(But You Didn't) Begin to Be


aman_icon.gif odessa4_icon.gif

Scene Title (But You Didn't) Begin to Be
Synopsis Could've done about anything…
Date December 28, 2020

Callahan-Price Residence


All good things come to an end.

The sleepy between-holiday schedule at the Raytech offices made for a late post-Christmas start. Ace is already gone from the bed by the time Odessa wakes, closed away but nearby in his office. She can hear the muted sound of him carrying on a one-sided conversation, playing the part of Harry while he tends to his day job, as he occasionally refers to it. His actual clients for his front job are few and far-between, but his regulars tend to be big spenders. The register he's using hints one may be on the phone with him.

Her phone lays on the nightstand while the sun streams in the four-paned window by the bed. Turning it into its side reveals it's nearly ten o'clock.

It also renews the unread message notification that had crept its way into her phone last night.

How did he let her sleep so late? Well, she must have needed it, or Ace decided she did. The weekend was full of activity, after all. Odessa sits up and stretches her arms over her head, propping herself up against the pillows and the headboard.

The first thing she reaches for is the yellow sapphire ring in the jewellery tray, sliding it easily on to her finger and taking a moment to admire it for approximately the eight millionth time before swiping her phone up with a yawn.

Passcode entered to unlock the application after first unlocking her phone with a different one, the message that pops up is a different tenor than the ones usually exchanged.

12/27 20:08 Amanvir: I'm sorry about Christmas. Can we talk about it?

Odessa frowns. Her warm feelings suddenly drop in temperature. Trepidation sets in. Maybe she should mull it over first. Start her morning routine and think about it before she responds. She gets as far as pulling the covers away from her lap before she’s tapping over the keyboard on her screen.

12/28 09:52 O: Nothing to be sorry for.

Good god, what a lie.

12/28 09:53 O: Meet for coffee at our usual? Or did you have something else in mind?

It takes time for a response to come through. It hits read status two long minutes later, and takes another three before the first attempts at a message filter through with a stuttering of typing indicators.

12/28 10:05 Amanvir: @ work already. lunch break @ 1.

This is more his usual cadence, at least. Not the well-structured, well-thought-out language of his initial message. He struggles again with his wording for some time before he finally commits to how he wants to handle this.

12/28 10:07 Amanvir: are u free after im off? 5:30

Refusing, absolutely refusing to be left hanging on a string for Amanvir to bother to reply to her, Odessa gets out of bed and moves to her closet to pick out her clothes for the day.

She had them laid out last night, like she always does. But that was before she thought she might be meeting with Aman.

A tremor of annoyance and frustration is tempered by notes of excitement. Her feelings for him are complicated at best and made more difficult by the new ring on her finger. Odessa’s heart sinks. In the heat of the moment, she made a decision about her relationship with Ace and the shape of it going into the future that means having made a decision about her relationship with Aman.

The outfit she puts together is comprised of warm, earthy tones. Leggings, a wool skirt, cardigan and lower cut blouse. A soft woven scarf will make that particular piece of the ensemble appear more modest.

Having showered the night before, she sits down on the edge of the bed to dress, already grateful for the chance to sit and rest. She only manages to tug on her leggings before she reaches for her phone again to check the messages she’s finally received.

12/28 10:13 O: Yes, I’m free. Did you need something on lunch, or…? I’ll be open then too.

She shouldn’t be, given the late start already, but she will be if he needs her.

Elsewhere, she can't feel the way her message sets a tightness to his throat. This message goes on read for longer than it takes to pen his answer.

12/28 10:17 Amanvir: id rather not rush it. can meet u wherever after work

Odessa nods at the message on the screen as if he could see her reaction. She doesn’t leave him waiting this time.

12/28 10:18 O: Your place? 5:45-ish? Give or take, with traffic. I don’t have the car today.

She expects tears on her part. She’d rather not be in a public venue for that.

12/28 10:19 O: I can bring wine or beer. It’ll be just like we went out somewhere.

The loose wrap of the scarf around her neck is the finishing touch to her ensemble. The phone is slipped in her pocket so she can grab her cane and have a hand free for the railing when she makes her way down the stairs.

But first, she pops her head in to the office to offer a blown kiss and a silent wave so Ace knows she’s up and getting ready to head out for the day.

Ace glances up at her out of the corner of his eye. He's working, distant as usual when his mind is on other matters not explicitly her. He lifts a hand in acknowledgement, hello, and farewell of his own. His fingertips go to his mouth and partly back to her in a half-gesture of affection before he turns back to his screen.

Aman's reply takes far too long to come. She's arrived to Raytech by the time it does.

12/28 10:49 Amanvir: I'll try to get there earlier, but it's probably closer to 6 before I get home. I'll see you there.

12/28 10:52 O: 6:15-ish it is, then. Give you time to settle in. See you tonight.

Aman's Townhome

Northern Roosevelt Island

The additional time did him a courtesy in the fact he was able to change into other clothes, starting a load of laundry. But then there were still additional minutes until she arrived.

He's been weird all day. He had a period of overwhelmedness following the link being reawakened by turning on her ability shortly before noon, and in some ways, it feels like he's not really recovered. It's been easy to tell when he's busy with something versus not, as the complicated unease to him sinks in only in spurts before determination spikes to set him into another activity.

So Aman sets about cleaning the first floor while he waits. Two cans he hadn't even realized he'd left in the living room are pitched. The rug is recentered under the coffee table. The kitchen counter is spritzed with cleaner and wiped down before he thinks to himself maybe he should put on some tea? Frustration knifes its way through him, anxiety left in the tear behind it. No, she said she was bringing drinks.

But maybe neither of them should be drinking?

