The Gift Of Being Together


emily4_icon.gif devon5_icon.gif

Scene Title The Gift Of Being Together
Synopsis Changes past and present are discussed between Devon and Emily, woven in with gifts made up of objects and experiences.
Date December 2020 - February 2021

Brighton Beach

NYC Safe Zone, New York, NY

December 20, 2020

11:48 am

“Alright,” Devon says as he eases the borrowed car to a gentle stop. “We’re here.”

Here is in front of a small, single story home situated on a quiet residential road that directly parallels the historic Brighton Beach. It's a square structure of pale slate colored siding and white trim, with two steps leading directly from the sidewalk to the front door. The house is neighbored by a four-story condo complex set above a bodega on one side and a trio of like-built homes on the other.

Devon shifts the car into park and turns the key to cut the engine. He looks at Emily as he pulls the key from the ignition, with brows raising slightly. “You want to see the rest of it?”

"No, I thought we'd just admire it from afar," Emily replies with an absent sarcasm. The look she shoots him out of the corner of her eye is much more present. She reaches one hand across the console to bat him on the bicep with the backs of her fingers. "Come on."

The aviator frames over her face gleam as she lets herself out of the car, smiling as she looks at the place. It's small, but excited. "You're getting a place of your own, of course I want to see it! What else am I going to do with this lunch break?"

It's a rhetorical. Moments with him are almost always well-spent, no matter the activity.

“I mean, it's a nice view out here too,” Devon counters as he climbs out of the car. After stepping around the front of the vehicle, he takes Emily’s hand in his and leads her to the front door. A pair of keys on a ring with a simple plastic tag are produced. He fits one into the lock, and opens the door to a modest entry with a coat closet just past the doorway.

Stepping aside, he motions for Emily to go first. “Take a look. It's small,” he says as he follows inside, “but it feels comfortable.” And, like Emily pointed out before, it's his own space.

The short hallway from the front door leads to a living room with a sliding glass door and wide windows that offer a view of the beach roughly ten feet from the back of the house. To the right is a kitchen, little more than a fridge, stove, and countertop with a sink set into it. A window above the sink offers a look to the front of the house. On the left is another hall with three doors which most likely lead to the bedrooms and bathroom.

Devon looks around the common area, but hangs back to let Emily explore. He's already toured a couple of times.

Standing in the middle of the space, she turns to look into the kitchen first. "God, that's like, no counter space. All right. Jesus. Well— they make pads you can lay over the sink to make your own, so that's not too bad at least." Leave it to her to fret about something like sufficient prep space before appreciating anything else about the house. She has the grace to realize it at least, wincing a little as she shies from the kitchen entirely to roam toward the bed and baths.

It's hard to envision just how the space will shape up once filled, but she knows Devon lives a compact enough style to make it work. She disappears into one of the bedrooms before flipping on the light in the bath between them, nodding at the shower arrangement, and moving on back to the kitchen. There was light from a door, indicative of some kind of porch, maybe even a back yard…?

When it turns out to be the ocean, Emily pauses and stands in front of the glass without any particular expression, eyes darting back and forth over the scene outside rapidly. "Oh," escapes her softly. She lifts one hand to her chest, fussing with the lapel of her coat.

She starts to fade into the distance, lost in thought without more than a word she might be leaving in the first place.

Devon smiles at Emily’s practicality about the kitchen. He almost never cooks, and when he does it's usually a disaster or something that's impossible to mess up. So he'd already anticipated improvising when he needed more workspace. Maybe one of those plugs for the sink, or a folding table.

He remains in the living room while she explores the rest of the house. He wanders slowly, taking idle steps that let him peer down the hallway in time to see Emily step from one room and slip into the other. By the time she's returned to the common areas, he's leaning on a corner of the counter.

A moment passes with Devon quietly observing as Emily discovers the small plot that designates the backyard and the beach butted up against the edge of the property. His brows knit faintly at her reaction, unable to see her expression. So he straightens, crosses the room where she stands, and hesitates for a beat before wrapping his arms around her shoulders from behind.

“What do you think?”

The embrace helps in bringing her back to the moment, shoulders lifting as she breathes in a little more deeply. Her fingers shift along her lapel to curl around his forearm instead.

