Collabrative fic between radioactive-joy and myself for Aredhel's prompt writing game.
Our prompt was: "Person A is an undercover cop and they get involved with Person B who they are investigating for the case, but they start to fall for them."
It was cold.
How could the world be on fire but still be so cold?
Run, his instincts told him. Get out while you can.
But there was nowhere to run. In a city of just under one million people, there was no place where Alec Davene would be safe. He supposed that, deep down, he had known all along that he would not come out of this alive. It was obvious to him that there were no places he could go in all of Etin where he could be free of the West Family Syndicate. When it was all said and done, there would be nothing to return to. Alec would be gone, another soul who came and went with little notice from the world around him.
It was a small price to pay for retribution. Ally deserved all of this and more.
She had been so young when they killed her. All her dreams were ended simply because she had decided that she would make a difference for her city and stand up against the criminals who preyed upon it.
God only knew how much he hated this city. This city had been the cause of every pain he had ever felt—every tear he had ever cried could trace its origins back to something that had happened because of this hell-hole. A man like him would have been expected to love Etin; why else would he risk his neck every day in an attempt to collapse the city’s premier oppressors? Alec’s mission sprang from love for his sister not for the city that had raised him. He owed Etin nothing, absolutely nothing.
The clock rang out, but he was already awake. He had been staring at the ceiling for a good hour. Alec was learning how to go without sleep; a person had to when nightmares kept them awake. How odd was it that nightmares and memories were almost worse than living the experience the first time.
Grumbling under his breath, Alec turned off the clock and sat up, ignoring the creaking of the cheap, springy mattress. Really, all he had wanted was a nap. Was that too much to ask? Apparently so. He glanced at the clock. It was a quarter till eight. At six o’ clock, after eating dinner with a particularly nice-looking blonde, he had tried to sleep for two hours. Alec chuckled to himself. It had been a good idea, anyway.
He had an hour to get to the club where he would meet his contact. For the life of him, he could not remember the girl’s name. Anna? Alena? Olive? Olive—that sounded right. He had to meet Olive. As he fixed his appearance in the smudged mirror, he thought about it. Olive seemed close, but it still wasn’t right. He ran the name over and over again in his head, trying out different variations until he finally recalled her name.
That was her name.
She was probably some shameless flapper; not that Alec disliked flappers… In fact, he definitely liked the whole “shameless” thing more than he cared to admit, but he had enough standards not to get involved with a member of the syndicate, no matter how low-level she was. Of course, she would end up being some half-rate hag with boils on her face. He was lucky like that.
He put on a fedora and buttoned his jacket before closing the apartment door behind him. He locked it, sliding the key into his wallet and his wallet into his pocket. Music was playing downstairs as he walked down the rickety wooden stairs to the lobby.
Mrs. Rhonda Dilber, the land-lady, was smoking while reading a book. She was an old woman whose affinity for cosmetics had earned her the nickname ‘Red Lips Rhonda’ upstairs—not that they ever called her that to her face. Alec was fond of her, though, and found her many quirks to be somewhat endearing. When he reached the front desk, he used the grin that had every lady—even old Mrs. Dilber—melt at his feet.
“Alec! You weren’t at dinner so I wasn’t able to talk about the rent—”
Crap… Not the rent… Alec offered a smile. “Mrs. Dilber, did you do something differently to your hair?”
The old woman beamed. “Why! I did actually! You’re the first person to notice.”
Alec winked. “I always notice you, Mrs. Dilber.”
“You’re too good to me, Alec.”
Alec glanced at his watch. “I’ve got to head out. Have a good night.”
Mrs. Dilber was still blushing when Alec slipped out of the apartment. It wasn’t that he didn’t want to pay the rent; it was just difficult these days. Since he had left the Etin Police Corps, his only source of income was the syndicate, and, because he was only a low-level bagman, the pay grade wasn’t very high. He had been living on little, enjoying few luxuries—well, maybe a date or two—in the recent days. He was a week behind on his rent. Luckily, he was on Mrs. Dilber’s good side.
Etin was always windy. It had do with the generator keeping the city afloat or something along those lines. He didn’t care. All Alec knew was: wear a jacket.
The apartments he lived in were about three blocks from the Silver Rod night club where he would meet his contact. He didn’t mind the walk. Sometimes, he enjoyed the solitude. There was a solace that came with being alone with one's thoughts. He passed through one block and then another. The jazz music of the Silver Rod could be heard now; it was known for its music being particularly loud.
He arrived early. Good. He had the advantage already. Ducking into the alley beside the roaring club, Alec leaned against a wall and lit a cigarette. He had a leather briefcase in his hand and his cigarette in the other. The smell of tobacco reached his lungs, and he sighed. There was just enough light from the streets reaching into the alley that he could see his watch now. Alivia would be here any minute.
In fact, he heard heels clicking on pavement.
Time was up.
She was here.
He saw her silhouette as she entered. Blast it! She was definitely not a hag. If the shadowy figure proved anything, it was that Alivia’s figure was…
Focus, Davene. Focus.
Oh, he was focused alright but not on the money.
“So, you thought this constituted as an acceptable meeting place?” Her voice was laced with sarcasm, but it was almost alluring—sultry.
“What’s wrong, love? Don’t you usually set up late night rendezvouses in dark alleys with men you’ve never met?” scoffed Alec.
Her humor was dry. “Only on Tuesdays.”
“I guess we should have done this yesterday.”
“I guess so.”
Alec chuckled and flicked his cigarette down, crushing it under his shoe. He stepped toward her, briefcase in hand. She did not back away from him as he would have anticipated, but she did stiffen—if her shadows were any indication. Alec was intrigued.
“Do you have it?” she asked.
“Then hand it over. It isn’t social hour.” Alivia’s voice held a hint of annoyance now.
Alec smirked. “It could be. Maybe when we’re done here…”
Alivia huffed. “Nice try, Romeo. Just give me the money and quit being such a smug little bastard, alright?”
Alec grinned. He had a feeling that he just might like working with his new contact after all. “Whatever you say, love.” He handed her the money. “The offer still stands.”
She took the briefcase and quickly examined the contents. Finding it acceptable, she nodded. Then, she glanced up at Alec. “Offer still rejected.”
Heels clicked on pavement.
A silhouette grew smaller.
Then, she was gone.
Alivia sniffed disdainfully thinking about it.
At the very least, he didn’t seem to be an awful fellow. Compared to most the scum she did dealings with at any rate. Of course, she supposed a buffoon of his caliber wouldn’t last too long, so she needn’t worry about him in the first place.
What she needed to worry about, really, was this dreadful location… She shivered slightly in the cold air as she walked. These alleyways were really no place to be at this time of night… Any fool knew that. And it wasn’t just because of the cold air.
The sounds of Etin at night were a juxtaposed chatter of revelry and misery. Jazz permeated the air like a heavy fog and laughter showered from every street like rain. But there was always a distant siren, dogs barking, cars racing along. Alivia’s heals clicked along like a metronome to this chaotic melody of the nightlife. If there was one thing that the darkness wasn’t, it was boring.
Sudden movement in the shadows proved this point, and Alivia gave a startled cry as a startled cat raced by her. “Damned beast,” she muttered, stopping for a moment to get her bearings.
“Lost, sweets?” an unpleasant voice, like the baritone of an ill-tuned piano purred from the darkness, and she stiffened at the unwelcome company. “You’re a bit small a thing t’be wandering ‘round this time of the night.”
She didn’t grace him with an answer, quickening her pace through the ally, but an arm reached out to stop her.
“Now, lass, don’t be like that,” another voice chuckled, matched by a burly form, eyes shining in the dark.
