CLOSED SIGNUPS Rogue 2 - Origins


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Collab: Elle Joyner Elle Joyner

“Don’t attempt to adjust your screen. You are not experiencing technical difficulties… This is a cable hack brought to you by Replay, reminding you that the truth cannot be hidden, no matter how hard you try. I’m talking to you, Kaiden Hull. Mastermind of RIEF, monster under the bed. Four years is a long time comin’, but you better believe it’s comin’, all the same. The world may think you’re some sort of savior, but we know the truth. Those of us you broke and battered, the ones you left in ruin. We remember who you really are, and we won’t be made to forget.

When Origin was released, you rose up like some sort of hero, crying for mutant rights. Pretending like your goals and ambitions aligned with your kind, while for years, behind the scenes, you had us massacred and abducted, experimented on and tortured. And for what? To build up the lie that we needed a champion to protect us… to guide us. You murdered your own brother, your blood. Kidnapped children to turn them into war machines. You engineered the toxin that started this mess, and now you want the world to look to you to lead them into an age of peace and prosperity?

We aren’t buying it. You may have succeeded in breaking us down. You may have taken Keegan from us. But four years is a long time to rebuild, and whatever you expected, we haven’t laid down to die. The people may be fooled by you, but we will never be…

My friends. Those of you with fight left in you, seek out the signal. Seek it out and follow it, and when you find it, you’ll find us. We can’t rebuild what we were without you…

Astroboy. I hope you're listening, wherever you are.... Come home. Garden won’t grow without you, and you made a promise you need to keep.”

The screen shut off, and setting down the remote, the Cuban rolled his neck, “This woman is becoming a nuisance. Wouldn't take us long to find her… Her program might be untraceable, but we've gotta have someone who can break down the firewalls…”

Sighing, Kaiden crossed his arms over his chest, “We lost that man four years ago, and the other that would have made this so much easier is gone, too. Find a way, even if it means targeting the ones she cares about. Any leads on the others?”

“In the wind.” It seemed to take a concentrated effort not to sigh, as he straightened, “Maybe we ought to reconsider your speech today? A televised address, sir? It's the perfect window for these idiots to put their fingers in the works… jam up the whole process. You've come a long way… Washington's looking at the bill for Mutant Voting Rights… Your followers are in line...ready to do whatever you tell them to. If this Replay bitch manages to get in the way…”

“And she will. One way or the other, she’ll get away. Always does.”

Kaiden turned to watch a woman step from the shadows, “Alys is right. We won’t pin her down any time soon,” he walked over to a table and leaned against it, “If there’s anything I’m confident of, it’s my ability to stay a step ahead of fools. We aren’t canceling the speech.”

Eyes flickering briefly over to Alys, Isaac nodded, “Then we need to be smart about this, sir. Utilize our advantage… Minimize the risk.”

“I’ve already considered all the possibilities. Like I said, I’m steps ahead of anything they could come up with,” Kaiden replied, “but if it eases your mind, work with whoever you need to in order to institute whatever measures of security you’d like.”

“I'll need a few minutes before hand. That's all…” Rising from his seat, he nodded, “Otherwise, everything appears to be running according to plan.”

“Take all the time you need,” Kaiden returned, “Alys will see to our Replay problem the old fashioned way.”

“Excellent.” He glanced to Alys again and smirked faintly, “I'm sure she'll have no trouble making an impact.”

“And I’ll even have fun doing it,” she flashed a genuine grin, “I’ll get on that right away.”

“Oh, and Alys,” Kaiden stopped her, “The whole family this time.”

“Ooo,” she cooed, “You know just what to say to me to make me all tingly,” she started back toward the door and threw a hand up, waving behind her, “I’ll see you around, boys.”

Rolling his eyes, Isaac smirked as she left the room, before turning to Kaiden, “Right. I’ll get started on the other business. Just be sure to come see me before the speech… and don’t forget your notes.”

“Don’t worry yourself sick, Isaac. Like I stated already, I’m two steps ahead. Rogue does nothing that I haven’t anticipated. Having said that, I appreciate the care you’re taking to ensure my safety,” he smiled and straightened, “Today marks the beginning of a new dawn. From this day forward, we’ll no longer have to hide in the shadows. We can finally come into the light once more. If the world only knew what changes were coming.”

“Rogue… No sense callin’ them that anymore, is there?” Isaac added with a smirk, “It’s a change I think a lot of people are gonna wanna get behind, sir. I’ll see you at the show.” With a small salute, Isaac turned and followed in the wake of the blonde.

Isaac was right. Rogue was no more. Gone. Crushed beneath the wheels of his machinations. Decimated by the loss of their leader...his brother. Pulling out his wallet, he removed a worn photo of a beautiful brunette in a field of red flowers. Everything he did..the innocent lives lost… sending Ays to finished off Keegan… all of it was to ensure no one else suffered as he had. Bringing the photo to his lips, Kaiden gave it a lingering kiss before he tucked it back in his wallet.

“Soon,” he spoke softly as he patted his wallet, “You’ll see, Miranda. You’ll see.”

Elle Joyner Elle Joyner Mobley Eats Mobley Eats CloudyBlueDay CloudyBlueDay WingWong WingWong KatSea KatSea
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Fantasy, Sci-fi, Urban Fantasy, Dystopian, Futuristic, Superheroes, Modern, Crime-related, Apocalyptic, Post-Apocalyptic, Supernatural
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Sunshine, Rainbows, and Genocide
Interactions: Dorien, Asher, Kane, and Aster Elle Joyner Elle Joyner

Jeremiah Kane's desk sat in the corner of his office. It never moved. Not one centimeter left or right. Not forward, nor backwards. For eighteen years, the man had sat in the same spot, and until the day he retired or died, so it would remain. On the desk was an inbox and an outbox. He insisted upon real mail… nothing over the jumble of communication wires. Nothing traceable. Beside the boxes, a phone. An ink blotter lay in the middle of the desk and beside that a cylindrical iron pot with pens, all white bodied, with black caps, all cap-up in their nest. There were no knick knacks, no photographs, no debris.

Kane was a man of Order. It was, in his humble opinion, the only way to be. The world outside of his office door was chaos. But behind his desk he held onto a sense of serenity. Behind his desk, nothing was beyond his control.

Pressing a button, he spoke without emphasis into the receiver of his phone, “Helona… Hold all my calls, please. I'm not to be disturbed.” Depressing the button, he didn't wait for a response. His assistant knew better than to disturb him with unnecessary sentiment. If she was doing her job, no confirmation would be necessary. Instead, Kane turned his attention to the young creature seated across from him.

She was young, early twenties and carried the worn, anxious look of a typical streetrat. She had not been Kane's initial choice, but when their opportunities on the other had fallen through, he adjusted. He would not have been able to adapt so easily were it not for that demanding urgency for order. Her face was a hard mask, despite the bruises that marred her eyes and were swollen around her split lip. They’d needed to subdue her, to bring her in… her abilities fearsome and dangerous while she was conscious. She had been through quite a great deal in her young life, and no doubt this had instilled in her an iron will… But all men had weaknesses. She could be broken if he chose. Quite easily, he imagined.

Had she been human, she might have carried a certain aesthetic charm to her features. But she wasn't human. She was one of them. The rodents, infesting the streets of his city… his country… his world. And were she not so important to the plan, he might've drawn his firearm and put a bullet through the center of her forehead.

Someday, he would get that privilege. For now, she was a means to an end…

She had said nothing since they'd brought her in. He suspected this was an attempt at bravery. He didn't find he minded the silence. It was worse when they spoke… Almost gave off the illusion that they were intelligent lifeforms, and not the animals he knew them to be… Still, her silence would not do. Not when he knew exactly how to get what he needed from the other one.

“In World War II, many Nazis defected, after the appalling truth of what they were doing became more clear to them. The allies gladly accepted aid from these former monsters, and some believe this helped, largely, in the eventual ruin of the Axis. Utilizing a turncoat, in my personal views, is a despicable tactic in any war, but occasionally, I can understand the value in using one's enemy strategically. I despise your kind, I won't sugarcoat it. You disgust me. The very idea that you are here, sitting in my office… wearing flesh and blood and bone over what we both know to be a lie makes my stomach turn. But in order to ensure future goals are met with less resistance, I am unfortunately temporarily left without option. I require one of your kind… to weed out the others, and for that, I require you. This will be… quite a painful experience for you and I don't mind telling you, when this is over and you are of no more use, I will put a stop to your miserable existence. For now, the more you cooperate, the easier that end will be for you. Are we clear?”

She looked up, and Kane felt heat creep along his spine at the expression on her face, anger welling within him at her defiance.

“If you do not cooperate…” He continued, laying his hands flat on the desktop, “I will crush every bone in your body. I will set fire to your nerves… And rend muscle to pulp. You will take your last breath on this planet, in agonizing pain. And I will relish every moment of it. It will become my sole focus to destroy you, inside and out, in as slow and deliberate a process as I can possibly manage. And before you think you are of any importance, I promise you, you will not die a martyr. You will be a deep, dark secret in the bottom of a well, but you will not haunt me, because you are literally nothing to me. You are an ant… and beneath my heel, you will be reduced to dust… and the world will forget you. And I will still win.”

Her throat rose and fell with a swallow, and Kane sat back, satisfied that his message had been received, “Now, Little Ant… I am going to need to take your photo. If you fight me… or try to use your abilities on me… I will take a finger, instead. There are many ways to identify someone. I suggest you sit very still, just in case.”


Outside of the apartment door, the man pulled his phone free from his pocket and queuing up the picture sent to him, raised his free hand to knock.

As he heard a knock, Dorien looked up from his spot on the floor, where he’d been hovering over a canvas. Hopefully that was Jamie. She should have been back by now. He couldn’t help the slight bit of relief that filled him at the knock. Maybe something else had come up and her phone died. Wouldn’t have been the first time, in any case.

He stood, carefully laying down his brushes, before walking to the door to open it. He did not find Jamie. An odd, anxious sort of feeling pooled in his gut at this stranger at his door.

“Can I help you with something, sir?” he asked.

“Indeed, you can, Mr. Willis.” The man spoke calmly enough, lowering his hand to his hip. He wore no holster, no need for a weapon… not when he was fairly certain the man in front of him would cooperate, fully, “I’m going to need you to come with me…”

Dorien’s brow furrowed, concern marking through his features. Who on Earth? This didn’t look like anyone he’d expect at his door. It certainly wasn’t Tommy, that was for sure. He was terrified, for just a moment, that Jamie had somehow gotten mixed up in something. But he could get a phone call for that, couldn’t he?

“Can I ask what for?” He wasn’t saying no, he just had no clue why he needed to go anywhere. Until he did, he didn’t plan on leaving his doorway.

“Of course you may ask…” The man continued, and turning his phone, he held the picture up, smiling faintly, “...Does this answer your questions?”

Dorien’s breath caught in his throat at seeing the picture. His eyes closed as he raised a hand to his mouth. Shit, shit, shit. He swallowed, taking a breath, before opening his eyes to look at the man before him. He wasn’t sure what the details were, if this were a gang or something else entirely, but the message was clear. Cooperate, or Aster pays for it.

“It’s actually created a few more questions,” Dorien said, but he reached for his coat and pulled it on before stepping outside. He closed the door behind him. “I’m sure that’s more conversation for the way, though.”

The man’s lip twitched slightly higher as the cruel smirk reflected in his eyes, and pulling his shades back down from where they sat on the top of his head, he gave a nod, “Right this way, then. I hope you don’t mind, I’m a bit of a control freak, so… I’d like to drive. Names Asher, by the way… David Asher. Not to be confused with Aster… That’s your pretty little girlfriend, isn’t it? Tisk… damn shame gettin’ her all mixed up in this mess. But hopefully you’ll get it sorted and be back to normal in no time, at all.”

“You know the way better than I do,” Dorien said simply. A cold chill slid down his spine at the smirk on Asher’s face. Alarm bells were going off in his head, but he was walking into the fire. “I’d say it’s a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Asher, but I think it’s obvious I’d prefer the circumstances be different. And she’s...not my girlfriend.” No matter how much he liked the idea, he didn’t think Aster thought of him that way. He also couldn’t help but doubt that things would be perfectly fine. Sometimes, they were, but the anxiety in his gut told him otherwise.

“Really? So she’s available. Hm.” The man was prodding. There was something in the way he said it that suggested it was intentionally aggravating, and a small part of David hoped… just hoped that Dorien would try something, “Too bad she’s a mutt. I’m not typically picky, but I don’t do your kind. Damn near contagious these days, ain’t it?” Outside the apartment, he gestured to a black SUV near the curb, “After you…”

Dorien looked over at Asher, giving him a flat deadpan look that said ‘Really?’ He bit back a snarky response, deciding it was better not to antagonize this man if he could help it. Not until he knew where Aster was, at least. He didn’t make a move to do anything, though the unimpressed look said it all. The words ‘your kind’ pinged in his brain. Oh no. Bad, bad, bad. That was never a good set of words, because he had a feeling this was more about what he was and what he could do than anything personal. That almost made it worse. No one who wanted him for his powers had been great people so far. He didn’t think he’d end up breaking that streak now. He didn’t comment about the contagious jab either.

He squinted at the SUV. “If I walk in front of you, what are the odds you try to knock me out on the way?” he asked, entirely too familiar with that particular trick. “I swear blindfolds work just as well.”

Rolling his eyes from beneath the shades glasses, David shook his head, “Gonna be candid here, Dorien. You don't mind if I call you Dorien, do you? It doesn't matter whether or not you see where we're headed. Chances of you making it out of this of this thing aren't too high. Just... get in the damn car.”

“Fair enough,” Dorien said with a sigh. “I figured I’d at least ask.” Really, Asher’s answer said it all. It didn’t matter. Whatever he had planned, whatever he or whoever he was with was going to do, they weren’t banking on the possibility of him getting out. So long as they had Aster, they probably wouldn’t even have to worry about him trying to get out. The saddest part of that was that Dorien knew it.

Still, he walked, hands in his pockets, to the car that would take him to Aster and a place he was sure he didn’t want to be.

Once Dorien had gotten into the car, Davis slipped behind the wheel, and pulling out of park, eased away from the curb, “I realize you may be thinking a number of things. Why me? What’s this all about? How will I escape this treacherous fate? Honestly, kid. I wish I could give you some kinda hope that this is gonna end well for you, but fact of the matter is, my boss has exactly one purpose for you. And once you’ve fulfilled that purpose, well… Yikes. Still… If you feel the need to fill the uncomfortable silence with useless Q and A, I can try my best at platitudes… I was never very good at BSing, though…”

The truth was that Dorien had a very good idea of why he was chosen for this particular torment. If nothing else, he could take a wildly accurate guess. It was the same reason it always was. They wanted what was in his head. To find anyone, anywhere? It was wanted by a lot of people, and not often very good people. He did take note that Asher said ‘boss’. He wasn’t working alone then.

He took a breath, trying not to let it shake as the man in the driver’s seat confirmed his worst fears. There was no “after this”. Not if these two got everything they wanted from him. He hoped, desperately hoped, that Jamie would be okay. Briefly wondered if she’d ever know what happened to him, after she came hope to find an abandoned painting and no sign of a struggle or robbery. If she’d be okay with the knowledge that she couldn’t even use the police to find him, because if they found him, they’d kill him too.

“Only two questions, really. They might be better for your boss, but I’ll ask anyway,” Dorien said, slipping into that blank, emotionless mask he used when Alastor asked the worst of him. “First one is, what do you want me to find?”

“Hm…” Drumming his fingers on the steering wheel, David nodded, “Fair question. Not what, though. Who. You remember about four years ago? There was an organization, prided themselves of mutant rights or some bullcrap like that… blah blah… whatever. Turned out they were a huge load of nothing, and fell apart as soon as someone got the best of their leader? Well… my boss, or my whole organization, really, has been tasked with locating and eliminating the former members of that little club. And their families. Loose ends, and all. Revenge is messy, sticky business we’d rather like to avoid. Who has the time, right? Anyhow. You’re gonna locate them… so we can take them out.”

Dorien remembered. ‘Rogue’. He’d never paid close attention to news about them. It felt so distant, like some other world. It felt like a fantasy to him. He had been trying to make ends meet, to just survive and take care of Jamie, when those other mutants had plans about righting the wrongs in the world. Once, he’d thought Rogue would never touch him or his life. Now, it seemed that he was both very, very wrong and right. Rogue wouldn’t touch him, but he’d end up dooming them all.

“They’re still around?” he couldn’t help but ask. A dumb question, sure, but again, he never paid close attention to them. When he’d heard about the downfall of Rogue, he’d thought it just vanished entirely. That they’d been wiped out. He figured some of them would have remained, sure, but how many? He could almost feel the splitting headaches that would come from this, though. Whatever members were left, and then their families. Countless people, countless visions, countless times he’d have to use his powers. Shit, shit, shit. He’d doom them all. He couldn’t help cursing under his breath, though Asher could likely still hear it.

“Not in the strictest sense of the word, no. But it’s not the threat they posed that’s the problem… It’s what they could become if the world gets wise to them being out there, still. That, and frankly, Bossman’s pretty sure they’re to fault for that whole Toxin mess. At any rate, he wants to wipe them out, before he gets started on the rest.” Clearing his throat, he shrugged, “What’s question number two?”

Dorien exhaled. It was a lot of information to take in. Rogue, being part of mutants becoming more prevalent the world over? It was strange to consider, even if it could potentially make sense. That was information to digest later. It seemed he’d have time to do that later, if they planned on him hunting down each and every member and family member tied to Rogue.

“After I comply, or else face pain of death or worse, regardless of if it’s mine or Aster’s,” he started, “can I see her?”

Chuckling softly, David shook his head, “Can’t answer that, pal. That’s up to the big guy. I imagine he’ll probably want… well, he’s gonna want you to see her to some degree, but you uh… you might regret asking that. Nothing in the world Kane hates more than you folks… and he ain’t gonna be too interested in a heartfelt and touching reunion. But I guess you’ll have to wait and see, right?”

“Yeah, guess I’ll have to wait and see,” Dorien replied, dragging his hands over his face with a sigh. He then slid back into the emotionless mask. If the photo he saw of Aster was any indicator, he was going to need that extra bit of protection.

He wasn’t looking forward to this at all.

The remainder of the drive was made in silence. After answering his questions, David made no further attempts to chat Dorien up, and when he finally pulled into the garage of the concrete office building and killed the engine, it was the first noise he made throughout their journey, “Alright, Mr. Willis. Here we are. I’m gonna have to bind your hands before we head in. Protocol.” Sliding out, he moved to the door, and fishing a pair of cuffs from his waistband, he opened it, “Arms out?”

Dorien slid out of the car once they arrived, mostly silent. He stuck out his arms for Asher to cuff with little complaint. The thing was...he had just one more question. “One last question before we head in?” he asked. It might be better to ask whoever Asher’s boss was, but he’d give it a whirl.

David curved each cuff around Dorien’s wrists, and as he helped him to his feet, hand on his arm, he nodded firmly, “Shoot.”

“How did you, or your boss, find me?”

Chuckling softly, David shrugged, “Been a long time, we’ve been looking for someone with your particular skill set, Doiren. Why do you figure it’s been four years? Kane has resources… People in high places. But tracking down that boss of yours was tricky. Luckily, he’s pissed off enough people in time, and well… angry people are always chatty, if you catch my drift… Especially when Alastor Grey takes something they were pretty attached to… like their fingers. Eventually, there’s no one we can’t find. Well… most particularly, now…”

Dorien swore his blood had been replaced with ice water. Of course. Of freaking course, it always came down to Alastor Grey. He ignored that last bit, had to ignore it and how many lives he’d be a part of wrecking. How many innocent lives. Before, he could find the tiniest bit of comfort in knowing that the people he ended up hurting had it coming. Now?

It was probably going to be people just like him, that had just been trying to survive.

“I always knew him calling me Huntsman was going to come back to bite me,” he huffed a bitter sort of laugh. It was his first attempt at humor since seeing Asher, and it fell short due to the sick roiling in his gut. He occasionally joked that anyone who kidnapped him would get sick of listening to him babble and just let him go somewhere, but today, that hadn’t happened. He couldn’t afford it, not with Aster still in this Kane guy’s clutches. Not that he could probably do much, but maybe he could save her from extra pain. Just comply, no matter how much it hurt.

“Never got that. The codenames…” With a small shake of his head, David led Dorien towards the elevator and pressed the call button. The doors opened nearly immediately, and inside, he hit the button for the lowest floor, “I mean, it’s neat, I guess, but hell… I dunno. Names are names, you know? Anyhow… Won’t be long, now.” Pushing up his glasses, he clasped his hands behind his back, waiting as the elevator began moving downward, “If you got anymore questions, better get them out, now… I can promise, Kane isn’t gonna feel up to answering.”

“I guess,” Dorien replied. “I used to hear there was power, though, in knowing someone’s real name. I think that one was meant to be a bit mystical, but when all the world is hunting you down, it’s a nice layer of anonymity too, the codenames.” He pushed up his own circular frames as well he could, shaking his head. He had gotten all the important ones out. “There’s only the thing I asked that you didn’t answer, and like you said, we’ll just have to see.”

“Guess the codename didn’t do you any favors…” David said, with a cocky smirk. The elevator doors opened, and he gestured Dorien forward. Down a long hall, he led the man to a door at the end, and knocking twice, he opened it, “He in, Helona?” He asked the woman seated at the desk, “His crown jewel is here.”

“Maybe. It did take you four years though,” Dorien said with the most innocent smile he could manage. He then took in the woman before him at the desk.

“He asked not to be disturbed,” the woman stated. Her eyes were dark, slivers of grey at the crown of her head where her hair was pulled into a ponytail. Her appearance was a touch severe and not particularly welcoming. Age creased the corners of her eyes, but it still seemed to be treating her well. As she looked up to see Asher and Dorien, a cold calculating sort of smile crossed over her face. “But I think he’ll make an exception for good news.”

“General Kane?” she said after pressing a button on the machine at her desk. “Asher has returned, and he’s got a friend in tow.”

“Send him in.” Was the only response… and without waiting for confirmation from the woman behind the desk, David crossed the floor and opened the door. Kane straightened at the sight of the man in tow, and rising from his chair, he smoothed the front of his charcoal grey suit, straightened his glasses, nodding, “Good work, Asher. Thank you. You may go…”

The man didn’t hesitate, or question the suggestion. He moved away with a swiftness that suggested he was all too eager to be anywhere else, and in fact, that wasn’t far from the truth.

As Kane rounded his desk, he looked Dorien over with a scrutinizing gaze, “I imagine Asher has filled you in on why you’re here?”

Dorien followed without a word until he found himself standing in from of Kane alone. He felt a bit small, the way he had when he’d first come face-to-face with Alastor Grey. There was something chilling in the comparison, though he knew the way this interaction scared him was far different than how Grey did. This...this was a man who had no love, however twisted and cruel, for him in his heart. He was purely a tool, and when he no longer served his purpose, he’d be thrown out.

“He covered a few things, yes. What you want me for and what’s at stake if I don’t comply,” he said, thinking back to the picture he’d been shown at his door. How long ago this morning felt now. “Or, well, he showed me what was at stake.”

He didn’t let the relatively neutral mask slip. He seemed fairly calm, even as he was trying to internally process the dread filling him to the top. He had to keep it up, for now, because he didn’t imagine the man in the tightly pressed suit would care too much about whatever tears Dorien had to shed.

“Good. Then there no need to go over it again. I'm sure you have questions… unfortunately for you, I couldn't care less. This isn't going to be fun or enjoyable, and I can effectively promise you, what's a stake is not the life of the mutant girl we've got in holding. Neither one of you will walk away from this. But the more you cooperate, the less I will be required to bring harm. Now then…” Pressing a button on his phone, he spoke into the receiver, “Jackson, my office, please.”

It was several seconds before the door opened, and an extremely tall, broad man entered, rubbing a hand over his closely shaven skull, “Sir?”

Frowning faintly, Kane shook his head at the cavalier approach, gesturing vaguely towards Dorien, “Take him to holding, until we're ready for him.”

“Got it.” The man gave a terse nod, grabbing Dorien, his fingers curving into Dorien's bicep, “Let's go, Freak.”

After that, it was back to the elevator, and a short trip one level down - a level that had not been visible from the upper levels. At the chime, the doors opened to a dank, dark hallway and urging Dorien forward, the man, Jackson reached to remove the cuffs with a key at his side, gesturing him to keep moving. Down the hallway, past several doors, he paused at one at the end and reaching for the keyring, he slid it into a lock, before inputting several numbers into a keypad beside it. At the sound of a click, he turned the key and the door slid opened, “In you go, Freak.”

The door closed behind him, and footsteps receded back down the hallway. In the small room were three small, metal frame cots, and little else. From one of the cots, Aster rose, voice a trepidatious whisper, “Dorien…?”

Dorien said nothing, even as the dread in his chest grew stronger with each word that came out of Kane’s mouth. This was bad. This was so bad. No questions about how his powers worked either, so either the man already knew or just didn’t care. He wasn’t sure which one chilled him more.

He went with Jackson without complaint, simply taking note of every measure taken to keep him in and which way he was made to walk. He wasn’t sure when he’d get the chance, if he would ever get the chance, but he had to try. He had to take note, in the case he did have a window of time to get out of here. To get Aster out of here. He rubbed his wrists after the cuffs were removed, but kept walking. His heart sank a little at seeing the key and the code being used to open the door. That...would be difficult.

As the door slid shut behind him, Dorien sighed, rubbing a hand over his face. Then he froze. “Aster?” he asked, as if almost in disbelief.

“Oh my God, no…” Sinking back down, Aster covered her mouth with her hands, shaking her head. They'd got him. They'd got him, and now he would… “Dorien. You… you cannot give them a damn thing! You can't. I… I can't let you do this…”

“And I can’t let them hurt you, if i can do something to prevent it,” Dorien replied. He didn’t feel like there was a choice, not really. It was terrible and the lives he’d be ruining, the lives he’d be part of taking… Those would haunt him for forever and a day. He’d known for a while, though, that he was willing to do terrible things for the sake of people he cared about.

“I’m sorry,” he said, voice cracking as he stepped closer to Aster. “I’m so sorry. I-” he cut himself off with a curse, feeling something warm and wet slide down his cheeks. “I’m sorry I dragged you into this. I’m sorry you’re here because of me. I just…” He reached out once he stood in front of her, cradling her face in his hands as he briefly rested his forehead against hers. “I’m just glad you’re okay.”

He moved closer and Aster took in the tears, feeling her chest tighten. “Don't…” She whispered, cupping her hands over his, “Please… please don't apologize. God, Dorien. This… this is not your fault.” Shifting, her eyes opened and she looked up at him, “They… they didn't get her? Tell me they didn't get her, Dorien. Jamie? God… There wasn't enough time… I told her to run. To hide, but there wasn't enough time…”

Dorien made a noise in his throat, something that sounded like a strangled sob, before sinking to his knees before her. It felt like his fault. He knew why he shouldn’t get too close to people, had known ever since he’d been recruited by Alastor Grey. He would only drag them into trouble, because his powers made him a target. He’d thought Aster was safe, when she ended up in the same boat as him, yet here they both were.

His breath caught in his throat. She’d warned Jamie. “That’s why…” he said, the reason why Jamie hadn’t come home clicking into place. He shook his head. “They only showed me you, and she’s not here.” More tears threatened to spill, though for entirely different reasons. This was the second time Aster had sacrificed for his sister. “Thank you…”

“Don't thank me…” She sighed, “Didn't stop them from dragging you into it, anyway… Damn them.” Dropping her head, she stared at her hands, the knuckles of one were bruised and swollen from where she'd got a lucky hit on one of the bastards, “What do we do?”

“Stopped them from dragging Jamie into it, though,” Dorien answered, shaking his head. “What we have to, I guess. We do what they want until...until we can get out of here. And we are. We’re getting out of here.” He had to believe that. He had to believe that at some point, there would be an opening that, even if it wasn’t perfect, would give them just enough to free themselves.

“There's that good old Fish optimism.” She breathed, as she shook her head again, “Don't… don't think I'm gettin’ out, though. I uh… I get the impression the big guy upstairs ain't too fond of me.” The tip of her tongue prodded the split in her lip, as she frowned, “I don't want you to do this, Dorien. Whatever it is they have in mind for you. I… I don't want you to do it. Not for me.”

“If God doesn’t like you, then he can take up the problem with me,” Dorien joked before shaking his head. “I said ‘we’, and I mean it. We’re both getting out of here. Might be a while...but we’re getting out.” He tilted his head at her, his expression hard to read. “I don’t exactly want to do it either, but who else would I do it for?” He paused. “Besides Jamie. That’s probably a given.”

“...I meant the creepy military guy, Fish. Please don't try to take on him and God? I'm worried enough…” Her hand dropped to his arm, tentatively, before gripping it, “I wanted to warn you… I tried, but… but they were fast. I just thought if I could get you a message… you could get away with Jamie. Get somewhere safe…”

“I can take ‘em. I’ll tell them both to put up their dukes. Neither of them will know what to do with me,” Dorien chuckled, though it faded as reality once again began to set in. He shook his head. “It’s alright. You did your best. And thank you, for at least making sure Jamie wasn’t dragged into this, too.”

“You're my family, Dorien. You… Jamie. You… you think I'd let anybody hurt you?” Shaking her head, her hand fell to her side again, eyes burning, “I tried, anyway…”

Dorien smiled at her at hearing that she considered them family. “Hey, Aster,” he said softly, trying not to smile, “did you just brother-zone me?”

He shook his head at her, pulling her into a hug. “That’s what matters, Aster. You tried, and that makes all the difference to me. It’s not your fault. It’s not your fault at all.”

“Hell no, Fish. A stud like you?” She gave a soft, weary laugh and her arms folded around him, as she squeezed her eyes shut against the tears forming, “I'm scared. I am so damn scared. If… if anything happens to you…”

Dorien laughed, though it was a little weaker than it might’ve been on another day. He moved, sitting on the cot next to her to pull her further into his arms. He rubbed slow, soothing circles on her back. “I’m scared too. But we’re going to be okay. We’ll be okay.”

“But…” breathing in, she curled into his side, shaking her head, “But just in case I'm not… I… I'm glad you're here, Dorien. Nobody I'd rather spend it with, you know? The… The end.”

He rested his head against hers, having no intention of letting go of her anytime soon.

“Me too, Aster. Me too.”

“Dor…?” Her voice dropped to a whisper, fingers tightening where they'd curled into his shirt, “Promise me something?”

“Sure. Anything,” he answered, falling mostly still as she spoke.

“...Don't let them break you…” swallowing, she pulled away, so she could meet his eyes, “They're gonna try. Don't… don't let them. They don't deserve you.”

“I’ll do my best. Promise,” he assured, eyes flicking to meet hers as she started to pull away, “just so long as you do the same.”

“Me?” With a dry smile, Aster shook her head, “You know me well enough to know, Dorien… I don't break easy.” Breathing out, she reached apprehensively for his hand, “Sometimes I… I'm too damn stubborn.”

“That’s not a bad thing,” he assured, feeling her reach for his hand. He tentatively curled his own fingers around her hand. “Trust me. It’s not a bad thing at all.”

“It is when… when I get in my own way.” With her free hand, she wiped her cheeks dry, sniffing back the emotion, “There's… there's a lot I never said. A lot I should've… and if I don't make it out of here…”

“I should’ve known the only thing that could stop you was you,” Dorien joked lightly, voice soft. He then shook his head. “You don’t have to say it now. Save it. We’re getting out of here.”

“Dorien.” Looking up at him, she shook her head, “ have to know the possibilities are slim. What… what I'm saying is… what if I don't get a chance? What if…”

“I know. I also know that even if the chance is small, it’s still a chance,” Dorien answered. “And if...I’m wrong, and it looks like we’re coming to a point of no return, then you can tell me. But only then. It gets awkward when you know the secrets people tell when they think they’re dying.” He gave her a sheepish smile.

Leaning forward, she dropped her head to his shoulder, “He's… he's not like anyone I've ever come up against, Fish. This guy? He's a whole other level of terrifying.” Shivering, she gave his hand a squeeze, “We might be out of our league…”

“I know,” he said softly in agreement. Despite his initial comparison to Grey, this man was nothing like him in all the worst ways. He gently brushed his thumb over the back of her hand. “We’ve been in over our heads before. We just keep treading water.” Keep treading water, and hope that whatever Kane threw at them wouldn’t fling them further into the deep end.

Straightening, she nodded, “Legs are gettin’ a little tired. Hell, if I’m not ready to leave the pool, already. When do we get a break, Dorien? When do we get some peace and quiet? God… I feel like… Every time I think for just second, maybe things aren’t so bad… Something happens to make them worse.” She’d said it before, but now it seemed more apparent than ever. She felt cursed… Like she was never meant to be happy. And now she was dragging him down, too… “I hate this. I hate everything about this…”

“We’re getting a little wrinkly,” he added, contributing a little further to the metaphor. He then sighed. “I don’t know. Soon, I hope. Soon.” He sighed, glad one hand was anchored by Aster’s own as the other rubbed the back of his neck. God, he hoped they got a break soon. He didn’t imagine it would come for a while though, no matter what he wished. “I hate it too.”

“So, let’s leave.” She said, with a small, dry smirk, “Who the hell says we can’t right? Aside from the scary psychopath and his creepy army. And the locked door. And the fact that I have no idea where the hell we even are.” Reaching up, she gingerly prodded the bruise near her temple, “...Knocked me out pretty good when they brought me in. Guess they didn’t like that I wasn’t coming quietly.”

“Time to hop out of the kiddie pool,” Dorien chuckled. “Those are plenty of obstacles, but…” he seemed to pause and consider what she said. “I came pretty quietly, so I saw the way they took me. If I were pressed, I could probably get us out of here. So that’s one thing we can tackle when we get there.”

“Look at that… We’re already one step ahead.” It was a pipe dream. She knew it as well as he undoubtedly did. They would never get free that easily. They would never have let him see the route if they thought escape was feasible. But she needed to stay together… she needed to hold on to that small, miniscule edge of optimism… Or she was going to shake apart.

“...Maybe when… when all this is over, we should get out of the damn city. I’m starting to think it’s no good, you know?”

“One bit down,” Dorien agreed, leaving out the ‘a lot more to go’ part. One part at a time, though. They’d have to figure it out one part at a time. He huffed a laugh. “Far, far away from this city. Not sure where, but somewhere nice that isn’t here.”

“I don’t think we’d make it in the woods… We’re not cabin people.” Running her fingers through her hair, she frowned, “Damn… We’re not really anything but city people, are we? Guess it gives us something to learn while we’re stuck here.” But somehow she had her doubts that they’d have much time to study up on rustic living…

Wrapping her arms around herself, she frowned suddenly, her eyes shifting to the door, “...One more thing I need you to promise me, Dorien.”

“Too many bugs, too few ice cream places,” Dorien agreed with a nod. “I guess we aren’t. I don’t know. I was thinking somewhere on the water. Could still be a city, too, so we don’t have to go too far out of our comfort zone.” His brow furrowed as her demeanor shifted a little and she wrapped her arms around herself. “What’s that?”

“Just… just promise me if… if it comes down to you getting out without me… for any reason, you won't sacrifice that to be a noble jackass…” Meeting his eyes, she shrugged, “Jamie needs you, Dorien.”

Dorien looked torn, silent for a long while before he spoke. “I can’t promise that, Aster. You should know me. I gotta be the noble jackass. The donkey in shining armor,” he said. “Yes, Jamie needs me, but...I’m starting to think that I need you.” Maybe it was a little sappy, but it was true. They’d been at each other’s sides for years, and if he could, he had no intention of letting that go. Of letting Aster go.

Blinking, eyes stinging sharply, Aster shook her head again, defiantly, “You… damn it, Dorien. You can't just… You can never just…” pinching the bridge of her nose, she looked up again, eyes welling, now, “I don't have to think… I know I need you. And if anything happened to you cause of me? Don't you understand how that would wreck me?”

He gave her a sad sort of smile. “I can imagine,” he answered. He could imagine it very well. He knew that if anything happened to Jamie, he would fall apart. He knew how it felt like something was ripping open his chest to crush his heart when he saw that picture of her at his front door. He knew how it felt when suddenly, it was like his parents didn’t exist to the world even though he remembered them so clearly, and he had to leave them behind. “It why we have to get out of here together. If I get a chance to get out of here, I’m taking you out with me. You’re not getting rid of me that easy, Flower Girl.”

“Stubborn…” She whispered, reaching up to brush her cheeks dry, grimacing slightly at the bruises, “Fine. We get out together… Got no intention of getting rid of you, Fish. Never would… Why would I go and throw away the only damn thing in my life worth anything?”

Dorien laughed shakily. “Hey, don’t do that. I’ve already cried six times today,” he warned, wiping at the bottom of his own eyes despite himself. “Good, that’s settled. We’re getting out of here, and we’re going together.”

“Big baby…” She breathed, reaching out to dry his cheeks, “You better quit bein’ so emotional over me, Fish. Gonna make all the ladies jealous.”

“Yep, that’s me. Big baby Dorien,” he snorted, eyes closing briefly as he felt her fingers brush away the wet streaks on his face. “What other ladies? I’ve only got two main ladies in my life, and the other one will call me a baby too.”

“Two, huh? Jamie and…?” With a smirk, she looked him over, “Steppin’ out on me, Fish? I'm hurt…”

“Absolutely. I met a lovely lady named Gertrude online, and she’s definitely not a 57 year old convicted axe murderer with a neckbeard on the Internet. We’re eloping in Vegas is two days,” Dorien answered, rolling his eyes. “It’s you, Flower Girl. You and Jamie.”

“Damn, Fish. I gotta tell ya… this is awkward but… I think maybe Gertrude's catfishing ya…” Hearing his confirmation, she breathed, nodding, “Me, huh? And what'd I do to earn that place of honor?”

“No! Not Gertrude!” Dorien exclaimed, feigning surprise and horror before snorting. “You exist? You’ve sacrificed for my sister, not once but twice now. You’ve stuck with me these past few years. You’re my best friend in the world. I don’t know how long this list of reasons goes, but we might be here a while, Aster. Also, hey, surprise. I like you as a person.”

“Aw damn…” looking him over, Aster shook her head, “They must've grabbed the wrong Dorien… Cause the Fish I've known these last few years… he doesn't go telling lies like that. I've been nothin’ but trouble and you know it.”

“Nope, I’m the original dumbass,” Dorien grinned, arms spread wide. “You’re not just trouble, and even if you were, I’d still like you that way. Even when you steal my candy.”

“Woah. Don't get it twisted, Fish. I didn't steal your candy. I stole your jacket. And then the candy became mine by proxy.” A brow lifted as she studied him, and despite the light, easy energy of her words, she could feel something shifting…

In all likelihood, they weren't going to escape… and this could be the last good conversation they ever had…

“That damn jacket is the best thing that ever happened to me, you know.”

“So I’ve been told,” Dorien laughed, sniffing a little in the aftermath of crying when he’d first come in. He paused at hearing the second bit, an intrigued look crossing over his face. “How’s that?”

“...Hell, Dor… You always were the most oblivious guy I know.” Shaking her head, she rubbed her arms, wishing more than anything she had that jacket now, “You didn’t flinch when I asked for it. You just… you handed it over, and you never complained when I didn’t give it back. Not really. And that was the first time in my life, really, I came across someone who was genuinely good… I wasn’t scared to let you in. Then… then I was. Cause… cause I wanted to, more than anything. And that… that’s not something I knew how to process. Still don’t…”

“I’d say I try, but I really don’t,” he grinned sheepishly. “And I did kind of have my chance to get it back, the first night. I missed it, so it was forfeit.” He fell silent as she continued, listening as she explained. He sat still a little while longer before slowly shrugging off the jacket he’d grabbed before he left with Asher. He then gently placed it over her shoulders. “I know it’s not the jacket, but I figure it’ll work for now. For what it’s worth, though, Aster, I’m glad you let me in. Because that? That’s one of the best things that happened to me.”

Looking up at he handed over the jacket, Aster shook her head and sliding her arms through, she caught his hand, “...It was never about the jacket, Fish. I mean… don’t get me wrong, I kept it cause it’s cute as hell on me, but… but it was never the jacket.”

Dorien’s gaze flicked back up to her face as she caught his hand, and he stilled. He chuckled, “It does look good on you.” He then took a breath, shaking his head. “I know. It was what it represented to you. Part of why I could never really ask for it back. That, and it really does look good on you.”

“Damn straight it does…” Her smile softened, and shifting closer, she allowed her fingers to twist through his, a warmth creeping into her cheeks that had very little to do with the jacket he’d given her, “...What it represents. That’s… that’s a good way to put it.”

He chuckled softly. He threaded his fingers through hers, once again gently sliding his thumb over the back of her hand. “It must be the artist in me that thought of it that way,” he said.

Watching the motion of his thumb across her hand, Aster nodded, before looking up again, “You always were the articulate one… You…. you ever ask yourself, Fish, what life might look like, if we’d met some other time? If… if we’d met before all this mess? I know what ifs are useless… but sometimes, I can’t help but wonder...”

“I do try,” Dorien smiled. “Sometimes, I do. I hope that we might have saved each other some pain, if we had. That things would be different, would be better. The thing is...I don’t think things would have been the same if we’d met another time. The things we’ve done...wouldn’t have meant what the did if we met some other time. So, in a way, I’m kind of glad that we met when we did. So that this is the way things worked out. Obviously this cell and Kane can go suck it, but the stuff between us? Yeah, I’m glad this worked out the way it did.”

A brow rose, and with a small, teasing smile, she studied his expression, watched for the changes she knew and loved, “...Stuff between us, hm?”

The implications seemed to hit him as she repeated his words back to him. His eyes widened before he laughed nervously, flicking his eyes away. It felt a bit like his face was burning again. “Our relationship. Um, how close we are and everything,” he said. He almost continued, but he caught sight of that teasing smile and he knew what he had to say would only lead her further into teasing him.

But the smile shifted as he continued, and her grip tightened gently on his, eyes definitively focused on his, unmoving, unrelenting and uncharacteristically sober, “...How close we are? You sister-zoning me, again, Dorien?”

His eyes flicked back to hers as her grip tightened, and he swore his heart did a flip in his chest. He then laughed as she asked if he was sister-zoning her. “No, not even remotely. I do consider you family, though, Aster,” he answered.

“Oh?” Looking up, her smile twitched ever so slightly higher, “So what… Like… a cousin, or aunt… Hell. Not like your mom, right? Don’t make this weird, Dorien.”

He couldn’t help but laugh harder, shaking his head as he buried his face in one hand. He sat like that, shoulders shaking, before he managed to recover just enough. “You are the one who made it weird, Aster,” he wheezed in protest. “I don’t think I’ve got a name for it, honestly. Just that we belong together.”

The laughter echoed softly from her, as she nodded along with him, “Yeah. I know. Sorry… I definitely just did that…” But as he went on, her expression softened and imperceptibly, she shifted closer again, “...Labels are for supermarkets, anyway. Won’t get an argument from me, Fish… But I’ve known that for years. Just… just been waiting for you to catch up.”

“Calling you ‘Mom’ is the absolute worst thing I can think to call you. I’m giving myself the heebie jeebies, now,” Dorien said, making a face as he shook his head. “That’s a good one. ‘Labels are for supermarkets.’” He then looked over at her again, unable to stop the smile creeping back onto his lips. “Wow, okay, time to make me feel slow. I think I’ve known it...maybe a year. Several months, for sure. Or, well, that’s how long I know that I knew that. I think I might’ve known it for a lot longer, though.”

“...Think… think if we get outta here…” Biting her lip, flinching slightly at the split, she shook her head, “You think when we get outta here, you can finally man up and do something about it, Dorien? I’ve been pretty damn patient… but hell, a girl’s gotta make a move, eventually.”

“Wait. Wait…” Dorien paused. “Are we on the same page here? Because this feels a lot like a romantic confession, and so help me if it’s not but I thought it was, I’m going to have a crisis on this floor.”

Looking up at him, fighting a laugh, Aster gave a small, brief nod, “...No crisis necessary, Dorien. Though how you manage to still be such a nerd… in all this. It astounds me…”

“Hey, leave my nerdness alone, because you’re the one that likes it,” Dorien protested, though his words seemed to hit him a moment later. “Holy shit, you like me. Holy shit. Yeah I might still need that floor crisis, because did you just say you knew for years?” He blinked. “I’m an idiot. Oh my god, I’m an idiot. I didn’t think that you...Yes. Yes, when we get out of here, I am absolutely doing something about that. Though I am not opposed to you making moves.” He sounded borderline giddy, as if fighting disbelief.

Watching it click was a little more entertaining than Aster expected, and her smile widened as she shook her head, “...You’re definitely an idiot. But it uh… it’s a bit more than ‘I like you’, Fish.” A sigh escaped, her eyes shifting, looking at their intertwined fingers, “...You remember that night… after Alastor went all chop happy on my first mission? And you let me stay over? I think it started then. I’ve just… I’ve been afraid. Scared of… of feeling that way. Of what it means. Of… of letting myself go. I didn’t mean for it to take quite this long, but… but I was hoping you’d catch up. Eventually…”

“Really?” he breathed. “That long ago?” Dorien felt a little like his world had turned upside down, in what was the best possible way. “I don’t think I’ve known quite that long. I actually...well, I figured it out maybe a year ago, that I liked you, but I didn’t think that you liked me back.” He rubbed his free hand over his face. “There’s a reason I wear glasses, because I’m apparently very blind. Sorry, that I took so long.” He gently squeezed her hand. “I hope I’m worth the wait, because I promise, Flower Girl, you’ve got nothing to be scared of in me.” He didn’t plan on ever letting her go at this point.

“You think I stuck around with Alastor cause I liked the job benefits, Fish?” With her free hand, she gingerly reached to brush the edge of his jaw, shaking her head, “...You’re worth it. Of course you’re worth it. And I’m sorry I never told you. I’m sorry I didn’t make it clearer… I know I don’t need to be scared. Only thing that scares me now is the idea that… that I may never get a chance to make something out of this.” Looking up, meeting his eyes, she smiled, “But hell, if I don’t have something to live for, now…”

“The apartment was pretty nice,” he laughed airily, before his breath caught at her hand on his jaw. “It’s alright. You’ve got nothing to be sorry for.” He was about to say something else, before he shook his head. “Except maybe telling me to leave you behind, without telling me this. Rude,” he teased before sobering up. “We’re getting out of here. Together,” he added, putting a touch of emphasis on the last word, because now it meant something entirely different. “In the meantime…” he gently held the side of her face with one hand, careful of the bruises, leaning in just a little closer, “Can I…?” God, he wanted to kiss her.

“Oof. The apartment? Really…” Her smile was brief, fading into something softer as he continued, and with a coy chuckle, she shook her head, “Be fair. I tried to tell you, and you told me to wait…” He shifted, hands cupping her face, and heart giving a delicate throb, she met his eyes, her own burning softly with tears. That he would think to ask…

None of this should’ve been possible. None of this should’ve been happening, and yet here they were… Captive. Not to Kane… but to a moment. Slowly, she gave a nod.

“Apartments are very attractive, Aster. I wouldn’t blame you if that’s what made you stay,” Dorien snickered. “Yeah, because I didn’t realize confessions were on the menu, Aster.” He slid his other hand from hers to once again cradle her face after she nodded. Then he pressed a kiss, soft and sweet, to her lips.

Her eyes closed, and she met him halfway, her fingers curling to the base of his neck as she pulled herself closer, pulling away only when oxygen became a necessary factor, and even then, only to rest her forehead to his, “...Damn it all…. Can we just… escape right now? I could kick that frickin’ door down, if I gave it a hard enough try.”

After he pulled away, resting his forehead against hers, he opened his eyes again. “I kind of want to see you give it a whirl, though I think you should maybe not, in case you break something that’s yours and not the door’s.” He shook his head. “We’ll find a moment, and we’ll get out of here.”

Laughing softly, she shook her head, “...I mean… Adrenaline can accomplish a whole hell of a lot. But I’m pretty sure that door is solid iron.” At his reassurance, she nodded, thumb gracing the side of his cheek, brushing it softly, “...Yeah, we will. Cause hell if I’m gonna let them win when I finally got you to kiss me.”

“Yeah, maybe don’t try to kick down the door,” Dorien laughed in return. His head tilted slightly, pressing into her touch, as he looked at her with a face full of affection. “Good to know my kisses are excellent motivation, because you are certainly mine,” he stated with a grin.

“Hm…” Shaking her head, she rolled her arms around his shoulders, hugging tightly to him, “Not just that motivating me, Fish. Not by a long shot…”

“Oh? And what’s the rest?” he asked. He buried his face in his hair, taking a breath to just enjoy this moment for however long it lasted, as he pulled her close.

“...Everything, Fish. Everything that comes with being with you…” She closed her eyes, letting his arms snake comfortably around her, “I just… I need to get out. To get a chance. I don’t want this to be all we get. It’s not fair.”

“We’ll get out of here. We’re going to. Because I want everything that comes with being with you, too,” he said softly.

“...What I said… about leaving me behind if you have to? I know you didn’t promise… but just in case you have any ideas…” Shifting back, she looked up at him, smiling dryly, “That deal’s officially off the table, now.”

Dorien chuckled, “I wouldn’t dream of taking it in the first place.” He hadn’t surfaced from where he’d stuck his face in Aster’s hair just yet, trying to take as long as possible before reality set back in. At some point, he’d be ruining lives again. For now, he just wanted to enjoy this.

“That… is because you are incredibly stubborn…” She murmured, turning just slightly to rest her forehead to his cheek, “And were never very good at doing what’s best for you…”

“I don’t know, I think this turned out pretty well, all things considered,” Dorien chuckled. “I guess we’re both stubborn then, huh?”

“You have no idea..” She mused softly, sitting up to brush her fingertips along the edge of his jaw, giving his chin a nudge, “We’ll need to be smart, Dorien. About everything. You… you’ll have to do what he wants, at least make it look like you are… until…. Until we can find a way out of this mess.”

“I think I’d like to, though,” he murmured, pulling away just enough to look at her. “I know. We have to play the game, until we can get out of it,” he said. The idea of doing what Kane demanded made his stomach twist into knots all over again, but he had to. He was going to. He would do whatever it took to get them out of there to see another day out of Kane’s grasp.

“...This… this is gonna be worse, Fish. Worse than anything Alastor ever had you do. It’s gonna fall on us… and if… if we can’t find a way around it? If we can’t find some way to make it look good?” She didn’t need to tell him what was going to happen, “Promise you’ll be careful? That… that you won’t do anything… anything dumb? You know what I mean...”

Dorien nodded. He knew, despite wishing he didn’t. This was entirely different, and he honestly felt a little out of his depth. The thing was the same thing in theory. Find the target so they can be dealt with. He could work with it, simply because it was that. He’d hate it, but he could work with it. “I’m not going to outright punch him, if that’s what you mean.”

“...Good.” Cupping his cheek, she met his eyes with a soberness that spoke depths to her concern, “Cause I think he’d do a hell of a lot worse than break some fingers, Dorien.” She didn’t think she needed to mention that he’d likely do it to her, first…

“I know,” he nodded again. “I’m going to do my best to avoid that.” To avoid letting that happen to her. “There’d be at least an arm involved,” he added, a little of that dark humor of Aster’s that had rubbed off on him over the years slipping through. He shook his head. “I’m going to make sure that doesn’t happen.”

Hand sliding to the back of his neck, she pulled herself close, forehead to his, eyes falling closed, “...And I’m gonna make sure… he doesn’t have an excuse to hurt you, either, Dorien. I promise…”

Elle Joyner

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Political intrigue, fantasy, futuristic, sci fi lite, superheroes, historical fiction, alternate universes. Smittings of romance, but only as side plot.
A Moment for the History Books
A collaboration with CloudyBlueDay CloudyBlueDay

"Four years ago, the world changed, irreparably." Kaiden Hull stood before the podium, eyes overlooking the audience before him, shifting to the camera in front of the stage. Showtime. His greatest hour... and every eye in America would be watching... No. The world.

Clearing his throat, he straightened his notes, continued, "There's no use pretending that it didn't happen, but that, I'm afraid, is what some people in this fine country would have you believe. They would like to bury the truth and hide us under the carpet. Mutants. How long have we been... a dirty word? An ugly, inconvenient complication?

Well, that time, my friends... is over. What happened four years ago was not a tragedy... No. It was an opportunity, and today, we... we are going to seize the future! We are going to change the world! Today marks the beginning of a new era for Mutant Kind! And we will not be society's embarrassment, any longer! Today, we rise as equals! Today, with the restoration of Mutant Rights across America's great soil, we have been given back our voices! And today I would like to announce that for the first time in the history of this magnificent country... a mutant will be--"

"Gun! GUN! He's got a-- SIR! Get down!"

A flash... an explosion, echoing in the arena like fireworks on the Fourth of July. Red. A spray, then a trickle, then a pool...

As Kaiden Hull's eyes closed on the world, the world watched...

And Finn ran.

It had taken him countless, painstaking, methodical hours to get here. To get to this moment. Finn had never thought of himself as an angry person, but watching Kaiden’s every move, listening to every single one of his wretched speeches and testimonials… he had grown more attached to his purpose. His plan. And with nothing else left to do, Finn knew he had to do this right. Tracking him, making sure he could get in with the weapon, noting every exit and planning his getaway. Training, day in, day out, making sure he could curve the bullet just right, so that it would never miss its mark. He had lost everything else. He would not. Lose. This.

And as Finn slipped into the crowd… everything else became quiet. He had one target and one target alone.. And as Finn raised the gun, aimed, pulled the trigger, he found..

That it had not given him a damn morsel of peace.

Then the world was loud again. The rising shouts, screams, jolted him from his state of intense focus and Finn lowered the gun, looking around wildly. No, no, no. He couldn’t panic. He’d planned this all out… planned every second of it.. All that was left to do was run.

So he did. It was familiar at this point, anyhow.

Guards swarmed the area weaving in and out of the panicked crowd. They’d identified the shooter, and with weapons drawn, were in hot pursuit. Once they’d cleared enough of the crowd, a single guard raised his weapon and fired. This was the signal the others needed as they, too, began to fire at the fleeing man.

“Stop!” a woman’s voice rang out over the comms, “Cease fire! Cease fire! I need him alive...and running.”

Alys pushed off the table that she was leaning over staring at the monitors as the situation unfolded. A wounded animal always retreated to safety and familiarity. Finn would be no different. With any luck, he’d lead her right to Penny.

