He paces in front of the door, uncaring that he takes up nearly the entirety of the hallway as he does so. His shoulders are drawn up, and he is hunched forward. The glower of his face stops every passerby from saying something against his presence. From where I stand pressed against the wall opposite the door I can see in the subtle shifting of his face that he is drawing the skin below his lips into his teeth and worrying at them. It is likely he will regret that later when the cuts appear and the muscles in his jaw protest the strain, but for now I know it is a comfort to him. Glancing down the hallway I make sure no one is going to be walking by when I reach out to brush my fingers against his arm when he stalks past me once again. He starts, whirling to face me, white nearly overtaking the cerulean of his eyes. I count five seconds where he stares at me, unfocused before he turns away to look at the door. A shuddering breath escapes him, and his body droops. His head falls forward with a dull thud against the wood of the door. I step next to him, wrapping one hand around his wrist. I can feel the fluttering of his pulse through the pads of my fingers. When he does not respond to my presence I step closer, pushing my shoulder against his. Out of the corner of my eye I can see his face, mouth twisted into a frown and eyes screwed shut. It is strange to see him so clearly while standing without straining my neck and toes. I open my mouth to speak the words that have been bouncing around in my head for the past hour.
“Do not,” he interrupts before I even suck in a breath. His voice is rough as if he had been screaming and the jagged edges cut at my ears, making me wince. I close my mouth and give a brief nod. A hissing breath escapes through his clenched teeth.
“I know what you wish to say,” he speaks after a moment. I cock my head to the side, my mouth hardening into a frown. My eyes remain on his, and I watch as he blinks away tears in his eyes before he meets my own.
“I read the same reports as you,” he pulls away and begins pacing again. I cross my arms over my chest and narrow my eyes at him as he moves. In an instant he is in front of me, crowding me against the wall and using his superior height to look down on me.
“You and I both know how wrong those reports are,” he growls. I raise my head and meet his gaze steadily. His heavy breaths fill the air between us, and I wrinkle my nose. I place a hand on his chest, above where his heart beats as thunderously as a stallion. With only the slightest hint of pressure I push him away.
“I am not saying they are right,” I comment easily. His nostrils flare and I can see red beginning to form on his cheeks. I hold up my other hand to stop the comment he is rearing to say.
“But we’ve lost all privileges and support, and without that we can’t do anything about it,” I carry on. A smile slides onto my face. It takes only a second for him to mirror my smile.
“All official privileges and support,” he agrees. My hands drop back to my sides as I turn towards the exit at the end of the hallway. I can hear him shifting, and the soft baritone of his voice carries into my ears, though I cannot make out the words. Though whether I am unable to is because the words are in a different language or spoken too soft for me to hear is unclear. The heavy heels of my boots ring out against the hard flooring, heralding my presence as I enter the lobby. There are few people here, only a couple of nurses passing by and a woman working on a computer behind the administrative counter. I give her a beaming smile as I draw closer. She looks up at me impassively, eyes flickering to back and forth between me and the monitor.
“Checking out?” she asks in a monotonous voice. I reach into my pocket and pull out a business card. I hand it to her with a flourish. The gold ink glimmers in the fluorescent lights.
“In,” I correct. The woman regards me with a raised eyebrow but reaches out to take the card from between my middle and index fingers. Her eyes widen as she reads the lettering emblazoned on the paper, cheeks draining of their pleasantly tanned hue.
“Of course,” she replies hastily. Her hands disappear from my view and shortly afterwards I hear the rapid clicking of the keyboard.
“Is all well?” I nod, bright smile still affixed to my face. When the woman looks back up, her eyes flicker to my companion briefly. She turns fully to me, pink dusting across her face.
“You are all set.” Her voice wavers slightly. I lean across the counter, bracing myself on my arms. From this vantage point I can see the white knuckled grip she has on the card I had given her, the gold ink smudging from the sweat pressing into it.
