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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.

MOVE HAD ISSUES. MORE TO COME BUT FOR NOW SITE IS BACK OPEN FOR POSTING :)WE ARE IN THE PROCESS OF SETTING UP A NEW SERVER LOCATION FOR THE SITE- EXCITING TIMES!!! ~ZEPH

PS: MESSAGE FOR WRITERS: READ HERE

ALSO, MASQUERADE WILL BE UPDATED FROM HALLOWEEN TO WINTER WONDERLAND SINCE DIDN'T REALLY GET STARTED YET :) WILL UPDATE THREAD TONIGHT.

Ryan Harker

Broken Bones and Shattered Pride

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*** Continued from “A Night in Hell” ***

 

February 13, 2022

0200 Hours

Waterfront Warehouse, NYC

 

Despite his injuries, the dark, the wind, and the cold, Ryan had managed to shoot his communications jammer on his first attempt.  It had been placed on the fire escape across the street, hidden from view.  The small, black box jumped when the round tore through it.  The sound of gunfire muffled by the silencer at the end of his weapon’s barrel.  After checking his phone to ensure service had been restored, the agent trudged through the snow and made his way back into the warehouse.

 

A shaking hand dialed the contact in his phone.  Shivering couldn’t be helped, by now the cold had seeped down to the bone.  First call was made to the head of the Cloak Division.  The Division leader had been disappointed at the mission’s outcome, but nonetheless, was understanding of the agent’s situation.  Authorization was approved to request immediate support from the Knight Division.  Harker was given a verification code to confirm the requests approval.

 

The next call was made to none other than Cassandra Greene, the Knight Divisions most trusted Captain.  Harker’s “request” for support wasn’t really a request.  A Cloak operative in the field, on an authorized mission, could pretty much demand emergency assistance from the other ARMA Divisions.  If the support was available, it would be provided.  That said, these requests were not made lightly, and poor judgment on the part of the operative could easily result in the end of his career.

 

Given the nature of their previous encounters, Harker wasn’t surprised by Captain Greene’s displeased response to his request for assistance.  By the end of their conversation she had called him a “shit magnet” more than once; probably not an unfair assessment.  Regardless of her personal frustrations, Cassandra assured him the cavalry was enroute.  A tactical team, crime scene investigators, emergency medical personnel, and a host of other Knight agents would be at his location shortly.

 

          Ryan paused before making the last call.  Her contact had been pulled up on his phone, thumb hovered over the dial button.  She was expecting a call from him.  Had the mission gone according to plan, he would be bringing the recovered artifact to her place for analysis presently.  Unfortunately, this mission had been FUBAR from the beginning.  

 

          Rorye hadn’t been given any information regarding the operation at the warehouse.  Ryan mentioned he would be acquiring an enchanted item this evening; a relic pertaining to their investigation of the “threat.”  She was probably still awake, waiting for him to return so they could examine the artifact together.  Obviously, that wasn’t going to happen now.  She would worry if he didn’t call.

 

          Still, for several reasons, the Soldier hesitated.  Most prominent amongst them being the shame he felt.  Arrogantly, he had promised he would keep her safe.  Vowed he would find those responsible for Remy’s death.  Boasted he would follow the organization to its highest levels and see it destroyed.  Told her not to worry and assured her, he could handle himself.  Yet, his current circumstance invalidated all those claims.  He had failed.

 

Button was pressed and the phone rang.  When he heard her voice on the other end, he said casually, “Hey gorgeous.”

 

          Ryan could feel a lump growing in his throat, tightening his vocal cords.  “What the fuck?” he chastised himself.  He had managed to maintain his composure throughout both of his previous conversations.  Now, he could feel his bearing slipping. 

 

Was it the intense pain in his shattered arm?  The stabbing sensation he felt in his ribcage with every breath?  Or was it the disparaging chill threatening to freeze his exposed extremities?  The ceaseless ache throughout his body, as his muscles spasmed involuntarily against his injuries in an attempt keep him warm?  Perhaps, it was merely the shame of letting her down?  Or knowing he was going to lie to her about it now?  More than likely, it was a combination of all the above.

 

Ryan coughed lightly to clear his throat.  “Pull your shit together,” he coached himself mentally.  “Hey, so I kinda fucked up some of the paperwork for my last mission.”

 

A deep breath, mouth away from the phone so it wouldn’t be heard.  Frustrated tears burned at the edges of his eyes.  Adrenaline had all but subsided.  The pain of his condition was wearing down his mental fortitude.  Given everything, he was probably on the verge of shock.  Voice in his head came again, “You’re a warrior God damn it, get your fucken mind right.”

 

          Another light cough, then he continued. “No big deal, but I gotta head over to H-Q and sort it out.”  The agent stood alone in the dark, away from Maya.  “Probably not going to make it back to the shop tonight.  My place is closer to H-Q, so I might just stop in there for some sleep.”

 

          “There you go,” the voice said.  “Calm breaths. You got this.”

 

          “Everything is fine,” surprisingly, Ryan had managed to keep an even tone.  “I just wanted to give you a call so you wouldn’t worry.”

 

(OOC: Ryan isn't in good shape, but his injuries really just consist of a broken arm, a couple cracked ribs, a head injury, assorted bumps and bruises.  Nothing life threatening.  But if you have ever had all these injuries at once, once your adrenaline wears off, it can be a lot to handle.) 

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Fingers leaned on her temple. She was playing with her food, pushing it around on the plate with her fork when Jesse finally turned the light off in the café. He’d been rotating the entire stock in the small kitchen cooler, coffee and tea shelves. Done once a month, it usually was always a late night and he actually enjoyed doing it. College stamina and all. It was after one o-clock now. The café closed at eleven and she’d been waiting over an hour for her ARMA agent to show up, watching the snow get worse out the window. Half the wine bottle already gone, she finished the last of the glass.

 

*npc* “Oh shit, I didn’t know you were still out there.”

 

“S’okay,” she smiled softly, blowing out the candle in the center of the table and getting up with her plate and picking up the other. “I was being quiet because I liked your singing.”

 

He laughed, *npc* “You hear that huh? …need any more help?”

 

She shook her head, “nah. Weather’s getting bad, you should head out.”

 

*npc* “Sure thing.”

 

He pulled on his coat and college beanie, wrapping a scarf around his neck and pawing his pockets for gloves. Even after all this time, the long scar from his ear to his collar bone was still visible. As clean as a razor, it was a deep purple that would probably be like that for most of his life. Fucking vampires. With a passion, they were indeed her most loathed thing on earth. Weres were a close second. Vampires though, were a kill on sight. No mercy. No explanation. It was a sudden and fierce trigger that would never go away. Ever. She never wanted it to. There was no forgiveness for what they’d done. Jesse had barely survived, she’d barely survived. Other loved ones had not been so lucky.

 

*npc* “You look very nice by the way,” he smiled.

 

“You’re not getting a raise,” she smiled back as he laughed at the comment, picking up the bottle of wine. She was going to nurse it the rest of the night most likely.

 

The bell dinged as he left and she locked up behind him.

 

After a day of constant ambient noise, the shop could be positively tomb-like when all was said and done. She cleaned the small table in the corner she’d chosen. Sure, he was probably going to have come in covered in the night’s work like he always did, but it didn’t mean she had to mind. One of these days she would get him dressed up all to herself. Seemed like today wasn’t the day. She simply didn’t care what he came home looking like though, as long as he came home. Pause lingered, her choice of thoughts sinking in before she started moving again. Amethyst colored gauzy silk shirt fluttered slightly at her thighs as she walked, the delicate cream embroidery on the hem reminiscent of waves. She’d done her hair. Something other than a braid or down, the delicate curls in an updo and tracing down her neck… elegant.

 

Nights like this were so unbelievably quiet. Snow did that, muted the world and made her feel like the only soul that existed in her big ‘house’. It could be lonely. She rinsed her plate and wrapped his for later, putting it into the personal fridge in the tiny break room. Dark eyes narrowed toward the shop proper, the twinkle of the candle on her own table in the café had masked the flicker that was filtering in from the dark shop. How long had that been trying to get her attention? Stepping into the doorway, she watched it sputter and go dark.

 

Odd.

 

“What is it?” she asked quietly. The relic was alive. It was the only explanation she'd ever been able to discern. It had a personality, thoughts, foresight. Who it was, she had no idea. It always looked out for her and anyone associated with the shop. A most innocuous security system.

 

Nothing in return. Very odd. Now the entire building was completely void of anyone but her.

 

She wasn’t going to lie and say she wasn’t worried, but she also wasn’t surprised. Plans changed, things went a different route. The logic still couldn’t help the knot in the pit of her stomach that wouldn’t go away.

 

Turning off the kitchen light and retrieving her half bottle of wine, her phone sprang to life as she headed upstairs, the sound of air against the phone evident before she even said hello. He was outside? Maybe? She couldn't be sure.

 

“Hey gorgeous.”