“Funny, I could say the same to you, sir,” she smiled poisonously. “Whatever you’re selling, I’m not buying, so I suggest trying elsewhere.”
“Fiery little dame, ain’tcha?” the other said, coming closer. She could smell his breath. Disgusting. “Can’t really expect much less from you, Patton.”
“Fan of my work?” she raised her eyebrows slightly at the recognition.
“As a matter of fact…” he grabbed at her hand, prying the briefcase from her. “Not much a fan of your lip.”
“Don’t worry. My bite is worse than my bark.” Her heart was thudding in her chest and she inched a hand toward her coat. If she could just keep them talking, keep them distracted… “Do I know you from somewhere?”
“You’re the uppity bit of skirt that works the books,” the other answered in his stead. “The boss likes to keep an eye on all his employees. ‘Specially the ones like you that don’t think you’re really one of ‘em.”
“I do business with the syndicate, I’m not owned by it,” she replied, voice steady. “Unlike the pair of you, I’d wager.”
“Careful, lovely, with that tongue of yours. Someone might be inclined to teach you a lesson,” one of the men hissed.
She slipped her hand inside her coat, reaching for her pistol. “You’re job has been to keep an eye on me?” she mused. “I think someone might be out of a job if they taught me a lesson.”
“See, the beautiful thing, sweetheart, is that the boss don’t trust you,” one growled, stepping towards her, and she stepped back, feeling her back hit against the wall. “Not over us. We’re loyal. You? You were bought in. We can say whatever we like about you, the boss’d believe it.”
“I doubt that.”
Alivia’s head snapped up. She hadn’t said that…
The man leaning over her looked back in surprise, a moment too late.
He was ripped away from her in a second, slammed against the brick of one of the buildings, head hitting the hard surface with a sickening sound.
The other began to run, confused and disoriented, but his assailant tackled him, punching him rather solidly, by the sound of it.
“I’d recommend thinking twice next time, mate,” the voice warned, low and deadly, standing again.
The now whimpering man scrambled to stand, running off with a fearful glance back, the briefcase abandoned.
“Miss,” her contact bowed slightly mockingly, offering the briefcase.
All the color that had fled from her face during her exchange with the other two men came back, and she was flushed, partly out of embarrassment, partly out of anger.
She snatched the briefcase from him and backed away, pulling out her gun and pointing it at him. “I’m sorry, did you think that was funny? Clearly I missed the punchline.”
He put his hands up. “Easy with the trigger-finger, love. I hear those things are dangerous. A ‘thank you’ would suffice.”
“I can handle myself,” she snapped, though she did lower the gun somewhat.
“You can make enemies by yourself, you mean,” he noted lightly.
She rolled her eyes, putting the pistol away and setting off again. “If I needed your input in my affairs, I’d have accepted your offer earlier. Now. If you’ll excuse me…”
“Your rudeness may certainly be excused,” he kept pace with her. “I’m still waiting for a ‘thank you.’”
She whirled around, glaring at him. “I am aware that it’s difficult, and you must have cotton in your ears, but do try to listen, you arrogant prick. I had that situation under control. What you did was unnecessary. I owe you nothing, especially not with your incessant need to try to make a fool of me. Good night.” She turned again, hurrying on into the night.
He blinked, surprised by the sudden outburst from the formerly cold and collected woman. “Wait! Love—Alivia,” he corrected himself, “I didn’t mean to be demeaning—wait,” he hurried after her.
She merely shook her head, going faster and leaving him in his tracks. “I will see you at our next exchange. As I said before, this isn’t social hour and that sentiment still stands.”
“I’m sorry!” he finally called.
She stopped in her tracks at that. An apology. How strange. The bagman. Apologizing. For stopping her assailants. The more she thought about it, the more absurd she realized it was. That wasn’t…that wasn’t how most these low lives in the syndicate were. Hell, he could just as easily helped them instead of her for a cut of the cash. It was the more attractive option, wasn’t it?
“What’s your name?” she finally asked, turning to look at him.
He stared at her a moment before a slow grin spread across his face. “Alec Devene at your service, madame.”
“Alec.” The smallest of smiles flashed across her face, but was gone in a moment. “Someday you’ll have to tell me why you were following me in the first place. Till then…”
“Persistence isn’t nearly as attractive as you think it is, Mr. Devene,” she admonished him.
“I know quite a few women who would beg to differ…”
“Then what do you need me for?” she raised her eyebrows. “Goodnight to you. I hope our next exchange is an improvement on this one.”
“Oh, I have no doubt of it,” he called after, watching her disappear into the shadows one last time.
Eighty-seven hours since he had last slept.
Alec’s mind was hazy. His stomach growled. He hadn’t eaten today, and it was nine o’ clock. All in all, it felt as if he were experiencing the mother of all hangovers.
He rubbed his fingers over his temples. A headache was forming now. “Wonderful,” he grumbled.
He was sitting in his car as he had done for the past three nights. His only companions were a mug of coffee that was no longer hot and a pair of binoculars. He was exhausted, but the stale coffee had just enough kick in it to keep him going.
It was Jimmie’s fault. Jimmie Bertinelli was the man who Alec was almost positive killed Ally. He had been in contact with Ally and even went to her house the night she disappeared. Since Ally would have never let a scumbag like him into her house; he had to have been her murderer. He had been watching Jimmie every night after Alec got back from delivering his packages for the syndicate. After three nights, it was time. He had to do this now.
The only problem was Alivia. She worked in Bertinelli’s office. Alec had watched her comings-and-goings. She left earlier than Bertinelli; they were both late workers, but Alivia seemed to have a pattern of leaving the office around eight. She had already left tonight. Jimmie was alone. It was his chance.
Alec got out of his car. He stumbled, feeling dizzy.
Eighty seven hours.
Reeling himself, he walked quietly into the brick building, only pausing to make sure no one was there. He slipped inside and looked around. Bertinelli’s office was on the third floor. His footsteps echoed in the empty stairwell, and Alec silently cursed. However, he took the first two floors with little problem and reached Bertinelli’s floor moments later.
Bertinelli’s office light was on.
Alec’s chest rose and fell as he thought of his sister.
It was now or never.
He knew that voice. Blast. Alec turned around. “Alivia.”
“What on earth are you doing?”
Every second he wasted meant Jimmie could get away. She wasn’t supposed to be here. For some reason, Alec didn’t want to involve her in this. He didn’t want to consider his motives about her. “I—I have a meeting.”
“In my building after hours?”
“Are you stalking me now?”
He opened his mouth to make some flirtatious remark but couldn’t think. His mind was hazy, and he was feeling dizzier.
“Alec?” Alivia’s voice betrayed some concern. “Alec, are you alright?”
“I’m fine,” he managed, leaning heavily against the desk. He just needed some coffee.
“You don’t look fine.”
Alec focused himself. The dizziness passed. It always managed to pass. Alec took a deep breath. “Well, I am. See? I’m as dashing as ever.”
Alivia rolled her eyes, her concern gone. “More like as arrogant as ever.”
Alec would have put forth more effort, but he just needed to talk to Bertinelli. “What are you doing here?” he asked.
“I left my purse at my desk.”
Alec nodded. “Alright, well, I’ve got that… uh…”
“Meeting,” Alivia supplied, obviously not trusting him.
He was botching this. “Right.”
Before she could say anything else, he ducked into the restroom and waited until he knew she was gone. This was not going according to his plan. Alec splashed water over his face. Even in the gray-white light of the bathroom he could see how much of a wreck he looked. Dark shadows bagged under his eyes, and he hadn’t shaved in days. When Alec exited the bathroom, Bertinelli’s light was off. Blast it! Alec took off running down the stairwell. He had to catch him before he went home.