Maybe initiating this whole conversation was a mistake. Maybe he should abandon course and find something else to talk about. Bring up Faulkner— who he'd handed off the storefront keys to before leaving work— or maybe bring up… something. Anything but the conversation he does and does not want to have.

The clock on the stove reads 6:13.

Odessa’s been sitting in a car across the street for the last several minutes. Her timing had been roughly perfect, but how could it be anything but, when she can sense the progress of the other end of her tether across town? The fifty she slipped into the driver’s hand allows her the luxury of dithering now, of thinking over what tone they should be setting. What she should be expecting.

All day, she’s been trying to send him nudges of assurance. All day, they’ve been all but shoved away. Not necessarily cruelly, but it clues her in to the fact that something is very wrong. The hum of his anxiety seems louder now that she’s so very much closer to him than she was earlier.

That isn’t how it works, but sometimes… Sometimes it seems like it must.

Suddenly, she’s glad that she picked up two six-packs of beer. Something darker and more oaty for him and something tart and fruit-forward for herself. Maybe they’ll get through them both. Maybe they’ll only get through half a bottle.

Odessa will never know if she doesn’t get out of the car.

So, finally, she does. The bulk of the canvas sack carried on her shoulder, the cardboard corners of the six-packs poking awkwardly against the fabric, is unpleasant at best, but she doesn’t have far to go with it. Her purse is hanging from the angle of her opposite elbow, her hand on her cane, which she leans heavily on as she makes her way across the street and up the couple steps to Amanvir’s door.

He’s closeby, so she knocks with the head of her cane rather than push the button for the bell.

The sound of her closeness, a thing that he doesn't have the same keen awareness of, sends him shoving down the guilt that had started to unconsciously pour from him. He hides it away, sticking the stained piece of laundry back down deep into the pile of everything else needing cleaned and aired out.

Aman's steps are light, feet bare as he comes to the door. He hesitates for a split second, then pulls the door unlocked and open, gesturing with a tip of head for her to enter. "C'mon, it's freezing out there." They didn't get snow in the city like they did up north, but winter's cold is still very present in the wind that blusters down the streets.

Everything is easier and not with her being here. He relaxes, visibly, on seeing her. He only just stops short of giving her affection. Instead: "Here, let me." Out goes a hand for the heavy bag.

He's in jeans and a jersey shirt, pale red with a low, black collar which exposes the black twine necklace with tiny colored beads he has about his neck. The house, as ever, is warm and inviting. Slowly there's been additions made to make it feel fuller, more lived-in. A plant hangs in the living room now, long vines of growth draped halfway to the floor visible from the entryway.

Aman manages to meet her eyes finally. It brings a still to the swirl of emotions in him for a missed heartbeat, everything coming to settle when he remembers to function again. Guilt stirs again at the back of his mind.

He isn’t wrong. It is cold outside. And for all that Odessa loves snow, gosh, she hates the cold. Blame it on spending the entirety of her formative years in climate controlled spaces. Grateful to be out of it, and more grateful still for the way he helps her unshoulder her burden, she’s quick with a smile. “At least it’s still cold,” she says airily with a nod to the beer in her grocery sack.

While he moves to set that aside, Odessa starts to nudge out of her shoes with her toe against one heel, then the other. She spots the ring she’s already grown accustomed to wearing on her left hand. The second shoe is hastily kicked aside so she can yank the beautiful jewel off her finger and shove it into the pocket of her skirt before it can be noticed. That’s a conversation she wants to have on her own time. Bring up in her own way.

By the time he’s got that task done, she’s shrugging out of her heavy overcoat, draping it over her left arm with her purse for now. “I like the new plant,” she remarks idly, but not awkwardly. The compliment is a genuine thing. She does like the plant. She likes how the place is shaping up.

It doesn’t distract from how natural it had felt to want to lean in to kiss him when he greeted her at the door. She can’t tell his guilt from her own.

"It's supposed to flower in the winter," Aman says from the kitchen instead of thank you, self-conscious. "It only got as far as budding in some places, though." He sets the bag down on the cleaned countertop, one pack retrieved from it, then the other. "I was hoping it'd help get rid of some of the winter blues. I guess it's just more sensitive to the cold than I thought."

Some kind of severely non-native plant, then.

"I, um…" Aman pauses then, hand resting on top of the procured packs. He doesn't move, head lifting to look out the window behind his sink, to the river shortly beyond the back of the townhome.

"How was Christmas?" he asks, figuring there's no better time to rip that particular band-aid off than now.

“They’re always tricky,” Odessa offers in consolation. “You have to feel them out and get to know what works for them and what doesn’t. Next winter will probably be better.” The urge to step in closer and try to examine the plant up close is resisted. It’d provide a lovely distraction, but…

But Aman’s cutting straight to the heart of things. There’s no space for distraction.

Her own guilt must just radiate off of her. She worries that it will overwhelm the man she’s here to see and considers shutting it off to spare him. No, he deserves the weight of her emotions. “It was nice,” Odessa admits in a soft voice. “It was really nice.” What’s the sense in lying to him? Doesn’t he want to know when things go well for her besides? This is what she tells herself, anyway, to try and ward off her sense of shame.

He has enough of that for them both over how he acted then. For how he didn't act before then.

"I'm sorry," Aman says clearly. Then he jolts, beginning to turn back with a hand lifted in defense. "No-Not that you had a good time, just that… the way I acted. I didn't…" He was looking at her, but now he can't, a flicker of pain in his expression. "I'm glad you had a good holiday."

It's just tinged with sadness and self-loathing.

"And I'm sorry that I got upset." That one's just as it reads on the label. Aman looks back to Odessa with hesitation in his eyes. "I just…" His lips purse together before the words fall from him soft, yet heavy like a stone. "It hit me, that if you were that happy— that happy spending another holiday with him… that you're probably not leaving him after all."

