful haymaker.

 

Hair was already on end from the winter air, but another chill tingled at the base of Ryan’s skull.  Time slowed.

 

          He slipped effortlessly under the brigand’s punch, countering with a body shot from his left hand.  The relic hunter caved inward slightly from the force of the blow.  His head dropped low, and Ryan came over the top with a hook from his right.  Fist connected with the man’s jaw, and he could feel the bones give with a satisfying “crack.”

 

The agent’s movements were fluid, effortless even.  As if he were demonstrating a choreographed scene, one he had practiced a thousand times.  Each strike created an opening for the next, as his opponent’s body recoiled naturally from the attacks.

 

When Chris swung again, Harker chopped down on his arm with both hands.  This effectively blocked the punch, while simultaneously striking at both the wrist and the elbow.  Stepping forward, he swam through the man’s guard and drove an elbow into the betrayer’s face. 

 

Chris’ head dipped again from the hit and he took a step backward to regain his balance.  Before he could recover, an uppercut found his chin from somewhere below.  Eyes shut, yet lights flashed across his vision; and his head was rocked back once more.

 

Ryan folded his fingers into a bladed half-fist, before jabbing at Chris’ exposed throat.  The punch was a blur, hitting the vulnerable area with the swiftness of a poised snake.  Immediately, Chris began to choke and sputter.  The man staggered backward, and his hands came instinctively to his neck.

 

Each of the ARMA operatives attacks thus far, had been accompanied a quiet hiss as he exhaled sharply to strengthen the blow.  The next strike however, he made an audible “Hash!” as he twisted his body to land a powerful roundhouse at the man’s forward knee.  The leg buckled and Chris dropped to the ground.

 

Harker stood over him, debating on how badly he intended to hurt the relic hunter… and daring him to fight back further. 

 

If Rorye had noticed the confrontation by now, she would probably still be too far away to interrupt.  The entire fight had lasted only a few seconds to this point.  If she was saying anything, he couldn’t hear her.  A side effect he sometimes experienced when his abilities distorted time within his mind.  Setting aside the fact his hearing had already been hindered by last night’s altercation.

 

          Ryan sensed the danger before it had manifested.  Chris was drawing a large Bowie knife from his boot.  The mountain of a man surged upward toward the mage hunter, blade in hand.  Ryan caught the brigand’s arm with both hands, using the advantage of his position to overcome his foe’s innate strength advantage.  Swift kick to the knee kept Chris from making it to his feet.  Another punch to the face quelling the ferocity of the assault.

 

Harker pulled the captured arm straight and levered it into an armbar.  Chris was forced onto his stomach, face scrapping the pavement roughly.  The agent lowered a knee to the ground and braced the man’s wrist atop his raised knee.  He did this while maintaining the joint lock.  Chris grunted loudly at the sudden discomfort. 

 

          The operative’s combative techniques had been executed with uncanny speed and inhuman precision.  Yet, for him, time passed at a crawl.  Each movement seemed to take minutes to complete.  Amidst the fight he had ample time to consider each tactic employed and calculate the damage of each strike inflicted.  What happened next was not an impulsive act, but a deliberate decision.

 

Palm of Ryan’s free hand was thrust into the back of the man’s hyper-extended elbow.  Tendon strained, bone crunched, and the joint inverted its natural bend.  There was a sound not unlike tearing a drumstick from a turkey, only louder.  Chris gave an anguished howl and his knife clattered harmlessly to the ground.

 

Harker released the man’s mangled limb and straightened slowly.  Casually, he fixed his t-shirt.  “I told you there would be consequences,” he said so that only Chris could hear.  Then the agent turned and made his way back to the apartment.

Edited by Ryan Harker
Minor Edits for Clarification
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Chris’ begging tested her patience. Inaction made someone just as culpable as action. He’d failed to alert everyone in his network. Despite Remy’s insistence she remain out of the loop, or so he claimed, he still should have let her know shit was going down. If he was telling the truth, why would Remy have insisted she not be told? It didn’t make any sense.

 

Ryan’s voice cursing the supplier drew her slightly out of the darkness her mind was spiraling into, giving her a connection to the real world. She tried to pull herself out of it, to be the logical and welcoming businesswoman that both of them had only seen. It was past that time.

 

“Rorye”

 

Again his voice ebbed at the edge of her anger, a hand grasping hers to pull her out. She became aware of her breathing, comprehending the fear on Chris’ face through his flinch and hands in a futile attempt to protect his face from a bullet. She wanted to kill him, wanted the feel of killing him. It wouldn’t bring Remy back, but it would make her feel better if only for a moment. Betrayal was sensation that went far beyond this life. It was laced through her psyche from experiences that weren’t hers; reaching distant over the rip in the sky to a connection she couldn’t quite explain.

 

After she’d thrown Chris out, every cable that held her self-control in place was strained to the snapping point.

 

“He deserves to die, but for your sake, I’m glad you didn’t kill him.”

 

“I’m not,” she took one last look at the bag and removed herself. He’d already seen the end of anger earlier today; he didn’t need to see that it got worse. Much worse. She could control it now, but there was a time when she couldn’t. Nobody knew about those times, fighting through everything alone had been hell. She'd suffered through years of a black hole that felt so terrifying she almost didn’t escape with her sanity intact. Nobody knew of that struggle, not even her closest friends. As she paced, the anger licked at the edges of her restraint even now.