He ran like he’d trained himself, swerving, dodging, zig zagging. It wasn’t enough. It was never enough. Bullets rained down on Finn and though he managed to avoid most, one went clean through his shoulder blade, eliciting a sharp cry, though Finn refused to stop running. A hand flying up to painfully put pressure on the wound, Finn made it through the exit, clambering into his getaway vehicle and skidding off.

Astroboy. I hope you're listening, wherever you are.... Come home. Garden won’t grow without you, and you made a promise you need to keep.”

At first he didn’t know where he was driving. Away. It was always away, never to get anywhere, only to go. Cringing with pain, one hand gripping the steering wheel and the other trying desperately to staunch the bleeding. Didn’t help him that he was already a shit driver. But even as Finn tried to ignore the emotions flooding into his soul, he couldn’t deny the happiness that had filled him at the sound of Penny’s voice, even if it was followed by a wave of crushing guilt. As blood spilled from his shoulder, between his fingers, down his shirt, Finn made a decision. He wasn’t running this time. Not when it was the last time. He would go to Penny’s… for one, final goodbye.

He didn’t know how long it took to get there, but he knew it took long enough for his head to get heavy, for the pain to get slowly higher, higher, until it went numb. Turning off the engine, hoisting himself up the steps, leaving a trail of blood, Finn collapsed in front of the door, stained knuckles rapping weakly against the wood.

The dogs alerted her before the knock did, their barking the most effective security system they possessed at the cabin. She'd already had a hand on the knob when she heard the thud and fingers curved around the smooth handle of the Browning 9mm, pointer hovering over the trigger with caution. Eyes twisting to the viewing screen that showed the entirety of the front porch.

At the sight that met her, her heart stopped, and tucking the gun in her waistband, she threw the door open and dropping beside Finn, swore softly, “No, no… Damn it.” Lifting her head, she whistled, sharply pitched, three times and with surprisingly nimble feet for an animal so large, a blonde bear of a dog came running towards the porch.

“Good girl. Blondie… go get Rose!” Which another explosive bark, the canine tore off towards the guest house, and taking off her sweater, Penny balled it up, pressing it hard to his shoulder, “Hang in there, sweetie. Hang in there…”

He was too out of it to say anything other than what he’d planned too. The only thing he’d been saying to them in his head, for years. The numbness that had crept over him made it hard to even open his eyes, but he forced himself to, and saw her, a delirious smile creeping onto his face. “Hey, Penny.” He whispered, through cracked and bloody lips. “I’m sorry.” With a final shudder, Finn fell limp against her.

Swearing again, Penny held him upright as best she could, shaking her head, “Idiot…” She muttered affectionately, her eyes stinging. It didn't take long at all before she could hear the sound of paws returning and looking up, she caught sight of Rose as the color leached from the girl's skin, hands covering her mouth.

“He's alive. There's still time. But I need to know if you can handle this, Rose.”

Snapping from her momentary shock, Rose looked up from Finn's unconscious form and nodded, fiercely, “I can.”

“Grab his arms…” Penny rose and took hold of Finn's ankles. It might've been easier to call Deck to help, but despite the ardent love Penny possessed for her husband, she could almost predict his natural response to the circumstances, and if Finn was gonna make it, Rose needed to stay focused…

When they'd managed to carry him across the yard and into the guest house, Penny stepped away from the couch, a hand on Rose's arm, “I know what you're thinking… And I wouldn't tell you how to do this, Rose. But… but you know the consequences if…”

“I know.” Was all Rose said, as she moved to the bathroom to grab the bag of medical supplies.

“Get him stable… When he's up, come find me.” Turning away, Penny moved swiftly to the door, closing it behind her.


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Some Wounds Hurt More Than Others
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There were no words. Nothing exchanged but looks… Penny to her, her to Penny. It had been enough. This wasn’t something they had prepared for. This wasn’t something they were ready for. But as much as her friend and mentor wanted to protect her, Rose had not spent the last four years of her life learning how to be stronger, so she could fall apart when it mattered most. Finn was back, in the worst possible way… and she could not lose it. Could not give up, or break down…

No matter how much she wanted to…

Despite the pounding in her heart, her hands were steady as she worked, fine thread weaving through broken skin. She’d cleaned the wound, working fast, praying he didn’t wake up, and when she’d finished, she started the stitching. She moved quickly, but efficiently, and her focus was definitive… intentional.

Nothing else mattered, until she’d put him back together, again.

Finn stirred.

Mistake number… at this point he’d lost count.

Pain seared up his spine and lead him to jolt, which only lead to more pain. A strangled gasp escaped him as he weakly tried to swat the hands that were trying to save him away, only to fall limp, shuddering, heaving. The hands were attached to a body.. The body was attached to a face.. Finn forced his gaze upon the woman before him, waiting for the fog to clear.


Anything he might’ve wanted to say evaporated. No… he couldn’t see her again… why had he come back? Why had he done this to her? Why hadn’t he just… Finn focused on his labored breathing, trying to focus on anything except the numbing pain. Closed his eyes, squeezed them shut, to avoid looking at her… maybe she wasn’t real. Maybe it was a trick. Maybe he was already gone and this was just one final joke.

“Why aren’t I dead?” He whispered.

As he started to stir, Rose paused her work and fear came over her expression. Softly, she whispered a word she generally made a habit to avoid sayin, and grabbing a cotton cloth, covered the rest of the wound, “Shh… Stay still. Don’t… don’t move around so much. It’s not stitched, and you’ll start it bleeding again.”

Frowning, dabbing at the wound with the cloth, she breathed in, and without looking at him, shook her head, “You showed up a little while ago… passed out. You’re not dead because I stopped the bleeding…”

Finn continued to breath through gritted teeth, forcing himself to look up at her. Her voice.. Her face.. It was all so different, and all so the same. Nothing and everything had changed. It was terrifying. It was overwhelming. He couldn’t bear to look at her and at the same time he couldn’t bear to look away.

“If you won’t heal it… why won’t you just let me die?” More torture? More than he’d already endured? He supposed he deserved it. And Rose deserved more than anything to make him hurt. He just wanted it all to stop, more than anything.

“I can’t heal it.” She muttered, before gingerly, she took up the needle again, “I... It made me sick. So I taught myself to do it this way. Now lay still. I need to finish this…” Her eyes flickered up, briefly, caught his, and regretted it immediately, returning instead to the wound, “Just need to do a few more.”

He forced his gaze away the moment their eyes met, swallowing as his heart thumped against his chest. He had never planned to go back. Never planned to see her again. Because he knew by running he’d hurt her more than anything… and coming back… hurt all over again. It was a luxury he didn’t deserve. He didn’t deserve her. Not anyone. Not anything.

But he laid still, like she asked, trying not to flinch everytime the needle poked his skin, clenching his teeth harder every time a noise of pain threatened to escape him. Finn never let it. His fists balled at his side and he waited for her to finish, eyes fluttering closed again as his chest heaved.

She worked swifter with him awake, but the proficiency of her work did not change. She’d had time to practice… and she’d gotten good. She forced herself to… because in the end, if she had nothing else but to help people, then that was what she would do. She’d just never imagined it would be him…

Tying off the last of the stitching, she bit the edge of her lip and snipping the string from the needle, set it aside, wiping her hands on a space, clean cloth, “...All done. Should hold, so long as you don’t move around, much. I’ll get you some water…” Rising, the small woman padded on bare feet across the wood floor of the small cabin, to a sink in the corner and grabbing a mason jar, she filled it, before returning to the couch Finn lay on, “Here... Drink this. You… you lost a lot of blood. You’ll probably be pretty tired and weak for a while. Dizziness won’t be out of the question. How’s your head feel? Any shortness of breath? Heart racing?”

As soon as Rose turned, Finn tried to push himself up. He barely managed a second sitting upright before collapsing back onto the couch, spots dancing over his vision as his head spun. Once everything had cleared he turned his head to watch her, taking notice of the tattoos on the back of her heels. Rose hadn’t had tattoos before.

Weakly he gulped down the glass of water in one go, barely sitting up enough to do so. This felt all wrong… her taking care of him… after what he’d done. He’d been so close… to it all going away. Forever. To ending it all. Now.. he was trapped.

“All of the above.” Finn managed weakly, no hint of a joke behind his words.

“That sort of anxiety is normal after an injury like this…” She continued softly, “It should pass, once you’ve rested for a few minutes.” Smoothing the front of her sundress, Rose frowned faintly at the blood splashed across the floral pattern. It wasn’t likely to come out… a shame, since she rather liked this one, “Was it a guard?” She asked, glancing up again. Her eyes glanced briefly over the tattoo on his rib, and she fought a flinch, as she turned to him, “From the stadium?”

Ah. The doctor treatment. Almost as good as the silent treatment. He figured he should be thankful she was even talking. Finn tilted his chin up, looking at the ceiling. Trying to wrap his head around the situation. Four years he’d run to avoid something like this. All for nothing. “Yeah.” He said softly. “But it doesn’t matter. I did what I went to do.”

“Good.” She stated faintly, with a small nod. She’d seen the report… Penny had told her not to, but Rose was an adult, and she was done hiding from the ugly, broken bits of life. It hurt, seeing the CCTV picture of Finn with the words WANTED beneath it, to know what was coming for him if he ran again… But she wasn’t sorry. She thought she might be. She wanted to be. But she wasn’t. Kaiden Hull had taken something from every one of them… and then he had lied. About all of it. He had lied, and tried to rise to become something bigger… He used the tragedies he created to make a name for himself. If he was gone… so be it.

“It was a clean shot. Shouldn’t be any fragments… I cleaned it out, just in case. If… if there’s any residual pain, I have ibuprofen.”

Finn tore his gaze from the ceiling to look at her. Look at her fully, even though it hurt more than the damn bullet wound itself. He looked at her, and he laughed. A hand fell to his forehead as he laughed some more, fingers curling through his hair, almost expecting the mess of curls that weren’t there anymore.Every breath had pain running up and down his body but it didn’t matter. “Thank god for that, Rose. Thank God for the clean shot, the lack of fragments, the ibuprofen. The fucking ibuprofen. Oh, it’ll fix everything.” His posture crumpled as he laughed, and it wasn’t even quite a laugh. It was a wheeze, of pain, of pleasure, switching back and forth between a gasp and an exhale. Wrong, all wrong.

Breathing out, Rose sat back, shaking her head as she looked at him, “...What do you want me to say, Finn? What am I supposed to say…?”

The pained laughter died away and left Finn curling into himself, hands wrapping around his torso. “Nothing. Nothing at all.” He said. “I was ready to die. You should have let me die.”

“Shut up.” The words were soft, but there was fire behind them, as her eyes shifted to his, narrowed, “How dare you. How dare you… You came here, Finn. You made that choice. And if you thought that we were just gonna sit back and let you die? Then shame on you. Whether or not you knew I was here, you knew Penny was, and she would never let that happen to you. I dunno what the hell we did… to make you think so little of us… But you’re wrong to ever assume we’d give up on anyone.”

“I was already dead.” He spat back. “You didn’t do anything. You never did anything. I gave up on me. I did. You shouldn’t have patched me up. You shouldn’t have.”

“Well, I did. So deal with it.” Frown deepening, she shifted back, eyes falling to her lap, picking at the rust stained patch, “...You wanna die, Finn? You’re in such a hurry… fine. That’s your choice, I guess.” There was no conviction in her voice, no anger. It hurt too much to say, to put any weight behind it, “And I won’t bother telling you how much that would hurt the people who care about you, because it’s not the first time you’ve done that… but you don’t get to do it here. Penny and Deck… they don’t deserve that. And I won’t let you bring that down on their home. Their family. Zoey and Travis… I won’t. So you’re gonna just… stop talking like that. And let me help you. And when you’re well enough to… then you can do whatever you want.”

He was going to yell back. He wanted to shout, and scream, because that was all he knew how to do anymore. But as Rose started to rattle off their names… his tensed body relaxed. Drooped. Did she think he’d forgotten what he’d done? Because he hadn’t. He never had. It lived with him everyday, every second, every waking moment and even in his sleep it haunted him.

“I thought you were already used to the idea.” Finn muttered bitterly. “That I was dead. I should’ve been, long ago. Thought I’d finish the job.”

“I never thought you were dead, Finn.” She answered faintly, “Not ever. Because the Finn I know… he made me a promise. And he kept his promises. He would die, before he broke one. So whatever this is? Whatever you’re going through… I know that it’s going to pass. And when it does, and you wake up and realize how ridiculous all of this is… You’ll be glad you’re alive, too.”

“I don’t. Believe. In promises.” He hissed, the words venom on his tongue. Finn forced himself upright, fighting a grunt of pain as he snarled at her. “I’m not that Finn. I never will be. This isn’t a phase, I’m not just a version of him or a ridiculous mood swing. You’ve been hanging on to someone that doesn’t exist. And he won’t. Not ever again.”

“I didn’t say that he was here, anymore, Finn. But I’m different, too. We all are. People change. Sometimes they choose to, sometimes, they have to. No one stays the same forever… I’m not naive. And I’m not stupid…” Rising to her feet, she crossed the room again, and at the sink, she turned on the water, letting the heat run over her hands, rinsing the pink residue down the drain, “I’m not hanging on to anything. I’m just not letting go. There’s a difference…”

“Well, good for you. Good for you and your ‘run away with me’ bullshit. Glad you figured out the world. Took you long enough.” He hadn’t meant to say that. Finn’s mouth snapped shut, jaw tense.

Turning off the water, she reached for a towel, and softly, a chuckle escaped, dry and humorless, “Is that your big plan? To hurt my feelings? Piss me off enough that I hate you? Well… good luck, Finn.” Setting down the towel, she turned back to face him, and her eyes shifted to his, defiant, “I’m not going to pretend that my feelings for you meant nothing, just to make you feel better about leaving.”

At her fiery look Finn fell silent, suddenly miniscule under her gaze while his own fell, barely able to look at her, to stand the fact that she made him confront everything he’d been running from for so long. “Why not?” He murmured. “How can you still have feelings after what I did? When you look at… what I am?”

“...Because this isn’t who you are.” A sigh escaped, and she moved back to her chair, “It’s just what you got lost in. You forget, Finn. I’ve been there. In the dark… for years. And I haven’t forgotten how easy it is to let it swallow you up. You were the one who showed me the light, Finn. Who showed me the way out. But you are right… I did figure things out, and you’re not even wrong about long it took me. And the way I see it… I owe you one.”

It wasn’t fair. He wanted her to get mad. He wanted her to yell at him… to scream at him… to cry. But she wouldn’t… because despite all that he’d done… she’d grown up. And she’d gotten smarter. And he almost wanted to hate her for it. How could Rose have matured like this.. While he… he just kept on falling deeper into the dirt?

“You owe me one?” Finn said weakly.

“Fair is fair. You got me out. Got me away from Harper…” With a small shrug, she leaned forward, steepling her fingertips together, “...I would have healed you, you know… The other way. If… if I could. This was the best I could do.”

Finn let his eyes fall closed again, a hand hovering over the wound before falling to lay against his stomach. “You sure about that?” He muttered. “Or did you just want to make it hurt.”

“Do you really I would do that…?” She asked, looking up at him, “I won’t say I wasn’t tempted, Finn. But do you really I’d hurt you on purpose, if I had a choice, otherwise?”

No. Rose would never do that. She was too good, no matter how grown up or matured she’d gotten. “I’d do it.” Was all he said, eyes still closed.

“...Would you?” Smiling faintly, she shook her head, “I don’t think so, Finn. I think you wanna believe that you’re that person, but… but the weight you’re carrying? That doesn’t come from someone who likes hurting other people. And I’m not stupid enough to think you ran away from all of us… from your family, because you wanted to hurt us, either.” Her eyes flickered up, skimmed above where he’d laid his hands, to the tattoo there, above his ribs, “...Those kinds of people, they don’t get permanent reminders. Or is that just… what did you call mine…?”

Finn exhaled, warmth rushing to his cheeks. “I called it bullshit.” He deadpanned, covering the tattoo as much as he could with his hands now. He turned his face away from her. “He’s dead, you know. Harper. RIEF shot him. I found the body.”

“Right. That was it…” She nodded faintly, watching as he tried, a little too late, to cover it.

“Yeah…” Looking away, she nodded, “I know. We… we’ve been trying to find archivists… Rogues. Anyone we can. Their locations… where they went when things… When it all went down. Got word about Harper a few months after you left. I um…” Biting her lip, she shrugged, and tucking her hair behind her ear, looked up at him again, “I went… to the cabin. Before I came here with Penny and Deck. It wasn’t much, but… but I put some flowers on the porch. I know what he did to us was wrong, but… I also know he wasn’t always that way, and I don’t think, even after what he tried to do that day… that he deserved to go out the way he did.”

The thought of Rose putting out flowers for Harper both calmed and angered him. He hated that man… he hated him so much. But there was a part of him that couldn’t help but feel such an intense sorrow over his death, over everything, and he hated that part of himself more than he hated Harper.

“You didn’t ever know her… his wife.” Finn murmured. “He was different, before her.. I saw it. I saw him when he wasn’t a dirtbag.”

“He told me about her, once. When… when I first came to stay with him. He was pretty wasted… didn’t remember a whole lot about it later, but I remember him crying. And I could see how much it hurt him… Losing her.” A sigh escaped, and she sat upright again, “I guess that’s why I… why I kept helping him, after. When things got bad. Because I knew… I knew that somewhere inside him was something good at some point.”

Finn paused, posture uncurling slightly to look at her. “Are you talking about him… or are you talking about me?”

Smiling dryly, she glanced up at him, “...I was talking about him, Finn. But maybe… maybe it applies to you, too. In a way. Do you know why I’m not mad at you? For leaving…? Do you wanna know the honest answer?”

His gaze dropped again. “Not really.” He muttered. A bold faced lie. He just knew it was going to hurt, so why did it matter?

“...Because I never doubted, not for one second Finn, that you loved me. And that meant you lost something, too. In leaving. You got hurt, too. And I know what that does to a person. I know how that… that can break someone…”

Finn turned away again, curling into himself, away from her. To hide the tears that started to sting at his eyes. “I said I didn’t want to know.” He whispered bitterly. “You don’t know anything.”

“I know what you said…” She shrugged, “So maybe… maybe there is a small part of me that’s a little vindictive.” But it wasn’t true, and curling her legs up beneath her, she reached out, a hand hovering over his arm, before it fell back to her side, “...But like you said. I don’t know anything, right?”

He opened his mouth to protest. To tell her anything other than all the hurtful things he’d said.. If he could take everything back… take all of it back… but he couldn’t. And even if it was true… even if he had loved her… he didn’t know how too anymore.

“Right.” He echoed.

Breathing in sharply, Rose nodded, fingertips glancing over her wrist, over the arrow marked there, “...How’s your head? You… you need that Ibuprofen?”

“No.” He said sharply, quickly. “Just go, Rose. You can just go.”

“It’s my house, Finn. I’m not going anywhere.” She answered plainly, before she rose and crossed the room again. Pulling open a cabinet, she fished out a small container and popping it open, she took out a bottle of Motrin, bringing it back to the couch, “If you wanna be mean and angry at the world for the decisions you made, that’s on you. But being stubborn, and stupid about your health? No. So either take them. Or I will heal it… Your decision.”

He swiped away the tears before turning to face her once more, making sure there wasn’t any trace. “I’m fine, Rose. I don’t need anything.” He muttered. Finn absolutely didn’t want Rose to heal him now… he didn’t want her to hurt herself over him. But the stupid, stubborn part of him didn’t want to give in so quickly.

Shaking her head, she dropped to her knees by the couch and setting the bottle down on the table beside it, reached out, a palm pressed to his forehead.

“Hey!” Finn shouted suddenly, batting her hand away. “I said I’m fine!” The action had his arm flaring with pain, but he tried not to show it.

Eyes narrowing, her free hand snapped out, swiftly, catching his wrist, “...I am gonna do this. Because while you may think that you know how I feel… you know nothing. Nothing. Not about how I feel or what I went through.”

Finn’s eyes widened as Rose caught his wrist, which he jerked away just as quickly, finally eliciting a wince of pain. Hand now rushing to the wound on his shoulder, hovering above it with tensed fingers, he glared at her. “I’m not going to let you.” He said firmly.

“You lost the right to tell me what to do when you left me behind.” Shaking her head, she reached over him, took the bottle again, opening it and emptying two into her palm, holding them out, “Take them. Last chance.”

Finn stared at her outstretched hand, teeth grinding. “I didn’t tell you what to do. Only said what I was gonna.” He snapped as he took the pills from her palm, downing them in one gulp. “Happy?”

“No…” She whispered, sitting back again, as she shook her head, “No, Finn. I’m not happy.” Taking in a shuddering breath, she pushed up from her knees, and turning away from him, gripped the back of the chair she’d occupied, fighting the wave of emotions that slammed in her, “...Should kick in pretty fast.”

Finn gnashed his teeth together once more. “Right. Of course you aren’t. My bad.” He muttered, collapsing back onto the couch. Gaze back on the ceiling, Finn’s fingers curled and uncurled against his chest, waiting for the pills to work their magic.

Releasing the chair, steadying herself, Rose nodded, “...Get some rest. You’ll heal faster if you sleep.”

His eyes flickered back just in time to watch her struggle to steady herself. Finn fought back the urge to rush over, to do anything except lay there. But that was all he did. Just lay there. He didn’t reply.

Jaw tightening, Rose crossed the room without another word, and slid open a door that led to a small, comfortably furnished bedroom. Pulling it shut behind her, she dropped back against it, and covering her mouth with her hand, barely managed to stifle a sob.

Watching her go, Finn flinched as the door slammed shut, gaze locked on the door for a few moments. Shaking away the ice in his bones, Finn forced himself to sit upright, testing his stance before pulling himself up. With labored breaths he clambered to the window, and stumbled, catching the windowsill, staring ahead at the dark sky.

He sunk to the floor, defeated. He couldn’t do it. He couldn’t run. Burying his head in his hands, Finn shivered, wondering why, over and over again, he’d come back.
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129% of people exaggerate.
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Penny took her time returning to the cabin. It wasn't that she was particularly afraid of her husband or his reaction… nor did she think they were entirely unjustified, but ultimately there was a fine line between fireworks and a car bomb… And she wasn't looking for an explosion.

Returning Blondie to the kennel proved difficult… The Estrela was hyped up from the momentary excitement, and in the end Penny gave it up for fear of exciting Baloo and Everest, and let her into the house. In the kitchen, she moved to the sink to wash the blood from her hands, her eyes misting over at the thought of whose it was.

Exiting from Travis’ room, Deckard started through the living room where he noticed Blondie, tail wagging and all. With a smirk, he teased Penny who was busy at the sink, “So your dog gets to come inside, but you leave Baloo and Everest outside. I see how it is.”

Nearly jumping at the voice behind her, Penny sucked in a breath, and grabbing a towel, dried her hands, shutting the water off as she turned to Deck, forcing a small smile, “Hey. Not my fault you make fun of her name so much the boys tease her out there. Gotta show my girl a little extra love. Trav and Zo go down alright?”

“Ya. You know they’re never any real trouble. Zoey may be young, but she understands how important sleep is far more than Travis. If she sleeps, he does,” Deck leaned against the countertop, “What’s got you jumpy, Pen?”

Breathing out, slowly, Penny glanced out the window to Rose’s home, just a little ways from their own, “...Don’t freak out… please? I… I need you not to freak out, okay?”

“Don’t freak out about what?” he asked guarded and confused by her words.

Reaching out, Penny took his hand, her fingers winding into his, reassuring and gentle, “...Finn’s here. He… he showed up at the door. He’s been hurt pretty bad. Shot, from the looks of it. He’s at Rose’s right now. She… she’s taking care of it.”

Deck was silent...for an uncomfortable amount of time as he mulled over her words, “Finn’” he asked, his jaw clenched.

“Yes. And before you say what I know you’re gonna say… Please, just… take two seconds to remember how the last thing in the world I, or any of us, ever wanted was for him to show up here, half dead and full of holes. He’s still Finn, even if he’s an idiot, and Rose won’t deal with us being confrontational.” Giving his hand a squeeze, she looked up, her free hand gracing his jaw gently, “...I know you love that girl like the little sister you never had, Deck. But she loves him. And we gotta be smart about this.”

“Smart about this? The kid took a page out of Alys’ book and abandoned Rose...abandoned you, and you want me to be okay with him being around the kids?” Deck shook his head, “I got have a mind to just let Baloo loose on him.”

Frowning, her other hand braced on his arm, and shaking her head, she leaned closer, shivering, “...Deck… You know I would never discount your anger… and I… I’m angry, too. But…” Breathing in, taking a moment to compose herself, her grip tightened just slightly, “...God, Deck. Seeing him lying there… I really thought he was…”

“Come on,” he groaned, “He doesn’t write, doesn’t call, doesn’t bother showing up until he needs something,” shaking his head, he continued, “And who’s to say the people that shot him didn’t follow him here. You’re willing to risk the kids for a boy that threw away your history and tore out Rose’s heart? Not a word, Penny. He just up and left like everything we all had was nothing. I’m not for that, nor am I for teaching the kids that that’s okay.”

“But you’re all for teaching them that we don’t forgive, Deck?” Frowning, Penny dropped her hand to her side, “He messed up. I’m not saying he didn’t. I’m not saying we just let it all go and pretend it never happened. But damn, Deck… doesn’t negate the fact that he’s family. As much as Luna and Keith and Vance and Rose. And we don’t just abandon family cause they made a mistake, no matter how stupid or rough. You really want to teach them that when someone screws up, we just forget they exist? That’s not you, and you know it.”

“Please. He didn’t come here for forgiveness. He came here cause he doesn’t want to die. Family doesn’t just walk out the door one day and never reach out. Family doesn’t ignore your messages. Not one goddamn thing that boy’s done screams that he wanted to be a part of a family. Now I’m supposed to let him into ours?”

“How do you think he got here, Deck? If he ignored our messages? How do you think he found us? You know that I’m not the sort of person to just throw people away. You know what family is to me… and that’s what you’re asking me to do. To throw him away, because he made a bad choice. And it’s not fair. Not when we don’t even know why he left in the first place…”

“You don’t get it,” he knit his brow and shook his head, “There’s no good reason to abandon family...not when you’ve got one like ours. We’ve seen shit… real shit. There’s nothing we couldn’t tackle together. We don’t run off. We don’t hide things. Families work together, are honest...That,” he pointed out toward Rose’s cabin, “That’s not family. Never will be.”

“You wanna push her away, Deck? That’s what you’re gonna do. You know she still loves him, and if you aren’t careful, if you don’t think this through, she’s gone, too. And for what? So you can be right? Feel justified? I love you, but that’s crap, and you know it! How many times did he save my ass? How many times did he have our back! And the one time he doesn’t, you just throw the kid to the wolves? Not everyone is as strong as you, Deck! Hell, I’m not as strong as you. But the one thing I am not, and never will be, is the sort of person who gives up on someone I love. I told you that when we got married, and it hasn’t changed, but it doesn’t just apply to you. To our family! And you’re a hypocrite if you’re asking me to give up on Finn because he didn’t do what we expected him to…”

“This isn’t about one mistake, Penny. This is about four years of silence. Four years of Rose suffering. Four years of watching how it affected my wife!” he angrily pointed a finger against his chest, “And what? You think calling me a hypocrite is suddenly going to make me think that all of that just poofs away and magically Finn’s a part of our family again? Fuck that. Fuck him. He can heal up, but then he leaves.”

“Fourteen hundred and seventy six days, Deck.” Penny nearly growled, “That is the exact count. You wanna know how I know that? Because she keeps track! Because she counts every single day that he’s been gone! This isn’t about Rose… or protecting her feelings. Or mine! This is you, being selfish. Because he hurt you, too! And that’s valid, Deck, but it doesn’t become solely your decision, because of it! We have never worked that way, you and me, and we’re not gonna start now because you’re pissed off.”

“Then help me protect this family, Penny. It feels like I just got Travis, I just got you...and Rose and Zoey. I’m not willing to risk allowing anything to hurt you guys, and that’s all that Finn’s done to two of the people I love. I’m not okay with opening up Travis and Zoey to it, too. I’m not,” again, he shook his head before sliding his hands into his pockets, “We worked too hard for this,” he pulled out his hands and waved them signaling to everything they had, “Something Finn didn’t seem to want to be a part of to begin with.”

“...Help protect this…” Penny’s expression hardened, as she took a step back, “Are you kidding me? Are you kidding me!? Do you honestly think that I would ever let anything happen to my family? That I would put them at risk!? But if you think being here miraculously keeps us safe from all the bad crap out there, you’re delusional! Our problems don’t begin and end with Finn Westfall, Deckard! I’m not suggesting the kids go over there and play Monopoly with him, but my God… You act like he’s Kaiden’s right hand man! Did you forget that fast that Luna’s married to one of the ten?? That we have Leon and Ket in our address book!? I get that what he did hurts more, because no one expected it, but he is not our enemy. And we have no right to make decisions for Rose. Least of all this decision. None. Period. Not you, not me. No right.”

Breathing in, she exhaled shakily, and her expression shifted, jaw tense, fists rolled tightly, “...I am so sick and tired of losing people I love, Deckard. How can you ask me… how can you stand there and ask me to do this? When you know all I’ve ever wanted was for him to come home.”

“Come on. You know this is different. Vance, Leon, Ket, they didn’t have a choice. They had no hope until we came along. Finn made his choice. He chose to give up on all of the good things in his life, and maybe you’re right, maybe I’m taking it far more personal because of our connections. But that doesn’t change the fact that he abandoned his family. I can’t forgive that. Maybe you can, but I can’t.”

“No. You won’t. And that’s the difference. You’re capable… you just won’t try.” Frowning, she wrapped her arms across her chest, “We’ve… we’ve been together a while now, Deck… and it’s never been perfect, mostly cause the world doesn’t seem to wanna stop dicking us over… but up until now, at least it’s been the world. You’re damn worried about how Finn hurt me… but you haven’t taken into account what you’re doing, right now.” Shaking her head, she looked away, “You’re better than this.”

Deck’s eyes softened, “I don’t mean to hurt you, Penny. I just don’t understand how the two of you can be okay with this. I don’t understand how you can forgive him, and I don’t understand how I can trust him around the kids,” the bite in his voice was gone as he continued, “What happens if something goes horribly wrong and the kids are with him and Rose? Would he jump ship to save himself? Or, worse, if something happens to can I be sure he won’t just leave the kids? I’m not delusional enough to think that danger can’t reach us. I worry about these things.”

“We learned a long time ago we can't live on 'what ifs’, Deck. If we'd done that, we wouldn't be together. But if we don't give him even a chance? What are we teaching Travis and Zoey? What are we telling Rose, about all this hope she's held onto, if we let fear control the way we react to this? I love you, Deck… And you know I trust you… but I'm asking you to trust me. Give this a chance…”

“I trust you. You know that,” he sighed and after a moment continued, “I’ll give it a chance, but it doesn’t mean I’ll like it.”

Stepping closer, Penny's expression shifted, and reaching up, she cupped his jaw in her palm, “So… Suck it up and behave… And I'll make it up to you, Big Guy. Better than the couch, right?”

Placing his hands on her waist, he pulled her closer, “Lots of making up,” he nodded, “cause this is gonna be difficult.”

“Rose is gonna be pretty busy with that little knucklehead tonight. How 'bout we get a head start?” Her expression tipped towards sly, arms looped over her shoulders, but as she pulled closer, it softened, “I love you, Deck… And this? This means the world to me.”

“In that case, I’ll try really hard,” he smirked slyly before pressing his lips against hers briefly, “I love you, too, Penny,” he told her when he pulled back.

“You love me, hmm?” Brow quirked, she looked up at him and the mischief returned, “Prove it…”

A short chuckle slipped through his lips before he lifted her from her feet, “Prove it, huh?” he carried her down the hall, into their room and kicked the door shut behind him.

Elle Joyner

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Some Wounds Hurt More Than Others - Pt 2
Collab with CloudyBlueDay CloudyBlueDay

It was a while before the door opened and again, and as Rose emerged, her eyes, rimmed red, shifted briefly to the couch, and panic spiked her chest at the empty state of it. It took a quick sweep of the room, however, before she found him, huddled by the window, eyes closed…

Heart still throbbing, she moved to his side, frowning softly. He was there. He was still there… She hadn’t really expected him to be, and it threw her. Crouching down, gingerly, she touched his arm, “...Finn…?”

He woke with a sharp breath, blinking around wildly before finding Rose beside him. For once, the sleep had been without any haunting dreams, though it definitely hadn’t been comfortable falling asleep sitting against the wall. Almost dying really did seem to do a number on someone. Finn tried to stand, but his legs wobbled beneath him and he sank back down with a grunt.

“Here…” Pushing upright, Rose held out her arm for him, bracing her feet to pull him upright, “Let’s get you back to the couch.”

Standing up had Finn’s head swimming all over again, especially after falling asleep so awkwardly, and he stumbled against Rose, gripping her tightly, wordlessly, before falling onto the couch with a wheeze, trying to regain his breath.

“Easy…” She breathed in as he stumbled, and her frame tensed, but she eased him down and sinking into the chair again, studied him with a small shake of her head, “...You were shot, Finn. You just lost a lot of blood. You need to stop moving around so much…”

“Thanks for the reminder.” He said through stuttering breaths, trying to stop the world from spinning around him, blinking furiously in an attempt to rid the spots from his vision. “Fuck, it hurts. Thought you said the pills were gonna kick in.”

“I also told you to rest…” She said, firmly, eyes narrowing, “You can have more, soon, but you shouldn’t take anything else on an empty stomach. And before you ask, no, biting my head off doesn’t count as a meal…”

“You might think it, but I did not resort to cannibalism in my time away.” Finn said with a roll of his eyes, cringing as he tried to position himself comfortably on the couch. “I rested. You’re the one who woke me up.”

“God… you're worse than Travis at bed time.” Rolling her eyes, Rose straightened, moving back into the kitchen. Opening the breadbox, she pulled out a loaf and cutting off two slices, slid them into the toaster oven, “He's almost ten now, you know…”

“T...ten…” Finn echoed, gaze suddenly softening. Ten years old. Travis was ten years old. “H-he… I…”

“Oh… and Penny's a Hallows now.” Watching the toaster warm to red, she shrugged, “I mean… as official as they're allowed to make it…”

His eyes widened, and he inhaled so harshly that he began to cough, doubling over with pain. “T-t-that’s g-great,” He said between breaths.

Glancing back, Rose smiled faintly, grabbing another mason jar to fill. With the toast finished and dropped on a plate, she carried both back to the couch, holding them out and settling down in her chair, “It's still weird, sometimes. Seeing them both so domestic. Deck? He builds furniture in the woodshed. And Penny's an incredible mom. Just… it really is great.”

Finn’s gaze narrowed as she held out the food, a new type of hurt swirling in his stomach as he took the plate and set it on his lap, finishing the glass of water in one gulp. The thought of Deck and Penny… of Travis and Zoey.. a big, happy family, without him… it hurt more than the bullet wound.

“You’re cruel.” Finn whispered, shoulders hunched.

Reeling back, Rose recoiled from that word, shock visible in her eyes, before giving room for the hurt, “...Cruel. That… that's the word you choose?”

Looking down at her hand in his, Rose shook her head, “Why are people so… wrong, Finn? Why? What did we do that's so bad, that they treat us the way they do?” Stepping closer, she looped her arms around his waist and with sob, crashed against him..

Tentatively, Finn raised his hand to stroke her hair, the other holding her back. “It’s not us. It’s never us. You were never the reason Harper hurt you.” He said softly. “He hurt you because he was hurting, Rose. He let it consume him until there wasn’t anything left but beer and whiskey. When people hurt, they… they hate. But it’s never your fault. You’re perfect, Rose. No matter what Harper or your parents tell you in your head… you’re perfect.”

Her hand lashed out suddenly, the palm crashing against his wounded shoulder, warmth spreading from her fingertips into the stitching, deep into torn muscle and skin, cells renewing upon impact, pain alleviating.

A stunned shout fell out of him, pained at first at the sudden contact, and he pushed her away, too late, to watch his shoulder stitch itself together. Heaving, he stared at her, a hand covering the once ruined skin. “Why did you do that?!” He yelled.

“Because however low an opinion you may have of me… I am not cruel!” Falling back into the chair, she swore softly, pressing a hand to her forehead, to the small spike of pain behind her temples, “You don't know what I am… not any of it.”

He flinched at her words, watching her fall onto the chair. Finn instinctively took a step forward, hands outstretched to her, before realizing what he was doing, and taking three steps back. “Because you got faster? Because Penny taught you how to make a fist and Deck taught you how to drive it home? All the things I walked out on?” Finn couldn’t stop the crackle in his voice. “Don’t you get it? Don’t you get the fact that you’re the person I have the most respect for? The most.. l-love… for…” He shook his head furiously. “That’s why I can’t be here. Why I can’t ever be here.” And standing up straight, he spun on his heel towards the window.

Rising, wavering slightly, Rose gripped the chair before forcing herself fully upright, “Why Finn? Because you killed him? Do you… do you really think that matters to me? Do you really think I care? That man… he murdered thousands! And he was going to rule for it! I'd have done it myself if I ever had the chance!”

“This isn’t about him!” Finn roared, turning around to face her. “I killed Kaiden because I needed some goddamn reason to keep living! I did what none of you could. But I don’t even care.. he’s not the person who ruined everything. It’s me. I ran away. I killed the Finn you knew long before I killed Kaiden. I can’t be here because I’m the one who hurt you, hurt everyone, and it wasn’t him, it was me, and I don’t deserve to ever be near you again.”

Taking a step, Rose shook her head, gaze falling as her fingertips arched along the arrow on her wrist, “...You're always near me, Finn. You think walking away is gonna change any of that? You think leaving now is gonna fix things? Fourteen hundred and sixty days.. Give or take. No… no, not give or take, damn it. It's been fourteen hundred and seventy six days. I know. Because I count them. Because I want to remember, Finn. Even if it hurts. Even if it kills me, I need to remember… Because I never stopped. Maybe you did.. Maybe you had to. But I never stopped… And I never will.”

His gaze flickered to the tattoo on her wrist and he faltered, the anger welled up inside of him breaking and fragmenting. He knew the exact number, because he’d been counting too.

“I can’t love you anymore.” Finn murmured, looking up at her with a crystal clear gaze. “I don’t know how.”

Taking another step, Rose paused before him, and tentatively, she reached out, her fingers hovering near his, “...I know… I know that it's not the same. I know that you're not the same. But I also know I never even knew what love was before you showed me. And I know you'll never get the chance to get that back… if you leave.” Looking up at him, eyes glittering in the pale light overhead, she whispered, “Please… stay? I don't need you to love me. Just… just stay…”

As her fingers reached out for his, Finn’s fist balled, taking a step back like a wounded animal. He squeezed his eyes shut, and a few tears escaped, which he quickly tried to brush away. “I don’t deserve to stay.” He said quietly. The idea of it terrified him. To face every wrong, every broken heart. Penny, Deck, Travis, Zoey… Luna. He couldn’t do it. He was too much of a coward. Finn shook his head, breath stuttering.

“I didn't deserve to be left behind.” It wasn't harsh or cold or bitter. Just broken honesty, absorbed from the moment, reflected in her eyes, “Please…? One night. If… if you feel the same tomorrow, I won't stop you. But just… don't go tonight?”

Her words hit him like a slap in the face, and he damn well flinched from the impact. Finn was trembling now, still shaking his head like a player stuck on repeat. “But I did. I left you behind. Why the hell do you still want me?”

“Because despite what you think… I could never stop loving you. And despite the fact that it's been four years… despite the hurt, and the fear, and all the crap that we've been dealt in life… You're still the reason I wake up in the morning. You're still the last thing I think about when I lay down. Because despite whatever happened and who you are, now… somewhere in there, you're always gonna be the man who danced with me in the cafeteria… You'll always be my Finn…”

Now he couldn’t even dream of stopping the tears from falling, body wracked with sobs. He couldn’t understand.. how she could love him like this, how she could love him after all he’d done. “You didn’t deserve to be left behind.” None of them did. “You deserve someone better than me.”

Moving closer, she reached out again, this time the hesitancy gone, as her fingers brushed his wrist, curved down to his balled fist, “I don't want anyone else…”

He jolted at her touch, as if lightning coursed through his body. Yet somehow, he couldn’t bring himself to pull away. “O-one night.” He whispered brokenly. How was he going to face them? Finn had planned never to do any such thing. Never to look at them again. “One night…”

Breathing out, Rose let her hand fall to her side, with a small, short nod. That was all she could ask. That was all she could ever ask, “You… you should sit. Eat.”

Finn collapsed onto the couch without another word, staring blankly ahead, trying to wrap his mind around what he’d just agreed to do. He was starving, aching, and yet, all at once, he wasn’t hungry. He was sick to his stomach, nausea bubbling up inside him… Finn clutched his middle, gaze frozen on a spot before him, unwavering.

Sitting on the edge of her chair, exhaustion crept over Rose, her fingers pushing back her hair. Looking up at him, she studied him a moment, “...Got a haircut…? You look older.”

He did nothing but nod, sinking back into the couch, curling against the back of it. The weight of his actions, the weight of the consequences had finally hit Finn, like a damn cement truck. His fingernails dug into his skin.

“Right…” A sigh escaped, and leaning forward, she dropped her head into her hands, fingers massaging her throbbing temples.

In. Out. In. Out. Say something. Say anything. His breathing was slow, heavy, like he was trying to measure every inhale. “Are you going to get sick now? Because you healed me?”

“What?” Looking up again, Rose's expression shifted from confusion to amusement, as she shook her head, “No. Finn. No… it's… I get headaches. But they go away. Penny just realized a few years back there was a correlation between… between my healing and the immune system issues I was having. I try to avoid doing it, just in case. But one time isn't gonna kill me.”

“Oh.” Finn said quietly, running a hand through his hair. “R..right.” He shuddered at the thought of Rose in that coma, so weak, so sick. Now.. she looked a lot different. He was almost grateful for it. Pushing himself back up again, Finn finally started to take bites of the toast.

Tugging her legs underneath her, Rose watched while he ate, her eyes shifting from the shorter mop of blonde, to the ink on his collar, near where the stitching lay, to the rose patterned over his rib. Four years was a long time, and so much had changed… “You want anything else?”

He had no appetite, but he couldn’t ignore the rattling of his stomach, the thinness of his figure, even if it was now much more lean with muscle. Glancing up at her, he brushed the crumbs away from his mouth before nodding, almost embarrassed to do so.

Rising, grateful for something to do with her hands, Rose returned to the kitchen, and opening the fridge, pulled out the small Tupperware of soup Penny had sent over. She popped the container into the microwave to heat it up, leaning against the counter as she waited, hooking her ankles, “Penny made it. The bread. She branching out in baking. I think sometimes she doesn't know what to do with herself. So used to… well, you know. Everything's different out here.” The microwave dinged and pulling the container free, she brought it to the table next to the couch, “Here…”

Finn almost choked on the last bite of bread as Rose spoke, though he shouldn’t have been surprised. Penny had always had a talent for cooking… He tucked into the container of soup to try and put off replying. It was delicious, of course, and sent a warmth unknown down his veins. “Are they happy here?” He asked softly.

“They're happy together.” She answered, after a moment of silence, “I don't think the location's what matters. But I mean… they like it. Deck was born for chopping down trees and working with his hands, and Travis loves having little adventures in the yard. Zoey seems to think there’s too many crickets, and that somehow throws off the balance of insect to human ratio… but that’s just Zoey.”

His stomach was flip flopping. Finn knew with every waking second he could have been a part of this. If he had turned back, if he’d just turned back… he could have been in the woods with Deck… playing with Travis… talking to Zoey… baking with Penny. So much time was lost… so much time…

“They.. they sound nice.” He sat up fully. “Do they.. know who I am?”

“I mean… Travis’s middle name is West, Finn…” She answered, with a small shrug, “They know who you are. They know who everyone is… or was… The things people sacrificed, to keep them safe and give them a home. Penny won’t let them forget. It’s too important…”

This time Finn definitely choked on his next spoonful of soup, coughing and hacking until it finally calmed. “After me?” He choked out in disbelief. “Why… why would they…”

“Because regardless of what you think, Finn… about yourself or about them, about any of us? You’re family. You don’t stop being family because you leave. I know… I know you heard it, Finn. The broadcast. You had to, because there’s no other way you found this place. Why do you think Penny’s put that out there… all this time? Why do you think she called you home?” Sitting back, Rose frowned softly, “You can keep saying you don’t deserve to be here… but the fact is, Finn, we all deserve a say in that, too.”

His cheeks turned scarlet, the color spreading all the way to his ears, leading him to promptly bury his face in his hands. “Mostly I figured she wanted to beat me up,” He said weakly. “I k-know… I know, okay? I’m…” He hadn’t said it yet. Finn shuddered. “I’m sorry.”

“I mean… It is Penny, so… I wouldn’t rule it out completely.” Breathing in, Rose leaned forward, reaching forward to gingerly ease his hands back down, “...All any of us wanted, Finn… was for you to come back to us. It doesn’t matter if you’re whole, or a complete mess. All any of us wanted was for you to come home. I forgive you… and they will, too. Might take some more time… you know how Penny can be. But they will. Because they love you.”

Another jolt coursing through him at her touch, Finn jumped away, eyes alive with fear. He was so sorry, endlessly sorry, and he’d thought all this time it had been too late to turn back… he hadn’t known how… “But I left all of you.” He spoke bitterly. “Why do you.. they... still love me?”

“You don’t stop loving someone cause they make a mistake… You love them more, because of it. Because that’s when they need it the most. It’s too easy to hate, Finn. Too easy to quit on someone, to give up on them. Love takes effort… and it takes energy. But hate? It doesn’t give anything back… In the end, no matter how much easier it would be, all it is, is waste. Don’t you think after everything that’s happened, and everyone we lost… we’re all a little tired of waste?”

Finn quivered, hands dragging through his hair. “I was so scared.” He whispered. “I was so scared.. after everyone said I was so strong… I was so scared… I ran and I didn’t know how to come back… I broke every promise.. I broke everything. I thought you would all hate me… for throwing everything away… I wanted you to hate me, because then it’d justify why I stayed away… but I’m just a coward.”

“You were the first person who taught me broken things can still have use, Finn. That they can be fixed… and become something better.” Breathing out, she set her hands down in her lap, taking her fingertip along the edge of the arrow, “It’s why I never gave up on you. You’re not a coward, Finn. You’re human… but you’re not a coward. A coward never would have stayed… faced this. And you know it…”

Hands travelling down, holding his own shoulders. Trying to stop himself from shaking so visibly. “But I gave up on myself… I gave up so quickly. After everything I said to you… I didn’t do a damn word of it myself.” He mumbled.

“...You tried to do it alone. At some point, everyone thinks they can. I did. God, ask Penny and Deck. When I first came here, I…” Shaking her head, she looked up at him, “I was a bitter, ugly mess. But it didn’t take me long to figure out the only people I was hurting were the ones who cared enough about me to let me…” Meeting his eyes, she smiled faintly, “You wanna beat on us, Finn… you’re just gonna have to deal with doing it from inside one hell of a hug.”

He couldn’t hold back the sob that escaped him. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry, Rose. I’m so sorry.” He said it over and over again, shaking his head, trying to stop the tears. All this time.. all this time he’d been hurting so badly alone.. and she hadn’t. He could have been here… he could have spared her all that pain… over and over again he berated himself for not turning back.. and suddenly it seemed foolishly simple. Why hadn’t he? Why hadn’t he gone back? He thought he knew. Now, not so much.

Shifting, Rose moved to sit beside him. She didn’t reach out, take hold of him… despite every base human desire to do so… she just sat and shaking her head, brushed her own cheeks dry, “I know. I know you are… but maybe… maybe it’s not entirely your fault, either, Finn. We all made mistakes that day. We all did. Maybe it’s just time to let it go… to move forward…?”

More than anything he wanted to move forward. But he felt so stuck… planted so deeply in long dried cement that it felt impossible. But thinking of the family he’d lost… the people he’d left behind… the people he’d hurt in the same ways others had hurt him, so badly… he had to try… because then he was just as bad as the rest of them.

Finn nodded, very meekly. He offered no promises, no reassurances, but now more than ever… it was time to move forward.

Cautiously, Rose reached out, and gently, nearly weightless, she brushed his arm with the back of her hand, “...I’ve missed you, Finn. So… so much. You… you should probably try and get some sleep.”

Shivering at her touch, fighting every urge to push her away, Finn stayed limp beneath her. “I…” I missed you too. Every second. Every moment of every day. He’d missed all of them so intensely it hurt.

“Okay.” He whispered, leaning against the back of the couch.

Rising, she moved the chair back a bit, and sank down into it with a nod, “...I’ll be right here, if you need me.” She wouldn’t tell him she didn’t sleep well… It wasn’t something he needed to bear. Not with everything else… “Goodnight, Finn.”

He wouldn’t tell her he barely slept at all. Especially now, with the wound healed, he was prepared for a night of blinking in darkness. “Goodnight, Rose.” Finn murmured, gaze lowering as he positioned himself along the couch.


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Some Wounds Hurt More Than Others - Pt III
with Elle Joyner Elle Joyner

True to her word, Rose did not move. She didn’t sleep, but she didn’t move. Not until dawn crept in lazy streaks over the wood floors, golden tendrils warming her toes. She stirred from the chair and tiptoed to the kitchen, rifling quietly through the fridge for eggs and a block of cheese, butter, milk, bacon… through the cabinets for a pan. She was a mouse as she worked, the only sound the occasional scrape of the pan, the sizzle of butter… of bacon in the skillet.

One night. That was all he’d agreed to.

There was a chance he would stick by it… but she’d never met a person who could walk away from the idea of bacon…

He slept, but twitched with nightmares, visions that made it an unrestful night. In turmoil over his decision, his dreams made sure it stayed that way, had him twisting and turning over every decision, every word. The only thing that kept him from awaking violently was the sweet sweet smell of..

“Is that… bacon?” Finn murmured sleepily, rising with a hand on his forehead as he sniffed the air. Damn, that smelled good. His stomach growled in agreement.

“Hmm.” With an amused smile, Rose glanced back over her shoulder to him with a quick nod, “Sure is. We got a farmer’s market a few miles from here… take a weekly trip to stock up. There’s eggs, too. You want more toast?” With the spatula, she gestured to the small two-seater table, not far off, “Pull up a chair.”

He definitely felt like he was about to be interrogated, but the promise of a full breakfast was too enticing to ignore, and Finn slunk into the chair. “Yes, please.” Finn murmured. “You held out on me last night.”

Chuckling softly, she flipped the bacon, before taking two slices of bread and popping them into the toaster oven, “I didn’t want you to think I was trying to bribe you into sticking around.” She answered, giving the eggs a swirl with the spatula, before turning the heat off the pan, “How you feeling?”

Finn glanced down, sighing softly at her words. Still… he would have liked to eat, even if she thought it bribery. The amount of food he’d consumed in those four years could probably be compared to all the food he’d eaten in his lifetime. “..Better. Still a little lightheaded… but better.”

Piling everything onto a plate and grabbing the toast, she brought it to the table, setting it before him, before heading back to the fridge for a pitcher of orange juice. This she poured into a glass, setting in next to the plate, “That’ll help with the lightheadedness, at least a little bit. The amount of blood you lost? It’ll probably hang around a few more days, but it should pass eventually. Especially if you take care of yourself and rest.” Sitting in the chair opposite his, she rubbed her forehead, squeezed her eyes shut for a moment, “If you want, you can grab a shower after you eat.” Biting her lip, she opened her eyes again, “I think I have one of your old t-shirts around you can put on…”

“A shower would be great.” Finn said with a nod, already looking forward to the opportunity to wash away all the dirt and blood. He tucked into the plate of food hungrily, as if he hadn’t eaten in a long time, only pausing to quirk a brow at her and surprise. “You have one of my old shirts?” Finn said in disbelief.

“Y...yeah.” She murmured, a little sheepishly, “After you left, I found it… Before we hit the road. I… I couldn’t get to sleep on my own, and it…” Breathing in, she sat back, color bruising her cheeks pink, “...It smelled like you. It helped, for a while.”

“O-oh… Rose…” Finn murmured, voice cracking as he buried his head in his hands again. “I… shit…” He didn’t know what to say, or if he had it in him to apologize again. “Do you… sleep better now?”

Swallowing, she lowered her gaze, “...Not really, no. But it’s okay. I get by on what I can get. It’s not your fault, Finn.” With a weary smile, she glanced up again, “I just got used to it, is all. Hard to… to adjust.”

Finn’s shoulders slouched. “It was only a month. It’s been four years.” He whispered. “You.. still haven’t adjusted… after four years?” He hadn’t either.

“...I told you… I counted them.” She shrugged, fingers glancing over the arrow, “Every single one. And the longer it got, the… the harder it was, to adjust.”

“...Y-yeah… me too.” He whispered. “That arrow.. it’s for me, isn’t it?”

Eyes shifting up, she gave a nod, barely perceptible, “...It is.”

Finn scratched the back of his neck, glancing away. “How many do you have?”

“...Seven.” Smiling faintly, she shrugged, “Took me a while, but once I knew what I wanted, they just sort of happened.”

“I-I have a couple too.” He said quietly. “Sorry I said they were bullshit.”

“It’s fine…” Her smile brightened, just slightly, and she shrugged, “I was pretty sure you didn’t mean it. I saw the… the wings and… the other one.” Her eyes flickered to the rose, and she swallowed again.

“Ah… y..yeah.” Finn murmured. He showed her his wrists, with a small, wistful smile.

“Luna… and Penny.” She breathed, with a small nod. She wouldn’t say it outloud, but she wanted to… That he’d held on. Even when he thought he couldn’t, he had. He’d held on to them. And that gave her so much hope.

Turning, she showed her left arm, the whale, the geometric woman… the words printed on her right arm. She gestured as well, to the roses on her collarbone. Six, in total, “Stopped at seven. I figured I’d look pretty strange, inked up like Deck.”

He smiled and nodded his confirmation, gazing fondly at his own ink. Finn gazed at her tattoos, trying to take them all in. He chuckled. “Yeah, almost couldn’t tell the difference there, Michelin.”

“Oh ho… Listen.” Shaking her head, she smiled brightly, “Don’t mistake these guns for his, alright? I know I’m pretty buff, but… Deck’s much prettier.”

