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Collusion and Coercion

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The bed moved with a violent shake and for a small moment, I wondered if I'd slept all the way to Cannes. Then I heard Avery half-whisper,

"You fell asleep."

There was a pause, the bed shifted again and the next voice was Stellan,

"Apparently we fell asleep."

The emphasis he used made the breath stick in my chest and I stilled, trying to keep pretending to be asleep.

"Lucky for you I'm not dead. You're not very good at babysitting." Stellan continued and I let the breath out - not as bad as I thought. "Pretty good at cuddling, though."

I clenched the fist that was still under the blankets in the same moment that Avery hissed,

"Shhhh. I'm going to -" she broke off as she struggled out of the bed, careful not to move it too much, and then the door opened and closed just as carefully. My eyes flew open to find Stellan already staring down at me.

"Not much of a deep sleeper anymore?" He rose an eyebrow at me and then sat up, leaning against the headboard.

"What was that about?" I eyed him cautiously and sat up myself, moving to the foot of the bed, needing to create space between us. It was already embarrassingly weird enough that'd we'd all slept in the same bed. I wished I'd had a shirt on, I didn't
like feeling this exposed, even in front of someone that knew every scar. Stellan's fingers ran over a small bunching of sheets next to him and he smiled before shrugging,

"You heard it right."

The anger swelled within me and I tensed again - but immediately regretted it. My shoulder pinched with such an acute pain that I bit my tongue to stem the cursing. The last thing I needed was to give Stellan something else to use against me, he was
already looking particularly dangerous. He kept eyeing me with an impatient and suspicious stare and I snapped back,

"I better not have heard that right."

Stellan stretched his legs across the bed and I wanted to roll my eyes at how ridiculous he still looked. He really couldn't have found something else to wear? Then his fingers edged around the indent in the sheets again and it clicked in my head
- Avery. He crossed his arms over his chest,

"Damage done Jackie. You can hardly blame her for needing to find a warm body in the night. If you hadn't immediately passed out on us it would have been you instead."

I turned away from him to look at the closed curtain on the window, streaks of light bleeding into the room. I couldn't blame her and that was the problem. Something had happened in Greece between the two of them that had changed the dynamic between
the three of us. It was as if I'd left her alone with Stellan for just a moment and whatever dark destiny was working against me all this time had finally turned her head in his direction. No matter how much she tried to deny it. I tried to take
a steadying breath and regain my composure, but I could already feel the panic rising at the thought of losing her. I rubbed at my shoulder,

"Bullshit. I see the way you look at her. I know what you're trying to do."

"If you'll remember correctly," he drawled and waited until I looked at him. "I'm the one out of the three of us that has a concussion. So I can't exactly be held accountable for actions I made in my current condition."

I clenched my fists, wanting to punch him. Typical Stellan - make a joke so none of this seems too serious, but I knew his game. Checking on her in the middle of the night, sneaking off with her, partnering up with her. Christ knew what kind of stories
he was telling her in those moments, we had too much history between the two of us. We glared at each other for a long moment before I snapped,

"Just stay away from her."

"I can't help it if she keeps coming to me and not you." He shrugged and threw his hands out in a mock confused gesture. "I'm supposed to ignore my future wife's requests for help?"

My anger hit boiling point and I clenched all over trying to stop the need to punch the smug smile back into his face. "I swear to God Stellan."

"While we're on the topic - why didn't the Saxon's have you strung up in the basement? We all know how things have gone in the past for you," his eyes darted to my stomach.

"How the bloody hell am I supposed to know?" I rubbed at my aching shoulder. I had wondered the same thing initially and then immediately tried to escape.

"Why were Lydia and Cole in Paris? They had absolutely no reason to be there." He narrowed his eyes at me. His face was still a little ashen from the blood loss, making him look even more menacing somehow.

The panic rose in my throat, "I don't know. I haven't been on their detail since Venice when you three cooked up going to Greece in the first place."

He frowned and I froze. If there was anyone in the world that could tell when I was lying it was Stellan. I hoped all the years apart had lessened that ability within him, "where did you go in Greece?"

This interrogation needed to stop. I would slip up eventually. I wanted to move, evade, but I knew that would be a red flag to him. So instead I stared into his face and let him feel the full force of my anger over that whole moment. "That was a mistake,
I should have never left the boat."

He shrugged, stretching above his head, and then winced as he touched his battered skull. "Seems like I'm the one that has to keep saving Avery from all your mistakes. So what is it? You want me to stay away from her or protect her?"

"And by protect her you mean seduce her." I snapped back, but a wave of relief washed over me. At least he'd stop asking about the Saxons. At least I could contain that lie.

"I haven't touched her." He drawled. I shot up from the bed,

"Then what the hell was this?" I gestured toward the spot on the bed. "Why are you cuddling my girlfriend?"

"Not-girlfriend." He pointed at me. "You can't have it both ways. Either she's yours or she's not."

