Building a Fantasy


ace3_icon.gif odessa3_icon.gif

Scene Title Building a Fantasy
Synopsis Odessa strives to demonstrate a commitment to Ace's dreams and hopes he'll entertain her own.
Date November 18, 2020

Williamsburg: Ace and Odessa's Brownstone

Quiet piano music fills the air and serves as a greeting when Ace Callahan returns home for the evening, but it isn’t the live variety he might expect, drifting from the piano in the study. This is playing from a speaker in the dining room. Ace’s partner sits at the table, a notebook on her right, her hand resting against the page and a pen held between her fingers. Left of center, she has a book open in front of her, and another stack waiting. She’s been to the library, but didn’t linger there for a change.

The topics are varied. Aromatherapy. Herbal remedies. Homemade beauty products. The one she’s perusing now is on the subject of modern witchcraft. “Welcome back,” Odessa calls out absently, scribbling something down on the paper in front of her and not bothering to look up. Even without the sound of the door unlocking, or his footsteps on the floor yet, she’s sensed the ripple of the pebble he represents in the pond of emotions surrounding her.

It's fascinating how she can do that. Ace reflects on it briefly as he allows his steps to solidify, for his weight to come to the ground right as he passes around the corner from the front hall. He turns his head only slightly to regard her out of the corner of his eye, the skip of his pebble filled with a longing sort of impatience that's been slowly building since they began planning their trip to Kansas City. That stone finally sinks when he sees her, her presence that cuts through the white noise that desire shrouds him in.

"You're home already," he calls out softly as he shrugs out of his overcoat, opening the closet door to hang it up. "What a pleasant surprise."

Shoes removed next, Ace's steps whisper from socked feet as he approaches the dining nook surrounded by windows that provide her with a backdrop of the drab, gray gloom of leafless late autumn. There's enough warmth in here, though, one that begins to kindle in him as he approaches. At least— until he sees what she's reading, which brings the building emotion to be muddied by a hollow ping of emotionless curiosity. "What's all this?"

“Someone already took my favorite chair at the library.” She’s joking, even if it is true. She’s not so set in her ways that she couldn’t have found another cozy nook to settle herself into if she’d actually wanted to stay and read, as she so often does. But it isn’t just reading, is it? She’d be sprawled out on the blue velvet loveseat in her study for that.

Her head still doesn’t lift even as he makes his approach. Instead, she leans closer to her book, squinting at something on the page. With a frustrated little hum, she takes her black-framed glasses off and sets them aside atop her stack of books. A period is added to the end of whatever she’s writing with a bounce of the dot, not unlike when she hits a staccato note on her piano. The lift of her hand, the roll of her wrist.

The pen is set down and only then does Odessa look up with a smile, preferring not to be distracted when she provides her explanation. “Well, you said you’d like it if I opened a shop. Put my hypothetical future garden to use? So…” Her head tips to one side as she draws in an audible breath to continue speaking. “I’m looking into practical applications for such an endeavor.” Her brows lift, fixing Ace with a look that both asks if she’s answered his question and quietly awaits (or invites) his judgement.

Hypothetical— that was the key phrase there. But it seems she's not forgotten about that at all. No, it's still just as important to her.

And Ace smiles seamlessly, letting out a faint breath of laughter. "Practical witchcraft?" he asks as that laugh is brought to conversational volume. He teases, but lightheartedly, looking over the other volumes. "I had figured you'd choose something simple, like a flower shop, but perhaps I was envisioning something different when you said garden…" He begins to work his tie loose as he talks, thoughtful as he studies the spine of an aromatherapy tome.

“Every plant I have ever tended had a use,” Odessa murmurs, expression sly. Then she clarifies, “The witchcraft isn’t for me. I’m not about to start casting spells. But, there may be people who’d like to, and those are potential sales.” Not that she really needs to worry about doing more than breaking even if she were to pursue this little venture they’ve mused on.

Odessa tilts her head back, then gently rolls it to one side, then back the other way. “I think I’d get terribly bored if all I dealt in was flowers. Can you imagine, though? Someone could come in, ask me if I could help provide them the means to solve a certain problem?” She turns to look at Ace again, a grin creeping onto her face. “And I would have to say to them, Are you sure? That’s a very permanent solution you’re seeking there.

She laughs softly. Surely her artist can paint the picture from there.

"Ah," he says as he leans his hip against the side of the table. His heart blooms with fondness for her eagerness. "You might get very bored indeed, if you're already thinking ahead to thoughts like those." Ace cants his head thoughtfully as he looks down at her. He's caught the little rotation she's done with her head, the signs of tension from having been crouched over these books for — god only knew how long, truly. "I suppose not everyone is looking for a flashy sort of death. Sometimes they might be looking for a more… delicate solution."

Then the corner of his mouth is pulling back in a wry smile. "I must say, I'm more fond of this garden idea knowing it'll have use."

“Oh, darling, no. You misunderstand me.” But there’s no admonishment in that statement, only a gentle correction of the course he’s headed along. “I’m not so foolish as to offer anything so potent myself. If I start peddling poisons, that’s much too easy to trace. You may recall, my love, that I once told you that poisoning is an art. It is, as you say, a delicate one. I might trust my own hand, but in the hands of some blessed wannabe?” Blue eyes roll exaggeratedly. “Or some skittish housewife? I may as well fashion my own noose and wait for SESA to come knocking.”

Odessa shakes her head. “No. The only poisoning I intend to offer as a solution is the lead kind.” She lifts her hand and with a flourish of her wrist, holds it out in Ace’s direction, palm up. “Enter you.

Ace's grin curves back even more, gratified for his inclusion in the picture rectified to be a dominating one. "Even better, my muse," he tells her. But he can tell now that this all is going beyond daydreaming. She's giving this entire idea more than a thought exercise's amount of consideration. The books speak to that, as well as her profession to be thinking of her own image…

"Mark me curious now— you're approaching this as if it's more than our darkest fantasy." Which kindles a quiet satisfaction in him, he can't lie. That she appears to want what they'd painted as an ideal life as her reality is encouraging, to say the least. "Correct me if I'm wrong, but you seem like you're… preparing."


Our darkest fantasy.

There’s a tightening in Odessa’s chest that doesn’t manifest in any way visible. This is his fantasy, and he mistakes this — fairly — for her having adopted it as her own. He doesn’t see the way her hand balls into a fist in her lap under the table. The way she didn’t see his do the same when she admitted to what her fantasy is.

Odessa meets Ace’s eyes only after visually tracing the line of his smile. “I’m nesting.

That smile she's studied is ever so slightly different now, a more hollow thing while the gears of his mind turn. A long enough beat passes it becomes obvious he's not sure what to say.

"What do you mean?" Ace asks, pleasantness layered over any confusion.

Suddenly, she’s suppressing a shiver. It feels like there’s a tremor in the air between them. Each one realizes, it seems, that there’s something amiss in the other’s presentation. They know well their masks and it spoils some of the illusion.

“I mean the garden… That was my idea.” Carefully, Odessa leaves that sit there in that space between the two of them. Like she’s setting down a package that she isn’t sure won’t explode once opened.

Eventually, Ace lifts one hand and rubs along the side of the nose with the side of his thumb. He's aware it's some sort of bomb, even if he isn't certain of its triggers. "Yes," he acknowledges mildly, voice light. "So it was."

He looks off and then back, patience in his voice. "The house, the garden, the dog, the—" Ace rolls his shoulder in a shrug. She knows what goes after, and that unattainable fantasy is one part of the bomb he doesn't dare chance triggering. "And mine— to be my work, handled my way." He settles his eyes on her, brow lifting. "You then said being a homemaker with a garden wouldn't prevent you from managing my affairs."

They're on the same page about this still, right? Hypothetical page.

"You combined them," he reminds placidly, clearly not understanding where the disconnect lies.

It takes every ounce of restraint she possesses not to narrow her eyes in reaction to the words he doesn’t say. Her nails bite into her palm instead. “I did,” she confirms. Now the shudder she holds in is one of her own frustration. This is not going the way she planned it out. She leaned too hard into the initial sell. Let his curiosity and his amusement influence too much of her affect. It’s hard to walk that back now. She’s set entirely the wrong tone for her production.

So, instead, Odessa lifts her chin. “I want it all, though. Shouldn’t I want it all? Don’t I deserve the things I want?”

Ace leans away from the table to stand again, brow lifting as he emphasises to the point of melodrama, "You deserve the best, my muse. You deserve every victory you fight for." Because she does.