His shoulders dip with how he deflates on that admission. "And I didn't know how to handle it."

“You have… nothing to apologize for,” Odessa meets his gaze for the moment she has it. She can do that much for him. “If I’d been in your shoes, I’d have reacted the same way.” She shakes her head, stepping closer to where he is in the kitchen, feeling awkward just staying in the entryway.

She’s still there when he comes back to her with that hesitation. She doesn’t flinch. It hurts. God, it hurts so fucking much, but it’s what they’ve needed to talk about for a while now. He set her on the notion that she had to leave and then just… never followed up. Their interactions became less about them and more about how she could help Isaac, and that wasn’t just due to Aman’s incredibly big heart. The distance has been growing for some time. It’s good to finally address it, even if it’s like antiseptic in an open wound.

“You’re right,” Odessa admits finally. “I’m not leaving him. I tried… I tried, Aman.” For this, he earns a sad smile. “I told you what it’s like…” There’s a pause where she presses her lips together and gives her head a small shake. “No. That isn’t fair.” She doesn’t clarify at first what about what she had intended to say qualifies as unfair. Maybe all of it.

“I thought if I could present myself as something plain, boring, he’d get the notion in his head on his own. That he would make the choice to end things. It seemed safest.” Odessa runs her fingers through her hair and sighs heavily. “I tried playing up how badly I just want a normal life. I fought with him about wanting children. I tried to overwhelm him with my commitment to my plans. Nothing helped. He saw through everything.

Finally, she looks away. Not because it’s hard to continue to hold that contact, but because she needs the moment to reflect. “And instead of rejecting me, he just reaffirmed how much he wanted me. Whatever form that takes.” One hand scrubs over the lower half of her face, careful not to smear her lipstick. “May I sit down?” she asks. Or maybe this is when he asks her to leave.

It hurts when she confirms what he already knows. His heart feels like it's made of wet paper, and whatever light object represents those four words tears right through him. Jaw set, he nods thrice. Proves that at least externally, he'll be amicable about this.

But his grief is back, the same way it was Christmas Eve. It's eased some upon hearing she did try. That she really did follow through on what she said she would, in trying to create a safe exit for herself. That gives him a sense of reassurance he's been lacking.

It doesn't erase everything else, but it takes his mourning and numbs it some.

When she asks to sit, he doesn't have an answer at first, on a delay. He slips out one of the bottles she's brought, the ones meant for her. He twists the cap off with the heel of his hand, offers it out to her while looking at her, but not meeting her eyes.

Yeah, she can sit.

"I didn't know," Aman admits. About any of that. He'd avoided asking, avoided trying to pressure her or make her feel anxious. He'd held out such hope at first— conflicted as it might have been— that she'd really go through with leaving Ace.

Aman had wanted to make sure he didn't put her in a position where she could be found out to be cheating. To let her control the narrative. It was different in the fall when they'd gotten together for coffee regularly— they had nothing to hide at that point. After the start of November, he'd gotten nervous.

First he put distance between them physically to give himself time to think, on top of keeping them safe. Then it became something else, and that something else became something else, and…

Had he even seen her this entire month until now?

"I don't know if I can sit," he admits after he pulls out a beer for himself. "I've got too much…" He makes a vague hand gesture to symbolize his nervous energy.

Odessa accepts the beer with a murmured gratitude, pulls out a chair at the kitchen table and sits with her hands wrapped around it, pensive. She watches him, feels him cycle through his emotions as he organizes his thoughts. The worst of it, for her, is over. For now. There’s more yet to come, but… maybe not tonight. She can hope.

What he gets from her now is her patience. He has to work through this, even if he’d already known. There’s such a difference knowing, but hoping you’re wrong, and having what you know confirmed. “It’s okay,” she tells him when he says he won’t join her at the table. There’s a smile that plays prelude to a moment of her own self-deprecating humor. “You’re not the one too weak to stand anyway.”

Meaning Odessa truly doesn’t have many outlets for her own nervous energy right now. At least the restless tap of her socked foot against the tile is silent. She takes a drink and mulls over her own feelings.

It’d hurt when he’d first withdrawn, but she understood it. They’d crossed over a line, some point of no return, and now everything they did… they would have to be careful. But days stretched on into weeks, and she hasn’t seen him since… before Thanksgiving? The shift in the tenor of their link had been impossible not to notice. She’d hoped it would resolve itself, but…

This is how it’s getting resolved, she supposes.

Aman lies to himself that he's fine with this, ignoring how it takes himself two tries to get his own drink open. He likewise tries to convince himself it's not because of this that his arm wants to shake when he finally takes a sip of the beer.

It's deep. Different. Reminds him of the him she thinks he could be rather than the canned light-beer trash he often relegates himself to be.

He doesn't know what to say.

"It's not okay," he finally says, voice raw. It surprises him that that is the resulting tone of all the pent-up tension in him. Those weren't the words he meant to say but they're the ones that came out.

"Des, you know he wants you, but does he even love you?" This is the point he'll endlessly struggle with, and his brow furrows in concern when he looks back to her. "All the shit you told me about him, O— you told me you were afraid of him. All he's done is prove he'll do whatever it takes to hold onto you."

"Do you even love him?" he asks, bewildered, and he finally realizes why. "All you've said is that he saw through your attempts to get away from him."

His voice is quiet from his hurt. He doesn't know what he expects from this line of questioning, but it's not filled with knives. If anything, there's a desire to genuinely understand beneath the nauseating confusion that somehow they really did slip this far apart from each other.