 

For her sake. Ryan’s words rolled over and over in her head. What the fuck did that even mean? To make sure she didn’t make waves? To keep others from coming after her? To keep Chris from retaliating?

 

Why would Remy tell him to not tell her?  It didn’t make any…

 

Sound of the door slamming knocked her out of the rampaging thoughts, the jolt allowing the rush to break the dam. Chris deserved to die. Heavy footsteps took her to an empty kitchen, heat licking down her arms in waves. Chris didn’t deserve the energy she was spending on keeping him from what she was capable of. Ryan had gone after him. This was HER punishment to give.

 

Damn it!

 

Door was thrust open, by that time Chris was already on the ground.

 

“I told you there would be consequences"

 

Metal had a melody all its own, so did the sound that a body made when it was in contact with nothing but air. She never stopped moving, the skillful motion deliberate. Heel of her hand planted on the railing, the rest of her form vaulting over it, palm releasing with a metallic ring as she dropped the two flights in what would be normally a near fatal height for a falling human. She wasn’t really human anymore... not completely. Her bones had caught up to her skills, able to take abuse she'd never dreamed would ever be possible. Landing hard but steady, her braid snapped against her back as she straightened almost directly next to her former friend, the heel of her Tim lifting to grind into the man’s throat. His hands went up to try and push it off with whatever strength he had remaining after Ryan’s assault.

 

She didn’t move, lashes lowered and hands at her sides. Posture was different, features a steadfast expression of horrible judgment. If a statue existed of vengeance, she was it.

 

“You came here to pretend you needed help,” tone was deadly. “Give me your phone.”

 

He attempted to counter her accusation.

 

“Give me your phone!” her heel pressed so hard he was gasping for breath.

 

His good hand let go, pawing into his coat pocket. It clattered out and he reached for it, holding it up feebly. She released the pressure slightly, dialing a number and holding it to her ear as her gaze shifted to rest on Ryan. The amber hues were nearly gone, hazel green bleeding through them like ink.

 

“Don’t speak, just listen,” calm words met the ‘hello’ on the other end of the line. “I’m going to call you both back in three days after you’ve spoken with Chris in person. Then you are going to answer my questions about our current situation and I will decide whether or not I will choke you out of business.”

 

An attempt was made for a rebuttal, startled that she would have the nerve to call instead of come it person. It broke every protocol. Protocol had ended.

 

“We’re going to solve this amicably,” she cut him off. “Otherwise…  I’m ready to fight, so you better know how.”

 

Phone snapped shut and she threw it on his chest, pulling keys from her pocket and twisting a ring of two from the cluster to toss it next to the phone.

 

“That’s to my old Jeep. Keep it. Tank is full, go to the hospital, then get your ass to the crossroads.”

 

She left him there to bleed, strides back up the stairs purposeful, glance to Ryan as she passed still saturated with a different hue. She had to put distance between her and Chris, or she would absolutely kill him. Door slammed behind her. The world felt in slow motion, heavy, disorienting. Every bit of control she had not to turn around and finish him off was being tapped. He deserved to die.

 

Sink in her own bathroom was snapped on, hearing the Jeep sputter to life as Chris no doubt was trying to save his ass from their wrath. Good. Leave. Good riddance. Several splashes washed over her face as she grounded. The feeling was so addictive. Powerful. Invincible. She knew better, it was a false sense of invulnerability. Enough to save her ass in a fight, but dangerously arrogant if pushed too far. Deceiving. Washcloth was saturated with cold water, twisted out and placed on the back of her neck as she leaned on the sink with both hands. She was coming down, but it would take a moment… and she was going to have some explaining to do.

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Ryan had never seen this side of Rorye before.  Eyes befell her with genuine worry as she walked past him.  This wasn’t the clever woman he’d met at the shop, nor was she the cautious protector he’d taken into Remy’s hideout.  She wasn’t the woman he’d taken back to his apartment… the woman he’d laid with in his bed.  This woman yearned for blood, and for the first time, she reminded the hunter of the creatures he killed.  Fear he felt wasn’t of her, but of what he might have to do in the future.

 

A parting glance was cast toward Chris, then Harker headed back inside after Rorye.  Door leading into the apartment slammed shut, not in his face, but it might as well have been.  He pushed through the door and locked it behind him.  Water could be heard running in the bathroom.  The agent made his way to the source of the sound.

 

Concerned gaze came to rest on Rorye when he found her at the sink.  Ryan leaned against the frame inside the doorway; arms folded over his chest.  He didn’t want to think of her as some “thing” that needed to be hunted, but clearly the demon she harbored wasn’t completely tamed.  She had hinted to the spirit’s power in the past, but now it seemed beyond her control.  The phantom’s rage brimmed inside her, like a dam on the verge of collapse.

 

“Rorye, I know you’re angry,” he said calmly. “But I need to know, what’s going on with you?”

 

Ryan was silent for a moment, then he spoke again.  Tone wasn’t accusatory, but rather, compassionate. “Is this you, or is this her?”

