When the beacon from the Oculus came through two months ago, no one was prepared for it. Sara remembered being at the mess hall, getting a midafternoon cup of coffee when Gideon came over the comms.
“Captain, there is a communication coming through.”
Zari and Mick, near constants by the fridge didn’t react, but Ray perked up as he washed his dishes.
“Oh, a new myth-stery?”
“Patch it through, Gideon,” said Sara, glaring at Ray.
The AI hesitated, “You may wish to hear this one in private.”
Recalled that the last time Gideon suggested hearing a communication in private, it had been Ava’s cosmo-fueled response to their breakup, Sara decided to err on the side of caution and stepped out into the hallway.
“Where’s it from?” she asked Gideon, heading to the captain’s office, as they closer than her rooms.
“That would be part of the complication, Captain.”
Frowning now, Sara shut the doors to the captain’s office, placing her coffee down. “Okay, Gideon. What’s going on?”
“I’ll play the communication, Captain,” she said.
“...-aveRider, come in-...-Oculus was destroye-...-come in-…-and get me, Hunter, you bastar-…-epeat this is Leonard-...-aveRider, come in-…”
The communication started to repeat, and Gideon turned it off. Sara stared at the desk, not seeing the dark, chipped wood, but seeing instead a blinding light that exploded and took everything-
“Is it real?” Sara whispered.
“It is coming from the Oculus,” Gideon said. “I won’t have any other information without getting closer to...the source.”
Sara nodded, pushing herself away from the desk and opening the doors. Mick was wandering onto the bridge, sandwich in hand.
“What’s going on?” he asked.
“Unscheduled jump,” Sara informed him. “Strap in.” She went to the captain’s chair without further explanation, repeating the instructions over the ship intercom. She typed in the coordinates that she’d unintentionally memorized, and the ship lurched forward.
She knew the second Mick realized where they were. The growl started in his chest before any words had the chance to form.
“Blondie, what the fuc-”
“Gideon?” Sara called out, ignoring him and how thin her voice sounded.
Mick’s eyes narrowed, but he remained silent as the AI processed.
“Running the scans...one life form...dated 2016...Earth 1 timeline.” Gideon paused, and for an AI sounded uncharacteristically nervous. “As far as I can tell, the life form is Mr. Snart...the same one who destroyed the Oculus.”
Sara didn’t hear the final few words, because in front of her, out of the window, a familiar figure came sauntering up, his hand waving up at them. On instinct, she clicked on the microphones outside, and his voice filled the bridge.
“Nice to see you haven’t forgotten me, Hunter.”
The new voice shocked Sara out of her stupor, and she saw the rest of her crew - Charlie, Zari, Ray, Nate, and John - had come up to join them. Ray had come up a little closer, his jaw slack as they stared out at him.
Sara got out of her seat, the movement jerky and uncomfortable, and headed down to the bay doors. She heard the crew following her, but other than Ray whispering under his breath to the others what she assumed was an explanation, no one else spoke or questioned her.
If her hand shook as she pressed the button to unlock the doors, no one commented on that, either.
She saw him waiting out there, the dark jacket unburned, the faint shadow on his chin, the cold gun in its place on his thigh, and wondered how long it had been since she had taken a full breath. Her chest was tightening with questions and uncertainties and hows and whys and please let this be real this time-
“About damn time you showed up,” Leonard said before the doors opened up all the way. His eyes narrowed, darting over the new team members in a categorical manner, noting weapons and stances, then over Ray, hesitating at the age at his temples and around his eyes, and Mick, where he lingered on the comfortable closeness he had with the others, finally stopping at Sara and her position at the front of them, the authority on her shoulders and weight of the lost teammates on her back.
“Leo?” John asked.
Leonard’s eyes narrowed, but Ray was the one who answered. “No. This one was ours.”
Sara saw Leonard catch the choice of verb tense, putting the pieces together in his head, but remaining quiet.
“How long has it been for you?” Mick managed to ask, his voice only a little uncertain.
Leonard’s eyes cut back to him. “Eight hours. You?” he asked, only the flexing of his fingers indicating any nerves on his part.
“Three years,” Ray answered, when Mick just stared.
Leonard blinked, looking back at Sara.
She felt her jaw jump reflexively, and merely stepped aside to allow him back on the ship. Her ship.
He walked up, every inch he took closer to her making it harder for her to breathe. Was this a trick of the Oculus? No, he was solid, the creaking of the grates made that obvious. Was this a leftover from the Legion? His eyes were too cautious and worried to be prepared to betray them. He wasn’t from another Earth or timeline or anything, it was him.
So why didn’t she feel happy?
He paused in front of her, just a momentary breath, but her heart started galloping in her chest - panic? Relief? She couldn’t tell. Before she could collapse, he continued on.
Gideon took over, when it was obvious the rest of them were too shaken or too confused to do much else. She ordered Leonard to the medbay, where she performed a full array of scans, making sure there was no lasting damage.
The rest of the crew dragged the full story out of Ray, as Mick had stayed in the medbay with Leonard to fill him in on some of what had happened, and Sara had quietly retreated to the captain’s quarters. It was there he found her a few hours later, a bottle of shitty whiskey already open.
“So, captain, is it?”
He leaned on the doorframe to the room, and the image was so familiar she had to blink a couple of times to make sure it wasn’t her imagination. How many times had she looked up, hoping he would be there, cards in hand, only to be greeted with an empty door and Solitaire?
“Yeah,” she said, both of them ignoring the catch in her voice. She was sitting at the desk, and didn’t straighten to look him in the eye.
“Congrats.” He rocked forward on his toes a bit before stepping in, as if testing the water. Finding it tolerable, he took a step closer, his gaze taking in the books she’d added and trinkets she’d collected. “Hunter?”
She shook her head. “Demon.”
“Bastard.” She didn’t know if he meant Rip or the demon, and didn’t press. “Carter and Kendra?” He picked up a feather from a phoenix, running his fingers down the perpetually warm fringe.
Sara grabbed a second glass, pouring a decent measure in. “Rescued and left. Living happily, or so I assume.” She put the glass down on the opposite side of the desk.
Leonard returned the feather to its place, taking a few slow steps forward. “The kid?”
At that one, Sara was able to muster up a faint smile. She played with the cap of the bottle, rolling it around in her palm. “College.”
She didn’t know how well she could read him until she saw the tension fade somewhat from his shoulders at that revelation. “Good.” He picked up the glass, but didn’t take a drink yet.
She knew what was coming, but couldn’t think of how to tell him until he said it.
Another shake of the head.
He cursed under his breath, and took a long sip of his drink. Staring at the liquid, he swirled it around the glass. Putting it back on the desk, he leaned both hands on it, his gaze not on Sara, but on the papers she’d been looking at - budget and expenses, half-finished reports for the TIme Bureau, where they were officially outsourced contractors for the more...particular situations the Bureau didn’t have a manifesto for.
“And me?” he asked, his voice dropping. When she was quiet for a moment, he finally looked at her properly, the weight of his gaze making her lungs feel heavy and her heart ached with the loss of them all.
Keeping his gaze, she shook her head once.
She didn’t know what to say, so she rolled the cap in her palm.
She dropped her gaze, unable to keep looking at him when he was looking at her like that - not when the last time she’d seen him, she’d abandoned him to burn, the tang of their kiss on her lips and the salt of her tears still stinging her eyes. The walls that she’d built back up around herself after Laurel, after Leonard were higher and stronger, even if a bit more discerning when it came to her crew.
Family was one thing, but love?
That was part of the reason she and Ava had ultimately failed. Sara had let her get close, but never close enough to do what Leonard had done.
Never close enough to break her again.
But now her walls were rattled, the trebuchet of his voice and battering ram of his gaze threatening to collapse them completely if she breathed just a little too hard. If she let him in.
“A lot of changes,” he said, but it was a question somehow, too. The faintest lift in inflection, that most subtle of his weapons, language. He was asking something - if she had changed. If they had changed.
He reached out, taking the cap from her palm, but his finger brushed the pulse point on the inside of her wrist, and that too, was a question as he lingered.
(The walls shuddered…)
She pulled her hand away.
She stood up.
(...and held strong.)
Leonard withdrew immediately, placing the cap on the bottle as if that had been his only intention all along. But she saw the bitter twist of his lip, and wondered how she could recall so many details after all this time.
“Understood,” he said quietly. He picked up his glass and drained it, placing it back on her desk. With a tilt of his head, his voice slowed and slunk down to a lower register, one that made it hard to pick up on nuances and uncertainties. The criminal’s voice. The cold one. The voice for everyone else, which Sara hadn’t been for a long time. “Captain,” he said.
Then he left the room.
And that had been it. He never showed up at her door with cards, she never found him in the storage bay with a bottle. On missions, they were rarely, if ever, in the same group, and even then, there were always others around.
Whatever potential had been between them was smothered beneath the job and polite conversation. No quips or puns, no flirtations, no conversations beyond the menial.
Breathing never got easier. The panic that settled in every time he was gone for too long never went away. The nerves that jangled every time a mission started to go wrong always cried out that it would be this moment she would lose him again, and it was only in those moments she would wonder if she’d made the right choice at all.
If maybe she should have taken the chance on him again, even if it couldn’t last. Nothing ever did.
That first night had been the last time they’d been alone together.
“This is bullshit,” Sara muttered into her comms.
“Oh, yes,” Zari’s voice buzzed through her ear, “ please complain more about the five star resort, free food, and alcoholic beverages.”
“You know what I mean,” Sara said, smiling at a couple walking by, looking uncomfortable, but hopeful.
“Not them,” Zari said.
“Fine.” She started heading to the middle of the room, where a small crowd was forming around Mr. and Mrs. Simmons, the hosts of this week’s...activities.
Stifling a sigh, she approached the masses, taking another quick look at the surroundings.
The hotel ballroom was busy, but not packed to bursting. Guests ranged in attire, though most were sporting sundresses and shorts. Some were on the open balcony, taking advantage of the midmorning air, but most were milling around the edges and center of the room in ones and twos, taking advantage of the small hors d'oeuvres and complimentary drinks.
The Chateau d’Amour was everything one could expect from a destination that proclaimed to be number one in rekindling romance. French-inspired (and shoved in Maine for some god-forsaken reason), the owners and marriage counselors Clara and Bernard Simmons promised, “to rekindle even the dullest of sparks.”
That’s right. That’s how far Sara had sunk. She had to infiltrate a couples’ therapy retreat.
Bring back the Bollywood number anytime now.
However, as Gideon had pointed out, a level seven magical aberration was nothing to poke fun at, so here Sara was. Mingling. Hopefully, it wouldn’t be for much longer.
Sara drifted past another couple, smiling politely, but continuously moving, not inviting them to a conversation.
“Dammit. Any luck on the other side?”
Giving up, she went towards the large group in the middle, plastering a smile on her face.
The nametag on Clara Simmons’s green dress was red, and matched the bold shade of her lipstick and highlighting her blonde hair. Sara had used the same trick herself. Clara’s laugh was genuine, but Sara saw the appraising way Clara looked over each of the couples that came up to her. This was clearly a woman who knew what to look for in difficult marriages. Sara didn’t relish the idea of trying to lie to her. Not because she was that bad at lying, but because this woman seemed that good at spotting lies.
“Hello,” Clara said, catching Sara’s eye. “I’m Clara. Who are you?”
Forcing herself to smile, Sara stepped forward, “I’m Sara Smith.” She held out her hand.
Clara smiled, switching her cup to her other hand, and shook Sara’s firmly. “A pleasure, Sara.”
As Sara released Clara’s hand, she caught sight of a thick, gold ring. Her quick glance only got the most cursory of details, but Ray’s new magic scanner hadn’t been wrong yet. It was the only thing that looked out of place.
“On my way,” said another voice in Sara’s ear, and she kept her face passive, still smiling at Clara.
“This is my husband, Bernard,” Clara said, gesturing to the tall, dark haired man next to her. He glanced down briefly with a smile, then turned his attention back to his own conversation, his blue eyes scanning the guests in a very calculating way.
Sara took a step nearer to speak again, her blue dress swinging around her knees gently.
“So what’s the secret to a happy marriage?” she asked, with a grin.
“Oh,” Clara sighed. “It’s the little things. Take time out of the day for one another, never go to bed angry-”
Bernard jumped in, with a laugh, “And, when in doubt, beg for forgiveness with jewelry.”
Clara gasped theatrically, and slapped him lightly in the arm. “You’re a brute, Bernard Simmons.”
“Does that explain your beautiful ring?” Sara asked, holding out her hand.
Clara was still smiling, but nodded, resting her hand in Sara’s palm to show her the ornate gold band on his middle finger. It was etched with delicate precision to detail, a labyrinth of patterns and a feather motif.
“Definitely it,” Zari muttered.
“Very pretty,” Sara said, releasing her wrist and making a point not to look at it again. “So what can I do to make my husband buy me something that fancy?”
“You can try asking nicely,” a smooth voice cut in from behind her.
Keeping the vapid smile plastered on her face, Sara turned to include the newcomer in the conversation. While Bernard had begun to sweat in the close quarters, even in his khakis and polo, the newcomer seemed completely at ease in jeans and a blue button-up shirt, rolled up along the forearms and free of any unsightly wrinkles. A glass of champagne dangled from his fingers and an aura of easy humor oozed off of him as he stepped up.
His free hand slid into place at her hip and Sara had to fight not to jerk out of his touch. She tensed beneath his fingers and he noticed, his eyes darting to hers in the guise of matrimonial bliss, but she saw the question behind them.
Ignoring it, she looked back to Clara and Bernard. “This is my husband, Leonard.”
Things get complicated.
Leonard ignored the fake smile on Sara’s face and the rigid tension beneath his fingers. This was a mission and they were going to be damn professionals. Even if he would rather it be anyone else.
That wasn’t entirely true. He never used to mind being on a mission with Sara. He just minded that it was with a version of Sara who seemed to want nothing to do with him. Who, in the past few hours they’d been posing as a married couple, had flinched every time he touched her and seemed to go out of her way to avoid being near him.
He had wanted to suggest anyone else for the mission when Gideon had informed them of the aberration. No that he doubted Sara’s talents, he was the last person to doubt her in any way, but because he knew that this mission would require them to act like they were close, and they weren’t.
“Get the ring,” Zari said in his ear, the comm flesh-toned and barely visible. “Then you can get out of here.”
Sara’s tension eased somewhat at that comment, and Leonard tried not to look at her.
He missed the way things had been before the Oculus, before that burst of blue light, and the long eight hours he’d spent, trying to reach the only place that had felt like a real home in thirty years. The eight hours he’d spent wondering if they’d even made it away alive, if any of them had survived, if Savage was still hunting them, if Sara had truly -
And he’d gotten his answers, hadn’t he? They had all made it, even if they hadn’t survived the three years afterwards, Savage was dead and gone, and apparently Sara hadn’t. Or if she had, he’d missed his chance. Though that still didn’t explain the coldness he’d been subjected to since then, he couldn’t blame her. It had been three years. He was disappointed because although something more had seemed to fizzle out, he’d been under the impression they had been friends, if nothing else. Now, it seemed he was a barely tolerated coworker.
Gideon had refuted every other suggestion for this mission, however, and he could see the logic. Their targets were known for being suspicious, no doubt used to lying spouses and dangerous exes, which ruled out additional backup. Without truly knowing what they were getting into, a small team capable of getting in and out unseen, or, worst case, in and out in one piece, made the most sense. Leonard and Sara only had to play the unhappily married couple long enough for him to get the ring and get out, without raising any alarms.
Of course, neither Clara nor Bernard seemed to suspect anything yet. But Leonard had been around long enough to know better than to judge a book by its cover. Especially if the books smiled a little too widely and made it their business to know everyone’s business. Bernard had finished with another couple next to him - Barbara and Richard something or other.
“How long has this place been up and running?” Leonard asked Bernard.
“Five years,” Bernard said. “All thanks to this one, right here.”
Leonard noted how Clara’s face lit up, and the way she clung to Bernard as if he was her entire world. They certainly seemed like they were in love. Maybe they did give good advice. Why they needed a magical item to do so was still unclear.
“And how long have you two been married?” Clara asked.
Sara hesitated and leaned slightly away from Leonard. He let his hand drop, as he tried to remember from Ray’s file. Luckily, Clara misunderstood.
“Oh,” she said, stepping a little closer, “I’m sorry to be so blunt. But we’re all about open communication here-”
“-and since you registered so late, I didn’t have a chance to get accustomed to your file. So, just remind me?”
“Three years,” Sara said, the smile slightly strained now. She twisted the gold band on her ring finger, and Leonard had to make an effort not to do the same.
“Yes,” Clara said, snapping her fingers. “Military consultants, the both of you?”
Leonard nodded, the made up background coming back to him. He’d only briefly skimmed the packet Ray had given him, no intention of staying long enough to need the rest of the information.
Clara smiled at the two of them. “Yes, I remember now. An interesting situation. But,” she chirped brightly, “I always have happy couples at the end.”
“Your track record is very impressive,” Sara said. “What’s your secret?”
Clara’s laugh was literally like bells and grated a little on Leonard’s spine. “It’s no secret. It’s communication, trust, intimacy, and just a touch of magic.”
They all laughed, but Leonard didn’t really find it all that funny. Sara’s laugh tapered off a little too quickly, but she kept the smile in place.
“Did you two already check in?” Bernard asked.
Leonard took this one. “No, we were running late and didn’t want to miss the greeting party.”
“Mrs. Simmons!” another woman called, waving.
Clara hesitated a moment, glancing between Sara and Leonard. “I’m sorry, I have to go, but I am very much looking forward to working with you.”
Sara held out her hand, and Leonard was grateful she at least remembered that much about him. Clara and Bernard both shook her hand, then Leonard’s as they said their goodbyes.
“Nice to meet you,” Bernard said.
“See you later!” Clara called.
Sara and Leonard turned away, heading toward the hotel lobby.
“Get it?” Sara asked under her breath.
Leonard put his hand in his pocket, feeling the tiny gold ring bump against his fingers. “Got it.”
“Good,” Zari said. “Now get here so we can leave.”
And like that, the mission was done without more than five words said to one another.
She took a breath and paused, the kettle held over the mug filled with hot chocolate. Not turning to face Ray, she didn’t pour the hot water, closing her eyes. “Yes?”
“We have a problem.”
She was really starting to hate those words. She put the kettle down, the hot chocolate unmade, and turned to lean against the counter. Ray was standing in the doorway, shuffling awkwardly, the grin on his face slightly manic.
Crossing her arms, Sara fixed him with a glare. “What.”
“Sooo,” Ray drew out the word, fidgeting. Sara watched him for a moment, wondering when he took to wearing so much black. Ray wasn’t a dark clothing kind of guy. He was blues and greens, and the perpetual white hat of their group. What happened to their color? Charlie wore reds and blacks, Zari wore black, Nate was wearing a suit most days now, John wore his brown trench coat, Mick wore black and dark browns, and Len-Leonard wore...
“What happened?” Sara asked, uncrossing her arms.
“Congrats on getting that magical artifact!” he said, giving her a very lame thumbs up.
He sagged slightly and winced. “Zari says to get Snart and come to the bridge.”
She wasn’t going to ask him to go fetch Leonard for her. She was a damn professional and a captain, she wouldn’t send someone else just so she wouldn’t have to deal with confrontation.
“Fine.” She tossed her mug into the sink and walked past him out into the hall.
Her feet knew the path to Leonard’s door, despite not having walked it in months...a year, even. But right after he died, she found herself tracing that path almost nightly, to stand in the dark doorway and stare into the empty room.
Now, however, the lights were on. There was a faint, but controlled clutter on the desk: the cold gun, his goggles, a cluster of bolts and screws, his gloves. The occupant was on the bed, leaning against the wall and typing on a laptop.
Sara, coward that she was, knocked against the door.
He looked up immediately, his eyes darting to her hands before returning to her face. His expression remained completely calm. “Captain.”
God, she hated the way he said that. “Zari has some information for us. Apparently there’s a problem. She needs us on the bridge.”
“Right.” He put the laptop off to the side, and got off his bed, grabbing his jacket.
Sara wasn’t being nosey, but she glanced at the screen, seeing apartment listings pulled up. She opened her mouth and he turned to face her, his black jacket on, and the same blank look on his face.
“Ready?” he asked.
Sara shut her mouth and nodded, leading the way to the bridge.
They didn’t talk on the way. No quips, no comments, not even a discussion about the mission or what could have gone wrong with such a simple snatch and grab.
She hated silence. Inconvenient that that seemed to be so much of her life now.
Zari was on the console in the middle of the room when they walked in quietly.
“What’s the problem?” Sara asked, going up to Zari’s left. Leonard split off, heading to the right, across from Sara.
“This,” Zari said, waving her hand.
Sara stared at the computer, trying to make sense of the whirls and spots that indicated a magical aberration. She knew what she was seeing, but...that was impossible, wasn’t it?
“How the hell is this possible?” Leonard said lowly, his voice irritated.
Zari snorted. “Believe me, if I knew how, I’d make sure you never went in, but now-”
“Is that a level 17 aberration?” Sara interrupted, leaning forward.
With an incredulous laugh, Zari nodded. “Yup. Congrats. I think that’s a record.”
“But we got the item,” Leonard said, frowning.
“You got an item.”
“What the hell does that mean?” Sara snapped.
Footsteps echoed on the bridge, and they all turned to see Ray jogging in, the ring in his hand. “Guys, do you know what this is? I can’t believe I’m holding-”
“What. Happened,” Sara interrupted again.
Ray winced, glancing at Zari. “Oh. Sooo...it seems that there were two artifacts there. You got one, but without it, the aberration extended.”
“So Clara and Bernard have another artifact?” Leonard asked, sounding as annoyed as Sara felt.
“Maybe?” Zari said, sounding as unsure as Sara had ever heard. “Perhaps they found the ring there, or maybe it was a gift?”
“What is the other artifact?” Sara asked.
“We don’t know,” Ray added. “But it’s powerful. Makes this look like a cheap trick,” he said, bouncing the ring in his palm.
“So what’s the plan now?” Leonard asked. “Our covers are blown, and if it’s twice as difficult as before, what…” he trailed off, his eyes narrowing at Zari.