He sped out of the office.
There he was.
“Bertinelli,” called Alec.
Bertinelli waved. Alec walked towards him. Everyone in the West Family syndicate were ‘as thick as thieves’. Well, Alec knew something else entirely. There was no honor among thieves.
“Al, what are you doing here so late?” asked Bertinelli.
“I wanted to talk to you, Jimmie.”
Bertinelli raised an eyebrow. “Alright, kid, shoot.”
Alec slid around Bertinelli and positioned himself in a place where he could easily stop Bertinelli from getting into his car. “I want to ask you if you knew my sister.”
Bertinelli paled. “Ally? Yeah, everyone did. She was a doll. I knew your dad too, and your mom… I know your whole family. Where you going with this, kid?”
“Did you see her, the night she disappeared?”
Another wave of dizziness washed over him. Irrational anger was rising within him.
Now, Bertinelli was looking downright uncomfortable. “Al, what’s gotten into you? You look like something a cat dragged in.”
“I asked you a question!” cried Alec.
Bertinelli glared. “Yeah, I did. What’s it to you!?”
All of his emotions, all of his anger, combined with a lack of sleep and his crashing from a caffeine high, exploded within him.
“You freaking bastard! I knew it!” Alec’s fist connected with his jaw bone. “You killed her. Blast it! You killed my sister.”
Bertinelli was out of shape on a good day, and even sleep deprived Alec could beat him in a fight. Still, the man threw a punch of his own. “I didn’t kill her, Al! That’s ridiculous!”
“Liar!” Alec threw himself onto Bertinelli. The two men fell to the ground. “You killed her!” Alec could no longer contain himself. Punch after punch connected with its target until he felt the monster inside him die down.
He stepped off and studied his hands. Who was he? What was he becoming?
Instantly filled with remorse, Alec bent down to offer assistance, but he found something much more disturbing than his own human nature. Blood was oozing from the back of Bertinelli’s head. On the way down, Jimmie Bertinelli’s head had hit the curb. Alec panicked and felt desperately for a pulse.
“Jimmie! Jimmie, come on!” He shook the man. “Oh, God, what have I done?” The words were whispered, barely able to escape him as a sob lodged in his throat. “Oh, God what have I done?” Alec repeated. “Jimmie…” Just one more shake. Surely.
He had killed him.
Tears streamed down Alec’s face. He was no better than them, really. Remorse filled him, and he felt like he would vomit. He hadn’t meant to kill him. Alec had never had any intention for killing him. All he wanted was answers, justice. A sound of agony escaped him as he buried his face in his hands. He was a dead man now. He had done the unthinkable.
Could God even forgive him?
Alec tried to reign in his emotions. He had to hide him. He had to hide him now.
Alec wiped his hand across his face, tasting the salt of his own tears on his lips.
Oh, God, what had he done?
Alivia made it about half-way to her apartment before deciding to turn back around, to her cab’s annoyance. To say Alec had looked disheveled was an understatement, and he was acting so oddly she was surprised she hadn’t smelled any alcohol on his breath. It wasn’t her duty to worry about him, but he had been at her place of work, and she decided that was reason enough.
It was suspicion, not concern, she told herself. What dealings could Alec possibly have with Bartinelli after hours, really? It had to be something personal, and that was an immediate red flag. She really oughtn’t to have left in the first place, not till at least confirming his appointment with Bartinelli, just in case.
The car pulled up to the curb, and she glanced up at the building. The lights were all off, as they should be. The business district was relatively quiet this time of night, buildings locked up and abandoned for the evening, and tonight was no exception. Everything seemed rather peaceful, really, and she was about to apologize to her cabbie, who was very nearly ready to double her fare, when a few loud sounds from the alley jarred her senses.
Throwing money at the driver, she left the cab, which immediately zoomed off, and balked at what she saw on the ground in front of her.
Crimson streaks painted the curb of the sidewalk, still fresh, judging by the color, and the occasional drip suggested that the body had been moved, very recently, towards the sound of the noises.
Drawing her gun, she followed the little trail behind the building, ready to deal with whatever situation presented itself to her. Or so she wanted to think. She had an aching suspicion that Davene was involved in this…
The sound of a quiet, muffled sob surprised her. Maybe whomever was assaulted hadn’t died, she thought to herself, wonderingly. But…no…wouldn’t they have gone for help? But still, that didn’t sound like it came from a cold-blooded killer.
That…if she wasn’t mistaken…was the voice of one Alec Devene, if somewhat unrecognizable behind the shock and grief coating the sound.
She turned around the corner, and, sure enough, there he sat, a shell-shocked expression to match the still more shocking sight of Bartinelli, propped against the wall, head bent as though he’d fallen asleep, if it weren’t for the telling signs of caked blood all over his head.
Alec’s head shot up at the sound of Alivia’s cocked gun.
“You have exactly ten seconds to explain yourself,” she struggled to keep the authority in her voice, jolted as she was by the scene. She really shouldn’t have left.
“I…” he looked at Bartinelli helplessly, as though he’d come back to life and explain the situation. “It was… It was an accident…”
“He… They killed my sister… I just wanted answers…” he didn’t sound like he was talking to her, really. He didn’t look like he was quite aware of the situation at all. “I hit him and he fell… He cracked his head open… Oh God… there’s nothing…there was nothing I could do. I killed him. I killed him just like they killed my sister.”
She lowered her gun. He obviously wasn’t a threat to her. “They’re going to kill you next, you know, for what you did to Bartinelli.”
“I’d deserve it,” he mumbled. “We all deserve it, really. Is this what this world turns you into? Monsters?”
“I’ve managed to make it without killing anyone so far…” she walked over to him. “If I tell anyone what you did, though, I might as well be killing you.”
“You’re rather trusting, assuming I won’t kill you for seeing this,” he looked up at her.
“You’re not a killer, present company excluded,” she glanced at her dead boss.
“Are you going to do it? Tell them, I mean?” his glance was wary.
“They’ll find out soon enough, no matter what you do. Bartinelli, for all his faults, wasn’t a terrible man, you know,” she added, slightly remorseful. “He was fair, if nothing else. I doubt he killed your sister. Killing isn’t in everyone’s blood. He was a business man. Killing wasn’t his work. Just like it isn’t our work. It’s a shame that his grave looks like it’s going to be a dumpster.”
Alec winced. “You don’t have much a heart, do you?”
“Enough of one that I’ll turn my eye for you. You have a vendetta against the syndicate, that much is clear. I don’t know what you’re planning, but you’re obviously not some mere bagman.” She sighed, shaking her head. “I’m not loyal to these people. I understand the things a person will do for family. But you need to clean this up and get out of here. I can’t promise that if I see you again I won’t blow the whistle on this underhanded operation of yours. You were my contact, after all, and I don’t want your affairs putting mine in jeopardy.”
He stared at her dumbly for a few moments, then slowly stood. “Were?” he repeated. “So I’m no longer your contact?”
“Likely the next time I see you, if at all, you’ll be a body in a ditch,” she frowned in distaste. “Get out while there’s a chance for you to live.”
“Are you implying you want me to live?” there was a touch of his playful tone back for a brief moment. “You’re an interesting woman, Alivia Patton.”
“A strangely generous one,” she corrected, turning away as he dumped the body.
“Thank you,” he squeezed her shoulder slightly, coming up behind her. “I know you’re averse to saying the words, but I’m not.”
“Just get out of here.” She didn’t glance back at him.