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Thoughts had quieted, focused on the cold at the back of her neck. Breathing. Scent of fresh towels hanging in the shower. Taste of coffee still on her lower lip. The ticking of a clock in a room nearby. Things this life offered her were still bitterly interrupted with fractured flashes of the taste of smoke and ash, sound of crackling wood and scent of blood. They were starting to subside. The more she reached into the unknown to help her own cause, the more tolerant of the darker sensations she was becoming. She was either at the very cusp of controlling it, or haplessly addicted to the power she gained when it was allowed to saturate her. One of her worst fears was becoming numb to it and losing where she ended and the other began. He could protect her from what was outside her doors, but this entanglement with something she didn't truly understand seemed out of his reach to help. She had to help get out herself.

 

Long breath was pulled in, another scent in the mix dousing what was left of the anger like water on a fire. It was unique, still damp with a fresh shower that had been exposed to freezing temperatures. Things so simple made memories, memories had power. In this case, a calming one. Safety. The word always came to mind when she thought of him.

 

“Rorye, I know you’re angry, But I need to know, what’s going on with you?”

 

She was silent. Was this weakness or strength? She’d continuously told herself it was strength.

 

“Is this you, or is this her?”

 

“I’m fine,” the answer came maybe a bit too quickly, reaching to pull the washcloth off and rinse it out to hang on the bar to dry. Another splash of water and she dried her face, sliding the wet locks at her temples behind her ears with an easy smile. “I’ve got it under control.”

 

The sarcastic jokes about her crux had been thrown out the first time they’d met, a coping mechanism perhaps for a very real danger just under the surface.

 

She hadn’t answered his question, and she knew he wasn’t going to leave that doorway until she had. Another glance at him with eyes that were returning to their normally beautiful dark amber hue was absolutely certain at first. She would use whatever she had access to in order to come out on top with this fight, she just needed to secure control over it. Whatever it took, the mission came first. His tone though, chipped away at her certainty. Maybe it didn’t apply here; perhaps only in the privacy of her home lived a rally point where no matter what happened beyond it they could always find each other again in this space.

 

With that came the necessity to tell the truth.

 

“It’s complicated,” she answered finally, quietly.

 

Tell the truth.

 

Tentative fingers reached behind her shoulders to pull slightly at the sweater, hesitating, and then removing it completely to set gently on the sink counter. Cami underneath, the faint markings could still be seen across her shoulders and down her arms. At first glance, dark blue veining… closer inspection they were absolutely reminiscent of tattooing in very deliberate designs.

 

“Happens every time. They’re everywhere,” she lifted the cami up slightly from her jeans to reveal her lower torso. They were indeed everywhere. Glance at him was hesitant, ashamed maybe, or feeling very naked and exposed. No one had seen these. Ever.

 

“I lost everything ten years ago,” this confession was not ashamed as she let the cami fall back down. It was laced with anger and frustration that was truly hers. “Everything.”

 

Heels of her hands rubbed at her eyes, the budding headache severe.

 

“I promised myself I wouldn’t be that weak again, not when I could have prevented it. The Event gave me speed with no strength, it was useless. The world got fiercer and gave me nothing but my wits to be smarter than the dangerous. This 'accident' with a relic gave me the skill to protect what I love until the second Event seemed to complete what the first had started. I can hit things without breaking bones now, jump from crazy heights. But… I didn’t want to get rid of this other part. I didn’t seek it out, it was an accident. I just didn’t want to give it up either.”

 

Back of her hands wiped her eyes, lingering moisture on her lashes hot from frustration. She slid up to sit on the counter, forearms on her knees as she watched her feet.

 

“So I locked it in. I can use it, tap into this incredible skill… but sometimes anger bleeds out. I'm still working on control. Without it, I have no real skill… except what I learned from my dad when I was a kid. I’m too fast for anyone to keep up and I don’t want to hurt anybody if they try to help.”

 

She was silent, the soft sigh final.

 

“…when you’ve lost… the way I lost them... you find a way to make sure it doesn’t happen again. Sometimes at great personal sacrifice.”

 

The words were almost impossible to get out, a lump in her throat that made speaking nearly inaudible. Her losses had almost killed her, emotionally and physically. She picked up her sweater and laid it across her lap. She'd divulged more than she ever had, to anyone. It made her feel vulnerable, and she hated that. It also made her feel like she wasn't alone, and that brought a peace she hadn't felt in a while.

 

“You need to eat, and you need to sleep,” she looked at him a moment, finding a calm smile somewhere “and you’re also on my side of the apartment. So unless there’s something else you need, go eat, and go sleep before you fall down. I'll answer any questions you want to know, after I know you've recharged."

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“It’s complicated,” she answered finally.

 

          Rorye pulled up her sweater to reveal the intricate webbing that sprawled across her entire back.  No wonder she had taken such interest in his tattoos, she had probably been researching her own for years before they met.  In a world of the inexplicable, Ryan could appreciate the desire to understand.

 

          He stepped closer to inspect the markings.  She gave him a bashful look over her shoulder, “It happens every time. They’re everywhere.”

