John stirred from the depth of unconsciousness only to wish that he hadn't.
His swollen eyes could only open a crack due to the swelling, his whole face was puffy and slightly lopsided from the missing teeth and broken cheek bone. The bitter taste of blood burned the back of his throat and polluted his mouth. With a wave of nausea the injured man keeled forward in the chair to vomit at his feet. John's headache increased tenfold with the retching and he was horrified to see dark red blood splashed through his stomach contents.
He was still coughing and spitting the acidic bile when the door ominously swung open again.
Through the narrow slits that were his vision, he vaguely recognized his rotund interrogator from before.
"Mr. Middleton." He tutted gently. "Are you ready to cooperate with us? I would hate to have to hurt you further."
For not the first time John considered revealing the truth about the money, but the love for his niece held his tongue. His paternal instinct to protect his kin overwhelmed even the basic need for survival and he mentally promised himself to give the man nothing even if it meant his death.
"Never." He mumbled with a swollen tongue, spitting globules of blood on the kidnappers shoes.
The interrogator's soft tone disappeared; he was shocked and quietly impressed by the prisoner's determination.
"Maybe we need to try a different approach?"
He mused and shot John a sinister smile before turning to leave the room.
Paulo and Alex had busied themselves with cleaning up the glass after Amber dragged Hex outside. In awkward silence they had worked as they heard the loud start of the couples argument outside in the garden. They shared a grimace knowing the short temper that Amber kept, the stubbornness of Hex and the number of altercations they had gotten into as a result of these traits in the past. Ultimately the two cared too much about each other to fight for long though and the heated arguments were usually short and quickly made up over.
The volume had slowly lowered outside and the two friends could only assume that the pair outside had now sorted it out and made up.
Or finally made out! Alex thought with a smirk.
Alex was disposing of the last of the glass in a bin in the foyer when Li ambushed him, the girl had returned from the bathroom disappointed to have missed the action and pressed Alex for all the details after a short greeting. Alex was trying not to laugh at the sight of his friend awkward in a dress, but he gave the best account of what had happened as he could. Li rushed off to go say hi to Hex and to compliment him on a good sturdy right, leaving Alex to return alone to the ballroom.
He was just timidly stepping back into the crowded room when he practically ran straight into Camilla.
The blonde stopped in her tracks her face alight with pleasure as she found the teen she had been waiting for all night. Alex quickly tried to put on a similar expression rather then the mix of confusion and horror he really felt.
To the couple it felt so long since they had last seen each other and there was an uncomfortable moment before they embraced and Camilla turned Alex's head in to seek out his lips. For a delightful moment the confusion and guilt in his head disappeared along with the rest of the world as he joined with her soft lips.
The passionate reunion kiss had to end eventually and they separated to be left with a pleasant afterglow.
"Hey.." She breathed softly, regaining the ability to talk again and shining her blue eyes into his grey.
The sweet sound of her voice, almost forgotten, shattered his after glow and triggered the sinking feeling of guilt and indecision that had hounded him every waking hour for the last three weeks. The internal shift did not go completely unnoticed by Camilla, as she witnessed something sad flicker behind his soulful eyes.
She held her delighted expression with a heart full of hope as he spoke back to her.
"Hey you. Good party?" He returned matching her tone and trying to sound cool and casual.
"It is now." She declared, the sound of his voice enough to raise her spirits and she leaned across to give him another peck on the lips. Linking her hand through his, she started to tug him back towards the ballroom.
She felt resistance to her pull and turned in surprise to see him still standing there staring at her oddly.
"What is it Alex?" She inquired uncertainly, mildly concerned.
Her fear was unfounded though as genuine warmth emanated from the teen when he shyly answered.
"I'm sorry, it's just I had almost forgotten how beautiful you are."
Something liquefied in the girl, at the boy's shy admission and she threw her arms back around him, hungry for his kiss again. A slight tear formed in her eyes at the sweet simpleness of it all.
"Alright break it up you two, damn do we need a bucket of water or something?" A mocking drawl commented.
Alex opened one eye to see the Queen of Attitude standing in front of him with a hand on her hip and a coy grin covering her face. On her arm was the King of Punching-Strangers, who looked considerably calmer and more restrained then the last time Alex had seen him. Hex caught Alex's look and flashed him a sly thumbs up before separating from Amber to greet Camilla.