 

“Hey soldier,” her response was always quiet, his greeting still brought a blush on the tips of her ears, sobered quickly by the pause. She stopped on the stairs. Something was wrong, it prickled up the back of her neck.

 

“Hey, so I kinda fucked up some of the paperwork for my last mission.”

 

She kept forgetting he actually did have to do some things by the book. The cough was caught. He was somewhere cold. Outside? She kept telling herself it was hard to breathe outside when it was this cold. Stupid paranoia.

 

“No big deal, but I gotta head over to H-Q and sort it out. Probably not going to make it back to the shop tonight.  My place is closer to H-Q, so I might just stop in there for some sleep.”

 

Back to the shop. It was home to her, still just the shop to him. Fair, she supposed. Thumb rubbed her brow, wine sloshing in the bottle.

 

“I’ll have to finish this bottle myself then,” she commented quietly, witty and teasing. “I guess I'll have to find ways to amuse myself too.”

 

“Everything is fine”

 

Ohhhhhhh bullshit.

 

Fine was never fine. She took the stairs to her apartment two at a time, the agile strides already in her room and pawing through clothes before his next sentence. Bottle teetered on her dresser and she caught it, setting it secure on the top.

 

“I just wanted to give you a call so you wouldn’t worry.”

 

She stopped moving.

 

“Okay,” was all she said.

 

She wasn’t going to ask, she wouldn’t get an answer.

 

“I’ll see you tomorrow then,” words were quiet. Say something else. No, not that. Something else. “…be safe.”

 

Changing into jeans and worn pair of boots, she stomped each of the heels to seat her feet and yanked her cuffs down over them. Gauzy shirt off and tossed somewhere, a tight Henley and Irish cable knit sweater  was pulled on followed by her father’s worn Navy pea coat and scally hat. Knives… she still needed to get a pistol. Damn it. Leather gloves, scarf trailing from her elbow, she threw open her fire escape door, locking it behind her and vaulting over the railing. Chest seized, cripes it was fucking cold. Landing hard, curls had already torn themselves free as she wrapped her scarf around her neck.

 

Off into the darkness. Hands stuffed in her pockets, she navigated the streets she knew like the back of her hand. She was a runner, but not in this weather, breathing was hard enough as it was. No friends were picking up, two in the morning. Not surprising. Nina was a big no. Jesse was driving. Lisa had kids. To wake everyone up on a paranoid hunch was rude, so subway drop it was. Some were running, some weren’t. Fuck. Transfers. Subway was quiet, the streets were snowy and relatively devoid of cars the closer she got. ARMA headquarters. She’d made this trip before.

 

Even at night, ARMA was alive. Pushing the doors open, it felt weird. Some faces she recognized, smile light as she nodded in greeting, knowing exactly where to go to check in. ARMA headquarters was not her first rodeo, even in the dead of night. They still had her old visitor’s badge. Clipping it on, she assumed the worst and asked for the infirmary, she was sent in the right direction. He wasn’t there, answers to her questions were cryptic. Of course they would be. They recognized her, she had the shiny ‘multipass’, but she was also a fringe member. Fuck it. Charm turned on. It didn’t get her much, but enough to know something had happened.

 

Damn him.

 

It would take her an hour minimum to get to his place, mostly on foot. Early morning, public transit would be running. Slow and sparse, but running. Bus was her preferred method, catching one at the nearest stop and alternating transferring and walking, deciding to get off a block away and walk the rest of the distance.

 

Her teeth were chattering despite her clothing as she crossed the lobby and made her way up. She’d been outside walking and waiting for rides for hours. Cheeks were wind burned, lips stained a berry pink with what was once lipstick. Curls had been pulled into a semi-braid hours before, the frayed locks managing to look effortlessly purposeful. She pulled a glove off and knocked on his door, eyes peering up at the peep hole from under the brim of her hat. They were positively striking with the rare look of make-up. A moment passed before she brushed snow off her jeans, reaching to tap the brim of her hat up to push it up out of her eyes so he could see her face better through the peep hole.

 

“Open the door,” she said under her breath and knocked again. “You forget I have a standing visitor’s badge. Paperwork my ass…”

 

She didn’t specify where she had a badge to, it was obvious… More snow brushed off her coat.

 

“I look stupid in a hat,” she fussed to herself as she waited, starting to feel a bit sheepish for jumping the gun. He was probably asleep, or not there, and she was overreacting on her own worst-case scenario worries.

 

Sigh soft, she pulled the hat off and smoothed her hair, rubbing the tips of her ears with her thumbs a moment to warm them up. If he wasn’t here, where the fuck was he? She couldn't seem to calm her fears. Hat and gloves under her arm, she pulled out her phone and started toward the elevator. Calling for a ride back home... She needed to get a fucking car.

 

 

 

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Once the scene at the warehouse had been transferred over to the Knight Division for processing, Harker had been transported back to ARMA headquarters for enhanced medical care.  There he had been tended to by several medical staff, but his primary doctor had been Altheia Martin.  At the agent’s request, Dr. Martin had used advanced magic to augment the modern treatment of his injuries.  The result had been mended bones and healed lacerations, but strained ligaments and torn muscles remained debilitated.  By the end of his session, both Ryan and the good doctor were completely exhausted.

 

Some hours later, the agent managed to drive himself back to his apartment building.  Sable Challenger was parked in its private garage and the door lowered automatically behind it.  Rumble of the muscle car’s engine filled the small space.  Turn of the key killed the machine’s aspirated growl.  The vehicle’s interior and exterior lights dimmed, and the garage became totally dark. 

 

Harker sat in quietly inside the cabin of his car.  A heavy sigh escaped the man.  The prospect of exiting his vehicle, let alone walking to his apartment, seemed a daunting task.  Perhaps, it would be easier to simply sleep in the car?  No.  At some point he would have to make the journey.  Might as well get it done and get a bit of decent sleep in an actual bed.

 

Another deep breath as Ryan steeled himself for the trek ahead.  Driver door popped open.  Slowly, he turned himself and placed his boots firmly on the concrete floor.  Then, while making a sound similar to a wounded mule, he gradually climbed out of the vehicle.  Right arm was bound in a sling, so the extrication was done with only his left hand to assist.  Anguished wince subsided after a few more labored breaths.  Car was locked and the agent made his way into the apartment building.

 

The dark clad operative limped casually through the building’s lobby.  Behind the front desk, stood a young man in a cheap suit.  Golden name plate pinned neatly over his left coat pocket.  “SHAWN” engraved neatly in the badges metallic surface. 

 

“Another rough day at the office, John?”  Asked the young man, his gaze holding only mild surprise at the agent’s condition.

 

          “You could say that,” Harker answered without any indication he would elaborate on the subject.  He walked directly to the elevator, having spared little more than a glance in lobbyist’ direction.  “Take it easy, Shawn,” he said before the elevator doors closed.

 

          “You too, sir,” Shawn replied.  “Get some rest.”

 

          When the elevator doors opened again, Ryan nearly ran into Rorye.  She was looking down at her phone when he stepped onto his floor.  Almond eyes darted up at him in time to avoid the collision.  Initially, the agent was disoriented by the unexpected encounter.  A second passed before his dismay dissipated.

 

“Rorye,” he said abruptly, obviously startled.

 

Rorye’s cheeks were flush from the cold, lips purple despite her lipstick.  Still, she looked beautiful.  It was obvious she had put effort into her appearance.  Not that she needed to, but the extra time was evident, nonetheless.  Curls in her hair were pulled back into fraying braid, but Ryan suspected they had been flowing naturally over her shoulders some hours earlier.  Lightly applied makeup elevated her already perfect features, her eyes specifically drew his attention.

 

After taking in her beauty, Harker was suddenly overwhelmed by the weight of the evening’s events.  Eyes fell to the floor, too ashamed to hold her gaze any longer.  Her presence there meant he would be forced to divulge his failure.  She would demand an explanation.  He had hoped for a little time to regroup before confronting her.  A chance to develop a plan, before telling her how he had managed to fuck everything up.

 

          “I told you everything was fine. You didn’t need to come,” Ryan said as he walked past her.  Breaths were shorter as he forced himself to stand up straight.  Limp in his step was barely visible now, at least for the moment.  “Come inside and get warmed up, you look absolutely freezing.”

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Sigh was unconscious, swiping through her phone to the next number. Why was Nina always the one who was available? …because she was like a mother to her. She was always available. Lips quirked softly, a bit morose about how angry she’d let her get lately. Rorye needed to sit down with the woman and clear the air. Soon.

 

Jesse wouldn’t be coming in until later because of his late night, so he wasn’t an option. Lisa was already there. She would need to catch public transit. Random coffee shop first. Grab a cup of coffee, warm up, and then head back home after a short stop at a friend’s shop in the area. It had been on her mind for a week or so, she needed to strengthen ties with all the orbit shops in New York. They were friends and she needed to make sure they knew she had their back and they would have hers. In person would be more powerful than a phone call. Plus he had leads on cars and might as well talk to him while she was in the area. She needed a car. It was her birthday tomorrow, Valentine’s Day, which had always been interesting growing up.  She’d been thinking about the car issue a lot lately… she was going to ask Ryan to go with her to find one. She had no idea what to look for; cars were supposed to be a reflection of the personality right?