 

          The hunter’s eyes widened slightly in recognition.  He had seen similar disfigurement in the past.  They happened to magus when they wielded magic from an external or unnatural source, and the strain became too much for their bodies to handle.  A phenomenon he had come to refer to as “mana poisoning.” 

 

Harker had slain a warlock in Europe, and a witch in the States with the same disfigurement.  Rorye’s case appeared to be mild, as the markings were localized to a specific area.  However, he had never seen “mana poisoning” in a non-magus before.  An intriguing concept.  If she was in fact experiencing mana poisoning, then the blemishes might be an indication the power was taking a toll on her body.

 

“Afterward, do you ever feel tired?”  Ryan asked as his fingers traced the tattoos.  “Does it feel like your invincible in the moment, but later it takes time for you to recover?”

 

---  

          Once they had finished talking about the markings on her skin, Rorye pulled her sweater back down and turned to face him.  “I lost everything ten years ago, everything.”

 

          Her hands massaged her head anxiously, as she explained why she used the unnatural gift the Resonance had bestowed upon her.  Ryan listened quietly, but she needn’t have explained.  He knew all too well the feeling of losing everything.  The desperate rage of being powerless to prevent it… and the numbness that came afterward.  When his abilities manifested after the second rift event, he had finally been given the tools to balance the scales; and he embraced them just as Rorye had embraced hers. 

 

---

          She gave a heavy sigh, “…when you’ve lost… the way I lost them... you find a way to make sure it doesn’t happen again. Sometimes at great personal sacrifice.” 

 

Thoughts trailed back to the picture frame in the drawer of his nightstand beside the bed.  The faces in photograph… gone forever.  He would give anything to have them back.

 

“I don’t know everything you’ve been through, but I think I know how you feel.”  The Soldier said quietly.  Closing the gap between them, he took her hands in his.  “You’re not the only one whose lost everything.”

 

Ryan wanted to tell her about his past.  Share with her, so she would know someone else could comprehend the pain she felt.  The words floated at the edge of his lips, yet he couldn’t manage to say them aloud.  After a moment of trying, he relinquished the idea.               

 

          “You’re not alone Rorye,” he whispered, touching his forehead gently to hers.  “I’m here, and I am not going anywhere.”

 

          The warrior leaned away from her slightly so that he could look her in the eyes.  Gradually they had returned to their normal auburn hue.  Angel of vengeance had dissipated, and the woman within had been allowed to resurface.  Rorye, his Rorye, had finally reemerged.

 

          “You need to eat, and you need to sleep,” she said, abruptly changing the subject.  Looking up at him with a light smile she added, “and you’re also on my side of the apartment. So unless there’s something else you need, go eat, and go sleep before you fall down. I'll answer any questions you want to know, after I know you've recharged."

 

          Ryan didn’t answer immediately.  Scowl on his features hinted toward deeper thought.  “We need to test your abilities,” he said after a moment.  “We need to push them… hard.”  He nodded his head, as if to agree with his own plan.  “I am fast enough to keep up.  We need to know if this power will hurt you if overused, and you also need to practice controlling it in the heat of the moment.”

 

          “I should have time tonight,” eyes glanced off to the distance as he pondered.  “Yeah, we just need to find an isolated spot, so we’re not interrupted.  Just in case you lose control.”

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Skin flinched slightly where he touched the tattoos. His hands were fucking freezing.

 

“Afterward, do you ever feel tired? Does it feel like your invincible in the moment, but later it takes time for you to recover?”

 

“Invincible I guess, like I know every response to each punch and hit before they happen. Almost like... I've fought so much I know what they're going to do. Mostly, rage. Just… anger. At everything, everyone. Words in my head I don’t understand, in a language I don’t know. I recognize some Latin, the rest not at all. Then exhausted afterward.”

 

He was being very calm about the whole thing. Everyone else had always been afraid or condescending as they pushed her to secrecy. The conversation was taking a very different turn, she hadn't expected it. He, understood. She was anticipating being made to feel ashamed she'd made the controversial choice to embrace something this dangerous.

 

“I don’t know everything you’ve been through, but I think I know how you feel.”

 

She looked up away from the fading blue on her forearms to him; echoes of a ghostly power finally giving up their hold. Did he really?

 

“You’re not the only one whose lost everything.”

 

Some lost friends, family, spouses. Killed. Murdered. Changed. Hers had been the cruelest scenario imaginable; terrible choices after heart stopping pain. He seemed at the same loss of words; painful things from life shattering moments that couldn’t quite make themselves into words.            

 

“You’re not alone Rorye”

 

Whatever was left of the lingering power was doused the moment his forehead touched hers. Eyes closed to enjoy the silence. They’d spoken of this connection weeks ago, oddly enough in a bathroom at that moment too. It had been held in stalemate since then, their own separate ways in their own separate spaces. Passing communication had been privately close, but physically… she was afraid to take it any further again. Afraid of loss maybe, or a fluke.

 

“Neither are you,” she answered softly.

 

“I’m here, and I am not going anywhere.”

