Hoping you check your email more often than your voicemail, sweetheart.
Anyway. I've helped Will and Misty with their memories and it's still--pretty shitty all around. The good news is that Echo's unlikely to be coming after me personally. If you want to know, call or comm me; I'll summarize.
Anyway. I wanted to thank you. For the other night. I still think I'm right--I need to be at Open Hands, with the kids, and I need to do this, for all sorts of reasons.
But you're right, too. This whole thing really got to me and I got way too much up in my head. You're good at getting me out of my head. I needed that, and I'm better for it.
I'm thinking of you.
Anyway. Wait, did I just say that third time in this email? With spectacularly bad timing, we're having a Christmas party on Thursday. X-Factor, I mean. Probably be a lot of drinking. I was wondering if you wanted to come? With me? If you want to, that'd be nice, and if you don't, that's okay. I meant to ask you when I saw you, but you're incredibly distracting. Getting me out of my head.
Er. I just wanted to say I was sorry. Think I was being an idiot last night. I just wanted to ask you to come over for pizza and--I don't know. Idiot.
Look, I-- *long pause. very long pause*
Okay. Sometimes I have really dark days. Not many lately, but I have--stuff. Sometimes it hits me, and I'm no fun. Yesterday I was really shaken, more than I realized at the time. Stupid, I know. And it's not fair for me to dump that shit on you.
And I really wanted to see you last night but--I'm usually not very good company on these days.
Anyway. Didn't mean that to get so heavy. The pizza was amazing and there's lots left over. It'd make a great midnight snack. I'm much better today. More out of my head. Drop by and see me sometime? Maybe tomorrow? Tonight I have to make up a lot of work like a responsible boy who cares a lot about his job.
I think I have some making up to you, too.
And... *another pause*
I won't take stupid risks. Promise.
So, well, here's the thing--
Well, that's part of the problem, isn't it? That word. Thing. So incredibly imprecise. And it was all I aspired to. Anything else--well, 'dating' is scary. 'Relationship' is terrifying.
Well, so I wanted a thing. For Valerie and I to be a thing. A small thing.
Maybe I have Rich to thank for clarity, really. I doubt he'll see it that way. But the picture he painted, of me as the sad wanker trying to force a free-spirited butterfly into a mundane trap, scared me. Horrified me--and made me wonder--is that what I am? What I always have been?
So I thought. And I thought more, sprawled in a tub with her, while I began to try to figure out how to put this so it wouldn't scare her, how to explain what I wanted--
It was then that I realized what I wanted--was what we already were. Anything more'd be too much for me right now, as well as her. It wasn't what we were when I was first thinking this way, but it's what we are now. Everything else, everything in the talk I wanted to have, would actually be surface. Labels.
And why did I want to have the labels?
Because I'd been crushed and humiliated. Because I wanted to show people that I still had worth, because someone--someone gorgeous--would date me.
Because I'd been hurt, hurt so much I'm still not quite sure if I'll ever be quite the same again, and I saw the labels as protection. A surety that I wouldn't be hurt again. Something to hold onto to make sure I didn't have everything wrong again.
But, you know, that's not important. Especially not if it was going to scare and hurt Valerie.And not even because she might run away--but because I didn't want her to be scared and hurt. She's what's important. Far, far, far more important than all my stupid fucking insecurities.
. Lovely, sexy Valerie with the spark of mischief in her eyes, and the smirk on her lips, and the way she drinks down life, with all her curiosity and playfulness. Those shadows that linger behind her eyes, and the way she freezes when confronted with something she can't handle, like a deer in highlights. The way she matches me in ways I didn't expect--in banter, in mischief, in lust, the way she fits into my arms.
It doesn't matter if she thinks we're a thing, or if we're dating, or if she calls me her boyfriend. What matters is that she's safe and happy, and when she's with me it's because she wants to be.
I don't think I have any right to ask her big questions until I understand the shadows in her eyes.For now--I'm happy just to be.
So, last night, I went shopping.
Like, actually, you know, grown-up person shopping. I took some of the cash Jan's been giving me for exercising Magpie, and went and bought--bedroom things. Nicer sheets (clean ones). More pillows. Proper nightstand, with a lamp and everything. Holoprojector--second hand but nicer than I could afford new. Even a small bookcase for those old books that have been basically sitting in a pile in the corner.