"I thought you didn't want her? Not your type." I spat at him and crossed my arms over my chest. He stood, wobbling for a moment, and then pushed past me toward the door,

"If she's destined to be mine anyway, why not start now?"

"Casse-toi!" I growled and forced myself to stay where I was. Everything in me wanted to tackle him to the ground and beat him until he didn't feel like such a threat anymore. But that wouldn't solve anything, and as the panic started to
rise back in me I realized he was right. That's what made all this so infuriating. No matter what I did, what I could promise her, what I wanted for the both of us, no matter how tightly she was holding on to her incorrect interpretation of the
mandate...she'd still have to marry Stellan. It was the only way to ensure everyone's safety.

"Ten years of French and you still can't get the accent right." He put his hand on the doorknob.

"You're wrong if you think she wants you for anything but the power. You'd fuck her and leave her if she didn't have purple eyes." I said to his back. He tensed, all the muscles clenching, moving the tattoo's on his back. Then turned to face me, lethal
and victorious looking all in the same moment.

"Nyet," he lowly growled, pulling to his full height and taking a step toward me, "that's where you're wrong. I am already hers." A mean smile pulled across his face. "I'm waiting for her to realize it."

He slammed the door on his way out. I grabbed the cheap coffee mug on the side table and hurled it at the ground, shattering it into hundreds of pieces.

Chapter Text

I stormed down the hallway and threw open the door to our other compartment. I barely noticed Elodie roll over and complain,

"Qu'est-ce qui ne va pas?"

I ignored her and moved into the bathroom looking around for my clothes. My shaking hands wrapped around my stiff shirt, crusty with blood, and I forced it on and then grabbed the counter. My fingers pressed into the Formica until they ached. I wanted
to rip it off the base and throw it across the room. It was infuriating to realize, even after years of silence, Jack remained the one person that could still get under my skin.

"Ménage à trois ne va pas si bien?" Elodie asked coming to stand in the doorway. She rubbed at her eyes and crossed her arms over her chest, giving me the once over. I glared at my reflection in the mirror for a moment and then leveled my angry
stare at her. She blew her bangs off her face and moved back toward the bed, calling over her shoulder. "Would one of you just fuck her already?"

I slammed the door in response. The train clacked along under my feet and I spun in the too-small bathroom feeling trapped. I had to get out of here. I have to get off this train. I need to get away from everyone. I peeled off Elodie's pajama pants and
slipped on my blood-covered jeans before shoving my feet into my boots. I checked my pockets and threw the door open. Elodie was sitting up on the bed, eyes glued to her phone, and she inclined her head toward me without looking up,

"They don't open the bar until 10 AM. Find some other way to stop yourself from strangling Jack."

"Helpful as always." I snapped and made sure to slam that door as well as I walked into the hallway. I stood there for a long moment, thrumming with rage and suspicion, and worry. He didn't answer my questions, he diverted my questions. The idea I'd been
shoving down for weeks started to bubble back up to the surface - he's hiding something and he's using Avery to mask it. The train lurched and I stumbled, my brain rattling painfully in my skull. I contemplated taking more pain medication, but I couldn't
afford to be fuzzy now. Not with the Saxons using everything they had to hunt us down - and whatever Jack was up to. The anger started to ebb out only to have ice-cold worry replace it. My tender brain throbbed again and I felt like I couldn't breathe,
I needed air. I moved toward the sliding doors between the train cars.

Avery.

Her back was to me, her long hair curling down toward her small waist as she pulled it into a ponytail. My fingers fidgeted at my side, watching her. Then she turned, her eyes wide as she took me in, and then immediately blushed. That gorgeous red filled
her cheeks and it flooded me in flashes: the curl of her body against mine, her hair tickling my nose, the feel of her ribs against my fingers, how her cold hands had wrapped around my always burning skin, the small noises she'd made when I pulled
her closer. I realize I've been staring a moment too long when the blush deepened, my dick twitching in response. Dangerous. She was far too dangerous when she blushed. This was the point when she should step back, go look for Jack, snap off some
snarky comment to disarm me. But she still wasn't moving away from me. My fingers twitched again and I realized I have to do something with my hands or they were going to go straight to her. I wouldn't be able to stop myself.

It wasn't fair to be able to touch her the way I'd been burning to for weeks and have it not count. That's not how this worked. Once you've spooned someone you should be able to touch them whenever you wanted. I took a few steps toward her, my feet moving on their own, and felt the pack of cigarettes in my back pocket. Smoke. I can smoke. She hates it. It will make her leave. Then I won't be able to grab her and kiss her and make that blush spread more. I reach for the handle on the door.