Knowing just how and just why it happened at least from one angle makes him feel no less satisfied about the outcome, apparently. He grapples with the same longing upset he did when he first realized she wasn't coming back to him.

“Do you forget I can feel what he feels for me?” Of course he doesn’t. If anyone’s aware of how keyed in to another’s emotions Odessa is at any given time, it’s the man across from her, struggling with his beer like it’s a metaphor for his words.

“He’s changing…” Odessa doesn’t know any other way to explain it. When she explained how terrified she was of him, Ace began to make changes. When she told him she wouldn’t stand for the way he treated her, he made changes. “He’s trying. I don’t feel like he’s trapping me. He’s not laying crumbs to a cage.” Which is saying, yes, she loves him, in the vaguest of terms. Because to speak the words out loud is to never, ever be able to take them back. And she’s not ready to burn that bridge yet tonight.

There’s that sad smile of hers again. “I’m not a solitary creature, Aman. I lived that life for far too long to be comfortable with it anymore.” Odessa takes another drink and stares down at the table. “I’m a wolf. I need a partner. A pack. I can’t go back to being alone. I can’t take it.”

And she grapples with her own longing upset when she realized he wasn’t coming for her.

“Where were you?” She looks up at him, tears in her eyes. “I told you… I told you what happens when I’m with him. I looked for you. I looked to the skies and there was nothing. My guiding star wasn’t there.” The first tear rolls down her cheek. Its twin follows shortly thereafter on the other side. “You weren’t there.” When she needed him most, he was absent. “I needed you to prove you really wanted me, and you didn’t.

Odessa wipes at her face, lips pressed together to avoid making any of the despondent sounds welled up inside of her. Finally she draws in a shaky breath. “When things got hard, you became a ghost in my life. Haunting me, punishing me for moments of happiness. Pushing me away when I tried to reach out to you.” It’s unbearable.

Odessa insists he's changing and Aman feels her belief in that. It helps numb the conflict within him only on the surface level. He massages the lower half of his face as he tries to work through those feelings and her words at the same time.

His eyes go back to her when she asks him where he was, the tears in hers leaving a knife in his heart. Each tear that falls leaves a rip in him, knife sailing down from heart to stomach.

"I don't want to be alone either, Des," he admits with strain in his voice. His arms fall, folding tightly before him even with his drink still grasped. "I've not been in anything steady for a long time, and—"

But that's an excuse. Isn't it? Aman breaks off his words with a tear of a breath, looking down.

Regret swims in him. "I didn't mean to," he protests vacantly. "God, I didn't mean to, I just—" He looks from one side to the other and then properly sets his drink aside on the counter. Gingerly, he reaches out across the link with concern, compassion. He tries to mentally slip his hand into hers to show just how sorry he is.

Grief and frustration taint things shortly after, though. "I was afraid. Afraid to break things, to force them, to put you in a bad position. To—" His eyes close as he forces the words out. "To have to figure out what the fuck I was going to do if you were dead serious about picket fences and a stable lifestyle when I'm a fucking delivery boy with a side-hustle, Des." Wounded not so much by her ideal, but by his own inability to find himself capable of or worthy of it, he opens his eyes to look back to her. "I panicked. I choked."

"I let you down."

Aman presses his lips together in a firm line before wetting them as he tries to find what to say next. "I hurt us because I choked. I wasn't there because I don't know how to be— not on a long-term basis. I don't know what the fuck I'm doing, least of all when it comes to you." He can't even bring himself to drown out the taste of that with a beer, living his self-loathing in a way he's been trying to do his best to avoid outside of the very specific periods of time their link hasn't been active. "I was afraid, okay? Not just afraid that he'd find out you cheated on him and what he'd do to you if he found out, but just— just afraid."

"I didn't know things were falling apart between us until it was too late. I— I kept hoping something would happen. That if you needed me, you'd call. That if you went through a rough spot, that…" He fumbles, uncertain where he's going. His expression sinks in a solemn, hollowing sadness. "But you didn't. You were doing great, and I just…" His voice drops, weakening to nearly a murmur. "I didn't know what to make of it."

“I tried to reach you,” Odessa insists, her voice raw even though she hasn’t been crying hard, like she wants to. Emotionally, she reaches for that outstretched hand of his, the one that’s been entirely fucking absent for weeks now, and holds on. “I sent you texts. I asked you to meet me. I… I invited you out, and you kept saying no.

More tears fall as her face contorts with her misery. “I don’t know what else I was supposed to do!” Elbows on the table, Odessa buries her face in her hands and just sobs, her shoulders hunched, body curled in on itself as much as the furniture allows for it.

There's only a moment of torn hesitation on his part before he leans away from the counter quickly. He does what he only wishes he could do most of the times he feels her pain; he reaches out to rest a hand on her shoulder physically as he leans into her emotionally.

It’s not enough, and it’s far too late in coming, but it’s something.

After several moments of this, she lifts her head again, staring up at Aman with her wounded expression and incredulity. “I don’t care that you’re a delivery boy. I make money. I’m a fucking scientist. Financially, I can be that stability. What I don’t have is— Is emotional stability. I don’t have a partner who looks out for me and is there to catch me when I fall.”

She pauses, swallowing down another round of tears. “Or… I didn’t. Until I forced his hand, I guess. You left me alone with a lion, and I had to train him not to devour me. And it worked.” Odessa leans back in her chair. Her misery churns over into anger manifesting as indignance, because it’s easier to handle, even if it’s unfair. That icy blue gaze hardens, her lip curling into a sneer.

It all hurts so much. Like the ache is expanding inside of her ribs and they might just crack when it outgrows the cage it’s trapped in. “I survived. It’s all I know how to do.” She laughs, a bitter and broken sound in the face of all that sorrow she holds so tightly in her heart, blocked in by four chambers packed with ice water and salt. “And you’re right. I’m doing great. Without you. Because I had to.”

