Given Time


ace3_icon.gif odessa3_icon.gif

Scene Title Given Time
Synopsis The answer's probably never.
Date December 25, 2020

Williamsburg: Ace and Odessa’s Brownstone

December 24
10:45 pm

"It's close enough to midnight," Ace decides for them both, pinning his pen to the front of the sudoku book he's been whiling away at. He tosses it onto the endtable by the loveseat in front of the fire as he comes to his feet. The blanket he and Odessa were sharing slips partly onto the floor behind him. "I reserve the right to dote on you now."

He's thought himself incredibly patient, holding on this long. He approaches the multicolored tree, the one that through both their efforts looks unique in a well-put together way. The shining white and silver topper for the tree was his contribution in the end. It's one of the boughs that hide his present though, a nearly-flat rectangular box maybe seven inches long produced from its nestled spot.

It's held flat rather than gestured with. Ace isn't smiling as he turns back to her, his eagerness for this moment a quieter thing but no less enthusiastic. "What do you say to opening just one tonight?"

All told, there were three other presents with her name on them under the tree. It's this one, one without a nametag, that he offers to her now.

“There was nothing stopping you before.” Odessa’s tone is warm even as she teases him about his self-imposed restrictions on when he can and cannot dote on her, but only her eyes are laughing at him when he slips away from her. For her part, she picks up the bookmark she’d left laying on her knee and slides it into the novel she’s been reading. She liked Gillian Childs’ book so well, she had to buy her own copy, and now she had to properly show it love by cracking that spine and reading it cover to cover for the third time.

Looking up from setting her book aside, her gaze falls on the box, then up to her partner’s face. “That looks much too nice.” It’s kind of a joke, but also kind of not. “I’m starting to be afraid you’re going to far outclass me in this gift-giving thing.”

Not that it’s a competition. Except that it absolutely is.

Her brows lift and though she asks, “Are you sure?” she still holds her hands out to receive it.

Ace only nods, slipping the wrapped box from his hands to hers. One hand slides into the pocket of his lounge pants while he waits, watching her peel into the cream-colored paper with emerald and gold color piping diagonally across it.

His anticipation reaches an assured calm before she even opens the box. The simple cardboard peels away to reveal a cotton bedding that looks like clouds.

Upon them rest a string of pearls arranged in a circle, the ends of the strand beneath the cotton. They gleam softly in the firelight, the centermost pearl slightly larger than the rest. It's also golder— it and two others hued a yellow color which are separated from the centerpiece each by a single bulb of the paler pearl that makes up the rest of the string.

"Merry Christmas, Odessa."

There’s a small sounds that escapes Odessa’s throat when she exhales her surprise and appreciation. “Ace, it’s beautiful.” Carefully, she only brushes her fingers over the pearls at first, simply admiring them and the way that they seem to glow in the firelight with their own warmth.

There’s a sense of deja vu to this moment. Crouched before the pool of it, she peers down into the well of memory. Another box. Another necklace. Not pearlescent like this one, but faceted, blue and white. Odessa closes her eyes, a hand reaches out to grasp at her throat, to pull her down and drown her in the darkness of her past.

But she draws in a deep breath and looks up at her partner again. The past is left where it belongs. “I love it,” she tells him, carefully lifting her gift off the cloud-like pillows and letting out a quiet oh of astonishment when she sees the clasp. And even though a blush colors her cheeks, she’s giving him a small smile that borders on mischievous. “I should’ve known it would be more than pretty.” He is who he is, after all.

“I suppose you hold the key,” Odessa muses, admiring the small lock that serves in place of a more traditional clasp. The present is set aside in its box again briefly so that she can fold the blanket aside and stand up. A moment’s taken to smooth out the fluffy tangerine chiffon that makes up her nightgown and matching robe before she picks up the necklace again, holding it out to him. “Would you mind?” With her free hand, she sweeps aside the waves of her blonde hair from her neck.

"Of course," Ace says graciously, taking hold of the string so he can begin to affix it around her neck from behind.

At the same time he draws close, an attempt at withdrawal occurs, embittered and sharp. The quiet presence miles away yet as close as just over her shoulder is harder to ignore abruptly, just as her feelings are harder for him to look past. It's been hard for Aman to keep them to himself.

Tonight, though, he can't— and there's no playing off the cause of his own complicated unhappiness. Regret surfaces from the stinging quagmire along with other frustrations.

Ace reaches in front of her neck to pick up either end in each hand. "You'll have to give me a moment here…" For all the practice he's gotten the last few months on the occasions she deigns to let him assist, it's still not the most timely process.

Odessa is glad her back is to Ace the moment Aman cuts in and she experiences the emotional equivalent of being plunged into a frozen lake. The contrast of his feelings is a shock to the system. Her gaze goes unfocused, distant, like she can look through the miles between them and see him standing on the other side of her sofa.

“Take your time, my love,” Odessa responds in a gentle voice. She’s good at hiding her feelings when she needs to. “I’m in no hurry.”

Ever so slightly, she turns her head to the right, as if to better attune herself to Amanvir. Closing her eyes, she sends him a push of her own regret, her remorse. They serve to hide the flash of annoyance. How dare he be bitter about her happiness? He did everything she feared he would do.

Or rather, it’s the things he didn’t do that she feared would go undone. And they had. He’d sent her the messages she’d expected to receive.

No one really believes you can change.

You don’t deserve someone good.

You aren’t worth the effort.

You're not worth the risk.

He won’t fight for you.

You'll never change.

No one wants you.

No one except the man at her back, fastening around her neck the most beautiful collar she’s ever worn. In spite of that, she doesn’t put the blame on Aman. Ultimately, it’s her responsibility to make the choice to walk away from this. And it isn’t that she didn’t try, it’s just that…

Odessa smiles faintly, in spite of the wave of negativity from Aman. Ace took away her desire to leave. He’d changed after he admitted to loving her. He became more more attentive — not just in that possessive and jealous manner of his, though also in those ways — and seemingly more willing to accept the parts of her he would otherwise classify as flaws.

For a moment, she concentrates, attempting to narrow her focus down to Ace and his contentment in this moment, to hold on to that and keep herself from slipping and ruining this moment between them. But she doesn’t want to shut herself off entirely. She wants to continue to bask in the warmth of Ace’s regard for her. Shouldn’t that be her right? All she needs is for Aman to get quieter. More distant.

His sudden despair when she feels further away would be another shock, but it's barely a buzz. The visceral near-visual of his hurt turns transparent. His frustrations are perceptible, but only with focus. It helps when he gives up on his outburst, the roil of his emotions directed elsewhere rather than inward, to her.