“Of course,” he nodded, starting to head off, but he swooned suddenly, the dizziness back.
“For God’s sake… How long has it been since you’ve slept?” Genuine worry coated Alivia’s voice, to both of their surprise.
“Ah…eighty-nine hours or so?” He steadied himself against the wall. “I’m fine…”
“Sleep deprivation does a killer make,” she muttered darkly. “Come. I’ll get you a cab. What’s your address?”
“I can take care of it…”
“Naturally, but you won’t at this rate.” She guided him out of the alley, hailing a cab and handing the driver a wad of cash to take him home.
“It looks like we’ll never meet on amiable terms,” she commented, helping him into the car.
“Oh, very minimally,” she pursed her lips. “I genuinely hope that if I see you again, you won’t have gotten yourself killed by then.”
“Kinder words I have never heard,” he chuckled, a bit of his humor back. “Goodnight, love.”
And with that, the cab sped off into the night.
Logic told him to get out while he could.
He needed to cut his losses and run for the hills before he ended up in a ditch, another neglected case on a detective’s desk from the Etin Police Corps. Above all else, this chapter of his life needed to end before his life was the thing being ended. Get out now, Davene.
But, he couldn’t. What if Alec had been wrong about Bertinelli? He was starting to doubt himself. He might have chosen the wrong man. Ally’s killer could still be walking around above the law, out of their reach. There was still so much to be done.
He was a dead man.
Fingers would quickly point at Alec. If anyone knew about his obsessive suspicions about Ally’s death, they would come after him with their torches and pitchforks. He was an idiot to stay in the game, but, if he didn’t play it, his sister’s death would never be avenged. So, he remained; he played. He would play till the last move.
Alec took a deep breath and stepped into the building which had been haunting his dreams for the last two days. Memories assailed him; flashes of regret threatened to choke him. His guilt was a noose after all. This was Bertinelli’s building; everyone was still confused to his whereabouts. Where was he? How long had he been missing? No one spoke the fears yet: was he dead? But, when they did, the entire West Family Syndicate would be on a vendetta to find out who killed their man. It would be a matter of time before Alec was discovered… and exterminated. Killing people—that’s what they did.
Apparently, that was what Alec did now too.
The guilt was maddening.
“Can I help you?” a nasal-voiced receptionist asked.
“I need this delivered to Miss Alivia Patton,” he said, handing the receptionist the envelope. He needed to play it cool. “Tell her it’s from ‘Romeo’.”
If the receptionist’s voice hadn’t been so grating; she might have been cute. “Why? Are you her fella?”
Alec winked. “Should I be?”
“Not if I had any say in it,” she said, batting her eyelashes.
He wrote down his apartment’s number on a piece of paper. “Call me.” Satisfied that she would no longer ask questions, Alec straightened. “Just make sure Miss Patton gets that note, love.” With a tip of his fedora, he departed.
Would she even respond?
He closed his eyes, allowing the wind to brush his face and ruffle his coat.
He could still see the note in his mind’s eye.
Meet me at the Silver Rod at 9:00. I will be at the bar. Come alone.
PS. I owe you one.
The truth was, he owed her his life. She could have gone to Frankie West himself by now, but she had chosen to tell no one what she had seen Wednesday night. It was Friday now, and he was still alive thanks to her. I definitely owe her one… In fact, I owe her everything. Now, he was asking for her help again, a risky move.
He had chosen the Silver Rod because it was a place of common ground for them, and, also because, if she chose to turn him in, he was going to need a hard drink. Alec hoped that a swinging and jovial atmosphere would soften her up. He knew it was far-fetched; as far as he could tell, Alivia Patton didn’t have a soft spot on her.
No, that wasn’t true.
He had to be fair, no matter how dangerous it was to his well-being.
The night that Alec had…the night he had killed Bertinelli, there had been a genuine underlying concern in Alivia’s person as she asked him if he was alright and how long it had been since he had slept. She seemed to feel some sort of distress about him, almost as if, deep down—perhaps deeper than either of them realized—she cared. Maybe, the icy vixen had a warm interior that she never let people see. Maybe, it had been there all along, begging to be revealed.
Or just maybe, Alec had not caught up on his sleep and was still a bit on the crazed side. That was probably more close to truth than any of his notions. It did not good to romanticize a woman he could not be with. In fact, it would only bring him grief. He needed to stop thinking about her that way and view her more as an asset in avenging his sister’s death than as a woman who he could come to have certain feelings for. What good were feelings anyway? What did feelings do but screw with a man’s mind? He just needed some more sleep; that was it. That was all it could be.
Alec ignored the jolt at the possibility of seeing her again.
It was just nerves. That was it.
He imagined how beautiful she had looked that first night in the alley when she had so firmly put him in his place.
Alec raked his hand through his hair.
Nerves. Definitely nerves.
She was a mad fool. That was the only explanation, she determined, once again braving the night chill. There was no reason for her to be meeting him again. She had told him as much during their last unfortunate encounter. She’d told him to get out of there while he still had the chance. It was sensible advice, and she supposed she couldn’t be very surprised if he hadn’t heeded it. He didn’t seem to be a sensible person.
So why was she going to that blasted club again? The question kept nagging at her, accusing her of something she didn’t want to admit to herself. There was no reason for it. She was curious, was all. She pitied him, was all.
So then, why did her heart leap suddenly in her chest when the secretary had given her that note, saying it was from ‘Romeo?’ Why didn’t she just tear it up? Why was her annoyance directed at the secretary’s obvious infatuation with Alec instead of with Alec himself? Pity and curiosity, she told herself again. Nothing more than that.
A slow, sultry tune was playing, she could hear it well outside the Silver Rod. No lively melody tonight, it seemed. She supposed it was appropriate. She stepped into the building, taking a moment to absorb the atmosphere, momentarily letting herself entertain the silly idea that maybe someday she might meet in a club like this for something not syndicate related.
Returning to reality, she spotted Alec at the bar, nursing a drink like it was his last meal. For all she knew, it was his last meal. An unfamiliar knot pitted in her stomach at this thought.
She wandered over to him, wordlessly sitting on the stool next to him, and he looked up, slightly surprised that she actually came.
“It looks like you took me up on my offer after all,” his lips curved into a sideways smile.
“You look much better on paper. Much more succinct.” She offered a small smile back. “Are you going to offer me a drink?”
His grin widened slightly, and he beckoned the bartender over. “A glass of your finest for the lady.”
“Whiskey with grenadine and a hint of lemon. No ice.”
“Whiskey?” he raised his eyebrow.
“I don’t know why I’m here, but it seems the kind of thing that calls for a stiff drink,” she shrugged. “Now. Why did you ask me here?”
“Not to just buy you a drink, sadly.” His remorse was not entirely in jest, and he looked into his drink thoughtfully for a moment. “I owe you quite a bit, Miss Patton.”
“The drink will suffice as payment,” she assured him, receiving the whiskey from the bartender.
“I’m glad… Because I’m going to ask you to do one more thing for me.”
She gave him a curious look. “What makes you think that I’d do something for you? Looking the other way and actively helping you are not the same thing.”
“Then why did you come here?” he asked, a slight smugness to his tone, the arrogant bastard.
“Curiosity and pity,” was her automatic response. She had told herself this so many times that it wasn’t difficult to say the same to him.
“How lucky I am that you could afford such emotions toward me,” he drawled. “Will you at least hear me out?”
“My curiosity can afford it,” she supposed. “I’ve already given you my time, after all.”