She tried to retreat from him emotionally, but he can feel the parts of her that are crying out to him, reaching desperately and begging to be saved from herself. This complicated creature that is Odessa Price.

What right does he have to do anything at this point in the way of offering support? She's right. She had to learn how to stand on her own without him. When the monster who wanted to lay claim to her heart wouldn't back down, she tamed it— alone.

But he drops to a kneel beside her, his eyes mournful. The cold salt of her stings, numbs parts of him, but he can't tear free of it. Like wet to cold, he sticks, even if it's painfully at this point.

"I wasn't sure I knew how to be everything you want me to be. I'm still not." His voice weakens with that admission. "And I don't know what to do now, Des. I don't want to have to let go of you, but every goddamned thing hurts. And if you're not leaving him, I…"

His voice breaks. He can't bring himself to admit again he doesn't know what to do, or that he does know what needs to happen, for both their sakes.

In a gesture of complicated, frustrated emotion, he rises out of his crouch to embrace her tightly around the shoulders. He's so sorry, and it bleeds from him.

Later, when she reflects on this, she’ll realize she was pushing him away to spare him more pain. To save herself from making the decision she wants to make. To keep her from choosing him and having to face the consequences of that from the one who chose her freely. It seemed from the moment he met her, Ace Callahan wanted to possess Odessa Price, and she let him have his way.

And she likes that he wants to possess her. She doesn’t know any other way to be. To live.

“I love you,” she admits, finally letting some of that softness back in. “I will always… wonder what it could have been like if I’d been braver. If I’d just stayed with you when… when I tracked you down in September. If I’d just left his fucking car in front of the office and come back to you and never looked back.” By the time they’d said the words, by the time they’d slept together, it was already much too late for that. Ace had fallen in love, and no one else would do. All without her encouragement beyond her own admission of feelings.

Aman leans back from the embrace to wipe at her tears, the sweet misery of that love bleeding into him. He just shakes his head, wishing too that they'd done any number of things different. He's only just getting around to finding words to that extent when she speaks first again.

“I feel your continued disbelief, you know. When I say he truly wants me. That he means it when he says he loves me.” Odessa shakes her head with a quiet round of pained, self-deprecating laughter. “Because loving me is some kind of charity case, right? And if you couldn’t feel what’s going on inside of me, you’d think I’m the monster everyone else does.” And then it’s like a candle guttering in the wind before it finally goes out. The light in her simply dies.

Is it so hard to believe someone could love me, Amanvir?

Ĩ̷͇͈s̴̻͍̅̑̿̿͝ ̷̖́͊i̴̟̞̞̙̐̎t̶̯͓͍̰́̍̚ ̸̨̓s̸̠̅̿̒͝ơ̷̻̆͛̊ ̵̱̼̞͎͐̆̆́h̷͇̯̊̏͛ä̴̺̗̳̒͋͐r̴̡̼̼͐̄̾͘͘ḍ̸̹̫͖̂̓ ̴͓̹̀ṫ̶̍̈̓̕͜o̷̢̰̙͒ ̷̡͝b̴̬̳̔̾̊ê̵̳l̶̘̳̇̃̂̋̌͜í̷̟̎ḛ̵͕͑̓͠v̵͖̲͎̒e̸̼͍̿͋̄̋͠ ̵̫̝̉s̵͔͗̔ǒ̵͈m̶̧͔͙͚̊̈́́̕͜e̷̖̯̪̮͌́͒̈́͂o̷̻͇̬̍n̴̤͖̼͎̓́̄̌ͅȇ̸̳͎͔̻̠̊ ̸̙͍͉͎̚ç̴̠̞̝̯̌ǫ̵͉̞͕̞͒͗̈͛ų̸̳͍͖̝̒̈͗̂̓ḷ̸̗́́͠d̶̢͉͆̇̀̚̚ ̷̣͍̤̲͋̈́̆̀l̶̞̽͗͝͠o̸̢͊̓̀̾͝v̵̤̻̪̯̠̊͋͘e̸̹͐̋ ̴̢̻̳̠̮͗͂̏̂͝m̶̥̥͍͕̽͂̾͘͝ͅe̸͍͐̽̏,̸̹̮́ ̴̲͕̽A̴͖̺̥̓̕ṃ̴̨̡̫̘̈́a̴͍̞̣̱͆̎n̸̫̐̅͑̄v̸̡̰̗̥̒̕̚i̵̢͙̕r̸̛͇͖̰̱͙͛̊͝?̴̬͈͔͙͂̎͜͝

The layering of that voice over her own causes her hand to clamp over her mouth. Menace laced over the top of profound grief. She isn’t even sure, still, if it’s really speaking her same words, or if it — she — continues to speak in that language of power that Odessa is somehow able to intuit meaning from. There’s no more anger.

In its place is fear.

It might be his own. Aman flinches back from the sound in her voice, eyes widening in an expression she's never seen directed at her before. He's shocked, dropping back down onto his haunches. He… to his credit he doesn't run, even if he freezes like that, hand falling from her face.

"Des," comes from him softly, just as hollow as he suddenly feels aside from that pit of fear.

"What was that?"

The hand slowly drifts from Odessa’s mouth, which still hangs partway open. She shakes her head back and forth quickly. This is the first time someone’s reacted to it. She feels like she can’t breathe, each breath coming in as a hard gasp, new tears falling.

“You heard it too?”

He suddenly comes back to life, shhing her gently and lifting up to take her face between both hands for just a moment before rubbing his palms on her shoulders. "Breathe," he tells her. "It's okay. You're okay." For all their hurts, the both of them will be, one way or another.