“Thank you Linda,” I tell her as I push away. My companion frowns as he steps into place beside me.
“I did nothing,” I say before he has the chance to comment. The sounds of the city envelopes us the second the doors are opened. Through it all I hear the low hum of disbelief from my companion.
“Nothing overt,” I amend shortly. I spin to face him, waggling my finger up into his face, “besides we need every bit of help we can get.” Without waiting for a reply I turn and continue back to our car. I hear him snort and my mouth turns up at the corners.
I slide into the passenger seat of the sleek silver car with a long sigh. Settling back into the seat I close my eyes. The driver’s side door closes with a satisfying sound, and I listen as my companion settles himself. A brush of fingers against the covered skin of my upper thighs has my eyes flying open again. I level a glare at my companion who is looking back at me with a blank expression. He is holding a white card by the tips of his thumb and forefinger, the gold ink spelling out a single word. Slowly he raises his eyebrows, sliding his eyes from me to the card.
“Nothing overt,” he speaks slowly. My cheeks burn and I turn my head away from him with a huff. His low chuckle only serves to deepen the flush on my cheeks. I feel the card being slipped back into my pocket followed by a large hand patting my knee. The car rumbles to life a few seconds later. I watch idly as the urban landscape of the city appears as if it is moving around us. Pedestrians swarm at intersections, moving as one mass when the opportunity to move safely presents itself. Popular music plays on a low volume through the radio broken up by unfunny commentators and inane advertisements.
“Jero,” I begin. My voice lilts gently. I turn my attention away from the window, the blurring greys fading from my memory as it does my sight.
“Ashe,” he responds lightly.
“Do you think Tiffany is still mad at me?” I inquire. Jero slams on the breaks, an awful screeching sound fills my ears. I’m pitched forward with the momentum. A shout escapes me, my eyes widening. Honks from cars behind us flare up. I hiss out a swear to my companion, twisting in my seat to level him with the sharpest glare I can muster. He has his cerulean eyes focused on the road. His fingers tap on the steering wheel in time with the fast paced tempo of the broken left turn signal. Behind us car doors slam and the raised voices of the people behind us grow steadily louder. There is a knock on my window and I barely have the time to turn to look at the newcomer before the car is in motion once again. I raise my hand in a jaunty salute as Jero swings the car around. I’m flung to the side with the motion, the top of my head grazing Jero’s bicep. I right myself when the car straightens out. I reach up to pat at my hair, smoothing the dyed tips until they lay flat once more.
“You missed a strand,” Jero states. He extends a hand of his own and rests it on top of my head for a brief second before moving it back and forth rapidly. I shout out, arms coming up to bat his hand away. His laughter fills the car, a pleasant rumbling that does nothing to ease the tugging at my scalp from misplaced hairs. I yank the sun visor down and slide the frame aside to reveal the mirror.
“Ass,” I hiss, working on untangling the multicolored strands from each other and resetting them. We slow to a stop at a light and I take the chance to regard my companion. I raise my chin and look down my nose at him, though I have to dart my eyes up to look beyond his smiling lips to his shining cerulean eyes. I stick my tongue out at him, crossing my eyes. He snorts and the car lurches forward again.
It takes half an hour of weaving through the city before we close in on a stretch of warehouses tucked into the side of a largely untouched area that is somewhere between hilly and mountainous. When we finally stop I am quick to exit the car, stretching my arms into the air. My spine pops loudly enough that I can see Jero look over at me, a slight frown darkening his face. I wave a hand absently in his general direction, closing my eyes against the lowering sun. His footsteps crunch down on the gravel that litters the ground. I blink my eyes open and flash him a toothy smile.