Because I was right when I said my room's basically just a place where I sleep. I'm an adult (god, I'm depressingly old now), and I deserve an adult room.
Well. I'm saying that really loudly to myself to try to pretend I didn't just rearrange my room for the sake of a woman who might disappear tomorrow, for all I know, because I don't know what we are.
You see, I liked the other night. Sex was amazing, of course. But I liked coming home and finding her there, and cuddles and chat while listening to the rain. I liked the terrible midnight snack and the terrible movie. I like the mischief and the laughter and the teasing.
I think we forget how important liking is, sometimes, when we're thinking about big things.
I think something changed a little, that night. I think. When we kissed in a way that wasn't about sex, and she pressed close. But I don't know, because I'm not sure what we are.
I keep meaning to have a talk with her. The one I was rehearsing last month. About us being a thing. No big scary commitments, just--an understanding we were a thing and we'd decide what that thing'd be together.
But every time I say something just a little too intimate--hell, even some things I didn't think twice about--she startles. Wide-eyed and poised to flee, like a startled deer. And so I pull back, afraid I'll scare her. Soft voices, baby steps.
I thought I knew what this was once. I thought it'd burn out. But here we are, and it's been months(!) since our first night together, and she can still burn out my brain with a word, a look, a touch. And tenderness seeped in at some point and--it's complicated. Why does everything have to be so complicated?
And there are so many bloody ways this can go wrong. Her apparent desire to fuck my friends (but, you know, that might be great if I'm there). That fact that I'm increasingly certain she's earning money in a way that isn't exactly legal. (Look, no apparent day job, nice clothes, a familiarity with breaking into places? I'm not an idiot. On the other hand, I'm not entirely sure how much that bothers me.) My being my usual trainwreck, hopeless at dealing with people outside sex, and such a sad sack I'm not sure why anyone bothers with me. And--so many ways.
Maybe I should walk away before it does, before I find out we want different things and it won't work, before it means enough to hurt.
I'm not sure if it's already too late for that.
Oh, fuck it all. The fact is I've never really been a proper boyfriend, not really. The only woman I ever spent this much time with, that I came to love, tore such a gaping hole in my heart that hasn't closed over yet. This isn't love, but it's more than lust, and 'like' is such an inadequate word. I'm sailing in unknown seas, and the water keeps getting deeper.
And I'm scared. Fucking terrified, and I don't have the slightest idea what the hell I'm doing.
I just know I want her to stay.
When I figured it out, I was annoyed at myself.
I mean, these fucking 'Friends' wankers. Burning down our park. I've slept in that park, when I had no choice. I know--or knew--some of the people who do. I should've been there. I should have been there to help. Friends and neighbours and all that.
But seeing police lights--it sort of terrifies me, on some level. I know that there's a lot I can hold back with fast talk and a charming grin and some memory tricks. But I know, too, there's a point when I won't be able to stay two steps ahead and'll get in over my head, totally fucked, and probably on a boat back to Blighty.
It's not that I'm that against going back to England. Part of me wants to. Green hills and pubs and familiar accents. Part of me misses it so much it aches.
But it's been twenty years, and it's probably all changed, become somewhere where I no longer fit. And although Lincoln's running drugs around India these days, I'd be surprised if he didn't have enough of a presence left at home to start gunning for me as soon as I set foot there.
And, more than that. I--I have a home here. I have friends, and a job I love, and a purpose. I don't want to start over again. I don't think I could.
Lots of and's, in my life.
Am I building a fool's paradise around Valerie? My lovely celebratory 'fuck sadness' Friday night sure turned sour quick.
When you've slept together as much as we have, a phone number isn't much to ask. Is it? I've never really done this sort of thing.
She didn't say no. She didn't give it to me. She didn't say anything.
Maybe I'm a bloody idiot, but I really don't know if that was a flat 'No, I like fucking you, but that's it. Nothing personal.' and I should back off like a fucking gentleman.
Or rather it was a 'I don't know; I'm scared and uncertain.' Which is...different.
Look, I'm not in love. Not with her, not now. But when she enters a room, I start grinning in a way I can't hold back, and I can't help but how much more fun this fucking city would be if I could run around with her, laughing and playing and making out in shadowy corners, or how much more pleasant the stupid winters would be with her tangled in the sheets beside me. And I like the way she smells and the way she tastes, and that wicked smirk of hers and the sparkle in her eyes, and I want to hold her in my arms and figure out what the hell makes her tick.
