Hunting the Hunter


I'm not bad, I'm just drawn that way...
One of the benefits of running a shadow corporation, as far as Ravyn had always been concerned, was the ability to run nearly everything from the comfort of her home office, while wearing yoga pants and a cashmere cardigan. Legs tucked underneath her, she tucked an errant curl back into the loose knot at the nape of her neck, and took a small sip of her tea. January meant end of year reviews, and while she had an army to do it for her, she’d always insisted on reading the conglomerate reports herself. For the most part, her empire was run by mortals…necessary, but it meant a tendency to focus on the next 10 years, as opposed to the next 100, or the last 100 for that matter. The history mattered – she didn’t own some of the oldest couture houses still in existence, and nearly all of the remaining original perfumers, out of sentiment. Those who had the money to afford that kind of quality rarely deviated from the names they had inherited along with the wealth and status that defined them.

Reaching for the phone to remind someone why it was that they would not be changing the receipt for Aqua Miribilis again this year, she was momentarily thrown off guard when it rang in her hand. The list of people who had her direct business line was short, purposefully so. Glancing at the number, she slipped into perfectly accented French “Oui?” Her Paris liaison did not call for trivialities.

Madame, excuse me for interrupting you – but we have had an inquiry. Twice this week, someone has called looking for information on our holding company here. They have contacted two of the major houses – different people, different numbers – but the same questions. I thought you might wish to know.”

She sighed. This happened from time to time. “A rival house, you think? Someone wanting to buy out those houses in particular…which ones? – I assume you have inquired in return.”

“Gucci and Saint Laurent. We have. Security cannot connect them to another house – indeed, they cannot connect them to anything. Whoever
is asking is hiding in shadows.”

This is why she needed to maintain an active presence. No-one but her knew just how extensive her network was. She could not ask Paris if Milan and New York had received calls…they did not know she had business there, although she was sure they suspected. She took another slow sip of her tea, mind ticking through possibilities. “Merci. For now, do nothing – send me what information you have and I will see what I can find. I may send someone to inquire further. Bonne nuit.”

She did not listen for pleasantries, disconnecting and redialing from memory. Milan next – nearly an identical conversation, although the language differed. The same in St. Petersburg, although she had only recently established a presence there, and in New York, and London- someone had been contacting 2, sometimes 3, of her holdings, and blatantly inquiring as to who owned them. The houses themselves had answered in the only way they knew – only the upper echelon at any of them knew that they were even owned by a holding company at all, let alone that those companies were held by others, and still others. And the number of people who knew that she sat at the center of that web, never mind just how big the web truly was – those she could count on one hand. Inquiries at one or two happened all the time…this seemed too many for coincidence.

With a sigh, she abandoned her tea, as her tablet dinged alerts – the information she requested arriving almost instantaneously. She was suddenly aware of how quiet the penthouse was…Zeke had been away for a few days, and the Varakov’s had dispersed to her various properties. Well, she had intended to leave in the morning to deal with what had seemed a minor emergency, the timing more of an excuse, since Cranston had been called away on business… and, truthfully, an escape. Her empire had always been one place she felt entirely in control, and a perfect way to focus herself – to shut away the emotions she had very little idea what to do with, or about. Business was just that.

Her mind already switched to cold calculation, she grabbed her tablet in one hand and called Varakov with the other. “Change in plans, I’m leaving tonight. I’ll be in London in an hour. I think it’s time I check in with everyone.” Clicking the phone off, she moved to her bedroom to pack – she’d take the portal this evening. Time enough to address just how far back these oddities stretched when she arrived at each office. Until then, she would refuse to even consider any options other than corporate rivalry.


I'm not bad, I'm just drawn that way...
With an audible beep and a click, the doors to the Penthouse released, allowing her to step back into her domain for the first time in a week. The necessary renovations had kept her moving for most of the last month - which had given her ample time to track down those pesky inquiries.

Blinking rapidly - Em wasn't kidding about how much the bio-scan set-up had stung - Ravyn stepped away from the scanner to push open the door, breathing a deep sigh of relief as she moved down the hallway into her newest, but already second favorite home. Emerald green eyes scanned over walls, noting that not a picture was out of place - in fact, had she not known the extensive alterations to the space, she never would have guessed anything at all had changed. Light poured through the windows, warming the greys and blacks that colored her living area, and seeming to highlight the black binder she knew Varakov had left on the coffee table. Leaving it for the moment, she moved through the not-quite silence...there was a barely audible hum that hadn't been there before...and headed toward her bedroom - her inner sanctum even here. What she needed, well - that might take a while - but a hot shower was an excellent place to start.