 

It had taken her weeks to get over the stubborn need to stand on her own two feet alone. She’d been so livid he’d insisted on “protecting” her. Every fiber of her being bucked the thought. Pride. It was an insult at first, to think she was weak. She wasn’t, and she’d come to realize he never thought she was. She was important. He didn’t protect her because she was weak; he protected her because she was important. To the cause, and to him. She was also the last line of defense; the person that picked up and struck the killing blow if all else had fallen, and the one to save his life if he was rendered incapable of doing it himself. The realization had changed the game, especially now.

 

“We need to test your abilities”

 

Brow cocked. That was dangerous.

 

“We need to push them… hard. I am fast enough to keep up.  We need to know if this power will hurt you if overused, and you also need to practice controlling it in the heat of the moment.”

 

She opened her mouth to say something; she was going to hurt him. He would never agree to what she would ask him to do to protect himself against what she could become. She decided against mentioning it for a moment.

 

“I should have time tonight. Yeah, we just need to find an isolated spot, so we’re not interrupted.  Just in case you lose control.”

 

She had a spot.

 

Twice… three times in as many hours he’d been exposed to secrets in her operation. Digging closer and closer to pasts and trade secrets was disorienting for her. She was pretty sure it was business as usual for him. She understood it was necessary to get through this. Progress, however small was still progress. Chris had been sent back to his puppeteers, the disappointment from his turn not surprising but still unexpected. To be able to squeeze so many into fear meant the saturation of whoever was masterminding this giant clusterfuck was substantial. Maybe she could reach out to the Order, they’d approached her shortly before the appearances after all. She had an autonomy most didn’t, and it may prove fruitful in some way. Another time. It was time for her to learn to fight.

 

Somewhere. Isolated.

 

“I have somewhere,” voice was quiet. Not even Nina knew. She’d come close though to finding out the arcane dealer hadn’t let it go after the Event like so many others had with old world responsibilities. Several times when she was reviewing the books to make some purchases for the café there were questions. Money going somewhere. It was her home away from home, she’d even snuck out there when Ryan was asleep in the last several weeks. To ground. To think. To just, get away. He didn’t need to know that.

 

Fingers held his, feet swinging gently as her thumbs explored the backs of his hands.

 

“When my mom passed, we lost our apartment. We didn’t have much you know… one income lost, the rest wasn't enough and we got evicted,” God why was she telling him this? “This shop, it was a wedding gift… I built the rest myself, the tea café and these apartments, but I managed my money and was able to keep my dad’s place too. I lived there until after high school. It’s mine, truly mine. Nina doesn’t know, and I can’t open the doors to the public. It just costs too much.”

 

She looked up at him, “I was thinking of letting ARMA officially use it for a training facility until, everything happened.” Smile was quiet, she was proud of the place and oddly excited to show him her gem, “maybe you still can. It’s… it’s big Ryan. My dad was a boxer.”

 

Taking him to her childhood “home” was a game changer. It was letting him in. Her old room was still there, one and only boxing trophy and all. Everything else, ashamedly dusty and unused saved for a small corner where she would go beat the shit out of a punching bag when she needed to. She didn’t have the manpower or the money for anything other than basic upkeep.

 

“We’ll go tonight,” she nodded, curt smile. “…and I’ll knock you on your ass.”

 

Letting go of his hands, she hitched up her heel and unlaced one Tim to pushed it off with her opposite toe, then repeated it with the other as they clunked softly to the floor with her favorite socks.

 

“But, your skin is freezing and you’re going to catch a cold. Your hair is probably frozen too…” she reached up and ruffled it. Sliding down from the counter she padded into her massive open shower, standing to the side as she turned it on to avoid the streams.. “I know you’ve done this already, but you need to warm up or else you’ll knot up. My shower head is a bit more… fancy than yours.”

 

Fresh towels were folded on the bar attached to the glass. She reached into her back pocket, thumbs swiping over the keyboard in her business group to send her employees a message. She was dealing with a client. Don’t bother her unless the world was burning down.  

 

“…and it comes with a set of hands to work out the bruises.”

 

Okay, so she wasn’t banishing him back to his apartment and she wasn't interested in going back to work.

 

Phone clicked shut onto the sink and she reached to peel up his shirt, capturing his lips just as they emerged from the collar. Dropping his tee shirt lazily to the floor, she was absolutely going to take advantage of the situation. Finishing the leisurely kiss with a nip on his lower lip, her sweater and everything underneath were pulled off and dropped to the floor. Bashful, she was not. Definitely not the frantic, adrenaline fueled rush of weeks prior, the inevitable still seemed more intense. It was her way this time, nuzzle under his ear as fingertips traced and lingered across cuts on his stomach. Shower first, together… and then she was either going to finish him, or bring him back to life. Maybe both.

 

---

 

Lazy lashes opened quietly from a heavy sleep. She was on her stomach, large pillow beneath her cheek in her giant bed. Dark tresses touched with auburn had dried in thick waves, always a result of letting them air dry. The sea of white urged her to just close her eyes again. Her down comforters were too soft for their own good, creating the most incredible place to just disappear for a day. Relax, sleep, and ignore reality completely. Long legs slid gently in the warmth of comforters as she stirred, toes tickling against someone else's calf muscles. Fingers lifted slightly, touching a hand to make sure it was not just her imagination. Sigh was long, content, eyes closed again. It was twilight; the sun had swung toward her bedroom window to peer into it in long shadows. They had something to do. Eventually. She sure as hell wasn’t going to be the first one to get up. Not this time.