There are so many lonely things in my life I'd like to share.
So--not over my head yet. But I'm already in so far deep that I'm in serious trouble.
Maybe it's time to actually listen to Rich's very sensible advice and cool it. Back out before I shatter to pieces again, because I hate to admit it but I'm still pretty bloody fragile.
If I can. Because my cock has a mind of its own around her and she goes right to my head like shot after shot of sunny tequila.
I'm scared, too. Scared because I've been hurt before, and can't believe, now, that anyone's ever going to want me for me.
Maybe I need to man up and actually talk to her so we know where we both stand, whatever the answer is. Like adults.
Fuck it, it's Saturday. I'm going to head out to Jersey and exercise Magpie. Maybe the long rides, of two different sorts, will put my head to rights, and I'll know what to do.
One last thing--
It didn't escape my notice that she's scared of the cops, too.
So apparently I find it easier to detail a sexual fantasy to a woman than to admit to her that I'm kinda really into her and maybe we could do, you know, some actual relationship type stuff.
Even when I have an unexpected and unplanned mini-vacation in the lovely middle of nowhere due to a motorcycle breakdown. (And let's not talk about how my budget could ill-afford emergency repairs, hotel, and food. I'd just gotten ahead again.)
Maybe I just wasn't meant for these sorts of things. Like...life. I'm really rubbish at it.
Fuck all this. I'm going to go muck out stalls until my head's on straight. The trail riding horses are in at the stables. They can't possibly run out of dirty stalls before I start making sense, can they?
From Rohan's deleted audio files.
I said a lot of 'no's' at one point, didn't I?
No baggage, no promises, no commitments, no jealousies--there were others in there at some point, I'm sure.
I said a lot of no's. I made those rules to protect me, because I think having my heart shattered again might literally kill me.
And I keep breaking them.
No baggage, I said. That's a laugh. I can't keep it under control. It's all about, like suitcases left in the hall, and you keep stubbing your toe on it. You don't need to hear about my heartache and bitterness, and yet I can't seem to keep my bloody mouth shut. I'm sorry. That's not fair to you.
No promises. Well, I promised you we'd get back from space. Kept it, too. But you didn't need that promise, I think. I did.
No commitments--er. Can we come back to that one?
No jealousies. I meant it when I said it. And, yet, when I first thought of you and Richard--well, it wasn't a pretty thought. I mean, we sorted it, him and I. But, for a moment--
No commitments. Back to that one.
I want a Thing.
It doesn't have to be a big Thing, full of marriage and babies. It doesn't even have to be an exclusive Thing--that's up to you. But I want a little Thing, full of sex and snuggling and the occasional date, and we can work out together what else it means.
But, you know, this whole sexy stranger thing? Where you flit in and out of my life? Was seriously hot for a while, not going to lie. But now I'm getting annoyed. I don't need you to stay a mystery. Instead, I want to actually know you. It's fun, sometimes, learning about someone.
I don't mean at deep dark secret level either. I'm not ready to share either. But I want to know your middle name (and your last, for that matter), and your favourite colour, and what I can cook for you to make your face light up.
Because, well, I tried not to, but I think I like you.
I made so many rules to protect myself, and now I'm trapped by them. I don't know how to turn the no's into yeses, or even if you'd want me to.
That's been biting me a lot lately; wanting what other people don't. Or wanting things at different times than other people.
And I know it's not fair to you. It's not fair to set rules and then break them. It's not fair to change the terms of our relationship on the fly. And it's not fair to hold you to the terms you never agreed to in my head.
You deserve better than this, better than a man who sets terms and then breaks them. Especially when I have the uncomfortable feeling I knew I was lying to myself all the time. Pretending I could be someone who didn't care.
Face it, Lollipop, you deserve better than me.
They call New York City 'the city that never sleeps.'
You don't know how true that is unless you're a fucking psionic.
It's the whole 'feeling other minds' thing. I developed tolerance for that long ago. Nothing'll teach you tolerance for crowds like India.
But my tolerance has always been patchier than I like to admit. When I'm tired or stressed, it wavers. It got patchy when I was running for my life through Asia, and it got very thin indeed when I broke down. Then fucking Echo destroyed my walls completely and I had to build them up again, carefully, mental brick by mental brick.