"It's great, this place," Emily assures him quickly. She even smiles, regardless of if he can see it in the glass or not. "I just… couldn't help but get to thinking."

"It's been two years almost since you washed up on this shore." Her hand tightens in its grasp on his arm, like if she lets go, he might vanish again. "Two years since…" But her eyes close and she shakes her head, leaning back into him. She turns away from the ocean view to shift in Devon's embrace and wrap her arms tightly around him in return.

A moment passes like that, long enough of one for her to look back up at him. For her to move past the thoughts that had been weighing down and return to the present. "It'll be awesome here in the summer— the shore is so close. Your own private beach. I'll chip in on some outdoor furniture," she suggests with a faint grin. "Because I'll definitely park myself out there in the sun every weekend if I get my way."

Two years. Devon looks past their reflections to the beach, introspective. “I guess, subconsciously, I decided it made sense.” A new beginning two years ago started on this beach, a new beginning now might as well do the same. He tilts his head and looks down at Emily, one corner of his mouth turning up with a smile.

“There's a second bedroom.” In case she missed it while looking through the place, Dev tilts his head toward the hallway. “You can keep things here if you want, instead of carting between here and everywhere else. Then you don't even have to wonder if I'm here or not, you can just…” Be here.

He can see the surprise flit its way across her face even before she arches an eyebrow at the suggestion. Her arms around his shoulders begin to cinch a little more firmly. "Dev," Emily murmurs, at once happy and cautious. She takes a moment to think about it, her head turning back to look out the window for just a moment.

She lifts up onto her tiptoes to kiss him on the cheek.

"We have to get you settled in first before we can worry about that, yeah?" she teases him, but she smiles nonetheless.

Brighton Beach

NYC Safe Zone, New York, NY

December 24, 2020

5:15 pm

Swiveling around from the miniature storebought tree resting on the kitchen table, Emily stands with the object from the bag she brought with her cupped between both hands. "Ta da."

You're not supposed to open someone's gift for them, Emily.

But there was no decorative stuffing paper inside the blue paper bag anyway, and this felt more … right, somehow. More personal.

She cradles a baseball-sized snow globe between her palms, one whose insides have been set aflurry with how quickly she spun back around. With a small smile, she does more than present it, offering it out to him instead. "You wouldn't believe how lucky of a find this was. I didn't even think they still had anything like this anymore, so it's gotta be prewar." The setting inside of the contained world is Central Park, complete with bits of surrounding skyline. "Believe it or not, I used to live right about…" Tapping the northeast side of the globe, she indicates "Here."

"You're a tough person to find gifts for, but I thought you might like this," she explains a little more quietly. With a sheepish tip of one shoulder, she adds, "Something to remind you of me when I'm not around."

Devon, who had been putting away some mismatched plates and bowls into a cupboard, now leans on the countertop as he watches Emily with a faint grin on his face. He doesn't seem at all bothered by the unwrapped nature of the gift at all.

In fact, the presentation, the offering and reasoning, soften the amused edge of his grin. His expression shows a fondness, a sort of nostalgic awe as he looks at the snow globe. His hands cup around the base of the globe and raise it for a better look at the detail inside. “This is amazing,” he murmurs, tipping his hands one way and then the other to get the snow stirred up again.

The flurry of motion within brings an easy smile to his face. “I can’t believe you found this, I love it.” Devon lowers the globe, leans over and kisses Emily. “This is really amazing, thank you.” He raises the snow globe again, at a height they can both easily watch the snow swirl around the miniature world inside the glass, and wraps an arm around Em’s shoulders. His eyes watch, seeming fascinated by the storm inside, but after a beat he leans his head close to hers.

“I got you something too.”

The look on Emily's face indicates oh no anything but that. Gift-giving isn't supposed to be reciprocated. What if she doesn't appreciate it just as much? She needs warnings for these kinds of things to make sure she has the right reaction. Because what if she doesn't? Give the impression she appreciates it as much as she does???

This internal dialogue dies down in short order when a much louder part of herself pummels such anxiety back into a corner. She shifts under his arm, peering up at him with a touch of suspicion. "What'd you get me?" Now that she knows, there will be endless pestering until the gift makes itself present, surely.