He convinces himself that the matter is now resolved, coming a step closer to place a kiss to Odessa's crown before moving past her for the kitchen, ready to resume fulfillment of his ritual. One phone is slipped from his pocket, then the other, lined up just so on the countertop. "How was your day otherwise?" he asks airily.

It’s a dismissal. Or it feels like one. Where he was a pebble skipping lightly from one side of the pond to the next, she now feels like a heavy stone sinking below the surface and to the depths. Odessa closes her eyes and thinks murder.

She also finally unclenches her fist before she draws blood.

Every victory she fights for. Well, there’s no fighting for the one she truly wants in this scenario, is there? The resentment tastes bitter on her tongue. “Fine,” she replies mildly, completely at odds with that. “Uneventful.

The tension that winds its way across Odessa's emotional link elsewhere finally rouses the party on the other end of the line, tired confusion quickly giving way to soothing, calming compassion. It's less what's wrong than it would be were he better awake, more a rush of it's okay in an attempt to bring her back from the way she currently feels.

Ace's head turns slightly at the sound of that particular f word, spoken singularly, spoken with the tone that it is. Bewilderment floats through him before he reconciles perhaps the last topic isn't closed just by him moving on. His eyelids flutter, the pond of his being rippling with his turn back to her.

It feels pointless to point out that a fantasy is a fantasy precisely because it isn't something hard-shoved toward reality. But he had been the one to point out just how attainable they both really were, hadn't he? Damn him. Ace lets out a short sigh as he reckons with that. He wasn't remotely prepared to deal with this conversation so soon.

"Have you decided, then, what you want to plant?" he asks in the same lightness as before, interest focused visibly on her. He's calm, patient, waiting for her to come back to him and this moment.

With her back to Ace as it is, Odessa allows her brow to furrow, pushing an apology along to Aman. She hadn’t meant to disturb him, but his presence feels like a warm hand on her back, settled between the blades of her shoulders. It’s one she’s grateful for. It reminds her of what she’s trying to do here.

She doesn’t answer the question posed to her. He’s trying to dance around the issue, but she’s going to be taking the lead. When she turns her head just slightly to the right, ostensibly to look over her shoulder from the corner of her eye, it isn’t Ace she’s seeking out, even though it’s him she addresses. “Did you know I grew up without parents?”

The seeds Odessa means to plants are the sort that don’t require soil. The type that, once they take root, bear the most poisonous fruit of all.

That he neglected to specify in your garden has already come back to haunt him. He's beginning to suspect what's gotten under her skin quite strongly, now.

Somewhere between Ace and Odessa, Aman calms, gladdened by how she settles. Tired isn't an emotion, but she can feel the allure of peaceful sleep threatening to figuratively obliviate his emotional state again.

And just beyond that, Ace's patience endures. "Yes, my muse. That fact is a matter of public record." His voice shifts to something effusing calm. "But that's not an answer to the question I asked. I asked what you're planning to grow in this garden of yours." Still leaning back against the counter, he leaves his hands braced on either side of him. He succeeds in looking aloof, patient. A quiet simmer in him wishes she'd hurry up in righting her mood.

She’s caught between the two of them, as she so often is. Leaving her ability active will allow her to better ascertain where Ace is — something that could prove incredibly useful, depending upon where this path takes them — but severing that connection would ultimately be kinder to Aman, who obviously just wants to get back to his nap.

She can apologize later.

So she turns in her chair now so she can look at her partner fully. “I don’t know why you do this to yourself.” Odessa shakes her head and fixes him with a look that is devoid of annoyance or condescension, perhaps surprisingly. “Why do you play at this? You don’t care what I’d grow in my garden — Datura, by the way — you just want me to stop.

There’s a genuine curiosity in that. Why does he pretend? He must know she can tell. “I want to give you the things you want. You know this, don’t you?”

Ah, so she's on today. Ace doesn't break eye contact with her even as the silent curse that twists under his skin tries to writhe its way forward. And then he lays that aside, focusing in the moment.

"I do want you to stop," he makes clear. "I want you to stop with this upset that I am trying, for your sake, to play along. When we spoke of fantasies, they were just that. And now you'll hold it against me that I'm not… treating it like a roadmap?" He begins to frown despite himself.

"I don't understand what you're setting yourself up for currently. I care what you do with your future." Gardening, or otherwise. Maybe gardening even moreso.

And just like that, she deflates again. Odessa lets her head bow and her shoulders sag. She doesn’t have an answer for it. Not one that makes any sense to someone like him. It barely makes sense to her. “You made it all sound so… Plausible. I thought maybe we could—” She cuts herself off, turning back to the table. She closes the book she was reading and lifts up her glasses long enough to place it at the top of the pile with the others. The notebook too is closed and shoved aside.

“You’re right,” she tells him, cutting off the speaker and the tranquil music that is so at odds with the tenor of everything happening in this space right now. “It’s stupid. Stupid to think I could have—” Pushing up from the table, she grabs her cane. “I should have just stayed away,” she utters under her breath, but soon lifts her voice to a volume meant for his ears. “I’m sorry. I’m just… going to go to my room. I didn’t mean to spoil your evening.”

Ace arches an eyebrow when she explains where she's found her issue. He also made it sound plausible to get a job in theatre and music halfway across the country, but that sounded less charming than this, apparently. He watches for too long as she begins to metaphorically ball up her plans, tear them to shreds, and curse herself the whole while.

He supposes he was just hoping to understand her better through those mutters somewhere in those moments. But he hears nothing he likes in them.

Aman can't hear her exactly, not her words, but he continues that effusal of soothing energy toward her. He can't hear the music's gone out, only feels her slipping someplace unpleasant again, and he resists the tug of it by trying to call her to his state instead.

"O, come here," Ace encourages, lifting a hand to beckon her, then leaving it offered out for her. He waits to see if she takes him up on it, then speaks anyway. "You've spoiled nothing, except perhaps your own expectations. You've become charmed with this idea and forgot to discuss it with your other half before diving headfirst into it."

"This is something we both must mutually agree to pursue, and outline our various parts to play better before committing. You can't possibly expect me to sound enthused about something I'm confused about."

Ace waits until he has at least her eyes before he winds back to the point in conversation it all went wrong— the moment which drew from him cloying, cautious curiosity that poisoned his enthusiasm and has ruined their alignment since. "Because I, for the life of me, have no idea what you meant by nesting."

He either forgets he was attempting to not batter her emotions, or decides this— this directness— is better than the alternative of letting her upset drag on without seeking this clarity. "Nesting is the act a bird takes when expecting child, Odessa. Something you yourself told me you can't have. You cannot possibly be nesting, and I don't know what you meant otherwise by that metaphor."

Odessa doesn’t come when she’s called, but nor does she drift further away. Not to Ace and not to Aman. As guilty as she feels — and the latter feels it as well — she wants to feel her own misery for the time being. It feels deserved. She allows herself to hold it and accept it.

Getting a job halfway across the country involves leaving her friends and family behind. Which would be harder for her than she’d like to admit to Ace. She hasn’t even told him yet about her brother. She’s waited so long that she isn’t sure how to tell him. She hasn’t revealed her niece to him yet, either.

“No, you’re… You’re right.” For all that she feels dismissed and hurt, he is actually right about the way she’s jumped the gun on this. Assuming he was more serious about the plausibility and the desire to pursue his own fantasy than he is. “I was hoping that maybe if I embraced your dream, you would embrace mine in return.”

Odessa closes her eyes and focuses for a moment, imagining where Aman must be. At home, she knows that much. She’s gotten comfortable with that sensation. Not just emotionally, but the sense of distance and direction she inexplicably feels along their tether. So, she imagines he must be on his sofa at this hour, whether that’s the case or not.

She imagines settling down next to him and nestling against his side, resting her head on his shoulder. There’s a warmth that radiates from her to him at the thought. Thank you. I feel safe here. It anchors her and allows her to let go of that hurt she’s had her claws sunk into. It still hurts, but it’s acknowledged as a temporary pain. One that she doesn’t have to dwell on now. She can unravel it later.

“My sister was adopted,” she finally says out loud. “We could—” It’s a stupid thing to say. For all that he’s indicated he wants this arrangement of theirs to be long term, she knows he doesn’t buy into the rest of what she thinks should go with that.

Which is why she goes forward with it.

Odessa lifts her head, bolsters her own courage and meets Ace’s gaze. “There are so many children out there — war orphans or otherwise — I could… I could give one of them a home.” Not we. Just her, since this dream is hers. “I can have what I want.” Theoretically. “I thought perhaps if I supported you, you would support me as well. They’re not incompatible, are they? We could have it all.” There’s a hope in her eyes now, a beseeching. “We deserve it.”

