Claire stiffened slightly as Adelle rose from her chair and gracefully stalked towards her.
When the Director reached Claire, she began to circle.
Claire's back became more rigid, but otherwise didn’t react to Adelle’s closeness. Closing the distance between them was an intimidation tactic, and Claire wouldn’t be intimidated. Adelle was a shark with an Oxford accent and a thousand dollar suit, and on most occasions the Director need only arch an eyebrow to make most people feel outclassed and outmatched. Claire wasn’t most people however, and whether it was wise or not, she wasn’t scared of Adelle Dewitt.
Claire felt the power of Adelle’s charisma to be sure, she felt the force of the Director’s personality pressing against her as the woman moved closer to her, but she was not afraid of Adelle. She would not cower before her, and she would not bend though she could be persuaded.
A few seconds after Claire’s back tensed, it loosened again and Adelle smiled faintly from her position at Claire’s back. Claire had an inner-strength and integrity that Adelle appreciated. There were enough people working for The Company who would consider it a pleasure to lick her boots, that Claire’s audacity was a breath of fresh air. Adelle couldn’t respect someone who wouldn’t stand up for themselves, which meant that there were very few people that she genuinely respected. Claire was one of the few she did.
“You like her,” Adelle murmured, finally breaking the silence that had fallen over the room when she first rose from her desk. Her warm breath tickled the back of Claire’s neck as she spoke, and Claire had to fight the urge to close her eyes.
She wasn’t used to having someone so close to her anymore, and it made a longing well up inside of her that was so sudden and so powerful that she had to close her eyes to battle against the waves of feeling battering against her emotional shields.
“She’s guileless,” Claire replied steadily. She kept her gaze trained forward. She was resolute in her decision not to turn around and give Adelle the satisfaction of knowing that her closeness was affecting her, deeply. “It’s impossible not to like her,” Claire continued softly, her voice remaining calm despite the havoc Adelle’s presence was continuing to wreak with her senses.
“I would have thought you’d have learned your lesson by now,” Adelle sighed, her words pointed and somewhat frustrated though there was an undercurrent of something that sounded almost like sympathy in her voice as well.
She placed her hand gently on Claire’s shoulder, and Claire tensed under the soft touch.
Adelle’s words had sent a cold shiver of pure fear through her, and she was having trouble calming herself down. There was no threat, she knew that. She knew it, but she didn’t feel it.
Claire’s heart rate increased and she began to feel hot. She swayed slightly, and began to blink rapidly. Claire’s hand twitched by her side and began to lift towards her face, before she forced it down again. Breathe, she told herself, her heart still pounding madly beneath her breast. Breathe.
“Echo is different,” Claire rasped a few moments later, her heart still beating far too quickly as her eyes closed against the remembered sensation of a cold blade slicing through her skin again, and again, until red tears leaked from the wounds, creating the impression that she was crying blood.
Adelle wasn’t a physical threat. There was no reason to be scared. There was no reason to be scared. You’re fine, Claire thought breathing in and out deeply. Everything’s alright, Claire told herself as her heart finally began to beat less madly.
“Is she?” Adelle asked softly, her hand slipping from Claire’s shoulder to her arm where she began to rub in a light, up and down motion. She could feel the tension in Claire’s body, and was certain she knew what the cause of it was. She didn’t relish upsetting Claire, but there were things that needed to be said, and she would say them. That being so, she tried to do what she could to … soothe Claire.
“He was unstable,” Claire said, remembering a pale face capped with dirty blonde hair, and piercing, pale blue eyes. Despite herself, she found that Adelle’s motions were calming her, and in spite of the face staring back at her from the inside of her mind, she could feel her body beginning to relax.
“Isn’t she?” Adelle asked softly, her voice curious but not unkind. “Your report stated that …”
“Echo’s not unstable,” Claire interjected, cutting Adelle off before she could think better of it.
Adelle’s hand fell from her arm.
“Then what is she?” Adelle asked, smoothly filling the silence that followed Claire’s words.
She began to prowl again.
Claire said nothing, uncertain how to respond. Echo was different, but it was in a way that was beautiful instead of terrifying. Echo’s emotions didn’t shut down because of the y
treatments. The wiping process wasn’t petrifying Echo into something cold, and dark and empty like it had done to him. Echo was curious, and open and caring. Echo wanted to embrace the world not burn it. Echo wasn’t being changed by her programming. Echo was changing her programming. Echo was becoming something more.
“What is she?” Adelle asked again, her voice as smooth as melted chocolate. She was leaning close to Claire again. Claire could feel Adelle’s warm breath on her and it made her stomach clench as her hands twitch anxiously.