Sara caught up on his train of thought. “You’re joking.”
Zari’s face made it clear she wasn’t. “It’s the best chance of getting it. Your cover isn’t blown if you drop the ring in a convincing place and continue with the...activities.”
“Fuck,” Leonard said, pushing away from the console and striding across the room.
“Isn’t there-” Sara started, before cutting herself off. There wasn’t another way, otherwise Zari would have suggested it already. “If we’re giving her this ring back, do we at least know what it does?”
“Oh, yeah, tons!” Ray said, dropping the ring on the console. “This, is the infamous Ring of Gyges.”
Sara leveled her best assassin’s glare at him, not in the mood.
Ray’s grin wavered slightly. “It can turn the wearer invisible.”
“Great,” Leonard said from one of the crew chairs by the window.
“It’s Greek in origin,” Zari said, handing the ring off to Sara and pulling up another screen. “Which means, you could be looking for another Greek one. Of which there are like...50 well known ones.”
“Or it could be anything else,” Sara added. “And you have no idea?”
Zari shrugged. “It’s weird. I can’t get a read on it. I have no idea what it is, or what’ll it’ll do. Other than it’ll fuck up everything.”
“A level seventeen,” Sara repeated.
Zari met her eyes, and Sara saw the faint glimpse of apology. “I don’t know what else we can do.”
Sara inhaled, held it for a breath, then exhaled in a huff. “Okay. Zari, take us back to the hotel a half hour after we left. Ray, get me a file on every Greek artifact you can, and,” she paused, “the copy of our registration form with our...history on it.” She turned on her heel, and headed towards the hall. “I’ll be packing.”
She barely ever unpacked her go-bag anymore, always ready to get off the ship for a mission at the shortest notice. Not that it was ever for any personal reason - with Laurel and her dad gone, and her mother disinterested, there was nothing taking her from the ship except missions.
As the ship lurched into a time-jump, she braced herself against the wall, and she checked her bag again, just in case.
There was a knock on the frame of her open door as she tossed in an extra knife.
“Yeah?” she said, not turning around.
“You’ll need this.”
She didn’t flinch at the sound of Leonard’s voice, which was an improvement. Zipping up her bag, she turned.
His bag was already over his shoulder, and his hand was extended out to her. A thin gold band was held between his fingers. A quick glance showed that he was already wearing his.
She took it, noticing she didn’t have to touch him to do so, and slid the ring on.
“I told Palmer to return the ring to the front desk,” Leonard said, looking at the ring.
“Smart. Keeping us out of it.”
Sara took a moment to turn, picking up her bag.
“Are you…” Leonard stopped talking, then restarted, taking a step away, and turning his eyes on the items spilling out of her closet. He never looked away from her, he always just seemed to be looking at something else. “Is this okay with you?”
“We don’t have a choice.”
“If you did?” he countered, still looking at the mess of coats and jackets on the floor of her closet.
“We can do the job,” Sara said instead.
“Right,” he responded. “I’ll see you offship then.”
He nodded, still not looking at her. Sara followed his gaze, seeing the pile of clothes he was looking at. A dark jacket, used once, a long time ago, in a freezing room, peeked out from a pile of unused clothes that she couldn’t bring herself to wear, but not throw away unseen, either.
When she looked up, he was gone.
They check in.
They check out the area.
They meet some people.
Leonard was startled by the appearance of Sara in his door on the WaveRider , so much so that he momentarily allowed himself to forget the past few months and looked to see if it was cards or drink in her hand. When it was neither, the facts came back viciously, and he had a hard time maintaining his tone.
And then seeing his jacket tossed aside like so much dirty laundry…
His mind wasn’t entirely on the mission right now, so his phone went off three times before he noticed.
He finally glanced at it, seeing Ray’s text: Ring has been dropped off.
He showed the message to Sara. The communicators, though incredibly useful, weren’t good for the incredibly stealthy or lengthy missions. They had to resort back to cell phones. Connected to Gideon’s network, but still. Sara nodded and he pocketed the phone. They put their bags down near the check-in desk, and Leonard rested his palms on the counter.
“We’re here to check in.”
A young boy darted out from the counter, his brown hair and eyes meeting Leonard’s for half a moment before ducking back behind the hostess’s legs.
“David,” she said gently, “if you’re out here, you’ve got to help.”
Leonard gaze the boy a faint smile. “Hello.”
David grinned hesitantly, looking up at Sara, who waved a little at him.
“This is David Simmons, and he’s in training.” The petite hostess at the desk looked a little frazzled, but she smiled nonetheless. “Last name?”
She clicked a few times on her computer, then frowned. “I’m so sorry, but there appears to have been an overbooking. We don’t have the two bed queen suite room you booked available.”
Leonard frowned internally, ready to lean forward to argue or charm his way in.
“But, it appears we have a king suite available in the south wing. It’s a little quieter, most of the other couples are in the east wing or the second floor. The Simmons’ family suite is about the only thing that’s occupied on that side,” Harriet said.
Leonard thought it through in a matter of seconds - closer proximity to the Simmons would be ideal, and being a little distant from others might make their cover a little more relaxed, but with only one bed, he wasn’t about to make that decision without talking to-
“That sounds wonderful,” Sara interrupted his musings. “Thank you.”
“Perfect,” Harriet said, clicking a few more times and getting their keys. “You’ll be in room 113.” David grabbed the keys and handed them to Leonard. The long sleeves made the boy look older than he actually appeared, but the grin was pure juvenile mischief.
Sparing a quick glance at Sara, Leonard was relieved to see that she didn’t look upset at the single bed situation. He took the keys and handed one over to her, as David handed Sara a folder.
“This contains your itinerary for the week, and additional information you may need.” She gestured of the side. “The south wing is just through here, and your room will be on the left.”
“Thank you,” Sara said, picking up her bag.
Leonard did the same, but before following her, he held out his hand to the little boy. “Thank you, David.”
He grinned, shaking Leonard’s hand very deliberately. “Have a nice stay.”
Sara and Leonard didn’t speak again as they got to their room and shut the door behind him. Sara let out a long exhale that Leonard didn’t comment on. He heard her drop her bag on the floor as he walked the perimeter of the room, checking the light fixtures for any types of cameras or bugs. Not that he necessarily believed that Clara and Bernard had bugged the room, but it was a common practice for him in any new situation. As he did, he took in the room.
The entrance was in the living room, a corner couch sectional along the wall to the right and beneath the window, giving them a nice view of the woods behind the hotel. There was a small partial wall with a television between the living room and the bedroom. He didn’t linger on the massive, imposing bed, but looked past it to the large bathroom. The walk-in shower was most of the room, with various showerheads on the sides and above. Though he never found a reason to complain about the WaveRider ’s amenities, part of him was looking forward to enjoying a completely private shower with enough space that he wouldn’t hit his elbows every time he turned around.
When he got back to the living room, Sara was sitting on one corner of the couch, her bag next to her, and reading the itinerary for the week. He took the opposite corner, knowing enough about body language to read that one, and opened up the file Ray had written for them to first get into this mission.
He hadn’t looked into it too much when this was supposed to be a day mission, but now that they had to keep up the ruse, he needed to know.
According to this, he and Sara had met through work - an international military consulting job - and started dating shortly after being stationed in the same redacted location. He had proposed just before the year mark, and they were married in a small civil ceremony with just a couple of witnesses present. A month after that, Leonard had been transferred to another location, where he’d been for the past three years, and had only recently been reunited with Sara. Their reunion had sparked some fights about responsibilities, and Sara had been distant, so he had suggested counseling.
Reminding himself to yell at Ray later for putting them in this position, when art was obviously imitating life, he closed the file and got up to use the restroom.
When he came back, Sara was pulling her hair back into a ponytail. “We’ve got introductions in ten minutes, then we’re meeting Clara for a communication session.”
“Peachy,” Leonard said, grabbing the included nametag and shoving it in his pocket. “Did you look through the registration information?” Wouldn’t do for them to get caught because only one of them had done their reading.
“Yeah.” She looked at him as he held out her name tag. Taking it, she fiddled with it for a moment, not looking at him. “And if they ask us questions that weren’t in the packet?”
“Use as much truth as possible, and we’ll improvise the rest,” Leonard suggested. “We can wing a lot of it, and we work well...We’ve done this kind of work before,” he rephrased.
“Right,” Sara muttered, pinning her name badge onto the front of her dress.
Leonard ground his teeth for a minute. “Look, I know you don’t trust me, but if we can’t-”
He blinked at the interruption, not expecting that at all.
Sara looked up at him, meeting his gaze fully. “I do trust you. I’m just...uncomfortable.”
“I’m sorry,” he said.
“It’s not your fault,” she said, running her hand over the top of her ponytail. “I’m sorry I’ve been…” she trailed off. “I prefer punching things.”
He managed a faint chuckle at that, understanding the sentiment. “Me, too.”
Her eyes drifted to the bed, but he saw her push down the comment and look at him. “We should get going. Try to meet some of the other couples.”
“Good idea.” He grabbed the folder with the itinerary and Sara pocketed a key, handing one to him.
Sara opened the door with a sigh. “Let’s go.”
Sara’s cheeks hurt from all this fake smiling.
The casual meet and greet from earlier was done, replaced with tables, placards, and awkward couples trying to find their seats. Leonard and Sara seemed to be one of the last ones to arrive.
“Take a walk around the room and see if anything pings Tomaz’s radar,” Leonard murmured in her ear.
Sara suppressed the simultaneous urge to lean away and towards him, and nodded instead, splitting away from him. Zari had created a portable version of her radar for them, built into their phones that would send them a notification if they encountered the item.
Couples were milling around, chatting and pointing out names on cards. Those seated were introducing themselves. Sara made her way between everyone she could, nodding and smiling, introducing herself to everyone under the guise of trying to find her placard. She figured there were about eighteen couples, plus her and Leonard, and the Simmons.
Sara winced as Clara’s voice came over the microphone, her phone vibrating once, but only faintly and disappearing just as quickly.
“If everyone can find their seats, we’d love to get started! Feel free to introduce yourselves to your table.”
She caught sight of Leonard across the room, leaning against a chair and made her way in that direction as the conversation started to pick up again. Their table was almost full, save one seat beside Leonard, and Sara came in as a smiling brunette held out her hand to him.
“Laura. Nice to meet you. This is my husband, Freddie.”
Freddie was a tall man with glasses and going gray early, who looked a little too condescending to be married to a woman with that kind of grin. “Fred, please.”
“Leonard, and this is Sara.”
She smiled at the two of them as Leonard gestured to her. As she took her chair, he met her gaze. Sara just shook her head faintly. Lips thinning in irritation, Leonard took his seat next to her.
“So,” Laura said, leaning over Leonard to eye Sara. “What’s your trauma?”
“Dear,” Fred said gently.
“I’m just curious!” she said, her brunette hair slipping over her shoulder.
Sara couldn’t help her laugh. Laura was brash and blunt, and it was refreshing, to be honest.
“Our jobs keep us separated,” Leonard said, a faint smile on his face. “We’re struggling a bit with that.”
“What do you do?” Laura asked.
“Military consultants,” Sara said.
“So you’re basically spies.”
“Close enough,” Laura grinned, sitting back.
“What’s your trauma, then?” Sara responded.
Laura’s grin got even wider. “Oh, it’s a delicious secret, darling, and I’d love to tell you, but we’ll need some drinks for that, first.”
“That wouldn’t happen to be your brother, would it?” Leonard asked, his arm over the back of Sara’s chair as he looked at a table further away.
Laura laughed. “You’re quick, Leonard. That is my twin brother, Brian, and his wife, Mary.”
Sara followed Leonard’s gaze to see a man with Laura’s sharp chin and nose, but lacking her easy humor. His frown seemed perpetually embedded in his face, and the redhead next to him seemed to be dimmed just from being near.
Considering the seriousness of Brian and Mary’s expressions, and the comfortable humor of Laura and Fred, Sara pieced it together rather quickly.
“You two don’t actually need counseling, do you?” she murmured.
“So you are a spy,” Laura laughed.
“Or you’re just very obvious,” Fred said, his smile more appealing now.
Nudging him with an elbow, Laura shared a look with Fred that made Sara almost uncomfortable with its intimacy. It was easy and simple for them to be together. Leaning back, she brushed against Leonard’s arm, and made a conscious decision not to move away.
“Well, whatever the reason,” Laura said, lowering her voice significantly, “the Simmons are infamous for throwing out couples who are trying to play them or refuse to participate. I’m taking it as a personal challenge.”
“So you’ve been to these things before?” Leonard asked.
“A few.” Her eyes darted over to her brother. “He’s terminal, so they’re struggling to deal with that.”
A shadow crossed Laura’s face, and Fred leaned over slightly. She pressed into him, taking comfort, before smiling even wider. “But no one wants to hear about that.”
“Is Clara as good as people say?” Sara asked, taking Laura’s hint to move on.
Shrugging, Laura admitted, “Supposedly. But I’ve heard rumors about these Simmons, darling, and I can’t wait to see if they’re true.”
“What kind of rumors?” Leonard asked quietly.
“Well,” Laura said, leaning closer, “did you notice that-”
“All right, everyone!” Clara called over the microphone. “I’m so excited to get started!”
Laura winked, promising more information later, and turned her attention to Clara.
“Hopefully you’ve introduced yourselves to your table - you’ll be working with them on some of our teambuilding activities,” Clara said, grinning. Behind her, Sara could see Bernard kneeling and talking to David. “In case you missed our little meet and greet earlier, I’m Clara Simmons, your lead for this week. This is my husband, Bernard, and our son, David. We’ve been together for ten years, and running this retreat for five. I truly believe that every marriage is salvageable, but only if you put in the work. So those of you who have come here unwilling to participate, change that mindset right now. Your team only succeeds if everyone is trying.”
Sara caught Laura rolling her eyes, as Fred nudged her, smothering a smile.
“You’ve seen your itinerary today, we’re beginning with a communication recording, so I can see how you communicate with your partner, and what your language seems to be like. Is one of you constantly making the effort to start the conversation or undermining the words of your partner? Is it done intentionally or not? Those sorts of problems are quick to develop into real issues if you allow them to fester, but they’re also easy fixes. You’ll each see either me or Bernard for a ten minute block to get those done, and we’ll give you an assignment to work on for tomorrow.”
Looking at the itinerary, Sara saw their block was with Clara.
“Tomorrow will be quite busy, so make sure you’re up and ready to go by 9 AM. We have a few group activities and trust exercises. We’ll break for lunch, and then go into our couples sessions, where we can begin to dig into the meat of the issues.”
Sara felt Leonard’s arm tense slightly beneath her shoulder, but his face never betrayed any concerns.
“If we work together, you will be successful,” Clara promised with a smile. “Now, head off to your sessions with either myself or Bernard, and we’ll see everyone here bright and early tomorrow!”
Laura stood, stretching slowly. “Sounds awful. What time is our session?”
Fred didn’t even look at the paper. “4:30.”
“What about you guys?”
“Right now,” Leonard answered.
“Gross. Well, we’re in room 411. Come over after you eat dinner, around seven, and we’ll do drinks.”
Leonard looked down at Sara, obviously waiting for her input.
“Sounds fun,” she said with a smile.
“Excellent,” Fred said, nodding at both of them. “We’ll see you later.”
They split off, Laura and Fred towards her brother, and Sara and Leonard towards the door. There was a meeting room to the left of the ballroom, labeled with Session 1 and Clara’s name, so Leonard and Sara waited outside of it, awkward silence falling again.
“Do you think Laura was being serious about kicking people out?” she asked.
Leonard’s arms were crossed, and his eyes were on the hallway. “It’s possible. Waste of money and time if they aren’t taking it seriously. We got a discount on the room because of the...counseling.”
“Shit,” Sara muttered. “That means we’re really going to have to sell it.”
His eyes cut over to her. “Guess we’ll have to-”
“Hello, hello!” Clara interrupted, coming quickly up the hallway. “Sorry for the wait, but first days are always hectic.”
“Not a problem,” Leonard said, getting the door for her. He nodded for Sara to follow her in.
The room was small, but comfortable. There were two couches facing one another, with a small coffee table in between. The windows behind were closed, but the curtains pulled back, giving them an excellent view of the trees behind the hotel.
“Would you like some coffee or water?” Clara asked.
Sara asked for coffee, noticing the video camera set up behind one of the couches. Taking a seat in the corner of one couch, facing the couch, she consciously kept her hands still until Clara handed her a cup. She noticed that the gold band was back on Clara’s finger, too.
Leonard took a cup as well, sitting a little further into the center of the couch, next to Sara. They didn’t say anything as Clara made another cup for herself, and then took a seat on the couch in front of them.
Clara took a minute to look at each of them, then smiled. “This is your first time in counseling, isn’t it?”
Sara managed a faint smile, “Is it that obvious?”
Clara nodded sympathetically. “You’ve already done the hard part, deciding to come at all. You’ve acknowledged that there is a problem, and you’re here willing to fix it. From here on out, it should be much easier.”
“Right,” Leonard said, sounding unconvinced.
With another of those laughs, Clara stood and turned on the video camera. Sara stared at the blinking red dot, uncomfortable already.
“We’ll start off easy,” Clara said, taking a clipboard with papers on it already. “How are you feeling today?”
“Uncomfortable,” Leonard said after a moment. “We’ve never been the kind to talk about...feelings, even with each other. So doing it with a stranger is uncomfortable.”
“The same,” Sara added, when Clara looked at her.
“Are you enjoying the hotel?”
“It’s beautiful,” Sara said, feeling like Clara was asking her, specifically. “I’m looking forward to exploring outside a bit.”
“We do a hike later in the week,” Clara said. “You like the outdoors?”
“I like the solitude. I’m not good with large groups of people for long periods of time.”
“Not as fond of the outdoors, but the hotel is great,” Leonard added.
“What do you two like to do together in your spare time?” Clara asked, looking at her clipboard.
Sara’s answer was a little too easy to find. “We play cards.”
Clara smiled at her paper, “Poker? Gin rummy?”
“Both,” Leonard said. “We used to play every night. We would go to dive bars in the area, wherever we were.”
“What would you do when you played cards or went out?”
“Talk,” Sara said. “About work, and coworkers.”
“Would you say your jobs are important to you?” she asked, looking at Leonard.
“Yes. I couldn’t imagine doing anything else.”
“You say you used to play cards,” Clara said, pinning Leonard with a look. “When was the last time?”
Sara shifted slightly as Leonard answered, calm as ever. “Before I left.”
Clara hummed under her breath for a moment, making another mark on her paper. “So why did you decide to come here?”
“No,” Clara said, interrupting Leonard with a smile. “Sara, why did you decide to come here?”
With both Clara and Leonard looking at her, Sara hesitated, scrambling to find something that was truthful enough without being...too honest.
“Before he left, things were good, and we...were good together. And then he was gone, and everything changed. And I know why he did it, but it…”
She looked over at Leonard briefly, who was watching her, his expression blank, and giving nothing away.
“Now he’s back, and it doesn’t feel the same. I don’t know if ever will, but I’d like it to, so that’s why we’re here.”
Clara nodded, writing something down. Leonard was still looking at her, but Sara glanced at the camera and avoided his gaze.
“Alright,” Clara said, straightening up. “Tell me about how you first met.”
Sara glanced at Leonard, who looked at her to start.
“It was orientation at our new job, in Europe.” She continued when Leonard nodded once at her. “We were two of about eight new hires, but we clicked pretty quickly.”
“What was your first impression?” Clara pressed, when Sara fell quiet, shifting uncomfortably under the camera.
She cleared her throat. “Neither of us were paying attention to our boss, and I knew that he was going to be trouble, which I liked. For a while, I thought he was just an arrogant flirt, only concerned with money.”
Leonard chuckled slightly, and Sara gave him a faint smile in return.
“But I got to know him,” she said, a little quieter, clutching her fingers. “And he was an arrogant flirt, mostly concerned with money, but he was also more. He proved he was smart, and talented, and he got our boss out of several big scrapes. I knew we’d be friends, but I didn’t think we’d...end up here.”
“And you, Leonard?” Clara asked. “First impressions of Sara?”
Sara saw him glance at the camera, then look at Clara. “Sara looked like someone I could be myself around, without judgment. I thought she looked independent, and she certainly knew how to do the job. Intelligence is always a draw. She spoke her mind and stood up for others, even if she sometimes allowed people to talk down to her.”
Sara dropped her gaze, hearing Leonard shift on the couch slightly.
“I knew we’d be friends, as well. But I knew we’d end up here.”
Her fidgeting stilled, and Sara frowned at her hands. End up here as in being together, like in their charade? Or end up here, like reality, where they could barely stand to look at one another?
Clara hummed beneath her breath. “What about your first date?”
Sara remained quiet, letting Leonard field that one.
“It wasn’t a date, per say,” he said after a moment. “We ended up at a bar with a friend, shortly after arriving in Europe. Just to blow off some steam. We weren’t exactly warmly welcomed in our new positions.”
Sara scoffed quietly, recalling the feeling of being benched after being told they could change the world.
“We got drinks, and Captain and Tennille was playing.”
Clara laughed, “That’s an old one.”
“It was an older bar,” Leonard explained. He was quiet for a second, but Sara refused to look up. He shifted slightly on the couch, but Sara kept her eyes fixated on her hands, drawn to the gold band on her finger.
“She asked me if I wanted to dance. I said yes.”
Sara looked up at him then, just barely remembering to school her frown into bland interest, as he told the first real lie of the day.
He was looking towards Clara, still talking. “Usually I’m not one for dancing, and I don’t care to draw attention to myself, but I would have regretted it for years had I not said yes.” He looked at Sara, and despite the words he was saying, he didn’t look like he was lying. “I might have missed out on something extraordinary.”
Sara tried to read in his expression what he meant. If it was real, or just a lie for the charade, but before she could, Clara made a note on her paper and spoke again.
“Do you believe that you two were destined for each other?”
“No,” the two of them answered at the same time.
Clara raised her brows, obviously startled by the vehemence of their response. “Oh?”
Sara had turned towards Clara, and kept her gaze there. “I don’t believe in destiny. I think everyone has a choice, and pretending that you don’t takes the importance out of those choices. If I choose to do something or be someone or...be with someone, it’s my choice and responsibility.”