Ace presses his lips to Odessa's left shoulder once the necklace is fastened. "There we are," he murmurs into her skin. His hands settle on the outsides of her arms, touch light before his arms fall back to his sides. "If it's of any consolation, this was the nicest. But I wanted you to have it tonight."

He suggests with some amusement, "You could have the rest now if you wanted. After all…"

They made the rules. No one else.

It hurts her, too. To feel him so far from her when all she wants is to be close to him. But in typical fashion, Odessa convinces herself that Aman is not who she deserves.

The brush of Ace’s mouth over her skin sees her jump just a little, a shiver running through her along with a little breath of laughter to cover over just how lost she’d gotten that she seemed not to realize he was there any longer. Letting down her hair, she relaxes into the touch of the devil at her back. The love she deserves, if not the one she’d hoped for.

“I used to be scared of men. I used to think they only did bad things.” Odessa crawls up onto the couch, a knee on either side of her lover’s lap, and he settles a hands just above. "You still do bad things. All of the men I know do very, very bad things to people." She brings her free hand up to the side of his face to cup his cheek, pleased by the way he tilts his head upward to lean into it. “But so do I. And I've come to learn that no one can touch me unless I let them.” She smiles gently, “I'm… experiencing life. I'm glad you're helping me to do that.”

“What if I didn't do bad things?” he asks, leaning back into the couch fully as she comes forward. “What if this was all gone?” His hands run down each of her thighs. The caress of his hands over her skin flusters her, and it shows, though she thinks she's doing an admirable job of hiding it.

Odessa's brows raise, disappearing beneath her bangs. “I don't know how to be a good girl. Being a healer doesn't lead to being good.”

His hands pause. “I'm not sure if I love you, Odessa. But I know you're special. You're worth protecting.” One hand lifts from her leg and goes to her chin. “If you want me around.”

Lost in her memories, she asks out loud, “Am I still worth protecting?” The sound of her own voice brings her back, shaking her head quickly. “Sorry, I… I must be tired.” Odessa turns and drapes her arms around Ace’s shoulders, being sure to flash him a drowsy little smile before she leans in for a kiss. “But not that tired.”

The question and its abruptness clue him into just how far away she'd gone. Ace wears his mild surprise when she turns back to him, makes no effort to hide it even as he kisses her briefly. She's talking in circles.

"You're worth protecting," he affirms for her as he slips his arms around her in return, his chin resting atop her head. "You're worth elevating." He begins to sway, rocking them back and forth. He effuses a necessary calm over his warmth, hoping to let her feed on it. To let his contentedness flow into her. His fingers trace up her spine ever so carefully.

"You can be that tired," Ace promises.

"We've got a big day tomorrow."

December 25
6:59 am

"Odessa," Ace says softly from his side of the bed. Not from where he usually lays, but from the side of the side of the bed, crouched, chin resting on the forearm he lies on the mattress. "It's time to wake up."

There's gray obscuring the sunlight today, making it darker than this day just after the solstice would normally be. But there's soft light coming from inside, too. Above.

In sparkles and shapes hanging from the ceiling from clear string of different length. The rainbow glow inside most the plastic snowflakes hanging from the ceiling changes in a slow rolling gradient. The few that glow white glimmer unchanging in color or intensity. None of this was here when she went to sleep. There's no telling how long he's been up.

But he waits for her to rouse, lifting one arm over the side of the bed to nudge her gently with the back of his hand.

Odessa groans softly, pulling the blanket over her head. "It's too early," she complains in a soft whine. For a moment, it seems like she might just allow herself to go back to sleep, or at least need another prod to get her attention, but…


It's Christmas.

The blanket is peeled back again and Odessa rubs at her eyes, yawning wide into the crook of her elbow. Blinking up, her brow furrows with confusion. "When… did you do all this?" she asks, rolling over so she can look at her partner, who is not where — or at least how — she expects him to be.

She laughs, bemused. "Good morning?"

Ace allows one lip to curl back in amusement at her, slowly pushing himself to his feet once she's proved herself awake. He's dressed already. Clothes for her are laid out over the end of the bed.

"You'll have plenty of time to sleep later," he assures, then pats the bedside. He's dressed warmly, a cream-colored turtleneck donned. "But for now… the day awaits."

There's no answer as to where the myriad of snowflakes came from, nor where they themselves are going. Just the beckon forward.

“Ohhh my gosh,” Odessa pulls herself into a sitting position, stretching her arms up over her head and yawning again. “What’s got you so eager?” She doesn’t make him wait, though. She shifts and tugs until she’s no longer sitting on her nightgown, pulling it up and over her head. Balling the orange chiffon up, she tosses it playfully in Ace’s direction. The matching robe is still draped over the armchair where she left it last night.

“Not that I’m complaining. You’re…” She smiles fondly, the corners of her eyes crinkling a little. “I like seeing you this way.” Leaning forward, she drags the clothing he’s chosen for her over so she can get a look as she dresses. “We having breakfast here, or going out? I at least need some juice.” Stifling another yawn, she amends, “Probably coffee.”

"Of course we're going out. It's Christmas. We're treating ourselves, naturally." Each answer from him is as easy as the last. Ace turns at an errant thought, fingers snapping as he moves off to find something, leaving Odessa with time enough to change.

He's laid out warm clothing. Layers— leggings and jeans to match his. A long-sleeved shirt like the one he wears, a sweater to pair. Woolen socks.

Winter boots rest at the foot of the bed.

"Eat well, but light enough to walk on. There's a short distance we'll need to go at our first stop, about two hours after we've eaten. The second will be considerably warmer, don't worry." He pulls open the topmost drawer, fishing idly before he pulls out one last pair of socks to spirit away into the packed bag by the bed. He tosses them in his hand lightly before tucking them away.

"That should be everything…" Ace remarks to himself, looking over his shoulder. A second bag full of toiletries sits on the stool in the bathroom.

It looks like a night out, on top of their day out.

"You're making me wear pants?" That's not a serious complaint. Probably. It doesn't stop her from putting everything on anyway. If he wants her to dress a certain way, she'll indulge him. It's abundantly clear he has a plan.

A brow is raised to the bags he's packed. He didn't ask her to pack anything. Did he get the things she needs? The things she'll want?

She'd promised him control in exchange for his trust, hadn't she. Well, she'll just have to make good on her end of that deal. "So long as you remembered my anti-inflammatories, I should be fine," she remarks more to herself than to him. Though she squints up at him skeptically as she finishes tying her boots. "And eyeliner?" She can't be caught looking entirely fresh-faced, can she?

"Would you prefer I not be reading you today?" Odessa asks lightly. It's obvious he means to continue surprising her.