 

Fingers rubbed under her eyes to avoid smudging what had been so carefully applied the night before as she waited for the elevator. Eyes hurt, that point when fatigue was so strong the world seemed brighter, more surreal. Sniffle was quiet as she scrolled again through her numbers, what she wouldn’t give for a hot bath at that moment. Elevator ding was peripheral; the doors opening as she almost ran into someone as she took a step forward. Recognition took a moment after recovering from her distraction, the face that wasn’t supposed to be in front of her throwing her off.

 

“Rorye”

 

A short breath escaped her as the severity of what she was seeing was comprehended.

 

She said nothing, not moving. Shock maybe. Not surprise. The kind of shock that stopped one’s breath and halted their thought process; made skin numb. It drained everything personal from the present to prepare to fill the emptiness with whatever was deepest in one’s worst fears. The reality of his injures fell into her consciousness like dominoes. The screen on her phone going dark was what brought her attention back, blink cooling the tired burn of her eyes. Phone slid slowly into her coat pocket.

 

“I told you everything was fine. You didn’t need to come”

 

She said nothing as he walked past her. He was in pain. He was in pain even after he’d been to HQ. With all their resources, and healers, and…  Silver doors closed in front of her, leaving her looking at her distressed reflection. To get the drop on him, a creature… a Were. Mage? Something worse? Had this happened after he called her? No. She was certain of that. Was he injured when he called her and told her he was all right? Damn him. Damn it!

 

“Come inside and get warmed up, you look absolutely freezing.”

 

“Winter sucks when you don’t drive,” voice was soft, not addressing the obvious as she turned to follow him. “I was in the area on errands.”

 

The normally warm timbre of her voice was tender. It was the truth, as true-ish as his insistence of being fine.

 

Footsteps were soft, keeping her distance, waiting patiently for him to open the door. She didn’t offer anything, he said he was fine. The visual reminder that he wasn’t was breaking her heart. Stepping in, she removed her coat and layers, hanging them up and left him to his. If he wanted help, he would ask. She pulled out a chair at the kitchen table for him to sit, which wasn’t a suggestion. Unless he was ready to sleep, it was the best place he could be. Coffee on, she pulled out his favorite bottle and glass, pouring him a drink and placing it on the table for when he chose to sit. The coffee was for her.

 

Walking quietly to the bathroom, she retrieved a tissue to quell her runny nose from the cold. After washing her hands, she picked up several hand towels and returned to the kitchen. ARMA healers involved would mean he was past the 48 hour point on his injuries, heat would be best now. Both towels were saturated with water from the sink and rung out, then placed in the microwave. It seemed like the longest twenty seconds of her life, one hand on the handle to pull it open when it was finished, her other on her hip. The moment was taken to close her eyes and just… be calm. One thing she knew well was how to take care of cuts and bruises, or at least make them more comfortable. Being around boxers had given her that particular skill.

 

Serene exterior, the initial shock had become anger. She was so angry it felt like her skin was on fire. She was a businesswoman absolutely calm and collected in the face of anything. If she let it slip she would leave this place and go tear ARMA apart to demand why this had happened. But she wouldn’t, it wouldn’t benefit anyone. She would make sure he was comfortable, and instead go find out who the fuck had done it and tear them apart.

 

As soon as the timer went off she folded one carefully, the other rolled. The squared towel was placed on the table, the rolled one held between her hands to warm up her fingers before she touched him. The less that muscles tensed, the better they would feel. Tilting his face upward with warmed fingers, she picked up the squared towel and held it gently to the worst of the bruising. The rolled one was placed across the back of his neck to balance on its own.

 

“When you’re set-up and comfortable, I’ll go,” words were gentle, as if the more she spoke the more he would hurt. He was so proud; she suspected that was exactly why he’d told her to stay away. People also needed their space, and she understood that too, but he was definitely not fine. “I know I didn’t need to come.”

 

Thumb caressed across his cheek, the beautiful blues that had drawn her in seemed so full of turmoil.

 

“You need to understand I’ll always come,” fingertips brushed his forehead, pressing her lips there a moment. “…and even if you have to limp home. Just come home,” words were almost inaudible, leaving him to his drink.

 

She gathered some things to place on his nightstand. Towels. Folded tight and rolled. It seemed silly, but she remembered they were important when she’d broken her arm as a kid and her dad later at work in the factory. The smallest support or prop to position an injury was excruciatingly imperative in order to sleep, and just general comfort overall. She turned down his bed and moved pillows from the opposite side to within reach. She didn’t know where or if he kept anything for pain, so there was nothing she could do there.

 

Returning to the kitchen, she poured herself a quick cup of coffee, drinking while she pulled her scarf around her neck.

 

“If you’re angry I came, I understand,” she said quietly, getting ready to leave. Her own anger hadn’t dissolved, she was just exceptional at hiding it. She warmed her fingers on the cup, drinking it as quickly as she could. “But I’ve been there. Wounds heal, the mind...”

 

Nobody knew this. Nobody knew this except Nina.


“The days after the first Event were chaos here. Hospitals overwhelmed. Horrendous things happened to me and in turn my son that only I physically healed from.”

 

Eyes found a spot on the floor, she’d stopped. Brows down. Hip leaned on the counter.

 

“Mentally,” she took a quick breath, blinking finally and taking a drink. “I didn’t. Nina came when I told her not to. That's how I got through it.”

 

She drank the rest slowly and rinsed it her cup, setting it down in the sink quietly.

 

“I don’t know what happened last night and I don’t expect you to tell me. But don’t be afraid to ask me to be here, even if it’s just to sit on the couch and read a book. What are we all fighting for if not for the opportunity to be safe and with those we love?”

 

Lower lip was rolled through her teeth, pushing off the counter and leaving the coffee pot on. Maybe he’d want some. She lifted her dad’s old worn Navy pea coat and started to pull it on.

 

“You need anything else before I go find myself a car?”

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The apartment was warm.  Temperature inside maintained by the thermostat despite the agent’s prolonged absence.  ARMA could afford the expense.

 

          Rorye removed her layers and hung them on the coat rack.  She was quiet.  She seemed tentative in almost all that she did.  As if deliberating on every act before she carried it out.  Without a word, she walked to the kitchen and started a pot of coffee. 

 

          Meanwhile, Ryan had forgone removing his coat.  Instead he headed straight for the liquor cabinet.  Glass and a bottle of his favorite, affordable, bourbon was withdrawn from the cupboard.  Both items were placed on the countertop below.  Despite the sling impeding its movement, his right hand held the bottle in place whilst he unscrewed the cap.  A couple fingers worth was poured into the whiskey glass.  Bottle was set aside before he picked up the glass and hurled its contents down his gullet.

 

          Glass was slammed roughly on the counter.  The Soldier wiped his mouth, pausing a moment to allow a liquored breath to ease through his lips.  Another drink was poured and taken in hand.  Finally, he turned to face Rorye.

 

          Ryan hated the way she looked at him.  Her eyes pained with fear and sympathy.  She seemed to notice his discontent, and almost subconsciously began to avoid his stare.  Somehow, the elusion felt worse.

 

He was a warrior.  An unstoppable, unkillable, consequence to any foolish enough to cross his path.  There was nothing he couldn’t do.  There was no task too great, and no force on Earth he couldn’t defeat.  At least, that was the reputation he had established for himself.  Those within his community had come revere him as “the mage hunter,” or simply “the hunter.”  An ARMA boogeyman for even the deadliest of the organization’s supernatural foes.  The man, the myth, the legend.

 

Harker didn’t want her to see him any differently.  He had made promises.  Rorye was depending on him.  He wanted her to feel safe with him, to trust him, and not to worry about him.  He wanted her to believe the legend.  For in a world plagued by monsters, demons, and magus, what could a mere mortal hope to accomplish?  Presently however, battered and broken as he was, Harker appeared anything but extraordinary.  Just a man, nothing more.

 

          Rorye pulled a chair out for him at the kitchen table and motioned for him to sit.  When he stood his ground, she refrained from arguing.  An awkward moment passed before she left the kitchen and walked into the bathroom.  Ryan seized the opportunity to slip into the bedroom without her being immediately aware.

 

          Glass of bourbon was set atop the nightstand by the bed.  Top drawer was pulled open to reveal a gun, a picture frame, and several half empty prescription bottles.  The agent plucked the bottles from the drawer one at a time, removing a couple capsules from each before throwing the them back into the drawer.  Rattle from the discarded containers could probably be heard in next room.  He didn’t care.  Gathered pills were tossed into his mouth and then washed down with another gulp of bourbon. 

 

          A moment later Harker returned to the kitchen.  Rorye was waiting by the table with a pair of damp towels. “When you’re set-up and comfortable, I’ll go,” she said softly.