The void of reaction that comes from Ace as he processes the thought of inviting a child into his home— not even his own spawn— is one that any other emotions have difficulty clawing their way out of. He catches on quickly to what she's insinuating, but unlike with many situations, he has no idea how to feel about it.

This is … something he's never considered, and the way the gears begin to turn in his mind are visible in the twinge of his jaw, the way his eyes study her and her desire.

He leaves the kitchen to cross to Odessa, his hand lifting to her chin after his feet still. His thumb brushes her cheek, the corner of her mouth grazed in the swipe of it. This close, the movement of his green-grey eyes over her features are telltale. He finally lets out the slow breath of a sigh.

"We don't even know how we would handle a dog, yet, and you want to jump straight to children?" It lacks reproach, meaning to make itself simply an honest observation. It lacks any single, distinguishable emotion behind it entirely.

The lack of eruption takes Odessa by surprise. She allows her chin to be captured easily, and she closes her eyes at the brush of his thumb over her skin. She’s anticipating something worse, a tightening grip, but it doesn’t come.

She relaxes, opens her eyes again.

“I don’t mean… tomorrow,” she responds defensively. “Adoption’s not a swift process, though.” Her gaze shifts off to one side. “We’d have time to learn more, mull it over, see if it’s for us…” Again, she closes her eyes, because she knows it isn’t for him.

Odessa turns her face away, shaking off his touch. “You’re right. You’re… you’re just right.” Taking a step back, she opens her eyes again. Her right hand holds so tightly to her cane that she’s surprised the crystal doesn’t crack. But she doesn’t cry. She refuses to do that now, in front of him. She’s given him enough of her tears.

“I’ll give up on it. It’s the only sensible thing to do.” And her heart aches for it. She may as well have her ribs cracked open and have it on display for him for as obvious as it is in her eyes, her face, her posture. “I’m sorry.”

When Odessa points out they'd have time yet, Ace lets out a note that passes near noncommittal. Despite that, his hand shifts to properly cup her cheek— but she pulls away from it. That merits something in his soul, which flinches from the stinging lash of her withdrawal. His hand remains lifted in place despite the lack of her presence to caress, foolishly, finally lowering it back down to his side only after she's stepped back, and it's clear she doesn't intend to return. His eyes close hard, smoothing down his emotional state like one runs a hand over their tie to rid it of wrinkles. But unlike that, it just diffuses those feelings down to a dull hum, the hurt not gone.

Ace develops a sudden understanding for how people agree to things they don't really mean in the middle of the moment. He finds himself, for example, nearly agreeing outright to pursue the topic of children further. But

"That's enough of that," he snipes flatly. "Do you give up on every thing that doesn't bend your way within two seconds? If it's something you actually want? No, that's not you."

Whether or not she's genuinely distressed or trying to elicit a reaction out of him is irrelevant to that point, as far as he's concerned.

"I don't know what's gotten into you, but I'm going to give you the space to pull yourself back together." Ace's decision isn't one that gives him any relief, catharsis, or positive emotions to go along with it, either. "I'm going to give you the night. And if by tomorrow you can come back to this without shutting down, we can have a proper conversation about this, and we'll take things from there."

She deserves every victory she fights for, after all.

He might flinch internally, but she does it visibly. It isn’t her intention to hurt him. Continually, she’s mystified by the sincerity of his care for her. The fact that he doesn’t say things to her just to say them. Just to provide some balm for her injured feelings. Like she would do.

“How fucking miserable would it be,” she begins, bringing her stormy gaze back to him and meeting his eyes, “for me to convince you to accept something you don’t want? You’d never embrace it. It’d be like having a grain of sand in your eye that you can’t be rid of. A constant irritation. Something that would bring you to resent me, and any child we brought into our home. That’s not fair to anybody in this scenario.”

A deep breath inflates her lungs, brings her chest to rise visibly. “I’m being kind, Ace. It may hurt me to give up on this dream that I thought we could pursue, but ultimately, it’s the kindest thing. I’m not going to trap you.”

"You presume I'd let you."

The retort comes from Ace before he even has time to properly think on it, to reflect on the offhanded scoff of it. Only after does he look away, tongue running over his teeth visibly before he closes his mouth properly. To give better consideration to what he means to say next.

"Christ," he mutters to himself. A beat passes before he crosses his arms and lifts his voice to a more conversational decibel. "I won't lie and say I'm enthused about the idea, Odessa, but—"

God. She's not wrong, though, is she? And her capability to execute that insight and do it in such a way she perfectly highlights how upsetting that is to her is frustrating. Exasperating, even. She doesn't need to cry in this instance— she's being kind. That's worse in a way he didn't even know was possible. The brilliance of it is too bright to look at directly.

"Go back to planning your garden," Ace bids her, head turning her direction even if he can't bring himself to look right at her. His arms unfold and fall to his sides. "And give me— thirty minutes to sort myself out." Just when it seems he's on the verge of looking at her directly, his existence smudges to the left in a blur of color before he decorporealizes entirely, vanishing from the spot.

Odessa gasps audibly, stunned by his response. But there’s such honesty in it. She knows it, and he knows she’s aware of it. There’s nearly always honesty in a response given so swiftly, without thought given. She blinks rapidly a few times and then lets out her held breath.

Go back to planning your garden. He turns to not quite look at her again, and she turns away, lips pressed together tightly. When he tells her he’s going to potentially revisit this topic not tomorrow, but in half an hour, she opens her mouth to speak—

But he’s already removing himself from the situation. Odessa’s shoulders drop and she nods her head, knowing he can still see her reactions. She wonders how well he realizes she can sense his, even in this state he’s shifted to. “I’ll be in the study,” she provides as an assurance that she won’t just disappear.

Instead, she makes her way to her little haven within their home, making sure both doors are shut behind her to at least allow her the illusion of solitude, then setting about kindling a fire in the hearth. A warm fire might help the rime around her heart. Once she has it going, she moves not to the piano as she initially intended, but to her sofa, setting her cane aside and wrapping herself up in her plush blanket. Then she slides her phone out of her pocket and opens the encrypted messaging app.

O: I think I might be crashing at the apartment tonight. You’re free to join me if you like.

A soft sound of footfall comes from upstairs about then, and a sinking creak that indicates Ace has slipped upstairs to his study. She felt him retreat earlier, even if she wasn't sure where to, but she at last has the mundane confirmation she's not being watched to match her extrasensorial one.

The message Aman receives jolts him awake again, and he lets his sleepy, peaceable warmth drape over her in understanding after a long enough time passes for him to have read it. He takes a moment to mull his reply before a typing indicator pops up on the screen.

A: mb not tonite. work schedule is fucked right now… has me doing weird hours
A: u ok though? What's wrong

Odessa smiles at the warmth of his presence, though she’s apologetic for having woken him. She’d kind of hoped he’d sleep through the notification, but is glad for it all the same.

The smile fades when she reads the response, however. While it’s impossible not to telegraph her disappointment to him — much like Ace’s earlier comment, it comes without thought — she does her best to shove it aside as quickly as it comes and cover over it with shades of acceptance. There’s barely a beat before he’s treated to the typing indicator from her. No, she starts to tap out, but it’s fine. Then she holds her thumb down on the backspace to whisk that all away.

O: I will be. Just a spat. Probably need to give some space.

Or take some for herself.

O: Sorry work is running you ragged. Please be sure to take care of yourself.

Her head tips back and her eyes drift to the ceiling overhead as though she might be able to see through it and the floor above to where Ace is. She wonders what he might be doing to clear his head.

Odessa can feel the thumb dance Aman performs before the little activity indicator next to his icon dims. He lets his message be carried along the tether instead, his concern gentle but pervasive. As ever, it springs from something protective, a nugget of indignation that can't ever be let go of when it comes to thinking about the relationship she's engaged in.

She feels the skim of his emotions as his thoughts wander, then become held up on some sinking doubt. Abruptly he tries to undo it and wind back with such force, she can almost imagine him shaking his head and resettling back down.

All the while, distant attempts at patience through frustration echo from above down to her in contrast and complement to the other signal she's receiving.

While she nudges back at Aman with her own assurances — It’s okay. I’m going to be fine. — she mislikes the undercurrent swirling above her. Try as she might, she can’t keep the dread out of the pit of her stomach, nor keep it from reaching her emotional counterpart, no matter how muted it is by the time it washes up on his shores.

Did you call your mom for her birthday?