She turns around fully, brows arching in an expectant question. She leaves her arm around his side and back from where they were observing the fall of the tiny flakes of snow together. "Hm?"

“It's in a box.” Yes, that's where it is, not what it is. Devon grins slightly, one corner of his mouth ticking up as his gaze shifts from the snowglobe to Emily. He wanders from the kitchen, perhaps tugging Emily along with him, and a few steps into the living room.

“I think I need a couple of shelves,” he observes, holding the globe up just enough to imagine where on a wall he might place knick knacks. "What do you think?”

"Devon," Emily protests, shoving his shoulder lightly with the hand that isn't still in his. She's grinning, even so. He's going to choose now to dally? "Come on, what is it?" Her head turns, looking for a box.

He's in the process of getting settled in to a new home, there's plenty of those scattered around the small home— and some of them were even delivery boxes for things recently ordered. It's a No Man's Land of potential, where any of them could be her gift in hiding. "Where'd you hide it in here?" she teases him as she looks back. "Do you even remember?"

“Maybe I should try to find a curio cabinet instead,” Devon muses like he hadn't heard Emily. He definitely heard her though. After a second, he angles a look in her direction, that half grin, mischievously teasing look returning. “There's a salvager that comes through Red Hook a couple times a month that sometimes has furniture.”

He leans over to kiss Emily’s cheek, then turns away to set the snowglobe onto the somewhat cluttered TV stand. “You should probably look in that box by the patio door.” His head tilts that way, where a shoebox sized rectangle of cardboard rests on a plastic tote labeled Desk in permanent marker.

Emily blinks at herself when she's given the hint as to where the gift lies, turning back toward the patio in surprise. It's really been hiding in plain sight all along like this? She turns to look back at Devon, feeling the kiss still on her cheek, and says nothing save for the sound her feet make as she beelines for the present.

She shifts the cardboard cover off the top of the tote, peering down in it. In order to really see what she's looking at, she has to pick it up, and her eyes soften when she does.

A small smile curls up the corner of her mouth. "Look at him. It's adorable." She smooths her hand over the knit teddy bear of grey yarn and white mouth, two 'patches' sewn onto him with rose coloring. He has a knit scarf to match, pinned to his chest. Additionally around the bear's neck, the chain for a more human-sized necklace is wound multiple times to keep it from sliding off his arms.

Emily thumbs over the hexagonal prism of a gem with pyramidic points that hangs from the silver strand, admiring the dark, starlike waves of color through the crystal. It gleams a sparkling black at its darkest point, with purples and blues and teals rippling away from that point.

"Dev, this is really sweet," falls away from Emily in a soft voice as she tenderly smooths down the scarf the bear wears.

While Emily investigates, Devon busies himself with clearing up some of the clutter around the television. It isn't much, some odd papers and a pen are collected to be relocated, and it's mostly done to make himself look occupied. It gives Emily a chance to explore the gift at her pace, and lets him watch without being obvious.

He smiles faintly when she finds the bear. Those things he'd grabbed are set on the counter. It's not really put away, but likely closer to where some of that should live. And he looks up when she speaks again.

“Indy, runs that jewelry booth in Red Hook, called that stone fluorite.” Devon wanders closer to Emily. While she's holding the bear, he carefully works the clasp to remove the necklace from around its neck. “And an old lady there told me that some people believe it has restorative properties, the different colors positively affect different things.” He steps slightly behind her as he speaks, and loops the chain over her neck, reconnecting the clasp.

“I thought it looked nice and that you'd like it.”

"No alternative motive at all, huh?" Emily asks, wry as she looks over her shoulder at him, hair swept aside so he can fix the necklace into place. She runs her fingers over the smooth prism of the gem, turning back to Devon after it's placed so she can hug him tightly, the bear still held in one hand behind his back.

"I do like it. Thank you." Her eyes close as she leans her head against his shoulder. The hug lasts longer than a mere thank you, deepening as she holds him closer. Her jaw tightens, then relaxes. Whatever is on her mind is a thing left to the mire of her thoughts. There's no sense at the moment to bring up a reflection on how this is the first Christmas they've properly spent together in all the time they've known each other. It's better, she decides, to just appreciate the present for what it is…

A gift she thought she'd never have. Not ever. Not again.

