Chapter 1: Saturday Night Snark
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The S X Factor was noisy, dimly lit and crowded. The atmosphere was moist and thick, stiflingly hot after the crisp evening air. As I stepped over the threshold, I imagined it rolling over me like the foetid breath of some great beast. It certainly smelled bad enough -- a stomach-churning mixture of sweat, perfume, cologne and (exceedingly overpriced) alcohol that the majority of the clientele were likely too inebriated to notice. Bully for them. Most of all, however, it reeked of desperation.
I understand that this place originally billed itself as some kind of classy singles bar. Ha! 'A place to make connections.' Technically true, if by 'connection' you mean 'drunk anonymous hook-up with one or more random strangers, also drunk and quite probably diseased'. 'Meet the people you deserve.' Again, technically true. In oh-so-many ways. 'A high-class bar for high-class people.' Now that was a blatant lie of the most outrageous proportions. Never mind its delusions of anything approaching class: The S X Factor didn't even manage 'singles bar'. That phrase at least implied the possibility of some kind of civilised social intercourse. At least, it suggested something a little more refined than the crass displays of frenzied mating behaviour occurring before my eyes. Everywhere I looked, it seemed I saw people -- and I used the term loosely -- plumbing whole new depths of human idiocy. All in the name of deluding any potential 'connection' (and possibly themselves) that they might actually be adequate. How perfectly lovely. Credits to their race, the lot of them.
If it wasn't already obvious, this place was a meat market of the absolute worst sort, a niche it didn't so much fill as infest. (Speaking of which: I really, really hoped those were just dropped potato chips crunching under my boots. Oh well. I could always burn them afterwards -- it's not like they were my favourite pair.) Frankly, the only time this snake-pit even came within sniffing distance of high-class was when I chose to grace it with my august presence; hardly a common occurrence. Even in my current reduced circumstances I wouldn't normally be caught dead in a place like this. I certainly wasn't here for the ambience, and there was no way I would ever be desperate to actually trawl its depths for myself. Quite frankly, being single was a step up in my estimation. But I didn't want to think about my own relationships tonight.
No, it was really quite simple. I've found that when you're feeling down, there are few better things to do than go and watch people who are even worse off. Disgustingly expensive drink in hand, I could look down on the crowd, making pithy comments and feeding off the schadenfreude. It was really quite therapeutic.
God, I just loved being an utter bitch sometimes.
Time passed more or less satisfactorily. My mood generally improved, aside from the odd bout of irritation when a particularly dense human actually dared to approach me. You'd think that if my aura of 'I'm not interested, I'll never be interested, begone lowly worm!' attitude didn't discourage them, then my 'Plain Jane dresses down' outfit would put them right off. I mean, I was wearing jeans with a T-shirt and cardigan. And flats! Don't get me wrong: they were skinny jeans, of course, in classic blue. And it was a scoop-neck plain white stretch shirt under a soft pink angora shrug. Oh, and the flats were actually black suede ankle boots. Decent enough for flats, but hardly fuck-me pumps. Nothing about my outfit said: 'look at me, I'm on the pull'. That was why I chose it. Unfortunately, there was always someone who didn't get the message. Speak of the devil...
I rolled my eyes a little as yet another hopeful suitor approached Fortress Frost. Doubtless he was drawn by my irresistible good looks. Or it was the fact that I had two X chromosomes. The men here did not seem to be at all picky. (Nor did the women, but at least they were leaving me alone.) I really wasn't in the mood to talk to anyone I didn't absolutely have to tonight, but an icy glare failed to dissuade him from sitting himself down beside me. He smiled greasily in my direction.
"Good night, gorgeous? Well it is now," he said with all sincerity, slicking back his hair.
I stared at him with disbelief. Did that line ever actually work? I decided that I really didn't want to know. He smirked back at me, clearly thinking that his 'charm' was working.
"Funny," I replied. "There I was thinking that it had just gone distinctly downhill." I turned away from him, hoping that he'd get the hint. No such luck. Maybe I should have brought a book. I made a mental note for next time.
"Don't be like that," he said, moving back around in front of me.
He was certainly one of the more persistent of the men who had been bothering me this evening. That was not a point in his favour. Why couldn't he just splash around in the shallow end of the gene pool with his peers? In the right mood I might have indulged him just enough to utterly crush him. Instead I just gave him a mental push to sod off and a compulsion to wet himself whenever he bothered another woman for the rest of the night. I was fairly sure that I was doing the world a service.
My eye was caught by a brunette undergoing what seemed like a similar ordeal. A man who had probably rendered himself sterile through steroid abuse was attempting to monopolise her attention, waving his meaty hands about animatedly as he barely let her get a word in edgeways. I wasn't close enough to catch what was being said, but, judging from her body language, she was going through the usual stages. I'd heard this script so many times; I could practically hear her give him a polite dismissal which probably went straight over his head. Next came the bored please-just-leave-me-alone body language, which also bounced straight off his armour of invincible optimism. I idly wondered if she'd have to resort to hitting him over the head with a bar stool when he suddenly jerked in response to something she said before staggering off dazedly as though his manhood had just been crushed.
Curiosity got the better of me, so I read his mind then laughed out loud at what she'd said. I decided to revise my 'no talking to humans tonight' rule and started to make my way over to her. Anyone who could come up with that on the spur of the moment was worth getting to know. Besides, I was new to the area, and suddenly the idea of potentially making a friend tonight, even someone I had met here, didn't seem so bad. She gave me a not quite casual glance as I approached, then relaxed a little. Like me, she was dressed down by the standards of the rest of the crowd. Her mind felt prickly and sharp and she was giving out a distinctly standoffish air rather than the please-look-at-me that most of the other women had.
"Don't worry," I told her with a smile. "I'm not yet another of the marauding barely washed crowd."
She raised an eyebrow. "So I see."
"Then there's obviously not enough hours in the day?" I said, laughing as I repeated her parting words to the spawn of muscle. "I have to say that I approve. Can I buy you a drink in the name of women everywhere?"
The thorns of her mind retracted, leaving a sensation like silk over steel. She laughed; a rich, melodious sound that seemed to resonate through me in interesting ways. I found my gaze drawn to her lips -- lush and full -- and then up to her eyes. Ah! Those eyes. This woman was... far more striking than I'd initially thought. "When you put it like that," she said, "how can I refuse? I'm Emily Prentiss, by the way."
"Emma Winthrop," I lied. "So what brings you to a place like this? I'm guessing it's not the wares."
She shuddered a little. "Please. A friend wanted to come here and her usual crowd cancelled at the last minute." She shrugged. "I didn't want her to be by herself." She smiled wryly. "Though, when last seen, that's not going to be a problem for the rest of the night." She looked at me appraisingly. "You don't seem to be here for the nightlife either. So what's your story?"
"Reminding myself that being single is far from the worst fate that could happen to me. That and people watching."
Well, moron watching really, but she had a friend out there. I can be tactful when I want to be. "While it may be too loud to actually hear what impending couples are saying to each other, I don't let that stop me putting words in their mouths. It's usually wittier and more articulate that way too."
"I see." Her expression was sceptical, but I could see her eyes twinkling.
"Look at those two over there." I pointed out a likely looking pair.
"'Might I have the honour of this dance?'" I said in my best deep voice as the man practically humped the woman's leg.
"'Why, yes, kind sir,'" I replied in a higher voice as the girl knocked the rest of her drink back, then practically fell on him. "'And may I compliment you on your fine head of hair and manly facial features?'
'Only if I can mention that utterly fabulous dress that you are wearing. Why, my wife has one just like that.'
'Oh,'" I waved a hand in the air. "'You do say positively the sweetest of things, Daddy. You don't mind if I call you Daddy, do you?'
'It would be my pleasure. You are classmates with my daughter, after all.'"
I looked back towards Emily, who was covering her mouth whilst laughing, glancing around as if to make sure that no one could see. "That's not very charitable," she said, composing herself.
"But so very amusing," I grinned at her. "Why don't you have a go?"
She indicated another couple. "'Look at all my shiny gewgaws. Am I not a worthy mate?'", she declaimed dryly.
"'I'm almost drunk enough to make that seem like a good idea, despite your dancing possessing all the grace of an epileptic elephant.'
'Here, let me get you another drink to fix that problem.'
'Ah, that's better. You look much more attractive through the bottom of a glass.'
'I'll need another one myself to wash all thought of possible STDs out of my mind. Conveniently, it should also act as a makeshift contraceptive. Let's retire so that we can rut under the moonlight,'" she finished, smiling, as the couple made their way to the door. "How did I do?"
"You're obviously a romantic. I'd never have guessed."
She stuck her finger up at me.
"But I'm afraid that I'm going to have mark you down for a shocking lack of funny voices."
"I guess I'll just have to try better next round."
And we continued bantering like that. A few men ignored the warning signs to try and bother us, but Emily managed to quite nicely cut them up into bite sized pieces before they retreated. Some time 'people watching', and a few drinks, passed until Emily glanced across the room and then looked guilty.
"Ah. Celia seems to have lost her partner and looks about ready to go."
"Thank you for the pleasure of your charming company." I'd forgotten how much fun having a like minded companion could be on these visits. On a whim, I pulled out my cell phone and pressed a few buttons, proffering it with a smile. "If you ever want to meet up again, here's my number."
Emily gave me an appraising look. She'd had enough drinks that I barely needed to be a telepath to get that message. As if to make sure, she reached out and cupped my hand with one of hers. The gentle pressure of her fingers held my phone steady as she tapped my number into hers with a dextrous thumb. "There we go," she murmured as she saved the entry. "Now I have you."
"Bold, aren't you?" I said automatically. One of my eyebrows tugged up without me consciously doing anything about it.
"You know what they say about who fortune favours..." she said looking deep into my eyes.
"Personally, I've always found fortune a fickle bitch," I murmured, pulling back my hand, skittery spiders of unease shattering the effect. "At best." I really wasn't sure that I was quite ready for, well, anything at the moment. But I couldn't think too hard about that.
Straightening, she moved slightly away from me. Her expression became a little more cautious, but still friendly. "I might take you up on that next time I'm in the area," she said, conversationally. "But only if we can avoid this plague pit." She gave an exaggerated shudder, her expression one of mock horror.
"Maybe you can suggest somewhere better," I said. I realised that I was flirting again without meaning to and cursed inwardly. Apparently old habits really did die hard.
"I know a few suitable places. Depending." Her smile turned up a notch, reigniting my unease.
I smiled back at her, anyway. What the hell. "Depending."
She gave me a slight nod, then briefly touched her hands to my shoulders and was away into the crowd. With her departure, the room was again just full of sweaty desperation, yet somehow it failed to lift my mood. I sighed. Time to go home.
When I opened my eyes in the morning, it was to a room without decoration. A room without character. A room which didn't look like it even had a living occupant. What a bloody marvellous sight to wake up to. It took me a second to remember that this was indeed where I had gone to sleep the night before. Now there was a depressing thought.
I checked the alarm clock. It was approaching one o'clock in the afternoon. Ah, a civilised hour of the day. I contemplated closing my eyes again, but the stark horror of my bedroom drove me out into the wilds beyond. Not that the rest of the apartment was any better, but some things really needed coffee to make them feel survivable.
I contemplated the world over my second cup. Blank walls and rooms furnished only by a few -- occasionally opened -- boxes and bags scattered around. It was still far too early to look upon this with a sober mind, but I decided that it was useless to sit around here and mope. What I needed was retail therapy, to go out and buy some things to liven the place up. It wasn't as though I had much else on my schedule at the moment.
A few hours later found me happily touring various shops. I'd made a few selective purchases (a delightfully soft throw rug, a gorgeous mahogany roll-top desk, a carved crystal chess set and a wonderfully comfy armchair, among other things), but in general I was determined to wait for things that spoke to me. Why bother settling for anything less? There was also the fact that my funds at present weren't precisely unlimited, and a certain amount of frugality might not be a bad idea. To distract myself from that unutterably depressing thought, I focussed on building up ideas for a colour scheme for the various rooms. Whomever the previous occupants had been, some of their choices had been absolutely atrocious. I had come to the conclusion that this had been an attempt at a form of cheap burglary defence. Or possibly a cry for help from the midget that they had evidently imprisoned to do their decorating.
A sense of dull pain and hunger washed over me from a side alley. That was nothing new; just another part of living in the big city. Like the sound of traffic, or the ever-present odour of stupidity. I was about to dismiss it when I noticed that it was coming from a teenager I tentatively identified as a girl huddled in some garbage. A teenager. In pain. Suddenly my feet wouldn't move anymore. I felt cold, no, hot, hot as if exposed to a blaze. The stench of rot became something else. Something richer. Something I didn't want to acknowledge. Not here. The world started swaying. This was... This was... No. Swallowing the ashes in my throat, I focused my formidable will and concentrated. I was Emma Bloody Frost and I would be damned if the sight of some grubby urchin would be able to pull my strings. The world straightened on its axis. The smell of rotting vegetables reasserted itself in all its putrescent glory. And this was merely another cool day. My feet kicked into action, carrying me away. The last thing I saw of her was a pair of fearful green eyes. It was for the best, anyway, I thought harshly, mocking myself, twisting the knife.
Shopping had suddenly lost its attraction. I knew that there would be some people who would laugh themselves silly if they ever knew anything could that to me. Then again I had never liked them anyway.
The apartment was just like I left it. Not that I was expecting anything else. Clean walls. Empty rooms. A new life. Just what I needed. I put the chain on the door then collapsed into a chair, my legs unable to support me any longer.
Suddenly I could see the blaze again, hear the screams of the dying. Smell the stench of burning hair and burning flesh. Feel the charred bodies as they were pulled from the wreckage.
Again and again.
It would be for the best. It was all my fault.
And this was completely pointless. I wrenched my mind into the present, noting absently that the sun had apparently set and I was now sitting in darkness.
I had things to do. I could invent them if necessary.
First order of business was dinner. I'd feel better with some food in my stomach. I didn't feel much like going out to eat tonight, and I certainly didn't want to cook, so I settled for the indignity of takeaway. Oh, how the mighty have fallen. I retrieved my phone from my purse and glared at my hands until they stopped shaking. I then searched the web until I found what the reviews swore was a passable Indian and made my selection.
Dinner and the day's purchases were duly brought to my doorstep. (In the right order, fortunately, so I could actually eat my dinner sitting in a chair, like a civilised person.) I was halfway through my madras when my phone beeped. It was Emily, asking if I'd like to meet up for a coffee on Friday. A smile on my lips, I texted her back with an acceptance. Excellent. At least something had gone right on this miserable day. Another beep and she texted me with a time and place. I looked at the name of the coffee shop sceptically. Was this really the best she could find? Apropos of nothing, I found myself remembering the way her eyes sparkled when she unleashed her wit on some hapless soul. Maybe I would give her the benefit of the doubt.
That still left me with the evening to fill. I retrieved the book I was currently reading, and relaxed in my new armchair. After having read the same page twelve times, I put the book down again. Apparently my mind wasn't into being suitably broadened tonight. Never mind, there was still all the many boxes and bags scattered around that I had failed to unpack so far. That could serve as a suitable focus for my energy.
I think it was about three in the morning before I felt suitably exhausted and collapsed into bed. It didn't help.
There are benefits to living alone. No one hears you when you wake screaming.
Chapter 2: Hot Coffee
The outside of the coffee shop certainly looked more promising than the last place that we'd met. Relatively small, seemingly quiet and tastefully decorated. Definitely a mark in Emily's favour. The interior matched the outside: an attractive colour scheme clearly inspired by the natural world, a theme enhanced by the aesthetically pleasing arrangements of plants, shells and pebbles scattered artfully around the place. Yes, all in all it seemed an eminently suitable venue in which to meet up with a new friend. Such a pity about the name.
As I made my way between the solid wooden tables (roughly carved, but beautifully polished), I couldn't help but notice that it had an almost exclusively female clientele. Subtle. Still, not entirely unexpected. It only took me a moment to locate Emily in one of the alcoves at the back of the shop. After ordering my drink, I went over to join her.
"'Bean There'?" I asked her, laughing a little despite myself. "Really, Emily, really?" I set my cup and saucer down on the table and sat down across from her.
"Coffee from all around the world," she replied blandly. She held the deadpan expression for a moment, but then a smile spread across her face. "Excellent. You pass the first test." Her eyes twinkled with amusement as they met mine.
"Oh?" I raised an eyebrow, inviting her to elaborate.
"You didn't give up on me immediately from the name alone. Even better, you realised that the name was a pun."
"You mean, you've met someone who didn't get that?" Sadly, I could well believe that such a person existed. The ability to look through people's minds had confirmed my admittedly low opinion of humanity. And their taste. Oh, so little taste. The success of reality TV sprung to mind as an example of that.
"She had no sense of humour at all," she confirmed, shuddering in remembered horror. "Never again."
"I can see why you felt the need for a screening method."
"Not that your sense of humour was really in doubt after the other night."
"I'm so glad that you noticed."
"Oh, I noticed alright."
Her voice took on a smoky undertone, gaze travelling over me as it had the other night. As she appraised me, I mentally catalogued my own appearance. Although a little tousled from the ivory knitted cap, my platinum-blonde hair was clearly expertly cut and styled, and good make-up went a long way towards concealing any dark shadows that may have nestled beneath my sapphire blue eyes. (They were my best feature, if I do say so myself.) My coat was a white, Chinese-style woven-cotton long-coat lined with wadded silk-floss. It was trimmed with fur at the collar and cuffs and the front was embroidered with a subtle floral design in palest gold, barely visible against the white. It opened to reveal an ivory knitted babydoll dress that fell to mid-thigh and was cinched in at the waist with a white and gold sash. My white boots were spike-heeled and made of the softest calfskin, laced up at the front and reaching to mid-calf level. White fishnet tights also helped to show off my legs to their best advantage (they were another of my good features). My jewellery was understated: diamond studs in my ears and around my neck a matching diamond pendant on a thin gold chain. All in all, I was looking pretty damn good.
"You look good," she said, as if reading my thoughts.
"Thank you, darling." It was certainly gratifying to know that my efforts had not gone unappreciated. "So do you."
She certainly did. The artfully down-at-heel look from the bar was gone without a trace, replaced by the classic elegance of a long black trumpet skirt paired with a crushed velvet long-sleeved fitted top. The rich plum colour was delightfully autumnal and brought out her complexion beautifully. The little I could see of her footwear suggested boots of some kind, black leather and possibly block-heeled. Perhaps a little overly sensible, but I could work with that. My first priority, however, would be the hair. The colour was fine but that severely straightened style was a crime on someone with her jaw line. I was thinking... A mass of soft waves gently framing her face. Yes, that would be much better. It was, however, a project for another time. Her current ensemble was topped off with silver earrings and a black velvet choker. The latter was a daring choice, but it worked. All in all -- despite the hair -- very nice indeed.
"So what other things about Emma Winthrop should I know?" she asked, leaning a little towards me, eyes bright with questions and mindscape gently glowing with vibrant colour.
"I'm a woman of international mystery," I told her wryly. "Also of leisure at the current moment."
"Leisure. I've heard of that."
"I needed to make a change," I said with a little more honesty than I was entirely comfortable with. I tried to turn it into a joke. "I had some money saved up, so I decided to use it to go and find something interesting. D.C. being the fabulously attractive tourist destination that it is, I ended up here." Truth to tell, I wasn't certain why, out of anywhere I could have chosen, I'd come to rest in this particular place. I supposed it was as good a place as any. But it was time to move the spotlight off me for the moment. "So, what do you do?"
Emily glanced away briefly as the steel in her mind rose to the surface a little. Her voice neutral, she said: "I prefer to leave work at the office." That line drawn, she looked back to me and smiled, her mind softening once more. "Besides," she added. "If I tell you everything now, how could I possibly compete with an international woman of mystery?" Despite the humour, there was still a hint of wariness in her eyes. I sensed this was an important checkpoint for her.
Interestingly, the surface of her thoughts hadn't revealed what she actually did for a living. That was a little more than the usual work/home split. I briefly thought about delving deeper, but that somehow felt like cheating. Emily was a present that I wouldn't mind unwrapping at my leisure.
"Is that the second test? Seeing if I'll leave your oh-so-mysterious job be?"
She relaxed further. "It's one you haven't passed yet, I'll note," she said teasingly.
I waved a hand in the air. "Consider it left alone. For tonight, anyway. I give you fair warning, though: I still plan to find out in the fullness of time. When you least expect it, I shall pounce." I leaned forward, as if confiding a secret. "It's what we international women of mystery do."