“I think she is still mad at you,” Jero comments. I turn my attention to the warehouse we have stopped in front of. The building is large, three storied with wide windows on the second floor that allows for the sun’s natural light to shine in during the morning hours. The dark wood of the walls is drenched in shadow, and with the sun setting behind the building it is nearly impossible to make out any details. It is possible to see figures pouring from the front door and the blips of light signifying the laser sights of snipers being pointed in our direction. A quick glance down reveals one of those sights set on my heart. My eyes flicker over to Jero, and I scowl when I see no red held steadily over any part of him.
“Jero it is so good to see you again!” The booming voice from the third story catches my attention.
“I would say the same to you but the lighting does you no justice!” Jero calls back. Laughter rings from the voice’s source, a high, nearly shrill, laughter that lasts far longer than necessary. My scowl deepens.
“I see you brought that brakan with you.” The word is spit so viciously I swear I feel it strike my face. I slowly raise one hand, keeping my other clearly visible to the many, many people with guns pointed at me, and wave.
“We are here to humbly request your aid,” Jero says loud enough for everyone to hear though his voice holds a weight within it. The low tones ripple through the area, gently appealing. I hear the shifting of the people in front of me.
“Oh?” her voice curls around the syllable, drawing it out. There is movement, cloth brushing against wood shortly followed by the thud of heavy boots on the ground. It takes only a few strides before Tiffany is standing in front of us. A woman with a distinct style, she often wears sleek outfits in brown and white that one would expect to see worn by a movie pirate. She is shorter than I am though her high heeled boots put her at my eye level. Her hair is wheat gold and far too long for my tastes though she has no difficulty keeping it out of the way in a braid slung over her left shoulder. Her grey eyes are a sharp steel that pierces through me as sure as the dagger I just know is hidden somewhere on her person. I eye the tightness of her clothing.
“What is it this time?” she asks. Her body is turned to Jero, all smooth curves and calculated angles, but she is looking at me with an arched eyebrow and painted lips curved downwards in a delicate frown mere seconds away from a sneer. I feel Jero watching me with soft eyes, pitying and understanding. I don’t acknowledge him, exactly, but I do turn to face them both. I rock back onto my heels and crack my neck.
“Misha was attacked.” I let the news sink in. Tiffany’s eyes widen then narrow. She whips her head back to Jero, searching his face before turning towards me entirely. She places her hands on her hips, fingers curling around the back of the sharp bones. The venom green of her painted thumbs stands out against the brown of her pants. She leans forward at the hips, bending so that she is forced to crane her neck to look into my eyes. Even though she has made herself shorter, she has never seemed so large to me.
“By whom?” she asks. There is a bite to her words that I have been on the receiving end for many times before, including now though it is not directed at me, exactly. I shrug one shoulder, darting a look away from her to the mass of people still milling about in front of the warehouse.
“What are you doing here then?” She demands. I sigh.
“We’ve been cut.” Tiffany straightens with a huff. I am watching her again as she slides a hand into the folds of her shirt and pulls out a long bladed, gold handled knife. She flips it around and hands it to me, fingers holding onto the hilt delicately. I take the knife with a nod. She begins walking back to the warehouse, crooking her finger at us from over her shoulder.
“I have a few extras that I am willing to loan you. So long as you give the bastard a good one for me.” I shoot Jero a grin and follow after the woman. I twirl the knife in my hand, whistling a butchered sea shanty.
The inside of the warehouse is dimly lit and crowded with both people and crates. Most of Tiffany’s guards are milling about, talking amongst each other in low voices. The soft din and the looks they throw us, furrowed brows and downturned lips, are uncomfortably familiar. Their weapons are still clearly visible, and the way they are set up makes certain that no one is within the line of fire of another. Tiffany leads us up two flights of stairs only pausing long enough to wave at the snipers that had their sights set on me a few minutes ago. When we reach the third floor Tiffany stretches her arms out at the multitude of weapon stands that litter the room. The weapons are intermixed amongst mannequins decorated with elaborate clothing. I blink, slowly turning my head to regard the smiling woman. I quirk an eyebrow at her, lips twitching downwards at her high laugh. She walks over to the nearest mannequin and runs a hand lightly over the vibrant woven fabric.