Alex ended up getting a hug from Amber, who was still regarding the latest couple with a slight look of suspicion.
"Everything alright Alex?" She quietly asked him pointedly.
"Fine." Alex quickly answered trying to subtly avoid her eyes.
Amber was not so easily discouraged;
"Really?" She pressed seeking his face for the truth.
A slight flicker crossed Alex's face before he answered her as coolly as he could.
"Yeah great, when I'm not holding your boyfriend back from killing other guys."
The distraction had its intended effect and in exchange for avoiding further questions, he received a sharp punch in the shoulder instead, followed by a disapproving look.
"Yeah real funny, he's not the guy making out in the doorway of my ballroom."
Alex tinged pink at the accusation, but he had honestly stopped being so embarrassed since he and Camilla had become an item. He tried for a trademarked Paulo cowboy grin, but was dwarfed as the real article appeared with Li at his side. Alex reverted to his usual small slow smile instead.
The team was back together again.
Bound to the chair John drifted in an out of consciousness, the darkness being preferable to the world of hurt that awaited him each time he came to. In unconsciousness he could also dream of better times and pretend that his imprisonment wasn't real. He dreamed of Christmases with Amber and her parents; spending the evenings staring out at the snow on the ground from beside the fires hearth. He shivered from the cold snow, as he awoke in despair to find himself back in his prison.
Not for the first time, he felt an acute wave of loss roll over him as he remembered that his brother and sister-in-law were still gone and he was all alone.
The door creaked open in front of him and despair climbed in his throat.
His captor walked straight up to John and crouched down to the same height as him before holding something up for his swollen eyes to see. It was a blurry picture of someone. John blinked, realizing it was his vision not the picture that was out of focus. Several more blinks and he recognized the picture of his niece and he breathed one word.
His captor broke into a predatory grin.
"Oh you do know her? Because we would hate for something to happen to her now wouldn't we?"
His captive slumped in defeat. "Please I'll do anything just leave Amber alone."
"You know what I want." The large man answered him simply, gesturing to the man outside to bring in the laptop.
"I told you I can't do it." John pleaded desperately.
I'm sorry Amber, he apologized in his head before continuing.
"The money isn't mine it's sealed in a trust fund that goes to her when she turns eighteen. Only she can touch it."
The fat man considered this turn in events before concluding. "Fine we grab her and get her to pay."
"No leave her alone please." The desperate man begged. "Keep me instead, I'm her only family she will pay whatever you ask to get me home safely."
"Hmmm actually that could work, it gives me leverage if she doesn't want to pay." The fat man conceded.
John slumped in relief at the mans decision.
"But be warned; if you or her try anything funny I'll kill you and send my men to get her instead."
The warning fell on deaf ears as man slipped back into blessed unconsciousness.
Amber hauled Hex away from the main party and up the massive stairway to her room. Hex simply let himself be led in silence, still recovering from their earlier spat and trying to come to grips with how he lost his cool. An insistent tugging drew him further up the velvety steps as he reflected on what had occurred. The last thing he remembered was walking in with Alex and then he saw that guy with Amber. A rage like nothing he had ever felt boiled up from his depths and the next thing he knew he was arguing with Amber outside.
He cringed as Amber squeezed his hand harder as she drew him through her door, before closing it behind them. The hand had started aching something fierce about the same time he finished arguing with Amber.
The girl released his hand as she strutted across the room.
"Lose the jacket and shirt," she ordered, her back still to him, her voice unfathomable.
Hex had to double take at her words and he stared at the long legs and mostly bare back that was left facing him, wondering if he had heard her correctly. He was suddenly aware that they were very much alone and it was the first time he had set foot in Amber's room.
Amber finished crossing the room to her walk in wardrobe where she kicked her shoes off and turned to face him.
"What are you, deaf as well as a geek?" She mocked before opening the sliding door to the huge storage space.
A little disbelieving, Hex shrugged off his ruined suit jacket and started to undo his tie, he shuddered to think how he would fare having to retie it without Alex's help.
"Come in here Code-boy." The stern voice from the wardrobe commanded.
Apprehensively Hex approached the door, cautious yet curious as to what awaited him on the other side. He slipped the tie off from around his neck and let it lie flaccidly in his hands as he unbuttoned his shirt and stepped into the wardrobe.