 

“I’m fine,” he insisted.  The statement was only partly true.  Reluctantly, he strode to the table and seated himself in the chair she had set for him.  Drink was placed on the table’s surface.  “You didn’t need to come.”

 

“I know I didn’t need to come,” she replied calmly.  She attempted to swab his face with the towel, but he held up a hand to stop her.

 

          “I said, I’m fine,” the agent asserted, this time more firmly than before.  She was trying to take care of him, and in return he was being an asshole.

 

Rorye set the towel aside.  Her eyes found his for a time, until he flinched uncomfortably from her gaze.  “You need to understand I’ll always come,” she said.  Despite his resistance to her affection, she leaned in closer.  Delicate lips touched gently to his forehead, then she whispered “…and even if you have to limp home. Just come home.”

 

          Ryan stared distantly at his glass, refusing to acknowledge the woman before him.  Emotions divided his mind, pitting the sides against one another.  Unsure of how to resolve the conflict, he chose to remain silent.

 

          Rorye walked about the apartment for a couple minutes before returning to the kitchen.  She tried talking to him, but her words weren’t being heard.  Harker glared intently at the drink in his hand.  Mending of his wounds, the pills, the alcohol, all were helping to subside the disorienting pain.  The fog in his brain was beginning to lift enough for him to think.  The more he reflected on his circumstances, the angrier he became.  The way she was looking at him, the way she spoke to him, the indignity it afflicted… fuel to a growing fire.

 

“I don’t know what happened last night and I don’t expect you to tell me. But don’t be afraid to ask me to be here, even if it’s just to sit on the couch and read a book. What are we all fighting for if not for the opportunity to be safe and with those we love?”

 

          “You want to know what happened last night?”  Ryan’s voice was low.  Whiskey glass was pushed aside, and his gaze drifted in her direction.  Slowly he ascended to his feet; a tempered rage burning behind his radiant eyes. 

 

“I did exactly what I told you I would do,” he said stepping nearer to her.  “I took the fight to them.  I tore their organization apart.  I followed a trail of bodies that led me directly to the O-F-L.”

 

His volume was increasing, tone becoming more vehement with every spoken word.  “Until eventually they realized, the men they’d hired to protect them couldn’t.  Until they realized, the men they’d hired to kill me couldn’t!  So those fuckers gave up on you, and they gave up on their hold of these streets!”

 

By now he was practically yelling in Rorye’s face.  Of course, it wasn’t her fault.  None of it was.  Once more, he didn’t care.  He needed to be strong, he needed to be angry.  He couldn’t stand her sad eyes lingering on him any longer, gazing at him as if he were a wounded puppy.  Better she be furious with him, hate him even, than to look at him that way for even another second.

 

          “And do you know what they did?” The rhetorical question came with a lull in his shouting.  “They set a trap, and they murdered all of their own people to do it.  Anyone I had any intel on, they killed.  They contracted a pro.  The kind of assassin you can’t buy with just money!  You must have influence and connections to even find a guy like this!  He was trained, well equipped, and he was ready for me.  He knew exactly what I was going to do, and I walked right into his fucking trap!”

 

          Ryan turned away from her, putting distance between himself and Rorye.  Breathing was heavy.  Fists were clenched.  Rage boiling on the edge of violence.  He wanted to punch something, hurt something, but he did neither.  Anger wasn’t toward her, the Order, or even the creature that tried to kill him… he was angry at himself.

 

          Harker pivoted sharply, pointing a finger at Rorye as he boasted, “But I killed that son of a bitch!  Because that’s who I am!  I won’t beaten by some shady fucking Order offshoot, and I certainly won’t be killed by some two-bit vamp!”

 

          Arm lowered slowly to his side, and an odd silence fell over the room.  A short time passed, and Ryan’s demeanor began to calm.  A puzzled expression marred his countenance.  He was beginning to digest the words Rorye had attempted to convey before his rant.  Indirectly, she had proclaimed something important.  Blue eyes softened, as did his voice, “Wait, did you just say you love me?”

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She’d always wondered if empathy came with whatever mojo the giant rip in the sky had smashed her with. Her “powers” had always been pretty much useless up until recently, and it caused an enormous rift between her and all magus, especially ARMA. She wasn’t good enough, fast enough, experienced enough to be of any use to anyone except to fetch cool toys. Perhaps it was just learned business savvy, being able to read people; know what they were thinking by their body language and expressions. Maybe she just wasn’t a self-centered bitch and paid attention to others. She could thank her dad for that; he’d refused to let her develop that princess shit and her brothers had taught her not to play the victim or back down. Ever.

 

Whatever it was, she could feel electricity just radiate from him, so unbelievably powerful she could feel it on her skin. His words of welcome were hollow, and he absolutely did not want her there, and that was exactly why she needed to be there. This inevitable car crash of wills was something she knew was eventually coming, and it would be a test to make sure they both weathered it. As she made quick work of what she knew needed to be done, his glass slamming onto the counter punctuated her thoughts.

 

Game on.

 

She wasn’t sure what he thought he saw when she looked back at him… there wasn’t a person in the world right now that could ever imagine what she was thinking. Whatever it was, he was angered by it and she refused to be goaded. Business mode kicked in and she at least made things a bit easier for him other than sitting in a kitchen chair and getting stumbling drunk and being an asshole. He’d taken a moment to retrieve what she'd been looking for in his bedroom, the rattle of pills heard tossed back into a drawer. Probably his nightstand.

 

The damn git was behaving like a sullen wounded puppy. Her patience was eternal, but shrugging her off a second time? He was pushing it. She knew not to poke a bear unless it needed an ass kicking. She offered no judgement, yet he continued his silent maelstrom. After he refused to look at her, it was the only answer she needed. He thought he'd failed. It was clear as day and she’d done all she could do. He would drink and wallow, even though he was sitting there alive. He would never see it unless someone hit him over the head with it. To do that, he would have to calm and that didn’t seem to be coming any time soon.

 

She would leave him to his irritable mood. Errands, and then home.

 

“You want to know what happened last night?”

 

“No,” she answered quietly as she put on her coat. She had a feeling he was going to tell her anyway, unsure if it was the best scenario. This was not going to go well. She wasn’t going to pick a fight, but she’d damn well finish it if he did. “I don’t need to know.”

 

She patted her pockets for her gloves, watching him stand up. Shit.

 

“I did exactly what I told you I would do, I took the fight to them.  I tore their organization apart.  I followed a trail of bodies that led me directly to the O-F-L.”

 

Hands slid into her pockets, slow sigh exhaled as her chin dipped toward her chest and she closed her eyes. She kept telling herself she was not a verbal punching bag… assuring herself he just needed to be smacked on the back of the head after he got it out of his system. She was more than happy to be the one to do that.

 

“Until eventually they realized, the men they’d hired to protect them couldn’t.  Until they realized, the men they’d hired to kill me couldn’t!  So those fuckers gave up on you, and they gave up on their hold of these streets!”

 

As his tone escalated, gaze came up to meet his, and hers was fierce. His fury had met an unbreakable wall. Everything he said was absorbed, but she refused to be intimidated by his anger. She had faced down her own death, and no one could ever strike that threatening fear in her again. Rorye weathered it because she knew he was not angry. He was bleeding frustration and pure pain. That was a crucial difference most missed.

 

“And do you know what they did? They set a trap, and they murdered all of their own people to do it.  Anyone I had any intel on, they killed.  They contracted a pro.  The kind of assassin you can’t buy with just money!  You must have influence and connections to even find a guy like this!  He was trained, well equipped, and he was ready for me.  He knew exactly what I was going to do, and I walked right into his fucking trap!”

 

This was not fine. This was not a need to be alone. This was the weight of every night for the last six weeks when he’d come in and been nothing but calm crushing down all at once. He’d weathered it in every quiet minute, every laugh, every cup of coffee, every private moment when she didn’t have to share him with anyone else. It was there all the time and the burden of it was now buckling and crashing into the closest thing that was in the way.

 

Her.

 

She didn’t move. She wouldn’t move. If he could bear the weight, so could she.

 

When he pointed at her, her stoic expression darkened. She hated when he did that.

 

“But I killed that son of a bitch!  Because that’s who I am!  I won’t be beaten by some shady fucking Order offshoot, and I certainly won’t be killed by some two-bit vamp!”

 

If she’d been shot in the chest, the feeling wouldn’t have been any different. She was unaware she’d stopped breathing until her lips parted and she drew in a breath. The world around her had quieted. He’d quieted; the words he spoke after drowned out by the one word that had hit her with so much force it was like her soul had been ripped from her body. It was drowning. She was drowning. Again.

 

A vamp.

 

A vampire did this.

 

His words finally were put back together in her conscious thought as she pulled her soul out of the deep.

 

“Wait, did you just say you love me?”