"So you're saying that I should always be wary around you?"
I laughed. "I've been accused of many things in my time, darling. Safe is... not one of them."
"I'll bear that in mind," she said with exactly the glint in her eye that I was hoping for. This was... entertaining. I would have said flattering, but, really, I had no self doubts in this regard. "So...?" She drew out the word, rolling it around on her tongue so that it emerged low and husky. I bet she could even sound sexy reading out the phone book.
"So...?" I repeated, slowly, letting my mouth caress the word, as if, well, it was something else. Two could play at that game, and I could play it better. I had the satisfaction of watching her eyes flick briefly downwards, probably to my lips, although I was leaning forward a little. To her credit, though, she maintained her composure and her focus.
"You hadn't finished answering my question."
"You hadn't." Her tone brooked no argument, but there was still that glint in her eye. It was that spark that made me decide to play along. That and the fact that I hadn't had a decent conversation in far too long. Whatever else may be said of the delectable Emily Prentiss, no one could accuse her of turning up to a battle of wits unarmed. A frisson of electricity ran along my spine: I was looking forward to this.
Taking a long, leisurely drink of my coffee, I settled back in my surprisingly comfortable seat and gazed at her over the rim of the cup.
"What would you like to know?"
She considered for a moment. "What does an international woman of mystery do for fun? Aside from hanging around places like The S X Factor to mock the desperate and dateless."
"I read." Huh. How about that: an honest answer.
"Really?" She didn't seem surprised, exactly, but I could tell she hadn't expected my reply. For some reason, I often got that response. Maybe I should wear my glasses more often. "What are you reading at the moment?"
"Actually, I'm currently revisiting Pride and Prejudice. I have something of a fondness for Austen." And I refused to think of it as a guilty pleasure, damn it. They were classics of English literature!
That started a conversation that ranged from books, through philosophy, to politics, to cooking, to fashion. Whilst she might not have had my breadth of knowledge in these subjects, she knew more than enough to keep me entertai and before we knew it, Bean There was closing and we were being asked to leave. We paused just outside the shop for a moment, looking at each other.
"It's been a really good night," she told me. "Thank you."
Surprisingly, I had to agree. I usually didn't get on nearly so well with members of my own sex, let alone a human. Still, given how many mutants were left, it might behoove me to widen my social circles.
I smiled back at her. "Indeed, we really must do this again at some point."
"Indeed," she breathed, her voice low and sultry. Moving towards me, she leaned in, and I realised that she was going to kiss me. Not that I hadn't had an inkling about where things were going, but... My first instinct was to flinch, to pull away, and I was suddenly angry at myself. Was I, Emma Frost, reduced to this? It was just a kiss. What did a kiss matter, anyway? It was harmless fun, and it might even make me feel better. I really, really needed that at the moment.
The thoughts flashed through my head in the time it took for her lips to reach mine. The kiss was slow and tentative, her lips soft and gentle against mine. Afterwards, she pulled back to examine my face. "Did you mind that? Did I overstep?" she asked, suddenly looking insecure.
I gave her a crooked smile. "I think you would have known if you had."
She relaxed. "Good. It's just that you looked almost scared there for a minute." Scared? Me? Of a bloody kiss? She laughed softly. "The last thing I needed was to have misread the signals and have kissed a straight girl."
I kissed her back angrily, savagely, hands threading through her hair for a more secure grip, using all the tricks in my arsenal. When I finally released her, she was panting slightly, looking a little dazed.
"Still think I might be a straight girl?"
"No. No." She shook her head slightly. "I think you've definitively laid that myth to rest. Wow. Where did you learn to kiss like that?"
"I told you I was a woman of mystery." I gave her my best smoky smile, one which had melted the knees of more people than I could count.
Emily looked at me, head slightly tilted, eyes dark. "I really had no idea that the night was going to end like this."
"Who ever said it has to end here?" bubbled to my mouth almost before I could stop it. Then the anger which had propelled me this far made me say it anyway. The thought of being in a cold bed alone, just waiting for the nightmares, had nothing to do with it.
Emily just stood there for a moment before speaking. "I haven't got space in my life for a girlfriend." I noticed that she didn't say no.
My smile deepened, and I swayed forward half a step so that our lips were almost touching once more. Old habits again: I knew this dance too well. "Oh, darling," I purred. "Did I say anything about a relationship?" The very thought chilled like ice, almost throwing me out of the mood completely. Then I mustered myself. This would simply never do. "Simple, uncomplicated, not to mention very, very hot, sex is the only thing on offer tonight," I lingered over each word as though it were a fine wine. There, back in the zone.
Emily shivered. "Now, how could I resist an offer like that?"
"Your place or mine?"
"Mine's a little far away," she said. A lie. How fascinating. If not entirely unexpected. Emily did seem to be rather a private person.
We both had our cars, so I led the way after giving her directions to my apartment. As it turned out, I needn't have bothered with the directions -- she had absolutely no trouble keeping up with me. I wondered idly if that would be an omen. You could tell a lot about someone from the way they handled a car, and Emily seemed to be that rarest of creatures: a good driver. Perhaps her mysterious day job involved driving. I couldn't really see her as a chauffeur or a delivery girl, though. Racer? Hmm... No, not likely. Whatever she did for a living, I'd wager it was something that involved her mind. A couple of hours' snarky commentary and an evening's conversation were enough to tell me that she was the kind of woman who thrived on intellectual stimulation. If she was anything at all like me -- and in that regard, I suspected she might be -- she would go stark staring mad without it.
In both too short and too long a time, we reached my humble abode. This was it. Telling myself that the rapidity of my heartbeat was due to excitement and not nervousness, I was out of my car before she'd even set her parking brake. By the time she looked over in my direction, I was leaning against the wall in an artfully casual pose. She smiled at me as she slid out of the car.
"Fancy meeting you here."
"Indeed." I didn't smile back at her, instead quirking an eyebrow in an expression of challenge. Her smile deepened in response, proving that I'd read her correctly. (Well of course I had -- I'm Emma Frost.) Closing her car door firmly, she turned back to face me and that's when I pounced. Surging forward, I pressed her back against the car, using the full length of my body to keep her in place. There was a brief moment when she stiffened and I thought she was going to push me away, but she yielded before I could release her. A quick mental scan confirmed that her reaction was caused by surprise, rather than by unwillingness (mental note: good reflexes backed up by self-defence training), and so I continued as planned.
Twining my arms around her neck, I kissed her gently, just the merest brush of my lips on hers. It wasn't at all what she was expecting, but then where's the fun in giving someone what they expect? She started to say something, but I covered her mouth with mine, swallowing the words before they could emerge into the cold night air; smothering them with heat. I could sense that this was what she'd expected, what she wanted, what she craved. My lips on hers with almost bruising intensity; tenderness banished by passion's fire. My nails rested on the back of her neck. I drew them lightly over the soft skin as I caught her lower lip between my teeth. She responded... My god, was she responsive, a moan emerging from somewhere deep in her throat as she returned my passion with her own. I did so love that in a woman. And this was just a kiss. I wasn't planning on staying out here for long, but in the end several minutes went by before I broke off the kiss and pulled back, gratified beyond measure by the small, disappointed sound she made as I stepped away.
"It's cold out here. Care to come up and see me?" The reference was, of course, completely intentional.
"Lead the way." Her hair may have been slightly mussed, her pupils large and liquid with desire, but her expression was composed and her voice was perfectly level, if a little husky. She certainly recovered herself quickly. I'd have to see what I could do to break her composure a little more thoroughly. A rather predatory smile curved my lips as I led her into the building. I did so love a challenge.
We took the stairs, rather than the elevator. All part of setting the proper mood. The kiss outside was to whet her appetite; this simulated chase was to maintain it. Not to mention giving her a great view of my arse and legs. Besides, physical exercise was supposed to work up an appetite.
Soon enough, we stood at the door. I held her gaze with mine as I unlocked it. "This is me." I gestured for her to precede me, quashing a small tremor of unease that threatened to rear its ugly head. This wasn't letting someone into my inner sanctum; this was gaining the advantage of home ground. Emily was on my territory here: that meant my rules. I watched her for a moment as she surveyed the small apartment. Her eyes flickered as she seemed to almost automatically trace over everything visible. The unease returned as I realised that the apartment was a little messier than I'd like. I'd obviously have to fix that, I mused. I wouldn't want anyone to think that I was a slob, after all. Certainly not my intriguing new acquaintance. Alas, short of a telepathic illusion there was little I could do to hide the appalling state of my apartment, so instead I attempted to distract her by running my fingers down her back.
"Let me help you with your coat."
She looked back at me a little jerkily. "I'm sure I can manage," she said, stepping away as she started to undo buttons.
"I'm sure you can," I replied, gliding after her in pursuit, moving around in front of her. "But a good hostess sees to her guest's every need."
Her fingers stilled as I covered her hands with my own. She didn't resist as I moved them away and placed them on my hips, curling her fingers around my curves without prompting.
"My every need?" she enquired.
"I'm all about the proper observance of etiquette," I breathed, continuing from where she left off with her unbuttoning.
Again, there was the slight stiffening, more sensed this time than actually physically felt; the almost-resistance that she banished with a conscious act of will. I knew she wanted to be here -- sweet mystery or not, there are some things a girl really had to be sure of -- so what was the barrier for? Maybe it was just that she was used to being the one in control. Well, I'm afraid that wasn't on the cards this evening. Sliding my hands beneath her coat, I made sure to brush my thumbs over her collarbones, my fingertips over her shoulders. Leaning in to lift the garment from her, I brushed her earlobe with my lips in the lightest of kisses.
"You have beautiful skin," I whispered. It was the kind of flawless that rich women with nothing better to do paid a fortune for, suffering through chemical treatments and mud baths and god knew what else, but she was completely natural. If I didn't have so many good features of my own, I might almost be envious.
"Thank you," she murmured back. "So do you." And then she kissed my neck. Well, that was just cheating. A totally underhanded, unexpected, unorthodox -- utterly divine! -- deceitful move that I absolutely just had to respond to.
"Mmmm..." Not that kind of response. Well, yes, that kind of response, but I couldn't let the move go unchallenged. That would simply never do. So, I nipped at her earlobe with my teeth, sliding a hand beneath the velvet of her top -- so soft -- to rake my nails lightly over her back. Ha! A point to me as she arched, letting out a startled gasp that was music to my ears. I took advantage of her distraction to pay some strategic attention to her neck. Starting just behind her ear, I trailed a line of kisses down to her collarbone, licking my way back up and then blowing gently on the sensitised skin before bringing my teeth to bear. She was breathing hard now, her pulse rapid beneath my lips. Distantly, I was aware of her fingers digging into my hips. I wondered if she would leave bruises. I was pretty damn sure I was going to, at the very least, and she was certainly wasn't complaining. Time to increase the intensity.
I yanked the coat the rest of the way off her one-handed, throwing it over a nearby box. (I didn't have a proper coat stand yet, and there weren't any hooks. Besides, it looked like a fairly sturdy coat. It would be fine.)
"Do you want any refreshments?" I punctuated my words with kisses and nibbles, bringing my now-unoccupied hand around to her torso, where I promptly found something to occupy it. Mmmm... Firm... "Or shall we retire for the evening?"
She gave a breathless laugh, sliding one hand down to cup my arse as she pulled me tighter against her with the other. "What if I want a coffee? Or... Mmmm... A cheese sandwich?"
I knew I liked her. I kissed my way back up to her ear, to murmur: "I'm afraid I seem to be all out of coffee and sandwiches at the moment. Can I offer Madame an alternative menu item?"
"That depends." She located my coat buttons, starting to open them with dextrous ease, despite my best efforts to distract her. That really was quite unacceptable.
The offending hand stilled as I nipped her sharply on the neck, and she gave a very satisfactory moan. I smiled, and kissed it better. "On what?" I breathed against her skin.
As her hand started its movement again, I thought that perhaps her persistence should be rewarded rather than punished. After all, I couldn't help but agree with her unspoken but clearly expressed thought that there were too many clothes in the way. I did my own part to remedy the situation, starting with her top. There was another short disagreement about who should be disrobing whom, but I'm happy to say that my point of view prevailed. I think the deciding factor was when I dropped to my knees to kiss her stomach, just below the belly button. (I have to admit that I did cheat a little, but it's hardly my fault if she was broadcasting what she'd really like me to do right then.)
Somehow she still managed to reply. "Do you have an alternative menu item?" she asked, her voice a little muffled as I eased the velvet garment off over her head.
It took me a second to remember what she was referring to, and then I was torn between amusement and irritation at her self possession. Amusement won. "Can't you guess?" The top went the way of the coat, although I was a little more careful with that than I had been with the other. Luckily, it landed where it was supposed to. Next came the bra, but I had a little trouble with the fastening. Well, I was working blind, not to mention multitasking. (Since I was leaning forward anyway, I took the opportunity to bestow some attention on her cleavage -- the kind that involved my lips and tongue. She seemed to appreciate it.) I think one of the hooks was caught on the material, or something. I could hardly just yank it -- I didn't want to ruin what was a reasonably nice undergarment unless I absolutely had to -- so I was forced to jiggle the stupid thing around until it finally worked free. On the plus side, all that movement led to other, rather pleasant jiggling. It might have been quite hypnotic to a lesser woman.
Finally managing to free those really rather attractive breasts from their unjust confinement, I held the bra up with an exclamation of triumph. Emily, the minx, took shameless advantage of my momentary distraction to cup my own breasts through my dress, pressing one leg between mine. Nylon slid smoothly over fishnets, and I couldn't help a shiver as she slowly brushed against me.
"Maybe you should tell me," she breathed. I have to admit that it took me a moment to recall that I'd asked her a question. I am reasonably certain that someone else would have been quite undone by that exquisite friction. I, however, possess one advantage that all those other women lack: I am Emma Frost. And, to paraphrase an acquaintance of mine: I am pretty bloody good at what I do.
Turnabout being fair play, I twisted around slightly, taking advantage of our position -- and the fact that her skirt had gotten hiked up at some point during the proceedings -- to slip my hand between her parted legs. I can't deny that what she was doing was very nice indeed, but it was nothing to what I could manage with my fingers. I was extremely pleased to discover how wet she was already, the evidence of her arousal soaking straight through panties and tights. It really made me feel rather appreciated.
"Well, darling," I drawled, pressing my fingers against her core as I traced slow circles over her clitoris with my thumb. "I was planning on fucking you senseless." As she shuddered and gasped, I bent my head to her breasts, eliciting a moan as I drew a nipple into my mouth and caressed it with my tongue.
"I, ah! I think that would be an... Mmmm... An acceptable alternative to hot coffee." The woman was still capable not only of speech, but of humour. How utterly frustrating. I dipped my mind into hers and confirmed that I really was performing to my usual standard. I was now officially imp... My train of thought got a little derailed as she palmed my breasts again, stroking them through the suddenly too-thick material of my dress and bra. I took a breath and focussed. It occurred to me that we were both wearing far too many clothes for this stage in the proceedings. I released the nipple, rather enjoying the disappointed groan she gave in response to the withdrawal of my tongue. Unfortunately for her, I was taught not to speak with my mouth full.
"I'm glad you approve. Now let's go to bed: I want you naked and writhing beneath me."
"That's funny," she breathed. "I was just thinking the same about you."
I chuckled throatily as I led her by one hand to the bedroom. (Walking backwards so I could leave said hand where it was, fingers still working between her legs. She didn't seem to be complaining.) "Sorry," I said, my voice sweet with fake regret. "Winner's choice."
She looked puzzled. "What do you mean?" And then her whole face changed, eyes closing as she threw her head back, mouth falling open in a near-silent "Oh!" I could feel her pulsing against my slick fingers, hot and wet and just so unutterably sexy as she stood there naked from the waist up, breasts quivering in time with the ebbing shudders travelling through her body. I held her as her knees sagged a little, supporting her over the short distance between here and my bedroom. She sank down onto the bed and I busied myself removing her boots while she was still distracted. When I glanced up again, she'd recovered her equanimity and was looking at me thoughtfully. "Winner's choice?" she enquired.
I patted her knee, standing up to (rather belatedly) remove my coat. "I'm ahead on points, which makes me the winner. And for my prize, I choose to ravish you mercilessly." I smiled at her, and I'm sure the devil himself danced in my eyes. "You could try an appeal, but I have it on good authority that the judge is a stone-cold bitch."
"So, this is a game?" Something wicked glittered in her eyes, then, something dark and wild that made me shiver deep inside.
"Everything's a game, darling, and I play to win." More truth in that than I'd like, but what was said was said. To cover my momentary disquiet, I undid the sash at my waist and pulled my dress off over my head. Staring into her eyes made me feel as though I was standing on the edge of a cliff, looking down at the endless black ocean below. It was a disorienting, vertiginous sensation. I heard the bedsprings creak, and when I emerged from the woollen cocoon, she was standing in front of me. Taking the dress out of my hands, she laid it gently aside and ran her hands over the now-bare skin of my back.
"So do I," she said softly. She bent to bring her lips to mine, but I pushed her away. I didn't know why I did it: I just reacted without thinking, shoving hard against her shoulders so that she stumbled and sat back down on the bed. This was unacceptable. Emma Frost did not flake out during sex. Emma Frost was going to pull her shit together and get back in the zone. Emma Frost was going to make Emily Prentiss fucking scream.
Covering my momentary lapse, I followed Emily down onto the bed as if I'd planned it that way, pressing her into the yielding mattress beneath us and covering her body with my own. I kissed her with almost savage passion, starting with her lips and moving down her body, lingering on her neck, breasts and stomach. She responded with equal ardour, kissing me back until I broke away from her lips, then fumbling with the fastenings of my bra. She actually managed to half-undo it before I slid down out of reach.
"Come back here," she panted, reaching after me.
"I'm," a kiss, "rather," a trailing tongue, "busy." A sharp nip for emphasis.
Without warning, she raked her nails across my back, making me arch and shiver, half-closing my eyes at the sensation. Taking advantage of my momentary pause, she half-sat up, supporting herself on one hand as she used the other to finish divesting me of the troublesome item of clothing. "A point to me, I think," she murmured into my ear.
"Maybe," I conceded, thrilled by her determination. "But you didn't think this through."
"Oh? What do you mean?" She tossed the bra onto the bed, bracing herself in preparation for flipping us over. Unfortunately for her, I was faster.
With a wicked smile, I demonstrated, putting lips and tongue, not to mention teeth to work on the breasts that she had dangled so temptingly in front of my face. Now, her muscles tensed for whole other reasons. I eased her back down onto the thoroughly ruffled duvet, moving us up the bed a little to reduce the risk of unfortunate accidents. (Sadly, this was the voice of experience talking, and not one I wished to repeat. Bruises upon one's derriere were not the most romantic of mementos.) Now she was at least temporarily distracted, I could continue lavishing upon her the attention she deserved, rendering her completely at my mercy. My hands roamed freely over the sweat and saliva-slicked skin of her torso, teasing and caressing on their way towards the waistband of her skirt. Tangling my fingers in the material, I slid skirt, tights and panties down her legs, trailing kisses in their wake. I paused when I reached her crotch, bestowing only a single, feather light kiss -- a promise of things to come -- before continuing on my way.
She groaned aloud. "Tease," she accused.
"Yes," I agreed. Nipping lightly at the skin of her inner thighs, I noted with satisfaction how she gasped and writhed beneath me. "But don't worry darling, I fully intend to satisfy you."
Throwing the bundle of clothing onto the rug, I knelt at the foot of the bed, very lightly brushing my fingertips against the damp folds between her thighs before running my hands slowly down the full length of her firmly muscled legs. She had great legs. I idly bet they'd look fantastic in black fishnets and killer heels, but that was a project for another time. Right now, I really wanted to make her come again.
Impatience may have been threatening to get the better of me, but my pride would not allow me to do this any other way than perfectly. First, I lightly drew my nails over the soles of her feet in a way I knew would be almost, but not quite, ticklish. (It was the 'not-quite' that made all the difference. Judging from her reaction, Emily agreed.) Second, I took my time kissing and stroking my way back up her legs, trailing my tongue over the moist, quivering skin of her inner thighs until she was almost ready to scream from frustration alone. Third, I simply... stopped, hovering there above my goal until she tilted her head up to look at me with an expression that was part confusion, part annoyance. I just smiled, waiting for the perfect moment to make my move. Any second now...