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Ryan listened attentively as Rorye explained the history of her home, and of her family.  “… My Dad was a boxer.”

 

          “That explains where all your fight came from,” he teased.

 

          “We’ll go tonight,” she said with a smile, “and I’ll knock you on your ass.”

 

          “Oh yeah?” came his playful retort as he leaned in closer.  A kiss touched her lips, then he whispered, “We’ll just have to see about that.”

 

--- 

          Invitation to join her in the shower was welcome.  Despite a long night, their deep conversation, and having just beaten a man bloody, Ryan had found himself incredibly aroused the moment her boots had hit the floor. 

         

          “I know you’ve done this already, but you need to warm up or else you’ll knot up. My shower head is a bit more… fancy than yours.” Sultry look in her eyes cinched her hold over him.

 

          The mage hunter gave Rorye an “Oh Really?” expression, followed by a mischievous grin.  The showerheads were the same in both apartment bathrooms.

 

          Sensing his doubt, she added “…and it comes with a set of hands to work out the bruises.”    

 

          “Oh… Well, in that case, I suppose I could use another shower,” Ryan conceded.  As if he hadn’t been fully convinced the moment she’d started undressing.

 

          She stripped him of his shirt, catching him with a kiss while he was ensnared in the fabric.  His eyes closed to savor her touch.  There was a seductive nibble at his lower lip, and then her shirt joined his on the floor.  Fingertips traced along his weary muscles, and Ryan caught the wicked glimmer in her eyes.  He was barely standing, but he knew, she intended to drain the last of his remaining stamina.  He was at her mercy… and he hoped she would show him none.

 

---

***FLASH***

 

          “One minute!”

 

          “One minute!”  Sergeant Harker echoed his Platoon Sergeant over his squad’s comms.  He held up a single finger for his men to see.  The incessant whine of the Blackhawk’s rotor blades made it almost impossible for them to hear one another speak.  Thus, the Sergeant was answered by an assortment of silent nods and thumbs up.  They were ready.

 

Sun was just beginning to set on the horizon, it would be nightfall soon.

 

The “Rift Event” had taken several key leaders from within Bravo Company, also known as “Bad Company.”  Ryan’s platoon had been no exception, and as a result he had been promoted to squad leader.  As the most senior NCO remaining in the squad, it made sense to place him in charge.  There had been no complaint from the guys either.  They had been on countless missions together and they trusted him.  Still, Ryan couldn’t shake the nervousness he felt.  This was his first combat mission as the actual squad leader, and it was everyone’s first mission since the world had gone to shit.

 

Sergeant Sepulveda, Harker’s Alpha team leader, patted a young Specialist on top of the helmet.  Several other nearby Soldiers did the same, grins on their faces.  Harker chuckled to himself.  Specialist Michael Monroe, aka “Eminem,” was a short little fuck out of Iowa.  The kid was barely tall enough to be a Ranger, but he was hard as nails and would do anything for the team.  Somewhere along the way, it had become good luck to tap on Eminem’s helmet before a mission.  Ryan hoped the luck would hold.

 

          “Dat-dat-dat-dat-dat-dat-dat!” Familiar rattle of the door-gunner’s 240 machinegun could be heard over the Blackhawk’s engine, but it didn’t sound loud.  However, it did signal to everyone aboard they would be disembarking onto a “hot” landing zone.  Another burst of machine gun fire, then several more.  Now other helicopters in the formation were adding their firepower to the fight.  It was game time.

 

***FLASH***

 

          At a small city in New Mexico, a local Community Hospital was surrounded by a horde of infected “zombies.”  The cities survivors had barricaded themselves in the hospital and were requesting extraction.  New Mexico’s National Guard had already dedicated its forces to major cities throughout the state and were unable to assist its smaller outlying cities.  The citizens occupying these cities had been instructed to remain in place until “Green Zones” could be established.  Essentially, they had been told to fend for themselves.

 

          Having just redeployed from Iraq, “Bad Company” of the 1st Ranger Battalion was a capable and available asset for emergency deployment within the United States.  Temporarily reassigned, they were conducting operations out of Fort Carson, Colorado, and each platoon had been given an Area of Responsibility (AOR) for civilian rescue missions.  “White” platoon’s AOR included the majority of New Mexico.

 

Ryan’s squad, 3rd squad, was the last to be dropped on the hospital’s rooftop.  1st and 2nd squads had already established a perimeter of security atop the multi-story structure.  Woman, children, and the elderly were loaded onto the helicopters and evacuated from the area.  “White” platoon would secure the building and wait for the Blackhawks to return for extraction.

 

Once the helicopters had vacated the area, the platoon leader, First Lieutenant Alvarez approached Harker.  “First squad’s on security, second squad’s securing the rest of the civilians on the second floor.  I need you guys to clear the first floor and make sure the building is secure.”

 

“Roger, sir.”  Ryan answered with a nod of his Kevlar.  Turning away from the LT, the squad leader then barked at his men, “Third Squad, on me!”  