The words are typed out, the indicator lit up on Aman’s side, but she doesn’t hit send. Instead, she slips the phone under the blanket, just in case. His concern is gratifying, even if in its own way it does reinforce the bad feelings. The more he worries about her, the less able she is to smooth over her own worry, be it emotional or logical. It isn’t the protectiveness born of jealousy or possessiveness, and that is something of a revelation to Odessa. Like she’d never fathomed someone could care for someone in that way without those roots.

She may never understand it.

The rough waves churning above Odessa calm. It takes time, but over a period of minutes, some inspiration is reached, Ace's emotional center stilling so he can reflect on it. The ripples that happen after are slight, filled with echoes of optimism. He's not enthusiastic, necessarily, but he's somewhere in the neighborhood.

Before long, specific pings of positivity and negativity come at regular, rapid intervals like one does when going down a list. Pros and cons. Yes and no. Go and no go. Sometimes the gap between that determination takes a few more moments of mulling, searching, but eventually he moves on.

And so it goes for almost exactly thirty minutes.

Odessa continues to stare at the ceiling, imagining the physical motions that go along with the emotional ones from Ace’s signature. That he manages to get somewhere other than the darkness of his frustration starts to ease the knot in her stomach.

She’s also not sure she’s glad for it, though. If he comes back downstairs and is anything approaching sunny, she fears what that will mean. Odessa knows well how quickly she falls into the trap of mirroring him. How she loves to bask in the glow of his affection for her, even when she knows that it has to be misplaced.

Ace can’t love her. He loves an idea of her.

For that matter, so does Aman.

The thought brings herself to lower her head again and shift in her sprawl on the loveseat, curling up on her side with her eyes closed. What does she deserve? What does she deserve? She’s afraid of what the answer might be. More frightened yet to think that she already knows.

For now, all that’s left to do is wait for Ace to finish his list and come down to pronounce his judgement.

She can feel him wrap up his deliberations, boxing his thoughts up to focus on the results. The review he performs is brief, driven, optimistic.

And suddenly much nearer than it should be, given there were no footfalls on the stair.

Ace turns on his heel in the living room space, looking once for Odessa in the open before he crosses to the study. The distance between the knock and when he slides back the study door near the kitchen is so minimal as to be laughable, but the courtesy is at least performed. Quiet, simmering enthusiasm sees him step into the room with the door opened only far enough to let himself in, left to roll the remaining way.

In one hand, he holds a piece of paper.

"I have a middle ground solution," he announces. "Temporary. There are terms— conditions needing met if this is to have any success at all."

Lifting the paper, Ace tells Odessa, "We don't know for certain how things will change with something else living with us. So, we do a trial run." He lowers the paper finally for her to take, one hand in his pocket. For all his smooth presentation, she feels the jagged eagerness underneath— a sandpaper of hope that this is enough to get them back on track. To not despair, and instead work together to experiment and create again.

On the paper, there is a handwritten list.

"I've outlined a shortlist of breeds I find acceptable. A number are hypoallergenic. If you had your heart set on something, I am open to negotiation. Our lifestyle, however, is not suitable for an animal—" or other living creature like a human, "which is incapable of being left alone all day. So my condition is you must locate some place for it to go during the day."

Daycare, essentially. He's breeding parallels. Attempting to see if either of them are truly up for this other desire she has, or if it's just a nice ideal. Either way, in his mind, it's perfect. It's not as emotionally fraught. It's a trial run.

It'll carry with it its own set of hopes, certainly. But maybe ones that won't be as devastating to either of them should they be let down. Perhaps they can more gently navigate this topic by handling it through a proxy.

"Determine what to do with it when neither of us are here, and we can start looking for one when we return from the capital. Do you find this agreeable?"

His tone is mild, passive with a lilt of curiosity. But his soul shouts with fragile, daring hope frosting an intoxicating confidence that this is the best path forward.

There’s a spike of anxiety at the sudden shift in Ace’s location. She’s both used to it and not. He may not be able to descend upon her without warning, but he can still descend all the same. It calms as quickly as it comes and she props herself up on her elbow when he knocks. In spite of herself, it charms her that he bothers to use the door, rather than phase through it.

Ace’s explanation of what he’s been doing for the past half hour is listened to with a patient interest, a raise of her brows here, a thoughtful hum there. She accepts the proffered paper and starts to scan the list with a faint twitch of her mouth in a near smile. Her heart tries to soar like a balloon buoyed by a gust of wind, but she jumps to grasp at its string, pulling it back down to earth again.

“Well, it’s my turn to sort myself out,” Odessa admits in a quiet voice. At the same time, she sits up properly, shifting her legs from the cushion to the floor and pulling the blanket aside with her to give him space to occupy next to her, should he want it. She isn’t asking him to give her space, just a moment of time.

Her eyes stay focused on the list in her hand, though she isn’t really reading it, even if her eyes are scanning each line. There’s a lot of complex emotions that come along with this. Surprise. Curiosity. Elation.


Odessa nods her head to herself, taking in a breath to begin. “This is… big. I honestly didn’t expect you to entertain this.” She lifts her head to look at him, her lower lip caught between her teeth for a moment. “It… I feel good to know that you care enough to even consider this.” She really means a dog, rather than a child. In her mind, he hasn’t even gotten to that step, even if he’s presenting the notion that he may have.

She can’t help but wonder if this is just an appeasement. That if she gets the dog, it will soothe enough the sting when he tells her he doesn’t think things have worked out well enough to take it a step further. Some half measure. That compromise he led with. But it’s more than that.

“I’m worried that you’re setting yourself up for something you don’t want just because you’re…” Odessa shakes her head as though she can’t find the words, but she knows exactly what she’d like to say. Because you’re afraid to lose me. That should be a flattering notion, and somehow it isn’t.

You presume I’d let you. He may not allow himself to be trapped by her desire, but would he not turn it back on her? How simple would it be to use that desire to trap her instead?

“I just don’t want you to be someone you’re not, Ace.” That feels like the truth, or close enough to it. She’d rather he not be who he is, but she’d like any shift from that to be genuine. That someone he’s not now could be someone he will be. If she could change, why can’t he?

But it wasn’t her cat that made her change, was it?

Ace remains standing, his hands slipping into his pockets while she sorts through her reaction. By the end of it, when she gets to her worried, all he can do is tilt his head.

"We both get something we want out of this arrangement, O," he points out very simply, not unkind in doing so. "We both learn something."

He lets out a short, humorless breath as he ventures, "Having a dog doesn't make me a dog person. It makes me a man with a dog. Whether or not I become a dog person remains to be seen. It's a simpler, less costly option than the alternative in several ways. It's far easier to give back a dog, should things not work out. And I would rather have you upset at me over that than…"

Ace closes his eyes as he shakes his head once. He's not smiling, trying to dress this up at all. "I would rather fail at the trial run stage," he explains, then looks back to her. "And should it turn out to be more work than you were expecting, less likeable for you than you anticipated, I am sure you would prefer the same."

We both get something. Odessa struggles to see what he gets, beyond her compliance. Which, in her opinion, is a very shitty thing to want in exchange for something like this. But it is big that he’s considering it all, like she said. And he could turn out to be a dog person. Maybe he just doesn’t know what that’s like and he’ll find he loves their pet.

Maybe he’d find he loves fatherhood.

Odessa instantly berates herself for the existence of that hope. He’s said something so simple that tells her he’s not approaching this from remotely the same angle as she is. Again, she bites down on her lip, a bit harder this time. “So, one thing you almost definitely don’t know about me, is that I had a cat.” She shrugs a little bit, feigning some kind of sheepishness. “I was dating a guy. Someone painfully normal, because that’s what I wanted to be. So, the normal thing to do felt like adopting a cat together.” She looks off to the side, trying to hide her sense of regret. “I got bored, naturally. I hated it. I left in the night while he was sleeping. On Christmas Eve.”

She glances up again, a little smirk on her face. “I took the cat.” And she chuckles to herself for that. “I squated for a while after that. Holed up in this or that abandoned house, but I kept that cat with me. I found a place to land, and I kept the cat. It burned to the ground, and all I cared about was that I thought I lost that cat. The only reason I don’t still have that cat is because the Institute took me.”

There’s a point to all this. “If we get a dog, it’s not going back.” Odessa draws in a deep breath, unconsciously squaring her shoulders as though they might be about to face off. “So if you decide this is a choice you’re going to make, you have to understand you don’t get to just walk away from it. You can’t just… undo it.”

Odessa lifts her chin. “This is a commitment. I am a commitment.”

Up until that point, Ace is fixated on one thing and one thing only:

If she's tried normal out for size before and she fucking hated it then why in the fuck is she so determined to try it again?