His eyes boggled at the wall-to-wall racks and shelves of clothes and clothing accessories, the room alone was about as big as his room at home. Hex broke his gaze from the monument to consumerism that was Amber's collection of clothes to see her standing in front of him with an impatient look on her face.
"Here try this on." She said passing him an expensive designer shirt on a coat hanger.
Hex reluctantly took the white shirt on the hanger and shrugged out of his current tatty one, it dropped to the floor.
Amber felt her breathing start to come faster in her chest as soon as the shirt slid off his large frame. Her eyes caught on the large pink scar that ran across his chiseled pectorals.
Hex paused in place, as she reached a soft hand out to trace the scar with a slender finger. An odd mix of pleasure and phantom pain from the wound seemed to carve across his chest with the digits progress, causing him to shiver involuntarily.
Amber noticed and quickly withdrew her hand embarrassed.
"Its healed up really well you know?" She commented having to be content tracing the thin raised mark with her eyes instead.
"Well I'm just a patch work of scars now.." He drawled reaching quickly for the shirt on the coat hanger.
Once more Amber stopped him with gentle hand on his shoulder as she turned him on the spot. Her breathe now racing in and out of her at the chance to touch his flesh again. Amber halted his turn to lift his arm and inspect the minor scarring on his flank. It was barely noticeable as just a small series of pink dots and nicks that was all that remained of the shrapnel he had taken over six months ago. Allowing him to lower his clearly defined arm, she turned him until his back was to her exposing the majority of his scarring.
Worse then his flank, Hex's back was completely covered with a peppering of small pink marks and tiny indents. Amber's dark hands splayed across his marred skin to draw the tapestry of injury tight as she inspected it.
Her eyes moistened, as she felt the teen stiffen under her hands and start to move. Muscles moved beneath her hands as Hex slid his arms in the sleeves of the fresh shirt and let the back of it fall to cover Amber's hands on his back.
Fighting her hands, he stepped away from her to button the shirt up with his back to the disappointed girl.
"It's a good fit." Hex mumbled turning around with a solemn expression on his face.
"Any point asking why you have guys clothes in your closet?" He asked neutrally trying to keep his face unreadable.
"Oh and just what are you implying Hex?" She glared at him venomously.
Under the heavy scrutiny and recognizing a potentially life-threatening event, Hex quickly slipped into damage control and tried to defuse the bomb.
"That's not what I…. I didn't mean…. Uh nothing." He stuttered, the defence sounding a lot more logical in his panicked mind.
Amber looked at him in disdain and sighed.
"I actually got it all for you." She mumbled quietly. "I wasn't sure if you know… If you had a suit and stuff."
Despite a pang of hurt Hex laughed the comment off. "Well I did, but as you saw it's a terrible fit and is now pretty much in strips after my scuffle in the ballroom."
Amber appreciated Hex's attempt to play down her tactless comment and she handed him another coat hanger with an Armani suit on it.
"I might step out of here while you get changed into the rest of it." She suggested filled with silent regret.
Stepping out of the wardrobe, Amber moved across to the bathroom to check her make up as she waited for her friend to get changed.
"You still haven't given me your present yet Hex." She reminded him lightly through the separating door.
"That's because it's not your birthday yet!" He retorted in an amused tone.
Amber scowled, having to wait for what she considered her most important present.
She was pleased to see the shirt was a perfect fit; her years of interaction with him had left her with a pretty good idea of his dimensions. The width of his shoulders and his broad chest seemed to be shapes burnt into her memory by their majesty and the few chances she was able to touch them. She knew his height to be exactly right for her to rest her head on his chest, her head only just reaching his shoulders.
All in all, these were difficult measurements to convey to any tailor, but her uncles suit maker had been especially patient and skilled.
The word jumped out at her from her thoughts and she wondered again where he was and why he hadn't called. A splinter of worry was now firmly embedded in her mind, aching with each moment reminding her of his absence. As if on Que two things occurred; first Hex stepped from the closet wearing a new suit and trousers and secondly, Amber's small phone began to ring.
The trilling of the latest pop song of the day stopped Hex as he started to thank his friend profusely for the fancy clothes. Remembering where Amber kept her phone he quickly shifted his gaze from her as she retrieved the device.
Amber felt bubbles of relief rise within her as she noted the caller ID as her uncle.