His delight grows, visible in the lift in his expression. "Yes," Ace replies emphatically. Surprises are best executed when the cues for them come in the moment, after all. "That would be an excellent Christmas present." He looks back to the master bath, head quirking to the side with a faint narrowing of his eyes.

"See if everything is to your liking in there, and meet me downstairs after freshening up?" Just in case he missed something. It also gives her a chance to tend to her eyeliner not in the car. He hoists the bag on the armchair up by the strap, gives her a small smile, and then vanishes in a left-swiping smudge.

Odessa sighs quietly at the way he vanishes before she can lavish him with affection, but there will be plenty of time for that later, she supposes. After she's swept enough foundation on her face to hide the faint smattering of freckles across her nose and cheekbones, applied her eyeliner and mascara, and made sure everything she needs is in the bag he packed.

Only then does she disengage from her ability. Now that she's no longer at risk of poking herself in the eye if he were to inadvertently surprise her. "Bold or conservative?" she calls out, hopefully loud enough to be heard downstairs. "My lipstick!" she clarifies. She's pocketing two identical tubes anyway. That she's a pro at putting on in the car. She doesn't waste time waiting for his answer before grabbing the bag and her cane, heading down the stairwell.

Ace is in the kitchen when she comes down, pocketing phones. The bag is gone, put out in the back seat of the car, the scent of coffee wafting. He has her phone in one hand, her travel mug in the other. "I couldn't possibly make that decision for you," he says graciously, like he'd not chosen the rest of her look for her.

He wears an emerald-green cable-knit sweater over his turtleneck to 'match' the gold of her outfit. They pair in that they wear the colors of their preference, if nothing else.

"Don't forget your gloves," Ace reminds her, reaching out to swap phone for bag, then pass off her coffee to her. His own continues to spit from the single-serve coffee machine hissing in the kitchen. He presses a kiss to her cheek before heading back out the door again without his coat, intending on stowing the second bag before beginning final checks.

“Liar,” Odessa chides, adjusting the hem of her sweater where it had bunched up at her back. Still, the sight of his sweater is the answer she needed. How did she know he’d wear green?

Well, because she knows him by now.

Accepting her coffee, Odessa inhales the scent deeply and lets out a luxurious sigh. “Oh, I love you.” She smiles, tilting her head to better receive the kiss to her faintly coral-blushed cheek.

By the time he returns from the car, she’s finishing the application of her liquid lipstick with the selfie camera on her phone as a mirror. Smacking her lips together while she screws the cap back on, she turns to Ace to get his approval of the shade of dark green she’s chosen to paint herself with. There’s a faint gold shimmer when the light plays off it. “If you hate it, you better say so before it dries or there’ll be no getting it off until I dig out the make-up remover.”

Ace pauses with the door halfway closed as he sees her. Of anything he expected, it wasn't this. Her senses being off means there's very little cue as to what he's feeling as he stands there blinking at her like he's seeing her for the first time.

He shakes his head and pushes the door shut behind him to keep more warmth from fleeing the house unnecessarily. "You spoil me," he murmurs in nearly a scolding tone. He presses his lips to the side of her head as he passes her to grab his thermos from the kitchen. The lights are flipped off on return, coats and hats retrieved and handed off as necessary, though he leaves his overcoat laying over his arm as they head out the door.

"The chariot awaits," Ace indicates gallantly as he pulls the front door shut behind them.

The world gets brighter as they break the orbit of the Safe Zone. It's snowed the further north they go, following I-87 North in the direction of Albany. When the vehicle eventually pulls off the highway, they've still not reached another major town, but they're two hours north of the city.

Breaking west, the drive gets going slower, the height of the trees growing in the distance until it's all that practically can be seen on either side of the road. They pass through quiet, small passes of civilization draped in white, roads passable but by the end, not all of them plowed.

A little town called Haines Falls is the last point before they veer in a sharp turn north and east. The whole while, Ace focuses on the road rather than conversation, but the redirection gives the impression they're not far from the end location. Winding road through state forest brings them to slow their pace again on the barely-traversed roads.

"It's a closer walk from here than if we'd started at the trail head," he explains out of nowhere, just before pulling off into an unplowed, empty parking lot for the Laurel House Trail. A glance to the power level of the Porsche after he shifts the car into park has him reaching back into the back seat to grab hold of a portable battery he bought earlier in the month.

"Bundle up," he tells her as he climbs out of the car to set it up to charge while they're gone. "And don't forget your phone."

For all the good it will do her in this signal desert.

Given how snowy the roads have been, Odessa’s opted not to provide much in the way of distraction on the drive. That and the fact that her queries about where they’re headed have been met with non-answers, or promises that she’ll see and that she should have patience. Instead, she’s mostly sat slightly reclined in the passenger seat, singing along absently with the radio, the volume low.

Only once they’ve stopped does she sit back up and take a good look around. After a while, all the countryside started to look the same. Much of Odessa’s travel has been south and west, rather than northerly, so none of the roads have meant much of anything to her.

“Where the hell are we?” Odessa asks, laughing as she does so. She’s not upset or affronted that they’ve gone off the beaten path (or… driven to it?), just surprised. She’d thought that he wouldn’t be the type for hiking anywhere if he could avoid it.

Then again, this looks like an unavoidable hike.

“You’re sure that’s going to work, right?” There’s a nervous glance given to the battery as she piles out of the car, cane in hand. She’s at least put a different tip on it in anticipation of the walk. It looks like there’s more snow than ice to contend with, but she’s learned the hard way that the frozen surfaces can hide beneath the fluffy white.

Given its lack of use to her at the moment, Odessa tucks her phone into the pocket of her long, fitted navy wool swing coat, procuring her gloves in its place and tugging them on. She pulls up the hood to shield her ears from the cold, but after a moment reconsiders, tugging on a silver-grey knitted cap dotted with small silver and gold beads and larger faux pearls. While it may not match her coat for color, at least she’s in theme with her necklace. Plus, it’s better than frostbite on her ears.

“What do you need me to carry?” she asks as she pulls a thick pair of black mittens over her gloves for the extra warmth. The silver sequins sewn into the black knit are for extra glamour.

"Just yourself," Ace assures while he fixes the battery to charge. The wires are wound to go around the wheel, putting the box behind the tire to more or less keep it out of view. Then it's a matter of pulling out his overcoat and slipping it on, pairing it with a black trapper hat of brown and black-tipped fur. He turns to observe Odessa's preparations, relaxing when he sees she's well prepared.

And at the very least, doesn't seem to be balking at the idea of a walk through the snow.

"I tested the battery once at home, made sure to charge it yesterday afternoon. By the time we come back, we'll have enough charge to get back on the road." To where is anyone's question, with how it feels like they're in the middle of nowhere.