"Merry Christmas, Dev," Emily murmurs against his shoulder.

Emily and Julie's Apartment

Jackson Heights

January 24, 2021

2:49 pm

In a change, Emily asked Devon over to her place today. The apartment she shares with Julie in Jackson Heights is more modern, better-put-together thing than the Elmhurst one, not that he ever saw it himself to know the difference. She sits on the couch with Kettle curled up in her lap, tail wrapped around himself with a pleased squint to his eyes while she scritches between his eyes just above the ridge of his nose.

The Korean drama that's on is interesting, at least to her, but her mind is elsewhere. She breaks her usual tendency to be silent the entire time while something is on the screen to wonder, "Hey, Dev?"

On the TV, the current hundreds-of-years flashback of a general who returns home after facing impossible odds plays out. They both know that whatever happens here, it has a tragic end for the main character.

Even though the change in scenery has been welcomed with enthusiasm, Devon had brought along some work for one of his spring classes. But only because the work was dry and dull and he'd only continue to procrastinate at his place. Not that he hasn't been doing a lot of that since arriving at Emily’s anyway.

The book is open and the work is out, but between watching the drama and Emily with her kitten, not much progress has been made.

Of course, he's going through the motions of writing out some data when Emily speaks up. He'd just looked away from the screen for the third time to finish the line he'd been on for the past half hour. Now his head nods to acknowledge her questioning tone, and a beat later he looks over.

She dithers for a moment in her reply, but doesn't look back to the screen. Much as she'd like to pretend it's nothing, the shift in her posture indicates the topic holds a weight she's trying to determine how to distribute.

"Can I ask you about… things that happened when I was gone?" This isn't something small either, evidenced by how she appends on, "Something in particular."

Emily's eyes drop to Kettle, brushing her fingers over the crest of his head and back down his neck. "Can I ask you about what happened in California?" Not looking at him gives him an out, she tells herself. "At Praxia?"

Uneasiness builds in his chest as Emily sorts through her approach, but Devon keeps his outwardly calm expression. Several possible topics that she could wonder about prickle in his mind, but somehow he knows that what she's picking at is bigger, more consequential.

Devon looks away slowly when Emily hits her target, withdrawing by a figurative pace. Praxia. There aren't many things that can give him such a sense of foreboding as that place.

“I don't remember much.” The quietness of his answer carries volumes of reluctance to drag what memories he does have out for air. Dev’s eyes angle toward Emily, but he doesn't look at her, doesn't see her sitting beside him with the kitten in her lap.

Even that much is new to her, for the way she's never brought this up for. Her brow ticks together. "I know… there was a lot going on, I'm sure. With the whole… Praxis was evil, and Adam Monroe went crazy thing, but…" Emily scrunches her fingers over Kettle's back, ruffling his fur.

"Did— did you end up finding the other you when you were out there?" she asks cautiously. "Did you find out what happened to him?"

The words are out though, and she can't take them back even though immediately she's overwhelmed with the desire to. It drives an urge to look him in the eye, to smile with all her best reassurance, and tell him to 'forget I said anything', but she bites on the inside of her cheek and drowns the urge.

"If— it's something you'd rather not talk about, we don't have to," Emily apologizes instead.

Something about him seems to draw further away, though Devon hardly moves at all. His gaze settles on something distant, somewhere else, while a cacophony of memories batter and barter for notice.

Cuts of Praxia, of walls and laboratory equipment frosted with ice crystals fill the spaces between reptilian eyes and painfully bright flashes of light. An explosion crashes through the overlay of himself viewing himself. Sounds of mechanical things, whispering fans, low voices, machine gun fire. Robots. For a long minute he says nothing, lost in the complexities that experimentation left him with.

Then he closes his eyes. Not just to blink but to shut out the experiences, to hide from them.

“I don't remember,” he meets Emily's apology with one of his own. But he isn't apologizing for being unable to answer. Devon is apologizing for the trauma that's made him unable to answer.

She shifts in her seat to encourage Kettle to move. Feet go first, and then she's sliding off the couch entirely to curl up next to Devon's side properly while he sits in front of his more-and-more forgotten study materials on the coffee table. Her shoulder leans into his while the lanky cat left on the couch resettles into a puddle leaning against her back.

