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"You love me, don't you?"

Jay closes his hands around Solon's wrists and freezes. It might be the manic quality in Solon's gaze, it might be the knife he can feel against his throat, it might be Solon's hand grabbing wildly at his collar, but for whatever reason he finds himself suddenly unable to move.

Solon's lips are peeled back; Jay can see every one of his teeth. "That's right. You may try to deny it, but in your heart, you realize the truth." Blood trickles down from wounds on his head, his arms, his chest. As he goes on, his voice becomes gradually more steely, more insistent. "You'll never be one of them, and you know it! Your place is here. You belong with me, you should never--have a reason to defy me--" He lunges forward, and Jay feels something sharp cut into his skin--

And then, suddenly, he is throwing Solon away from him with a strength he didn't know he had. "Never," he spits; the word bounces off the walls of the room to echo back at him, and--when did his hands start shaking? Solon lands a few feet away, and Jay sees but doesn't really register that someone is stepping forward now, pinning his old master to the ground with their sword. Instead he puts a hand to his neck, where the new wound is: it's about an inch above his ten-year-old scar, and a little to the left.

A voice is calling out his name. It's high; female, probably. There are footsteps. The voice repeats itself, softer this time and then softer again. The tiles of the floor are beginning to blur, gray grout and bright red ceramic swirling together into a muddy mess. He tastes blood--

"Cure!" the voice shouts, and the wounds begin to close, the bruises to fade, the pain to subside. With a jolt, he realizes that the voice was Shirley's. She kneels beside him, grabs his wrist and squeezes, lightly. "Are you all right, Jay?"

***

"Anyway," Jay points out, shrugging casually, "it hasn't been more than three and a half years, so this isn't really that surprising."

"That can't be right," Moses starts. "Even if they were slow promotin' ya, it's gott've been longer than--oh. Oh, that's right. You had that..."

"...solo mission you were working on," Will finishes, looking a bit uncomfortable. He glances briefly over at Jay, concern turning up the inside corners of his eyebrows.

"Hunting Solon," Shirley adds pointedly. In Norma's absence, she seems to have taken it upon herself to say the things everyone else is afraid to. She alone does not bother to conceal that she is staring directly at Jay, blue eyes piercing, as if challenging him.

It's Shirley, so of course he rises to the challenge, almost bristling as he pulls his hat off his head in a swift, irritated gesture. "You don't have to look at me like I'm going to explode if you so much as mention it," he says loudly, and then the confrontational lines fade off his face and when he speaks again, his tone is more sober. "It's been a long time, after all."

Shirley smiles, a tiny quirking-up of one corner of her mouth.

All eyes, however, are still on Jay, who puts his arm out towards the wall and slopes against it. The air of irritation is back, as is a slight restlessness. "I was rather proud of not being reckless back then, as I recall," he remarks, not quite managing to make it sound off-handed. "Rather ironic, I suppose."

Moses grins in that half-deliberate way of his, careful to make it absolutely clear that he's joking. "You mean t' say you ain't proud of it now? 'Cause it sure don't look that way from where I'm standin'."

Jay straightens. "I didn't mean I wasn't still proud of it. The difference is that now I'm actually not reckless."

***

(Chloe was there when Jay received that fateful first letter from Solon, and she related the entire episode to Shirley when next they met: the stricken look on his face when the contents of the letter had first sunk in and the manic drive that covered it later, while he pored over mission reports and charted out strategies.

"Nobody checked the body," he muttered darkly, voice sharply rising in both pitch and volume as he continued to speak. "We were all too busy high-fiving each other and--and making a ridiculous fuss about leaves, and no one checked the body." He was pacing feverishly now, back and forth, back and forth across the room. "And naturally, it turns out he's actually alive. Congratulations, Chloe. We're all idiots."

"Jay, what are you talking about?" said Chloe, but he either wasn't listening or had chosen to ignore her, opting instead to lean over his desk and start to write something at a furious pace. Later she would learn that it had been a letter to Madam Musette, a request for forces for a mission he assured her was of the utmost urgency.

He left the following morning without so much as saying goodbye; after that, neither Chloe nor any of the rest of them saw Jay for four years. "I'm worried about him," she confessed to Shirley, nine months later. "I don't really think he's the type to get himself into serious trouble, but..."

Shirley nodded. "I think, when it's a situation like this, it's hard not to be."

To this day, Jay still doesn't talk about the letter, not even to Shirley, though she at least knows enough to gather it was some kind of threat. It was far from the last letter of its kind, and she doesn't know how many of them were sent, either. But she remembers their end result very well: the young man slumped wholesale over the table, face pale and pinched and utterly exhausted.)