“And you, Leonard?”
“I’m not a fan of the idea that I don’t have control over my own decisions. I’m not a puppet.”
Clara chuckled. “And I gather you would hate the idea of someone pulling your strings.”
Sara’s heart twisted, his last comment having come through the communicators just moments before the blast of the Oculus. She dropped her eyes to her hands again.
“You’d be correct,” he said, his voice a little thin.
“Well,” Clara said, exhaling and taking some of the tension away. “I definitely have what we need.” She pressed a button on the camera and the red light went off. “For your assignment, I want you to have a drink and play cards.” At Sara’s frown, Clara smirked a little. “Were you expecting an essay?”
She shrugged, “Kind of.”
“Time changes us. Things will never be like they were before he left, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be similar. You’ve both grown, and changed, and you need to accept the new versions of each other.” She smiled. “Returning to old habits can help.”
She stood, and Leonard and Sara stood with her. “So, get a drink, and play some poker. Talk, if you’re up to it. I’ll expect an update on how it went tomorrow. Until then...” she opened the door, and waved them out.
Leonard was actually having...fun.
“No fucking way!” Laura shouted, as Sara took another sip of her drink. “You aren’t serious!”
“Sorry,” Sara said, completely unrepentant, placing her bottle back down on the table, and sitting back against the couch, her shoulder brushing Leonard’s side without the usual flinch away.
After a useless walk around the hotel, trying to find whatever had vaguely triggered the faint blip on Sara’s phone earlier, but sensing nothing, they’d taken a quick walk down the street to find a corner store and grab a few 6-packs of beer for them to bring tonight.
They hadn’t talked much, that same quiet that had been keeping them distant falling again. But sometimes, Leonard thought he caught Sara looking at him, something more speculative in her eye than had been there previously.
And it didn’t feel as awkward as it had been.
Things had only gotten better as they ate a quick meal of food from local street vendors and returned to the Chateau, knocking on Laura and Fred’s room.
They’d done the obligatory welcomes and hellos, before Fred sighed loudly and said, “Who just wants to get shit-faced tonight?”
Sara and Laura raised their hands simultaneously.
That’s how they’d gotten here, drinking to Never Had I Ever, per Laura’s poorly-thought out suggestion.
“Your turn,” Fred said, looking at Leonard.
He looked at Sara, who narrowed her eyes at him.
“Never have I ever…” He smiled as it came to him. “Gotten into a fight while high.”
“Jerk,” she muttered at him, taking a sip and glaring at him.
His smirk grew wider, and he didn’t look away, well familiar with Sara’s glares to know that backing down was never the answer.
The feigned irritation in her eyes faded, until she was legitimately smiling at him. Something he’d done his best to bury began to shift in the back of his mind, and he was almost grateful when Laura gasped loudly.
Leonard broke away from Sara’s gaze in time to see Fred lowering his bottle from his lips. At Laura’s expression and Leonard arched brow, he smiled.
“I had interesting experiences in college.”
While Laura attempted to ply Fred with alcohol to get details, Sara turned and watched them with a grin. The move pressed her shoulder against Leonard’s side, and he waited for her to move away.
They made their way through a few more rounds and chatting, before they’d drained what had been brought. Looking at Sara, it was obvious she wasn’t ready to head back to their very large bed in their very empty room, so he got to his feet.
“The restaurant is open until one. I’m sure I can get them to sell us a bottle or two,” Leonard said.
“I’ll go with,” Fred said, getting to his feet with a faint groan. He grabbed the room key, glancing at Laura with a lazy smile, then followed Leonard out into the hallway.
It seemed suddenly quiet in the hallways with the absence of Laura’s laughter and the faint music playing from Sara’s phone. Fred put his hands into his pockets, glancing at Leonard briefly.
“So, not that it’s any of my business, but how are things going?” he asked quietly.
Leonard shrugged. “Only the first day.”
“For what it’s worth,” Fred said after a minute of silence, “I have faith that it’ll all work out.”
Resisting the urge to scoff, Leonard tried to keep his voice nonjudgmental. “Religious man, are you?”
“Not in the slightest,” he laughed. “No, but I have faith in you. You remind me of someone.”
“Gods, no,” he said, oddly amused again. “I would never insult you so much. No, you remind me of Laura.”
A peal of laughter echoed out of the room behind them, and Leonard merely arched a brow.
“Good point,” Fred said, pressing the button for the elevator. “But there are layers to her. Her father was...I suppose, disinterested is the best way to put it, and her mother died when she was young. Her history isn’t exactly clean. She did what she had to do to get by. Her and her brother.”
Leonard got on the elevator as it opened, pressing the bottom floor as he listened to Fred recount an uncomfortably familiar history.
“Then she met me, and I’m afraid I didn’t help anything. I was self-destructive. Violent. Looking for a fight every place I could. Abandonment issues, anger issues. I was, and still am, a mess.”
The elevator dinged and Leonard got off, Fred at his side, still talking, though lowering his voice as they saw other couples roaming the halls.
“She pulled me out of that. Unwillingly on my part. She didn’t give up on me, even when she was well within her right to do so, and I had long since given up on myself. And though what I felt and did was justified, I realized that it...it didn’t matter, in the end. All that mattered was her.” He cleared his throat, regaining some of his composure. “And if Sara is half as smart as she appears, she’ll reach that conclusion, too.”
“Perhaps I’m not quite as good as Laura, though,” Leonard said. “Maybe Sara has good reason to hate me.”
“Even if she has reasons, it’s obvious she doesn’t hate you,” Fred retorted.
Leonard glanced over at him, frowning.
“I’ve been to too many of these things not to be able to recognize couples that have a chance of recovering what they had. You and Sara care about each other too much to mess it up.”
“Hopefully she feels the same,” Leonard said, as the hostess of the restaurant came over.
After some fancy talking from Fred, and a flash of Leonard’s wallet, the hostess was thrilled to bring them a bottle of vodka and whiskey from the bar.
As they waited for her to return, Leonard scanned the bar, catching sight of a familiar face.
“Is that Bernard?” he asked Fred quietly. Bernard was seated at a small booth, a pale, black haired woman across from him, sipping a glass of wine.
Following his gaze, Fred hummed quietly. “It looks like Laura was right. Pity, she’s always insufferable when she’s right.”
“Right about what?” Leonard asked.
“That Bernard might be...stepping out on Clara.”
Leonard narrowed his eyes, seeing the possibility, but simultaneously annoyed it was over something so cliche.
“At their own couples counseling program?” Leonard asked, seeing the hostess approach.
“People are fucked up, Mr. Smith,” Fred said, taking one of the bottles. “Just be glad we aren’t as fucked up as them.”
With a faint chuckle, Leonard grabbed the other bottle, shot one more glance at Bernard, and then they headed back to the room.
The shower was running in the bathroom, as Sara shut the window to the outside. She took a seat on the bed, going through her backpack as her buzz wore off.
Laura and Freddie had been a welcome distraction, and the ease with which they all fell into a rapport had been wonderful. Their comfortable relationship had made Sara feel better about the situation, so much so that she was here, ready to do this.
Leonard had been more than understanding throughout the day. He hadn’t pressured her to reveal more or act more coupley, even when it might have been smart. He had been conscious of her nerves throughout it. He’d been, as she should have expected, wonderful.
Before his death, they had been close. So close. He’d been her closest friend on the WaveRider , even before all the complications of the “me and you” conversation. She’d missed that. And maybe her attempt to keep him completely distant had been ill advised, but it had been her gut reaction when faced with the potential for more pain.
But maybe...maybe friendship, at least, was something she could do again.
Leonard opened the bathroom door, steam billowing out behind him. He hung up a towel, already dressed in sweatpants and a long-sleeved shirt. He paused momentarily when he saw Sara sitting on the bed, but didn’t make a comment, heading towards the couch where his bag was.
Steeling herself, Sara spoke up. “Cards?”
The pause was more noticeable this time, and he took a longer time than necessary to place his toiletries back into his bag before turning to face her. His expression was hard to read, which was annoying. It never used to be.
It was just before the silence became unbearable that he said, “Sure.”
There was a bit of hesitance as he sat on the bed, though, again, they had played cards on her smaller bed aboard the WaveRider dozens of times without this sort of awkwardness. She blamed herself for it, though. She’d been shoving him away since his return, it was her fault she’d made him feel so uncomfortable.
She dealt out a hand for gin rummy, the two of them falling into the familiar pattern of games, at least, without another issue. A few hands went by before Leonard spoke.
“Is this because it was assigned?” He was looking directly at his cards, giving her the space to think about her answer for a moment. He was collecting hearts, she saw, as he picked up a seven and nine of that suit.
“A little. But not the whole reason.”
They went through a couple more hands before Sara dropped a ten of hearts and he scooped it up immediately.
“Bad move,” he said quietly, placing his hand down, and winning that round.
“Well, I’m a little rusty, apparently.”
He picked the cards up, shuffling and dealing out a second round before she thought to ask if he wanted to keep going. As he finished dealing, he said, “Zari isn’t much for cards, then?”
“I never asked,” Sara answered. “Didn’t really want to.”
He hummed quietly, dropping a two and taking a six.
Sara stared at her cards, the comfort of the soft plastic in her hands, and the ease with which they fell into this old, familiar routine making her a little less nervous about her words.
“I missed this.”
Leonard looked up for the first time, catching her gaze. Sara did her best not to look away, and the corner of his mouth lifted up, almost imperceptibly.
They played in silence for a few more hands, their old habits slipping into place and Sara remembering how to play against someone other than herself. The next time, she was the one who broke the quiet.
“Why were you...why were you looking at apartments?” she asked, taking a leaf out of his book, and keeping her eyes on her cards rather than him.
He didn’t react, as far as she could tell. Just said, “Snooping?”
“No. A glance.”
He made a noncommittal noise, then frowned slightly at his cards. “I thought that I might need to find...alternate accommodations.”
“Why did you not ask someone else to play cards in the past three years?” he countered, looking over his hand at her.
So that’s how it was going to be. Sara inhaled, dealing with the irritation of being in a corner, and then exhaled slowly. “Because it wouldn’t have been the same.”
“It was something you and I did,” she relented, being clearer now, since that was obviously the game they were playing now, in addition to rummy. “No one else would have understood.”
He looked back down at his cards, taking one from the stack and discarding an eight. “I wasn’t sure if I was welcome. Wanted to have a backup in case I was asked to leave.”
“I wouldn’t have asked you to leave,” Sara said quietly.
“Not in so many words.”
She caught his drift, and got quiet. She would have just run him off by being taciturn and stubborn.
“I’m sorry,” she said, not looking at her cards.
“No harm, no foul,” he responded quickly enough, as usual brushing things past as if they hadn’t actually hurt him. But if he’d thought she would have pushed him to leave without so much of a warning that he felt he needed to have a bolt-hole ready…
“Len,” Sara said, firmer this time, “I am really sorry.”
He nodded after a moment. “You don’t need to be, but thanks.”
Leonard won the next hand, and Sara finally fell into the groove and won the hand after that. It was approaching two in the morning by that point, and Sara was starting to get a little tired from the long day they’d had. And it was only day one.
“I saw Bernard at the restaurant,” Leonard said suddenly. “He was having drinks with a woman.”
Sara frowned at her cards. Laura had mentioned there were rumors that Bernard was using the counseling retreats as an excuse to fool around on Clara, which was irritating. She expected the issue here to be more...dramatic, rather than an unfaithful husband.
“Laura said he might be cheating. She’s heard rumors from other people who come to these things.”
“So how are they still up and running, with that kind of track record?” he asked.
“According to Laura,” she said slowly, “the couples are still really happy. And if Clara knows, she never comments on it. She’s got the ring back, too.”
“I saw.” Leonard shook his head slightly, mulling it over. “Guess we have a focus, then.”
“Guess we do.” She managed to get through the sentence, but a yawn took over slightly after.
There was a tiny chuckle, and as she looked up, Leonard was watching her with a look. “We should get to sleep.”
The innocent comment ratcheted up the tension, as they both avoiding looking at the bed or each other as they gathered the cards and put them back in the box. Avoiding the conversation, Sara slunk into the bathroom as Leonard went and closed the window to the outside.
She brushed her teeth and changed into shorts and a tank top. Steeling her nerves, she stepped back out to find that the bed was empty and missing a few pillows.
Looking past the small partition, she saw that Leonard had made up a small bed on the couch, taking a blanket from the closet, and leaving her the bed.
“Thank you,” she said quietly as she got into the large bed.
She settled down, turning off the lights and plunging them both into darkness. She stared up blindly at the ceiling, keeping her eyes open until she adjusted to the dark, and could make out faint shapes.
Mentally, she tracked through her list of things that needed to be done. She’d checked in with Zari while Leonard had been in the bathroom, so that was settled. They had to spend more time watching Bernard. She wasn’t convinced he was the epicenter of the aberration, but he and Clara were their best guesses right now. And she had to work on being a decent friend to Leonard.
That was a new addition to her list, but it had to be done. The idea of him leaving was...uncomfortable. Even if they were just friends, that was a normal feeling. And she did want to be friends again. So she’d do her best to be more like her old self with him, and try to avoid any complications that stemmed up from this week, and they’d go back to normal.
A small part of her was whispering that it wouldn’t be so easy, that letting him get close again would be more hurt later, but Sara had always been very good at drowning out those voices.
Of course, that same little voice brought up a question that had been bothering her all day, and as she heard Leonard shift, she knew he wasn’t yet asleep.
No better time than now, when she couldn’t see his face.
“Today, when we were talking about our first...whatever. You said that you would have regretted not saying yes.” She didn’t clarify, they both knew what she meant.
He didn’t make a sound, obviously waiting for the question in her comment.
“Did you mean it?” she asked, keeping her eyes trained on the ceiling.
He shifted again, and his voice sounded a little muffled. “Would it matter?”
Sara rolled onto her side and closed her eyes, and though she didn’t fall asleep for a long time neither of them spoke again.
Therapy Session 2
Despite the relative success of yesterday, Leonard found that Tuesday morning wasn’t going quite as well.
He hadn’t slept well and, from the bags under Sara’s eyes, neither had she. Though he appreciated her gesture of playing cards, and it went a long way to soothe the aches of being rejected had done, it wasn’t enough to counterweigh the question she’d asked just before they’d gone to sleep.
Had he meant it?
Of course he’d meant it. She had been the one with three years to get over whatever they’d had, not him. And he had regretted not doing anything about that connection earlier, especially after coming back and rejected.
It wasn’t like he blamed her for it. It wasn’t her fault. And maybe it was easier to pretend what they’d had had died with the Oculus, but he was finding it more difficult the longer they spent time together. He’d thought the cold shoulder routine had been bad, but last night, playing cards like they had in the old days had further sparked the feelings he was doing his best to tamp down. He knew he was opening himself up for rejection again, but at least they were friendlier, and he’d missed that, too.
He was setting himself up for more pain down the line, but he couldn’t help but be drawn in again.
Though some tension was prevalent, it wasn’t nearly as bad as it had been the day before. The two of them talked easier at breakfast, and all of the small touches normal couples shared were met without flinching or moving away. She even initiated a few small movements on her own. Leonard was careful not to push them too far, but it was progress.
It was nearly ruined, however, as they were forced to participate in games of trust.
There were small obstacle courses made of painters tape, chairs, and boxes set up when they arrived to the ballroom in the morning. Leonard took one look at them and frowned, hearing Sara’s curse under her breath.
“Come on,” Leonard said, leading the way towards Bernard, who was waving as couples entered.
They got closer, and Bernard grinned at them, looking too happy for someone who was cheating on his wife, but Leonard kept his mouth in a smile.
“Good morning!” he chirped, “You two are in group...seven, over there, and you are the second couple.” He pointed off to the side, where Leonard say Mary and Brian waiting. “Head on over there, and we’ll go through instructions once everyone is settled.”
They left without a word, as more and more couples descended upon Bernard and they were split up into groups of two couples each. Sara struck up the introductions this time.
“Hello,” she said, holding out her hand. “I’m Sara, and this is Leonard.”
“Hi!” said the petite redhead. “I’m Mary. This is Brian.”
Leonard shook Brian’s hand, feeling the fading grasp of a man whose strength was failing him.
“Nice to meet you,” Brian said.
“You as well,” Leonard said. “We had the pleasure of meeting your sister yesterday.”
Brian’s smile was wide, and Leonard could see the image of the man that Brian used to be before whatever disease this was began to ravage him. “I am so sorry,” Brian said. “She’s a little terror.”
“She’s fun,” Sara said, smiling in return.
Mary laughed, shaking Leonard’s hand. “She is unforgettable.”
“So how did you two-”
Whatever Brian was about to say was cut off as Bernard picked up the microphone.
“Good morning! Good morning! Let’s get started!” He smiled as the groups began to quiet down, and then he explained. “This morning we’re working on communication and trust. You’ll see that the paths you have have been marked with a start and stop location. You’ll also see a blindfold near the start location. You will be guiding your partner through the course using simple commands, and helping them get through it. Once your partner is blindfolded, the other couple will move the chairs and boxes to new places, changing the course a bit. Though this isn’t a race, couples who complete the course fastest, without stepping out of the lines, get a prize!” There was a faint murmur of excitement. “All right, first couple, pick someone to be blinded and one to be the guide. You can’t touch your partner to guide them, you can only talk to them.”
Leonard watched Mary pick up the blindfold, offering it to Brian, who said she could do it first if she liked, and she hesitantly hinted that she didn’t want to, but he didn’t quite pick up on it.
“Second couple, move the course a bit!”
Sara shifted uncomfortably as they watched this display, until Brian put the blindfold on, and Mary stood off to the side. Leonard and Sara half-heartedly moved a few boxes around, until Bernard began to count down.
“Begin in three. Two. One!”
It was a cacophony of sound as couples began shouting at one another, trying to guide them through their obstacles. Leonard and Sara hung off to the side as they watched Mary hesitantly try to guide Brian through it. He kept having to ask her to repeat herself, and she stumbled over her words, until he tried to go at it alone, and tripped over a box that neither Sara nor Leonard had touched. As he stumbled and tripped out of the course, he took off the blindfold, handing it over to Leonard.
He glanced at Sara, who was staring at the scrap of black cloth, her face impassive. She looked up, meeting his eyes. He remembered she had nightmares about the dark. Or at least, she used to. She would never ask. And even if it bothered her, she would never complain about it.
With a sigh, he pocketed the blindfold. “If you walk me into a wall, I’ll get even.”
Brushing her hand against his wrist, she thanked him silently, as they watched Mary and Brian argue quietly over the flaws in their plan and operation.
The rest of the couples finished, some arguing, some cheering, but all of them taking a while to complete their course. Before Leonard knew it, Bernard was coming over the microphone again. “Looks like the time to beat is one minute and sixteen seconds. Remember, without going over the lines! Get to the beginning of your course, and put your blindfold on!”
Leonard and Sara walked to the front of the course, and he put on the blindfold. He was doing his best not to look irritated or nervous about it, but blinding himself in a roomful of strangers wasn’t his idea of a good time. Despite his efforts, Sara leaned in, turning away from Mary and Brian as he folded the blindfold.
“I can do this, if you don’t want to-”
“I got it.” Determinedly, he tied the blindfold around his eyes and exhaled slowly.
It was instantly chaotic. People were shouting as Bernard said to change the course. He heard the screeches of chairs and the hollow thud of boxes being moved. He rubbed his palms along his thighs, trying to keep himself from losing his control over this stupid and pointless exercise-
“Hey. I’m right here.”
Sara’s voice was low and calm next to him, cutting through the noise of the rest of the room, and he focused his attention on just the sound of her voice.
“You’ve got this,” Sara said.
“Alright!” called Bernard, distant and not quite as abrasive. “Begin in three, two, one!”
“Walk straight,” Sara ordered him, clear, effective, and confident, making it easy for him to follow.
He knew that the course was relatively simple. A good five feet straight, two feet to the right, one foot straight, three left, and two straight. But the chairs and boxes were the unknowns here.
“Stop,” Sara said, and he did so immediately. Part of him, that bitter little part he’d been trying to eradicate since joining the Legends, mocked him for being so quick to follow her orders. But he froze, his foot partially raised off the floor.
“There’s a box. Take a small step to the right.”
He did, waiting.
“Now straight again.”
And sure, that same bitter little part of him might have a point at how easily he’d followed her command. But he’d also been working with the Legends for a few months now, and even if he and Sara hadn’t been working together directly, he’d been close enough to know a commander when he saw one. She led their team, and she was damn good at it. She took advice and suggestions, but in the thick of it, they followed her lead.
“Stop. Turn right and go two steps.”
“Stop. Turn left and take a step. Stop. Turn left and take one step.”
Leonard knew it was three feet on this branch, but did as she said.
“Put your left hand out in front of you.”
He did, his fingers bumping into something metal and covered in fabric. He wrapped his hands around it.
“That’s the back of a chair. The seat is in front of you. Step over it.”
He did, just the tip of his boot knocking into the side of the seat.
“One minute down!” Bernard called.
“Another step forward,” Sara said, her voice remaining calm. “Stop. Turn right.”
“A minute and five seconds!” Bernard said.
Leonard focused on Sara’s voice alone.
“Jump forward,” Sara ordered.
“A minute and ten!”
“Jump,” Sara repeated.
He did, the tip of his boot brushing over something cardboard, but not enough to knock him off his path.
“Take a step forward,” she said.
“We’re done!” Sara shouted, making Leonard flinch.
Leonard pulled down the blindfold as people began talking even louder, Bernard telling the teams that it was over and a couple had won. He looked back at the course, seeing that on the last straight stretch, Mary and Brian had placed two boxes, one after the other.
He blinked, his eyes adjusting, as Bernard said, “Congratulations to Leonard and Sara for winning!”
There was a round of applause, and several voices cheering, which Leonard quickly identified as Laura and Fred. But all of that went out the window as Sara pumped her fist in the air and threw herself at Leonard, hugging him tightly, her arms around his neck.
His hands spanned her waist for a moment, allowing himself to enjoy this for just a moment, before pulling back, giving her an excuse to let go without making it uncomfortable.