She drew breath to speak, but I covered her with my mouth, turning whatever she'd been about to say into a strangled, wordless exclamation. She wanted this, needed it; her desire washing over me like a physical thing. I opened myself to the sensation, delighting in the way her mind pulsed and shuddered in counterpoint to her body's responses. I was already wet, but my core throbbed in response to her reaction, sending pleasant tingles all the way through my body. God, I'd missed this. I stroked her engorged clitoris with my tongue, reaching up to cup one of her breasts with one hand. My other hand was busy between her legs, fingers tracing circles around her entrance. I could feel the pressure building within her, muscles bunching and releasing. I pressed my mouth against her, flicking my tongue faster and faster so that she gasped and panted and tangled her fingers in my hair. Almost... Almost... Now! I slid a finger inside her, slipping easily through the slick heat, the feel of it enough to tip her right over the edge of that precipice. She flung her head back and screamed, her mind whiting out with the intensity of it. I had to bite my lip to hold in an answering cry, shuddering right along with her. It was intense.
She was intense.
I kissed my way back up her body as she quivered; smiling fiercely down at her as she finally stilled and opened her eyes. "Welcome back."
"Wow," she muttered, blinking a few times.
"You're welcome." I couldn't keep a note of smugness from my voice, but I think any reasonable person would agree that there was just cause for it.
Narrowing her eyes, she met my gaze with an expression of determination. "Your turn now."
"Hmmm, I don't think so." I partially withdrew my finger from where it still nestled, curling it a little to make her twitch and gasp. "I'm not finished with you yet." Backing up my words with action, I added a second finger to the first, thrusting deep inside her again and again and again. I fucked her with my hand until she cried out for a second time, watching her face as she writhed beneath me, just as I wanted. Like I told her: I play to win. Afterwards, she fell back with a sigh, sprawling limp and languid on the bed as I withdrew my fingers from her molten core. Had I really worn her out? I had her pegged for more endurance than that. I propped myself up on an elbow, running my gaze over her deliciously naked body. Her limbs were tangled in the duvet, her hair spread out on the pillow like a fallen angel's halo, tousled and tangled. It suited her. She was the perfect picture of blissful satiation, which is why it quite took me by surprise when she pounced.
Before I knew it, I was the one sprawled on the bed, being quite thoroughly and enjoyably kissed. I have to admit that I wasn't precisely complaining about this turn of events. After all: I was quite convincingly ahead on points. A low, pleased sound rumbling in the back of my throat, I surrendered myself to her skilful ministrations.
Much as I'd suspected, she was very good with her hands.
Afterwards, we lay there in my bed, side by side, our breathing the only sound in the darkened room. We'd never gotten around to turning on the light, so the only illumination was a thin wedge of brightness spilling in from the hallway. It was... nice. Companionable. My eyes started to drift shut, only to snap wide open as my breath caught in my throat. No, it was claustrophobic. Smothering. I couldn't do this. I felt myself tense; couldn't stop my body drawing in on itself. I wrapped my arms tightly around my knees and fought to keep my breathing even and slow. The bedsprings shifted as Emily moved in response to my change of position. I felt her half-turn towards me, and then away, rolling all the way over and getting out of bed. I turned to watch as she padded around the room, stooping to gather up her discarded garments. A couple of times she stopped and turned in my direction, drawing in a breath as if she was about to speak, but each time she let it out again without saying a word. Bundle in hand, she turned around a couple of times, casting her gaze over the floor. When she moved into the light I could see that she was frowning.
I uncurled, propping myself up on my elbows. "If you're looking for the rest of your clothes," I drawled smugly, "I think they ended up somewhere in the hall."
She flashed me a look. "Thanks," she said a little sardonically. She turned to go, then her shoulders softened, and she looked back towards me, a lopsided smile quirking her lips. "For everything."
I flashed an answering smile, recovering my equilibrium, or at least doing a good job of faking it. "My pleasure," I said, drawing the words out a little.
I couldn't be certain given the light, but I do rather believe that I managed to score a blush off of her. She ducked out into the hallway, returning with the rest of her clothing. "I'm afraid I have to go," she said, an uncertain note in her voice as she got dressed.
I could leave it at that. I knew I probably should leave it at that. And if I did, I knew that we'd never see each other again, that we'd just be a sweet memory of a night of pleasure to each other, a bittersweet thought of what might have been. Maybe a few pleasurable dreams. And that would be for the best. All I had to do was say goodbye at the appropriate place, let her go, and that would be that.
"Before you go, the least I can do is offer you that coffee that I promised earlier," I said, my tone making it clear that I wouldn't be taking no for an answer.
I never was very good at taking my own best advice.
A short while later, we were both seated at my kitchen table, each holding a steaming cup of coffee. She was fully dressed, while I was swathed in a soft white robe with satin trim. I liked this robe: it was stylish, yet comfortable.
Emily contemplated her cup of coffee thoughtfully before looking back up at me. "I'm not used to having one-night stands with people I actually like," she admitted a little ruefully.
I smiled involuntarily at being told that she liked me. It wasn't that I didn't already know. But still, it hadn't seemed quite real until I had heard the words. "Then isn't it time to broaden your horizons a little, darling?"
She shot me an unhappy glance, sighed and took a sip of her coffee. Setting the cup firmly down on the table, she closed her eyes for a moment and then looked up, meeting my enquiring gaze. "I have a job that has irregular hours at best, that often requires me to fly out with little or no warning and just doesn't leave me enough energy for much outside of it. Especially a relationship. Especially the kind of relationship that a woman like you deserves."
"I wouldn't be too sure of that," I murmured before I could stop myself, then ignored Emily's questioning look. "I'm still not sure that I see a problem here. As I've already mentioned, I'm not in the market for a girlfriend, and I have plenty of experience with keeping things at the casual sex level." I ignored the voice that said that I hadn't exactly liked any of those people either.
She regarded me doubtfully. "You really think that this can work?"
"Would I be making this invitation if I wasn't?" Actually, hang on, why was I making this offer?
"I've not known you for that long, but lack of self confidence doesn't appear to be one of your defining flaws."
"I can see why you have to fend off girls at every turn."
She laughed. "Okay, you win."
"I usually do," I smiled at her smugly. "Besides, where else can you get this level of conversation?"
She raised an eyebrow in my direction. "Do you really want an answer to that?"
I laughed. "Now I can't possibly let you go. I enjoy sparring with you far too much."
"And what are your thoughts on occasional bouts of sex as we both feel like it?"
"Amazingly hot sex, please." I was almost offended.
"Fair enough. Occasional bouts of amazingly hot sex as we both feel like it."
I pretended to think about it, determinedly ignoring the knives digging into my stomach. "I could be persuaded," I said a little coyly.
She finished off her coffee and stood up. "In any case, I'd definitely be interested in meeting up again. I'll let you know as and when my schedule gives me an opening."
I stood up as well. "Leaving?"
"Unfortunately," she sighed, then came over and touched my shoulders lightly with her hands. "Thank you for an absolutely fantastic evening."
She didn't move to kiss me, and I didn't offer. It felt like too much intimacy all of a sudden. I smiled and waved, and she left my apartment.
I sat back down at the table, clutching my coffee cup with both hands. What was I doing? How could a woman I'd just met and barely knew have this effect on me? Why did I even care? Maybe I just liked to torture myself, with the sweetest and sharpest pains. It would hardly be out of character. But I couldn't follow that line of thought any further, so I poured the rest of the coffee down the sink and went to bed.
The nightmares came again, as they almost always did; only this time tinged with a little more guilt than normal. And if my eyes were wet when I awoke, then it was obviously sweat from my perfect brow. It couldn't be anything else.
Chapter 3: Cheque and Mate
I stalked down the street in high dudgeon, muttering to silently myself as my heels clicked rapidly on the pavement. When the third person in a row jumped like a startled rabbit after getting a look at my face, I took a deep breath and moderated my expression somewhat. It wasn't my intent to inspire terror. Not on this occasion. Believe it or not, I was actually out here on a mission of mercy. Green eyes had provided a less than thrilling addition to my usual nightmares over the last week or so, and what passed for my conscience was telling me that I might want to at least do something to help the girl I'd seen in the alleyway. So, here I was. Emma Bloody Frost: social worker.
Locating her was a trivial enough exercise for a telepath of my prowess: she was slumped in an alleyway adjacent to the one I had seen her in yesterday. The outer surface of her mind was a tangled mass of thorny vines. Her thoughts felt cramped and tight, huddled in on themselves much like she'd curled herself up physically. Much as I expected, the thing uppermost in them was misery. The cold knifed straight through her ragged clothing and cut her to the bone, every joint aching as if it belonged to a woman four or five times her age. Hunger clawed at her insides, her last meal too long ago to stave off the weakness that clutched at her body and mind. It was clear that she was in a bad way. I just hoped that she would be willing to accept my help.
Her gaze darted towards me as I rounded the corner and entered her field of view. The movement was almost birdlike; appropriate considering she'd been wishing she could fly far away from here. Fear spiked her thoughts as she realised that I was heading towards her, rather than walking on by like everyone else. One hand surreptitiously slid into her jacket, presumably reaching for a weapon of some sort. She stayed huddled where she was, but I could tell from the set of her thoughts and the way her balance shifted that she was ready and willing to use violence if she thought she had to. Interesting. And yet, despite that; despite living on the streets, she still seemed so terribly young and vulnerable. Starvation, grime and the shapeless rags of her clothing made it difficult to judge her true age, but I'd be surprised if she was older than early to mid-teens. She was a child. Whatever had happened to her, she was still a child; still an innocent. Forcing down the entirely irrational surge of anger that roiled in my chest, I met her eyes and gave her my best calming smile, making sure to stop a good few paces away from her. Out of grabbing distance.
"Would you like a hot meal?" I asked, without preamble.
The fear didn't abate as she frowned suspiciously back at me. "I'm not going anywhere with you."
"There's a cafe over there," I indicated. "Would that suit you?"
She watched me through narrowed eyes. "What do you want?"
There was no denying that she had excellent instincts, if ill-founded in this particular case. I couldn't imagine she'd experienced many random acts of kindness in her short life. "Nothing. Call it my good deed for the day. I get to feel better about myself, and you get to have a full stomach. We both win."
She looked at me for a moment longer -- clearly wondering what my game was -- and then nodded. A hot meal was a hot meal, after all.
The waitress glanced over as we entered the cafe, then looked again as my companion's appearance registered. Her eyes narrowed with suspicion, much as the girl's had. (It was not a good look for her, yet the lines etched in her skin showed that it wasn't an infrequent one.) I returned her gaze levelly, which seemed to faze her a little. (Oh, please. Over the course of my rather colourful life, far better women than her had had tried to intimidate me and failed. I was hardly going to be forced onto the defensive by one blowsy, middle-aged waitress.) She bustled over to us, making a big production over the fact that she was cataloguing everything on our table before we sat down. I mentally reduced her tip.
"What would you like?" she finally deigned to ask, plonking a couple of cheap laminated menus down in front of us.
Ignoring her, I smiled encouragingly at the girl, who was looking rather overwhelmed. "Order anything you like," I told her, projecting an air of calm reassurance.
She glanced up at me, and then back down at the menu. "Um, a full breakfast? Please," she added as an afterthought.
The waitress scribbled something on her pad. "Anything to drink?" She managed to sound bored, curious and disapproving all at the same time. I was impressed -- I hadn't thought her capable of that level of complexity. The girl looked at me.
"Go ahead," I told her. "It's okay."
"Cola, please," she all but whispered.
The waitress scribbled another note, then looked in my direction. "Just a coffee," I told her. Even as she scurried off to relay our food order to the kitchen like a good little drone, she made sure to keep a beady eye on us. Subtle, she wasn't. Maybe she was expecting us to run off with the flatware. Foolish woman. If we were going to do that, I'd make damn sure we actually ate the food first. That's rule number one of skipping out on a bill: gouge them for as much as you can before making a run for it. Ah, memories. My mental tally of the waitress' current tip kept on ticking downwards.
There wasn't much in the way of conversation while the girl and I waited for the food. She didn't seem to be any more inclined to talk than she had been out in the alleyway, and I didn't want to push her. I couldn't even come up with a reason why I should want to. I brushed a strand of hair from out of my eyes, and she flinched as if she thought that I was going to hit her. Looking closer at her face, I couldn't tell if some of the marks on her face were bruises or just dirt. My stomach clenched at the thought of someone hurting her, and I started to feel shaky again, as if I wanted to scream. If I was having this kind of idiotic reaction just from this, then I really didn't want to poke around in her head. The last thing I wanted to encounter were actual images. I shook my head. I'm Emma Frost. I'm better than this.
I strengthened my shields anyway.
The best that could be said about the coffee was that it was drinkable, but even that much came as a pleasant surprise. In honour of its adequacy, I added another fifty cents onto the tip, which I promptly deducted again on the grounds that the waitress had a face like a slapped arse. She might not have been happy to have some dirty street kid sitting in her palace of plastic, but she didn't have to look so goddamn sour about it. The girl was uncomfortable enough as it was. Fortunately for both of them, the girl seemed to be blissfully unaware of Pucker-Mouth's gimlet-eyed death glare. I think she just stared down at her hands the whole time, probably just trying to avoid eye contact.
When the food arrived, the waitress had barely set it on the table when the girl fell on it like a starving dog on a pound of meat. Come to think of it, I have seen dogs with better table manners, but I couldn't exactly blame her. This was the first proper meal she'd had in what felt like a lifetime. Poor kid. She managed to put away a decent amount of the food in a relatively short space of time, but then she seemed to lose steam. Barely even pausing to chew at first, she started to slow down when she hit the halfway mark, grinding to a complete halt when the plate was still a quarter full. A heartbroken expression on her face, she stared at the remains as if the thought of not finishing it was causing her physical pain. I couldn't bear to see it. Fortunately, there was a simple solution.
I caught the waitress' eye. "Can we have the rest of this to go?" In almost no time at all, the leftovers had been whisked away, boxed up and deposited back upon the table. One could almost think that she wanted to get rid of us. "Thank you." She just grunted in response. How utterly charming. Just for that, I made a point of picking up one of the five dollar bills I'd just laid on the table and replacing it with a pile of quarters. "Sorry about the change," I said, insincerely, as I got to my feet. I could feel her glowering at my back as I sashayed out of the door: it gave me a warm, fuzzy feeling.
As I said: I just love being a bitch sometimes.
We paused outside on the pavement, the girl looking uncertainly at me as she clutched the box of food possessively to her thin chest. "So... Do you want anything else, or is that it?" The expression on her face said she was waiting for the other shoe to drop.
I considered a thousand different ways of trying to reassure her, but in the end the simplest one was the best. "No, not a thing," The words had barely left my mouth before was off and away. I'll say this for the girl: she could certainly move.
Hopefully that would keep her damned eyes out of my dreams.
"So, if we are to believe that movie, the path to true love is to brood menacingly then strategically stalk your crush until they swoon over how romantic you are," I summarised, as the credits rolled. Uncurling from my comfortable sprawl, I stood up and stretched, catlike, before leaning forward to turn off the DVD.
"I've had dates like that," Emily commented drily, her tone belied by the sudden spike of heat in her mind. Following her eyes, it did rather appear that my blouse had ridden up a little, exposing a portion of my perfect stomach.
"Did it work?" I had to ask, stilling the impulse to tug my blouse back into place. I was who I was, and I certainly wasn't going to change that now.
She gave me a look of sheer disbelief. "Do I look like one of a heroine of a romance movie?" Almost unconsciously, her gaze drifted downwards again.
I could hardly let that go unanswered, trailing my own gaze over her like a lover's touch. After just the right length of pause, I replied: "I suspect that you'd be far less interesting if you were."
"I'm so glad that I live up to your standards."
"I would hardly have invited you around here if you didn't," I replied archly. Snagging the wine bottle from the table, I tilted it in the direction of her glass, looking questioningly at her.
"Please," she said, sitting up a little to make it easier for me to pour. I liberally topped up both of our glasses, setting the half-full bottle back down before stretching out again on my half, well, two thirds of the sofa. By contrast, Emily seemed comfortable remaining more or less sat upright, her only concession to relaxation being to lean slightly on a cushion. Each to their own, I supposed.
Emily took a sip of her wine before looking at me. "Well, as fun as it was providing a somewhat alternate commentary, assisted by yourself..."
My eyebrows shot upwards. "Only assisting, was I?"
She smirked a little. "I was trying to be polite about your 'contribution'."
"Obviously you must have missed the full impact of my words whilst cowering behind your fingers at strategic points during the movie."
"Hey! It's not my fault that I have a higher taste threshold than you do."
I shrugged, relaxing back into my chair and taking a sip of wine. "I do believe that 'taste' was never going to be a part of this viewing experience. I can't be held responsible if you weren't prepared for that."
"I take it you were suitably prepared for such an experience?"
"Sadly, I have had to endure far more than my fair share of movies of dubious merit." I winced a little as fragments of some of them returned to me quite involuntarily. Unfortunately, supervising trips to the cinema was a price of being a teacher.
"The scars run deep, I see." She regarded me sympathetically. "Anyway, as I was saying, as fun as that was, I'd like to find some other way to spend the rest of the evening."
"I thought that we agreed to at least try and keep out of the bedroom tonight," I observed. "If we're trying for the friendship along with the benefits, the idea was that our fourth date should be a little more... relaxed." I mused for a second. "Though we did say that about the third too, as I recall. Still, I guess we technically did avoid the bedroom. And this apartment."
Emily's face flushed delightfully. "I thought that we agreed not to speak about that."
"No. You agreed to it. I made no such promise." I considered my body thoughtfully. "I think I might still have some marks. And I haven't managed to get the grass stains off that coat." I sighed, in a not at all regretful way. Some things were worth a little damage. "Well, enough of that. Did you have anything in mind for our not at all sex related activity?"
She pretended to think deeply about her answer, but I could tell by the steel sheen of her thoughts that she already had something in mind. "I did notice that you have a rather nice chess set. Care to play a game or two?" She raised an eyebrow enquiringly.
"I'd be delighted to indulge you." It might be one way to find out more about Emily without cheating.
The game began slowly as Emily started out with a defensive stance, refusing to be drawn no matter what blandishments I sent in her direction. I sacrificed a few pieces in feinting, she lost a few to my gambits, but there was a very unsatisfying lack of engagement. This changed as she started to responding to my moves, losing pieces and space until she took my queen and I realised that she had somehow managed to draw me out. From there it was a short defensive war until, despite a few brilliant counter attacks if I do say so myself, she had me in checkmate.
"Another game?" she asked, smiling.
This did, of course, mean war.
I accepted her challenge with a smile. Well, it was technically a smile. My lips were pulled back over my teeth, at any rate. I daresay the overall effect was somewhat predatory. Well and good, but I wouldn't say that darling Emily was mere prey. Oh, her face was as composed as ever, but something glittered there, behind her eyes; something sharp and poised and, well, calculating. My newfound focus and concentration meant that, unfortunately, I may have been a little less meticulous about my mental shielding than during the last round. Not that I would ever be so crass as to actually look inside her head, but I could hardly be held responsible if she broadcasted her strategies, now could I?
Her initial moves were markedly different to those she opened with last game. Rather than a diffident and defensive posture, she was aggressive and direct, moving pieces straight for my heart.
"Is that an opening more to your liking?" she asked, raising an eyebrow, a teasing light in her eyes.
Rather than planning moves and countermoves, the thoughts leaking from her mind seemed to be more concerned with what my responses said about me as a person.
"I'll show you what I can do with it," I replied, almost purring.
'A very pronounced competitive streak, she noted mentally. 'Manipulative, with a tendency to use distraction and provocation in order to put others off-balance.'
"I await with breathless anticipation," she said out loud.
I rifled through connecting thoughts. It didn't feel like this was something that she had just started in the chess game. To my surprise, there was a whole collection here. Notes, tied to images, narratives. 'Dominant and aggressive -- definitely Type-A personality.' 'Highly sexual.' 'Moved here recently, but away from something rather than to D.C. specifically. Breakup? Seems likely, given response to a possible relationship. On the run?'
I froze on encountering that last part. I'd give her manipulative and highly sexual. She hadn't seen anything yet. This match would be mine.
I made my move, then just happened to gently caress the back of Emily's hand in passing as she sat, hands splayed on the table. Leaning forward just a little, I met her gaze with hungry eyes, licking my lips as her breath hitched involuntarily. Sometimes I could just eat her up.