***

"I don't know about that," says Will. "I might not agree with the way you went about it, but it was a necessary thing to do, I think."

Jay runs his free hand through his hair, the expression on his face inscrutable. "Do you?"

"I wouldn't have said it if I didn't."

Shirley leans forward conspiratorially. "Do you still remember the letter?" she asks.

All of a sudden, Jay's cheeks are tinged a faint pink. There is a long pause, and then he reaches into an inside pocket and pulls out a folded, yellowing sheet of paper. He opens it carefully: in Norma's untidy handwriting, scrawled diagonally across one side, are the words, "Don't do anything stupid, JJ."

Hers, and four other signatures, are tacked onto the bottom.

(The story goes like this: Norma had been the first one to hear about the Solon debacle from Chloe. "Oh, JJ," she'd sighed. "Tell him not to do anything stupid, would you?"

"Can I get that in writing?" Chloe had replied dryly. And to her surprise, Norma immediately pulled out paper and pen and did just that.

Later, they were all glad Chloe had asked; to their knowledge, that note was the last thing Norma had written before she disappeared. On a whim, Chloe'd signed her own name on the bottom--and then, when she related the tale to Moses later, he'd offered to take it and sign it as well, and...one thing had led to another until three years later, the note finally made it back to Jay, only a few days before he'd gone out to take Solon down for good.)

Moses lets out a low whistle. "Well, would ya look at that. It's almost kinda cute."

"Shut up," snaps Jay, blushing harder now. "You still don't have the right to tell me not to do stupid things, by the way."

Shirley's grin is beatific. "Norma was the one who wrote that note, you know," she points out, echoing her words from four years ago.

For a moment, Jay casts his eyes downward in reflection, and then-- "She doesn't have the right, either."

***

Several hours later, after Will and Moses have both wandered off and left the two of them alone in that room, Shirley goes to the window and stares pensively out of it. "I had that note for almost a year before I gave it to you," she says. "Did you know that?"

Jay is sitting at the table presumably nursing a drink, chin resting in palm, palm resting on table. He looks up at her words. "I didn't, actually."

"It was--" Shirley puts her hands on the windowsill and tilts her face up towards the sky. There is something pained in her smile now. "I was just remembering. It's kind of silly, really, but the reason I didn't give it to you for so long was because...well, I was hoping I'd be able to get Senel to sign it, too."

Her shoulders shake slightly. The silence stretches out long and uncomfortable between them--

--and then Jay is pushing back his chair and striding over to her, not so much thinking as reacting as he closes his hand around her wrist the same way her hand wrapped around his all those years ago. She turns wide, surprised eyes towards him, and in that moment, no words are needed; they understand each other perfectly in the way only a long, enduring friendship can create.

Unfortunately, however, moments pass, and when this one does, Jay is left staring dumbly at the hand he is now holding. He drops it abruptly. "You should sit down," he says, for once speaking a little more quickly than his brain can catch up with, not really processing that the words are starting to run into each other. "Do you want anything to eat--o-or drink, or--" He stops, as finally it sets in that he has no idea what he's saying anymore, and pulls out a chair for her instead.

Shirley blinks, then smiles, then shakes her head and sits down. "I'm fine, really...but, um, if you're offering, I wouldn't mind another cup of tea."

"All right." He reaches for the kettle and pours her a cup before pulling up a chair himself. They sit in silence, her staring off into the distance, him contemplating his own drink as if it might offer him some great insight. Finally, he looks up. "It's human nature to hope for the unlikely," he says slowly.

She smiles sadly, looking down at her lap. "Yeah, I know. Thanks."

***

He thanks her for the note withe the utmost sincerity in his voice, gripping the paper so tightly that it's a wonder he doesn't crumple it, but when she appears before him dressed in mission clothes, with her hair tied back, he launches into a spiel that's more painstakingly prepared (four years in the making, in fact) than he'd like to admit. It's too dangerous, he explains. They still don't know whether this lead is the real thing or a trap prepared by Solon. It's risky enough to send him in on a mission like this; with so much on the line, bringing another sacred eren into enemy territory, especially her, is not advisable. Besides, the mission parameters have already been laid out, and--

Shirley gives him a look. She looks directly into his eyes, jaw set; he glances away, and in that moment, they both know he has lost the argument.

"I'll be fine," Shirley says firmly. He nods and motions for her to follow.