“Nice leading,” he said, as she stepped back.
He didn’t comment on the faint flush on her cheek, but she smiled. “Nice listening.”
Bernard was smiling widely as he came over, “Now that’s a wonderful example of communication and implicit trust in your partner. Congratulations!”
He turned off the microphone and beamed at them. “Very well done. I’m glad to see you two working together. Your prize is a completely free dinner tomorrow night at the restaurant, plus a bottle of champagne.”
Sara smiled back at Bernard and leaned against Leonard’s arm.
The morning was beginning to go a little better.
This afternoon was shit.
After their success in this morning, Sara had been lulled into a false sense of security. After winning the competition this morning, and surviving the rest of the trust activities (the worst of which involved a weird ropes course, where they suspended one another off the ground with ropes), they’d broken for lunch. She and Leonard had joined Laura, Brian, Mary, and Fred for lunch at a small take out place down the street from the hotel, and it hadn’t been horrible, despite the lingering tension between Mary and Brian.
They walked back, each of the couples pairing off as they walked down the street. Leonard and Sara brought up the rear, their shoulders knocking into one another.
“What do you think our play should be here?” Leonard asked her quietly.
“We need to get Bernard alone, and find out if he’s got anything helping him, or if he’s just trash.”
Leonard’s silence was very loud.
“I know,” she muttered. “Fucking honeypot.”
She caught a small frown on his face, and part of her was pleased he seemed just as irritated as she at the idea of playing the unfaithful wife for an unfaithful husband. It wasn’t that she was against polyamorous relationships, but she was against a breach of trust, which was what this seemed to be.
“We have another therapy session when we get back,” he said after a minute. “Then a break for dinner, then an additional...teamwork session,” Leonard hesitated on the last two words.
“We can try to talk to him during dinner or during the teamwork session,” Sara said. “If not, I might need to go for a walk or something afterwards.”
“I’m not entirely comfortable with that,” he responded. “If he has an item capable of a level seventeen-”
“What other choice do we have?” Sara countered.
“I don’t know.” He didn’t sound thrilled about it.
“Well,” Sara said, after a moment, wanting to dispel the cloud of irritation over Leonard’s face, “if you think of something else, I’m more than willing to change the plan.”
“I’ll keep that in mind,” he said, his mouth curling up slightly. Sara smiled as well, for reasons she decided not to look too deeply into.
However, upon their return to the hotel, they split from the group for their counseling session. Sara once again took a seat on the couch next to Leonard, and dreaded whatever Clara was about to say. There was no camera this time, which was a bonus. But Clara had several pages of notes, which didn’t bode well.
As she settled into her seat, a canary yellow dress this time, Clara smiled at both of them. “How are you today?”
“Fine,” Sara answered, as Leonard nodded.
“And how was playing cards last night?”
Leonard took that one. “Fun. Nice suggestion.”
“I sometimes have those,” Clara said with a smile. “Congratulations on winning the communication exercise. It was no small feat. Why did Leonard elect to be the one blindfolded?” she asked.
Leonard smoothly responded, without a moment of hesitation. “I just didn’t want to shout over all those people.”
Clara stared at him, before her gaze shifted to Sara.
Resigning herself to being a little more honest than she would have preferred, Sara said, “I don’t do well with being in the dark. Or confined.”
“So you asked Leonard-”
“No,” she interrupted Clara. “No, he knew. So he did it without me having to ask.”
“Why did you do that, Leonard?” Clara asked.
His arm was over the back of the chair as he faced Clara, but Sara could read the tension in his hand, hidden from Clara’s sight. “Because I didn’t care one way or another.”
Again, that long look from Clara, which got Leonard to shift, but remain silent. Clara smiled nonetheless.
“I’ve reviewed your communication tapes. It’s very interesting.” She looked down at her papers, but her eyes weren’t tracking, meaning the move was just for show. “Sara, you tend to talk less when you’re lying. The more you say, the more honest you’re being. It’s like a dam breaking.”
Sara didn’t say anything at that point, taking a move out of Leonard’s book.
“But Leonard,” Clara said, looking up. “When you get quiet, it’s because you’re holding something back. The more honest you want to be, the quieter you end up being. You tell just enough truth to be honest, but you never fully reveal everything. Sound about right?”
“You’re the professional,” Leonard retorted, his voice dropping a few degrees.
Clara didn’t seem to take offense to that. In fact, she smiled and put her notes off to the side.
“I am the professional,” she agreed. “And what I find fascinating is that the two of you aren’t functioning like any other couple I’ve met. Most lie about their feelings. They say they feel things they don’t anymore. Or, they don’t understand their feelings, so they lash out. They hurt people.”
Without any perceptive movement, Sara tensed as Leonard’s smile got cold, and familiar. It had been a long time since she’d seen that particular smile on his face.
Clara didn’t flinch, and Sara’s regard of her went up a few notches. The counselor tilted her head as she stared at Leonard. “You aren’t like that, though. You aren’t lying, you’re just hiding your true feelings. You understand exactly what’s going on in your head, but you refuse to say it.”
Leonard leaned forward, his elbows on his knees. “And why wouldn’t I say it?”
“Because although you understand, she doesn’t.”
Sara blinked as both of them turned to face her. “Excuse me?”
“Usually,” Clara said, her gaze on Sara now, “couples are off balance. One wants to be here more than the other, one cares more than the other, one’s still in love and the other…” She shrugs. “But again, not the case here. You both care about the other, obviously, so why the distance?”
Sara’s mind slammed to a half at all the implications in that sentence, and she tried to come up with an answer. “After he left, the relationship was different-”
“A lie,” Clara interrupted.
“We’re just in a rut-”
Sara’s mouth shut, and she just glared at Clara, who stared right back at her.
“What are you so afraid of?” Clara asked.
“I’m not afraid of anything.”
“Liar,” Clara said gently. “Just tell the truth. You owe it to Leonard, who’s given you four years of his life-”
Sara’s breathing hitched slightly, as Clara didn’t know how true that was.
“-to give him a fair shot at fixing it. Don’t you?”
Sara didn’t look down the couch at him. She kept her eyes on Clara, who gestured to him anyway.
“I want you to look at your husband, and tell him exactly what’s on your mind. Honestly. Start with, “I feel” and let the words roll off from there.”
Sara shook her head faintly, but Clara held her gaze and raised her brows.
“You owe it to him. And yourself.” She waved her hand towards Leonard again.
Taking a deep breath, Sara turned slightly on the couch, her shoulders tense, and faced Leonard. He was still leaning forward, his head turned towards Clara, but his eyes on her. He looked unsure, but didn’t say anything.
Sara cleared her throat. “I feel…”
His pinky tapped against his leg, silently. It was one of his very few tells. Nerves, anxiety, discomfort.
The word slipped out without her realizing it, until Leonard’s tapping stopped, and the gaze turned from passive staring, to an intent focus.
“You started this...relationship, and then left. For work,” she added belatedly. “You were gone for three years, and in that time, I lost my sister, my dad, my friends, and I thought I had lost you, too.”
He turned to face her fully, his tongue darting out to wet his lips - another one of his few little tells - but he didn’t speak, and she continued to fill the silence.
“I know why you left, I understand that,” she said, forgetting, for a moment, that this was all a cover, that Clara was in the room, that it wasn’t just her and Leonard talking. “But you left. You said all those things and made me feel like - and then you were...gone. You left me. I feel betrayed that you left, and glad you came back, and sad that we missed out on all that time, and now I’m just...”
“Just what, Sara?” Clara prompted her gently when she was quiet for a few moments, nearly making Sara jump, though Leonard’s gaze never wavered from her face.
“I’m scared that you don’t feel the same now,” Sara admitted. “And that even if you do, I’m scared that you’re going to leave again. I don’t know that I could...I don’t want to get hurt like that again. I can’t.”
Leonard leaned closer, as if he was about to say something, but his eyes darted over to Clara and he shut his mouth.
Sara followed his gaze, and looked down at the ground.
Clara sat back in her chair with a sigh. “And there it is. I think that’s a good stopping point for today.”
With a blink, Sara looked up at Clara, who got to her feet. It took her a moment, but Sara stood and made her way to the door.
“Your homework is to have Leonard respond to what Sara said, on your own time. Enjoy your afternoon, and we’ll see you after dinner,” Clara said with a smile, opened the door for them. Leonard and Sara left, still in silence, as another couple entered, and Clara shut the door behind them.
Leonard turned to look at Sara, his lips parted to speak.
“I’m going to go for a walk,” Sara blurted out.
And, doing her very best not to run, Sara turned on her heel and walked away.
Break for Dinner
Sara’s walk ended up at the hotel bar an hour or so before their last exercise. She’d grabbed premade a sandwich from the small deli at the front desk as her dinner, eating it on the go, even though the bread and turkey solidified as a leaden weight in her stomach.
What had possessed her to speak so openly?
Draining her glass, Sara observed the bar from her corner. It wasn’t packed, but still busier than she expected it to be at this early hour. Recognizing several familiar faces, Sara realized most of them were couples from the session.
She caught a glimpse of Freddie and Laura in one corner, their heads bent together as they talked, and felt a surge of jealousy go through her. They were so comfortable and happy with one another. She and Leonard used to be like that, before.
Making an effort not to draw their attention, Sara leaned back in her chair, letting her eyes drift. They landed on Mary, nursing a larger and darker beer than Sara would have expected, as she rubbed at her eyes.
She would have headed over, most likely, had someone not taken the seat next to Sara, smiling at her. Looking at Bernard, Sara forced herself to remain calm, even as her hackles rose.
It wasn’t smart, but she’d taken the corner seat against the wall of the bar to avoid being seen. Now, with Bernard taking the stool directly next to her, it left her almost boxed in against the wall. Sara was already mentally cataloging Bernard’s height and weight, and considering what moves might work on incapacitating him.
“Sara, right?” Bernard said, raising his hand to order something for himself. As the bartender approached he said, “Usual for me, and for the lady-”
Bernard grinned, recovering quickly. “Your husband is Leonard, right?”
She nodded, finishing her whiskey before the next one appeared. “Yup.”
“How long have you been together?”
“Been through a lot together?” he asked.
Sara cut her eyes at him, suspicious.
He just continued to smile. “He looks like he’s been through the ringer.”
“Yeah,” Sara said, taking the newest whiskey, but not sipping from it yet. “We’ve had some rough times.”
“Seems to be a significant age difference between you.”
For a moment, Sara blanked on the math. Legally, there was a fifteen year age gap, but that prior to her two years stranded, her year and some odd days dead, her various months on shore leave with the normal passage of days, and his three years in the Oculus, did that mean it was only a nine year difference? Eleven?
“Fifteen years,” she said eventually, going with the easy answer.
“Do you find that the age difference plays a factor on your relationship?” he asked, that same little smile on his face.
“No,” Sara answered immediately. “His age isn’t a problem.”
Sara frowned. “No.”
“You don’t have an issue with him being romantically involved with someone so much younger than him?”
The connotation of his statement sunk in, and anger began to simmer beneath her skin. Sara put her glass down, twisting in her chair to face Bernard. “People who imply that shit tend to be the ones thinking about it.”
“It’s just a question.”
“You should watch your fucking questions,” Sara snapped. She blowing away her chance of luring Bernard into a private area to see if he had whatever was causing the aberration, but she couldn’t stop her mouth from moving. “Because I have a few of my own. Like, why are you singling out women from your own counseling group at a bar when they’re alone?”
“It’s my job-”
“No. This is my off time. Which means you aren’t working right now.”
“Just because we aren’t on the clock, doesn’t mean I’m not working to try and fix your marriage, which means considering some tough questions about why your relationship with your husband is failing.”
Sara downed her drink and slammed the glass down on the bartop. She looked back at Bernard, whose smile was finally fading, and leaned towards him, baring her teeth.
“My relationship with Leonard is rough, but it’s not failing.” Her voice was almost too loud, garnering looks from others in the room, even if they couldn’t make out the details of what she’d said. “You should watch your tone if you’re trying to help a couple, otherwise someone might think your goal isn’t to fix marriages, but pick up the scraps leftover and fuc-”
Sara cut herself off as David approached. Her mouth shut with a snap, and she leaned away from Bernard, trying to school her expression.
“Yes?” Bernard said, looking pleased with the interruption, his eyes darting back to Sara.
“Mom said she needs you back in the hall.” He stared at his father for a moment before his eyes got wide, and he turned to Sara. “Hello. My name is David,” he said, holding out his hand. “Welcome to the hotel.”
“David-” Bernard began, holding out his hand to stop him.
Sara wasn’t so cruel to take out her anger at the father on the son. She smiled at David, not her best, but a good effort, and shook his hand once, his long sleeves brushing her fingers. “I’m Sara.”
His little hand was warm and, thankfully, not sticky with anything. He let go quickly, beaming at his father.
“Tell your mom I’ll be right there,” Bernard said.
David grinned at Sara, exposing a few missing teeth, and darted back towards the ballroom.
Getting to his feet, Bernard left his partially full glass on the counter, glancing at Sara. She stared at him, not blinking.
“Have a nice evening,” he managed to say, before he left without another word.
Sara glared at the back of his head, not even acknowledging the bartender bringing her another shot of whiskey. How dare Bernard, suspected cheater, try to suggest that Leonard, a goddamned hero-
Leonard was ten thousand times better than anyone-
And their relationship wasn’t fake-
Well, it was, but that didn’t mean she didn’t care. It didn’t mean that he wasn’t amazing. Anyone would be lucky to be with him, and if he was with her - or someone her age - it wouldn’t be because of some cradle-robbing reason, it would be because Leonard had found someone who could keep up with him, challenge him, accept him.
Sara downed the shot and shook her head as the bartender held out the bottle again for her.
She’d been fighting this...relationship for so long, she was almost forgetting why. And she knew that it didn’t make sense. She cared about him, and a large, and constantly growing part of her, was remembering just how deeply she cared about him. But she was terrified of opening herself to more potential pain.
But it might already be too late to prevent it.
So what more did she have to lose?
Leonard, who prided himself on his patience and calmness under pressure, who’d staked out potential marks for days without flagging, found himself walking down to the ballroom earlier than he would have, merely to avoid inaction. There were a few tables set up, and a large open space in the middle that was discouraging, but he took a seat, keeping an eye on the door. Sara had been gone for three hours, and though he wasn’t worried for her safety, he was worried for whatever was going through her head.
Sara could be reckless at the best of times, and this sure as hell wasn’t the best of times. He didn’t blame her for wanting space. He’d been grateful for the solitude to sort through everything she’d said. He knew he wasn’t responsible for what she felt, he didn’t want to die, but he felt guilty for putting her through that. It was much easier to be the dead one than the one who had to go on living.
He wouldn’t have allowed her or Mick to die in the Oculus, but he wished there had been another way. Intentionally or not, he’d hurt her. That was unforgivable.
He looked up, seeing Clara heading over to him, clipboard in hand.
She smiled faintly, taking a seat at the table he was at. “How are you?”
His hesitation was slight. Barely perceptible. But she caught it.
“Ah. I’m sorry. Drawing out the truth can be...painful.”
“So I’ve noticed,” he drawled.
“It’ll work out in the end,” she said quietly.
“You can’t know that,” Leonard said, before really thinking it through.
He leaned forward, honestly curious and still a little angry. “You can’t know that it’ll work out. It takes so much. The right people. The right circumstance. The right time. How can you know that it’ll all just work out?”
“I never said ‘all’,” Clara corrected. “Some don’t. Ones that weren’t a good match to begin with. Ones that have changed too much. Ones that got too involved too quickly, before truly getting to know one another. Ones that don’t want to put in the work.” She put the clipboard facedown on the table. “But time and circumstance are just excuses. You just need people.”
He frowned at her, and she smiled again, a little gentler. “Nothing in life comes easy. I think you know that. You have to fight for the things you want. You fight for a chance, you fight to get it, and sometimes you have to fight to keep it.” She rested her elbows on the table and leaned forward. “Did you have serious relationships before Sara?”
“Why didn’t they work out?”
He thought back, trying to pinpoint why a few of them had failed. “Trust was broken.”
Clara’s gaze grew shadowed for a moment, then her smile turned sympathetic. “They cheated?”
No. A gun to the head, but for the sake of brevity, “Yes.”
“So you broke up?”
No, again. She’d been arrested. “Yes.”
“Did they try to salvage it?”
Not really. Besides, attempted murder was definitely one of his turn offs. “No.”
“Have you or Sara done anything to break one another’s trust?”
He blinked, recalling the time he’d pulled his gun on Sara in visceral technicolor. “...yes.”
“And yet, instead of just breaking up, you fixed it, obviously.”
He nodded, recalling his shitty attempt at an apology, followed by an admission he hadn’t dreamed of saying.
“Why did you try to fix it with Sara, but not with the other ones?”
“Because Sara was different.”
“And you’d do anything for her.”
“Of cour-” he broke off as he saw Clara smile again.
“That’s the real secret. You can have perfect timing and perfect circumstances, but if both of you aren’t willing to put in the work, it’ll never last. All of this,” she waved her hand around her at the hotel, “is a smoke screen. Any relationship does better in this kind of situation, and you’re more willing to listen to the actual advice.”
“Isolate the couple from day to day distractions and the menial, focus on one-on-one interations without outside interference,” she began listing off, “romantic settings, other couples around, activities that focus on talking and touch.” She shrugged. “Any couple benefits from that, but that doesn’t mean all of them will make it. It’s learning how to communicate, it’s airing the grievances that have built up over time, it’s identifying the fears. Couples that are willing to be honest and take what their partner says to heart, that’s what matters. Timing and circumstances notwithstanding.” She eyed him for a moment, then tilted her head. “Otherwise, you’re saying that if you have met Sara anywhere else, you wouldn’t have fallen in love with her.”
That thought elicited a frown. He couldn’t imagine meeting Sara in any time or place and not being drawn to her.
“There you have it,” Clara said, sitting back in her chair. “All my secrets.”
That was a lie, but he was interested enough to let it slide. “So what now?”
“You show her why you fell in love in the first place. You show her that she can trust you again.”
“And if she doesn’t want to try again?”
Clara tilted her head at him. “Has she told you that?”
He didn’t answer.
“I don’t see you giving up until you know for sure it’s a lost cause,” Clara said.
Leonard wasn’t certain how to respond to that, and was saved as Clara’s son entered the room and came up to them. He waved at Leonard, drawing Clara’s attention.
She stood up with a smile, taking her clipboard and putting her free hand on David’s shoulder. “Have fun tonight,” she said
People started coming in, taking seats and milling around the edges of the room. Leonard kept running over Clara’s comments in his head, watching her walk through the crowd. She bent down to talk to David for a moment, then went and spoke with Mary and Brian, who were just entering. Clara talked with them for a moment, obviously introducing her son to them, and Leonard watched Mary go down on her knee to say hello to him.
Laura and Fred came in shortly afterwards, searching the room, and though Laura’s eyes passed over him, she moved past to find Brian, walking over as Clara was leaving.
The twins spoke for a moment off to the side, Laura clearly upset about something, but they were turned in such a way that he couldn’t read their lips. He did note how Fred was standing so as to hide the conversation from Mary.
Casually, he took his phone out of his pocket, seeing if the radar would catch anything. Looking at it, he saw that he had missed a ping, just a few minutes earlier, when he must have been talking to Clara.
“Alright, everyone!” Clara said into the microphone. “Welcome back for our evening session! Tonight, we’ll be working on teamwork still, but in a slightly different way. I’m so excited to introduce you to Bella Durst, our dance instructor.”
Leonard narrowed his eyes as the voluptuous brunette took the microphone and introduced herself. All he caught was that she had been dancing for eighteen years, because as she started to get into more specifics, he heard a whispered, “Hi.”
Glancing at the seat next to him, he saw Sara had arrived, looking none the worse for wear, even if her mouth was tight.
“Hi,” he murmured, turning to place her more in his view. Bella was explaining what they would be doing, but he only listened with half an ear. He wanted to ask if she was okay, but also knew Sara wouldn’t want to discuss it until she brought it up.
“Anything new?” he said instead.
She glanced at him, then looked away. “I ran into Bernard.”
Taking in the set of her jaw and the tension in her shoulders, he gathered it didn’t go well. He leaned in a little, concern making its way through his voice. “Everything okay?”
“Yeah, but a honeypot is off the table.”
“Alright, couples!” Bella said. “On your feet and we’ll begin with the basic moves!”
Sara and Leonard stood, heading to the side of the room, where it wasn’t quite as crowded. There was a moment of hesitation as they turned to face one another directly, but Sara took a step nearer, settling her hand on his shoulder and meeting his free hand in the air next to them. He wrapped his hand around her waist as they settled into position.
Even with the past few days of faint touches, they’d been more brushes of the hand against a shoulder, or leaning into one another. Hand holding had been avoided almost completely, but now-
Her palm was warm in his hand, the two of them falling into the position without much thinking. It was natural, easy, even if they’d never actually stood like his before. Even after three years - or two months - the trust between them was implicit and the contact comfortable, even if there was no spoken reason as to why.
Bella wandered around, correcting couples as she came nearer.
“You can stand a bit closer,” she said, as she saw Leonard and Sara. She put her hand on each of their shoulders, pulling them nearer to one another until any attempt at a friendly distance was merely a memory. She readjusted their grip, then nodded and moved on to someone else.
They didn’t speak, the proximity making words and even eye contact a little too intimate. Leonard eyed the couples around them, finding most looked as unsure and uncomfortable. There were some, however, like Fred and Laura, who were taking advantage of the closeness for a few words and a quick kiss. Fred stared down at Laura with more than fondness, and Leonard looked away.
As Bella started going through the moves they’d be learning, Leonard found his mind wandering, holding the position without much thought. He’d forgotten how short Sara really was. He could see over her head easily to keep an eye on the people behind her. It was a small testament in that though she checked to her sides every few minutes, she didn’t seem to feel the need to look behind her, not with him facing that direction.
“Alright, let’s try those first moves,” Bella said. “And one, two, three, one, two, three-”
After a false start, Sara and Leonard found the movements easily. It wasn’t a complicated pattern, but several couples seemed to be struggling. Clara took over counting as Bella went to and from the couples who were floundering more than others. Leonard glanced down as Sara looked up at him, both of them scoffing awkwardly, but it was enough to break the tension.