I smiled predatorily at her. "I didn't realise that you were being so literal, darling." With that distraction, I managed to neatly derail Emily's intrusion.
Emily looked betrayedly at me. "I thought that we agreed to keep tonight out of the bedroom."
I smirked. "Then consider this a test of your willpower, darling," and made my move.
Now I would set the tempo of our engagement.
I considered the board, tilting my head to one side and idly twirling a lock of my hair about one finger. The position just happened to reveal the creamy expanse of my neck. Not unblemished, though, oh no. I drew a fingertip gently over the bruises I knew were there, allowing myself to shiver slightly at the memories it brought back. I didn't need to look up to know that Emily's eyes were on me; that she couldn't help but watch. The knowledge warmed me, in all sort of ways. I made my move, perhaps leaning in a little closer to Emily than I really needed to; so close that she couldn't help but feel the heat of my breath on her lips. When I settled back in my seat again, I could almost fancy I heard a small, disappointed sigh escape those lips.
Smiling wickedly, even hungrily, I locked my gaze on hers, noting that her eyes were darkened, pupils enlarged. All of a sudden the room seemed a little brighter as I felt myself mirroring her responses. I let the arousal flow through me, unhindered. There were few things quite as seductive as mutual lust. The advantage with Emily is that I didn't have to fake it. After a moment, I raised an eyebrow.
"Forgetting something?" I asked in a sultry tone.
She blinked, confused for just a second, before returning her attention to the board and making her move. Not one of her best, but still more than adequate. Obviously I would have to lead her further down this merry path. And have fun every step of the way. Pouncing, I made my own move, or, rather, moves. Picking up the piece I'd chosen, I paused as if reconsidering my plans, running the smooth, cool crystal over my lower lip for a few moments and occasionally flicking it with my tongue. I played just long enough to be sure that her thoughts were running in the same direction as mine, then put the piece down in the square I'd originally earmarked for it.
Emily shook her head, glowering at me. "You are incorrigible, you know that?"
"Darling," I purred. "You do say the sweetest things. I'll have to make sure that I reward you appropriately." I reached out to caress her face, but she leaned back out of reach, frowning in a way that did absolutely nothing to hide the desire in her eyes.
"Can't you be good for once?"
"But I'm so much better when I'm bad," I pouted, fluttering my eyelashes at her innocently.
"Frustrating woman!" She was most definitely in a huff. Probably because she was considering ripping my clothes off and ravishing me right there, as more than an academic exercise.
I smiled, imagining Emily in a schoolgirl's uniform. "No, that's when I'm really bad. I don't believe that you've encountered me in one of those moods yet."
"Can we just play the game!"
"I thought I was. And it's your move, darling."
Not bothering to dignify that with a reply, she wrestled her thoughts back on track with an obvious effort. To help her focus, I stretched in my seat, raising my arms above my head and wriggling a little, as if getting comfortable. Her hand hovered over one of her pieces, her eyes following my movements as she unconsciously licked her lips. I never said I was going to help her focus on the game. Well, on the game of chess, anyway. Still watching me, she blindly moved the piece, almost knocking another one over as she did so.
I did so love games of skill.
By the time we reached the endgame, the match was progressing much more satisfactorily than it had at the beginning. Emily's pieces were either in disarray or taken, and I was moving in for the kill. In more ways than one, I noted, as I imagined what Emily might do with all her tension after I'd won the match. Oh well, maybe our fifth date would be platonic.
I contemplated her face as she attempted to concentrate on her next move, idly stroking one bare foot teasingly down the side of her leg. From the flush in her cheeks, it wasn't going that well.
She cast a dark eyed glance in my direction. "Would you stop doing that?" she said huskily.
Dear Emily was making the mistake of fighting her feelings, instead of just relaxing and enjoying them. I made a mental note to explain this to her at some point. After the match, of course. I was aiming to win, though it seemed a little less important than it did at the beginning of the match. Only a little, though.
But back to the play. I considered my options carefully, scraping one finger across my front teeth, drawing Emily's eyes as I did so. "No," I concluded after a moment's thought. "Would you really want me to?" I added with a grin.
"I'd prefer to be doing things other than chess..."
Tempting, but... "Then all you have to do is concede the match." I wasn't going to call a draw right now.
She almost growled. "You are the most infuriating woman I have ever known." It looked like I wasn't the only one who was competitive.
"Thank you," I smirked in her direction, provoking another growl.
Just then her phone rang. She looked blank for a second before groaning and retrieving it. With almost unbelievable swiftness, she managed to regain her composure from its previous disarray.
"Please, dear god, no. Not now," she muttered, her mind hardening towards a consistency of iron as she answered it. "Prentiss here," she said, sounding all of a sudden clipped and professional. She listened for a few minutes, nodding minutely before ending the call with the words "I'll be there as quickly as I can."
Hearing that, it was my turn to growl in frustration. I had been bloody well looking forward to the rest of the evening's activities. And I'd had her just where I wanted her, too. It looked like our fourth date would be platonic after all. Damnation!
She retrieved her jacket and put it on, before turning to look at me. Rather than the engaging woman I had spent the evening with, she was calm and almost distant. "Work calls. Thank you for the evening," she said with just a cursory smile.
The ease which which she switched off... not us, never us, but her attraction almost stung. But if she could do it, then I could as well. An intellectual exercise might help.
So, erratic hours, a trained driver, self defence lessons, no appreciable internet presence, an almost unbelievable skill at dissecting someone's personality from observed clues and a few other things here and there. Put it together, and I could make a reasonable guess at her profession. The fact that a correct guess would annoy her didn't hurt. "A profiler's work is never done?" I asked with a somewhat warmer smile than the one she'd given me.
She jumped. A hit. Not intensely surprising considering I had confirmed my guess with a quick probe beforehand, but, still, not bad. "How did you know?"
"Apparently you're not the only one who can use observation and deduction," I smirked.
She didn't return it. "Well done. Goodbye. I might see you in a week or two," she said as she turned to leave.
I felt a little unappreciated. "Should I send you some sexy text messages to liven your evenings away up?" I teased gently.
Her mind, already iron, froze and she turned to look at me with a chill gaze. "No. You shouldn't. Please don't contact me at work," and she left, closing the door firmly behind her.
Chapter 4: Need/Desire
"You again," the green eyed girl said from her huddle in the detritus of the alleyway.
"Me," I agreed. I was here again, drawn as if by gravity. I had told myself that it meant nothing. I had told myself that I was just doing a good deed. I had told myself that I didn't care one jot for her. I knew I was lying to myself, but it just didn't seem to matter any more. Being here, doing this, helping her; it helped me, in a way that nothing else did.
"What do you want this time?" she asked, cautious but without the quite the level of fear from before.
"I thought I'd see if you'd like another meal."
She looked at my empty hands, as if the bagged meal I'd brought her the three times I'd been here since my first visit would suddenly materialise.
"A sit down meal," I elaborated.
She shrugged. "I guess. That all?"
"Maybe we could actually talk this time, too."
Green-Eyes looked like she was considering the proposition. Finally she nodded. "It's a deal."
She got to her feet, and I noticed once again just how putrescent her clothing was. Each of the layers that hung on her slender frame seemed to have almost more holes than material, and the garments were stiff and stained with dirt. If I'd planned this better, I would have picked up some durable but clean garb for her. I couldn't imagine that she'd complain, and it would mean that she'd be much more presentable in public. If nothing else, we'd have a much better chance to get inside the better restaurants without using mind control. I looked at her from the coner of my eyes as she walked alongside me. Beneath the beaten huddle to her shoulders, the lank hair and starvation-thin body, she had the remnants of good posture and a good bone structure. A diamond in the rough, if you will. There were definitely possibilities; possibilities that I could bring out. But I'd have to be careful.
"My name is Emma." I'd never mentioned my name to her before, nor asked for hers. It just hadn't been important. This time, however, was different. I waited for a few seconds, and when she didn't reply asked: "Who are you?"
She glanced at me, then looked away again. "Vicky." Huh. That was surprisingly painless.
"Well, Vicky, where would you like to go and eat?"
Her shoulders twitched in an apathetic shrug. "The place you took me to last time was alright, I guess."
"There aren't any foods you like? At all?" I found it difficult to believe she didn't have a favourite. Everyone had a favourite food; often they had several.
She looked down at the ground, moving her lips slightly as she muttered something too quietly for me to hear. I read the answer from her mind, but I wanted to try and break down her shell a little.
"I'm dreadfully sorry, but I didn't quite catch that." I definitely read her instinctive answer to that, even if she didn't say anything. "It's a problem with being old, I've heard," I said drily. Normally, I wouldn't take that kind of comment from anyone, but at the moment I was just glad to see any spark of life from her.
A ghost of a smile passed over her lips, and she actually met my gaze for once, albeit with some shyness. "I said that I like Mexican food."
"I'll see what I can do." I used my phone to search for a nearby restaurant. "The nearest Mexican restaurant is a few blocks away from here. Are you up for a walk?" Another thought occurred to me. "Or," I added slowly. "We could use my car."
She looked at me quickly, suspiciously, but didn't answer at once. Her body was tense, her mind on the resting on the cusp between the two answers. I relaxed, made it look as though the answer didn't matter to me. Which it didn't, much. But it'd be a good sign if she trusted me enough to get into a car with me. I resisted the urge to make her feet ache.
"Okay. We can take your car."
Yes! Luckily my involuntary exclamation of triumph remained purely in my mind. My only visible response was to nod gravely. Aloud, I said: "This way then."
The car wasn't particularly impressive, as far as my previous vehicles went, but it did an adequate job of blending in. That was, of course, why I had chosen it. Nevertheless, Vicky seemed impressed, probably because it was new. I may have been trying to stay underneath the radar somewhat, but there was no way that my car was going to have had a previous owner. I wanted every perverted act performed within its confines to have been mine, thank you very much.
Vicky settled into her seat with a faint sigh and a wriggle, taking advantage of the soft covering; probably the first comfort she'd experienced in a while. I couldn't suppress a pang of sadness at the thought, but covered it with a smile.
"Nice?" I asked.
"Alright." She shrugged with obviously feigned indifference, but as soon as she thought I wasn't looking she ran her hand over the material and sank down even further, curling her legs up beneath her. The girl may have led a hard life, but she was still a teenager.
Conversation during the short car ride was stunted, to say the least. Vicky still seemed cautious, and preferred to answer my questions with as few words as possible. But at least she was talking to me: that was progress of a sort.
As we entered the restaurant, she visibly inhaled, the tension running out of her as a tiny smile forming on her lips. The thorny vines wrapped around her thoughts even retracted a little. I decided to take the opportunity to push a little.
"Has it been a while?"
She looked at me again, but then answered. "Four or five years. My dad used to take us."
A server came to seat us and, rather than disturb Vicky's state of mind, I offhandedly made him see her as scrubbed and dressed appropriately. I then mentally suggested that he place us in an alcove at the back, where we were less likely to be disturbed. It was easier that way.
She stiffened a bit, deliberately not looking at me. "Yeah. Me and my mother."
Ah, families. What traumas you bestow upon us all. From the way her mind was jittering uneasily, it seemed that the father was a safer topic for the moment. "Did he take you out for special occasions?"
After a pause she relaxed again, even smiling a little as her thoughts drifted to happier things. "It was always special when he came home." At my enquiring look she added: "He worked on an oil rig, to earn money for us to live on."
The server came by and we ordered. Unlike in the cafe, Vicky knew exactly what she wanted, ordering with a confidence that was heartwarming to see. (If I had a heart, which was apparently in doubt among those who knew me. I, of course, couldn't possibly comment.) As she was clearly very familiar with this type of cuisine, I asked her for some recommendations before making my own choice.
Once the server had gone I resumed our conversation, keeping the focus on Vicky. "It must have been nice to see your father when he could make it back," I mused, nonchalantly.
"He always brought me presents," she said, then her face hardened. "Then mother had to go and spoil it all by screwing that bastard Mitchell."
"They got divorced?"
"Dad was heartbroken." From the distress in her voice, he hadn't been the only one. "She got custody of me, and then we moved out of state so he couldn't even visit us. They said that it wasn't personal, that Mitchell just got a promotion, but I heard them talking about making a clean break. They did it just to get rid of him," she spat, and then added more quietly: "I haven't seen him since. I don't even have his phone number."
I longed to reach out to her, but knew the gesture would just make her bolt. Instead, I kept my body language subdued and my voice gentle. "Is that why you ran away?"
"I wish!" She scowled down at the tablecloth, clasping her hands tightly together. "Mother got knocked up, and suddenly it was all about their new baby. She didn't have any time for me any more; never mind that she had dragged me away from Dad and from all my friends. And Mitchell!" She flinched involuntarily, her voice quavering a little as she continued. "As soon as mother's attention was firmly focused elsewhere, he didn't have a problem with me feeling the back of his hand. Any time I so much as breathed, he yelled at me, said that I needed discipline," she said in a rush. "Mother always took his side. She said that if I behaved it wouldn't be necessary."
A slow burning anger ignited inside of me. If I knew where this Mitchell was... I could find it from Vicky's mind, pay him a visit. I tabled the idea for later.
"And then you ran away." It wasn't a question.
Vicky nodded but didn't say anything, apparently drained by her outburst. But she seemed more relaxed, more open to me. Not trusting, not yet. But getting there. This had to be a good thing.
The food arrived, and Vicky attacked hers with the gusto that only a starving teenager could manage. She took the opportunity to look up and study me as she swallowed, seeming to grow increasingly nervous as the meal went on. From her projected thoughts, she was wondering why she had told me so much and chastising herself for letting me this far in. I stifled a smile. At least she wasn't wondering if I had violated her mind. My good humour faded as the thought led to places I couldn't go. Not yet.
The meal ended in silence, and Vicky started to glance towards the door. I sighed inwardly, paid the bill and gathered my things. Once we were in the car, Vicky turned to me and demanded: "Why are you doing this? I know, I know, it's your 'good deed.' But no one does these things, keeps on doing these things, without some kind of reason. What's your angle?" She paused for a moment, then continued in a low voice, almost whispering the words: " What do you want from me?"
I debated internally for a second about what to tell her. In the end, I settled for something close to the truth, at least in spirit. "I lost a child recently." Children. So many children.
"So, what? You want me as some kind of surrogate daughter? You expecting me to come home with you?" Vicky sounded angry, but there underneath the surface roiled a confusing medley of emotions. Anger, fear, even some hope; a riotous tumult of impulses and feelings.
For a brief mad moment, I wanted to say 'Yes! Come home with me. I'll look after you; I'll keep you safe.' I'd put up with teenage tantrums, and the mess and the demands to fill the emptiness in the apartment. In my life. But sanity thankfully impinged. I didn't know her that well yet, and she definitely didn't know me. Even if I was willing -- and I really wasn't sure that I was ready to make that kind of commitment, not again -- Vicky wasn't in a place where she could be. Yet and possibly ever. If I wanted our relationship, however it should develop, to continue, I'd have to take it slowly.
"For the moment, I thought I'd take you back to where I met you," I said lightly.
She looked at me suspiciously in response.
"For the future, who knows? I'd suggest that you think what you'd like from me."
At that she blinked, surprised. Good. That would hopefully force her to think, rather than being caught in the gears of preconceived fears and anger.
"Here we are," I said and stopped the car.
Without a word she opened the door and slid out, but then paused, looking back at me. "Thank you. Emma." She managed to summon up a half smile and a wave, and then she was off.
I had raised my hand to wave to her, but let it fall again. I wanted to chase after her, give her some money to get off the street, but instinct warned me that it was too soon. I'd just scare her off. Suddenly drained of energy, I slumped wearily against the car seat. This was far more exhausting than it had any right to be.
I skimmed idly through another screen of numbers. Granted, whilst I was away, I didn't have control over my stocks and shares. (I was aware that, despite my precautions, a truly determined effort by my former compatriots might be able to find me, but, really, why make it easy?) I could, however, certainly keep an account of what I would have done and how I would have fared. And if my actual wealth had not done as well as my estimation, then I would be having words with my stock broker. Sharp, pointy telepathic words, that would result in (potentially massive) therapy bills. So far my fantasy account was generally doing well, but I was having trouble focusing on the details. That was probably a sign that I needed to shut the computer down and step away. I stood up, stretching, easing the pain in my neck. Most people would be telling themselves not to hunch over their computer. For me it was a decadent luxury, one that I could only afford when not around other people. Emma Frost had her image to think of, after all, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. I smiled at the thought of the fit that my deportment teacher would have pitched. Glancing over at the clock, I realised that it was later than I'd thought. Apparently time didn't just fly when you were having fun -- who would've thought? I was just thinking about going to bed when, unexpectedly, my phone rang. The sound was loud in the relative quiet of my apartment, startling me out of my idle musings. The display said 'Emily'. It wasn't the first time she'd called me, but it was the first time she'd done so this late. Perhaps there was something wrong.
My back hit the wall hard enough to rattle the paintings. Before I could move, Emily was there, her body pressed against mine, one hand on either side of my face. We were so close I fancied I could almost feel her heart beating in her chest. Her breath was shallow and rapid as she stared deep into my eyes with a look somewhere between lust and desperation.
"Please," she whispered, her muscles almost vibrating with tension.
Without conscious volition, I found myself saying: "Yes," automatically responding to her before I even thought to wonder what she was asking for. And then it was too late.
Her mouth fastened upon mine and she kissed me with a passion that well-nigh took my breath away, frantically tearing at my clothes. Literally so -- cloth ripped and buttons popped as her patience ran out and she simply yanked my blouse open. I made an inarticulate sound of protest, but I have to admit that my heart wasn't really in it. I didn't like the blouse all that much. She dragged the garment half-way down my arms, (inadvertently?) pinning them to my sides, then started working on my bra. I would have helped her, but I was rather tied up at that moment. She eventually managed to remove the offending article, tossing it aside with no care for where it landed. Again, I would have protested, but, well, I didn't care for it that much.
Besides, if I protested enough to get through to her she might actually stop what she was doing.
Her mouth continued to devour mine as her hands found my bare skin, stroking and caressing with wild abandon. I shivered, mostly in response to what she was doing, but also because of the chill air flowing into the hallway through the open door... Wait! Open door? That's right -- I hadn't even had the chance to, well, do much of anything since I answered the door. This time, I really did have to protest, making muffled noises of displeasure and wriggling around until she pulled back, looking at me with an expression that was part bewildered, part frustrated fury. I couldn't deny that the latter... did things to me.
"What?" she all-but snarled, putting me in mind of some large cat about to pounce on its prey.
I nodded in the direction of the door. "Don't you think you should close that, darling?" While I didn't, in principle, have anything against a certain degree of exhibitionism, I didn't really want to give my neighbours a free show. I didn't like them that much. Or dislike them for that matter.
Emily really did growl then, the sound resonating somewhere deep inside me. Stretching out one leg, she unceremoniously kicked the door closed (perhaps using a little more force than was strictly necessary), and then she was on me again. Roughly grabbing me by the shoulders, she slid me along the wall until I sat down with a thump on the edge of the telephone table. (I didn't think occasional tables were really intended for this kind of use, but who was I to protest?) In hardly any time at all, she had me more or less naked beneath her with my clothing strewn every which way. I was at her mercy.
And she had none.
Another of those burning kisses, then she roughly tipped my head to one side and bit at my neck, nipping hard enough to make me gasp, but not with pain. One of her hands played with my breasts, while the other slipped lower, stroking between my legs.
"You're wet," she murmured, her voice low and husky.
"You're hot," I replied, the words melting into a moan as she entered me, thrusting and stroking rhythmically as she took one of my nipples in her mouth. Feeling my precarious balance start to slip, I tried frantically to brace myself with my good-as-bound arms, but it was no good. I started to say that we should maybe take this somewhere a little more stable, but the the moment was upon me and all I could do was shudder and cry out. Then the earth moved for real as the table finally gave up the ghost, sending the both of us tumbling to the ground. It was fortunate that we didn't have far to fall.
Emily might have kept her balance, but we were rather, ah, attached at the time, leaving her no choice but to fall with me. She ended up sprawled on top of me, the involuntary twitch of her fingers sending fresh waves of pleasure coursing through my body. I couldn't say that I was exactly complaining. Withdrawing and raising her head, she met my gaze with just as much intensity as she'd shown when she first slammed me into the wall. Apparently, it would take a little more than a mishap like that to put her off her stride once she'd really set her mind to something. I felt a fluttering in my stomach at the thought of being the focus of such single-minded determination.