Perhaps unnecessarily, Ace chirps the car locked before leaving it behind, waving a hand for Odessa to join him onto the path. The walk ahead is sure to be an interesting one, but at least the snow isn't so deep as to completely obscure where the kempt trail and everything else begins. There are drifts from the high winds the night before at intervals, curbing up against trees, though.

He takes his time down the trail, hand in Odessa's. They go veering left when the path forks. A partly snow-covered sign indicates an observation deck lies the way Ace leads them, a fact which brings a twitch of a smile forward.

The temperatures are slightly above freezing rather than frigid, at least until the weather due tomorrow. They hear the sound of the falls before they see them less than a quarter of a mile from where they began, and when they come into view of the spectacle the platform plays audience to, the water is framed by stalactites and stalagmites of icicles at either end of the waterfall's formation, bedding the wintry scene.

"We got lucky after all," Ace notes softly. "It's been years since there was a white Christmas."

His eyes settle on the ice in particular around the falls— the way time is frozen yet flowing still around them. A cloud of breath pools before him with a faint laugh, and he holds onto Odessa's hand just a bit tighter in a squeeze before letting go to see where her feet decide to take them next.

About halfway up the trail, just before the sound of the falls reached their ears, Odessa had tugged on his hand to bring them to a halt. “You swear on Cleo you didn’t just bring me out here to kill me, right?” She laughs, because she’s joking, but she’s given it some thought and decided this really would be a brilliant way to do it. But if he were intending to make it look like she left of her own accord, her go bag wouldn’t still be in their closet.

(It was still in the bottom of their closet, right?)

“I’m just kidding,” she insists before he can give her that look he always gives her when she’s wounded him for suggesting he might be doing exactly the sort of thing he would do. The press of her lips to his seals it, without not a trace of green transferred to him. The renewed tug on his hand to start them moving again affirms her commitment.

When the falls come into view, Odessa’s steps slow to a halt. The breath leaves her lungs audible and visibly in the cloud of vapor that forms in front of her. “E- Even in Oregon I never saw anything like this,” she says in a shaky voice, taking everything in like she’s almost afraid to trust that any of it is real.

It’s only when his hand releases hers that she remembers to move again, a soft little sound of confusion sliding past her parted lips as she makes her way forward slowly to take in the way the water’s formed jagged spikes of ice. Beautiful to look at, deadly to be too near.

Odessa relates.

There’s another small sound, this one almost like distress. It’s overwhelming, the sight of it. The thought that went into choosing this location. The why of it. “How long have you been planning this?” Odessa asks without looking back to Ace. She’s too busy being drawn in by this new splendor she’s never experienced. After all this time, there’s still so much she hasn’t seen.

If there's any killing to be done today, it's a softer thing. Something done to the heart rather than the body as a whole.

Ace's answer to her question is a modest shrug gone unseen, and isn't something he feels the need to call particular attention to. He watches her take in the spectacle, his hands sliding into his pockets. His right curls around something in the depth of it, something small, and he looks to the sight of the falls.

When he steps forward to join her, hands slipping from his coat, both emerge empty.

"I had a feeling the frozen snowfall in the bedroom would go less appreciated than this," he leans toward Odessa slightly as he teases her, then sets his gloved hands on deck's railing as he stands shoulder to shoulder with her. "So I can't tell you how glad I am the weather cooperated."

"No bribing of any meteorologists required," Ace affirms with a wry note to him. Like it had been a consideration of his, to find someone who could influence the temperature and sky on his behalf.

He falls quiet then, taking a moment to appreciate what nature and fate conspired to bring them. He imagines this would be so less interesting to observe if it were entirely frozen over; and less majestic were there no ice, no snow at all.

Ace smiles without meaning to, a smaller thing than his usual smirks. This really had worked out perfectly.

“I love this,” Odessa says quietly, still awestruck. Like if she lifts her voice too much, the spell might be broken and everything might come undone somehow. “You know,” she laughs softly, “this is the one thing I never could truly get a handle on.” There’s probably just the one finger lifted as she gestures to the falls, but it’s impossible to tell with all four of them encased in that mitten.

“Bodies of water, I mean. They flow in from so far beyond my influence, it’s impossible to completely halt them.” Finally, she turns to look at him so he can properly see and appreciate her little grin. “I tried.” Looking back at the mixture of what’s frozen and what’s too powerful to be, that grin widens. “It’s a good metaphor. For time. No matter how hard I would try, no matter how long I held… Time always marches on. It’s the only desire she has. Time will always move forward.”

Even Odessa hadn’t been strong enough to prevent that. Even when she possessed the power to turn it back, time would still take what was owed in the end.

Perhaps surprisingly for the girl from Odessa, she’d accepted that. There’d been a comfort in that constant, and her place within it. The role she would play in manipulating it just enough to do what needed to be done.

“Have you ever seen anything so beautiful in your whole life?”

Ace doesn't have a verbal answer for that. He simply watches, from the spray caused by the breeze to the scatter off the rocks and pool beneath. The spectacle perhaps was more because it was a smaller thing. If nothing else, it was more private. Theirs.

He rests his hand at the small of Odessa's back turning to her a moment later. "It could stand to be a little moreso," he opines. A shift of his chin toward her, he asks, "Your phone?"

Turning to rest his back against the rail, he glances over his shoulder just long enough to confirm the fall should be visible between them, then lifts his left arm to encourage her to nestle up against him.

Odessa turns when she realizes he means to call her attention. “Oh.” The flush of her cheeks from the cold means the flush of her embarrassment doesn’t even show. Her cane is left to stand up in the snow, thanks to the new base on it, while she peels off her mitten so she can reach into her pocket with her gloved hand and dig out her phone. It takes a moment for her to remember how hard she has to press, even with her conductive gloves, to get the screen to register her tapping in the PIN to unlock the device.

“Here.” The phone is offered to him, even if she is squinting at him with a hint of suspicion. It never even occurs to her that he wants to take a picture of the two of them together, even as she snuggles up against him when he holds out his arm like that.

Biting the finger of his glove so he can slip it free, he shoves it into his pocket and takes her phone in hand. He juggles it carefully to bring up the camera, holding her closer as the screen shifts to reflect them and the splendor behind them.

"One last way to make this moment last forever," Ace suggests delicately, glancing to the camera and then down to Odessa again. He doesn't smile now, but there's something contented in his gaze nonetheless as he looks at her.

She starts out smiling at the camera, but given that she sees him looking at her instead, that’s where her attention turns. That smile — the one put on for a photograph — fades. He holds her captivated, lips parted slightly and lashes fluttering briefly.