 

She blinked at him. Her eyes were unreadable. She didn’t know how to answer, afraid at that moment that the fucking universe would hear it. It seemed to already have; every damn thing in her life had been taken by that scourge. It was like she was cursed. The initial shock a vampire had nearly killed him started burning. Fingers started buttoning up her father’s coat, coming to a slow stop somewhere in the middle. The temporary quiet doused the anger only to lose, swinging it back like a pendulum. As his anger cooled, hers blossomed into a furnace that couldn’t be contained.

 

She took several steps forward toward him, fingers lingering on the button as words finally formed and unleashed, breaking the silence.

 

“You think you failed… you honestly think you failed?” her words were sharp, no louder than a whisper with the full force of a wicked Scottish temper behind them. “I’ll tell you who you are,” she hissed, resisting the insatiable urge to poke him right in the sternum. “You are Ryan Harker. You are a fucking leader. A protector. A God damn fighter! And you’re what, going to piss on all that because you came home with a limp? Bruises heal! Bones mend! You are whole when so many others aren’t, alive when so many others don’t survive! You are strong enough to dust your ass off, get back out there and finish it. You are not a failure,” she snapped up the collar of her father’s Navy pea coat and pulled her hat on down around her eyes. “If you wanna sit here and drink ‘til you’re stupid you dumb jackass, fine.  When you’re done, call me because I have something you need. I’ll be damned if another fucking vampire hurts or kills someone I love, and now I have the tools to stop it. I’ve lost too many and I'm not losing you,” there was a break in her voice, a lump in her throat that was building and making it hard to choke out words. The fire was running out of fuel and anger was turning to frustration. She hated vampires. Hated them with all her soul. They’d ripped her heart out repeatedly. Leather gloves were being pulled on rather roughly as she left him where he was and moved to leave, grabbing the doorknob but not turning it, “…and God help me Ryan Harker if you ever point your finger at me again in anger, I’ll break it.”

 

Hand lingered on the doorknob as the room finally fell silent, seeming to ring with fury until that too went away. She’d said her peace and met his anger head on. That was all she’d promised herself she would do. Eyes closed as she settled into the calm and leaned into the discomfort of his last question. She didn’t need to answer it, it wasn’t the right time. Maybe it was. In any case, she would and she could feel the damn tips of her ears burning.

 

“Yes, that’s what I said,” she barely spoke, eyes on her hand. “Just… remember even though you are broken, you are alive. That was the first promise you made to me, and it’s the only thing I’ll ever expect from you. If you need anything, call me.”

 

Door opened, and closed quietly behind her as she left, taking two steps before the heels of her hands pressed to her eyes. God damn it. He was right, she shouldn’t have come. She would never have found out about it. A fucking vampire. Anything but a fucking vampire. Sniffle sharp, her footsteps moved toward the elevator, back of her hand wiping the incredibly hot, tired, frustrated tears from her eyes. Now she had a mission, and it would take a day to pull it all together. The cost, considerable, but she’d been prepared for a while to make the barters and it was time. Time to complete her arsenal and give it to someone that knew how to use it.

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Ryan stood brooding in the kitchen of his Manhattan apartment.  Gaze lingered on the front door.  The room had fallen silent, he could hear the tinnitus ringing in his ears once more.  Constant, high-pitched whine was interrupted only by the beating of his heart.  His home felt empty now.  Which was odd, because it had never felt that way before. 

 

          She shouldn’t have come.  Her intentions had been pure, but the ill-opportune meeting had caused only grief for them both.  After reeling from defeat, he had needed time to refocus his mind.  Furthermore, seeing her lover in such a wounded condition probably hadn’t benefited her psyche either.  An image he had tried to spare her.  Regardless of what should or should not have happened, she had come to his apartment and the conflict had occurred.  Now, what could be done to better the situation?

 

          Harker hadn’t moved.  Contemplation had absorbed him.  A side of his mind desired nothing more than to chase after her… to set things right.  Another part of his mind advised him against the pursuit.  It reminded him he was a Soldier with a damaged soul, and that if he wasn’t in the right frame of mind, he could do more harm than good to those he loved.  Yet another piece of his mind was consumed by a single, important, notion.  She had professed her love for him.  A sentiment he had answered by hawking venom in her face.  Good, bad, or indifferent, the last section of his mind managed to triumph over the others.

 

          Door swung open and Ryan jogged out into the hallway.  He grimaced at the discomfort but continued trotting until he reached the floors elevator lobby.  Metal doors had just closed.  Fingers pressed the call button urgently, but the doors remained sealed.

 

          “God damn it,” he cursed aloud.  Able hand reached into his coat pocket to retrieve his cell phone.

 

          “Everything alright dear?” Quivering tone was one the agent recognized.  Mrs. Hanson was his neighbor in the apartment next door.  The kind old woman owned a single cat, but otherwise lived alone.  With little else to occupy her, she had taken it upon herself to gather gossip on the building’s other tenants.  Ryan only spoke to her in passing, except when she sometimes brought him a homemade dessert.  An excuse she used to interact with him; one indulged on the rare occasion he was home.

 

          “Hi Mrs. Hanson.  Yeah, everything’s fine,” he sighed.  Rorye’s number was dialed and he held the phone to his ear.

 

          “Oh my god!  What happened to your arm?”  Mrs. Hanson exclaimed as approached him.

 

          “Err… Motorcycle accident.”

 

          “Oh, my goodness, are you okay?”  She seemed genuinely concerned.

 

          “Yeah, I’m fine.  Just a scratch.”  He responded politely, though he was worried Rorye may have already left the building.  Elevator button was pushed again for good measure.

 

          “I didn’t even know you owned a motorcycle?”

 

           “Yeah, not anymore.”  His patience was wearing thin.  This elevator was taking forever and Rorye’s phone wasn’t ringing through.

 

          “Good, you’re better off without it.”

 

          Ryan hit the call button for the tenth time, “Come. On.”

 

          “In a hurry?”

 

          “Yeah, you could say that,” he answered unenthusiastically.  Pleasant as she may be, he was about to strangle the woman.

 

          “Chasing after that girl that stormed out of here crying?”  She asked, arms folding over her chest.  She eyed him disapprovingly.

 

The agent gave a defeated groan, “Yeah.”

 

“Whatever you did John, you better make it right,” Mrs. Hanson scolded him.  “She seemed like such a nice girl.  Poor thing.”

 

“She is, and I will.”  He capitulated.  Ignoring the fact Mrs. Hanson had taken Rorye’s side after only glance.  Ryan had been her neighbor for almost two years.

 

Contact was dialed once more in Harker’s phone.  Rumble beyond the elevator door informed him it was near his floor.  Finally.  Call on his mobile was ringing through.  At the same moment, he could hear a song playing on the other side of the metal doors.  There was a pitched “ding” and the elevator doors opened.

 

Whomever was inside the compartment, would find a battered man and an elderly woman staring at them.  No doubt, the pair would make an unexpected sight.

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The back of her neck prickled as she waited for the elevator. Someone was watching her. Not Ryan, his door hadn’t opened again. It wasn’t threatening, caution needed nonetheless.

 

Eyes burned, not from crying… fuck, she didn’t cry. She hadn’t cried since she fell and broke her arm as a kid. It was exasperation, fatigue that bled into feeling powerless. Her stoicism sometimes broke when nobody was around, allowing the overthinking to set in about what she’d said. Frustration had spilled from her in retort to his self-critical remarks, and then she’d simply lost control. He was the sea she was beginning to drown in... and damn it, she should never have admitted it. It fell out without thinking and she couldn’t take it back. It’s not that she didn’t mean it, it was just… she was just… exposed. The world always found a way to rip her heart out when she let her guard down.

 

Eyes moved away from the call button, she’d been staring at it so long her eyes burned. Someone else was in the hall now. Looking up, smile was warm at an older woman that was returning to her own apartment from the other direction, her body language seeming to want to overshoot it and head to the elevator. Rorye knew when a conversation was about to happen, the businesswoman did it all the time to build relationships and make sales. The older woman wanted something, and more than likely it was information. She had one on her block just like her. Nice old guy and everything was his business. Rorye was the new face on the floor.

 

Shiiit.

 

It dawned on her abruptly. Was the older woman curious because she and Ryan were THOSE neighbors? The ones that could be heard through the walls when angry and otherwise? The otherwise. Bloody hell. Ears burned again as she suddenly looked at her phone, she wasn’t THAT loud… ish. Was she? She didn’t think she was, not exactly focused on that in the moment, but... Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ… He had an apartment. These were apartments! Her place was its own floor. No neighbors. Would he have said something if it was a problem?

 

Eyes widened slightly and immediately shut down the thought process, rubbing the back of her neck as she squashed the impending horror from her immediate attention. She would have to ask him, not really sure how to breach THAT subject.

 

Thumb hit a contact, holding the phone up to her ear to stave off any conversation. The woman slipped into her apartment, but the door remained cracked. Stealthy, she was not. They never were.

 

“Cecily, hi. Yah, good morning. The box you’re holding for me, I’m going to swing by and pick that up today.”