The story about the persistence of the cat goes right over his head, morally speaking. The whole point of a dog is it's a test drive, he wants to shout. But he stays still, and he chokes out his frustration before it has time to rise to that level. He keeps it to a much more reasonable simmer.

"I don't know what part of that story is supposed to be of any comfort to me, Odessa. You got a pet previously and decided the vanilla lifestyle you were trying to pursue was boring after all? Are you certain you're not asking me all of this in the hopes I'll say no, then?" He doesn't swear, but there's almost the same bite to it.

"Or are you setting us up for failure?"

Ace looks off to sigh, not wanting to direct this at her. The last thing he wants is for her to shut down again. So, he improvises on the spot, mood lifting again right along with it. If she is trying to sabotage them, he's going to make it hard for her to achieve, at the very least.

"I'm not intent on letting history repeat itself. We can look starting after Thanksgiving, but we're waiting at least until New Year's." He meets her eyes again with a lift of his brow. "I'm also reserving the right to you on Christmas Eve, for the entire day." Ace steps forward to her, both hands lifting to cup her face between his palms as he looks down at her. "I intend to make you blush and keep you close. And that is only the start of my commitment to you."

His thumb brushes her cheek, fingertips braced on her jaw lightly to ensure she's looking up at him. "Can you trust me at least that much, my muse?" he asks. "In return for all of it I have given you?"

The spike of frustration and the diminishing of it, rather than allowing it to manifest in his actions, is felt. Noted. Grudgingly appreciated. Odessa doesn’t call him on it, because it feels counter intuitive to call him out for recognizing the negative emotion and refusing to act on it. He’s in no more control of feeling what he feels than she is. Like him, she lets it simmer.

“It’s not meant to be any comfort,” Odessa informs him coolly, but not bitter, and not with the intent of confirming what he’s just called her out on. In exchange for allowing her posture to stay relaxed, her hands ball into fists beneath the blanket, out of sight where they can’t betray her. “I’m just trying to explain to you…” She trails off to let him finish his thought, lowering her gaze to the fire and allowing herself to find some kind of center there.

Setting them up for failure doesn’t work if he’s aware of it. Perhaps she’s leaned into this too hard. He’s more perceptive than she’s given him credit for. She opens her mouth to speak when he steps forward and she snaps herself to attention again, away from the reverie she was threatening to slip into.

His hands find her face and it’s like she can experience him more keenly than she could without the contact between them. Maybe she can. There’s some sort of pull when they touch that she can’t explain. Oh, no…

And she does blush. He may as well snatch that chain around her neck for all that she feels forced to meet his eyes. No, not forced. Compelled. There’s an important nuance between the two. There’s softness to her, her countenance and her demeanor. A yielding, as though she were clay that he could mold into his favored expression.

But it’s those last words that leaves her cold, for all that he effuses warmth from his own emotions. The only light in her eyes is that reflected from the fireplace. “Yes,” she breathes out, “of course.”

The warmth in him doesn't crackle the way the fire does. It doesn't climb or roar. For once, it's something more innocent than that, even if it's hard to believe. Relief pours into it with her agreement, and Ace leans her back against the cushions slowly while he sinks one knee onto the couch beside her, dipping his head so he can kiss her.

His hand slips from her jaw around to the back of her neck, his caress a soft thing. He nips her lower lip between his own with only a graze of teeth before he lifts his head to look at her. The touch of his fingertips along the back of her neck shifts again to a grounding one.

"What do you want now?" Ace traces the shape of her face with his eyes; her brow, her cheek, her mouth— back to the blue of her own eyes. His thumb brushes the hollow behind her ear.

Odessa closes her eyes and lets herself be guided back. She’s cautious in the face of his emotion, almost to the point of being timid, but she reciprocates the kiss, reserved in a way he’s come to expect now after they’ve had a difference of opinion and she’s trying to find her footing again.

He’s trying. It’d be so much easier if he weren’t.

She finally unclenches her fists, fingers stiff from having held so tightly for so long. They flex under the blanket before she lifts her right hand, using the motion of it to help distract from the way she uses her left to slide her phone back into her pocket. That hand settles on the curve of his shoulder, her eyes having drifted to the shape of his lips.

A shudder of self-directed revulsion is easily disguised and mistaken for a shiver of anticipation. “Whatever you want,” Odessa responds to his question. In this moment, she feels reminded of the fact that she is not her own woman. The expectation that she places on herself with that is that she remain close, regardless of what else her heart might want. Blue eyes, wide and doe-like, find green-grey. There’s no heat in them to match that put off by the nearby fire, only a muted inquisitiveness.

There’s a hollowness to her, and it’s not a new thing. It plagues her, not just in moments like these, but in the quiet moments where she’s otherwise contented. One stray thought is all it takes to send her back to the bottom of that pit. There’s only so many ways she’s found to cope with that feeling of hopelessness. Regardless of the weight he’s not placing on her, the freedom he’s giving her without the yoke of his expectation, she slips into that track all on her own.


It's not in the realm of responses he'd be unhappy to hear. That she suggests it— well, maybe that's encouraging.

Maybe. But—

Ace smiles, the reaction tempered by caution. He may not understand things the way a more normal person would, but he's a quick study, and even better at passing when he wants to— masking his deficits thanks to lessons learned.

And he's grateful in this moment he's learned to see when she's trying to give more of herself than there actually is to give.

"Je t'aime, Odessa," he says before pressing a kiss not to her lips, but her brow. He pushes off the couch to stand, emitting— not quite understanding, but acceptance. There's no beckon made for her to join him as he steps back. All he does is let her know, "We don't have to. It's your call."

Ace breaks off his gaze to head for the door he left ajar, his warmth cooling as he steps away from the fire. If she's certain, maybe she'll rise and follow; draw him back somehow. But even so, he finds himself wishing there had been something more to her reaction to what he'd said.

Perhaps he'd not phrased it right. Or perhaps they conflated too much banking trust for only certain sorts of favors.

Or perhaps he's fucking terrible at conveying romance after all. This would not surprise him in the slightest.

"I'll be out here," he voices, lofty and absent-minded to hide the oily sheen that's come over his affections. Ace pulls the door shut quietly behind him.

Odessa’s eyes close when he presses that affectionate kiss to her forehead. When she smiles, it isn’t a mask donned for his benefit. It’s still a small thing, but there’s a gratitude to it that spreads warmth through her chest. In a way, he’s calling her on her shit, and she can’t help but find some small amusement in that. He’s learning.

Je t’aime,” she responds quietly, but without the emptiness that would have come with it a minute ago. When the door shuts, she allows her posture to relax, drooping forward until her forearms are resting against her knees. She lets the weight of her emotions drag her down physically, finding some comfort in that. There’s an honesty in that.

For a time, she focuses on the way the firelight causes shadows to dance across the rug. The sound of her breathing. The way her chest swells with each inhale. Even though Ace is on the edges of her perception, and Aman is a quiet hum in the background, she feels like she’s alone with her emotions now, in exactly the way she needs.

Once she feels she’s found her center, she folds up her blanket to drape it along the back of the loveseat again, takes up her cane, and moves to the door, sliding it open, and peering out. The shape of the space is taken in first, like she needs to acclimate to a new setting. Even with that hesitation, it’s without trepidation that she moves toward the living room now. That her steps are taken gingerly is owing only to her physical condition, not to the condition of her heart.

“Darling?” Her voice lifts, a little rough from the earlier tightness in her throat and from the disuse that followed, but it clears easily. “Would you make us a drink? We can talk?”

Sitting in his armchair rather than on the couch, the tools to make himself a drink are within arm's reach, at least. But Ace sits in the dark, and that's no good for fixing anything. His head lifts, a tilt of his chin indicating acquiescence before he leans to turn on the lamp on the endtable.

It casts a soft, yellow glow not unlike the flicker of the fire that chases Odessa into the hall. He looks up at her out of the top of his eyes before he comes to rise. The ripples in his emotional pool still— she wants to talk, and he's listening. He comes to his feet to make their drinks properly instead of lazily. He opts still to use the bourbon left out atop the alcohol cabinet rather than grab a different brand or type of drink nonetheless, pouring them both a healthy size to their staged tumbler glasses by sight rather than particular measurement.

Either they'll drink it all or they won't. This way, at least, the need for a refill is long-off.

He runs his tongue over his teeth, mulling saying anything first. Instead, he offers her her glass. With it comes an internal bracing for whatever it is she means to say.