“You have access to information that I don’t,” he sighed, rubbing his temples. “I wish I had enough time to get around it all, but thanks to that…mishap of mine… I don’t. I need you to help me. I need you to find out if Bartinelli was really involved in my sister’s death… I can’t live with myself not knowing if her murder has been avenged or not…”
She sipped her drink, thinking about the situation. There really was no reason for her to help him. But then…that night in the alley, there had been no reason for him to help her either, but still he did. What hurt could it do to settle the fears of a doomed man? Oh, this was madness. All of it.
“What was her name?” she inquired after minute.
“Sorry?” he blinked, perplexed.
“If I’m going to help you, I’ll need her name,” she explained slowly. What was she agreeing to?
“A-Ally,” he stammered out after a moment. “She was a reporter… The last person I know that saw her before she died was Bartinelli. That’s why I thought he had killed her. You’re… You’re actually going to help me?”
“You took quite a risk if you thought I was more likely not to,” she observed.
“You were my only option.”
“You could have fled,” she pointed out. “I told you that you should have. You’re wasting a lot of time chasing ghosts.”
“It isn’t a waste. It’s righting a wrong,” he corrected.
“Chasing down death with more death, you mean.” She shook her head. “It isn’t going to end, you know. Once you take care of your sister’s killer, you’ll be next. And then someone else, and another someone, and another. That’s how it will be as long as the Syndicate is around.”
“Was that you trying to talk me out of sticking around?” His smile was back. She had to admit it was a nice smile. But that was beside the point. She needed to focus.
“It’s foolish, is all I’m trying to tell you…but…” she finally nodded. “I will help you. To the best of my abilities, I will help you.”
“Much more of this, and I might just think you’re in love with me,” he teased.
“Now that would be quite the feat, wouldn’t it?” she smiled dryly. “Oh, but I do think that receptionist at my office is in love with you, so you can settle for that particular consolation prize.”
“I suppose I could do worse,” he agreed. “But I could also do better, if you’d let me…”
“Ever the charmer.” Her voice was heavily laced with sarcasm. “If you want to thank me, you’ll learn when to stop.”
“I think I’m growing on you.”
“Like a tumor.” She finished her drink and stood. “I’ll contact you as soon as I find anything.”
He tsked. “So business-like. It’s as if you don’t realize you’re in a club.”
“Goodnight, Mr. Davene.”
“Goodnight, love,” he raised his glass towards her, and she rolled her eyes, hurriedly leaving the club. This was definitely more than curiosity and pity. Blast it all.
If she only knew how much she was tearing his world apart.
She had walked in with a look of resignation on her face.
At that moment, Alec knew it wasn’t good. Her message hadn’t sounded urgent, but there had been an urgency in her eyes nonetheless. Alivia had news about Ally’s killer, but if the look on her face had been any indicator, it wasn’t good news. Alec’s instincts were right; for the first time in a long time, his instincts were right, and it was about something he wanted so desperately to be wrong about. With all that was in him, he had wanted to be wrong.
“Bertinelli didn’t kill your sister, Alec.”
God only knew how much he had wanted to be wrong.
He had heard her next words as if they were an echo from a hundred miles away.
“He loved your sister; they were seeing each other.”
Bertinelli had been in love with Ally? And, a thought even more repugnant, Ally had been in love with Jimmie Bertinelli, the gangster? The idea was repulsive. It was like that moment when you took a drink expecting a nice, cold bourbon and ended up tasting lukewarm water.
Bitter and disappointing.
Alivia continued. “As far as I can tell, he was giving her information. My contact said that if it was just a matter of time before Bertinelli was taken out too. They were just waiting for proof of him being a rat.”
It was as if the entire world stopped, allowed Alec to process this information, and then sped forward, hitting him all at once. He had killed an innocent man… a man who had been in love with his sister. The first reaction he experienced was to fall onto his couch in his apartment and bury his face in his hands in desperation. There was this feeling of agony that bombarded him and left him breathless.
The guilt was renewed.
It strangled him.
“If not Bertinelli, then, who?” he asked, raising his face with a look of total brokenness.
“I’m not positive. I have a suspect, but I’m not sure I trust your methods of confrontation,” she quipped. Alivia sighed. “You need to drop this.”
Alec didn’t argue this time; all he could do now was nod numbly. “This has been my life for so long.” Chasing ghosts, she called it.
He had been in the syndicate for six months now. Six months of his life had been dedicated this, not to mention all his time as a cop looking for her killer before leaving the EPC. Now, he had to walk away. There would be no justice for Ally. How could there be? Even if he found his sister’s killer, he couldn’t turn him into the police. Pretty soon, he would be wanted as a murderer. He would be hunted by the police and by the syndicate.
“There’s nowhere to go.”
That little sentence, that insignificant combination of words strung together—it summed up his life so well.
Sensing his rising melancholy, Alivia sat beside him.
Alec watched her in his peripheral vision. “Thank you for risking your neck for me.”
“You owe me,” was all she said.
“Yeah, I do.”
Everything within him constricted. Alec sighed. Where would he go? What would he do? His mission for nearly a year came to a tragic end. Now, there was nothing left to do but run, and running was not in his nature. He had always been one to jump to action—to confront, but, these days, confrontation was only making it worse.
Confrontation had killed a man.
No, not confrontation… Alec—Alec had killed a man.
“He was innocent,” said Alec quietly. “I killed an innocent man. He was innocent, and I killed him.”
Alivia opened her mouth to say something, perhaps comforting, but she closed it and shook her head slowly. Alec understood what she didn’t say.
The thing was this: he could justify it all he wanted. He could say that it had been an accident—it had, but Alec should have never confronted Bertinelli in the mental state he had been in that night. He might as well have killed him with his recklessness. Bertinelli died for nothing. He had never deserved the fate Alec served him.
Why hadn’t Ally told him that she was seeing someone, especially someone from the syndicate? Even when he was a cop, why had she held that back from him? With these new questions came a feeling of hurt that his own sister hadn’t been able to trust him. Why not? What had he ever done to make her question him? He had been loyal to her from day one. She was his twin, after all; they stuck together no matter what, but there was so much wrong with this. Conflicted by revelations he almost wished he had not had, Alec felt the guilt wage war with frustration.
As always, guilt won.
“I would ask you if you were alright, but that would be pointless,” said Alivia.
Alec nodded. “Are we ever alright? How can we be on a hell-hole like this?’
“By not letting it turn you into a monster,” she said simply.
“Too late for that.”
Alivia placed her hand on his leg and squeezed, offering comfort.
It had a different effect. Something jolted up his thigh. Eyes on her, he covered her hand with his. When she looked up and met his eyes, a dormant part of him woke up. She had been consuming his thoughts for weeks now. When he woke up, he thought of those rare smiles of hers and when he went to bed, he thought of their conversations that always seemed to spark something in Alec. All of her attempts to put him off had had the opposite effect.
He couldn’t deny he was attracted to her. He never had.
But somewhere along the lines of then and now, it had changed into something more.
Alec slid his hand up her arm… tracing her shoulder and landing on her cheek. He guided her face closer as he lowered his own. There was a split second when his lips brushed hers that could only be described as bliss. She was startled, but then she did the most natural thing in the world and returned it. Alivia tasted like no one he had ever kissed before. Without a thought, he deepened the kiss and allowed himself to feel for the first time in his life what heaven just might be like. Heaven tasted like Alivia Patton.
When she was a little girl, Alivia dreamt often of being in love. She entertained childish notions of a prince in shining armor coming to take her away from this humdrum life. But she’d changed quite a bit since then. There were no princes in this world, no heroes. Love, too, was elusive, about as fictional as any of her other childhood wishes and stories.