Leaving her bags just inside the Closet - and taking a quick glance around to make sure everything was as it should be - she quickly stripped, and moved into the bathroom, noting with pleasure that not only had the settings on her shower not been tampered with, but the towel warmer was filled and waiting for her. A quick press of a button, and the shower jetted to life, Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries" thundering through the speakers...with a soft, secret smile, she let the water flow over her, washing away the last few weeks and letting her mind drift.

Clean and refreshed, she stepped out of the glass-enclosed spa, just as the music ended for the second time...grabbing a black plushy bath towel from the warmer, she wrapped it around herself, squeezing the excess water from her hair, and moving into the closet. Dressed in her usual yoga pants, tank top, and cashmere cardigan, she slipped in to a set of suede slippers, and headed back out to the living room to address the intimidating binder. But first, tea - her sojourn to the Red Dragon Inn had introduced her to the local tea house, and she'd picked up some of their chai before heading home. Kettle on, she grabbed her tablet to send a brief message to her liaisons "Inquiries harmless, if strange. Possibly a red herring, please keep me apprised if suspicious activity continues. As always, thank you for your dedication and hard work." Tea prepared, she curled onto a couch with the binder, and scanned through it with inhuman speed.

The Penthouse was now equipped with biometric locks, as well as intrusion sensors in the elevator shaft, and surrounding every possible entrance to her floor - given the companies reputation, and Varakov's eye for detail, she had no doubt they'd caught everything. In addition, the entire floor - walls, doors, windows, etc, had been replaced with impact and magic resistant materials that would block not only incoming spells, but keep the Penthouse safe from scrying or astal sight. The air filtration system had been upgraded to clear any possible contaminant. The entire penthouse - air, security, music, temperature, etc could all now by controlled by remote, either from the Penthouse itself, or by Varakov or herself by phone. She had no doubt GPS trackers had been integrated in all of her devices and vehicles - and to top it all off, both her suite and the Varakov's apartment were now 'safe rooms" immediately activated by the triggering of any alarm. Everything that could be thought of to keep the Penthouse secure had been installed, and was in the process of being installed at all of her other residences.

She thought it all a bit extreme, but if it kept Zeke and Varakov happy, she'd let it be. She had put her foot down on the tracking jewelry, and the bodyguards - there was secure, and then there was ridiculous. Personally, she thought it all a bit much - but if her years had taught her anything, it was that sometimes, men needed to be humored...