She’d meant to ask for vodka, but that’s on her. Bourbon suits her just fine anyway. She takes the glass in her free hand, leaning up to press a kiss to his mouth before he can drift away from her. It’s meant to be an assurance that this isn’t perhaps the conversation he’s afraid it may be. “Thank you,” she starts with, “for not letting me overextend myself.” They both know well how prone she is to that.

Her glass clinks to his gently, then she brings it to her lips for a long drink. There’s a faint twinge at the corner of her mouth as she decides she is glad for the bourbon after all.

Taking a seat at one end of the couch, she lets her cane rest propped against the arm. “I’m kind of struggling with where to start, so… Please bear with me. And if you have questions, please ask them. I… This is a complicated topic, and I can’t see it from an outside perspective.”

Odessa looks up at him in the low light, not quite nervous, but faintly anxious all the same. “You’re right. Normal didn’t work for me before. But it wasn’t the difference between freedom and imprisonment then. It wasn’t life and death.”

She takes another drink and stares down into her glass when she’s done. “It is now.”

Ace sinks down into his seat again, his arms flat against the armrest while he listens to her. He is what he is, and sympathy isn't something that just comes to him without specific, significant personal experience to draw from— and it's that which he lacks here. To his credit, however, boredom or worse doesn't fill the void in which compassion should lie.

"I'll interrupt if I need, then," he agrees quietly, mutedly. He glances at her out of the corner of his eye.

His opinion regarding the necessity of normal is held— or rather, refrained from being formed yet. Odessa is not finished, after all. She's hardly begun.

It’s not where she’d like him to be, but she knows what he is. Knew what he was like before she got into his car so many months ago. What she didn’t realize then is who she was.

“I’m under constant scrutiny. I have to check in constantly. I have all this shit mandated by the court that I have to adhere to or I will go back to prison and they won’t let me out again.” Surely he can appreciate that much. Odessa doesn’t lift her head, but she does look up and over at him. “You can’t fix that. And if you could… If you broke me out,” which she truly believes he’s capable of, one way or another, “I’d be right back to where I was before. Running and looking over my shoulder all the time. That is really fucking miserable way to live.”

She can’t help but chuckle dryly. “You think I’m a fucking sad sack now.” Just you wait. “I don’t have to do that now. I have to mind my damn Ps and Qs, but as long as I walk that line they’ve set for me… I get to just keep living.

Ace brings his glass up to sip from it— not drowning himself in the taste, but definitely doing that in lieu of saying anything. When that's done, he sits a little more upright; looks at her properly.

The tiny roil in his emotions that comes from haughty indignation at her insistence he couldn't fix her feds issue one way or another is held onto briefly, then let go. With more grace than he actually has in him regarding the matter, he nods once. His ring finger taps the glass with a dull thunk while he listens.

That he doesn’t say anything actually makes this feel harder to her. A moment is taken to roll his irritation over inside of her, to taste it on the back of her tongue, and to let it go before she continues. She cannot let it fuel her. And maybe she should just cut herself off from it and from him, but she needs this.

It’s the first time she’s realized how addictive her ability is. How she absolutely refuses to give it up when she doesn’t have to. Such an unfair advantage she has over him, and it’s like a balm for her soul. It isn’t the same level of power as she used to enjoy with the power that was stolen from her, but she makes do, doesn’t she?

It’s that cruel streak that’s going to get her into trouble. It’s the whole crux of this issue she’s attempting to discuss. “I made a mistake.” And that hurts to say as much as it is liberating to finally admit to it. “Trying to embrace my old ways was a mistake.” Her jaw sets tight, eyes a little glassy now. “Dragging you into this was a mistake. I’m putting you in danger by being here. By being a part of your life.”

A very vain part of him wants to laugh, and the beginning of one even snorts its way out. Her? Put him in danger? Perish the thought.

But she does have such a short leash back to her parole officer, one that's shockingly, somehow, not shorter than it is. One that's made him grit his teeth a number of nights. One that nearly makes him do so now.

So Ace's humor fades. And he turns his head a little more fully in her direction— so much so he tips just slightly past a straight-on stare. This is something subtler than a cock-eyed look, but one brow arches all the same. "Is that all you see me as?" he asks calmly and plainly, shaking off the sting of the implication. "Your old ways instead of everything new and better that we have tried to build you up toward?"

Of course he would insist that he’s bettered her. And she might feel a little offense at that if he hadn’t just so rightly called her out on the way that she’s reduced him to some echo of herself, rather than his own person. But she doesn’t rush to apologize like they both may have expected her to. Instead, she nods to acknowledge she heard it, and she takes a moment to think about it before she starts talking.

“Yeah, actually. In the beginning.” It’s not flattering, but it’s the truth. “You represented to me… the height of my power. And a chance to fix the mistake I made all those years ago when I didn’t follow you. I wouldn’t be where I am now if I had. I could have… I don’t know. Maybe it wouldn’t have made a difference. But I like to think if I’d turned on those soldiers, instead of being too afraid to run, that maybe I wouldn’t have gone to trial like that. That I wouldn’t have had to plead guilty to everything under the sun but genocide.

Odessa can’t help but laugh now, a manic little bubble of laughter. “Do you have any idea how fucking lucky I am to be alive? That they didn’t hang me then and there? They should have.” Her free hand spreads out to her side. Here I am. “I am fucking awful. You just kill people. I hurt them. For years, I just hurt people. And I didn’t care that they hurt. I didn’t even do it because I enjoyed hurting people. I just flat out didn’t care. I felt nothing.

That’s when she sits back as though someone had physically shoved her, hard enough to knock the breath out of her lungs. “Jesus Christ,” she whispers, stunned now that she’s just admitted all of that out loud. That she can be sitting next to someone who enjoys murder, and somehow she’s still the monster. “If I step out of line and they come for me? They’re going to look hard at you, Ace.” Odessa holds her glass against her sternum, watching him beneath her brow creased with worry. “I would never forgive myself if…”

He can fill in those blanks all on his own.

“Because you’re… you’re not just shades of who I was.” Odessa’s jaw trembles and she can’t keep her gaze locked on him now, self-conscious as she is about the depth of her emotions. “You’re not my lost glory. But you aren’t a new path to it, either. You’re so much more than that to me.”

Ace wonders at it now— the change in who she was, who she used to be, versus whoever the fuck she is now. Somewhere between who she was and who she's become is the shining ideal he enamored himself with. It was never the her he met, not entirely, because she failed him even then.

She'd never been perfect. The reality of her never was. He doesn't know how long he's been struggling with that, he can't put a precise date to it, but it's been longer than tonight. It didn't begin in October, either.

He closes his eyes and sinks back in his seat when she has her moment of revelation, too, a slow breath passing from his nose before he looks off at a distant point somewhere near the ceiling.

Ace doesn't avoid her when he hears the emotion come back into her voice, his head gradually turning back to her and his eyes following. He wishes she'd present it better, but at this point, if she's putting the way she feels tearfully into words— is that not gratifying in some way? Every indication she's given speaks that it's not a false gesture.

They've pulled no punches with each other.

He leans forward abruptly, elbows on knees, glass somewhere between them. "O, are you interested in normal because you believe it is your only chance at happiness? Or are you choosing it in spite of a path you'd be happier with?" His lips purse together briefly. "What good is living like that if you hate every second of it?"

"That's not something I will support you in. It is not something I will do for you. Whatever path you choose, it should not be out of fear."

"I want better for you," Ace states plainly. "I don't want you to limit your discovery of yourself over something as mundane as what will the government think." His head begins to shake slowly as he insists with a soft reverence, "You are a greater creature than that. You are more than the last shackle we have yet to rid you of."

But. He takes in a breath rather than say it, turning the word over in his mind before passing on it for another.

"If you finish your discovery— if you find that after all all you want is something dreadfully mundane to make up for a lifetime of a lack of moments where you were allowed to be just that?" His brow twinges, but he doesn't frown. "Then so be it. We'll fucking figure that out." His free hand lifts to add emphasis to the moment, clear and firm and frustrated with each word he leans into. "But I don't want you to do something as terrible as settle simply because they tricked you into believing you have no other choice."

“Is it better to die happy than live miserably?” Odessa asks, her voice quiet. That’s a question so existential as to be rhetorical. It inspires her to take another drink. The glass stays held in her hand, but her arm comes to lay on the rest at her side, as if that distance will force a slight bit more moderation. Not that she wouldn’t rather just polish it off and pass the empty off for another. It’d have to be better than this, wouldn’t it?

“That’s not who you are.” There’s no bite to that assertion and it lacks the heaviness of disappointment. “If I decide I want all the normal things, if I decide that makes me happy… You will suffocate.” She knows that so well, because she’s been there. But she hadn’t learned yet how to love. Not like she does now. “And I’m afraid you’ll resent me for it. I believe I can figure it out… I don’t know that I can see that life as… As something we embrace.”