"I'm sorry. It's okay, you know? I just— I wanted to ask you rather than hearing anything about it from anyone else. Because it's your story to tell before it's anyone else's. Yours and his… wherever he is."

Her throat tightens, her head dropping. Wherever he is is a hard, difficult thought to have to face. Was he still with Adam Monroe, wherever he'd escaped to? She doesn't know. Doesn't have any of the details. Her life had been one thing after the other when she came back to it, so she's an entirely blank slate when it comes to the carefully-crafted story regarding what happened during Praxia's fall.

Beside her, Devon has grown tense, fingers curled or pressed hard against the work he'd brought with him. His head turns when Emily settles against his side, angled slightly away to hide the fear and mask the pain. To protect her from those things that haunt him.

“Praxia’s gone.” It's said more for Emily than himself. He brings a hand up to rub fingertips against his forehead. “It was… it's destroyed.” Imploded. He shrinks under the weight of the concrete and steel that killed him and didn't.

“I'm sorry.” His other hand joins the first. “I'm sorry. It's all…” Devon grasps for better answers, but eventually only presses his hands to his head in defeat. “I'm sorry, Emily.”

"No. No, no, no," Emily effuses soothing, slipping her arm around his shoulders and letting her head come back to rest her forehead against the one closest to her. "Dev— you have nothing to apologize for," she insists softly. She hears the emphasis behind her words and closes her eyes to guard against them. To provide him human comfort rather than force any kind of peace on him. "I promise. It's okay."

With his head in his hands, Devon sits silent for a long moment. The noise of his thoughts drowns out the audio from the movie, threatens to consume his awareness of anything else. Even with his eyes closed, he sees the sub-basement ceiling collapse, the dizzying dual perspectives of his two selves overlaying as he's crushed.

Fingers curl and turn his hands to fists. His knuckles dig into his skin. “It's all gone,” he says, sounding a little different as he wrestles with those things he'd rather keep locked away. It takes him another minute to unravel, to allow himself to acknowledge the comfort of Emily's presence.

With his hands lowering from his head, Devon turns toward Emily. “I don't want to remember.” His words are equal parts explanation and apology, made with hesitant motions to wrap his arms around her waist and sink his head to her shoulder.

The whole while it takes for him to come back, she leaves her hand placed on his back, patient and supportive. She can't mask the concern that grows in severity with how long it takes him to come back to her, even if he doesn't really look at her before burying his head against her in return. Emily shushes him softly, shifting her seat to let him take as much time as he needs, keeping him in the protective embrace of her arms.

Her eyes close as she rests her cheek against the top of his head, a sympathetic pain welling in her chest. It's all gone, he says. He doesn't want to remember. She can't help but think… maybe with the collapse, that…

The angle of her arms around him shifts, drawing him in more firmly. "I'm here," she promises him. "And so are you. You don't have to go back there, Dev. I'm sorry." Her tone verges mournful before she steadies it. She presses a kiss to the crown of his head. "Come back to me, come back to now. I've got you." Her hand lifts to pet the back of his head, to hold him with all the support he gave her on the worst days and nights when being human again felt like a dream that would shatter at any moment.

It feels like the least she can do, but she wishes it were more— hopes it's enough to help.

But if he just needs time, too… then she's here for that as well.

February 2

4:51 pm

In all things, Devon tries to give Emily her space. She didn't text yesterday after she got off work, though— and today's been the same. After she disappeared last year, it didn't feel out of the ordinary to check in on her given it's been over twenty-four hours. If she'd not been home, surely Julie would have called by now to confirm if she was with him. It's only been a few months. But maybe…

It'd just be safe to check in, too.

A knock at the door gives no answer, though. Nor does a second. A touch to the door proves it's unlocked, though.

Which honestly, is also unusual.

It's unusual enough that Devon pauses before entering the house. For a brief second, he considers calling Emily’s phone — at the very least he might hear it ring. The idea is dismissed as soon as it manifests, and he instead touches the molded composite handle of the handgun under his jacket before he eases the door open.