"I want to taste you," she growled, starting to kiss and stroke her way down my body. I'm not sure she'd even registered our little tumble.
"Maybe we should..." 'Retire to the bedroom,' I started to say, but then she kissed me and I couldn't say a single coherent word.
Sweat-slicked bodies moved together in a rhythm as old as time itself. My hands in her hair; her mouth on my skin. Her kisses that burned like fire. Primal, earthy sounds of passion torn unbidden from my throat. This wasn't tender and gentle. This was raw and frenzied and animal. This was nails and teeth and bruised lips that just kept coming back for more, more, more.
A moment, frozen in time, where she looked down on me through eyes dark with a maelstrom of conflicting emotions.
And then she was moving again and I was almost lost. Almost lost in desire, almost lost in ecstasy, almost lost in every scrap of sensation she could wring out me. But I couldn't let myself fall, not even here, not even for a moment.
Not even if I wanted to.
Finally she just lay there next to me, panting slightly, having brought me to more climaxes in a shorter time than I could remember for some time. I stretched slowly, noting the sore spots that marked possible bruises and scratches and strained muscles. Nothing serious, though. Nothing that wasn't worth it. By the time I finished my inventory, Emily was sitting upright and looking around the hallway with a slightly puzzled expression.
"What happened to the table?" she wondered.
I gave a rather satisfied smile and sat back on my heels, finally managing to divest myself of the two halves of what had once been a passably nice blouse. "We did, darling."
A guilty flush spread over her cheeks. "Sorry," she muttered. "I'll... I'll pay for the damage." She seemed uncomfortable; even shy. How could she possibly be shy after what she'd just done to me?
Sliding over to her -- being extremely careful to avoid splinters -- I leaned across to whisper in her ear. "You already did, darling. In fact, I think you rather overpaid. Luckily, I seem to have change right here." With that, I started to remove her clothes.
"You don't have to do that," she said softly. But she didn't try to stop me, even shifting around to make it a little easier for me to undress her. I took that as permission, letting my own inner predator look out through my eyes as I brought my lips to hers.
"I know I don't have to," I purred, curling my fingers in her top -- some kind of formal office shirt; hope she didn't like it too much. "But I want to." I pulled hard on the material, sending buttons scattering in every direction as I tore the garment from her body. Turnabout was fair play. "I want you." And what Emma wanted, Emma got. It was my turn now.
I wasn't gentle with her, but she didn't want gentle.
She wanted me.
Afterwards, much to my surprise, Emily rolled over and wrapped her arms tightly around me, resting her head on my chest. (At some point, we actually did make it into the bedroom and, eventually, onto the bed itself.) She had never done that before. In fact, outside of the sex, she didn't seem comfortable with physical contact at all. Tonight, though, it seemed like all bets were off. I was so lost in my own thoughts that it took me a moment to realise that she was shaking, that tears were dropping onto my chest, that the melt of her mind wasn't pleasure, wasn't contentment, wasn't even exhaustion. Without conscious thought, I tightened one arm around her waist, bringing my other hand up to stroke her hair. At first she resisted, then she seemed to change her mind, burrowing even tighter into my embrace and clinging to me as if her life depended on it. I took a breath, and gently probed a little deeper into her mind. There was turmoil, as I expected, but it mostly felt like a great wave, like the rush of water after a dam bursts. It felt like... release.
I didn't speak. This wasn't the time for speaking: she didn't want words. She just wanted this. No, she needed it. So I just lay there and held her while she cried, caught in that timeless moment with her. Finally the wave broke, the torrent ended, and she washed up silent and still upon my shores.
"Thank you." The words were muffled, but audible. I drew breath to respond -- inadvertently almost dislodging her from her resting place -- but she wasn't finished. "And I'm sorry."
I kissed the top of her tousled head, noting the way she stiffened briefly before relaxing into me once more. "You're welcome," I murmured into her hair. "But what are you apologising for?"
"For coming here like this, in the middle of the night. For jumping on you as soon as you opened the door. For..." She waved the hand that wasn't pinned beneath me, gesturing in place of the words that -- for the first time since I'd met her -- she seemed to be struggling to find. "I'm sorry."
I struggled to not care, to not dig deeper, and to just let it go. To care would be a mistake. It wouldn't be fair to her, and it wouldn't be fair to me. I struggled, and I failed.
"Do you want to talk about it?" I asked gently, holding her in my arms, stroking the top of her head with one hand.
She shook her head. "No." She paused then added. "Not now. Maybe later." She laughed, without any humour. "Just a bad day at the office."
Knowing it was a mistake, I replied, "I'm here if you need me."
She tightened the grip of her arms on me briefly, then relaxed. "Thank you," and then added in a small voice "Do you mind if I stay the night?"
I almost replied that I did mind. I almost told her that's what people in a relationship do, not us. I almost said that was a piece of me that she couldn't have a claim to.
What I actually said was: "Of course not." I even sounded like I meant it. I disregarded the part of me that whispered that I actually did.
As I believe I have said: I never was very good at taking my own best advice.
I felt her smile on my stomach. I reached over to turn off the bedside lamp, and then waited in the darkness as I felt her relax and go to sleep, still curled up around me. There were a thousand reasons to let her go, but I ignored them all in favour of one to let her stay. She was hurting and I could help her. That was enough.
I didn't go to sleep that night myself, just stayed awake and watched her. I couldn't let myself go that much, to relax so totally in her presence. I'm Emma Frost, after all.
Chapter 5: The Art of Shopping
The night passed uneventfully, its dark shadows eventually banished by the light of day. Emily had slept deeply but restlessly, occasionally stirring and whimpering in her sleep; sometimes muttering a few words in some language I didn't understand. I didn't peek to see what they meant. The last thing I needed was to add her nightmares to my own. I had too much experience with that already. Fortunately for me, even in sleep she didn't broadcast her innermost thoughts, keeping them locked within that silk-steel shell of hers. I just held her, occasionally stroking her hair and murmuring meaningless words of reassurance when the dreams gripped her too tightly. Maybe it helped; maybe it didn't. Dawn brightened to day, rays of light creeping through the blinds. As they spread out over the bed where we lay tangled together, she stirred and lifted her head, glancing around the bedroom before looking up at me. By the time her eyes met mine, whatever confusion or regret they might have shown had been smoothed away.
"Good morning," I said, smiling cheerily.
"Morning," she replied, giving a small smile in return as she sat up all the way. Much to my disappointment, she pulled the duvet up to cover herself.
"You spoiled the view," I pouted.
"I'm terribly sorry," she replied drily, her smile becoming a little warmer. Her expression changed to one of horror as she looked at the clock. "Oh, my god. I am going to be so late for work. I can't believe that I forgot to ask you to set the alarm last night." I was surprised when her mind stayed the consistency of silk, laced with something even softer. Surprised, and touched. Surprised, and a little scared.
It didn't help that touched seemed to be winning, so I resorted to flirtation to distract myself. Why break the habit of a lifetime? "Whereas I'm glad that I managed to distract you that much. I'd have been awfully offended otherwise."
She made a face. "And the last thing I'd want to do is offend you."
"Indeed," I confirmed blandly.
She jumped out of bed, and immediately started her ritualistic clothes hunt. I was just about to comment when she turned towards me with a mock glare and said: "Don't. Say. A. Thing." before dashing out of the room. I couldn't help but grin as I arranged the pillows for maximum comfort. She was so cute when she flushed like that.
A few moments later, I heard a loud stream of cursewords in several different languages. I had to admit that I was quite impressed at her fluency. She returned holding the tattered remnants of her blouse and underwear in clenched hands. "What am I going to do now?" she asked, half growling, half plaintive.
"I would suggest starting a daring new trend," I smirked as she glared at me, "but you might want to check the left side of my wardrobe instead."
One eyebrow raised, she looked at me for a moment or two before doing just that.
"What... How... Should I be impressed at your foresight or disturbed that you had apparently planned for this eventuality?" she asked after casting her eye over what she found there. There were a couple of sets of smart clothing in her size, as well as some more casual -- though still stylish -- attire, plus some distinctly more upmarket garb. I had decided to wait a little while longer before getting her some of the more interesting outfits I had considered.
"Yes?" I answered blithely. "But really, darling, given your somewhat impromptu hours and our propensity for glorious sex around here, it did seem only a matter of time before you'd need a change of clothing."
"I guess..." She seemed a little reassured.
"Besides," I smirked. "Wouldn't you have appreciated an available change of underwear after the chess game?"
To something of my surprise, she blushed a little at that. "Um... maybe." She checked the labels. "How did you get my size down so precisely?" she asked as she picked one of the smart outfits and started to hurriedly get dressed.
"I've had ample chance to measure you and I'm very good at judging sizes." Also, I had raided her mind telepathically for the details. But that sounded a lot less impressive. Apparently, she either accepted my story or simply decided that she didn't want to know any more. Either suited me just fine.
Since there was nothing more to see here, I slid out of bed and wrapped myself in a robe. Before I could head out of the bedroom door, Emily called to me.
"Careful out there -- splinters." Ah, the dear departed table. How could I have forgotten? At least it got to sacrifice itself in the name of a most noble cause. Taking a slight detour, I pulled on a pair of fluffy slippers to protect my delicate feet.
"Thank you for the warning," I said, graciously. "Did you find this out by experience, perchance."
She nodded. "Splinter in my big toe."
"Poor baby." I glided over to her. "Want me to kiss it better?"
The look she gave me was part annoyance, part desire. "If I let you do that, we'll never make it out of the bedroom."
I laughed delightedly. "Oh, darling! You say that like it would be a bad thing."
Rolling her eyes heavenwards, she heaved a great, put-upon sigh. "I have to go to work," she said, not sounding overly enthused by the prospect. In fact, it almost sounded like she was trying to convince herself more than me. Given her usual implacable dedication, it really must have been a bad day at the office. Against my will, I felt a pang of something like sympathy deep in my chest. Where my heart would have been if I'd had one. Personally I blamed a touch of indigestion.
"You don't have to, you know." For once, my tone was neither teasing nor confrontational, just quiet and thoughtful. "In a job like yours, I'd be surprised if they wouldn't understand you taking a little personal time once in a while." Especially after something like whatever's left its mark on you, I added silently. "And you did put in a very long day yesterday." For one brief moment, I think she might have actually considered it. At least, something caused her mindscape to ripple, like a soundwave vibrating a tank full of water. But then the tremors passed, and all was still and silent once more.
Shaking her head, she said: "No, I couldn't." Whatever may have been roiling in the depths of her mind, her voice held no trace of it. With that matter-of-fact statement hanging in the air, she finished putting on her clothes and started to apply her make-up.
Maybe last night had just been her way of releasing tension from what must be a hellish job at times. Maybe last night was just part of her normal cycle of events, something that just needed to be done once in every while. And maybe last night had been something else, something not part of her normal pattern, something that she needed help with. God knows, she would never ask for help herself. I knew her that well at least. She was far too stubborn for that.
Maybe it was something I could help her with; talk with her, counsel her through her problems. I'd done it before, after all. It would be simple. All I'd need to do... would... be...
No, I couldn't. Not any more. And it'd be a bad idea anyway. I was far too close, too emotionally involved.
Even if that had never stopped me before.
But no. I'm sure the F.B.I. had... adequate psychologists to help staff through such problems. I'd have a talk with her, later, maybe, about visiting one. Honestly, even. I had no doubt that she knew exactly what responses to give the impression of being perfectly healthy should she so choose.
And if the quack who saw her messed up, didn't do a good enough job, then may their deity of choice have mercy on them. I certainly wouldn't show any.
Enough. The morning after such great sex was no time for such thoughts. Making a conscious effort to lighten the mood, I leaned over to bring my mouth near her ear, smiling slyly at her reflection.
"At least let me give you a hot," I licked my lips, drawing out the word. "Coffee before you go."
She opened her mouth to say something, then evidently changed her mind, smiling and shaking her head. "I told you, I have to get to work. I'm already so late it's not funny." But she was tempted; I knew she was tempted. I could taste it.
Or maybe that was just a memory from last night.
"Exactly!" I patted her on the head with just the right degree of condescension, sashaying back out of reach before she could retaliate. "You're so late already that another few minutes isn't going to make any difference whatsoever. And wouldn't you much prefer to be calm and collected and, above all, caffeinated when you end up facing the third degree from your colleagues?" I paused to let her consider that for a moment or two. It really sounded quite reasonable when I put it that way. Of course, I couldn't resist adding: "Unless you were just planning on showing up looking deliciously well-fucked and announcing to the whole office that you're late because you were up most of the night committing carnal acts..."
Throwing the brush -- my brush! -- onto the dresser with a clatter, she spun around and skewered me with a glare. "You!" she spluttered.
"Me?" I endeavoured to look angelic and innocent.
"You." She shook her head, then sighed and stalked past me, pausing in the doorway to look back over her shoulder at me. "You are a very bad influence," she groused.
"The worst," I agreed.
She frowned at me some more, then abruptly laughed, her eyes dancing with merriment. "Well, come on then: The coffee isn't going to make itself."
I narrowed my eyes at her. "Of course not, darling. I rather thought you were going to make it." Stalking past her in the direction of the kitchen, I added: "After all, you still owe me for that table."
And as she spluttered indignantly, I couldn't help but grin from ear to ear.
I took pity on her in the end, and made the coffee myself. Apparently I was not completely immune to her blushes. In my defense, her pale skin did show them ever so vividly.
"Truce?" I asked as I handed her a mug.
"Why? What have you done?" she asked suspiciously.
I shrugged innocently. "Nothing," I replied. Yet, I added mentally.
Emily took a sip of coffee cautiously, then relaxed as the caffeine hit and rolled back her head. "Ah, that's better. Your coffee is so much better than what they give us at work."
I gave a disparaging sniff. "Well, that's certainly damning with faint praise, I'll bet."
Perhaps wisely, she didn't comment, instead looking for a moment down into her cup, before looking shyly back at me. "Would you like to meet up tonight? At my place?"
I started nodding before I registered the second part. "Your place?" burst out of my lips before I could stop it. Emily Prentiss, privacy queen, allowing someone around her apartment?
She flushed and looked back down at her coffee. "Forget it," she mumbled.
I touched her hand, reassuringly. "I'd love to. You just caught me by surprise." A slight understatement.
She looked back up. "Really?"
I raised my eyebrow, but didn't answer. She really should know me better by now.
"I guess that was kind of silly," she said, a little abashed, before recovering her composure. "At least we can avoid another round of eating out. I'll cook for us."
"Will I be taking my life in my hands?"
"I guess you'll just have to take a leap of faith."
"Because I'm known far and wide for doing just that." I brushed aside Emily's glower with a hand. "Oh very well. I'll see you this evening."
She drained her cup. "Good," she said, and then came over and kissed me, hard. "I'll see you later."
I escorted her to the door, then closed it behind her and leaned my back against it. Emily had invited me in. Despite my misgivings about this, despite the fact that we definitely weren't going out, despite the fact that there was absolutely no good reason for it, I almost felt like bursting into song. Today was going to be a good day. I'd make certain of it.
But first, back to bed so I could catch a few hours sleep before meeting up with Vicky for lunch.
"Perfume should be used as an accent, not as a substitute for bathing," I remarked as a floral stench almost strong enough to make my eyes water washed over our table.
To my delight, Vicky actually laughed out loud, rather than smiling or even just looking down. Progress had definitely been made. She had also filled out a bit in the weeks that I had been regularly plying her with food, I noted with approval. Maybe it was time to take the next step, and try and get her off the streets. I didn't know what had happened to make her so shy of accepting help, but I suspected that it had occurred since running away. Maybe one day, I'd find out. Maybe one day, I'd feel up to delving inside her mind. At least I could now admit, even in the comfort of my own mind, that I really didn't want to do it at the moment. That I had problems with violence against children. And I suspected that Vicky had been through too much of that.
"That was really strong!" she whispered, sharing a conspiratorial look with me. "It was horrible. It smelled like a really cheap air freshener."
"You're right," I agreed. The girl could certainly recognise the rank odour of tastelessness. "Do you like perfume?"
She shrugged. "Sometimes. I prefer the more delicate ones, though." Her smile turned sad. "Dad once gave me some nice perfume," she said softly. "It was a birthday present. My last one before... Before we moved away. I really liked it." A quiet sigh escaped her throat. "I brought it with me when I ran away, but it got broken."
Poor kid. She really was very young. Suddenly, I didn't want to just take her back to that cold and filthy alleyway after this meal. I wanted to do something more for her. Well, I wanted to get her off the streets and into a safe and happy life, but I was realistic enough to know that there was no way she'd accept anything like that at this stage. Frankly, I doubted she'd even believe I meant it unless I cheated. But she certainly trusted me at least a little, and there was something I'd been considering that I thought she probably would accept. Probably. And I didn't have any other plans until this evening.
"How would you like to go shopping when we're finished here?" I asked her, casually.
She blinked at me in surprise, clearly taken aback by this deviation from our regular routine. I suppose that, to her, it did seem a little apropos of nothing.
"I thought we could get you some new clothes," I continued. "There are better ones to have, if you're roughing it." She was still wearing the ones she'd had on when I first met her, and they looked hard-worn, to say the least. No matter how many layers she wore, they wouldn't keep her warm if they were worn to rags. And then there was the filth to consider.
But fear was spiking in her mind, flaring up as soon as I mentioned new clothes. Her face lost its previous animation and she shrank back in her chair, looking downwards towards the table. Her voice was small and timid as she replied: "Are you sure?"
I caught enough of what she was thinking to flinch mentally. "Practical clothing," I hastened to reassure her. "Nothing to put you on any kind of display. But only if you decide that you want some new clothes. It's entirely up to you." I fought down the fury that boiled up within me. The last thing I wanted was for her to see it in my eyes and think it was directed at her, rather than at the bastards responsible for her fear. There were definitely going to be some additions to my list of people for future vengeance.
I sensed her wrestling with herself for several long minutes, remaining in her hunched, defensive position. Finally, after what felt like a lifetime, she looked up slowly, hesitantly and said: "Okay."
Letting out a breath I hadn't realised I was holding, I gave her my best reassuring smile. "Just let me know if you want to stop, any time."
She relaxed minutely. "Okay," she said again.
I did hope that I could encourage her to be a little more vocal, otherwise this shopping trip might be more hard work than even I was used to.
"So where do you want to go now?" I asked Vicky and promptly realised that she wasn't behind me any longer. I was always amazed at how teenagers had a positive talent for doing that, even when one was a telepath. Trying the easy way first, I looked around with my eyes, rather than my mind, locating my errant charge almost straight away. She was standing outside a camping store, looking at some waxed coats. I headed towards her.
When I was still a couple of feet away from her, I stopped and cleared my throat. "Found something that you like?" (In my experience, it was generally better to announce one's presence ahead of time when approaching someone as skittish as Vicky. Far less risk of unfortunate incidents that way.)
"Dad got me one of these when I was younger." She sounded wistful. "'To keep my most precious thing in all the world safe and dry.' Mother got rid of it when we moved. She had always hated it, said it was ugly."
Sadly, I had to agree with her mother here, but I resisted the urge to tell her so. We were going for practical, not stylish. I had to keep reminding myself of that, though it cut my very soul to sully my credit card with some of these clothes. No, stylish was definitely not on the cards. I mentally braced myself.
"Shall we go in and get one your size?"
She smiled radiantly at me, and I felt my heart leap, just a little. "Thanks!" She practically skipped into the shop, trying on coats until she found one that she liked. It was a couple of sizes too big for my liking, but what could you do? It made her happy, and that was enough for now. She also looked covetously at some of the sleeping bags on display.
I waved over one of the assistants, who looked at us dubiously. "Yes, ma'am?"
"Which of these sleeping bags would be the warmest and most comfortable?" I asked him, and promptly ignored the words spewing out of his mouth -- all in praise of the most expensive, naturally -- in favour of getting the real dirt from his brain. The one I selected, cutting him off in mid-spiel, wasn't quite the priciest, but it was probably the best for being ultra light and portable. I looked at Vicky to see if she wanted anything else, but she seemed to be content with what we had.
"Thank you so much for your assistance," I told him, with what I judged only a moderate amount of sarcasm. He rang the purchases up, and we left the store.
Vicky practically skipping, despite the large number of bags swinging from her hands or otherwise attached to her person. She clutched them tightly to herself as if worried that someone might take them away from her. I wasn't sure how many more my little packrat could carry before she collapsed under the weight. "Do you think that that's enough for today?"