I'm not bad, I'm just drawn that way...
Four days. Four times the light of dawn pierced the shaded veil of his penthouse, four times the stars poked through the curtain of darkness. Throughout all of it, all he thought to do was suffer the taste of brandy. Sarnoff had been given the week off, at least. Once again, he stared at the tiny screen that held a caring message, and finally decided it needed answering. Half an hour later, he'd dressed in casual clothing and stepped through the portal, already tapping out a terse response.
'She's gone' was all the message read. But it was a touch of a start in the right direction.
This was too much for mere texts. Frustrated with himself, frustrated with the situations branching out from this event, he stood on the other side of the portal and simply hit the dial button.
She'd fled RhyDin 2 days prior - after Emer's announcement, and the lack of response from him - she'd no idea what had happened, but had dealt with the exquisite pain of it the only way she knew how. A night and then some of stalking the seediest parts of Venice - her humanity stuffed down as far as she could hide it, as she moved from victim to victim. She'd never even noticed that she wandered through the same alley they had been almost-mugged in on the last trip. She certainly never noticed the cameras that tracked her - either night. Tonight, she'd packed, ready to leave for Milan - the business never stopped, and she preferred the night for driving. As she threw her bag in the back of the convertible, her phone gave a distinctive tone - with a deep breath, she slid it from her bag, and immediately tapped out a reply "I know. She told me - what happened??"
Slipping into the driver’s seat, the bluetooth connected as the engine roared to life and she streaked into traffic. "?" whoever was on the other end could likely hear the engine in the background, as well as the occasional horn or squeal of tires as she raced through Venice traffic. Given the timing, she could guess who was calling without looking at display, but time zones being what they were, it never did to assume.
"I got her to shift, told her to tell me the truth of things ... and knocked down a building." No inflection in the voice, he sounded flatter than an unfortunate animal left three days on the freeway. "After that ... we agreed. I'm too dangerous. I'm ... too uncontrolled."
Swearing under her breath "I thought that was you...What truth? At least she's human, and can speak ... You ...agreed? To what? For All the Seven Hells, Cranston, da - of course you are - that's why I thought we agreed...." no-one should be able to make it out of Venice as quickly as she had. But open road had been reached, and the purr of the engine crescendoed as she really let the Maserati loose.
"I knocked down a building, darling. Because it was either that ... or implode. I can't seem to control myself anymore."
She paused before answering him, her heart lurching at the endearment, cracks running like lava flow through the control she'd clamped down "It's only been a little over a soon? Not that..." she shook her head, not that he could see it...this was not the time "You're always worse when you're upset...what did she say?"
"We said a great many things. Not all of them were pleasant." The plastic of his phone creaked ominously, as he took a seat near the portal's edge, just on the ground.
She heard the creak, biting her lip as she pushed the car still faster - 15 minutes out of the city, and she was damn near leaving flames behind her "And so she's just...gone? After everything - DAMMIT!" there was a squeal of brakes as the road turned red in front of her "Why the HELL is the A4 closed???"
"She went home. That's all I know. She left her rubies behind." There's a thump of flesh on concrete as he sent a fist careening toward the wall, but without any real potency behind it.
There was silence as she let that sink in, followed by the hint of a growl as she sent the supersport into the shoulder to careen around traffic and onto the country roads she hoped would get her away from it...distracted - hurt, sad and angry, she gave no thought to the black SUV that followed her "So she just ...walked away. To abandon her collar like that..."
"We agreed she should go. To keep her alive. And what the hell do I know about collars and behaviors? I can't even get my own emotions to behave!"
One hand on the wheel, she keyed up the GPS to direct her around the insanity to her Milan residence "We had a plan to keep her alive...I thought. So we - we gave all that up for nothing?" Dirt roads were not meant for the speeds she drove, but she took them as fast as she dared... "Seven Hells, Cranston - I don't understand any of this - Emer's gone, and we - what have we done to ourselves???"
This time the crack of flesh on stone sounded much louder as he put some real effort into it, leaving a spiderweb behind. "I don't know. I don't know what we've done."
Skidding around a curve in a cloud of dust, she missed the first drops of water as they steamed against the hood "And you think I do? Hells Bells, darling ... how could she do this?"
" ... because I asked her to." Another quiet response.
"Because you...." a droplet hit her nose and she cursed. She'd have to pull over - the last time she'd tried to raise the canopy at 75, the car had been in the shop for weeks and she'd gotten all sorts of hell from Varakov. She jerked the car over and to a stop, hitting the canopy control and stepping out of the car to pace - too emotional to sit still "You asked her to - and she she could be safe.." her voice rising slightly, she stalked across the pitting dirt, utterly oblivious to her surroundings "So where the hell does that leave us?"
"I have no idea. Is this what love does to people? Is this what pain is?" Cracks started to form in his voice.
"Darling -" she bit her tongue "I have no idea - yes, maybe - " fighting back rising fear and anger, she hardly noted the faintly menacing vehicle approaching, hissing into the phone "I shattered everything I thought I knew to be with you, so you could keep her safe - and it wasn't enough. Four days..." a voice drew her attention, barely audible through the phone "Mi scusi, signorina - è tutto ok con la tua auto?"
"She did it because I told her to go. Would you?" The growl slipped into his voice inadvertently as he came up to his feet, staring into the screen of his phone.
She hardly spared a glance at the origin of the question "Bene, bene - basta alzare la vela" her voice grew harsher, raw with barely suppressed emotion "Leave you? To save myself? No. Not in a thousand thousand years - not if you incinerated me yourself. I would stay and fight - for you, for us..."
"And what would that do? What purpose would that serve?" Another smack of skin to stone brought a snarl, as a patina of crimson stained the cracked stone from split knuckles.
It was a symptom, perhaps of how distracted she was, that she did not notice the man approach - notice the men approach, until he was next to her - his voice loud enough, and close enough, to be picked up by her headset "Sei sicuro? E 'molto pericoloso qui .... nessuno avrebbe sentito se si urlato ..." with a sudden movement, something swung at her face, connecting across her temple and cheekbone with a thud and a sharp cry - weakened as she was by strain and an impaired diet, the blow sent her to the ground and into blackness.
"Ravyn?" Cut off mid-tirade, he whirled on his foot and scowled into the phone. "Ravyn? Ravyn?"
The sounds of a scuffle, and a different voice...male and impersonal, came through the phone "È il Fantasma?"
What had begun to crack under the strain of emotions went dead silent as a result of the changing voice, and that name. "Si?"
There was no emotion to the response. This was, after all, simply business. Muffled noises in the background hinted that the crumpled redhead was being moved, but they were nearly inaudible behind the voice itself "Noi abbiamo il tuo - giocattolo. Se volete la schiena, relativamente indenne, si smetterà di predare nostra famiglia e lavorare per noi invece. Devi dodici ore per rispondere a Don Renaldo - prima di iniziare l'invio di pezzi di visualizzare non siamo da scherzare."
For the longest moment, the sound of his breathing was the only reply. Then, in the calmest voice he could muster, he spoke. "Quando ti trovo e stare tranquilli, ti trovero '... Ho intenzione con calma, uno per uno, si alimentano i tuoi occhi."
There was just the barest hint of a chuckle "Buona fortuna. Conosciamo il vostro lavoro - ma non troveremo il suo, o noi, finché non avremo la risposta ..." before the phone cut out, the voice obviously turned to its - companions "Datele l'iniezione, trattenerla e metterla nel bagagliaio ... lui ha dodici ore prima di voi idioti possono porre una mano su di lei ... lei sarà fuori così a lungo, almeno" with a crunch, the phone went dead.