Let's be honest here--this is what a lot of the drinking and fucking of my younger years was about. Getting me to that happy fuzzy place that other brains couldn't penetrate.
It'd be worse if I were a full-fledged telepath. That'd be a bloody nightmare. Can you imagine? All those thoughts everywhere.
Instead it's just memories. Bundles of memories that I can't see unless I go to look, but I know they're there. All those minds, full of memories. A hundred metres is my range, more or less. Covers a lot of minds in New York City. Did in India, too. I can feel most of this apartment building. All those minds. Ones I know. Ones I don't. Ones I love. Ones I...really don't care for all that much, hovering in my perception like tiny stinging insects, drawing blood over and over again.
And the temptation to look is always there. I always say I don't really want to see people's private memories, especially people I know and that's true. But part of me does want to see them, and that's true, too. Rifle through them. See what makes people tick, what surprising secrets they're hiding. And--well, fix things. That bloke from school, that always bullied you, and that's left you defensive and untrusting twenty years later? Yeah, I want to get rid of him. That deep-seated hurt that seeps up at unexpected moments because you were in a cab on the way to the hospital when your mum died and you never got to say goodbye? Yeah, I'll make sure you remember a goodbye.
But I can't do any of that. I mean, I could--but I shouldn't. It's wrong, And I know the more you give into temptation, the harder it is to resist. Change something little, and the argument for not changing something medium seems weaker. Change something for the better, and it seems harder to resist changing something for the worse just a little or just this once--yeah, sometimes I'm tempted by that, too. I'm only human.
That's why I couldn't really hate Luka for what he did. I mean, I hate what he did--it was horrible. I don't mean 'horrible' in the casual way people throw the word around, but truly horrible. Horrifying. It horrifies me in that shocked, dismayed, blood running cold sort of way.
But I know what it is to live with temptation. Of how easy would it would be to fall. That's why I can't shake the sympathy for him and I wonder--is that what's going to happen to me? Weaken, bit by bit, until I do something truly horrifying and irredeemable, and people turn pale and practically spit at the sound of my name?
These are the sort of thoughts that run through my head as I lay awake, uncomfortably unaware of all the minds hovering around me. Let's be fair, I sleep more nights than not these days. Maybe eventually I'll be spared 3ams.
But the sleepless ones are bad, and my bike's still broken, and I can't run away, wind on my cheeks, until I find somewhere still and peaceful, without all the minds clawing at mine, where I can watch the stars.
Sometimes I walk around Mutant Town in the wee small hours and hand out Open Hands flyers to those sleeping on the street. I get a lot of funny looks. Sometimes I end up dodging muggers and drug dealers and even once a Friend of Humanity, but at least it distracts me.
Once I took a series of night buses and managed to end up at the stables, where I cleaned all the school tack until it gleamed. I got told off for that. I am welcome to clean all the tack I want, but only at civilized hours, when it doesn't mess up the alarm system or wake the horses.
I'm down my favourite distraction at the moment. I don't know if Valerie's done with me, as Rich seems to think, or gotten distracted and wandered off, or is actively avoiding me and I'm not sure how I feel about that. I think I'm annoyed. In my book, you don't tie someone up, even pretty softly, and then just disappear. Maybe my problem is that I'm good with casual, but I expect casual to be politer than she does. Who knows.
I do miss it, though. Miss losing myself in the taste of her, the feel of her skin, her curves. I could spend all night playing her with my tongue, aware of every sigh and whimper and squirm, and never notice another mind but hers.
And sometimes when I think about this when I can't sleep, she becomes someone else and I know I'm hopeless.
Sometimes I just wander up to the roof, have a cig, and stare at the neon lights of the city that never sleeps, so full of minds.
And wish I'd been born someone else.
In the late hours of August 8, 2046, a listing goes up on FutureAmazon for a self-published erotica short entitled "Extra Hot," by one Rowenna Wainscotting.
It was late, the night dark and heavy with the summer heat. The coffee shop was still open, however, yellow light spilling from the windows onto the street.
He didn't normally drink coffee this late. He couldn't believe anyone'd want coffee this late. But he had a score to settle.
The barista behind the counter was the same girl from this morning, which must have meant she'd had a long shift, but that thought didn't occur to him. He didn't think of these things. Her hair, tangled with sweat, was knotted up untidily, revealing the pale, vulnerable skin of her slender neck and her shoulders, bare beneath her apron.