 

---

          A touch to his hand jolted Ryan from his sleep.  The Soldier sat up swiftly, arms braced at either side.  Muscles were taught.  Breathing was strained, as if he had been holding his breath.  Heart pounded loudly in his chest, and for a moment it was all he could hear.  Eyes darted around the room.  A second passed before he recognized the world around him.  He was back at Rorye’s apartment, laying in her bed.  He wasn’t there.  Grip on his pistol loosened, and he placed it on the nightstand nearby.

 

          A slow glance to his lover in sheets beside him.  “Bad dream,” he said dismissively.  “Hope I didn’t wake you.”

 

          The phrase “bad dream” didn’t do the nightmare justice.  More like a reoccurring visualization of events better left forgotten.  While in the trance he always knew the outcome of the story unfolding.  Sometimes, he would be deeply engrossed in the sensations and emotions of the moment.  Able to feel the recoil of his rifle, hear the screams, taste the smoke.  Other times, he was merely a silent onlooker.  Trapped with the guilt he’d felt after the fact, but powerless to change the narratives tragic conclusion.  Forced to witness the same horrific scenes again and again.  Every anecdotal reenactment always ending the same way.

 

Ryan was just glad to have woken before the dream had progressed to its darkest hours.     

 

          He leaned over to Rorye and pressed a gentle kiss to her lips.  A soft smile as he said, “How’d you sleep?”  Arm slid under her neck, and the Soldier nestled back into the pillows next to her.  His embrace pulled her close, allowing her cheek to rest naturally upon his chest.  Somehow, caring for her helped to calm his own demons.  He was glad to have her company.

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As she lay there in the soft blur between sleep and consciousness, she was acutely aware his breathing had changed. A dream alive, something was vivid in his sleep. Fingers absently touched his hand again, tensing slightly as he sat up, rigid. Reflex response? Had to be. One didn’t go out to the ends of the earth and not be hair-triggered when they had the rare moment of sleep. Staying alert was the difference between either staying alive, or not.

 

She heard something on his nightstand, but couldn’t see what he’d moved, the swaths of pillows and blankets blocking her vision. She lifted her head slightly, fingertips brushing locks from her eyes before nestling back into softness, arm above her head on the pillow. Watching him a moment through barely parted lashes, sorrow was the first emotion that blossomed in her chest. He didn’t know where he was at first when he woke up, or who had touched him. Was there anywhere he could truly rest?

 

Smile was light when he finally looked at her, hoping her eyes wouldn’t betray her thoughts.

 

“Bad dream. Hope I didn’t wake you.”

 

“Was already awake-ish…” hand smoothed over her hair and gathered the cascade of dark waves, twirling her hand to twist it slightly and pull it over one shoulder. Forearm came to rest lazily over her eyes briefly. The sun needed to go down so they could just stay where they were. She resisted the urge to run her fingers through his hair at the nape of his neck when he leaned down for a welcomed kiss. Aw fuck it; fingertips stole a caress anyway.

 

“How’d you sleep?”

 

She didn’t protest being pulled closer, long legs tangling into his and stealing his warmth. Sigh was deep, taking in the simple scent of clean skin. Cheek settled comfortably as she listened to his heartbeat… a bit fast. Bad dream was more than just a bad dream. Eyes opened slightly; there was a gun on the nightstand she could now see. He’d had his hand on it that fast and then set it back down. All from just her touch.

 

Noted.

 

Not something she wanted to ask about, there would be a better moment at a different time.

 

“I slept like I don’t care what time or day it is…” eyes had closed again, answer a bit wistful. “Neither should you. Go back to sleep, that’s an order.”

 

The words brought a playful a smile on her lips, dimples flicking lightly before a final sigh signaled she was fine with not moving.

 

“There was something we had to do wasn’t there…” she murmured almost inaudibly.

 

The sound of her phone interrupted the near silence. It was Jesse, her laugh soft at the ringtone.

 

“They all have their own ringtone,” she said quietly, Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man’ intro only lasting a few seconds as she laughed again. “You have one too.”

 

Fuck her phone, that’s why she had employees. After a few moments it rang again, Jesse again. Damn. She rolled toward her nightstand, the stretch baring her back and sending a rush of goosebumps over her arms. It wasn’t there; still in the bathroom. Fuck. She slid out of bed, graceful swipe and swirl of a pale lavender silk robe around her from the hook on her bed post. Tie wrapped around her waist as she moved. Damn it was cold. It took her a moment to locate it in the pile of clothes, padding back to bed and hitting her thumb on the screen. She slid across the covers to lay perpendicular to him, head on his stomach as she looked up at him from her vantage point and took care of the call.

 

“Yes?”

 

*npc-Jesse* “Russel is here.”

 

“No, the answer is the same.” she said, thumb rubbing absently at an almond-shaped scar on her sternum, the cut of her robe low enough to expose it. It was obvious the call was a business-as-usual event. She could hear a soft discussion. Thumb hit the speaker so Ryan could hear the conversation.

 

*npc-Jesse* “He wants to talk to you.”

 

“Of course,” Jesse’s phone changed hands. “Hi Russel, the answer is no.”

 

*npc-Russel* “You sure?”

 

“Absolutely.”

 

*npc-Russel* “Okay.”