Finn sat back in his chair and laughed lightly, surprising himself, because it was the first time in a long time. His cheeks reddened shortly after. “So you’re buffer… but he’s prettier. I dunno. Somethin’s mixed up here.”

“Yeah… I… I could be backwards on that…” Hearing him laugh… There weren’t words to describe the feeling it brought her, except that she was relatively sure her heart had not felt so full in a long time, “All that training gets me mixed up.”

“Training, huh?” Finn said with a smile. “You did seem a lot quicker there. Gotta say, I ain’t been slacking..”

“Penny thought it would be a good idea…” She shrugged softly, running her fingers over her knuckles, “And you don’t have to tell me that…” She mused, looking him over briefly, “I noticed, when I was stitching you up. A lot’s changed.”

Finn sat up a little too quickly, blood rushing to his head as wobbled slightly, still smirking even after he brought a hand to his forehead. “Oh, yeah? You mean aside from all the bad things, right?”

A brow rose, and the corner of her lip twitched upwards, as she nodded, “...Yeah, aside from that. You uh… you look good, Finn.” Her cheeks colored a little, as she glanced down at her hands briefly, “...Really good.”

Finn covered his mouth to hide the grin, clearing his throat before putting on a slightly more stoic look. “Mhmn, yeah, I’ve uh, I’ve… You know. I work out.”

Pinching her lip between her teeth to fight a chuckle, Rose nodded again, more firmly, “Clearly.” But she had noticed the bad things, too… And it had taken a lot out of her not to trace the lines of each of those scars… new and old. She had her own scars, but most of them weren’t visible….

Leaning his chin in his palm, Finn ducked down to take a few more bites of the food, a hint of redness still dancing on his cheeks. “Food’s good,” He said softly. “Thanks, for, uh. You know. Cooking and everything.”

“Sure…” She smiled again, and looked up from her hands, “I’ve picked up more than just how to fight and stitch… Not a whole lot to do out here, except learn new things.”

“Oh?” Finn said softly, hiding the smirk as he drummed his fingers against his cheek, gaze trained on the quickly emptying plate. “Yeah? What else ya learn?”

“Well, cooking, for one. I can also shoot a target half decent… and catch and clean a fish.” Sheepishly, she shrugged, “And I may or may not have taken up painting.”

“Ah. I mean, me too. You know. As seen on TV. Dunno bout the fish stuff, though.” Finn said nonchalantly, head tilted in his palm until Rose continued on. “Painting?” He echoed curiously, sitting up a little straighter. “What kind of painting?”

“Mostly landscapes…” She continued, with a slightly bashful expression, “...The occasional still life. I’m no good at faces… I… I have a few. If you wanna see them?”

“Yes,” Finn blurted, a little too quickly. “I mean yeah, of course. If you wanna show me. I’d like to see them.”

Rising, Rose nodded and gestured for him to follow her. There was a second sliding door a few feet from the one she’d disappeared into the night prior, and pulling it open, she revealed a screened in porch that had been transformed into a painting studio. On the walls, and on easels throughout the room, leaning up against walls and on the counters, landscapes and paintings of fruits and flowers and trees…

Gesturing, she smiled, “Have a look…”

He didn’t know what he expected, stepping into her studio, but it wasn’t this. It was an artistic wonderland, like stepping into someone’s head, and Finn suddenly found himself treading very carefully, as if it were all fragile, as if he could break it with just a wrong step. He had before, so why not now?

Glancing around in amazement, Finn paused in front of every canvas, easel, and even gingerly ran his fingertips along a cup of paintbrushes. “This is amazing,” He said softly, every fiber of his being suddenly humbled. “Where did you learn to paint like this?”

“A while back… I um… I started to slip again. Just time and… and I wasn't sleeping… Funny enough, it was Zoey who suggested it. She said the only time she didn't feel like she was falling apart was when she sketched. So I picked up some paint and gave it a shot. And I guess I'm not half bad at it…” Moving to one canvas, she touched the rim with ginger fingers. It was a cabin in a wooded area, two dogs sleeping lazily on the porch.

His posture slackened again as Rose spoke, guilt hitting him like a sucker punch. It never left. “Half bad? You’re great.” Finn said, trying to smile at her, and failing. He moved to look at the painting she traced her fingers upon, heart sinking. “Those dogs were my best friends.” He mumbled sadly. “I miss them.”

“I let them out…” She whispered, fingertip hovering over them on the canvas, “Before we left. After the helicopters. I knew we couldn't take them, but I wasn't sure what was happening with… with everything and I was worried. So I let them out back.”

A sigh of relief escaped him, still locked on the canvas. “That’s.. That’s good.” He whispered, trying to force himself to nod. “I hope they’re okay.”

“They were pretty resilient. I took care of them much as I could, but you know how Harper could be…” Her fingers fell to her side and she looked to him, “You really think they're good?”

Swallowing past the lump in his throat, Finn looked away. “I really hope so, Rose. Maybe they found some other nice dogs and they all live in a forest in one big dog pack. Maybe some nice animal speaking mutant sent them on their way. You know. I’m sure they’re alright.”

“Sounds nice…” She nodded with a gentle smile, “Oh… here.” Taking him by the wrist, she pulled him over to another canvas, smiling faintly as she gestured to it. It was a field of lavender flowers, mountains rising in the background, snow capped peaks catching red in the setting sun. Near the edge of the mountains was a cyan lake, water reflecting the mountains… “This is where Penny and Deck got married…”

The painting absolutely took his breath away, for more reasons than one. He froze, eyes roaming every brushstroke, wishing he could simply jump into that painting, be there, be there for every moment he missed. “It’s.. it’s so beautiful.” He murmured. “I wish… I wish I’d been there.”

“So do I… You.. you missed a lot, Finn.” There was nothing in her tone that suggested bitterness. In truth, she was sad for him - for everything he’d missed. Everything he couldn’t get back… “You were… you were missed a lot.”

He tried to swallow back the tears that started to brim in his eyes, blinking furiously. “I… I know.” He whispered. “And Luna… she.. She must have gotten married too, right?”

“To Vance, yeah. Pretty soon after everyone split up…” She nodded, with a small smile, “Ade and Oz are still together, too. They live in… in a little tattoo parlor.” she wanted to have more good news to tell him, but unfortunately, so many had gone off on their own… so many had lost touch…

“Leon and Ket live somewhere up north… last we heard.”

Finn stared harshly at the ground, wishing it would swallow him whole. “I was supposed to be their best man.” He shook his head, happy to hear that Ade and Oz were still together, a small wheeze falling out of him at the mention of Leon and Ket. “Y-yeah.. I know.. Kinda passed by ‘em, once.”

“They understood, Finn. Everyone did. I know you don’t think they did, but… but no one blamed you. We just… everyone just wanted you safe.” With a small sigh, she reached out and this time, did not hesitate when her fingers curved around his, “Eventually, you gotta forgive yourself, too, you know…”

Releasing him, she stepped back, cheeks slightly pink, “...You passed by them?”

He didn’t jolt, this time. He blinked, he inhaled, but he didn’t jump away. Frozen under her touch, he stared at their hands, and only unfroze when she stepped back. Finn looked away. “I passed out in the snow. Leon found me.” He said bluntly. “Probably would have died, then. If he hadn’t.”

Swallowing, uncomfortable with the notion of that thought, she shook her head, “Well, thank God he found you, then.” But then, it didn’t really surprise her all that much. Finn seemed to have someone watching over him, for all the times he’d come so close…

“Bet I could paint a hundred more pictures from all the places you’ve been…”

Finn’s jaw tensed, fists balling. “Yeah. Every moldy, abandoned apartment and every disgusting subway cart.” He shook his head. “I’d rather have been in these paintings… been in these moments, then wherever the hell I was.”

“...In my head, you were.” She whispered, lowering her gaze to the floor, “When I painted them. It… it was like a window… and I could sit there… with you and we’d look out at the landscape, and everything was good. For… for just a little while.”

It took everything he had not to let a sob escape him right there. Jaw grit tightly, Finn took a few deep breaths. “That’s terrible.” He mumbled. “That’s awful.” His lower lip trembled. “I did that to you.”

Stepping forward, she shook her head, and breathless, her hands slipped around his, “...Stop. You… you have to stop. I’m not angry, Finn. I’m not… I… I just missed you.”

“I broke you,” He said, almost inaudibly. “I made you all these promises.. I swore I would be there for you. And then I broke you. You sat here and put me in every pretty picture when I was out there living in filth after I left you.”

Releasing one of his hands, she reached up and cupped his cheek, shaking her head, “Do I look broken to you? Do I?”

Startled by the touch, but even more started by his lack of ability to stop himself from sinking into it, he stared into her eyes, the ones he had always thought were way too pretty, and shook his head. “No.” He whispered.

“I hate… I hate that any of this happened, Finn. I hate that you left… that you felt like you had to. I hate that you weren’t here for the last four years. That I couldn’t hold you… feel you… be with you. I hate that you went through hell, and no one was there for you… But I am not broken. If anything, I am stronger than I have ever been. I had to be. And I’m grateful for that… I am. I would give anything in the world to go back. To change it. I would… because I’d rather be with you than be strong… But I’m not sorry that it forced me to wake up. To grow up. I’m not…”

The dam broke. That sob he’d been holding in finally escaped and Finn sniffled, cried, and desperately pulled her into him, fingers tangling in the back of her shirt, crying helplessly against her.

Her arms closed around him as he collapsed against her and breathing in, she felt her own cheeks warm and damp, her fingers curling into his hair, brushed it back, soothing, reassuring, gentle… There was nothing to say. Nothing left to say… He needed this, and she wasn’t going to move until he was ready…

He hadn’t wanted to break. He wasn’t read to break. But it’d come, and he couldn’t stop it, and now, after four years of trying to glue every piece together with a goddamn shitty gluestick it all came shattering apart. Finn clung to Rose for dear life, a life he had just hours ago been so ready to throw away… his own. A part of him felt weak, for barely lasting long at all, and another part of him was just so, so glad that he was finally at home.

“...When we left Harper’s… I thought… I thought I was going to fall apart. I thought everything was just gonna stop and I was going float, lost at sea. Then you came and you… you took me under your wing, Finn. You made me feel safe, and you gave me a purpose. And I know that… that things aren’t exactly the way they were. I know there’s time we can’t get back. There’s things we need to resolve. Things we need to work through. But… but I am never gonna let you sink. I won’t. Whether you want me there or not, I’m gonna hold you up, because that… that’s just what we do.”

Finn didn’t know how to stop crying. It’d started and now it wasn’t going to stop, and all he could to was cling onto her every word, try to engrave it in his bones. “Thank you.” He murmured against her, shuddering once the harsh sobs had finally slowed. “Thank you… for never giving up on me.”

Canting her head, cheek to his crown, she nodded softly, “...And I never will, Finn. I… I don’t think I ever understood really, what love was… back then. I never understood what it could be. How it could be so much… How it could hurt. And heal. And break you down… and build you up again. Losing you… losing you showed me how deep it went, Finn. Part of me… would give anything to go back. To save you all that pain… but if I did that? I don’t know that… that I would ever have gotten that.”

His fingers dug tighter into her back, nodding against her. “A-at least all this shit was good for something,” Finn said through a weak, painful laugh. “T-this Rose.. standing in front of me… is stronger than I ever knew… and I’d be an idiot to say I want you back to the person you were before.” He dipped his head to her shoulder. “I’m just.. I’m so, so, so sorry… that it had to happen like this.”

“I know…” She whispered, her hand braced against the back of his neck, her thumb brushing gentle along the edge of his hairline, “...I know you are, Finn. We’ve both changed… and that’s okay. Because despite the… the bad, there’s so much good, too. You’re home, now, and we can figure everything out together.” Pulling back, just slightly, she looked at him, and there was something pleading in her gaze as she met his, “...If… if you’re sticking around?”

Finn laughed weakly, shoulders trembling. “I.. I’ll try, Rose. I swear to God, I’ll try my damn hardest.”

Her palm curved around his cheek, her gaze softening, “If… if you can’t… If you can’t stick around m...maybe you… maybe just take me with you?”

His own hand curved around the one that cupped his cheek, blinking at her. “How are you… how are you still so perfect?”

Laughing softly, breathlessly, Rose shook her head, “...I’m not, Finn. I’m not at all. It’s just how you see me. And trust me.. I get it, because if you saw the way I see you… you’d understand why I could never, ever hate you…”

With a sigh, he pressed their foreheads together, eyes fluttering closed. “You’re perfect. And you always were, and you are now… and I never stopped thinking for a second you weren’t. Guess I thought you were just.. Perfect enough to live with all I did to you like it was nothing. I was wrong.”

Breathing out, she let her eyes slide closed as well, heart aching at the closeness, at the touch. How many times had she dreamed of this? Prayed for this? Just… just one more time. Getting to see him.. To be with him. And she’d never thought it would come…

“...I could live with a lot, Finn. But I could never live without you… I found a way to survive, but only cause I had to have faith you’d come back to me. Without that? I’d never have made it.”

He shook his head against hers. It took a lot of strength, for him to stay that way, close to her. Every instinct he’d drilled into himself for the past years had to be ignored. “You keep on surprising me.” He murmured. “Every second.”

“...You should see my high kick…” She whispered, with just the tiniest edge of teasing behind it.

Finn laughed, pulling her tighter again. He didn’t want to let go. Never again. “Can’t wait.”

Breathing in, heart giving a jolt, she let a hand rise, resting gently against the rose tattoo, and the teasing faded as she met his eyes, shaking her head, “...I have so much I wanna show you, Finn…”

He looked down at the tattoo, at her hand atop it. Finn had never once imagined this. When he’d gotten this tattoo… he meant it as a final goodbye. The one he had never given her. Now here she was.. a Rose with a rose. Finn’s hand curled into her hair, a shaky exhale falling out of him. “I want to see all of it.” He murmured. “Make me feel like I haven’t missed a minute.”

Eyes opening, she met his gaze, and for just a brief moment, uncertainty warred behind the bright brown depths as she studied him. She knew what he wanted, in that moment. She knew exactly what she wanted, but there was so much, still… so much to work around, to figure out… and she didn’t want to push him away, “...All of it…?” She whispered, indecision keeping her in place.

Finn’s hands trembled against her, and he closed his eyes. Fear wrapped around him, even though her warmth fought it away. “..I.. I want all of it. But I..” He grimaced, and his hand fell away from her hair, but not before he pressed one tiny kiss to her forehead. “I need more time.”

Smiling softly, Rose nodded, “...I understand. It’s yours, Finn. When… whenever you’re ready. You don’t even need to ask me, this time.” This, she whispered, as she brought to mind that day in the cafeteria… “It’s always been yours.”

A smile found its way onto his lips again, thinking of that moment when he’d asked. He had been so innocent back then… they both had. He briefly allowed his hand to find hers and squeeze it before stepping away with a nod. “Thank you.”

“Come on… I’ll show you where the bathroom is, so you can grab that shower…” She didn’t say it outloud, but she was also pretty sure they’d need to go see Penny, eventually… or the woman was bound to break down the door.

Finn nodded, turning to follow her. “And I’m getting that shirt back… right?” He said with a smirk. Yeah, definitely best to shower before Penny barged in and roasted him alive.

Biting her lip, she looked him over, shaking her head, “I… I guess I’m willing to part with it.” Moving to her room, she rifled around the drawer beside the bed and pulling the Flash shirt out, she returned to hold it out to him, “It’s just… I usually sleep in it, though.”

Looking over the shirt with a sad smile, he shook his head, pushing it back to her. “No.. that’s okay. I’ll figure something out. Guess I’ll have to ask Deck for something.”

“Oof… You take it for now…” She laughed softly, handing it over once more, “We gotta win Penny over, before we try borrowing anything from Deck. Besides… you’re here. Maybe I’ll get some sleep, you know?”

With a smirk Finn took the shirt, fondness creeping into his gaze as he looked at the emblem. “Got a tattoo of this, too,” He said, pulling down his sock to reveal his ankle. His expression softened at her next words, and he looked up at her. “Uh, y-yeah. I.. I hope you do.”

“...Somehow, that tattoo doesn’t surprise me.” She smiled softly, and nodded to the bathroom, “Towels are in the cabinet. Hot is to the right, cold to the left. You can use my soap, if you don’t mind smelling like apples…”

“I did it myself,” He hummed in response. “Got it. Apples sound great. I’ll come out like an orchard.” With a wave, Finn headed into the bathroom.

It was always reviving to watch dirt and grime wash down the drain. His fingers brushed over the skin of his shoulder that had once not long ago been ripped apart by a bullet. Rose and her magic.. he was thankful, but at the same time, a part of him had wanted the reminder. Still… he had plenty other scars. Finn came out of the shower refreshed, shaking the water out of his hair as he padded out of the bathroom, tugging the shirt over his head. “As predicted, very orchard-y.” He called.

“Hm…” Looking up from where she’d settled in a chair, Rose grinned at his exclamation, nodding. Briefly, her eyes flickered to the shirt… that felt more like Finn, and it made it easier to believe that maybe, just maybe, the worst was over, “I could make a pie out of you, if I had half Penny’s baking talent. Feel better?”

He chuckled, fingering the shirt once more as her gaze fell upon it. Yeah.. it was a relic. One that still felt a little childish to him, right now, but with all the meaning behind it.. the food memories.. Finn didn’t want to take it off. Stepping towards her, Finn nodded. “Yeah. Worlds better. You got any socks that aren’t majorly hole?”

As he spoke, her gaze shifted downward, and blinking, Rose pushed herself upright, “...I’m not so sure mine would fit you, given the difference in size… Finn… Are you…” Gesturing, she looked up at him, “You seem to be missing a few…”

Finn blinked, glancing down at his bare feet. “Er, yeah.” He said slowly. “If you’re wonderin’, I was born with all ten.” His smile wavered. “Let me introduce to the world’s worst pest… rats.”

“Oh, Finn.” Rising fully, Rose moved closer, shaking her head, “...Before… before Harper? He said something once, about dragging you in off the streets, but I never thought much about it, till now.”

He nodded with a sigh. “When.. when he found me, I was near dead. I guess this is starting to be a theme.” Finn said weakly. “You know, parents kicked me out, I was ten. Had not a single life skill to my name.. streets weren’t exactly kind… The rats… were not exactly kind.” He shuddered. “Hey, if you ever see a clone of me, you can just ask them to take off their shoe or something.”

Breathing out, she shook her head, reaching up to cup his cheeks with her hands, “...The crap life threw at you, Finn. I know saying sorry doesn’t change it, or make it better, but I am. Sorry… that you went through that.” Brushing a thumb over the edge of his cheekbone, she smiled, “...You think I’d need to look at their feet to know it wasn’t you? C’mon…” Shaking her head, she dropped her hands to her sides.

Warmth flickered over his visage, though his posture was somewhat tense, uncertain. He was grateful for her reassuring touch, and yet, it still scared him. “It’s okay. It was a long time ago. Just, uh, if you see any rats, you know, you can.. Handle that. Since you’re so strong and all.” He murmured sheepishly. “And you’re right. You could tell by their sense of style. Sad sweats? Or Flash t-shirt?”

“I promise… Any rats come around, I will high-kick them to the heavens for you. Won’t even hesitate. Even if they are creepy, horrible little devils.” Shivering, she looked at his toes one more time, before glancing up at him again, “I could tell because you’re one of a kind, Finn. Because I know you.”

Color rushed to his cheeks, and Finn shook his head with a little disbelief in the chuckle that escaped him. “Ah… hah… hm.. I.. I g-guess you do.” He smiled and looked away, rubbing the back of his head. “We could spend hours goin’ over every scar, Rose. Don’t worry too much about it.. Okay? Even though I could spin a cool story for every one.”

“...Could you now?” She smiled, almost coyly, gaze warming, “A cool story, hm? Alright...The one on your shoulder. Opposite the bits I had to stitch back together.”

“Oh, this baby?” Finn said, patting the marred flesh. “Nothing short of a tag team rescue with a vigilante I met in the darkness. He called himself Storm. We saved twenty people from a burning building, and me? Only walked away with this badass souvenir.”

“Wow… That’s definitely cool.” She grinned, shaking her head, “Twenty people, hm? And the one near your hip, left side?”

“High speed car chase,” Finn piped up immediately. “Was pushing a hundred miles an hour in the empty streets of Goth- uh- heh.” He blushed. “Okay, maybe that was Batman.”

“Oh, Finn…” A sigh escaped, and she shook her head, feigning a look of pure disappointment, “You’re never supposed to give up your secret identity like that. You should know better…”

He put out his bottom lip in a pout. “I got a little carried away. Please, Alfred. Have a little mercy.”

“Hold up…” Staring at him, a brow rose, “Alfred? Did you… I am not an Alfred, Finnegan Westfall…”

“Well, you did just kind of scold me. If I’m Batman, then that’s probably Alfred. So I don’t know this Finnegan Westfall guy you’re talking about.” Finn said innocently.

Eyes narrowing, despite the pure amusement in them, she held up a finger, “If I’m Alfred, then Alfred is the best looking butler Batman’s ever had.”

Finn smirked. “Hey.. Alfred was a pretty stylish guy. And I never said he wasn’t pretty. I just said you were Alfred.” Finn scratched his chin. “Maybe this is getting a little out of hand. The jig’s up. I’m Finn.”

“Aw. Damn. Here I was, completely convinced you were Batman, too.” Shaking her head, she sighed, with exaggeration, “You can’t imagine my disappointment. How I’ll recover, I just don’t know.”

He put a hand against his forehead, sighing dramatically. “Guess I’ll just have to get cooler than Batman. I mean, come on, can Batman manipulate air? I don’t think sooo.”

“Hm… That’s a good point. I also don’t recall Batman saving twenty people from a burning building.” Studying him, she shrugged, “Alright, Finn. You’ve got my attention…”

“That was just my creative brain talking.” He blurted. “Ah.. uh… well.. This Finn guy.. He.. saved Penny when she was falling off a bridge,” Finn started, “And he.. He took down two helicopters. And then he rescued that Penny girl again… you know.. From a crazy ex… And he… he got a little scared in the end. And made some bad choices. But he.. Uh.. he’s got a good redemption arc. Coming up in the next chapter.” His voice quieted to a whisper by the end of it, blushing intensely, fingers twitching.

Reaching out, Rose took hold of his hand, and her expression softened, shifting, imperceptibly, “...You forgot a couple things there, Finn. Like… like that other girl. The one from Harper’s? That’s the best part… How he saved her.”

His breath caught, and his fingers curled around hers. “O-of course. F-Finn’s greatest superhero triumph.” He puffed out his chest comically, despite the wavering in his gaze. “He.. he saw this girl, and she.. She was stuck in the same place he’d been stuck in. In the same bad place. And she didn’t deserve a damn minute of it, ‘cuz he could see she deserved way more than that. So he made it his mission to rescue her, and try his hardest, even though he wasn’t even sure how to rescue himself.” Finn trembled, but took a breath, determined to finish the story.

“It ended up catching up to him… and he didn’t know how to face her when he couldn’t face himself. So he ran… but the… but the city needed a hero in his absence, of course. Crime doesn’t stop, or whatever. So she got strong, just like she promised him she would, just so she.. Could finally rescue.. Him.”

Swallowing, Rose glanced up, eyes misty again, her fingers curling through his, “...And did she? Rescue him? ...Did she find a way…?”

“..Cliffhanger.” Finn murmured. “Gotta wait ‘till next week’s issue.”

“...Yeah? Don’t get a spoiler or anything? C’mon… I know how you comic nerds work. Always gettin’ the answers ahead of time…”

He shuddered, shaking his head. “N-no.. no spoilers for this one. Keepin’ it locked tight.” He whispered.

Smiling faintly, she nodded, “...Guess I’ll have to see what happens, the old fashioned way. Or… there’s always Fan-Fiction.”

He forced himself to laugh, though it was strained. “F..Finn-fiction?"

“Oof…” Looking up again, she laughed, shaking her head, “...That… Ouch. Finn. That one actually gave me a scar…”

“But a cool one,” He offered. “A really cool badass one.”

Tapping above her heart, she grinned, “Right here. The most intimidating scar there is.”

Finn grimaced. “C’mon. That’s a foul blow.”

“Says the man who came out with Finn-Fiction. Still… stings, Finn. I’m honestly… it hurts.” Grinning, she gave his hand a squeeze, before she released in, “C’mon… You should probably be resting.”

“I’m soooorry,” He whined, squeezing her hand back. “I thought you healed me? Aren’t I discharged from Hospital Rose?”

Laughing faintly, she shook her head, “Takes at least forty-eights hours for all that blood to replenish. And I may not be a pretty butler, but I'm an immovable nurse.”

Finn sighed, bowing his head in defeat. “Okay… fine. You win, Alfred. I will resign myself to the couch all over again.” He shuffled towards the couch before flopping upon it.

Folding her hands together, she shook her head, smiling gently, “You don't have to take the couch, Finn...”

He turned over atop the couch, shaking his head. “Thanks, Rose, but I… I’m not ready for that, right now. Couch is plenty comfy.”

A brow rose, before she chuckled softly, shaking her head, “Finn. It's like… six in the morning… and I have no idea what you think I mean, but I'm literally just offering you a more comfortable place to rest up.” Tucking back her hair, she smiled, wearily, “No motives.”

Awkwardly he wrung his hands, directing a sheepish smile to the corner. “I.. uh.. you mean, like, sharing, or.. switching..?” Finn murmured softly, sitting up on the couch.

“I mean… you need to rest, and I will be out here, with no motives, otherwise.” Moving to sit, rubbing her forehead, Rose sighed faintly, “I did say I understood, Finn. Back there… in the studio.”

“I know you did,” He mumbled. “But I’m not even sure I understand, yet. And I don’t want to kick you off your own bed.”

“I'm not planning on sleeping right now, Finn. And I don't see a point tossing and turning all afternoon while you crash on my couch. I'm good… and all I want is for you to get better…”

Finn hung his head. “R-Rose.. you.. you should plan on sleeping. Really. And I’m better, alright? You healed me, remember?” He patted his shoulder. “Maybe we could.. er.. opposite sides? That work?”

“...I don't… I don't want to confuse things, Finn.” Looking up, her expression softened, “If it works for you, it's fine by me, but it's okay if… if you need more time. The way I feel doesn't negate how you might feel… or… might not...feel.”

“N-no, Rose, I…” He couldn’t find the right words… he never felt like he could. “I just.. I spent four years trying to.. forget how it feels to feel. Or.. or feeling so damn much that everything just became nothing at all. I.. I taught myself to just.. just push it away and now I’m trying to let it come back. Does that… does that even make any sense?” He said weakly. “I want to be there for you. So badly... but I haven’t figured out me yet.. not at all.”

“I know exactly what you mean…” She nodded, and smiling gingerly, she reached out to cover his hand, briefly, gently, “Really… I’m not gonna get any sleep right now, with everything going on in my head. Take the bed. For now. We’ll figure out the rest later. Over sixteen hundred days, remember? I’m pretty patient.”

“Y..yeah… you definitely are.” He murmured solemnly, standing up. “Thank you.. again.” Finn said quietly. “I.. I got a feeling Penny and Deck aren’t gonna be so quick to forgive.”

“They’re not, no.” She breathed out, leaning forward, “They’ll need time… but they’ll get there. They love you, Finn. Otherwise, they wouldn’t care about what happened… and they’ll find a way to forgive.” Rising, she nodded, “...They will…”

Rubbing his arm, Finn bit his lip. “I don’t know how to face them,” He whispered. “I never planned on seeing them again. I-I’ll get panicked, and they’ll just.. they’ll hate me even more.”

Rose brushed her hand along his arm, finding his hand again, “...Anger and hatred aren’t the same thing, Finn. If Penny hated you, do you think she’d have put out that broadcast that led you here? If Deck hated you, do you think… well, no offense, but do you think you’d be here, at all? They’ll come around. And I’m gonna be right there with you… I won’t leave your side.”

With a shudder Finn tried to calm his rising breath. He’d spent so long saying goodbyes in his head, and now he’d have to face their wrath. Their grief. Their sorrow. It terrified him. At least when he’d left, his last images of them, last memories, had been of them happy… happy with him. Now..

“O-okay..” He murmured shakily. “Okay.”

“It’s gonna help, Finn.. that you stayed.” She murmured, smiling faintly, “It’ll be alright. In time. Now… go get some sleep. I should… I should check in next door, anyhow.”

Finn tensed. He didn’t have the heart to tell her that he was desperately fighting the urge to run and hide every second.. but at least he was fighting it. “W-w-what are you gonna t-tell th-them?”

“...That you’re okay. That you’re resting.” Reaching up, she brushed her thumb over his cheek, “...You might think I’m perfect, but I can’t work miracles. But I can run some damage control before you see them face to face. Like I said earlier… you win Penny over and it’ll be a lot easier. And I don’t think she’s half as mad at you… as she is glad you’re here, and alive.”

Her touch sent another shudder down his spine, and his fingers curled, trembling, around her wrist, like something to hold onto. “I.. I don’t want to.. win her over. I left, Rose… and I had four years to turn back and I never did… if they want me gone.. I’ll go.”

“Then I’m going with you.” She stated, plainly, without a moment’s hesitation, “But you have to understand, Finn. Whatever they say, whatever they might feel in the moment, I’ve spent the last four years with them, and I know that they want you here. You are a part of this family, and you don’t give up on that, no matter how angry you might be. Just… promise me you’ll give it a little time?”

There it was. That stupid word. Every fiber of his being bristled. “I can’t take you away from them.” He murmured. “I’ll try. I’ll try.” It was all he could offer without allowing the nausea to creep up his throat.

“...The last time you left, Finn… I didn’t even get to say goodbye. The… the part that hurt the most was that I knew you were out there, alone and scared. I love it here. I love Penny and Deck and the kids. But I cannot watch you walk away, and feel that again. You can’t ask me to do that.” A sigh escaped, and she let her hand fall to her side, “We don’t need to worry about this, right now. We’ll cross the bridge when get there, alright? Go on… Get some sleep.”

Finn opened his mouth to protest, to agree.. he wasn’t even sure. But as Rose let her hands fall to her side, he simply nodded, defeated. “A-Alright.” He murmured, standing shakily. “S..see you on the other side.” Gaze lowered, Finn stepped into the bedroom.

“...See ya, Finn.”

Watching him go, disappearing into her room, Rose bit her lip, anxiously. She couldn’t worry about it. He would do what he was going to do, and she had to hope… just hope, that whatever that was the right thing. That he’d stay. Work it out. No matter how scary or difficult it was. That he wouldn’t run, again. She couldn’t nail him to the floor and hope to win back what they’d lost. Trust…it was something all of them were going to have to find, again.

With a shake of her head, she crossed to the door and with a glance back to her room, slipped outside.
Last edited:

Elle Joyner

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Political intrigue, fantasy, futuristic, sci fi lite, superheroes, historical fiction, alternate universes. Smittings of romance, but only as side plot.
Mouse Trap

The sunlight bled in through a broken slat, a single stream, collecting motes of dust like a jealous lover. Through blurred vision, Grace could see two figures talking in hushed whisper, a woman, thin, with long ginger hair and a man, tall, with a sloped posture. Their conversation did not reach her ears, but she could see in their body language, they were mid-argument. Craning her eyes up, Grace observed the length of chain wrapped around a rafter beam, leading to the shackles around her scabbed, blood-crusted wrists. A dank smell of must and mold filled the space, and every square inch seemed coasted in a thick, heavy layer of ash-gray dust. She’d been there at least three hours, given the height of the sun, and every square inch of her body felt like it had gone through some kind of torture or another.

It was whatever the hell they’d injected her with, and the fuzzy feeling in her head wasn’t getting much better, which told her it was still in there.

“She doesn’t know where he is, Asher! It’s time to end it and move on to the next one.” As the voices rose, Grace fell still and silent, listening carefully.

“Kane wants all of them, Maya. He isn’t gonna be happy if we ice her and lose the brother…” Fear curled down the back of Grace’s neck and shivering, she looked up at the beam overhead. Solid wood, but for a few cracks running horizontally along the edges. It wasn’t coming down without work… and she wasn’t exactly John Cena.

“The bitch hasn’t seen him in years. Be easier to find D.B. Cooper. We can find him another way. We’ve got Kane’s little GPS…” Eyes falling on the pair again, she flinched. Devon… They were looking for...

“That’s the point in keeping her alive. She doesn’t need to know where he is, she just needs to have something that belongs to him. A picture, something he gave her, and our guy can find him anywhere on the-- Shh…” Holding up a hand, the man turned and his eyes flickered to Grace and a smooth smile formed, “Ah… the little mouse is awake. Good. Good. We were just talking about you, Grace.”

“Yeah, no kidding. You two putzes still deciding whether or not to bump me off, I hear. Do I get a say or is this a ugly-bastards-club-members only sorta thing?”

“Shut up.” The woman hissed, stepping forward, but the man’s arm shot out and stopped her.

“Maya here is pretty eager to end you. But I’m of the opinion you’ve still got a little use left in you.” Smiling smoothly, he moved towards her, and reaching out a hand, he let a fingertip traced the curve of her jaw and around the edge of her ear. It took everything in Grace not to bite the man, but when his fingers curled around the rim of her orbital piercing, she sucked in a sharp breath, “I’m tired, Little Mouse. It’s been… a long day, and you took an awful long time comin’ round. I’d really like to avoid the ugly affair of torture…”

“I told you… I don’t know what you want from me, but I got no reason to cooperate if you’re just gonna kill me any--” The words were truncated by a sudden scream as metal severed through fragile cartilage and blood burst in a spray from the hole left where the earring had been. As Grace’s frantic shriek dissolved into a sob, Asher stepped back, tossing the metal hoop to the ground with a clatter.

“Now... Do I really need to do that again, cause I don’t think I need to remind you, you’ve got enough for me to work with for quite a while, Grace!”

Choking back another sob as his fingers pinched a second piercing, she forced herself to breathe in, breathe out, ear throbbing, blood running down her next warm, and thick, “What!? What do you want!?”

“I want…”Twisting the earring slightly, he leaned closer to her, “The promise of full cooperation. Yes?”

“Yes… Yes! God, YES!” Grace cried and the man’s finger released the earring as he slumped back slightly, patting her cheek.

“That’s a good girl...

His hands raised up, and for a moment, Grace was afraid he was going to brush her hair. The idea of him touching her… of him mocking her with any sense of tender gestures made her want to vomit all over his hideous snake-skinned boots. But he didn’t touch her. Instead, he reached for the shackles and pulling a pin on each side, he freed her hands. She dropped, and he made no effort to catch her, as she hit the ground, legs buckling under her. She wasn’t down there long. Hands grasped her shoulders and heaving her to her feet, he brought her over to a chair a short distance away, beside what looked to be a rusted out clawfoot tub. The tub had been filled roughly halfway, with dark, brackish water. Her hands draw behind her, Grace was tied to the rungs of the chair, and breathing in, she shook her head, as memories filtered in that hurt worse than the pain, pounding on the side of her skull, “...Please no. I… I told you… I’d...”

“Oh… I know, Grace. I know what you said. Unfortunately… You were also right. I can’t exactly let you prance off into the sunset, when all of this is all over.”

Her gaze fell to the water and tears fell from her eyes, as she shook her head. There were few things in life Grace feared… few things that shook her to the core, and none of them were worse than the idea of…

The chair tipped, eased forward and Grace gave a small, strangled yelp as the water came closer, “No, no, please, God, no!”

“I’m gonna ask you a series of questions, Grace, and I need you to answer them honestly, and quickly… Nod, if you understand.”

Without hesitating, she nodded firmly, aggressively.

“Good girl. First… How long has it been since you last saw your brother?” The chair teetered, and Grace’s fingers dug into her palms.

“I haven’t seen him for… for years. I dunno… Ten… ten years, maybe more.”

Without warning, the chair lurched and she barely had a moment to suck in a breath as she plunged into the dingy pool of water. Panic seared, and water poured into her nose as she tried to fight the urge to scream. Seconds later, the chair smacked back to the wooden floor, and choking, Grace gulped desperately for air.

“I said… I need you to answer honestly and quickly, Little Mouse. Yes?”

“...Yes…” She whimpered.

“Marvelous. Now then… I realize you fancy yourself something of a… gypsy. But surely you have personal belongings that you keep around. That lovely watch, for instance?”

“...It’s just a watch!” She hissed, and regretted it, as the chair slammed into the side of the tub with such force, she had no time to catch her breath this time. Water rushed into her nose and lungs, and she struggled against the binds, as heat burned down her throat, into her sinuses, heart pounding, threatening to burst from her chest. It could not have been longer than a few seconds, before the chair was righted again, but it felt like hours. Asher reached up and brushed the sopping wet hair from her face, gripping her jaw with a harsh grasp.

“That is… the last time… I will remind you, Grace. I really hope… you don’t make this difficult.”

Coughing out a mouthful of foul water, Grace’s eyes narrowed, “What do you want, you son of a bitch!?”

“Tell me… you have something of your brothers. A picture. A beloved momento… Something that can tie back to--” But he paused, because he had already seen it. The fear, strike her eyes, and a smooth smile came to his lips as he shook his head, “...You do… don’t you. Oh, Grace. This is happy news…”

Rising, he put his hand on her shoulder, “...Where, Grace? Where is it?”

Jaw tensing, Grace’s eyes moved up to his, glaring darkly, “...Up your ass, you sick, twisted--”

The back of his hand struck hard into her cheek, and straightening, he adjusted the front of his suit, “Well… That’s a shame. I was hoping this wouldn’t need to get messy. I suppose we’ll just need to go through your things and find it on our own. If it’s any consolation, I hear that drowning isn’t so bad towards the end. Like falling asleep. Goodbye, Grace.”

The chair fell forward with a splash and water enveloped her, pulling her into the darkness of the tub. Once again, panic swelled. Flailing, she worked against the binds, against the chair rails, against gravity, against nature. Footsteps receded, muffled through the wrought iron sides of the tub…She would find no release this time, no liberation from the black cocoon. Just like her…

No… No. She would not go down that way...

Something scraped against her face in the water, likes tiny beads, cold and hard. Beads… beads of a drain plug. Turning, desperately, Grace opened her mouth and felt for those beads, felt them and pulled them in and biting, she pried, as hard as she could, she pried. Beneath her, bubbling… She tugged harder, and with a pop, the plug came loose. Pressure surrounded her as the water roared towards the drain. She could feel her pulse in her temples, hear it pounding in her ears, her chest heaved… and then air… air, sweet, fresh oxygen poured around her as with a sucking sound, the last of the tepid water swiveled into oblivion.

As she gasped, greedily, filling her lungs again, she managed with some effort, to loosen one hand, ever so slightly from the binds, determination feeding her, driving adrenaline through her veins. She wasn’t about to roll over and die for these bastards. Not today. No. With a yank, ripping away scabs and opening her nerves to stinging pain, she pulled away from the ropes and freed a hand, then immediately turned to work the other hand free. She’d managed to loosen it, when she heard a voice, rising in pitch

“Damn it, Asher! I told you to WATCH her!! She’s loose!”

From the doorway, Maya and Asher burst back into the room and picking up the chair, Grace hurled it at the pair, before without thinking, without trying to think, knowing that there were mere steps between her and the two maniacs who had dragged her here, she bolted. The window was the nearest exit and praying… praying to God with every last fiber of her being they weren’t in a skyscraper, she hurled herself through the slatted opening.

Wood splintered and glass shattered and for several seconds, Grace fell, before landing hard on something that cracked beneath her. Pain. Pain lanced and rippled in waves through her, and the world became hazy for a moment as she fought for consciousness. Forcing her eyes to stay open, she looked up to see the window overhead… two… maybe three windows. A car… she’d landed on a frickin’ car. Across the crackled glass, blood flowed in a twisted pattern and swallowing hard, Grace pushed herself upright, rolling off the vehicle. Without assessing the damage, knowing it was better she didn’t try, she struggled up to her feet and she ran…

God, did she run.


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Mouse Hunt
with Elle Joyner Elle Joyner

Twenty minutes outside the Hell house, it occurred to Grace where the hell she was. Her mind was swimming, and pain made it hard to breath, and she was pretty sure she’d broken at least half a dozen things she needed down the road, but when the realization hit her, nothing… absolutely nothing was going to stop her.

She knew these woods. These paths, and whether it was luck, fate, or some damnable trick of her swiftly dying mind, she pressed on. She pressed and pushed and the pathway deepened and the air in her lungs grew harder to draw, but finally… finally… somehow, however long she’d run, she found herself, outside the most beautiful sight she had ever laid eyes on.

Clambering forward, she stumbled up the stairs, stumbled… and she was falling. Half a damn foot from the door, she could feel her legs giving out. Crawling, pulling herself forward, she curled up beside the door frame and with the last vestiges of strength her tiny form could muster, she knocked.

Sometimes the chittering of animals, the soft rustles of the wind moving the brush fell past Oliver’s ears. Sometimes those things fell to the back of his mind, and he found everything quiet. Silence didn’t have to be deafening… it could be slow. And right now, it felt more than slow. He’d been restless the past few days, and he couldn’t even say why. He read. He cooked. He fed the animals and he tended to the garden and he’d inspected the tech, even built a few new things. It didn’t fill the emptiness.

Maisy had grown now. Just a reminder of that gaping hole, of people who had came and went and were never coming back. She sat in his lap at the kitchen table, now fully grown, purring and kneading against his legs as he stroked her behind the ears, his other hand clasping a mug of tea. It had already grown cold, and he hadn’t had a sip.

Then came the knock.

Maisy was already up and out of his lap, and Oliver’s brows furrowed. He was hesitant, of course he was, but Maisy was meowing and scratching at the door and he tried to push away the growing hope in his heart. Couldn’t be. Wouldn’t be.

Cautiously, Oliver opened the door, and looked ahead. Brows furrowing, he looked down, and then…

Bloodied and broken and bruised - his eyes went wide and his heart threatened to beat right out of his chest. A few stuttered gasps fell out of Oliver, but Maisy’s desperate mewling didn’t allow him to hesitate, and he quickly scooped up Grace’s fragile form, kicking the door shut and cradling her close to his chest until he laid her down on the bed, with trembling hands he looked her over and took in the damage. He forgot how to speak. Or at least, how to tell his phone to do so.

She didn’t protest, as she was carted from her resting point and brought inside. Her mind was too foggy to think clearly, but she was where she wanted to be. Where she’d wanted to be for a damn long time. She knew the minute she’d walked out the door that she should’ve stayed. She knew, but she’d forced herself to keep walking, anyway. Now she was back, and this… this was a good a place as any to die, if that’s what was going down…

Scrapes and cuts and jagged gashes ran the length of her arm, a deep gash across her eyebrow as well. Her arm hung limp at her side, oddly lumpy and bruised, and hair clung to dried blood where her earring had been ripped out. Her wrists were swollen and puffy, the cuts from the shackles and ropes deep… these were the apparent damages. Inside, she knew something was wrong… her breathing felt wrong… like lead was sitting on her lungs, and ever inhalation she drew grew raspier by the minute.

Looking up at him through one eye, the other too swollen to see out of clearly, she reached her fingertips towards his hand, “...Hey, Doolittle.” She whispered, and the words hurt, air hard to retract as it expelled, “...Told you… I... I’d be back…”

No. No no no. He had already been through this before. Already held a warm body in his hands and watched it turn cold. He couldn’t do it again. Not ever again, and at her raspy words a choked sob, or some wisp of it fell out of him as he took her hand and enveloped it tightly. As gently as he could muster, Oliver pulled her body against him, bowing his head against hers. And he began to speak in the only way he knew how.. Begging her cells to pull themselves back together, pleading and asking with all he had, rocking her against his form as her skin began to stitch and bones began to shift back into place, because he would never let anything… anyone… slip from his grasp again.

It wasn’t so bad. Dying. She used to think she’d prefer to do it alone - because the one time she’d been subjected to watching it, well… it just sucked. It sucked, hardcore. But being with Ollie in the last few minutes of her life, it wasn’t so bad. He held her, and she was grateful for that… grateful for the warmth, for the sturdiness…

And for a moment, she was sure it was happening, because slowly, the pain started to leach away, the agony of exposed nerves and broken bones and shattered ribs and punctured lungs slowly dissolving… numbing…

But her breathing wasn’t slowing… it was improving, and the pain wasn’t numbing, it was fading. Her eyes opened, and her grip on his hand tightened slightly, “...O...Ollie? H…” But how didn’t matter…

She didn’t care. Hell if she hadn’t come to the right place…

Thank God. Thank the earth, thank the stars, whatever. He could feel her shift against him, her breathing renewed… wetness pooled in his eyes as he continued to rock her back and forth, trying to will her body to fix every spot of blood, every little cut, but after a while he could feel resistance, and it became too much for him to keep on asking. His posture fell slightly, out of pure exhaustion, but it didn’t stop him from holding her tightly, and shushing her gently as she tried to push out the words. Oliver’s shaking hand reached up to brush the blood stained hair away from her eyes, curl it behind her ears, just feel her warmth. It wasn’t fading. She was here, she was here, not like… not like….

Oliver had no plans to let go anytime soon.

And Grace was in no rush, herself. Shaking like a leaf, she clung to Oliver, with every ounce of strength she could muster, as silent tears left tracks along her dirt-coated cheeks. The bits that hadn’t healed stung, but she could care less, and when he tucked back her hair, she ignored the biting pain in her ear, just glad for the continued gentleness, the warmth, the comfort…

Eventually, she knew the questions were gonna come, and eventually, she knew she’d have to hurt him again, by leaving. But hell if she was in any hurry…

His heart twisted all over again when he caught sight of the mangled ear. The thought of someone hurting her, with every intention to make it last… to kill… It was awful, and horrible, and exactly why he didn’t dare leave his little safe home. He was almost stinging with pain himself, and if Oliver could have, he would’ve taken every little bit of it onto himself, just to leave her in peace… she deserved it.

”I said in one piece.” His phone beeped monotonously, without a single drop of the anguish and panic that was gripping him. It was pathetic.. the fact that he couldn’t whisper reassuringly against her, the fact that he couldn’t even cry. All he could do was rock her back and forth, burying his nose in her locks of muted green hair.

“I know…” She whispered, curling tighter in that hold, shivering as the pain the ebbed away left only the bitter, stinging chill of her damp clothes and hair, “...I know. I… I’m sorry. I… Turns out I’m crap at keeping promises, Ol… I’m so sorry.”

”Don’t.” The reply came quickly, maybe a little too quickly. Oliver shuddered, a hand falling to her shoulder, trying to hold her tighter. She was wet. Cold. He wasn’t an angry person, but he felt that white hot rage creeping into his bones, desperate to hurt the people that had hurt her. ”Don’t apologize. Are you better? Did it work?”

“Hell, Ollie. I was better the minute I saw your house. W...when I knew where I was… But yeah… yeah, I'd say it worked.” Laying her head against his shoulder, she closed her eyes, forcing the tears at bay, “What… how'd you do that?”

Sighing in both disbelief and relief, closing his eyes and thanking whatever would ever listen. ”I asked.” He replied, and though it pained him, he shifted against her. ”I need to get you clothes.. Blanket… you need to be by the fire.”

He moved, and with a jolt, her hand shot out, fingers looping around his wrist, “Please don't… don't leave me alone…”

Oliver tensed, and at her pleading he fell still. Her words were broken.. And it shattered his heart. ”I need to take care of you.” He insisted, and carefully, as gently as possible, shifted her into his arms fully as he stood up, and carefully pulled a soft blanket out of the closet without shuffling her, swaddling her carefully.

It was hard to remember the last time she felt so helpless. So scared. All that came to mind was the night she'd burned her way out of Boston… no one had been there to hold her hand through that and she still had the hellish scar to remind her…

But this felt different. This was a fear she couldn't comprehend… Whoever these people were, they meant to kill her… and they'd try again.

“I'm scared, Oliver…” She breathed.

She was ripping his heart in half. Absolutely tearing it apart. Oliver didn’t even dare let go again, and as soon as he properly smothered her in the blankets resumed cradling her tightly to his chest. He wanted to ask what happened… but a part of him didn’t want to know. He didn’t want to think about the people that hurt her… and he didn’t want her to relive it either. ”I’m here.” He assured.

“But I shouldn't be…” Clinging, a shudder rolled through her as reality set in, “I shouldn't be here. If… if they find me again. Oh, God… what… what was I thinking…”

Oliver shook his head vehemently, shushing her quietly and soothingly running his fingers through her hair. He hadn’t realized… how long it had been since he’d embraced someone like this. Dared to touch someone at all. But he didn’t dare let go. ”Look.” He said, trying to divert her attention as Maisy hopped up onto the bed, meowing and rubbing up against Grace. ”She missed you.”

She wanted to protest… tell him to let her go. Let her leave. But even after he'd worked his magic, she still felt half dead, and the will to fight had burned out hours ago, “Aw, hell. My little girl… all grown up.” How long she'd been away… “I missed you, too, Mais. I… I missed you both… so much.”

A smile fluttered onto his lips as Maisy curled up happily between them, tail swishing. ”You need rest, Grace.” Oliver murmured into her hair. ”I can’t heal everything. I’m sorry.”

It was her turn to shush him, and leaning back, she met his gaze with a firm shake of her head, “You just saved my life, Ollie. You… don't even think about saying sorry. I… I've had worse.” Reaching up, she brushed her ear, winced, “It'll heal eventually… and hell… scars are sexy.”

Oliver shook his head, averting his gaze from the fresh wound. ”Well that’s good, because I have plenty.” He joked weakly. ”I have a first aid kid, but I can’t exactly get up. I will try to heal you further when I can.”

With Maisy curled up in her arms and the miniature blanket fort he'd built around her, she felt marginally less panicky. It was no comfort knowing he bore his own scars, but she appreciated the effort to ease her mind, “ do what you need to Ollie. I think can manage for a few minutes, now.”

He nodded, and gently eased her onto the bed, standing up and rolling his shoulders. ”I’ll be quick.” And he did indeed rush, hustling out of the bedroom to fumble in his cabinets for his first aid kit. It hadn’t quite been used since Nem had arrived, and the thought sent a shiver down his spine, the warped skin on his stomach stinging at the memory. He quickly returned, crawling back onto the bed and gently cupping her cheek to examine her ear, wincing. ”I will not ask. I will only wait until you are ready to tell.”

“T...thing is… I'm not even sure I know what the hell happened, Ollie..” Jaw tensing, she turned her ear to him, gaze lowering, staring at the kit. She didn't wanna talk about it. Not now. Not ever, but she knew Oliver was scared, maybe as much as she was, and that wasn't a position he deserved to be left in… Not for even a little while.

“I thought… I thought they were the guys from back home. The… the ones I've been running from. Figured it all just caught up to me. But they weren't. These guys… They were different. They were wicked scary. Focused. Cold. He… he didn't even need to do it…” Weakly she gestured to her ear, “And he did anyway. Just ripped it out.” Shivering, her eyes shifted, coming up to Oliver with a frown, “He tied me to a chair and tipped it into a tub and… and just left me there. If I hadn't found the drain… I got loose, jumped out the window. They were looking… they were looking for my brother…”

It was a horrific recollection. Oliver tried intensely hard not to let his lip quiver or his hands shake as he focused on the mutilated ear, but every word that fell out of her mouth drove that stake of fear farther into his heart. He didn’t know what to say.. what to ask… how was he supposed to calm her fears if he himself was terrified?

Maisy curled further into Grace’s lap, purring up a storm. Oliver dabbed a cotton cloth along Grace’s ear to clean it. ”You’re here now. You’re safe.” And he knew he was lying.

“No, Ollie. It… it's not safe.” Reaching up, her hand caught his, eyes wide with uneasiness, “I… I shouldn't have come here. If they follow me… I would never, never forgive myself if anything happened to you.”

”Nothing will happen to me. Or you.” Oliver insisted, taking her hand with a hint of hesitation. He wasn’t good at this… at being there for someone. ”Don’t worry yourself like that. Focus on recovery. Nothing else will happen to you.”

Releasing him, she let her hand fall to Maisy, fingers delicately brushing the cat between her ears, “I don't care what happens to me. They… they want me dead. I have to… I have to get away from here.”

”Listen to me.” Oliver’s phone snapped, as he turned her cheek towards him, boring into his eyes. The tone of his phone didn’t quite match the intensity in his gaze. ”You are not going anywhere. Not after you showed up on my doorstep as good as dead. No more of that. I will keep you safe. I will.”

Her eyes filled as she looked at him, an argument on her lips that died as she caught the fire in his gaze, “...But… but what if I can't keep you safe?” How many times had she gone over it in her mind. Those mistakes. Those regrets. Three seconds was never enough damn time…

Oliver shook his head, gaze falling. ”Don’t worry about that. It’s not your job to worry about that.” He insisted. ”Just focus on getting better. That’s all you have to worry about.”

“You… you already made me better.” She muttered, with a small smile, “Just cosmetic, the rest of this. Nothing I can't live with or cover up. Just… just a little bit of a mess.”

His hand fell past her ear, taking in the rest of the cuts and bruises. The dried blood caking her wrists. A shudder fell through him, eyes squeezing shut. He had already watched someone as the life faded out of them. When he had been powerless… it had almost happened again. ”You were dead, Grace. You were dead in my arms.”

“Who, me? C'mon, Doolittle. I ain't going anywhere…” Her fingers brushed his arm, rested against it, “I ain't gonna leave you. I'm sorry I… I'm sorry I didn't come back before. I… I meant to. I did. I just… I was scared…”

Oliver tensed at her touch, hurt swirling within him. Everyone that ever came to his home promised to return, and they never did. ”I’ve already done this before.” He stated. ”I’ve already watched someone die. And you were going to do that to me all over again.”

Breathing in, she lowered her gaze, hand falling to her lap, “I know. I… I'm sorry. I… I didn't… I didn't mean to…” Sniffing softly, she brushed in irritation at her eyes, “I dunno where I screwed up… I don't get it. How… how they found me.”

At her sniffling all traces of anger left him, and his hand reached up to brush at her cheek. Damn it… he hadn’t meant to make her cry. ”Please don’t cry.” He couldn’t take much more of it.. The twist of guilt. ”Sometimes no matter how hard you try, these things don’t stay away. It’s not your fault.”

“Seven years, Ollie. I've been doing this for seven years and I never messed up.” If they found her once… they'd find her again.