“Thank you,” she tells him. “This is one of the most thoughtful things anyone’s ever done for me.” The smile returns, but different. This is the one he sees when he’s surprised her and she can’t hide how hopelessly enthralled she is. “Take the picture,” she suggests. “I want to remember feeling like this more than anything.” More even than how pretty the backdrop is.

Every last shift in her expression has been captured. Even the sound. He's hit the record button on accident in his attempts to snap multiple shots of her. Only half of them have actually taken, some of the earlier attempts merely pauses and restarts in the capture of this moment. He can craft a good selfie with the best of them, but this kind of blindly-executed balancing act is a different story.

Ace leans in to seal the moment with a kiss, phone arm still raised. He taps the screen one last time, unwittingly pausing the recording again, and lets his arm fall. With a smile as he pulls back, he suggests, "Let's see how we've done."

His tenor slips confused when he flicks open the gallery, sees a video begin to play rather than the last shot he thought he'd taken. It's of them, but… "Oh, no," Ace laughs, his head tilting back. It carries on the crisp air and into the snowy wood. He taps open the gallery proper to see the much smaller handful of photos that go with that video than he thought, as well as…

A photo of him seated in front of the fire, elbow propped on the armrest of the loveseat with his sudoku book in his lap. If his pajamas weren't indication when it was taken, the presence of the tree on the edge of the frame seals it. He arches both brows, phone still held between them.

“Ace!” Odessa laughs when she realizes what he’s been doing. Or what he’d been trying to do, at any rate. The sound of his own laughter spreads warmth through her chest and she leans her head against his shoulder while he tries to find his photos. …Wait. Oh no.

With an alarmed squeak, Odessa scrabbles for the phone before he can—

Find all the candid little shots she’s taken of him. “No no no! Give me that!”

Out of instinct, he holds the phone up again, higher, grin appearing in a way it hasn't yet this morning— mischievously. "Oh, what's this?" Greedy, vain curiosity takes hold. He doesn't scroll far, just enough to see that there's other similar shots peppered between photos of other things.

"Odessa Price," Ace chides her, looking down at her in faux offense. "Had you asked, I'd have given you my good side." The arm around her shifts to begin prodding at her side dervishly to distract her from reclaiming her device from him.

“Hey!” Odessa reaches up to try and snatch back her phone, but his height advantage (and his arm around her) means she can’t quite get there. Wincing, she at least turns away so she can’t see his reaction to all the little snaps she’s taken. It isn’t just working on his puzzle, it’s also making dinner, adjusting a cufflink, combing pomade through his hair with his fingers.

Here lies Odessa Price. Cause of death: a lethal dose of embarrassment.

Ace Callahan,” she matches him for sass as means to help her rally from this blow to her pride. “We both know you don’t have a bad side.” Turning back to him, one brow lifts with the pursing of her lips to one side. Calling him on his nonsense.

All it does is rally his pride further. Ace laughs shortly with abandon, practically cackling. He turns to evade her wrath, only partly, then bends his knees as he turns back to her.

His arms cinch around her hips and waist, phone still in hand as he scoops her up, hoisting her against him. How broadly he grins as he spins them both around, feet crunching in the snow. "What am I going to do with you?" he asks earnestly, if rhetorically, of her, sunlight in his eyes.

“I’m just going to go pitch myself into th— Whoa!” Odessa cries out in surprise when she’s lifted off the ground, throwing her arms around him for balance at first. The delight settles in a second later. She’s never seen him like this before and it’s bewildering just as much as it makes her heart soar.

Love me, I hope,” she teases, rubbing the tip of her frozen nose against his. “Oh my gosh it’s cold,” she laughs, unbothered by it. “And you’re enduring this for me? You hate this!” Odessa drags Ace in by the front of his coat for a kiss. This is all of the moments she’s loved about those books she’s devoured over the years. “I love you.”

Ace continues to hold her to himself, even if he slowly lets her slip down in his grasp so her toes touch the ground once more.

He does hate this, under normal circumstances, doesn't he. He's been caught red-handed.


Forehead against hers, eyes closed after he breaks off the kiss just to hold her a little while longer in his embrace. Something's changed in him, hasn't it.

"I love you, too," Ace confides to her, whispering it in her ear like the most sacred of secrets.

The car had enough charge to it to see to their warmth when they made the much slower trek back to it, cold soaked into their bones, mist clinging to their hat and mittens. Ace braves the cold again to retrieve the battery after confirming the charge has gone up, and after a few more moments spent furiously rubbing his hands together and molding himself into his heated seat, decides it's time to get back on the road.

Like most cars in winter, the Taycan has a different opinion about what brakes should do in the snow. Thankfully, it's a disagreement that lasts only as long as the unplowed roads do.

Despite returning southbound onto the highway whence they came, Ace assures they're not returning home. Twenty minutes later, an interchange brings them down Highway 209, turning finally again at a town called Stone Ridge— heading again into what looks to be another State Park.

In the end, though, it's not exactly a demonstration of second verse same as the first.

Here, there's a resort tucked away in the forest preserve, seated on the edge of Mohonk Lake. The Mohonk Mountain House is like a castle hidden away in the woods, colorful enough that it looks less The Shining and more Hogwarts, sans a tower or seven. The parking lot is plowed but barely filled— seemingly enough for staff and perhaps a few other guests.

It's almost like having the entire place to themselves.

"It has a terrible name, but an excellent interior I think you'll really enjoy," Ace remarks as they pull up the driveway into the parking lot. "It's dated, but well-kept. Like slipping into the past, at least when it comes to the room we'll be staying in. The amenities are plenty modern, though."

He doesn't need to sell her on this, but look at him try anyway. He looks at her out of the corner of his eye as he pulls into a spot close by the main entrance.

There’s only a hint of skepticism on Odessa’s part that he’s not just dragging her to another patch of preserved parkland. The fact that they’re both way too grateful for the warmth of the car mitigates that suspicion in her, however. It’s only the sight of their destination that really banishes it, however. Both of her brows lift in surprise. Whatever she may have expected, it wasn’t this. Honestly, she thought they’d hit up a little diner and stop at a hotel for the night to let the car fully recharge. Maybe a bed and breakfast?

Not… this.

The space of her silence is filled by his voice, explaining what she’s looking at and what to expect from it. A smile starts to cause the corners of her mouth to creep up, amusement dancing in her eyes when she finally turns to look at him. “Relax, Stoltz. I’m already here. You don’t have to sell me on the vacation package,” she teases.

"Listen," Ace chides her in a tone that makes it sound like he should follow that up with the word Linda. "We've already been through enough beautiful suffering today, it's important to me you know that this—" he says with a gesture of his hand up at the five-to-seven story 'house' they've come to visit. "Is the pleasure portion of our Christmas. If there's so much as a linen out of place in this room, I don't want you to have to endure it."