Aman furrows his brow up at her. "Yeah, I heard that just now. What the fuck was that?"

Not just that sound, but the content of her question, too. "To be blunt, I don't trust that he loves you for you, that he actually loves all of you, but that's— what the fuck happened to your voice, O?"

He isn’t running. He heard that, and he isn’t running. He isn’t throwing her out of his house. Odessa makes a whining sound as she tries to keep from crying any harder than she already is. “I don’t know,” she whispers. Like if she speaks too loudly, it might come back.

His points of concern are valid and reflect her own, when she allows herself to think about them. But they aren’t her focus right now. Right now, she needs to talk about this. Because no one else has been able to hear it before.

“When— When I was a child, maybe fifteen? I manifested my ability. My ability, not this one.” Even if this curse is hers to bear, it will never be hers the way that dominion over time had been. “E- Everything stopped. And I heard this whisper. And it was like fingers crawling up my back, wrapping around my throat.” Odessa reaches up in a pantomime of the delicate but commanding touch.

“And she spoke to me in a language I couldn’t comprehend, but it spoke to me of power. And it was mine. All of it was mine. I simply had to let it take me. To be willing to endure a pain I would acclimate to and come to embrace. And I would know no equal. She spoke to me, and she promised me these things, and she delivered.

Most of that is irrelevant, isn’t it? But… perhaps not. It speaks to the profound impact of the voice on her. “When my power was torn away from me, she too was gone, and my mind was empty. I couldn’t hear her anymore. I couldn’t feel her caress within me any longer. I thought she was gone forever.” Odessa pulls out of the faraway stare she’d slipped into from the moment she started to explain her manifestation. “But… now she’s back. Only sometimes, though. You just heard her.”

Odessa closes her eyes and lets out a deep sigh that has nothing to do with weariness. It’s satisfaction. “She came back to me.” Her lips curve into a smile. Fear has begun to give way to a sense of… contentment? In some way, Odessa feels complete again. “I can’t tell what she does for me,” she admits. Her eyes open again and fix on Aman. “But it must be powerful.” Her brows come together and she leans in to cup his face. “Could you feel it?”

This must be the version of Odessa that existed before he came along. It’s hard to imagine the one he knows having been capable of the crimes she plead guilty to.

Confusion weaves its way into Aman, along with uncertainty. That much can be seen on him in addition to what she feels from him, so much quieter than anything she feels.

She's speaking, and he's listening.

She frames his face in her hands, and he feels the hair on the back of his neck raise. Odessa has never spoken of this before, shown this side of herself before. He's not run, yet, but voices speaking and promising power are outside his dominion of familiarity. Outside of his comfort, besides.

Aman reaches his hands up to curl his fingers around hers, pulling them off his face if only to hold onto them tightly. "I felt something, Des," he admits without the same awe or satisfaction she has for the voice. "Whatever it was… it made you not sound like you."

That's the gentlest possible way he can put that.

"How long has this been going on?" he asks with concern.

Odessa gasps sharply, like she’s just come up from a dive and is in desperate need of air. She holds tightly to his hands too. She trembles faintly, eyes searching unfocused for something. There’s nothing to be found, of course, except in the dark recesses of her own mind. “I’m sorry,” she says with a quick shake of her head. “I don’t know what I’m saying. F- Forget what I say.”

Her mouth presses in to a thin line. She doesn’t have to think hard about when it began. She knows. “It started the night you and I… The night you said you loved me.” Odessa looks up toward the ceiling and blinks rapidly to ward off more tears. “Ace had hit me — not hard — for scaring him when I didn’t respond to his calls or messages… and we argued. I asked if he thought he’d done anything wrong and…”

Odessa smiles hesitantly, shrugs her shoulders. “There she was.” Her eyes get a little wide, that oh my god, did this actually happen? kind of expression that comes with something that starts to unravel someone’s sanity. “Backing me up. And he didn’t hear a thing. I had to just… go on as if it hadn’t happened.”

Learning the situation drains color from Aman's face even as heat enters into him, his blood running hot. "He—?"

He hit her.

Indignant anger pours in on her behalf, sprinkled with gladness that whatever the fuck this entity in her voice is, it at least appears to be looking out for her consistently.

"Odessa, he—" Aman lifts a hand back to her cheek in protest, imploring her with his gaze and his emotions to reconsider the decision she's making to stay with someone who did that to her. His other hand tightens around hers. "Please, you can't."

She’d kept that from him for precisely this reason. But maybe if she hadn’t… Maybe if she hadn’t, he wouldn’t have left her alone the way he did. Maybe he’d have tried harder to be the knight in shining armor that she needed.

“I know it’s not right,” she admits, “but it’s okay.” And as far as she’s concerned, she’s the only person who has to be square with the situation. It isn’t anyone else’s choice but hers to forgive Ace. Her hand comes to lay over the one Aman has at her cheek. But she doesn’t peel him away.

“He and I are both broken in similar ways, even if he doesn’t realize it.” Odessa smiles sadly. “Even if I’m mending, slowly. I feel comfortable with him in ways I’ll never feel with you. I’ll never feel good enough for you. And I know you say you’re not a good guy, and that’s fine. I don’t… It probably tracks. I don’t go in for the good guys. But you’re better than I am, by comparison, so.”


Odessa works her other hand free from Aman’s grasp and reaches up to mirror the way he touches her. Leaning forward slowly she tilts her head to one side, eyes closing. As ever, she makes the offer, and he only has to take it.

It feels like the inside of him turns into a spinning top the moment she insists it's okay she suffered abuse at her partner's hand. He waits out her explanation. He furrows his brow when she insists Ace and she are similar. His confidence wobbles, and the next few moments blur as that feeling gets worse.