Life had taught her quickly that love was a dangerous game. That it ended poorly with hearts dashed to pieces, unmendable. When she became involved with the syndicate, she learned that harboring even the slightest affection for another being was unwise. Her world had traded sunshine for the bleak reality of this corrupt city.
So how had this happened? How did that arrogant mess of a man manage to worm his way, even slightly, towards her heart?
For all the disdain she held at his advances, for all the trouble he had put her through, there was still something about him she couldn’t shake. He wasn’t a saint. Accident or no, he had killed a man. He was on a quest for revenge. He had lied his way into her world and completely turned it around. And maybe her morals were skewed, having been in that cesspool for so long, but somehow, none of it mattered. He wasn’t a bad man, or at least, hadn’t set out to be. He’d set out trying to right a wrong, hadn’t he? That made him the closest thing to hero she’d seen yet, even if a tragic one.
But this… Whatever was going on right at that moment, it couldn’t happen. She didn’t know how it had happened to begin with, but it certainly couldn’t be allowed to continue. It was like drowning, what he was. And everyone knows that if a body comes too close to a drowning person, all their flailing will end up taking them down too, sinking the both of them into their watery graves.
And yet, his lips were on hers, warm and inviting, and, sudden and confusing as it was, it was also exciting. Welcome, even, just to have some semblance of companionship after all this time. To not be alone, just for a moment…
But no. This couldn’t be allowed to happen, her reasoning fought with every other fiber of her being. Such things end in tragedy. They always had, they always would. And this was doomed from the start.
She put a hand against his chest, gently pushing him away. “I’m sorry about your sister,” was all she said.
“Yeah. Me too.” He looked like he was waiting for something. Some explanation or clarification. She had, even briefly, returned his kiss, after all. She really shouldn’t have.
“I should get going.” She stood, heading towards the door.
He grabbed at her hand and she looked back, surprised. “Thank you,” he intoned. “I really do owe you.”
“I’m afraid you have nothing to give me,” she pulled her hand away, ignoring the small spark the contact had given her.
“I could kiss you again,” he offered.
“I’m rather unsure why you felt a need to in the first place,” she objected. “I really hope you don’t believe that I helped you out of some misguided feelings.”
“Your motives are your own.” Was that slight disappointment in his voice? He really couldn’t have expected anything from her, could he have? No, she was just being as batty as he was. She was making this about her and it clearly wasn’t.
“I won’t let you use me to cover the pain of your loss,” she said finally, backing away from him. “I let you drag me into helping you because I pitied you. That’s all. You’re a dead man walking, Alec… I can’t let myself care about you, let you drag me any further along with you.”
A brief, humorless smile flashed across his face. “I deserve less from you, I guess.”
“Leave, Alec,” she pressed. “You still have a chance to try to get away from this.”
He gave her a sideways look. “If I didn’t know better, love, I’d say you cared.”
“I care not to get killed on your account, of all people. And I don’t wish death on you. That’s just human decency.”
“Human decency is very difficult to come by these days. I should count myself lucky.”
“I’ll see if I can confirm this suspect in regards to your sister’s murder,” she turned her back to him, hand on the knob of the door. “If for some reason you were daft enough to stay around another day or so, I’ll pass the information along. But that’s it, Alec. That’s all there will ever be between us.”
She waited for a response, but none came. She couldn’t blame him for not being his usual chatty self tonight. After all, he had found out very drastic news just now.
“Goodnight,” she finally said, walking out the door, not looking back. Always goodnight. She offhandedly realized she’d never seen him during the daytime. It made sense, really. Bad things always happened at night.
She left his building in a hurry, sparing nothing but a slight nod to that clown-faced landlady of his and wishing that things could have turned out differently. That he wasn’t so rash, that she hadn’t decided to help him. That she wouldn’t have to keep reminding herself that she didn’t care about him. She didn’t…
But she had returned his kiss. That was a mistake. She had tried and managed to succeed in hiding her increasingly confused feelings about him from herself, but somehow she hadn’t managed to hide it from him, not in that moment. She hoped he’d just do as she said and disappear. She didn’t know what she’d do if he ended up dead.
Oh God, what was wrong with her?
He had to pack quickly.
It wasn’t as if he had a lot of possessions, anyway. Alec heaved a sigh. Who cared if he had possessions? He had never been sentimental about ‘stuff’. He glanced at all his old pictures of Ally and boy-hood mementos. Okay, so I am sentimental. He packed his clothes into a suitcase with fraying edges. Even this suitcase was a thing of reminiscence; he had possessed it for years.
He was definitely sentimental.
There were some things in this more recent life of his that he did actually want to remember—or rather someone. He wished he had a picture or memento to remember Alivia by. As ridiculous as it was, he wanted to think of her when he was gone. He didn’t have anything to remember her by.
Except that kiss.
That kiss was engrained on his memory like a brand.
She was, after all, his ‘might-have-been’. Alec supposed that everyone had one. It made sense that Alec’s ‘might-have-been’ would be a beautiful woman who was most definitely out of his league. It wasn’t as if he hadn’t enjoyed every second of it. He had.
He would move on, but she had made a sort of medium of comparison for him. From then on, all the girls he kissed, and there would be more, would be compared to her. On a scale of one to Alivia Patton, how good of a kisser was this girl? If she hadn’t given him anything else, she had given him that.
“What the crap, Davene?” he suddenly exclaimed.
The last thing on his mind should be a woman.
Alec rolled his eyes and resumed packing. The sooner he got out; the sooner he could get to Port Urion. He could board an airship, start a new life, and lie low. After that, there were always other cities. One thing was true: he could never step foot back in Etin. If he did, he was a dead man. If he didn’t, there was probably still a fairly large chance of that happening.
Alec picked up his suitcase. He really could only take one bag with him. He needed to travel light so he could leave in a second if the situation arose. The situation most likely would arise some time… multiple times. Alec knew he needed to be prepared for anything.
It was time to get out.
He walked down the stairwell. He was going to miss this run-down old apartment building. It came with the territory of being sentimental. There would be no more conversations with old Mrs. Dilber; there would be no more dodging the rent. There would be no more dates with blondes picked up at bars. In other words, his life was basically over.
Well, he had always wanted to see the sky.
There were a few other cities far across the clouds. He could have a chance there. He just needed to run. For the first time in his life, there was nothing he could do but run. Was he coward? How could he be when he had tried every other alternative? His options had been exhausted. Now, Alec had to cut his losses and get out while he still could. Alec would settle down in another city. In the end, it would work out.
He had to believe that.
He had to believe that somehow it would be alright.
He opened the door and entered the lobby. Before he realized what was happening, he was approached, rather forcefully. It took him seconds to recognize his old friends, the men he had worked with back at EPC. It was rare for people to trust him after his dad’s past as a dirty cop, but these guys had somehow seen his motives were true. His old partner, Dave, had even supported him when he left the Corps to go deep cover in the syndicate.
Both men looked downtrodden.
“Al…” Dave sighed. “You’ve got to come with us.”
They had caught up to him. Alec blinked. “I do?”
“We found Jimmie Bertinelli’s body in a dumpster. Seeing how he was a suspect in the disappearance of your sister, we just have to ask you some questions.”
“Dave,” scoffed Alec, “I’ve been where you standing, it’s never just questions.”
Jameson bit his lip. “We don’t want to use force, Alec.”
“Excuse me?” This was ridiculous. “You guys know me…”
“Al, just shut up and come with us.”
Alec set down his suitcase, drawing the cops’ attention to it. Great, way to make yourself look completely guilty… which he was, but he didn’t want them to know it.