By the end of it, he's grinning— first unconsciously, then very self-consciously. Taking off the Harry mask is a little harder for him tonight than the snap of a finger, apparently.

He just means well. And all too aware of how unlike him this sounds, he turns away and thumbs off the car, clearing his throat. "I'll grab one bag if you get the other. Don't leave anything you love in here, I'll need to give them the key so they can pull it around to wherever they've stashed their charging station up here."

And Ace slips from the driver's seat before he can meet any additional side-eye directed at him head on.

Odessa counts to three after he’s shut his door and stepped around the back of the car before she bursts into giggles, doubling over in her seat. Oh, she wouldn’t call him cute to his face, but she’ll think it. But she’ll also apologize for making him feel self-conscious, because she knows how decidedly the opposite of fun that feeling is. But that can wait until they’ve managed to find their room.

Sliding out of her seat and taking a moment to find her footing in the snow, Odessa pulls the strap of her purse over her head, letting it rest across her body and patting it where it rests at her hip to reassure herself before she takes up her cane so she can help Ace unload their luggage. She’s a bit dubious about dragging the wheels of her bag through the snow, but it isn’t her carpet that’s going to suffer for that, is it?

God, I hope this place has an elevator,” she sighs, then immediately regrets it. What if it doesn’t and now he feels bad? Odessa shakes her head quickly. “Can’t skip leg day, I know.” No matter how many times she tries to bargain with him, she never does avoid having to do those exercises.

Patting herself down and checking the backseat, Odessa confirms she has everything before gesturing for Ace to lead on. “Can’t wait to see what it looks like. You know I’m not that picky though, right?” She nudges his arm with her elbow, hoping he won’t feel the need to be quite so exacting in his inspection of the room they’re assigned.

The other bag slung over his shoulder, Ace closes the door and begins them toward the building. He gives her a dose of side-eye for the elbowing she gives him, skeptical. She's not picky, until she is.

He elbows her right back, lightly, even as he knows his standards tend to run more precise than hers.

When they enter into the suite that's been reserved for them after handling check-in on the first floor, it becomes clear they've entered one of the House's towers. The walls are curved, opening to a balcony that overlooks the lake. The gas fireplace in the living room area is already lit, flames licking false logs and warming the room. A set of stairs curve around to an upper level, where the bed and bath presumably are.

The Mountain View suite offers a view of the Catskills just as advertised. Ace sets down his bag and begins to peel off his coat, laying it over his arm. He waves a hand for the bag Odessa has. "I'll take this up. Why don't you have a look around?"

“Uh huh,” Odessa replies, already stunned by what she’s seen. The bag is handed off without actually making any eye contact, and she wanders further into the room with a saucer-like quality to her eyes. “Oh my god, it’s like a castle!”

A pause.

“I mean, obviously, but—” Flustered, she metaphorically buttons her lips while she tries to put her thoughts into words that aren’t just going to sound foolish, or like word salad. “I mean it’s like the castles I always imagined when I was a girl.”

Odessa’s gotten adept at balancing her cane in the curve of her thumb and first finger while she unbuttons her coat. Shrugging out of one sleeve, the stick is transferred to the other hand so she can slide free from the other arm, then drapes her outerwear over the back of the sofa. It’s to the small balcony off the living space that she wanders. There’s a pair of painted wooden chairs sat out there, but she doesn’t make a move to open the door and step out.

Firstly, it’s cold out there and she’s just taken off her coat. Secondly, they are so high up and what if she fell?

Still, even with her terrible fear of heights, Odessa is capable of appreciating the view. She’ll try to brave it later, when Ace is there to be her anchor. “When I was young,” she starts, lifting her voice so he’ll hear her on the second floor, “I used to wish I was in a tower instead of a dungeon. Because at least I would have been able to see the world outside, even if I couldn’t have been part of it.”

For as heavy as that notion is, the reminder of the fact that she was locked away for so many years, it doesn’t sour this moment for her a bit. She stops just short of resting her palm against the french door’s pane. “I was right. This would have been much better.” Odessa smiles, and sees a younger version of herself — her true self — smiling back at her in the muted reflection of the glass. A tear rolls down her cheek.

Now she can be the princess, not the prisoner.

Bag deposited on the bed and zipped open with his coat thrown beside it, Ace listens to the sound of Odessa's voice below while he retrieves the last pair of socks he'd slipped into their belongings. A push of his thumb ejects the top of a small, velvet box from the fold of cloth, and he tugs the rest of it free, tossing the socks back into the bag. The box is considered for a moment in silence, weighting it in his palm.

Flipping the empty box open, he slides what was hiding in his coat pocket back where it belongs, then mutedly snaps it closed again before slipping it into his front pocket. He sits on a chair by the bed to get rid of his boots, replacing them with a pair of wingtips packed into the suitcase. Off comes his sweater, turtleneck kept, shoulders newly covered over with a long, black cardigan that traveled well. He pats it down anyway to smooth away creases, adjusting the lay of the collar and looking momentarily out the window from up here.

He wants for a mirror, but a moment of contemplation will have to do.

Almost as swiftly as he was gone, he comes back down the carpeted stairs. "Given just how few others there are here," he says as he hits the first floor again, cardigan billowing heavily behind him before clinging to his back and thigh once more. "I'm going to check to make sure there really still is dinner service this evening." Ace glances up and over to Odessa by the window. "Join me downstairs when you've changed?"

Upon his return, Odessa is far less distracted than she was on their arrival. She turns and offers him a smile while she brushes away the remnants of her tear, as if she simply had an itch. “I can do that,” she assures him, tilting her head and studying him openly, but without scrutiny or criticism.

“You are so handsome,” is how she conveys approval of his change of attire. “How am I so lucky?” Stepping away from the window, she makes her way back to him so she can press her still-green lips to his cheek. “How do you want me dressed?” she asks, blue eyes shifting to the stairwell, as though she can see her bag and its contents. He packed it for her, so she isn’t sure what to expect inside. “Or will I know when I see it?”

Ace smiles when she returns to him, not providing an answer for her rhetorical. There's no simple one, anyway. He presses a kiss to her forehead in return. "I trust you to choose well," he tells her knowingly.

He pats a hand on her backside. "I'll see you down there," he encourages her before slipping a step back to pull open the door.

With it open, he pauses to look across the room one more time, to the view, then to her. "This really did turn out nicely, didn't it?" Observation made, Ace firms his mouth into another small smile before heading off into the hall.

It did.