 

Russel handed the phone back to Jesse. The conversation between them never changed, the bookworm Russel would come in once a week to drink a ton of coffee, read through her special collections and ask to buy one of the shop's permanent wall decorations. What better way to hide the real thing than as a replica. He wanted a replica, she had the real deal.

 

“Thanks Jesse, everything okay?”

 

*npc-Jesse* “Yah, I gotta order more of the Narwa coffee, it’s almost gone.”

 

“That popular?”

 

*npc-Jesse* “Yah, almost through the entire stock.”

 

“Double the order, we’ll package it for sale too.”

 

*npc-Jesse* “Perfect, see ya.”

 

He hung up. She hung up and tossed the phone on the bed.

 

“Russel comes in once a week like clockwork to check if I’m selling one of my ‘replica’ pieces. Answer is always no. He’s harmless, nice guy, always needs to talk to me directly. Welcome to the more mundane moments of my job,” she smiled, placing his palm on her chest and her hand on top of it. Eyes closed again. Cold. Damn. She was awake now. “Can’t all be double-o-seven business all the time.”

 

She rolled up, moving to straddle his hips to sit and perch on him for a moment. She leaned forward, eyes narrow, looking like she would steal a kiss before getting out of bed for good.

 

“…you ready to get your ass kicked?” eyebrow arched softly.

 

It was playful, teasing. Bare feet nimbly hit the floor and she was searching for clothes. It felt like Christmas morning to her. Oddly enough, she wanted to take him there, a secret hide-out that only he would know about. Everyone in the shop knew about the vault, all the secret hidey-holes. Nobody, absolutely nobody knew she kept her dad’s building. Nobody she knew would appreciate it like he did, and that made all the difference.

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“Go back to sleep, that’s an order.”

 

          “Yes, ma’am,” was the Soldier’s lighthearted reply.  He held her close.  Eyes drifted shut once more.  For a moment he did nothing.  He merely lay there, enjoying the simple comfort of her company.

 

          “There was something we had to do wasn’t there…” she asked lazily.

         

          “Nothing that can’t wait a little while longer,” he answered with equal enthusiasm.

 

          Black Sabboth’s “Iron Man” instrumental interrupted the tranquil ambiance.  Rorye giggled, “They all have their own ringtone.  You have one too.”

 

          “Oh really?  What’s mine then?”  Ryan asked, head swiveling to look at her.  Eyes squinted in mock suspicion.  Knowing her, his ringtone was either badass, or ironically comical.

 

          She left the bed to answer the call, taking his warmth with her.  Comforters were pulled around him tighter to compensate.  A moment later she returned from the bathroom and crawled back into bed.  Her head came to rest on his stomach, almond hues peering up at him.

 

Rorye had an innocent beauty that he absolutely adored.  Even when she wasn’t trying to look pretty, she did, and when she did try, God help him.  To Ryan, she was ‘gorgeous,’ and so he told her often.  The attraction between them, physical and otherwise, felt so electric, he sometimes wondered if there was a supernatural element amidst their connection.  Regardless, the feelings he held for her were genuine, and so he tried not to overthink them.

 

Rorye placed the phone on speaker so he could listen.  The conversation appeared to be routine and uneventful.  Nothing on her expression indicated anything to the contrary.

 

---

 

“Can’t all be double-o-seven business all the time,” she said, after filling him in on some of Russel’s history at the shop. 

 

Harker’s instinct was skeptical.  Questions immediately jumped to mind that demanded answer.  How long had this “Russel” been around?  What replicas was he interested in specifically?  Why did he consistently return to the shop, knowing full well Rorye wouldn’t have the product he was searching for?  What was his motive? 

 

The ARMA agent dismissed his concern for the time being.  Rorye said the guy was harmless, and that was probably the case.  She had been in the occults black-market business for some time.  Judging character was an essential skill in her line of work, and he trusted her judgement.  Still, he might follow up later… just to be sure.

 

Ryan felt a stir in his loins the moment she mounted him.  Fingertips glided along his abdomen as she leaned in close.  She paused with her lips just out of reach, which only added to the temptation.  Sultry smile when she spoke, “ready to get your ass kicked?”

 

“If its anything like last night…” there was mischievous glint in his eyes as answered.  She’d had her way with him the evening prior, though he certainly wasn’t complaining.  Quite the opposite in fact.  Rough hands fell gently upon her hips, “then sure, I’ll go another round with the champ.”

         

          Swift as a cat, Rorye sprang from the bed.  A playful glance back in his direction as she danced nimbly across the room.  She seemed so excited, so… happy.  The childlike enthusiasm was infectious.  Despite being left enticed and slightly disappointed, Ryan couldn’t help but smile.  It felt so good to see her genuinely happy.  It was something he wished he could give her more often. 

         

          “She’ll be the death of me,” Ryan muttered under his breath as he crawled out of bed.  Soft smirk still held in his features.  Clearly, it was time to start their day.  A little food, a little coffee, and he would be ready for anything.  A trip to her father’s gym sounded like a fun date.  Before they left however, he fully intended to steal another few moments of her affection.

 

          “Don’t think I’ll go easy on you,” he quipped as he strode after her.  Clothes were left on the floor, to include his boxers.  Getting dressed could wait just a little longer.   

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