"Are you allowed to do that?" She leveled her purple eyes at me. I wanted to say, I'm not allowed to do a lot of things - including you. But I lean into the handle more and replied,

"Probably not." I reached for the pack and pulled out one of the last cigarettes lighting it. This is your cue to leave - any minute now. She makes a face at me, her nose crinkling up, her eyes half-closed and sparkling in the morning light. It's
so adorable my dick twitched again. Don't touch her. Don't touch her. I make a face back.

"You seem better. Have you checked on your head?"

My tortured internal monologue broke through my control - you're not allowed to touch her, but she's allowed to touch you. I clenched the cigarette between my fingers, a reminder to keep my hands to myself, and leaned forward. I held my breath
until she touched me and then all my tension released with my exhale. She weaved through my hair, her cool fingers on my hot scalp. I close my eyes and tried to sear it to memory. She gave my head a little tap and I started to pull back, so close
I could press forward and kiss her, but I don't. I squeeze the cigarette again and stand back up.

"It's healing really quickly. Weirdly quickly." She gives me a worried look, an eyebrow rising on her forehead. I want to run my thumb over it, cup her face and pull her close. Instead, I put my idle hand through my hair,

"Maybe it's the magic skin thing. I guess I have always healed quickly. Never thought much about it."

I eyed her again as she contemplates this, her lips pursing and turning darker red by the second. I don't know how much longer I can do this. Her fingers ran down the chain to her locket - her tell. It had only taken a day of observation to deduce
she touched the necklace when she was feeling overwhelmed. The closer we got to the second bracelet the more she'd been pressing it into her palm. She looked down at her fingers, covered in soot, and I flexed my own, the skin still tight and painful
from where I'd held the branding to Rocco.

The wind from the moving train whipped between us and the ashes were sucked out toward Cannes along with her gasp. For a moment she froze, staring at something that was no longer there, and then she slowly closed the locket. Everything on me tensed and I checked myself from comforting her. I flick my cigarette ash instead, willing my hands to stay where they are. When all I want to do is hold her to my chest and embarrass myself with horrible jokes until she smiles. I wanted to erase the stiffness
in her shoulders, the hardness in her face, I wanted to make her forget how shitty her life is - if only for a moment. Instead, I quietly ask,

"What was in it?"

She kept looking out toward the quickly shifting view,

"A picture of my Mom."

The anger and longing swelled inside me and I felt woozy. I snubbed out the barely touched cigarette and sat down. She eyed me for a moment and I couldn't help but wonder if this step was so small she'd have to sit right next to me. I pat the step.

"Open train door, sheer cliff face, no thanks."

I resist the urge to make a face at her. Maybe the stupid girl on the plane might have been able to say that - but she was braver than that now, stronger than that. A response like that was out of habit not desire. The sooner she realized how powerful
she was the better we'd all be.

"Really? After everything else you've been through, you're scared of this?"

She contemplated it for a moment. Looking at the seat, looking at me, her fist still tight around her locket. Then, to my surprise, she sat.

"See. Perfectly safe." I said evenly but everything on me was thrumming now. She was so close I can feel her body heat. Her hair kept whipping in the wind and brushing against my arm. I put my elbows on my knees, trying to stem the urge to grab her hand.
Avery. The American Saxon turned Circle Savior. The violet-eyed girl. My violet-eyed girl. I glanced at her from the corner of my eye, watching her as she watched the scene move from a rocky cliff to the beginning of Cannes.

I started to watch too in companionable silence. My panicked, horny, angry mess of thoughts drifting away as we sat and I realized this is what I'd always been missing. All those other girls, even Elodie - they could never just sit with me. For their
own, varied, reasons they had each kept challenging me, rising to meet me in parameters I wasn't exactly sure who had set. It made each and every exchange exhausting. But not Avery, she'd made me laugh more in the weeks I'd known her than my entire
relationship with Elodie. Avery was able to calm me in a way no one had before and I turned to look at her for a moment. My little doll.

She swallowed and then stood, seeming to have had enough, and I immediately moved to follow her. There was no point in pretending anymore - I was going to shadow her until she made me leave. I was going to haunt every minute she spent with Jack until
she realized it should have been me all along. I was going to stop smoking so the second I had the chance to kiss her she wouldn't pull back. Fuck Jack and all his propriety. She was destined to be mine and I was done waiting.

We hit the door and for a split second, I wondered what we might find in there. Avery didn't know this but Jack had a horrible temper. He liked to break shit. Well - to be fair - we both did. But unlike myself, it was very easy to push Jack to his breaking
point. The door swung open to the room looking almost exactly the same. Jack was even curled up on the bed seemingly asleep again.

I turned to see Avery put a finger to her lips, her eyes raking over Jack's sleeping form and I sniggered to myself. There was no way he was asleep. I'd been ready to rip the sink out of the bathroom - he was just trying to save face. The time for being
nice to old Jackie was over now. Better Avery get the big picture of her "not-boyfriend" sooner rather than later. I moved toward the bed,

"We don't need to be quiet. He's had plenty of sleep."