The upper level is nicer than she imagined it’d be, and she was already expecting something lovely given the richness of the living space. There’s more of the same plush red carpet with its ivory flowers and vines woven through, and once she’s taken her boots off, she can’t help but smile at how soft it feels beneath her socked feet. If she weren’t so hungry, she might have argued for a nap. It keeps her from testing out the firmness of the mattress, lest she close her eyes and wake up to the way her partner clears his throat when he’s just a touch disgruntled with her.

Happily, there’s a bench at the end of the bed where she can seat herself while she peels out of her clothes before looking to see what’s been packed for her. Oh, good. She won’t need to change her lipstick, will she? Smiling fondly, she sets about dressing for dinner.

Odessa’s feeling only a little timid when she makes the descent to the main floor to see about the dinner situation. He didn’t call or text, so presumably they won’t have to brave the cold to find somewhere else to dine, or a grocery to hit up.

White flats with black tiger stripes hit the landing first, sheer back stockings have replaced the dark leggings. They may not be as warm, but the silk certainly feels more sumptuous, and while she typically favors shorter hems, this one falls just past her knees. The skirt of her yellow 50s inspired dress flares out from her waist even without the aid of crinoline. That would have taken up half the suitcase on its own.

A white satin bow adorns the modest gathered bustline and matches with the white cardigan that wards off the chill — and provides a lovely contrast to the black one Ace wears. The finishing touch is not what he packed for her, however. Rather than the red belt he’d coiled up and intended for her, she’s instead accented her waist with the vibrant green belt she had around her waist all day, hidden beneath her sweater. This secret token now less secret.

Bright eyes, clear and blue and icy as the falls they visited earlier, scan the space, both taking it in and searching for her partner. Absently, she goes to tuck her hair behind her ear, but stops short, remembering the tendrils hanging down from the updo she’s swept her blonde tresses into are intentional, and there to frame her face. The eyeliner’s been touched up and a fresh sweep of blush applied, but otherwise she hasn’t changed up her day look.

Ace isn't in the lobby. But the staff member at the front desk looks up and sees Odessa step from the elevator when it chimes its arrival. She smiles. "Miss Pride? He's in the dining room. Just follow the hall and you'll run right into it." She gestures not to the hall running left or right down the length of the building, but the one that leads toward the lake.

Had he gotten impatient after all?

Odessa blinks with surprise, turning when she hears her name. “Oh!” She’s quick with a smile, because playing unruffled is one of the more important skills in her tool kit. “Thank you!” Her eyes follow the hallway, at once excited to see what that view might look like and anxious about the fact that she clearly kept him waiting long enough that he decided to go on ahead. Once she’s out of sight of the desk, her face falls as she silently berates herself.

He just wanted to eat some darn dinner, Odessa. Did you need to waste the time on your hair? Couldn’t you have moved a little quicker. Still, she decides not to let it sour the evening. With a sigh, she imagines crumbling that particular trouble in her hand like a dried leaf, then sending it off to be scattered by the wind.

Chin held high and a lighter expression in place, she resumes her trek, feeling the need to lean a little less heavily onto her cane than she did a moment ago.

The nearer she gets to the door, she can see that it's cracked slightly. The nearer she gets to the door, she can hear the sound of piano drift through the gap.

The main dining room of the establishment is dominated on one wall by windows that overlook the lake. The sun has dipped below the treeline if not below the horizon itself, brilliant colors of sunset in winter fading to the more quiet hues of twilight. Despite the encroaching dark, the overall lighting in the dining room is kept low enough to look like it's lit by that last bit of natural sunlight. It makes the single table dressed with candlesticks all the more noticeable against the plain undress of the remaining tables in the room, flame flickering out of the corner of her eye.

Ace isn't sitting at the table, though. Past line of sight from there, he sits at the baby grand in the corner of the room, the black of his cardigan draped off the back of his seat like a concert pianist. His fingers float slow over the ivories and ebonies, voice thoughtful as it rumbles from him.

I'm not suggesting that we'd find
Some earthly paradise forever

He tilts his head to the side with a hint of a knowing grin, his tone slipping low.

I mean how often does that happen now?
The answer's probably never

His eyes narrow slightly, coming back to the keys as he lifts his voice again.

But we could come to an arrangement—
A practical arrangement
And you could learn to love me
Given time

For the second time in as many minutes, Odessa finds herself stopping short and simply blinking. This time, however, she doesn’t manage to hide how stunned she is, nor does she try. The pieces haven’t all quite come together for her yet. The trip to the falls, the suite, the empty dining room, the piano…

She had no idea he could even play. That, of course, had been on her for assuming. When he said the piano had fallen to disuse before her arrival, she mistakenly took it to mean that he merely saw it as a particularly ornate piece of decor. Unused and unloved, like many of the books on the shelves before she came along.

Once she reaches the table, she rests her cane against the edge of it, but doesn’t take her seat. Instead, she opts to allow her eyes to drift shut as she sways gently to the music he makes for her. She can’t keep her gaze off him for long, however. Absently, Odessa fingers the pearls circling her throat while she observes Ace, hopelessly taken by him and this romantic gesture. Leave it to him to do something so extravagant for a simple date. Even if it is a holiday most classify as important.

I'm not promising the moon
I'm not promising a rainbow

Shaking his head, Ace lifts his eyes to look to some point even higher than the notes, something metaphysical. The candlelight on the table wavers again, and by Odessa's place setting rests one extra item which drinks in the soft light cast. He continues to sing conversationally, a monologue with a plea.

Just a practical solution
To a solitary life

The object on the table is a grey, velvet ring box. A thin slip of paper rests atop it, the penmanship thin and calligraphic. It asks: open me.

I'd be a father to your boy
A shoulder you could lean on

The moment she spies the box is evident to Ace, even without his eyes on her, because the note of surprise rings out so sharply against the peaceful backdrop of this moment. It isn’t horror or disgust — there’s no way it can be mistaken for that — but it’s a sentiment just as strong.

How bad could it be
To be my wife?

Struck dumb, her breath is caught in her throat and she’s literally clutching her pearls now. Her free hand reaches out tentatively, but withdraws like she’s afraid to stray too close to an open flame. There’s a stand-off with that innocuous little box that feels as though it lasts an eternity, but in reality is only the space of a chord shift on the piano.

With one roof above our heads
A warm house to return to

She practically lunges forward when she finally gathers her nerve, snatching up the box as though it were an unruly kitten needing snagged by the scruff. The paper that sat atop it flutters slowly to the floor, forgotten in the moment. There’s a rapid darting of her eyes from the closed box, to her partner, and back, repeated four or five times before they finally stay fixed on the grey velvet case cradled in her palm.

You wouldn't have to cook for me
You wouldn't have to learn to

With one last look in Ace’s direction, wordlessly asking are you sure? she finally opens the lid.