I'm not bad, I'm just drawn that way...
Technically, the first thing she noticed was the pain, but at that point, it had seeped into her sleep, enough that she had managed even in her drugged state, to curl on one side on the tiny cot. The walls hurt, the floor hurt, the very air caused her breath to burn in her lungs, resulting in hiccuping coughs that did nothing to help. There were raw spots on her shoulder where the silk blouse had done nothing to protect her skin when she rolled into the wall, another along the back of her hand where it had fallen to the floor in her comatose state. Her leather pants and boots had kept her protected, but she wouldn't try to stand. Fingers felt lightly at her cheek, and she winced - split and bruised. The blow was the last thing she remembered - that and standing in the rain, as they had raged at each other over the phone...She had no idea who'd grabbed her, or why - or what was making her feel like she was swimming through glue with a head stuffed with cotton wool.. blinking rapidly, she tried to dispel the fog, tried to focus on something - anything - that would give her a clue as to where she was and what she could do about it. Stone walls, dirt floor, and iron bars surrounded the cage she was in...not a window to be seen, not that she could have gotten near enough to the walls to use one. About to attempt to sit up, the sound of a male voice stilled her "Per quanto tempo ancora?" a pause, and then a second answered "Il boss ha detto che ha dodici ore, quattro a sinistra fino a quando lei è tutta nostra .... Non dovrebbe svegliarsi prima di allora ..". She lay completely still - if she wasn't supposed to be awake, moving could only end badly for her... her eyes slid closed, nothing she could do about the guards, and at least she had a few hours before they got their hands on her, not that she had many illusions about what that would entail. Through the haze, she tried to think - there was only one reason for this much pain. Holy ground. She was in trouble - although it explained not only the pain, but the rapid draining...she knew she hadn't been this weak, and human drugs shouldn't have affected her this much. Still groggy, and tiring, she slid back into the blackness
She drifted in and out of consciousness, each time a little less foggy, but a little more drained - at this rate, when her guards went to open her cell, they were going to be in for a surprise. A voice shook her from her haze, green eyes blinking from underneath the curtain of dull red waves that hung over her face "Solo qualche ora in più belli, e non dovrete preoccuparvi più ... sembra che il boss ha sopravvalutato l'importanza che eri, eh?" a face peered down at her, and it was all she could do not to snarl back at him - between pain and exhaustion, she was barely herself at all. The guard glanced over his shoulder at his companion "Penso che stia sveglia - Non avevi detto che lei sarebbe rimasta fuori fino a quando non hanno fatto con lei ..." the other guard moved toward the bars, looking her over. She held her breath, fighting a cough that nearly strangled her.Whatever they intended she was certain wouldn't make her situation better...but she couldn't hold it forever. The cough bent her nearly double, her ribs aching as she fought to catch her breath. Her ruse blown, she wasn't surprised at all to hear the second guard move away from the bars with purpose "Miglior darle un'altra dose nel caso in cui - non vogliamo la lotta .."
There was no reason to hide any more - struggling to sit up, she curled herself up to her knees, watching the two guards moving around the room. She wasn't sure how much she had left, but given her rapidly declining state, allowing them to give her another injection - to send her back to sleep - was certain to end badly for her. She was powerless surrounded by this much holy ground, but she could still fight the way a human woman would… Muffled voiced made it through the metal door cutting her prison from what she could only assume was the passageway below the church leading to the catacombs. Something appeared to be going on up there - something they obviously hadn't expected. Her guards looked at each other, torn between staying with their captive, and curiosity. For her part, she just let her head fall forward onto her knees, her face hidden by the dusty curtain of her hair. the building actually shook under the blast of the doors, causing dust to fall in rattling cascades from the ceiling of the underground room. The guards looked up, and looked at each other. Something pulled her attention upward, her gaze sliding across the ceiling to the door...she had no idea what was causing the chaos upstairs, there was only one thing she could think of - but she wouldn't dare hope he'd come. Not with the way things had been left...She shivered, the dust occasionally falling over her, and causing tiny spots of red to bloom where they touched. She hid her face in her arms, ducking her head back down to lessen the damage. it was the silence, really, that tipped her off. She knew nothing else that could cause such quiet - after all, she was one of the few who had seen his work and live to tell the tale. She lifted her eyes from her arms, her voice hissing softly "Si sciocchi, uomini stolti. Non so quello che hai fatto, ma non sono nemmeno intenzione di avere abbastanza tempo per rimpiangere quello che era ... Il fantasma è qui ragazzi - avete fatto la vostra pace?" Her muscles shook with strain, the pain nearly unbearable - giving in, she did the only thing she could to help him find her - she screamed, letting loose the full harmonics of a succubus in pain. She watched them run, knowing there was nothing out there for them but death. Her eyes glued to the door, her breathing harsh and rapid, trapped on her cot. Her teeth caught her bottom lip, fighting to keep herself upright.