There's the sound of movement as soon as he cracks open the door, though, a silhouette moving from the hall into the bedroom. A drawer is pulled open almost as quickly as it is slammed, rocking the dresser it belongs to. Kettle skitters from the bedroom with that, seeking shelter in the living room behind the couch without so much as glancing in Devon's direction.

A moment after, footsteps head back toward the hall, heavy-footed. It's Emily who steps into the hall, freezes when she realizes someone is there, head whipping to look. Her expression is unreadable for the mere second she looks at him, and then she turns back for the restroom again, heading into it. She rustles something around in a drawer she left open while in the dark, finally cursing out a "Fucking—" invective before turning back to frustratedly flip the lights on.

The firearm stays holstered as Devon enters the house, but his hand stays in a position to draw it. His eyes flick from the direction of the sounds to the fleeing cat and back again. He steps forward, angled toward the sounds of distress and disturbance, as cautious as he'd be walking into enemy territory.

His posture eases when Emily appears, but his concern deepens. It shifts away from the anticipation of finding someone had broken into the home, centers instead on being a tangible presence. His hands come up in a calming gesture in that brief second where his gaze meets hers.

When Emily disappears again, Devon’s hands drop and his feet trail after her.

He looks into the restroom, without judgement or question. It's normal for him to follow, to watch and wait for when Emily is ready to explain. Or to not explain but just wear herself out. He slips into the small room behind her, a hand brushing the small of her back in passing as a means to remind her that he's nearby. And then Devon leans on the wall opposite of all the frantic searching and swearing.

Emily stills at the touch, ready to shrug it off and snap if it turns into more than it does. But no, it's just a physical sign she's not alone, and she doesn't have to deal with this alone accordingly. When she begins to move again, her rummaging through the drawer is a slower, more deliberate thing. "It's not bad enough that work doesn't know if I'm fucking stable enough to keep on there, now they want to take the girl with trauma and send her on a goddamned overseas adventure helping manage fucking sensitive diplomatic affairs because it just sounds like a good idea."

Devon frowns slightly at the explanation — it sounds a bit like SESA is up to their last minute bullshit — but he doesn't say anything. He knows Emily needs time to be angry.

It sounds like now that she's had enough time to settle in, she doesn't find this to be a good idea. And yet here she is: packing for a trip she doesn't want to go on. She finds the buried travel-size hairbrush she was looking for finally and pulls it out, nearly slamming the drawer closed as she leaves the restroom behind in favor of the bedroom again. It's not a space she normally lets anyone else into, but today she doesn't seem like she gives a shit.

As quietly as he'd entered the bathroom, Devon follows Emily to the bedroom. He stays in the doorway, a shoulder resting against the frame in the same way as before. Except for a quick glance to her tasks, he keeps his eyes on her.

There's no turning back to the door to carry on the rest of the conversation in the living room, she just goes back to her bed where her old school materials are dumped on the comforters and her old, well-worn backpack is beginning to be shoved with item after item in preparation for this trip.

"I hate this. I hate everything about this. One wrong fucking word over there, and I'm gonna…" Start a war? End a profitable relationship for the entire country? Expose herself on an international stage? Emily brings one hand to her face, fingertips pressing into the hollow of her eyes and the bridge of her nose while she covers half her face. It's shaking in nerves as much as frustration. "Do they fucking know? Did someone fucking tell them and now they're just waiting for me to…"

She can't even finish that thought, brow furrowing as she fights back sudden and frustrated tears.

Devon takes a careful step into the bedroom as Emily seems to run out of steam. He doesn't know what games SESA is playing, and it shows in his concerned expression.

He wanders nearer, another glance angling to the odds and ends scattered across the bed. But when he gets closer, his eyes return to Emily. One hand lifts to lightly brush a stray lock of hair from her forehead, the other tucks into his hip pocket.

“I don't think SESA is setting you up to fail,” he points out as his hand lowers. “I think it's a dick move that they're only now giving you the assignment. But they also know you can handle it.”

On the verge of exploding outward, snapping at Devon when it's not his fault for any of this, Emily manages to tear her gaze away and look down. Words tumble from her anyway, different than those would have been, but filled with as much driven, nervous energy all the same. "You know about it all, already, don't you? Of course you do. Of course Wolfhound fucking knows before the agents they're sending on their own goddamned…"

Her hand lifts to rub the bridge of her nose and between her eyebrows, trying to keep them from furrowing together so tightly she'll give herself a headache. "I just…" she trails off, hands falling out from her side in a loose approximation of a shrug. Then they lift and fall a second time, palms slapping against her thighs.