And that’s unfair to him for her to decide what he will or won’t accept in life, but here she is, doing it anyway.

“Yes, I’m scared of what will happen if I don’t change. And I don’t think there’s going to be anything I can do about that.” Odessa shrugs. Some things just can’t be helped. “But… My brother has children, and I love them. Their whole family is just… I want that. I want that. I want a partner, I want kids, I want a family of my own. One I can fight tooth and nail for. The— The way no one ever fought for me.”

Odessa draws in a hard breath and blinks up at the ceiling in an effort to keep from shedding tears. It mostly succeeds, just a prickle in the corners of her eyes that’s rubbed away easily with the edge of her first knuckle. “So, yes. In that? I want mundane. Is there a balance that can be struck between that and…” She gestures loosely in his direction. “I’d like to believe there is. I can support you, even if I can’t live that life anymore. But god, if you can take me as I am, I want to be with you for as long as you’ll have me.”

Leaning toward Ace, she implores him, “If you know some way to make this work, then please tell me. Because I can’t see a way out from under this.”

Is it better to die happy than live miserably?

Yes. A thousand times yes, Ace would tell her.

But he listens instead, patient through all of it. She needs to get it out of her system or she'll forever live wishing she had, wondering how things would have changed if they did. Daydreaming about it as much as fearing it, apparently.

How can they make this work? "It begins and ends with you no longer presuming to make my decisions for me. I am done with you when I am done with you, O, and you will know well should that time ever come." Ace tilts back his glass again for another small drink. "And somewhere in the middle…" he opines, then swallows again to make doubly sure his throat is clear. "It requires you no longer pining for someone else's happiness. The grass is always greener when you can't see the dirt it covers. You will grow stuck wondering why yours is not theirs when all you see of theirs is your own perception of matters in the first place. And as for family?"

He rolls his jaw. "I won't lie, it wounds me that you think you need family more than me." And in that lies an even-keeled something over her failing to mention yet another family member for the last six months. But he digresses. "I suppose there is not much need to fight 'tooth and nail' on my behalf, though. A defenseless child would be a suitable project to undertake so you could satisfy that need."

Ace swivels a look back to her, meeting her gaze head on. He tells her with knowing remorselessness, "I don't share your bleeding heart. And so long as you don't expect me to, we will both be happier." His head tips forward as he suggests in a make no mistake tone of voice, "It is you I take interest in, Odessa Price. You are keen enough to know the likelihood of that interest spreading to another beyond the most academic of levels is low."

But she also thought the same about him falling in love.

"My terms have not changed," he segues easily. "Before anything else, we run a proof of concept with a pet. Should we mutually find that test run to have been a success, I will put on the most exquisite performance for whatever parties are needed to ensure you get exactly what you want." Ace takes no especial pride in that, but his vow is good. It doesn't twist the corner of his mouth up in a smile. Playing Harry Stoltz, the neighborly mundane, is a game which occasionally brings him joy, but this is a serious matter. This is her happiness on the line.

His voice softens as he muses, "So long as you understand I will always want more for you…" His tone lilts thoughtfully as he lifts his glass again. "Perhaps one day you will still rise to that dream of mine, after all."

When he calls her on making his decisions for him, she flinches and looks away. Rather than stay looking shamed or contrite, however, she slips into a mien more thoughtful. Even if the grass on Mateo’s side of the fence isn’t Kentucky blue, it has to be a damn sight better than her barren garden, hasn’t it?

It wounds me, he says, and she snaps up out of her reverie again. Her shoulders sag and she looks horrified at herself. It’s obvious her intention wasn’t to hurt him. “Ace, mon phare, you misunderstand me. I want us to be a family. You aren’t being passed over for that, you’re being included in that.”

Except that if he won’t give it to her, well…

Her head dips down again, gaze fixed on the glass suspended between her knees by her fingertips. It’s cruel to him to bank on the idea that he would bond with a child, if they were to add one to their household. Unfair to simply assume that he’ll make that leap and discover a connection deeper than he thought possible. And could she nurture enough, provide love enough to balance out that apathy he’ll carry? Could she make this okay?

Odessa wants to believe she could, but there’s no way of knowing for sure, and while the warning signs all say to leave it alone, that he is not the person to build such a future with, she dismisses it as making choices for him again.

There’s cautious optimism, but she has to know, “What do you believe I should be striving for, my artist? Beyond managing your murder business.” She sits up again slowly, mindful of the way her spine has bowed and the small shifts that occur when she does. The earlier hunching over her books sends a reminder in the form of a dull ache and the quiet, but audible sound of a vertebra slotting back into place. There's no complaint made for it beyond the minute and momentary crease of her brow. Instead, she waits with an open curiosity for his answer, a light thing that is unburdened by a judgement waiting to be rendered.

"Passed over, no," Ace demures in reply to the subject of family. "But neither am I alone enough of one." Further conversation along those lines feels akin to picking at a thin scab, and yet he won't just let it lie. Getting his sourness out now might be the better call, even so. But he loathes this miserable feeling— this uncertainty and precariousness between them. It's not the fun kind. He knows better than to push them back in that direction now, too.

What he envisions for her is such a difficult concept to find a single answer when so much of it is an ideal, but he tries anyway. "Going freelance is still just a daydream I've not put enough effort into to call it more than that, O. In that perfect world where I would be well-connected enough to find steady clientele, I would trust you with the keys to my livelihood. I would trust you to be my partner in planning a job's execution. I would welcome your eye in making things artistic and interesting, to provide a fresh perspective."

He shifts to the side, leaning on the elbow of his free arm while he rests his glass against his knee. "What I expect to be more attainable, what I hope for you is that you will stand by my side as I slowly insinuate myself closer to the heart of d'Sarthe's affairs. That you will use your eyes and your ability to likewise gain deeper insight to weaknesses in his operation. Some we will shore defenses against, and others… others we will ply."

"We will find who among the pack could be trusted to follow us were we to erode confidence in his leadership. We will prove ourselves capable enough to step up should he fall."

Ace wears a small smile, knowing, satisfied as he lifts his glass again. "And then— we will cause him to trip, and see where everything lands." After the sip, his mood mellows. "But it only works smoothly if I have a partner I can trust. Not just in the matter of gathering information, but ensuring the desired outcome once we have it." His eyes flit back to hers, head tilting slightly in his study of her. "This is the role I hope you step into, Odessa. Not one as passive as you would hope for yourself. But one where you look toward a future of power for yourself as well."

How is he so good at making her feel like she’s the bad guy for having a dream she wants to pursue? Odessa fights against that current, trying not to let herself get swept up in the way she hurts him by wanting more than he alone can provide, trying to give herself permission to want more. And still, she turns in her seat and reaches out to lightly clasp her hand around his forearm. “Ace…”

It’s not like that. Or… Or is it?

But he glosses past it, and she follows along behind him, left to stew in her conflicted feelings and mire herself in her misery. It further compounds when he again reminds her that his dream is just that. That he’s given no more planning or thought into it than that, and nor should she. Not on his behalf at any rate. She finds the role she’d play in it gratifying, however, a small smile on her lips. It’s quite the ask for him. Quite the display of trust.

So, too, is the goal he establishes as more attainable. One he believes he can make a reality, with her assistance. It sees the fingers around his arm firming slightly, Odessa leans toward Ace, interest having sparked a fire in her eyes. A fire that consumes her guilt feelings and reduces them to ash. “You want to usurp Gideon d’Sarthe?” The very idea of it… “That is ambitious.”

He has her attention.

That blonde head tilts to one side, her eyes widening slightly. Her appreciation for him growing. “You want me for that?” It practically takes her breath away. Managing his freelance career is different. There’s no adversary for them to stand up against. No one he might worry she’d betray him to. This… This is different. It’s fraught with so many opportunities for personal treason.

And he’s offering his trust.

“Have you met me?” she jokes at her own expense. “I thought you said you’d done your research.” Amusement dances in her blue eyes.

"My muse," Ace chides her, no amusement in his own. "I trust you, in this case, to do more than be loyal to me. I trust you to be loyal to yourself, as well. To want to no longer be in debt just as much or more than you enjoy the thrill of my goal."

He turns his arm over under her hand, offering the inside of wrist, his forearm. It, too, is a declaration of trust— granting her access to parts of himself that make his hair raise in that disarmingly unpleasant way when brushed. It emphasises his seriousness in this matter.

And all the while, his emotional keel remains even.