I'm not bad, I'm just drawn that way...
Dust slid across the glass lenses of his goggles as the big beefy engine thundered underneath him. Varakov had given him coordinates, and the tiny screen in the center of the handlebars showed him he was getting close. A chill still in the air from the light rain the night before, the remnants of fog burning off as the sun rose higher. Tight-lipped and grim, he was on the hunt. And someone was going to regret having put him there by the end of the day.
Rounding the corner and skidding to a stop, he noticed the beeping from the screen, noticed the tire-tracks from the tow lorry, the tracks from the Maserati ... and finally noticed the crushed bits of plastic and silicone, the crushed battery. His lip curled slightly in a snarl, inaudible over the rumbling motor. The faintest trail of perfume lingering in the air, on the stones. Mingling with the exhaust of a larger vehicle. Exhausts were interesting things, noxious fumes as they were. Each was something unique. The hunt was on.
Cresting a hill, the scent trail growing stronger as his patience waned, he spied the crumbling building nestled in the side of the hill. There, perhaps a mile or so down the drive, a man sat in the shade of a short tree, eating a lunch of fruits and bread. Baring his teeth, he gunned the throttle.
Long ago, he'd abandoned stealth as a casualty of circumstance. The Indian wasn't suited to it in any case. The man eating his lunch scrambled to his feet, reaching for something stuck under his jacket. Most of him tumbled backward as Cranston rode by, a patina of red mist settling onto the grass from the absence of the goombah's chest cavity.
The two men armed with more potent firepower toppled without much more effort, also sans important portions of anatomy, as he skidded the bike to a stop. Radios crackled with unanswered calls as he dropped the kickstand and strode toward the door, the goggles hanging around his neck.
The elegant wooden doors, man-made edifices that had withstood the tests of time and weather, exploded into so many rough-hewn toothpicks under one knock. A fourth guard, a little more prepared than the others, actually managed to bring his weapon to bear. Four feet from his body, the bullets turned to arcing tracers, deflected by some unseen phenomenon. Cranston didn't waste the effort to focus his will. One slam of the fist to the chest silenced the gunman's weapon.
No screams of anguish. He didn't need to ask questions from these peons. He knew. He could trace her scent with ease, and this little religious hideaway, for all its beautiful architecture, held no sway over him. What did, however, was the sudden piercing wail, torn from a voice he knew intimately. He’d heard that wailing voice cry out in pleasure time and again, but the racking agony permeating the cry turned his eyes into smoking pits of ebony.
The silence turned deafening a moment later, as he turned his attention to the lower floors. There hadn't been too many guards to begin with, and no others with the wherewithal to take aim. The two still in the room with her scrambled out and slammed the door behind them, their screams cut blessedly short a moment later. More silence, until the metal of the door began to creak. The hinges of the door began to darken, crumbling away from the walls. One solid ring of a fist on the door sent it tipping to the floor, and he stood there in the fading light from the upstairs.