 

The doors opened and she stepped on, hanging up and hitting the button to the lobby. Once in, an enormous sigh relaxed her shoulders and she stared at the floor. Exhausted. Emotionally singed. It was a terrible idea to come, which was why it was absolutely necessary to do it anyway. Including him in her family circle meant that she was not the only alpha anymore. Burdens could be shared and they needed to learn to navigate the conflict. She ran in a small pack, he was a lone wolf; the sharing thing was new. No regret was in her tired stance. She wouldn’t have done anything differently. He obviously needed to get his head straight after a devastating blow, physically, emotionally, professionally. Being singularly focused for so long only to hit a wall was crushing for him. It was obvious. He had to learn to trust she wasn’t there to judge, only make certain her alpha was safe.

 

It was the rejection that bothered her the most.

 

He didn’t think she was strong enough to deal with his injuries. He didn’t say it, but she knew. Like misfortune to a family member or withholding information of a loved one’s passing until and important event was done, it felt like he’d tried to spare her. Taken her choice away to make that decision herself. Doubted her strength.

 

That hurt.

 

She was not green to conflict or danger. Her methods were unconventional, sure, but she was unshakable. Unbreakable. She’d held her hand to Jesse’s throat as he was bleeding to death, staring down the vampire only feet away and still managed to survive and kill it. Triaged dozens of critically injured people after the explosion that rocked ARMA and the city to the core, pulled them from rubble and rallied her contacts and resources together to house them until EMT could take care of them. Protected her home and patrons against a Were during the Bloodmoon and the resulting fire that nearly destroyed the shop. Just because she couldn’t sling magic didn’t mean she was weak, the bitterness a lump in her throat yet again.

 

Of course, nobody knew that.

 

She never talked about any of it. Therein was the problem.

 

As the elevator came to a stop and the doors opened she prepared herself for the cold, phone springing to life in her hand as she pushed through the exterior doors. It was Ryan. She refused the call and stood on the sidewalk with the phone at her side. Icy wind licked a lock of hair into her face as she stood there, knowing she needed to go back. She wanted to go back. She’d said she would come if he called, jaw setting to turn around and head back up. Round two was in the making it seemed, the guy in the lobby nonchalantly watching her come back through.

 

“Forgot something,” she gave him a tight smile.

 

The. Fucking. Elevator. She poked the button multiple times and it opened. Finally. Someone had gotten in with her, getting off on the next floor up from the lobby. Really. Really? You had to be on at least the fourth to take the elevator, wasn’t that the unwritten rule? Asshole.

 

Phone jumped to life again with his call as she reached his floor, the less than subtle notes of ‘Back in Black’ silenced with her thumb as the doors opened and she shoved her phone in her pocket.

 

She blinked at them both, the pair an unusual sight. Something had happened, and it looked as if Ryan was strangling the woman in his thoughts.

 

“Hi,” she said a bit suspiciously, a blur of motion catching her eye and immediately leaning down to scoop something up that was zipping into the elevator. “Oh no no no… that is a disaster in the making.”

 

It was a cat making a break for it. She wasn’t overly fond of cats, more of a dog person. Not yippy skippy dogs. Big dogs. Big. Always wanted a dog, never had the time. Pale gray ears were scritched as she stepped into the hall, the insanely fluffy thing making itself comfortable and sprawling across her shoulder, batting at a lock of hair on her cheek. Curious little old ladies that left their doors cracked ran the risk of losing pets. Cats could be awful like that. They would and could get anywhere if you weren’t paying attention. Fast.

 

“Yours?” Rorye asked the older woman she'd seen in the hall just a few minutes prior, the businesswoman switch flicking on to become the most charming person on the planet. Soft glance and smile was cast to the woman’s rough and tumble escort, letting him know she had this.

 

The older woman smiled and nodded

 

“She’s beautiful,” she smiled at the fluffy jail breaker that had rolled into her arm like a baby for tummy scratches, playfully trying to capture her gloved fingers. The little killing machine still had its claws. Death on four paws, adorable. “No, I’m not falling for that murder button trick. No tummy rubs,” she laughed quietly, looking toward the woman.  “Not a meser, but definitely some there? Lilac point maybe?”

 

The woman seemed delighted that she knew as they meandered back to her apartment. People loved to talk about themselves and the professional knew exactly what to ask. The two expert conversationalists were playing each other; Rorye getting her back into the apartment, the matriarch of the floor attempting to glean information. Probably gossip. Rorye gained the upper hand effortlessly, the cat with a toddler-like sprawl stretching backward over her shoulder to try and bat at the bruised warrior, meser blue cat eyes demanding his attention.

 

Dropping the woman off at her door, she positioned herself nonchalantly so the feline's owner would go in as she passed off the murder cat. It barely weighed anything, all fluff. Deceiving evil little imp.

 

“Your name is?” the older woman asked

 

“Cora,” Rorye said without skipping a beat, obviously thought about for some time before this if she was ever asked. It would be stupid to have her real name floating around if Ryan wasn’t using his. It was sort of her real name. Shortened middle name. She hated it, that name only good for when you were in trouble. Moms did that, especially when they spoke with a brogue and could hammer the hard consonants to strike fear in your ass. Rorye Shannon didn’t have nearly the same sting to it as Rorye Machora Shannon did. It got her attention and when she heard it she knew she was screwed.

 

“Mrs. Hanson,” she introduced herself in return, dropping the fluff bomb behind her that had managed to single handedly cover  the front of Rorye’s black coat in gray wisps. “What do you do?”

 

Damn. She was sneaky.

 

“Barista,” she replied easily, it was easier to build a lie when you didn’t lie. The truth in a different way. “I’m due in soon though, so I need to go. Better close your door… don’t let..?”

 

“Nemo,” she responded.

 

Oh dear God.

 

“Be careful not to let Nemo slip out again. She’s watching you right now from the couch to attempt another escape.”

 

Mrs. Hanson nodded as if returning to her apartment was her own idea, closing the door to a crack as she eyed the battered man near Rorye, “keep him away from motorcycles.”

 

“I will,” she smiled, helping to gently close the door to the woman’s apartment the rest of the way. “Bye now.”

 

After the latch clicked, she turned and came to a slow stop by his door.

 

"Motorcycles huh?"

 

One hand came up to rub the back of her neck, awkward silence as she was let back into the apartment.

 

“Please tell me the walls are not thin enough for her to have heard us,” she whispered, not just referring to their argument. Pale freckles that spattered her nose were unusually dark; she was honest to goodness blushing. Glance upward at him was quick and a bit self-conscious. “Never mind, I don’t want to know.”

 

She went for the coffee again, if only just to hold the warm cup, she was chilled to the bone. Brows came down, brushing the front of her coat. She had to clean off Nemo’s wisps. Great.

 

“You called, do you need anything?” words were incredibly quiet as she continued in vain to brush the fluffs off. “Would you settle for an ‘I’m sorry’ gift? I... was a bit harsh, I'm sorry. It’s not flowers and a teddy bear… it’s more shiny and pointy and pisses off vampires.”

 

 

 

 

 

Edited by Rorye Shannon-Kearney
Typo and clarification
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There was an awkward pause amongst the trio once the elevator doors had finally opened, though it only lasted a moment.  Despite the intensity of their last discussion, Rorye assumed her “saleswoman” persona with little visible effort.  She gave Ryan a look of “I’ll handle this and then we’ll talk,” then she casually corralled Mrs. Hanson and her feline down the hall.  Ryan excused himself politely and shirked back to his own apartment.

 

          The agent stood just inside the doorway of his flat, listening as Rorye charmed Mrs. Hanson back into her residence.  Before long, the ladies finished their conversation.  At the sound of Mrs. Hanson’s door closing, Harker strode deeper into his living room.  He seated himself at the kitchen table, facing the front door, which he had left open as an invitation to his guest.

 

“Motorcycles, huh?” his Valkyrie asked from the hallway. 

 

“It was the best I could come up with in the moment… Cora.”  Ryan waved her forward, “come in.”

 

“Please tell me the walls are not thin enough for her to have heard us,” she said closing the door behind her. “Never mind, I don’t want to know.”

 

          “You know, now that you mention it… she might have,” the agent rubbed his chin thoughtfully with his unhindered hand.  “I thought she was acting weird after the first night you stayed over…” his voice trailed off for a moment.  “The wink and the fist bump were so out of character…” face held mock contemplation for only another second before a grin cracked his façade.

 

“You called, do you need anything?” she seemed eager to change the subject.  Nose and cheeks were visibly pink, she was absolutely blushing.

 

“Just you,” Ryan murmured softly.  Smirk fading from his features.

 

“Would you settle for an ‘I’m sorry’ gift? I... was a bit harsh, I'm sorry. It’s not flowers and a teddy bear… it’s more shiny and pointy and pisses off vampires.”  Rorye tried to conceal her embarrassment by looking away and brushing at the cat fur on her coat.

 

“Eh, I am probably the one who should apologize,” the Soldier said sullenly. “I was being an ass.  I’m not mad at you… I’m just pissed off about everything else.  I’m not sure you understand what this all means.  The threat is still out there, and I am all out of leads.”

