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MATURE RPG


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

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

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

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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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