“Evolving,” Claire whispered shakily, knowing that Adelle already knew. She had seen people following Echo, watching her from a distance within the house walls. Adelle already suspected that something was happening with Echo. She just wanted to hear a confirmation of it.
“She cannot,” Adelle responded with a fierceness that momentarily surprised Claire.
Claire wasn’t used to Adelle’s voice rising. Like she herself, Adelle almost always spoke in soothing, patient tones. Their motivations were different, of course. For Adelle is was a control technique, her calm had a way of riling people up, but because she was being so unassuming most simply stewed in an impotent silence, raging against her in their minds instead of actually confronting her. This was Adelle’s aim, because the distraction that their anger caused almost always gave Adelle the advantage. For Claire, her calm and stillness was more of a survival technique. She had no way of knowing of course why only her face had been slashed instead of the rest of her, but as the blade had streaked towards her, glinting coldly in the light of her lab, Claire had spoken softly and after that no new tears had been appeared on her face. She had been speaking softly ever since.
“She can. She is,” Claire stated simply, extra cautious to keep her tone modest in the face of Adelle’s momentary slip.
“She should not,” Adelle responded a touch peevishly as she amended her former statement.
“Should is irrelevant,” Claire sighed tiredly. “What is … is.”
“Yes, well,” Adelle drawled, sounding almost amused. “There’s a certain text.”
Claire smiled faintly at that, enjoying the brief moment of peace before she breathed in deeply and prepared to march into battle once more.
“I think this could be a good thing,” Claire said finally, turning so that she could face Adelle.
“For her, or for the program?” Adelle’s question was pointed but her voice was kind. Claire rarely met anyone’s eyes directly anymore, not even hers, and Adelle appreciated the trust the doctor was showing her by looking straight at her.
“For both,” Claire stated, relieved that Adelle was keeping her gaze focused on her eyes instead of letting it roam all over her face. Most people’s eyes roamed. Adelle’s didn’t. They never had. She had seen horror in Adelle’s eyes the first time the woman had laid eyes on her after the attack, even though Adelle had quickly controlled her response. But Claire had never seen pity in Adelle’s eyes when she looked at her. It was a small comfort, but it was a comfort.
“You’re talking about letting, nay encouraging a personality form,” Adelle said shaking her head. “It’s the antithesis of the philosophy the program is built on. We have no need for individuals. We need shells.”
“No,” Claire argued, her voice a low murmur. “You need compliance.”
“Precisely. We need shells,” Adelle replied, her eyes narrowing as she stared at Claire. “Things can be controlled, people cannot. We need things.”
Claire breathed in and out deeply, a flash of emotion burning in her eyes for a moment, before her gaze calmed. “They’re still people, even if they don’t remember what that means,” Claire replied, her voice quivering with barely suppressed emotion.
Adelle lifted her hand up slowly until she was cupping Claire’s cheek. Claire saw Adelle’s motion, and knew what the Director was going to do before Adelle’s hand came to rest against her cheek. She tensed at the realization, but she didn’t pull away, and when Adelle’s fingers came into contract with her flesh, Claire had to struggle not let her eyes close at the sensation of warm fingers pressing against her.
“Thinking like that is what got you these,” Adelle murmured as her thumb ran over the lower slash across Claire’s left cheek.
Claire breathed in sharply as Adelle’s words washed over her and she flinched slightly.
“He needed help,” Claire stated, angling her face from Adelle in a show of annoyance though she did not remove her face from Adelle’s hand entirely.
“He needed to be put down,” Adelle shot back, shifting her hand so that she was simply cupping Claire’s face once more. Her touch remained soft though her voice had taken on a touch of frost.
“I was trying to save him,” Claire declared, a touch of heat entering her voice.
“Ah,” Adelle said, stroking Claire’s cheek almost victoriously, as if she had won some great battle. “There it is,” Adelle murmured, watching Claire for a moment with sad eyes. “He was saved, Claire,” Adelle continued, dropping her hand from Claire’s face as her eyes drifted from the doctor. “He fell again. Don’t you see,” she continued, her head snapping around so that she was looking at Claire once more. “Some people are meant to sink.”
“And others to swim,” Claire replied immediately. “Echo is not Alpha,” she continued, her voice hitching as his name fell from her lips. Her eyelids fluttered rapidly to contain the tears suddenly stinging her eyes. “She’s gentle,” Claire said struggling to regain control of herself. “She’s sensitive, Adelle. She empathizes. Give me time. Give her time. This need not be a defect. In fact, it might be just what we need to cheat time.”
Adelle stared at her for an uncomfortably long period of time, and then exhaled deeply before turning away from Claire.
“I’ll see what I can do,” Adelle said, keeping her eyes focused out of the large window that made up the back wall of her office. “For you,” Adelle added softly a moment later, almost as if an afterthought.