Looking up at him, she bit the inside of her cheek, “The… they knew things. Things I've never told anyone. I don't know how to run from that...” Breathing out, she shifted, her hand sloping around Maisy's back, taking comfort in her presence, “I missed you, so much…”

Up until now, Oliver had been putting out a request that no animal come into the bedroom. He had thought Grace needed the silence, though he couldn’t quite keep Maisy out. Now, he let that request go, and a few critters filtered into the room, all eager to see what gave Oliver such a fuss. A squirrel came to burrow its way in his breast pocket just as it had the last time Grace had come, as well as rabbits, deer, and even Oliver’s old friend the mother bear, pushing her snout into Grace’s hand eagerly.

It warmed her expression considerably, to see all the creatures pooling in. She knew no matter how much she'd hurt him… by staying away, he'd never really be alone. She could never leave him alone…

“Hey big girl…” She cooed, stroking the bear along her crown, “Missed you, too.” Eyes shifting to Oliver, she frowned in thought, “How prepared are you… if they come for me? How ready are you for that? I need to know. Because if there's so much as a doubt in your mind… then you have to know I can't stay. I can't risk it.”

He was glad to see the warmth creeping into her gaze, and wished he’d done it sooner. Stroking Maisy underneath the chin, Oliver thought over her words. ”You underestimate me.” Was all he offered in response, nodding. He’d already told her. He was prepared to defend, to fight. He’d made promises.. To the animals, to the plants, to the earth. Now, to her.

“Not at all…” She whispered, shaking her head, “I know… I know what you can do. But make sure it's worth it, Ollie. Cause if it's not… that's okay. I would never ask you to… not for me.”

”It’s not a question.” Oliver announced. ”It’s worth it. I won’t let anything else happen to you. I swear it.”

“Okay…” Nodding, she let her hand fall to his, covering it a moment, the only reassurance she could manage to make sense of in her mind, “Okay.” Breathing out, she swallowed hard, a lump forming in her throat, “ have something I can wear?”

A weak, airy laugh fell out of Oliver as he shook his head, gaze falling to her hand atop his. Anything to give her comfort. He took her hand and squeezed it reassuringly. ”Nothing that will fit, I’m afraid.” Glancing to the deer, Oliver bowed his head with respect, and it trotted off, returning a few moments later with a sweatshirt in its antlers. It was much larger than her, but it would do for now.

“Thanks…” Reaching out, she took the sweatshirt and cautiously, pushing herself upright, she eased Maisy off her lap and rose to her feet. She wasn't a pretty sight… not by normal standards, anyway, but the idea of going anywhere near running water made her stomach clench. Tugging her blood stained shirt over her head, she wiggled into the sweatshirt, before shucking the damp, dirty jeans.

Dropping back down, she apprehensively brushed her fingers through her tangled, matted hair, pushing it out of her face, “Better...ish.”

Oliver turned his gaze away as she changed, focusing on scratching exactly wherever elicited a stronger purr from Maisy. He didn’t want to make Grace feel uncomfortable, and he wasn’t sure if he was even keen on looking over the rest of her wounds when he was powerless to heal them. At her words Oliver turned back around, cursing his lack of strength to fully heal her. ”Are you sure you don’t want to wash up?”

Shaking her head, almost forcefully, Grace stared at the wall ahead, “ I… That's more alone time than I need right now. Don't think I could handle a tub on my own right now…”

Wincing at her words, Oliver nodded, kicking himself for having even offered it. ”Right. Of course.” He said quickly, looking up at her. ”Is there anything else I can do? Do you want anything at all?”

“A time machine?” She whispered, wrapping her arms around her knees as she pulled them close to her chest, “I hate this. Feeling this way. Waiting for… for something to go wrong. They… they make you feel weak and useless. They break every sense of comfort… Security. And I don't even know why. Can't even take a Goddamn shower because of these bastards…” Huffing out a sigh, she canted her head to look at him, “And they took my favorite earring…”

He felt his stomach do flip flops all over again, shaking his head as Maisy trotted right back to paw at her legs, request for a lap to sit in. ”You’ve been through a lot. Don’t blame yourself. They do it because they know it will hurt. You can’t let it break you.”

“I feel broken, Oliver. I feel…” Lowering her legs, she let Maisy resume her position, brushing her fur along her back, “I feel… dirty… tainted. Like… like something wrong. It's not… it's not a good way to feel.”

He hated to hear her speak like that, because… he had felt exactly the same. He still did. That ugliness infected your heart, and it was so hard to get it to leave. ”I know that feeling, Grace. I do. But you cannot let them do that to you. You can’t, because then they’ve won.” Tentatively his hand reached up, only to fall to her shoulder. He squeezed. ”The world gives and takes. You can’t let it take everything. You can’t.”

Reaching up, she covered his hand with her own, shaking her head, “Give and takes a little uneven on my end. I… I dunno what else I've got left. Running sucked, but at least… at least I knew I was in control. I don't have any control here, and I feel like I'm spinning… like I'm just gonna crash and burn.”

Hell. This wasn’t working. Oliver could talk to animals, not to people. He didn’t know how to quench her fears, especially when he had harbored the same ones for so many years. Tentatively, his hand reached upwards, cupping her cheek. ”Grace.” He said firmly. ”You can’t give up. You can’t let them win. Do you hear me? Me and my awful phone voice? You can’t give up.”

Eyes twisting to his, she smiled dryly, wearily, “It's not not awful. You… you got no idea how many nights I wished to God I could hear that, Ol… How many times I just wanted to turn around and come back. I should've… Maybe… maybe I wouldn't be in this mess.”

He sighed, gaze fluttering down, a hint of color coming to his cheeks. ”I don’t know if that’s true. I wish you had, though.” Oliver admitted. ”I wish I could have at least tried to keep you safe.”

“If wishes worked, I'd be going to Harvard and my mom would still be…” Biting her cheek, she looked over to him, “I left cause I needed to keep you safe. Funny how that works, isn't it?”

At the mention of her mother Oliver tensed. He hated the realization that this was barely the tip of the ice berg of Grace’s troubles… why had she had to go through so much pain? He hated it. ”Things don’t ever work like you want. Nor wishes.” He said unhappily. ”I’m sorry about your mother.”

“It… it was… She drowned herself. In our tub.” Breathing in, jaw trembling from tension, she shook her head. She could feel the water swirling around her, the muddled, muffled sensation of needing to breathe… of not being able to…

“She found out my dad was leaving her. And she couldn't deal. I was twelve… Came home from school to the living room floor half flooded. I… I tried… To bring her back, but three seconds… it wasn't enough. It’s never enough.”

Oliver froze, trying to wrap his head around the trauma she’d just described. He reached his fingertips up through her hair, shaking his head as he pressed his forehead against hers. ”No.” Not somber enough.. It never was. ”It’s never enough… I’m so sorry, Grace. I’m so sorry.” Her mother had died the same way they had tried to kill Grace… it had every nerve in his body flaring with anger, sorrow. He would have done anything to wipe that pain away. Anything… but he couldn’t. He never could.

“It's not your fault. It's not… it's not anyone's fault.” Closing her eyes, she sucked in a breath, “I spent too long finding people to be mad at. Finding people to blame. Sometimes… sometimes crap just happens and it sucks. It sucks so bad. But… but it's no one's fault.” Her eyes opened, looking at him, studying him, “You never have to apologize. Not to me.”

He wanted to argue. He wanted to apologize a thousand times over, as if it would lessen the hurt. But it never did.. So he kept his mouth shut. ”I just want you whole. In one piece. That’s all. Please try to do that.” He smiled weakly, gesturing to the animals crowding around the bed. ”We’re all rooting for you, you know.”

“Haven't been… for a while now, but I… I can try. For you, Ol… I can try real hard.” Leaning back, her eyes opened and she met his gaze, “Not sure I can get some pieces back, though…” Casually, with a dry smirk, she gestured to her ear.

He shuddered as his gaze flickered to the missing chunk of cartilage. ”Not funny.” He said with a shake of his head. ”How about some food? Do you still have that same appetite?”

“It was a little funny…” She mumbled, before shaking her head, “I still feel so gross. I… they gave me something. Some kind of injection. Knocked me out for a few hours. Been messing with my head all day… Not sure I'm ready for food.”

The tiny drop of hopefulness that had welled inside him disappeared. On top of all they’d done to her… Oliver grit his teeth, closing his eyes as he tried to reach out to her cells again, asking at least for a view of her health. A flicker of pain crossed his brow as Oliver sucked in a breath. They wouldn’t let him in. ”Whenever you’re ready, then. Say the word.”

“Hey…” It was said with force, but affectionately, as she reached out her hands to cover his, “Ollie. Stop. I'm fine. I'm alright… you… You did enough.” Giving his hands a squeeze, she smiled faintly, “I just need to get past this. That's all. And being here… it helps. Believe me. It helps… And once I can stop being a friggin’ baby, I can get myself cleaned up and eat. I'll be good as new.”

”No…” Oliver protested, eyes still squeezed shut. ”You are not a baby. This isn’t something you can just hurtle past. I can do more.” A hand gracing her temple, he tried to push forth again. He had to do more. Couldn’t let her hurt anymore than she already was. This time, a full gasp of pain fell out of him as he separated from her, hands flying to his own pounding head. Damnit… damnit! Why couldn’t he just heal her? Why couldn’t he just…

“Oliver!” Pulling his hands away, she held them down, eyes narrowing, despite the tears in them, “Stop! It's not a trade off, okay? You think I want you burning out over me? You think… you think that's gonna make me feel better? You hurting yourself?” Shaking her head, she fell forward and wrapped her arms around him, laying her head on his shoulder, “Ollie, please. This… right here. This is enough. You… you've done enough. I'm alive because of You. Please… stop.”

Taking shuddering breaths to try and stop his trembling, to try and be still against her, Oliver relaxed in her hold. ”I’m sorry.” He breathed against her, in, out, in, out. A hand fell to her back, in hopes of calming the both of them. ”It never feels like enough. If I had just…” If he had just saved Duncan. Kept her from running away. It was never enough, just like her three seconds was never enough. ”I can’t bear it. To watch anyone else hurt. I can’t bear it anymore.”

“You are not responsible for what they did to me…” She reassured, brushing her fingers through his hair, “You aren't. I'm here… I'm safe. Because you saved me, Ol. And I'm not gonna… I'm not gonna leave again. I promise. Okay?” Shifting back, she met his eyes, her turn for fire, “And it wasn't your fault what happened to him, either. I can't believe for one second that you did anything wrong… not ever.”

Swallowing nervously, he tried to avoid her gaze. ”I couldn’t save him.” Fear laced up his spine… he could remember, screaming without words, laying in his blood. Waiting for his voice to pierce his mind, and it never came, and it would never come again. ”I couldn’t do enough. I thought you said you don’t make promises you can’t keep.”

“I don't.” She said, firmly, “and I'm not. I promise you, Oliver… I'm not going anywhere.” Tentatively, she touched her fingertips to his hand, “I guarantee if he were here right now, he'd tell you that you did enough. Cause if I know you… and I think I do… you did everything you could. Sometimes… bad things happen and we can't stop them. But you are enough…”

Oliver glanced at their touching fingers, swallowing. He wasn’t sure he knew how to feel anymore. Not when every part of him was radiating with anguish. But he found himself curling their hands together, just because… because he didn’t want to let go of anyone else. No matter how scared he felt.

”And to think, you tried to rob me. It turned out much better than I ever thought.”

“You sure, Ollie?” She teased gently, looking down at his hand in hers, “Not too sure I've been anything but trouble.”

”You are more than just that.” He insisted. ”You are much more.”

Blinking, she looked up at him, shaking her head, “I dunno about all that. I've never been much of anything… but hell if you don't make me wanna be something better.”

”Good.” He looked at her firmly, nodding. ”That’s all I could have asked to hear.” He sighed lightly. ”You should rest now, Grace.”

Frowning, she considered the suggestion with mixed emotions. She was exhausted… drained. Spent. But the idea of closing her eyes… of trying to sleep, “...Kinda scared.”

”How about if I stay right here?” He offered. ”And so will Maisy. And Mama. We’ll all stay right here and watch over you.”

“Yeah…” Breathing out, she nodded, “Guess that's pretty hard to contend with. I mean… Maisy's pretty terrifying.” She scratched her on the head with a small grin, “Anything happens… You'll wake me up?”

”Of course.” Oliver replied, patting the bed for Maisy to make a home atop it. Even Mama pawed at the bed, but Oliver insisted she sleep right beside it. ”She’d break my bed, unfortunately.” Oliver said, with a wispy chuckle. ”We’re all right here, Grace.”

“I know…” Curling up beside him, Maisy curled into the crook of her stomach, she let her eyes fall closed, “Never understood how you could fit the whole world in one room. Now I get it… Night Ollie…”

A smile fell on his lips as he laid down beside her, mulling over her words. The rest of the world was terrifying… which was why he had done just that.. Fit it all into one room. ”Good night, Grace.”

Elle Joyner

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Political intrigue, fantasy, futuristic, sci fi lite, superheroes, historical fiction, alternate universes. Smittings of romance, but only as side plot.
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It would've been nice to say she slept through the night… but unfortunately trauma rarely allowed for simple favors. Somewhere in the middle of the night, Grace woke with a startled scream, hands clawing, clambering for a moment… dragging herself to the surface, out of the depths she'd sunken into in her subconscious. Air filled her lungs again in heaves, as she gripped the blankets, gripped under her knuckles tensed to white and her nails dug into her palms..

He’d drifted off to sleep eventually. Oliver’s mind was still humming with worry, so it took a little while.. But with a hand buried in Maisy’s scruff, and Grace’s features finally looking somewhat peaceful, Oliver finally fell asleep.

He woke up to her scream, the poor cat jumping in fright as well as Oliver, who immediately gripped Grace’s shoulders, one hand desperately holding her cheek as he silently pleaded with her, trying to calm her down with the reassuring, grounding touch.

Her breathing staggered, and for a moment she remained tense, uneasy. His touch drew her out and eyes focusing, she blinked, blinked and exhaled, her grasp on the covers loosened and tears burned as she shook her head, “I'm sorry…”

Wordlessly he shook his head, keeping his grip on her gentle yet firm, the hand on her cheek brushing away the tears. After a moment, Oliver pulled her form against him, rubbing her back soothingly, trying to banish the nightmare away with his touch.

She hated it. The way it made her feel… The dreams. The pain that sung through her. She felt grimy and cold and frustrated. So frustrated…

Curling into his hold, she shook her head, “Damn it… this…” Pushing upright, she frowned, “Ollie. I can't do this. I'm not gonna do this. I'm so sick of being scared…” Looking to him, she breathed in, “I need your help…”

His brows furrowed in confusion, continuing to rub her back and try to wrap her in that blanket of safety. ”Anything.” The reply was just one word but he meant much more. Oliver would do anything to bring her… them… peace.

Breathing in, desperately trying to keep it even despite the pounding of her heart, she rose slowly to her feet, “...Where is your bath?”

Watching her pull away, trying to calm his nerves, he glanced down the hallway, and pointed. ”I thought you said that…” He trailed off, as they both knew what he meant.

“...I did.” She took another breath, in and out, and tried to move her feet, but they wouldn’t budge, fear rooting her into place, “...Could… could you? Will you come with me? Just… just to the door?”

Nodding feverently, Oliver stood as well, placing a reassuring hand on her back as he guided her gently to the bathroom, trying not to betray the worry that was seeping into his bones.

It was just a tub. Just five feet of porcelain, a faucet and a drain. It didn’t have any significant meaning… it wasn’t an omen or curse. Hands shaking, she gripped the door jam, and her legs quaked, knees threatening to give as fear coursed through her, “...Ten feet.” She whispered to herself, “...Just another ten feet…”

He didn’t know what else to do, except keep that hand on her back and slowly, surely, ease her forward, inch by inch. When an animal came to him broken.. He always knew what to do. How exactly to calm their fears and give them peace. But she… people in general were lost on him. Oliver didn’t know what he could say to quench her worries, to wipe away the pain. He could only make sure his presence was an unwavering force, and promise to stick by her side. He nodded along at her words, holding her forearm and giving it a squeeze.

His presence was invaluable. If he had not been there, she would not have moved from the door frame. Even then, it was terrifying, and as they stepped closer, she could see it in her mind, the water coming closer, surrounding her… she could feel Asher’s hand brushing back her hair, the slap…

“...Turn it on.” She whispered, staring straight ahead, “Please?”

There was that sick, twisting feeling at his heart again, the pit in his stomach growing ever deeper. With another frantic nod, Oliver bowed down and turned the nozzles, allowing the clean, warm water to fill the tub, keeping his peripheral vision trained on her just in case she said anything else, made any other move.

The sound of the water turning on sent a shiver down her spine and her eyes closed as she clenched her fists at her side, sucking in a sharp, uneasy breath. Her chest tightened, and panic welled, but opening her eyes again, she stared at the tub with a defiance, “...Tell me I can do this, Ollie. Just… just tell me I can do it… and I will.”

Standing up to his full height, Oliver brought his hands to her shoulders again, staring into her eyes. Using a voice that was not his felt so horribly intruding at a vulnerable moment like this. He told her with his eyes, with a firm nod and a blaze behind them, and then stepped away, waiting for her to give him a final confirmation.

Nodding, she reached out and gripping his arm, she stepped over the edge, her feet sliding into the water. Quivering, despite the warmth that surrounded her lower body, she stood there for a long moment, uneasy, but unmoving. Finally, releasing his arm, she pulled the sweatshirt over her head and eased down, sitting, her knees curled up, arms around them as the water continued to run.

He averted his gaze once more the moment she pulled off the sweatshirt, stepping out of the bathroom but leaving the door open a crack just so she was aware of his unmoving presence. Even with how fast he had looked away, he’d still caught a glimpse of the horrible yellow blue bruises that marred her back like paint splotches, and he found himself leaning against the wall of the bathroom just to take a few shuddering breaths to try and remain calm for her. It was upsettingly hard, but he would try harder.

For several minutes, she could not move. She didn’t dare move. The sound of water sloshing, the ripples.. It was all graphic reminders, and it drove spikes of terror through her. Eventually, she reached over to turn the water off, when it was high enough, and looping her arms around her knees, she sat, eyes clenched shut.

“...Ollie?” She called eventually, softly, “Could… would you talk? I just… I just wanna hear you for a… for a minute.”

Running his hands through his hair, Oliver tried to find the will to make his phone push out words. He was a ball of nerves, but he couldn’t dare look like that if she was looking to him for assistance. The one pro of not having your own voice was that it couldn’t betray any emotion when you didn’t want it too.

”I am here.” He assured. The voice he had chosen was robotic for the simple purpose that he had no intention of stealing another’s voice. He could have his pick of any audiobook or radio show, but none he deserved none of them… and to steal a voice was to steal an identity. Which was why he felt so… lost. ”Why you would want to hear this robot of a voice is lost on me, Grace. But I am here.”

“It’s you, Ol…” She whispered, opening her eyes, “It might not be your voice, but it’s still you. Your words. Your heart. That… that’s a bigger comfort to me than you will ever know.” Leaning her chin on her knees, she frowned in thought, “...Dunno if you know this, but… I can be pretty stubborn. Crazy as it sounds, I’m not completely sorry this all happened. Brought me here again.”

His hands stayed half buried in his hair, half covering his eyes. Oliver couldn’t tell if his heart was beating this hard for good or bad reasons. Probably both. He had a hard time believing that voice was his… he had always had a hard time just.. Being comfortable in his own skin, especially when there was no trace of a past, a lineage, anything to affirm his doubts. He felt aimless in a world where at least everyone knew where they came from and to top it all off, he didn’t even have a voice.

”I think I could tell quite quickly that you were stubborn.” He said, with a weak smile, though he was still burying his face in his hands. ”I don’t know if completely sorry is the right way to go about it… I’m sorry to see you hurt. But not sorry to see you here.”

“Oh ho…” She breathed, with a small laugh, “...Doolittle’s got jokes, all the sudden.” Uneasily, she shifted, looking over her shoulder to the cracked door, “...Maybe one of these days, I can actually come see you on purpose.”

His back was still to the door, hands still awkwardly clenched in dirty blonde locks. Oliver laughed. ”That would be nice. Without any mortal wounds.”

“Yeah… I uh… I’m not too keen on those. I quit mortal wounds. Cold turkey.” Biting her lip, her eyes took him in, and despite the lighthearted nature of her words, she frowned softly, “...Keep talkin’, Ollie… it’s helping.”

Uh, right. The thing he liked to do least was helping. Fate worked in strange ways, and Oliver shook his head. ”What poor turkey died for this?” He joked. ”Fascinating creatures. Very loud. I do not keep them any longer. But I refuse to celebrate Thanksgiving out of respect for their kind.”

“Don’t worry…” She mused, with a smile forming, genuine, soft, “You didn’t know him. Jeff. He was a real smart ass… Never knew when to button his beak, you know? He had it comin’...” Shifting, she let her hand touch the water, and gingerly, she rubbed with her free hand, rubbed at the dried blood on her wrist, leaving pink rivulets in the water, “...Wait. You… for real? You don’t celebrate Thanksgiving? You… are such a nerd.”

”I take full offense to that comment.” The deadpan tone of the software finally fit the joke for once in his life. ”It’s not easy to make feasts out of animals when you speak to them. Plants as well, but they’re different. It’s different. Oh, it’s all very strange. Sometimes it is more a curse than a blessing, I say.”

“...Damn. You’re gonna ruin meat for me, aren’t you?” Looking back at him again, she shook her head, “I knew you were trouble when I met you, Doolittle.” Repeating the process with her other wrist, she stared at her hands afterwards, still shaking, but clean, the small scrapes and cuts the only evidence of her nightmare, “...I guess I’d have a hard time eating something that could say good morning, too.”

Pausing, she blinked, staring at the water again, “...I.. .have literally no idea… how I’m gonna wash my hair.”

”I will try not too, but I can’t help the fact that I might have at one point spoken to your dinner.” He answered honestly. Dragging his hands down his face, Oliver shook his head, tried to stand up a little straighter. ”There is shampoo on the side of the tub. I believe turning on the water again might aid you.. yes?”

“...You know a way to do it without getting my head wet?” She teased dryly. It was one thing to sit in the water. It was another entirely to put her head under. To feel the water over her face, to hold her breath, “God, this is gonna suck.”

Oh. He palmed his forehead. Stupid… ”Right. No. I don’t.” He offered, feeling entirely unhelpful. ”It’ll be just fine. I’m right here. You don’t even have to get your face wet, just your hair. I am right here.”

“...I can do this. I can…” She breathed in deeply, and with trembling fingers, turned on the faucet. She knew she could take it slow. That throwing her hair back in a bun and letting it be for a few days wouldn’t be the end of the world. But this wasn’t about the water… or her hair… this was about the fear. If she didn’t conquer it now, she never would. It would haunt her, the way her mother had… and she would spend the rest of her life letting something else control her.

Gripping the sides of the tubs, she leaned back, and with her heart hammering hard against her chest she leaned back.

If it’s any consolation, I hear that drowning isn’t so bad towards the end. Like falling asleep...

Bolting upright again, she breathed in sharply.

He heard the water swish abruptly, her sharp breath. ”Grace,” He called out, fingers drumming in a panic against his thigh. Calm… calm. ”Grace, I’m right here. You can do this. You’re here with me, in my home, and not anywhere else. You’re almost done. Okay? You can do this.”

“I’m okay… I’m al...alright. Just… just too much.” She inhaled slowly, exhaled, and holding the sides, quaking, leaned back again. It was enough. The shampoo would just have to wait. There were limits to fighting fear, and she was done. She wanted to be done, “T...towel?”

”Hanging to your right,” He guided, hands curling fistfuls of his shirt. He’d almost forgotten the squirrel in his pocket, who jostled and looked up at him curiously. Sorry. Oliver said to the little thing, patting his pocket again and inviting him to continue his rest. ”You did great, Grace.” Oliver assured.

“...I did alright…” She whispered, shakily. Rising to her feet, she moved to take the towel from the rack, wrapping it around her slender form with a small frown. Moving across the floor, she peered through the crack, her fingertips curled around the edge of the door frame, “Th...thanks for staying with me.”

Oliver finally allowed himself to turn around, taking her hand warily as she moved towards the door. ”Of course. Let’s get you some ill-fitting clothes.” He said with a reassuring smile, trying to stop his hands from trembling against hers. In another moment he had ripped apart his dresser drawers to find the smallest clothing possible for her to wear, but he had nothing nearing her stature at all. Another hoodie was brought out and thrust into her hands. ”I will go start the fire. And make tea.”

Following him from the bathroom back to the bedroom, she sank onto the edge of the bed and watched as he searched, to no avail, amusement in her eyes. Taking the hoodie, she glanced up at him, shaking her head, “...You know you don’t need to be so bashful, right?” With a small, sheepish smile, she shrugged, “...You seen more of me than anyone’s ever had, Ollie.” But she wasn’t referring to any lack of clothes. Being vulnerable… open… frightened. It was like being naked in another way entirely. “I got nothin’ left to hide from you.”

Oliver’s brows furrowed. It was… it was a little scary, knowing how much of Grace he held in his hands. He wasn’t sure it was for the best. He wasn’t sure he was the best for the job, but he would try his damned ardest. ”I don’t ever want to know what you don’t want me too.” He said, still avoiding quite looking at her. ”I don’t ever want to invade.”

“...Been a long time, Oliver, since I felt safe anywhere.” Biting her lip, she lowered her gaze to her hands, resting in her lap. Idly, she picked at a frayed strand on the edge of the towel, “...I know you think you’re no good at this. But hell. You… you really don’t know how much you’ve broken in, already. How much you… you broke down. And I’m not mad. I’m not. I… I’m glad you did. Cause it sucks, being… being vulnerable. Open. But it sucks worse, having that weight… bearing it alone. It… it’s like being free, for the first time. I dunno what the hell to make of it, or what to do with myself, but I’m… I’m grateful, all the same. Cause the alternative is no good for anyone.”

He stared at her, wide eyed. Speechless. Well, he was always speechless, but this time in a different way. Cheeks pink, Oliver rubbed his arm. ”Grace…” He didn’t know what to say. ”As long as you’re okay with it. That’s all. I never meant to do any of that, but as long as you’re okay with it.”

“...Of course I am.” Laughing softly, she nodded, “And you should be, too. It… it saved my life, Ollie. I never would’ve come back here if you hadn’t managed so much, just that first day I was here. And I know I said it, but I feel like I need you to really, truly understand… I meant to come back. I really did.”

After a moment's hesitation, Oliver nodded. ”I know.” He hadn’t then, but he did now. ”I’m going to go start that fire. And put the kettle on. Do you want chamomile, or earl grey? I might have some mint.” It was poor subject switching, but he didn’t know how else to continue.

“...Earl what the hell?” A brow lifted, and looking up at him, her expression grew into a bright smile, “Ollie. Do I look like a girl who knows what the hell kinda tea I like? Surprise me, Doolittle. I trust you. Now get outta here and lemme get dressed, before you fall in love with my Xena-like physique.”

”Earl what the hell. I don’t think I have that, but I will look for it.” He said with a weak smile, glad to hear her at least a little cheerier and that smile on her face a little brighter. ”Come to the living room when you’re done, and I’ll have the fire up and going.” With that, he nodded and slipped out of the bedroom.

When he’d gone, Grace rose and slid the sweatshirt on overhead. It hung nearly to her knees, and enveloped her hands. She never felt quite so small until she was wearing another man’s clothes… Which didn’t happen often, that was for sure. She’d once borrowed a jacket from her brother that had been mistaken for a dress…

Tucking back her hair, she ran her fingertip over the injured rim and hissed in a breath. It would heal. It would all heal.

Swallowing, she pulled herself together and slipped out into the living room to find Oliver.

He was quick to get the fire going, and it brought warmth rapidly to the little cottage. Oliver was glad for that, as he was sure Grace would enjoy it, and moving onto the next task, he filled the kettle with water and set it on the stove. He opted to make her a mug of chamomile, due to all the stuff about being tranquil and what not, and fixed up one for himself.

Offering her another warm smile as she entered the room, Oliver handed her the mug as Maisy darted between their legs. A deer had curled up by the fire as well as a number of birds perched on the higher shelves. He had thought about baking something, but upon opening the oven had found a racoon, so that sort of scratched his appetite.

Crossing the floor, Grace setting in front of the hearth, curling the sweatshirt over her legs and wrapping her arms around her knees. Her fingers stretched out, wiggling for Maisy, as she reached up to take the mug, savoring the warmth as it leached into her hands. Breathing in the scent of chamomile, she looked up at Oliver, “...Now sit. You, I think, have done enough taking care of me for the moment. Rest.”

Blinking at Grace in surprise, a smirk twitched at the corner of his lips, holding his own mug of tea. ”Bossy. I haven’t even made anything to eat yet.” He protested.

“Oh wow! Did you… did you just call me bossy? You… that just happened, didn’t it?” Shaking her head, she clicked her tongue, “Don’t get sassy with me, Doolittle. You won’t last long.” Wiggling a finger up at him, she grinned.

Oliver rolled his eyes, begrudgingly flopping in one of the arm chairs. ”So you can be sassy, but I can’t? Sounds unfair to me.”

Setting down her mug and leaning back on her hands, she glanced up at him with a smirk, “...You can fight it, or you can give in to fate, my friend. You can’t out sass a sass queen.” It felt good, admittedly, to joke, to play… to think of something else besides what had happened, “You are cute when you pout, though.”

Plucking up the mug, she blew steam from the top of it, before taking a sip, “...Not half bad…”

”I can try,” Oliver announced, expression that of pure indignance, dutifully ignoring her comment about his cuteness. ”I’m amazed you’ve never had chamomile. Your grandmother didn’t even make you a glass of something old and smelly once?”

“My Gram was more into bourbon and whiskey… but she didn’t like to share that…” Inching back, she leaned against the base of his chair, dropping her head onto the cushion beside her leg, “She was a riot… Her husband, he was… well, he had some interesting connections, and whenever he’d have his boys over to the house, Gram would, half the time, drink them under the table. Problem was, she’d drink when they weren’t there, either. But she did her best… takin’ care of me.”

A fluttering sigh fell out of Oliver as he sipped his tea. Everytime Grace spoke about her past, it hurt more and more to hear it. ”Right, well. I’ll gladly take up the mantle of kooky grandmother. Make you all sorts of strange teas.”

“Oof… Ollie.” Opening her eyes, she looked up at him as much as she could from her position “That… I don’t want you to be my grandma. You’re a hell of a cook, and the way you take care of me… it’s not something I could be mad at if I tried, but uh… I don’t exactly wanna picture you as a wrinkly old, blue haired woman in a flower dressing gown.”

Oliver laughed. ”Your grandmother had crazy hair too? I guess it runs in the family.” He rested his chin in his palm, elbow against the arm of the chair. He looked at her curiously. ”What do you want to picture me as?”

A brow rose at his comments, and shaking her head, she laughed faintly, “Not… literally blue, you goofball. More grey than anything. It’s… I dunno why, it’s just something people say about old ladies.” Her expression shifted at his next question, however, and sitting up, she turned around to face him, “I don’t really know. It… it’s more complicated than I thought it might be. All I know for sure is when I picture anything at all… I want you here, by my side.”

Oliver held their gaze for a moment before letting it flicker down in embarrassment. ”Grace, I don’t mean to.... Confuse you.” He said honestly, rubbing the back of his head. ”I’m not sure I am ready for anything like…” His cheeks flushed a hot pink, shaking his head nervously.

“Woah, hey. No… Ollie. Don’t…” Sitting back, her smile softened, “Don’t take that the wrong way, okay? I know… I know it’s not… You’re not…” Rubbing the back of her neck, her own cheeks faintly red, she bit her lip, “Why the hell was it easier to talk about all this deep, meaningful crap a few minutes ago.” Breathing out, she shook her head, “...Kinda gathered I wasn’t your type, anyhow.”

Oliver laughed weakly, nodding. ”I’m sorry. Yes. I made it awkward, didn’t I.” He said, cheeks growing redder. ”I care about you a lot, Grace. I just didn’t want you to get the wrong idea. People aren’t exactly my speciality, but I’m glad I’ve been helpful. I’m glad you’re feeling better. I want to do everything in my power I can to keep it that way.”

Leaning forward again, chin to her knees, she stared into the fireplace with a small nod, “...No, yeah. It’s… it’s cool, Ol.” Biting her cheek, she leaned forward for her tea, taking a long, concentrated sip, “...Apparently, they’re not my speciality, either.” With a dry smile, she reached out a hand to Maisy, “Don’t feel bad. Pretty sure I made it awkward, first.”

Maisy seemed to sense not of the anxious air in the room, eagerly brushing against Grace’s outstretched hand. ”No.. You didn’t, Grace. You didn’t at all. I think we can just scratch it up to me being a forest recluse, and I will make more tea or something.” He said with another awkward, airy laugh.

Running her fingers through her hair, she shook her head, “Or to me being an over-emotional idiot right now. Has it been three seconds yet? Think I can take it back?.” Scratching Maisy below the chin, she breathed in, “More tea sounds good, Ollie. Thanks.”

”You’re not an overly emotional idiot,” Oliver protested, though he did stand up to put the kettle on once more. ”We are figuring things out. That’s all. Teamwork.” He said with another weak grin from behind the counter.

“...Teamwork? You really are a forest recluse, aren’t you?” She teased, looking up at him with a small laugh, “Figuring things out. That’s a good way to put it, though. Hell, if I don’t have a lengthy list under that label.” Eventually it was going to catch up. She could push it off as long as she wanted, mentally, emotionally, but everything that had happened… all that was yet to come, it would take a toll, and the thought of that hurt, almost physically, “For the record, I care about you, too, Ol. Shouldn’t go unsaid.”

He desperately hoped he hadn’t done anything to push her away.. Especially not when she was going through something this harsh. If she felt like she couldn’t talk to him, then… then it could only mean bad things. But at her next comment a more genuine smile fluttered onto his face, and he felt it was still okay. ”Good. And I’m here for you, Grace. Whatever you need.”

“Whatever I need, hmm?” With a saucy grin, Grace pushed herself to her feet, and followed him into the kitchen, pulling herself up on the counter, “Quit hittin’ on me, Ollie. Geez.”

The teasing smile faded swiftly as her eyes shifted to the kitchen window, and paling, Grace slipped down to her feet, grabbing for his hand, “Oliver. He's here.”


consistently inconsistent
Invitation Status
, , , ,
Posting Speed
1-3 posts per week, One post per week
Online Availability
I check as often as I can.
Writing Levels
Intermediate, Adept, Advanced, Adaptable
Preferred Character Gender
Male, Female, No Preferences
Fantasy, Realistic/Modern, Magic, Scifi, Romance
Mouse Hunt pt III
with Elle Joyner Elle Joyner

Maybe it was foolish of him to hope his little cottage would go unnoticed. He had wanted it too, desperately… but things never worked like you wanted or wished. Squeezing her hand once, tightly, before letting it go to cross the room and hand her a pair of tech-outfitted gloves. ”Put these on. Hide.”

Hands shaking, panic swelling in her chest, Grace tried to focus on his words, tried to concentrate. He handed her the gloves and her breath caught on his words, “Wh...what? Hide? No. Ollie! No! I'm not gonna leave you!”

”Grace. I said hide.” His gaze was firm, jaw set. ”The gloves are like tasers. If they come near you, just grab them. I’m going to see if we can divert them before any fighting first. So hide.” The animals lounging around the cottage all suddenly scampered for a hiding place, a hush falling over the place.

Her eyes teared up, she stared at him, “Ollie… if…” but she could see in his posture she wasn't gonna win. Stepping forward, she threw her arms around his neck, hugging him tightly, “Please be safe…”

Sliding on the gloves, heart racing, she left the kitchen.

He reciprocated the hug, even if he was a little tense. ”You too.” He replied, waiting until she was out of sight before even moving from his place in the kitchen. Then came the knock. He thought about all the things these people had done too Grace, the horrible ways she’d been tortured. If they had already found her here, could he really talk them out if it? For her safety, for the safety of everything else, he had to try.

Stepping up to the door, Oliver opened it halfway to peer at the man in front of him. Hoping to throw him off guard, Oliver put on his best expression of innocent confusion, and brought his hands up to sign the question, ”Are you lost?” In hopes of throwing the man off entirely and making him think they could not communicate.

The man smiled. It might've seemed amiable enough, but for the fact that it didn't touch his eyes. He cleared his throat as the door opened and lowered his hand to his side, “Evening. So sorry to bother you. I do hope I'm not interrupting anything. Names David Asher… I work for the Department of Security…” From his suit coat he flashed a badge, before replacing it, “We have a fugitive in the area and I'm curious if you've seen anything suspicious?”

Looking at the badge, Oliver’s eyes narrowed. No agent from the Department of Security would hurt Grace the way she’d been hurt. The badge looked real enough, but that smile wasn’t real at all. Silently, Oliver shook his head. He tried to make his stature as unimposing as possible, hunching his shoulders and bowing his head. ”I’m sorry, I cannot speak.” Oliver signed apologetically.

Eyes following the hands as he signed, Asher smirked faintly and gave a small shrug of his shoulders before he reached into his suit again, pulling free a pen and small pad of paper, “Hope you can write.”

Oliver cautiously took the pen and paper, not sure what else the man wanted to hear. I have not seen any fugitive here. Sorry I can’t be of more help. He wrote.

“You sure, there, pal?” He asked, a brow raised, “No help at all? Hm.” Nodding, he stepped back, eyes drifting to the door frame, “You a hunter?”

Ouch. That was the worst assumption one could make for Oliver. He could have just said yes, but it struck Oliver the wrong way. Did this man want an excuse to see a licence? To see inside? No. Just a vacation home. I like the quiet. Oliver wrote.

“Were you recently injured?” The man asked, and his lip curves into a small, concrete smile.

Oliver quirked a brow, unsure where the question came from until… he looked down, and low and behold, spatters of blood littered the porch. Grace… he’d forgotten to clean it up. Must have been a wild animal. There are other hunters in the area. Oliver wrote, lips pursed.

“I'm sure…” The man continued to smile, bending down low to investigate the residue, “Awfully… strange prints, don't you think. Damn near like hand prints…”

If he had just cleaned the porch… if he had just cleaned the porch. All of this would have gone away. He could have protected Grace. Did he keep bluffing, or take the chance while the man was bent down? Do you think the fugitive passed through here? Should I be worried? Oliver scribbled.

Straightening, the man reached into his suit again, producing a small service pistol, “I'd say you should be a bit concerned, yeah. Where is she? Hiding her is gonna do you no favors. Do you even know what she is? What'd she offer you to hide her? She tear up with those big brown eyes of hers? Offer you cash? A roll in the sheets? Brother… she's not worth it. I promise.”

At the sight of the pistol, Oliver took a cautious step back. Why couldn’t he do anything right? Why couldn’t he save anybody? He resisted the urge to spit in the man’s face. ”She didn’t offer me anything.” His phone piped up, and though his hands were up in surrender a look of anger crossed his gaze, lip curling in a snarl. ”Any man who hunts for sport should feel the wrath of those he hunts.” A roar resounded from behind the man, and Mama bear bared her teeth, prepared to lunge.

“So you can tal--” At the roar, Asher spun and swearing raised the revolver a moment later than necessary. He fired off a shot into the boards of the porch as a claw swiped across his arm. He buckled, ducked, arms raised overhead. Behind Oliver, Grace emerged, reached out, catching his hand, “Ollie! Run! Go! The truck!”

So much happened in that moment, Oliver stumbling back at the shot, Mama pouncing, Grace catching his hand. Panic rising in his throat, he thrust the keys to his truck into her hand. ”Go. The animals.” He said, rushing back inside, urging every living thing to clear out of the place. Animals turned up in droves, flying, trotting, pittering out of the cottage, worry clear in his gaze.

Out on the porch, Grace skidded to a halt as Asher rose up from his crouch while Mama Bear pulled back for another swing. The gun raised… “No!” And diving… literally diving for the man, Grace's tiny form collided with his… not so tiny form. She had the gloves, and thank God for that, because apart from stumbling back, her attack had been about as useful as a kitten pawing at a buick. Gloved hand smacking into his chest. A jolt exploded from the glove and Asher shook violently as the electricity did it's work.

His knees caved and he dropped to his side, twitching. Jumping over him, Grace continued for the truck, running as fast as her feet would carry her.

Shoving whatever belongings he could into a pack as he urged every animal out, Oliver tried to wrap his mind around what was happening. He would be leaving his home, his entire life’s work… his world. The panic of the animals made it hard to think, clouding Oliver’s brain with their cries and uncertainties. He had done his best.. at the cry outside, he rushed back out, and watched Asher collapse after convulsing violently. With one last thank you to Mama bear, urging her to run and seek cover, Oliver dashed for the truck.

In the truck, Grace aimed four times for the ignition before she finally got it, her eyes bouncing back to the house, watching, praying, begging Ollie to emerge. Tears burned as she turned the ignition over and biting hard on her nail, she waited.

He appeared, and a cry escaped her… desperately grateful, before she reached over the console to open the driver's side.

Oliver slid into the drivers seat, chucking his bag in the back as he tried to run through any loose ends, tried to think of anything he’d missed… tried to stop the pain that swelled inside of him at the thought of leaving this home. Would he get to come back? A part of him wanted to get right out of that car and fight to defend. To stay… in the place that he and Duncan had always dreamed of living in. But one look at Grace’s face and Oliver shook his head, slamming a foot on the gas pedal when a certain cat rushed out of the house and towards the truck. He halted immediately, a silent cry on his lips to their feline friend.

“Maisy!” She wouldn't run. Grace didn't need the ability to communicate with animals to know Maisy wasn't going to leave them. Tears blurring her vision, Grace unbuckled and shoved open her door, nearly toppling out as she scrambled to the front of the truck. A shot careened over her head, just over her head, and with a cry, she dropped back, spotting Asher establishing his bearings, straightening up on the porch, “Maisy! C'mon!” Grabbing the cat as she neared, Grace pushed upright and leaped back inside, “Go, Ollie! Go!”

Asher took a leap down the stairs, landing and squaring his stance, arms outstretched, gun raised.

As Grace called for Maisy, Oliver watched Asher attempt to right himself. Grinding his teeth together, he squeezed his eyes shut, flinching at the shot above their heads but trying not to break focus. It wasn’t a simple favor. But he had dedicated his life to this forest, tended to it, cared for it, for all its inhabitants. He hated to make a request like this, but there was no other choice.


As Asher raised his gun a splintering sound resounded behind them. The moment Grace had hopped back inside the car he jammed his foot down on the gas pedal, and behind them, a large tree began to creak and lean. With one last intense glare, Oliver gave Asher the bird, and not the one he could speak with. He sped away from his home and onto the path, as in their wake, the tree fell.

Breathing hard, chest tight as a vice, Grace clung to Maisy, trembling from head to foot. The tree crashed down and she jumped at the sound, but however terrifying it was, it did the trick. Asher was blinded by foliage, his aim thrown…

And better still, the driving path had been cut off. He couldn't follow…

“How… how did they find me again…”

Heaving, Oliver gripped the steering wheel so tight his knuckles turned white. His eyes were wide with fear, and something had shattered behind them. ”I don’t know.” He replied, unable to tear his gaze away from the road, unable to loosen his rigid posture.

Eyes shifting, she raked her fingers through Maisy's fur, shaking her head. Despite all he'd done for her, despite saving her life… she'd brought this down on him, “I should've left… The… the cabin. The animals… Everything... I should've left last night. This is… this is all my fault.”

”Stop it!” His phone blared, volume rising. ”You should have left and then what? You would have died alone! That wouldn’t have helped anyone. That wouldn’t have been any better. I told all the animals to leave. This is not your fault.” Anger pooled in him, but it wasn’t towards her… it only came out that way, and in truth, he was just scared.

“You wouldn’t be in this damn truck with me! Maybe you’d miss me down the line, but hell if you wouldn’t be better off! I was selfish, Ollie! I was selfish and stupid! I stayed because… because I didn’t wanna be alone, and now… now you’re…” Rubbing her hands over her face, she breathed in, “Ol...I...I’m sorry.”

He wanted to yell at her. He wanted to scream and shout and he wanted to cry but he couldn’t. The most he could do was turn his phone’s volume to max but it wasn’t enough, and she didn’t deserve it. To hear her say all those awful things about herself drained Oliver’s anger, and he simply stared ahead. He stared ahead as his eyes grew wet and his shoulders began to quake. As he thought about all the suffering he had watched her go through and here she was still, beating herself up further despite the bruises on her back, as if she needed anymore hurt. He wasn’t angry at her, he was angry at the world, and so desperately angry at the fact that his own little world, his safe haven… his last true piece of Duncan, was gone.

”We’re in this together.” A single tear slipped down his cheek and he brushed it away just as quick as it’d come. ”I don’t care if you like it or not. I don’t care how at fault you think you are. We’re in this together.”

“I don’t even know what this is. I… I don’t know what I did. What they want. I… I haven’t seen my brother in ten years. I… I don’t understand any of this. What he could’ve done. What I did…” Looking back behind them, she tried to rack her brain… tried to think how they possibly could’ve found her. Not once, but twice…

Kane wants all of them, Maya. He isn’t gonna be happy if we ice her and lose the brother…

The bitch hasn’t seen him in years. Be easier to find D.B. Cooper. We can find him another way. We’ve got Kane’s little GPS…

“...They’re… they’re using something… a… a GPS, they called it. Do… do you think they’re tracking me?” Looking over at him, she frowned at the sight of the tear track and reaching over, her hand hovered over his on the steering wheel, but ultimately fell back into her lap. Idly, she looked down where she’d discarded the tazer glove…

“It worked well… the glove.”

Still gripping the steering wheel harsher than necessary, Oliver kept his gaze pointed fiercely on the road. Of course they were tracking her. It couldn’t be explained otherwise. He couldn’t sense the presence of any technology on her, no tracker embedded. Only nodding meekly in response to the glove comment, Oliver was glad it worked. He didn’t make weapons often… he’d found himself with the urge to do so one day, and well… apparently it was foreboding.

”Not something.” He said, still refusing to look at her. ”Someone.”

Situating Maisy beside her, Grace curled her legs up to her chest, wrapping her arms around them. It hurt. It hurt to know that she’d effectively ruined his life. That in coming back, she’d taken everything from him. Everything he loved, everything important to him… She’d ruined it. And she’d hurt the only friend she’d had in a long… long time.

Looking out the window, she bit hard on her lip, refusing to let anymore tears fall. It was senseless, feeling sorry for herself. She’d just have to make sure this was the last time it happened… the last time… she took anything from Oliver.

“...They’ll come again.” she murmured finally, eyes shifting to the cat beside her, “I don’t know what to do if they do…”

He had tried his best to avoid a life of running. He’d done it for a time.. And it did not suit him. Not at all. And Oliver had been content to hide.. To live in the depths of the forest like a mad man. It had been perfect for him. It had been all he wanted. No more… he tried to remember how he’d felt, those nights in hiding. The hunger that had climbed at his stomach, staying in abandoned apartments and shady areas. He was young.. He was scared. Hell, he was scared now, but he sure as hell wasn’t green anymore.

The slightest wistful smile graced Oliver’s lips. ”I’ll get a new guard dog.”

She could do this. She’d done this before. She’d done this for the last seven years… But every thought, every plan changed when you added in another person. She couldn’t bunk in tree branches or curl up in the back of someone’s truck… Not when she had Ollie with her.

“...Bear might be better.” She mused, eyes stinging again as she thought about Mama Bear… left behind. Would he ever find her again? Would she be alright on her own?

His heart twinged at the thought. Just like he couldn’t save Mama’s cub… couldn’t save her either. Oliver continued to grind his teeth, rising and falling between guilt and anger like pushing tides. ”Mama bear will be fine.” He tried to assure Grace, but he wasn’t so sure himself. The bear hadn’t quite been on its on in a while… his stomach twisted with pain for her.

“...How long… long has she been with you?” She didn’t wanna know the answer, but one thing Grace wholeheartedly believed in, if only because no one else in her life had ever seemed to, it was taking responsibility for your faults… and owning them. She had messed up, big, and she needed to know just how big.

He inhaled sharply, finally glancing her way, taking in that look of guilt she wore. ”You really want to hurt more than you already are.” Oliver said lowly, shaking his head, scratching the back of his neck as he forced himself to look away. ”Some things are better left unsaid.”

“I… I don’t think I can hurt more.” She whispered, and her chest felt tighter, weighted, her forehead touching her knees, “I… I asked you yesterday… if this… if I was worth this. I don’t see how anyone could be. I don’t… I don’t know how to make this better.”

”Well, telling you about every sad thing that’s happened to me isn’t going to make it better.” He said, facial features tense. ”I said you were worth it. I said I’d do anything. I don’t make promises I can’t keep.”

She couldn’t understand it. Not at all. Not when her own family hadn’t even thought so… Her dad, her brother, her mom… Everyone left. Everyone gave up. She had tried to rob Oliver, and someone, he was more understanding, more compassionate… he cared about her, more than any of the people who were supposed to ever did…

“I messed up, so bad, Ol… and I don’t know how to fix any of it. I never… never wanted to hurt you like this. I never wanted you to give up anything for me. God, Oliver. I would hate me… if I were you.”

That wisp of a laugh came again as he ran his hand through his hair, feeling the blood rush back to his hands after gripping the steering wheel so tightly for so long. ”I don’t have it in my heart to hate anymore.” He would have whispered it if he could. ”You came to me because you were lost. You were scared and hungry. What good would it have done to hate you? What good would it have done to kick you off my doorstep when you came, dying? I can’t. I can’t put anymore hate in the world than there already is.”

He drummed his fingers along the steering wheel. ”We’ll fix it. Somehow. We will.”

“...I hate myself enough for the both of us, right now.” She whispered, still burrowed in her knees. He was so good. Too good. Too good for a world that was going to treat him like trash and try to hurt him. To break him.

She wouldn’t let it happen. Not if she had any say at all. She couldn’t wind back time, but hell if she’d let the future get any worse for Oliver. He had lost too much. Given too much. And somehow, he still had faith in her…

And she would not ruin anything else for him.

”Well, stop.” He said. ”That isn’t going to help either of us. None of that.” Smile. Come on. Smile at her. She needs it. Oliver smiled weakly at her. ”All that hate. Can you imagine how angry Maisy is at right now? She’s practically yelling at me right now.” He said lightly. Maisy was happily purring and curled up against Grace. She was definitely not yelling at Oliver.

Picking up her head, she glanced down at Maisy, before looking over at him, blinking slowly, “Y...yeah, Ol. She looks real furious. Dunno how you’re managing to stay on the road.” But it helped. For a moment, it helped. If only because she knew what he was trying to do, and it was a clear enough indicator to her that he wasn’t completely broken.

Breathing in, she bit her cheek, and reaching out, brushed her fingertips to the edge of his arm, “...I’m not gonna let them hurt you, Ollie. I won’t.”

He didn’t flinch away from the touch. Breathing in, Oliver allowed his gaze to take her in momentarily. He could feel the hurt radiating off of her in waves, and he didn’t need to be able to speak to her to know that. ”And I won’t let them hurt you.” He replied.

“There… there’s somewhere we can go, Oliver. Up north. I… I found out about it a few years ago. They might be able to hide us, until we can figure out what’s going on.” Rubbing her arms, she looked to the window, frowning softly, “...Hate to say it, but I think I might need to track down my brother…”

Alright, good. That was a start. A place to go.. People who would help. He hadn’t really left his forest in five years. He’d lost contact with Nick… and Nem, well, he had no clue where Nem was. Whoever these people Grace was talking about, he hoped they’d help. ”So are you going to tell me who your brother is?”

Biting her lip, she shook her head, “...I don’t remember a lot about him. His name’s Devon. For a while, after he left, he’d write. He contacted me a few years ago.. Just before I took off on my own… Tried to get me to come out to where he was staying. I was still pretty angry about all that had gone down… Never wrote back after that, and without a forwarding address…” Lowering her gaze, she picked absently at her fingernail, “I don’t even know if he’s alive, to be honest.”

”If he’s half as resilient as you, I wouldn’t be surprised.” Oliver said with a smirk. ”Do you still have that letter? Did he ever say where he was staying?” Family seemed to be so complicated for Grace. Talking to her almost made him grateful, sometimes. That he didn’t have one.

“He was in Miami at the time. I… I don’t have anything from home. I left pretty quickly. Didn’t have time to take much more than what I was wearin’. But I can put out some feelers, once we get to where we’re going. They’re wicked organized, and he was apparently part of some pretty big stuff. All that Rogue business down there. We can see if I can figure out where he was writing from. It’s a start.”

He nodded in understanding. He’d always heard of Rogue, and many mutants he’d encountered had been heading for it. Oliver preferred to live alone, and not to draw attention. He was glad for that choice when he’d heard it all fallen apart. ”We’ll find him somehow. It’ll definitely help to get to the route of why you’re being tracked. Tell me more about the people we’re heading too now.”

“It’s an Underground. It’s hard as hell to get in, but I know someone. A few years back when I was up in New York, saved a guy from gettin’ nailed by a taxi cab. Well… after he was nailed by the taxi cab the first time. Long story short, we got to talkin’ and he offered me a place down there. But I wasn’t big on stickin’ around anywhere.” If she had, though, Ollie wouldn’t be in the mess he was in… “Apparently the guy who runs it, he can make you disappear.”

There was strength in numbers… especially when powerful mutants came together to protect one another. He had always been a loner, but the idea of someone who could make you disappear… well, Oliver could see the appeal. ”Impressive.” He said, furrowing his brow. ”I hope they’ve still got that spot open, then. At least for a little while.” Oliver nodded. ”I think this will be good. I think it’ll work out, Grace. This all will.”

“I hope so, Oliver.” Looking over at him, guilt still plaguing her gaze, she gnawed on her lower lip, “...But if it doesn’t… Ollie, I need you to do something for me.”

He frowned at her. ”What is it?”

“If we can’t... get in there. Get someone safe. If we can’t find a way to hide from these guys… I need… I need you to let me go. Just… before you say anything. Just listen. I can’t… I don’t have words for how much you mean to me. I’ve met a lot of people, wandering around, but I never… I never met anyone like you, and if something happened to you. I can’t lose you, Oliver. Even if it means giving you up, I can’t lose you.”

His grip tensed again. It took everything he had not to cut her off right then and there, breathing harshly. ”You’re not going to lose me.” He said. ”But I won’t do that. I won’t let you go. That’s not how I work. I won’t.”

Her eyes filled with tears, and while she knew they had to keep going, all she wanted was to tell him to stop right then and there, so she could hug him. He was…

“You might actually be… more stubborn than me, Doolittle.” She sniffed softly, shaking her head, “...But I swear to God, something happens to you… I’m gonna lose it. I won’t make it, Ol… I won’t. Not… not without you.”