Alec watched as Jameson’s hands slid over the cuffs on his belt buckle. Alec’s palms began to sweat. He wiped them on his trousers, trying to focus on the present situation instead of the future difficulties that were about to mess this up. “To my girlfriend’s for the weekend.”
“Most guys have a drawer,” Dave said as he looked pointedly at the package.
Alec knew the best lies had truths in them. “Alivia and I—we’re still in the early stages.”
“You’ll have to give your girl a call, Al, because you’ll be missing dinner tonight.”
Alec took a long breath. “I wasn’t hungry anyway…”
With a heavy heart, he left his suitcase and followed Dave and Jameson. He knew this was going to happen. He should have been expecting it. Now, it was here, and, for some reason, he was surprised—maybe even a bit fearful.
Ready or not. Here it comes.
“I suppose I should be flattered.” Her voice didn’t betray the sudden drop of her heart from her chest. “You only get the one call.”
“I have no one else to call.” The voice on the other end of the line didn’t sound quite as at ease as it was pretending. This time, Alec Davene was in a fix he couldn’t get out of.
“I suppose I should be all the more flattered.”
“Well, I did say you were my girlfriend when they came for me. I had my suitcase, you know. Was heading over for the weekend.”
So he had been about to leave. Her heart grew heavier at this. Why couldn’t he have done it sooner? “Quite the sudden upgrade to our relationship,” she quipped instead of saying what was actually on her mind.
“I would have thought you’d call it a downgrade.”
“So is that what they think you’re doing right now? Talking to your girl?”
“Yeah. Don’t worry, love, just answering some routine questions about an investigation. It’s nothing serious. But they did say you probably can’t count on me being at dinner tonight.” There must have been someone in the room with him on his end.
“Weren’t you a cop? Isn’t there a way out?” There had to be a way out.
“Not through that route, not for me. But don’t cry on my account, love.” She rolled her eyes at that particular remark. “I’ll just have to stay around here for a little bit until the investigation is over. It shouldn’t be much to worry about, if they find I’m innocent.”
Of course, he wasn’t innocent. “I’ll be sure to cook dinner for one, then.”
“So I don’t have any rivals to worry about, then?” That he could still flirt from the confines of cell was beyond her.
“I think you have more pressing concerns.”
His end of the line went quiet for a moment. “I’m going to have to cut this call short, soon, love. They said they’d give me five minutes.”
“So I suppose this is goodbye?”
“Not our final one, I hope.”
“I thought near every goodbye from you thus far would have been your final one. But you haven’t managed to get yourself killed yet. It’s impressive, I grant you that.”
“Yeah, well, don’t expect much, love. My luck has just about run out, however little I had.”
“I’ve never expected anything from you.”
She heard him chuckle. “You never let up, do you? I think I might miss that, when all is said and done.”
The resignation of the statement was more awful than anything else that was said before. He didn’t seem the type to be resigned. Which meant…There was nothing he could do to get out. His resources were worn dry. Except her, she supposed. She could do something. She shouldn’t. But she could…
No, this wouldn’t be their final goodbye. Not if she could help it. Not if she could do something about it. Jail was just prolonging his inevitable doom. If he wasn’t executed by the courts, he’d be executed by West’s men. He was just a sitting duck. And how could she let him rot in there, waiting to die? To hell with reasoning and implications; she wouldn’t be able to live with herself if she let that happen.
There were crooked cops that could be bought, weren’t there? But then… Buying his freedom like that, that was as good as confessing to being his accomplice. Not that she was an accomplice…or was she? She had kept his secret and found information for him. She was far more involved with this than she should be.
Well, if one thing was true about Alivia, it’s that she never did anything halfway.
“You were in the police force, weren’t you?”
“Why the sudden curiosity?”
“I don’t know if you have any friends there, or if you ever did, but there must be someone there who is willing to play that part for a price. I need a name.”
“What?” There was a definite surprise in his voice. “Why would you do that?”
“I’d hate to think that I went to all that trouble of helping you before for nothing.”
There was another silence on his end of the line for a moment. “I have to go. My time is up.”
“I need a name.”
Another moment passed, till, finally, he uttered a name that very well could end up being that of his savior. “Be careful,” he added. “That’s one last bit of advice before I say goodbye.”
The line clicked in finality, and dread settled over her. That couldn’t be their last goodbye.
She went into her bedroom, feeling under her mattress for the wad of cash she kept in case of emergencies. Didn’t this constitute as an emergency? At the very least, it was an emergency for her sanity. Rashness was not in her character, except for now, it seemed. She was certainly acting the part of a fool, but she didn’t care to deny it much anymore.
She shrugged on her coat, pocketing the cash into her wallet, and headed out. She had an urgent meeting to schedule with a certain police officer, after all.
Alivia Patton always found a way to get what she wanted, and what she wanted most at that moment was for Alec to live. Besides, he owed her a great deal. And how could she collect on that debt if he were dead? After all, she had finally realized what he could do that she wanted in return.
She wanted him to take her with him.
“Looks like you’re happy to see me…”
“I am happy to see you.”
“You say that now… but you will be…”
He could still see Alivia as she visited him at his cell. The hordes of grotesque inmates whistled and hollered at the sight of a beautiful woman walking down the hall. Alec had thought it was too good to be true, almost as if it was impossible that Alivia would give him another chance. Then, he saw her.
He needed to focus on the task at hand.
Alec tipped his hat lower, keeping his head down as he sneaked through the murky streets of Etin. His oldest friend Russell had taken Alivia’s motivational payment and helped Alec. During a trip to a new building, Russell had staged Alec’s escape, shooting himself in the arm and taking a punch as Alec slipped out of the back of the truck and into the night. When the old truck was found, it would look like Alec attacked him. He would never be able to come back to Etin, but, at least he was free. At that moment, that was the most important thing in the world to him.
Now, Alec’s only chance was to run for the sky, and, finally, he was taking it.
He could never—would never—look back.
“There’s only one way this will work, Davene.” Her words echoed in his mind, prompting him to go faster. He wanted to see her as soon as possible.
Ignoring the putrid smell of mold and old tobacco, Alec walked through the abandoned alley; his loafers splashed in puddles of murky water. The familiar sound of sirens reverberated through dank passages. It gave him a sort of paranoia now; he was looking over his shoulder, terrified that something would go wrong. He just needed to make it a little farther. A chill swept over him… just a little farther.
“Alec… I’m coming with you.”
His shock had been evident when Alivia had made this unexpected declaration. “You are?” Almost immediately, he had shaken his head. “No, you can’t. It’s too dangerous.” Above all else, he wanted her safe.
“You heard me. I’m coming with you.”
She cared for him. Somewhere, deep within her, Alivia cared for him.
The relief he experienced could sustain him for an eternity. At first, he had wondered why he wanted to be with her so badly. He wondered why her declaration had filled him with more joy than he had felt in so long. He wondered why the thought of living life without her seemed to be a miserable prospect—almost as if he wasn’t truly living unless she was there.
Then, it hit him.
He was in love with her.
Now, he just needed to make it to the rendezvous point where Alivia was supposed to meet him. Their plan was to stowaway on an airship and make it to New Talyan, a neighboring city with a different government—a different way of life.
A new life.
“Why?” Alec had asked. “Why do you want to come with me?”
“I’m an accomplice now. They’ll take me down when they can’t get their hands on your sorry hide.”
“Is that the only reason?” At this point, there had been no reason to try to hide the disappointment, or the fragile hope, from his voice.
Alec could still see the look she gave him, the way her eyes showed her thoughts. She had been so captivating. “I think you know it’s not.”