I'm not bad, I'm just drawn that way...
"Cranston....." her voice nearly a whisper, cracking with emotion and pain as she blinked back a sudden swell of tears. Hours of rapidly burning through energy to keep the pain at bay had left her a shadow of her usual self, eyes and hair dull, her skin eerily pale…
He stepped into the room, crossing the distance in just a few strides. Not letting her rise from the cot, he scooped her up in his arms without a word, turning to carry her out of the catacombs. There on the stairs, the sooty outlines of two humanoid figures were etched into the very rock.
She sank into his chest, her arms looped around his neck. Glancing over the scorched outlines, she allowed just the tiniest smile to flicker over her lips as she tucked her head into his shoulder.
Dust continued to rain down as cracks appeared in the foundations, but somehow it didn't seem to settle on them. A palpable aura around him as he remained stoic, carrying her without hesitation to the gaping opening where the doors used to be. The old pews were piled against the walls, anything wooden had glowing embers blooming in his wake.
Hissing softly, her body convulsed tighter as they passed through the nave. Her grip tightened around him as her eyes fluttered closed, nearly at her limit. Some part of her took in the destruction around them, but she couldn't bring herself to care in the slightest.
The structure began to speak in groans and creaks, pebbles and dust raining down as he walked. One guard, surprisingly not deceased, groaned audibly until he walked past. Then his groan cracked and faded to a whisper as he shrank into a mummified state in a flash.
The barest hint of a smile curved over her lips "You are always so thorough, darling..." she coughed, and looked up at him, he hadn't uttered a single sound the entire time...unusual, even for him
And he wouldn't. Not until they'd crossed over the threshold into the fading daylight, and the church began to crumble in upon itself behind them. " ... I'm sorry."
The sudden cessation of what had become constant pain left her gasping "For what...?" she blinked up at him, her eyes glassy - the flame that usually flickered in their depths so small as to be nearly lost
" ... for being so stupid, that I nearly lost you." Settling to a knee, a cloud of dust rolling out from the collapsing edifice. "It will not happen again."
"Darling, what are you talking about? Em? I told you - I am not going anywhere...." she shivered "Although at the moment I can see where you wouldn't believe me..." she looked up at him, voice quavering "Please don't tell me you rescued me just to leave me..."
Finally, after all of that, he looked down at her with eyes that were just as haunted as hers were dimmed. "No, Ravyn. I did not rescue you just to leave you. I rescued you because I love you. Because it's my fault that you were taken. And it's my fault that you were so upset." Stubble blurred his cheeks and jaw, shading the hollows of his cheeks, but emphasizing the pouches under his eyes. " … I will never leave you again."
Leaning her head back to meet his gaze, her eyelids flickered as she fought to stay conscious "And I love you - I always will..I do not understand why you think this is your fault...they must have been looking for ransom..." something tugged at her memory, snatches of conversation... "We upset each other...neither one of us is very good with emotions..." a tear escaped, causing her to wince as it crossed the split skin at her cheek
"They were looking to cause me to shift allegiance." He couldn't bear to see her like this. He couldn't pull his gaze away from her. Bending his head down, he gently touched his lips to hers, willing a trickle of his essence through the kiss to spark her appetite.
Her hand raised to his cheek, lightly brushing against his skin as their lips met, and that small trickle slid through her, enough to let her sit up and meet his eyes "For you? So I was - incentive...." she flushed slightly, "And I let them take me so easily...."
"You were bait. And they sorely underestimated how much you mean to me." He kissed her again, another dose. "I need you to know this, Ravyn. They told me who they're allied to. I know which family did this to you."
She raised her lips to his, a little more insistently this time "They said ...something about the boss being wrong about how important I was ...they didn't think you were coming." she nodded carefully, one hand moving to scrabble against the dirt, unable to lift herself higher "Then we'll go soon as I can stand...."
"No, love. Not tonight. Tonight, we rest. Tonight, we recover. Tomorrow, the streets will run red." He dared not hold her too closely, too tightly, but his muscles quivered as he restrained his grip.
She sagged against him, in no small way relieved, she was more hurt than she was letting on. She settled closer against his chest, another cough racking her body as she wrapped her arms around him and clung, body shaking with the aftereffects "I was afraid you wouldn't come..."
"How could I not?" His voice cracked as he settled down, gathering her into his lap, letting the dust of the crumbling church settle to the ground behind them.
"I don't know" she winced as he moved her, his hands brushing against the burns on her shoulder "We were yelling - asked if I would leave, and I said no and then....nothing..."
"No, darling. Hear this now. We may fight in the future, we may quibble over semantics ... I would erase galaxies to make you smile."
She settled closer, wincing once more as her shoulder pressed into his chest and she coughed again, "My love ...galaxies are not required...just "
One more kiss, one more dose, and he lifted her again. "Come, love. Let's get the hell out of here."
"That sounds like a wonderful idea...I'm sure someone's noticed the building missing by now..." she tucked her head into his shoulder, and let her eyes close
Rock and mortar crumbled further as he walked toward the motorcycle. "I hope you don't mind a little wind in your hair ... "
a slight shake of her head, just the hint of a break in her voice "Just don't let go..."