“I checked in with Zari before dinner,” Sara said. “Nothing much to report.”
“Same. But I was near Clara before and the radar pinged,” Leonard said, keeping his eyes over Sara’s shoulder to make sure no one was close enough to hear.
“Mine did, too, while I was with Bernard.” Sara got quiet for a moment, watching something behind him, then she said, “Could yours have been the ring?”
“Same here. Maybe an artifact that can be split?”
“Or a third one.”
“Great,” she muttered, rolling her eyes.
Leonard chuckled, looking down at her for a moment before letting his eyes drift away again.
“So what happened with Bernard?” he said.
“He came up to me at the bar, and started saying shit. I couldn’t...it wasn’t something I could play off,” she told him, keeping her face angled away from other couples.
“What did he say?” he asked, irritation rising on her behalf. She’d been through a lot, heard a bunch of crap even from people like Rip, so it must have been exceptionally awful for her to lose sight of the mission.
Sara cleared her throat, and glanced out at the other couples. “He said-”
“Alright, how about a spin or two?” Bella said. “Lift your connected hands high, and leaders, guide your partner out with a spin, turn under your hands, and back into place.”
Bella came towards them fairly quickly, so Leonard went through the motions, spinning Sara once before she stepped back into place, the discomfort at their closeness not so palpable anymore.
“Very well done!” Bella said. “You two are naturals.”
When she left, Sara didn’t continue her sentence, so Leonard asked again.
She sighed, keeping her eyes on his shirt instead of looking up. “He said some shit about you.”
He looked down at her, startled, but she avoided his gaze. Not that he was surprised to hear someone saying shit about him, but it had been a while since he thought Sara would have been the one to defend him.
“Lance,” he started.
“I know,” she interrupted bitterly. “It was stupid. Sorry.”
It might have been, but that wasn’t what he was going to say. “Thank you.”
Startled, she looked up at him, meeting his gaze. He saw a lot of emotions at war in her gaze. Nerves, discomfort, relief, all mixed together.
Bella called out again, “Let’s add some music!” A slow song, easy to dance to piped through the speakers, and the low conversations of others around them faded out. He could feel some of the tension fade off of Sara’s muscles as they were given some privacy of noise.
They danced in silence for a few moments, before Sara took a deep breath.
“About what I said before,” Sara muttered. “In therapy-”
“Was it true?” he interrupted.
Their relationship had always been a matter of balance. Give and take. They played cards and talked, sharing bits and pieces, not always even, but always enough to close the gap. Honesty was their currency - when he threatened her, he repaid it with a truth, when she didn’t believe him, she evened the score with history. They’d never lied to one another before, but he needed to be sure before he opened himself up to more potential pain.
Her jaw jumped and she looked past his shoulder. “Yeah. It is.”
She was head and shoulders ahead of him in the honesty scope now. And she’d cracked open the door he thought was shut permanently with the shift in verb tense. Knowing it was probably not a smart move, he cleared his throat.
“That first day, when I said I would have regretted not saying yes to you in the bar,” Leonard said quietly. “I meant it.”
That drew her gaze back to him. “Leonard-”
He spun her away from him without warning, the move bringing a real smile to her face as she returned to his arms. It might have been his imagination, but she seemed to come back a few inches closer.
“We don’t have to talk about it,” he said in her ear. “I just wanted you to know.”
Sara nodded, then rested her head against his chest, her arm curling up around his shoulder in a half-hug. He kept the steps of the dance going, but held her a little nearer, not entirely sure what this moment meant, but willing to take the risk.
Time on your own
“I need a fucking drink.”
Sara opened the door to their room a little wider as Laura came barrelling in, shoving a bottle into her hands and swigging directly out of a second one. It was only an hour after the end of the dancing lessons, when they’d all been released for the night. Most of the groups went back to the bar, but she and Leonard had opted for a quick walk by Bernard and Clara’s apartment in hopes they could find something. Unsuccessful, they made their way back to their room.
“What happened?” Sara asked, glancing at Fred as he followed his wife inside. She shut the door behind them, locking it for good measure.
Fred’s smile wasn’t kind as he looked at Sara. “Bernard.”
“Shit,” Sara muttered. Handing the bottle off to Fred, she took a seat next to Laura. “What did he do?”
“I ran into him after dancing. He was talking to Mary outside their room and I heard him-” Laura cut herself off, taking another giant swig out of the bottle. “I heard him talking about how she was young, and should cut her losses, and no one deserves to be a widow before thirty!”
Sara glanced up as Leonard came out of the bathroom, obviously hearing that part. He closed the window that led outside, then leaned against the wall to listen. He caught her eye briefly, concern and suspicion obvious to her, at least.
“What did you do?” Sara asked.
Laura glared in her direction, obviously still furious, but Sara saw the silver in her eyes that said this went beyond mere anger. “I told him to fuck off!”
“What did Bernard do?” Leonard asked, straightening up a little. She noted the apprehension in his tone, faint but still there, and realized that if there was a level 17 aberration and Bernard had a hold of it, it was amazing he hadn’t used it on her or Laura today.
“That motherfucker, he-” Laura’s anger seemed to spill over, and she dashed a few tears from her eyes.
“He started in on me,” Fred interjected. “I had come in behind, with several other couples from the bar. I don’t think he knew we were there.”
Sara wasn’t going to ask what he said, not when it clearly upset Laura so much, but Fred continued, his eyes on Laura. “He asked if it was genetic, Laura and Brian becoming involved in relationships that could never pan out. Brian’s due to his illness, and Laura’s due to my…” Fred stopped, and there was a glimmer of anger that almost made Sara worry. Then he smiled, that same angry smile as before. “In words that almost made it seem like he cared and was merely worried, he outed my history as a victim of domestic abuse. I was very nearly impressed with him.”
“Freddie,” Laura said, her tears still rolling down her cheeks.
“You have to admit, he is very good,” Fred said, his mouth an angry slash now.
“Well,” Laura said, wiping her eyes and sniffling a bit, “he’ll be a little less good now, since I punched him in the face.”
“Well done!” Sara said, replacing Laura’s bottle of straight vodka with a glass of water. “I wanted to so badly-”
“He talked to you, too?” Fred interrupted, eyes narrowing slightly. “Same kind of thing?”
“Yeah,” Sara said, shifting slightly in her seat as Leonard watched her. “Yeah, he started in on Leonard. About the age difference.”
Leonard smiled in a way that made it clear he didn’t find it funny at all. Sara looked away from him, back to Laura, who’d gotten herself under control.
“What did you say?” Fred asked.
Sara took the bottle from Laura, taking a small sip. “I may have alluded to the fact that I knew he was cheating.”
Fred laughed, and Laura smiled, but Sara saw concern grow on Leonard’s face.
“How the hell can a guy like that be in charge of a place like this?” Laura asked. “And afterwards, when I said we should just leave, Mary and Brian just said it was okay, ‘cause they felt like it was still a good experience!”
“Really?” Leonard asked. “No hard feelings, even on Brian’s end?”
“Nothing. And he holds grudges.” Laura shook her head. “I feel like I’m going crazy. Everyone is in love with these people, to the point where this asshole can go around and say all this shit and no one stops him.”
“Except you and Sara, apparently,” Fred observed.
Laura laughed, still a little too shrill to be normal, but closer than before. “Well, Freddie and I are faking needing counseling, so what’s your excuse?”
Sara met Leonard’s eye from across the room.
“Just luck, I guess,” he said lowly.
“Do you think Clara is involved in it?” Fred asked.
Leonard shook his head slowly. “I think she’s aware he’s cheating, but she seems to legitimately care about the people here. I don’t know if she’s heard what he says.”
“Is Bernard drugging these people or something?” Laura asked. “Some magic spell or some shit?”
Sara very carefully didn’t look at Leonard as Laura huffed back into her seat, glaring at Fred from across the room.
“Sit down, you’re making me nervous.”
Fred hesitated, and Sara saw him glance at the door. “I thought I might-”
“I’ll go with you,” Leonard interrupted.
Fred looked irritated, but nodded. “Sure.”
Sara watched them leave, Leonard catching her eye for a moment with a faint nod. Knowing that Leonard would keep them out of any significant trouble, as long as they didn’t run into Bernard directly…
Now with some trepidation, Sara saw the door close behind them, and turned her attention to Laura.
“You okay?” she asked.
Laura scoffed, taking a sip from the bottle again. “I’m fine. I’m just...pissed.”
“I get that.”
“How can assholes get away with shit like that, when people like Freddie-” she cut herself off again.
Sara didn’t push her to finish that sentence, but the alcohol had loosened Laura’s tongue.
“He doesn’t bring it up, but I knew he has nightmares. And not many people know, but when they find out they...they all look at him different.” She scoffed, “Like he needs any of them. He did what he had to do, and he’s amazing, and I hate it when people make him feel like he’s less than what he is. Freddie is...he’s the strongest person I’ve ever met.”
Sara sat in silence for a moment. Taking the bottle from Laura, she took a small sip. “You won’t get any looks from me or Len. We both...his dad was an asshole, and I was,” she stopped. “I get it.”
Sara scoffed, “Yeah.”
Laura let her head sink back against the couch, closing her eyes for a moment.
“Why don’t you leave?” Sara asked.
“I can’t leave Mary and Brian,” she answered. “And they’re set on staying. If they don’t go, we don’t, and vice versa.” She heaved a sigh. “Weirdly enough, they do seem to be getting on better. They seem happier.”
“I guess. But it’s still...weird.”
They were quiet for a few minutes, but Sara stood and closed the window next to them, the cold air getting a little too cold just now. “I’m sorry for barging in and leaving all my shit in your lap. I didn’t even...how are you and Leonard doing here?”
Laura laughed, looking at Sara out of the corner of her eye, “Most people aren’t here because they’re fine.”
“We’re better,” Sara admitted. “It’s been nice, talking to him again.”
“Good. You two seem happier.”
“I am,” Sara said, not really thinking it through in the moment, but realizing it was true. She smiled to herself. “I am.”
On the walk, Fred had let spill some of his previous trauma, as Laura would put it, and Leonard had listened to the man vent. Behind the proper manners and look, Fred was a man who had little to no mercy for the people who wronged him, and had no qualms about making them pay. Any other day, Leonard probably would have helped him out, but considering they didn’t know the nature of Bernard’s artifact, he wasn’t willing to take the risk. So he’d walked with Fred until the man seemed to grow tired, where they returned to find Sara and Laura half-dozing on the couch. Fred woke Laura with a couple of kisses, and the two of them stumbled off sleepily to their room.
Sara had seemed content enough to stay on the couch, but Leonard nudged her up, knowing her hip bugged her if she slept on her side like that. “Come on, Lance. Into bed.”
“I can take the couch,” she said, rubbing her eyes.
“Just go to bed.”
She managed to clamber into the large bed, as Leonard gathered the things he needed for a shower and headed into the bathroom.
Before he shut the door, he heard Sara quietly ask, “Are you happy?”
He stopped, turning to look back at her. The only light was from the bathroom, but it was enough to see that her eyes were open and alert.
“I’m happier,” he admitted. “And you?”
“I’m happier, too.”
“Good,” he said. “Get some sleep.”
“You, too.” She slid down into the bed and closed her eyes.
Sleeping on the couch still wasn’t ideal, however, and Leonard woke up the next day with a pain in his shoulder, probably a combination of the cold air from the window that was left cracked open, and the couch.
Today they were supposed to be taking a hike, all of them and then individual couples would go off to...vent their feelings, whatever that meant. Leonard wasn’t exactly looking forward to it.
“Anything else you want to bring?” Sara asked as she packed up a bag to take. “I’ve got water, a blanket, some snacks, and the whiskey Laura brought last night. Just in case.”
Leonard shook his head, “Sounds good.”
The backpack was a ruse, as he and Sara intended to make their way back to the hotel once the couples split up, and take the opportunity to search Clara and Bernard’s room thoroughly. If it didn’t work out, the secondary plan was to find Fred and Laura.
“Let’s go, then,” she said, getting to her feet.
Holding open the door, Leonard fell into step next to her, seeing couples waiting outside the ballroom. They were all whispering among themselves, and as Leonard got closer, he saw the dark-haired woman he’d seen with Bernard the other night.
“What’s going on?” he asked, getting closer.
She looked over at him, smiling, and Leonard could see why Bernard chose this woman. She was clearly not interested in her portly, poor dressed husband, and on the prowl for another one. She leaned in towards Leonard, her mouth curling up, “Hello. I don’t think we’ve been introduced. I’m Sandra.”
“Leonard,” he said, not holding out his hand, “and my wife, Sara.”
Right on cue, Sara came up behind him, leaning against his arm. “What happened?”
Sandra’s interest dropped significantly, but even her loss of a potential second husband couldn’t completely dissipate the allure of sharing secrets. “Oh, there was a couple here faking it. They didn’t do the work, and they didn’t even need therapy!”
Sara immediately looked at Leonard, but he kept his eyes on Sandra, willing to continue the conversation if it meant details.
“Who was it?” Leonard asked.
“That annoying brunette, and her pale, arrogant husband. If they were even married. Which,” Sandra smiled smugly, “if you overheard yesterday, is unlikely considering he’s a-”
Sara took a sharp step forward, forcing Sandra back and stopping her sentence. Leonard made to grab her arm to stop her, but Sara stopped herself, drawing back, her mission apparently accomplished.
“Sandra,” said her husband, watching Sara, “maybe we should…”
Whatever they should do was lost on Leonard, who saw Mary and Brian off to the side. He took Sara’s elbow and wove their way through the crowd. Most people didn’t seem aware of the connection, as Mary and Brian weren’t approached or greeted by any others.
“What happened to Laura?” Sara asked bluntly.
Brian shrugged. “She and Freddie must been found out. They knew they wouldn’t be allowed to stay if the Simmons found they were faking it.”
“So she just left?” Leonard asked. If Bernard really did have an artifact, and if he’d been that angry-
“Yeah, we saw them off this morning,” Mary said.
“You saw them?” Sara’s relief made it clear she had been thinking the same thing.
“Yeah. They were annoyed, and said to tell you two goodbye, but they drove off about an hour ago. The Simmons didn’t let them stay much longer than to pack their things.”
Leonard frowned, ready to leave, but Sara asked, “And you two didn’t go with them?”
“Why would we?” Brian asked.
“We’re here because we need to be here,” Mary added. “They knew that.” She leaned into Brian, who put his arm around her shoulders.
“Right,” Sara said, her eyes narrowing.
“Excuse us,” Brian said, pulling Mary further into the crowd.
As soon as they were out of earshot, Sara turned to Leonard, “We have to find that artifact. Laura was right, they’re acting weird.”
“She said they’d never go without one another, and Brian is totally fine with it?” she whispered. “And they seem a lot more…”
“Comfortable,” Leonard suggested.
Clara came out, not in a dress, but in clothes more fit for hiking. “All right, couples! Are we ready?”
Leonard and Sara ended their conversation, falling into line as Clara and Bernard led them out of the hotel and on a well worn path to the forest behind them. The wind was cold and the clouds looked forbidding, but the path was easy to follow, even if it led steadily upwards. Sara and Leonard dropped back in the pack a bit, especially as Sandra started shooting Sara some nasty looks.
They got to a large clearing, where Clara and Bernard gathered them together. “Okay!” Clara called out. “From here on out, you are just relying on your partner. These eight paths take you back to the hotel in a variety of ways, most of them taking about two hours. First couple to successfully navigate the path and return to the hotel earns a dinner on us!” She began passing out papers. “As you go, complete these questionnaires about you and your partner. We’ll review during the afternoon session and tonight’s intimacy discussion.”
Leonard very carefully did not look at Sara as she took the questionnaire and pen from Clara and put it in her backpack.
“On your mark,” Bernard called. “Get set! Go!”
Most of the couples ran off on the two paths nearest to the hotel, with a couple groups heading off on another one. Leonard and Sara took a path that looked promising, but without anyone else on it.
As soon as they were out of sight of the clearing, Sara took the lead, leaving the path and bringing them directly back towards the hotel, cutting through trees and undergrowth to try and shave off some time, but glancing at the sky every few minutes. Leonard followed her, but kept his eyes on the sky, too, growing darker and darker as the minutes ticked by.
They’d only been going for fifteen minutes when the sky opened up. Freezing, icy rain pelted down, making it almost impossible to see, and more dangerous to hike. Leonard slipped twice, and even Sara fell once, slipping on the mud beneath their boots.
“We can’t make it back in this,” Leonard said, helping her to her feet and taking the backpack off of her shoulders.
“I know,” she answered, shivering, “but we can’t stay out here, either.”
“What about that?” he said, pointing to a shadow in the distance.
She shrugged, and changed direction to the shadow. It turned out to be a shallow cave, about four feet wide and maybe six feet deep, but enough to shield them from the rain and most of the wind, at the very least.
They clambered into it, listening to the unrelenting rain for a minute before either of them spoke again.
“Fuck, it’s cold,” Leonard muttered, rubbing his arms together. It didn’t help much, not with the wet fabric of his jacket clinging to his shoulders, but the thought of taking off a layer between him and the wind wasn’t ideal.
Sara was at the mouth of the cave, looking up. The wind whipped her hair around and she drew further back into the cave, shaking her head.
“No good. It’s not gonna let up for a while yet, and if you don’t want to break your arm...”
“So much for our plan,” he said, dropping the backpack on the ground.
Sara pulled her phone out of her pocket, taking a couple steps around the small cave. “And no service. Awesome.”
He laughed without humor, stepping to the mouth of the cave and looking out at the icy rain. Who planned a hike on a rainy day, anyway?
Behind him, he heard Sara rummaging through the bag. “Oh joy, we have time to do the questionnaire.”
With a scoff, he leaned against the wall, trying to suppress his shivering. The cold jacket wasn’t doing him any favors, but it was better than removing a layer between him and the wind. He needed to distract himself. “Go ahead, then.”
Sara looked up, “Seriously?”
“What else are we going to do?”
The joke fell flat, the two of them alone and hovering on the edge of something. Sara cleared her throat and dove into the bag again, grabbing the bottle of whiskey and taking a deep drink. “Okay, fine. Question number one, ‘what was your favorite book or movie as a kid?’”
“ The Goonies . You?”
She wrote it down, and said, “I loved the Princess Bride .”
“Don’t see you as much of the damsel type.”
She smiled. “I wanted to be the Dread Pirate Roberts.”
“Fair enough. Next?”
Her eyes scanned down the page, obviously skipping some. “‘What was your favorite place to go as a kid, and why?’”
He thought about it for a moment, and she piped up.
“I loved going to the police station with my dad. I was a bit of a handful-”
“-and he’d only take me when I’d been really good that week. I loved the activity and the noise, but I loved spending time with him.”
She took a deep swig of the bottle and held it out for him. He came nearer, and took it, taking a sip, then sloshing it around a bit.
“How have you been, without them?”
She shrugged, her eyes still on the paper. “Not great, but doing better.” She was quiet, not writing anything down. Digging through the backpack, she pulled out the small blanket she’d apparently packed in there, and peeled off her thin jacket. The shirt she was wearing was soaked through, and clinging to her skin, and he was glad she pulled the blanket up, tugging it around her shoulders.
Leonard passed the bottle back once she was settled. “There was a theater by my house when I was a kid. Not a lot of big performances, but a community band played there. When it was real late, I would sneak out and climb up their fire escape, and just listen.”
She wrote it down, and began searching for the next one. “Umm…”
“Just go in order.”
Sara glanced at him, then sighed. “‘What do you dream about most often?’”
Immediately, bursts of blue surrounded him and he looked away. “The Oculus. You?”
He walked back over to the mouth of the cave, staring out. She wrote something down behind him and inhaled, preparing for the next question.
“Do you hate me?”
Of all the things Leonard was expecting to come out of her mouth, that wasn’t one of them. “What?” he turned, facing her.
She was fidgeting with the small blanket over her shoulders, plucking at the fraying edges. But she met his gaze, repeating the question. “Do you hate me?”
“I’ve never hated you, Lance,” he said, leaning against the wall. “Frustrated with the time skip. Irritated. But I don’t hate you.”
“Even though I…” She seemed to lose her nerve there for a moment.
“I’ll admit, I wasn’t the biggest fan of your cold shoulder routine, despite my alter ego’s name. But I don’t hate you.”
“Why not?” she asked.
“It’s been three years for you,” he continued. No time like the present for an awkward conversation with a captive audience, but he took his time to choose his words. “If you don’t or never did...reciprocate, I’d understand. No hard feelings.”
“Really?” she asked, her eyes narrowing. “You’d just be okay with it?”
He crossed his arms. “I’m sure as hell not the type to get bitter about unrequited anything. I’d rather have friendship than nothing.”
She looked back to the edge of the blanket, silent again. Leonard, sensing they were finished, turned back to the rain.
“And if I do?” she asked suddenly.
Leonard was very still, something like hope blooming in his chest as he deciphered the meaning of her words.
“If you do,” he said slowly, stressing the first word slightly, “I would tell you that you already know how I feel, and that it hasn’t changed.”
“It’s been a while,” Sara said.
Leonard faced her again, his arms at his sides. “Not for me.”
He watched her swallow hard, her eyes sliding past him to the opening of the cave.
“I do care about you. And I want to try that...me and you future.”
Leonard didn’t say anything, hearing the hesitation at the end of her sentence.
“But in the past three years, I’ve had to say goodbye to three different versions of you.” Sara was still looking past him. “Everytime I thought I was able to move on, you’d pop back up. You, the Legion version, the other Earth version. And then everything would come back again. It’s been three fucking years, but I still feel like I’ve always just lost you. And no one talks about it. Only Mick and Ray are left, and they’re dealing with their own shit. I was able to come to terms with Laurel and my dad, but you…”
He took a step nearer, and she looked up at him, still sitting, clutching the blanket around her shoulders. “I don’t know that I can say goodbye to you again.”
“And I know it’s not fair to you. It’s not your fault, and I’m so glad you’re back, and I wanted to play cards and talk and - everything. But I’m just…” She shrugged, helplessly. “I’m afraid that it’s going to be like every other time.”