”Nothing’s going to happen to me.” He promised. ”We’re going to make it together.” He wouldn’t have it any other way. Oliver took one hand off the steering wheel and rested it in hers. ”I promise that, and you and I don’t make promises we can’t keep.”

Squeezing his hand, she brought it up to her forehead, resting against it, eyes falling closed. There was no way of knowing what the future held, no way of knowing if they’d get to their destination… get ten miles down the road… No way of knowing what tomorrow held. But as much as the guilt ate away at her, as much as it hurt to think about what she’d brought down on him… ultimately, she was glad she wasn’t alone.

“...We’ll make it together.” She nodded, opening her eyes, “And make these sick bastards sorry they tangled with us.” A small smile formed, and she looked over at him, “You’re pretty badass, you know that?”

”Am I?” Oliver said, happy to have his hand against hers. Happy to give her peace. ”I mean, of course I am.” With a smirk, he squeezed her hand. It hurt, everything that had happened… but five years was a long time to hide in one place. Maybe this was meant to be. Maybe it was time to leave the nest, to embrace the world… not one he’d created. He trusted Grace. He wanted nothing more than to see her happy. If this was what it took… then maybe a new adventure wouldn’t be so bad.


Skittish Beaver
Invitation Status
Posting Speed
Multiple posts per day
Online Availability
Generally online in the afternoon eastern time
Writing Levels
Give-No-Fucks, Adaptable
Preferred Character Gender
Male, Female
Fantasy, mystery, magical, modern,
We're Boned, Collab @ Elle Joyner, Auggie.

Carmilla was lost. That was not a particular problem for the young woman, for a gentle older man had kindly taken her by her wrist and directed her down a narrow path, devoid of any noise or cars. How kind! Carmilla was not incredibly accustomed to the Florida cities, nor was she used to the sort of people who were there. This was the first man beyond Xavier Wickerson who had offered her any kindness. One man had grabbed her by her thigh, squeezing and leaving a grotesque splash of purple. She left him with a rather horrific fracture, resembling that of a spiderweb. However, who could tell that it was possibly her? After all, he did find his face melded into the sidewalk after she swiped his feet from under him. It would be appropriate that his arm went in the wrong direction, along with his bone fragments.

But this man! Oh, it reminded her of adopted family in New Mexico. The leader, who they referred to as Tío, used to take Carmilla by the hems of her blouse and lead her to his bed. There was no activity between the two, oh no, but the bed was awfully warm. It was difficult to slouch into, but there were comforters and plenty of pillows. This man hadn’t promised such an extensive vow, but offered to lead her to the local store.

“Oh, thank you sir!” Carmilla claimed, vibrant with utter gratitude. With a gruff growl, the man did nothing to regard his jovial captive. “I am what Floridians call a tourist! I do not know the way, so I am forever grate-”

Carmilla’s back slammed into the alleyway wall and her wrists pinned above her head. She blinked. Once. Twice. Big hazel pools of disappointment greeted her attacker. “Sir, I was not aware you were going to perform the act of uncensuality. Could we reconsider?”

“Shut up.” The man huffed, one gloved hand wrapping around Carmilla’s neck, while the other one continued to keep her wrists pinned together. Carmilla wanted to laugh at how silly it must have looked, for the man was two inches shorter than she was. So she did.

“Oh, sir! You try much too hard!” His grip loosened in confusion. “I am not going to scream for help! Why, that would be humiliating.” Carmilla tried to shake her head, squirming uncomfortably against the brick barrier. “I would much rather have you earn the right to take my soul from my body.”

“Earn?” The man’s brow furrowed in confusion, his grip tightening severely around her neck. She tried to laugh again, but it hurt this time.

“You’re gonna wanna let her go, man…” The voice came from the entrance of the alley, where a man stood, gaze narrowed. He was wearing a uniform, dark grey, with a patch that read “security” and his hand rested on his hip over the holster of a weapon, “And step away, nice and slow…”

Carmilla’s hands beat against the bricks, desperate and nearly childish. As if she was calling uncle after being pinned down by a brother or sister. She felt herself swung from her prison, only to find herself colliding with the man’s torso, arms firmly wrapped around her neck. Once again, she began beating against the man’s arms. “Tio! Tio!” She began to laugh, although it died down as he squeezed tighter and tighter.

“Step back nice and slow.” The man threatened, his voice dangerously calm. “This is between me and the lady, and I’d prefer if you didn’t.”

“He...he is correct!” Carmilla proclaimed, weak and feeble. She focused on the bones in his arms, attempting to grind them and snap them at the wrist. “...Oh.” She gasped out, embarrassed as red flooded her colored cheeks. That didn’t work. She must have been too blurry eyed to fully focus on his skeletal structure. Her head felt like a balloon filled with fuzzy cotton. She wanted to smile at the visual, but panic began to build. The man, however, did seem to notice an odd sensation building up in his bones. His attention was diverted to the young woman in his grasp, whose hands tensed and began to shift grotesquely.

Bones peeked out between her knuckles, and with one shift jab, they sunk into the man’s stomach, who she assumed doubled as a beer deposit. A grunt. His arms fell back to his side before gradling the wound, and without another word she swiped back towards his head, bringing him to the ground. Carmilla’s hands went up to rub her damaged neck, oxygen flooding her lungs like fresh water out of a broken damn. “Ah...Ah...Tonto…” Carmilla, for good measure as she noticed the man begin to crawl, delievered a swift and merciful kick to his head.

“Gracias! Gracias ángel amable!” Carmilla exclaimed, forgetting English for a moment. Eyeing the man up and down, she noticed his name tag. “I...owe you? Correct? That is how one says it?”

Staring, transfixed for a moment in shock and awe, the man said nothing as his hand continued to hover over the weapon at his hip. Whatever the hell he’d just seen, it wasn’t anything he could put into words, and it definitely wasn’t the damsel in distress situation he thought he’d stumbled upon.

Shifting, he looked to the man on the ground, “...You uh… you alright?” He finally breathed, surprised to find his voice steadier than he expected, “He didn’t hurt you?”

“Me? Oh, no!” Her eyes flickered down to her steadily bleeding knuckles, maroon dried up in chaotic trickles down her palms. She placed her hands behind her back innocently, her demeanor twisting in disgust at the sensation. It always hurt more, getting rid of the bone. She couldn’t explain why, but she found a shot of pain continued to linger from her knuckles down to her wrists. She found strength to grin. “That was no where near hurt! I mean, I know I am going to swell. That is, logic! But I am not dead, so that is best!”

“...I…” Continuing to stare, he found words a rather complicated process, and rubbing the back of his neck with his free hand, he watched the woman curiously, “I should probably… call an ambulance for that creep. Murder rap’s bad enough without… you know… being what you are

“Oh, yes, please. I do not wish for him to have to die.” Carmilla’s head bobbed up and down, as if it was a child receiving instructions from a beloved family member. “Oh, oh dear, but, are not going to inform them of me, are you?” Color flooded her cheeks and she stepped back, nearly stumbling over the creep’s out stretched arm. She would have laughed if she hadn’t felt genuine fear creep up in her back.

As his pulled his phone free from the holster at his side, he eyed the woman again, “They’re gonna ask how this happened. And Happy Hands there probably isn’t gonna forget anytime soon. Even if I kept out the details, you… he’s probably gonna ID you.”

“They will not take kindly to me, sir, please.” Carmilla’s shot up defensively. It did not help that she was not the most legal citizen to date, and that Xavier told her that the likelihood of her making her way out of trouble was next to none if she were to be caught properly. She swallowed. “Please. I beg of you. They will not take kindly.”

Swearing softly, he looked down at his phone, then back to the man on the ground, “I can… can call it in anonymous, but if they trace it back to me, Lady… I’m not gonna take the fall for this, understand?”

“Oh, thank you!” Carmilla returned to her radiant figure, approaching the man swiftly and taking his hand in hers. Despite the still trickling blood, Carmilla ignored the pain and shook his hand in graditude. “May God over see your soul. Thank you many times.”

She approached and his eyes widened a little, but as she grabbed his hand his posture relaxed just slightly and he nodded his head, “Thanks, yourself. That hand of yours… Lemme call this in and I can run you out to my truck… get you some gauze and tape to wrap it up.”

“Oh, good man. Good man.” She repeated, her head bobbing expectantly of him. “You do not plan to, what is the phrase, serial murder me?” She teased him, trying to settle the nausea in her throat. Xavier was going to kill her. “If you do not plan to, how may I ever repay you for such warm hospitality?”

“...You think I’d be stupid enough to try and murder you after what I just watched you do, lady?” He asked, with the ghost of a smirk on his lips, that was easily whisked away by the clump of nerves in his chest. There was a hell of a lot more likelihood that SHE was gonna kill him… “Don’t worry about repaying me…” He said, with a shrug, “Any decent idiot woulda stopped.”

Flipping his phone on, he nodded and dialed the emergency line, holding a finger up to let her know to be quiet, “Yes, hello. I’m calling in to report what looks to be an assault… There’s a man in an alley. He’s unconscious, but breathing. Appears to have suffered some kind of beating… No ma’am, I did not see what happened. Yes, ma’am, the corner Diller and Maple. Thank you… My… my name? August. Yes… like the month. August Franklin.” There was a beat, and he hung up a moment later, breathing out, “Alright. All set. Truck’s this way…” He nodded towards the direction he had come.

“Would I be foolish to check another stranger is not going to harm me?” Carmilla replied, keeping a bright and cheery demeanor despite the fact her heart was still racing wildy in her chest. ‘Oh, no sir that is where you are wrong. So many people would have let it go. People are weird, you know. Different places, same head.” She tapped her temple to prove her point, only to grow silent as he plucked out his celluar device.

She knew better than to listen in, and as a very valuable lesson she learned being Tio’s dulzura. She zoned out, focused on a brief and sweet thought, and put herself back into a position where she couldn’t possibly find it within her to eavesdrop. “Hmm?” She questioned as she was snapped out of her trance. “Excellent!” She commented cheerily, stretching her fingers with a grimace. “Ah, foolish.” Without another word, she merrily began in the direction he had come from in the alleyway. She wondered where exactly he “secured’. Either way, he must have had an angelic soul for putting himself in such a situation.

At his truck, a beat down chevy that looked less car, more rust, he opened the passenger door and popped the glove compartment, pulling out a first aid kit. Setting it on the hook, he looked up to the woman and nodded, “...Here. Lemme see it. Easier someone else does it for you.”

“Ah, yes. I cannot imagine doing this on my own.” Carmilla hesitantly offered the man a close fist, eyes glued to the small, gaping holes present between each knuckle. “I apologize for making your night restless, good man. I...I usually do not have trouble on my back.”

“Eh…” Chuckling dryly, he shrugged as he pulled out some gauze and a few strips of tape, “Don’t worry about it. Isn’t like I work a quite job, anyway. Though usually it’s quieter than this. I’m August, by the way. Auggie… You got a name?” Holding his hand out, he waited for her to do the same.

“What do you secure?” Carmilla inquired, gently pressing her finger to his title badge. She kept still at the sight of the tape, fully aware of the procedure for what he wished to do. Slowly, she took his hand in hers and graciously shook it. “Aug...gie. Auggie.” She struggled briefly, smiling once the name sounded right against her tongue. “How lovely! It’s! I do not believe I have ever met a man with a month for his name, I truly love it.! Call me Carm.”

“Ah… Small bank around the corner.” He answered, with a lazy smile, “Nothing big. Worst I’ve had to deal with is a few punk kids trying to harass the ladies behind the counters. Tonight’s the most action I’ve seen in a while.” And if he weren’t too embarrassed to say, it was pretty damn terrifying, “Thanks… It’s nice to meet you, Carm.” When she’d released his hand, he took her own and laying it on the hood of the truck, he carefully laid the gauze over her knuckles, before winding the tape around it once, fully, then again, “You should probably wash it, when… when you get to wherever it is you’re headed.”

“That is still very noble of you. Securing anyone’s security no matter, is quite generous.” She smiled broadly at him, being sure to radiate a sense of pride towards him. “I apologize, it was of my own stupidity. In my family one accepts kind gestures, even from odd men. I had hoped he’d show me the market.” Carmilla swallowed as she watched him work. He most certainly appeared to know what he was doing, which relieved her. Some young boys she had knew had no idea how to properly handle wounds, and with a power like Carms, it was vital that they were treated properly. “I will. I do not want the infection.” She stretched out her fingers.

Chuckling, he bowed his head sheepishly. It wasn’t much of a job, but he was grateful for it… especially since it was something he knew all too well could be taken from him as quick as a snap. If they ever found out… if anyone did…

“Gotta be careful around these parts. It’s not like your home. Not around here. People take advantage, and you’re gonna end up hurt or worse if you aren’t more cautious.” He could hear sirens and he knew in the distance they’d arrive to take care of the man in the alley. Auggie was half sorry, really… the bastard didn’t deserve it…

“What market you looking for? I can point you the way… Get you there safe and sound?”

“Yes but you did not.” A small frown over took her features and, once again, she poked his badge. “I assume you would have shot me for my ability. You did not.” She reached down to poke his holster, but made no movement to suggest hostility or that she was going to grab his weapon. She folded her arms, grimacing at the sharp pain that shattered along her knuckles. She replaced the grimace with a grin. “Why are you so kind to me? I would love your soul dearly if you could guide me.”

“Far as I'm concerned… That guy touched you inappropriately and you defended yourself. If you had mace or a set of keys, there'd be no fuss about what you did. Having a different genetic structure shouldn't make something suddenly illegal.” With a shrug, he closed up the kit and at her next words, his expression shifted… muted a little, “Why shouldn't I be?”

Sliding the kit back into the glove box, he looked up at her with a small chuckle, “Maybe don't take my soul… I could use that a little longer. Where you need to get?”

“I did stab him in his stomach with my own bone.” Carmilla claimed with a shrug, somewhat sheepish at the sound of it. she supposed that, out of the context of truly knowing her own self, that the sound of that was horrific. Terrifying. Yet she kept her smile, despite underlying bubbles of emotion. “I do not know. People are afraid of what they cannot understand. I do not understand myself, either.” She patted her undamaged knuckles gently.

“Oh! I do not mean as in stealing your immortal spirit. That would be quite cruel.” She pressed the palm of her bandaged hand over his chest and hummed. “I mean to say that I shall keep you in my thoughts.” She attempted to focus on his skeletal structure to see if there was any damage. Anything she could strengthen or fix. Tweak. Feeling nothing major, her hand dropped back to her side.

“I hear there are stores where I can get snacks? I am attempting to make up for a friend, is that how you say it?”

“Defense is defense, Carm. He was gonna hurt you and you protected yourself. Doesn't matter to me how you did it.” Even if it was a little horrifying… and he was gonna need a little more time to get the image out of his mind.

A brow rose as she moved closer and her hand pressed to his chest, but he didn't move away, certain that if she'd wanted to hurt him she could've, without needing all the pretense. Unless she was some twisted psychopath serial killer. But what were the odds??

“Well, that's nice of you, but don't go to any trouble remembering me. I'm nobody special. I know a place little ways from here that's open pretty late. You mean making up with a friend? Like… after a fight?”

“I apologize for the scene. I usually do not use my powers externally.” She promised him after she moved away from her touch, reassuring she did not mean to hurt him. Her brow raised at his expression. He must have thought she was crazy! A little giggle threatened to trickle past her lips.

“Oh no! No no, you are not nobody. You are Auggie!” She grinned at him brightly, bobbing her head at his answer. “I caused my compañero a little trouble at home. I was going to get him sweets, retribution? Is that the correct word?”

“...Atonement.” He said the word with a certain level of discomfort, rubbing the back of his neck where it prickled with heat, “That's real nice of you, Carm. You wanna walk or you want a lift?”

“Ah, yes, atonement.” Her head tilted as she allowed the sound of the word to echo through her head. It was so odd but weirdly wonderful. A-tone-ment. She stored the information away in her head, under a mental folder where she most likely labeled “Things she should know.”

“A lift? I do not think you can lift me sir, I am rather heavy.” She blinked at the offer. “Thank you, though. Perhaps, I should get you water when we get there. You seem heated…”

Looking at her for a moment, Auggie seemed genuinely confused before a laugh burst from him, “ I meant… A lift in the truck. A ride. So you don't have to walk.”

“Oh, silly silly me.” Carmilla pressed her hand over her lips as color built. She shook her head. “I am not from around here, silly me. I would very much appreciate a ‘lift’ Auggie. Would you like me to repay you with anything?

Holding the passenger side open, he nodded with a small smile, “Hop on in. And don't worry about repaying me. It's a few blocks down the road. You don't owe me anything.” Coming around the other side, he slid into the driver's side and turning the keys in the ignition, brought the truck to life, pulling away from the curb, “So where are you from, anyway?”

“Not even a sweet?” Carmilla asked, confused as her head dipped to the side. “It is customary to pay back, although I tend to do it in food.” Sheepish, she wrangled her scraggly hair back behind her shoulders. She pulled the strap across her torso and secured herself, merrily patting her lap. “Oh! New Mexico, as of recently. Nowhere in particular, town to town. Truth or Consequences was the last town. T’n C my friend likes to call it. Very purgatory.” She thought that was the right word to explain an odd place. She frequently heard Xavier use the term “Twilight area.” Or something of the sort

“Trust me, Carm. It's really no big deal.” Sitting back, he propped his arm on the window ledge, shoulders bobbing in a shrug, “I was going this way, anyhow. Just an extra stop.”

It was the least he could do…

“New Mexico, huh? I've never been. Never been outside Florida, honestly. What brings you this way?”

“My friends home state.” Carmilla replied, her body swaying slightly with the movement of the car. “Xavier wanted to return, because trouble like that followed me around.” She became briefly somber, the rhythmic movement of her fingers tapping against her thigh distracting her from the further explanation. “I suppose my offer could be simply that of encouragement. A friendship of sorts. I am...wonderful of where you are heading.”

“Ah… well, I'm glad your friend got you out of that, then. World isn't what it used to be… Not by a long shot.” Shaking his head, he glanced her way again, “Just… headed home. Nothing important. I got an apartment few blocks north. Moved out there a few years ago. Isn't much, but it's home.”

“No no. When I was a child it was miracle to be able to produce such abilities.” Carmilla frowned deeply, her forefinger beginning to bury itself deep within her temple as she massaged her head. “I know it is not the same everywhere. Weird, humans.” She shook her head, relieved to hear that he had somewhere to go at night. She knew what it was like to sleep in the back of a car for nights at a time. Apartments were heaven in her opinion, even if she did sleep in a small room at the tattoo shop. “Home is a wonderful place to go. I wish I did not hold you up from going.” She chuckled, then a thought hit her. “Oh, dear. I suppose I shall find my way home after you drop me off.” Her undamaged hand began to travel to her jean pockets, pulling out a wad of cash. Just enough to buy some corn chips or something salty for her salty friend. That was the best way she could describe it. Discreetly, she began to pluck a few dollars from the wad and slid it underneath her.

“People get scared of what they don't understand or can't control. Then someone steps up, starts talkin’ what sounds like sense. It gets ugly fast when people think they have a cause to fight for…” His knuckles tightened against the leather steering wheel, jaw clenched briefly, “It's stupid and wrong, but when you let your mind get warped by someone else's logic…”

Looking over to her, he smiled, “I'm in no rush. Got nothing waiting for me but a boxed pizza and a beer. I'd prefer to drive you home. Won't worry…”

“You speak honesty.” Carmilla confirmed, noticing the sudden tenseness he possessed. She pretended to stretch her arms behind her head, making sure she skimmed across in an attempt to relax his jaw. “People who speak well do well. It does not mean they speak good.” Once she was sure that he had relaxed, she slumped further into her seat.

“Are you certain? I would feel bad to keep you away any longer.”

Eyes shifting her way again, a brow rose, “Yeah. That's a good way to put it. Sometimes all you need to start something terrible is the loudest voice. But hell if people don't follow it.”

Clearing his throat, he gave her a nod, “I'm positive. And you can put that cash back in your purse, Carm. I'm not doing this for profit…”

“People are unsure and so they look to someone who appear to understand. Even if they don’t. You see it all the time with ga-“ she paused. “Gations. Congr-that’s the right word?” She tried to catch herself, grinning nervously. As a part of a congregation herself, she wasn’t particularly happy with the comparison. However, she didn’t want to say gang and gain a bizarre look.

“Oh! Oh dear.” She frowned as she got caught and shifted. “I was hoping I was being sly.”

“That you do. People wanna be led. Doesn't matter by who, so long as they get something out of it.” Smiling dryly, he shrugged, “Don't feel bad. It's my job to notice the little things.”

“It is natural. I remember wanting the lead.” Carmilla slowly wriggled the few dollar bills from underneath her and deposited safely into her pocket. “I still cannot thank you enough for your generosity. Most people would not have done what you did.”

“Trust me… Few years ago, I wouldn't have, either. Things happen. Change. And it can… it can change you. Who you are. What you believe.” Slowing down, he pulled up alongside the convenient store and idling, nodding, “This is it. I'll wait here.”

“For a special nobody, you speak wise mans words.” Carmilla smirked and unbuckled herself from the seat. “I doubt I shall get lost in there, if I do I know the land of flowers is not the place for me!” Cheerily she hopped out of the car and gently closed the door behind her. Waving, she turned on her heel and made her way towards the market. She knew the two items she should get. Corn chips and, Xavier’s favorite, sparkling cherry water. She should have plenty. She didn’t intend to do any more bizarre activity. Especially when she felt the need not to disappoint her secure friend.

“I've had a lot of fortune cookies…” He remarked slyly, giving her a nod as she slipped out. When she'd gone far enough, he pulled out his phone and pressed a speed dial number, holding it to his ear, “Hey. It's August. Yeah, I know. Listen. EMTs are bringing in a guy off Maple tonight… he was involved in an altercation with… well, you know.” Pausing, he listened to the voice on the other end, “No… no. I uh. I actually need you to take care of it. Yeah. Like that. Thanks… Call me when it's done, alright?”

Hanging up, he breathed in and sliding the phone back into his pocket, turned to watch the store entrance.

Carmilla was surprised by how quickly she made her way through the shop. She had picked up her items, as well as a small bar of chocolate to sneak into Auggies car. She found herself back to his truck and slipped back in. “Ah, Thank you for waiting, Auggie. Much appreciated.”

“Of course. Got everything you need?” August smiled and nodded, pressing the car back into gear, “Where we headed, next?”

“Yes.” Carmilla confirmed as she slipped the bar into cup holder; smiling warmly. “The apartment is nearby the ink shack. By the ways, do you have enough food to nourish? It did not sound like you had much at home.”

Chuckling, he nodded, “Believe it or not, that’s actually a pretty swell evening for me, Carm. I know it doesn’t sound like much, but pizza and a beer and the game? That’s like… well, it’s like other people’s Fiji vacations. Ink Shack? That’s the tattoo place?”

“Fiji?” Carmillas brow furrowed. “Well, if you feel it, I have some leftovers of a big meal I made last night. Just in case it’s not enough.” She beamed at him, nodding pridefully as she rolled up her sleeves to reveal a variety of tattoos, some she had did herself. “Yes sir.”

“Fiji, yeah. It… it’s an Island in the South Pacific. Gorgeous. The sort of place people spend thousands visiting. Little huts over the water.” With a shrug, he realized explaining it that way didn’t put his meal in very good light. Instead, he glanced briefly over at the tattoos and nodded, “...Very nice. I’ve got a few, myself. That’s a nice offer, too, Carm. I… I dunno. Feels like imposing.”

“I would ask you to share them, although I have been informed multiple times that is an intimate request.” She smirked, head tilting. “ do not have to. It is an offer for the kindness you have brought me.”

Laughing, he shook his head, “I dunno that I’d call it intimate. They’re just sleeves. Now if you were askin’ to see me with my shirt on, well. That’d be a little awkward, and I’d feel pretty weird askin’ you to return the favor.” Considering her next words, he glanced briefly her way, “...I say yes, you won’t try to leave a heap of cash in my truck again?”

“I’d wear sleeveless shirt.” She promised with a grin as she rolled down her sleeve once again. “Besides the body is beautiful and not shameful.” She patted her arms proudly, a quick pout spreading across her cheeks. “Okay, fine.”

“It’s beautiful, but hell if I got any business seein’ it before I even bought you a proper meal.” He said, with a grin, “And before you say anything, this doesn’t count. I’m sure your leftovers will be lovely, but there’s a structure to these things. This the right road?”

“Hmm? So in order for it to be proper there must be dinner?” Carmilla our that under American culture and stored it safely away into storage. “Got it. Yes yes, you’ve done well finding it. Be careful, the owner; while an angel; is...angelically scary.”

“Oh geez. No. Listen…” Running a hand through his hair, he laughed again, “It’s… there’s no rules, Carm. It’s not like if we had dinner, you’d have to do anything. It’s just… Hell, how’d we get on this conversation, anyway?” Shaking his head, he pulled up alongside the curb, “Scary? Maybe we could just avoid her, then? You got a back entrance?”

“Oh! Okay, that makes sense. I would have a lot to make up for it that were the case.” She chuckled at the thought of her stripping her shirt off in front of a horrified Xavier. Oh, that boy would faint. “Yes! Yes yes. Our place is a little back from the main shack, just be quiet”

“No, Carm. And don’t ever let anyone tell you different. You’re the only person who makes that decision. You and no one else.” It felt weird, giving a grown woman advice, but she seemed lost in the world - off course, and people in that boat were so easy to take advantage of… too easy…

“Good…” He nodded and slid out of the truck, moving around to open her door for her, “Lead the way?”

“Yes yes. I do not wish for you to be a lost soul. We can not bare two of me.” She held up her bandaged hand as proof before skidding along ahead of him. She casually strolled up to the back door of her small complex, relieved to see that Xavier had left it unlocked. As far as she knew, he’d be asleep by now. She flickered on the inside lights. “Welcome. Come in come in.”

Stepping inside, rubbing the back of his neck, August realized just how awkward a situation this was. He knew next to nothing about the woman aside from her name (or part of it, anyway) and the fact that she was a mutant from New Mexico. He’d wanted to keep her off the streets, keep her out of trouble, but hell if he intended anything beyond that. Still, he could’ve left and he didn’t…

Maybe he was just losing his damn mind, “Nice place…”

Carmilla’s small complex consisted of at least three rooms, the leading kitchen, accompanied by a small dining table and a peach colored carpet. A few cabinets remained flung open, presumably from Carmilla’s exploits to find something she couldn’t quite get a grasp upon. There was a small oven, which had been tidily arranged, a singular tea pot remaining on the stovetop. Xavier always let a little water remain in case he woke up and needed to calm his nerves.

She made her way to the kitchen table, then navigated herself to the fridge in the corner. She still had a variety of leftovers from the dinner she had made the night before, certainly more than enough for four people. When she went out, she went out to an extreme. At least, culinary wise.

“Make yourself comfortable.” She gestured to the table chairs, then bobbed her head in the direction of the next door room. It was a small living room, with a couch and a short book stand.

Nodding, August moved to the chairs by the table and pulling one out, settled down into it. The couch felt, somehow, like more pressure, and there was absolutely no part of him that wanted to make this all more awkward that it already was, “So how long have you been here, Carm? In Florida? You said you came with a friend?”

“Hmm? Oh, yes. Xavier is my friend. Been with me for years, now. He is a...hermano.” Carmilla couldn’t consider any other way to put it. She began to pull out the meal and withheld a yawn. “We have been here for...two. Two I believe? Not in town, though. Town to town. Just settled a little while ago. Got lucky, here.” She quoted, brushing back her hair. “I wanted to stay south? Uh…” She snapped her fingers as she struggled with her words. “Where it snows, often. Xavier, homesick. I believe. He did not have a home to go back, to. So we got lucky.”

“Hermano… That’s uh…” Wracking his brain for whatever Spanish he could recall from school, he nodded, “Brother? Got a few of those myself, blood and otherwise.” He smiled, faintly, listening as she went on, “Never been up North myself, but I’ve always been curious about snow. Not that I’m too eager to experience it. I’m not big on cold.”

“Yes, brother. That is the word.” Carmilla sheepishly rubbed the back of her neck. Despite the constant improvement, she kept forgetting certain English vocabulary. “Ah, ah I see. It is nice to have them. Xavier is not of blood. He is grateful for such, he says my genes are crazy.” She plucked at her jean pockets, smiling brightly. “He is weird, that one.”

“Oh! You have never seen snow? It is...beautiful. It is cold and lumpy. But it is like watching little angel feathers fall to Earth. Although, I did black out for a few seconds once a snow ball fight commenced.” She grinned, placing herself down across from him. She had set a timer for the leftovers and reclined lazily.

Xavier sounded like a hoot… He wasn’t sure if he was glad he wasn’t meeting the man or not, but ultimately, he was pleased to know that she wasn’t alone.

“I’ve seen it in pictures, and I think once or twice it got cold enough here we had some flurries, but I definitely prefer the warmth. Still.. That’s a nice way to put it. Angel feathers.”

“I understand. It is easier to get out of the warmth than the cold.” She chuckled, remembering some of the remedies her family would use to overcome intense waves of heat. Odd drinks. “It is at least something that one should lie in once. A reverse blanket.” She snapped her fingers at the realization. “I, market that?”

Chuckling, he nodded, “You should… That’s pretty smart. I could see it being handy in maybe a heatwave or in the desert…” Looking over to her, he smiled faintly, “This has definitely not been exactly the night I envisioned, but you know, Carm… I’m not sorry. Anyone ever tell you, you’re quite pleasant company?”

“I do not know if it works, sciencely.” Her Head tilted. Was that a word? She supposed it could be. It was composed of syllables. It should work. Her feet taped together as she hummed. “I did not expect a night to be this way, either. Thank you for helping me not have this be my last.” She rested her torso against the kitchen table, resting her chin on her knuckles. “Thank you, you speak kind words to me without pause, it seems. I do not know if anyone has used your exact word. So, thank you.”

“Ah… Science isn’t everything.” He added with a small shrug, before he continued, “You really gotta stop thankin’ me, Carm. It wasn’t like I even did anything. You could’ve handled him without me nosing in. But you’re welcome, for the other bit. Smells good… whatever you’re heating up.”

“You provided a distraction. Good service.” She corrected him with a thumbs up. “Oh! Yes, yes, I should check on that, I made quite a feast the other night. Boredom, mostly.” She shrugged and got up, peeking in. “Let me look. A few wraps, quesadilla or two...and some bacon, for Xavier’s sake. Poor boy loves his cerdo.”

“Who doesn’t love bacon?” He asked with a small chuckle, “Quesadillas, hmm? Been a long time since I had a half-decent one of those. That’s one uh… one gift life left me without. Cooking. Mostly, I just use a microwave when I can. If I’m feeling bold, maybe the toaster oven.”

“Bacon is miraculous.” She chimed, pulling out the food and let it cool on the stove briefly before setting up some plates. “Oh, the oven of toasters I see. Hmm, I haven’t dared try that. I have not made proper meals since I was in New Mexico. I wanted to do it again, there is some comfort in food I suppose. I do have to commit to pull ups, to retribute. I mean...contribute? No, atone?”

“That it is…” Nodding, he sat back a little, “Nothing wrong with a little comfort food, either. And if you mean you have to do pulls ups to make up for the food, Carm, I hope you don’t take this the wrong way, but… you really don’t. Nothing wrong with that, either. A girl who enjoys herself a meal.”

“No sir there is not.” She patted her knuckles against her stomach, before raising her shirt slightly to reveal some of her muscles. She was sure to keep it at appropriate length, however, for they had not had proper dinner just yet. “I need this to maintain. But my stomach needs it’s comfort.” She lowered her shirt and quickly cleaned her hands before handing him his meal and sitting across from him. “That and energy. I may not burn it like the speedsters, but it is valuable.”

“How’s it all work, out of curiosity. The uh… You know…” He gestured to her hand vaguely, sitting forward again and taking the plate with a nod, “If that’s not a weird thing for someone who’s practically a stranger to ask.”

“Ah. Well.” Carmilla had to take a moment to mull over her explanation. “It is like moving a hand. Or speaking. It comes instinctively. If I need to create bone, it is there. If I need to strengthen my bones, I can just think. For other people, I need to be in contact or sense their skeleton. I just imagine they snap, or mend, or strengthen. It is hard, to do another person.” She shrugged, rubbing the back of her neck. “I do not fully know, how it works. I only discovered it a few years ago. I know it is a part of me. I do not know the behind it.”

“That’s incredible.” Shaking his head, he plucked up his fork, pausing it over the quesadilla, “Looked to me like you had a pretty good grasp on it tonight. I’m gonna be honest, it was pretty intimidating, watching it… But it was impressive, too. I’m sorry you have to hide it.”

“I will be honest. I tried to snap his arms, but his grip hurt too much. It was easier.” She motioned towards her bandages knuckles and flexed them with a light grimace. “I did not mean to intimidate you, although I hear it from most men.” Despite herself, there was some playfulness in her tone. “It is not a problem to hide it. I think it would scare other ability people as well. It is...ugly.”

With a small smile, he looked up at her, “Intimidating doesn’t mean ugly, Carm. Maybe to some people that’s the same thing, but not to everyone. It’s a part of you, and that’s not something to be ashamed of. Besides, I know plenty of people without powers who are a whole mess of ugly… and they don’t look it on the outside.”

“That is true. I know people with no power who scare me more than me.” She claimed with a gentle shrug, taking a moment to pick at her food. She forgot how hungry she had been and patted her stomach in content. “And I suppose I would not ask for it to be gone. It is me.” She put down her fork briefly and eyed him up and down. “Why so understanding?”

Glancing up again, his shoulders rolled in a casual shrug, “Let's just say I know a thing or two about both sides of the coin. You tend to understand a little better when you walk in shoes you never wore before…”

“You wear similar shoes?” Carmilla questioned, briefly confused as she taped her own together. It hit her a little slower than she would have liked to admit. “Oh. You, you have ability, then?”

Eyes shifting to his plate, August frowned softly, breathing out a sigh, “Didn't used to. That… that stuff that hit a few years ago. Guess it woke something up.”

“Stuff?” Carmilla questioned with a frown. “How long ago? I only gained my ability a little ago. I figured I was stressed.” She did recall hearing Xavier awhile ago mentioning that something had gone wrong in Orlando and they couldn’t go back home for a while. Xavier didn’t seem to explain to her that something wrong was what had caused this, so she figured it was of her own genetic oddity.

“The Origin Toxin?” Turning eyes up to her again, her studied her curiously, “How long ago did your powers manifest , Carm?”

“Oh! Yes, I...I do recall that. It did not concern me, for I do not believe I gained my abilities that day. It was an odd topic, one that hermano tried to brush off on me.” She shrugged, if somewhat sheepishly. “I believe I got them around four or so years ago. But not the day. I difficult situation.”

“Four years ago is pretty spot on, Carm. Was it before or after the toxin spread?” If she was undetectable… he might've jumped the gun on her little friend from the alley…

“I...I cannot recall.” Carmilla frowned. “I never gave it much thought, the toxin. But...oh! That is right, I believe I had bone aches and fractures weeks before. I cannot firmly remember, but I know there was a lot of uncomfortableness before.”

Breathing in, Auggie nodded, “Gotcha. Yeah. Sounds like a late bloomer.” Relief flooded him, and he smiled again, pushing his empty plate aside, “At any rate… it's jarring. Glad you figured it out. That was fantastic, by the way.”

“What can you do?” She questioned brightly, clasping her hands before her. “I assume something wonderful. You seem to be a...Hmm, I wish to say, mental type? Perhaps, emotion? Or, charm?” She grinned at him teasing before taking the plates up and going around to put them into the sink. Tomorrow would be fine, she supposed. She turned back towards him. “Thank you! Better than pizza and beer?”

“Ha!” The laugh, genuine in nature spilled out as August shook his head, “Sadly no. I uh… I can manipulate atmospheric pressure. It's...ugly business, and not something I like using if I can avoid it.” Rising, he moved to the counter as she did, leaning against it, “Definitely Better. Been a long time since I had anything home cooked. Thank you, Carm.”

“Oh! That is...useful in high terrain.” She waved her hand over her head to prove her point. “Make breathing easier. Not so ugly.” She mirrored his actions, leaning herself against the counter with one elbow propped up to rest her cheek against her hand. “Good, you know, if you ever need a home meal. I am your woman.”

Chuckling softly, he lowered his eyes, “It uh… it’s not quite so nice down here. Not really.” The first time it had happened was something he’d never forget - something he hoped he never had to relive…

“Thanks sweet of you to offer. Might take you up on it, someday.” He wouldn’t. He never got involved with them. Not the ones who could follow up. Find out. She was sweet, and that was a shame, but that was the way it had to work, “I should probably head out. Let you get some rest… It’s gettin’ late, and I’ve imposed long enough.”

“Please. Feel free. You are welcome into my home.” She bobbed her head, a slight frown on her lips. Slowly she went up to him, eyeing his figure before embracing him swiftly. She let go before he had a chance to respond, putting on a grin. “If you are sure you are awake enough to drive.”

Blinking at the hug, Auggie smiled faintly, looking down at her with a shake of his head, “Er… thanks.” When was the last time anyone but his mom had hugged him? It was a wild feeling, human contact…

“Yeah, I’ll be alright. Not far from here, actually. Won’t take me more than ten minutes to get back.”

“Sorry about that.” She grinned sheepishly after she had embraced him. “That is just a promise of friend-hood. Okay...if you are sure you alright.” She smiled at him. “I wish you a good night, Auggie.”

“Hey… no need to apologize.” Giving a shrug, he smiled warmly, “Just not too used to it. Anyway… I’ll see you around, Carm. Try to stay out of trouble, alright?”

“No promise. But I will try.” She bobbed her head merrily. “Take care of yourself, my friend.”

“Take care…” With a nod, he gave her a pat on his arm, before fishing his keys out of his pocket, heading for the door. As he stepped outside again, into the refreshing evening air, his phone chirped and plucking it free, he looked down at the message…


Was all it read. And nodding, he flicked it closed, hearing for his truck.

Elle Joyner

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It had gone about as well as Rose could expect. Penny had been satisfied that Finn was alive and well, that he wasn’t running off immediately, that he seemed to possess some shred of his old self… or at least a sense of self preservation that she could value. But she hadn’t been enthusiastic as Rose might’ve hoped, and that was, really, not so shocking. Penny loved Finn like a brother and he’d broken her heart. She’d forgive him in time - maybe she already had, but it would be a good while before things were back to the way they had been…

Walking back to the guest house, she passed by the gardens, and pausing, filled her shirt with a few handfuls of blackberries, before slipping inside. She couldn’t bake like Penny, but she had picked up a thing or two over the years, and while Finn slept, Rose threw together a crumble, and with the heavy cream in the fridge, fresh whipped cream. It was therapeutic… comforting - doing something so underwhelmingly intense… and with the crumble cooling on the stove top, she made her way to the bedroom, sliding open the door.

Settling down on the edge of the bed, she reached out, and for a moment, her fingers hovered over his forehead, before brushing gently through the shortened curls, “...Finn? Hey… you awake?”

Finn woke with a violent jolt, hand shooting out to grab the one that brushed away his curls. With a surprisingly strong grip, fingers digging into her skin, teeth bared. “Don’t t—“ He started, snarling, but his gaze softened and his hand snapped away the moment he realized who it was, scrambling away. Realization dawned on him, chest heaving. “R-Rose.. I’m… I’m sorry, I…”

At the jolt, Rose pulled back, but his finger curled tightly and eyes widening, she breathed in sharply. It was a moment, just a moment, and he released her, an apology flying out almost as fast…

“N-no, hey. That was my fault. I'm sorry… I didn't realize…” biting her cheek, she rubbed her wrist, “Are you okay?”

Breathing deeply, Finn shook his head. “, it’s not your fault, Rose. I’m.. I’m fine.” He put a hand on his chest, the other rubbing his eyes. “I.. I had a nightmare. I’m sorry.”

Shifting, she frowned softly, hand settling in the space between them, a reassuring offer, nothing more, “...You… you wanna talk about it?”

His erratic breaths had slowed, and Finn leaned back onto the bed, trying to shake away the excess adrenaline. “I.. uh.. it’s.. it’s fine.” He mumbled, running a hand through his hair. “Don’t even remember much of it now.” He lied.

Nodding slowly, Rose shifted, pulling her legs up beside her, “Right… Well, I… I'm here, if it comes back to you. If you need to… to get it out.” Giving a shrug, she lowered her gaze, picking a fuzz free from the blankets, “I get them, too. Still.”

Finn looked at her sadly, gaze tired. “..Doesn’t everyone?” He whispered, interlocking his fingers behind his neck and letting his head fall between his knees. “Thanks. I’ll remember that.”

“I guess so, yeah…” Rubbing her wrist, she bit back that normally people who had nightmares didn't wake like someone was trying to murder them…

“How's your head feel?”

He bit back another apology watching her rub her wrist. “It’s fine.” Finn said softly, biting his lip. “Did I.. hurt you..?”

“What?” Looking over at him, then down to her wrists, Rose frowned softly, shaking her head, “It's okay. Just… it's fine.” Fine. If that wasn't the word of the day…

Finn sighed. “So I guess.. if we say it’s fine… it’s not really fine, is it?” Guilt swept over him. “My head’s not fine. It hurts.”

With a dry huff, Rose nodded, “It's always easier to say, isn't it?” Turning to him, she bit her lip, releasing her wrist to hold out a hand, tentatively, “Do… do you want me to help?”

“N-no! No.” Finn said quickly, sitting up straight, holding his hand out to block hers. “No, no. It’s just a headache. I can’t ask you to do that.”

“You didn't,” She countered, with the faintest hint of a teasing smile, “I offered. I… I don't like seeing you hurting, Finn. You gotta know that's worse…”

“It’s just a headache,” He reiterated, brows furrowed. “What’s worse is watching you break down your immune system to fix something like that.”

“Says you…” But lowering her hand, she sighed, “Why don't I remember you being this stubborn four years ago?”

Finn bristled, teeth gnashing together. Without another word he threw off the covers and got out of bed, prepared to head out of the room before the blood rushed to his already pounding head, and with a grunt Finn stumbled, catching himself against the wall.

Rising, Rose started for him, but paused, as he caught himself, breathing in for a moment, eyes uneasy… “I'm sorry. I… I didn't mean…” Breathing out again, she dropped to the side of the bed, tears stinging, “Damn it.”

Waiting for the dark spots to clear from his vision, he turned back to face her, gut twisting as she spoke. “It’s not your fault,” He murmured, stumbling back to sit beside her. “It’s not. It never was.”

“Then… then why does it feel like it is? Was…?” Driving trembling hands through her hair, she shook her head, “They're about you. My nightmares. Always. Every night, feels like… and I… I… thought… When I saw you on the porch… when I saw you and I thought you… It was every single nightmare coming true. And I'm scared, Finn. I'm so scared that… that I wasn't enough, then. That I won't be, now. I… I'm just scared.”

He reached a tentative hand out to her, but pulled it away at the last second, noticing its tremor. “I’m… so sorry, Rose.” Finn whispered. How had he used to comfort her? He didn’t even remember. “If.. if it helps… the only time I ever had nice dreams.. t-they were of you.” He whispered. “You were always enough. It was just me.. just me, Rose, I… I didn’t know how to handle any of it. Not a drop of my emotions. I saw Keegan, and it just… I broke. And I didn’t go to you to put me back together like I should have.”

“ don't have to justify it, Finn. I understand… I do. I know how scared you were… after everything that happened. Miami. Harper. The virus. Penny. It was so much… too much. And I knew that, I did.” Breathing out, she dropped her hand, palm open, “But I still wanted to… to be there. I wanted you to… to be there. And all this time, wondering if… if you were okay or even alive. Then you came back… and I thought… I thought I was losing you all over again. And I don't know how to process it. What I feel. What… what I wanna say… what I want, at all.”

Finn stared at her open palm, stared at it like it was going to bite him, but with an an almost angered and determined breath, he placed his hand atop hers. “I don’t know either.” He admitted. “I don’t know a damn thing. But something’s gotta give, right? Something’s gotta change.. because I’m trying, so hard, to sit here and let it. Fighting every bone in my body. So something has to break… it has too.”

“I’m just… I’m afraid of pushing you away, again.” She whispered, her fingers curved through his, gentle, still shaking, “I’m so afraid that I… I’m gonna open my eyes and this is all gonna be gone again. Just a dream, and I won’t… I won’t be able to handle that, because I missed you, Finn. God, I missed you so much, it hurt to breathe, and I can’t…” The words choked, as a sob escaped, and her free hand covered her eyes.

If he’d thought he was broken before… he hadn’t known this type of pain. Watching Rose crumble in front of him, over him, sent a chill down his spine, planted ice in his bones. He’d done this to her. To all of them. Finn knew that.. he’d always known that. But he’d never seen the full effects of his actions, never felt Rose trembling against him because of it. “I’m here. You’re not dreaming.” He said softly. He squeezed her hand, almost at a loss for what tosay, but he bad to say something… “I’m right here.. and I.. I won’t leave you like that again. Never again.” God… he hoped he could carry through.

Shifting, Rose tipped against his shoulder, forehead resting just above where the stitches had been, before she’d healed it… her free hand lifted, brushed the spot the wound lay, “...Do… do you remember when… when the virus hit? And I was out for those few days? How you told me… how scared you were?”

He watched as she leaned against him, swallowing back every urge to flee. Against the place that could have been his cause of death. “I’ll never forget it.” He murmured.

“...I don’t think I understood how you felt till… till I saw you with Penny last night.” Breathing in, she straightened, looking up at him, “...When I thought you were… that you were gone. I wanted to be gone, too, Finn. I just… in those few seconds, I wanted everything to stop. To end. Because I couldn’t think about it… a world without you in it.”

His breath hitched, and Finn gripped her hand tightly. “It’s.. it’s a pathetic feeling, isn’t it?” He murmured. “In the beginning, I was just… scared. But I got sick if being scared, and then there was nothing.. nothing left to cling onto, thinking I could never go back.. I just wanted… I just started wanting it to stop.”

“...If I’d lost you, Finn… I don’t think…” Swallowing, she lowered her gaze, “I’m glad that it didn’t… that you… you didn’t.” Looking up again, her eyes softened, fingertips of his freehand brushing his jaw. Fine... Alright. They were words that didn’t mean anything, because they were easier to say than the truth… “I’m glad you’re alive.”

“Didn’t you already lose me, at that point?” He whispered. “I thought.. I thought if I died, it wouldn’t even change anything for you. I was already gone.. it was just… selfish. I was so selfish.” Finn shuddered under her touch, even though his hand rose to meet hers, his palm against the back of her hand, curling his fingers between hers.

“I had… I had to hope, Finn. I needed that. To… to keep going. I needed to hope that you could come back.” Eyes closing, she breathed in, “Maybe… maybe that’s why it scares me so much. The idea that you’re here, because it feels like… like it’s just too good, you know? Too good to be true.”

“I feel like that too. Feel like.. I shouldn’t even be here. I almost died so many times, I just…” Finn laughed, weakly, a pained chuckle. “When are my nine lives gonna run out, huh? That’s what it feels like.”

Opening her eyes again, she met his, her own blazed, as she shook her head, “...No. I… I’m not gonna let that happen. Not now, Finn. Not now that you’re here. I won’t.”

The fire in her eyes surprised him, and he smiled, softly. “I know. I know you’ll try. You always did. But I can’t make any promises anymore… you know that. The world’s gonna have its way with me.. but if it hasn’t chewed me up n’ spit me out quite yet, then, yeah… maybe there’s hope.”

Pulling down the shoulder of her cardigan, she showed the words on her right arm, Hope Springs Eternal, with a small, sheepish smile and a shrug, “...Don’t need to tell me that twice, Finn. I never give up.”

He chuckled weakly. “Cheesy.” He said softly, smiling at her with tired eyes. “Your tattoos are all.. about the future. Maybe I should try that sometime.”

“Hey!” Giving him a nudge, she narrowed her eyes, still smiling, “It’s not cheesy. Or… Okay, maybe it is, but whatever.” Chuckling, she shook her head, “It… it wasn’t always that easy to look at the future with any kinda hope. Took me a long time before I even wanted to see the future. But I just kept thinking if… if you came back, I didn’t want you to find me some shell of who I was. That… that you needed to see that I was holding on…”

Finn’s smile widened slightly at her nudge, rolling his eyes, but it dimmed just as quickly at her next words. To think that she had done it all for him.. when he came back.. and he’d never planned too. “There was no one else?” He murmured. “Why.. why only me? When I’m the one who left?”

“I mean… there was this super cute kid on a bus, once. He winked at me, and I may or may not have waved.” She teased, and her smile brightened just slightly, before she shook her head, “I love you, Finn.” She said, plainly, simply, “That didn’t go away, just because you did. It… it might’ve changed... from what it was before. Some days, it was… it was like a memory, faint, but always there, and then other days, it was like… like fire, and those were the days it was easiest to hope. But it never went away.”

He stared at her in shock, the words she uttered so easily carrying the weight of a lifetime. It was beyond Finn… how she could even still love him. But he thought about Harper… who he despite everything still cared for, so much that it hurt. Even his parents left a hole in his heart, even though there had been no love there at all… Finn had loved them. And the one time someone loved him back, he threw it away, for what? For fear? For anger and terror to take its place? Yet she was still here.. still waiting.

Something between a laugh and a sob fell out of him, gripping her hand tightly. “You’re really something.” He whispered, and it didn’t really cover half of what he felt. Words didn’t work the way he wanted them too. “I don’t get how you do it, Rose.. keep believing in me. But it never.. never failed to amaze me.”

“You really don’t see what I see, Finn, when I look at you… And maybe that’s just the way it is. You can’t ever fully explain to someone else the person they are in your eyes. But you… you saved me. You saved me from Harper. From myself. From… all that darkness, and I just… I found light in you. Safety in you. I still do. No one in the world makes me feel so secure…”

“But that was such a different person.” Finn murmured. “I was just a kid. I’d barely seen the world.. never had anyone that loved me back. I was foolish, and innocent, and everyone told me so. Said I needed to grow up.” His brow furrowed. “Here I am.”

“I'm different, too. I see… I see the world, now. The things in it that aren't pretty or nice or clean. We were… we were naive, Finn. Sheltered. We're not anymore. Doesn't mean I feel any less secure with you. If anything… those abs make me feel more secure.” She added, with a small smile.

A small snort fell out of him, and he sighed. “I.. I hope I can still be that person for you, Rose. Some day. I don’t know how secure I can make you right now… but I’ll try.”

“I don't expect anything from you, Finn. I really don't… I… I'm just happy you're here at all. I'm happy you're here with me. That's all I ever wanted.”

He squeezed her hand one last time before pulling away, trying to straighten his shoulders. “Are.. are you gonna be there.. when I talk to them?”

“Penny and Deck? I'm not going anywhere, Finn. I… I talked to Penny a little while before I came back. She's glad you're alive. Sounded like… like she wanted to talk to you. She was… really scared when you showed up.”

The image of collapsing on their porch flashed across his mind, the sudden phantom pain of the bullet leaving a hole in his shoulder making Finn twitched. “Yeah.” He looked away. “I imagine. By talk, did she mean.. I should go in there with a shield… or…?”

“I think you'll need to tread cautiously…” She gave a shrug, a small, reassuring smile, “But I don't think you need to be afraid. You know… you know what you said to her? Before you blacked out?”

Yeah. He definitely knew. “Y..yes. I.. I said I was sorry. Or.. I also said hey. Did you mean that part?”

“Definitely the 'hey’.” She smiled brightly, with a hint of teasing, “She said she thought it was the last thing she'd hear you say… sorry. And she's glad it won't be.”

Finn shuddered. “I wanted it to be the last thing I said.” It was absolutely true. He’d imagined it for four years. “I’d been waiting all these years to say it. I came to die here, Rose. I wanted it to be an apology.”

“Do you.. Do you really think that would've made things better, Finn? Don't… don't you know what that would've done to Penny? To… to me? Don't you know how that would've…” Swallowing, she looked away, “Enough people already want us dead, Finn. Why wish it upon yourself?”

Finn’s fists balled. “I know how that would have hurt you. I know.” He murmured. “I just.. I.. I hated myself.. so much. I couldn’t bear the thought of what I did. What I did, not what every other evil chasing us did. So I… I thought I should deal the punishment. I just needed to say sorry… even if it wouldn’t make anything better.. I had to say it.”

“And you did. You have. So… so many times, Finn. It's okay to accept that forgiveness. It's okay to forgive yourself. You have to… Eventually.” Frowning softly, she looked at him, “You can't punish yourself for all of eternity, Finn. It's not… it's not necessary.”

“Not enough times.” He said harshly, voice cracking midway. “Not enough times, not enough people.. I can’t forgive myself… not yet.”

“Finn.” A sigh escaped, and curling her fingers through his, she shook her head, “You… you deserve so much better than life’s given you. You know that?”

He didn’t move away, but he didn’t reciprocate the touch. “Life gave me everything. The family I always wanted. I threw it all away. I’m the one that threw it all away.”

“Stop it!” For the second time in two days, Rose’s voice rose just slightly, and pulling her hand free, she rose to her feet, “What is this gonna do, Finn? This self-loathing? This beating yourself down for the rest of your life!? How is this gonna help any of us heal? You know how short life can be! You know how easy it is for something to happen to any one of us?? To you? You have to stop, Finn. Please. Something has to give, right? Something!”

Finn jolted, standing up as well, pulling the hand that Rose had held to his chest, as if it had been hurt. His eyes stung as his own words were used against him, and he looked around the room, as if something outside would save him. “I don’t know how it’s gonna help.” He mumbled. “I just.. I.. I don’t know how to forgive myself, Rose.. I don’t know how to suddenly turn around and say I don’t feel guilty about what I did. It doesn’t just… it doesn’t just go. I don’t.. I don’t know how to make it give.”

Shaking her head, Rose cupped his cheeks, tears squeezing free as she looked up at him, her expression soft, but determined, “...Just… lay it down, Finn. If… if you can’t let it go on your own, lay it on me. Just… lay it on me.”

“How can I?” It was an impossible request. He’d already seen how badly he’d hurt Rose… he would never, ever, put another drop of hurt on top of that awful long list again. “You didn’t deserve a minute of this. Not a minute. I can’t put any of that on you. I refuse to.”

“All these years…” She dropped to a whisper, and her hand rose, softly brushing the curls back from his forehead again, “...And you’re still tryin’ be Atlas. If you’re gonna insist on carrying the world on your back, Finn… then I refuse to let you do it alone.”