He doesn't know which side he'll land on when the top stops spinning. But he feels now the same way he has since their tryst last month— completely unable to influence its outcome, only able to watch it spin and be impacted by the actions of others.

Of her.

She places her hand to his cheek and that top finally hits the metaphorical table beginning to bounce. It feels like it's tearing him apart inside, its edges made of blades. Odessa closes her eyes and leans into him.

It stops.

Aman leans back into her with only his forehead, his nose brushing past hers, his chest sinking with pain that keeps him from kissing her.

It turns out he is better after all, at least in one way. He's unwilling to put her in danger of making the same mistake twice, now that she's committed to her course. His breath comes sharp as he tries to speak, but it barely nourishes his lungs for it. Aman shakes his head only once, pressing his lips to her cheek and shifting his head to cradle the back of her head so when he lifts his away from hers, they're still not parted yet.

"If this is the choice you're going to make, I can't be linked to you through it." His emotional wounds scream for saying it, but he holds his ground. "It's— it's not fair to either of us. I'll get in the way of your happiness. And you…"

She'll be impossible to move on from if she's constantly in his mind.

Aman's breath is a heavy thing before he says, "You have to figure out how to turn it off for good."

His decision is made, and god it hurts her. He’s letting her make her choice — her mistake — maybe out of some form of respect. In the end, it just feels like it’s confirming the source of her pain. He won’t fight for her.

She’s not worth fighting for.

The kiss to the cheek is accepted, his affection acknowledged for what it is. He’ll let her go, but he won’t do it without letting her know he still cares. Maybe that’s nice in its way. Maybe she’ll feel that way later. Right now, it’s all just anguish.

It’s impossible to tell where he ends and she begins.

And that’s why she has to do this.

Odessa nods her head slowly. “Close your eyes, Amanvir.” Again, she reaches up to cradle his face. She feels closer to him when she does that. More connected than they already are. Her heart is already being twisted, torn apart.

“Picture a rope,” she tells him in a soft voice, gentle. “Imagine how strong it is. All those thin, fragile fibers woven together to make something stronger than the sum of its parts.” Odessa pictures it wrapping around her throat, waiting to slowly be tightened into a noose. “Whatever you do,” she continues, “don’t imagine that rope beginning to fray.”

The suggestion is planted.

“Don’t imagine the way that each one of those fragile threads begins to pull away. A few strays here and there are nothing, of course, but a few more, and a few more… That’s a disaster. Don’t picture that.”

He will.

“The cord would slowly begin to give way under the strain without sufficient support. Snapping. And each strand in the braid breaking free makes the situation more precarious. Until…” Odessa has to pause. Already, she feels him slipping away from her. Knows that he feels the same. The tears spill down her cheeks and her voice is strained when she continues.

“Until it all… breaks.

A shuddering breath. She still feels him, because he’s here. In front of her. And she’s holding his face in her hands.

“And now there’s no more tether.”

Eyes closed, tears streaming down his own face from the immense sense of loss that overwhelms him, Aman crushes his mouth to Odessa's. He clings to her, finding kneejerk desperation wins out against every bit of well-meaning agony when he doesn't have the comfort of knowing at least it's shared.

A mess of tears make their way anew when he realizes they're there at all, one arm wrapping around her while the other cradles the back of her head.

He'd tried so hard to hold on once he realized what was happening. It hadn't helped. His vivid visualizations undid him here just as they had on Christmas Eve, but a thousand times worse now. He'd avoided thinking about the supposedly forbidden topic until she began to detail it, and that had been the point, hadn't it? He'd been shocked. He'd tried to hold on tighter. And he imagined his desperate desire to cling on had damaged it even more.

"No." Grief begins anew at the reality of losing her. He keeps his eyes closed, keeps himself pressed to her.

Maybe if they never part, maybe if he never opens his eyes, the connection isn't truly broken. He has a hollowness which speaks to the contrary, but he's desperate to hold onto the last of whatever remains now that he's faced with having to let go.

Odessa tangles her fingers in Aman’s hair when he kisses her, returning the gesture with her own sense of desperate loss. He’s still with her, but only until she leaves his home. He won’t be there by the time she reaches the curb.

They’re no longer joined at the heart.

What is the fucking point of any of it anymore? Odessa simply clings to him, crying as though for every moment she’s held back from the last month until this moment. “I don’t know how to fix it,” she wails. She never knew how she created the connection in the first place, and now it’s gone.

“Take it,” she begs him in a whisper. “Feel me. Know how much this kills me. Know you aren’t alone.”

He does, clinging to her so hard that together they slide from the seat and to the ground, the chair clattering back away from the table. Aman rocks them both as he holds onto her, trying with every bit of her ability to fix what's been broken between them.

She's so much louder this way. He can't tell where Odessa ends and he begins, and he aches, wishing he could solve this.

That's not an ability either of them currently have.

"I'm sorry," he whispers into her hair, voice broken as he holds her to his shoulder. "I'm so sorry." For not handling this well despite its necessity, for having asked for it at all. For this moment, for every mistake.

Except the first. He can't bring himself to go back to February and regret that, no matter how hard he tries.

"Odessa, I'm sorry." It's not even a plea for forgiveness, just a mournful desire for her to understand, even without her emotional state linked to his. He sinks into a deeper well of regret on realizing that once again, he's leaving her alone at a moment she might need him most.

It truly hits her when he takes her ability from her the way she asks him to. This is what it’s going to feel like. Odessa clings all the more tightly to him where they’ve curled in on each other on the kitchen floor.