 

His head tilted as if to shrug, “Sure, the group hunting you is dead, but their higher organization still exists.  Their search for magus blood brought them to you once, and there is nothing to stop them from seeking you out again.  You’re safe for now, but I can’t guarantee how long it will last.”

 

          Harker stared distantly at the wall in the kitchen, as if looking for something beyond its surface, “I will come up with a plan, but right now I’ve got nothing.”

 

          Eyes fell to the floor, his fingers tapping lightly on the table near his glass of bourbon.  “and for the record, I feel the same way about you too…”

 

          It was a roundabout way of saying “I love you too,” but for some reason he couldn’t bring himself to say the exact words.  Even the indirect statement seemed to pull at his heart.  Ryan hadn’t said those words to anyone in many years.  It was ludicrous to express them to someone he had known so briefly.  Deep down however, he knew it was the truth.

 

          “I never wanted you to see me like this…” the wounded warrior continued, still avoiding Rorye’s gaze.  “But, now that you’re here I suppose you should know it’s not exactly uncommon for me to end up in the infirmary from time to time.”

 

          Ryan’s frustration, anger, and rage had finally dissipated.  All that remained now was acute exhaustion, and a hidden, childlike desire to connect with someone.  For someone to tell him his efforts hadn’t been in vain, that his best had been enough, and that everything would be okay.  This desire was one the Soldier never allowed himself to feel, and one he hadn’t felt in many years.  A rare moment of vulnerability, one spurred by his disparaging failure of present and drawn out of him by the compassion of his indomitable Valkyrie.

 

          “Please stay,” his voice was barely louder than a whisper.  “I could use some help out of these clothes,” hand motioned toward attire, still spattered with vampire gore.  “and I would rest easier knowing you were here with me… safe.”

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“It was the best I could come up with in the moment… Cora.”

 

Eyes flicked to him, mirth laced in sarcasm at the name as she battled kitty fluffs, “only my mum called me that. I was usually in trouble.”

 

Adopting an alias seemed necessary. Her inquiry about the walls wasn’t realllllly meant to be answered, merely needing reassurance that she was overreacting.

 

“You know, now that you mention it… she might have, I thought she was acting weird after the first night you stayed over…”

 

Eyes came up to meet his again, her busy hands slowing to a pause as her neutral expression enhanced the slight widening of her eyes. Mortified. She was mortified. She blinked once.

 

“The wink and the fist bump were so out of character…”

 

Brows snapped down and eyes narrowed, shaking her head with a smirked grin as she went back to brushing off her coat. Smartass. Back to business. He’d called. He needed something, his simple yet sensitive answer bringing a silent pause. His words were so quiet. Even quiet his voice always had authority, this was different. It sounded so… bare.

 

She stopped fussing over her coat as the back of her hand came up to rub the tip of her cold nose. She kept her distance in the kitchen, hip leaning against the counter as her hands went gently into her coat pockets, letting him say his peace.

 

“Eh, I am probably the one who should apologize, I was being an ass.  I’m not mad at you… I’m just pissed off about everything else.  I’m not sure you understand what this all means.  The threat is still out there, and I am all out of leads.”

 

She was quiet as she focused intently on the toes of her favorite leather boots, listening.

 

“Sure, the group hunting you is dead, but their higher organization still exists.  Their search for magus blood brought them to you once, and there is nothing to stop them from seeking you out again.  You’re safe for now, but I can’t guarantee how long it will last. I will come up with a plan, but right now I’ve got nothing.”

 

“You got me,” she looked up and smiled softly. It wasn’t meant to be funny or cute, it just simply was. “That’s one more ally than you had before.”

 

“and for the record, I feel the same way about you too…”

 

It took a moment to register what he'd said. The moment it hit, her brows furled, gaze falling on her toes again. This time it was definitely the heat of blood on her cheeks. Not blushing, or cold, it was the burn of skin when blood runs hot with emotion. After being scorched so badly during the Event, and hurt again recently... lingering fear of what was happening zinged her like a frayed wire.

 

She swallowed the nervous lump in her throat, doing a wonderful job of looking calm on the outside while squashing the screaming warning bells that she knew in her gut were false alarms. The world was chaotic and unpredictable, as were their chosen positions in it. Looming storms would test their words. She was ready for it, if he was. Live hard, for it all ends. It was painted in neat letters above the lockers in her dad’s gym, covered partially in posters, pictures and fliers over the years. Her mum had insisted the dot on the “i” be a circle, an inside message for their small family as to how they were to view each other and the world.

 

Swallowing again, she finally looked up, eyes acknowledging what he’d confessed.

 

“I never wanted you to see me like this… But, now that you’re here I suppose you should know it’s not exactly uncommon for me to end up in the infirmary from time to time.”

 

“Nobody ever wants this,” she said gently. “But it’s part of our reality. Our world is not safe. You willingly chose to fight so that it will be, and this comes with the territory. Your victory here is they've hit a wall they can't breach. You.”

 

The silence hung heavy until she found her voice again.

 

“I didn’t come to feel sorry for you, I came so you wouldn’t be alone,” smile was soft, eyebrow ticking up in a mischievous cock “…and to find out who did this so I could pay them a visit.”

 

She was only half joking. There was no doubt she would help him find out what did this, and he might just get a piece before she killed them herself.  

 

“Please stay”

 

She nodded, sliding off her coat and beginning to make herself at home.

 

“I could use some help out of these clothes."

 

“I knew that was coming…” smile was genuine as she pulled the tie from her hair and finger combed the locks, twisting and securing it into a tight bun at the back of the neck. She pulled her Irish sweater off and folded it over a chair, Henley sleeves were pushed up to her elbows, toes on her heels to remove her boots one at a time and put them neatly with the rest of her things.

 

“and I would rest easier knowing you were here with me… safe.”

 

She fiercely wanted to go "hunting" today for information. It could wait, he'd impressed on her not to go off after someone half-cocked. Rest wasn't something he did often either.

 

She nodded, “I’ll stay as long as you want me here.”

 

Footsteps were quiet to his bathroom, cranking the water on in the shower and setting out towels on the floor for his clothes and gear. She’d wrap them up to get out of the way into the bathroom corner for now until he was settled and then she’d try to salvage as much as she could. Adjusting the streams, she knew how hot he liked it, and it being on would nudge an unconscious mental note for him to move faster than he was going to feel like moving. Out of the clothes, clean, warmed-up and feeling more human would do a world of good.

 

Returning to the kitchen, hands settled on her hips.

 

“C’mon Soldier,” smirk was light “…time to get naked.”

 

She was resolved to the fact she was probably going to get soaking wet. Rorye was already barefoot, ready to take one for the team and get in with him if she had to. She helped as much as he signaled he needed to get to the shower, narrowing her eyes to figure out how to untangle him from his gear and clothing without completely unhooking the entirety of the sling. She wasn't sure she could avoid it. Fingers moved swiftly over his gear, taking the care to lay it out neatly.

 

“Roll your shoulder back,” she said of his good arm. As she slipped his coat off his shoulder, her eyes narrowed to study the physics of their situation. If it was broken, it would have been casted. That meant it was tissue, and tissue damage hurt worse when it was moved. Fuck. Pain meds.

 

“I have to take your arm out of the sling to get your coat off,” if she could get the coat off, the rest was easy. Easier. It was as delicate as possible, his coat wasn’t exactly light and she had to hold the weight of it off his arm, pull, keep his arm secure and unmoving in her other hand. It was fucking like Twister… without the mutually naked naughtiness.

 

“This is Altheia’s work,” she said quietly as clothes came off and the healed extent was slowly revealed by discoloration. He was still this hurt after a healing session. Bones had been broken. She pushed the thought to the back of her mind. “She’s the best.”

 

She knew her in passing, but her reputation was substantial within the ARMA ranks. She really was the best, and very kind. Rorye nodded toward the shower and took the rest of his clothes to the designated spot. The plan was to keep everything central in the bathroom so there was less clean up later. Weapons were first. Okay. She knew how to do this. Training engaged. Open the action on each, make sure they were secured, also make sure there was no lingering goo that would damage something.  They were transferred to the kitchen table. His training had definitely been practiced, and she wanted him to know it. She also found something undeniably sexy about the sound of well-maintained equipment… plus, she just liked playing with his stuff. Basic clothing was left in a bundle, everything else wiped down and hung up, the towels tossed in the clothing bundle. They were going to be a bitch to clean, something for later.

 

“Clothing preferences? Pain meds? In the bedroom nightstand correct?” she asked as she washed her hands and checked her shirt. It was wet, but not that bad. It did however, have blood on it. His or whoever else’s she wasn’t sure. She pulled it off, the deep purple cami underneath unscathed. “I’ll go grab them.”

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“I’ll stay as long as you want me here.”

 

          Ryan was glad to hear the words.  Sometimes, he found himself in awe of just how amazing a woman Rorye was.  This was one of those times.  Despite having nearly been murdered earlier that morning, and despite his present condition, he couldn’t help feeling lucky.  To have met a girl like her, in a world like this…

 

          “C’mon Soldier… time to get naked,” she teased, hands on her hips.