At the sound of the new nickname, another sob ripped through his chest. “Stop doing that,” He whispered brokenly. “Stop.. b-breaking me.. with all your p-perfect words.. and old jokes…” He was trembling against her, but melting into her hold. “What am I s-supposed to do? C-cry on you for an eternity?”

“...If that’s what it takes, Finn. If that’s what you need…” Pulling him closer, she let her fingers drift through his hair, let them curl to the back of his neck again, “I just want to be whatever you need.”

He shook his head, helplessly, frantically, just trying to find some way to escape his own crushing feelings, but as Rose pulled him closer, he could only find himself dipping his head into her shoulder, trembling against her.

“Shh…. It’s okay, Finn.” Palm brushing his neck, gentle, soothing strokes, Rose held him close, breathing in to still her own emotions, to steady her own tears, “...You have always been… so, so strong. But I told you… I told you that day, when we left the infirmary, after everything… with the virus. You never have to hold onto the alone. Not ever.”

“I never wanted to.” He whimpered. “I swear I never wanted to.. I’m so sick of crying, Rose.. I’m so sick of it…” Finn fought harshly against his own brimming tears, clinging to her tightly, but her touch against his neck was slowly soothing, and the tenseness in his posture began to unravel, shoulders shaking.

“I know…” Her voice dropped to a whisper, rubbing his back, “I know, Finn. And m-maybe the problem is we keep circling… we keep holding on to all of it… The before. Maybe that's always been the problem. Our families… Harper… Rogue… Every mess we left behind us, it's still there, burrowed in. And we let it fester. Control us. When we have the whole future ahead of us, we keep looking back…”

He nodded weakly, fingers gripping the fabric of her shirt. “How do we make it stop?” Finn murmured. “I don’t know how to make it stop.”

With a weak laugh, Rose shook her head, “I wish I knew. I really do. I wish I could just… Stop time, completely. Just long enough to give you a little peace, Finn. If you had just… just a little peace. I'd give anything in the world for that.”

It had been so long since he’d had even a little peace. Even sitting beside Rose… everything still haunted him, chased him like his own shadow. “Just need time.” Finn murmured, still not letting go. “Doesn’t have to stop… I just need… I just need more time.” More time to recover, to rest, to remember what it felt like to be in someone’s arms without shaking like a leaf. He just needed time.

Releasing all but his hand, she moved to the head of the bed and sitting down, Rose pulled him gently, “There's no rush, Finn. We can sit here… until you're ready to move. We can just sit right here…”

Finn dropped onto the bed, trying to stop himself from shaking. “I know.” He said softly. “But I need time to face them, too. I have too. Even though it’s the scariest thing I think I’m ever gonna do.”

“They're not going anywhere. You face them when you know you can… When you're ready to.” Looping an arm around him, her thumb brushed gingerly along his temple, and with a sigh, she leaned her cheek to his crown, “I'm not gonna leave you alone in this… not ever.”

All her touches were so soft, so gentle, Finn found himself sinking into them, eyes fluttering closed, breathing calming down from panting rasps to gentle inhales. “My nightmare,” His grip on her hand tightened. “I saw Kaiden.. and Alys.. they were dragging me away from you. Trying to drag me to Harper. Like a prison to be thrown in. And they were tugging so hard, and I was trying to reach you.. and I thought they were gonna rip me in half. I could feel it happening. I could feel myself being torn apart.”

“It was just a dream…” She whispered, drawing circles with her thumb along his hairline, “They can't hurt you like that, Finn. And I'm never gonna let anyone take you away from me like that…” Tipping, she pressed a delicate kiss to the side of his head, “We let them take so much. No more. Not ever again.”

The kiss sent a tingling sensation washing over him, and Finn leaned into her further, a soft smile growing on his face, like that kiss against his temple would banish any further nightmares. “Not ever again.” He echoed.

Breathing in, Rose looped her other arm to close the circle around him, to lace her fingers through his, “...We’re gonna be alright, Finn. You and me. We’re gonna be alright.”

With a shuddering sigh Finn melted completely, a few tears falling out. He wasn’t sobbing, it was just.. like an exhale. Letting go of the ones he’d been holding in. He nodded helplessly, trying to take her words and imprint them on his broken heart.

For a long while, Rose didn’t move. Didn’t dare to move. There was a lull… in the tragedy, in the heartache… There was a moment of solitude and peace, even if it wouldn’t last forever. And in that, she felt stronger than she had in years. In that, she felt like maybe, just maybe, she could believe the words she’d said. They were gonna be alright…

It was only when a thought occurred to her that she shifted slightly, turning towards him, “Oh! I almost forgot… I… I made a pie.”

Wiping away the tears, Finn looked up at her, a flickering smile coming onto his face. “You.. made a pie?” He sniffled, and laughed, tilting his head at her curiously. “Penny? What did you do with Rose?”

“Hey now…” Poking him in the rib, Rose shook her head, “That’s just weird, and you know it. Besides… you haven’t even tried it. It could be really awful.”

“Naw.” Finn said smoothly, shaking his head, giving his eyes one last rub for good measure. “I’m sure it’s delicious.” He turned around, and found the pie at the nightstand. “You mean to tell me… it’s been here this entire time?”

“I mean…” With a shrug, she sat up a little, “I didn’t count on us falling apart all over again, here. There’s whipped cream, too, out in the kitchen. If you think you could eat?”

“Yeah. I think I could eat.” Finn said with a nod, slowly standing to his feet, stretching, trying to forget all that had just fallen out of him. “Sorry.. I didn’t count on it either.. but pie sounds really good. Especially made by you.”

Chuckling, she shook her head and stood up, taking the crumble from the nightstand with a small shrug, “...Maybe try it first, before you go praising me there. Come on…” Heading for the door, she set the pie on the kitchen table and grabbed the whipped cream from the fridge, setting it and two forks down in the center, “Dig in.”

It was strange, going from nearly shattering into tiny little pieces to sitting at a table for some home baked pie. Finn stared at it a little while, and discreetly, pinched his own side. Nope. Still here. Still real. Rose, right before him, and she’d forgiven him. It was almost surreal. With a sheepish smile Finn dug into the pie. “Hey,” He said through a mouthful, “this is actually pretty good.”

“Oh!” The sound came from a place of surprise, as a smile spread bright and warm, “You… you mean it? You're not just being nice?”

For a moment, Finn blinked, suddenly lost in her warm smile. “I…” What was he gonna say? Oh. “Of course I mean it.” Finn said, trying to match her smile, digging back into his pie to hide the growing blush.

Rose caught the sudden bashfulness, and a brow rose, before she dished out her own serving, “We grow the blackberries here. Zoey helped me plant them. We keep them fenced in though, cause Everest gets into them and goes nuts.”

Finn looked up at her, chewing another bite of pie. He tried to imagine for a moment, a life planting blackberries in the garden with Rose and Zoey. “Who’s Everest?”

“One of our pups. Deck hates when I call them that. Cause they're guard dogs…” Laughing softly, she shrugged, “They're sweethearts, though. Everest and Blondie are Penny's and Baloo… Well, he's supposed to be Deck's but mostly he's Travis's.”

Finn perked up instantly. “You have puppies?” He said excitedly. “Oh.. I’m so jealous… I have to meet them.” He hummed excitedly, through a growing smile.

“Baloo's about ten months…. But he's roughly the size of a brown bear. Blondie and Ev are almost two. Little smaller, but not much.”

“Oh my god,” Finn squeaked. “Big puppies… where did you get big puppies?”

Chuckling, she shrugged, “Deck picked them up… probably from one of the farms nearby. Penny thought it'd be good for the kids. For all of us, really…”

Finn sighed wistfully. “That sounds awesome. I want a dog.”

Laughing softly, Rose nodded, “They're pretty amazing. I'll introduce you, soon as I can.” Biting her lip, she looked up again, “So… so you really like it? The pie? Sorry… just… it's my first without Penny’s recipe.”

“Of course I do,” Finn said, now clearing his plate. “Dang, I get to be the subject of your first pie? How lucky am I?” He said with a smile.

Grinning, her cheeks flushed pink, “I needed something to do… and I've wanted to try it for a while. I'm really glad you like it, Finn. When… when I was at Harper's I kinda figured out how to cook on my own, but baking was always scarier, you know?”

“Actually, I don’t know. My skills end at pouring a bowl of cereal.” Finn scratched his chin. “Well there was this one time.. I baked with Penny.. it was fun. But I don’t know how good I was.” He flashed her a grin.

“Wow… She… she let you bake with her? That’s an impressive feat, Finn. She wouldn’t even let me in her kitchen till she was sure I could handle myself at the stove.” Sitting back, she smiled… an odd, knowing smile, “If you want… I can… I could teach you a few things.”

“I was like, fully fire-proofed. Gloves, goggles, everything.” He said with a laugh, turning his gaze to her. “Yeah? You would?”

Laughing softly, she shook her head, “Goggles? Really? Oh, Finn.” At his question, she nodded, beaming brightly, “Of course. I’d love to…”

“I’d like that… I’d like that a lot.” Finn murmured, the blush still present on his cheeks. “We should… we should probably go, Rose. I gotta go talk to ‘em…”

Breathing in, Rose bit her lip, nodding slightly, though with no real conviction, “Thought you'd say that. You sure? Might be better to give it a little more time…”

With a deep inhale, Finn nodded. Beneath the table, his fists were clenched. “I.. I can’t hide anymore.”

“Just… just try to remember, Finn… they've always been a little harder than you and me. But they'll come around. And I'll be right there with you…”

He remembered. He remembered very well… and the thought made his heart ache in a way that was almost hard to bear. But he couldn’t hide here with Rose, eating homemade pies as if he hadn’t left them in the dust. As if he hadn’t broken their hearts. He owed it to them… to what was once his family, and he simply had to pray.. that someday. it still could be.

“I know.” He murmured, standing up, something new behind his eyes. “Let’s go.”

Rising as well, Rose hesitated for a moment, before reaching to take his hand, “Let's go.”

Finn glanced down at their intertwined hands, and biting his lip, he brought her hand up to his cheek, eyes fluttering closed, before letting go. “Not yet… they’ll rip us both apart.” He murmured.

Breathing in, Rose shook her head, “I'm not worried about what they think, Finn. But however you need to do this is fine by me…”

“..I’m worried, Rose. I have to be.” He said solemnly, gaze low. “I just need you to.. just.. stay by my side… that’s all I need.”

“Always, Finn. No matter what happens. You know that, right?” Looking up at him, she smiled softly, “I will always be by your side.”

There was a flicker of a smile that crossed Finn’s face, only for a moment as he nodded. “I.. I know that.” It was a little scary, to be honest… to know Rose was so stubborn. But a part of him was happy to see her so certain. There was a new person in front of him. One he both respected and feared for.

“I know.” He repeated, and stepped towards the door.


consistently inconsistent
Invitation Status
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Posting Speed
1-3 posts per week, One post per week
Online Availability
I check as often as I can.
Writing Levels
Intermediate, Adept, Advanced, Adaptable
Preferred Character Gender
Male, Female, No Preferences
Fantasy, Realistic/Modern, Magic, Scifi, Romance
Sensory Overload
with Elle Joyner Elle Joyner

The road took them north, and while the path ahead of them was considerably less volatile than the one behind, the quiet was almost worse than the tension had been. In the stillness, there was nothing left for Grace to do but dwell… Guilt was a blanket, pulled across her, and whatever Oliver said, she couldn’t shake the painful feeling that she had ruined everything for him. She had ruined it, and she didn’t know how to make it better.

Eventually, the waterways and highways gave way to bridges, the bridges to skyscrapers, and the bustling world of Manhattan folded in around them. As traffic forced them to a near crawl, Grace looked around at the buildings, her eyes brightening… How long had it been? Two… three years? She could still remember it… every detail about those few days she’d spent in the city. It was the only other time, besides Ollie, that Grace had considered staying, and a part of her regretted that she hadn’t now.

If she had, maybe Ollie wouldn’t be stuck on this nightmare path with her, “...You hungry, Ol?” She asked, settling back in her seat, “Gonna need to find somewhere I can call in… reach my contact. We might as well grab a bite to eat, and there’s a park right down that road, up there, always carts and stuff to buy from. Or… well, borrow from.”

It occured to Oliver as they drove that he had never really left Maryland. Maybe he’d touched the border of it some time or another in his life, but no, he had never truly left. Still mourning the loss of the only home he’d ever really known, Oliver was silent much of the trip. He knew it was wrong to let Grace wallow in her own volatile thoughts… but he didn’t know what else he could say to take the guilt away.

It also occured to Oliver, as they drove into the city, that he was much better suited to the forest.

Already he was tense, nervous. The bustle around them was overwhelming for a man who had never experienced anything like it, much less someone who could hear the voices of those often unheard of. Glancing around, swallowing past his dry throat, Oliver nodded. ”We are not borrowing from anything.” He said pointedly, and once the traffic started up again he started searching for a place to park. ”We have more than enough money to purchase from some vendors. Let’s find a payphone as well.”

Money… It was such an odd concept for someone who didn’t typically have any, but Grace didn’t try to argue. As far as she was concerned, Oliver could tell her to set fire to her hair and run down the street and she’d do it, if only to stop feeling the gnawing weight in her chest every time she looked at him, “Sure… sure. They’ve usually got payphones here and there across the street from the park. If… if you wanna get food, I can call in?”

Spotting an open parking space, Oliver parked the truck and threw his bag over his shoulder. He had plenty of money from his years working alongside Nick, as well as a few valuable trinkets that should last them when their supply went dry. ”Sounds like a plan.” He stepped out of the car and gave Grace another nod, watching her head off in the direction of a payphone before glancing around to find a vendor.

The park was.. It was quieter than the rest of the city, in terms of the amount of people, at least. But the abundance of animals caught Oliver off guard, and almost as soon as he’d set foot into the park they began to speak. He swatted a few pigeons away, trying to ignore the barking of the dogs, the aggressive chittering of the squirrels. It wasn’t like his home… where every animal knew of him, knew of his kindness. Here, they… well. They had a New York attitude, and Oliver was quickly becoming overwhelmed.

Just get some food and go, Oliver. He thought to himself, pushing forward despite the cacophony of voices swarming him.

Grace was hesitant to leave Oliver’s side, but the phone call needed to be made in private - or as private as possible. They were a secretive bunch, the underground people, and while her contact wasn’t exactly a frosty individual, following protocol had still been stressed. She was brief. Brief as she could be for what she had to explain, and when she hung up it was with the promise that they’d meet soon.

After that, she crossed back to the park and found Oliver near the stands, frowning slightly at the oddly pinched expression on his face. Reaching out, she touched his arm, gingerly, “...Okay, Ollie?”

He had barely even neared a vendor before it was beginning to become too much. The pigeons that had been pecking at the floor all seemed to swarm around Oliver, squirrels climbing his pants leg and tugging at his shirt. People stared on in confusion as Oliver tried to shake them off, a look of panic written in his expression. At Grace’s touch against his arm, Oliver flinched, and frantically he grabbed her hand, tugging her away. A shout in the distance resounded as someone lost hold of their dog’s leash, a large shepherd barrelling towards them.

Swearing softly, Grace didn’t protest, and without looking back, angled them down towards the pathway that led across the park. They weren’t his animals… His friends. These were strangers, and like a floodgate of strangers in a crowded place, Oliver was having to deal with them, all of them, all at once. New York… it was a hell of a place for a recluse, alone. But one who could do what Ollie could?

Glancing around, her eyes shifted upwards and she caught sight of the steeple in the distance, “Come on… I know what to do…” And moving ahead of him, she took the lead. It was another five, maybe ten minute walk across the park, and when they emerged, she didn’t pause, except to check for traffic, before nearly dragging him across the street and up the stairs, into the doors of Saint Joseph’s.


One hand gripping Grace’s like a lifeline, Oliver used the other to uselessly cover his ear, trying to shake away the overload of noises and pleas and shouts. Eyes squeezed shut, head pounding, he allowed Grace to fully guide him, her words barely registering. Everything was shouting at him. Everyone of them was shouting at him. He almost stumbled as they were climbing up the stairs, nails desperately digging into her skin until…

Silence. Sweet, sweet silence.

Chest heaving, Oliver collapsed against the door and slid to the floor, a hand on his chest, trying to slow his breathing. He looked up at her and nodded weakly.

Hesitating only briefly, Grace crouched down beside him, and reaching out, brushed a hand to move the hair from his forehead. When she was little, it was the only thing her Gram could do to calm her down… and it was easily the only memory from her childhood that she didn’t completely despise, “...It’s gonna be okay.” She whispered, imagining anything louder might be too much, “C’mon. We can stay as long as you need to.” And rising, she held a hand out to help him to his feet, “It’ll be comfier in the sanctuary…”

After a few minutes, after Grace’s soothing tough settled in, Oliver felt his breathing return to normal, and the pounding of his head began to lessen. Finally he looked up, taking in the sight of the rows of pews, the beautiful stained glass windows reflecting colors all over the place. He stared at her outstretched hand and took it, pulling himself up to his feet, and nodding to give her the go ahead to lead him away, posture hunched with worry.

Finding a pew near the back, Grace sank into it and pulled Oliver down beside her, curling her legs up beneath her. There was a serenity to the silence, a certain peace that she, herself, had come to known when she’d found herself lost in the city before… “Fell asleep here, once…” She murmured, her eyes drifting to the stained glass high overhead, to the depictions of the angels she remembered all to well, “Think I would’ve stayed here forever, if I could’ve. C…can’t filter it out, can you?” She asked, shaking her head, “I’m sorry, Ol... about… about all of this.”

Wrapped up in the beauty of the place, Oliver’s posture unraveled slightly as he sunk into the pew, feeling relief wash over him. He shook his head, somewhat embarrassed. It’d been so long since… since he’d been overwhelmed like that. Precisely the reason why he never left… now, well. He had no choice. ”No. I can’t. And please, Grace. Please don’t be sorry. “ He craned his head up, losing his breath all over again at the beautiful sight. ”This place is beautiful.” Oliver said, wonderment sparkling in his eyes.

“I can’t help it… I dunno how… how to stop. I keep thinking if I’d just… if I’d…” But shaking her head, she breathed in, forcing herself to release the thoughts, to let them go. At least for now. For now, she needed to focus on Oliver, and in so many ways, that was better, anyway… “It reminds me of you.” She shifted her gaze up, and with a small sigh, dropped her head to his shoulder, “When… when I left, last time? The thing I said… about the windows? I dunno if you remember or not, but… but it was these ones. That I was thinking about…”

As her head dropped to his shoulder, Oliver curled against her, sighing. ”I am no angel, Grace. Thinking that way won’t lessen the heaviness on your heart. I promise you that.” Still, his gaze hadn’t left the ceiling above them. ”I never left Maryland before now. It will take me some time… to remember how to control myself in the outside world again. The animals here are different.”

“Everything’s different…” With a small sigh, she shook her head, “Maybe you’re not an angel, Ollie… But you’re a hell-” Pausing, she glanced around, and her cheeks flushed slightly, as she lowered her voice, “You’re a heck of a lot better than most people. It… it’s not gonna be easy for you, with the animals… but… but especially with the people. I’m scared for you. For what I’ve gotten you into…”

A smile flashed onto his face as she caught her words. It didn’t last, and he shook his head against her. ”I told you not to worry about that. I can handle myself. We can handle ourselves. I’m just sort of a fish out of water right now. That’s all. I’ll adapt. Don’t be scared.”

“I… I’ve never been good at it, either.” She continued, with a small, weary smile, “People. I can count on one hand people I trust. And you’re one. And I don’t count my thumb. I guess I… I’m a little scared for me, too.” Biting her lip, she looked up again, taking in the glass, “...We could just… stay here forever.”

Oliver sighed. ”Grace..” He pulled away from her slightly, sitting up straight and facing her. ”I spent my life looking for somewhere to hide. You’ve finally changed that. I know it’s not under the best circumstances, but it’s for the best. It has to be.” He brought his hands up, and signed something slow. ”This means thank you.”

Blinking, her eyes slightly damp, Grace studied the motion like she were going to be given a test, and repeating it, she nodded, “That… that’s what makes you so great, Ollie. I know you don’t think it… but… but that heart of yours. It’s pretty special.” Sitting up, she tried the sign again, “Would… would you teach me more? In case, you know… in case?”

Oliver smiled, a hint of color coming to his cheeks. ”Your heart is special too, Grace.” He said, signing the words along with his phone’s electronic voice. ”I would be absolutely thrilled too. I prefer it much more to speaking through my phone. And it won’t be for any in case situations. It’ll be for us.”

“Wait, wait…” Laughing softly, Grace shook her head as her eyes tried to follow along with her ears, “I’m a fast learner, but… not that fast.” For us... It was such an Oliver thing to say, and she couldn’t be mad at it. Not in the slightest, “Maybe start… start with the letters? I know some of those, already.”

Oliver laughed as well, shoulders shaking with a smile. ”Do you? Who taught you that?” Oliver said, going through each letter one by one, ending up at E to start with, and then pausing, to see if she could repeat it.

Tattooed fingers curved with the letters, as she followed along, focused on the memories of when she’d learned it years ago, “When I was with my Gram, she’d have these meetings with her bridge club... All the mobsters wives. Anyway, they were all older, and there was one lady, Marianne, stone deaf. She’d run through them with me when she started losing, cause she was crap at bridge, and she’d get bored.”

”I see.” Oliver said, and just for kicks, signed along his words as well. ”What a family you had. Bridge club with the mobster’s wives. Always interesting, learning where people come from.”

“That ain’t the half of it, Doolittle…” She mused, as she continued to draw to mind the signs she could. It had been so long ago… Felt like another lifetime, “Those were just their wives. When her husband Jim would have poker night? You ever seen the Godfather? Old movie from back in the day… It was like they were acting it out in my Gram’s living room. It was fun, for a little while… Till I dropped a pot of mac and cheese and rolled back without thinking…” Biting her lip, she shook her head, “That… that’s how all this… that’s how it started.”

Placing a hand on her back, Oliver’s gaze fell. ”You can’t blame yourself. Or your powers. I don’t know why we have them… why we have to suffer like this. But it’s a part of us. It’s for the best. It has to be.” His hand traveled from her back to her shoulder, squeezing it reassuringly. ”I never had a voice. The caretakers at the orphanage said they thought I was dead because I never cried. It’s for those that cannot speak. It means something. You can pull time like that because it will save you one day, and many others, too. Those that can’t understand… they’re just ignorant.”

Looking over at him, Grace bit the edge of her lip, nodding wearilly, “People are scared of what they don’t understand. Right? Isn’t that what everyone says? Except in some cases, it’s more like… people take advantage of what they don’t understand.” Reaching out, she gave his hand a small squeeze, “But you’re wrong, Ol. You have a voice. Just cause no one can hear it, doesn’t mean it’s not there… You say more, saying nothing at all, than people who don’t know how to shut up.”

Oliver laughed, dropping his hands to curl his fingers against hers. ”They take advantage because they’re scared. And because they’re greedy, too.” He smiled. ”Thank you, Grace. That means a lot. I hope you know that just because people took advantage of you… that it’s not your fault. That your powers are bad because of that. There’s beauty in what you can do, what all mutants can do, even if it doesn’t seem like it. Even if the world doesn’t want you to see that.”

“Thanks, Ol…” blinking, she paused, and with a smile, took her free hand and repeated the sign he’d taught her a little while ago, “I guess so many years of using it for someone else’s gain… using it to cheat people, to lie, it makes it harder not to feel like it’s just… wrong. But there can be good in everything… beauty in everything. If you look hard enough.” Her smile brightened as she sat back, “Like… what you do. In other people’s hands, Ollie? It could go so wrong. But you… you respect it. And I don’t doubt for one second that if you wanted, you could get even New York City’s animals to love you.”

He was thrilled to watch her smile brighten, see his words take effect. Especially to see her repeat the sign language. His own smile grew at the sight. ”I have only ever been hated by other humans for what I can do. Perhaps not even specifically what I do… just for being able to do it.” He shrugged. ”How can I not respect it? How can I ignore what I hear? I would just be adding to the hatred in the world. You can’t listen to those who tell you to hurt others… to those who tell you to hurt yourself.”

“I listened to the wrong people for a long time…” She murmured, and looking down, shook her head, “I let them break me down, what I was… could’ve been. Spent the last seven years tryin; to find some way to… to get it back. Still tryin’ to figure it out. Ain’t exactly an ideal time for self discovery, I guess…”

”Nonsense.” Oliver said with a firm shake of his head, signing along with it. ”Now is the perfect time for self discovery. Now more than ever. I’ll be doing that too. Self discovering for a life outside of a forest.” He flashed her a smile. ”It’s time to start rebuilding whatever they broke down.”

Looking up again, Grace smiled faintly, “...I’m… I’m sorry everything happened the way it did, Ollie. But I’m… glad you’re here, with me. You…” Biting her lip, she shrugged, “You’re my best friend, Oliver, and there’s no one I’d rather start my life over with…”

He wrapped an arm around her, and pulled her in close for a hug. ”Me too.” He said with a smile. ”I think we’ll be alright. Self discovery and all doesn’t seem so bad.”

Looping her arms around his middle, she hugged him tightly, “Yeah… I can’t say it sounds like a completely horrible idea.” Sitting up again, she looked at him and with a grin, painstakingly folded her fingers to form the letters and spelled out You and me.

He beamed as he watched her spell out the sentence, and repeated it back. ”You and me.” Oliver signed back. ”Our motto. I like it.” He stayed curled against her, gaze going back up to the ceiling. ”A little scared to go back out there.” He admitted.

“We don’t have to…” Her fingers brushed through his hair again, as she leaned back against the pew, “Not till you’re ready, Ol. Like I said… we could stay here forever, if you want.”

”But we can’t.” He said, closing his eyes, wistful. ”They don’t have food here. Problem number one.”

“I mean… there's those communion wafers. But… but I don't think they're super filling.” Smiling softly, she nodded, “How about… I get us food and you wait in the truck? It's not exactly a sanctuary, but at least you could get some peace?”

”That’d be great, Grace. Thank you.” He said with a nod, standing up. ”I’ll be sad to leave this place.”

“We can come back…” She nodded, rising to her feet, “Whenever you need a minute, Ol… We can come back here. Ready?”

Taking a deep breath, straightening, he looked at her firmly. ”Ready.” His heart threatened to beat out of his chest, but he clung close to her.

“Just hold my hand…” She murmured, as he eased to his feet, “We'll make it through this. Little longer, Ollie. Just… A little longer.”

Elle Joyner

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Sensory Overload Pt. 2
Collab with CloudyBlueDay CloudyBlueDay

Swallowing, Oliver took her hand, squeezing it tightly. ”Just a little longer.” He said, pushing open the doors to the church. It didn’t hit him at first, but slowly the voices began to filter in again. His grip on Grace tightened as he tried to shut out the noise.

“Try to focus on my voice, Ollie. I know you can't shut it out… but just… just for kicks, let's give it a shot, yeah? Hang onto my hand and focus… that's all.” Across the street, she led him to the park entrance again, “You wanna know what my very first tattoo was, Ollie? Dice. On my ankle. Thought I was being clever cause of all the time I spent in the casinos. Hurt like a bitch…”

He nodded feverently, squeezing his eyes shut, allowing her to entirely lead him. Everything was yelling at him… every angry bird and excited dog. Someone dropped their phone and Oliver could feel the impact of the screen shattering against pavement, jumping. ”Dice. Clever.” He echoed, shaking his head. Trying to focus on her voice. ”I have a tattoo of a raccoon.” He said through a pained smile.

“A raccoon? Stop, Ollie. That... A racoon? Holy hell. How is that so frickin’ adorable.” She could feel the tension in his grip, her thumb brushing his, “I've got… twenty-six, I think. Lost count somewhere around the elephant. Almost there. Just… a little ways longer.”

He laughed weakly. Just a little ways longer. ”That’s… so many.” He said, trying to picture each one. He’d almost wimped out on the raccoon, frankly. He focused on her voice, filtering through the rest of the animals shouting out to him and then…

”Wait. Grace. Wait.” Oliver said suddenly, digging his heels into the ground.

“I mean… I've got maybe nine or ten on my hands. Damn… really did lose count.” She laughed softly, but when he paused, she did as well, turning back to face him, “What is it, Ol?”

Against his better judgement, Oliver broke away from Grace and dove into the brush, forcing his eyes open as he fell to his knees and unearthed a small, almost newborn baby squirrel. ”Fell.” He said simply, cradling the baby in his palm.

Blinking, Grace followed after him, and at the sight of the tiny wrinkled creature in his palm, her heart cinched, “Oh… oh no. Ol… Can you… is it… can you fix it?”

It was too much for him to think clearly, for him to reach out and find the mother. But he had too, else the poor thing would die. Looking at Grace worriedly, forehead wrinkled in pain, he nodded. He had to fix it.

Closing his eyes once more he held the little squirrel gently, putting out a call to its mother as his features twisted with exhaustion. Soon enough a squirrel bounded down from the tree tops and after making almost strangely clear eye contact with Oliver, picked the baby up and disappeared into the brush again.

Oliver’s postured slouched, and he fell weakly against Grace with a grunt.

“Woah…” reaching out, Grace did her best to catch him, a small feat considering she was about half his size, “Easy there. Okay, Doolittle?”

Trying to stabilize himself, Oliver placed a hand on her shoulder to try and stand back up fully. A hand went to his head, lip curled. He nodded weakly.

“You're good, sweetie.” Her hands gripped his arms gently, to keep him upright, “Don't… just don't overdo it. Take your time.”

His eyes fluttered closed as he took in his words, trying to calm himself all over again. Now, however the voices seemed to have calmed, the animals of the forest recognizing his deed. ”It’s quieter now.” He said, leaning his head against her shoulder.

“Told you, Ollie…” She murmured faintly, “Told you you'd win them over. Didn't even take you a full day. Prolly the raccoon tattoo…”

He smirked against her shoulder, shaking his head. ”I’m sure that’s what did the trick.” Oliver gripped her sleeve. ”I got it for my friend. He had a stuffed raccoon. It was very cute.”

“Seriously, Oliver. If you were stuffed, you would be that raccoon. How is a person this adorable? It's ridiculous.” Patting him on the back, she smiled, “You alright, now?”

”I’m not adorable. I’m very manly. It was my friend who had the stuffed raccoon, alright?” Oliver protested, shaking his head. ”I’m alright.”

Grinning, she nodded, ruffling his hair, “You're super manly. A complete stud. But damn, if you aren't the cutest.” Taking his hand again, she smiled, “C'mon… let's get something to eat.”

Using her hand to pull himself to his feet again, he nodded, grinning. The park had stopped its assault, and Oliver could look around without being overloaded. ”Sounds good. You leading the way?”

“Oh, yeah,” Smiling, she nodded, hooking her arm through his, “Now that you're no longer having every pigeon in Manhattan screaming at you, I'm gonna show you the best food stand this city has. You ready to have your mind blown, Doolittle?”

Glancing around the park with newly opened eyes, Oliver smiled. ”I am.” He said through that widening grin. Maybe this wasn’t going to be so bad after all.

There was relief in seeing his expression, and taking his hand again, Grace tugged him along, back to the carts of food they'd abandoned earlier. Leading him to one in particular, she gestured up to the menu.for many different varieties of waffles, “But not just any waffles, my dear Oliver. The best waffles you will ever eat… When I was here last time, my contact took me here after… you know. Earth shattering… really.”

Oliver grinned up at the vendor, stomach growling at the sight of the menu. ”I’ve never had an earth shattering waffle.” He said with a smile. ”Your contact sounds like a kind man. I’m glad he’s helping us out.”

“Hopefully he can, anyway. I think you'll like him. Only person I've met besides you who seems to give a damn about someone other than himself.” Smiling to the vendor, she glanced at the menu again, “Number three for me… And for you, Ollie?”

Oliver tried to picture the man’s face. He knew how Grace looked at him, so if her contact was being compared, well, he had to be something good. It gave Oliver hope. He flashed Grace and the vendor a number five on his hand with a small, uncertain and lopsided grin.

“Bold choice, my friend.” Grace grinned, before stepping aside to allow the people behind them to order. At the next station, while they awaited their orders, her eyes skimmed the crowd, “You know, I almost stayed? When he gave me the underground pass… I almost took him up on it.”

”Go big or go home, and I’m not going home.” Oliver said with a shrug. He studied the crowd, and then fell back to Grace. ”And why didn’t you? You should have.”

“Hard to stay anywhere when you've been running for so long, Ollie. It's a scary thought. Roots. An address. You… you were the only other time I considered sticking around. But I got scared…” a sigh escaped, as she ran her fingers through her hair, grimacing when the edge of her hand brushed her tender ear, “When you're so used to moving around, standing too long in one place is intimidating as hell.”

Oliver nodded with a sigh, and flinched along with her as he watched her brush the marred cartage. It sent a shiver down his spine, the thought of Asher, the thought of what he’d done… what he could very well so. ”I understand.” He said with a bowed head. ”But maybe this time you should stay. After everything blows over… they can protect you, it seems. I don’t think you can run forever.”

“What about you? You and me together, Doolittle. That's the deal, right? You gonna stick around?” Smiling delicately, she shrugged, “You know Maisy would miss you, too much, if you didn't…”

He smiled, but only for a moment, gaze flickering downwards. ”I don’t know.” He answered honestly with a shake of his head. ”I might like to go back. If it’s still standing… I would.”

“O...oh. Of course.” Nodding, she looked away as well, the pretense of watching the crowd again, “Yeah. I mean. I dunno… it's a nice thought, but I'm no good at staying.”

”So get better.” Oliver said, brow furrowed. ”I’m not good at moving. I’ll get better. But Grace, you can’t run forever. I don’t care where you pick… pick somewhere.”

A brow rose as she turned back to him, and grinning, she studied him, “You got bossy while I was gone, Doolittle. But maybe. I mean… yeah. I'll try. I… want to. I'm tired of it… the running.”

He avoided her gaze, rubbing the back of his neck. ”I feel like a hypocrite.” Oliver shook his head. ”Telling you to get better… when all I want to do is go hide again.”

“You're not, Ol.” Reaching for his hand, she gave it a squeeze, “You're just no good at taking care of yourself… cause you spend your whole life taking care of everyone else. But you can do this. I know you can. And m...maybe I need you to…? I dunno. I just know things are easier with you around.”

He smiled weakly with a sigh, running a hand over his face. Oliver didn’t know what to say. He wanted to be there for Grace, and he wanted to help her find a place to land. But he’d found a home… and there was peace there. Why wouldn’t he go back? He felt it wrong to condemn Grace to a life in the wilderness with only him and the animals for company.

”I’ll be with you as long as you need, Grace.” He said.

“Hmm.” Smiling, she shook her head, “We'll be there for each other. Whatever that means, we'll figure it out. For now, we just gotta get through the next few hours. Now…” Handing over one of the cardboard containers of waffles, she grinned, “Time to change your life.”

Oliver grinned, trying to push away the unease their conversation had unearthed. He was definitely ready for his life to be changed… at least on a waffle scale. Opening up his waffle and sniffing it excitedly, Oliver grabbed two forks and handed her one. ”Cheers.” He clinked their forks together.

Chuckling, she returned the clink, before, without hesitation, digging in, “Ah. Yep. This… hm. This is definitely exactly how I remember. God bless waffles…”

Oliver was a little too lost in waffle heaven to reply, and it took him a few moments to muster the brain power to make his phone talk as he devoured the waffle. ”So good.” He said happily, through a mouthful of food.

“Right??” She grinned brighter, waving him over to a table, “Take your time… Once it's gone you'll miss it forever. Think we should save any for Mais?”

”No. All for us.” Oliver said through a smirk. ”We’ll have to go buy her some food, but right now… I just want to eat a million of these.” Oliver sunk into the table, an expression of delight wrapping his features.

Laughing, Grace nodded, “Fair enough. I get how you feel. I think if it were legal, I'd probably marry one of these things.” Sinking back as well, she breathed in, “Just don't tell Maisy. She'll be so jealous.”

Oliver laughed his voiceless laugh, and almost choked on a piece of waffle. Once he’d calmed down, he proceeded to laugh more. ”The waffles tried to kill me!” He said, rubbing at his eyes. ”Maybe I ate a little too much too fast.”

“Oof.” Chuckling again, Grace shook her head, “That's always the problem with these things. Savoring them is like… impossible. No worries. We can just sit here and wait for him to show.”

He blinked, putting down his next bite of waffle. ”Your contact is coming here?” Oliver shook his head sheepishly. ”I didn’t realize. Good thing we ate before. Honestly, I thought it’d be a little more mysterious.”

Chuckling, Grace shook her head, “The mysterious part comes more with the underground. This bit? This is just to say hi… Catch up. See if we can even get entry. No sense in being sneaky about all that.”

”I see.” Oliver said, going back to his waffle, eating it much slower, at least, as slow as he could manage. ”Is there some sort of test we have to pass? Prove we’re worthy?”

Laughing, Grace shrugged, “Knowing my contact? He's gonna test how well you hug. And I've been on the receiving end of plenty of your hugs, Ol. You're good. Trust me… This guy? He's good.”

Oliver smirked. This guy almost seemed a little too fantastical to believe… but he wanted too. He desperately wanted too. ”I hope so.” He said with a sigh. ”My hugs aren’t for everyone, you know. You’re a lucky lady.”

“Don't need to tell me that twice, Ollie. I know how lucky I--” Trailing off, her eyes shifted up and a small frown formed as a figure approached their table. He was a middle-aged man, wearing a black jacket and dark glasses over his eyes. Pushing back the glasses, he glanced between the two, “Grace? Hey. Names Mike. Your contact… he couldn't make it out himself. Got caught up down below. You ready to roll?”

Shifting, jaw tightening, Grace looked to Ollie, “If it's all the same… I'd rather wait for--”

“He won't be able to make it out today… You sure you wanna stay out here? Risk it?”

Oliver’s posture tensed. He could tell immediately this wasn’t right. His fists curled underneath the table as he took in the man… wrong… all wrong. ”Yes. We’re sure. We’d like to risk it.” Oliver said firmly, staring down Mike with gritted teeth, fully prepared to pounce if need be.

“I'm afraid that's not such a good idea…” The man continued, “I think you'd better come with me…”


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Sensory Overload Part 3
Collab with: Nick, Grace Elle Joyner Elle Joyner , and Oliver CloudyBlueDay CloudyBlueDay

Nick had been all but sprinting through the city, probably looking a little like he’d lost his mind. Twenty minutes was his time frame. He hadn’t really said that over the phone when Grace called, since specifics were better left unsaid these days. He still intended on twenty minutes though. It was just fast enough that he could get there without too much happening in between. That was his thought process, anyway.

In any case, while he’d been in the area when he got the unexpected call, he wasn’t super close. The natural response was to run, in his mind, though he hoped he looked more like a runner for hobby than a crackhead to the people he passed by. He slowed, coming into an easier pace as he spotted the waffle cart he’d first taken Grace to all that time ago. How times flies…

He slipped closer, catching sight of Grace and her head of green hair easily enough. He immediately noted two other figures. He focused on the one in black jacket first. Something was off with him. He discreetly crooked a finger at his side as he walked closer, tuning in. He just stopped himself from making a face at what he heard. ’Couldn’t make it out?’ ‘Not such a good idea?’ Yeah, right. He was probably about to make a scene, but with one quick cursory glance, he figured no one was paying close enough attention to pick out details.

“Hey, you guys could’ve warned me you were starting the waffle party without me,” Nick greeted, his voice still soft the way it had always been, though there was something a little sterner in his tone this time around. He could fake oblivion well enough, but the guy in might be a better idea to not let him hang around too long. “Hey, man, have we met before?” he asked Mike, clasping one hand on his shoulder. If anyone paid close attention, they’d notice his stance, one foot bracing him and a fist reared back to clock the man in the face as soon as he turned around.

Mike has started to reach into his jacket, and Grace rose up out of her seat just slightly, eyes fixed on her watch for a moment, when the forth figure arrived and glancing up swiftly, she caught sight of Nick, just as Mike turned and caught a hook to the jaw. He spun on impact, not prepared for the sudden blow and as he tumbled hard into the table, Grace reached across the man to grab Oliver’s hand, “We need to run, now!”

But Oliver had no plans to run. At least, not before he had given their savior a hug for the ages. Oliver barely flinched as the man crashed into the table, squeezing Grace’s hand with a beaming, brimming smile before pulling it away. ”Nick!” But in his head, it was more like, NICK! He knew that voice, he knew that hair, he knew that stupidly cheesy punch line and it sent a warmth into his heart like no other. Without paying a damn morsel of attention to the man who was probably about to try to murder them, Oliver attacked Nick with a hug.

Nick whirled, eyes wide, as he heard his name. Was that…? It was electronic, but it knew him, knew his name, and he was pretty sure he knew who it belonged to because of that. His eyes settled on Oliver and a variety of emotions flickered over his face, the first being recognition and the last being relieved glee. “Ollie?” he said, unable to help the smile before he was tackled with a hug. He squawked eloquently, beaming all the while, as he returned the hug. His ecstatic relief was short-lived though, when he glanced back at Mike. Ooh, they should probably go.

Grace’s eyes danced between the two men, wide and confused, as their apparent recognition struck her somewhere in the gut. These were two people she had met at entirely different moments in time… the only two people that she had ever allowed herself to trust. And somehow… somewhere, in the wild game that was life, they had already…

Mike pushed himself upright, as the daze wore off and as he reached into his jacket again, Grace swore softly, kicking out at the back of the man’s knee cap. He buckled with a growl, and his hand flew from the jacket, bearing a black pistol.

“This is real touching, boys, and I’m sure you can explain to me how the hell you know each other later… Right now, we have to go!”

It almost hurt to pull away from Nick, because he would’ve loved to cling onto the man for at least three more hours, but the growl of the man as Grace kicked his knee in snapped him out of his ecstatic moment and he patted Nick happily on the shoulder. ”Best waffles I ever had. Should’ve known you were behind it.” Oliver nodded to Grace, before tightening his hand around her wrist, ducking off and out of the waffle haven.

“We’re finishing this later,” Nick promised, pointing a finger at Oliver with intention, before pulling away from him. He then grinned, unable to help the bark of laughter. “What can I say? I gotta feed you people. I’m the food guy,” he said, even as he followed behind them, quickly fleeing out of the area.

Rolling her eyes, but not without a small smirk of her own, Grace jumped over the fallen hitman, allowing herself to be dragged by Oliver, away from the carts, “Truck, Ollie! We gotta get Maisy…”

Oliver beamed as Nick laughed. It’d been a laugh he’d sorely missed, and a hole in his heart was suddenly filled as he heard it uttered again. ”That’s our cat.” Oliver said pointedly, looking back to Nick with a grin as they continued to run. He would’ve loved to sign to the man, but the situation didn’t quite permit that. ”Over there!” He could see the truck coming into view.

Confusion crossed over Nick’s face as he ran before Oliver’s words clicked. “Of course. Should’ve known you’d start adopting more animals without me,” he cackled, shaking his head. “How many more children am I going to have to meet?” he asked as he ran towards the truck.

Grimacing at Nick’s question, Grace shook her head and moved instead to pull open the passenger door, “C’mon, girl. We gotta get outta here…” She scooped Maisy up, and cradled her gingerly, her eyes shifting back to Oliver and Nick, “...Which way?”

Oliver’s smile faltered, just for a moment, and he shook his head. ”Maisy’s my one and only, currently, lost all the others in the divorce.” He said through a smirk, watching as Grace scooped the cat into her arms. ”Nick, do you have a place to take us? Seeing as you’re the cool Underground guy and all?”

“Oof, do you at least get visitation rights?” Nick asked, though he noticed the falter. He didn’t plan on asking again until they were out of range of the guy in the waffle shop. He glanced around, orienting himself. “There’s an old safe house about two streets over, so we’ve gotta go right first,” he said before looking over at Oliver. “Good to know I can still sense teasing through phone voices,” he commented, sticking out his tongue. “Maybe not so loud though…”

Shaking her head, Grace frowned faintly, holding Maisy out to Oliver, “You better take her. She can understand you, better…” Turning to Nick, her eyes shifted to the streets and she nodded, “Let's go, then…”

”My bad.” Oliver said, smirk widening as his phone’s volume level dropped to just barely audible. He took Maisy into his arms, the cat looked up at him curiously as he explained the situation. Oliver held his satchel open for Maisy to duck into, and then he nodded to the two of them, starting in the direction Nick told them.

Nick smiled, shaking his head at Oliver. He waited until the cat was safely tucked away before leading them towards the safe house. He walked at a brisk pace, though it thankfully wasn’t too out of place in New York. They’d all been out in the open for quite a while, as far as he was concerned. It was probably best that he get them to the safe house as quickly as possible.

When they arrives, only when they arrived, and the doors had closed behind them, and the world was shut out again, did Grace allow herself to breathe. Fingers drove through a tangled mess of ivy, tucked back behind her ears, and dropping back against the wall, she let her eyes fall closed.

“They're just gonna keep finding us…” She whispered, shivering.

As they reached the safehouse, Oliver paused to take breath, Maisy scampering out of his bag and beginning to sniff about the place. Putting a reassuring hand on Grace’s shoulder, he shook his head. ”And we’ll just keep finding a way to beat them, Grace. Especially with this doofus on our side now.” He flashed a smile at Nick.

“Said doofus is glad to help,” Nick said with a wave, smiling over at Oliver in return, before concern washed over his face. “Keep finding you? Have you seen that guy before, or someone with him?” he asked. If they’d been tailed or someone was after them, it might be better to get whatever details he could. That way, he could help both Oliver and Grace as well as watch out for the Underground.

Frowning softly, Grace looked to Oliver, before turning her attention to Nick, “...Someone tried to kill me. I stopped a diner… and this guy and this… crazy red head woman sat down at my table… Told me if I didn’t come with them, they were gonna kill everyone in the diner. Outside… they stuck me with some kinda… I dunno what it was. Knocked me out. I woke up… and they were talking about trying to find someone.” Reaching up, she brushed the shell of her ear, “...When I didn’t tell them where he was, the guy… he…” Trailing off, she shook her head, “Anyway. I got away… jumped out a window… and I found my way to Ollie’s. But they showed up there, too… the next day. And now here… I dunno what… what’s going on. Or what the want. But it has something to do with… with my brother, Devon.”

Nick listened, gaze flicking over her as he took in both her story and her appearance. He hadn’t had the moment to realize how rough she looked earlier, a little more concerned with the man in the black jacket at the time. “Is that why, and I mean this is the most affectionate way possible, you look like shit?” he asked. “Good God, you’ve been through hell.” He sighed, shaking his head as he took this in. The next day? The very next day they’d found her again? Something seemed off with that, but he found something else catch his attention. “Devon,” he said after a moment. “I know that’s a common name, but I have to ask. Devon, as in ‘Mountain of a Man’ Devon?” He raised a hand above his head to show approximate height. “‘Sees into your past’ Devon? Devon Hammond?”

A dry huff of a laugh escaped, as Grace nodded faintly, “I mean, I would hope I don’t normally look this way, Nick.” Biting the edge of her lip, she nodded, “Hell doesn’t exactly cover it. I… I would be dead. If...if it weren’t for Ollie. When I felt out the window, I hit a car. This is… the cleaned up version.”

As he continued, her expression shifted, and shock resonated for a moment, before she stepped back, “...Y...yeah. That Devon. What the hell?”

Oliver glanced between the two in shock, brow raised. ”Nick? How do you know Devon?”

“Hey, it’s been a while. You could’ve taken up knife-fighting for all I know,” Nick joked lightly. He gave Oliver a quick look of gratitude, for helping Grace, before looking back over at her. His face was pensive as he considered this. It could be a coincidence. A very freaky, very concerning coincidence, but still one all the same. He shouldn’t sit on it too long, though. Maybe bring it up with some of the others in the Underground, or at least see what he could find before he stirred up potential trouble.

“That...has a slightly convoluted answer, but the quickest, easiest way I can answer is this. I was part of Rogue for about two months before it dissolved, and that’s how I met him. Which is why it’s a tiny bit concerning that whoever these people are happen to be hunting for you and him specifically.”

“...Oh God.” The words hit hard, and putting a hand to her chest, Grace leaned back against the wall, steadying herself, “...It’s… it’s gotta be about Rogue.” Because unless Devon had taken up gambling, and had a really pissed off and highly effective bookie… there was no way it was just a random assault. They tried to use her to get to him, because they banked on them having a close relationship…

“...Son of a bitch. They aren’t gonna stop…”

Oliver blinked, wrapping his head around the answer. “Rogue…” He’d heard about it.. hell, even stumbled across a recruiter once. But Oliver had never agreed to go. Rogue had always seemed convoluted to him… more if a burden than a blessing. It seemed that was true now. Turning to Nick, brows furrowed, he held his hands up to sign to the man, knowing full well Grace couldn’t understand. ”Is that where you were? When you disappeared?

Nick’s pensive look deepened into a frown. “I’m not going to make you do it now, Grace, but at some point, if you can tell me a bit more about what happened, it’d would be appreciated. If that’s the case, I need to tell the others. Not just the Underground, but whatever old members of Rogue I can get a hold of. I need to see if this is happening with anyone else. Because if it is...we might have a massive problem,” he said.

Nick turned as he saw Oliver raise his hands to sign, that frown deepened further. A flicker of hurt seemed to cross his face, as he realized what Oliver was implying. ”It wasn’t why I left. Not by a long shot. Found it a while after the fact. I wasn’t even there long,” he explained.

It wasn’t something she wanted to relive. Not remotely… But she understood the need to know more. Especially if he was a part of Rogue. If someone was targeting the old members, then that fell on him, too. She opened her mouth so say as much, when the hands started flying and her frown deepened, eye bouncing between the pair.

“...If you two need a moment alone?” She asked, the tiniest edge to her voice.

A flash of anger crossed Oliver’s expression, and he bit his lip. ”We can talk later. We need to settle this.. our plan. What we’re doing about this mess. She’s being chased because she’s related to Devon, I’m assuming, and I’ve been roped into it.” Oliver’s gaze narrowed at Nick, chest heaving with a sigh. ”Can your Underground protect us?”

Nick looked pained for just a moment, but didn’t argue. Oliver had the right to be mad. Regardless of how happy he was to see him alive and well, he hadn’t known what had happened for five years. ”Okay. We’ll talk later,” he agreed, hands rolling. He then lowered his hands as Oliver spoke with the phone once again. “Yes. I need to speak with them, of course, but I’ll get them to understand how dire this is.”

“Great.” Grace continued, that note of irritation still present, eyes shifting back to Nick as her arms crossed over her chest, “...What else do you need to know?”

He wanted to be purely ecstatic at Nick’s return, but there were questions that he’d wrestled over for months that Oliver couldn’t just ignore. He took a step back as Grace prepared to explain the situation to Nick, barely grasping her hint of irritation before his posture twitched and tensed. Maisy emerged with a mouse between her teeth, eliciting a raspy gasp from Oliver, who immediately ducked to chase after her. The cat sensed the amount of danger, and darted away with her prize.

“What happened, basically. What the man and woman looked like, how they acted, what you can remember about where they took you. Anything defining about the situation, especially if they were specifically targeting certain people,” Nick said. Turning his attention back to her. “Whatever detail you can stand to tell, basically. I have to bring this to the others, and I need to know at least most of the picture from your end.” The corner of his mouth twitched at seeing Maisy and Oliver ducking after her, but he said nothing. It reminded him a little of a dog that used to be with him… The thought clicked, and Nick took a mental note to ask about Spike later.

Flinching, Grace nodded. It was exactly what she was afraid he might ask, and she had a bad feeling it wasn’t the last time she’d have to relive it. She absently buckled her hands together, breathing out, as she lowered her gaze.

“It was the Honeycrisp Diner… off Piedmont Highway. It was late… maybe ten… eleven o’clock. The man was tall… broad shoulder, dark hair. He wore glasses, a black suit, hideous snake skin boots. The woman was on the taller side, too… thin. Red hair. Face that made you hope she wasn’t ugly on the inside… disappointed, there. I don’t remember much, once they stuck me with the needle. Just that it burned like hell, and then I was out. When I woke up, I was in some dusty room… like an attic. Shackled to a beam. They were talking… quietly at first, but I don’t think they realized I was awake, cause they started getting louder. The woman, she wanted to kill me right away… Real peach, that one… But the man, he seemed to think he could get more out of me. M...Maya. And Asher. Their names. I dunno if they were first or last names. She left… the woman, in a huff, and he went into his villain monologue about how he wanted to avoid the unnecessary torture…” Pausing, she took a breath, too a moment… and her fingers grazed her ear again, eyes burning, blurring.

“Then he ripped out my earring without flinching. I didn’t even know what they wanted… not really. He undid the shackles and dragged me over to a chair by… by a tub. Asked me to answer some questions. When I didn’t give him the answers he wanted, he’d dunk me. Hold me under. Eventually, I figured out he wasn’t gonna let me walk away, anyway… so I pissed him off enough that he just left me under. Then he walked away, and I… I managed to snag to the drain cord and pull it with my teeth. Got a hand free. They came back, the two of them, and I ran for the window… jumped out. Landed on a car, two… maybe three stories down. Must’ve punctured a lung or something, cause I remember it was hard to breathe. I started running… didn’t stop, till I recognized how close they’d brought me to… to Ollie’s place. And that’s where I ended up.”

Nick clasped a hand over his mouth, his horror growing greater with each word out of her mouth. He closed his eyes, brow furrowed, as she described it in detail. Just as he’d asked. God, she’d been through hell and more. He was silent until she finished, letting out a breath.

“Asking you if you’re okay is probably a dumb question,” he said, voice a little shaky. “So, can I hug you?”

Okay. Not remotely. She was terrified… more so now than she had been a little while ago, when she was so sure it was over. With a breathless laugh, Grace gave a nod, “Yeah… yeah, you can.”

That was all he needed. Nick stepped closer, quickly pulling her into a tight hug. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry, Grace,” he murmured softly. “That you went through that, that I asked you to go through it again. I’m going to do my best to make sure that you never have to go through that again, and neither does anyone else.”

He stayed still, holding her close for just a moment before taking a breath. He hated to ask. He really did. But he needed to. “You don’t have to tell me, but if you can...what did he ask you?”

Arms around his middle, Grace nodded softly, “...Nothing you have to apologize for, Nick. I didn’t see you up in that room… Reliving it sucks, but if it helps you stop these creeps, then I’ll talk about it a hundred times.” When he continued, she pulled back, drying her eyes with the back of her hand, “He wanted to know if I had anything that belonged to Devon. Any pictures or momentos… anything he’d given me. They mentioned having… having some kind of GPS… to… to find them. The people they were looking for.”