He walked back slowly, sitting next to her, a little closer than he would have earlier, but still enough distance to keep things cordial. Taking the bottle back, he took a sip.
“I get it. Can’t say I blame you.”
Sara didn’t say anything in response, but she took the bottle back from him.
“I can’t promise that it won’t be like every other time,” he added quietly.
“I know,” she said, staring forward again.
“But I promise I’ll put up a hell of a fight for me to stay.”
She took a deep sip, then slid over towards him, lifting the edge of the blanket and draping it over his shoulder. She rested her head against his arm as he tugged the corner over his shoulder and turned to make her slightly more comfortable.
“Me too,” she said quietly.
They were silent again, the tension rising again, until Sara wove her arm between his, scooting closer.
“So, me and you?” Her question was quiet, but not nervous, a lot woven into those simple words.
Leonard was glad she was leaning against his arm, because she didn’t see the smile spread across his face. “Yeah, me and you.”
They get cold.
They get warmed up.
The storm lightened up an hour later, as Sara and Leonard finished the questionnaire. Once it wasn’t raining as hard, they decided to take the chance and continue down and through the forest.
It still hadn’t stopped when they were within sight of the front door of the hotel. As they got within sight of the doors, Sara saw two figures coming out of the front door with umbrellas and wearing coats, recognizing Clara and Bernard.
“We thought you were going to be frozen out there,” Clara called out, holding an oversized umbrella over their heads.
“Near thing,” Leonard said.
Clara’s concern seemed genuine as she helped the two of them into the hotel, but Sara kept her eyes on Bernard, who had come over on her side. He held out his arm, almost as if he were going to usher her inside, but before she could respond, she felt Leonard’s cold hand wrap around her waist. She leaned into him, and Leonard’s arm tightened.
Bernard looked past her to Leonard, and stepped back.
As they made it into the hotel, Sara and Leonard stopped on the mat in the front, the absence of wind making a huge difference already. A few couples were lingering in the foyer, in dry clothes, and there was a small pile of towels on the desk. Leonard grabbed two, tossing one to Sara.
“Just go and get warmed up, okay?” Clara said, sounding anxious. “Get some rest. You can skip this afternoon’s session and rest. We can catch you up tonight, as long as you’re feeling up to it.”
“It’s just a little rain,” Bernard said from the side.
Clara cut her eyes at him, obviously not agreeing, and ignored the comment. “If you need anything, just let us know.”
“Thank you,” Leonard said. “I think we just need a hot shower, change of clothes, and some rest.”
“Yes, yes, of course.” She took Sara’s damp towel and gave her a couple of dry ones, while next to Leonard, David held out his hand for his.
They made their way back to their room, and as soon as the door was closed, Sara dropped her waterlogged backpack on the ground and shivered violently.
“Go get warmed up,” Leonard said, peeling off his jacket.
“What about you?”
“I’ll be fine as long as you don’t take too long,” he assured her. Leaning against the small counter holding the coffee maker, he turned it on, then started unlacing his boots. “Go on.”
Sara grabbed a change of clothes and hurried into the bathroom. She turned on the water as she struggled out of her water-laden clothes, leaving them in a damp pile on the bathroom floor. When steam was pouring out of the shower, she stepped in, her skin taking on a pink tinge almost immediately and she sighed almost audibly as the hot water worked away the last of the chill.
Cognizant of Leonard outside, she hurried her way through a quick shower, toweling off enough to pull on her dry jeans and sweater, and squeezing the rest of the water out of her hair. She opened the door, smelling the familiar scent of coffee and artificial heat from the heater. The hotel room was almost cozy, with the rain still coming down outside.
“All yours,” she said to Leonard, who she assumed was around the corner by the couch.
“Thanks.” He came into view, just a towel slung around his hips.
She stared, until he cleared his throat slightly, and she realized she was standing in front of the bathroom door still.
Sara wrenched her eyes upwards to his face, doing her best to suppress the blush she could feel beginning on her chest and up her neck.
“My clothes were wet,” he said, his voice sounding suddenly very loud, despite the low tone.
She nodded. “Yeah.” She was still standing in front of the door and moved, just as Leonard made to move in the same direction. They both shuffled the other way, in sync, then back again.
“If you want to join me,” he started, that familiar smile playing on the edge of his lips.
She laughed at the unexpected and easy flirtation she hadn’t realized she’d been missing. “That’s okay, go on.” She moved to the side, leaving the way clear for him.
Leonard stepped past her, closing the door. Just before it shut, he added, “I’ll leave the door unlocked, if you change your mind.”
Sara sighed once the water started again and she was sure he wouldn’t hear it, pressing her hands to her cheeks. Jesus, she’d forgotten how good he was at that.
Grabbing a pair of thick socks, she went back over to the small coffee maker, filling up the unused porcelain mug, adding a bit of sugar, and restarting it for another couple of cups. She straightened up a little, putting Leonard’s damp things in the sink next to the bathroom. The wind picked up a bit, knocking the windows around, so she locked them, pulling the curtains closed. She reviewed the itinerary, a plan forming as she checked out the times of the next few sessions.
The water stopped, and Sara stood to make another cup of coffee for both her and Leonard.
As she was finishing, she heard Leonard step out of the bathroom. He was dressed fully this time, both to her relief and irritation, in dark jeans and a black sweater, and looking more himself.
She handed him his mug. “Better?”
“Much.” He was watching her, a glint in his eye she remembered from before the Oculus.
“I was looking over the itinerary. If we wanted a chance to sneak into their rooms, we should go in an hour.” She put her cup on the table and picked up the paper, turning around to face him again. “They’ll be in their sessions until six, then we’ve got that dinner, and our evening session. But all this afternoon, they’re in one-on-one groups with the other couples.”
“We feign ill and bow out, search their rooms, and be out in time for dinner.” He nodded. “Not bad planning.”
“It’s one of the only times we can get away with not being there. And if they really did kick out Fred and Laura-”
“We can’t risk breaking the rules until we have the item,” he finished, taking a sip of his coffee. He winced slightly, shifting the cup to his other hand and rolling out his shoulder.
Sara pointed out the times. “We’ve got some time to kill, though. We can’t go until they’ve started the sessions, and the first one for Clara is me and you. We’ll have to wait until they’re well into their next session before risking it. Probably a bit over an hour.”
They sprawled out on the bed, dealing back and forth and finishing their coffee amid the sound of rain. Their conversations came easier, until Leonard asked about the questionnaire.
“Did we finish that?”
Sara shrugged, sliding out from underneath a blanket to grab the packet Clara had given them. Most of them had been answered, the blue ink starting to smear in some places. “I think so.”
She flipped over and saw a couple of blanks. Remembering those questions now, she hesitated, but Leonard saw right through her.
“What’s it say?”
Sara read it out, “‘What’s something you like about your partner?’”
Leonard threw down another card, taking one from the pile. “I suppose saying I like your ability to kick everyone else’s ass wouldn’t be great to put down, huh?”
She laughed, “No.”
“Then…” His eyes darted up to her for a moment. “I like your confidence.”
“I’m not confident.”
“You act it. Knowing who you can take on, knowing what you can handle, leading the ship and the crew. You had us following you from day one.”
She wrote it down, though she still didn’t agree.
“And your answer?” he asked, arching his brow.
“I like your ability to hope.” She didn’t even really need to think about it. Though there were dozens and dozens of things she liked about Leonard, that one was the most significant.
He frowned at her, obviously ready to argue.
She explained before he could. “You have hope that people can be better, otherwise you would’ve left me and Mick behind. You have hope that you can change things, otherwise you wouldn’t have joined in on Rip’s team. You have hope that what you do matters, otherwise you wouldn’t have stayed behind. You have hope for your future.”
Turning back to his cards, he didn’t say anything, but his expression turned a little pensive. Sara let it go in silence for a few hands, but the last blank space kept calling to her.
“There’s one more.”
Sara didn’t need to read from the paper. “‘If you were to die this evening with no opportunity to do anything, what would you most regret not having said or done? And why haven’t you said or done it yet?’”
“Interesting,” he said lowly. “You first.”
“If I were to die tonight,” Sara started, looking at the cards, “I would want to say that I was sorry I wasted so much time, and that not being with you is the one regret that I have. At least about something that I could actually change.”
“And why haven’t you said that yet?”
She looked up, seeing that he was still looking at his cards, but he glanced up over the top of them and met her gaze directly. It was like three years ago, when they were hovering on the edge of something and she’d shied away, losing her chance, her future, and her closest friend all in one moment.
And me and you.
“Because I’ve been waiting for you to try to steal that kiss.”
“Does is still need to be stolen?” he countered.
“Isn’t it more fun that way?”
He smiled, slow and full of promise. “It does have its upsides.”
Needing to break the gaze before she spontaneously combusted, Sara glanced at the clock. “Shit. We should get ready.”
They quickly cleaned up the cards and pulled on shoes. Leonard grabbed something out of his bag and slid it into his back pocket, and Sara checked her phone was on silent.
“Hey,” she said suddenly, waiting by the door, “you never answered the last question.”
“Well, I only have one regret,” Leonard answered, coming up behind her.
“Which is?” she asked, opening the door.
Leonard leaned over her, pushing the door closed. As Sara turned to glare at him, he slid his other hand along her jaw and around the back of her head, his fingers tangling in her hair. She didn’t even have time to breathe as he tipped her head up and leaned down, pressing his lips to hers.
She felt him inhale, refusing to break the kiss even to take a breath, his mouth soft and gentle against her. He stepped closer, boxing her in against the door and she didn’t know what her arms had gone around his neck, leaning up towards him. She could taste the leftover coffee on his lips and her tongue darted out quickly on instinct.
Leonard’s breath hitched almost imperceptibly, but she didn’t have any time to revel in flapping the unflappable Leonard Snart, not when he took full advantage to explore, his free hand curling around her hip and pulling her closer.
Sara lost sense of time as he kissed her, sinking into the kiss that was so wonderfully different from their first, tinged with tears and fear, while this one just tasted like a slow, warm afternoon full of possibility.
A minute, an hour later, Leonard broke the kiss, his breath coming short. He didn’t go far, just enough to be able to speak. His voice was strong, though, as he said, “I regretted not doing that, and realized I had no reason not to.”
“Oh,” she said, unable to come up with anything more substantial.
He smiled, and she should have been irritated by the smug look on his face, but it was so nice to see him looking…
“Are you happy?” she asked.
“Never happier, Lance.”
“Good. Now,” Leonard said, “let’s commit a crime.”
Leonard had to admit, today was shaping up to be his kind of day. An actual honest conversation with Sara that resulted in a relationship, because “me and you” was all they were capable of saying at this moment, even if the implication was a bit more significant. And then, far too many repressed emotions being let loose in the kiss that should have been their first.
It wasn’t that he was ungrateful for that kiss at the Oculus. It was perhaps the one thing that held him to this plane when he had...
But the kiss he’d stolen just a few minutes ago, that’s the kind of first kiss Sara deserved.
The object of his thoughts came back from forward down the hall, waving her hand for him to join her by Clara and Bernard’s door.
“I saw David head to the front desk, so it should be clear.”
He nodded and knelt down. Sara kept watch around the corner as he pulled out his lock picks and quickly got through the door.
He cleared his throat, getting Sara’s attention, and the two of them slipped into the room.
Leonard closed his eyes for a moment, forcing his eyes to adjust to the lack of light in the room. When he opened them, he tried to take in the layout, Sara waiting at his shoulder.
This was more of an apartment than hotel room. The first area was the kitchen, a small table set up with two chairs in front of a narrow counter and full-size refrigerator. It then led into a living room, facing the television. Instead of the open area setup, there was a small hallway, with two doors off of it.
Leonard jerked his head towards the doors. The one further away led to a small bedroom, the size of the clothes on the bed obviously belonging to David. There was a connecting door that led to a bathroom, which then connected further to Clara and Bernard’s bedroom.
Sara pulled out her phone and walked around the room, shaking her head. Leonard sighed through his nose. The artifact, whatever it was, wasn’t here. But perhaps they’d still find a clue as to what it was. Along the wall at the foot of the king size bed, was an old writing desk. Careful not to dislodge or shift the files out of place, Leonard flipped through them. Most contained notes on the couples, as he recognized Sandra and Barbara’s names on one of them. There was a file off to the side, with Fred and Laura’s name on top, and he flipped it open to catch a note, “ Self-sabotaging and deprecating, thought B. was impressive in saying- ”
He turned, seeing Sara holding a book she’d clearly taken from the open drawer in the nightstand. It looked old, ancient, even. She was holding it open to a page that was filled with words, but none that he could read.
“Send that to Ray,” he told her. “Looks like Greek.”
Sara opened up the book and held her phone over it, recording as she quickly flipped from page to page. Ray could later pause and screenshot the images, and it was faster than taking pictures. Leonard went back to the desk, looking for anything that might explain why-
He saw Mary and Brian’s folder, and opened it up, reading outloud.
‘“Couple exemplifies textbook compartmentalization and transference. Traditional methods have not worked in the past. If all else fails, an ideal candidate for-”’
He heard Sara’s sharp inhale, just before the lock in the front door disengaged. Footsteps sounded through the front room as Sara slid the book back into the nightstand drawer, closing it silently, and Leonard returned the folder to the desk. He looked around, but there weren’t many options for-
Sara grabbed his arm and pushed him towards the closet. Luckily, the door was silent as she opened it and shoved him in, turning to folding it shut and shrouding them in darkness. Leonard tried to move backwards, but he felt the poke of hangars on his shoulders and if he moved, he didn’t know how many would dislodge in the process. Sara’s back was pressed against him, but he felt the awkward bend of her hip and knew she was off balance in the desperate move to hide. He wrapped his arms around her, pulling her back as much as he could without moving himself and letting her lean against him.
The footsteps were moving quickly through the front room, obviously looking for something, and Leonard could hear Clara’s voice muttering to herself.
Sara shifted slightly, trying to find her balance. Leonard’s arms tightened around her, as he tried to keep her from moving quite so much. With absolutely no space between them, it was impossible to hide exactly how much he wan’t to say fuck the mission and do something else entirely. From the way Sara went very still, she was very much aware of where his thoughts were heading.
Clara came into the bedroom a moment later and, seeing the files on the desk, said, “Dammit, Bernard.” She gathered them up and went through them, putting some in a locked drawer in the desk, and taking the others with her as she exited, leaving the bedroom door open.
He was listening for the sound of the front door, his attention focused outside of the closet, so he was not at all prepared for Sara’s slow and deliberate shift against his hips.
His inhale was slow and, thankfully, almost silent. Dropping his forehead to her shoulder, he waited until he heard the door in the front room shut and the lock click back into place, before he said in her ear, “Dirty move, Lance.”
She gave a breathy laugh and shivered, and he took an inordinate amount of pleasure in that faint movement, even as it exacerbated his own issue. Turning his head slightly, he pressed his lips just below her ear, and Sara pressed back against him, her head leaning against his shoulder. Giving into temptation, and a year (3 years?) and two months of unresolved tension, Leonard let his hands splay across her hips, his thumbs dipping beneath her sweater. She ran one hand along his wrist, guiding him along, while the other reached back to wrap around the back of his neck.
One of the hangars fell, the plastic not making much sound on the carpeted floor, but bouncing against the wooden door with a noticeable thud.
They came back to themselves, hands returning to more appropriate places as they both caught their breath. Sara opened the door, stepping away from him and he didn’t care for the absence of heat. When she looked back at him, her eyes were dark and there was a faint flush on her skin. From the smug look on her face, he probably didn’t seem unaffected, either.
Sara started towards the door, talking lowly, “We should get this information back to Ray as soon as possible. Seeing as how we’re running out of time.”
“Sure,” Leonard said, not particularly caring what Ray had to say in the moment, but following Sara nonetheless.
She checked the front door, staring out the peephole to make sure no one was coming, then opened the door. Leonard quickly locked it behind them, and headed back to their room.
They didn’t speak, but Leonard could almost feel the glances that Sara was sending in his direction on the short walk there, in between her sending the video to Ray. He was doing much of the same, and could barely recall earlier in the day, when they were both freezing, when now it felt like his skin was on fire.
They got back to their room without saying anything, and Leonard stood very closely behind Sara as she unlocked the door, not commenting on the faint shake of her hands as she did so.
She stepped in and he followed. Sara turned to face him as he shut the door behind them, the click resounding in the quiet.
For a moment, they just stared at one another, and Leonard felt his heart rate speed up, with nothing more than a look to justify it, and he was reminded, once again, that this is what he had been missing since his return: the thrill, the fun, the rush of just being near Sara, let alone being with Sara.
Not wanting to wait, not caring if it made him seem too eager, he took the first step forward towards her, even as she moved towards him, her lips parting as-
A buzzing noise echoed from Sara’s pocket, stopping both of them in their tracks.
She didn’t look away from him, but he could tell that her sense of responsibility was starting to shout a little louder, even if she seemed hesitant to stop where they were heading.
“We’ve got time,” he promised, not thrilled, but understanding.
She smiled, the obvious relief on her face that the moment hadn’t been ruined, just put on hold. Grabbing her phone, she answered the call with a terse, “Hey. Did you get the video?”
Leonard could hear Zari’s voice clearly. “Yeah, but we’ve got a problem.”
Sara put it on speaker, and he stepped closer.
“What’s going on?” she asked.
“The aberration is solidifying. We have more information.”
“Okay,” Sara said, frowning. “And?”
“It’s worse than we thought.”
“How worse?” Leonard asked.
“If it keeps going, 38 people will die.”
38...that would be nearly everyone in the hotel.
Sara stared at the phone. “I hate to sound mean, and it’s terrible, but how are the deaths of 38 people worth a level seventeen aberration?”
It got very quiet, and Leonard counted the couples in his head again. There had been eighteen couples, plus him and Sara, and the Simmons...but then Fred and Laura left, which meant-
“Zari,” Sara said firmly. “What is it?”
“According to Gideon,” Zari said, “on Friday afternoon, all the couples at the hotel will be found dead-”
Leonard caught on, looking up at Sara as Zari finished.
“-including you and Leonard.”
Sara rubbed her temple, leaning forward on the couch as she stared at the files Zari had been sending over.
“If it’s so fucking strong,” Sara said, looking at the articles from this coming Sunday that described the deaths of every couple in this hotel, “why the hell can’t we find it?”
“Can magical items be masked by anything?” Leonard asked, from the smaller couch, where he was on his back, scrolling through his phone of a list of Greek artifacts after giving them a rundown of everything he’d read in the files, which wasn’t much.
“Umm,” Ray’s voice came through Sara’s tablet, and soon his face joined the voice, “lead serves to mask most technological things.”
“But running water can hide other artifacts,” Zari interjected. “And salt. And copper. And really heavy stones. And blood. And-”
“Got it,” Leonard interrupted. “Yes, is the answer.”
Sara glanced over at him with a faint smile, then turned back through the article. There were no pictures, and the reporter described the scene as being incredibly violent, saying, it was if they lost their minds and tore one another apart.
“So what the hell can make someone rip apart someone else?” Sara said.
“What?” said Ray, sounding confused. He was supposed to be translating the images of the books Sara had sent him earlier.
“That’s how everyone dies. Attacking each other with bare hands, or whatever else was nearby.”
She could feel Leonard watching her, but didn’t look over at him.
Ray looked over at Zari, his eyes wide. “Maenads.”
“Come again?” Sara asked. Leonard, on the other hand, sat up with a frown.
“You think this is Bacchanalian?” he asked.
“What?” Sara said again, turning to Leonard instead.
“Bacchus is the Greek god of wine and parties,” Leonard explained. “The maenads were women who worshipped him and got a little carried away.”
“They tore people apart?” Sara asked.
Leonard shrugged. “Like I said, carried away.” He looked at the tablet, “Are there even any artifacts of Bacchus? He didn’t strike me as the...artifact type.”
“Nothing that we have a record of,” Ray said. “He was more of a party guy.”
“What turned people in maenads?” she asked.
“Well, first, they’re only women,” Ray said quickly, obviously trying to reassert his position as magical authority. “And it seems like they just were mad as part of their worship, but there’s one mention of them eating raw bull meat and drinking the blood of their god to make them go...crazy.”
“Great, so no rare hamburgers,” Sara muttered.
“Weaknesses?” Leonard asked.
“Iron weapons don’t hurt them,” Zari said, obviously looking it up faster than Ray could.
“Awesome,” she said. She looked at Leonard, “So if I try to eat you, don’t waste any time with a knife. Just shoot me with your gun, okay?”
“No,” Leonard retorted sharply, shutting down the joke and conversation in one.
Sara saw Zari look at them strangely, and changed the topic. “Anything in the book yet?” Sara asked, pulling up images of maenads on her phone.
“I haven’t been able to get very far. It’s all Greek to me, you know!” he laughed. Leonard shook his head and Zari sighed audibly. Ray cleared his throat. “But seriously, it’s in ancient Greek, worn out, and a weird dialect, so it’s slow going. So far it’s about the history of the Greek pantheon.”
“So we could be right. Or it could be about any other Greek thing.”
Leonard sighed, rubbing his eyes. “What were the items you were talking about earlier, Zari? Anything that has to do with infidelity...maybe Hera-related?”
Sara got to her feet and stretched as Zari and Leonard talked quietly, with Ray interjecting on occasion.
Going into her bag, Sara grabbed one of her small blades, and began tossing it in her hands. She didn’t have anything to throw it into, but the action of holding it and flipping it around her hand was soothing.
She listened to the conversation with half an ear, familiar enough with her own ability to only absorb so many hypotheticals and theories before she lost focus. She had to focus instead on what could be done right now, in this moment, which meant if she couldn’t find the artifact, she had to find the person using the artifact.
Bernard was her first guess, for no other reason than he was an asshole. But it made sense. He was the one using the hotel to cuckold his wife, but who had been shot down and called out several in the past few days. However, with Fred and Laura gone, half of his motivation had left. And would he really mess up his entire life just to get even with Sara?
Clara, on the other hand...she had the first artifact. She had more to lose if it became common knowledge that Bernard was unfaithful - a marriage counselor who couldn’t even save her own marriage? For all that she seemed to legitimately care about the people here, would she give it all up to get revenge on her unfaithful husband and the wives who’d indulged him?