She considered for a moment, and then nodded. I guessed that the urge not to have more than she could carry if she needed to was strong. Well, at least she'd have a few spare changes of clothing.
Once we were back in my car, before setting off, I closed my eyes for a second, gathering myself in preparation for what I was about to say. I knew I was about to push our relationship even further if I did this, but I didn't want to think of Vicky out on the street tonight. I couldn't. One way or another, this was going to be a perfect day. Taking a deep breath, I turned towards her and, before I could change my mind, asked: "Would you like to stay in a motel tonight?"
She looked utterly dumbfounded, then suddenly nervous. "With you?"
I laughed involuntarily. Oh, please. What must this child think of me? I didn't want to know why she thought as she did. "No, I have my own apartment. I would have invited you there, but..." I shrugged. "I didn't think that you'd want to do that." There was also the fact that I probably wasn't going to be there tonight, but she didn't need to know that.
Silently, she shook her head.
"I can just drive you to a place, pay for your stay for a week and leave you there if you want."
Vicky still didn't reply, looking completely overwhelmed. I supposed it could have been worse -- at least she hadn't leapt from the car and fled as fast as her feet would carry her. Apparently, I hadn't scared her quite that much. I tried to salvage the rather awkward situation as best as I could.
"Well, think about it on the way back. I can always take you to one if you fancy being in a warm bed tonight. And if you need longer to think about it, then that's fine too. It's entirely up to you."
The car ride to her usual drop off was a silent one, my stomach churning and clenching nervously all the while. Had I blown it?
I stopped the car, but Vicky remained seatbelted in. Biting her lip, she looked at me, making herself meet my eyes. "Thank you for all you've done for me, Emma. I really do appreciate it. It's just..." To my horror, tears started trickling down her face. "Sorry," she sobbed out.
I hugged her before I could think the better of my actions. There was a heartstopping moment when she stiffened in my arms, but before I could pull away she relaxed, clinging to me while she cried. "Hush. Hush, child. You don't need to apologise for anything." Taking a desperate risk, I looked quickly inside her head to find the root of the problem. "Tell you what: how about if I give you some money, and then you can find your own accomodation? Or use it however you see fit. Would that be alright?"
She pulled herself together, pulled away from me, and nodded tearfully. "Okay," she gulped, still sniffling a little.
I gave her a couple of hundred dollars. "There. That should be able to cover you for a week if you choose a frugal place." I looked up some nearby motels that fit the bill and noted them down on a piece of scrap paper I dug out of my glove compartment. "There. That should give you a place to start." I was fully aware that I was giving her more money that she had probably seen in a long while, but trust has to start somewhere. I added my number at the bottom of the page, and handed her some loose change. "Please, phone me once you are settled, and let me know that you're alright." I smiled at her. "Also, maybe a place where we could meet up tomorrow. I want to hear all about it. If that's okay with you."
A slightly awed expression on her face, she looked at the money in her hand. Turning her attention to the list, she read through it a couple of times, then looked at me and nodded. "Will do, Emma. Thank you. You can trust me." Tears threatened to fall again, and she rubbed her eyes angrily, then got out and retrieved her bags from the back seat. A final wave, with a more convincing smile, and she was off.
I let the smile on my own face fade, and fell back against the seat. Whew. At least she'd be spending tonight somewhere warm and dry (and clean!), even if I would stretch to call a low cost motel pleasant. Putting my thoughts back in order, I looked at the time. Bloody hell! I was barely going to have time to get home and make myself look presentable before going to see Emily. And her fabled apartment! Would wonders never cease? A smile on my lips once more, I drove off at some speed.
I was looking forward to this.
Chapter 6: Resonances
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
Emily's apartment was at least in a tasteful part of town, I'd give her that. In an obviously expensive building, too. Curiouser and curiouser. I pressed the buzzer.
"Emily Prentiss' flat," she answered immediately, almost as if she had been waiting right by the intercom.
The amusement from that mental image crept into my voice as I replied: "Which of your other lovers are you expecting, darling?"
"Come in, you infuriating woman," she grumbled.
She was waiting just inside her apartment, looking out through a half-open door as the elevator arrived at her floor. I looked her up and down. Her outfit was smart-casual: a fitted blouse over tight black skinny jeans. Make-up (of course): eyes and lips emphasised with charcoal grey and deep red, respectively. It suited her. Also, she'd done something with her hair; added a soft wave through the length of it. I approved. I had the feeling that this whole look was more for herself than for me; that this was how she dressed to be comfortable. That was... Actually kind of touching. Which disturbed me more than I could say. Luckily I had no intention whatsoever of attempting to do so.
Her position and air of alertness just confirmed my suspicions about how she had been waiting for me. I briefly wrestled with my conscience, and to my own utter lack of surprise, failed, taking a quick peek inside her head. I had been right!
I let out a chortle as I exited the elevator, grinning widely and, perhaps, a trifle smugly.
Emily gave me a suspicious look. "Am I going to regret inviting you here?"
"Probably," I said as I leaned over and kissed her thoroughly. "After all," I continued when we broke for air, "it is completely in my interests to make sure that you don't invite anyone else over here for the first time."
"It wasn't in my immediate plans," she said wryly (and, I flattered myself, a little breathlessly) as she led me into a combined living room and kitchenette. The place looked superficially neat, but a missed book here and a glass there showed that this was probably a fairly recent state of affairs.
"You mean that it's not just me that you're obsessively private with?"
"Isn't that the pot calling the kettle black?" she scoffed as she moved into the kitchenette. "Wine?"
"Trying to get me drunk?" I said with a smile on my face.
"Only so I can have my way with you," she said, then shot me a nervous look. "If that's alright with you?"
"I haven't had a problem with our arrangement so far."
She handed me a glass of wine, then glanced away, suddenly looking vulnerable. "That was before."
I placed the glass carefully down on the counter, leaning forward a little so I could meet her eyes. "Do you want to talk about it?"
"Are you sure? You've always said that you didn't want a relationship." The look on her face was raw and open, her fingers clenched tightly around the stem of her wineglass. This... could get tricky. I opened my mind up to hers and could feel the hope in the back of her mind that I'd deny this, that I'd say that things had changed. But I couldn't give her what she... Not wanted, not really. What she thought she might want.
"This isn't about a relationship." I almost winced at the dull ache my words caused Emily, but they had to be said. We weren't in a relationship. We couldn't be in a relationship. I didn't point out that she had always been equally firm on the subject. It wouldn't have helped. "This is about us being friends. I hope that I can call you that."
She looked down for a minute or two, then drained half of her wineglass before finally looking back up at me. "Friends, then. It's probably just as well." She smiled, crookedly, weakly. "I still don't have time for a relationship."
I felt her starting to convince herself of that. It shouldn't have hurt. It was what I wanted. after all. But it did anyway.
Time to change the subject. "Why do you keep your job such a big secret?" I looked at her curiously and couldn't help adding, with a smirk: "Are groupies that big a problem?"
She snorted. "Sadly, no. It's just..." She waved a hand in the air. "It takes up so much of my life already, that I try to keep it completely out of my personal life. I don't want to be 'Special Agent Emily Prentiss' when I'm with my friends, but if I'm not very careful, that's what happens anyway. And that way leads to burn out, at least for me."
"So your two different faces are a coping mechanism?"
"Pretty much." Her shoulders twitched in a shrug. "Compartmentalisation seems to work for me. I've seen far worse in my time at the Bureau."
It did make a certain amount of sense. And she was right about one thing: someone doing a job like hers needed some way of stopping it from chewing them up and spitting them out. Who was I to criticise the method she chose if it worked for her? And yet... "I can't help notice that we are talking about it right now," I pointed out cautiously.
Finishing off the rest of her glass and setting it aside in what seemed to be one smooth motion, she gave me a look. "Apparently you have a talent for wriggling past my defences." She sighed, and her mind hardened in on itself. "And it seemed only fair after last night." she muttered.
The topic of what had prompted last night squatted ominously in the middle of the living room like a particularly unpleasant unexploded bomb. Peeking at her mind, she wasn't sure about whether she wanted me to leave it alone or not. I briefly considered bringing up the subject of counselling, but decided that this was not the time.
Finally, I said: "If you ever want to talk about what happens at work to someone supremely unconnected, you only have to say the word, darling."
That seemed to decide her. "Yesterday was... unpleasant. But I don't think I'm ready to talk about it tonight."
I nodded in acknowledgement. "As you wish." Casting around for another topic of conversation, I reached down to the floor and daintily retrieved the book I had noticed earlier. As she saw what I was reaching for, her face took on a cast of horror and embarrassment and she reached out a hand as if to ward me away from it. Okay, now my interest was well and truly piqued. What had she been reading?
"'Use of Weapons' by Iain M. Banks," I read off the front cover. To my great disappointment, it didn't look overly embarrassing. Flipping it over, I read the blurb on the back. "Ah, science fiction," I announced sagely.
Emily was cringing slightly, her cheeks flushed, looking like she'd rather be anywhere than here. I debated whether to tease her or let her off the hook. In the end, of course, it was no decision at all: I had to be me.
"So dearest Emily is a secret geek," I teased, waving the offending tome in her direction. Not that there was anything wrong with that, but her reaction was rather like a squirming mouse to my inner cat. I couldn't help but bat at it. But I'd keep my claws remain firmly sheathed. After all, I liked her.
She marched over and snatched the book off me, glowering all the while. "This is why I don't invite people over to my apartment!" she said furiously, cheeks still blazing.
"How long were you planning on staying in the closet?"
"I'd have been quite happy there with just a lion and a witch for company!" She folded her hands -- still holding the book -- underneath her arms, looking away from me. Her defensive posture said that my friendly ribbing may be in danger of actually hitting a nerve.
As much as my more predatory teasing instincts urged me to do otherwise, I decided to offer an olive branch. "Is there room in there for one more?" I asked her, with a smile.
She stopped dead, flush fading from her cheeks as she glanced hesitantly in my direction. "You're not saying that you're also nerdily inclined... Are you?"
"I'm at least geek conversant." Well, I could fake it. Geekish was just another language as far as I was concerned.
She blinked. "I'd never have guessed."
I had the uncomfortable feeling that certain parts of the profile she was forming in her head were currently in the process of being revised. Time for another distraction, I felt. "I haven't read that book," I indicated the one she was clutching. "Is it any good?"
Her mind bloomed, colours rippling through it like the Northern Lights, and she smiled shyly at me. "I think so..."
With a little encouragement from me, she proceeded to tell me about the setting of the book, an ultra advanced civilisation called the Culture. (She wouldn't tell me about the plot. Apparently there was a twist. Isn't there always?) As she described it, her face lit up and she spoke with excitement, animation and a great deal of enthusiastic gesturing with her hands. Quite frankly, it was unutterably cute.
Abruptly, she broke off mid-sentence, shooting me a look that fell halfway between 'grouchy' and 'confused'. "What?" she asked, a little defensively.
I realised that I had what I rather suspected was a fond smile dancing across my lips. I was utterly certain that my reputation would be shot to hell if that ever got out. Ah well.
"Nothing," I replied, and took a sip of wine, blinking innocently at her over the rim of my glass.
By this point, we were seated comfortably -- me sprawlingly decadently, yet elegantly, on her sofa; her sitting forward in one of the chairs. As she looked at me suspiciously, I stretched languidly and I waved her onwards with my empty hand. After a few moments, she continued, a little hesitant at first but soon losing her self-consciousness in the flow of fantastic imagery. The setting all seemed rather implausible to me, to be completely honest. In my experience, star-spanning civilisations tended to be empires and dictatorships, not ultra-liberal democratic utopias. Given the general level of intelligence of humanity, it was just depressing that the most sophisticated styles of government seemed to be all here on Earth. And sentient AIs that didn't try and destroy all organic life? That seemed even more unlikely.
Still, I guess there was something to be said for a good, escapist, fantasy story. And if I started to read it and decided that I couldn't continue, I could always rifle through her mind for the ending and tell her I'd finished it.
"So, where are the rest of your books?" I asked.
She blinked at me, nonplussed.
Oh please, tell me that she had a library. A science fiction fan I could understand. Not having a proper collection of books? Unforgiveable. A worse thought occurred to me. "You don't keep them all on one of those electronic book readers, do you?" I asked in a tone of utmost horror.
"What? No," she said. 'Not all of them,' she thought, unrepentantly. What manner of philistine had I become friends with? "It's just that no one has asked to see my collection before," she said, shy again all of a sudden.
Moving a little hesitantly, a little awkwardly, she stood up and led me further into her flat, pausing by a closed door. She fumbled inside a pocket, withdrew a key, and then unlocked and opened the door. "Behold my secret realm."
What was evidently once a spare bedroom now had bookcases lining most of the walls, filled with books new and old (all in good condition to my initial inspection). One wall was taken up by a desk with a computer on it.
"Truly a den of iniquity," I drawled. "I can see why you'd not want me wandering in here unprepared."
Apropos of nothing in particular, she wrapped her arms around me and hugged me tightly. "Thank you," she said, her voice muffled by my hair.
Despite the utterly inexplicable -- and immediately banished -- urge to burrow into her embrace, I kept my tone light and airy. "Don't thank me yet. I'm just acquiring credit against the day that you find out some of my dark secrets."
"Oh?" What secrets would those be?" she asked me playfully.
I looked through my eyelashes at her coquettishly. "I've already said too much."
"Hey, you got me to reveal my inner geek." But she sounded more amused than truly indignant.
"And what fun is it if you find out too easily?"
"Hmm..." She pretended to think deeply for a moment, then raised one hand as if struck by some divine inspiration. "This sounds like a problem that may require more wine!"
"That, my dear Emily, sounds like an excellent idea. And I believe you promised me food?"
Eyes widening in horror, she spun around and positively sprinted for the kitchenette. "Oh, my god! The lasagne!" She shook her head, even as she opened the oven, peering into its depths with obvious reluctance as she muttered. "I can't believe I forgot about the lasagne."
I hung back to allow her to deal with this minor domestic emergency (and to minimise the risk of me actually being called upon to help). From her sigh of relief, it seemed that matters weren't as bad as she'd feared. When I was reasonably certain she had everything under control I sauntered over to the table and sat down. "You do realise," I mused, watching her serve, "that if you fail to perform to my culinary satisfaction, I will have to claim a forfeit."
"This was your fault in the first place," she griped, shooting me a dark look.
"My fault?" For once, my righteous indignation was actually fully justified. "How was it my fault that you got distracted and forgot about dinner?"
"Because you're the one who distracted me!" In a completely different tone of voice, she continued: "More wine?"
"Yes, please." I answered her with exactly the same tone of calm politeness, before returning to my totally legitimate grievance. "You distracted yourself," I pointed out, quite reasonably. "You were simply having a grand old time telling me about that book."
"You asked me about it," she protested.
"You left it there," I reminded her. "This smells delicious, by the way."
"Thank you. I hope it tastes okay. I'm just glad I didn't actually burn it. Anyway, I'm still cross with you. You... You... You!" She stopped, glared, and then abruptly burst into peals of laughter so infectious I couldn't help but join in. "This is totally ridiculous," she said, shaking her head.
"Completely and utterly," I agreed. "But you're not nervous about the food any more, are you?"
"I wasn't nervous," she protested half-heartedly, but then sighed. "Okay, how did you know?"
I shrugged. "Lucky guess." Actually, it was. Well, not a guess, exactly, but I hadn't peeked. I'd just read the signs, apparently with some accuracy. "Anyway, were you just planning on using the food for decoration, or should we start before it gets cold?"
"Please do." She picked up her knife and fork, looking over at me with a grin. "Bon appetit!"
The food was really quite tasty. I wasn't sure whether or not I should be surprised. In my experience, full and erratic schedules did not tend to facilitate the development of any food preparation skills beyond ordering take-away or heating something up. On the other hand, I could well believe Emily was obsessively competitive enough to put in the effort necessary to excel at anything she turned her hand to. Or it could be a natural talent of hers. In any case, I made sure to compliment the chef appropriately and I could tell she was pleased that I liked it. Maybe that meant she would cook for me again sometime.
"So, where did you learn to cook like this?" I asked curiously.
She shrugged. "Various places. My family tended to move around a lot, so if I found a particular dish I liked I tried to learn how to make it for myself. At least that meant I had a halfway decent chance of being able to have it again." She shook her head, frowning in disapproval. "You would not believe the rubbish that some places try to pass off as authentic 'ethnic cuisine'."
"Oh, I'm sure I would. Although," some perverse impulse made me add. "Sometimes 'authentic' can be overrated."
"Not when you find yourself craving genuine Sicilian ravioli, it can't." This was clearly something she felt strongly about. "Or borscht."
"Sicilian borscht?" I was a little confused.
"Ukrainian," she corrected. "It's a Ukrainian beetroot soup."
"I see." I eyed her suspiciously, just about managing to keep from wrinkling my nose in distaste. "It sounds..." Revolting. Disgusting. Nauseating. "Interesting."
"I'll make it for you someday," she offered enthusiastically.
"Thank you," I replied, managing to return her smile, if a trifle fixedly. Well, what was I supposed to say? Maybe she'd forget. Or, if she remembered, maybe I could 'accidentally' distract her again. If science fiction didn't work, there was always sex.
The conversation continued fluidly, the only interruptions to its easy ebb and flow being the occasional pause to politely chew and swallow food. As in the coffee shop, it roamed freely between subjects of import, interest and sheer, unadulterated amusement, albeit a little slanted by the fact that Emily was letting her inner geek out to play tonight. I had to admit that I liked seeing this side of her. We were so involved in our discussion that, once the main course was done, we actually just sat at the table and talked (and drank wine) for quite a while before Emily remembered that there was dessert as well. It proved to be a chocolate cake so rich that I generously forgave her the fact that it was store-bought and not home-made. It was worth waiting for, I supposed. And, it probably wasn't a bad thing that the lasagne (also rather rich and full-flavoured) had had a chance to settle. When dessert had been consumed, we again remained in place and continued talking. It was some time before it occurred to either of us that we could actually move to the more comfortable seating. Emily started to clear up the meal's debris, while I retired to the sofa once more and watched her.
Glancing back over her shoulder, she shot me a look that was part irritation, part amused indulgence. "Were you planning on helping out at all?" she asked.
"Certainly not," I sniffed. "I'm a guest: it wouldn't be at all proper for me to undertake menial work."
"And you're all about proper etiquette," she muttered.
"Exactly. Anyway," I observed, my eyes glued to her shapely backside as she bent down to load up the dishwasher. "The view is far better from over here."
Twisting around to look at me, she correctly figured out what I was looking at and rolled her eyes. "Incorrigible," she pronounced. But I could tell that she wasn't really displeased. And she didn't do anything to spoil my view.
When she'd finished the chore, I mused thoughtfully: "You know, now that this bottle of wine's been opened, we should probably finish it off. It simply wouldn't do to let it go to waste." I quickly finished off the small amount remaining in my glass and held it out to her with a bright smile. "And my glass appears to be empty right now. How fortuitous!" She glared, muttered and complained, but she did refill my glass. "Thank you!" I trilled, blowing her a kiss.
"You're welcome." She tipped the rest of the bottle into her own glass, and took a healthy swallow of it. Was I driving her to drink? Surely not. Or... Maybe it was something else.
She took a couple of steps towards me, took another sip -- really more of a gulp -- of wine, and then said: "You know... It's quite late. And we've drunk a lot of wine. Maybe... I don't think you should drive home tonight."
I had been wondering where exactly the endpoint of this evening was going to be. Possibly I should have been disturbed by the fact that this was far more cozy than it had any right to be. Possibly I could blame the relaxing effects of the wine for the warm calmness spreading through me. And quite possibly, at this particular point, I just didn't care.
"Darling, I thought that you'd never ask," I drawled, smiling.
Finishing my wine, I rose to my feet and moved towards Emily, crossing the room in a few languid steps. For a moment, I found myself moving in the old patterns as I reached for her, but then my hand moved past the usual less than innocent locations and, somewhat to my surprise, came to rest upon her cheek.
"Thank you," I whispered. Thank you for sharing your home with me. Thank you for showing me this side of you that you keep locked away. Thank you for not asking anything in return."
Emily brought her hand up to cover mine, just for a second, and then it seemed only natural that our fingers should intertwine as she looked deep into my eyes.
"To the bedroom?" she asked, almost hesitantly. When I nodded wordlessly in response, she led me there by the hand.