"I have a complaint to make."
She barely looked up from her job, deft fingers moving expertly over the workings of the espresso machine. "Sure," she replied, voice dry. "Let me get the complaint jar. I'll just change the sign on the comment jar."
He didn't take this seriously for a moment. "I ordered a non-fat no-whip caramel mochaccinolatte with extra caramel, extra hot, this morning, and it was not extra hot. It was barely hot at all."
She stopped short, a pitcher of frothed milk in one hand and glowered at him with a hot blue glare. "I hate your type. Look. Isn't just 'coffee' good enough for you? It's good coffee."
"I expect to get what I ask for," he growled at her.
"Of course you do," she growled back, frustration clear in her voice, and she slammed down the pitcher with the hollow sound of metal clanging against wood. She leant against the counter--and, for the first time, he realized she wasn't just wearing some tiny top under the apron due to the heat. No, she was topless beneath it and her forward motion revealing, clearly, the curves of her breasts, cradled by the apron and pressed upward by the fold her arms, fighting to escape her apron, the perk of nipples clear beneath the green fabric. Milk foam flecked her hands, a smear of coffee traced her collarbone, and her eyes were hot and blue. Very blue, like a summer sky. Her full lips were pursed in angry. He felt a sudden jolt at his groin, stronger than a triple espresso.
To: X-Factor Solutions
From: Rohan Ainsworth
Subject: Looking for Good Homes
Okay, I'll admit it. I'm really attached to these silly buggers. However, I don't have the room (or cat food budget) to keep them (and the rescue is beginning to look at me funny as the fosterer who can't let his kittens go).
So, there are three adorable kittens looking for forever homes. Guidelines, fees, and application form are on the rescue's website at <link>. If you want to meet them, toss me a comm and I'll let you know when you can stop by.
Jack, tuxedo, male, cheeky and curious and generally a lovable pain in the arse.
Donna, ginger, female, feisty and outgoing.
Martha, black, female, shy but sweet.
The rescue will cover their spay/neutering before they go to new homes. Some pictures are attached--the grey one in the pictures has a home and the calico's mine, but the other kittens are there.
<< kittensbeingcute.jpg >>
<< reallycute.jpg >>
<< kittens.jpg >>
<< kittens2.jpg >>
<< kittens3.jpg >>
Thanks. I probably owe your family enough already, but if you and Max can have a look, I'll be grateful. It turns out that disappearing for a month's rather hard on the pocketbook--I can't afford to pay anyone to fix it until next month and maybe not even then.
To be fair, I could get along without it for a bit--I can walk to my day job, and I'm not above transit, although it takes a lot longer to get to the stables that way. But I get really antsy when I can't hop on my bike and ride away.
To: X-Factor Solutions
From: Rohan Ainsworth
Subject: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Repair
Hey, does anyone out there know anything about fixing motorbikes? Some lads in the neighbourhood apparently had fun with mine while we were gone, and now it needs some tender loving care. I can handle minor stuff with tools and the internet, but this might be beyond me. Our month long holiday left me too skint to afford a mechanic.
Anyone? I'll cook for you.
I'm desperate. I'll cook a lot for you.
I was there when Annihilus fell.
Sounds grand, don't it?
I saw an alternate Earth in ruins. I saw alien bars and looked on alternate universes. I wore some really dashing space trousers.
And now I'm back to earth--our Earth--with a sickening thud. Everything else seems like a dream.
Well, the good news is I still have an apartment, kittens, my motorbike and a job.
Someone took my motorbike for a joyride while I was gone. Found it at least, in an abandoned alley but it's battered and out of comission. Going to take me at least a week to put right.
The apartment reeks of rotten food, a foul odor that snuck out of the fridge. The heat made it worse, but at least with the windows wide open, it should leave--eventually. Spent half the evening when I got back throwing out rotten food. Miserable, icky, and a waste.
When I walked in, Jack tried to trip me. Wound his way around my ankles, three times bigger than he was before, I swear. Little bugger, but at least he missed me. Donna came out to sniff my toes soon after. Martha emerged eventually. It was my cat who ignored me for five hours. I left. Holly didn't want to speak to me.
Once she did condescend to acknowledge my presence, though, she clung to me like glue.