If there's ever one thing to be said about the patient, she did not snore. Not even with the damage to her lungs and throat. A soft scratching at the curtain, and the blue-furred priest waited for the grunt of male-voiced acceptance before Khoom parted the fabric and entered with a tray. "I brought you something to drink, if you'll forgive my intrusion into your vigil."
"Thank you. Your hospitality is unmatched by any other temple I've ever attended." Cranston nodded from his cross-legged seat, folding over the antiquated newspaper. Shadows rolled in the pupils of his bluish-grey eyes, hints of his subdued wrath. "Unfortunately, I don't have too much to compare it to, so I wouldn't put much stock in my opinion."

"Not a church-going fellow, I take it? Can't say that I blame you, my good chap. And, if I may, allow me to make a better introduction than our last encounter. Khoom Helston, at your service." Setting the tray down, he poured two mugs of the hot tea. "Your name is Cranston, if I recall it rightly."

"Indeed." The clipped British accent lost none of its polite demeanor as Cranston looked over the Kirn. "And may I say, you cut a much better figure in proper robes than in a towel." Taking up his mug, he nodded toward the other unoccupied chair in the room, casting a quick glance to the sleeping patient still a-bed. "Do you have any news?"

"No changes, other than the ceremony seems successful, her breathing is much easier, and her recovery is progressing about as swiftly as I'd anticipated. But that, I'm afraid, isn't what I came here to discuss." Silk rustled over brocaded satin as Khoom settled into place, exuding his usual aura of calm. "I've come to know both Ravyn, and Emer. Not that I wish to pry into your personal business, but I would consider it a debt owed to know all that I can concerning their emotional conditions."

"Of course you would." Cranston's voice never rose above the soft hum of quiet conversation, but the shadows in his eyes deepened. "And if I'd not heard such nice things about you, I'd be sorely tempted to tell you to kindly sod off. However ... " Adding a cube of sugar and a splash of cream to his tea, he stirred with a small spoon, the faintest tinkling sound as it met the cup. "I'd hope that Em comes to seek out your council. I know I've utterly failed in that regard." Setting the spoon down, he took a quiet sip. "As I'm certain you've no doubt heard, I've dissolved the relationship between Emer and myself." Stiff upper lip didn't hide the roiling storm under the skin.

"Yes, I have. Nothing concerning the particulars, just the bare-bones of it. Might I ask why you took such an action?” The polite banter wasn’t about to change by the feel of things, and Khoom trusted his empathy to the utmost. He’d grown up with it, after all. But what kept a hint of chill under his fur was the sense of something … vast. Unfathomable. Even perilous.

“I wished to save her life. It is … dangerous to be in my presence when my emotions get the best of me.” Typical stoicism. But it didn’t do any good to try and suppress one’s feelings around an empath. Khoom’s kitty-slit eyes narrowed slightly, watching the man over the rim of his mug.

“The same could be said for anyone, when tempers rise. I deal with that, every single day.” The blue-furred priest showed nothing through body language, not even a tell-tale twitch of the tufted tail. Interesting. Cranston could appreciate that level of control over one’s tells. “Though I must say, most of the cases I deal with, they aren’t quite as calm as you seem to be.”

Cranston laughed. “Calm? You think that this is calm? This is exhaustion and strain, not calm.” Taking the measure of himself, he shook his head. “I’ve not changed clothes for five days, shaved for a week, nor have I slept or eaten in most of that time. This isn’t calm, my furry friend. This is resignation.”

“An interesting way to put it.” Khoom settled his hands into his lap, cradling the saucer and cup in the palm of one hand. “I suppose the best thing to ask in this is … why? Why was Ravyn taken, and not Em? Why did you surmise that you have to make a choice between the two? Why is there a difference?” Pausing to take a slow, measured breath, he continued. “I ask because both of these women are close to me. And now I know that one … is going to suffer.”

“Don’t, catman. Don’t even start down that path.” Shadows gathered in Cranston’s eyes, dimming down the colors to darker imitations. “You don’t know me, and you don’t know all that’s happened.” The cup shook in his hand a moment. “She’s not the only one who’s going to suffer.” The shadows eased as he turned away, watching the sleeping redhead.

“You’re quite right. I don’t. And nor will I, as one member of your triad has made herself unreachable, as I understand it, and the other is here and sleeping. So why don’t you tell me, hmmm?”

“Because there’s a great deal about me that you can’t comprehend, catman. Pardon my brusqueness, but as I said before. I’m not at my best.” Breathing in more calm, Cranston took a long sip from his tea. “I’ve had other lovers before Em, and before Ravyn. They ended … poorly. Very poorly. I’d spare Em that fate, at all costs.”

The cold chill that Khoom felt off of the man seated across the room nearly sent a shiver down his spine. “A little emotional pain now, instead of great deal later?” Exuding his calming aura, he settled in to listen.