And then, there was the chance that it was neither of them, and one of the other thirty or so people here. Another unfaithful spouse? Jealous lover? Anger management issue? Any and all of these couples could fall into all of those categories.
And all of them would end up dead. She looked over at Leonard on the couch, and her stomach lurched so hard she almost lost her breath. She just got him back. She just got them back, and she was just supposed to lose it in two days?
She would lose him?
Not just that, but she might be directly responsible for his death?
Sara didn’t know when she went still, the knife frozen in her palm as she looked at Leonard. She did notice when he looked up, his eyes catching her expression.
“We have to get going,” Leonard said to the tablet. “There’s a dinner and a session we have to get to.”
“Is that really a priority?” Ray’s voice came through, out of Sara’s sight.
“They have to maintain their cover,” Zari interjected. “And if the Simmons tossed out a couple for not following the rules, they have to do what they can to stay under the radar.”
“We’ll follow up with you tomorrow morning, unless we get something new tonight,” Leonard said. “Keep translating.”
“Okay,” Ray said, “but-”
Leonard ended the call and got to his feet in one smooth movement, and took three steps towards her, taking the knife out of her hand and dropping it on the table behind him.
“Lance,” he started.
“But they said-”
“ I might-”
She shook her head, ashamed to feel tears pressing on the back of their eyes. She felt his hands come up along her arms, holding onto her shoulders until she opened her eyes again.
“If I hurt you,” she started.
“You aren’t going to hurt me or anyone else,” Leonard said, his grip getting tighter.
“You don’t know that.” She barely trusted herself sometimes, but she’d been gaining control over the bloodlust, and was confident that in her day-to-day life, she could maintain control. If someone used an artifact, however, she wasn’t sure what she’d be capable of. She couldn’t trust herself here, but if she left and left Leonard alone here, and something still happened to him-
“I do know that, because I won’t let it happen,” he said.
“At the beginning of this, you said you trusted me.”
“I do.” She trusted him far more than herself.
“Then trust me to watch your back.” He kept her gaze when she made to look away. “I won’t let them use it on you, and if they do, I won’t let you hurt anyone. Especially not me.” He tried a faint smile. “I’m rather fond of living, now.”
That got a small laugh out of her, even as she shook her head. “I don’t want to hurt anyone.”
“I know. I won’t let you.”
Though part of her wanted to immediately scoff at the idea that he could stop her, Sara had been around Leonard long enough to know that his tactical mind and eye for details might be just enough of an edge over her physical prowess and abilities. They’d never tried it, but part of her was very eager to see exactly which one of them would be left standing after a spar.
He seemed to follow her line of thinking, because the smile grew a little wider. “Don’t underestimate me, Lance.”
Sara leaned up and pressed her lips against his. It was quick, and maybe a little too hard, but he caught the meaning behind it. “Never do.”
He grabbed her wrist as she made to turn back and pulled her back, spearing his fingers through her hair as he kissed her soundly, slowly, until the last bit of fear had been removed and her muscles were soft and pliable again.
“If anyone tries to ruin this,” he said as he broke the kiss, “I’ll make sure it’s the last thing they do.”
Declarations of violence shouldn’t have been such a source of relief, but it was.
He eventually let her go. “We should get ready.”
Still half-dazed, Sara managed to say, “For what?”
“We’ve got a date.”
There are many who would balk at dining at the establishment of someone who supposedly would kill him in a couple of days, but Leonard was not one of them. Fact was, if they were going to die, it wasn’t until Friday, which meant he was safe until that point, and he wasn’t one to turn down free food and alcohol.
Besides, this was certainly a unique experience.
In the faint imaginings he’d had of a relationship between him and Sara, he’d never truly considered them acting like a completely normal couple, with normal dates. He saw a lot of bars and cards, and adventures and mayhem, but an actual, semi-formal restaurant lit by candlelight wasn’t on his list of ideal options. It seemed too normal. Too pedestrian. This, however, was turning out to be rather fun, though it might have had something to do with the fact that they were essentially spies in a dangerous game of cat and murderous mouse.
He put his fork down, his dessert plate completely cleared even after his dinner, and sat back in his chair, watching Sara finish the rest of her chocolate cake. She’d donned a long-sleeved blue dress, casual enough for whatever activities Clara had planned after dinner, but still nice enough that it was clear she’d put effort into her appearance. He’d found it endearing, and still couldn’t believe how this day had turned out, considering just how challenging yesterday had been.
He could admit, at least to himself, that he was in love with Sara Lance, and had been for what felt like years.
Had she not been interested, he probably would have tagged along for another few months, maybe a year, before leaving the Legends. It wasn’t that he didn’t respect her right to say no, he did, but he wasn’t masochistic enough to suffer fruitlessly. But now that she was here, and they had a chance, he wasn’t giving it up for anything, even if he still was unsure that this was really happening. It seemed like something out of someone else’s life. Something he was never meant to have, but here he was.
She looked up at him across the table, grinning a little. “What?”
Leonard smiled back, shaking his head. “Nothing.”
Putting down her fork, she brushed her hair back from her face, adjusting the braid to fall over her other shoulder. On anyone else, it would have been merely vanity, but Sara’s eyes darted around the room, marking everyone else in the vicinity as she leaned forward to talk.
“At least we know Rip was full of it when he said we contributed nothing to the timeline.”
“How do you figure?” he asked, picking up his champagne flute.
“It’s a level 17 because you and I die.” She was joking, but he could still see the pull behind her eyes as she said it.
“Or because of the power of the artifact,” he countered.
“Sure, yeah, whatever,” Sara said, waving her hand and making it clear what she thought of that. She grabbed the bottle of champagne, and poured out the last bit into his glass. The Simmons, for all they might become mass murderers, had nice taste in alcohol. “You ever do anything like this before?”
She twisted her lips at him, that shade of red doing things to his imagination. “No, ass. This kind of formal date thing.” Her voice lowered slightly, as she gestured at Leonard’s dark slacks and blue button up shirt. There were other couples seated around, eating dinner, but they were fairly separated and the music kept things slightly more intimate.
“I’ll admit that my experiences with...dating has been less than traditional,” he said, taking a sip of the champagne. “When I was younger, there was a diner we used to hang out at, and couples would meet there. But after my first stint in juvie, I didn’t spend much time there.”
“You were all about milkshakes and picture shows?” she teased.
He chuckled. “Let’s just say it was very informative. And you?”
“Oh,” she said, casting him a faintly embarrassed look. “Well, I was all about what irritated my parents and older sister, so my experiences were limited to the backseat of cars and under the bleachers.”
“Classy.” He smiled, taking any unintentional sting out of his comment.
She shrugged, unperturbed. “Not my finest moments, but they were definitely learning experiences.”
“I look forward to reaping the benefits.”
Her eyes narrowed, and she kept her gaze on his as she drained the last bit of her champagne. “Awfully presumptive,” she said as she put her glass down.
“Call it hopeful.”
Sara laughed, but he saw the faint flush that spread across her face. “I’m going to use the restroom.”
She pushed away from their table, heading to the bathroom. Leonard polished off his last bit of champagne, and as he placed the glass down, a figure had taken Sara’s vacated seat.
Leonard merely arched his brow as Bernard stared at him. Gone was the customer service smile, gone was the affable countenance, and in its place, the image of anger and hatred spread across his face.
“Evening, Mr. Simmons,” Leonard said, keeping his voice completely calm.
“Mr. Smith,” Bernard spat.
“How can I help you?”
“Your wife,” Bernard said, keeping his voice low enough not to be overheard. “She’s been getting a little out of hand. I would start getting your house in order.”
God, he hated sexist euphemisms. Leaning back in his chair, Leonard smirked. “Pray tell, how has Sara been getting out of hand?”
“She’s been spreading false rumors.”
“What kind of rumors?” Leonard asked, doubling down.
Bernard’s eyes narrowed. “You know damn well-”
“I’m afraid I don’t. You’ll have to be specific.”
“She’s suggested,” Bernard hissed, “that I’ve been cheating on Clara.”
“But of course you wouldn’t,” Leonard said.
“I know that, I-”
“Because only a complete buffoon would cheat on his wife at his own marriage counseling hotel, or risk being accused of cheating by being seen dining alone with married women he’s supposed to be helping. And only a truly dense moron would stoop to attacking the spouses he’s there to help, assuming, incorrectly, that the husbands won’t be told of the things he’s been saying.”
Bernard’s lip curled, “If you think I’m going to stand for this shit from a little blonde bitch like-”
Leonard leaned forward, his elbows resting on the table as his voice dropped several degrees. “And only someone so completely asinine would insult a man’s wife directly to his face and assume that he wouldn’t do something about it.”
Sitting up straighter, Bernard puffed himself up, “If you’re threatening me-”
“No threats, Mr. Simmons,” Leonard said. “Hypotheticals. Because you have no proof Sara is spreading any rumors. In fact, the only reason to worry is if you’ve done any of the mindlessly foolish things I’ve mentioned, and I’m sure you haven’t. A man in your position would know better than to threaten a couple who’s been doing four years of redacted military work.”
A flash of fear crossed Bernard’s face, and Leonard got to his feet, very slowly. Only when he reached his full height, did Leonard lean forward slightly across the table, looking down his nose at Bernard.
“Thank you for the dinner.” Leonard looked over his shoulder, not surprised at all to see Sara standing right behind him, a small grin on her face.
He saw the arch of her brow, and knew she was waiting for his lead. Leonard held out his arm, and Sara immediately slipped beneath his grasp, leaning into his side. He didn’t plan it, but it felt natural for him to lean down and kiss her temple. Her arm tightened around him, and he looked back up in time to see Bernard looked less than pleased at the united front they were presenting.
“Have a good evening, Bernard,” Leonard said, and as Bernard began to apoplexy, they turned and exited the restaurant.
As they headed back toward the ballroom for their final session of the day, Sara didn’t move away from him.
“I’m glad I’m not the only one to piss him off,” she murmured.
“Couldn’t let you go at it alone.”
Biting her lip, Sara was doing her very best not to laugh as the couple to the right took another exaggerated breath in and out. Leonard’s eyes narrowed and she saw his mouth twitch, but he was holding his composure much better than she was during this...exercise.
Sara could get behind a lot of what Clara had been preaching. Most of it made sense. Communication, touch, teamwork, all of that made sense.
But breathing in sync? Come on.
The tables were all put away to the side, and chairs were in pairs facing one another, spread out in the ballroom so as not to be too close. Their job right now was to be breathing in and out together, matching breaths.
It wasn’t a difficult assignment, by any stretch of the imagination, but Sara was struggling nonetheless. Sandra and her husband seemed to be trying to suck in the entire room every time they breathed.
She and Leonard were breathing in sync, but it wasn’t doing much, to be honest. She supposed maybe it was because she was already hyper aware of people to begin with. She was definitely aware of the fact that Leonard’s knee was pressing against hers as they sat facing one another.
Her mind drifted, thinking back to the closet and how it felt when other things were pressing against her, and then that sent her mind into a flurry.
Part of her, the part that sometimes sounded like Zari, said that this was moving awfully fast. They’d only admitted whatever this was this was this afternoon, and she was already thinking about jumping into bed with him?
But it had been four years of missing Leonard, and wanting Leonard, and it didn’t feel fast. It felt right. Belated, even. And it wasn’t like he was some stranger - Leonard had seen her at her lowest of lows, dragged back into the League and attacking her friends. He’d seen her under the bloodlust, he’d seen her aiming a gun at a friend. He’d seen everything and still wanted to keep looking.
And she wasn’t unaware of who he was. She remembered him pulling his gun on her vividly. But she also remembered his scars. And how he’d hurt himself just for the chance to save Mick. And how he’d given up everything for his team.
There were no secrets about each other that they weren’t already mostly aware of. Sure, she didn’t know the details of his father, and she hadn’t told him everything about Lian Yu. But they each knew enough to be going into this with their eyes open.
And after kissing him, how was she supposed to wait now?
“All right, couples!” Clara said, startling Sara out of her reverie. “We’re going to move onto our next exercise! It’s a little similar, but instead of matching breathing, you’re just going to be staring into one another’s eyes.”
Sara’s brow cocked up, and she shared a quick glance with Leonard, hearing other couples laugh to themselves.
“I know!” Clara said with a deprecating laugh as she walked by Leonard and Sara’s area with a wink. “It doesn’t sound like much. But eyes are the window to the soul, such as it is, and staring, for an extended period of time, can become a bit more intense or intimate than you’d expect.”
Sara subtly checked her phone - no sign of the artifact, other than the blip of the ring. Maybe Bernard had it now, though he hadn’t at dinner.
“We’re going to start with just five minutes. Sit near enough to your partner that you can really look deeply into their eyes. Feel free to blink, of course. This isn’t a contest. Get comfortable, you aren’t to look away.”
Shifting slightly, Sara returned to her previous position and faced Leonard again.
“Your time begins now,” Clara said. The microphone clicked off, and faint music began, likely to distract from the fact that there were a dozen or so couples in the same room.
Sara and Leonard began staring.
Even if it wasn’t a competition, it was obvious both of them were beginning it that way. Sara saw the quirk of his mouth as they both realized what the other was doing. It was surprising to Sara that the microexpressions on his face were becoming very obvious to her again, as if by mere close contact, she’d remembered everything about him she’d begun to forget.
His brow tilted up slightly over hooded eyes - This is nonsense.
She smiled, and lifted both brows for a moment - Not entirely.
An arch look - Seriously?
She lowered her lashes slightly, looking up at him with a tiny shrug - We’re getting closer.
She jumped slightly as his hand brushed the side of hers, and it took a breath for her to make sure she wasn’t going to look down and away. Without looking, she tucked her hand beneath his, and his eyes crinkled a bit in a way she hadn’t seen a lot of until the past two days.
His eyes had green in them, she realized. Just a hint, but on the edge of that cerulean blue was a touch of forest green. She hadn’t known.
She knew he was older than her, but she couldn’t tell from his eyes. They were still bright and alert, and he didn’t need the glasses he sometimes sported for missions, however much she enjoyed seeing them on him. There were a few wrinkles on the edges of his eyes, but nothing very noticeable.
Did she have wrinkles now?
Sara wasn’t an exceptionally vain person. She liked looking good, but it wasn’t a priority for her. But being stared at like this made her a little self conscious. She knew she was getting older, would that matter? She didn’t think so, though Leonard seemed to enjoy aesthetically pleasing men and women, his focus was more on intelligence-
So did he think she was smart enough?
The thought hit her and immediately dissipated. She wasn’t stupid, but Leonard was even less so. He wouldn’t waste either of their time, and he wouldn’t have opened up if he hadn’t meant it. He wouldn’t mince words and he wasn’t the kind of guy to lead people on. Except if he was scamming them.
Her eyes must have unfocused slightly in her thoughts, because she felt him moving his finger slowly against the back of her hand. It was just enough pressure that it didn’t tickle, but only barely. Sara narrowed her eyes at him, and his mouth lifted slightly, amused.
The blue was becoming less prominent, black growing slowly as he looked at her. Sara felt suddenly like she wasn’t getting enough air, and she leaned forward, her hand moving from her own knee to Leonard’s. The black swallowed almost everything in the next breath.
Okay. So maybe there was something to this particular exercise.
The timer went off a moment later, and both she and Leonard blinked, breaking the spell.
Bernard took over the microphone, explaining the next teamwork session, but Clara approached Sara and Leonard, and gestured for them to join her. They followed her to the doors, and stopped just outside of the hall, out of sight and hearing of the others.
“How are you two feeling?” she asked, concern still marking the edges of her eyes.
They both sat down, and Sara said, “Better, thanks.”
“I’m so glad. I am very sorry for that. The weather had said it would be clear but…”
“It’s fine,” Leonard said. “No harm done.”
“Good,” she said, sounding honestly relieved. “Did you manage to finish your questionnaire?”
Sara handed it over, and Clara read through it quickly as Leonard caught her eye with a small smile.
“Excellent,” Clara said. “Very interesting.” She put it into her folder, then looked up at them with a bright smile. “So, how long has it been since you had sex?”
Sara choked on air, and Leonard went very, very still.
Clara, to her credit, didn’t laugh at them. Her smile got a little wider, but she didn’t laugh. “I’m going to take that as ‘a while,’” she said.
With only the slightest clearing of his throat, Leonard said, “Yes.”
“Then I suppose you won’t be all that surprised at your homework for this evening.”
“But-” Sara started, then stopped, not knowing how to continue.
Clara’s smile was sympathetic. “Half the couples here aren’t interested in each other physically anymore. With them, I have to work on how to bring that passion back to life, and what underlying issues may be there keeping one from enjoying it.” She gestured between the two of them. “I don’t need to be a professional to see that sexual tension is just about the only tension left between you two.”
Even Leonard, who always had something to say, was silent at that.
“Delaying that first time in a long time is only going to make it all the more formidable and stressful. You’ve had sex before, so it’s just overcoming that ‘first time’ feeling again. ” Clara said, as the noise inside the hall began to grow. “Go grab a glass of wine before you go back to your rooms, and have sex with one another. And,” she smiled, “I’ll know if you don’t do your homework. We’ll talk tomorrow.”
She stood up with another smile and swept away from them, leaving Leonard and Sara sitting in their seats, still mildly in shock. It wasn’t until the hall began to empty that Sara found her footing, and started to head back to the room in a daze, Leonard at her side, and silent.
They didn’t stop at the bar, with most of the other couples, but continued straight to their room. As Leonard shut the door behind them, he locked it, and leaned against it with an inscrutable expression.
Sara shifted uncomfortably by the couch. It made no sense. A few hours ago, they were three seconds from sleeping with one another, but now that it had become an assignment , she hated the idea of it being pressured by either one of them.
“We don’t have to,” Leonard said suddenly, “if you don’t want to.”
Sara looked back at him. “I want to, I just don’t want…”
“To be told to do it?” he finished, his mouth curling up slightly.
Sara nodded, a relieved laugh escaping. If anyone understood, of course it would be him.
He pushed away from the door and stepped a little nearer. “I get it. I’d rather not be...coerced into this either.”
“Though, as far as coercion goes, it’s not the worst thing that could happen.”
“Absolutely true.” He stared at her for one extra moment. “It’s not that I don’t... want , either.”
She managed not to visibly shiver at the tenor in his voice. Barely. “Maybe not when we’re hunting down a potential mass murderer. Or murderers.”
He shrugged, “We don’t really have a lot of downtime.”
“I’m the captain. I’ll make some downtime.”
“I’ll hold you to that promise, Lance,” he said, moving past her to grab a change of clothes and his towel. “If there are no objections, I’m going to jump in the shower. Maybe we can play cards?”
“Sure,” Sara answered, relieved beyond measure.
“Door’ll be unlocked, just in case.” He smiled at her as he passed by, heading to the bathroom, and she heard the water start up a few seconds later.
Taking the time to email Zari that there had been no new developments, Sara shivered from the breeze outside. She stood up and closed the window, locking it.
She had her hand on the window as she stared out, her mind churning over what Leonard had said earlier. Clara’s notes mentioned Fred had said he was impressed by what Bernard said, but there had been no sessions, and the only time Fred had said it was when he was in Sara and Leonard’s room.
Sara closed her eyes, breathing slowly, and listening as hard as she could. She could hear her heartbeat, but pushed that back and away from her focus. She heard Leonard in the bathroom, the rush of water running. She heard the wind rustling outside, and she heard, there, in the back corner by the front door, breathing.
She’d locked the window earlier.
And for the very first time since starting this absurd mission, Sara suddenly and belatedly realized exactly how the Ring of Gyges was being used.
Leonard hung his towel on the back of the door, his sweatpants and Henley far more comfortable than the formal wear from earlier. Though he wasn’t thrilled on the inconvenient damper Clara had placed on his original plans for the evening, he was completely in sync with Sara’s thinking. The very last thing he would want would be for her to feel forced into doing something, even if it was something they both wanted.
Kind of went against his whole destiny opinion. Even if it had been a good destiny, he would buck it just because he was told he didn’t have a choice. He wanted Sara, and it was pretty damn clear she wanted him too, but he didn’t want anything between them to be because of something else. He just wanted it to be the two of them.
And he’d waited a long time already. What was a few more days?
Opening the door, he was surprised that Sara wasn’t already on the bed, shuffling the cards. She came around the corner from the living room before he had a chance to speak up. Gone were the heels she’d been wearing to dinner, and the braid had been taken out, leaving her hair loose.
Silently cursing Clara once again, Leonard headed towards his bag in the living room, and the coffee table where they’d left the cards. “Gin?”
Sara caught his wrist as he walked past, and he immediately paused, looking back to face her. She leaned up towards him and even though he was surprised, he met her halfway.
The kiss was gentle, at first. Almost tentative, as if she wasn’t sure he’d be okay with it. He did his best to dissuade her of that thought, turning to give her his complete attention. Where she led, he followed, deepening the kiss and stepping nearer. Even if this was going nowhere, he made note of how she tasted, champagne and dark chocolate from their dessert, and the small sounds she made under her breath, for a more thorough exploration later. His hand had made it up to run along the line of her jaw, and he felt her pulse fluttering beneath his thumb, which made his breath quicken a little.
Losing himself in the sensations of Sara, he almost missed when her hand began to slide up the hem of his shirt.
Breaking the kiss and taking her hand, he not entirely willingly murmured, “Thought we said we were going to wait.”
Sara played with the buttons on the top of his shirt. “Well, like Clara said, it’s not our first time.”
For a half second, the part of his brain he’d been doing his best to drive away in the past year and some odd months immediately turned livid, wondering if it had been the Legion him or other Earth him that had been so lucky. The anger (self-loathing?) was pushed out in the next heartbeat, when he realized Sara would have told him had that been the case, and he searched for another answer.
Leonard’s eyes narrowed slightly as he looked down at Sara, and he chose his words carefully. “It’s been a while, though.”
She met his gaze, her eyes flickering to the side, towards the living room, as her other hand, hidden from the rest of the hotel room, played with the wedding band on his finger. “I don’t think we can wait any longer.”
Fuck, this was not what they’d planned.