She’s made mistakes, too. So many. Too many to count. If she could go back, she’d do it differently. She’d have told Aman when she was getting out of prison. She’d have had cause to refuse Ace’s ride. His offer of shelter. The chance to reclaim some power.

She’d have set herself up for a life with this wonderful man, staying in his spare room, probably going back to Raytech. She’d still be wearing her own face. Be in the familiar housing of her own body. And, hopefully, wrapped in the embrace of Aman’s arms. Without the crying.

“Me too,” she whispers back, and he feels the swell of her own regret roll over, like the churning in her gut. It’s a selfish decision she makes now. She can’t feel his reaction, and she’s certain she wouldn’t be able to take it if she could.

Odessa draws back slowly, reaching into her pocket. The ring is withdrawn and held up for him to see. The sorrow in her is an overwhelming thing. “He asked me to marry him.” She doesn’t have to spell out what her answer was.

No. The ring's presence does that for her.

She sees so clearly the way the anguish in his expression slackens away into nothing, but she can't feel what the news does to him. He's a television on mute— seen and not heard. Aman's eyes occasionally flicker with life, sometimes to the ring, but mostly back to her. Like he has to restart his focus on the conversation every few seconds.

He feels her pain as his own, one that's so much louder than his own feelings, in a way that leaves him hollow. With some effort, he tugs at the lightcord aspect of her ability, collapsing into an apathy when he successfully initiates the change. The nothingness feels only appropriate somehow.

"Why aren't you wearing it?" he wonders vacantly.

The answer to that is easy enough, if selfish. “Because I came to see you. And I— I didn’t want you to know.” Odessa shakes her head. “I took it off at work, too. I haven’t told anyone yet. I…”

"Mazel," Aman interjects in that same distant tone. He looks from the ring again back up to her, tears no longer falling freely.

Odessa recoils as if he’d slapped her. The ring goes back into her pocket, because wearing it now certainly doesn’t feel appropriate. No one is actually going to be supportive of this choice she’s made for herself. Everyone talks a big game about helping her, but they only seem to come out of the woodwork when it’s time to tell her she’s fucked up. Again.

That’s not Aman, though. Not… It’s more complicated than that.

“I thought you’d given up on me.” She’s trying to justify herself, and maybe that isn’t fair to either of them, but she can’t help it. “Especially after how you reacted on Christmas Eve. I thought you were… lost to me.”

"I was devastated, Odessa," Aman points out with clarity that would startle him. "I thought you were turning your back on me. I was trying… so hard to hold on to you. To try and get your attention before it was too late."

He acknowledges without emotion, "It was." But his shoulders sink anyway for it.

“Jesus, Aman. Haven’t you figured out by now I’m the worst at actually knowing what to do with emotions?” Odessa laughs quietly, a pained sound. “I can identify them, but I can’t tell what the hell they mean. That’s why we have an encrypted fucking chat app.” Feelings are lovely, wonderful things. But gosh does she need words to help her figure out what they’re about.

“We’re just a comedy of errors,” she says quietly. “Misinterpreting each other and… Maybe it’s not much of a comedy. But I’ve never heard anyone mention a tragedy of errors. Maybe we can just start that.” She too sags in an unconscious mirror of him.

Silence lapses between him. Her sense of humor isn't currently shared, even though it's not meant to be funny in the slightest. Aman swipes away at his cheek with the side of his thumb.

“He’d kill you,” she says, feeling hollow as she admits it. “Even if I didn’t leave him for you. Even if I just left him for my own well-being. Ever since I had that nightmare, and I called out for you… He’s seen you as a threat.”

Ace isn’t wrong, though, is he?

“This is… This is just how it has to be. He makes me happy enough.” Especially when she doesn’t think about it too hard. “And I can’t go on living if something happens to you.”

Aman sits further on in silence, processing that. He finally begins to shake his head when he makes the pronouncement, "I hope it does make you happy enough, Des." He doesn't look at her properly as he leans back to her, his lips pressing to her forehead. He holds himself there as what belongs to her slips rightly back into place, leaving his soul heavy and tired, his being sagging the way hers does when she disengages her ability.

He leans back from her, one hand to the ground, the other on the table as he climbs to his feet. He stands there for a moment, hollowed and rudderless, then turns for his drink, wrapping his hand around the bottle with all the dexterity of his hand being asleep.

"Fucked no matter which way we swing it," he says from the counter, tipping back the neck of his beer in a long swig. "So you might as well do what makes you happy in the process."

The dull ache returns in his hollowed-out emotions, a thing he tries to remedy with another gulp to chase the comment.

Odessa receives her ability back without complaint. The familiarity of it is a small comfort, even if she almost immediately shuts it down the moment Aman steps away from her, falling forward onto the kitchen floor so that she has to catch herself with her hands, trembling and panting for breath. She’s been stretched so thin. Getting to her feet is a much more difficult thing, with one hand braced on the table and one stretching out to grasp for her cane, to drag it to her for the leverage and stability to drag herself back to a standing position. If only so she can right the chair she was seated in before and settle back into it heavily.

Her beer is also grasped again and drank from in short order, long gulps. She’d like to be as numb as possible, thank you.

The glass thunks down on the surface when she looks up at him again. He doesn’t feel the spark of hope, but… neither does she. Not really. “I’d run away with you. Right now. Tonight. If you asked me.”

She knows he won’t.

The laundry in the other room announces it's done with a loud, negative buzzer, like to call her on her bullshit.

Aman turns his head toward it rather than her, too hurt to even entertain what she's suggested as more than lip service, if it even could be called that. "At some point," he opines as vacantly as he did when her ability helped him to mute his emotions, "you've got to start lying in the decisions you've made, Odessa."

He leans away from the counter, moving to head into the other room. "We both do."

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