“A little now, instead of feeling nothing at all. You don’t seem to understand, priest. I will know nothing but love for Emer, and for Ravyn, until the precise moment that all of this existence ceases to exist. And when Emer finally passes … “ Cranston’s eyes snapped shut, as he took in a deep breath, willing himself to calm. “When she passes, everyone will remember her. I guarantee it.”

Holding his counsel a moment, Khoom watched the man with a practiced eye, sensing the sincerity behind the words. “And what of Ravyn?”

“What of Ravyn? I’ve put her in danger, used her as a weapon, listened to her abduction, killed without mercy to save her, and destroyed a historic Catholic church, simply because it caused her harm. I’ve sworn vengeance on the family who dared try and use her as a coercion tool.” The cup, if it possessed emotions, would’ve heaved a sigh of relief as Cranston set it aside. “Yes, we were involved in a heated discussion concerning Em’s departure at the time of her abduction, a measure of extraordinary fortune I might add.”

“Yes, yes. Extraordinary fortune. I’m not going to insult your intelligence by asking just what it is that you do. I’m quite certain you wouldn’t tell me even if you could. That isn’t quite what I mean.” Khoom, having finished his own tea, fixed his pink-flecked gaze on the man with the darkening eyes. “You’ve broken things off with Emer and brought Ravyn into my temple for care, and I have a mind to ask … are you the right choice for either, living the life that you do?”

The medallion resting calmly on the blue fur of Khoom’s chest flared brightly, a golden gleam suffusing the air of the chamber as Cranston surged out of his seat, eyes jet black and smoky-edged. “Do not ask that question. Ever.”

Surprisingly, the slumbering form stirred, shifting slightly on the bed. Ravyn’s hand slid out to touch Cranston’s clenched fist, a surprisingly soothing and unconscious gesture. The tension bled out of him in but a moment, like a long sigh after a halted bomb timer, as he flicked a calming glance down at the hand covering his. “My apologies, priest. You see, if I hadn’t broken things off with Emer … the possibility exists that she might cease to. As you might have surmised by now … I am not quite what I seem to be. Do you recall, a week ago, a collapsing building in the dockside district?”

“I do, yes. The reports indicated structural failure.” The soft glow faded as the sense of danger grew quiet. Khoom settled back into his seat, one leg crossed over the other, fingers interlaced.

“Yes, well … it’s what caused the failure that they might not know. I … lost my temper. And it was either something in the distance, or something much worse. Em and I were in the midst of discussion concerning feelings and emotions. Such as how mine are … new. And hers have been with her all of her life. And just how much of a negative impact keeping silent can be.” Keeping Ravyn’s hand in his, he slumped back down in his seat, leaning back with weariness etched into every line. “Because I love Emer, I had to let her go … or risk her destruction.”

Khoom’s ear twitched, just slightly, as he bit back the retort simmering there just behind his teeth. “I see.”

“No, you truly don’t, but I’m much too weary to give you the full explanation about it now. Suffice to say … I would much rather admire her from afar, and watch her live a long and fruitful life, than have her in my hand, and bear witness to her extinguished at my hand due to … being over emotional.”

“I may not see what you are, Mr. Reynolds … but I see what you mean to her.” Khoom gestured toward the hand that still held his. “And that’s enough. No more questions, not about your personal life.” Equal parts empathy and discretion bid him to rise. “Rest now, and forgive my inquisitiveness. As I stated, I care very deeply for both … and if given the opportunity, I’ll do what I can for Emer. You’ll do all you can for Ravyn, yes?”

“Of course. She is my partner. My friend. And yes, she is also my love.” Cranston’s eyes were heavy-lidded as he turned his gaze to her. “I wouldn’t be here without her.”

“Good. Oh, and one more trifling matter, if it’s not too much trouble.” Khoom half-turned toward the door, a wry grin curling his lip. “Have a care with that temper, if you don’t mind? I’d rather not see the results of a confrontation between you and my patron, if it’s all the same.”

“Then I might recommend your patron’s high priest prod a little less sharply into other people’s affairs.” Sharp words, blunted in part by a smooth smile. “I like you, well enough. You’ve brought naught but joy to the only two things I care for on this world. Please continue to do so.” One hand still curled in Ravyn’s sleeping grip, Cranston stroked her arm softly with the other, listening to her finally untroubled breathing.

Trusting to decorum over conflict, Khoom bowed his head with a soft smile and slipped out of the door. The acolyte that came in a moment later with a tray of food and tea pulled up short at the sight of the bedraggled gentleman fast asleep, head pillowed on the mattress.
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