 

          “You’ll never have to ask me twice,” he replied slyly.

 

          Rorye helped the wounded agent out of his weighty, battle attire.  Sharp pains and dull aches blended together into a disorienting agony.  Several times Ryan was forced to hold his breath, jaw clenched and neck muscles taut in order to avoid shouting aloud.  Apart from a few sharp inhales and a couple labored breaths, he remained stoic throughout the ordeal.

 

          Once his clothes were removed, Rorye paused a moment to examine the operative’s visible injuries.  Widespread swelling and discoloration on his arm and back distinguished new abuse from the old.  “This is Altheia’s work,” she said thoughtfully.  “She’s the best.”

 

          “You know Altheia then?”  Ryan asked, only slightly surprised.  “Yeah, she’s patched me up more than once.  She’s the best if you’re pinched for time.  I’ll definitely have to go and see her again tomorrow...”

 

          The sentenced halted mid-thought.  The Soldier catching himself before revealing information certain to cause his partner further concern.  He hadn’t yet mentioned it, but in two days’ time he would be meeting with an enforcer of the Sheut Nation. This enforcer had an ominous reputation.  The thought had occurred to him it may be easier for the Nation to tie up loose ends, than to admit culpability in an inter-agency debacle of this magnitude.  He needed to be prepared.

 

Harker intended to tell Rorye of the meeting… now just seemed a poor time.

 

          She walked him to the shower, though he didn’t require much assistance.  Sitting up, laying down, putting on clothes, breathing; those were the tasks he struggled with presently.  Whilst already on his feet, he was able to shuffle around well enough.

 

          At first, Ryan flinched when the heated water touched his skin.  A moment to acclimate to the temperature.  Before long the waters’ warmth began to seep into his weary muscles, soothing them to some extent.  An exhausted sigh.  From the corner of his eye he observed Rorye as she handled his weaponry.  A feeling of pride as she cleared and made safe the firearm with practiced ease. 

 

          “Clothing preferences?” She inquired whilst tidying his soiled equipment.

 

          “Anything comfortable,” he answered.  Eyes were closed; forehead pressed to the tile beneath the showers facet.

 

          “Pain meds? In the bedroom nightstand correct?”

 

          “Yeah,” he answered thoughtlessly.

 

          “I’ll go grab them.”

 

          A pang of panic suddenly gripped the Soldier.  “It’s okay, I’ll get’em in a minute.”

 

          Ryan lifted his head to glance around the bathroom.  Rorye had already left.  She would find more than an embarrassing amount of medication in the nightstand.

 

          Beneath the pill bottles scattered in the nightstand’s top drawer was a small, 4’ by 6’ inch, picture frame.  Three faces filled the frame’s simple black border, with a blue sky and a grassy field in the backdrop.  In the center was a woman in her early 20’s, shoulder length brown hair, olive skin, and emerald eyes; raw beauty made even her modest make-up an unnecessary effort. 

 

The woman embraced two young girls, one under each arm.  Their faces pressed against hers on either side, all of them smiling.  The three of them lay on their stomachs in the grass.  Cheeks propped up on their hands and elbows, faces aimed toward the camera.  The little girls were no older than three years of age, and quite obviously twins.  They shared their mother’s tanned skin, their similar brown hair drawn back into matching pigtails.  Uniquely captivating were the girl’s eyes.  They were green not unlike their mother’s, but with stunning azure shade.  As if drops of a brilliant blue had been added to the mixture.  The result, a gorgeous cyan hue.

 

Ryan gave an exhausted sigh and allowed his head to rest against the shower’s wall once more.  He had just confessed his feelings for Rorye, and now she would bare witness to those he loved before her.  It wasn’t as if he was hiding his past from her, but to share the history meant revisiting those moments in time.  Reliving the emotions of love and loss.  The sentiments consumed so much of his energy, like a void in his heart that could never be filled.  Not too long ago, those same feelings had taken him to a very dark place.

 

There was a moment of tranquil acceptance for the warrior, flowing over him as he bathed under the shower’s stream.  Perhaps it was time he shared his past with Rorye… there was still so much she didn’t know.

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She knew he was in pain... unable to do anything about it but stay focused on her task. It was nearly impossible not to flinch at his agony and get the job done as quickly as possible without pause. Breath was slow to steady her hands when his muscles drew taught and he held his breath. No apology was offered, she was doing her best; so intent on her work she was unaware she'd spoken out loud to herself.

 

“You know Altheia then?”

 

She blinked and looked up at him as she knelt.

 

"In passing. I used to spend time at ARMA headquarters on occasion," she said as she finished, concentrating on a rather difficult boot lace. Elaboration wasn't necessary.

 

“Yeah, she’s patched me up more than once.  She’s the best if you’re pinched for time.  I’ll definitely have to go and see her again tomorrow...”

 

"Good plan," she said decisively, standing. He seemed okay for the time being as she finished up. Even if he wanted to go anywhere, he wouldn't make it far before she intercepted her escaping patient. Hands drew affectionately across his face before sliding open the shower wider for him and closing it behind. She watched him a moment before the shower began to fog, his forehead on the cool tile.

 

Anger still lingered. Vampires. Fuck.

 

"Something comfortable,” she said to herself, moving out of the bathroom on a mission.

 

Soft footsteps whispered across the floor on their way to his bedroom, pulling a tee shirt and boxers from a drawer by touch... attracted to the ones that felt the softest. Sitting on the bed, she pulled the drawer open.

 

Holy hell.

 

Not exactly surprising given his occupation... but still...

 

Crinkled frown was cast toward the bathroom, lips quirking as she took bottles out one at a time to read them. She wasn't exactly a novice with pharmaceuticals: the legal kind, the not so legal kind or the magical kind. She could supplement his stash with much stronger medicine and less rot-gut chemicals. They were sorted, setting several aside that she knew worked better in tandem and placing the rest back. Fingers bumped something else as she reached in, at first glance only registering it wasn’t a bottle as she continued her sorting and line-up on the nightstand. Combination and dosage were important; most pharmacists didn't know Jack from shit, only if they reacted with each other. Instructions on the bottles weren't always the most effective either. She knew how to make a cocktail.

 

Finding what she needed, she put everything back, cluster of orange in her hand as she closed the drawer. A soft crease flinched across her brow, releasing a flood of tingling over her skin from head to toe. Fingertip pulled gently at the drawer to open it again, reaching in to push the bottles silently to the side.

 

She didn't move for some time, listening to the water in the shower as she sat there in silence, finally closing the drawer. Sigh was soft, eyes closing a moment to reopen with a sting that wasn't there before, back of her hand across her lashes as she got up to finish her task with his clothes tucked in her elbow.

 

Attention fell on his choice of drink still on the table. That could come later. Water first. Glasses were retrieved from the kitchen and she returned to the bathroom.

 

"I don't just sell books you know. You do realize you have access to one of the world's best compound pharmacists, right? If I do say so myself…" comment was soft, followed by the clink of glass on the counter. One small one for the cluster of pills, the other enough water to take them all. "I can make you more effective painkillers than that. Ones that won't screw with your brain, some that activate proactively when your pain reflexes kick in."

 

Throat cleared tenderly, trying to find her voice and take care of what she promised she'd do. Clothes were folded neatly on the sink.

 

Chest was tight, every nerve stripped raw and mood effectively hidden by the woman who could turn on the charm like a switch. She was having a hard time even doing that at the moment. Some things kicked an immediate reaction from her, vampires were one of those things. Others smoldered. This was one of those times. Jealousy singed so fiercely, and hate... sorrow, regret, pain, embarrassment… inadequacy. Everything crushed together at once in a tense snarl that clenched in her gut like fire. She couldn't untangle it, so it rode at the moment under the surface.

 

Eyes blinked, she’d been staring at the pills, lulled by the sound of the water. He had to have realized by now. Maybe he didn’t. To say something or not? To burn up inside or cause unnecessary stress if he hadn’t yet realized? Or if he had realized and she said nothing and it remained a weird thing… She didn’t want to explain her raging emotions, but if she didn’t he would take it the wrong way. Misunderstand. But she simply couldn’t talk about her own nightmares... she just couldn't. She left it where it was, and it was going to burn her alive from the inside. It wasn’t his burden to bear, and she was in his home. Not hers.

 

“Hey bathing beauty,” glass with pills in it was clinked softly against the shower door in a “knock”. Her smile was easy.  She pushed the door open slightly and gave him the water too. “Ignore what you think these are and just trust me. All at once, down the hatch.”

 

Re-situating the sling, she put towels close on the sink.

 

“I check on you in a few minutes, just let me know when you’re out and I can resize the sling… and then you’re going to bed.”

 

She reached in and brushed a short lock of mussed hair from his temple and closed the door again, retreating to the kitchen and finishing the glass he’d left on the table only to pour another for herself.

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