I'm not suggesting that this proposition here
Could last forever

The gem set at the center of the ring doesn't shimmer with all the colorless shine of a diamond. Even in the dim lighting, the cut of the edges gleam but drink in light more erratically. The centerpiece isn't a single color, in much the same way the lipstick she wears now isn't. In the gold of the yellow sapphire hides hints of the blue more expected— shading it green instead. Tiny diamonds cut nearly in the shape of fleur-de-lises frame the oval sapphire at its would-be corners, topping the braces that hold the gem into place on its slender silver band.

I've no intention of deceiving you
You're far too clever

Ace turns to look at Odessa, his mood a hard read with how he focuses on the task at hand. The movement of his fingers, the pitch of his voice— though perhaps his voice carries what his expression doesn't.

But we could come to an arrangement
A practical arrangement
And perhaps you'd learn to love me
Given time

In the conversation of the song is found a shift, the refrain more than a proposition. It's a question now.

It may not be the romance
That you had in mind
But could you learn to love me
Given time?

The last of the chords are left to echo even after Ace slides his hands to the tips of the keys, toe pressed to pedal to stretch the moment out as long as the strings will allow. His eyes don't leave Odessa's now.

There’s a fascination in the fact that it isn’t a diamond inside, like she was expecting. This is far better. Special. Unique.

“I need you to feel safe. I need you to feel in control. I need you to know this home is yours, that you are mine.” Ace’s voice tightens at the admission. After a hard blink, he tells her, “Stay with me. I don’t care what we do. I don’t want to leave your side for the rest of the night.”


Odessa nods her head slowly, eyes closing as she draws in a deep breath. “Fasten me to your side,” her voice lifts in quiet song, “and say it’ll be soon. You make me so crazy, baby. Could swallow the moon.” Opening her eyes again, she looks up at him as she settles herself at the headboard, seated against the pillows.

But she doesn’t dare take it out of the box yet. What if she dropped it? Instead, she just tips and turns the case the ring is safely nestled in, admiring the play of light across the sapphire’s facets. The shifts in color. Green and yellow.

It’s always been his house. His bedroom. His bed. Never has she dared to feel she has any claim to any of it. Barely any claim to him.

The clamshell snaps shut only by virtue of the fact that her fingers have curled around the box in just the right way that she’s placed too much pressure on the lid. She’s holding the thing cradled against her chest protectively while she brings her attention back to Ace.

“Come here,” she beckons quietly with a curl of her fingers toward her palm. “Sit with me. Rest your head here, and listen to this heart that belongs to you.”

It may not be the romance that you had in mind, he suggests. Or the lyrics do, anyway. And it’s true to her. Never did she expect to find herself in a situation like this, where she loves someone so fiercely and that love is actually reciprocated. Certainly she’s given her heart to others before, but at best it felt as though she received pieces in return, if she got anything at all.

It takes a moment for Ace to pick up the song she sings for what it is, his heart slowly leaving the arrest it entered when she answered in verse instead of words. Working his way into a position lying beside her, one arm slid under her to make the nestling of his head against her chest and shoulder a more comfortable thing, he closes his eyes.

Never did she expect to find this with Ace Callahan of all people.

A long breath leaves him as he finds home in being so near to her heart. "My hands are two travelers," he murmurs without recalling fully the order of the notes. "They've crossed oceans and lands. Yet they are too small on this continent of your skin."

There’d been no illusions a little over six months ago when she’d chosen to get in his car. Accepted his hospitality. Stayed to warm his bed. Played his songbird. Never once did she factor love into that equation. She knew she could love him, knew it was probable and didn’t find it surprising when she discovered she did. But Ace… Never did she allow herself to hope he would return those feelings.

The breath hitches in her throat when he responds to her call. Tears form in her eyes and slide down her cheeks. Coming up to paw them away immediately succeeds only in smearing her make-up, but she doesn’t care. For once, she believes that he finds her perfect, even in her imperfect state.

And yet, he’d professed it to her. Continued to, if not with quite so much ardency as the first time. She believed it would cool. That he would come to his senses and decide she’s more trouble than she’s worth. Realize that he wanted more out of life than she’d be able to give him. That she’ll only continue to disappoint him.

“Wandering, wandering, I could spend my life,” she continues softly, voice strained with her emotion, “traveling the length of your body each night.” Odessa sniffles once, tipping her head back to blink hard at the ceiling, like that will stop the flow of her happy, relieved tears.

But even when she thought she’d done that, he’d surprised her. Rather than express that disappointment she feared, he’d only sought to understand her. To figure out what he had done to make her withdraw from him.

When she looks back down at him again, she laughs quietly. “Ace Callahan, you could ask me to marry you tomorrow, and I’d say


From the other end of the room comes a quiet clap, one of the staff hidden who were watching clasping their hands together tightly in front of their face and accidentally announcing their presence. The progression of events witnessed had been abnormal, but it takes all kinds, and isn't it so nice when she says yes?

Blushing self-consciously for how they outed themself, the hardly-seen staff member elbows their way back into the kitchen to cease their eavesdropping.

Ace is oblivious anyway. He turns in his seat and sweeps to his feet in a slow wave of movement, gliding the step off the raised platform and through the tables back to the one set for them. To Odessa.

When he comes to her, he doesn't speak at first. He gently pries the box from her hand, opens it to retrieve the ring he'd had hidden in his pocket all day, just in case any moment proved itself to be more perfect than this. It's with satisfaction that everything came to pass the way it has that he pulls the tiny thing from its perch, takes hold of Odessa's left hand, and slides it perfectly into place on the appropriate finger.

It's meaningfully that he lifts her hand to kiss the curve of her knuckles, looking into her eyes.

"It'll do?" he asks for confirmation.

Odessa’s attention is stolen by the sound of the clap, and she looks a bit like a deer on a darkened highway captured in the headlights of an oncoming truck. It means she doesn’t realize Ace is sweeping toward her until he’s nearly upon her, but what a delightful surprise that is. He still has to peel at her fingers, clutching that box so tightly it’s like she’s forgotten how to let go, but she yields to him easily enough.

Doesn’t she always?

Her breath arrests when he retrieves the ring — this gorgeous thing she can barely believe is now meant to be hers — claims her hand as surely as he has her heart, and slides it into place.

God, it fits like a glass slipper.

It’s the kiss to the backs of her fingers that finally breaks her. Odessa begins to cry. Her shoulders shake, and it feels as though her ribcage is contracting, rallying around her heart laid so bare and vulnerable. “Yes,” she says again, voice strained from the overwhelming intensity of her emotion, but no less emphatic for it.

It’ll do.

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