If Clara was wearing the Ring of Gyges, and if she’d tossed couples out, they had to make it look convincing. He doubted she would stay for the whole show, so they only had to put on a believable overture. He quickly weighed some pros and cons, considering the options, and formulated a plan. Not a great one, but the best they could do under the circumstances.
“If you’re sure,” he said, not letting her drop her eyes again. He wanted her to feel as comfortable as she could, and though consent was secondary here, he might be able to think of something to get them out of it if Sara-
“I’m sure,” she said, squeezing his hand, and stepping closer to him. She wrapped her arms around his neck, and nodded just slightly.
Leonard wrapped one arm around her waist, and bent down to her ear, hiding his words from the living room. “Trust me?”
“Yes,” she answered, in a whisper that ran right down his spine.
Taking a breath, Leonard pressed his lips against her neck, feeling Sara shiver slightly even through the tension in her muscles. He kept at it until she’d gone a little softer, her fingers running over his shoulders and back of his neck distractingly. Backing her up, he felt when she bumped into the edge of the bed, and returned to her lips for a moment.
Audience or not, he knew he wasn’t acting as his breath came short, and his hands shook slightly as they ran through her hair. He didn’t think Sara was just acting when she let out a jagged breath or when her nails bit into his skin when he kissed her harder. The next step was the first time he was truly more focused on his audience than Sara, but if they were going to be believed, it had to be done, scars or not.
Leonard continued to kiss Sara, but his hands dropped to the edge of his shirt, and began lifting it up-
Sara grabbed his wrists, and guided them back to the edge of her dress, breaking the kiss to look at him, her eyes hazy but still very aware. “Me first,” she said quietly.
He hesitated, grabbing a handful of the delicate blue fabric, but not pulling it up just yet. She gave him a small smile and nod, lifting her arms up above her head.
Lifting up the dress, he tossed it to the side as her hair tumbled free, catching sight of delicate blue and white. He didn’t allow himself time to dwell on it, though. He pressed closer, kissing her as he lowered both of them to the bed, staying on top even as he propped himself up with his elbow to avoid becoming too uncomfortable. His hands on bare skin was distracting, and he didn’t realize how much they were wandering until Sara shivered beneath him.
He wasn’t distracted enough to take advantage of that moment. “Cold?” he asked, his voice coming out a little more ragged than he was expecting.
Sara met his eye, and nodded. “A little.”
With some maneuvering, Leonard got both of them beneath the top blanket, Sara settling on top of his hips now that they were both a little more covered. He sat up enough to pull off his own shirt, partly to be believed, partly to make it clear he was willing to give up as much as Sara had, and mostly because he was tired of not feeling her hands on him.
For longer than he cared to admit, both of them seemed to forget about the voyeur in the room, losing themselves in each other and the rhythm they both instinctively found, trading kisses and breath, while hands mapped skin hidden from everyone but them. It wasn’t perfect, it wasn’t ideal, but Leonard was determined to make this as good as possible under the circumstances.
Sara shifted, her hands vanishing under the blanket for a few moments, and then she leaned forward on one arm, kissing him as she rocked back, directly across him in a facsimile of what they both wanted. His broken curse wasn’t an act, and he knew her breathless laugh wasn’t either.
She continued to move along him, the motion and sounds coming from both of them almost guaranteeing they were believed. He wasn’t some rutting teenager beneath the bleachers or in the backseat of the car, but as he gripped her hips tight enough to bruise, he knew that he might as well have been.
He shifted the angle, needing more and damn anyone else who was here, and the noise that came out of her mouth was something so raw and honest that Leonard couldn’t help himself. He grabbed her by the back of the neck, his fingers tangling in her hair, and pulled her back down against his lips, stealing every echo of that sound to keep forever, drawing out another one as she continued to move against him.
There was a faint click in the living room, and they broke the kiss, but didn’t move any further than that, her breath against his lips and his heart thundering in his ears.
Sara closed her eyes and swallowed, slowing her breathing as her head tilted to the side. When she opened her eyes, she nodded, even as a flush started to spread across her face.
“She’s gone,” he said, more as a statement than a question.
Sara nodded again, and moved off of him, making him tense and hold his breath for a second. When she stood, he watched her take a deep breath, then move to the window, locking it and pulling the curtains closed.
He managed to get himself into a seated position on the edge of the bed, glad they’d managed to play it off, but not entirely sure what to do now. He glanced up at Sara, still in nothing but her underwear, and was about to look away when he caught the look in her eye.
“Guess I’m going to have to make that downtime almost immediate,” she said, her voice only slightly shaky.
It wasn’t a great line, but it was good enough to break the tension, and get him to smile slightly.
“‘Cause if that’s what it’s like when we’re half-faking it,” she continued, waving her hand, “the real thing is going to be…” Sara trailed off, a faint smile gracing her face as well.
“To be honest,” he said, “I wasn’t really faking.”
“Me neither. And we’re okay?”
“Of course.” Running his hand along his head and the back of his neck, Leonard let out a long breath, letting go of whatever they’d just done. “Why don’t you get ready for bed? I think I’m a bit too...wired for cards right now.”
Sara grabbed a t-shirt from her bag, still unembarrassed by her near nudity, and headed towards the bathroom, stopping to kiss him again as she passed.
Leonard watched her go, staring at the bathroom door for a long time, but eventually picked up his shirt and pulled it back on, plugging in both of their phones. Then he began to make up his bed on the couch again.
He heard the door open, and Sara came padding out, dressed for bed. The water ran as she brushed her teeth and the bathroom light switched off.
“You don’t need to sleep there,” she said.
Leonard smiled to himself as he tossed a pillow on the couch. “I told you, Lance, you’re not sleeping on the couch with your bad-”
“I meant both of us in the bed.”
He straightened, and faced her. “I can sleep on the couch.”
“I know, but…” she paused, then met his eye, none of the hesitance of a few days ago, “I want to sleep next to you.”
How could he refuse? Without talking, he just took the pillow off the couch and brought it back to the bed, as Sara turned off the light in the living room, leaving just a small lamp on next to the bed. They both got into opposite sides of the bed, and Leonard flipped off the light.
They were quiet for a moment, Leonard unsure of where exactly he stood, and having heard enough of Sara’s former flames to know that bed-sharing wasn’t exactly the norm for her, just as it wasn’t for him, either. He wanted to, but he wasn’t sure-
Sara suddenly moved, muttering something beneath her breath, and he felt her press against his side, pulling his arm and rearranging them until her head rested on his chest, one leg draped over his hip, and his arm wrapped around her shoulders.
“Is this okay?” she asked once they’d both settled.
“Yes.” He closed his eyes, knowing she couldn’t see the smile on his face right now. The past few months had been awful, not knowing what he was to her anymore, not knowing anything, but he’d do it all over again to get to this point. He just listened to her breathe for a long time, half-asleep himself, and assuming she was doing the same, until he heard her whisper very quietly.
“I love you, crook.”
Leonard’s arms tightened around her, and he felt her flinch, obviously expecting him to be asleep. He didn’t let her brave that step alone for long.
“I never stopped, assassin.”
They didn’t say anything else. And that night, Leonard’s dreams were disappointments when compared to his reality.
Taking the relationship to new heights.
Leonard woke up the next morning, warm and content for the first time in a long time. Neither of them had shifted much during the night, though Sara’s hand had slid beneath the shirt he was wearing, resting against his skin. He watched her breathing for a few minutes, but the alarm rang shortly after and she shifted with the noise, lifting her head to look up at him, her eyes still at half mast.
“Morning,” he said.
“Mhmm,” she said, placing her chin on his chest to look at him without much effort. Her fingers moved lightly against his side and he resisted the urge to move away, settling for a faint glare.
Sara gave him a little smile, then withdrew her hand and got up with a small irritated noise. “I don’t want to go to the session today.”
Leonard watched her move to the couch and grab the itinerary they’d left there. “What is it today?”
“Outdoor Experiential Therapy,” she recited from the paper.
She dropped it, and gathered a set of clothes from her bag, but hesitated before heading into the bathroom to wash up and change. Leonard sat up slightly in the bed, waiting.
“What’s our plan, here?” she asked, leaning against the wall. “I get that we’re keeping up appearances, but-”
Leonard stretched slightly, trying his shoulder and finding that it wasn’t sore any longer. “We’re trying to balance a lot. We can’t get kicked out, because we need to find the item, but we aren’t finding the item while cooped up with all the others. Blips of it with the Simmons means there’s a chance it’s with them, but we haven’t found it yet.”
“So what do we do?” she asked.
He appreciated the fact that she was asking, and using his experience as a thief for more than just stealing items, but also planning. Sometimes people seemed to forget that although he’d been caught a few times, he’d escaped with what he was after many more times than that, and his plans were usually well thought out. Maybe not always executed precisely, but where would be the fun in that?
He thought over his answer and then suggested, “I think we play it safe for one more day. Try to get a lock on the item’s location, at least who has it today, and make our move tonight. If they catch us, our time was up anyway, and our cover won’t matter.”
She nodded, the worry in her eyes moving away as she went to the bathroom and shut the door.
Leonard got up from the bed slowly, gathering his clothes and getting changed as he heard the shower start. He wondered, for a brief moment, if he was being selfish. If what he said really was the best idea, or if he just wanted a reason to stay here, just him and Sara, pretending to be married. If he was concerned that returning to the WaveRider might ruin whatever they had here.
When Sara came out, he still hadn’t reached a decision, and that didn’t sit well with him.
They met the others down in the lobby, where there seemed to be two groups forming. The two of them milled around the edges, Sara watching her phone for any spikes in the activity from the other couples, but putting it away without another word.
“Good morning!” Clara called. “You’ll remember from the pre-registration forms that you chose one of two activities for today - caving or rock climbing. I’m heading the caving group and Bernard will be leading the rock climbing, so get into your groups and we’ll head out shortly! Remember, caving was for people interested in more open and honest communication, while the rock climbing is an exercise in trust.”
Leonard saw Sara go a little pale for a moment as she watched the caving group line up, and hoped Raymond hadn’t been a complete moron. He nudged her toward the rock climbing group and decided they would go on the assumption that they could always claim they’d just forgotten.
Bernard was looking far too confident for a man wearing a tank top, and the gloves he wore seemed to be his own. He had some experience rock climbing then.
No one said anything about them being in line, so they boarded the bus just behind Mary and Brian, taking the seats right behind them. It was a tight squeeze for Leonard’s long legs, but he made it work. Sara leaned her elbows behind Mary and Brian’s seat, smiling at them.
“Any word from your sister?”
Brian laughed and turned a little in the seat to face them. “Many words, and none of them complimentary.”
Sara laughed, and continued talking to them, as Leonard took stock of the rest of the bus. He saw most of the couples sitting together, most of them looking content and comfortable with one another. Bernard was in the front, and next to him was Sandra.
Leonard looked around a second time, but there was no sign of Sandra’s husband. Illness? Foul play? Intentional splitting? He wasn’t sure.
Returning his attention to the conversation, he was surprised and suspicious to see Mary holding onto Brian’s hand, talking to Sara with a bittersweet smile.
“...been really eye-opening, actually. We don’t have a lot of time, so why waste it in petty arguments? We both knew that this was coming and although it doesn’t make it easier, we’re trying to focus less on that and more on us.”
Brian nodded, and smiled faintly at Mary as she spoke.
“Anyone can die any day,” Brian said. “We just happen to have a better idea of when for me.”
“So we’ll make the most of the time we have,” Mary finished. “I’d rather have sadness over regrets, anyway.”
“That is a very good thought,” Sara said quietly.
Brian and Mary turned back to face forward, and Leonard glanced at Sara. She seemed to be mulling something over in her mind. Leonard reached over and took her hand in his, running his thumb over her knuckles.
She leaned against him, tucking her head into his shoulder and they sat in silence for a moment. Leonard didn’t like destiny in any form of the word, but he thought that maybe he and Sara were meant for each other. What else would explain their second chance?
When the melancholy had passed, he kept his voice low and said, “I see Sandra, but no husband. She’s up there looking rather cozy with Bernard.”
“Doubtful. Anything on your phone?”
“No, but I don’t know that I was close enough to Sandra.”
With a faint plan in mind, they rode the rest of the in comfortable silence, though Sara didn’t move from her position against him.
The spot they were going to be climbing in was pretty perfect. Sara got off of the bus right behind Leonard, eyeing both sides of the gorge. She could see hooks already mounted in the rock and a group of people wearing bright blue jackets and the annoying toe-shoes were waiting for them. Leonard took Sara’s hand and, in the guise of moving them close enough to hear, pulled them just behind Sandra and Bernard. Bernard moved away to join the group of coaches, talking with them for a moment.
Sara glanced at her phone, but the screen remained dark. There seemed to be nothing of interest around them, which meant that this morning was a waste of time, unless they could get him to divulge some information. Which he seemed more willing to do the angrier he got…
A plan forming in her mind, Sara did her best to wait for the right moment. Coaches began to arrange them in front of different courses, while Bernard gestured for Sandra to join him over on the other side of the canyon, where the cliff face was steeper and more sheer. Sara eyed it and gauged the challenge.
“Welcome!” said a ginger coach, his face all freckled from his time in the sun. “Do either of you have experience in climbing?”
“I do,” Sara said. “Mostly free-climbing.”
“Wonderful!” He gestured over to where Bernard and Sandra were. “I’m sure you’ll do well on our more challenging course.”
“Thanks,” she said, following him over to the course. The ginger - his nametag said Travis - handed her a harness and she balked for a second before taking it with fumbling fingers.
“Thought you said you climbed,” Leonard murmured in her ear as she turned it around a few times, trying to figure out the front..
“Not usually with a harness,” she retorted under her breath. “The League wasn’t all that concerned with safety.”
Leonard’s eyes narrowed momentarily. Then took the harness from her, examined it for a moment, and held it out for her to step into. She did, resting her hand on his shoulder.
“So,” he said as he straightened, starting to tighten the straps around her waist and legs, “is your plan just to irritate him into spilling something useful?”
“Pretty much. Got a better idea?”
“Even if I did, I would much rather do yours,” Leonard admitted.
She saw Bernard getting all harnessed up, and as soon as Leonard had tightened the last of the straps, she wandered over to the course directly next to his.
Bernard seemed to be going out of his way to avoid looking at either her or Leonard, and although it was amusing, it was kind of the opposite of her goal. She watched as he got harnessed up, not letting Sandra help him. He hooked himself into the course and Sara did the same, looking up at the cliff.
Bernard couldn’t seem to handle the quiet. “No fear of heights, then, Mrs. Smith?”
“Not at all, Mr. Simmons,” she said, with a lazy grin at him.
He glanced over then, his face drawn into a glare, but the coaches spoke up, explaining how the person not climbing would be on belay, making sure to keep tension on the rope in case they fell. It was an exercise in trust, to know that your partner will catch you. Everyone was to go at their own pace, and it wasn’t a race. The coaches would be wandering around to check on everyone as they began.
Leonard and Sandra got into place with the ropes, and Sara and Bernard both approached the cliff face. Sara waited for Bernard to get into position, making it obvious that it was a race for her. He cut his eyes at her again, and Sara found it in her to wink.
“On your mark,” she said quietly, watching him go red with anger.
Bernard didn’t wait for “go.” He launched himself up the rock face with more skill than Sara was expecting. She grinned, and climbed up parallel to him, catching up quickly.
He might have been climbing this particular rock for years, but he’d never climbed anything while hauling a dead body and two swords behind him in complete silence, so she wasn’t worried. The faint tension of the rope was encouraging, and she glanced back briefly to see Leonard watching her carefully. She grinned over her shoulder at him, and scampered up the cliff with what she knew was impressive speed. The rope went slack for one moment, and then tightened again as Leonard caught up to her.
Sara easily caught up with Bernard, this man a good climber, but never having climbed for his life. She smiled down at him from a few feet above and to the left.
“How’s it going?” she asked him, her breath coming easy.
Bernard was panting slightly, but the glare had lost none of its fervor. “Fine.”
“You sure?” she asked, letting go with one hand, hanging with just one hand on the wall.
“You’re awfully confident for someone twenty feet above the ground.”
“I trust my belayer,” Sara said. “Don’t you?”
Bernard’s eyes narrowed and he pulled himself up another few feet. Sara easily kept pace with him, making it obvious she was barely trying.
“I’m so pleased you and Mr. Smith are doing so well,” Bernard said, completely sarcastically.
“And we have you to thank.” She smiled again. “So, what’s this supposed to be? A romantic date with someone else’s wife?”
“You don’t know shit about me, Mrs. Smith.”
“I know you’re married.”
Bernard slipped slightly, and Sara hid her grin, getting a few more feet above him. She veered slightly off of her path, to get closer to him. They were about thirty feet off the ground now, with another twenty or so feet to go. She stayed in place until he got closer, keeping her voice loud enough to be heard by him but quiet enough not to be heard below.
“What I don’t get is how you manage to do this,” Sara said, keeping pace with him. “How you can get people who know you’re married to cheat on their spouses, while they’re right there. What do you have to offer, honestly?”
“You know what I don’t understand?” he spat, hauling himself up higher. “How anyone could have married you in the first place, let alone gone through all this effort to make it continue to work.”
She laughed, a harsh sound. “And how can someone who makes his living off of fixing marriages be so comfortable completely fucking up his own?”
“You tried and failed,” Sara reminded him. “But seriously, do you drug these women? How can you make anyone agree to sleep with you? Because it’s like a car crash - horrifying, but I can’t stop watching the disaster.”
Bernard climbed up a few feet and Sara made sure to keep just above him, just to irritate him further. It was working, and Sara did have a moment where she was glad he didn’t apparently have the item on him right now. Because with the hatred in his eyes, she expected he might try it on her.
“Is it bribery?” Sara pushed, watching his face contort in anger. “Or is this some sort of brothel on the side?”
“You have no idea what kind of power we control,” Bernard began, climbing up to meet her.
Sara remained in place with a laugh. “There’s no power in the world strong enough to make someone want to fuck you, Bernard.”
“Our magic is completely beyond your-”
“Magic?” Sara repeated derisively. They were on a small ledge, where even Bernard was able to catch his breath, and Sara couldn’t quite see Leonard below. “What, you make these women fall in love with you?”
“You better hope that’s all we use the power for.”
“By ‘we’ do you mean Clara? Because she’s the only one who can apparently do anything that works around here.” She grinned at him as he started to move past.
“You’re so fucking full of yourself-”
“And you’re full of bullshit.” Sara watched him start to climb higher, knowing she could catch up easily and wanting to make it obvious that she was better. “And I can’t wait to watch all of this blow up in your fucking-”
Bernard’s foot slipped, and knocked into Sara’s shoulder, pushing her off of her handhold and shoving her loose, and making her fall.
For a half second, Sara began to panic, the slack in the rope giving her room to slip. But the image of Bernard’s smile as she fell filled her with a bloodlust she hadn’t felt in a long time, and she reached out for the rock face blindly, feeling it scrape against her fingers, but not finding a handhold.
The rope went taut and snagged her, though she swung and slammed into the wall, taking the brunt of the blow on her shoulder. She still couldn’t see Leonard below, but she knew he’d caught her. She didn’t hesitate, the bloodlust singing through her veins, adrenaline a close second behind it. Throwing herself up the cliff, Sara climbed up, closing the gap and passing Bernard in moments.
She reached the top, ringing the little bell at the highest point, and watching as Bernard followed behind, ringing his bell about a minute and a half after her.
In the time it had taken for him to join her, Sara had put a leash on her bloodlust, working it into normal rage, then just simmering anger. He wasn’t worth it.
At least, not yet.
They both clung to the top, and he glared at her across the expanse of stone.
“You’re going to regret coming here,” Bernard promised.
“Not as much as I’ll make you regret meeting me.” She pushed away from the wall and descended, the rope catching and lowering her easily. Keeping herself from bumping into the rock again, she kept her eyes on the wall and ground as it got closer and closer.
Her legs were a little shaky as she finally reached the ground, the muscles not so much strained as unused to the movements. Leonard was there to steady her, his mouth tight as he looked at where the scrape on her arm was still bleeding a bit, and the cuts on her knuckles from trying to grab the wall as she fell.
“I take it your plan worked?” he murmured, helping her out of the harness.
“A bit better than anticipated.”
His eyes darted over her shoulder, and Sara heard the sounds of Bernard descending the cliff. Leonard’s jaw jumped as he glared at Bernard.
“I’m fine,” she told him quietly.
“Doesn’t mean I still don’t want to kill him.” He took the harness as she stepped out of it.
Sara smiled, watching Bernard fumble with the harness and ignore Sandra, who was clearly trying to talk to him about something. He snapped at her and she wandered over to the benches, where some of the other couples were already sitting and waiting, watching the others finish their climbs.
“Does that seem normal?” Leonard asked her, turning his back under the guise of folding and returning the harness.
“Sandra. She’s hardly what I would call compliant.” He led them over to a shaded portion of the canyon, well in sight of the others, but far enough for some privacy. “But all she does when Bernard asks her to jump is say how high.”
“Love makes you do stupid things.”
Leonard ran his fingers over her battered knuckles. “Did you get anything out of him other than bruises?”
“It seems to be one artifact that they share, and it definitely seems to be whatever Bernard is using to make people like him,” Sara said, letting her cheek rest against his shoulder. “He also doesn’t have it on him today.”
“What makes you say that?”
“If he’d had it, I don’t think I would have made it off that cliff.”
Leonard very carefully turned her hand over in his, interlacing their fingers without bumping into any of her bruises. He didn’t say anything for a long, long moment, then-
“We should go and meet Clara together when we get back. See if we can put this to rest tonight.”
“What happened to playing it safe today?” she murmured.
“If this is you playing it safe,” he retorted, his hand tightening around hers, “we may as well try to end it now.”
“Worried about me?” she teased, looking up at him.
“You’re more than capable, Lance,” Leonard said. “But I’d rather take them all head on than risk losing you.”
Sara opened her mouth, ready to tell him that he wasn’t going to lose her, but he looked over, and she saw the weight of those lost years in his eyes and realized that she couldn’t make that promise. They’d both died already, and were only here by some whim of fate or destiny or sheer dumb luck, and, considering their life choices thus far, there were no promises to be made for tomorrow.
She didn’t want to leave this world with a regret again.