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...walked in looking like dynamite-

“Where did you hear that?”

“Hmm?” He glanced over at her, topping up her glass with careful, intoxicated attention, before picking up their cups and carrying them back to bed. Jesse was gorgeous, fucked out and sleepy, her hair glowing across his pillow. She looked marginally more awake than she had when he’d crawled out of bed, accepting the tumbler easily enough. “The song? College, probably. Why?”

Jesse took a perfunctory sip, and set her glass on the nightstand. Opened her arms to welcome him back to her instead, warm skin to warm skin. She reminded him of home, smelled like human and heat and that weird, citrusy shampoo she liked. Darling had been surprised to find out Jesse Faden was more than a little vain about her hair. She hadn’t seemed the type.

“It’s nothing.” She murmured. Pressed her lips in a loose kiss to his shoulder, soft and sweet. “Just nothing. I’m still a weirdo, I guess. That’s all.”

“I think I knew that.” Darling teased, and Jesse smothered her laughter in his chest. Let him wrap her up in his arms, holding her tight. So much power in this girl, barely up to his chin. “No, but seriously. Was it something you’ve heard before, or…?”

“Once.” She said, still muffled. “In a dream.”

An earworm is a song you hear in a dream. ” Darling whispered into her hair, but it felt like a scream in the stillness they’d made between them.

Jesse jolted like it was one, her body shaking free of his grip.

“What- don’t. Why did you say that?”

“What?” Darling asked, bewildered and Jesse sat up, away from him. Wrapped her legs with her arms, locking herself together. “What is it?”

“What you said. Earworms . Don’t.”

“I didn’t- I’m sorry. It was just a stupid song I heard on the radio a long time ago. Probably bothered me at first… and then it didn’t. Darling, come back…”

“That’s your name.” She said, her voice still upset but she came back to him anyway, traversing thoroughly rumpled bedding to end up back beside him. Held herself at arms length, those fierce eyes peering into his. “I’m sorry. I’m probably just jumpy. I was in lockdown for so long… sometimes none of this seems real.”

“None of what?” Darling asked, and Jesse shifted, rolled over to press her back to his chest, heartbeat to heartbeat. Pulled his arm across her, wrapping them tightly together. She was so soft, to control so much. “The directorship? Us? Or… everything?”

“The Hiss was real.” Jesse whispered. “Nothing that horrifying could be imagined.”

Darling hummed, feeling the whiskey soak into him, sinking him deeper into the bed. Closer to dreams. She wasn’t wrong. He couldn’t ever have imagined this. Someone like her, warm and real in his arms. Could still taste that nightmare red on his tongue sometimes, battery acid.

“I prefer this.” Darling decided. “I want to dream. I want to smile.”

Her hair burned so bright in the dim bedroom.

“I just don’t want to hurt.” Jesse said, achingly soft in the eternal evening of this shadowed room. Let him pull her close, setting his chin in the soft dip between her neck and shoulder. “I want to be …”

“Be what?” Darling coaxed.

“I don’t know.” Jesse murmured. Almost dreaming already. “I don’t know.”