Claire nodded, relief flooding through her. Adelle had superiors to answer to, just as she had to answer to Adelle. As much as Adelle projected the air that she was not only the biggest wolf on campus but the only wolf on campus, Adelle couldn’t simply snap her fingers and make something happen. That being said, Claire knew that Adelle would do her best to convince the higher ups of what she was proposing. It wasn’t a slam dunk by any means, but Adelle could sell ice cubes to Eskimos and Claire was certain she would manage it. Claire was convinced that it was done the moment Adelle said she would try.
“Thank you,” Claire breathed out sincerely.
“Yes,” Adelle replied softly. “Of course,” she continued her voice drifting for a moment. “Claire …” the Director began a few seconds later, however her voice trailed off before she added anything more to the name.
Claire tensed at the cautious almost hesitant note that had appeared in Adelle’s voice, and dropped her gaze to the floor.
“Claire,” Adelle said again a few moments later. Her voice was steady, it was resolved, and the change in Adelle’s tone drew Claire’s eyes up automatically. “I miss you,” Adelle breathed out when their eyes met and Claire shivered at the words and dropped her eyes.
“You don’t have to,” Claire began before angling her face to the side, her words falling away as a curtain of chestnut hair fell across her face, obscuring it from Adelle’s view.
“I know,” Adelle replied sharply, her back straightening for a moment before she forced herself to relax again. “Echo’s not the only one who sees you,” she continued gently, her hand fluttering uncertainly by her side for a moment before she reached out and placed it on Claire’s arm. “Look at me.”
“No,” Claire whispered roughly, her head still angled away from Adelle.
Adelle was silent for a moment, her hand resting on Claire’s arm gently as she thought about how to respond.
“Please,” Adelle finally murmured, her hand beginning to stroke again.
“No,” Claire whispered again. “Why?” she hissed, frustration and pain evident in her voice despite her attempts to control it. “They’re ugly,” Claire exhaled, seeming to collapse in on herself as she spoke.
“They’re not …”
“They are!” Claire exclaimed, cutting Adelle off before she could deny the horror of the wounds that had been inflicted upon her. “I horrify you. After it happened you couldn’t even look at me!” She exclaimed, remembering the way Adelle’s eyes had cut away from her after she had gotten a look at her face.
Claire’s outburst momentarily shocked Adelle into silence, and they found themselves standing there, staring at each other in an awkward silence.
“Is that what you think?” Adelle asked finally, blinking quickly as she gazed at Claire. She sounded genuinely surprised, which surprised Claire in turn.
“Am I wrong?” Claire asked, not certain herself whether she sounded spiteful or hopeful.
“Yes,” Adelle replied matter-of-factly. “You are. Astoundingly so,” she continued in a softly, her voice trembling faintly.
Claire’s eyes closed at the note of vulnerability and hurt in Adelle’s voice. She took a deep breath, and then slowly turned her head around, her hair falling from across her face as she did until she was looking at Adelle’s smoldering cobalt gaze once more.
Claire inhaled sharply, when their eyes met. Adelle was looking at her as tenderly a Claire had ever seen, but there was desire in Adelle’s eyes. There was longing in her increasingly dark blue eyes, and sight of it made Claire’s breath catch and her stomach twist. She never thought that she would see that look directed at her again, not now that she was …
“You can’t possibly …” Claire began, blinking against the tears beginning to well in her eyes.
“I can. I do,” Adelle responded. “You never horrified me,” the Director continued, her back straightening as she forced herself to speak words that had clearly gone too long unsaid. “What Alpha did to you, horrified me,” she admitted. “My culpability horrified me. I should have retired him before … before,” she sighed, her eyes drifting from Claire’s for a second. “I’m partly responsible for this,” Adelle breathed out, her eyes returning to Claire as her thumb stroked over one of Claire’s scars. “It’s a terrible thing … knowing you’ve wounded someone you … care about,” she finished, the last two words coming out as a gentle, shaky sigh.
Claire’s eyes widened as realization washed over her. It explained so much. Adelle had tried to speak to her after she had seen what had been done to Claire, but after Claire had seen that horrified look in her eyes she had been distant and resistant. It had been a natural defense against the rejection she was sure was coming, and when Adelle stopped making attempts to see her, Claire was convinced that she was right. Adelle holding herself partly responsible for her injuries changed everything however. If Adelle thought that she was responsible for what had happened, of course she wouldn’t have tried to push her. In fact, she would have interpreted Claire’s resistance and aloofness as an accusation, as a condemnation of her.
“This wasn’t your fault,” Claire said, unconsciously stepping towards Adelle, closing the distance between them.