"But yes— I have met you. I've met new yous almost every day this last half-year. And in them all, I see someone who's capable of helping me with this. I think you will rise to the challenge. I think that level of power is something you deserve to take for yourself." The corner of his mouth is touched with a smile, his eyes glinting in the low light.

"What do you say?"

Loyal to herself. What a novel concept. But his reasoning for it… He hits the nail on the head. He finds Odessa’s weak point and uses it to spur her acceptance of this notion of his. To no longer be in debt… Her gaze shifts to one side as she turns the thought over in her mind. “He wouldn’t own me anymore…” Her eyes flicker back to Ace, excited by the prospect.

This changes everything. If he plans not to stay in this station, but to rise above it, beyond just replacing Jason Mines as d’Sarthe’s most-trusted lieutenant… He could give her her freedom. Truly. It’s almost an instinct that sees her fingers drift toward his wrist when he turns over his arm, feeling his pulse beneath his skin. She doesn’t count the beats against the seconds. Hers is racing. It matters not if his matches its pace.

Her hand withdraws again, rewarding his trust by not engaging in any behavior that further elicits his discomfort. Odessa looks off across the living space and he can see the gears turning in her head. Now she does finish off her drink, setting the glass aside on the end table between their seats.

There’s a wry smirk when she speaks up again. “You know I’ll only ever be seen as a bitch on a leash, don’t you?” She turns her head to look his way again, mostly from the side of her eye. There’s no accusation leveled at him here. “And I’m unwilling to do the things that would make them fear me properly.” Odessa runs her tongue over the front of her teeth as she mulls the scenario over. “I don’t like to be feared anyway,” she admits. “I vastly prefer to be underestimated.”

His smile twists now as well, becoming a more knowing, pleased thing. His excitement dances under his skin, though he keeps his voice to a low purr. "And once again, your disguise proves to be your shield and sword. Gaining their trust is paramount to gaining fear. Fear erodes, eventually. Trust is a more steady foundation. It is that way in all human interaction. Motivation through fear is much more effective… later."

Ace lets out a chuckle as he dances for a moment with the idea of becoming seated so firmly in power he could enjoy the luxury of inspiration through fear. It's a dark, intoxicating thing he puts aside quickly.

For matters related to the d'Sarthe Group, that road is yet long and filled with labors first. He mustn't let his head get filled with grandeur too early. He mustn't slip.

But she feeds him so with her excitement. They twine around each other like this, an ouroboros of dark inspiration. He doesn't need her ability to be elated by her and sated by her— her physical reactions are enough fuel. Ace smiles to her with warmth. "So you understand now why distractions, weakness could endanger us. My hesitation to commit now to the addition of something that would be nothing but."

He's talking about a child again.

"There's a time and place for all things. And for now— there's only space enough for a trial run." There's a tension in his eyes alone, which carry the pinpoint of hope that she understands— more than understands, accepts!— his deferment. That needle which hopes to tear through her hesitation of him and seeks in turn to sew them closer together.

"Do you understand, my muse?"

Odessa nods along, weighing the balances between fear and trust, understanding well what he means. She’s experienced both carrot and stick. She knows which has historically worked better for her. She’s receptive to his insights.

But she catches on to his implication, turning to look at him properly again, her body twisting in her seat. He can see her light dim, but not go out entirely. She’s considering it. What it would mean for them. It’s easy for her to catastrophize the situation. To envision a situation in which a child could be used against them in this quest of theirs for power.

Used against her, which could in then be turned on him.

She’s already a liability against him, and Odessa appreciates just how big a leap it must be for him to accept her and the danger that represents. Partnerships are rewarding, but they’re also perilous. Again, she nods. Accepts, just the way he wants her to.

“I do.” Even if it does bring a touch of sadness to her next smile. “I can content myself with the exploration of our trial run,” she means to assure him. “But, I have to ask…” More mirth creeps its way into her expression. “You had to be fucking with me with that list. You did not seriously add—”

Her own laughter cuts off her thought. Odessa curls in on herself a little through the small bubbles of it, finally coming back up again with a sigh. “A wolfhound?” Ace, please.

His brows lift delicately, his countenance angelic levels of innocence. "You cannot tell me you would not gain some amount of satisfaction from having such a creature respond to your command." The grin that grows after saying so is decidedly less innocent.

Ace leans forward from his seat to grant her a kiss before standing. It just felt right.

"Tell me I'm wrong," he dares her with that smile, relief hiding in that playful nip. He takes her glass along with his as he makes his way toward the kitchen to rinse them. Enroute, he downs the rest of his bourbon, savoring the warmth and burn of the large gulp he takes.

“Maybe some,” Odessa admits with a little shake of her head. “You’re still incorrigible,” she insists. But that’s okay. It’s just one of the many traits she enjoys in him. When she realizes he means to kiss her, she leans in to meet him halfway, giving him her enthusiasm and providing to him the knowledge that this whole business was a bump in the road. They just needed to talk it out. As long as he remains willing to approach things in this way, maybe they will continue to thrive with one another.

While he takes their drinkware to the kitchen, she leans back against the couch and tips her head back, eyes closing to appreciate the warmth she feels spreading through her. This languidness is a balm for her previously bruised feelings. One corner of her mouth quirks upward in a smirk, voice lifted to carry to him as she asks, “What would I even do with that kind of power anyway?”

Water beginning to run, Ace voices softly over his shoulder, "That's the best part— anything you want." He looks back to the sink, dotting soap onto a textured sponge. "My only request is you don't squander it. But we have plenty of time to sort out these kinds of thoughts and turn them into plans… and I am nothing if not patient when it comes to matters like these."

While he cleans, Odessa receives an accidental tug on her invisible tether as Aman rolls over, pawing blindly for her presence. He feels the pulse of her emotional state as he rouses, and he relaxes upon finding it lacking the darkness he'd nodded off in. A ping of curiosity and gladness makes its way to her. Everything sorted out after all?

Anything you want. Odessa barely knows what she does want most days. Except for the thing they’ve agreed not to pursue. For now, she reminds herself. That’s enough to keep her content for the moment. This is just the first step on the path to fulfilling her desires. He’s given her something far more valuable than that simple promise anyway, in the reveal of his own goals.


But then there’s that ripple. Odessa sits up and turns her head as if to look over her right shoulder, attuning herself more readily to the frequency of Aman’s emotions. The guiding star she can’t see while the beacon Ace represents burns so brightly. There’s a heaviness to her, a doubt seeds itself. She pushes it deep into the soil of her mind to be forgotten for now, but it will only take stronger root later. She covers over the moment with a brief sensation of confusion, then lets the warmth return to her. Yes. It’s going to be fine.

Slipping her phone out of her pocket while Ace busies himself with the dishes, she logs back into her app and backspaces the message she had queued up to send. There’s no need now to signal her distress, to cry for help.

O: All’s well. Going to shut down for a bit so I can get some rest. Don’t work too hard.

She waits a few moments to give him a chance to read the message, even though she’s already closed out of the app and locked her phone again. It won’t trigger a telltale notification if he responds.

There’s a quiet little sound as Odessa sags back against the couch again that edges on a moan of relief when she disengages her ability. Like it’s a position she’s held too long, but hadn’t realized was causing discomfort. Then, she is stretching her arms out in front of her, twisting at the hips briefly before reaching for her cane and pushing to her feet. Her movements toward the kitchen are slower than she’d like, but achieved without true difficulty.

Her free arm wraps around Ace from behind, resting her palm flat over his chest while turning her head to press her cheek against his back in this embrace. “Leave the dishes in the sink,” she tells him, eyes closing heavily under the influence of that large glass of bourbon as she breathes in the scent of his cologne. “Let’s go upstairs.”

Ace looks over his shoulder at her as he shuts off the running tap, judging again in silence if she really means what she says this time. His appraisal ends when it pulls a small smile at the corner of his mouth.

Looks like in this give-and-take of plotting fantasy into reality, they'll both walk away with a little of what they originally wanted out of the night after all.

Dropping the sponge into the sink and setting the glass aside, he dries his hands on a towel hanging from the cabinet beneath the sink before turning back into her, setting his hands on her waist and letting them slowly work their way toward her back. "Gladly," he tells her with such warmth it can't help but be felt. He's infused with that happiness.

She's come back to him at last. They really have worked over that kink in the rope, and they'll come out better for it.

"Je t'aime, Odessa," he murmurs to her passionately, head dipping to hers for a kiss filled with relief and need, tasting of the alcohol they've both taken in. One scent and taste shared between them both, and it feels maddeningly right. Just another example of the union of wills they've achieved.

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