It was immediately obvious that this had not been part of her plan earlier in the day. The bedroom was somewhat messy, with clothes peeking out of a laundry bin and a pile of books by the bed. It somehow seemed very her.
She coloured a little at the sight. "Crap! Sorry..."
I silenced her by placing a finger from my free hand upon her lips. "Hush." Then I kissed her slowly and unhurriedly. That seemed to disrupt her flow of thoughts most satisfactorily.
After I released her, she glanced over at the bed. "Shall we?" she asked, more nervous, more vulnerable than I had ever seen her.
I almost replied 'Of course' before realising that I didn't actually feel the need to. Not tonight. Somehow the usual dance of dominance and passion seemed like it would burst the fragile mood that floated in the midnight air. There would always be other nights, anyway.
"Why don't we just see where the mood takes us?" I said, instead.
After a moment's surprise, Emily relaxed, smiling at me slightly as she quickly shimmied out of her clothing. I would have joined her, but I was enjoying the view a little too much. Sadly, it was all too quickly stolen from me as she jumped into bed and looked up at me.
"Well? Aren't you getting in? It's cold in here!" she said, eyes bright like stars.
I took my own clothing off with only a bare minimum of show. By the end of it, I was shivering a little. It was cold out here as well. Climate change be damned: couldn't she just turn the thermostat up when she had company? I cast a baleful eye towards the miscreant, who looked almost disturbingly cute, as well as far too warm beneath her covers.
Oh well, I was sure that I could improvise something.
Emily eyed me with great suspicion as I slipped into bed beside her. "What are you grinning so wickedly at?" she asked, cautiously.
"Oh, nothing," I drawled. And then I put my feet on her stomach.
She really could shriek extremely loudly.
Some time later, when she'd finally forgiven me enough to stop sulking, she propped herself up on one elbow to peer down at me. (Not that she'd forgiven me completely, oh no; apparently she could hold a grudge. I wouldn't have her any other way.) I'm not sure what she could see in the darkness of the room, but she stayed like that for a good half minute or so. It was enough to rouse my curiousity, at any rate.
"What is it?" I asked, softly. Something about this, about how we fit together in the silence and the darkness, made it seem more fitting to keep my voice low.
She shook her head; I felt, rather than saw the motion, the ends of her hair brushing lightly against my stomach. It tickled a little.
"Oh, nothing," she murmured.
"Then come back down here," I groused, holding out my arms. "You're letting the heat out."
She snuggled back down beside me, resting her head on my chest, arms draped over me in a loose, yet somehow secure embrace. I absently ran my fingers through her hair.
"I like what you did with your hair today," I murmured. "It suits you."
"I'm glad you liked it," she replied, a smile in her voice.
"I do." Even though she couldn't see it, I smiled back, the expression melting into a yawn as sleep started whispering its blandishments in my ear. There was a reason why I should fight it, but, for the life of me, I couldn't remember what it was right now. Peace enfolded me just like she had. "I like you," I mumbled.
The last thing I heard before sleep claimed me was: "I like you, too."
For those familiar with 'Use of Weapons', I'm sure you'll be relieved to hear that we definitely aren't using the twist of that book. Emma or Emily will not be adding any interesting bits of new furniture to their respective abodes.
Chapter 7: Even Diamonds Shatter
The stench of burning flesh in my nostrils; the sound of screaming in my ears. My heart pounding like a drum, tang of iron in my mouth. I was trapped. I was helpless. They needed me. This was my fault. It was always my fault.
Water, ice cold and sudden, dousing the flames, causing the screams to hitch and stutter.
It also happened to shock me awake.
I wasn't alone.
Instinctively, I catapulted myself out of the bed, away from the intruder.
"Emma?" said a familiar voice worriedly. Emily's voice, blurred with sleep. Oh, right. It wasn't an intruder. I looked down and confirmed that I had turned to diamond. How utterly embarassing. I changed back just before she turned on the bedside lamp. Scanning the surface of her mind, it seemed she hadn't seen anything that she wasn't busy rationalising away. That was lucky, but it was luck I shouldn't have needed. What had I been thinking, going to sleep here?
"What's wrong?" she asked, prodding, taking my silence as permission to continue.
"None of your business," I snapped, anger driving the fear away. Who did she think she was, prying into my private affairs?
Emily looked like she'd been slapped, then responded with anger of her own. "I was just worried about someone I care about."
"This has been a mistake," I said coldly, wrapping my unruly emotions in an icy cloak and gathering my things.
"What's been a mistake? Sleeping here? Last night?" She paused, and for a second there was a flash of vulnerability beneath the anger. "Us?"
I wasn't sure myself. "Yes," I snapped out, using confidence to mask my uncertainty. "And there is no us." There never has been. There never can be. Didn't you understand that?
The vulnerability vanished, leaving only anger, cold enough to match my own. "Get out of here then."
I finished putting on my clothes. "Be glad to, darling," I said, and left.
I roused sometime in the early afternoon and pottered around in my apartment for a while, unable to stop myself going over and over the events of the previous night. I couldn't believe I had been so stupid as to leave myself that open around her. What had I been thinking? I knew I should just drop her like a hot potato and move on, but for some reason I was having problems convincing myself that was what I actually wanted to do.
Maybe that by itself was a sign that I should burn all my bridges with her.
It took me an unforgiveable amount of time before I realised that Vicky hadn't called. Worry began to grip me as I went through the possible reasons for why she hadn't phoned. The most likely was that she was too busy enjoying the comfort of a warm room and bed. I couldn't really blame her if so. It was the most probable explanation. That's what I was telling myself.
I drove down to where she normally hung out anyway.
Searching around telepathically, I found her far too quickly. She was in one of the alleyways around here. And she was hurt.
The sight of her, bloody and bruised, half covered by rubbish, sent my pulse-rate soaring. For a moment the world shook and I thought I might black out. For a moment I could see flames and smell burning flesh. For a moment I teetered on the edge of the abyss. Then I gathered myself. I was Emma Bloody Frost and Vicky needed my help.
"It's not as bad as it looks," she said as soon as she saw me, the bruises around her mouth slurring her words a little.
"What happened? Who hurt you?" And where were they, so I could make them pay? Vengeance. I could hold myself together for vengeance.
"Jim wa..." The words dissolved into a coughing fit and she hunched over, clasping one hand to her side. A broken rib? I was going to have to get her to a hospital. Before I could say anything, she got the coughing under control and continued with her account. "Jim wanted what you gave me yesterday." Tears welled up in her eyes. "I tried to fight him, I did!" Her brief flare of energy exhausted, she slumped against the wall, breathing heavily.
My fault. This was my fault that this had happened. Again.
"Sorry," she whispered.
It took me a moment to realise that she was apologising for losing the clothes and the money that I had given her. "It's alright," I said distractedly, my mind churning. "Where can I find this 'Jim'?"
Vicky struggled up on bruised hands. "You can't go after him! He'll hurt you too. Maybe even kill you." Her mind gave me where she thought that he would be regardless of what she said aloud.
"I'll be back soon," I told her. Cold fury filled me, freezing the cracks in my shell and honing my edges to razor sharpness. I was ice. No, I was diamond, brilliant and merciless.
Jim wasn't too hard to find. Apparently he'd put at least some of the money to 'good' use buying drugs, and wasted no time in getting as high as a kite. He was currently lying on the floor of his squat a few streets over, eyes glazed.
That wouldn't save him.
"Get to your feet," I hissed. I didn't bother to wait to see if he'd comply, just reached inside his head and compelled his limbs.
"What?" he asked blearily, still not really aware of what was going on.
That would simply never do.
I caressed his cheek lightly, and made him feel like I had gently coated it in molten lead. He screamed raggedly, arms jerking as he tried to claw at his face. I briefly considered letting him carve bloody furrows into his own flesh, but decided against it. The point to be made here was how helpless he was, and letting him hurt himself would detract from that. With this kind of thing, it really was important to stay on message.
I could hurt him so much better anyway.
"What- what's happening?" came a voice from behind me. Vicky's voice.
I turned around, and tried to smile reassuringly at her. I wasn't entirely certain I succeeded, but I was a little distracted right then. "I'm making sure that Jim doesn't hurt you again."
She didn't reply, just looked at me wide eyed and white faced, and I turned my attention back to the unfortunate Jim. I could comfort her later. Later. I could comfort her later. When I was finished here.
"Have I got your attention yet?" I asked coldly.
Jim, eyes wide and focussed all of a sudden, nodded vigorously.
"Good. Now, you hurt my friend Vicky over here. That is not going to happen again." Not a threat, not yet; merely a simple statement of fact. Suiting action to my words, I dove into his head and tied a knot deep into his brain. "Because if you so much as lay a finger on her, you're going to feel like this." And I gently flicked the knot.
Jim screamed raggedly as nerve endings all over his body spiked in unison. I allowed him fall to the floor, releasing his muscles to convulse in agony. A disinterested expression on my face, I watched him until I judged that he was once more able to hear my words.
"There," I said. "That should ensure nothing like that happens again." That he didn't hurt her because of something I did. I wasn't sure if his head was jerking in agreement or with the fading pulses of agony. Either suited my purpose just fine. That problem dealt with, I focussed my attention on Vicky, already planning what I was going to say to reassure her. The poor thing was trembling like a leaf. "It's alright," I said. "He won't hurt you again." But that didn't seem to help. And she... She wasn't looking at Jim, she was looking at me. The expression on her face was one of utter terror, and she was looking right at me.
Me, not Jim.
Jim who, now that my fury was fading, seemed awfully young. Not much older than Vicky, in fact. Maybe seventeen or eighteen at most.
And he was lying there, writhing in pain and fear, because of me. Because of what I'd done to him.
I had hurt a child.
This time, when the fire took me, I didn't have the strength to resist. I didn't want to resist.
Even diamonds shatter.
"It's for the best." I told the girl (young woman, really), Carrie by name, as she nervously stood at the step to the bus, looking uncertainly between its interior and the mansion behind her. "Now that you've lost your mutations, we can get you out of this warzone and you can be safe." I didn't need to mention how many times the X mansion had come under attack in the past, nor its current 'guard' of Sentinels. She nodded hesitantly and climbed onto the bus with all the other depowered children and staff that I'd already ushered onto it, still casting troubled glances over her shoulder.
The stench of burning flesh washed over me, the echoes of screams ringing in my ears.
Just as the bus was about to leave, Carrie shot to her feet and ran for the door, but the bus started into motion and it was too late. The door didn't open, and she was carried away, still looking back towards me. I waved, smiling even though I was already missing them. I had to be strong for them. At least I could comfort myself with the knowledge that they would be safe now.
The missile, which I never saw, impacted the bus. I never saw the flames nor heard the screams either, but they cycled through my head a million times anyway, along with all the other fragments of horrors glimpsed as I helped the rescue team recover from their ordeal.
Carrie, now just a charred skeleton, reached out for me. "Why did you send us to die?"
There was no one for me, of course. I didn't need any help. I was strong, as hard as diamond. And just as unable to let anyone in.
She touched me, the stumps of her finger bones somehow still smouldering. Flames burst forth from the point of contact, feeding on my flesh as they spread in a tide of agony. It was almost a good pain, in its way, almost cleansing me in its purity.
It didn't, of course. Nothing could do that. And the pain wasn't even mine, merely recalled from the pain of some of the rescuers, those who could actually help, those who didn't send the children off to die.
Other people needed me. The rest of the children. The staff. The rescuers. Everyone.
"We have to be strong." A kind voice, a gentle voice, a voice as soft as silk. As implacable as iron. "They're looking to us for guidance."
What could I do? It was the truth. I had to be strong. I had to carry on, to focus.
Until one day I just couldn't do it any longer.
When the blow crunched into the back of my head, the only thing I felt as I spiraled down into darkness was relief.
Chapter 8: A Lullaby for Dead Children
The squat, seen from sideways on the horizontal, blurry and out of focus. A tacky sensation beneath my head. The stench of vomit.
"Are you all right?" asked a voice distantly, as though through water. The pavement tilted vertiginously beneath me. Acrid taste in my mouth again.
Bright lights hurt my eyes as I was wheeled past them. Someone in the background was speaking, saying: "Emily. Emily."
"Emma, Emma." A familiar voice repeated softly. "I'm here, now. You're safe. You can go to sleep." A pause. "I'll watch over you."
I woke up with a extremely sore head and a really bad mood. Sadly, as an X-woman, I was somewhat accustomed to this experience, though thankfully less so in recent years. My secondary mutation was good for cutting down on that kind of thing. The awareness that something bad had happened was skirting the edge of my consciousness like a spider waiting to pounce, but I ignored it for the moment. I wasn't going to deal with anything yet. Apart from maybe seeing where I was. Cracking my eyes open slightly, the first piece of good news was that my eyes didn't hurt too badly from the electric lighting. They merely felt like someone was stabbing them with toothpicks, as opposed to, say, jackhammers. The second, even better news was that I appeared to be in a normal hospital room. There were no restraints, I didn't appear to have been sedated and the door was open. There was someone sitting in a chair near the bed, though. I squinted for a moment, and then blinked in surprise.
"Emily?" I said, not quite believing it.
She focussed on me instantly, getting to her feet. "You're awake. How do you feel?"
"Unfortunately like a hard object impacted my head at some velocity." I tilted my head slowly to one side and then the other. The room swayed a little, but not too much. There was a slight throbbing at the back of my head and some soreness in my neck, but nothing major. All in all, it could have been much worse. "It doesn't feel like there's much else wrong with me though."
She raised an eyebrow. "You can tell that?"
"I've had experience with suffering a variety of injuries, much to my regret." Emily started to open her mouth, obviously with a question, so I continued blithely onwards. "I have led what could be termed an interesting life. And don't think that you can take advantage of an injured woman to quiz me about it." I smiled weakly as I added the last part.
She didn't return the smile. "I won't if you don't want me here."
My memory threw up our argument. Oh. My smile faded. Right. The silence hung awkwardly in the air. I almost wanted to apologise for snapping at her earlier, but that was just ridiculous. Emma Frost did not say that she was sorry. Not ever.
I decided to change the subject. "If you don't mind me asking, how come you are? Here, that is."
"Apparently you kept on asking for an 'Emily' when they wheeled you in. Luckily, you happened to have the number of an Emily stored in your mobile phone."
"How absolutely fortuitous." I paused a second, then mumbled: "Thank you for coming."
"When I heard that you'd been attacked and hospitalised? Of course I came." She did smile, now, if only slightly. "We are friends, you know."
I couldn't help smiling back at her. "If I tore you away from that job of yours, you must have been concerned," I said a little wryly.
She winced. "There are going to be questions about that tomorrow."
"So, what's your story going to be?"
"Well, they already know the basics. Unfortunately." She made a face. "There will definitely be curiosity. I don't suppose that you know any out-of-work actors I might be able to hire for a day?"
"Sadly not." Well, none that I'd want to entrust with my current location, anyway.
She shrugged. "I guess it's not that important. I'm sure that I'll manage to deal with them somehow." She hesitated for a moment. "If you don't mind me asking: what happened?"
The blow to the head.
A yawning abyss flickering with fire, smelling of burnt flesh. My own personal hell, where I so richly deserved to be.
I closed my eyes and shuddered.
I would not crack. I would not flinch. I would calmly open my eyes and lie, tell her that I couldn't remember a thing.
That was what Emma Frost would do. That was all Emma Frost could do. Emma Frost was a diamond, after all.
If you never exposed your weaknesses, no one could ever take advantage of them.
I felt a gentle touch on my arm and my eyes flickered open by instinct.
She was still there, just looking at me, eyes filled with concern.
"Emma?" she asked gently.
"I... I don't remember a thing," I said, then was immediately furious with myself for the stammer, the slip.
She sat there, looking at me for a second, before nodding. "Okay. I'll tell the police that." She didn't move, though, just rested her gaze on me. Thoughtfully. Compassionately. Knowingly.
I closed my eyes once more, feeling raw and wide open, naked before her brown eyes. She knew that I was lying -- her thoughts radiated it -- and she didn't care. She was just there for me.
I knew what Emma Frost would do. She'd smile politely, thank Emily and dismiss her, telling her that she needed to get some sleep.
The hell of it was that here was someone who didn't need me to be strong, cold, as hard as diamond. The hell of it was that here was someone that I felt I could fall apart around. The hell of it was that here was someone who made me almost want to fall apart, so that she could put me back together again, to make me whole and perfect the way I never could remake myself. To expose my scars and fractures, so she could give me some salve for my wounds.
Whether I was cursing Emily Prentiss or Emma Frost I was no longer sure.
I didn't have the strength for this any more. I really didn't.
I laughed bitterly within the confines of my own mind. If Emma Frost could never do this, could never let down her guard around someone else, then maybe Emily Winthrop could.
Damn her anyway. And this time I was sure that it was Emma Frost I was cursing.
I opened my eyes, unsurprised to find them filled with tears. "Please..." I sobbed, looking at Emily with something akin to (but never actually, not even now) desperation.
"Yes," she said, simply. She understood, somehow, quietly folding me in her arms; holding me until I was out of tears and out of energy. Numb. My last memory before I slipped into unconsciousness was of her gently stroking my hair.
I woke up rather suddenly to the unsalubrious sight of a hospital room. A remnant of a dull ache reminded me of why I was here. I remembered all of it. From the light coming in from the window, it was now morning. Probably early morning -- far too early for me to be awake, really. I glanced around. The room was empty. Not that I had expected anything else, of course. Why Emily, or indeed anyone, would still be here was a little beyond me.
Especially after yesterday.
I closed my eyes again, briefly, my hands tightening involuntarily into fists before I made them release their death grip on the covers. I couldn't believe that I had done that, opened myself so thoroughly, in front of someone. An asinine part of me huddled in on itself, stung that she wasn't here, but the rest of me, the better part, the sensible part, told it that of course she wasn't here. Why would she be? She had her job, her own life, and so did I.
It was time to check myself out of this place anyway.
I swung my feet out of bed and on to the cold ground. Gingerly, I rose to the vertical, but there was almost no dizziness. Good. Looking in the wardrobe, I sighed. My clothes were there, but they did look rather like I had been rolling around in the dirt and then bled copiously on them. I sighed. Say what you liked about the X Men garb, and I frequently did, it was almost preternaturally resistant to this kind of thing. Still, there was nothing for it. I'd just have to get to the apartment as quickly as I could and change.
I was only half-dressed when the door opened. I turned my best withering gaze in its direction, ready to make whichever unfortunate nurse had just entered my (temporary) domain leave somewhat more quickly than they'd come in. The sight that greeted me rather took the wind out of my sails.
I blinked. "Emily?" I found a completely inappropriate smile coming to my lips as suddenly the world seemed a much cheerier place. I point blank refused to analyze why that might be the case.
She smiled back at me. "I just stepped out to phone work and let them know that I wouldn't be in today either. Sorry if I woke you when I left."
Touched, I couldn't help broadening my smile a little. I really hadn't expected her to take even more time off just for me. "Putting off the no doubt extensive questioning until tomorrow, I see."
"Something like that." She paused for second. "Are you sure you're up to getting out of bed?" She asked the question carefully, as if aware that she was stepping into a potential minefield.
I let it go, not letting any implied questioning of my competence mar my mood. "Utterly certain, darling. I told you: I've had enough experience with head injuries to know my way around them."
"Hmmm." She regarded me thoughtfully, her thoughts loud and sceptical. I raised an eyebrow in her direction, and she conceded defeat with a small shrug. "We'll talk about... things... later?" Her voice made it very clear that this was a question and she wasn't pushing.
Inexplicably, I found myself tearing up again as yesterday washed over me once more. Damn her, how did she do this to me? I almost felt like collapsing back down onto the bed and waiting for the arms that I just knew she'd put around me. The alien walls of the hospital gave me strength. Not here. There was no way I could let go here, among strangers. "Later," I said. Somehow it sounded far more like a promise than I had intended. Damn her.
"Let's get you out of here, then. Would you like me to leave while you finish getting dressed?"
I shot her a look. I went for amused, but I was uncomfortably aware that she might be able to read more gratitude into it than I'd really like. "It seems a little late to worry about you getting a look at my naked body now." I took a breath. "Besides, this way I get the aid of a free dressing assistant, darling." Much though I was loath to admit it, an assistant might be helpful (okay, necessary) for getting my clothes over some of the bandages. "I'm all about the pampering."
"Now we get to the truth of it," she murmured, but came over and helped me anyway.