They lift a third time then to fiercely draw Devon into an embrace, wordless as she clings into him for shelter from her own fears. She doesn't cry, but neither does she make any noise at all, standing still and desperately holding onto him.

After nearly a minute passes like that, she finds the courage to mumble into his shoulder, "I'm scared, Dev."

"What if I'm not ready for something like this? What if I fuck up? What if people don't just find out about my ability, they find out I don't have a good leash on it?"

The urge to vocally agree is strong — were it up to Devon, Emily would have been told within hours of the request to Wolfhound being made — but he says nothing. She has his support, his frustration at the way bureaucracy handles these matters. He's already said as much, to repeat it again isn't necessary. Instead he watches and listens, concern forming a deepening crease across his brow.

As Emily reaches for him, Dev envelops her with his arms, protective and comforting. One hand cradles the back of her head, the other keeps a gentle pressure against her back.

“I wish I could honestly say it'll be okay.” It's not the most comforting thing he could say, but he makes the choice to acknowledge the uncertainty of the operation. “You might fuck up, the wrong people might find out about your ability, and no one is ever ready for any mission. But you're not going alone. And I know you, you're going to own this.”

In the grand scheme of things, Emily will take a straight-shooting observation over hopeful platitudes any day, even when she wants the latter. Something about Devon's observation feels more like the first than the letter, too.

"Yeah," she acknowledges in return. "Yeah, at least I'm not going alone." Her voice drops in volume again. "I just…"

Hands tighten around Devon's shoulders and torso for a tense moment before loosing as she convinces herself, slowly, that her worst nightmares aren't as likely to play out as she'd think. Emily sighs and sinks her forehead against Devon's chest again, contenting herself on the truth she at least won't be alone.

"I love you, Devon," she murmurs to him.

“I know,” Devon responds in similarly quiet tones. After a second, his own words make his mouth twitch with a grin, one that he smothers with a tilt of his face down into Emily’s hair. Sobered from his vaguely cheeky reply, he kisses the top of her head, then turns his to rest against hers. Fingers comb through Emily’s hair, then arms wrap more securely around her shoulders and waist. “I love you too,” is little more than a whisper, but it carries more than his initial reply.

Eyes closing, her expression softens to hear it. Eventually, she feels comfortable enough on her own feet again to slip out of the embrace.

Outside Antananarivo, Madagascar

February 14

It didn't even hit Emily it was Valentine's Day at first. Halfway across the world, head filled with… so many other things, the holiday had been nearly as far away from her mind as it was last year.

But Devon remembered. He did more than just remember.

An afternoon was planned with a little help in the form of an insider's knowledge of the locality and an ally should anyone ask questions. It wouldn't be the whole afternoon, either, only long enough to escape and unwind from the stress of the operation, the chaperones, and steal a chance to see some of the countryside.

It was supposed to be an easy hike along a footpath about two kilometers from the estate followed by a picnic where the trail met the river. Devon had gotten a map that showed the general area and packed a lunch.

“Looks like the river’s about another half kilometer.” Devon lifts his eyes from the map to look over at Emily. The sun shines overhead, breaking through the canopy to offer light of dappled yellows and greens. Birds and other creatures call from the trees all around.

One hand lifted to shield her eyes from the sun, Emily looks up to take in the sight of the trees. They were lucky for now— the weather didn't seem like it would turn, though they'd been warned it was the rainy season. She supposed the worst case was they showed up back at the estate drenched.

"Christ, I hope so. This didn't sound so far when we started." The laugh she lets out is lighthearted, masking the anxiety she has that they're wandering alone like this. Or alone enough that if they do have a friendly shadow, she can't see or hear them. The warnings about Mazdak and Dinu resound in her ears with relative frequency, but…

It's fine. Surely it'd be fine.

She shifts her backpack with her half of the meal on her shoulder, drinking in the weather for all its worth instead of devoting herself entirely to worry. "God, I don't want to go back home to four more weeks of winter after this… of all the superstitious traditions that had to survive the war, why did it have to be that stupid groundhog?"