Oliver crept back with a firm hand on Maisy’s scruff, just in time to watch Nick enveloping Grace. He froze, a smile coming upon his lips. Yeah.. this was the old Nick. Even if he’d left… without a trace, without a word… Oliver still loved him all the same, even if he would have liked to be a little mad. With Maisy in his arms he stepped up beside Grace, nodding to them both. ”I thought that the GPS they were talking about might be a mutant. Since they managed to find Grace so fast.” He added.

“Doesn’t mean I have to like that it happened,” Nick said in response to her telling her he had nothing to apologize for. He kept his hands braced on her shoulders, hoping it was soothing instead of suffocating after what she’d gone through. “Pictures or momentos,” he echoed. That was odd. Something a little too odd to be just any GPS, no matter how sophisticated.

“It would make sense, if it were a mutant. That’s something kind of specific to just be a regular GPS,” he commented, voicing his earlier thoughts. “If it’s a mutant, though, I’m trying to figure out why they’d do it. Maybe a personal vendetta with Rogue, or maybe they were recruited or threatened, like with-.” He cut himself off. They likely wouldn’t know who Kaiden Hull was, or what he was like. “Yeah, I’m definitely going to have to bring this up with other Rogue members. See if I can get in touch with more than two of them.”

“If this is bigger, then they aren’t gonna stop. Not till they get whatever it is they’re after.” She continued, rubbing her arms uncomfortably. Her eyes flickered over to Oliver, and another pang of guilt pinched at her stomach, “You… you told me when we met, Nick, when you brought up the Underground that first time that it’s hidden cause the guy who runs it makes it that way. You… you think it can block what… or whoever’s after me long enough for us to sort this?”

Nick didn’t think it was necessary to agree with her aloud. The look on his face was probably agreement enough. If this was big, if this was about Rogue, this would be a process that lasted a long time. Despite not having been a Rogue all that long, he’d gathered that the organization was huge. Miami and Orlando had only ever been small pieces of the puzzle.

“That’s the idea,” Nick stated with a nod. If it didn’t? They probably had bigger problems then. “If nothing else, it’ll give us the chance to gather our bearings and figure out what we’re dealing with.”

”Hold on,” Oliver said, stance a little more tense beside Grace, ”We’ve seen the damage these people can do. If you’re not sure the Underground can withstand it, we don’t want to bring that down on you. On those people.” It was a burden to carry, Oliver knew this, but it was their burden now. He had no intentions of wrapping anyone else up in this… even though Nick already seemed to be on the hit list, if he’d been a part of Rogue. Oliver internally cursed his inability to protect either of them. ”I trust you, Nick.” His phone relayed the message while Oliver offered his old friend a soft smile and a gentle nod. ”But do you trust that your people can take whatever’s chasing us?”

At Oliver’s protest, Grace lowered her gaze, fingers curling into fists at her side, falling silent as guilt struck like hailstones over her head.

Nick looked back over at Oliver as he asked if the Underground could take it. He returned the smile, something warm in his chest at hearing Oliver still trusted him, despite everything. “I trust the Underground’s ability to stay hidden. I trust that it likely won’t come to the point they need to take it,” he said. “And if it does come to that, they’ll have a headstart and advance warning for what’s coming, thanks to you guys. I think we can take them.”

Oliver blinked, glancing down at Grace beside him, watching her posture shrivel. He couldn’t quite speak to her the way he could others, but it didn’t take a genius to feel the waves of guilt radiating off of her. Wordlessly he put a hand on her shoulder, squeezing it and shaking his head. ”We’re in this together, Grace. No use feeling sorry about it.” He said, and then nodded firmly to Nick. ”Alright then. We’re in your hands, doofus.”

More like he was in this because of her… but nodding faintly, Grace reached up to give his hand a small squeeze, before looking to Nick, “What he said… minus the doofus. You two do realize you owe me a story, right? How in the hell does it figure the only two people in the world I can rely on are BFFs… God.”

“I think you’re pretty safe in these hands,” Nick said, holding them out as if to prove his point. “And I don’t mind the doofus bit. It takes one to know one, after all,” he teased, looking over at Oliver with a cheeky grin. He pursed his lips after a moment. “...You know how I told you the first time around that I used to work solely on the black market, before I was part of the Underground?” He jabbed a thumb at Oliver. “He was my contact for tech stuff.”

Oliver blushed slightly, raising his own hands in modesty, looking away. ”I did a few jobs. Nick just needed a cover for spending time with me.” He teased. ”Probably went broke slipping all those extra bills in, didn’t you?” Oliver looked at Grace. ”Don’t let him fool you. Nick saved my life a dozen times over. Gave me more than he ever needed too to keep me on my feet.”

“So he…” She pointed to Nick, “Was your Ollie?” Grinning, she looked to Nick, “Ask Ollie how we met…”

“Pff, a few jobs. Okay, sure,” Nick said, rolling his eyes playfully. “Who, me? Slip you extra money? Nope, nope, not me, not ever. You must be thinking of someone else. I’m so tight on money, you know. Only ever gave you the agreed on price,” he teased back with a snort. He tilted his head, raising an eyebrow as Grace spoke. “Oh boy. What happened?” he asked, glancing back over to Oliver.

Rolling his eyes at Nick, Oliver blushed a little further. ”He was not my… your… nevermind. He wasn’t that, because I never tried to rob him,” Oliver poked his tongue out slightly. ”I caught her trying to rob me. But then she gave me pouty eyes, and well, won me over. Said she was hungry. Sound familiar, Nick?” Oliver’s eyes softened as he nudged Grace slightly. ”Told you I’d been there…”

“Yes, you did…” she nodded, chuckling softly, “He made me eggs… Let me stay the night. I tried to be honorable and take the couch and this guy… picked me up like I'm a friggin’ ant… and…” Laughing softly at the memory, she shook her head, “Chucked me into bed and told me I could snuggle with the bear. Made pancakes the next day and packed me a year's worth of food to take with me…”

“Am I your Ollie, Ollie?” Nick asked with a snicker. He then nodded. “You were always a sucker for the pouty eyes. I’d know.” He felt a grin creep onto his face as he listened to the two of them retell the story. He couldn’t help the small bit of pride that crept into his heart at hearing that. Hearing that he’d had an effect on Oliver, and that Oliver passed it on to Grace.

“To be fair, Grace, you’re kind of like a bunch of grapes anyway. That does sound pretty familiar, though. I mean, if you just take out the robbing bit and make Ollie a little paranoid instead, it works out pretty well. He did threaten me with a dog, after all,” he commented before a lightbulb seemed to flick on. “Oh! I almost forgot. How’s Spike doing?” he asked, turning to Oliver with a smile. He was going to give him plenty of belly rubs to make up for lost time.

The lightheartedness in Oliver’s gaze dimmed, and he bowed his head. Guiding Maisy to his shoulder so he could sign, he looked up at Nick sadly. ”Spike passed.” His hand movements were slow, and though a little awkward for Oliver, he spelled out every letter, so Grace could understand it. ”I’m sorry, Nick.”

Grace didn’t know the story, but she didn’t need to. It was apparent enough in his eyes, even without the signing what had happened and without a word, Grace reached her arms around Oliver in a quick, easy hug.

Nick’s heart dropped as he saw the look on Oliver’s face. Oh no. Oh, no, that wasn’t good. He followed the letters, putting them together, and he felt his heart shatter. The back of his eyes stung. “Ollie…” he said softly, fighting back tears before closing the distance between him and the other man and then hugged him as well. “I’m so sorry. He...he was a good boy.”

Oliver smiled weakly as they both hugged him, eternally grateful for their presences in that moment. ”He was the best boy.” Oliver said, his smile wavering between a pained grimace. ”He missed you, Nick. Said I didn’t give as good belly rubs as you.”

Nick made a noise that sounded a lot like a sob. “I’m so sorry,” he murmured, swearing under his breath as he wiped at his eye with the heel of his hand. “I missed him, too.” He’d started to laugh, at hearing that the dog had said Oliver’s belly rubs weren’t as good, but it broke a little soon and turn into a sob as well. “How? How did he go?” he asked softly.

A pained wheeze finally fell out of Oliver, posture hunched as he ran a hand through his hair, dragging his hand across his face. “I got caught in a scanner on a grocery run. The drones came quicker than we could run. He took…” A quiver of a sob escaped him. ”That dog took a bullet for me. Can you believe it? I still can’t. I was as good as dead.”

Nick ended up wiping more tears from his eyes before hugging Oliver tighter. Tears continued to flow despite this, though he was mostly silent as he just held onto his friend. “So he died doing what he did best,” he said, managing to get the next words out before his voice cracked on another sob, “being a very good boy.”

“...Hell. Who… who brought all the damn onions.” Grace sniffed, wiping her cheeks, “You boys are somethin’ special, you know that? I’m sorry about Spike… and I’m sorry for everything else. Neither… neither one of you deserves all this sad crap, and if I could, man… I’d flip back every damn second, to fix it.”

”It’s alright, Grace.” Oliver said, shaking his head, pulling them both tighter into him. ”Spike died being the best boy. The best boy ever. And he would have loved to meet you. I know it.” He sighed deeply, wiping away tears. ”I’ve lost many people in my life, but all that loss has lead me back to you both. I can’t say there’s things I wouldn’t want you to change… but if it changed the present, this moment, I’d tell you not to touch a damn thing.”

Nick swore again under his breath, sniffing. “You’re a real sap, Ollie,” he said with a shaky laugh. “It’s a good thing, though, because I think all of us are a little sappy. I’m glad to be here with you, Ollie. Really. And I’m so glad,” he continued, though he looked at Grace this time, “that you’re here too, because you’re about to get hugged, you secret sweetheart.” With that, he slid his arms from around Oliver to wrap them around Grace instead.

“Gah…Gross. Emotions! You saps are contagious or something.” But she didn’t resist. She couldn’t. She burrowed into them like the little mouse she was and held on. Held on for dear life.

”I still have to pinch you for leaving, but I’ll get over it.” Oliver said through a smile. ”I know I’m a sap. I embrace it.” He hugged them both tighter, finally able to exhale in their warmth. It’d been a long time since he’d exhaled. Maisy meowed, having jumped down from Oliver’s shoulder to curl against his feet in the center of the hug. When they finally broke apart, Oliver picked the cat up and scratched under her chin. ”She felt excluded.”

“I promise I had a good reason,” Nick said sheepishly. That was probably a story for after he’d caught up with Grace and Oliver’s lives though. He laughed at hearing that Oliver embraced being a sap, shaking his head. He stayed there a little while, enjoying the hug with both of them in his arms, before eventually pulling away. He smiled at Maisy as she was picked up. “Sorry, sweetheart,” he told the cat softly.

“Big baby…” Grace whispered, giving Maisy a scratch under the chin, “We should probably get moving anyway… I don’t think our gunman is gonna care if we’re having an emotional pow wow, here…”

Oliver chuckled voicelessly, shoulders shaking with a smile. Maisy purred beneath all the attention, tail swishing, taking a moment to gaze at Nick curiously before hopping into his arms. Oliver only laughed a little heartier. ”He probably won’t care. That’s a shame, because it’s a very good emotional pow wow. Let’s get going.”

“Oh! Hello,” Nick greeted Maisy as she hopped into his arms, careful not to drop her. He gently ran a hand over her back, petting her as he glanced back up at the other two. “It is a really good pow wow,” he agreed before sighing. The trip to the Underground was going to be fun. “Looks like I’m leading the way again. Hopefully, we’ve lost the guy for now.”

“He’s probably still trying to put his knee back into place… Or his jaw.” Grace added, with a small grin. That, at least, she didn’t feel the least bit guilty for, “And oi, Maisy.” Looking at the cat, she gave a teasing frown, “You philanderer…”

Maisy gave a haughty mrow in response, to which Oliver tch’d and rolled his eyes. ”I’m not going to repeat what she said.” He stated bluntly, waving them to the door. ”Are we leaving New York? Please say we’re leaving New York.”

Nick cackled, gently stroking the cat in his arms as he tried to figure out how to open the door without upsetting her. “I’m afraid we’re not leaving New York. If anything, we’re about to dig a little deeper into the city,” he said, grinning at his own joke. He managed to open the door, with a little awkward squatting involved, before looking back at the others. “Time to go underground,” he added before leading the way out the door.
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consistently inconsistent
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Posting Speed
1-3 posts per week, One post per week
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Preferred Character Gender
Male, Female, No Preferences
Fantasy, Realistic/Modern, Magic, Scifi, Romance
Sensory Overload Part 4
with WingWong WingWong and Elle Joyner Elle Joyner

The Underground was so named for obvious reasons… What, however, was not obvious, was how to get there. The convoluted path to Nick’s new home took them through a maze beneath the city - through an abandoned subway system, along tracks long since disabled, through a metal door hidden in the shadows of the dark tunnelworks. Then another long, narrow hallway, to a similar door.

A knock, and a passcode were the entry fee, and as Nick delivered both - utilizing a passcode that would indicate that he had guests, the door opened and they were met by a mountain of a man, dark hair pulled back into a ponytail, cool blue eyes skimming over the three… pause… four of them.

“Munroe’s down in Buck’s…” The man stated simply, gesturing them inside.

The Underground itself was a vastly different arena than Grace initially expected. Where she had imagined grungy tunnels and dank, dark underpasses, in fact, quite the opposite was apparent. Buildings were scattered in a web of intersections and alleyways - and at the epicenter, a square, with chess tables and benches, surrounding a fountain. The darkness was countered by edison lights, strung between shops and homes, giving everything the appearance of a city street…

Not far from the entry point, one of the buildings had opened doors, and music and raucous laughter poured from it. A sign above the doors read Buck’s Tavern.

”Are we visiting Genevieve, Nick?” Oliver said as they travelled down beneath New York, the volume of his phone quieting considerably. It wasn’t exactly his point of comfort, the underground, but it was safe.. so he couldn’t complain. The place definitely seemed secure, and Oliver felt somewhat less tense walking along the city like streets than he had walking around New York.

”It’s… quaint.” Oliver said, glancing up at the tavern as it blared music, cringing.

“Thank you,” Nick said with a grateful nod towards the giant of a man before slipping into the life of the Underground. It always instilled a small bit of awe in Nick, every time he came back through the doors. It felt bizarre, in probably the best way, to come to this city underneath the one above. It felt new and ancient at once to him, and it was welcoming as well. Minus some things, mostly being Buck’s when it got noisy.

“Not quite,” he’d answered Oliver, grinning over at him. His heart panged a little in his chest as he remembered Genevieve and the fact that he was still looking for her. That was something for another day. Today, he needed to make sure that Oliver and Grace could be safe while they figured out what was going on. That meant going into Buck’s.

“Yeah,” he agreed slowly, wincing as the raucous sound came pouring out and crashed into him. It rattled through his chest, and he took a breath. Curling his fingers into a small gesture, he dampened the sound and pressed the bubbles of his power close to himself, Oliver, and Grace. It wouldn’t affect anyone else, unless they ran directly into one of the three, but they could avoid dealing with at least some of how loud it was. Then, after another breath, he motioned for his friends to follow him before slipping into the tavern, scanning it for Munroe.

Near the back of the tavern, a small throng of people had gathered around a pair, seated at a table, arm wrestling. It seemed, at first, to be a rather tense competition, but as the taller of the two men bested the other, his knuckles smacking into the tabletop, laughter echoed through the tavern, boisterous and amused.

“Told you I still had it in me,” Rett Munroe exclaimed, giving the man a pat on his shoulder, before he rose to his feet, eyes shifting across the crowd to see Nick by the door, “Excuse me, Gents…”

Crossing the room, Munroe looked between the three… four… gathered there, and with a nod, extended his hand, “Welcome back, Nick. Who’ve we got, here?”

Smiling faintly as the obnoxious noise around them dimmed, Oliver’s gaze flickered to Nick in appreciation. He was tempted to ask what had become of the woman, but there was a flicker in the man’s eyes that made Oliver bite his tongue. Or, well. Bite his phone.

He’d been in these types of places before. Always something brewing in the back seats. Ominous beneath the friendly chatter and noisy atmosphere. Oliver had never been a fan, particularly, but they always seemed to be the meeting place of some uncertain affair. Sizing the man up, taking in his haughty posture. He brought his own hand out to shake Monroe’s.

”Oliver Henderson.” The monotonous voice announced, Oliver’s mouth not moving an inch. He gestured behind him, to Grace, ”This is Grace Hammond. And Maisy.” He patted his satchel where Maisy poked her head out of curiously. ”Nick is a longtime friend of mine, and he offered us refuge here. We’re being hunted, sir.” He glanced to Grace, expression pulled into an uncertain frown, not sure how much he was even supposed to say. ”Some sort of hit man has been tracking Grace, and now I. We believe it has to do with her connections to an original Rogue member.”

“It’s good to be back, sir,” Nick answered with a smile, greeting him with a handshake of his own. He turned back towards Oliver as he introduced himself and Grace and explained. “That sums it up pretty well,” he admitted. “And if you have any concerns, Grace was the one that saved my life a few years ago.” It was his way of trying to appease, that he didn’t technically break any rules or protocol. Both of his friends that he’d brought into the Underground were people he’d trust his life to, something he didn’t take as lightly as he might have once. “There’s more to the story, but I imagine you’d like to go somewhere a little more private.”

“Ah… Yes, yes.” Shaking hands with Oliver first, then Nick’s, Munroe gave Grace a nod, taking in the girl’s appearance with a small quirk of a smile, “Not the Wonder Woman I imagined from the way Nick tells it, but thank you, nevertheless.” Fighting a smirk at the narrowing of Grace’s eyes, his gaze shifted to Oliver. He listened intently, and the smile faded slightly, “Hunted… Well. This isn’t ideal, is it? Come… My office isn’t far from here, just up the street. We ought to discuss this, there.” Gesturing, he nodded towards the street outside.

”No… not ideal at all.” Oliver said with a shake of his head. It was a little nerve wracking, to be following an utter stranger into.. Wherever the hell. Following Munroe to the street, Oliver hung close to Nick, behind the man leading them, so he could sign to him in private. ”We can trust him?” Oliver’s fingers flew, quickly, and he immediately brought them down after saying what he wanted to say.

“Don’t let the height fool you. She’s a mighty mouse,” Nick joked, grinning over at Grace. His expression sobered as he saw Oliver’s words soak in for Munroe. “Far from ideal,” he agreed. With that, he followed behind the man towards his office. He hung back a step as he saw Oliver start to sign. He nodded, signing back. ”We can trust him.”

“Indeed, you can trust me…” Munroe grinned faintly, as he led them outside, his eyes shifting from Nick’s signing, to meet Oliver’s face. There was a warmth to his expression, despite the quiet amusement, “I trust Nick here has filled you in on everything I can do?”

A brow rose as Grace shook her head, “...He mentioned that you… you can hide people. Hide people like us? But that’s it.”

“Good.” Smiling, Munroe glanced to Nick again, “You followed protocol. I’m impressed… and your mother would approve. I’m able to cloak you, Grace. Your abilities, your mutant signature… your very existence. So long as you remain down here with us, no one will ever find you. But I need to be absolutely sure that it’s a necessary expenditure of my abilities… as I’m sure you can understand.” Pausing outside another door, he keyed in a passcode, and pushing the handle, held the door open, “After you…”

Oliver’s mouth fell open in shock, blinking at the man before picking up his pace again, trying to wipe away the gape on his lips. ”Nick forgot to mention you can sign,” Oliver both signed and used his phone to speak along with these words, shooting his friend a pointed look. A cloaking mutant… was certainly valuable at this point in time. Still, he couldn’t help the nervousness clawing at his gut, especially now that he had no private way to talk to Nick like he’d thought previous. ”I think we can plead our case well enough,” Oliver bowed his head, and his brows furrowed at the sight of Grace, even though he offered her a smile. He stepped into the office.

Nick smiled a sheepish smile at being caught quietly signing when he thought Munroe wasn’t looking. It turned apologetic as he looked at Ollie. Sometimes he honestly forgot, that the man could understand it just fine. It wasn’t often he signed in front of him anyway. That was usually with his mother, and only when she didn’t have her hearing aids. “Sorry,” he apologized to Oliver.

He ducked his head, a little embarrassed but pleased with the praise. “I do try to follow protocol. Most of the time,” he added. It wasn’t particularly a secret that he had a tendency to bend rules, though he didn’t mess around with the Underground’s secrets if he could help it. It was far more than just him at stake. “I think you’ll be very interested in what they have to say,” he said, giving Grace a reassuring smile and very gently bumping shoulders with Oliver, in an effort to be reassuring to him as well, before following them into the office.

“Don't worry, Oliver.” Munroe noted, with a quiet laugh, “You've got nothing to fear down here. None of you. I just prefer to know things forthrightly, and you would be shocked to know what people say when they think you can't understand them.”

There was a glint of something in Grace's eyes as she idly shuffled her foot across the concrete pathway, “...Great. Great. So everyone can frickin’ sign. That's super.”

As they slipped in, Munroe's brow rose, but shaking it off, he gestured to the roundup of chairs and couches near a sturdy wooden desk, “Have a seat. Can I get you something to eat? Drink? Make yourselves comfortable and Nick, why don't you tell me what's going on?”

A small sigh fluttered out of Oliver as Nick nudged him, even though it was accompanied by an amused smile and a roll of the eyes. He put a hand on Grace’s shoulder and squeezed it reassuringly. ”I’ll talk like this, don’t worry. And Nick and I will teach you.” He sank into a chair and drummed his fingers anxiously against the arm, while Maisy crawled out of the bag and made herself comfortable in Oliver’s lap. ”Do you have chamomile?” He asked Munroe with a sheepish smile.

“We’ll try not to have too many super secret conversations in the meantime, Grace,” Nick teased lightly. He paused, debating whether or not to help Munroe grab the tea, and instead ended up hovering a little awkwardly until he sat down as well. “It’s more Grace and Ollie’s story than mine, but I’ll tell you what they’ve told me,” he started, glancing back at the two. “Feel free to jump in, if I’m forgetting something.” He then took a deep breath.

“Grace said it started in a diner late at night. She ended up approached by two people. A man in a black suit and snakeskin boots she heard called Asher, and red-haired woman named Maya. They stuck her with something, something she said burned, and then she was out. She woke up shackled in an attic,” he described, trying to be concise and detailed without upsetting Grace. He glanced over at her, checking how she was and if she had anything to add. “She woke up to them talking about her. They were debating on what to do with her, and eventually, the man woke her up. He drug her to a tub, and asked her questions, like if she had photos or mementos of her brother, who was an old Rogue member named Devon. When she gave answers he didn’t like…” His gaze flicked back to Grace, concerned. “If he didn’t like the answer, her head went in the water. She eventually tricked him and managed to escape through a window, and then she ran to Ollie’s.” He then motioned toward the man in question. A look seemed to cross over his face, like he realized something, but he didn’t voice it. He’d ask about that later.

“Camomile… A fine choice.” Munroe nodded, with a smooth smile, before he moved to a small station behind the desk that housed an electric kettle and a small tin of teas. Opening it, he took out the camomile, setting it into a mug, “Anyone else?”

Grace gave a nod, and Munroe started the pot, pausing only when Nick had started to explain. Turning, he listened with rapt attention, eyes unmoving from a spot on the floor, posture unflinching. When Nick had concluded, he looked to Grace with a small frown, “...This man… He said specifically what he was after?”

“M-my brother. Devon. He used to be in--”

“Rogue. Devon Hammond.” Smiling faintly, as if in recollection, Munroe nodded, “I should’ve guessed you were a relative of old Mountain. Same fire in the eyes.”

Lowering her gaze, Grace could only nod, as Munroe continued, “I assume if you’ve brought this to me, Nick, you have reason to assume this is bigger than Grace, here?”

“I won’t say no to the lemon tea you keep hiding from me,” Nick added with a small smile. He huffed a laugh. “I’m still trying to wrap my mind around the fact that she’s Mufasa’s sister. I think the hair threw me off. And the height. Definitely the height,” he said, jabbing a thumb towards Grace with playful smile. He hardly noticed when he used the nickname Lucas had given Devon, instead of his actual name or even his codename.

“It’s...strange,” Nick confirmed with a nod. “The questions the man asked Grace were if she had personal items. He talked about how they had some sort of GPS, to track specific mutants down that they were hunting. The fact they needed personal items like photos, though, struck me as weird and kind of specific. Like, how a mutant’s powers would work, kind of strange,” he explained. “The people hunting Grace and now Ollie keep finding them really fast, usually in a few days, if not the next day. There was one of them with them when I found them.” He gestured once again to Grace and Oliver.

“Grace said the only reason Devon would reasonably have people after him would be because of his Rogue connections. I wanted to bring it to you, first, but with your permission, I’d like to send a few feelers out to other old Rogues. To see if they noticed anything strange or if something like this has happened to them too.”

As the pot boiled to life, Munroe took it from the heating pad and poured three mugs, bringing the first to Oliver and Grace, handing the third to Nick with a smirk, “Hiding? I have no idea what you’re referring to.” His tone suggested, however, that he knew exactly what Nick meant.

As Nick continued, he frowned, and sinking into a seat, drummed his fingers on the arms, “These are your people, Nick. If you want to run point on this, I see no reason you shouldn’t. Just… be cautious. You know I can only protect you while you’re down here. Same goes for them…”

Oliver stroked Maisy’s fur, trying to wrap his head around his new plight. Seemed they were going to chase Rogue.. the one place and mess of people he’d always tried to avoid. Sighing lightly, Oliver paused in giving Maisy attention to take his mug of chamomile gratefully, to which she abruptly argued against, and he was back to scratching her chin. ”I think to get to the bottom of this.. we have to seek them out. So we’ll join you, Nick, if you’ll have us.” He smiled softly at those in the room, trying to contain his nervousness.

“Right, and that’s why it’s been moved over a cupboard, behind other boxes of tea, switched with the chai twice, shoved under a floorboard, locked in your desk, and one time, hidden in the cushion of one of these chairs,” Nick said smoothly as he took the mug from Munroe, a sly sort of smile on his face. He then nodded. “I understand.”

It was why he’d looked over at Oliver in surprise. He hadn’t planned for that, nor expected it. “I don’t expect you to put your lives on the life again, especially given what you’ve been through to get here,” Nick said, concern on his face. “I’m not going to make you go with me, Ollie, even if I’d love to have you around.”

“If I've done any of that, it must only be to test you… but I stand by the notion of elves. Or… really intelligent mice.” At Oliver's offer, Munroe folded his hands in his lap, sitting back in silence.

Grace spoke up, her fingers curling around Oliver's free hand, “Some bastard tried to kill me… more than once. And took Oliver away from his home. It's because of what we've been through, we're gonna help. Besides… last time you were out there on your own, you almost got flattened by a taxi.”

Technically, while she'd never divulged the details, he had been…

Shivering, she reached for her mug, “Whatever scale this is on… whether it's just him or all of Rogue, this is about my brother. He… he might not be my favorite person, but he's… he's family, and I don't wanna sit back and do nothing.”

”Mice are very intelligent.” Oliver offered indignantly, glancing at Munroe, then Nick. ”I will do whatever I can to help Grace find peace, and then find my own. I don’t plan on making a home in the Underground… no offense, sir. I’ve spent the last five years in the forest… city life is not for me. And if this involves your old Rogue friends, Nick, I see no reason why we shouldn’t handle this together. Especially since you seem incapable of avoiding danger even on a sidewalk.” Oliver grinned, squeezing Grace’s hand reassuringly. ”Like old times, Nick?”

“Uh-huh. A likely story from the man who learned sign language to figure out if my mom was gossiping about him,” Nick replied with a quirked eyebrow. He pouted as Grace mentioned the taxi incident. “Okay, look. That taxi ran a red light, and there were also baby ducks in the road. I was honor bound to try to save the ducks,” Nick protested before shaking his head. “It’s also been a few years since then, Grace. I’ve been fine on my missions ever since,” he assured, though he smiled. “I’d be glad to have you, though. Both of you.” His gaze shifted over towards Oliver, who he gave an even larger smile to. “I seem to remember not being the only disaster magnet here,” he teased as he wrapped his free arm around Oliver in a side hug. “Like old times.”

Pointing a finger at Nick, Munroe shook his head, “That… You better behave yourself, or you’ll never find your lemon tea again.” With a smirk, he shook his head, “Sounds like it’s settled… I will make sure that you’re properly outfitted for such a mission, but once you leave the underground, you’ll be on your own. I can, however, offer you a place to stay for tonight, a hot meal… Whatever else you need, until you’re ready to head on your way…”

Grace bit her cheek, sitting up a little straighter, “...Is there… any kind of drug store down here?”

Blinking, Munroe looked to her again, a brow quirked, “There is, yes. Nick should be able to show you the way.”

Nodding, she sank back down, “Thanks. I… I guess we should get going?”

Oliver liked the atmosphere. Munroe was growing on him, and with Nick pulling him in for a classic half awkward half endearing side hug, it really did feel like old times. The prospect of adventure wasn’t a very thrilling one for Oliver, but with Grace and Nick by his side, it seemed doable. Perhaps enjoyable. Well.. perhaps, survivable. ”Thank you, sir.” Oliver said to Munroe with a respectful bow of his head. ”Grace, will you be alright to go to the store yourself? Nick and I have some catching up to do.”

“Or I could tell my mom you’re being mean. Whatever would she think, Munroe?” Nick teased as a finger was pointed at him. He planned on at least staying a night. He wanted Grace and Ollie both to get a decent night’s rest, somewhere safe where they wouldn’t be hunted, before they started to move again. He think he owed them that much, for whatever he was about to get into. “I think we can wait until tomorrow, before we decide anything major.”

He looked a little confused as Grace asked for a drugstore, though he was about to stand to join her when Oliver spoke. Right. There was a lot of lost time to make up for.

Lowering the finger, Munroe didn’t pale, but there was a look in his eyes that indicated he understood the gauntlet thrown, “...Low blow.” He muttered, his lip twitching up, “You two go ahead and catch up. You can stick around here if you want. I’ll point Grace to the store… then I’ve got a meeting to attend with my advisors.” Rising, he smoothed out the front of his suit, and glanced to Grace, who straightened upright, giving Oliver’s hand one more squeeze, before nodding.

“Take your time, Ol… I’ll find you in a few.” And with another nod to Munroe, the pair started for the doors.


129% of people exaggerate.
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Leaving the guest house, Rose felt a certain weight of anxiety as she returned, this time with Finn in tow, towards Deck and Penny's porch. She would've preferred, if she were honest, to have held his hand… The comfort more for her than it was him at this point, but she knew his concerns were valid. If he felt the need to go into this without being completely forward about everything, then she wasn't going to make things harder on him…

Approaching the door, she breathed in, and with an exhale, knocked.

After looking through the window to and catching sight of Rose approaching with who could only be the man that had left Daddy in a sour mood since his arrival, Travis shifted to his butt and then slid off the couch quickly, “I got it!” he called out, “it’s just Aunt Rose!”

Moving to the door, he pulled it open and spoke, “Hey, Rose!” he smiled before it quickly faded as he crossed his arms over his chest as he looked up at the man with squinting eyes and flatly said, “Uncle Finn.”

Finn had done a lot of nerve wracking things in his life. Before and after the fall of Rogue. Anxiety was more like an old pal at this point, yet nothing seemed more terrifying than this moment right here. Facing the people he’d left behind, their wrath, their grief, whatever they were prepared to throw at him… which could very well be something like a couch or a cabinet in Deck’s case. As the door was flung open, Finn flinched, only to peel a wary eye open at the voice, which was definitely neither Penny’s nor Deck’s.

His heart damn near stopped at the words Uncle Finn. Staring at Travis in shock, trying to remember how to talk, and definitely noting that hint of distaste, Finn awkwardly cleared his throat. “H-h-hey… T.. Travis.” Was he shaking? Crap. Finn shoved his hands in his pockets. “I.. d-didn’t expect to be greeted by th-the man of the house.”

Pursing his lips to fight back the smile threatening to shatter his tough visage, Travis cleared his throat, opting to stop spending any time in Finn’s head in order to stay tough-looking, “Dang straight,” he nodded, “Guess I should let you in,” he looked at Rose then to Finn, “Not sure about you though.”

“Hey Trav.” Rose echoed, and while she could nearly tangibly feel Finn's nerves, she was almost glad the little guy had answered, instead. She didn't bother to guard the thoughts in her head… The fear, the hope. The affection for the man standing beside her,, “There's a slice of blackberry crumble in it for you, if you do…”

“That’s.. fair.” Finn said softly, in unfortunate agreement with the young boy. It was a little surprising how much he looked and acted like Deck. Trying to smile past the nervousness, Finn nodded in agreement. “O-oh, yeah. Rose baked it all herself. Whipped cream on top, too..”

“Come right on in,” he dropped his arms and wore a welcoming smile mouth already salivating from the thought of the pie, though before returning to his place on the couch, he pointed at his eyes and then to Finn, “I’m watching you, though.”

“Wouldn’t expect anything less, sir.” Finn said with a soft smile.

Plopping on the couch beside Zoey, he smiled to her before calling out, “Mom...Dad...Rose and Uncle Finn are here!”

“Why do you call him Uncle Finn,” Zoey mumbled to Travis, “He's not really--”

“Zo. One of those moments, Little Miss.” Penny echoed from the door frame, as her eyes shifted from the kids, to Rose, then to Finn, “Why don't you two head over to Rose's.”

“Grab some pie…” Rose added with a smile, before nodding to Finn, gesturing to the couch.

Zoey’s calculating gaze seemed much too wise for a girl so small, and his posture drooped further at her comment, but all at once became rigid as Penny appeared, eyes wide with fear. He glanced nervously to Rose, before shuffling over to the couch, all but sinking down onto it like his legs were suddenly too weary to hold him upright. “H...Hey… Penny..”

Travis all but jumped from the couch once again, “Come on, Zoey,” he told her all too eager to leave the storm he sensed coming from the angry thoughts he heard from his, there was pie to be eaten.

Deck walked with heavier steps, most definitely a subtle way of expressing his displeasure, as he stepped up behind Penny, his arms crossed over his broad chest in the same manner that Travis’ were, “Hey, Rose,” he flashed a soft smile and then looked to Finn, “Finn,” he said flatly.

Twisting around, Penny shook her head, and reaching out, put a hand to Deck's arm, “You said you'd try, Deck…”

As she sat beside him, Rose looked to Finn, desperate to reach out, hold his hand, offer any comfort. Her fingers twitched in her lap, and breathing in, she nodded, “Hey Deck.”

Turning back around, Penny angled for a chair cornering the couch and sat down, “How you feelin’, Finn?”

Deck’s foreboding steps were like the entrance of a cartoon villain in Finn’s eyes, almost matching the seemingly obnoxiously loud pounding of his heart. The only thing that brought any sort of reprieve from the anxiety was the mental picture of Travis’ arms crossed the exact same way. He made no move towards Rose, gaze trained intently on the two people he had been dreading to see the most.

“F-fine.” Finn said, more of a rasp than anything, and he coughed. “Y-you.. Look good. The both of y-you.”

After shrugging apologetically to Penny, he followed her into the room and lowered into the only remaining chair. He studied Finn, fighting back all the things he wanted to say, “Thanks...You look like shit,” He spoke.

“You look fine.” Penny countered, giving Deck a shake of her head, before sitting back with a small frown, “So… Lay it out, Westfall. Let's hear it…”

A weak laugh fell out of Finn, harboring no actual smile. “He’s not wrong, Pen.” He could see more venomous words on the tip of Deck’s tongue, but Penny seemed to have convinced him to hold back. Kind. “I.. where… where do you even want me to start?”

“How bout from the beginning,” Deck spoke up quickly, swallowing back the rest of what he wanted to say.

“...Right. The beginning.” Finn scratched the back of his head, gaze dancing all around the room. “It.. it wasn’t a choice… to leave, the way I did. I.. just…” What the hell could he say to make it right? To justify it? “I was so scared. And when I ran.. I went.. To Harper’s.. and I.. I guess you know. Found his c-c-corpse. And after that, I… I didn’t know how to come back. I thought you would all hate me too much. So I.. stayed away. It was the stupidest thing I’d ever done.. I’m so sorry.”

“Yes it was.” Penny answered, unblinkingly, “Did you not think that we’d be there for you, Finn? Did it not click in your head how much it’d hurt… how scared we’d be.. You disappearing like that? We were all freaked out, Finn. We were all a little lost, but damn… you vanished. I had to find out from Leon you were even alive, still… and not by much, from the sound of it. It was a choice, Finn. A deliberate choice, and while I get that you feel bad now, I wanna know why you didn’t trust us enough to let us help you deal…”

Finn winced. “I-I did trust you…” He protested, weakly, kicking himself for every word that came out of his mouth, feeling smaller and stupider by the second. “I didn’t trust myself. I had already run.. I just.. It’s all I’ve ever known how to do. I never went a minute without thinking about how you all had to feel.. I thought you were better off without me.”

“You can take that bullshit and throw it right out the front door,” Deckard spoke up, “Everything you just said...all of it. Bullshit. You didn’t trust us. Running isn’t all you’ve ever known how to do. Damn, Finn. You were a Rogue long before me. You were family there, and family here. Family doesn’t have to run. Family never has to run. If you truly cared about any of us,” he gestured between the three present, “Then each time you would have thought of us, you’da called. None of us were better off without you, you selfish -” Deck growled as he sensored himself, leaning back into his chair and rubbing his hands against his legs roughly.

Penny looked to Deck with a small frown, but said nothing, her eyes shifting back to Finn with a shrug, “I get it, Finn. I’m not justifying what you did… because Deck’s right… you did have options. You just chose what was easy. I’ve been there, but I learned the hard way it doesn’t work… and I hope to hell you have, too. Cause I swear to God, Finn… you ever… ever leave that way again, there’s no third chances. Which I guess brings me to the more important question, Finn. You done bein’ an idiot, or do we part ways, right here?”

“You can say it.” Finn said quietly. “Say I’m a selfish prick, or idiot, or whatever. You’re right. I am. I looked up to all of you.. So much.. And all you did was tell me I was strong. I never wanted you to see me like.. Like the stupid mess I was.” He swallowed, and looked at Penny. “I’m.. done.. Being an idiot. You’ll.. Give me a second chance?” There was a hint of disbelief in his eyes, especially as he looked at Deck, who seemed worlds away from giving him even a morsel of another opportunity.

Deck leaned forward, his elbows on his knees, “There’s nothing new I could say that you don’t already know,” his tone softer, “Honestly, Finn, I don’t trust you, but I trust Penny...and she trust I will trust her judgment. Things won’t be the same between us...not until you’ve earned that privilege, but I won’t write you off. Not yet, but it’s like what Penny said, You pull this shit again and don’t bother coming around...bleeding out or not.”

“You're family, Finn. I don't need to tell you what that means. Don't break my heart again.” Looking to Rose, Penny frowned, “You good with all this, Rose?”

Nodding, Rose looked to Finn with a small smile, “I am.”

He couldn’t believe it. Nodding with a bowed head to Deck, swallowing past his dry throat, he felt a little more hopeful. They were going to let him try again… Family. They still considered him family. Behind the swirling ache and anxiety, he felt happier than he had in all those four years. “I.. I won’t. I.. p.. Promise.” He said it. He forced himself to say it. He promised.

“Alright then,” Deck spoke up, “You should know not to be alarmed by Travis. He can read minds. We’ve been working with him and he’s trying to curb it, but sometimes he indulges himself.”

“And knowing all this drama… he's probably trying to listen, right now. Though I suspect his range isn't quite that far.” Looking to Deck, Penny said nothing outloud, but there was gratitude, and quite possibly something else in her eyes.

“We have dinner around six thirty…” She continued.

Finn’s eyes sparkled. “Your kid is Professor X? Oh god…” He said, barely able to fight the smile that grew on his lips. “So I can just… can I.. I’m invited for dinner?” He mumbled.

“Yes.” Penny added, with a small smile and a shake of her head, “...You’re invited.”

Nodding, Rose pushed herself to her feet, “We… should probably go back, before Travis and Zoey eat that entire pie on their own…”

“..Heh. Right.” Finn said, standing as well. Cautiously, he looked to Deck. “Can I.. talk to them? Travis and Zoey? Is that okay?”

Deck glanced to Penny before he looked back to Finn. After a moment, he nodded, “Travis is gonna know what you want to say to him anyway. Zoey’s matter-of-fact and literal, so try not to confuse her...and don’t take offense when she makes you feel stupid. The whole world is dumber than that girl.”

“No kidding…” Penny and Rose echoed in near unison. Smiling faintly, Rose nodded to Finn, “Ready?”

Breaking into a relieved smile, Finn looked between Deckard and Penny, trying to take in the sight of them like this.. parents. Married. Living the domestic life every mutant dreamed of living. It had always seemed impossible.. and yet, here they were. Despite the grief that had still burrowed a hole in his heart, and likely theirs as well, Finn couldn’t help but feel lighter when he looked at them, so happy to see them happy, so happy to see them at all.

Biting his lip, he nodded to Rose, but was unable to resist pulling Penny in for a tight hug.

With a dry smile, that warmed fairly quickly, Penny gently returned the hug, giving him a pat on the back, “Six thirty, Finn.”

After they pulled apart, Finn straightened his posture, dropping his hands to his side and nodding nervously to Deck while clearing his throat. He tried to keep a smile from growing on his face, feeling as if Deckard wouldn’t want to see it. “Yeah, got it. Six thirty.” Nodding to Rose, he turned to the door.

Outside, Rose could not contain the smile, and looking over to Finn, she seemed lighter… worlds lighter, “That… went pretty well. You okay?”

Letting out a shaky exhale, Finn smiled at her brightly. “Y-yeah. Wow.. I… hah. Penny probably censored the hell out of Deck, but still.. I can’t believe they let me stay.” He tried to hide the warmth that spread across him, feeling somewhat undeserving of it, but he couldn’t help himself.

“Told you they would…” Rose noted, with something of a sly smile, “Don't need to read minds to know that they love you, Finn. Even Deck. Somewhere beneath all the muscle… and beard… and angst.” Returning to the porch, she glanced at him one more time, “You ready for this?”

Laughing softly, he shook his head. He had spent so long trying to convince himself that they wouldn’t even want to love him anymore, that the idea just felt so foreign. Even if it was so welcome. “I’m ready. Kids are my people, Rose. You underestimate me.”

“You haven't sat and tried to have a conversation with Zoey, yet…” With a shake of her head and a chuckle, Rose turned the knob to open the door, “Hope you two didn't eat my whole pie…”

“I was gonna, but Zoey told me I shouldn’t. It’s sooo good though,” Travis admitted as he sat with an empty plate...a few crumbs and smears the only evidence of the slices of pie he’d eaten. Wiping his mouth with his sleeve he continued, “I think we saved you a slice or two.”

“Aw, man,” Finn said, with an exaggerated pout. “If you’re gonna try and eat a whole pie, you gotta commit. Shame, shame.” He shook his head in mock disappointment. Glancing at the table, and the sad little sliver of pie left, Finn took a fork and set about cleaning the tin entirely.

Shaking her head, Rose grinned at Finn, before turning her eyes to Travis, “You're gonna be feeling that later, Trav.”

“Precisely what I told him. But then he said 'it's so good I wanna die.’ Which sounds like a illogical fallacy, to me. Good things shouldn't make you wish to be deceased.”

“It’s a figure of speech, Zoey,” Travis leaned back, “It’s so yummy that if it killed me, it would be worth it,” he waved his hand, “You know what...nevermind. How’d things go with Mom and Dad?”

Finn nodded his agreement, sitting down on the couch as he cleared his own plate, a bit too quickly for his own enjoyment. “Went way better than expected. I’m staying for dinner.” Finn said with a smile.

“...How can pie kill someone…” Zoey muttered under her breath, “...Unless you choked on it, but then…”

“Just like I told him it would go…” Rose added, with a pointed look to Zoey, before she glanced slyly to Finn, “Hopefully you two have room for dinner, with all this pie you’ve eaten.”

“Are you kidding me?!” Travis scoffed, “I’m a growing boy. Mom says I eat everything out of the refrigerator and Dad says I don’t ever leave any for him. I’ll have room,” he put his hands out, “Trust me.”

Returning the sly glance, Finn patted his belly as he put the plate back on the table. “Well, at least I got a few bites before you and your growing boy appetite demolished the pie. You gonna eat my dinner, too?”

“Travis West Hallows… ten years old going on eighteen.” Rolling her eyes, Rose smiled and taking the empty tin, moved it over to the sink, “But if you’re not hungry for dinner, you better not rat me out…” Looking over her shoulder, she shook her head, “Go Fish or Uno, Trav?”

“Uno,” he said, “And don’t worry, Aunt Rose. I’d never rat you out. You make the best pies and Mom and Dad would tell me I couldn’t have anymore. I can’t risk that.”

Finn grinned at the sound of Travis’ full name, still a little in disbelief about that little bit of info. Glancing at the young boy fondly, crossing his legs in preparation of a game of Uno, Finn laughed. “So, Professor X, you the cheatin’ type?” His gaze fell to Zoey, trying to find an appropriate superhero nickname. “Ah.. crap… you’re kinda an X too. We’ll figure that out.”

Moving back to the table with the deck of cards, Rose shook her head, and settled into a chair beside Finn and Zoey, “Travis knows better than to cheat. Doesn’t he? And Zo?” Looking over at her, Rose smirked slightly, “She’s more a Cerebro... “

Shuffling, she dealt seven cards a piece, before setting the deck in the middle and flipping the first card. As Zoey plucked up her cards, she frowned slightly, “Cerebro… The… the computer?” A brow lifted, and studying her cards, she discarded one, nodding to Travis, “I guess that makes sense…”

“I always considered myself a Phoenix, super powerful but limited by others,” he puffed out his chest and then hummed before discarding a card, “Zoey’s the only brain I can’t read,” he looked up at Finn with a smirk, “But I know all your thoughts.”

“No no no.. we can’t call her Cerebro. That ain’t a person. I’ll figure somethin’ out, promise.” Finn said with a shake of his head, beaming brightly at Travis. “That’s a very in depth analysis, kiddo. So you wanna be Phoenix, and she’ll be X? Decisions, decisions…” Finn tapped his chin, squinting at Travis. “What number am I thinking of?” Trick question. Wasn’t thinking about a number. He was thinking about pie. Finn put a card down.

Travis yawned, “Pie. And you keep telling yourself to ‘Don’t think sad shit’.”

Finn laughed awkwardly. “Hey.. don’t tell anyone I.. thought that. You’re too young to swear.” He stuck out his tongue. “My head’s a messy place. Stick to the surface thoughts.”

“You are definitely too young to swear…” Rose warned, giving him a look that she could only have picked up from watching Penny. He wouldn’t need to read her thoughts to know exactly what the look said. Her eyes flickered to Finn, however, and without saying anything, she reached down to give his hand a delicate squeeze.

“Three point one four one five nine two six five three five nine.” Looking up, Zoey smiled, “...Pi. In case anyone was wondering… You… you weren’t were you? You were talking about the kind of pie you eat.” Blinking, cheeks flushed, she set down a card, “...Carry on.”

Resting his chin in the palm of his hand, eyes trained on the other which was wrapped in Rose’s, he couldn’t help the fond, soft smile that stayed present on his lips. “I was talking about the pie that you eat, but I like yours much better.” Finn hummed. “Three point one four one… ah. Nope. I’ve lost it. Darn… how will I ever get that smart?”

“You won’t,” Travis said matter-of-factly, “Zoey’s the smartest person ever. No one compares. There is no point in even trying,” Travis sighed before he picked up a card, “Sure wish I could read the deck.”

Chuckling softly, Rose shook her head, “But that would be cheating, Trav. And you never cheat. Right?” Looking to Zoey, she frowned slightly at the brief look that crossed the girl’s face. She could only imagine what a difficulty it was… to have all that knowledge and still be so small, so fragile…

Taking her turn, Zoey looked to Finn, “Mnemonic devices are a handy way to remember it… if you need something like that. People call them… ‘piems’ … instead of poems. I suppose on a basic level that’s clever.”

Perhaps it was a difficulty in everyone else’s eyes, but Finn could only see two brilliant heroes in the making. Looking between the both of them with absolute wonderment, he sighed exaggeratedly and drew a card. “I’ll definitely look into those piems.” He had no idea what those were. “Might need some help, though, if you’re willing to give it, Miss X.” He pointed a finger at Travis. “No readin’ the deck.”

Travis stuck his tongue out at Finn before shaking his head in response to Rose, “No, I wouldn’t. Mom and Dad would be so mad if I could do that and did it. It’s hard enough to learn how to stay out of people’s heads, especially when their thoughts are so loud.”

Nodding, Rose lowered another card to the discard pile, and drew to her mind a soothing melody that she frequently hummed, to put the children to sleep when they'd first come to the cabin. It was a concentrated effort, but one she'd learned to adopt when Travis was in larger groups.

“Help?” Zoey asked Finn, a brow quirked, “Y-yeah. I could do that.” She flashed a rare smile, small and delicate, “I will try not to use my whole brain.”

“That’s the superhero struggle,” Finn said, with an air of faux intelligence, glancing to Rose as she kept silent, but seemingly concentrated. “You’ll obviously improve on it. Especially when you’ve got someone to surpass like Phoenix.” He nodded firmly, turning to Zoey. “Why wouldn’t you use your whole brain? I’ll need all the help I can get. I’ve only got hal- wait. Sorry, that’s not literal. I’m saying I definitely need the help from someone with a smart head like yours.” Finn chuckled.

“You can finish that sentence, Uncle Finn,” Travis spoke with a mischievous grin, “I’ve been in your head!”

“Oof… Travis…” Rose shook her head, fighting a small smile, “Be nice…”

Zoey’s smile flickered away as confusion rolled over it, and shaking her head, she patted Finn on the arm, “...Trust me. It… it’s better I don’t use all of it…”

“Then you know I really do got half a brain.” Finn said with a laugh, a warmth flooding him at the sound of Uncle Finn. He glanced at Zoey curiously, at her hand on his arm, and shook his head as well. “Nah. Don’t think like that. You got powers, very awesome powers, and you wanna lock it away? There’s a level of control you gotta work for, but you can’t hide from what you got.” Scratching his cheek, he looked between both the children. “You know, I was so afraid of my powers at first I used to think I could only fly. Now it’s way different.. a different, extended part of myself. If you’re gonna learn to control it, you can’t lock it away. That’s Uncle Finn’s advice for the day. Got it?” With a smirk, Finn put down a plus four card towards Travis. “Ya see that in my head?”

“Not fair! I wasn’t looking!” Travis’ brow knitted as he drew his four cards and then looked to Rose and squeezed his eyes shut tightly, “I can’t unhear that, Aunt Rose,” he dry-heaved and shivered, “I can’t unhear that.”

Blinking, Rose’s cheeks colored scarlet, and she grimaced softly, looking pointedly away from Travis and Finn, “I’m sorry! I didn’t realize you were still in there…”

“What? i ?” Zoey asked, eyes widening, “What did she say!??”

Brow furrowing with a hint of a smirk, Finn glanced at all three of the people before him, trying to hold back a chuckle. “Yeah, Rose. What did you say?”

Blushing brighter, if that were at all possible, Rose shook her head, “N-nothing. Don’t worry about it. Geez. Nosy.”

“Don’t worry, Aunt Rose. I wouldn’t want to give Finn and Zoey the shivers so I won’t tell them,” he interjected, “Your secret dies with me,” he says before another round of shivers wracked his body.

“What, did she give you mind cooties, Travis?” Finn said through a laugh, though enjoying the blush that had crept onto Rose’s face. Deepening his voice comically, Finn spoke with a raised finger. “With great power comes great responsibility! To protect against mind cooties!”

Eyes shifting to Finn, Rose shook her head, “...Sorry, Trav. Seriously.” Chuckling, still flushed, she put down another card, while Zoey continued to stare with widened eyes.

“I still don’t get it. How do you acquire lice in your mind from someone’s thoughts? Travis? Is this… another figure of speech?”

“Yep! You’re catching on, Zoey,” he said as he placed a Reverse down, “Your turn again Aunt Rose.”

Glancing at Rose with a soft smile, Finn shook his head, looking back to his cards. “It means… hmm… romantic stuff gives you cooties. No.. er.. it just means you ‘came into contact’ with romantic stuff, sorta.”

Rose bit her lip, studying her cards more than necessary, before picking up and discarding one. Zoey continued to stare, “...Romantic stuff. Gross.” Looking at her own cards, she dropped a Plus Two, “Sorry…”

“It’s okay, Aunt Rose. Just promise you won’t think of that stuff again,” he stated as he studied his opponents. Uncle Finn was on his list since he’d made him draw four, “You’re going down, Uncle Finn,” he squinted menacingly.

Finn’s gaze was still trained on Rose as he spoke, ripping it away with some effort to grin at the young boy. “I’d like to see you try.” Finn announced haughtily, puffing out his chest as he put down a plus two.

“Oof… I will definitely do my best, Trav.” Shaking her head, she chuckled, “Looks like you'll be too busy picking up cards to concentrate on the thoughts anyhow…” Picking up, then discarding, Rose looked to Zoey, who still seemed marginally confused by the entire episode.

With a shake of her head, she glanced at the pile and discarded, “Uno…”

Squinting at Zoey, Travis pursed his lips together in determination, “It seems my true enemy has finally surfaced. Uncle Finn was only the distraction, but you, my truest of foes, swept in undetected,” he spoke and then looked at his massive hand, “You may have beat me this time…..but you won’t stand a chance next time.”

Cackling at Travis’ monologue, Finn surveyed his own hand. It was no winner, but he had other plans, anyway. Waiting and watching until Zoey was about to place her last card, Finn flicked his wrist, a sudden breeze entering the room as her last card was swept away to the corner of the room. “What a strange coincidence!” Finn proclaimed.

Rose gave Finn a look that bordered on scandalized, as Zoey’s card fluttered across the room, but there was still amusement behind her eyes, and shaking her head, she lowered her own handful of cards, “I think we can call that a win for Zoey… Given there’s a freak hurricane blowing in, in my house, you two better head back. We’ll see you at dinner, yeah?”

After his giggles died down, Travis groaned before neatly placing his cards on the top of the deck, “I don’t want to leave, yet,” he stuck his bottom lip out before pulling it back in, “but fine. I think it’s time for us to check on Dad’s project anyway. He’s been working on it forever, trying to make it perfect for Mommy’s birthday.”