It was around that time, after I'd cleaned out the kitchen, and been through what little mail I get, and given all the kittens brushings and treats and scritches, that I discovered my bed was covered with hairballs and vomit, and instead of going to bed, I spent the wee hours in the laundry washing all my bedding.
Reality's a bitch.
I still have a job--I spoke to Jacque long enough to confirm that. But. I was gone for a month. I haven't been with Open Hands long enough to earn that much vacation, and I really can't ask a charity to pay me for a month when I was gone in an alternate universe. I really like that job--it gives me purpose. But, beyond that--it was supposed to be the job that got me off my paycheque-to-paycheque, scrambling for pennies existence. But not yet. I was jobless too long before it, and there's July's rent, and the fine for being late with it, and the fee the landlady charged for looking after kittens, and--well, I definitely have to fix the motorbike myself. I can't afford a mechanic. I can't even really afford to replace all the food I just threw out.
I think I'm going to have to take myself and my memory tricks down to the card tables at the Mutiny, just to make it through the month, and I was really trying not to be that sort of person any more.
I may be a hero on Knowhere, but in this universe, I'm the same sad desperate loser I ever was.
Yeah, so I can't do apologies right if my life depended on it. Or maybe I'm just way too used to the painful dance with Sky, where everything I do is wrong and there's no way in hell I can ever make up for any of it.
But that's not what's making me swear to myself as I check my armour and guns before the last assault.
It was that look I saw on Valerie's face at first, just for a moment. Where she looked nervous and unhappy and haunted.
And Richard's right. I can't make her talk. I can't swoop in and fix her problems. But, for a moment, I wanted to sweep her up and hold her until it went away.
I'm not in love. But the waters are getting deeper and darker than I wanted, and I am in serious danger of getting in over my head when I just wanted a fuck.
I spent almost two decades making myself into someone who didn't give a damn about anything. Badass, cool, calm, quippy, all that. Why is all my caring coming at once? Why am I bowled over by orphaned kittens and homeless teenagers, and pretty blondes who try to hide the sadness in their eyes?
I can't think about this now. Just have to get through this. And if we both make it out alive--I'll--well. Maybe we'll talk. Or have a 'thank god we're still alive' fuck. Or I'll take Rich's very wise advice and just walk away from it.
At the moment, I think the shortest odds are on the second option.
Let's face it, you know you're old when rough sex makes you as sore as fuck the next day.
I could blame it on the whole vitally important infiltration mission into the evil overlord's command centre; but, let's be honest, it was the sex.
Valerie had something to prove. The problem is I'm not sure exactly what.
I looked at a calendar earlier, just to remind me what day it is back home. Should be, back home. I don't know how time flows there, or here, or--any of it. It made me realize that this...thing has been going on perilously close to a month now. That's a long time to be this hot on someone.
I said I'd ride it out until it burnt out. Something simple--just sex. And, let's be honest, it's fantastic. It's incredible. I'm losing my mind over the taste of her lips and the touch of her skin, and it's the sort of thing they write songs about.
Why does there always have to be a but?
I used to be okay with just sex. I thought that's what I wanted. No more complications. No stupid emotions of that sort that broke me into pieces that I still haven't put back together.
There's part of me that feels a little ashamed of this. That tells me I'm too old for this sort of nonsense, letting my hormones run away with me. And there's part of me that feels--well, it feels like I'm cheating. Being disloyal. Which makes no fucking logical sense at all.
And I wish she'd talk to me.
Apparently relationships are too complicated but sex only is too impersonal. I wish she'd let know what was going on in her head. I wish she wouldn't cringe away from me after. I wish she'd not respond to every expression of personal and emotional with disgust. I wish she wouldn't wince at the thought of my age. I wish she'd let me try to comfort her, at least a little, when she's hurting, because I can't watch someone hurt and not want to help.
We could be friends, couldn't we? Aren't there successful friendly arrangements like this?
Maybe I'm just getting really fucking soft in my old age. Wouldn't last a moment out in the wilds.
I let myself fall in love once. I let myself dream of things like commitment and futures, and maybe even marriage and kids, the sort of things I always said I didn't want because I was sure people like me couldn't have them. To even think of them was daring.
And that nearly destroyed me. I can't survive that sort of pain again. I can't.
So just sex, then. No complications, no dreams. No jealousies, no promises.