That was all he had needed. Nothing needed to be expounded upon. An understanding passed between them. Alec’s hands had slid through the bars and taken hers. It wasn’t until that moment that he realized his had been shaking. He was unaccustomed to his own fears, but, with her help, he could survive. He could face them; maybe he could beat them.
“I spoke with our mutual friend.”
Alec wasn’t paying attention to her words; he was making circles on her palms. He was concentrated on the softness of her hands.
“Stop that!” Alivia cried, swatting his hands away.
“You like it?”
“Only you could choose right now to flirt with me… Look. Be serious. Just be careful, alright? Everything will go down tomorrow… Just… be careful.”
Now, Alec could see the flickering of the street lights as Port Urion came into view. Hundreds of dormant airships were lined up at the port, waiting to travel the skies and see the world. He was not in the clear yet, but, if he played his cards right, he would be in an hour or so. In an hour or so, Alec would free—Alec and Alivia. Just a fifty more yards…forty…thirty—he could see the ship now.
Where was Alivia?
“Alec,” she whispered from behind him.
His heart thudded. She had made it. Part of him had questioned the entire time whether or not she would go through with it. Alec sighed in relief and turned to face her. Memories of their first meeting greeted him as he saw her moonlit silhouette once more. This time, she had a suitcase. This time, they would not part ways.
This time, they both got what they wanted.
What he wanted was her.
“Livi,” he breathed. Desperately, he cupped her face and kissed her. “Don’t pull away. Not this time,” he begged as he kissed her.
She responded, obviously needing him as much as he needed her. If Alec had enjoyed their first kiss, this one blew the other out of the water. It was as if Alivia had been made for him because she fit so well against him. He reluctantly pulled away but kept his forehead against hers.
“I was afraid you wouldn’t come,” said Alec.
“I know.” He kissed her forehead and stepped back. “I’m glad… I’m just really, really glad.”
It wasn’t an ‘I love you’, but it was as close as he could go until he knew she was ready.
He hoped that would be soon.
There was a moment when Alivia finally stopped questioning her own motives, her own sanity. She finally gave herself the chance to once she was certain they were safe. They had sat up all night, holding some sort of vigil, waiting for something, anything to go wrong.
Somehow, absolutely nothing had gone wrong, and the relief, the thought that they had managed to leave, was so very overwhelming. A burden that she didn’t realize she had been carrying was suddenly removed. Well, not entirely. There was one last stone to turn.
She looked at Alec through her lashes, watching the first rays of morning light stream into the airship and onto his face, realizing that this was the first time she had ever actually seen him in the day time. It suited him nicely, this morning light. It had a nice way of catching a glint in his hair, making it shine gold.
“Did you want to know?” she finally asked, breaking the silence they had been sitting in for so long, voice strangely hesitant, reluctant to discuss the world they had so recently escaped. “The name of your sister’s killer, I mean. I told you I’d try to confirm it.”
Maybe it wasn’t something she should have brought up. This was a nightmare of a world they had just escaped, after all, and it was probably best buried in the past where the dead belonged. But it wasn’t her secret to keep. It was the answer to an eternity of work for Alec that had been dashed. If he couldn’t have retribution for his sister, perhaps this knowledge could at least give him some form of closure. He’d been through so much, lost so much. Didn’t he deserve this, at the very least?
“And so then, you actually managed to confirm it?” he finally asked, expression unfathomable as he stared out at the sky.
“I said I would and so I did.”
He smiled slightly, bringing her hand to his lips. “I couldn’t expect anything less from you.”
“I wanted to help you.” Why did she do anything, these days, if not for that reason?
“Yeah.” He gave her a look then, one she couldn’t quite interpret, but it was one that made her blush ever so slightly, to her own confusion. “You’ve done a lot for me, love. Do you think it at all possible that you could let me ask you just one more thing?”
“It shames me to admit I don’t think I could turn anything you ask for down.” She looked at him in expectancy, waiting for whatever wish he could possibly have.
“Then forget that name.”
Confusion jolted through her at the finality of the statement. After everything, he wanted to just… “Forget it?”
“You told me once that I was doing nothing but chasing ghosts, death with more death. I’m beginning to see now… You were right. Ally…” a subtle grief snuck into his voice, “I don’t think I’ll ever get over that. Some things can’t be forgotten or forgiven…but…” he squeezed her hand lightly. “I don’t think I have to spend any more of my time looking back. Not when I finally have a future ahead of me.”
She glanced down at their linked hands, then back at him. “That’s a gamble of a choice…” she warned. “The future is notoriously uncertain, and we’re heading straight towards it with no chance of turning back.”
“But somehow, it’s also much brighter,” he smiled again, and put an arm around her.
Her heart fluttered slightly at the hope in his voice. Far too recently, that voice had been one of a man resigned to his fate. She didn’t quite know what she felt for him, not really, or maybe she was still not ready to admit to herself that she could feel anything more than slight affection towards this man, but she supposed she could call this something akin to love.
It had to be, by now. She couldn’t keep fighting her own reasoning, questioning her judgment, her emotions, everything. She’d thrown away her old life for this man. This man that got under her skin so easily, that infuriated her, that always acted so rashly, and, apparently, that infatuated her. If that wasn’t love, what was?
“How did we get here?” she asked after a comfortable silence. “There are so many reasons we shouldn’t be here. It seems so implausible.”
“If things went the way I imagined them from day one, I would be dead and you would be an ugly hag.” His slight, lopsided smile betrayed some sort of joke.
“And yet you went through with it all.”
“Yes, well. You weren’t an ugly hag.”
The over-simplification of their history was too much, and something within her bubbled over, a light tittering of laughter managing to escape from her, to Alec’s surprise.
“You can laugh?” The disbelief in his voice made her laugh all the harder.
“I think I forgot how…” she managed between giggles, “Does it usually hurt your sides?”
“Only if you’re doing it right,” he chuckled lightly along with her, pulling her closer. “You’re much softer a person than I gave you credit for.”
“I think…wherever we’re going, I’ll finally have a chance to be.” She kissed his cheek in a show of affection that surprised herself. “Thank you. For giving me that chance.”
He returned her kiss with a real one. “Thank you for giving me a second chance at life.”
“Yes, well…” She blushed slightly again. It had been so long since she last let her guard down. She had spent so much of her life dodging her own emotions, denying them from herself. But suddenly, they were all bubbling up from deep inside of her, sneaking out from where she had hid them so well that she’d managed to have forgotten about them. “I—I... I think I might just love you, a little bit.”
She couldn’t look at him. She hadn’t been able to fully realize it herself until she had said the words out loud, and she instantly regretted it. She couldn’t pretend otherwise anymore. She’d stripped herself of her calm, cool façade.
“Livi…” She looked up at the sound of him saying that affectionate name again, a twinge of surprise in his voice. She had thought he was merely caught in the moment when he had said it before. “I think I might just love you too… More than just a little bit.”
She stared at him in stunned silence for a while, rendered speechless. It shouldn’t have been so surprising, she supposed when she thought of their conversations before. But a small part of her, the jaded part of her that had controlled her life for so long, had insisted that it was all a ploy. That once he was free, he wouldn’t need her anymore and she’d mean nothing to him. But for once, that part of her was wrong. Completely and wonderfully wrong. She didn’t quite recognize herself.
“I think…I wouldn’t mind if you loved me more than a little bit,” she finally responded.
She’d never felt happier, that she could recall, before she heard those two words.
“Me too.” The words were barely over a whisper, but she meant them with every fiber of her being.
Everything was going to be alright.
After everything they’d been through, it was going to be alright.