“What can I say, I have unique tastes,” she purrs. Jero huffs a laugh as he picks up a large, excellently preserved sword.
“Unique and illegal,” he murmurs. He holds the sword out in front of him with one hand. The sword is nearly as tall as he is, more blade than hilt and thick on top of that. Even still his arm does not shake. Tiffany gives him an appraising look with hooded eyes that roam over my companion’s body. She licks her lips that are curled up in a slight grin. I roll my own eyes and walk further into the room. The variety of weaponry surrounding us is unsurprising; from swords and shields to axes, polearms, glaives, and a rather impressive warhammer. I pass a shelf of staves and pause, head tilting to eye the wooden weapons. There is an underlying current running from one of them. It tickles at my senses; a hum in my ears, a wavering shimmer in front of my eyes when I sweep them over the smallest staff. I reach out for it with a shaking hand. I startle, blinking the haze away from my eyes. My lips twitch downwards and I look at the hand now encompassing my wrist and preventing me from reaching the staff. I attempt to pull my wrist away, wincing when all I accomplish is a sharp stab of pain in my shoulder.
“I’m fine,” I grumble. I do not meet Jero’s eyes as my companion bends to search mine. He herds me away from the shelf and back towards the door. Tiffany watches us with wide eyes while hovering a few feet away. Jero releases my wrist only to place his hands on my shoulders. I roll my eyes with a huff and shrug him off.
“Seriously,” I insist. I lower my voice with a quick look over to where Tiffany is watching us before continuing. “I’m not so weak that even a mild enchantment is going to make me go nuclear.” Jero’s eyebrows raise as the rest of his face remains unnervingly neutral.
“Let’s just get some stuff and go. We have work to do,” I hiss. My companion nods and moves away to gather the weapons that had interested him. After he leaves Tiffany walks to my side, steel eyes narrowed though her voice is gentle when she speaks.
“Are you okay?” I frown, shifting from one foot to the other and looking everywhere but her and my companion.
“Fine,” I grumble. There is a brief moment of silence before she mutters something under her breath and I can hear her footsteps as she walks further into the room. I wander over to the wall and lean against it; tilting my head back until it connects with the wood. I take in a shuddering breath and let my eyes fall shut. The sounds of the other two occupants of the room fade from my senses.
In my mind’s eye I can see a pale Misha lying still with wide, unseeing eyes. Her black hair is splayed around her head, the silken tendrils twisted amongst themselves haphazardly. Startlingly dark against the blinding white of the world around her. The only other color are the pools of crimson blood stemming from a gash along her hairline and another across her stomach. Here her eyes are a glazed grey. A stark contrast to the vibrant green of fresh grass her eyes are in reality. Here she is unmoving while in reality she had been grasping at the wound over her stomach. Alternating between pressing down and fluttering away with a hiss of pain. Her mouth moved with broken syllables. In my mind I watch as she fades away. Leaving behind nothing but the pools of blood that have gone dark. The world clears into a single room, white painted walls reflecting the bright light of the single overhanging fixture. A bed lays in the middle of the room, sheets rumpled and stained.
When I open my eyes again the world is dark and silent. A chill runs through me and I burrow further into the heavy blanket covering me. The rough textile scratches my cheek. I grapple for the light sheet that had fallen to my waist in my sleep and grip it within my fists. Taking comfort from the strain of my muscles and the sting of my nails pressing into my palm. I exhale shakily and turn onto my side. My eyelids drift shut as I stare blankly at the darkness of the room. Inky shapes have begun to manifest by the time I feel my exhaustion overtake me. Swirls of shadow forming serpentine beasts that twist and coil around each other. I reach out blindly for nothing in particular. As I drift back into sleep my hand is caught and held delicately for a moment before placed back beneath the warmth of the blankets.