But apparently I don't fancy feeling like a sex toy either. Maybe that's newfound maturity--who the fuck knows. And I have this dark little fear at the back of my mind, that maybe I'm the sort of man nobody keeps. The sort of man they just fuck and move onto someone safer and duller.
Once in my life, I'd have been perfectly fine with that. Now it scares me.
I'll admit it, here, now, to my journal and no one else. I want a future. I never used to, back in India. I only thought of the now, because that's all I thought I'd get.
Look at me. Trapped in an alternate universe, facing an evil overlord, and worrying about my love life.
But I'm not worried about that stuff, because I can't. I can't think for a moment we won't get back. We will get back and everything will be fine.
I can't stop to think we might not, because that way lets the darkness and doubt in. My kittens, reliant on me, and my job, and the alternate Earth in ruins below us, and the telepath who suddenly turned on me with shadows in her mind, and I couldn't help but think of Echo--
None of that. None of that now.
I'll joke and flirt and swagger, and keep my confidence up for everyone else.
I think I might need a drink.
Okay. So let's be honest, that was fun.
And I probably really needed that.
It's odd how sometimes you don't realize how tense and stressed you were until after you've relaxed, and then you think 'Oh. This is what normal is.' Because you were so tied up in knots for so long you'd come to think of it as the way things are supposed to be.
I'd forgotten what it was like to fuck anything but my own hand and my memories. I'd forgotten what a wonder it is to turn someone else's body into a playground, exploring dips and curves and all the sensitive spots until a beautiful woman dissolves at your touch, all bright eyes and open lips and flushed cheeks, hips bucking forward into you. I'd forgotten what it is to get carried away, heart panting, fighting for breath, as the world goes away, and you can't think, and you can't remember, and there's nothing but skin and pleasure and oblivion. Forgetting all the misgivings and all the troubles and the predator that whispers at the back of your mind. Forgetting who you are. Who she is.
And who she isn't.
I came pretty close to slipping up on that last one, more than once.
So, Valerie, then. I need to remember that. What a piece of work she is. Cute, but she's not the first cute girl to press against me in a bar. It's the way she banters that got me, the quick thrust and parry of flirtation, leading me deeper into innuendo and the thrill of the game. Whispered comments and the flash of skin and the brush of bodies, becoming more and more intense and filthier and filthier at every step. I didn't intend any of this, but I couldn't help but parry back when she started, and I followed her deeper and deeper, until at some point I lost my mind. Let's be honest--my 'mind' doesn't have a lot to do with it. She's the type of woman who has a knack for making me think filthy thoughts, and definitely not with my brain.
I know what this is. I've been here before. Thought I was too old for it now. It's a sort of divine madness, the blinding lust for someone else that burns crazy hot, and has nothing to do with anything more substantial than the fact something about the taste of their skin, or the curve of their ass, or the way their shirt falls askew on their shoulder somehow pushes your buttons and drives you mad. Burns crazy hot, and usually not for long. Often even shorter if you fuck it out.
And old me, the me that tried so hard to be a rogue and not give a fuck for anyone or anything else, is whispering in my ear just to enjoy it. Fuck, I've been so good and so miserable for so long. Universe owes me something. Etc, etc. It's not like I actually owe anything to anyone, whatever I may pretend. Might as well start the countdown to my forties with a hot blonde.
But there are buts, and it's not just all my baggage, love and heartache and redemption and violation.
It's this--I can't shake the feeling she's a little too young, a little desirable for me, or the sadsack I've become. That she mentions Open Hands and Luka a little too much. That I don't know her, or what she wants, or what she does, and I can't help but suspect she's after something other than my body. But I don't have a fucking clue what, because what the hell do I have? Kittens and hopelessness?
There was a time I wouldn't have minded that, either. After all, it's just sex. I could play along.
But I'm so tired of feeling played and betrayed. Bad enough when someone I thought was going to be a friend did it, worse if someone gets even closer.
I don't think I can handle anything complicated right now.
But I'm not sure 'simple' exists.
I'm doing better.
I have to be. Too many people are depending on me to be otherwise. Rich needs me, Jeremy needs me, all the kids and all the people at Open Hands need me. Heck, the kittens need me. I can't just crumple. Wallowing and collapsing in pain are luxuries only people with time can afford. That's why the posh always have fancy words for breakdowns and working class types just get on with it.