Emily laughs again, though, and her expression is easy. She's not complaining, she's bantering.

“Maybe this’ll be the year the rodent’s wrong and it’ll be spring when we get back.” He's hoping. As much as Dev doesn't mind winter, there's a point where even he's done with the cold and dreariness. “Or…” Head rolling toward a shoulder, eyes angling to Emily, “We take another trip and visit Old Punxsutawney Phil, convince him to go into retirement.” He grins, looking away again.

Half ducking below a low branch, Dev raises a hand to lift it out of Emily’s way. Some of the local wildlife protests, a pair of colorful birds take flight at the disruption and escape to the next tree over. The sound of moving water comes as a hushing sound on the breeze.

Emily's eyes flicker when she notes the birds' movement, hunching down for a moment before she eases again. A silent breath passes from her as she steps underneath with a duck and continues on forward.

"This is totally different—" she says suddenly, glancing back to him. "But in a lot of ways, this reminds me of our first date." She looks ahead to the sound of their destination nearing, her eyes softening. "When I had you take me out to learn to shoot."

It wasn't a date, even— but she struggles to recall well their first actual one, or define at which point they'd consider an outing together to have been a date. So much has happened in the last three years.

So if she has to pick a moment, it's that one.

"We had lunch packed then, too. You were patient with me. Exceptionally." She pauses only to laugh quietly under her breath. "God, I was exhausted for days after that."

“For your first time, you did great.” Devon’s memories of that day, the revelation that Em pushed herself too far, brings a crooked grin and a shake of his head. “I probably should've helped you more but I figured you'd’ve shot me if I tried to treat you different.” And while he might be less concerned with being shot now, he still doesn't try to diminish or undermine Emily's capabilities.

She tucks her head with a small grin, knowing with how on-edge she'd been, she just might've. In the end, she says nothing, lifting her head to keep an eye on the path ahead.

The hush of water grows louder as they walk closer to its source, increasing to a murmur and then a chuckling growl. Trees thin and air feels marginally cooler without the verdant growth to hold all the heat in. Droplets of water, few and far between and probably just spray carried by the wind, tap Emily and Devon against a cheek or arm or get caught in a lock of hair.

Dev slows as the vaguely cooler air first touches his face and arms, and he tips his head back to enjoy it for a brief moment. “Think they'd miss us if we stayed out until it's time to catch the plane home?”

"Huruma would probably murder us," she opines gently. "We're supposed to have been the responsible ones this trip. The not-loose cannons. She'd scold us just for making Avi lose hair, given the ghost stories about Dinu out here."

They're more than ghost stories, and she knows that, and it brings her to quiet again.

To sigh.

"No," Emily murmurs. "We should head back pretty soon. Best to not make anyone worry, or potentially lose my job." She glances sidelong at Devon, then offers out her hand to him, palm up. "This, though? This has been enough. I'm glad we got to do this."

Head tilting, Devon looks at Emily as she counters his wishful thinking. There is very little that he can offer as argument. Every point Emily makes is true; and while he might be willing to tempt fate, it isn't fair to put others at risk.

Clasping his hand to hers, the idea of skipping out on the remainder of their stay at the Dunsimi household is abandoned. He smiles, a half crooked turning of his lips, as he turns back to the path.

Shoots of grass and other green things grow long enough to hang into the path, but it's nothing that they haven't already passed through. Moisture from the creek leaves a refreshing but quickly evaporating dampness on skin. A couple dozen or so more steps brings the source of moving water into view, a happy go lucky stream with deceptive shallows and depths banked by rock and flattened grasses, likely a clearing often used by wildlife to water from. Although there’s been no sign of any animals presently. Sunlight dances off the crests and eddies, the light breeze stirs the leaves and tall shoots of plant life. In the distance, storm clouds have formed; though they both know it is the rainy season, and for now the sun has a strong presence.

Thunder might mutter some several miles away, but the stream babbles and chuffs loudly enough to persuade even the strongest doubters that the weather and riverbank couldn't be more perfect. Near the water's edge, Devon releases Emily’s hand to begin laying out those things for picnicking.

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