“Shame. I would’ve won in the next few turns if not for that crazy storm.” Finn said, whistling through his teeth, reveling in Travis’ adorable laughter. “Aww.. What’s he makin’?” Penny’s birthday… wow. So many birthdays he’d missed…

“A crooked bench…” Zoey answered, and Rose shot her a look, all while fighting an obvious laugh.

“He's banned Zoey from the workshop till it's finished… because she's uh.. Got a habit of pointing out the errors.”

“He’s trying, and I’m sure Mommy will like it anyway just cause Daddy made it,” Travis stood, “She’s so proud of him all the time, and she loves him a lot. Don’t need to read her mind to see it. Kinda like the way that Aunt Rose looks at you sometimes,” he smiled at Uncle Finn and the wiped his hands off on his pants, “Ready to go, Zoey?”

Color rushing to his cheeks, Finn shook his head. “You’ve got good parents. Crooked bench or not.” He glanced at Zoey. “Maybe it’s the flaws that make it more special, you know?” With a sigh, Finn rubbed the back of his head. “Don’t be strangers, okay? I.. I don’t think I’m goin’ anywhere anytime soon. So this won’t be the last you see of me. We’ve got lots more Uno to play.”

Rose’s cheeks reddened as well, and biting her lip, she shook her head at Travis. Zoey rose, dusting off her hands on her pants, before nodding, “All set…” A brow rose as she glanced to Finn, and frowning softly, she fidgeted for a moment, before speaking, “...Did… did you mean what you said earlier? About using… you know… all my brain? About it being a good thing?”

Crouching down low to speak to her at eye level, Finn nodded firmly, a sureness in his eyes and a calmness in his smile. “One hundred percent. Don’t ever let anyone tell you you need to be less for them to understand. Make ‘em learn.” With a beam, he tussled her hair gently, before standing up again. “I’ll be expecting a lesson on piems, Miss X. And we gotta work on this thing called personal.. thoughts.” Finn jabbed a finger at Travis. “Now get out of here before your parents yell at me.”

“See ya at dinner,” Travis said, waving as he walked toward the door, “You two stay out of trouble,” he teased, “Come on, Zoey, let’s get out of here.”

“See ya…” Zoey said, with a small smile, before turning after Travis.

When they had gone, Rose looked to Finn with a small shake of her head, and shifting closer, she pressed a gentle kiss to the side of his cheek, “...I’m gonna take a shower before dinner. I’m proud of you, Finn. You know that?” Rising, she smiled brightly, “...Really proud.”

Watching the kids exit, Finn sighed happily, only to freeze up as Rose’s lips met his cheek, an intense blush cascading over him. “U-uh.. Th..thanks.” He murmured, returning the smile as his gaze roamed the floor. “..No biggie. Those kids are great anyway.”

“That they are…” With a nod, she turned away and stated across the room, towards the bathroom door, “I’ll see you in a few!”


Invitation Status
, , ,
Posting Speed
1-3 posts per day, 1-3 posts per week, Slow As Molasses
Online Availability
Tends to change frequently, due to working retail.
Writing Levels
Intermediate, Adept, Adaptable
Preferred Character Gender
No Preferences
Fantasy, Sci-fi, Urban Fantasy, Dystopian, Futuristic, Superheroes, Modern, Crime-related, Apocalyptic, Post-Apocalyptic, Supernatural
Romance as a side-plot
Pour Me a Glass...
Collab with: Khuyen and Grace Elle Joyner Elle Joyner

Grace didn't spend long in the small shopping depot the underground provided. The idea of being anywhere for long, right now, felt like too much… People were friendly, but she could see the suspicion in their eyes, and the weight of that, coupled with the notion of Ollie and Nick bonded over catchups while she was on her own was enough to drive a spike of anxiety through her…

Munroe had handed her a small wad of cash, insisting, as a guest, she accept… and after getting what she needed, Grace made her way to the public restroom, with the box of hair dye. It wasn't ideal. For years, the green had been her signature. Her identity. But it was also a sore thumb… And the last thing she needed was to make it easy for creeps like Asher to spot her in a crowd. Rinsing the hair dye out had been the trickiest part, and she'd found herself near panic as the water trickled down into her eyes and nose, filling her with pure terror as memories flooded in…

Eventually, the task was complete, and all traces of green were gone, but for a solitary streak at the nape of her neck, hidden unless she wanted it seen. Cleaning up, she left the restroom a new woman… but the shaking didn't subside, and heart still pounding, she found herself in the middle of the Underground square, desperate to alleviate the feeling… all feelings.

Buck's doors were still open, and she could hear the music pouring out into the street. Crossing over, Grace hovered outside the doors, taking in a deep breath.

She'd told them she'd be back soon. But a few more minutes wouldn't hurt.

Stepping inside, she made her way to the bar, and sitting down, let her eyes drift up to the shelves.

A young man stood behind the bar, chatting idly with other customers. He was all smiles and laughter, though there was a glint of something mischievous in his eyes. He’d been keeping an eye on things. Buck’s didn’t usually get too bad, the most excitement the day had had so far was Munroe’s arm-wrestling match-up earlier. Still, a tavern was a tavern, and before he’d been a part of the Underground, he had become very familiar with people in this sort of atmosphere.

He’d been wiping out the inside of a glass when he saw Grace walk in and sit down. A new face. That wasn’t something that happened too often. They came through now and then, but not often enough for others to stop giving wary looks when it happened, through. He swore he could place her, from just a little while ago. Hadn’t she been with Nick, and whatever man was with him? Hadn’t she also had very, very green hair?

“Is there anything I can get you?” he asked, mentally setting aside the fact he was still trying to make sure she had been the woman that walked in with Nick earlier.

Her eyes shifted, as the bartender approached, and swallowing a lump of anxiety, Grace nodded weakly. This wasn’t her element. Never had been, but hell if she didn’t know what she wanted without having to think. Her daddy had his poisons, “...Scotch, please.”

“Bold choice,” the man commented with a warm smile, “Neat or on the rocks?” He reached down to pick a glass, mentally skimming through what bottles were available. He took note of Grace’s appearance and her dejected mannerisms. “Rough day?” he asked softly, voice sympathetic. It wasn’t the first time he’d had someone who wanted a stiff drink after getting a bit roughed up.

“Doesn’t matter…” She answered, shaking her head, “Surprise me.” Looking up again, she took in the man’s scrutinizing gaze, and felt that familiar weight of uneasiness that had come earlier, in the drug store. People were due their suspicions down here, she was sure, but hell if she didn’t feel like a bug in a jar, “Rough… everything.” She answered, fingers glancing gingerly over the bruised, swollen cartilage of her ear, “Today wasn’t even the worst of it.”

A surprised look crossed the man’s face. After a moment, he put a handful of ice in the glass before reaching over to select a bottle of scotch. He clicked his tongue, an understanding noise sounding from his throat as he gently pushed the glass towards her. “I’m sorry to hear it,” he said, sincere. His eyes flicked toward her ear as she brushed her fingertips over it. He couldn’t help the small grimace. “How did it come out like that?” he asked, before he stopped himself. Of the problems he’d seen with piercings, that one didn’t look like an innocent mistake. It looked too rough for her to have just snagged it.

Taking the glass, Grace looked down at it, and shaking slightly, her fingers curled around it. But she didn’t bring it to her lips. Didn’t drink. It remained there, cupped in her hands, her eyes boring into it with a small frown, “Yeah, well. I’m pretty used to it by now…” With a small scoff, her gaze shifted and she glanced up at him again, “Sick son of a bitch who tried to kill me thought I need one less piercing, I guess…”

“That’s a sad thing to be used to, love,” the bartender said. He got it, of course. He’d heard plenty of stories from his sister of people that just got knocked down by life and then kept getting kicked. Didn’t mean it wasn’t sad, though. A puff of air come out of his mouth along with a mutter of “Damn.” Yeah, that was a rough everything alright. “Did you at least give him a new piercing in exchange? I hear having knives sticking out of you is very fashionable these days.” He gave her a grin.

“No kidding.” With a dry scoff of a laugh, Grace shook her head, “But hell if life’s gonna lay off just cause I’m a little tired of gettin’ punched in the face.” With a shrug, she looked at the glass again, biting her lip.

“Wish I had. I did taze him, though… and my friend sic’d a bear on him… and a tree. It’s a long story. A weird story.” Even for the mutant underground…

“Yeah… Life’s a real bitch,” the man admitted. “This is going to be terrible advice, so brace yourself, but I say put your hands up or punch back,” he advised, “or kick it in the nuts. Go for where life least expects it.”

He choked a little, a grin spreading across his face. “You tazed him, got a bear sic’d on him, and somehow got a tree involved. I think you’ve almost paid him back,” he joked. He shook his head. “We’ve all got long, weird stories, love, and I honestly want to hear this one. I’ve certainly got the time.”

A brow rose at his advice, and for a moment, she wasn’t entirely sure what to think, but a smile flickered to her lips, and a soft chuckle escaped, almost involuntary, and she nodded, “...That’s… actually some pretty decent advice there. And I always go for the jewels… When you’re a small as I am, you don’t have a lot of other options.”

Turning the glass in her hands, she seemed to consider something for a moment, before giving a shrug, “It’s uh… it’s not as fun as it sounds. You sure?”

“Go for the gold,” the man laughed, “See, you’ve even got a natural advantage. You don’t need everything else when you can topple something at its base.”

“Yes, I’m sure. Some stories aren’t very fun, but it doesn’t mean they don’t deserve to be told,” the bartender said, bracing himself on the bar with crossed arms. “So, shoot.”

“A’ight…” With a small smirk, Grace shrugged, “But don’t say I didn’t warn you. So… started a few days ago. Well, no… hell, I guess it started way before that, just didn’t hit me till then. I uh… generally don’t stay in one place too long, as a rule. Just easier… to keep moving. Keep ahead of the crap. And up till now, it’s worked out pretty well. But then a few nights back, I stopped into this little diner in Maryland… and wouldn’t you know? I wind up in the back of a trunk, wake up in an attic, chained to the ceiling. Apparently, these guys… they were lookin’ for someone. Thought I could find him. When they figured out I wasn’t gonna give them what they wanted, I wound up with one less earring and a lung full of water.”

Grimacing, she looked down again, “Word of advice, if someone tries to drown you in a nasty clawfoot tub in Hell’s attic, they drain pretty fast if you can get your teeth on the plug. I got away… but not far enough. I was in pretty bad shape, and not too far from an old friend’s house. Trouble was, the people, they weren’t too keen on my whole escape plan. Found me again, the next day. My friend, Oliver? He uh… he can communicate with things. Animals. Plants. It’s… it’s pretty badass, especially when some douche of an assassin shows up at the door to finish the job. Mama Bear, she came at him, and we got to the car… but he was firing off shots, and we weren’t gonna get away… so Ollie, he tells a tree to fall, and… down it went.” Biting her lip, she shifted the glass, watching the liquid slosh side to side, “It was wicked cool… till we realized they weren’t done chasing us. And… here we are.”

The bartender listened attentively, nodding when appropriate. His eyes got a little wider the longer she went on, though. When she finally finished, he let out a low whistle. “No wonder you look like Hell. You’ve clawed your way out of there tooth and claw,” he said, something appreciative in his tone. “You’ve certainly got my respect, though you had it before,” he added. Walking in with the Locklear kid had a tendency to do that, since it was the worst kept secret that he had a tendency to walk with very capable people and was able to keep up with them himself. And Khuyen was quite certain now that she was the girl that walked in with Nick earlier.

“After all of that, they’re still gunning for you? How brain-dead do you have to be to ignore getting tazed and having both a bear and a tree sic’d on you?” he asked, shaking his head. He seemed to consider this, though. “That why the green’s gone?” He motioned to his own hair to make the point.

“Like I said earlier. I’m small, but scrappy as hell. Never been one to give up, even when it makes sense.” Even when it was probably better she did, “But thanks. I mean…” Wrinkling her nose, she smiled faintly, “The respect of a stranger I’ve never met before… that’s some high praise right there.”

Breathing out, she reached up to touch her hair, and her expression fell as she nodded, “...Yeah. That uh… that would be the reason. Can’t exactly blend in so well if they’re lookin’ for lime jello, you know?” Looking up, a brow rose, “...How’d… how’d you…?”

“Not a bad thing. Sometimes you’ve gotta keep trucking along,” he said before grinning. “A stranger’s respect is a powerful thing. The absolute highest praise. For the sake of not being strangers, though,” he extended a hand to her, “I’m Khuyen.”

“Yeah, I imagine not. If it’s any consolation, you rock the brown pretty well too,” he offered with a wink. “How’d I what? Know you had green hair? I was at the bar when you, your buddy- Oliver, was it?-, and Nick walked in. Nick never comes in here, so that caught my attention, and I make sure I pay attention to faces anyway.”

“Keep truckin’ along. Wow. I’ve never actually met a ninety-five year old man who looks like you.” Looking up, she grinned, teasingly, giving a small shrug, before she reached to shake his hand, grimacing slightly at the bruises that still lined her wrists, “Grace.”

Sitting back a little, she curled her fingers around the glass again, shaking her head, “Thanks… It’s uh… been a while since I’ve had anything that wasn’t the shade of a pixie-stick. I’m not a huge fan of conformity, I guess.” Raking her hair back with her fingers, she smiled, “Saved Nick’s adorable ass from gettin’ smushed by a taxi a few years back… and yeah, that was Ollie. He and Nick are old friends, too…”

“I’d hope not. I’m a damn gorgeous old man, love,” Khuyen said, running fingers through his hair with a cheeky grin on his face. “The nursing home didn’t know what to do with me. And it’s good to meet you, Grace.”

He nodded at that, as if he’d heard something similar before. “I know someone a bit like that. My sister, she’s big into body mods. She’s running out of skin to tattoo and she’s got a few piercings too. I think the only thing she hasn’t done was dye her hair, and that’s specifically because our parents asked her not to. By asked, I mean begged.” He chuckled, shaking his head. His face seemed to light up with recognition. “Oh, so you’re Wonder Girl? I have finally met you in the flesh.”

“You’re a’ight…” She mused, giving him a pointed look, before the smile returned in full, “Gotta stop givin’ those nursing aids a hard time. They work hard, and the system don’t give them half the respect they deserve…”

Leaning forward on her elbows, she shuffled the glass with one hand, and a chuckle escaped at the mention of his sister’s tattoos. Wiggling her fingers, she shrugged, “I got plenty of real estate, but I try to make them count, you know? Your sister sounds like my kinda people… if I had a kind of people.” A brow rose, and she dropped her chin to her hands, “My parents probably wouldn’t be big on the colors, either, if they were still around.”

Her expression shifted, as she rolled the scotch against the sides, the melting ice clinking against the rim, “Geez. I’m wicked famous, all the sudden.” Chuckling dryly, she shook her head, “If that’s what Nick’s been callin’ me, I’m gonna punt him.”

“Oooh, now that stings a little,” he said, bracing a hand over his chest as a pout graced his face. “Excuse me, I was an absolute angel to them. No, they made me leave because the little old ladies kept fainting. I’d walk into a room and suddenly, they just dropped.”

“That’s fair. Aja likes the pretty, decorative stuff as well as the ones with meaning,” Khuyen added with a nod. He paused, looking at her for a moment. “Everyone has a kind of people, Grace. Even when you try to walk away from them,” he said before grinning. “He didn’t actually call you that, he said something along the lines of ‘it’s a wonder’. People started picking up on it and messing with him. So you’re a wonder to anyone who’s heard the story,” he chuckled. “Have to say, I’m not disappointed at all with what I see. A real wonder indeed.”

The amusement bloomed for a moment, as he continued, and with another chuckle, she shook her head, “Teasin’ those poor, lovely women. Shame on you…”

With a crooked grin, her eyes shifted, lowered, “See… That's the secret, Casanova. I don't walk away. I run like hell, and I never look back. Only trouble comes when they keep chasing…” Her eyes shifted up again, brow quirked, gaze cautious, but curious, “You flirt with all your patrons? Or you just got a thing for the formerly-green-haired-walking dead?”

“I don’t mean to tease them. It just happens,” Khuyen chuckled, almost succeeding at an innocent face. “Oh, so I’m Casanova now,” he added, wiggling his brows. “Just because you run doesn’t mean there’s not a crowd you belong with. Running alone gets lonely after a while.” He tilted his head before realization crossed his face. “Oh! I remembered what he said about you now. He said ‘she’s like a natural wonder of the world.’ That is why you’re Wonder Girl.” He’d smacked his hand against the counter in his realization, lights flickering as he did so.

He looked sheepish for just a second, as some of the said patrons turned to look at him after the lights flickered. He recovered quickly enough, however, resting his chin against one hand. “Only the pretty ones with a world full of stories in their eyes,” he answered, humming.

“I mean… you got a nursing home of cougars throwin’ their garters at you, it seemed like a fitting nickname.” He continued, and she could feel her cheeks warm as the truth behind those words hit like a hammer. Damn. What was with bartenders being so good at reading people, “Not like I can run now, anyway. Guess you folks are stuck with me for a little while…”

The color continued to burn in her cheeks, and she shook her head with a laugh, “He did not say that! No way…” But then, it did seem like something Nick would say about anyone half decent… Natural wonder. Hell.

Looking up as the lights flickered, a brow rose, and she met his eyes, “...Damn. Good line, Casanova.”

Khuyen threw his head back in a laugh. “If I’m charming cougars, am I a Cats-anova?” he asked, smirking. He shook his head. “Sounds like the opposite of a problem to me,” he said before gesturing vaguely at the tavern. “Don’t let their wariness get to you. Our flow of new faces coming in here is fairly slow, and we like making sure this place isn’t in danger, since it’s become a haven for us. They’ll warm up soon enough.’

“Oh, he definitely did,” the bartender nodded. “And thank you. One of my best lines yet, I think. Seriously though, I think you’ve got quite a few stories to tell. Always being on the move? You’ve seen plenty, I’m sure.”

“Ouch… Cats… you… hmm. Despite the fact that my friend Ollie would highly approve of that awful… awful joke. Ouch.” But she smiled regardless, and her hand came away from the glass for the first time since he'd handed it over to her. That security was gone, though by his next words, and the smiled twitched away, “...I ain't too worried about them warming up… More concerned with what's following me winding up down here.”

Pinching her forehead, she sighed, “I got stories. Got more stories than a person's got room for. Some days, Khuyen… I'd rather be boring.”

Khuyen laughed again, “I’m hurt, by your bad taste in humor. That aside…” He’d been taking note of how she’d clutched the glass, playing with it and staring at it more than she’d ever seemed to consider drinking it. Interesting. “We’re in pretty good hands down here. I’m sure you’ve gone past all the fun little obstacles in the way of anyone trying to find us, and we’ve got Munroe to boot. Plus, a good bit of us can take care of ourselves. We appreciate it, but you don’t have to worry.”

“You know how you make room?” he asked. “You share them, tell them, and get them off your chest. Things have more weight when you’re the only one carrying them.” His gaze slid over the tavern once more, part out of making sure no one needed him and part to remind himself of a few things, like others’ histories. “Sometimes, I think I’d rather be anything but boring. Then I remember how these people find themselves down here,” he commented, gesturing to the other customers. “How you ended up here. So that’s fair.”

“Yeah. Just… I thought Ollie's cabin was safe. Then we needed a bear to get away.” But he had a point. No one in the Underground seemed completely incapable.

A brow rose, and he went on, and her gaze lowered slightly, “You know… someone told me once bartenders were a little like cheap therapists… Starting to wonder if there isn't some truth to that. But I dunno… I uh… I've never been big on talkin’ about myself. Keeps me humble, you know?”

“Needed a bear...yeah, I’m still wrapping my head around that one, but I understand,” Khuyen admitted, shaking his head as he ran a hand through his hair.

“Heh, that might also be because of my sister. She did social work, and she might’ve...rubbed off on me a little,” he chuckled, “but hey, if you need a cheap therapist, I’m certainly here.” He pursed his lips, considering this. “Humbleness is overrated, love. Take me, for example. I’m doing just fine without it,” he joked before sighing. “You sure ‘humble’ is the only thing not talking about yourself keeps you?”

“I'm… I'm not sure about a lot of things anymore. Used to be, or at least… I felt like I was.” Running her fingers through her own hair, she sighed, and looked up again, “Sure you ain't just some wicked undercover reporter? Tryin’ to get the scoop from Wonder Girl?”

That sympathetic look returned to Khuyen’s face as she started to talk again. He laughed, the sound coming out of him sounding like it had surprised him. “Oh, I wish. Don’t think I’d be too good at that undercover bit, though. I talk too much.” He shook his head. “What is said at this bar with a drink in your hand stays at this bar, as far as I’m concerned. Unless you bring it up yourself, anyway. Besides, one of the biggest collector of secrets, whether he realizes it or not? That was the guy you walked in with earlier,” he added, jabbing a thumb at the door of the tavern to make a point. Nick was a good guy, as far as Khuyen was concerned. He was also someone that was always willing to be a shoulder to lean on, and that led to him knowing quite a bit about people. It might’ve unnerved him, if he weren’t in a similar situation himself.

“I got a habit of collecting secret keepers…” She smiled, but it was strained, “You can probably imagine how great that is for someone who already feels like a giant burden…”

Fingers curling around the glass again, she pulled it close, blinking, frowning softly, “Feels like I just keep causin’ a mess everywhere I go… Maybe that's why it's always felt like I'm better off alone.”

The light-hearted expression on Khuyen’s face sobered instantly. “Love, I can promise you that you’re not a burden. Every person on this planet? They’re worth something, and their worth is a lot more than their problems.” Maybe he was quoting his sister, but the point still stood. “Your collection of secret keepers? They care about you. When they offer to listen, it’s not just some obligation. You don’t deserve to be alone. Even disaster magnets run in crowds,” he joked lightly, though the sentiment was definitely there.

“...Ollie lost everything because of me. I… I came back, and he lost his home… his security. Everyone he cared about. Hell… he almost lost me. And I know he's not mad, but… but I am. And now Nick's talkin’ about some crazy mission… trackin’ down other people these jerks might be after and who knows how that's gonna go… Who knows what'll happen. I just… I hate that I brought this down on them. But I'm so…” Biting hard on her cheek, her voice buckled slightly, and she swallowed, “I'm sick of being alone. How do you deal with that duality, you know? Not wanting the one thing that's probably better for everyone?”

“They don’t blame you, do they? They know it’s not your fault, because it’s not. It’s not your fault that other people make decisions. It’s not your fault that people make decisions that involve you or you get caught up in. You didn’t bring this down on their head. The people that made the decision to hurt you, to chase you, and take him down with you are the ones that did that,” Khuyen said softly, though his tone was firm. He stared at her, all but boring into her. “That’s because it’s natural to not want to be alone. No one really, truly wants to be alone. A lot of the time that feels easier, right up until it’s not. Just because you’re with them doesn’t mean things wouldn’t have gone wrong if you weren’t. It means you’re there to help and support if they need you. Leaving them alone isn’t the better option.”

“Damn.” Looking up, she smiled dryly, and a brow rose as her gaze became somewhat scrutinizing, “You sure you ain't a therapist, Casanova? Cause you got a hell of a way with words. How'd… how'd a guy like you end up down here among the mole people?”

Khuyen grinned, though he definitely noted the subject change too. “Lots of practice, being a bartender. You have to learn quickly. Besides, it’s what keeps them coming back,” he added with a wink. “Dumb luck, honestly. The mole people are nice, though, Grace. Be nice to them. Now, the real question is are you sure you want to keep fondling that scotch I’m pretty sure you’re not going to drink, or do you want something else? I’ve got water and I’ve got pop.”

“You sure that's what brings them back, Cas?” Giving him a once over, she grinned, “Cause I could think of a couple other reasons folks might frequent the joint…”

At his question, she shifted, clearing her throat, and looking down at it, she smirked, “I… I don't really drink. Sometimes I just think… maybe… maybe it'd make things better. My…” breathing out, she turned the glass around, “My dad was a functioning alcoholic. And a hell of a lot of other things. Maybe it runs in the family. Just never uh… never hit a point bad enough where I actually tested the theory.”

“Oh? So are you ready to admit I’m much more than ‘alright’?” he asked, his own smile turning sly as he stood up straight. He gestured to himself. “You’re more than welcome to take another look, in case you want to make sure.”

He rested a hand on the counter, absorbing what she told him. “I was starting to guess that,” he admitted. “Honestly? There’s really only a few times I can think of where it’s genuinely made things better, and in this situation, I don’t think that’s going to work for you,” he said, very gently placing a finger on the lip of her glass. “I’m going to tell you a secret. A lot of people crack under a lot less than you’ve been through. If you haven’t cracked yet, I don’t think you will. So, how about something you’ll actually drink?”

“I mean…” Giving an innocent enough shrug, she smirked, “I ain't mad at your momma… but I figured you had enough folks fawning over you back at the home.”

For a moment, smirk fading, she gripped the glass tighter, but at his words, her grip loosened, before she released it entirely, “Maybe… I mean… I ain't shakin’ apart today, at least. Guess I can always find other ways not to deal with the crippling guilt and concern for my friend's safety…” Looking up again, the corner of her lip turned up, “I'm open to suggestions.”

Khuyen grinned. “I don’t know. Ever since I’ve had to leave, I’ve been going through withdrawals. My ego can’t take this kind of neglect, you know. I need more of the fawning in my life, love.”

He slipped the glass from her hand as she let go, sliding it to the bit of the counter that was accessible to only the bartender. “Healthy coping methods are always good to have,” he added, “And I make a pretty good mocktail, if I do say so myself. Pick a mixed drink from the menu, and I’ll make it non-alcoholic for you.” He pointed up at said menu.

“Hmm. Something tells me you probably don't have any trouble gettin’ that ego padded, Khuyen. But hell… I don't mind humoring a friend.”

A brow rose and leaning back a little, she glanced to the menu, before looking up at him, “You know what? Surprise me, Casanova… And yes. This is absolutely a test.”

“Oh, but I really do. My’s so neglected. Very neglected. It’s a very sad ego these days. Only the size of Pluto, you know.”

“Ooh, a challenge,” he said, eyes lighting up. He took a step back, looking her over. He stayed like this a few moments more before grabbing a few items from behind the bar. A shaker, ice, apple juice, a lime, and sugar water. He worked fairly quickly, clearly taking a bit more pleasure in making a mixed drink than he did simply pouring something into a glass. He strained the shaker into a martini glass, garnishing it with a slice of the lime from earlier. He slid it towards her when he was done. “A mock appletini,” he informed her.

“Good thing Pluto's my favorite planet…” Grace mused, before he started on the drink. She watched with curiosity, a small smile on her lips, and as he slid it over, she glanced up, “...Alright. You've got me intrigued. Why that one?”

“Oh, come on. Not Jupiter? Or even Saturn? Or Neptune. Neptune’s a reasonable size,” he asked, unable to help the easy smile on his face. “Though I do appreciate you acknowledging Pluto is a planet. Pluto deserved better than what it got with some of those scientists.”

“The green hair. It was very defining, you know,” he started to explain. “I was torn between that and citrus, so the lime popped up, too. Plus, the accent. New England, but not New York. Close enough you’d probably have had plenty of apples though. You looked like you needed something sweet, but familiar.”

“Scientists… bah.” Shaking her head, she smirked, “Since when do they know what they're talking about. Though Saturn ain't half bad. Got a thing for rings…” vaguely, she gestured up to the many piercings, with a shrug.

Then, reaching for the glass, she took a sip, a brow raised again, “Ain't half bad, Casanova. The drink, too. Sweet but familiar, though? I dunno… I ain't too mad at the unfamiliar right about now.”

“Honestly. You’d think they’d have years and years of education for all they seem to think that they know,” Khuyen chuckled. He let out a low whistle. “I was very concerned, for just a moment, that you were far more forward than I am. Not that I’m complaining, but shit, give a man some warning.” He did pause, taking in the piercings, before nodding slightly to himself.

“I’m glad I could please,” he answered with a shrug. “Oh, is that so? How exactly do you feel about the unfamiliar right now?” The pleased smile took a coy turn as he once again leaned on the counter.

Her laugh escaped, and covering it behind her hand, she shook her head, “No worries, there, Cas. Promise I'll give you some forewarning before I go and propose…”

Shaking her head, she leaned on her arms, studying him for a moment, “I think we did just establish you're the forward one, Khu… But hell, definitely growin’ on me.”

Khuyen smiled as he heard her laugh, tilting his head. “Now, why on earth would you hide that behind your hand?” he asked before snorting. “Don’t feel the need to. Just give me a moment to recover and book the venue when you do.”

Heat slowly crawled up his neck and face. He wasn’t easily embarrassed, not by a long shot, but her leaning forward was enough to remind him that he could end up playing with fire. For some, that would be a warning. It only seemed to spur him on, however. “I’m glad, love. If you ever need me to be more forward, though, let me know. I’m a real pleaser,” he added with a wink.

With a subtle, but hooded look, the corner of her lip flickering up, Grace gave a small, casual shrug of her shoulders, “Guess all that depends on how you like a challenge, Cas. Cause I'm pretty tough to please.”

The heat crept up to Khuyen’s ears, tinting them a brighter pink, even as he grinned back at her. He didn’t move from where he’d leaned against the counter; if this was a game of chicken, he definitely wasn’t backing down.

“Oh, I do love a challenge,” he answered. “It’s a shame, though, that so many of the people that get told they’re a challenge are told that because someone else didn’t know how to handle them. I don’t plan on making the same mistake, Grace.”

She could almost feel Ollie scowling, all the way from Munroe's office, but hell… Wasn't it better she wasn't moping into undrank scotch? Shifting, less than subtly, Grace pushed her toes onto the foothold of the stool, moving close enough that she could've counted freckles in the bartender's iris, “You think so, do you? You'd be the first, Khu…”

Khuyen’s breath caught as he faltered briefly. He hadn’t expected her to move quite so close. Still, he stayed where he was. “The first to what? Think I can handle you, or truthfully tell you that even if you’re hard to handle, you’re worth it?” he asked. He was about to say something else when-

“Kaufman! If you’re planning on mackin’ on the new girl, at least fill up my drink first!”

Khuyen reeled back, blinking, before rolling his eyes at the patron that had called out. “You’ve got a full glass, John!”

Grace breathed in at those words, and for a moment, there was a sense that she really had no clue what to say. The interruption, however, was the time she needed to recover, and shaking her head, she shifted just slightly, lowering her voice to a hum of a whisper, near the bartender's ear, “I'm a world of trouble, Khuyen. What makes you think I'm worth it?”

Khuyen shook his head as some of the other patrons burst into laughter, turning his attention back to Grace. He stilled as he heard her voice in his ear, goosebumps rising on his skin. “One, I love trouble, so if you think you can scare me that way, you’re wrong,” he said first. “And two, I know you’re worth it, because of this gut feeling I’ve got. The gut feeling hasn’t been wrong yet.”

Pulling back, Grace frowned softly, thoroughly perplexed by the man's words. Why? Why did she feel such an overwhelming need… nearly primal… to prove him wrong. It was the same twitchy feeling she'd gotten when Nick had offered her sanctuary in the underground the first time. The same feeling she got around Oliver, every time she thought about what she'd cost the man. Why was that instinct so powerful to shove everyone as far away as possible.

“...I… I should go.” She murmured, softly. Run. Flee. Escape. But her feet wouldn't follow her brain and she wasn't heading for the door. Swearing, she dropped back onto her stool, “...When do you get off work…?”

“Okay,” Khuyen said after a moment, a little caught off guard. He thought things had been going well enough; then again, maybe that was the problem. Hadn’t she said she tended to run and never look back, because she thought she was better alone? The next question eased his mind a little. If she asked when he got of work, that was usually a good sign. Plus, she might have somewhere she needs to be anyway. He glanced at the clock on one wall before looking back at her.

“It’s going to be a little while. I get off pretty late. I wouldn’t judge if you didn’t wait up for me,” he said honestly before smiling again. “I’d love to see you again, though, Grace.”

Still hadn't moved. Still hadn't gotten up. It infuriated her, how little conviction she had anymore for keeping away from other people. How many more lives was she gonna endanger?

“...I just… if I don't get back, Ollie and Nick, they'll worry. But I… I'd like to see you again, too, Khu. What time?”

“Of course,” Khuyen answered, reassured slightly by her answer. So it was somewhere she had to be. “It’ll probably be around midnight.” His smile turned apologetic; the one drawback of being a bartender was the hours.

“...A'ight. But I come back and find you turned into a pumpkin, I'm gonna be awful disappointed…” Biting her lip, she rose to her feet, “Just uh… don't set your expectations too high, okay? I… I tend to disappoint.” With a shrug, she tucked her hair back over her ruined ear, “See ya…”

“No pumpkins here. Promise,” he assured, striking an X over his chest in a “cross my heart, hope to die” motion. “And Wonder Girl, I highly doubt you’d disappoint,” he added, waving as she slipped out the door. “See you around.”


129% of people exaggerate.
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Behold, Alys Cometh.....Part 1
Collab: CloudyBlueDay CloudyBlueDay Elle Joyner Elle Joyner

Tracking Finn was easier than any other track she’d been a part of in the past four years. She was right to call off the dogs that would have put him down. The wounded animal lead her all the way to a couple of cabins in the middle of Colorado. It was beautiful country, and if her Deckard was still alive, she probably could have been convinced to live out here with him to raise their family together in the quiet of nature. It would have been the perfect place, really.

But even as she watched from the cover of the foliage and darkness, she could see him through the window prancing around in Deckard’s likeness. It disgusted her, making her stomach churn. He wasn’t alone either. Of course not. Penny appeared and Alys’ hands balled into fists at her side. It took all her strength not to order her men to attack in that moment. She refrained, as her eyes scanned over the three assault teams. She would have never seen them if she didn’t know where they were. But it was the last person she saw that filled her with regret, anger, and disgust.

The little boy had grown and looked more like his father, though she wasn’t surprised. Her hand instinctively moved to her stomach before slowly balling into a fist. It was the one thing she’d always wanted with Deckard...a child, but when Fate saw to it to finally give them a child, it turned out to be a monster. Now that monster was loose to cause havoc on innocent people. This was her fault. She should have terminated.

No matter. When the lights finally went out, she’d rectify that mistake, and rid the world of the dangers of Deckard and Penny.

Inside, Deck stood from his chair and picked up his plate, “Da-ng,” he corrected himself and Travis snickered, “that was amazing.”

“Mom knows how to cook deer,” Travis nodded, “Dad gets it, Mom cooks it. Didja like it, Uncle Finn?” Travis looked over at his dad when Deckard coughed at the term of endearment and chased it down with a drink.

It was a little jarring, to be sitting at a family dinner after a cold and lonely four years. It wasn’t quite perfect, as Finn still sat with his head somewhat bowed, sensing Deckard’s resentment even all the way on the other side of the table. He fought against the twinge of a frown to smile at Travis weakly. “Loved it. Delicious.” He said, patting his stomach, before clearing his throat and nodding at Penny and Deck. “Thank you.”

Looking at the faces around the table brought a spark of joy to Penny’s face that, despite the fact that things weren’t entirely settled, could not be avoided. She was glad to see that the children had enjoyed their game with Finn and Rose, and more delighted to see that they’d managed a whole meal without a trace of drama…

Deck had pulled through for her, like always, and it was a subtle reminder of why she’d married the man to begin with…

“Thank you. All of you. Got dessert, if anyone’s got--” At the sound of sudden, rapid barking, she paused, straightening slightly, the dish she’d gathered in her hand paused halfway off the table top. Her eyes flickered to Deckard, then to Rose, with a small frown.

“I got it,” Deck stated as he placed the plate in the sink and grabbed a bowl of scraps, “The dogs’ll appreciate the extras anyway,” he flashed a quick smile to not worry the kids and started toward the door.

Finn tensed at the sudden barking, grip suddenly rigid on his utensil. He cleared his throat, shaking his head. “Right. Uh. Dessert sounds great, Penny. I’m sure Travis is just dying to know what you made.” Finn said, flashing the boy a nervous smile, trying to hide his anxiety. “Need help clearing the table?” He nodded to Penny, standing as he took his own plate and Rose’s.

“No, no… It’s fine, Finn. I’ve got it…” Penny answered, though even as she reached to the take the dishes, her eyes remained subtly trained on the door, watching… waiting, “Trav… Would you get the smaller plates, honey, from the hutch?”

Rose reached out, gingerly brushing the edge of Finn’s hand, “Probably just one of the neighbor’s dogs, wandered off their property, again. Ev goes nuts, and gets the others started…”

Deckard reappeared a few moments later, shaking his head, “Must have been an animal or something. They quieted down and took to their food right away.”

Finn sunk back down, posture still tense as he stared straight ahead. He hadn’t been as careful as he liked coming here, mostly due to the fact that he was barely alive. What if he brought down hell on them? On their quiet, peaceful home? What if he ruined everything?

“R..right.” Finn said again, trying not to tremble. “..False alarm.”

Bringing a pie tin to the table, Penny set it down and looking at the others, chuckled softly, “Everyone breathe, okay? We're gonna be just fine. Now, eat up…”

Her eyes shifted to Deck, and she have him a soft smile, the words 'thank you’ echoing in slate eyes.

Rose plucked up the serving knife and carved out a slice for everyone, before sitting back down, reaching for Finn's hand beneath the table, “We're prepared for anything, Finn…” She murmured softly to him, “Gonna be alright…”

“I’m not sure I could eat another piece of pie,” Travis spoke with concern on his face, his hand resting on his stomach, “I’m so full.”

“I’ve never known you to pass down a piece of pie, Travis,” his Dad returned, “You alright?”

Letting out a shaky exhale as Rose’s hand found his, Finn nodded weakly, trying to put the overwhelming worried out of his mind, holding back a weak laugh at Travis’ plight. “Maybe it’s the sudden weather change. Got him feeling upside down.” Finn teased lightly.

“Or the three quarters of a pie he ate at Rose’s house…” Zoey answered bluntly, though there was, perhaps, the tiniest hint of mischief in the young girl’s eyes. Rose stifled a laugh behind her hand, and shook her head.

“Sorry, Pen. I tried to stop him, but it was too late.”

Shaking her head with a small ‘tisk’ sound, Penny looked to Travis, “Pie traitor…”

“Your pies are still the best, Mommy,” Travis tried, “But Aunt Rose’s was...there...and I was so hungry.”

Finn tried to stifle a chuckle, but was ultimately helpless. “Rose is gainin’ on you, Pen. Looks like you’ll have to fight for Travis’ pie appetite now.”

“Bah…” Brandishing a fork at Finn, Penny shook it, “You're still on probation, buddy. Don't think I won't consider this treason…”

Laughing, Rose shook her head, “Everything I know, your mom taught me anyway, Trav.”

Shaking his head, Deckard smirked as he slipped back into his chair, “Careful, Son. Mom takes her baking seriously.”

Travis nodded, then his lips slowly spread into a smile, “Well, I suppose one piece won’t hurt me.”

Finn raised his hands in surrender, laughing softly. “You’re gonna regret that, kid. But at least pie isn’t something you can mess up…” He looked between Zoey and Travis with a smirk. “You know how many times I’ve blown up a microwave? It’s a talent.”

“Oh honey…” Penny shook her head, looking at Finn with what appeared to be genuine concern and pity, “...We are gonna need to fix that, aren’t we?” Her eyes flickered to Rose, who nodded with a small smirk.

“Yeah, we are…” Rose added.

“...Blown up a microwave?” Zoey asked, a brow raised in interest, “...How??”

“Probably not a skill you need to acquire,” Deckard interjected, “I’m sure Finn can show you something to do.”

“Just told you, Zo. Talent.” Finn flipped his hair, though wilted a little at Deckard’s comment. “Uh… er… other skills…” Ah. He really… didn’t have other skills. “Er… raincheck?”

Zoey pouted a little at Deckard, but seemed to move past it fairly quickly, Penny giving her husband a pat on the shoulder with a small chuckle. Rose squeezed Finn’s hand, fighting a laugh, and shaking her head.

“Finn knows more about comics than I do, Zo… He could teach you everything there is to know, I bet.”

“Why read comics when we’re real superheroes?” Travis asked, “Don’t get me wrong, I love, love, love a good comic, but I can read minds, and Aunt Rose can heal, and Mommy memorizes stuff, and Daddy...he can throw stuff with his brain. Zoey’s super smart, and Uncle Finn, you can blow wind at people. We are the X-Men.”

Deckard frowned as he listened to Travis. He could hear the excitement in his voice at the idea of being a superhero, “The life of a hero’s a hard one, Travis. Not everyone appreciates a hero and it doesn’t always matter what you do for them. Someone will always hate you and want to hurt you,” he shook his head, “It’s not the life I wanted for’s why we’re out here where no one would find us.”

Finn’s brows furrowed, listening to father and son, two sides of the same coin. “Your dad is right… it’s not simple. Even though powers are fun, and cool… you do have to remember that there’s people out there who hate you for what you do, but there’s fun in it too. And you read comic books for the wisdom, you know? They’re going through what we’re going through… in beautifully done art and well written plot-line.” He grinned, tapping his chin. “You’re a hero no matter what. If you’re hiding, or you’re fighting, you’re still a hero. That’s what matters, and that’s what the comics say, too.” Finn sighed wistfully. “Plus, I love Spiderman.”

Penny smiled faintly at Finn, giving Deck’s shoulder a squeeze with her hand, before leaning into him, “Though, I personally am a little bit sorry that we never ascribed to an costumes… Cause I kinda like the idea of seeing you in Spandex…” She mused, loud enough to be heard, but still intentionally quiet near Deck’s ear.

Rose covered a snort of a laugh with her hands, before giving herself the excuse of collecting the dessert dishes, so she could leave the table without dissolving entirely into giggles.

Shifting uncomfortably, Deck’s cheeks heated and he shook his head, “No spandex for me! Too tight and not enough room to breath!”

Travis shuddered before shaking his head, “Bleh, gross!”

Finn broke into a laugh, covering his mouth. “Eeeeew. Penny, save it for the bedroom.” He joked.

Dessert wound down as Rose did the dishes, and with a punctuating yawn from Zoey, Penny announced it was time for the kids to head to bed. Rose suggested she and Finn head back and get some rest as well, and with that, the evening closed on a surprisingly pleasant note, considering the fear the morning had begun with…

It was hard to imagine it had only been roughly twenty-four hours since Finn’s arrival… Hard to believe that things had gone so well. Despite her insistence it wasn’t necessary, Finn had opted to take the couch, and with some reluctance that normally coupled with sleeping in general, Rose crawled beneath the covers.

The events of the day had worn out Deckard far more than he thought they would. After the cleaning up, the kids tucked in, and the farewells, Deckard, Penny, and Blondie retreated into their room for the night while Baloo found himself a nice, cool spot on the floor outside of Travis’ door.

The last light went out in the cabin, and Alys couldn’t help the smile that teased across her lips. It was almost time, and the excitement almost boiled over spoiling the calm and collected visage she had been using for the sake of the men accompanying her. She waited a few more hours for them to fall asleep before she peeled the gloves from off her hands, “Alpha team, through the back. Bravo Team, take the second cabin. My team will go through the front. Move quick.”

Alys followed her team, choosing to take the back of the line. When everyone was in position, she gave the go ahead and watched as the first man broke the glass with his elbow as quietly as he could and reached in to open the door.

Finn hadn’t slept much at all, and if it was, it wasn’t very deeply. His head was spinning with the day’s interactions, both elated and worried, mostly for the fact that Finn couldn’t believe danger wouldn't follow him, not after the stunt he’d pulled. The glass shattered and Finn snapped awake, panic settling in on his heart but refusing to let it overtake him. Rising, he moved in front of the door, and the moment it opened far enough Finn let a powerful gust of wind blow the men away, shouting out for Rose.

She'd been awake when the glass splintered, and had already made it into the living room when Finn called out. Her first thoughts to panic were dashed quickly in favor of movement. “We need to get to the house! Back exit!”

As soon as his attack had landed Finn slammed the door shut, spinning on his heels to grab Rose by the wrist and rush towards the back exit. “Shit…” Finn breathed, face draining of color. “Crap… I… It’s my fault… Rose…” He shook his head. rushing towards the other house. He had to make it right.

“Don't…” Rose muttered, “Need to be on your game, Finn. Don't go down that course right now. You help Deck and Penny. I need to stay with the kids. We planned for this… It'll be okay.” She remained as calm as she could, outwardly, but internally, every fear came to life as they left through the back, sprinting towards the cabin.

The moment glass shattered, Baloo’s deep bark sounded through the house. In response, Blondie added in her bit and Deckard shot up in bed throwing the sheets off as his feet met the cool, wooden flooring, “The kids,” was the only thing he could mutter as he pushed to his feet and moved to the door in little more than a pair of comfy sleeping shorts.

Cracking it open, he peered into the living area and saw the first man enter. His eyes moved down the hall where Baloo loomed just outside of Travis’ door, already lowered and bearing his white fangs. Deck knew that as soon as the men saw the dog, they’d shoot it. He had to do something. Focusing on the table, he waited, “Penny, get to the kids,” he told her, knowing she wasn’t far behind him. When the man had finally stepped into position, Deckard threw the door open, ran out toward the men, and sent the table flipping through the air and into the team behind him, “Baloo! Pali (fight)!”

In two strides, the black and brown Leonberger had made its way into the fray, its powerful maw closing over the man’s arm with a sickening crunch. Baloo moved quickly his jaws finally finding the man’s throat avoiding the blows or simply shrugging them off until the man fell still.

Penny was up and moving before Deckard had to tell her to… and sprinting down the hallway, she knocked first on Zoey's door, then Travis's, “Get to the shed! Stay with Rose and dont come out till your dad or I call you!”

Rose had already exposed the keypad to the back door, and punching in the code, pulled the door opened, before turning to Finn, “I have to take the kids… Help Penny and Deck!” Hesitating a moment, she reached up to cup his cheek and on her toes, pressed a kiss there, “Be safe…”

Swallowing down any further worries, Finn nodded as they rushed over to the main cabin. Rose turned to him and he met her gaze with worry, though a fire of determination burned behind it. Leaning gently into the kiss, Finn gently brushed a hand across her cheek before pulling away. “You too.” He murmured, ducking into the house with one last, longing glance.

Sliding next to Deck, whether he liked it or not, Finn gave the man a firm nod, fists up in a fighting stance, prepared to defend their home by his side.

Travis scrambled from his bed, fear plastered on his face as his door swung open, “Mommy!” he cried out, but one quick read of her mind, and Travis did his best to swallow back his fear. He had to concentrate harder than usual because there were so many voices, which was only made more difficult by the pressure of the situation, “Zoey, come on!” he told her, then paused a moment to throw his arms around his mom, “Careful…she’s here.”

Deckard took a quick note of Finn approaching his side. A part of him wanted to tear the man apart for bringing RIEF with him, but another part recognized that it wasn’t his fault...and he showed up to help defend their home. For now, he’d focus on the immediate threat, and worry about his inner struggle over Finn later.

The scene was chaotic. With weapons drawn, the two teams, now down a man, took cover behind what they could, firing off rounds indiscriminately when they could. They’d stumbled into the wrong house. Worse than that...they didn’t bring enough men.

“Just like the Helicopters,” he told Finn as shards of the shattered wooden table were suspended in the air, “Don’t hold back. I can rebuild a house,” Baloo darted in front of Deckard, barely noticeable in the darkness, “Don’t hit my dog.”

The words hit Penny with a sense of uneasiness, but she didn't need to think too hard as to what Travis meant. As Zoey emerged, wide-eyed, but focused, alongside Everest, and she sent them off to Rose at the back door, Penny returned to find Deck and Finn, crouching down beside her husband, “Alys is here. Travis felt her.”

Rose, meanwhile, took hold of Zoey and Travis's hands, slipping back outside, Everest taking up the rear as they sprinted for the shed, “Get inside and stay low! I'll be right here with Ev. Gonna be okay…” With a reassuring smile, she opened the door for them.

Endlessly grateful that Deck didn’t mind throw him away, Finn began to call to the air around them, letting it swirl in between his fingertips as Deck raised the wooden shards. Cracking a nervous grin, he nodded. The helicopters. It felt like eons ago… but that only meant he was so much stronger. The wind beckoned at Finn’s call like a trained pet, and his expression only grew more determined as Penny revealed the name of the true master of the operation. The memory of the pain that Alys had sent searing through him, the things she had done, to Penny, to Deck… a fire blazed in Finn’s eyes, and on Deck’s mark, each piece splintering wood would find a very specific target, aided by both the wind and the man’s mental control, spinning with a gust of air behind it to make them lethal projectiles.

Deckard pushed the pieces, and with Finn’s extra shove, the shards peppered the walls and pierced through the other three men. Shards of wood protrude from the walls dripping with red as the killers lay motionless on the floor. But they didn’t have time to celebrate. Baloo was turned the other way, facing the rear of the house. His fangs bore as he took off toward the back of the cabin by rounding a wall. A cry sounded and then a yelp followed by a thud, and Deckard was sprinting from behind his cover.

Pressing his back against the wall, he waited for the barrel of the gun to clear the wall before he forced it up and punched the man in the throat. Two more men were behind the one he was attacking, but he wasn’t worried about them because he knew Penny and Finn had his back.

Penny rose swiftly to her feet at the yelp, and swearing, whistled twice. Blondie sprinted from where she’d been crouched, waiting for orders, and tore off after Deck, Penny on her heels. She rounded the corner, and as Deck grabbed the gun and disabled the first man, Penny ducked low and took the second down at the ankles with a solid kick. Blondie bounded forward with a savage growl, and with a truncated shriek, the man fell still. The third man raised his gun, and shifting, Penny rounded from the balls of her feet to her palms, swinging one leg up to catch the butt of the weapon, sending in flipping from the man’s grasp.

Finn decided not to dwell on the blood that sprayed the walls, the bodies that fell to the floor. He’d been surrounded by a lot of violence in his time away, but he still hadn’t grown used to the image of eyes going cold, no matter who the person was. As Penny and Deck darted to take the three men in front, Finn pushed back farther, crossing his arms in an X in front of him, and once he released them another strong gust of wind blew back any other men attempting to fire or enter. Stepping lightly into the air like a platform to jump off of, Finn swung a fist into the jaw of an agent who had managed to stay on his feet, just like Penny had taught him. Yeah, that would hurt.

The dogs… Alys cursed under her breath. They knew the dogs were there, but she should have considered the fact that Deckard would have trained them. Her assault teams were quickly falling apart, and so was her vengeance. Out of the corner of her eye, she caught sight of the children darting across the yard with a woman and a third dog in tow. One of those children was Travis. If she couldn’t eliminate Deck and Penny, she’d make them suffer and right a wrong she’d allowed to happen all those years earlier. Abandoning the dying teams, she started toward the children.

Following them across the yard, she waited until they were far enough from the house that Deckard and Penny couldn’t interfere, “Thank you for making this easier for me,” Alys started as she stepped out into view.

Travis froze in place as he turned to look into the eyes of his birth-mother. Fear gripped his heart as her anger-filled thoughts and hatred filled his head. Tears began to streak down his confused face. She didn’t know him. She never took the chance to ask him what he liked or didn’t like. She never hugged him or sang him a lullaby. How could she hate him so easily? How could she want him dead? She was supposed to be his mother.

“No…” Rose whispered, letting the shed door slam shut again as she swiftly yanked Travis and Zoey behind her. They were so close… yet sitting ducks if they went inside, now, “Everest, stay!”

The brunette beast whipped around, teeth bared, and Rose glared daggers at the awful woman, “You won't touch them!”

Alys smirked, a hint of play glimmering in her eyes, “You and that beast can’t stop me,” she shook her head, “No one can. I’ll kill you and then I’ll fix the mistake I made all those years ago.”

Stretching out her hand, Alys felt for Rose’s nerves. Her heart raced at the thought of hurting someone Deckard held so dear, and with a smirk on her face, she set the girl’s nerves ablaze.

“Travis! Zoey! Run!” Rose cried out, before the sensation of fire raged, and with a scream, Rose’s knees buckled. At the same moment, Everest leapt, teeth flashing as the massive dog lunged for Alys.

Finn had to admit. It was a little fun throwing fists at bad guys alongside Penny and Deck. Hell, it was a scene he’d dreamed of for countless years, long before everything had gone to shit. But there was a nagging feeling in the back of his head, for the fact that Alys hadn’t shown herself yet, and Alys sure as hell liked to make a scene. In truth, he had already started running to Rose’s cabin, even before her scream had pierced the air and shattered Finn in a way he didn’t even know he could be broken. Jumping into the air like someone skipping every two steps on a staircase, the wind pushing Finn to make him faster, he swung air at her like swinging a hammer, the impact slamming into Alys’ side harshly with intent to send her flying as if a mallet had hit her full force, separating her from Everest. The moment she hit the ground, Finn would already have his hand wrapped around her air supply, tugging it with just enough lightness to make her feel his presence, but not choking her just yet.

“Hi, Alys.” He snarled.

It was too much for Travis as he watched on. Rose’s command to run played over and over in his mind and the urgency tugged hard at his chest. He should run. He needed to run. But his feet would not move. This was his mother...the woman that had grown him and brought him into this world. How could any mother hate their child this much.

The beautiful thing about having a brain that was so superior to most was that things like fear and panic had a tendency not to make logical sense. Zoey wasn’t without fear, but in that moment, as Rose’s scream ripped from her throat and Finn flew at Alys, there was a clinical calculation behind the young girl’s eyes. The awful woman wanted to hurt Travis. She could hurt him… if Zoey didn’t do something. So she did. Moving swiftly, she ducked down, and arms curling around his waist, she tackled Travis to the porch, and out of eyeline.

“Stay down!” She hissed.

Alys shifted on the ground, her hand cradling her side. Her eyes burned at Finn, and it took all her strength not to lash out at him with her ability. He had her pinned. She’d have to be satisfied that the other woman would never forget the pain Alys had caused her. That would have to be enough...for now, “Graduated from parlor tricks,” she spit out.

“You betcha,” Finn said, with a small smile, curling his fingers towards his palm, tugging her air a little tighter. “Your teams are done. You’re done.” As he spoke, the air around Alys began to swirl, and coupled with his hold on her air supply, she would slowly feel light headed. He wasn’t going to kill her, but knocking her out was definitely in the plans. Stepping closer, making sure his face was the only thing she could see, Finn continued to drain her air.

Even as weakness began to overtake her and her vision began to blur, Alys managed a smirk, “’ve...won.”