So I manage. I get better. Things get better. Max's already tidied up the place a bit, and I've managed to talk a few volunteers back. Rich is...about as well as can be expected. I should know, as well as anyone, that I can't magically fix anything right now; all I can do is be there. The moggies are in fine fettle. Was sort of relieved to hear the rescue'd turned down an adoption for Jack. They'll have to go sometime, but I'd miss the cheeky bugger.
But I've been showering without incident for a couple of weeks ago, but this morning I started thinking. About water, water swirling in drinking glasses, dribbling out of Open Hands' sprinklers, and a voice rippling like water in my mind, and I leapt out of the shower as if it were poison and stood, shivering and wet, on the bathroom rug.
But someone in a volunteer meeting yesterday poured me a glass of water, and I pushed it away so violently I scared them--these people I am trying so hard to keep, for the kids' sake.
The nights are the worse. It was easier when Tom was knocking me out, but he can't do it from afar, and I need to learn to handle it on my own. Sometimes I go to the gym and punch at a punching bag until my knuckles are bloody, a sting of pain that keeps me in my senses, and my body trembling and sweaty and tired until I can't help but sleep. I hope I'll sleep.
Sometimes I grab the bike and head out of town, losing myself in the speed and the wind. Go stargazing, out of the city lights, and try to think of worlds not ours.
Sometimes I go to the stables. Most of the work for me dried up, as Jan predicted, when the weather got better and the horse-crazy girls came out, and, hey, I'm a salary man now. But there's always some stalls to clean, and last night I traded my work in for a ride. Set up a gymnastic in the indoor and saddled up Bucky. Lost myself in the focus of it all. Counting strides--one, two, three. In and out. Throwing my heart over every fence. The creak of the saddle, the little grunts Bucky makes when he takes off, soaring with glee.
Jan says if I want to keep myself busy, I should go down to the track and pick up a retraining prospect cheap, but I can't afford board and I know she knows that.
Sometimes I pass by smoky bars and dark clubs, and think it would be so easy for me to wile away the hours until dawn there, drinking and flirting and gambling and dancing. But I won't let myself, not now. It'll only make things worse for me, in the end. I don't need new trouble, new complications. Not when I can't handle them. Not when I work for a place that can't handle another scandal.
Sometimes I stay home, and despite myself, lose myself in replaying memories. It's bad for me, I know, and when I awake out of the haze and remember the bitterness, I'll be all the worse for it--but, for a while, I'll be lost in the sweetness.
I fear the night, not for the dark, but for the emptiness. I fear stillness, quietness, the moments when I have nothing to do. The other night, despite all my efforts, I found myself sleepless and wide-eyed, and almost comm'd Sky, to see if she'd come over as she said she'd try to. Just to fill the moments somehow. To talk, or watch something, or even just to hit me over the head and tell me to sleep. But it was very late, and I was afraid she was--busy.
It's the same fear of emptiness that made me think, for a few moments, quite seriously about bending Valerie over my desk and losing myself in all that pale skin and taunting red mouth. Only me and her and sensation, and no ghosts in my mind.
But it'd end, and I know she's fun but trouble with a capital T and I don't need any more complications. Got enough of them on my plate.
But it gets better. I deal. I get by. It gets better, just slowly.
Eventually, there's be a time that, when I stop to think, I don't feel so dirty. So soiled. So used.
That I don't fear, in my empty moments, that whisper will steal back.
I love tough guys.
You know where you should be.
It's just still not okay.
There's a bloody fucking ton of stereotypes about the English and tea. Me, I never thought about it much. It was just a thing. Mum made the most wonderful chai, creamy, sweet with honey and rich and spices, and tasting like home. Gran made proper builder's tea, Yorkshire tea brewed so strong and dark a spoon could stand up it, biting warm and sugar-laden, just the thing to warm you when you came in from the cold fields. Sometimes, as a rare treat, we'd go to Betty's and get the fancy tea, fragrant and as full of golden notes as a rare perfume, served in delicate porcelain teapots.
It's just what you drank. When you came from the cold, when a friend dropped by, when you were studying or relaxing, when your head was pounding from too much drink the night before. You had a cuppa. That's what you did.
Now I can't stop bloody well making it. Chai, Earl Grey, English Breakfast, that stupid poncy white and green stuff with flowers and herbs...whatever I can find in the cupboard. Over and over. Because tea's what you drink when you come in from the cold. It's comfort, and it's home.
And because boiling water is like killing it.