"If you didn't know that already, I do rather despair of you," I replied, considering and then discarding the tights as a lost cause.
"My role in our friendship had possibly come to my attention," she said, helping me pull my blouse over where someone had rather enthusiastically bandaged my arm.
"There," I said after a few more minutes' work. "Now let's go and check me out of this place."
The austere, though much better colour coordinated walls of my apartment greeted me upon my return. I shivered a little. All of a sudden, this didn't seem to be a place where I so much lived as existed. I wasn't sure that was going to be enough.
"Are you going to enter, or were you planning on standing in the doorway all day?" Emily asked from behind me.
I turned back towards her. Something of what I was feeling must have shown on my face, because she slid an arm around my waist and held me, not saying a thing.
"Thank you," I whispered. For not saying anything. I didn't add the second part, not aloud, but she understood, anyway. "Would you mind if we went to your place, instead?" I knew I was asking a lot, but this place wasn't mine, not really, not in the way that her apartment was hers. Emily. infused into the very walls.
It was disturbingly comforting to think of being surrounded by Emily at the moment. But maybe comfort was what I needed right now.
I hated feeling vulnerable. Even though I knew I could trust her. Maybe even especially because I could trust her.
"Of course not," she said, as though she knew exactly what was going through my head. I could have confirmed that, one way or the other. I didn't because I wasn't sure which option I wanted to be true. And which option would be worse.
I left the circle of her arms and felt obscurely bereft for a second. I quickly shook that off though. "Then I imagine that I'll need a few essential supplies. Clothes and such," I said as breezily as I could manage right at that moment.
Emily gave me a suspicious glance. "How much is 'a few'?"
I gave her an innocent look. "Not many. Just enough for a few days." Why was it that she didn't seem convinced?
Emily sat down heavily next to me on her sofa. "If that's your idea of travelling lightly, I dread to see what happens when you don't." She was perspiring a little, the rosy glow on her cheeks for once not due to a blush.
To be fair, I have travelled much more lightly. It has, to my ever lasting regret, often been necessary when needs must. But it was a thing that I definitely only ever did by necessity. Never when I had to avoid it. A girl had to have her comforts, after all.
I stroked her arm lightly and smiled. "Well, if you will insist on carrying all the heavy items yourself..."
She gave me a sour look. "Trust me, if it hadn't been for your head injury, you'd have been on your own."
I curled up on her side, wrapping one arm around her stomach. "My hero."
She put her own arm around my shoulders and we just stayed there a while. It was almost comfortable in its own odd way, and that was the thing that finally broke me. Tears started flooding uncontrollably down my face, my breath hitching and juddering in my chest. Emily just sat quietly, a rock in my existence, holding me whilst I fell. Not pushing. Not pulling. Just there.
Finally I broke the silence. "I was one of the head teachers at a school," I whispered. My voice was quiet at first, but grew louder, rawer, as I continued. "A special school, with special troubles. We got threats. Serious threats. But the kids didn't have anywhere else to go. Some months ago, that situation changed, at least for some of them. So we got the ones we could out of there. There were various reasons, but mainly we just thought it would be for the best. I told myself that they'd be safer that way, that they'd be able to live lives free from fear." I took a breath, but it came out more as a sob. "I was wrong. The bus came under attack, missile attack. Forty two died in the impact, or in the flames afterwards."
"God," Emily whispered, holding me, my shattered remains, tightly.
"I couldn't even be there for them. I was elsewhere. At the school. Even when I heard..." I shook myself jerkily, trying to keep the memories at bay. "I couldn't stop. Everyone else was still in danger and there was so much that needed to be done. There was always so much that needed to be done. I had to help counsel the pupils, even some of the staff. And there was always another crisis, something else to bury myself in. Someone had to be strong. I had to be strong. So I didn't stop. I couldn't stop. Until I couldn't go on any longer."
"You helped counsel other people. Was anyone there for you?" Emily's eyes were glittering with tears, her voice raw with reflected pain.
I felt like I should say a name, someone. I couldn't. "I had to be strong," I repeated. "A diamond." My voice broke, the hitch turning into a stutter and then a full blown sob. "I w... I was... n-needed. I h-had to..." And then I couldn't speak any more.
"Oh, Emma," said Emily, her voice rich with compassion. And she held me tightly whilst I cried myself to sleep, again.
When I had recovered from the lingering remnants of the concussion, I went back to the alleyway where I'd first met Vicky. She wasn't there, of course. I searched for her, both telepathically and the old-fashioned way, but there was no trace of her to be found. My best guess was that she'd just upped sticks and moved somewhere else. Somewhere the scary lady couldn't find her. There were other things I could have tried, but that would have meant involving people I just wasn't ready to even think about just yet. So, in the end, I decided to respect her wishes. Maybe our paths would cross again some day, but most likely they wouldn't. Either way, it was out of my hands.
As for Emily, well, against all reason she didn't actually run for the hills. Quite the opposite, in fact. And while she didn't push, not exactly, she certainly didn't let me off the hook. Which is how I came to be in my current predicament. I glowered at the door in front of me. I had faced down almost unthinkable threats, been sarcastic in the face of almost unimaginable danger and generally enacted far more than my fair share of brave deeds. I rather felt like that should count for something in the face of what was really just an ordinary wooden door with a mere normal human woman behind it. Much to my disgust, it didn't.
"I do hope you realise that I'm only doing this for you," I told Emily.
She was having none of it. "You're doing this for you," she said placidly, having been through this particular discussion more than once.
I shot her an evil look. She was right, but that didn't mean I had to be happy about it. I knew better than anyone that I had to be here because I wanted this, not because anyone was bullying me into it.
My stomach was still trying to convince me that leaving right now was a far better plan of action.
"Just don't think I'm going to let you off the hook," I muttered, jabbing a finger at her for emphasis.
"I don't think this is really the time." Her voice was calmly reasonable; obnoxiously so, if you asked me. Fortunately for her, I didn't get the opportunity to deliver a suitably scathing reply. Saved by the receptionist.
"Emma Winthrop," the woman called, looking up with a professional smile fixed to her face. "Dr Chandra will see you now."
I looked down at my hand, still tightly gripping Emily's with absolutely no intention of letting go.
"Thank you," I muttered.
"What was that? I hoping that it was 'I'm going to get up now and go through that door,'" Emily said with an arch look.
"Thank you for taking yet another day off work and coming with me to the first session," I said a little more loudly.
Her face softened, her eyes melting just a little. "Wouldn't miss it for the world."
"Emma Winthrop," the receptionist called again, with perhaps just the tiniest hint of impatience. I took a deep breath and got to my feet, still clinging to Emily's hand.
Emma Winthrop got to her feet and knocked on the door to the therapist's office. When the voice told her to enter, she did so, ready and willing to face what lay before her. And Emily Prentiss was with her every step of the way.
It was bloody certain that Emma Frost would never -- could never -- have done this. So Emma Winthrop simply had to do it for her.
Chapter 9: Goodbye and Hello, As Always
That turned out to be the first of many such visits, although I attended the rest of the appointments on my own. I found myself grudgingly forced to admit that perhaps this wasn't quite so excruciating as I had thought it would be. Some visits went better than others, of course, but by and large -- and much to my surprise -- I would have to say that this whole exercise actually turned out to be helpful. At least I knew that Dr Chandra would not be revealing any of my secrets to anyone else. I had made certain of it with a small, yet effective, mental compulsion. One never could be too careful with these things. Being able to speak freely to someone who didn't have a vested interest or a relevant agenda proved to be surprisingly liberating. As the time went by, I actually found myself able to confront the events that had eventually brought me to this point. And that made me feel... conflicted.
The thing about realising that you not only knew what needed to be done, but were actually ready to face up to it at last? It meant that you couldn't really justify turning your back on it. No matter how much you wanted to.
Not if you wanted to keep even a shred of self-respect.
May Emily forgive me for what I had to do.
We exited the movie theatre with Emily's arm entwined around mine. If forced at the point of torture, I might admit that I had rather enjoyed myself. This was despite repressing my inner nitpicker from commenting at various points in the film: 'Travelling into someone's dreams doesn't work like that!' Emily was indulging her inner geek by chattering to me at length about the film we'd just seen. There were two good reasons for this. The first was that she triuly enjoyed the opportunity to enthuse without feeling self conscious about it. The second was that she knew I found it indescribably cute. And if the chattering was perhaps a little more forced than usual, well, there may have been reasons behind that too.
When we arrived back home, Emily's place, I took a deep breath and prepared to utter those fateful words: 'We need to talk.' Emily didn't give me the chance. As soon as the door clicked shut behind us, she pushed me up against the wall and kissed me, hard. She pressed her body into mine as if she was trying to merge the two of us into one being, her mouth devouring me as if she was starving and couldn't get enough. And I couldn't help but respond.
I knew I should pull away from her. I knew I should just tell her what had to be be said. I knew that what I had to do was best done quick and clean, leaving no ragged ends to tangle and fester. I knew all of that, the thoughts flashing through my mind quicker than a heartbeat or a single, panting breath, but I was completely helpless. Helpless to do anything but let this happen.
I didn't deserve this. God help me, I knew I didn't deserve it. But I wanted it. I wanted her, to impress her into my memory, to hold her there, to hold this moment there and not have to go forward into tomorrow. Sod tomorrow. I could give her now, would give her now and I would make it count.
So, one last night. A parting gift.
So I had better make tonight a night to remember. For both of us.
I met her passion with my own, bracing myself against the wall as I kissed her back just as fervently, running my hands over as much of her as I could reach. It wasn't nearly enough; a thought she clearly shared. Without the need for speech, we stepped away from the wall, both moving in tandem, in harmony, making just enough space between us to give ourselves room to manoeuvre. Our hands found buttons and zippers, for once neither of us trying to take charge; struggling with, rather than against, as we stripped each other bare. We left a trail of clothing all the way from the door to the bedroom. Not unusual, for us. What was different this time was that it took us that long to do more than kiss and hold each other, treating each kiss as though it might be our last. We paused at the bed, looked deep each other's eyes for a timeless moment. My chest ached with a feeling I could barely even acknowledge, let alone name.
What a bloody inopportune time to develop something like a conscience.
Focus, Emma, I told myself.
I raised a hand to Emily's face, brushed my fingertips softly against her cheek, trailing them along her jaw and then downwards. She trembled as I drew my nails lightly down her neck, shuddered as I cupped her breast in my hand. I moved in closer, sliding my other hand over the skin of her back as I wrapped one leg around her hip, pulling her firmly against me. Moaning low in her throat, she clung to me in return, seducing me from gravity's embrace as we toppled together onto the bed.
The spell broken, our bodies moved together, skin slick with a heady mix of sweat and desire. We kissed again as our hands explored each other's naked bodies, knowing just where and how to touch to bring forth a gasp or a sigh or a moan. We took our time -- no rush, no hurry -- as if we had all the time in the world.
But our time was running out.
Both of us knew that to be true, no matter how much we tried -- were trying -- to deny it. Every touch, every movement and cry of hers whispered: 'Stay with me.' Every one of mine said: 'Goodbye.' Neither one of us wanted to hear what was being spoken without words. I memorised each and every plane and curve of her body, the feel of her lips, the need in her eyes, locking every precious detail deep inside where nothing could touch them. She had done so much for me, and I could offer her nothing but ashes in return. It wasn't enough. I had to give her more.
I slid down her body, caressing her breasts with my mouth and hands. Writhing and panting, she tangled her hands in my hair, jerking me to a halt as I tried to move further south. I lifted my head to find her looking down at me, something dark and desperate in her eyes.
"No," she growled. "Come up here."
I pulled back experimentally, feeling the tug on my scalp. Yes, this was do-able. I smiled hungrily up at her.
"Make me," I breathed, then slithered rapidly down her body. She started to say something, but the sound melted into a moan as I reached my goal. Well, it's not like I could have answered her anyway, at least not with words. I buried myself in her, breathing in her scent, losing myself in her taste as I licked and stroked, delving into her with my tongue. She screamed my name when she climaxed, the sweet pain of it far sharper than the prickling in my scalp as she tightened her hold. It went right through me.
Without warning, she suddenly yanked me up, releasing my hair to grab me roughly by the shoulders and throw me onto my back. Covering my body with her own, she pinned my wrists above my head and kissed me deeply, thoroughly, hungrily.
"You taste of me," she whispered, releasing one wrist so she could stroke and cup my breasts. I shivered a little as she rolled one nipple between her finger and thumb, unable to help a small disappointed noise as she moved her hand again. Splaying her fingers across my cheek, she tilted my head to one side and brought her mouth to my neck, trailing her tongue over my skin, kissing the spot just behind my ear that she knew I liked.
"Tell me that you want me," she breathed, nipping gently with her teeth.
"I want you," I murmured, letting my need, my desire, make my voice raw. I wanted her more than I could say, and I did everything in my power to let her see it. But she wanted more than that, I could sense it. "I... Ah!" She bit me again, harder, bringing her hand back down to my breasts and making me arch beneath her. "I want you, Emily."
She wanted even more than that, but I couldn't give it to her. I couldn't tell her that I loved her, not when I was leaving. Not when I didn't know if I'd be coming back.
I didn't even know if it was true. What did Emma Frost really know about love, anyway? I couldn't answer that question, not yet, but Emma Frost did know a lot about debt. And Emma -- I -- owed Emily Prentiss a great deal.
Some might say everything.
So I gave her everything that I could.
Although it was against my nature to do so, I laid myself open to her, submitting to her desires and her will. I let her do with me as she would, possessing me more thoroughly than I had thought possible. When she wanted me pliant, I obeyed; when she wanted to fight, I struggled. I was water to her steel, shaping myself to her thoughts, turning her fantasy into reality.
And I screamed her name when I came.
Afterwards, we lay there in her bed, tangled together as always with her head resting on my chest. It would be so easy to fall asleep like this; to leave those fateful words unspoken and to pretend, for just one night, that we could go back to the way things were. But we couldn't. I couldn't. It wouldn't be fair to her. It wouldn't be fair to me. And it wouldn't be fair to Scott.
I didn't want to do this. I had to do this.
God, it would be so much easier if I didn't care for her as much as I did. If she didn't matter to me, then I could lie to her without a second thought. I could just tell her I was going away, tell her something nonspecific about having some unfinished business to take care of. I could even tell her that I'd be coming back. But I couldn't -- wouldn't -- do that to her.
It was ironic, really. My... regard for her (for want of a better word that I did not deserve to use) was what was going to destroy our relationship.
I took a deep breath. Maybe this wasn't the best time, but I couldn't put this off any longer.
"Emily," I said, softly.
"Do you want to stay here tonight?" she interrupted, attempting to derail what I'd been about to say. "I know you've needed some space recently, but, well, I thought..." Hoping, not thinking, and as she turned her head to look at me, her eyes shining with the light of dying stars, even hope faded.
"We need to talk."
I could feel the moment when her mind turned to ice; freezing and closing off. She sat up in the bed, drawing away from me and wrapping herself in the sheet.
"Go on," she said, her voice level and smooth.
I sat up and faced her, meeting her gaze with my own. "I know I've been distant the last few days," I began. Starting to sleep separately again had been surprisingly painful, despite the fact that we still weren't officially in a relationship. Emily hadn't said really anything at the time, simply accepting my choice, but her eyes had spoken volumes. I hadn't been ready to talk about this with her then, however. I just hoped that I was now. "I just wanted you to know that it's nothing to do with you."
"It's not me, it's you?" she said, her voice growing brittle, with a razor-sharp edge of cold fury.
I winced. "In a manner of speaking, yes. It's because of something that I just wasn't able to deal with before. Therapy has helped me come to terms with a number of my issues, and this one was buried deeper than most. Probably because I really didn't want to deal with it." A soft sigh escaped my lips. "For a number of reasons."
Her eyes softened a little, but I knew her well enough to see the hurt as well as the compassion. "Why didn't you tell me about it? I could have helped you..."
I held up a hand, stopping her mid-sentence. "Because you couldn't, not with this." There really was no good way of saying this, so I just plunged straight onwards. There was no turning back now. "Before I left the school rather abruptly, I was already in a relationship." I could have left it there -- wasn't this bad enough? -- but I couldn't stop myself from driving the final nail into the coffin of our friendship. "I had a boyfriend."
Her eyes widened in shock, the colour draining from her cheeks. She looked like she'd been slapped. "And this never came up before because...?"
"When I left the school, I abandoned him without a word. Because... Because I knew that he'd help me to stay strong. To stay there and keep on doing what needed to be done. And I just couldn't do that any more. So I just left. I betrayed them. I betrayed him. And in many ways, that was the worst betrayal of all. Much more than all the rest of my crimes, I couldn't let myself go there, remember that. Otherwise I might go back. And that... That would have destroyed me. One way or another." There wasn't enough air in here. I was having to draw great, rasping breaths through a throat that felt like it had been scoured raw. When had I started crying? Tears blurred my eyes and dripped soundlessly to the sheets beneath. It no longer surprised me how easily they flowed when I was alone with Emily. But only her. It had only ever been her.
"So this is why you'd never commit to a relationship with me? Because as long as you didn't, you still had him?"
"I love him." Loved him, maybe. I wasn't sure. But I had to find out. Couldn't she see that? Couldn't she see that I had to deal with this before I could move on? Couldn't she see that I didn't have a choice? "I can't just let it go, not like that."
Her voice rose. I was wrong about her anger being cold. It burned hotter than a thousand fiery suns. "So you run off to D.C., find me," 'Make me love you' her thoughts said as clear as day, "use me to help yourself and now, what? Run back to your nice, normal boyfriend?"
Somewhere at the back of my mind was an obscure twinge of surprise that my skin didn't blister; that the heat of her wrath didn't leave me a charred and blackened mass.
Just like the others I'd let down. But I'd worked past that, now. I wouldn't lose myself in past sins. After all, I had more self-respect than that.
Which is why I couldn't deny her words. They were far too close to being accurate.
"I need to go back to him, to find out where I stand. What our relationship is." Who I was now. Which face I wanted to wear.
"So what was tonight, then? A pity fuck? One last ride for good luck before you slithered on back to your boyfriend?" She laughed; a jagged sound of broken glass and bitter tears. It cut me to the quick. "Doesn't it count as cheating if it's a woman you're fucking?"
"That's not... I didn't think..." But what could I really say to that?
"Go, then," she said bitterly, hunching over her knees with her hair a barrier between us, refusing to show me her face.
I stood up and gathered my things, pausing in the doorway of the bedroom. "I'm sorry," I said quietly.
"Don't say you're sorry when you don't mean it," she yelled at my back as I left. To go back to the X Men. To go back to Scott.
It was the right thing to do, after all.
Epilogue (A month later)
You were right. I wasn't sorry, not really. I was sorry that I had caused you pain, but meeting you? Letting whatever it was that grew between us bloom? I wasn't and I'm not sorry for that in the slightest.
My accounts with the X Men are settled, I feel, at least. Which isn't to say that they and I are finished -- I don't think that will ever be the case. Too many emotional ties binding us together, for better or for worse. I'm just taking... a more detached role.
But Scott and I are over. It wasn't that I didn't love him. It's not that I still don't, in many ways. It's just that he is a leader. He helps people push past what they thought were their limits. Helps them to be better than they ever could be alone. And that can be such a good thing. Or it can lead to the situation that I found myself in several months ago.
I could only ever be strong for Scott, never weak. No wonder Emma Frost loved him so much.
So here I stand on the street, looking up at your apartment. I am more than a little nervous, I feel able to admit to myself. You're in there now, curled up in your den of geekery. With a good book, if I'm not mistaken.
I don't know if you'll want to see me. I don't know if you'll want to try friendship again, let alone anything else. I can only promise that if you do, then I'll try my best to let you in as far as I can, to tell you everything that I'm able. I can only imagine the look on your face as I tell you all the things I've done and experienced. The kind of things that you've only ever read about.
I go up to your building, press the appropriate buzzer. Sharing your senses, just your senses, I see you come to the intercom to answer.
"Emily Prentiss?" you say, in a tone of annoyance. You never did like being disturbed during your flights of fancy.
I idly notice that my hand is splayed out on the wall beneath the intercom in front of me, unconsciously mirroring your own pose stories above.
"Emma Winthrop," I answer in like manner, albeit much gentler in tone. I love you. "Can we talk?" I ask, simply. I have such wonders that I'd like to share with you.
And though you have shown me how to be both strong and weak enough to face whatever the future holds, still I find myself waiting breathlessly for your response.