No wonder Adelle had been so forgiving with her less than pleasant, and less than respectful attitude since Alpha’s attack. Especially in that first month, when everything from her wounds to her emotions were still raw, she had been surly and disagreeable with Adelle in public and Adelle had let it go without so much as a reprimand.
“I asked you to …”
“There were things you didn’t know. Incidents,” Adelle admitted, looking away as her features hardened. “I shouldn’t have allowed myself to be convinced by you. But …” she looked back over at Claire, and her features immediately and involuntarily softened. “I wanted make you happy.”
“If you … why would you just …” Claire began, her words falling haltingly from her lips as she tried to wrap her mind around what Adelle had just said.
Adelle’s features twisted in misery for a moment, her eyes sliding closed for a second before she breathed in deeply and managed to school her features into an almost neutral expression.
“Precautions will be taken this time,” Adelle said, ignoring the look of understanding that crossed Claire’s features as the doctor realized that the same feelings that had made her agree to giving Claire more time with Alpha had made her agree to give Claire more time with Echo as well. “And at the first sign of … instability, she will be dealt with.”
Claire nodded. She truly believed that it wouldn’t come to that. There had always been something unsettling about Alpha. She had felt an obligation to try and figure out a way to fix whatever was going wrong with him, but she had never felt a bond with him. Echo was different. Echo was the antithesis of Alpha even though she seemed to be evolving in the same way he had. Only instead of anger and remoteness resulting from the change, Echo was becoming more aware, more sensitive, more curious and kind. She was still loyal and responsive, and her body was reacting positively to the new expanse of emotions. If she could figure out why Alpha and Echo were reacting so differently to the same process then perhaps the rest of the Actives would be able to develop as well.
“Okay,” Claire finally breathed out, knowing that there was no sense in arguing with Adelle about precautions. Echo would be largely unaware of the increased number of guardians focusing their attention on her, and if Echo started to display any of the disturbing emotional and physical symptoms that Alpha had at the end, Claire would not stand between the Active and Adelle’s wrath. Despite Adelle’s earlier words, she had learned a lesson.
Adelle’s posture relaxed slightly, and her hand fluttered up to her hair in what Claire knew to be a nervous tick, before the Brit lower it again, knowing that her hair was already perfectly arranged and that there was no reason to touch it other than anxiousness.
“I still desire you,” Adelle said holding her eyes on Claire’s face until the doctor met her eyes.
It wasn’t a declaration of love, but they had never made those before. She hadn’t been sure how to characterize her relationship with Adelle before she had been cut. They had been lovers, but they hadn’t been dating in the typical sense though what had been going on between them had been more than casual sex, or at least it had evolved into something more than casual sex. Whatever they had been though, was nice. There was so much that their jobs demanded, time, secrets. It was hard to be with someone who expected things from you that you could not give them. Adelle didn’t ask anything of her that she couldn’t give, and she didn’t ask anything of Adelle that the Brit couldn’t give. They enjoyed each others company, and two or three times a week she got to feel the press of Adelle’s naked body against her own and rest in someone’s arms covered by a warm blanket as sweat cooled on her skin.
“Do you really?” Claire asked, blinking rapidly as tears stung her eyes.
“Very much so,” Adelle replied softly, her eyes steady though her voice shook faintly.
Adelle took a step forward then, closing the remaining distance between them and before Claire could react to the new closeness, Adelle’s hand as cupping her face again and her lips were pressing against Claire’s.
Claire immediately responded, her hands moving to Adelle’s slim waist as her eyes fluttered shut and her lips parted, inviting Adelle to the deepen the kiss. It had been three months since she had felt Adelle’s body pressed flush against hers and had the Brit’s lips on her, and that was far, far too long.
Claire’s hands had found their way to Adelle’s hair as they kissed, and when they pulled away from each other, flushed and panting, Adelle’s usually impeccably arranged hair fell about her in disarray. She looked like someone who had been wildly, madly, desperately making out moments before, which was of course exactly what she had been doing, and the thought made Claire smile.
“You’re smiling,” Adelle breathed out sounding confusedly pleased.
“You’re quick,” Claire sassed still smiling, a happiness she feared she would never feel again bubbling up inside of her, making eyes that had been blank and pained for so long positive dance with delight.
“Sarcasm,” Adelle drawled, her lips curving up into a smile as well. “How wonderful,” she murmured, meaning it completely. The last time she had seen Claire so playful had been two days before Alpha’s attack while she and Claire had come together on the couch in Claire’s office – which Adelle had gotten the camera taken out of a week after they had began to sleep together.
Claire leaned forward and pressed her lips against Adelle’s again, and again.
It was wonderful. It really was.